Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had its 40th anniversary in 2010. How effective has the EPA been and what are its biggest challenges today?
— Bill A., Seattle, WA
By most accounts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which turned 40 in December 2009, has been very effective. The first dedicated national environmental agency of its kind, the EPA has been instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. The EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines.
Several environmental wake-up calls during the 1960s—from revelations about the hazards of pesticides to smog causing respiratory problems to rivers catching on fire as they flowed through industrial areas—set the stage for the creation of EPA in 1970 by the Nixon administration. The agency was charged with overseeing implementation and enforcement of a new raft of laws designed to protect Americans’ air, water and land from the ill effects of pollution, development and urbanization. The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act are early examples of sweeping legislation that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA has also taken up the mantle of helping Americans find and implement remedies for pressing global problems from ozone depletion to climate change.
The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership and dialogue on wide range of topics, recently unveiled a list of “10 ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened America over the past 40 years.”
The home runs on the list—which was compiled by a group of more than 20 environmental leaders, including several former EPA officials—include: banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.
As to the EPA’s priorities now under administrator Lisa Jackson, climate change is high atop the agency’s agenda, as are further improving air quality, assuring the safety of chemicals used in everyday products, protecting increasingly compromised waterways and coastal areas, building stronger state and tribal partnerships, and expanding protection for underrepresented communities. Any number of potential hurdles—from an unfriendly Congress to lack of White House resolve to public apathy, let alone future natural and man-made disasters that divert attention and resources—could hamper the agency’s progress.