EPA Celebrates 40 Years of Protecting the Environment

From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for enforcing some of the oldest and most important environmental laws in the United States.  Last week the EPA celebrated its 40th anniversary, which falls at a time when the agency’s authority is increasingly threatened by pressure from industry groups.  Yet while industry groups like the US Chamber of Commerce say environmental and health regulations will hurt the economy, responses to the EPA’s 40th birthday suggest there remains strong public support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency.

Formed on December 2, 1970, the EPA was created by President Richard Nixon months after the first Earth Day.  Since then the agency has enforced laws passed by Congress related to air and water quality, control of toxic substances, endangered species protection, and wilderness preservation.  Early EPA achievements included banning the pesticide DDT, removing lead for gasoline in the United States, and restoring once heavily polluted US air and waterways.  During the 1980s and ‘90s, the EPA helped implement standards to phase out pollutants that contribute to acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer.

In the last two years, with public concern over global warming mounting, the EPA has moved to regulate greenhouse gases for the first time in history.  In 2009 the agency determined greenhouse emissions are a threat to public health and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  The first greenhouse gas regulations for large stationary sources like coal-fired power plants are scheduled to take effect at the beginning of 2011.  The EPA has also worked with the federal Department of Transportation to upgrade fuel economy standards for cars and reduce US consumption of oil.

Forty years after its creation, environmental and health groups are pushing the EPA to move forward with regulating greenhouse emissions, and to strengthen other air pollution standards that have not been updated for years.  On Thursday, the day before the EPA’s 40th anniversary, youth activists arrived in Washington, DC to urge the agency to protect public health by regulating pollution from power plants.  Youth organizers with the Sierra Student Coalition delivered over 6,000 paper pinwheels created by students at more than fifty college campuses, to remind the EPA that shifting to wind power and other forms of renewable energy will create thousands of green jobs.

“Our generation was lucky enough to grow up with the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental policies,” said Kim Teplitzky, Campuses Beyond Coal organizer for the Sierra Student Coalition, “and we must ensure we maintain these critical protections for the health and prosperity of our and future generations.”

Meanwhile big business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce oppose regulations for greenhouse emissions, and other new pollution controls now being proposed by the EPA.  In a press release earlier this year the Chamber of Commerce said it supports regulating greenhouse emissions, but only through new legislation and not under the existing Clean Air Act.  The accuracy of this statement is unclear, because the group has never come out in support of a global warming law at the federal level.  In fact when US Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposed legislation to curb global warming last year, the Chamber of Commerce opposed that bill as well.

Other groups argue cleaning up the environment has actually helped the economy—both by improving public health and by spurring investments in technology to reduce pollution.  A report commissioned by the Small Business Majority and the Main Street Alliance estimates the economic benefits of the Clean Air Act have so far been up to forty times greater than the costs.  Five hundred small business owners have signed onto a letter in favor of allowing the EPA to enact new pollution controls. 

Last week, in celebration of the EPA’s anniversary, more than a hundred people wrote notes on EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s Facebook page urging the agency to continue protecting public health.  The vast majority of comments either thanked the EPA for work it has done, or asked it to go even further.  Hardly any comments requested the EPA do less to protect health and the environment. 

Despite industry groups’ opposition to enforcing the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws, public support for the EPA doing its job seems to be as strong as ever.  “It’s great to see the EPA taking significant new steps to crack down on pollution for the first time in almost a decade!” wrote Vassar College student Moey Newbold on Lisa Jackson’s Facebook wall last week.  “Thank you for your hard work.” 

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

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