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The History of Environmental Protection Agency

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The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent agency proposed to the Senate and House of Representatives by President Richard Nixon on July 9, 1970 via the signing of Reorganization Plan No. 3. In his message to Congress explaining his reasoning behind the proposal, President Nixon stated that the national government was ‘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 proposed ‘pulling together into one agency a variety of research, monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities now scattered through several departments and agencies.’ The terms of Reorganization Plan No. 3 state that the Environmental Protection Agency would be created from those various departments and agencies with the purpose of having a single, centralized agency whose purpose was to protect human health and the environment. It is supposed to ensure that all Americans have clean air, land, and water. The EPA would attempt to do this by developing and enforcing regulations, giving grants, researching issues, and educating the American people about environmental matters. Before the EPA was created, the federal government had no jurisdiction over pollutants in the environment.

The EPA does not manage some issues that seem like they ought to be in charge of. The Endangered Species Act for example is primarily managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Another example is the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management is in charge of all the nuclear waste.

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On June 22, 1969 there was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caused by decades of industrial waste pollution resulting in an oil slick on the surface of the river that ignited because of a spark from a passing rail car. Damages from this fire were estimated to be worth around $50,000. This was not the first or largest fire on the river, but it was the most famous instance because it received a ton of media coverage and was featured in an astronomically popular issue of Time magazine which primarily featured coverage of the successful Apollo 11 Moon landing. The American public began to gain more interest in protecting the planet from pollution. A 1970 poll concluded that more than 50% of Americans viewed pollution as a top issue. On April 22, 1970 millions of Americans participated in the first ever “Earth Day” demonstrations across the country, drawing more attention to environmental problems. The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped initiate the creation of the EPA as well as many other attempts to control the pollution in waterways throughout the country such as the Clean Water Act effective October 18, 1972. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada also was also created in 1972 with the goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the entire Great Lakes Basin ecosystem which is home to over 37 million people.

On December 2, 1970 President Nixon appointed Indiana Republican William D. Ruckelshaus as the first Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ruckelshaus had served as Deputy Attorney General of Indiana from 1960-1965 where he was assigned to the Indiana Board of Health. He counseled the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board and obtained court orders prohibiting industries and municipalities from heavy pollution of the water supply in the state of Indiana. Ruckelshaus had helped draft the 1961 Indiana Air Pollution Act. In 1967, Ruckelshaus won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives and served as Majority Leader of the House until President Nixon appointed him as Assistant Attorney General in 1969. He would also oversee the implementation of the Clean Air Act of 1970. He would serve as Assistant Attorney General until his appointment as the first Administrator of the EPA. As EPA Administrator, Ruckelshaus would lay the foundations for the agency by hiring its leaders and defining its mission.

In April of 1973, the Watergate scandal in which President Richard Nixon and his administration were involved in was in full effect. The Watergate scandal forced the Nixon Administration to rearrange administration posts due to the resignation of Harry Robbins Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff) and John Ehrlichman (Domestic Affairs Advisor). William Ruckelshaus’s reputation of integrity and successful administration led to him being appointed Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Robert W. Fri would take over for a brief period as the Administrator of the EPA before Republican Russel E. Train was appointed to be the official 2nd Administrator of the EPA by the sinking Nixon Administration. Russel E. Train had served as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality where his job was to directly advise Nixon on his environmental policies prior to his appointment to the EPA.

While Russel E. Train was EPA Administrator, he led during the approval of the catalytic converter (exhaust emission control device) to reduce automobile emission reductions as per the Clean Air Act. Russel E. Train also helped implement the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

The TSCA regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals. All existing chemicals were to be deemed safe for use in 1976. Chemicals that posed an “unreasonable risk to health or the environment” such as PCBs, lead, mercury and radon were to be highly regulated. The TSCA does not seperate chemicals into categories of Toxic and Non-Toxic, rather it keeps an inventory of existing chemicals and prohibits the manufacture or importation of chemicals that are not on the TSCA Inventory, although it has many exceptions. The implementation of TSCA has faced many challenges and has been heavily criticised. The large amount of chemicals in the US market and high costs associated with assessing the impacts of these chemicals on human health and the environment has been a difficult challenge. There were 62,000 chemicals listed in the original TSCA Inventory of Chemical Substances in 1976. Since then, that number has climbed to about 84,000. Of these 84,000 chemicals, only about 200 have been extensively tested for their effects on the environment. The TSCA gives authority to the EPA to conduct its own research into these chemicals and their effects, but the EPA has concluded that doing their own testing is too costly.

When Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976, he appointed Douglas M. Costle to serve as the 3rd Administrator of the EPA. Costle was a democrat from California who had headed the study which recommended the creation of the EPA back in 1970. While Costle was Administrator of the EPA, he cooperated with NATO, the USSR, and China to discuss environmental concerns and establish protocols. Costle would serve as Adminstrator of the EPA until 1981 when Ronald Reagan became President.

