The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 50 Yields a Mixed Legacy

The memorable year of 1970, whose spring featured the first Earth Day, culminated in the creation of the nation’s first consolidated federal environmental agency. Officially born on December 2, 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overseen significant improvements in air and water quality in the last 50 years. But it has also zigged and zagged according to the philosophy of the President who appoints its chief.

Before President Richard Nixon created the EPA by an administrative order, programs now housed in the agency were scattered among the Department of Interior, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Pulling them together, Nixon’s advisors reasoned, would sharpen the federal government’s focus on pollution problems that had moved to the forefront of public concerns a half century ago.

The EPA got off to a promising start under its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus. Bolstered by the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act, the EPA developed a reputation for firm enforcement and scientific expertise. Yet Nixon himself tried to rein in the agency, starting a pattern of retreat and advance that has characterized it ever since.

Under President Obama, the EPA began regulating carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, but the Trump Administration has completely undone the Obama climate commitment. Biden has signaled he will take climate change seriously, rejoining the international Paris climate accord and directing the EPA to act on greenhouse gas emissions domestically.

Former EPA Region 5 acting administrator David Ullrich minces no words when describing what life would be like without the agency. “Without EPA,” Ullrich told FLOW’s Dave Dempsey, “rivers would burn, lakes would die, skies would foul, children would choke on air and be poisoned by water, raptors would not soar, fish would be gone, chemicals would pile up, and wetlands would disappear.”

Ullrich, who served in the EPA for more than 30 years in air and water programs, credits the agency with a major contribution to Great Lakes protection. “Because of EPA, the idea of protecting this global, freshwater treasure by linking U.S. and Canadian resources from cities, states, provinces, indigenous peoples, and federal governments into a cohesive force to protect the resource in a bipartisan, binational way became a reality. The genius of the vision to care for this massive ecosystem in an integrated, comprehensive, cohesive fashion rests with one man, Valdas V. Adamkus, former EPA Great Lakes administrator and later President of Lithuania.”

Presidential politics has characterized EPA policy over decades as environmental issues have become more polarized. The Trump administration’s EPA is now working to complete the last of nearly 100 administrative steps, including rollbacks of environmental standards, weakening controls on mercury emissions, shrinking federal protection of waterways and attacking vehicle fuel efficiency standards. President-Elect Biden has promised to undo many of the Trump measures.

Still, the promise of the EPA persists. Looking back two decades after he left the EPA, Ruckelshaus praised the mission of the agency. “At EPA, you worked for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself,” Ruckelshaus said.

Depending on whether you come from the environmental or business community, you may have different views on the EPA. A retired executive in charge of environmental compliance at a major Michigan chemical manufacturer, Mel Visser served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund. He faults the EPA for a lack of global vision, which he says results in wasteful efforts to squeeze the last drop of domestic pollution at exorbitant cost while ignoring the reality that environmental problems increasingly span national boundaries.

“Chemicals banned decades ago, such as PCBs, circle the globe to contaminate our waters, sediments, and fish,” he says. “The EPA turns a blind eye to chemicals from and conditions in other countries while spending billions cleaning up smidgeons of PCBs to no avail.”

Visser adds, “A federal regulatory enforcement agency cannot address global warming and other global pollution problems we face. It is time to Think Globally, Act Globally.”

Conversely, Jane Elder, a Michigan native who once helmed the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes program, observes that the EPA “marked the beginning of a new era of regulatory oversight and protection dedicated to environmental quality. As a young advocate, it took me a while to realize that an agency can only accomplish what the laws of the land empower it to do, but leadership makes a difference in flexing an agency’s power to serve the public interest.”

“Over the decades, different American presidents have directed the agency to lead, or retreat, based on their own agendas,” she observes. “But the framework of the agency remains an important safeguard for public health and the environment, needed now, more than ever.

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