Rules of Enforcement

River-Wide Messes

By the 1970s, although some strides had been made in cleaning up pollution, the biggest problems were enforcement of new and existing environmental laws. Raw sewage outflows were increasing in volume to the distress of people who wanted to use the river for recreation. Oil spills big and small were slicking New York’s waters and it was common to dump New York City’s garbage and industrial wastes as close as twelve miles offshore.

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New York Times coverage of the first Earth Day - April 22, 1970.

Legislating the Environment

A few laws to protect the environment and waters of New York State and the nation were passed in the first half of the twentieth century, but were rarely enforced. In the 1960s and ‘70s new legislation and the power to enforce it began to be passed.

On the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was formed. Replacing the more fish-and-game focused Conservation Department and taking over several programs from the Health Department and other state commissions, the DEC was focused on the environment as a whole.

Just a few months later, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, an executive reorganization of existing programs and regulatory agencies under a single department.

Environmental Legislation Timeline

1885 - Forest Preserve of New York State establishes Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves as "forever wild" 

1891 - Forest Reserve Act allows President to set aside forest lands for public domain

1899 - Rivers and Harbors/Refuse Act prohibits pollution of navigable waterways without permission, unenforced until the 1960s

1902 - National Reclamation Act allows President to create National Parks

1905 - New York State Board of Water Supply established

1948 - Water Pollution Control Act controls water pollution but is not enforced

1955 - Air Pollution Control Act allows federal government to study, but not regulate air pollution

1963 - Clean Air Act gives the federal government authority to reduce interstate air pollution, regulate emission standards for stationary pollution sources, and invest in technology that will remove sulfur from coal and oil.

1964 - Wilderness Act protects over 9 million acres of federal land

1965 - Water Quality Act enhances federal control over water quality initially set by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

1968 - Wild and Scenic Rivers Act allows for protection of listed rivers

1970 (January 1) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to conduct environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for all projects

1970 (April 22) - New York State Department of Conservation

1970 (July 9) - Environmental Protection Agency

1971 - New York State bans DDT use

1972 - Clean Water Act

1973 - Endangered Species Act

1974 - Safe Drinking Water Act

1982 - NYS "Bottle Bill" requires deposits on certain containers to encourage recycling.

Scenic Hudson Decision

After nearly two decades of legal battles (1963-1981), Consolidated Edison finally cancelled the Storm King Mountain power plant. In exchange for not having to construct expensive cooling towers at Indian Point nuclear power plant, Con Ed agreed to drop the Storm King plan, mitigate fish kills at Indian Point and its other power plants, and establish a research fund for the Hudson. In 1981, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepted Con Ed’s surrender of the Storm King license.

The series of lawsuits that would come to be known as the Scenic Hudson Decision, named after the lead prosecuting organization, helped set legal precedent giving ordinary citizens the power to protect the environment. This precedent has allowed Scenic Hudson and other groups in the Hudson Valley to fight and win battles to protect the Palisades from recent development, the construction of a desalination plant in Rockland County, and other projects that endangered the scenic or environmental value of the Hudson Valley.

Rules of Enforcement