Honoring a Legacy

For nearly 50 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked to ensure cleaner air, water and land that benefit wildlife and human health

  • Mark Wexler
  • Conservation
  • Jan 30, 2018

A great blue heron looks over Great Falls on the Potomac River, just upstream from Washington, D.C. The once-foul river runs far cleaner today thanks to EPA water regulations. Decades ago, firemen blasted water toward a flaming tugboat after an oil slick on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1952 (below), one of several blazes that plagued the polluted waterway.

OHIO'S CUYAHOGA RIVER captured America’s attention in the summer of 1969 when industrial grime floating atop the waterway caught fire, sending plumes of toxic smoke high into the Cleveland sky. Though the contaminated river had burned on several previous occasions, the ’69 fire made national headlines as a symbol of the pollution problems that plagued communities all across the country.

Cuyohoga River 1952

In those days, states created their own environmental policies, and some of them adopted weak regulations to attract industry. Many municipalities and businesses simply dumped their untreated wastes directly into rivers and coastal waters, destroying aquatic habitats for countless fish and other wildlife. As a Time magazine piece in 1969 noted about Washington, D.C., “The Potomac reaches the nation’s capital as a pleasant stream and leaves it stinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily.”

By 1970, millions of Americans were demanding action. In response, lawmakers created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new federal bureau that would take a scientific approach to cleaning up the nation’s mess. “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond political party and beyond factions,” said President Richard Nixon in his State of the Union address that year. “It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

In an unprecedented flurry of legislative action to support that cause, Congress passed several measures during the next few years that gave EPA the authority to establish national pollution standards that all states were required to meet, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. “The EPA never would have been established had it not been for public demand,” said William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator. “Public opinion remains absolutely essential for anything to be done on behalf of the environment.”

Working with the states, EPA has made much progress in solving severe problems. According to agency data, cars on U.S. roads now produce nearly 99 percent fewer emissions of so-called common pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide than four decades ago. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of U.S. children with elevated lead levels in their blood has declined from 88 percent in the late 1970s to about 3 percent today. And the number of U.S. waters that meet federal quality goals has roughly doubled since 1972—all largely thanks to EPA regulations.

Today, at a time when the nation is sharply divided along political lines, it’s easy to forget that the laws guiding EPA were adopted in Congress by nearly unanimous majorities of both Republicans and Democrats. It’s also easy to forget how much the agency’s accomplishments during the past 48 years have improved the quality of life for Americans and the nation’s wildlife. Following are some of those victories.  

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Kids playing in Brooklyn, New York park

Children enjoy fresh air and water at a park in Brooklyn, New York, one of many U.S. cities benefiting from environmental regulations. For children in particular, cleaner air means a reduction in asthma and other respiratory problems.

Clearing the air

For decades, critics claimed that the mandates of the Clean Air Act would spell financial ruin for U.S. businesses. Yet the act has proven to be one of the nation’s most economically and environmentally effective laws. EPA statistics show that from 1970 to 2015, emissions of carbon monoxide and other common air pollutants have declined by an average of about 70 percent throughout the country. Though high concentrations of some air contaminants persist in many urban areas, millions of U.S. residents—and countless wildlife species—are now breathing easier.

In Southern California, local authorities report that peak concentrations of smog have declined by about a third since the 1980s. After conducting a long-term study, University of Southern California researchers reported in 2016 that particulate matter—tiny, airborne polluted particles that can penetrate deep into human lungs—declined by 47 percent over a 20-year period in eight local communities. During that time, levels of nitrogen dioxide, a contaminant that can lower resistance to lung infections, decreased by 49 percent in the same locations. As a result, the researchers discovered, children’s lungs in those communities are now 10 percent larger and stronger than they were in youngsters two decades ago. In addition, kids with asthma are now 32 percent less likely to suffer severe respiratory symptoms.

“Because of the wide variations in ambient pollution levels among the eight California communities we analyzed, these findings are applicable to other parts of the United States and maybe other parts of the world as well,” says Kiros Berhane, the study’s lead author. He adds that the findings “are very likely a direct result of the science-based policies that have been put in place.”

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Brown Pelican

Brown pelicans rest in peace along still waters in the Florida Keys. Once critically endangered due to their eggs being thinned by DDT, the birds have now rebounded to such healthy levels that they are no longer listed as endangered. Hairline cracks in a mallard egg (below) signal the presence of DDT, a pesticide EPA banned in 1972 to protect birds and other species.

Restoring endangered birds

Beyond benefits to people, EPA regulations have played a major role in helping once-endangered birds recover and thrive, most notably the bald eagle. More than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles once ranged in the continental United States. But by the time Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book Silent Spring came out in 1962, that number had dwindled to fewer than 500 pairs. The country’s national symbol was not the only bird teetering on the verge of extinction in the Lower 48. Peregrine falcons had disappeared from their traditional haunts in eastern states, and brown pelican populations were decimated in Florida, Louisiana and California.

