US Environmental Protection Agency at 50 Years

Born in the dawning of elevated concerns about environmental pollution, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established on 2 December 1970. This article celebrates its achievements over the past 50 year and looks to the future.

This article looks at the US EPA as it celebrates its 50th anniversary and what has been achieved. It is important to reflect that many other countries have followed similar models for a national EPA, such as the Environment Agency in England, which itself will celebrate its 21-year anniversary in 2021.

Origin of the EPA
The original of the EPA came, in part, from the heightened awareness about protecting the environment, which began in the 1960s following the publication of the seminal book, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson with her attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Shortly, after there were concerns about the air and water pollution spread in the wake of disasters, such as the Cuyahoga River, which was so heavily polluted with oil and industrial waste and choked with chemical contaminants, that had spontaneously burst into flames many times between since the 1950.

Widespread air pollution most visibility in Los Angeles and around Pittsburgh and other industrialised cities was endangering the health of children, the elderly and those with lung or cardiovascular diseases.

It was on 22 April 1970 that the first Earth Day brought together more than 20 million Americans, which was one of the largest grassroot events, & placed environmental protection on the political agenda.

It was against this backdrop that President Richard Nixon presented the House and Senate a ground-breaking 37-point message on the environment including the creation of a council to consider how to organize federal government programs designed to reduce pollution, so that those programs could efficiently address the goals laid out in his message on the environment.

Following the council’s recommendations, the President sent to Congress a plan to consolidate many environmental responsibilities of the federal government under one agency, a new Environmental Protection Agency.

After conducting hearings during that summer, the House and Senate approved the proposal, which lead to President Richard Nixon signing the National Environmental Policy Act enabling the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The day that the first Administrator Ruckelshaus was confirmed by the Senate on 2 December 1970 is the traditional date we use as the birth of the agency, which was followed by his taking of the oath of office on 4 December 1970.

Early Years
Its early years were characterised by transfer and consolidation of 15 units from existing organizations, such as Air, Solid Waste, Radiological Health, Water Hygiene, and Pesticide Tolerance functions and personnel transferred from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, into the, now, independent agency, EPA with four major Government agencies involved. Such a birth is never easy, but it was accomplished.

The EPA has had many successes in the development and enforcement of regulatory frameworks, which have developed over its 50 years including its early achievements in air and water pollution, contaminated sites, and pesticide management:

As well as specific new legislation to address the early concerns about air pollution and pesticide use, such as:

Middle Years
Other early environmental issues were those related to contamination of land and aquifers by irresponsible hazardous waste disposal practices. At Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. and at a site south of Louisville, Ky. now known as the “Valley of the Drums,” thousands of barrels of chemical wastes rusted through and leaked contaminants into soil and groundwater.

It soon became obvious that the powers conferred by RCRA and the Clean Water Act were not sufficient to address this problem. Whereas, in previous years the word “Superfund,” had been applied to oil spill clean-up legislation, and the term was now carried over to the hazardous substance clean-up proposal that was finally enacted in December 1980 as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

In this phase of the EPA, there was significant integration of all of EPA’s environmental programs into a managed system with a multimedia perspective, to improve EPA’s internal accountability system, to decentralize programs and delegate additional responsibilities to Regions and States, to improve community involvement and public education, to strengthen EPA’s technical support and oversight roles, and to obtain measurable environmental results.

Later Years
By the 1980’s, the EPA was well established & political powers were seeking to reverse the growth of centralized Government and for providing regulatory relief. A tale of funding and staffing reductions, that would be repeated many times in the lifetime of the EPA.

There have been times when the EPA have been challenged over its decision making especially in relation to the management of the Superfund for clean-up of highly contaminated sites, such as the Love Canal in New York State and the explosion at the General Disposal Company’s hazardous waste dump in Santa Fe Springs, California.

Politics will have an influence on the priority of the EPA, which must follow the broader political agenda, such as the United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Its Future
Irrespective of these short-term impacts, the environment has been better protected and managed for having the US Environmental Protection Agency, there, to provide a voice for the environment and has influence environmental thinking for the good especially through initiatives, such as the successful Energy Star program, which seeks to the development and use of energy efficient products.

Over its 50-year life span, there have been significant contributions of the enforcement and compliance assurance programs, which has included:

I shall leave the final word to a quote from Susan Bodine, the Assistant Administrator of the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA):

“Over its 50-year history, EPA’s enforcement and compliance work has played an integral and important role in support of EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. This month we celebrate and recognize the contributions of our programs by highlighting some of the many successes over the last 50 years.”

Susan Bodine, the Assistant Administrator of the EPA OECA

I hope that this article has given you an insight into the origins of the US Environmental Protection Agency and its future, which may be determined by a change of White House administration on 20 January 2021 & the consequences of a very different world than when it was established on 2 December 1970.

If you have any questions on the US EPA or environmental protection, please leave a comment below.

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