The first Earth Day

By Bill Clutter

An excerpt from the prologue of his book COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing US with Cancer

To preorder for the Earth Day release on April 22, 2021, to place an order visit

Students from Ray Bruzan’s class march down Capitol Avenue in Springfield, IL on the first Earth Day in 1970. Photo courtesy of Pam Bruzan.

The environmental movement would intensify after the January 28, 1969 blowout of an offshore oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Over three million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The images of over 10,000 dead birds, dolphins, and seals coated in oil and washing up on the beaches inflamed the passion of people who witnessed the devastation on television and on the front pages of newspapers across the country. That event mobilized the conscience of a nation.

It was a time when our government was more responsive to the will of the people, whose opinions were influenced by the images of a relatively new media, television.

Congress responded by enacting the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and in the following year, passed the Clean Water Act of 1970, and amended the Clean Air Act of 1963 to expand the authority of the federal government to address air pollution that was being caused by gasoline exhaust from vehicles and industrial smokestacks.

Public outrage developed into a political movement that led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million Americans assembled peacefully in America’s cities and colleges to protest the destruction of the environment by corporate polluters.

In Springfield, Illinois, at Lanphier High School, the alma mater of my mother and father, 24-year-old biology teacher Ray Bruzan, led his students on a march to the Capitol that day. The students had been learning how pollution was killing the planet. Their classroom, Room 308, became the “Environmental Action Center.” One of the books the students were assigned to read was Silent Spring.

The mother of one student stitched together strips of green and white fabric to form the stripes of the flag. The colors were symbolic, green for a clean earth, and white for clean air. The top corner of the flag was punctuated by a dark green Greek theta letter, the symbol of death. The students held a mock funeral procession for the “dead” earth. As they marched, their Earth Day flag was lifted by the gentle breeze of Mother Nature. The flag today is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, donated by Bruzan, part of the collection of Earth Day memorabilia.

The march of students was an extraordinary display of civic action. The students carried petitions they had circulated, bearing the names of one thousand people. They were met at the Capitol by Lt. Governor Paul Simon, who accepted the petitions and commended the students for their participation in democracy.

Before he became a presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy embarked on a Congressional fact-finding mission as a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty and spent two days in Eastern Kentucky. The area was one of the poorest places in the country. The coal economy was in decline. By the end of the 1950s, natural gas had replaced coal as the primary way Americans heated their homes and businesses, and coal-burning steam engines, like the Wabash Cannonball, had been replaced by diesel locomotives.

In the towns of Whitesburg, Prestonsburg and Hazard, Kennedy saw first-hand the hardships of extreme poverty. He was moved by what he observed there: unemployed and disabled coal miners laboring just to breathe, dying a slow death from black lung disease. The owners of the coal mines were too greedy to spend money on ventilation systems or respirators to protect the health of workers from the long-term effects of breathing coal dust.

In the richest nation on earth, Americans living in Appalachia were starving and dying from a preventable disease.

“They’re desperate and filled with despair,” Kennedy told a reporter.

Protecting the environment had bi-partisan support from both Democrats and Republicans. On that first Earth Day in 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the executive order that created the EPA. Later that year, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act which led to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor. OSHA established regulations on industry with the aim of reducing workplace exposure to toxins. Black lung disease all but disappeared for a new generation of coal miners.

FREE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The author will make a digital version available free of charge to any teacher or student who wants to use the story for classroom use. Those interested should send an email with the word EDUCATION in the subject line to

Students at Burleigh Middle School lobby for a ban on coal tar sealants in Maryland Feb. 2020.

To pre-order copies of the book go to: Copyright 2021 Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design

About The Author

Louisville Private investigator Bill Clutter started his career in Springfield, Illinois. By the time the lawsuit went to trial, seven children from Taylorville were diagnosed with neuroblastoma, four would die. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the families against CIPS. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that verdict in 2002. After Clutter narrowly lost the senate race, his investigation helped free three innocent men from death row and he went on to start in 2001 what is now the Illinois Innocence Project. He was credited, among others, by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn when Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. He moved to Louisville in 2013 to continue work on capital cases and started a national organization called Investigating Innocence, which help free three people, David Camm, from Indiana; Curt Lovelace, a former state prosecutor from Illinois, who was team captain of the Fighting Illini football team that won the Citrus Bowl in 1990; and Rodney Lincoln from Missouri, who spent 36 years in prison.

HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE BOOK: The author will send a free digital version of the book to those who make a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to help Investigating Innocence free more people from prison. Go to