In her book, Carson explained how widespread use of the chemical DDT in North America had diminished the birds’ ability to reproduce by altering their calcium metabolism, which resulted in thinner eggshells that could not support the weight of incubating parents. “These nonselective chemicals,” she wrote, “have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams … all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.”

Fragile mallard egg with hairline crack

Carson also cited research showing how DDT accumulates in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans, potentially leading to cancer and genetic damage. The threats she outlined were too alarming to ignore. Silent Spring, which soared to No. 1 on The New York Times best-sellers list, ignited strong public opposition against continued use of the chemical. Despite facing heavy criticism by the pesticide industry, EPA banned most DDT application throughout the country in 1972. “In making that decision,” says National Wildlife Federation Staff Scientist Michael Murray, “EPA was cognizant of economic considerations, but it took precautionary action in support of human health and wildlife.”

The U.S. ban on DDT enabled birds that had suffered from eggshell thinning to rebound. Aided by reintroduction efforts, peregrine falcon numbers eventually increased tenfold and the bird was removed from the list of U.S. endangered species in 1999. Eight years later, federal wildlife authorities declared that the bald eagle no longer was threatened with extinction in the contiguous United States, where nearly 10,000 breeding pairs now range. And the brown pelican, numbering more than 250,000 throughout its range, was officially delisted in 2009.

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Forest depleted from acid raid

Bare spires of dead conifers show lethal effects of acid rain, caused when emissions such as sulfur dioxide mix with precipitation.

Curbing acid rain

Fish and forests have likewise rebounded in areas hard-hit by acid rain, caused when water vapor in the atmosphere mixes with emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides then falls as acidic rain, killing trees and tainting waterways.  In 1990, Congress added new amendments to the Clean Air Act, including tough new provisions to curtail acid rain, protect the atmospheric ozone layer and reduce levels of nearly 200 of the most dangerous cancer-causing air pollutants generated by factories and other stationary sources. As a result, those sources now produce about 1.5 million fewer tons of toxic emissions annually than they did in 1990.

Meeting the law’s requirements is expensive, but according to a 2004 National Research Council report, the benefits outweigh the costs. For example, the 1990 amendments gave EPA authority to regulate power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. At the time, some utility company officials warned that electricity rates would skyrocket and cited an industry-sponsored study estimating costs to U.S. consumers at $5.5 billion annually, increasing to $7.1 billion.

However, in analyzing the first 10 years of EPA’s acid rain program, the federal Office of Management and Budget found that it cost consumers far less—between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion a year—and produced more than $70 billion yearly in health benefits for Americans. Those benefits, the EPA says, include significantly reduced numbers of heart and asthma attacks and tens of thousands fewer premature deaths in this country every year.

Though some lakes and forests still suffer from acid rain, a 2016 study by researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other institutions concluded that EPA’s program has led to “dramatic reductions” in power plant emissions over the Northeast. NASA reports that levels of sulfur dioxide in that region dropped by about 80 percent between 2005 and 2014, while levels of nitrogen oxides declined by 40 percent.

That’s good news for both people and wildlife. In the 1980s, scientists proved that acid rain was killing fish and other aquatic life in many lakes and streams in the Northeast. In one study, researchers found that 55 percent of the 849 lakes they surveyed above 1,000 feet in New York’s Adirondack Mountains were completely devoid of life or on the verge of collapse. Today, many of those lakes are coming back.

Sagamore Lake, for example, “was dead for years and there was no point in trying to fish there,” says Adirondack Council spokesman and avid angler John Sheehan. Now, he says, the lake’s unique strain of brook trout is back and flourishing. “We have seen a marked decrease in acid rain, and that’s driving recovery,” adds Syracuse University environmental engineer Charles Driscoll, who has studied pollution’s effects in the Adirondacks. “It’s a tremendous success story.”

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Fishing boat, Adirondack, New York

Serene in the morning sun, the wooden boat of a fishing guide awaits the day’s work on a lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Once devoid of life due to acid rain, many of the region’s lakes—and the fish they nourish—are now thriving.

Further protections for waters

Success abounds in other U.S. waters thanks to EPA’s clean water rules. Just 30 years ago, Oregon’s Willamette River was so polluted by sewage that salmon fingerlings reportedly died within minutes of entering its waters. Today, after years of state and local enforcement of federal standards, sewage overflows into the river have been reduced by 94 percent, and beaches in the Portland area generally are safe for swimming.

Likewise, the port of Boston in the 1980s was dubbed “the dirtiest harbor in America.” But after a federally mandated effort cleaned up decades of sewage wastes dumped into the harbor, migratory shorebirds, harbor seals and other wildlife are again flourishing. EPA now calls the port a “Great American Jewel.”

