Following the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, the nascent environmental movement in the United States began to take off. As demands for regulatory action grew, the government began to act. The Wilderness Act of 1964 created a legal definition of the wilderness—a key step in protecting federal lands from development. The law protected over nine million acres of Federal land. Today it covers over one hundred nine million acres. The Clean Air Act of 1963 authorized the government to research and monitor air pollution. The Clean Air Act of 1970 established federal and state regulations limiting industrial pollution. The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulated the amount of pollution that could be dumped into bodies of water. Finally, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 required that any major public works project whether on the federal, state, or local level that involves Federal involvement (money, permits etc.) must include an Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Assessment to gauge its impact on the environment.
Decades of pollution led to some high profile environmental catastrophes in the 1960s that highlighted the need for government intervention. Around Thanksgiving 1966, a mass of unusually warm air trapped pollutants over New York City. A heavy smog set in, making visibility difficult and sulfur dioxide levels in the air rose significantly. The smog killed several hundred people and caused health problems for many more. It also prompted local, state, and federal government intervention. New York City made greater efforts to monitor its pollution levels and the Johnson administration passed the Air Quality Act of 1967. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, long a dumping ground for oil and industrial waste, caught fire (it was not the first time). A photograph of the burning river appeared on the cover of Time Magazine highlighting the dangers of unchecked industrial pollution. The event helped spur the enactment of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The environment became such a prominent political issue that both members of both parties, the Democrats and Republicans, supported environmental regulations. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (Democrats) and Nixon (Republican) all lent their names to significant pieces of environmental legislation. (Of course, not all members of both parties supported these policies, but many did.) After the New York City smog in 1966, Republican mayor John Lindsay and Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller worked with the administration of Lyndon Johnson on pollution monitoring and reduction. President Nixon himself, most famously known for his paranoia, profanity, and criminal behavior while in office, signed into law some of the most far reaching environmental legislation of the time including the NEPA and he created of the Environmental Protection Agency.
On July 9, 1970, Nixon sent a special message to Congress announcing his intention to create the EPA. In his address, Nixon explained that “Our national government today is not structured 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.” Nixon further detailed the importance of government action and outlined what he viewed as the goals for the newly created agency:
The principal roles and functions of the EPA would include:
–The establishment and enforcement of environmental protection standards consistent with national environmental goals.
–The conduct of research on the adverse effects of pollution and on methods and equipment for controlling it, the gathering of information on pollution, and the use of this information in strengthening environmental protection programs and recommending policy changes.
–Assisting others, through grants, technical assistance and other means in arresting pollution of the environment.
–Assisting the Council on Environmental Quality in developing and recommending to the President new policies for the protection of the environment.
In his address, Nixon outlined the logic behind regulation and the reorganization of government efforts to battle pollution and protect the environment into one agency. From a modern perspective, the address is shocking that a Republican president would support the expansion of Federal power over the environment. Government regulation has become anathema to the modern GOP. One of President Trump’s first Potemkin decrees involved cutting two regulations for every new one enacted. Besides its infantile logic, the decree epitomizes the devotion of the current GOP to demonizing government regulation. On Thursday, I’ll look at how the EPA, despite the cries of Trump and Florida Republican Matt Gaetz (the author of the bill to destroy the EPA) who both claim that regulation is killing American business, has ensured that everyone has access to cleaner air, water, and the natural wonders of the United States.