EPA has been in the news more than ever these days, as dramatically reducing its size, scope, power, and influence has been a major public thrust of the Trump Administration. This has made me think back to why and how the Environmental Protection Agency was created. I recently read a remarkably evocative column in the New York Times, ”Remembering a City Where the Smog Could Kill”. The writer, Jim Dwyer, did an amazing job of reawakening my memories of details of what my childhood environment in New York was like before EPA was created, and serves as a superb exposition of why EPA is so important to the country.
The early 1960’s were a turning point for environmental awareness. Two influential books were published that drew national attention to the environment: JFK’s Interior Secretary Stewart Udall wrote The Quiet Crisis, and Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Carson also wrote a three-part serialization of Silent Spring, which was published in 1962 in the New Yorker, and which was read by President Kennedy. Silent Spring also became a Book of the Month Club selection, but what really had the greatest impact was the 1962 airing of a “CBS Reports” television program about Carson and Silent Spring that was seen by an audience of 10-15 million viewers.
All this attention led to a report from the President’s Council of Scientific Advisers, Senate hearings, the birth of the environmental movement, and indirectly, the creation of EPA. Although Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring specifically to raise public awareness about the dangers posed by overuse of pesticides, it’s hard to think of any other book that had such extraordinary and rapid social and political impact.
The Founding of the EPA
The Environmental Protection Agency was established in December, 1970 to embody, within one federal agency, comprehensive research capabilities, environmental monitoring, standards development, regulatory rulemaking, and enforcement tools necessary to effect change and to improve and protect the environment for the American people. Most Federal departments and agencies are established by acts of Congress; EPA is relatively unique in that it was created by President Nixon using a Presidential Reorganization which pulled parts of several existing federal departments and agencies into one new organization. Since then, under the auspices of more than 50 federal statutes, EPA has continued to monitor, regulate, enforce, and undertake needed research in its efforts to create a healthier and more sustainable environment and protect public health.
How It All Started
In February 1970 in his Special Message to the Congress on Environmental Quality, President Nixon laid out a 37 point message regarding the environment and tasked committees and the Cabinet to propose approaches to improving environmental quality. EPA was not his only administrative environmental accomplishment; he also created NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, but public impatience, generated in large measure by Rachel Carson’s book, led Nixon to take the dramatic step of creating the Environment Protection Agency by Executive Order, directly from the White House. The new EPA was conceived of as an independent agency in the hopes that this would encourage political independence and encourage positive change.
How it Evolved
Throughout the following decades, EPA has continued to undertake its mission to monitor the environment, enforce environmental laws, and, in furtherance of its commitment to science-based decision making, conduct and publish environmental research, and assist and help fund state environmental activities, all to protect the health and safety of the American people. Despite the success of EPA, there are many challenges that still lie ahead. Climate change is a major issue that will likely be a challenge to the nation for years to come. As the threat of climate change continues, EPA has continued to examine its potential effects on public health and the natural environment.
In response to research results and the observation of predicted changes in precipitation and drought, wildfires, and severe storms, in addition to ocean acidification, coral reef dieoff and the dramatic melting of arctic ice, EPA announced the 2015 Clean Power Plan. This plan was designed to reduce carbon emissions and thus lessen the rate of climate change, but that program now appears to be on the Administration’s chopping block
Where we are now
The political climate is currently the biggest hurdle in the path of the EPA. A government agency is always under scrutiny, and will always have its critics, but such storms can usually be weathered if programs have the support of the general public and the Administration. With dramatic budget cuts and the rewriting of existing rules, regulations, and legislation being proposed by the White House, the EPA’s ability to move autonomously and effect change for the better may well be seriously compromised.