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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.

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