By JIM DWYER FEB. 28, 2017 – New York Times


The view to the south from the Empire State Building on Nov. 24, 1966, one of New York’s worst smog days. Credit Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Once upon a time, you could touch the air in New York. It was that filthy. No sensible person would put a toe in most of the waterways.

In 1964, Albert Butzel moved to New York City, which then had the worst air pollution among big cities in the United States.

“I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills,” Mr. Butzel, 78, an environmental lawyer, said. “You’d look at the horizon and it would be yellowish. It was business as normal.”

The dawning of environmental consciousness in the United States during the 1960s led to a national commitment to clean air and water with the creation, in 1970, of the Environmental Protection Agency. It came not a moment too soon for New York City, not to mention the nation.

Today, the future and mission of the E.P.A. are in doubt as President Trump is reported to be calling for the agency’s budget to be cut by 24 percent, a reduction of more than $2 billion. Mr. Trump has also instructed the agency to undo certain regulations protecting waterways. He is expected to issue an order reversing rules to curb planet-warming gases from coal-fired power plants.

It’s worth reflecting that New York City before the E.P.A. and the movement it represented would be almost unrecognizable in 2017.

In the 1960s, my playmates and I stopped everything when it began “snowing” ash from incinerated garbage. We chased tiny scraps of partly burned paper that floated in the air as if they were blackened snowflakes. According to a study published in 2001, the quantities of lead in the sediments of the Central Park Lake correlated strongly with the vast quantities of particles emitted from garbage burned in Manhattan during the 20th century. The study found 32 garbage incinerators that were operated by the city, and 17,000 others in apartment houses.

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