Origins of the EPA: People, Policy and Politics

The EPA opened its doors on December 2, 1970. It was, above all, a product of the people – of escalating popular pressure to do something about the environment. To do something different. And the EPA was different. For the first time, there was a single, overarching federal agency devoted to the environment. The EPA helped bring order to a wide array of existing efforts to protect the environment. It expanded the federal government’s ability to address emerging environmental issues. And it changed the power dynamics of pollution control. Over time, the agency would yield immense benefits to humans and their environment. 

But the shape that the EPA took – and in fact its very existence – was not inevitable. Revisiting the origins of the agency reminds us why the agency was created, what it was supposed to do (and not do), and how people, politicians and bureaucrats forged it.

Prior to the EPA, efforts to protect the environment were piecemeal. The federal government had virtually no role in pollution control before the 1940s. What existed was a patchwork of ineffective local and state efforts. 

The pollution crisis intensified after World War II. The post-war boom in economic growth and consumerism meant new suburbs and homes with amenities like air conditioning and televisions and two cars in the driveway. But that also meant more factories, more production, and more pollution. 

Who suffered the brunt of that pollution changed too. As more and more white Americans sought refuge in suburbs, it was people of color and the poor who remained in industrial urban centers that bore the growing burden of pollution. 

Environmental disasters, such as devastating smog in Los Angeles and severe pollution crises in cities such as Donora, Pennsylvania raised awareness about the deadly effects of air pollution. Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring helped Americans see how poisons could pass through ecological links to wildlife, workers, and consumers.

Membership at environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club grew rapidly. Labor unions, such as the United Auto Workers, rallied concern around air and water pollution inside and outside of factories. Coal miners protested the threats of mountaintop coal mining removal in Appalachia. 

As the pollution crisis worsened after World War II, the federal government slowly dipped its toe into attempts at pollution control. Beginning in 1948, federal clean water laws funded research and sanitation infrastructure. Eventually, both water and air pollution laws required states to set pollution standards. And these laws carved out a role for federal enforcement – in theory. However, implementation was slow or unworkable. Extreme deference to states on enforcement meant that little happened. Attempts to solve interstate pollution issues also flopped. By the late 1960s, the federal government’s pollution control efforts appeared to be a failure.

In April 1970, twenty million people gathered for a series of teach-ins, speeches, and marches in what became the largest demonstration in U.S. history: Earth Day. Congress took notice. It bolstered efforts of politicians concerned about the environment and put pressure on those who did not. 

In November of 1968, the Republican politician Richard Nixon fell squarely in the latter group. He had just been elected president, but had only won by a narrow plurality. Nixon had little interest in environmental problems, but he believed it would be a salient, bipartisan issue in the 1972 presidential election. He looked to outdo Democrats on the environment, not cede the issue to them.

At the same time, legislators began pushing for national laws that would include uniform standards and stronger regulations. And by 1969, calls to take on the “environment” as an integrated policy framework yielded a striking new law: the National Environmental Policy Act. The act created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to advise the White House, and a process for evaluating federal projects. It also promoted a national policy of “enjoyable harmony between man and his environment,” signalling for the first time a holistic, aspirational approach to the environmental crisis.   

But there was still no single agency that had the scope and capacity to advance such an aspiration. The CEQ was a small, primarily advisory group. Natural resource management was mainly split between the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture. And the small pollution and radiation programs were scattered throughout various departments like Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). 

Nixon did not have a strong interest in the environment, but he was interested in reorganizing the federal government, along the lines of private business, to make it more efficient. In 1969, Nixon formed the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization. It was better known as the Ash Council after its head, the industrialist Roy Ash. Together, they identified the environment as a key target for reorganization. 

Ever since the New Deal and World War II expanded the scope and bureaucracy of the federal government, there had been calls to reorganize it. As early as 1948, the Hoover Commission (named after former president Herbert Hoover who led it) recommended putting all natural resource and pollution functions in the Department of Interior. Similar suggestions followed from other commissions that convened to consider how best to organize executive branch agencies. But for decades, there was little Congressional or public support for such a rearrangement.

The strong public interest in the environment in the 1960s changed that. The public and many members of Congress saw the need for the federal government to take a comprehensive approach to the “environment” – meaning both human environmental health and ecological health. But while public concern about the environment spurred the federal government to act, the debate about what this action would look like largely took place out of sight. 

Nixon favored the creation of one department that combined all natural resource and pollution functions – just like the earlier Hoover Commission. He directed the Ash Council to draw up plans for such a department. But the Ash Council staff who were charged with hammering out the plans came to a different conclusion: They believed that the goal of natural resource development would trump environmental protection if these two functions were combined in the same agency. (By “environmental” they meant things related to both human public health and to ecological health. Pollution, their main focus, could damage both). As a result, they recommended an independent environmental protection agency.

