December 2nd will mark the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s reorganization of environmental programs into a single agency at EPA. Although there is perhaps more griping about EPA than any other government agency, we would suggest that it might also be one of the most successful. Rivers have stopped catching fire, for one thing.
Seriously, the list of accomplishments of EPA over the past 40 years is impressive. Lead has been removed from gasoline, acid removed from rain, CFCs removed from our ozone layer, and DDT removed from our landscape. Pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes has been reduced dramatically. Hundreds of toxic waste sites have been cleaned up and made safe. And streams, lakes and rivers cleaned up and made fishable and swimmable.
While some of this environmental progress has been through difficult regulation, some of it has been simply by providing information and transparency. For example, NEPA is one of our most successful environmental laws, but it essentially regulates nothing. It merely states that the environmental impacts of government actions be carefully considered. Likewise, the Community Right to Know Act, which merely asks that industry report the chemicals they emit, has resulted in dramatic reductions of toxic pollution.
Of course, big challenges remain — climate change, obviously, but also the important, sometimes incremental improvements that will demand persistence, commitment, and resources. Stormwater and non-point source pollution are threatening further success under the Clean Water Act. Many communities are finding it more and more difficult to meet ambient air quality standards. Thousands of toxic chemicals go untested and unregulated, and thousands of polluted sites remain to be cleaned up.
Lately, anti-government, anti-regulation, and anti-EPA rhetoric has turned up the volume. With Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson set to take over the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of environmental agencies, we hope that this extraordinary history of success is not lost in the noise.
UPDATE: Here is the official White House Proclamation.