Reagan decided to appoint Colorado Republican Anne Gorsuch Burford as the 4th Administrator of the EPA after she served as a member of President-elect Reagan’s Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. While Burford was Administator of the EPA, she downsized the agency significantly and cut the budget by 22%. She thought that the EPA was regulating businesses far too much and made changes to the Clean Air Act regulations to allow for the spraying of restricted-use pesticides. She hired staff from the industries that the EPA was supposed to be regulating. An oil refinery from New Mexico called the Thiftway Company asked Burford to excuse them from compliance with the lead limit in their gasoline, she complied because ‘the company faced financial ruin if it could not obtain quick relief from the regulations’. Environmentalists accused her of trying to dismantle the agency. Congress started investigating Burford in 1982 because a 1.6 billion dollar toxic waste Superfund was mishandled by the EPA. At that point, Anne Gorsuch Burford resigned her post because of pressure coming from the media. She is the mother of Neil Gorsuch.

In 1983, the EPA was in a crisis over mass resignations. President Reagan needed someone to take charge and revive the agency. William Ruckelshaus would be appointed to serve as EPA Administrator once again. Ruckelshaus filled the agency with competent people and won back public confidence in the agency, but decided to retire around the start of Reagan’s second term as President.

Lee M. Thomas would serve as the 6th Administator of the EPA until George H. W. Bush was elected.

Lee M. Thomas would lead the EPA in their efforts to indentify any impacts on the US from the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union. In the same year, congress would pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. This allowed the EPA to share data on toxic chemicals with the public.

In 1989, George H. W. Bush took office as President and appointed William K. Reilly as the 7th Administrator of the EPA. Prior to his appointment, Reilly was the President of World Wildlife Fund. Reilly was perhaps the best Administrator the EPA has ever had. Reilly crafted and secured passage of a new Clean Air bill, breaking a stalemate lasting over 10 years over the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act. This law created a way to cut sulfur dioxide pollion by 50% at a time when acid rain was a major issue. Under Reilly, the EPA rasied the amount of funds given to high-priority geographic areas such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf of Mexico by over 600 million dollars. That money would go towards restoring the health of those ecosystems. Reilly made pollution prevention his priority and negotiated with industries to reduce emissions, promote recycling, and reduce waste. The EPA achived record numbers in the amount of money generated by issuing fines.

Bill Clinton took office as President in 1993 and appointed Florida Democrat Carol Browner to serve as the 8th Administrator of the EPA. Browner was the head of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation before she was appointed. As EPA Administrator, Browner would successfully fight the efforts of the Republican Congress to amend the Clean Water Act and roll back some environmental regulations. Browner would secure an additional 750 million dollars of spending money for the EPA in 1995. The Brownsfields Program was started by Browner in 1995 and was highly successful in creating new jobs and funds to bring idle properties back into productive use in urban communities. In 1997, Browner convinced President Clinton to alter the Ambient Air Quality Standards in the Clean Air Act. The permissible levels of ground-level ozone that make up smog and the airborne matter that makes up soot were reduced. This was highly controvesial as there was little conclusive scientific research on the subject and would make industries spend a ton of money on something they thought did not provide them with any benefits. During her tenure, Browner attempted to fight global warming by giving the EPA the authority to regulate carbon emissions and air pollution caused by motor vehicles. Light trucks and sport utility vehicles now needed to meet the same emission standards of cars and required the sulfur content of gasoline to be reduced by 90%. Browner was extremely unpopular with conservatives in congress and industries such as heavy manufacturing, who throught she was stunting the growth of business and the economy. Carol Browner is the longest serving Administrator of the EPA (8 years)

George W. Bush became President in 2001 and appointed Republican Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman as the 9th Administrator of the EPA. Later that year, the EPA would publish a report on the expected effects of global warming in each state. President Bush dismissed this report.

Whitman would speak in New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks and assured the public that the city’s air was safe to breathe and their water was safe to drink. She was just saying this and had no actual evidence that it was true. After having multiple conflicts with the Bush administration, Christine Todd Whitman resigned on June 27, 2003.

President Bush replaced Whitman with Republican Governor of Utah Mike Leavitt. Leavitt was sworn in as the 10th Administrator of the EPA and implemented higher standards for diesel fuels, ozone, and other air pollutants. Leavitt helped develop a plan to clean up the Great Lakes. Leavitt and his EPA began the Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS) in the summer of 2004. This study was conducted in Duval County, Florida where there was a high concentration of pesticides. CHEERS would study 60 young children whose parents used pesticides frequently. CHEERS provided these families with compensation of up to $1,000 in order to collect and document information and take biological samples such as blood and urine from infants exposed to pesticides. On December 13, 2004 Leavitt was nominated by President Bush to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.