Roy Ash rejected this recommendation, which went against his grand plan to create four highly efficient “super-departments,” including one Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Other White House staff favored combining these functions into one department as a way to “balance” the conflicting goals of resource development and pollution control.

Ash’s initial proposal to create a combined natural resources and environmental protection department was met with many objections from existing department heads. While specific criticisms varied, the common denominator was a belief that diverse and conflicting programs housed in one large department could not be integrated effectively. 

The stalemate gave way when HEW joined the CEQ to support the creation of an independent environmental protection agency. HEW was the home of public health programs in the federal government as well as most of the federal pollution programs. The department had initially balked at ceding its pollution programs, which it saw as a subset of public health. But HEW administrators feared that the growing pollution problems would overwhelm HEW. 

Given the fierce opposition to the creation of a super-department, Roy Ash withdrew that recommendation and backed the plan that his staff, and now the CEQ and HEW, had recommended for an independent agency dedicated to pollution and environmental health. 

On April 29, 1970, the Ash Council sent an official memo to President Nixon recommending that key anti-pollution programs be merged into an Environmental Protection Administration, a new independent agency. It laid out two key rationales for the new agency: 1) There was a need to consider environmental protection in a unified way; 2) There should be a separate agency overseeing standard setting for other agencies so that the interests of those other agencies do not affect the standards. The key functions of the new agency would be: scientific research, standard setting; monitoring, and enforcement.

While the Ash Council’s official recommendation was not in line with the president’s initial inclination, he accepted it in part because he would receive credit for an unmistakable environmental achievement. On July 9, 1970, President Nixon submitted “Reorganization Plan Number 3” to Congress, which called for the creation of a “strong, independent agency” with a “broad mandate” to control pollution. 

A Democratically led Congress had the option to reject the plan. But Congress greeted the proposal with widespread, bipartisan support. With few objections, the plan went into effect by law in September, 1970.

On December 2nd, the EPA opened its doors. Two days later, Ruckelshaus was sworn in as administrator. Ruckelshaus had been a legislator and was working as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. His appointment signaled that the administration wanted an effective manager and assertive enforcer for the new agency.

The EPA would change and grow (and at times, shrink) in the following decades. But its origins remain significant for several reasons.

First, the widespread, bipartisan support for environmental protection led politicians to push for aggressive institutional reforms, even when those politicians, like Nixon, were not personally enthusiastic about the environment. It is not likely that the EPA could be created today, given the extreme polarization of the parties and the strong rightward shift of the Republican Party. This is despite the fact that the agency’s key functions – protecting clean air, water and land – are very popular with the public.

Second, the general purpose, scope and functions of the agency are clear in the deliberations and documents that went into the creation of the agency. Because the White House created the agency and Congress basically rubber stamped it, the EPA did not get some of the more explicit mission statements (called “organic acts”) that come with a Congressionally-created institution. Still, it is clear from the Nixon Administration’s plan how the agency was supposed to work and why. 

Plans for the agency made it clear that the EPA was supposed to have the scientific capacity to set standards and respond to new, unforeseen, threats to the environment and human health. It was also intended to have the capacity to monitor compliance with and ensure enforcement of standards. Above all, the EPA was clearly supposed to be focused on environmental protection – meaning both human health and ecological health – not a balancing of resource development and environmental protection. That formulation had been explicitly rejected. 

That is not to say that the agency was directed to completely ignore economic considerations. Only that it was clearly not intended to be the EPA’s job to figure out that balance within the agency. The balance, instead, came from having an agency devoted to environmental protection that would serve to balance out other agencies in the executive branch.

Finally, for all of the internal bureaucratic politics surrounding the agency’s creation, its genesis is firmly rooted in popular demand for federal action on the environment. Without that, it is likely that pollution control and other environmental protection programs would have remained scattered throughout the federal bureaucracy and ineffectively enforced. The new agency signaled a changing power dynamic both within the federal government, where environmental protection would now have a champion, and in the federalist system, where the federal government was asserting a stronger position over states.

The new agency’s fundamentally different power dynamic was further solidified with the passage of a raft of environmental legislation in the next few years that gave the EPA strong legal power to set and enforce standards. The first of these, the Clean Air Act of 1970, was passed just weeks after the creation of the agency. It charged the EPA administrator with developing national air quality standards. And it carved out a strong, straightforward role for the EPA to enforce regulations if state enforcement was inadequate.

The agency that emerged in 1971 was something totally different. It was envisioned as an agency that would use science to set national standards, to incorporate new science, and to respond to new environmental issues. And it was envisioned as an agency that would fix the problem of ineffective enforcement that had plagued environmental regulations for 100 years. Now there would be an agency with both the capacity and willingness to take on powerful industries. In addition, as a single, overarching, federal environmental agency, it had the ability to integrate pollution programs across media and geographic areas. Also, as a single agency, it could serve as a focal point for public concerns about the environment. So just as the new agency could better monitor polluting industries, the public could better monitor the federal government’s environmental protection efforts.

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