Justice  /  Retrieval

The Lost Promise of Environmental Rights

As environmental rights seem on the verge of a comeback, it’s worth remembering why they once seemed so promising, and why that promise remains unfulfilled.

The small community of Anmoore, West Virginia, sprang up out of the Appalachian wilderness in 1904 when an Ohio-based chemical company opened a manufacturing plant just outside the city of Clarksburg, and migrants seeking work settled nearby. They found jobs, but the work was filthy. By the late 1960s the chemical corporation Union Carbide had taken over the plant, and fly ash and particulate matter had settled on everything in town. “Bits of debris, some of it as large as butterfly wings, gather in drifts on Anmoore’s dead lawns,” recorded the essayist, novelist, and erstwhile speechwriter Charles McCarry. The pollution, laced with silica and lead, killed plants, blackened houses, ate the paint off cars, and infiltrated the lungs of the residents.

The omnipresent soot and ash (and smell) decimated home values in Anmoore, making it difficult for people to sell their houses and leave. Meanwhile, Union Carbide paid a pittance in taxes, trapping the municipal budget at just $19,000. Anmoore’s children trudged to school (a building that at the time had been condemned for almost thirty years but was still in use) along steep dirt roads, which during the wet months were an unholy slurry of mud and sewage. There were no parks, no playgrounds, no sewers, no health clinic.

Early in 1968 two Anmoore residents decided they’d had enough. Enraged by a rosy Union Carbide advertisement, Dale and Leonise Hagedorn wrote a sarcastic letter to the company, asking that it “lend credence to your slogan ‘The Discovery Company’ by discovering a way of relieving the people of Anmoore of this unsightly, depressing, and unhealthy black fog.” After receiving only a perfunctory reply, they started writing a series of open letters to their fellow citizens, seeking “to motivate everyone concerned to explore all possibilities in finding a solution to the appalling air pollution problem under which we exist.” The letters struck a nerve. Outrage grew in Anmoore. The national press arrived in town. Eventually, in 1970, the Hagedorns and some fifty of their neighbors decided to sue Carbide, claiming that the “rain of pollutants” belched by the company’s smokestacks “violates their Constitutional right to a decent environment.”

This was a bold move, but the Hagedorns were among a number of activists who in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought a slew of suits in federal court, seeking to stop pollution on the basis of environmental rights that were, they claimed, inherent in the Constitution. As the Hagedorns told their neighbors, they wanted to vindicate “the right to air that we and our children can breathe without fear.” Their lawyer, meanwhile, told the press that a victory in court could “set a national precedent.” Other activists tried to pass state or federal laws and even constitutional amendments to unequivocally establish these rights.