Quantcast
Popular

Here's What America Would Look Like Without the EPA

By Brian Palmer

"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," said Richard Nixon, the founder of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in his 1970 State of the Union speech.

If only. While there was clearly a time when support for environmental regulations transcended politics, the GOP's broad support for EPA antagonist and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the agency he so maligns tells us that day has passed.

A collective memory lapse seems to have descended on lawmakers who seek to dismantle an agency that has transformed American life for the better. Since the EPA's founding in 1970, concentrations of common air pollutants, like sulfur dioxide, have dropped as much as 67 percent. The EPA helped mitigate catastrophes like acid rain, leaded gasoline and DDT. The agency bravely classified secondhand smoke as a known carcinogen in 1993, paving the way for successful litigation against the tobacco industry and an incredible reduction in U.S. smoking rates.

Perhaps the EPA has been too successful for its own good. In the same way that vaccines have given parents the luxury of forgetting what measles and whooping cough were like, the EPA has nearly wiped out the national memory of the contaminated environment of the 1960s. But things were so bad then that support for creating the agency and our major environmental statutes was virtually unanimous—nearly everyone recognized the need for an environmental regulator.

"There were debates about the best approach to deal with the problem, but opposition to the EPA was pretty minimal in the beginning," remembers A. James Barnes, who was with the agency at its founding and served as deputy administrator from 1985 to 1988. "Most legislators got themselves personally involved in how to improve the environment."

As we embark on a terrifying new period at the EPA, under a president who called the agency "a disgrace" and promised to abolish it, it's worth looking back at the way we were before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to our rescue.

Disasters Were the Norm

If you ask people of a certain age about the environmental problems of the 1960s, many describe a series of discrete disasters: the Cuyahoga River fire, the New York City Thanksgiving smog, the Santa Barbara oil spill. Those incidents were shocking indeed, but they weren't one-offs. In most cases they were merely the most salient in a series of increasingly grave problems of the same kind.

Take the New York City smog. "The smog" is New York shorthand for the choking, three-day air pollution event that smothered the city over Thanksgiving 1966. That weekend, the city experienced a heat inversion—a stationary layer of warm air that prevented the normal upward circulation of warm air from the ground. As a result, low-lying pollution simply hung over the city.

New York City veiled in smog in 1973.National Archives

"I was a student at Columbia Law School during the 1966 episode," said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney David Hawkins. "It was frightening, but while that is the best-known event, heavy pollution was an everyday fact of life those days. It was one of the things that motivated me to get a job at NRDC soon after I graduated."

As Hawkins points out, "the smog" wasn't really new. Thirteen years earlier, for six terrible days, a similar heat inversion spiked the sulfur dioxide content of New York's air from a tolerable 40 parts per billion to 860 parts per billion. (The current legal limit is 75 parts per billion.) At the time, American city dwellers hadn't yet settled on the term smog to describe the dark curtain of polluted air that was beginning to descend on them. Many newspapers referred to the disaster as "the smaze" and every day it accelerated the death of 25 to 30 people. Yet another multi-day smog event blanketed Gotham in 1963.

Next Page
Show Comments ()
Sponsored

Strange Days: Ex-Hurricane Ophelia Batters Ireland Under Orange Skies

By Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Ex-Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland hard with full hurricane-like fury on Monday, bringing powerful winds that caused widespread damage and power outages. At least two deaths have been reported from trees falling on cars, and The Irish Times said at least 360,000 ESB Networks customers lost power in Ireland because of the storm.

Keep reading... Show less
Runoff from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Lynn Betts / U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Drinking Water for Millions in Rural America Contaminated With Suspected Carcinogen

Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans in farm country are contaminated with a suspected cancer-causing chemical from fertilizer, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

The contaminant is nitrate, which gets into drinking water sources when chemical fertilizer or manure runs off poorly protected farm fields. Nitrate contaminates drinking water for more than 15 million people in 49 states, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture. Major farm states where the most people are at risk include California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Trump's Approval Rating on Hurricane Response Sinks 20 Points After Puerto Rico

President Trump's approval rating for overseeing the federal government's response to hurricanes fell by 20 points after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS revealed.

Trump's approval rating for responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma stood at 64 percent in mid-September. Just a month later, only 44 percent approve.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo taken by Hélio Madeiras, a firefighter in Portugal. Facebook

Wildfires Rage Through Portugal and Spain, Kill at Least 39

Wildfires have killed at least 39 people in Spain and Portugal since Sunday.

Hundreds of fires in both countries are being fanned by winds from Hurricane Ophelia in the north, currently barreling towards Ireland, and encouraged by extremely dry terrain from a scorching hot summer in the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Desperate for water, Puerto Ricans are resorting to any available sources, such as this stream in Cayey. Angel Valentin / NPR

Desperate Puerto Ricans Are Drinking Water From Hazardous Waste Sites

The ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee called for an investigation into the availability of potable water in Puerto Rico following reports Friday that residents are scrounging for water from hazardous waste sites.

After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed residents were trying to access water from three Superfund sites, and following a CNN story Friday featuring Puerto Ricans taking water from a fourth site, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) wrote a letter to acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke asking if she knew about the situation and calling the reports "beyond disturbing."

Keep reading... Show less
Brant at Izembek Lagoon. Kristine Sowl / USFWS

Groups Slam Zinke's 'Backroom Deals' to Build Road Through Alaskan Wildlife Refuge

Ryan Zinke's Interior Department is working behind the scenes to build a controversial and long-contested road through the heart of Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, documents show.

The refuge was established more than 30 years ago to conserve wetlands and habitats for migrating birds, brown bears and salmon and other wildlife. 300,000 of its 315,000 acres has been designated as Wilderness in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
FAO / Giulio Piscitelli

On World Food Day, Pope Francis Says Link Between Climate Change and Hunger Is Undeniable

By Andrew McMaster

Speaking at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on World Food Day, Pope Francis addressed the need for governments around the world to acknowledge that climate change and migration were leading to increases in world hunger.

Francis received a standing ovation after a stirring speech in which he said all three issues were interrelated and require immediate attention.

Keep reading... Show less
The pallid bat is native to the western U.S., where the spread of white-nose syndrome is a threat. Ivan Kuzmin / Shutterstock

Why Are America's Bats Disappearing?

By John R. Platt

It's Friday evening in Pittsburgh, and the mosquitoes are out in force. One bites at my arm and I try to slap it away. Another takes the opportunity to land on my neck. I manage to shoo this one off before it tastes blood.

I'm at Carrie Furnaces, a massive historic ironworks on the banks of Pennsylvania's Monongahela River. Stories-tall rusting structures loom all around me, as do the occasional trees poking their way out of the ground. A tour guide, leading a group from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, tells me the soil here is full of heavy metals and other pollutants from the factory, which operated for nearly a century before closing in 1982.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox