Environmental Regulation: The Early Days at EPA

by William D. Ruckelshaus
[EPA Journal - March 1988]

The creation of the EPA in 1970 brought together a patchwork of federal programs concerned with various aspects of the environment under the control of a single regulatory agency. In the same year, Congress passed one of our nation's most complex and ambitious statutes, the Clean Air Act, directing EPA to set and America to achieve national air standards.

The challenges facing this new Agency were many. And while a regulatory framework was important, initially, it was not the most crucial challenge.

From a management point of view, the task was daunting: how to form a cohesive, integrated, functioning entity out of 15 different agencies and parts of agencies from throughout the federal government, two of which, in the case of pesticides, had conflicting missions.

The initial structure reflected the gross nature of the pollution problems as they were then perceived. Air and water programs were under one Assistant Administrator. The Assistant Administrator for Categorical Programs had responsibility for almost everything else: pesticides, radiation, and solid waste.

As we began, our most important mission was to establish the credibility of this new Agency, to ensure that the public and the regulated community realized that the government was serious about its charge to protect the environment.

One way to do that was through enforcement. Shortly after opening EPA's doors, we filed suit against the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Atlanta for polluting their rivers with sewage. Similar actions against industry followed.

The results of these actions, years later, has been demonstrable improvement in water quality in these cities and massive progress in alleviating industrial pollution. Those actions established EPA foresquare in front of the American people as an Agency committed to doing its job.

Equally important was the goal of educating and working with the public. EPA was, essentially, a response to many expressions of concern by the public about the quality of their environment. At the outset it rapidly became clear that the Agency would be able to carry out its mission only if the public understood these problems as well as EPA's mandate to address them.

The second immediate challenge to the Agency was to create awareness of and support for EPA. An aggressive public affairs program was undertaken at headquarters and in all the regional offices. Every senior agency official had a heavy schedule of speaking engagements to rally understanding and support for EPA.

Against this backdrop of aggressive enforcement and education, the regulatory efforts of the Agency began to play out. The Agency was already beginning to wrestle with Congressionally imposed deadlines as it began to implement the requirements of the Clean Air Act of 1970.

EPA was required to set criteria for national ambient air quality standards 120 days after the Clean Air Act passed and 150 days after EPA opened its doors. What was, in retrospect, so striking about that process was the paucity of sophisticated scientific data upon which to make sound regulatory judgments. To my dismay, in reviewing the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for particulate matter during my second tour at EPA, I noted that much of the health effects data base for the new PM10 standard (for airborne particles that are 10 micrometers or smaller) consisted of the same studies we used to set the first standard!

In addition, there was almost a total lack of economic analysis of the impacts of such standards and regulations. We rapidly corrected that situation and created what I believe to this day is the most sophisticated regulatory impact analysis staff anywhere.

EPA, in those early days, spent much of its time creatively interpreting the statutes it had to administer. Prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, EPA began implementing a discharge permit program under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act. That effort led to such savage logic as defining hot water discharges from power plants as refuse.

One of the highlights of EPA's early water pollution control efforts was the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. This historic agreement, driven by a mutual cross-boundary decision to save a world treasure, has, over its lifetime, resulted in substantial improvement in the water quality of the Lakes.

It is a measure of how much we have learned today about the problems associated with the disposal of solid waste that in 1971, EPA's answer to the dumping of wastes was to initiate "Operation 5000." That was a program to close 5,000 open dumps and replace them with, or convert them to, sanitary landfill--requiring a 6-inch soil cover the end of each day!

With the mid-1970s, EPA began to assume its massive regulatory stance. The Clean Water Act and the reauthorization of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act in 1972, the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, and the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1977 all set in motion the regulatory machinery we see in operation today.

What defined EPA in its earliest days was less the need to define a regulatory agenda than a need to convey a sense of mission and purpose to the public, the states, and the regulated community. The Agency set out to create a federal environmental presence, to set a uniform level of expectation that would end state-shopping by industry, and to ensure that people knew EPA meant business. I believe the achievement of those goals set the stage for the more sophisticated regulatory posture the Agency assumes today.