EPA: A Retrospective, 1970-1990

[EPA press release - November 29, 1990]

The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency on December 2, 1970, was not a major press event. Only brief articles far inside the Washington Post and the New York Times mentioned the new Agency and Congress's unanimous confirmation of William D. Ruckelshaus as its first Administrator.

The press yawn was not entirely surprising. EPA's genesis was an executive order dealing with a pastiche of 15 programs from 5 agencies involving 5,800 employees and a $1.4 billion budget. However, time would show the significance of the event.

Although the federal government initiated air pollution legislation in 1955 and water pollution legislation in 1948, the 1960s saw a public awakening to environmental problems , epitomized by incidents like the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire, or by prophetic warnings like those in Rachel Carson's worldwide best selling book Silent Spring.

To address these growing concerns, the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization, created by President Nixon in 1969 to promote greater governmental efficiency, spent much of its time considering how best to consolidate and strengthen government's environmental activities. A young lawyer named Douglas M. Costle, who would go on to become EPA's third Administrator, directed the review of environmental policies for the Ash Council, as it was more familiarly called for its director, Litton Industries President Roy L. Ash.

Costle and his staff recommended a new agency, a position supported by Russell E. Train, the first chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). "I saw the need for a clear environmental protection mission that the public could identify with," Train said.

Nixon adopted the Ash Council's recommendation. With words still surprisingly fresh, he called for the creation of "a strong, independent agency...to make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food." Thus, EPA was created.

EPA's Early Years

To accommodate the new Agency, Ruckelshaus and his close staff set up temporary offices at the old Normandy building, near the White House. The building slated for demolition was "the pits," recalls Phil Angell, who was recruited to staff the new agency's public affairs office. "I had a little grey office: a grey desk, a grey chair, a grey manual typewriter, and a fluorescent fixture. That was it."

Other headquarters staff was scattered in several locations around the Washington area. Alan Eckert, who was transferred from the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, remembers Ruckelshaus's first "all-hands" meeting. "We had to rent a movie theatre because there was no room in our offices large enough."

Each regional office was structured as a "mini-EPA," with its own congressional, public affairs and regulatory staff. The regional offices were given unusual autonomy to permit flexible response to local differences.

Early in 1971 EPA's growing staff moved to the still unfinished Waterside Mall, then considered a forward-looking example of mixed-use development combining retail stores with apartments. The Administrator's office was installed in what would have been the penthouse of a building originally intended for residential use. The separate elevator to the 12th floor would remain a puzzlement to visitors who did not know the building's origin.

Ruckelshaus let his staff know early on that he wanted to "hit the ground running." EPA immediately set forth to deal with resource recovery, water quality, ocean dumping, pesticides, noise, drinking water, toxic substances, and hazardous waste. He began by announcing EPA's filing of violation notices against three cities--Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit--for offenses in building municipal wastewater treatment plants. He soon asked the Justice Department to take action against Jones and Laughlin Steel Company and other industrial giants.

One controversial decision Ruckelshaus faced at EPA's inception involved the future of the widely used pesticide DDT; one of the major pesticides of concern in Silent Spring.

Ruckelshaus made the long-awaited announcement to phase out domestic use of DDT at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden, the first gathering of the growing global environmental movement. He was convinced by "evidence in the record" that the storage of DDT in human tissue and its persistence in the food chain posed "a warning to the prudent" that people "may be exposing themselves to a substance that may have serious effects on...health."

The issue of human exposure to potentially harmful toxics gained momentum under the reauthorization of the Federal Water Pollution control Act in 1972. The reauthorization and overhaul of the Clean Air Act of 1967 further strengthened EPA's authority.

Despite these new, tougher programs, confidence that environmental protection was a finite job soon began to erode. "It all seemed so straightforward at first," said Dr. Robert Fri, who was Ruckelshaus's deputy. "But even in the two years I was there, one could easily see how difficult it would become." The feared cost of new regulations caused increasing tension between EPA and the White House. The deplorable state of the environment enabled EPA to successfully argue that cost was not an issue. "Pollution was egregious. It would have been difficult to spend dollars unwisely," Fri said. The Agency's strong stand led to strict enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Ruckelshaus refused to grant extensions requested by automobile manufacturers to meet hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide standards. In effect, he forced the adoption of the catalytic converter.

As Watergate clouds darkened over the nation's capital, the White House asked Ruckelshaus in 1973 to take over the troubled FBI. His successor was Russell Train. The climate already had changed perceptibly, Train recalls. His confirmation by Congress took three months, in contrast to the one day for Ruckelshaus.

