BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf got us thinking about The Junior League’s trail-blazing legacy in environmental advocacy.
It took only a quick look through the archives to uncover several examples of brave work by various Leagues to call attention to an ecological hazard that threatened the livelihood of a community or the health of its inhabitants. But few of them better illustrate the collective power and enduring impact of a group of women united behind a single cause than the documentary film “Fate of a River: Apathy or Action,” which was produced by the Junior League of Toledo in 1965.
A break-through for its time, the 30-minute film debuted just three years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, and depicted in elaborate detail the foaming detergents, raw sewage, and industrial discharge from nearby factories that was fouling the Maumee River, an important Great Lakes watershed that encompasses four thousand miles of streams and drains four million acres of land in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. The movie captured for viewers algae-laden water filled with gasping fish that was typical for an area that was hope to well over a million people. Polluted to black, the Maumee and its network of tributaries were likened by the film’s narrator to a “dead sewer burdened with the debris of a dozen cities” that rendered Lake Erie unsafe for swimming and its beaches hardened and discolored.
According to Sustainer Georgia Welles, who was President of the League at the time, the film was produced after the League was approached by a local naturalists’ association who needed help funding its production. League members rallied together and raised the money, and then the local PBS station, WGTE, filmed and narrated it.
“Back then sewage was being dumped right into the river and there wasn’t such a thing as sewage treatment — or it was very rudimentary if there was any,” said Carol Bentley, who served as the League’s film scheduler, making appointments for it to be shown by League volunteers at libraries and in schools, to rotary clubs, women’s groups, bridge and garden clubs, and community boards throughout the region, ultimately reaching some seventy thousand people. (Bentley’s husband, a competitive rower on the river, recalls that upon falling into the water years ago, his skin broke out into a rash).
“There was a sudden welling up of the realization that we were really doing terrible harm to the environment,” said Bentley. “It was an education for all of us. We were very well-trained and we were go-getters from the get-go.”
After all of the “trooping out” to assorted meetings and lectures, the film gained enough attention that Welles, who is today serving in her ninth year as a member of the Board of Directors of the Nature Conservancy and remains an active fisherwoman, wound up testifying at the state and federal hearings on water quality that would lead to the development and passage by Congress of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
“We persuaded the legislators to set high water standards,” she said, referring to the numerous environmental groups like ClearWater that joined forces with the League in supporting the film and the message it delivered about respecting the earth’s limited resources.
In addition to standardizing water quality, the Act, and its subsequent amendments, provided for such things as requiring permits for sewage and industrial discharge; requiring permits for dredging and fill placement; financing of pollution control programs; and sewage system upgrades, among others.
But beyond the ground-breaking legislation, there were many other results of the League’s work that have had a lasting effect on the local community. These include the creation of a scenic byway along the river, the return of nesting eagles after a 30-year absence, restoration of fishing in some areas, the development of waste water treatment facilities by manufacturers and municipalities, and the formation of the Maumee Remedial Action Plan or RAP, an action plan developed to coordinate and monitor the progress of the clean up.
Thirty-some years after the film’s release, Carol Bentley was at a garden club meeting at which Cherie Blair, the Maumee RAP Coordinator from the Ohio EPA, gave a talk on water quality. (The legacy of the original Maumee RAP continues today as the Maumee RAP Project, which is a diverse organization of environmentally concerned businesses, agencies, non-profits, educators, and citizens working to ensure a clean-water future for the area that is now administered and facilitated by the nonprofit, Partners for Clean Streams, Inc., which works in tandem with the Ohio EPA). In the course of the talk, Blair happened to mention the film by name, and as the meeting broke up, Bentley approached her and told her how intricately involved she’d been in its production.
Three years later, after a dusty reel of the 16-millimeter film was found on a back shelf in University of Toledo closet – and an equally dusty old projector that would actually play it was located – the film was updated, with the ultimate outcome being the 2002 release “Fate of a River: Revisited.”
The remake, which features an interview with Bentley, both examines the progress that has been made and outlines the work still to be done, including protecting vital wetlands and improving systems for handling suburban run-off now that housing divisions and shopping centers have replaced large swaths of farm land. Still airing with considerable frequency all over the region, the film’s list of credited sponsors and supporters reads longer than any other its producers can recall.
Now that’s what we call a grassroots movement.