Suffolk Closeup: Continuing fight for Long Island’s environment

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“Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, is acknowledged as instrumental in the creation of the modern environmental movement.

What isn’t fully realized, however, is the role of folks from this region, and a lawsuit with as its lead plaintiff the great environmentalist from Suffolk County, Robert Cushman  Murphy, in helping inform Ms. Carson of the threat pesticides pose to life.

The title of “Silent Spring” is laid out in its introduction, “A Fable for Tomorrow.” It starts, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.”

But, Ms. Carson writes, “Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chicken, the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.

The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.
“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone?”

It was a silent spring. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world,” wrote Ms. Carson. “The people had done it themselves.”

The special focus of “Silent Spring” is the super-deadly pesticide DDT, which as a result of the book was banned in the United States.

In the 1950s, Marjorie Spock began teaching at the Waldorf School in Garden City. With a friend, Mary T. Richards, they established a large garden at their home in Brookville. They grew food by the biodynamic method. This was particularly important for Ms. Richards, who required a diet of organic produce because of her sensitivity to chemicals.

Then the U.S. government and the state conducted massive aerial spraying of DDT on Long Island to kill gypsy moths. The food in their garden was contaminated and they sued. Mr. Murphy of Old Field in Suffolk County joined in the litigation.

In 1958, a trial lasting over 22 days, referred to in the press as “The Long Island Spray Trial,” was held in federal court. There were 50 expert witnesses who testified about the dangers of DDT and 2,000 pages of testimony. The judge ruled for the government.

But “Murphy v. Benson” (the plaintiffs led by Mr. Murphy versus U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson and other officials) went to the U.S. Supreme Court to get the judge’s ruling overturned.

They “lost the battle but won the war,” Ms. Spock later said as plaintiffs for the first time were given the right to enjoin the government to force it to provide a full scientific review prior to a proposed action affecting the environment.

Meanwhile, Ms. Spock conducted correspondence with Ms. Carson and advised her of the progress of the case and the evidence gathered. (Ms. Spock was a younger sister of famed “baby doctor” Benjamin Spock.) Between the “Long Island Spray Trial” and other information Ms. Carson was getting, notably about bird kills caused by DDT, the basis for “Silent Spring” was provided.

St. John’s University Professor Richard Hammond has called Mr. Murphy “a key figure in the fight against DDT.” He not only took the litigation path but formed Citizens Against Mass Poisoning, one of Mr. Murphy’s battles for the environment, internationally and on Long Island.

Mr. Murphy, the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, authored “Fish Shape Paumanok: Nature and Man on Long Island,” which I believe is the finest book on Long Island’s environment ever written. (I was fortunate to meet him in the early 1960s when I wrote extensively about the four-lane highway public works czar Robert Moses pushed to build on Fire Island and Mr. Murphy was among the leaders of those challenging and finally stopping the road in favor of a Fire Island National Seashore.) Paumanok is the Native American name for Long Island.

I use “Silent Spring” as a text in the Environmental Journalism class that I’ve taught for decades. The assault on life by chemicals Ms. Carson wrote about is far from over. In Suffolk, the county long sprayed DDT with abandon, but with it outlawed has gone to another problematic pesticide, methoprene, to kill mosquitoes.

Also, Ms. Carson was enormously concerned about the lethal dangers of nuclear technology, warning about “the most dangerous materials that have existed in all of earth’s history, the by-products of atomic fission.” (She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of writing Silent Spring and died in 1964.)

Now, despite the atomic catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the U.S. Congress just passed by 361 to 10 in the House, and by “voice vote” in the Senate, the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act,” which seeks to revive and expand nuclear power in the U.S. And President Trump signed it.

We still have very far to go.

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