I was a lucky boy. You could catch a string of bream for dinner in the spring-fed creek below the house on Champagnolle Road, swim in its frigid "blue hole" below the bridge and not get sick from either activity. But if you traveled in either direction the eight to 12 miles to El Dorado nearly every other stream was dead and you would not put a toe in the fetid waters or hike the bleak valleys.
A test well had blown out in 1920 and the oil boom was still in swing when I was born 17 years later. Oilfield operators then were free of the heavy hand of government regulators. How today's Republican presidential candidates, the Tea Party and our own congressman would have loved those days.
Oil was pumped into holding ponds and it and the salt water from the wells leached out into nearby streams. Spring rains swelled the creeks, and the oil and salt settled on the branches and around the roots of vegetation. Before long, gentle valleys a half-mile or more wide were devoid of all life — moonscapes of rotting tree trunks bare of either bark or limbs. Water trickled down stream beds caked with brown and blue sludge. They reassigned the name Salt Creek to a dead stream that started in the East Field oil patch and crossed the road four miles west of my house before feeding into the Ouachita River.
My father, who hauled wood for a living, loved to fish but he had to drive east to the bottomlands in Calhoun County to find a stream where he was sure the bass were fit to eat.
There was no Environmental Protection Agency then; Congress passed a law in 1948 to regulate stream pollution, but it applied only to interstate streams. In 1939, the state of Arkansas finally created an agency to regulate water pollution. The first timid steps by the state came too late for people on Champagnolle and Armer roads, but regulation elsewhere forced improvements in the technology of extraction and disposal and the benefits trickled into south Arkansas.
Can I insert a little more history here? In the 1960s, the American people, especially those in smog-smothered cities, demanded that the government protect the environment. In 1970 and 1972, President Richard Nixon — let's hear it for Tricky Dick! — signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, backed by Republican and Democratic leaders, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out a great range of steps to control industrial effluents into the air and waters. Other congresses and presidents — notably President George H.W. Bush — expanded the range of EPA's activities. Sulfuric acid from power plants was spreading acid rain, which was taking a deadly toll on forests from Appalachia to the Mississippi, and Bush signed the law that forced operators to install technology to stop it. (A couple of our coal-burning plants got under the wire.)
The National Association of Manufacturers, many utilities and the hydrocarbon industries warned of terrible economic consequences from each heavy-handed regulation of pollution or worker protections — slower growth, loss of jobs, skyrocketing energy costs, they said — but the public seemed to like it when rivers and harbors were cleaned up, the smog began to evaporate and the air was healthier. People thought it silly to go to lengths to protect species like the fat pocketbook pearly mussel, but they liked the government getting tough to clean up their air and water. Measured by all the products of better health, such as reduced medical costs and greater productivity, the regulation has meant many trillions of dollars to people.
But times seem to have changed. The energy industry, the NAM and their mouthpieces now control the national dialogue and they have persuaded a great many Americans that regulation is evil. The entire Republican Party has now saddled up with the industry. Regulation and high taxes on corporations and the wealthy, they say, are responsible for the great recession; never mind that taxes on business and wealth are near historic lows and that regulatory failure precipitated the financial collapse.
Last week, Congressman Tim Griffin posted on Facebook his "Top 10 Job-Destroying Regulations." House Republican Leader Eric Cantor had sent it out to acolytes, some of whom, like Griffin, dutifully posted it. The list was the NAM's talking points. The 10 rules require industries to take steps to halt poisonous emissions or protect the rights of workers.
Griffin/Cantor/NAM say that new rules to enforce the Clean Air Act would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and drive up energy bills to stratospheric levels, though all previous scares proved to be wrong.
The rules would require generating plants to take steps to reduce mercury and other toxic emissions that drift across state lines and to reduce carbon and nitric gases that accumulate in the atmosphere for centuries and cause global warming. The EPA is imposing standards on handling and disposing of coal ash from power plants. The NAM and Republicans say coal ash is safe stuff and not worth controlling. It only contains arsenic, boron, lead, mercury, dioxins and about 20 other known poisons.
As luck would have it, when Cantor was sending out his list, including the coal-ash tirade, a coal-fired utility's giant ash dump in Wisconsin collapsed into Lake Michigan, sending arsenic, dioxins and boron into the waves. The EPA had warned the utility about the ash last year. But that is a lot of water, so who should care?
Maybe the megaphone of the Koch brothers and the NAM is not so potent. A nationwide poll by Hart Research found that people favored tougher air-pollution protections by percentages from 60 to 77 percent. But that is without telling them that Barack Obama and "the government" are behind the standards.