President Bush replaced Leavitt with long time EPA employee Stephen L. Johnson in 2005. He would serve as the 11th Administrator of the EPA. Johnson would cancel CHEERS after heavy criticism. The US Congress would pass a law with cooperation from Johnson that banned the EPA from funding intentional exposure research involving children or pregnant women. Johnson wanted to improve the fuel economy and blocked the efforts of 17 states to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. On February 29, 2008 four labor unions representing over 10,000 EPA employees published an open letter to Johnson that stated that he had ignored the EPA’s official Principles of Scientific Integrity. This led to four Senators calling for his resignation on July 29, 2008. Stephen L. Johnson did not resign and continued as Administrator of the EPA until Barack Obama won the Presidential election in 2008.

President Obama appointed New Jersey Democrat Lisa P. Jackson to serve as the 12th Administrator of the EPA. Jackson was a long time employee of the EPA and had served as the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection prior to her appointment as Administrator. As EPA Administrator, Jackson was tasked with dealing with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in which 210 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. She did this by allowing the use of Corexit. Corexit is an oil dispersant which breaks the oil down into tiny droplets and allows the oil to emulsify into the water instead of staying on the surface. In theory this allows the oil to be more rapidly degraded by bacteria and prevents accumulation on beaches. The use of Corexit was criticised because it is more toxic and less effective than other EPA approved dispersants. Later studies showed that the use of Corexit had massive effects on the food chain of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon explosion is considered the largest environmental disaster in US history. On December 27, 2012 Jackson announced she would be stepping down from her position as EPA Administrator because she believed the Obama administration would endlessly support the Keystone Oil Pipeline System, something she did not agree with.

On March 4, 2013 President Barack Obama nominated air quality expert Gina McCarthy to become the 13th Administrator of the EPA. This nomination seemed to confirm that Obama was serious about battling climate change. Some regarded McCarthy as an environmental extremist and it took until July 18 for the Senate to confirm McCarthy as the Administrator of the EPA. As Administrator of the EPA, McCarthy finalized the Clean Power Plan under the Clean Air Act, with the purpose of reducing coal use in accordance with the Paris Agreement. On March 17, 2016 McCarthy and the Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder were forced to testify before the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Rick Snyder apologized for the mistakes his government made but McCarthy insisted that she and the EPA had done nothing wrong. The EPA’s inspector general would conclude that the EPA had wrongfully delayed the issuing of an emergency order regarding the water in Flint later that year.

Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016 and nominated Oklahoma Republican Scott Pruitt to serve as the 14th Administrator of the EPA. Many science advocates and environmentalists voiced concerns about Pruitt’s nomination, but ultimately Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate to be the Administrator of the EPA on February 17, 2017. Scott Pruitt quickly forced the EPA to adopt a pro-business attitude and began to dismantle Obama’s environmental legacy. Pruitt fired many scientists and replaced them with industry representatives. On March 9, 2017 Scott Pruitt stated that he “would not agree that” carbon dioxide is ‘a primary contributor to the global warming that we see’ backing up his claim by stating that ‘measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.’ That statement was contradictory with the EPA’s public stance on their official website which states ‘Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change’. In August 2017, the Environmental Intergrity Project determined that the EPA was collecting 60% less money in environmental penalties than prior administrations. By December 2017, over 700 staff had left the EPA due to Pruitt’s actions and comments. An anonymous EPA official said that Pruitt and his top aides kept secret schedules and records to hide meetings with industry representatives, and destroyed the records which did not reflect well upon Pruitt. Legal experts say this could be considered a violation of federal law. At least 20 members of Congress called for Scott Pruitt’s resignation, with Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst saying Pruitt ‘is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C., and if the president wants to drain the swamp, he needs to take a look at his own cabinet.’ Donald Trump defended Scott Pruitt and his actions every step of the way. Scott Pruitt announced on July 5, 2018 that he would be resigning from the EPA following many scandals involving ethics and management.

On July 9, 2018 Deputy Administrator of the EPA Andrew R. Wheeler became the acting Administrator of the EPA after the resignation of Scott Pruitt. President Donald Trump nominated Wheeler to serve as the official 15th Administrator of the EPA and is still currently in charge of the EPA. Andrew R. Wheeler is a Republican from Ohio and worked for the EPA from 1991 to 1995. Wheeler was a lobbyist in the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm from 2009 to 2017. While he was a lobbyist, Wheeler lobbied against the Obama administration’s climate regulations and attempted to persuade the Energy Department to subsidize coal plants and industry. As EPA Administrator, Wheeler has argued in favor of a rule that would prohibit the EPA from using studies that do not make raw data publicly available. That rule is stupid because studies do not tend to make personal and confidential information available and becaise of that it would greatly limit the research available to the EPA. In March 2019, Wheeler said he did not believe climate change was an existential threat.


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