Earth Day – Awakening an environmental citizenry

posted on April 21, 2014
"Aerial photographs during the strike" Kaiser Steel, Fontana 1972

Cover of “Aerial photographs during the strike” published by Kaiser Steel, Fontana 1972

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

The first national “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970 was an indicator of increased national environmental consciousness, and community relations with the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif. had grown tense. The wartime facility had fired up its first blast furnace, “Bess No. 1” (named after Kaiser’s wife), on December 30, 1942, and boasted numerous technologies to reduce air and water pollution. Yet smog was invading the formerly pristine remote rural community, and many fingers pointed toward the mill.

In February 1972 the United Steelworkers of America Local No. 2869 started a 43-day strike that shut down the sprawling facility. Taking to heart Henry J. Kaiser’s famous proclamation that “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes,” management saw the situation as a way to help dispel the persistent criticisms. They embarked on a project to document Fontana’s skies when the “variable” of an operating steel mill was absent. An independent series of aerial photos – some with filthy air, some without – provided evidence that east-blowing Los Angeles basin smog might be the culprit.

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