The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is one of America's most controversial government agencies. Conceived during the heady days of the 1960s, when the environmental movement was still young, the EPA has emerged as a massive bureaucracy with a wide range of responsibilities. What exactly is the mission of the U.S. EPA, and how successful is it at protecting our environment?
The Early History of the EPA
In the years following World War II, America was the undisputed leader of the free world. Economic growth occurred at a blistering speed, and the postwar "baby boom" brought an expanding population into the era of suburbs, automobiles, freeways and television.
But this growth came at an alarming cost: Nuclear power, pollution from factories and cars, and the disappearance of farmland and forests were a concern to many citizens. And when scientist and author Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, she gave voice to millions of people who saw America's rich natural heritage vanishing right before their eyes.
Following the publication of Silent Spring, Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson joined many other politicians in adding environmental protection to their platforms. Even Republican Richard Nixon, after his 1969 inauguration, made considerable progress toward incorporating environmental awareness into his administration.
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, signed by Nixon in 1969, required environmental impact assessments for all large-scale federal projects, among other safeguards. Senator Gaylord Nelson called NEPA "the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history."
Earth Day and the EPA
Nixon's environmental agenda enjoyed broad political appeal, and throughout 1970, Nixon continued working on environmental issues, even during the national debate over the Vietnam War and other divisive issues.
In April of 1970, the first celebration of Earth Day took place on a glorious spring day. Millions of Americans throughout the country took part in events like parades, concerts and "teach-ins" devoted to the natural world and our role in preserving it.
It was in this spirit that the Nixon administration created the capstone of its environmental agenda: a federal agency devoted exclusively to protecting nature from the ravages of pollution, overpopulation and other threats.
This new agency, to be called the Environmental Protection Agency, was created out of dozens of other federal agencies like the Agriculture Department, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. And on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was born.
The Mission of the EPAIn establishing the US EPA, Nixon determined that the EPA's mission should include the following:
- Establish and enforce existing environmental protection standards
- Conduct environmental research
- Provide assistance to others combating environmental pollution
- Assist the President's Council on Environmental Quality in creating new environmental protection policies
- Clean Air Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Toxic Substances Control Act
- Wilderness Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Superfund Act
Among the best-known EPA programs are the Energy Star program that encourages energy savings in consumer products, the EPA MPG fuel efficiency ratings, and the WaterSense program that promotes low-flow and other water-saving features in plumbing fixtures and irrigation equipment.
The EPA: No Stranger to Controversy
Since its inception, the EPA's place in America's regulatory environment has been controversial. Shortly after it was created, the agency rejected Union Carbide's proposed schedule for complying with air quality standards at an Ohio factory. Union Carbide responded by threatening to layoff hundreds of workers. Director William Ruckelshaus was able to forge a compromise deal that saved jobs while also reducing the factory's emissions by 70 percent.
Other EPA directors have been markedly less effective. Anne Gorsuch, appointed by Ronald Reagan, embarked on a campaign to reduce the size and the effectiveness of the EPA. Gorsuch slashed agency staff and budget, hobbled enforcement action against polluters, relaxed pesticide standards, and hired personnel friendly to the industries they were purportedly regulating. A disastrous and wildly unpopular director, Gorsuch was replaced after just 22 months by a returning Ruckelshaus.
Controversy has continued to swirl around the EPA. Director Christine Todd Whitman resigned in 2003 over the anti-regulatory positions of the George W. Bush administration. Several years later, a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that some 40 percent of EPA scientists felt strong pressure to change, delay or otherwise alter data to support the politics of the Bush administration.
How Effective Is the EPA?
The effectiveness of the EPA at fulfilling its many tasks is largely a function of the presidential administration in office at any given time, and the support and the direction the agency is given by that administration. Under presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush, the EPA has at best muddled along without arousing too much criticism -- at other times, it has floundered miserably, finding itself the defendant in lawsuits that charge the agency with abandoning its duty to protect America's air, land and water.
Under other presidents, the EPA has succeeded in strengthening safeguards to protect human health and the environment. Under President Barack Obama and EPA director Lisa Jackson, the agency implemented a rule that requires coal-fired power plants to use the best-available technologies to reduce their emissions of mercury by a whopping 90 percent. (Mercury can cause neurological damage and death, especially in children.)
Predictably enough, the EPA's tough stance against mercury emissions was met with scorn from the energy industry. That, and the agency's other successes, have led some extremist political candidates to call for the agency's abolition. Yet despite of the agency's checkered past and its inconsistent track record, the EPA has been a powerful force for environmental protection, and the agency is the model for institutions like it worldwide. The fact that its name is frequently in the headlines is a testament to the EPA's profound influence in environmental affairs.