The Willamette and Boston Harbor were among thousands of U.S. waterways, lakes, wetlands and coastal areas that were severely degraded by the time Congress passed landmark amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1972. At the time, EPA reported that two-thirds of the nation’s waters were unsafe for most human activities and threatened the health of aquatic wildlife. To help reverse that situation, the amendments called for investing billions of taxpayer dollars in badly needed municipal sewage treatment plants. President Nixon balked at the expense and vetoed the bill. But recognizing that Americans’ health was at stake, members of Congress from both political parties joined forces to overwhelmingly override his veto.

The law made dumping pollution into waterways through drainpipes or other point sources illegal without a permit. It also set a goal of making all U.S. waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1985. That deadline proved unrealistic, but as a result of cleanup programs by EPA and the states, about one-third of the nation’s formerly dirty waters now are considered safe for swimming and fishing.

Slow progress in cleaning up other polluted waters partly is the result of a major omission in the law: To win the support of federal lawmakers from agricultural states in 1972, Congress essentially exempted contaminated runoff from farm fields and other sources of nonpoint pollution from the amendments’ mandates. “Controlling runoff remains the biggest challenge to achieving clean water that the country faces today,” says Jan Goldman-Carter, NWF director of Wetlands and Water Resources.

In the Great Lakes, for example, the United States and Canada have had success through the years reducing levels of PCBs, mercury and other industrial pollutants and in restoring populations of lake trout, lake sturgeon and other native fish. However, according to a 2017 report by EPA and its Canadian counterparts, record-breaking algal blooms caused by farm runoff still contaminate drinking water and foul beaches and wildlife habitat in Lake Erie. “The lake’s deteriorating health serves as a warning that public officials on both sides of the border cannot let their guards down,” says Murray.

The 1972 law included safeguards for thousands of small streams and wetlands that feed into larger water bodies and contribute to drinking water supplies for one in every three Americans as well as provide vital habitat for hundreds of native wildlife species, notably waterfowl, fish and amphibians. “Through Republican and Democratic administrations, EPA has supported the broad scope of the law to protect ‘all waters of the United States,’” says Goldman-Carter.

In 2015, EPA confirmed that support by establishing the so-called Clean Water Rule, designed to restore and protect the country’s small water bodies. At this writing, however, the Trump administration is trying to repeal this critical rule. “These streams and wetlands are the very foundation of our nation’s water resources and are absolutely vital to the health of waterways and communities located downstream,” says Goldman-Carter. “Without this rule, many of our nation’s waters will continue to suffer.”

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Peregrine Falcon on urban balcony, Chicago

Soaring home to hungry chicks, a peregrine falcon lands at its urban perch in Chicago. Once in a nosedive, the raptors have rebounded—a hopeful symbol of how humans and wildlife can coexist when environmental protections take root.

Sustaining the legacy?

For all its successes, EPA faces tough new challenges. “We’re now confronted by less visible, diffuse contaminants not originally specified in federal laws that often are more difficult to deal with,” says NWF Chief Scientist Bruce Stein. Those include greenhouse gases like methane—a pollutant 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term—released by underground fracking projects, oil and natural gas wells and other sources. After declaring in 2009 that such gases threaten the health of the American people, EPA had a legal obligation under the Clean Air Act to regulate this pollution. However, acting on this obligation is one of several antipollution measures EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been seeking to repeal or curb. The agency also removed climate change data from its website and is reducing staff to the lowest levels since the late 1980s.

Such moves concern people from all political parties. Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA under President George W. Bush, recently wrote in The New York Times, “The agency created by a Republican president 47 years ago to protect the environment and public health may end up doing neither …. [T]he evidence is abundant of the dangerous political turn of an agency that is supposed to be guided by science.”

“This is the time to be strengthening, not weakening, the critical tools that protect our environment, public health and economy,” says NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara. Most Americans agree. According to a 2017 Reuters survey, more than 60 percent of U.S. adults want EPA’s authority either preserved or increased.

For nearly five decades, the EPA has been looking out for the nation’s well-being. Now, Americans have the opportunity to reciprocate by showing their support for the embattled agency and its science-based mission at a crucial moment in the country’s environmental history.

Cutthroat Trout


Healthy water, air and land

When trout thrive in the clear waters of an Idaho lake—or when Americans enjoy healthy water, air and land across the nation—it’s often because smart policies have been created to protect our natural resources. The National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates long have taken a leading role in promoting such policies, often hand in hand with the EPA. The Federation helped pass the Clean Water Act in 1972 and amassed public support that led to adoption of the Clean Water Rule in 2015. Likewise, NWF helped finalize the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in 2015—designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants by about a third—and pushed to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. These rules are now at risk of repeal, but NWF is working toward bipartisan, science-based solutions. “Protecting our nation’s water and wildlife is at the core of our mission,” says NWF President and CEO Collin O’Mara.

Mark Wexler is editor-at-large.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Beyond Politics »
Conservation, Community leaders mark anniversary of river burning »
Clean Water Act Turns 45 - Let's Keep It Strong »
Poisoning the Imperiled »
How Rachel Carson Helped Save the Brown Pelican »
National Wildlife Federation's Blog: EPA »

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