Moments in Memory: How Chattanooga cleaned up its act after being named the dirtiest city in America

Residents hold up signs during a news conference held by Lupton City residents to voice complaints about delays to clean up the the Lupton Mill site on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Residents asked the city to expedite the cleanup, citing pollution, rats and and mosquitoes among their complaints.
Residents hold up signs during a news conference held by Lupton City residents to voice complaints about delays to clean up the the Lupton Mill site on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Residents asked the city to expedite the cleanup, citing pollution, rats and and mosquitoes among their complaints.

J. Wayne Cropp was 25 years old and fresh out of Cumberland School of Law when he first worked with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Board in 1977. Two years later, he became the agency's director.

Over the next 11 years, Cropp worked at ground zero as Chattanooga went from the city with the dirtiest air in America to a national model for clean air. It is, many believe, the signature moment in the city's 180-year history.

"It seems like whenever somebody talks about the progress of Chattanooga and where we are today, it seems like almost everybody starts with "from dirtiest city in America," said Tom Glenn, chairman of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's just part of the talk about the transformation."

Cropp, now 66 with 40 years of work in all facets of environmental law and policy, remembers vividly what his hometown looked like on the day the rest of the country turned their eyes on Chattanooga.

"It was a toxic soup of pollution," said Cropp, an attorney with Baker Donaldson. "We were a dying community."


Cropp, like Glenn, believes cleaning Chattanooga's air is the turning point that led to what Chattanooga is today, but being named the dirtiest city in America didn't lead the news on March 4, 1969. Apollo 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the day before on a mission to test the lunar module that would land on the moon 139 days later. With America mobilized to put a man on the moon and a country watching black and white television, editors of both papers knew the story readers wanted.

The first reporting from both Chattanooga newspapers on Chattanooga becoming No. 1 for the wrong reason was straight-forward and utilized language and quotes from the federal study. Cropp would say in 1990 that the reporters covering the air pollution renaissance in the 1980s, the Times' Springer Gibson and Pat Wilcox and the News-Free Press' J.B. Collins and Bill Cooley, would be important to the movement to clean Chattanooga's air.

The 24-page morning Times (10 cents) carried a three-line banner headline across the front page hailing the launch of Apollo 9. Beneath it to the left across three of the seven columns of type, Chattanoogans got the bad news:

"Chattanooga Worst City in the Nation

In Particulate Air Pollution in 1961-65"

Apollo 9 and the air pollution list were two of 13 stories on the front page of the Times, including Fire and Police Commissioner James "Bookie" Turner supporting liquor by the drink and two Chattanooga legislators introducing a bill to establish a presidential primary in Tennessee.

The lead paragraph from the Times said, "Chattanooga's particulate air pollution is ranked the worst in the nation for the period of 1961-65 in an 1,800-page publication on Air Quality Criteria for Particulate Matter just released by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare."

The morning paper used the fourth paragraph of its story to provide readers a localized description of where the dangers of pollution were most severe. It read, "Furthermore, if you consider the sampling stations west of Missionary Ridge and south of the Tennessee River, where 88,000 Chattanoogans live, the average for 1968 was 187 micrograms." The level of "total suspended particles" in the area described was higher than Chattanooga's overall level of 180, which was more than twice the accepted standard of 80 micrograms.

The story includes Chattanooga being No. 2 on the list behind Los Angeles of cities with the worst chemical-based pollution and reported in paragraph 12 that, "All of this is important as the City Commission takes up again today, according to Mayor Bender's statement last week, the proposed new air pollution ordinance for Chattanooga."

Chattanooga Mayor A.L. "Chunk" Bender, who served from 1969-1971, was discussing the city's first local ordinance addressing air pollution that would be approved later that afternoon. The Chattanooga Air Pollution Control Board was created later in 1969.

The 34-page News-Free Press (10 cents) advanced the day's news on air pollution by leading its story with an update from the City Commission's late-morning meeting in which a new ordinance was being developed to place restrictions on particulates. The headline read, "City Pollution Bill May Be Tightened."

The News-Free Press did not mention the dirtiest cities list until the fifth paragraph of its story, but followed with, "The HEW said that concentrations of more than 80 micrograms may produce adverse health effects and concentrations in Chattanooga west of Missionary Ridge are more than twice the amount considered the maximum allowable and for the city as a whole the average is twice the maximum."

The News-Free Press also featured the colorful Turner's speech to the Jaycees, one of 19 stories on its front page. The story ran under the headline, "Turner Sees Marijuana Use Rising; Says Liquor by Drink 'Lesser Evil'." The newspaper put Sirhan Sirhan admitting to killing Sen. Robert Kennedy on its front after the Times had played the story inside the paper that morning. The News-Free Press sports section featured the legendary Riverside High School basketball team preparing for its first game in the region tournament. Riverside would go on to finish unbeaten and win its second straight state championship.


Cropp says the city faced three pollution issues that had to be addressed. The first was particulate matter - "basically dust and dirt in the air," said Cropp - which is the list on top of which Chattanooga landed. Secondly, air levels contained high levels of nitrogen dioxide, which came from cars and the old TNT plant. The TNT plant, which made munitions for the U.S. military, was located on the site where Volkswagen sits today. Finally, ground-level ozone pollution from chemical emissions – smog - was seriously above national standards. Ozone pollution, later monitored by the EPA, was not part of the 1969 report or the March 4 reporting.

Cropp says the labeling of the city galvanized the local effort to clean the air. It didn't help that CBS News' anchor Walter Cronkite allegedly called Chattanooga the "dirtiest city in America" on a 1971 national broadcast, something Cropp says is "an urban myth."

The pictures of Lookout Mountain resting above the pollution settling in the valley reinforced the need for stringent local air pollution standards and motivated local businesses to comply with the new standards, and the even tougher local and federal standards passed during the 1980s. The narrative of Chattanooga's air pollution includes the idea that the businesses causing the pollution left, but Cropp says that is not the case.

"The city had a lid on it because of a temperature inversion where the cool air would get trapped beneath the warmer air," said Cropp. "When the sun came up in the morning, it warmed up the sides of the mountain and trapped the pollution below. We had more iron foundries in Chattanooga than the rest of the state combined, and we had the TNT plant, textile mills and tanneries.

"I knew then what I hoped would happen, which is what has happened. I thought then that Chattanooga would still be a manufacturing town and we are, but like the rest of life, there are life cycles in industry and manufacturing. The foundry industry is mostly gone from Chattanooga and the rest of the country. But, we replaced it with other industry that provides thousands of manufacturing jobs and is clean.

"The idea that businesses just left is not true at all. These companies chose to come into compliance with local air pollution requirements backstopped by the EPA."

Chattanooga was placed on the dirty air list because of high levels of "suspended particulates," and it got off the list and met the federal standard in 1984. Once meeting the standard, the city had to comply for three consecutive years. In 1989, having both met the "suspended particulates" standard and the EPA standard for ozone pollution, Chattanooga was celebrating its new status. Cropp believes solving the air pollution issue was the first time the Chattanooga community understood what it could do together.

The Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992 and is the cornerstone of today's tourism industry in Hamilton County and the catalyst for downtown development that has moved from the river through downtown and towards Lookout Mountain.

Does Cropp believe the aquarium would have opened in 1992 if the air had not been cleaned?


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