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EPA Special Agents


In the 1960s public awareness grew regarding the harm being done to the environment and living creatures by pesticides and pollution. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, helped raise this awareness by pointing out how chemicals were harming wildlife, particularly birds, and that these chemicals also stayed in people's bodies their entire lives. To address public concerns, in January 1970 President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act to establish a federal role in environmental protection. Global awareness was raised even further when the first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970. The day was meant to celebrate clean air, land, and water, and optimism for the new spring season. Millions of people participated—with teach-ins, lectures, musical events, and more. Earth Day was a success and has since continued to be an annual, global event. On December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was officially open for business. It was created to bring together federal research, monitoring, standard setting, and enforcement activities into one agency, with a focus on protecting the environment. According to its Web site, the EPA's mission is to "protect human health and the environment" [and] "to ensure that Americans have clean air, land, and water."

The EPA's early years were bumpy. It was initially a poorly organized operation. Four different departments that had previously existed as their own separate entities were now condensed under the singular EPA umbrella, and employees that had been transferred along with those departments had to find ways to work through the chaos. EPA administrator William D. Ruckelshaus straightened things out. The departments that folded into the EPA were: Air, Solid Waste, Radiological Health, Water Hygiene, and Pesticide Tolerance functions and personnel, which had been transferred from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; Water Quality and Pesticide Label Review, which came from the Interior Department; Radiation Protection Standards, which came from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council; and Pesticide Registration, which came from the Department of Agriculture.

Many environmental laws—new ones as well as resurrected and reworked ones—were enacted in the late 1960s and 1970s, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Deepwater Ports and Waterways Safety Act (1974), the Water Resources Planning Act (1977), the Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970), and the Environmental Education Act (1990). There was also renewed enforcement of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.

Highlights of the 1980s included the EPA helping in the cleanup of Three Mile Island (a nuclear power-plant accident in Pennsylvania) and in relocating Love Canal residents (a toxic-waste disaster in a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, which caused many illnesses and diseases). The EPA pressed for and got the Superfund law passed to clean up abandoned waste sites. It also mandated sanctions for states not meeting air standards. In the 1990s the Clean Air Act (first passed in 1970) was amended to provide further protections, particularly regarding dust and soot. In addition, the Pollution Protection Act was passed to prevent pollution before it begins. The EPA also started partnering with companies to explore and test new, voluntary approaches to environmental protection. It had also begun work on standards for cleaner cars and fuels.

In recent years, the EPA proposed the first-ever mercury emissions regulations on power plants, issued the Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule, and became (in 2006) the first major federal agency to purchase green power equal to 100 percent of its annual electricity use. In 2010, the EPA established fuel efficiency standards for trucks and buses, which, according to the agency, are "projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 250 million metric tons and save 500 million barrels of oil over the lives of the vehicles produced within the program’s first five years." In 2012, the EPA updated air pollution standards for the emissions of volatile organic compounds that are emitted by hydraulically fractured gas wells, with an aim to reduce air toxins and emissions of methane (a potent greenhouse gas). In 2015, the EPA created the Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force to study and work with city and state officials to address the high levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan. 

The degree of environmental protection and regulation varies based on presidential administration. The Obama Administration had a relatively strong record of protecting the environment, although many environmentalists believed that it could have done much more to ensure the health of our nation's air, water, and soil. On the other hand, the Trump Administration has largely taken a pro-business approach in regard to the environment, eliminating rules and regulations that it believes negatively affect economic growth. As of fall 2019, the Trump's administration had rolled back more than 50 environmental rules and regulations, according to a New York Times analysis, based on research from Columbia Law School, Harvard Law School, and other sources. More than 30 others were in the process of being eliminated. 

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