January 14, 2020

DEP Snapshot: It’s 1970,
A State Agency Charged with Protecting the Environment Is Born

(20/S001) – Today, we get the party started with the kickoff of a special, yearlong project in the DEP Digest that will turn the spotlight on the DEP through the years. These snapshots document the department’s history, but won’t just feature major events or accomplishments – interesting facts will pop up from time to time, too.

And now, a look at 1970 …  

America’s first official Earth Day

On April 22, 1970 – America’s first official Earth Day – then-Governor William T. Cahill appointed Richard J. Sullivan to lead the newly formed New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The new department consolidated a number of state conservation and environmental health-related agencies originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Department of Conservation and Economic Development, and the Department of Health’s former Division of Clean Air and Water. Within the new DEP, these functions were organized into five major divisions: Environmental Quality; Water Resources; Marine Services; Parks and Forests; and Fish, Game and Shellfisheries.

In his annual address to the legislature the following year, Governor Cahill stated, “The pollution of our environment is a fact of grave concern to all thinking citizens,” and that the creation of the new DEP “was a giant step forward in our fight to preserve, protect and enhance the environment.”

How big an event was the formation of the DEP? An Associated Press story that appeared on the front page of The Home News – the 10-cent afternoon edition of April 22, 1970 – led the coverage this way:

“New Jerseyans took an Earth Day look at their environment today and hoped for a future free of pollution.

“Thousands of concerned citizens bridged the generation gap for a while at rallies, discussions and teach-ins across the state. Hundreds of motorists planned to forsake cars for a day in protest of the ‘polluted environment.’ ”

The AP story described how Cahill signed the legislation creating the department “in a gesture he said symbolized that state’s commitment to the principles of Earth Day.”

Newly minted DEP chief Richard Sullivan, speaking at the public ceremony announcing the creation of the department, was quoted as saying: “Earth Day has gotten off to a flying start.”

And lo, those many years ago, a term – so familiar today – also appeared in the piece: A weather scientist, discussing carbon dioxide and thermal pollution, explained that they produce a “greenhouse” effect.