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Rachel Carson's Fight Against Corporate Interests Still Resonates For Environmental Advocates

Rachel Carson would recognize the conflict between environmental regulation and corporate interests as it is manifesting in President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

When the Springdale-native wrote her most famous book, Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers of pesticides, the chemical industry rejected her research and tried to discredit her. Environmentalists say that response is similar to the way Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick for the EPA, has dismissed climate change, despite scientists' overwhelming evidence.

Corporations claimed Carson’s findings while a biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries were unfounded. She said pesticides were causing damage to ecosystems, while companies said they were a safe, healthy and effective method of pest control.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Rachel Carson scholar Patricia DeMarco brought her copy of Silent Spring and Lost Woods to the WESA studios on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. She said her father got her a copy of Silent Spring as a graduation present in 1964.

“[Their argument was that] it defeated diseases. It was the cutting edge of modernity,” said Patricia DeMarco, a scholar of Rachel Carson who teaches at Chatham University. “And here’s this little woman over there in the fisheries world saying, ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s take a little caution here.’”

Peter Walker is the dean of the Falk School of Sustainability at Chatham University, where Carson studied biology when it was Pennsylvania College for Women. Walker said that Carson's status as an unmarried woman in the male-dominated field of science was partially why she was such a unique messenger.

“She was an outsider breaking into a power elite and doing it in a wonderfully courteous way,” Walker said.

Walker said she felt a “moral obligation” to share her research with the public, as it had the potential to impact their health and habitat.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Rachel Carson Homestead executive director Jeanne Cecil says Carson "developed her sense of wonder, her appreciation of the outdoors" while growing up at this home in Springdale, Pa.

Michelle Ferrari is a filmmaker who directed a documentary on Rachel Carson that will premiere on PBS later this month. She said finding the balance between economic progress and environmental preservation is a difficult task.

“It’s a clash of world views,” Ferrari said. “And I think that most people feel both things: we want the birds and we want our cars, too.”

It's unclear how the Trump administration will handle corporate interests and environmental regulation. In a 2015 interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace, Trump said he would cut the EPA if he were elected.

"What they do is a disgrace," Trump said. "Every week they come out with a new regulation."

Pruitt, Trump's EPA appointee, he has been describedby the New York Times as a climate change denier; he also wrote in National Review that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

Cleaning up the Steel City

Pittsburgh looks very different than when Carson lived here, in part, environmentalists say, because of regulation. DeMarco recalled being a child and watching people take two white shirts to work because ashes and cinder would dirty the first before lunch.

“You wore brimmed hats in order to keep the ashes from falling on your face,” DeMarco said. “'Ring around the collar’ was the housewives lament.”

During the mayoral tenure of David L. Lawrencein the late 1940s and 1950s, Pittsburgh went through “Renaissance I,” which included efforts to clean the city’s air and water. Recently, Pittsburgh has been celebrated for its environmental preservation and sustainability efforts, and has added requirements for new, green development.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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This Monday, Dec. 12, 2016 photo of the bust of Rachel Carson, presented by Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance, sits in the dining room of the Rachel Carson Homestead, which was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places on Oct. 22, 1976.

Despite this progress, evidence of the city’s industrial past remains. In 2016, the American Lung Association gave Allegheny County an“F” rating for its air quality. Lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking waterrecently exceeded the EPA’s federal action levels.

Walker said he takes his students to places like Carrie Furnace in Braddock, Pa. and to former coal mines to illustrate how far the city has come.

“You need to have it there to understand why we are what today the way we are in Pittsburgh,” Walker said. “And why we’re so committed to this idea that you have to change, you can’t just accept business as normal.”

Carson died in 1964 of breast cancer, before she could see the national ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and the creation of the EPA in 1972. Her work inspired the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s and her message continues to influence conservationists. One of the sister bridges over the Allegheny River is named after her, as well as a trailand sustainability institute at Chatham University. 

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.