During Train's tenure at EPA clean air issues continued to cause contention between environmentalists and industry representatives. "The entire environmental program was under siege by the energy crowd. It was a major accomplishment that we were able to keep environmental programs on track," said Train. Many efforts to trim EPA's authority--to kill requirements for tall stacks, to curtail efforts to prevent significant deterioration of air cleaner than national air quality standards, and the like--were beaten back.

Deadlines, however, were extended. "Cost-benefit" became a new banner for environmental battle. "At that time it was called a 'Quality of Life' review, said Alvin Alm, former CEQ staff director.

To achieve the Clean Air Act's goals in a number of cities and overcome these disputes, drastic traffic and parking controls were imposed, including constraints on construction of shopping centers and other traffic generators.

"My relations with environmental groups were about as hairy as those of most Administrators," Train said. "One evening Supreme Court Justice Byron White said to me, 'You're the most litigious son of a bitch. Your name is on a thousand lawsuits'" Train observes, "Citizen lawsuits are not comfortable for the bureaucracy, but an open society must have these groups lighting fires."

The Kepone pesticide tragedy at Hopewell, Virginia; PCB contamination of the Hudson River in New York; the accidental PCB poisoning of cows in Michigan; and other well-publicized reports brought the toxics issue to public attention. CEQ staffers Alm and J. Clarence (Terry) Davies, who had worked on the Ash Council, wrote an influential report on toxic substances. In 1976, with Train leading the lobbying, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was finally passed.

"We began to think about ways to deal with risk," said Alm. "Train asked me to develop a cancer policy. Decisions were being made in court cases, and he thought there must be a better way." The better way ended up including TSCA, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1976 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The Late Seventies

President Jimmy Carter chose Douglas Costle to be EPA's Administrator. Since his seminal activities in designing EPA, Costle had served as Connecticut's Commissioner for Environmental Affairs.

Costle faced not only a backlog of guidelines, standards, and lengthening deadlines but also a widening recognition of the costs and time it would take to meet the ambitious goals mandated by Congress--if they could be met at all. "Most of us thought we would take care of the big problems in short order, and then it would be a matter of maintenance," said Charles Elkins, now special counsel to the General Counsel. "We began to see this wasn't the case in the later 1970s when we were missing all the deadlines in the new programs. We thought then that the deadlines were tough, but now we see they were laughable."

"The laws were written so that we would need a policeman at every corner," said Costle. Lawsuits, filed by environmentalists and industry representatives, arguing for more or less EPA action, became a fact of Agency life.

Meanwhile, Three Mile Island, Valley of the Drums, and Love Canal catapulted to headlines and TV screens. Grass-roots heroes and heroines aired fears about "ticking time bombs" and cancer. As a result, EPA was positioned more firmly as a health protection agency. The Agency's budget rose, despite a worsening economy.

The later 1970s and early 1980s saw a marked growth in hazardous waste regulations under RCRA, as well as the establishment of a ground water office in 1978.

Valley of the Drums, in Kentucky, more than Love Canal, led to the Superfund program, said Mary Ann Massey, Costle's special assistant. "In Love Canal, there was an identifiable party, and some recourse under state law; Valley of the Drums was a true orphan site. It had thousands of leaky rusted barrels, with wicked chemicals. No one knew who owned it or who had put the barrels there. It exposed the need for clear federal authority to act quickly in an emergency."

In 1980, in one of his last presidential acts, Carter signed the Superfund, authorizing a "shovels first, lawyers later" approach whereby EPA would respond immediately to emergencies caused by abandoned waste dumps. A five-year $1.6 billion trust fund was established, financed primarily by a tax on industrial chemicals.

In 1981, defederalization, severe budget cuts, and regulatory reform, swept through the halls of government. EPA was widely seen as a special target. In the words of Anne M. Gorsuch, EPA's new Administrator, "There was no riper pasture for regulatory reform than EPA."

Gorsuch was, like her predecessors, an attorney. Otherwise, her credentials differed substantially. She had gained visibility as an outspoken conservative in Colorado's state legislature. "When President Reagan asked me to head the Environmental Protection Agency, I understood that he wanted me to carry out his policies...and to get out better environmental results with fewer people and less money. I took the job because I wanted to bring a politically conservative approach to solving the management problems of environmental protection," she said.

Personnel was reduced by 23 percent. Enforcement referrals to the Justice Department were cut in half.

A widening public perception that serious environmental hazards were being mismanaged, or worse, was brought to a head by dioxin contamination at Times Beach, Missouri; the firing of Rita Lavelle, who administered EPA's Superfund and RCRA programs; and the refusal of Gorsuch to comply with Congress's demand that she turn over internal Agency documents dealing with Superfund enforcement. She resigned in march 1983 because, she said, she "had become an issue in the intense congressional controversy about Administration policies."

