Environmental Protection Agency

The American conversation about protecting the environment began in the 1960s.  Rachel Carson had published her attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides, Silent Spring, in 1962.  Concern about air and water pollution had spread in the wake of disasters.  An offshore oil rig in California fouled beaches with millions of gallons of spilled oil. Near Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga River, choking with chemical contaminants, had spontaneously burst into flames.  Astronauts had begun photographing the Earth from space, heightening awareness that the Earth’s resources are finite.

In early 1970, as a result of heightened public concerns about deteriorating city air, natural areas littered with debris, and urban water supplies contaminated with dangerous impurities, President Richard Nixon presented the House and Senate a groundbreaking 37-point message on the environment.  These points included:
  • requesting four billion dollars for the improvement of water treatment facilities;
  • asking for national air quality standards and stringent guidelines to lower motor vehicle emissions;
  • launching federally-funded research to reduce automobile pollution;
  • ordering a clean-up of federal facilities that had fouled air and water;
  • seeking legislation to end the dumping of wastes into the Great Lakes;
  • proposing a tax on lead additives in gasoline;
  • forwarding to Congress a plan to tighten safeguards on the seaborne transportation of oil; and
  • approving a National Contingency Plan for the treatment of oil spills.

Around the same time, President Nixon also created a council in part 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.  This reorganization would permit response to environmental problems in a manner beyond the previous capability of government pollution control programs:

  • The EPA would have the capacity to do research on important pollutants irrespective of the media in which they appear, and on the impact of these pollutants on the total environment.
  • Both by itself and together with other agencies, the EPA would monitor the condition of the environment–biological as well as physical.
  • With these data, the EPA would be able to establish quantitative “environmental baselines”–critical for efforts to measure adequately the success or failure of pollution abatement efforts.
  • The EPA would be able–in concert with the states–to set and enforce standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants.
  • Industries seeking to minimize the adverse impact of their activities on the environment would be assured of consistent standards covering the full range of their waste disposal problems.
  • As states developed and expanded their own pollution control programs, they would be able to look to one agency to support their efforts with financial and technical assistance and training.

After conducting hearings during that summer, the House and Senate approved the proposal. The agency’s first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, took the oath of office on December 4, 1970.

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