Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
The EPA, or the Environmental Protection Agency, has appeared a lot in the news lately. During the final months of President Trump’s campaign, he made the alarming declaration of his intent to appoint a vocal climate change denier as head of the agency and threatened to cut all funding. In the weeks following his inauguration, he placed a freeze on hires and grants and suggested that in the future, studies conducted by the EPA would be subject to review by member’s of Trump’s cabinet prior to publication. In the headlines more recently was the administration’s announcement that it may try to shut down the enforcement branch of the EPA, and the White House’s instructions that reduced the number of staffers on the EPA’s climate change team allowed to attend an upcoming environmental conference in Anchorage, Alaska.
But what exactly is the EPA? Who established it, when, and for what reason? What kind of role does it have today? In order to understand the significance of current headlines, it’s important to have at least a rough understanding of answers to these questions.
The EPA was founded in 1970, just months following one of the largest protests recorded in the country’s history to that date: the nation’s first Earth Day. Over 20 million people had attended nation-wide. The public was making their desire for change clear, and both congress and then-President Nixon heard them loud and clear.
Mind you, change was a long time coming. The country had been turning a blind eye to industrial pollution for the majority of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine the air and water quality (or lack thereof) that existed in the 1960’s. To put things in perspective, Lake Eerie had just been declared dead, rivers were catching fire in Ohio and Virginia, and residents of Claremont, California would have been unable to see the mountains on an average day. “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s famous attack on the chemical industry, particularly the insecticide DDT, had sparked a movement which culminated in 1970, with the aforementioned Earth Day march, and the creation of the EPA.
Right away, William Ruckleshaus, Nixon’s appointee for head of the EPA had ambitious plans for the agency, and wasn’t afraid to enforce them. The first two years of the agency saw the passage of a ban on DDT, as well as two of the most ambitious pieces of environmental legislation in the country’s history-- the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act.
To give you an example of just how ambitious these acts were, the Clean Water Act called for an end to all pollution to the nation’s navigable waterways by the year 1985. That’s right-- all.
The speed of government action in those early years of the EPA may seem enviable today, in a political climate of stagnation with respect to environmental issues. However, it’s important to keep two things in mind when comparing today’s era with then.
(1) Everything changed during the Reagan Era. Following the EPA’s brief heyday, the 1980s saw a movement towards deregulation, in which business lobby’s gained strength and argued that the EPA’s regulations were strangling the economy. We still see the legacy of this attitude today.
(2) Environmental Issues got a whole lot more complicated in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s important to understand that in the 1970s, pollution was seen as a problem that could be easily remedied with enough funding, public support and hard work. This is reflected in the ambition of the early EPA policies. Pollution was a tangible issue, literally. You could see, smell, and feel the oil clogging the riverways and the smog over Los Angeles. While we still have pollution concerns today, global warming makes addressing environmental concerns more difficult. While you might notice weird weather patterns, it’s not something that a layperson can easily identify in the immediate environment. We can’t see or smell the rising concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere, and many people are unsure of the timescale on which global warming will proceed.
Also important is that the “bad guy” causing the environmental damage is no longer totally clear. In the 1970s, it was all about regulating industry and technology. Today, we’re realizing that the middle and upper class-- many of us-- may need to change our lifestyles entirely.
Despite the changes in our understanding of current environmental issues, the EPA still serves an important role. They are the major reason why we can (mostly) see Mount Baldy. They also address climate change by contributing to current research, conducting economic analyses on current policies, and by working to develop greenhouse gas regulations.
The EPA is the legacy of public backlash against a government who was deaf to public concern.
Today, once again, it is the public’s duty to resist a similar deafness, but this time so that the EPA can stay alive.
Note: For much of this knowledge I would like to give credit to Professor Tyson in the Policy Department at Scripps College, with whom I am taking Environmental Policy in the US this semester.