In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted with industrial waste it Literally Caught Fire! The Potomac, Chicago, Delaware and Hudson rivers all stunk to high heaven with millions of gallons of industrial waste deposited every single day. Most cities dumped their sewage directly into rivers, with little or no treatment. Boston and Baltimore harbors were noxious dead zones.
Massive floating fish kills were a common sight.
Heavy choking smog was blocking the sun and sickening citizens in Los Angeles and New York City. Lake Erie’s oxygen content was so low it sustained precious little fish. Leaded paints and auto exhausts were at high enough levels they could cause birth defects. Industrial cities like St. Louis and Newark, with scores of belching smoke stacks, stank to the point of causing nausea and skin rashes in children.
I’m not painting some dystopian future landscape here. I was in grade school at the time and it was all real. Whether in the air, water or earth, we could not escape the fact we were destroying the very country we lived in. By 1970, there were few pollution deniers left [including in Congress!], as the evidence was widespread and undeniable.
Ecology had become a legitimate science and a topic of daily dinner table discussions.
The burgeoning environmental movement reminded people that our air, water and land resources were finite. In the 1960s, our industrial states were more worried about losing industries than about preventing pollution. It was clear the US needed a Federal environmental policy.
President Richard Nixon was at first reluctant to create a federal agency that set and enforced environmental laws. He had bigger fish to fry at the time, like the ongoing War in Vietnam. But by 1970, the Vietnam War no longer dominating headlines. Concerns about pollution became a new priority for the White House. With backlash from all directions, the message of outrage and concern was getting through to even Nixon.
The first Earth Day took place in April 1970 with support of both Republican and Democratic Senators.
In the end, Nixon created the EPA not because he himself shared those concerns, but the public and Congress obviously did. “It is literally now or never,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address. He signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which began a federal role in environmental protection by creating a new agency – the US EPA. It’s hard to imagine such overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for environmental protection in our current world of climate change denial, but it happened in 1970. After establishing the EPA, Nixon took little interest in its actual work, but he should have.
There are countless ways our world has changed for the better, thanks in part to the US EPA. Here are just a few:
The CLEAN AIR ACT of 1970 gave EPA the authority to regulate air pollutants like lead. Americans were dying every year from heart disease linked to lead poisoning and children were growing up with lower IQs. The levels of other air toxins like mercury, benzene, and arsenic have also been dramatically reduced.
The CLEAN WATER ACT of 1972 gave EPA the authority to set national regulations over municipal and industrial waste waters AND enforce them.
The Pesticide Control ACT of 1972 gave EPA authority to regulate pesticides. Before it banned the use of DDT, the insecticide was the most popular agricultural pesticide in the US. People had little notion of its dangers when they let their children in play in the spray, or that is was causing the extinction of the bald eagle.
The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act of 1976 required landfills to be lined and water leaching through them collected. Up through the 1960s, hazardous waste was disposed of like ordinary trash— in unlined landfills where toxins leached into groundwater; or even worse, in open dumps on factory land, where runoff from rusting barrels contaminated city drinking waters.
The Acid Rain Program reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air, which were raising the acidity levels of our lakes and killing fish populations.
The Asbestos Program provides resources on how to manage asbestos fibers used in fire proofing, which when inhaled causes a brutal form of lung cancer called asbestosis.
The SUPERFUND ACT of 1980 was started to clean up our greatest mistakes and the legacy of hazardous waste sites like Love Canal, NY and Times Beach, MO recovering clean up costs from the original polluters. Whether they know it or not, 1 in 6 Americans lives near a cleaned up Superfund site.
One could think the EPA has done its job, pollution is under control, America is clean and safe again. Time to deregulate the states and industries. It will save corporations billions and create jobs. Right? But as a student of history, one of the things I’ve learned is that human beings do not learn from their mistakes. Deregulation of corporations, with profit and not people as their bottom line, is a slippery slope America has already fallen down upon.