04/21/2011 02:10 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2011

Earth Day 2011: Reflections on Citizen Nader

As Earth Day 2011 approaches, it's nice to take a moment to reflect back on how far we've come in the environmental movement. Although enormous progress has been made, as an environmental activist, I often feel overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of bad news: the nuclear disaster in Japan, the mysterious "white nose syndrome" killing bats at an alarming pace, and mountaintop removal coal mining is still devastating Appalachia.

While dining recently with some Tennessee Sierra Club members, we discussed the aging of the mainstream environmental movement. I thought of the black and white photos of the first Earth Day in 1970 -- the crowd was so young that it looked like Woodstock. While there are some healthy pockets of youth and climate activism today, the membership of the traditional environmental organizations is definitely graying. Why aren't there masses of youth joining the major environmental groups as they did in the 1970s?

"Well, we won," said my dinner companion. "People have forgotten how bad things really were in the 1960s."

I think my friend may be right. Last week I picked up the book Citizen Nader by Charles McCarry, first published in 1972, and read a grim account of industrial pollution in Appalachia in the 1960s and early '70s.

Chapter 13, "The Place That God Forgot" focuses on Anmoore, West Virginia, located just east of Clarksburg in West Virginia. Union Carbide opened a plant there in 1904, in a lightly-populated area to make graphite and ferroalloys. Workers moved close to the factory to live and work. By 1970, Anmoore was in bad shape. The town was so poor that there was only one paved street, and sewage flowed in open ditches. Every year the sewage was shoveled out of the ditches and used to fill the ruts in the dirt roads. There was no money to fix the roads or provide for the townspeople's needs, because in 1969, Union Carbide paid a mere $9,000 in property taxes.

In an admission that seems astonishing by today's public relations standards, Phillip Hufford Jr., Union Carbide's Director of Environmental Affairs stated "The reason we went to Anmoore was because it was a no place. It was nothing. We knew we'd have this lousy situation. But there were no people there ... it was the place that God forgot."

Union Carbide -- perhaps best known today as the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak in India that killed as many as 15,000 people -- was a bad neighbor in Anmoore. The town was covered with fly ash from the plant. In Citizen Nader, Anmoore Mayor Buck Gladden described the air pollution:

It will eat the paint right off a car. Most places on Sunday, you come home from taking the children to church and you sit down to dinner in a white shirt. You can't do nothing like that here because your shirt'll turn black right on your back. The kids can't go out and roll in the yard. If they do, they come in looking like they've been down in a coal mine.

Ralph Nader learned about the dreadful Union Carbide plant in Anmoore and decided to expose and humiliate the company. Union Carbide was highly visible, thanks to an advertising campaign called "The Discovery Company." Although Nader never actually visited Anmoore, he sent two of his young Raiders, Larry Silverman and Willy Osborn, and gave them $5,000 to launch a one-year campaign against Union Carbide. The Raiders succeeded by working with Appalred and the town's leaders.

Responding to Nader's pressure, Union Carbide installed air pollution equipment, and Anmoore increased Union Carbide's property taxes to $100,000 a year,

Ralph Nader made big news often and fairly easily in the 1970s, and was a celebrated public figure. His reports caused major waves in the press and in Washington. His 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed about auto safety -- particularly the dangerous 1960-63 models of the Corvair -- humbled mighty General Motors and helped the passage of numerous auto safety standards that we take for granted today, such as seat belts and laminated safety glass. Nader was also a friend to Appalachia's coal miners: his work on mine safety with Congressman Ken Hechler and Davitt McAteer helped strengthen the 1969 Mine Safety Act. And Nader was a strong environmental advocate.

Today, Nader's name is somewhat tarnished after his stubborn refusal to withdraw from the 2000 presidential election campaign, which some feel cost Al Gore the presidency. But Nader's work continues and he is still formidable, an astonishing public speaker who carries in his head a staggering amount of information.

In Anmoore, Mayor Gladden had this to say: "I have never met Mr. Nader, but I'll say this: he has helped a town that nobody even cared to hear about before."

This past weekend I drove through Anmoore. It looks like pretty much any other aging industrial town: not great, but certainly not the disaster described in Citizen Nader. The streets are all paved, the birds were singing, and the air seemed clear. Union Carbide plant is now run by a company called Graftech International, and there is a thriving shopping center nearby in Bridgeport.

On Earth Day 2011, let's take a minute to thank the people like Ralph Nader who have made our lives much more livable. We've come a long way.