PEC at 50: The Early Vision

Over the years PEC has worked with countless leaders, experts, and citizens to advance environmental goals across the state. In celebration of PEC’s fiftieth anniversary, we asked a few of them to share their reflections on our shared work, how far Pennsylvania has come, and where we go from here.

Eleanor Winsor is one of PEC’s co-founders. 

Eleanor Winsor

There was a small group of us in the beginning. Josh Whetzel was President of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Bob Broughton was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Colson Blakeslee, a doctor from DuBois. Curtis Wright practiced law in Ambler and Tom Dolan was President of the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association.

We gathered at Josh and Farley Whetzel’s house near Pittsburgh in early 1969 to discuss how to address Pennsylvania’s many environmental problems. Everyone realized that the Commonwealth could not continue to abuse its natural resources without inflicting more irreversible environmental damage.

We envisioned a statewide activist organization that could speak out on environmental issues where it mattered most—in Harrisburg—to the legislature and the administrative agencies. Our model was based on a belief that state government was willing to take the best scientific and economic data, coupled with the technological knowhow to solve environmental problems and protect environmental quality. We also believed that polluting industries should pay the true cost of using resources and not leave devastated land, water, and air for future generations.

PEC would focus on one or two issues so as not dilute its resources. We were pretty good at identifying problems before others did, collecting scientific, technical and economic information to support our actions and then develop a coalition to lobby, pass, and implement the laws needed to make the solution a reality.

As a non-partisan lobby PEC brought environmental groups, agricultural, business, industry, academia and professionals together to improve Pennsylvania’s environment. PEC’s representatives could walk into any office in Harrisburg. While politicians or administrators might disagree with us, they respected our careful presentation of the facts. And we were good at getting objective information to them.

We envisioned a statewide activist organization that could speak out on environmental issues where it mattered most—in Harrisburg.

PEC had an ability to draw on other environmentalists, academic institutions, unions, remediation and polluting industries for advice to craft approaches that cleaned up the environment and enabled industry to move ahead to improve Pennsylvania’s environmental quality and make a profit. We appreciated the need for businesses to prosper, yet insisted that they incorporate the long-term costs of environmental degradation in how they operated. While we realized some technologies had problems, we also knew that simply saying “no,” to their use was unacceptable. We operated based on the best data we could get, not on emotional or personal preferences.

For example, we had one wealthy donor who wanted to totally underwrite the organization for multiple years if PEC would oppose a nuclear power plant near his home. We refused to oppose the nuclear power industry. We said that you couldn’t simply do that. You also had to look at scientific data and solve the problems. There were many times when PEC was confronted with similar choices.

Getting good scientific, technical and legal knowledge and applying it was an effective way of operating. And it was, I think, very positive. Instead of yelling and shouting we worked with the companies and agencies, we listened to their problems, went back and talked with the different parties. Then we suggested alternatives that protected and improved the environment.

So we tried to work with all interests, to listen, to try to find out as factually as we could what was going on, and then to get out of the way. Get good information to people, trust that they will operate for the greater public good, form coalitions to lobby for the needed protections. And the great thing was that the groups that advocated more radical positions enabled PEC’s positions to have greater viability.

I believe that ultimately if you do not have individual integrity and congruence in what you do that you’re going to get in trouble. From my perspective, PEC had that. As we moved into the 1980s much of the environmental regulatory structure was in place and the organization needed to adapt to a changing environment. It’s hard to imagine today how few environmental laws and regulations were in place when PEC began. The legacy that PEC and many of the Pennsylvanians who wanted improved environmental quality left is a positive one.