World War II transformed the Detroit area into the Arsenal of Democracy, churning out tanks and bombers during the 1940s to win the war.
It also resulted in the discharge of millions of gallons of oil and grease — enough to pollute the entire western basin of Lake Erie, said John Hartig, refuge manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The contamination was so prevalent the Rouge River caught fire in October 1969, shooting flames 50 feet into the air, he said.
But after a more than $1 billion cleanup, Hartig said, fish are flourishing in the Rouge River, bald eagles are nesting and the Detroit River is home to the nation's only international wildlife refuge.
"It's one of the single most dramatic ecological recovery stories in North America," Hartig said. "John Dingell helped lay the foundation for that."
Dingell sponsored landmark conservation legislation, including major parts of the Clean Air, Clean Water, National Environmental Policy and Endangered Species acts.
Dingell has parlayed his love for the outdoors into projects close to home, creating the Detroit River refuge and the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe.
The office of the congressman, a longtime sportsman and former park ranger, is adorned with antlers, fish and pictures of hunting — including an outing with President Bill Clinton. Dingell marvels at the turnaround of the Detroit River area, yet sets out each day planning how to get more land for the refuge.
"This is the thing that my dad and I used to talk about — how are we going to save the marsh land around Lake Erie and down at the southern end of the Detroit River?" he said
His father — a congressman from 1933-55 — was behind the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Act to preserve fisheries and wetlands.
"John Dingell has conservation in his roots," said Gildo Tori, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.
Tori credited Dingell's support for environmental restoration, including the duck stamp and the 1989 North American Wetlands Conservation Act, with the improvement in local duck hunting. Duck stamps are federal hunting licenses for migratory waterfowl that are also used as passes into federal wildlife refuges and help pay for buying wetlands.
"For a lot of duck hunters, the good old days are right now," Tori said.
Lana Pollack, a former state senator and past president of the Michigan Environmental Council, said Dingell has "had his hand and his mark in virtually every environmental bill that's passed in the last 50 some years — the entire modern environmental movement."
Pollack was among those environmentalists who pushed for the auto industry to move more quickly on fuel efficiency.
"We never doubted his commitment or his record on environmental conservation programs," she said, "because everything we use to protect the environment, he'd been either primary author or significant author. … The Great Lakes would still be burning if it weren't for those laws."