Environmental Protection Agency Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Public demand for stronger federal involvement in environmental protection helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which became a focal point for the country in the development and execution of environmental policy and regulation. The agency consolidated federal regulatory responsibility for environmental protection, including human health, in one agency.

Summary of Event

On December 2, 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came into existence pursuant to Reorganization Plan Number 3 of 1970 and was given the lead environmental regulatory responsibility in the federal government. President Richard M. Nixon had submitted the reorganization plan to Congress in July, 1969, advising Congress that he proposed to consolidate the federal government’s environmental regulatory responsibilities in a single new agency. After holding hearings on the proposal, neither house of Congress passed a resolution of disapproval, and the reorganization plan became law. Two days after the new agency opened its doors, William D. Ruckelshaus was sworn in as its first administrator. Environmental policy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [kw]Environmental Protection Agency Is Created (Dec. 2, 1970) [kw]Agency Is Created, Environmental Protection (Dec. 2, 1970) Environmental policy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [g]North America;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] [g]United States;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] [c]Environmental issues;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] [c]Health and medicine;Dec. 2, 1970: Environmental Protection Agency Is Created[11030] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy Ash, Roy L. Ruckelshaus, William D. Train, Russell E.

The establishment of the EPA was closely related to a number of factors and developments that marked the late 1960’s and early 1970’s: a rising tide of public concern about environmental degradation that culminated in the first Earth Day; congressional interest in, and activity concerning, environmental issues; and presidential initiatives to examine the organization of the executive branch and to address public concerns about the environment.

The first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) came in the wake of a series of well-publicized environmental problems and manifested a growing public concern about the state and future of the natural environment. A number of pollution-related disasters had taken place earlier in the century, but the frequency and extent of environmental problems appeared to increase in the late 1960’s. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames as a result of the pollution in its waters; a major offshore oil well blew up, spilling oil on the beaches of Santa Barbara, California; Lake Erie was described as a dying lake; and the continued existence of the national bird—the American bald eagle—was threatened by the widespread use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). These problems and events, among others, helped prompt a growing public demand for action to prevent further environmental degradation.

Congress responded to public concern about the state of the environment. In 1969, it passed the National Environmental Policy Act National Environmental Policy Act (1969) , which was signed by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, and in mid-1970 it passed the comprehensive Clean Air Act. Early 1970 also saw Congress discuss the need to create a federal environmental agency. In April, Senator Edmund Muskie Muskie, Edmund of Maine, widely seen as a possible presidential contender in 1972, introduced a bill that provided for such an agency and was fairly successful in gaining support in the Senate for the concept.

From the beginning of Nixon’s first term in 1969, there had been internal administration discussion about the desirability of creating a single entity for environmental affairs, triggered in part by the planning for the first Earth Day and other environmental stirrings. Among the questions considered were the prospective scope of such an agency and how it might be created and organized.

The early focal point of the administration’s research was the President’s Advisory Council On Executive Organization President’s Advisory Council On Executive Organization[Presidents Advisory Council On Executive Organization] (named the Ash Council Ash Council for its chairman, Roy L. Ash), which was charged with analyzing the structure of the executive branch and making recommendations for reorganization. The initial reorganization plan developed by the Ash Council did not include a separate environmental regulatory agency but envisioned four “super” departments, including a department of natural resources. This department was to comprise the current Department of the Interior along with some major programs in the Department of Agriculture (such as the Forest Service and the Soil and Conservation Service), the Department of Commerce’s Weather Service, and various other programs from other departments and agencies.

At the same time, the need for central coordination of federal pollution-control efforts was recognized by both Nixon and Ash. Accordingly, in the late spring of 1969, Nixon created the Cabinet Committee on the Environment. The purpose of this committee was to allow the various departments and agencies that held responsibility concerning the environment to communicate about problems and coordinate their programs. This effort was less than successful, however, and its role diminished later in the year with the formation of the Council on Environmental Quality Council on Environmental Quality, U.S. (CEQ) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. The CEQ’s chairman, Russell E. Train, became a coordinator of executive branch policies concerning pollution control and the environment.

In November, 1969, the Ash Council was formally assigned the task of assessing the effectiveness of combining all federal environmental responsibilities in one agency. The council found that pollution control responsibilities were widely dispersed among existing departments and agencies and that there was no centralized focal point for the various pollution-control activities in the federal government. The Federal Water Quality Administration in the Department of the Interior (DOI) was responsible for controlling pollution of surface waters. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;pollution (HEW) managed the National Air Pollution Administration, the Bureau of Water Hygiene (which dealt with drinking water), the Bureau of Solid Waste Management, and the Bureau of Radiological Health.

Federal responsibilities for regulating pesticides were split among three different departments: The Department of Agriculture was in charge of pesticide registration, HEW had responsibility for regulating pesticide residues on food, and the DOI focused on the possible effects of pesticides on fish and wildlife. Other environmental responsibilities related to radiation were vested in the Executive Office of the President and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). CEQ also had certain responsibilities for the study of ecological systems.

Although Ash initially had favored a single department with responsibility for environmental protection and natural resource management, in April, 1970, he formally recommended that an independent regulatory agency be created to focus solely on environmental protection. In May, Nixon chose to create an environmental protection agency in the form that the Ash Council had recommended. The Ash Council and the newly created Office of Management and Budget (OMB) then collaborated to prepare a formal reorganization plan setting out the proposed reorganization. The plan was approved by the president in early June. In July, 1970, he advised Congress of his intent to create an autonomous environmental regulatory agency to be known as the Environmental Protection Agency. Reorganization Plan Number 3 of 1970, presented to Congress on July 9, indicated that responsibilities from three departments as well as from a number of agencies, councils, a commission, and various offices would be consolidated to create the EPA.

