The New Orleans fire had been sparked by a red-hot rivet that dropped on an oily mass of floating harbor debris and spread quickly through the dockyard. Other fires had similarly tragic origins and spread quickly with harbor oil. The underwriters group proposed that local ordinances against pumping out bilge tanks be adopted in harbor towns.
The chain of events following the warning of 1921 shows how official Washington worked in the 1920s. In early March, Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote to the Chief of Engineers, saying: "The discharge of oil into navigable waters has increased to a dangerous extent in recent years, creating a fire menace of serious character." The secretary asked the corps to back legislation being introduced by Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen to amend the 1899 act to clarify oil dumping as illegal.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (who would be president seven years later) called a conference on June 16, 1921 to consider "the subject of water pollution and its relation to the fisheries."
The discussion between state and federal officials and industry representatives "revealed a general failure of the states to cope with many important problems," particularly oil waste, industrial waste and sewage that was threatening some varieties of migratory fish with extinction.
"There was indicated a practically unanimous demand on the part of the states for assistance from the federal government," a conference report said. Oil discharge from tankers and refineries was "the most vital problem" affecting fisheries, the conference members said in a final resolution.
By June, 1921, Congressman T. Frank Appleby of New Jersey introduced a bill to limit oil pollution. The bill, which would eventually become the 1924 Oil Pollution Act, attracted opposition from petroleum and manufacturing interests when hearings opened in January, 1922. In its early version, it would have prohibited all kinds of water pollution, both in both harbors and inland navigable waterways. An editorial in the Johnstown Ledger said the Appleby Bill would include sulfur wastes from the mines. "It can be modified and yet prevent the major crimes of pollution against which it is directed," the editorial said.
Because much of the oil dumping problem was international in character, and took place outside the three-mile limit, a resolution asking the State Department to hold an international conference on oil pollution passed the House and Senate without dissent.
Also in January, 1922, the Chief Engineer of the Corps worried in a letter to the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers that legislation should be confined to oil pollution and a study done of other kinds of pollution and the effects of regulations.
Just how bad was the water pollution? The Corps of Engineers asked its harbor stations to report in the summer of 1922. The returning reports painting a grim picture:
• New Orleans, Louisiana -- "A considerable proportion of the batteries are noticeably polluted with oil. No beach can be considered suitable for recreation. A disastrous fire occurred in the port a year ago, the fire to a considerable extent being spread by oil pollution."
• Portland, Oregon -- "Considerable damage has resulted [from oil spills], especially to floating logs and sawed timbers..."
• Glouster, Massachusetts -- "A thick scum has caused serious damage to fish and sea life. It has also caused much discontent and complaint from tourists."
• Baltimore, Maryland -- "There has been a very detrimental effect on fish, oysters and wildfowl."
• Charleston, South Carolina -- "Local fishermen complain of injury to fishing and say fish have been driven away from harbor and inlets..."
Part of the reason for the alarm, as a U.S. Bureau of Mines report said in 1923, was that the tonnage of tankers carrying oil on the East Coast grew by 850 percent between 1914 and 1922. Also, methods of balancing cargoes and recovering spills simply had not caught up with the new technology, according to historian Joseph A. Pratt, who estimated that the oil pollution of the 1920s was worse than that of any other era in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, Congressman Appleby was busy writing letters gathering support for a conference on oil pollution in the summer of 1922. "Careless oil dumping has become a serious menace," he wrote the president of the Norfolk, Virginia, board of trade. "Not only is oil dumping ruining the bathing beaches, but the depreciation in value of millions of dollars of seashore property from this cause is most alarming."
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities was also active in correspondence. It wrote the Corps: "Oil pollution is one of the gravest economic questions confronting the Atlantic Coast navigable waterways... we want action this session..."
To get that action, the New Jersey officials encouraged the League of Atlantic Seaboard Municipalities to call a national conference. It was held in Atlantic City on August 10-11, 1922. Attending were representatives from various cities, trade organizations and chambers of commerce from Maine to Florida.
