Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tom McCall

Here's a great story about Tom McCall, who was Oregon's governor from 1967-1975. He was an ardent environmentalist whose "11th commandment" was "Thou shall not pollute."

Before McCall was elected the Willamette River was a mess. The river is the 13th largest (by volume) in the U.S., and runs 187 miles from Eugene to Portland, where it joins with the mighty Columbia River. The river still has its problems today, but back then many riverside communities dumped raw sewage into the river, and paper pulp mills dumped their copious wastes into the Willamette. In the 1920s state officials began closing the river to swimming, and in 1927 the Portland City Club declared the river "intolerable" and "ugly and filthy." By 1944 a report found no dissolved oxygen in the river near Portland--it was officially dead.

McCall was on a mission to change the Willamette. Before his governorship he was a television reporter, and drew lots of attention with a 1962 hour-long documentary on the state of the Willamette, exposing many of the polluters who were dumping chemicals and sewage into the river. When McCall was elected he set about cleaning it up by imposing standards on the pulp mills.

By 1972 every company had met the new standards, save one: Boise Cascade. Worse, their pulp plant was near downtown Salem, the state's Capitol, and a rotten-egg smell emanated from the plant. The state set a deadline for compliance with state regulations, but Boise Cascade took their time, all the while dumping 145,000 gal/day into the river (15 times what their permit permitted), and another 400,000 gal/day into a nearby slough. Company officials believed the state would never shut down the plant and put its 650 employees out of work.

Tensions grew until the state said it would shut down the plant entirely unless the plant drastically curtailed its water and air pollution. The company declined to follow this order. State attornies drafted a court injuntion against the company, but did not file it.

Then, a week later, Boise Cascade closed down the plant on its own. The reason was an equipment failure, but they told their employees that the state had ordered the closure. In fact, no closure injunction had yet been filed.

The furious employees and their union organized a march down to the Capitol, where 300 of them stood at the Capitol's front doors.

McCall heard about the protest and went to the state Capitol, together with the head of the state environmental agency whom McCall had appointed. Together they stood in front of the protesters, some of whom were yelling "Hitler!" at McCall, and heckled him as he tried to reason with them. From Fire at Eden's Gate, Brent Walth's excellent 1994 biography of McCall:
"Why should one company--one company--get to break the law and ruin the river?" McCall bellowed over the noise.
"Are you more interested in the river or us?" one woman shouted back.
"They're trying," someone else said of the Boise Cascade officials. "What the hell do you want?"
"We've fairly well fixed the responsibility where it belongs," McCall responded angrily. "It's with the management. They're using you as pawns."
So McCall marched the crowd back up to the Boise Cascade plant and confronted the officials. The officials quickly backed down. The state pressed ahead with their closure injunction, and Boise Cascade agreed to the state's conditions within hours.

Wow. Where is politicial leadership like this today?

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