Back on Track

President Reagan asked Ruckelshaus to serve again as Administrator in 1983. EPA Journal's cover exclaimed his return "the dawn of a new era." When Ruckelshaus talked to EPA's staff the first time, "it was like the liberation of Paris. We heard some good old-fashioned ethics," said Alan Eckert, who by then was EPA's Associate General Counsel for Air and Radiation.

The landscape had changed completely," said Phil Angell, who then served as chief of staff. "I didn't recognize the legislation--the Clean Air Act amendments, and RCRA and Superfund struggling to come into being. We faced a new generation of programs: toxic chemicals, acid rain, orphan dumps, and transboundary issues. It was remarkable and reassuring, however, to find that a number of people I knew were still there."

"I thought it was important to move quickly," Alm said, who was serving once again as Deputy Administrator. "We needed to deliver. It was essential, and surprisingly difficult, after years of a slower pace, to get the Agency back into a positive mode." Task forces were established to deal with such issues as ground water, risk assessment, dioxin, and acid rain. Enforcement was reinvigorated. Civil penalties increased in number and size. And 2,000 new employees were hired.

Lee Thomas, who was named Administrator following Ruckelshaus's resignation at the end of Reagan's first term, was the first career government official and first non-lawyer to serve in the post.

First among his accomplishments, Thomas unhesitatingly singles out the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Ratified by 59 nations, including the United States, this was "a triumph of science and policy consensus. The involvement of industry in the final agreement was a model for other environmental actions." The Agency had banned CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, in aerosol cans in 1978 in response to reports about ozone depletion. The Protocol froze the level of CFC consumption and required steady reductions to achieve a 50 percent cut by 1998. Another landmark was the surprisingly difficult reauthorization of Superfund.

Also high on Thomas's list of Agency accomplishments is the National Wetlands Policy Forum, a year-long series of consensus-building meetings of a group of representing governors, business, environmental groups, and state officials. Representatives from five federal agencies participated ex officio. Chaired by The Conservation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization, the Forum recommended the "no net loss" goal for wetlands policy adopted by President George Bush.

Decade of the Environment

President Bush appointed William K. Reilly as the new Administrator in 1989. A career conservationist, Reilly had been President of the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation. Soon after taking office, Reilly faced two controversial issues. The TV program "60 Minutes" aired charges by the Natural Resources Defense Council that the pesticide Alar was carcinogenic, sparking wholesale apple prices to drop 50 percent. And a massive oil spill, the largest in U.S. history, riveted worldwide attention on Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Shortly after his "initiation by fire," however, Reilly stood behind George Bush in the Rose Garden as the President proposed to break a 13-year deadlock over reauthorization of the Clean Air Act with a far-reaching Administration proposal.

The Clean Air Act of 1990--over 700 pages long, compared to 41 pages for the 1970 law--puts in place bold new measures to deal with the persistent, pervasive problems of smog, airborne toxic pollutants and, for the first time ever, acid rain. The Administration's proposal that led to the new law incorporated recommendations by the Environmental Defense Fund for the design of the law's market incentives.

Reilly also has initiated a detailed Agency review of the Corps of Engineers' permit for the proposed Two Forks Dam on the South Platte River outside Denver. EPA vetoed the project on Nov. 23, 1990, citing adverse environmental effects that would result from the project. Under Reilly's stewardship, the U.S. and the rest of the parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed to a full phaseout of CFCs. Most uses of asbestos were banned. Enforcement figures have been the highest in the Agency's history. Wetlands protection was significantly strengthened. And the U.S. will be hosting negotiation of a framework convention under the auspices of the U.N. to organize the response to the climate change problem.

Reilly's tenure has coincided with a cresting of environmental consciousness in this nation and abroad. In the United States, polls continuously affirm popular support for environmental protection and a willingness to pay for it. Reilly emphasizes that economic progress and environmental improvements, far from being pitted against each other, are interdependent. "Harmonizing economic expansion with environmental protection requires a recognition that there are environmental benefits to growth just as there are economic benefits flowing from healthy natural systems," Reilly said.

"Changing EPA's agenda to meet rising public expectations would not be easy, and it would not happen overnight," Reilly said. "The great and dramatic environmental battles are between 'white hats' and 'black hats' and there are still a good many around. But the significant new progress we need is with ourselves--our lifestyles, our energy use, the goods we buy and use and the waste we generate."

At 20 years, EPA employs 17,000 people and has a budget of $6 billion. It has long outgrown its headquarters offices, and plans a move to a new site within the next few years. Last year Congress proposed to make EPA a cabinet-level agency. Although the bill was not enacted, it seems inevitable that some future Congress will pass it. EPA has become an integral part of the fabric of American life.