Oregon was born 50 years ago this week. Not the museum diorama of covered wagons and white missionaries, but the Oregon of modernity, a place that became a global model for protecting the environment while building its economy.
The birth of enlightened Oregon is marked to the exact minute: 9 pm on Nov. 21, 1962, when local television station KGW first aired the documentary Pollution in Paradise. For decades, industry in Oregon acted as if it had divine privilege to pollute in the name of jobs and profits. The documentary stunned Oregonians by showing how much damage these polluters—the "foul strangers in Oregon's paradise"—had done to the state's livability. The film tallied the cost of crops ruined by air pollution from metals plants, tourism soured by the wretched stink of pulp mills, and cities flushing raw sewage into the Willamette River.
The documentary was the inspiration of KGW program director Tom Dargan, who believed a TV station should be a force for change in its community. Today the film's style feels talky and dated. Industry executives, government officials and concerned scientists aren't interviewed so much as they're allowed to give speeches. But the film was courageous in its time. Cameraman Dick Althoff filmed dead fish and mills spewing wastes, and director Skeets McGrew paired footage of factory stacks' roiling smoke with portentous music.
The film's narration is lyric outrage. Pulp-mill wastes in rivers become "sluggish, foul-smelling masses of filth." Smog over Portland is the "murk of some filthy twilight in a shadow world." The Willamette courses with "wasted, bloated waters." KGW screened the documentary across the state so people with black-and-white TVs—that was almost everybody then—could see the pollution in lurid color. Citizens demanded action. Lawmakers who had been thwarted by industry lobbyists for years authorized the state to shut down scofflaw polluters.
Still, it would take another four years before Oregon had a governor with the guts to use that power. That was Tom McCall, then KGW's news commentator, who served as the film's reporter and lead writer. It's McCall's urgent voice that delivers the documentary's hammer-strike narration, and it was this film that launched his political career.
McCall became the state's important leader of the last century, and his sanctified environmental doctrines took shape while he helped make this film. He bore witness to the state's environmental crisis, and this rarely seen film shows us what inspired McCall to change Oregon forever.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: Pollution in Paradise screens as part of the 39th Northwest Filmmakers' Festival at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., 221-1156, nwfilm.org. 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 14. Free.