Recently I ran across this article about a spill from a nickel mining facility in Russia that turned the Daldykan River an ugly, blood red color. The spill was admitted by Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and other industrial metals, although the company said that, despite the discoloration in the water, the incident posed no risk to people or fauna in the river. The article reports that the region where the spill occurred is one of the most polluted areas in the world.
The story got me to thinking about an incident that occurred when I was a kid. One time UJ and I were exploring around a nearby stream on a warm summer’s day in the suburban Akron area near our house. We noticed that the water had a weird smell to it, and that there were clumps of dirty brown foam drifting by on the top of the water. It’s the first time I can remember encountering pollution, and thereafter I really paid attention to it. I noticed the litter on highways, and the news stories about air pollution, but the pollution problem always seemed to be most obvious with rivers, streams, and lakes — like the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.
Shortly after UJ and I saw the dirty, foaming river, the United States started to pass major environmental regulations, and states did, too. And while there is no doubt that the federal and state environmental regulators have had their moments of overreaching and bureaucratic inertia, there is equally no doubt that the environmental protection laws, and clean-up requirements, have had a tremendous, positive impact on air and water quality. Anyone who compares the Lake Erie of 1970 to the Lake Erie of today will acknowledge that fact.
I’d like to think that an incident like the red river of Russia couldn’t happen in the United States — but if it did, I also have confidence that we would get it cleaned up. I tend to be suspicious of government promises to fix problems, because they often turn out to be empty words, but environmental regulation is one area where the government has had a major impact. The red river is a good reminder of that.