Exposing Dirty Secrets in 1970 at Philadelphia’s Public Health Department

by Edward W. Furia, Earth Week Project Director, Philadelphia 1970

When the Earth Week initiative began the Earth Week Committee was well aware that Philadelphia’s air and water were badly polluted. Indeed, as CBS News pointed out in their Special Report on Earth Day, one of Philadelphia’s nicknames was “Filthydelphia.”

However, as City and Regional Planners, Austan Librach and I wanted to know exactly which pollutants and in what amounts were going into which Rivers in Philadelphia so that we could bring this to the attention of the public and address possible remedial steps that could be taken to abate it.

We assumed that the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health possessed specific data about what pollutants industrial polluters were putting into the City’s air and water, which the City had collected from the companies, themselves, and we also assumed that the Public Health Department knew exactly what the City, itself, was emitting into the air and water from its massive municipal incinerators and its relatively primitive sewage treatment facilities (the city had primary sewage treatment, some secondary treatment, but no tertiary treatment).

We were right. The City had the data we wanted, all right, but they refused to disclose it to the Committee.

They told us that the City had a fiduciary duty to protect the data it collected from industry because it was secret. Their argument was that if one knew what pollutants were coming out of a factory’s smoke stack or process water outfall one would be able to figure out what raw materials and which manufacturing processes were being used by a factory, thus exposing a company’s proprietary manufacturing techniques which companies treated as trade secrets.

As a lawyer, I knew there was something to this argument, but I felt that such considerations had to be balanced against the public’s need to know such information, so that, if necessary, the public could seek court orders forcing the City to take enforcement action against industrial polluters. But, at least in the first round with the City regarding disclosure of such data, which occurred in January or February, 1970, before the latent power of Earth Week to effect public opinion had matured, the City prevailed. But not for long . . . .

On a parallel track, the Committee soon began dealing with the Chamber of Commerce regarding their commitment that its members would disclose specific pollution information to the Committee as a condition of the Chamber’s and the individual corporations’ participation in the Earth Week Committee (See History, Funding Earth Week section, herein).

It then became clear that the individual industrial members of the Chamber had for decades relied on the proprietary data argument to hide their pollution data and require the City not to release it, and so long as the companies, themselves declined to release such data on their own, the City could continue to maintain that stance.

It was obvious that we had to get the City or the Chamber members or both to “blink.”

The method we employed to make that happen was to promise (threaten?) to expose the fact that the companies, the City public health officials or both, had been hiding critical information about public health from the people. I personally called the mayor’s office and said that the City’s stance protecting polluters and preventing the public from knowing what how they were being poisoned by industrial pollution amounted to the City being a co-conspirator, which I at first implied, then flatly stated I would expose in the press. At first, the mayor hid behind the proprietary industrial information argument, but as the days went by, it was clear that this argument would at some point no longer fly. Then we had a breakthrough. Faced with the prospect of getting on the right side of Earth Week by disclosing the information we wanted or face the fury of a public that was getting more and more committed to environmental protect every day, industrial members of the Chamber soon started contacting us and disclosing the data we wanted. Within days the City relented and agreed to release all of the pollution data we wanted, which, after all, was no longer being treated as secret by the companies, who themselves were giving the data to the Committee.

I would have to say that that moment—when we realized we would get from the City and the polluters, themselves, specific data as to who was putting what pollution where—was the most important moment during the entire four month Earth Week initiative. Armed with such data, denial would not longer be a viable strategy for the City or the polluters.

Dr. Nicholas Zill, Earth Week Coordinator of Technical Symposia. He held the symposium called “The Delaware Valley Environmen: Status and Propects.”

We then decided to publicize the pollution data by holding a large public technical symposium where the pollution data along with potential abatement measures could be presented and discussed by experts. To this end, we appointed Dr. Nicholas Zill, from the University City Science Center at Penn to organize the symposia and recruit scientists from area universities to participate. Once the symposia preparations got underway, we were even able to involve technical experts in charge of monitoring and dealing with pollution from inside the companies.

The week-long Earth Week Technical Symposium on the Delaware Valley Environment which we held the week before Earth Week, was a tremendous success, and its proceedings became part of a several hundred page publication that the Committee issued soon after Earth Week, titled “The Delaware Valley Environment: Status and Prospects.”