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Post-Watergate Society, 1975-1989 • Focus on the Environment
Classroom Activities

Objective: Create a postcard to a public official that summarizes an early environmental disaster and advocates for federal policy changes.

Key Questions:

  • What were some of the main events that led to an increase in concern for the environment?
  • What actions did environmental activists take to have their concerns heard?

Notes on Implementation:

  • Guide students to choose different events so that a variety are covered.

Student Activity: Students can access the below activity in the Post-Watergate Society Topic Center within the American History database.

The modern environmental movement began in earnest during the 1960s. The 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachael Carson is often cited as the event that began the movement. Her book raised the issue of the effects of the long-term use of such pesticides as DDT. Then in 1964 the Wilderness Act, an early example of an attempt to protect certain lands from industrial pollution, was passed. In 1970, the U.S. government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has remained the most important federally-run environmental organization.

In this activity, you will write a postcard to a public official that summarizes an environmental disaster and advocates for federal policy changes. To complete this activity, read the reference article, Focus on the Environment, and select one of the environmental incidents. Lastly, refer to the Apply section for help with your postcard.



  • Select or draw an image that captures the event.
  • Provide some context as to who you are; for example, a concerned citizen, a person involved in the accident, a parent or child.
  • Provide a brief explanation of how the event occurred.
  • Include a message asking this public official to respond and or react to the incident.
  • Include suggestions for how the public official could respond or remedy the situation.


Key Understandings:

  • Legislative policy changes are often a result of events that led to demands for change

Possible Answers for Activity:

Love Canal

  • Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation (now Occidental Chemical Corporation) disposed of its hazardous waste at a dump site at Niagara Falls from 1942-1953. Government documents estimate that approximately 21,000 tons of waste were placed in the area. In 1953, Hooker deeded the property to a New York school district for $1 in an attempt to limit Hooker's future liability for its past activities.

  • A housing development and schools were built in the area, and soon chemicals began to ooze to the surface. A local news reporter wrote a story in 1978 that discussed buried chemicals and the types of illnesses they could cause. Lois Gibbs moved to the community in 1974 with her husband and one-year-old son. When her son developed asthma, a blood disease, and a urinary tract disorder, and a daughter developed blood disease too, she made connections to the story. This led her to organize the Love Canal Homeowners Association to get the government's attention.

  • The governor declared a state of emergency on August 2, 1978, and the first group of Love Canal residents, representing 240 homes, was evacuated that year. The community was eventually demolished, and public outrage from the Love Canal resulted in increased government intervention in managing hazardous wastes.

Santa Barbara oil spill

  • On January 29, 1969. off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, Union Oil Company efforts to replace a drill bit from a well 3,500 feet below the ocean floor went wrong. Pressure from natural gas blew out the pipe, and 11 days later, 200,000 gallons of crude oil rose to the ocean surface. This created an 800-square-mile slick that covered 35 miles of coastline with thick tar.

  • The tides brought in corpses of dead seals and dolphins and changed the migration patterns of gray whales and other sea creatures.It took a particularly high toll on sea birds, emergency treatment centers had a survival rate of less than 30%, and more than 3,000 birds died on the beaches.

  • The accident was caused by inadequate protective casing inside the drilling hole. The U.S. Geological Survey had given Union Oil permission to cut corners and not follow federal standards. The spill united Santa Barbarans in the clean up effort, and the publicity surrounding it gave major impetus to the environmental movement.

Three Mile Island accident

  • On March 28, 1979, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania experienced a partial-core meltdown. The plant had two nuclear reactors, and a cooling malfunction in the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor caused the partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core. The core, where fission occurs, experienced critical damage as a result. Due to a lack of proper instrumentation and insufficient emergency response training, the plant operators were unable to recognize and properly react to the automatic shutdown of the reactor when a relief valve failed to close on the morning of the accident.The TMI-2 accident took almost 12 years to clean up.

  • The events that occurred at Three Mile Island raised concerns about the possibility of radiation-induced health problems. However, several studies showed that the accident released minimal levels of radiation into the surrounding area, and not enough to cause significant environmental damage or adverse health effects associated with radiation exposure.

  • The Three Mile Island incident brought about extensive reform in the safety policies of the nuclear power industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC, a federal organization that regulates nuclear power plant operations in the United States, strengthened its policies to increase safety within the nuclear power industry. Some of the policy changes include improved emergency response training, increased supervision of critical systems, and improvements in equipment engineering.

Exxon Valdez oil spill

  • On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker carrying crude oil pumped from Alaska's North Shore, ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The spill occurred when the vessel was under the command of Joseph Hazelwood, an accomplished captain, but with a history of alcohol abuse. Hazelwood would later admit to consuming multiple alcoholic beverages, and he turned over command of the tanker to Third Mate, Gregory Cousins, who was not certified to command the vessel. When Cousins attempted to move into an inbound lane to avoid ice, he failed to turn back towards the open sea. Instead, the huge tanker sailed directly for Bligh Reef, a well-known and marked hazard. Hazelwood was later found not guilty of operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol, and was charged with a misdemeanor for negligent discharge of oil.

  • Almost 11 million gallons of oil spilled, causing an environmental disaster in the pristine location in which it occurred. Thousands of birds and otters were killed and the salmon and shellfish populations were severely damaged. Only several hundred were saved by cleaning and special care, although the long-term effects on these animals remain unknown.

  • Exxon was fined $4.5 billion in punitive damages for the spill, however, a court appeal in 2008 led to the reduced cost of damages to $500 million. Legislation also resulted from the oil spill. In 1990, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, which stated that all oil-carrying vessels over 5,000 tons operating in American waters are required to have double hulls by 2015. The law also raised corporate liability for spills and established a federal cleanup fund from a new tax on oil. The state of Alaska passed legislation requiring ships' captains to be tested for alcohol before being allowed to sail. Furthermore, tankers may not change channels and are accompanied by two tugs until they are clear of Prince William Sound.


MLA Citation

"Focus on the Environment." History Hub, ABC-CLIO, 2019, historyhub.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/2009?cid=71. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

View all citation styles.

Entry ID: 2042999

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