PEC at 50: “We Had to Do Something”

This post is the first in a series recounting the history of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council on the occasion of PEC’s 50th anniversary. Read other stories here.

Empty homes following the 1978 evacuation of Love Canal

To many of a certain age, it may be difficult to imagine a time when the world seemed indifferent to the ravages of litter, air and water pollution, chemical waste, overpopulation, and other legacy impacts of the modern industrial age.

But there was. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga River caught fire—not just once, but three times. In Love Canal, New York, groundwater contamination from a chemical waste dump forced the evacuation of 800 families from their homes.

In the late 1960s, there was a growing concern that Pennsylvania’s environmental degradation would become irreversible..

Closer to home, parts of the lower Delaware River were so badly polluted as to be considered dead, devoid of most fish and wildlife. Throughout northern Pennsylvania, the ravages of mining had left large desolate areas that would take generations to heal. And in Pittsburgh, air pollution from steel manufacturing blocked the sun at mid-day, causing streetlights to operate around the clock.

In the late 1960s, there was a growing concern that Pennsylvania’s environmental degradation would become irreversible,” recalls Eleanor Webster Winsor, one of the original founders of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Streetlights illuminate Pittsburgh’s Liberty Avenue during daytime, ca. 1940

“Pennsylvania had seen a lot of major environmental problems and we realized that we had to do something. Science and technology could solve many of these problems if people understood the importance of acting responsibly. What was missing was an organization that could speak for the environment in the political arena and help state government apply existing knowledge to the problems we faced. We needed laws and regulations that were based on emerging scientific and technological knowledge.”

“Pennsylvania’s environment had historically been controlled by large, polluting industries, which focused on immediate profits without accounting for the long-term impact of their activities on the communities in which they operated. As people throughout the United States recognized that things had to change, Pennsylvania was in the vanguard of efforts to transform the way people perceived and treated the environment. Activists realized that the place to make the greatest impact was to speak truth in Harrisburg.”

Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thrust environmental science into public consciousness in 1962

By the late 1960s, the environmental movement was gaining traction and achieving critical mass in the United States. At the national level, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb thrust awareness of environmental science into public consciousness. And as the U.S. manned space flight program brought back the first pictures of Earth from space, Americans—perhaps for the first time — began to grasp the fragile and finite nature of their ecosystem.

“The protestations of conservationists have accomplished too little for too long,” according to a 1970 PEC briefing document, written after considerable debate. “Conservationists, whether individuals or organizations have lacked the facts to speak effectively, the communication with others to act cohesively, and a medium to present responsibly and consistently their viewpoints to the legislators and regulators… who determine the quality of Pennsylvania’s environment. Consequently, their efforts to affect environmental policy at the state level have met with minimal success.”

“The Pennsylvania Environmental Council… has concentrated on developing and pushing a few environmental matters, rather than diluting its effectiveness by speaking frequently without sufficient expertise to support its positions.”

The Times They Were A-Changing

Things were beginning to change in Pennsylvania. In 1967, Franklin Kury, representing Montour and Northumberland Counties, became one of the new faces in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. “From 1965 to about 1972,” recalls Kury, “Pennsylvania went through an environmental revolution. The people of Pennsylvania woke up to the fact that they’d been badly exploited by the coal industry, the steel industry, and the railroad industry. And they were determined.”

It’s likely that few present at that first meeting could have imagined the profound and lasting impact their upstart organization would have over the subsequent five decades…

In the summer of 1969, a small handful of concerned Pennsylvanians decided that they had seen enough. Thomas Dolan IV of Philadelphia, Curtis Wright, Esq. of Ambler, Dr. Colson Blakeslee of Dubois, Robert Kolek of Pittsburgh, Josh Whetzel, Robert Broughton of Pittsburgh, Eleanor Webster of Philadelphia, and Curtin Winsor of Ardmore conceived a statewide environmental “coordinating organization” to which individuals, other organizations, government and business and industry could turn for information on environmental issues. Webster and Whetzel had worked together at the Conservation Foundation in Washington and were able to bring a national perspective to the discussions.

Curtin Winsor

Their approach was to bring conservationists, community leaders, business interests, agriculture, lawyers, and local government together to work with state government to restore and enhance environmental quality. Unlike other environmental organizations in the state, however, the “Pennsylvania Environmental Coordinating Council” was incorporated with the ability to lobby the state legislature and administration. PEC would maintain its focused approach from then until the late 1980s when it was transformed from a lobby to an environmental organization with broader objectives.

It’s likely that few present at that first meeting could have imagined the profound and lasting impact their upstart organization would have over the subsequent five decades.

It was a humble beginning, but not without an impact. In an article years later Mr. Winsor recalled that “…in the fall of 1969, we had 100 members, no office, no staff and a debt in the amount of $2,500. That was the lawyer’s fee for the case of Pennsylvania Environmental Council v. Bartlett, which established the right of a non-profit citizens’ group to sue the federal government on a matter of environmental concern,” a landmark decision in the history of U.S. environmental law.

And with that very first case, the stage was set for a new chapter in Pennsylvania’s history of conservation and stewardship. After that case, PEC moved away from litigation, realizing that its limited resources needed to be concentrated on getting legislation passed.

Articles of incorporation were completed in January 1970, and that April, with just $200 in the bank, PEC opened an office on South 16th Street in Philadelphia, just days before the first Earth Day and more than six months before the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Curtis Wright was selected to be PEC’s first president, albeit only briefly. He resigned due to illness after only a few months as president and was succeeded by fellow co-founder Curtin Winsor.

Next: Taking the Lead