It was a new kind of environmental organization -- a mainstream coalition of elected officials and public health advocates who saw pollution threatening both the economy and the environment. It was the kind of environmental organization that demanded legislation to deal with a specific problem.
On the first day the conference called itself The National Coast Anti-Pollution League and elected as president Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt's Forest Service chief and at that moment involved in what would be a successful bid for the governorship of Pennsylvania.
Discussions at the conference centered on the extent of oil damage to property values and beach recreation on the one hand and the biological aspects of oil pollution on the other.
"Millions of birds winter along the coast from Long Island to Florida, but now many million drift ashore dead," said E.W. Nelson, Chief of the U.S. Bureau of the Biological Survey. "It has been found that oil soaks their feathers and irritates their skin, leaving bare spots on their breasts and causing them to die of pneumonia. If something is not done to stop the increased pollution, a very heavy percentage will perish."
The conference speakers also read dozens of letters of support from mayors and governors up and down the East Coast. On the second day, the conference resolved to support the Appleby bill setting fines and jail terms for willful or negligent oil pollution.
Widespread news coverage and broad editorial support for the anti-pollution cause was evident.
"The new league has an important task before it and every town along this coast will back up its efforts." -- New York Sun
"At last the forces working for the ending of the oil nuisance... have concentrated on a program and have created a national organization to carry it out." -- Newark Evening News
"How [can] any sane person can deliberately go into such black and vile-looking water" as is found in the Delaware River . Only a decade or two earlier, "... the haul of the shad net brings that thrilling moment when the encircled fish break water and the whole surface inclosed in the arc of bobbing corks suddenly bursts into silver flame as a hundred fine big fellows leap and churn in a last desperate effort ... There's a lot more than sentiment in such reminiscences as these... They mean happiness and health in an age when the tendency is to sleep away from the turmoil and the 'twice breathed air' of the city... The lack of such things means millions of dollars in good, hard cash, to say nothing of the less material considerations. Philadelphia, of all cities, should support the Anti-Pollution League and should welcome the election of Gifford Pinchot to its presidency." -- The Philadelphia Ledger
Despite the support, the legislation was sidetracked for a year.
The next year, the National Coast Anti-Pollution League met again in Atlantic City, this time with less fanfare and more detailed political discussions. One hotly contested issue divided the group -- whether to include oil from refineries and other land installations in an anti-pollution bill. Members of the league could not agree, and the coalition fell apart. Both factions lobbied separately for the Oil Pollution Act, and in the end, the industry-oriented faction succeeded in weakening the bill, prohibiting only intentional dumping from ships in U.S. coastal waters rather than the wide array of land-based oil pollution sources.
"Official Washington has no knowledge that the American people give a damn about pollution, and until they do care there will be no great advance as to pollution," a disappointed Herbert Hoover said.
The oil pollution law was, in the end, a small victory that stopped the worst forms of harbor pollution and gave authority to the Corps to investigate and correct gross hazards.
The new law also showed industry the value of organizing against environmental regulations. The American Petroleum Institute created a statistics and research effort that was designed to defend against any additional federal legislation on oil pollution. Partly because of their efforts, the 1924 law remained in the same form until 1970, when the Santa Barbara oil blowout of 1969 added to the public indignation over weak environmental laws..
The National Coast Anti-Pollution League did not go on to fight other forms of beach pollution in the 1920s, when sewage and garbage from New York City frequently closed beaches and spread typhoid or other diseases. For example, sewage on beaches was blamed for typhoid at Coney Island and Brighton Beach by a New York state health survey found in 1925.
One solution, proposed by the Associated Business for a Better New York, was to incinerate municipal garbage rather than dumping it at sea. However, dumping at sea continued because total incineration would have added greatly to the pall of smoke already growing around New York city.
In the end, garbage dumping was taken further offshore, sewage treatment was improved and oil refineries began curtailing some of the most obvious pollution if, for no other reason, than the possibility of lawsuits from harbor fires.