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William Oscar Johnson
April 30, 1990
Earth Day success story: The Chattanooga choo-choo no longer spews foul air
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April 30, 1990

Back On Track

Earth Day success story: The Chattanooga choo-choo no longer spews foul air

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Hubert O. Fry has fished the Tennessee River around Chattanooga since he was a boy, and he's 73 now. He sums up his life this way: "I sold yarn, millions of dollars worth, to Jews in Brooklyn, to Swedes in Minnesota, to points west, points east, all points of the compass. I traveled everywhere selling yarn, but no matter where I was, I always was just achingly interested in catching fish."

Fry retired from the yarn game 11 years ago and now stays home in Chattanooga, soothing his ache for fish and raising hell about the state of the environment—mainly about the state of the river. Last weekend he attended some local Earth Day activities in the city's new Tennessee Riverpark, a lovely two-mile greenbelt that stretches along a previously cluttered and inaccessible section of the riverbank. The $4.8 million park is beautifully landscaped, equipped with walking paths, picnic tables, state-of-the-art playground apparatus, five sturdy fishermen's piers and, at its center, an attractive building that includes a combination delicatessen/bait shop, where you can buy a submarine sandwich and a cup of earthworms in a single transaction. The building was named after Fry because this park was his vision—and he applied his considerable salesman's charm and fisherman's tenacity to the project until the damned thing got done.

Since he is obviously something of an expert on citizen action in the interest of the environment, Fry was asked if he thought Earth Day 1990, which engaged the attention of the world on Sunday, would really make much difference in the grand scheme of things. He said, "It could change the world if it got embedded in the minds of ordinary folks. But I think there is very little chance of that."

The last time there was an Earth Day, the ordinary folks of Chattanooga scarcely noticed. The year was 1970, and the city was under siege from the sky.

Ironically, the town's nicest features were the cause of its worst problems. Chattanooga is gently cupped in one of the most beautiful river valleys on earth, within a ring of some of the most beautiful mountains you ever saw. Strong winds rarely blow, and the sun shines 213 days in an average year.

Unfortunately, the sun hits the rim of the mountaintops before it hits the valley floor. This causes a near-perpetual inversion, which, with the lack of wind, holds the lower layers of air close to the ground. That air was laden with tons of pollutants in 1970. It had been growing increasingly dirty since before the Civil War as Chattanooga, with its river, its railroads and its coal mines, attracted more and more industry—from foundries to coke plants to the noxious Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant (VAAP), which produced more TNT than any other plant on earth. In the decade before the first Earth Day, which was mainly an American event, the federal government studied air pollution in U.S. cities. Its tests for particulate pollution covered two types: TSP, total suspended particulate, such as bits of floating soot and dirt, and BSO, benzene-soluble organic particles—same stuff, smaller particles. In 1969 the government announced that among the 60 cities tested during the period of 1961-65, Chattanooga was worst in TSP and No. 2, or runner-up worst, to Los Angeles, in BSO.

So Earth Day 1970 was just one of many dark and dirty days in Chattanooga, a city in which the mid-'60s death rate from tuberculosis was double that of the rest of Tennessee and triple that of the rest of the U.S., a city in which the filth in the air was so bad it melted nylon stockings off women's legs, in which executives kept supplies of clean white shirts in their offices so they could change when a shirt became too gray to be presentable, in which headlights were turned on at high noon because the sun was eclipsed by the gunk in the sky. Some citizens could actually identify different sections of town by nose alone—a stink of rotten eggs in one place, acrid metal in another, coal smoke in another, the pungent smell (and orangish haze) of nitrogen dioxide near the VAAP. One part of town, site of a city dump, was known simply as Onion Bottom.

People joked, "We like to look at what we're breathing before we inhale it." A billboard appeared bearing this alarming question: DEEP DOWN INSIDE...WOULDN'T YOU RATHER BREATHE CLEAN AIR? Anyone who has lived in Chattanooga for a while has memories of what the old air did. Linda Harris, local chairman of Earth Day 1990 and acting director of the Chattanooga Nature Center, recalls her childhood: "Our eyes stung, and our noses itched. The milkman left milk in bottles at dawn, and when we brought them in a couple of hours later, we could write our names in the dirt that had collected in the moisture on the bottles." Wayne Cropp, director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau, says, "You could always tell which way the ammo plant was by looking at the bushes in that part of town: The side away from the plant grew green, and the side toward it was brown." Fry recalls, "As a boy, I had a morning paper route. I delivered before daybreak. If I had a cold, my nose would be running black by the time I got home."

The established federal standard for acceptable TSP is 75 micrograms per cubic meter of air; Chattanooga averaged 214 micrograms in 1969. There were days when the TSP count climbed into the thousands, and sometimes filters in the monitoring equipment got so clogged it broke down. Nevertheless, apathy reigned among Chattanoogans until that federal report suddenly identified their city as being the foulest air polluter of them all. "That was our warning heart attack," says William Sudderth, a second-generation Chattanoogan and a riverfront developer. The whole town suddenly gave its full attention to the crisis. There was no single power source behind the clean-air crusade—no benevolent despot, no politician, no environmental activists, no enlightened aristocracy, no Earth Day sponsors. "Everyone kind of rose up together and responded," Harris says.

And what followed was not a miracle but a nuts-and-bolts model of how tough government, cooperative businessmen and a very alarmed public can make a dirty world clean again. With a variety of local and federal sticks and carrots to motivate them, some of the worst corporate polluters installed filtering and scrubbing devices that, in some cases, reduced smokestack pollution by 99%. Polluters who threatened to move out of town if they were forced to meet federal standards were told to go ahead and get out. One of the greatest contributions to a cleaner atmosphere occurred in 1977 when the VAAP was put into mothballs by the Department of Defense.

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