Congressional hearings on the reorganization plan were held in late July and early August before the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Executive and Legislative Reorganization and the Senate Government Operations Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization and Government Research. Train and Ash were the lead witnesses for the administration. Senate reaction was generally favorable. The House presented more potential problems because a number of key committee chairs were opposed to the transfer of certain programs over which they had jurisdiction. Congressman John D. Dingell Dingell, John D. of Michigan suggested that instead of creating the EPA, a more comprehensive cabinet-level department of environmental quality be created.

In September, both congressional subcommittees approved the president’s proposal and issued favorable reports. In late September, the House, by voice vote, defeated a resolution that would have formally disapproved of the reorganization plan. This cleared the way for the formal establishment of the EPA on December 2, 1970.

While Congress was considering the reorganization proposal, a task force in the OMB designed the structure of the new agency and developed the detailed plans for bringing it into existence, including the transfer of employees and legal authorities. On November 6, Nixon had announced that he would nominate William D. Ruckelshaus to be the first administrator of the EPA. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, Ruckelshaus was serving as the assistant attorney general for the civil division in the Department of Justice. Earlier in his career, he had served as Indiana’s deputy attorney general with responsibilities for air- and water-pollution matters. Confirmation hearings were held on December 1 and 2, and Ruckelshaus was sworn in as the first administrator of the EPA on December 4.

Initially, the EPA was staffed by about 5,700 employees who were transferred, along with programs and responsibilities, from other departments and agencies. Gradually, this workforce was supplemented by new employees hired directly by the agency.

The first organization plan for the EPA was approved by the EPA administrator on December 15. Although the plan was later altered, basic elements of the structure of the original plan were carried over into plans that followed. In April, 1971, the agency’s organization was amended.


The creation of the EPA in 1970 was a signal event in U.S. environmental history. It illustrated government officials’ response to a strong public demand that the federal government take an enhanced, vigorous, and coordinated approach to protection of the environment. With the establishment of the EPA, the country found a focal point for the development and execution of environmental policy and regulation. Over the decade of the 1970’s, Congress enacted major environmental legislation dealing with air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, drinking water, toxic substances, and solid and hazardous wastes, and it charged the EPA with implementing these enhanced authorities.

The EPA’s creation was also important internationally. The United States was one of the first nations in the world to vest responsibility for protection of the environment in a separate and visible government agency headed by a high-level official appointed by a chief executive. At the time, the United States was assuming a leadership role in the development of environmental policies worldwide, and the EPA was studied as a possible model for other countries to follow.

Finally, in selecting Ruckelshaus as the first administrator, Nixon chose an individual who was fairly successful in dealing with the political and practical problems involved in establishing a new agency, in projecting an aggressive posture in dealing with environmental problems, and in communicating with the public and Congress about the new agency and its mission. The EPA, through concentration of responsibility for the environment in a single agency, sought holistic approaches to environmental issues. Environmental policy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning up America’s Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides a history of the Environmental Protection Agency and its legislative and regulative powers. Discusses notable cases, controversies, key EPA staff, and the EPA’s future, and provides a chronology of key events in the agency’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quarles, John. Cleaning Up America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Quarles’s firsthand account of what it was like to be involved in the EPA in the early 1970’s. Contains a brief history of the agency’s creation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoenbrod, David. Saving Our Environment from Washington: How Congress Grabs Power, Shirks Responsibility, and Shortchanges the People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Takes a highly critical journey through the U.S. government’s environmental protection labyrinth, with condemnations along the way. Schoenbrod, an environmentalist, argues that the environment can be “saved” not by EPA bureaucracy but by state and local legislatures (and even Congress).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Senate. Nomination of William D. Ruckelshaus: Hearings Before the Committee on Public Works. 91st Congress, 2d session, 1970. A transcript of the hearings that preceded William Ruckelshaus’s confirmation as the first administrator of the EPA. A detailed source of information that shows the concerns and views of the members of the Senate as the agency was being launched as well as the views, aspirations, and intentions of its first administrator.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Inspector General. EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement. Washington, D.C.: Author, August 23, 2003. A report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, on the EPA’s response to health emergencies in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. The 165-page document is available at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2003/wtc/toc.htm/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Dennis C. The Guardian: EPA’s Formative Years, 1970-1973. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency History Program, 1993. A concise description of the formation and structuring of the Environmental Protection Agency. Outlines the background of decisions made concerning the environment in the agency’s early years. Also discusses the history of the transfer of responsibilities from other departments and agencies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Guardian: Origins of the EPA. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency History Program, 1992. Presents the environmental concerns and the developments in environmental policy that preceded the EPA and briefly discusses the origins of the agency. Also describes the EPA’s first administrator and his appointment. Presents the agency’s history in a concise, straightforward manner.

Truman Creates the Bureau of Land Management

Congress Passes the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act

Clean Air Act Grants Federal Authority to Regulate Air Pollution

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Wilderness Act Is Passed

Congress Strengthens Water Laws

Solid Waste Disposal Act Is Passed

Congress Passes the Endangered Species Preservation Act

Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution

Johnson Establishes North Cascades National Park

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

DDT Ban Signals New Environmental Awareness

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Categories: History