Forty years ago today, on December 2, 1970, the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened its doors in downtown Washington, D.C., for the first time.
Growing public concern about the state of the environment, reinforced by the first Earth Day celebration in April 1970, had led President Richard M. Nixon to call on Congress to reorganize the federal government's approach to the environment by "pulling together into one agency a variety of research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities now scattered through several departments and agencies."
"Our national government today is not structured to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food," Nixon wrote in his special message to Congress, which he transmitted in July 1970. "Indeed, the present governmental structure for dealing with environmental pollution often defies effective and concerted action.
"Despite its complexity, for pollution control purposes the environment must be perceived as a single, interrelated system," Nixon continued. "Present assignments of departmental responsibilities do not reflect this interrelatedness."
Today, the EPA's mission is to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment--air, water and land--upon which life depends.
The EPA's effectiveness in achieving its mission is often heavily influenced by whoever occupies The White House and who the president has appointed as EPA administrator, but overall the EPA has been a powerful force for environmental protection, public health and improving the quality of life for all Americans during the past 40 years.
The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization, recently published a report [pdf] that details 10 ways the EPA has strengthened America over the past 40 years. Those accomplishments include:
- Banning the widespread use of DDT
- Removing the acid from acid rain
- Rethinking waste as materials (drawing energy from waste streams and reusing materials to get more value from them before their final disposal)
- Removing lead from gasoline--and from the air
- Clearing secondhand smoke (by classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer in humans, and banning smoking in indoor public spaces)
- Increasing vehicle efficiency and controlling emissions
- Working for environmental justice and a cleaner environment for all Americans
- Controlling toxic substances
- Achieving cleaner water
- Enforcing community right-to-know laws and improving public information about the chemicals
and/or pollutants to which Americans may be exposed in their daily lives
In addition to those achievements, the EPA has emerged as America's best hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. While Congress dithered over whether to pass a climate bill that would actually make a difference, the EPA declared six greenhouse gases a danger to public health and welfare and determined they were subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.
"Over its 40-year history, EPA has evolved into the world's preeminent environmental regulatory agency through a balanced, three-pronged strategy, combining excellent science, regulatory enforcement, and engagement of all stakeholders in developing new solutions to environmental problems," said Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson as he unveiled the report. "EPA's balanced, multifaceted structure and operation sets the standard around the world for applying strong science, as well as economic incentives and disincentives, to achieve positive environmental outcomes while allowing businesses to grow and prosper."
- EPA Declares Greenhouse Gases a Threat to Public Health and Environment
- EPA Gets Tough on Chesapeake Bay Cleanup
- New Fuel Economy Label Helps Consumers Make Informed Car-Buying Decisions
- EPA to Assess Environmental Impacts of BPA
- EPA Makes the HERO Database Public
- What is the History and Origin of the EPA Seal?