The US EPA: A Retrospective

Donald Trump has made a number of controversial decisions since assuming the office of the President of the United States just a week and a half ago. Among them are the troubling actions he’s taken against The Environmental Protection Agency: censoring its social media, freezing its pending operations, and deleting its climate change web pages. Additionally, he has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Pruitt, a climate change skeptic and 14-time petitioner against the EPA, advocates a regulatory approach he calls “cooperative federalism.” While some may rejoice at Pruitt’s affirmation of the founding fathers’ vision for shared governance between the states and the federal government, others fear that his motto shows a willingness—even eagerness—to roll back EPA regulations in favor of leaving pollution control largely up to the states. The question is, can states be trusted to protect the environment absent strong federal oversight?

Pruitt speaking at the 2014 ALEC Annual Meeting

Our history suggests that such a faith may not be such a good idea. Let’s not forget why the EPA was created in the first place: pollution was out of control. Cities like Los Angeles and New York were choked with deadly smog for much of the year; rivers like the Cuyahoga were so contaminated that they periodically caught on fire. This is because states were unfit to protect the environment by themselves. They did not possess the financial and technical resources needed to control pollution. They were worried that businesses would relocate to another state if they tried to impose regulations. They were susceptible to industry bullying, and they lacked the power to enforce the regulations that did exist.  


The public identified this, and responded by pressuring the federal government to intervene. An environmental movement emerged, gained momentum throughout the ‘60s and reached its apex on April 22, 1970, when 20 million people took to the streets during the first Earth Day demonstration. In response, then President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency to, “make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food.”

Former Maine Sen. Ed Muskie, outspoken environmental advocate, addressing an Earth Day crowd.

The aim was to bring the federal government’s hitherto scattered and neglected environmental responsibilities under one protective roof. Nixon recognized the environment as “a single, interrelated system,” and pollutants as being part of an “ecological chain” in which many interactions and changes in form occur. The existing approach to pollution control—which isolated pollutants by type—was not reflective of these realities. So, in an act of laudable bureaucratic consolidation, Nixon reassigned a diverse set of tasks from over a dozen different government entities to the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency under Reorganization Plan Number 3.


Starting out, the EPA undertook important, if unglamorous work: sewage dumping curtailment, noise pollution control, effluent discharge management. One of its first major, tone-setting acts happened on Jan. 9, 1971 when EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus rejected chemical company Union Carbide’s proposed timeline for reducing sulfur dioxide emissions at its Marietta, Ohio plant. The rejection prompted Union Carbide to threaten laying off 625 of its workers, raising concerns about the effect of regulation on business. Thankfully, a compromise was reached that preserved both the workers’ jobs and a workable emissions reduction schedule. Less than a year and a half later, the fully employed Marietta plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions had been reduced by an impressive 72%.


June 14, 1972 marks another early landmark in EPA history: the day DDT was banned. Beginning with Rachel Carson’s publication of “Silent Spring” a decade earlier, there had been much debate over the safety of DDT, which effectively controlled pests yet raised concerns about diminishing bee populations, thinning eggshells of certain bird species, and human health risks ranging from infertility to cancer. With Ruckelshaus’ decision to prohibit DDT application in the United States, the EPA signaled to the public and the business community alike that it was willing to prioritize human and environmental health over the economy were the two to come into conflict.

newspaper clipping announcing the DDT Ban.

Throughout the 1970s, the EPA gave effect to key pieces of environmental legislation passed by Congress. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was used to set national ambient air quality standards, and spur the development of the catalytic converter—actions that prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and 18 million cases of respiratory illness within the Act’s first 20 years. The 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act—commonly known as the Clean Water Act—made it illegal to discharge pollutants into navigable waters without a permit, doubling the amount of water meeting quality goals. And the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, which gave the EPA cradle-to-grave oversight of solid wastes, helped detoxify 18 million acres of contaminated lands. Other environmental laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Act Amendments of 1977 further strengthened air, land, water, and human health throughout the United States.


