BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the mid-20th century, environmental activists were few and far between, and much courage was needed to speak out against injustice.
Stan Spisiak was a native Western New Yorker, and perhaps our first environmental champion. He fought against big corporate polluters that were destroying our waterways with toxic filth, particularly the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.
He was no larger-than-life superhero, just an average man who owned a jewelry store, and he had a life long love of the planet.
Jill Jedlicka is the executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, but she's also Spisiak's Great Niece.
"He loved Woodlawn Beach, and there were activities going on there that was starting to dredge the sand and destroy that environment there," she said. "He saw consequences firsthand of the industrial revolution, of what was happening with Bethlehem Steel.
"The data that was coming out of arsenic in Buffalo's drinking water, and people didn't even know that they were being poisoned by the very industries that were growing its economy. "
Spisiak was a lone wolf, and ferocious in his pursuit of those who would so boldly pollute our water.
"Starting back in the 1930s, he would literally chase down polluters in the dead of the night to document dumping of barrels of chemicals into the waterways," Jedlicka said.
"Mobil Oil was doing dumping. They were doing midnight dumping. He was out risking his life, really," added Margaret Wooster, an author and one of the founders of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. She was also a friend of Spisiak.
Spisiak seemed unfazed by threats to his well being. Once, after testifying before the state about contamination of the Buffalo River, he and his wife were accosted at their store by three men who stole diamonds and threatened them both with a gun.
Wooster says that to Spisiak, the message was clear.
"Because it happened on the same day that he testified about the pollution in the river, he felt it was a double heist. It was to take the goods, but also to punish him for saying what he had to say," Wooster said.
Perhaps his finest hour, and a truly watershed moment for the region, came in 1966. That was when President Lyndon Johnson, at Stan's request, came to view the awful situation firsthand. Spisiak took him out on a boat into the lake.
Jedlicka recounts the meeting.
"Stan, never one to be subtle, had pulled up a bucket of industrial sludge from the bottom of the river, and he put it under the president's nose, and he gave him a large spoon to stir it with. And he said, 'Mr. President, this is what your Army Corp Of Engineers is dumping in Lake Erie,' " Jedlicka said.
"And the president's reply was, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of it,' and a few weeks later President Johnson signed an executive order prohibiting the dumping of environmental dredge spoils into Lake Erie. And that's an order that still exists today."
Stan Spisiak continued to be a champion of WNY water until his death in 1996. His legacy lives on in the renewed yet fragile health of the Buffalo River, Lake Erie and other waterways.
Wooster says that he is also a reminder that an individual can make a difference in protecting our Mother Earth.
"Water can't speak for itself, our rivers can't speak for themselves, our fish, all the things that we love and count on being there, doesn't have a voice, so we have to be that voice," Wooster said.
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