Then, in 1978, an environmental disaster at Love Canal drew nationwide attention when it was found that nearly 1,000 families were being exposed to deadly amounts of chemicals from an aging waste dump in the New York suburb. After initially dragging its feet (at one point residents actually took EPA officials hostage to force the issue), the Carter Administration, acting on the recommendation of the EPA, declared Love Canal a federal health emergency and relocated its residents. Moreover, the The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—commonly known as Superfund—was enacted on December 11, 1980 to identify and clean up similarly contaminated sites throughout the U.S. Since its inception, the Superfund program has restored 400 of the most hazardous waste sites in the country, including Love Canal itself.


The new decade brought with it new environmental problems. The March 1979 partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island renewed concerns over the safety of nuclear energy, prompting increased regulation and oversight of nuclear facilities in the ‘80s. The decision to store PCB-contaminated soil in the predominantly poor, black Warren County of North Carolina raised questions about race and class equity, sparked protests, and gave birth to the Environmental Justice movement. In the spring of 1985, a massive hole was discovered in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, threatening to let in potentially catastrophic levels of UV radiation. In response, Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol,  and the EPA took aggressive action to curtail ozone-depleting chemicals such as halons and CFCs. Since then, over 98% of ozone-depleting substances have been phased out, saving The U.S. both money and lives.  

Local children in Niagara Falls, New York, protest toxic contamination of Love Canal, as seen in "American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire."
Love Canal residents, led by children, marching to demand evacuation.

Next were the ‘90s, which were characterized by novel approaches to pollution control. The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, passed in the aftermath of the 11 million gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill, sought to reduce the amount of pollution generated in the first place rather than trying to deal with it after the fact. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 turned the right to pollute into a commodity by instructing the EPA to create a marketplace in which power plants could buy and sell permits for pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. On June 17, 1992 the EPA and the Department of Energy launched the Energy Star program, which uses cost savings incentives to promote energy efficient products and practices for the purpose of reducing electricity consumption. During that same month, the international community came together for the first time to address global warming at the Rio Earth Summit, where over 150 countries pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


In the 21st century, the EPA has continued its work to protect human health and the environment, and they’ve been successful. Since 1970, the six criteria air pollutants—particles, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide— have dropped an average of 70 percent, improving and saving millions of lives and $22 trillion in health costs. Water quality has also improved dramatically, with 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants being prevented from entering waterways annually, and 550 water bodies being restored since 2009 alone. EPA’s phase out of leaded gasoline has drastically reduced unsafe levels of lead in children, from 88 percent in the late 1970s to less than 1 percent today. And the Endangered Species Act has enjoyed a 99 percent success rate, saving hundreds of species from extinction and protecting thousands more. This is all while GDP rose 243 percent, demonstrating that environmental protection and economic prosperity can function together in harmony.

EPA infographic displaying the positive outcomes of the Clean Air Act.

The EPA has a lot left to do. The people of Flint, Michigan, along with six million other Americans are still without safe drinking water. Air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths per year in the U.S. even today. There are well over 1,000 Superfund sites left to be dealt with. And we have yet to establish a legally binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (The Clean Power Plan, which would require power plants to reduce emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, is currently under court review.)


But the solution to these problems is to strengthen, not weaken the EPA. A healthy environment requires a protector—one with a proper staff, ample resources, and the freedom to do their job. Instead of banning its social media updates and removing its climate change webpage, we should be encouraging the EPA to communicate with the public about pressing environmental issues. Rather than freezing its grants and contracts, we should be supporting the EPA’s efforts to staff and fund crucial work. And far from tying up its plans in the courts, we should be clearing the way for the EPA to help combat climate change. Mr. Pruitt in particular, and the Trump Administration in general, appear at odds with this vision and mission of the EPA; one that is often maligned, yet has has proven itself invaluable to both the strength of our economy and the health and welfare our citizens. 


[photos used not the property of the University of Redlands nor the Redlands Bulldog]