Environmental Protection Agency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates and punishes companies whose practices damage the environment, while it encourages businesses to research and develop environmentally friendly technologies and products. Its oversight has forced many companies to change the way they do business, costing individual firms money but saving the nation billions of dollars in environmental damage control.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grew out of the Environmental movementenvironmental movement of the 1960’s. Books such as Rachel Carson, RachelCarson’s Silent Spring (1962)Silent Spring (1962) had alerted the public to the environmental dangers of certain pesticides produced by American chemical companies. By 1970, the U.S. Congress had passed laws designed to protect humans and their environment from chemical pollutants, but these laws had been administered piecemeal through a variety of federal programs. In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon issued Executive Order 11548 and Reorganization Plan No. 3, which unified these programs under the aegis of the Environmental Protection Agency. After this reorganizational plan met with congressional approval, the EPA began operations on December 2, 1970.Environmental Protection Agency

Mission of the Agency

The EPA’s purpose was to conserve pristine air, water, and land where they existed and to return polluted air, water, and land to a healthy state, while educating the public about the risks of environmental degradation and how these risks could be minimized and managed. William D. Ruckelshaus, William D.Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator, viewed his primary duty as protecting the environment, not as promoting American business interests, and during the EPA’s early years a contentious state existed between the agency and many of the businesses that were sometimes adversely affected by the agency’s regulations. American businesses and the public had for some time been grappling with frequently contradictory aspirations for a clean environment and a prosperous economy.

Even before the EPA began functioning, the Clean Air Act of 1970Clean Air Act of 1970 had been signed into law, giving the new organization formidable power to create and implement national air-quality standards. These standards had a direct effect on those “smokestack industries” that polluted the air. The Clean Water Act of 1972Clean Water Act of 1972 had an effect on those industries that traditionally dumped their wastes into rivers. When the EPA banned the insecticide DDT, banning ofdichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) in 1972, chemical companies were forced to develop alternatives. Officials in some American businesses objected to the costs of developing environmentally friendly (or “green”) products, and they asserted that some banned substances were irreplaceable.

Some American industries responded to EPA regulations by forming organizations, such as the American Industrial Health Council, to challenge the regulations they found particularly burdensome. The Chemical Industry Institute of ToxicologyChemical Industry Institute of Toxicology was founded to support scientific research to generate data that would counter what businesses viewed as an exaggeratedly negative estimation of many of their successful chemical products. Even coin laundry centers, restaurants, gas stations, and other small businesses that generated pollutants experienced the restrictive regulations of the EPA.

Despite objections from the business community, the EPA’s regulatory powers continued to increase during the 1970’s. For example, in 1976, Congress passed the Resource, Conservation, and Recovery Act of 1976Resource, Conservation, and Recovery Act (RCRA), which empowered the EPA to oversee the production, transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes. Congress also passed the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which gave the EPA regulatory power over the production and use of toxic substances.

EPA coordinator Robert Wise points at a creek bed at the Greka Oil and Gas site in Santa Maria, California, that was contaminated with hazardous waste. The EPA engaged in a two-month cleanup in 2008.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

During the late 1970’s, hazardous wastes that had been buried by Hooker Chemical Corporation at Love Canal incidentLove Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, were discovered to pose a health threat to many local families, who were relocated at great government expense. The Love Canal incident provoked a controversy that eventually led Congress to enact the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. Commonly known as the Superfund, the act provided financing for hazardous waste cleanups, and it authorized the EPA to find toxic-waste sites and prosecute companies responsible for the contamination.

Controversies and Politicization

After Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he sought to reduce government bureaucracies and minimize their interference in American business. He appointed Anne Burford to head the EPA and put his policies into effect there. Burford’s policies, especially her handling of the Superfund program, were heavily criticized by public interest groups, leading to a congressional investigation that uncovered illegal collusion between EPA officials and polluting companies. Burford was forced to resign in 1983. Ruckelshaus returned as the EPA’s administrator, and he oversaw the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1986, which increased cleanup funding, as well as providing the agency with greater legal authority to prosecute polluting companies.

During the 1980’s, the EPA increased its cooperation with the states, businesses, and international organizations to better achieve its mission. Environmental issues were the subjects of nearly one-third of all federal legislative mandates affecting the states. EPA officials also reduced their reliance on inflexible “command and control” regulations and shifted to market-based methods of enhancing environmental quality, such as tradable permit systems, which were used in programs designed to phase out asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

For smokestack industries, the EPA permitted emissions banking, in which businesses earned credits for keeping their pollutants below a certain level. Incentives were also offered to companies to create green technologies. In 1992, the EPA and various businesses helped introduce the Energy Star program to aid consumers in identifying energy-efficient appliances and products. Through such cooperative measures as the Design for Environmental Progress and the Green Chemistry Program, the EPA sought to stimulate the creation and dissemination of green technologies and chemicals.

Perhaps the most serious environmental problem confronting American businesses and the EPA is global warming. Most scientists agree that economies deeply dependent on fossil fuels have been increasing the carbon dioxide content of Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a rise in the average global temperature with possible dire consequences for coastal cities, agriculture, and the survival of many wildlife species. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, EPA officials, politicians, businesspeople, and the public were becoming sensitive to the need for everyone to cooperate so that these environmental problems could be solved. A sign of such collaboration was Partners for the Environment, a collection of national and regional projects promoted by the EPA and involving more than eleven thousand organizations.

The EPA began as a large organization, with about fifty-seven hundred employees and a $4.2 billion budget. By the early twenty-first century, it employed more than eighteen thousand people and had an annual budget in excess of $7 billion. During its relatively brief existence, the EPA has achieved notable success, bringing Americans cleaner urban air, more swimmable lakes and fishable rivers, and a reduction in the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes. American businesses have begun to participate–some reluctantly, others with enthusiasm–in the EPA’s efforts to improve the environment. However, no single policy, market-based or conventional, is appropriate for all environmental problems. Because no federal or commercial panaceas exist, the EPA must continue to analyze each environmental problem and determine the best way to solve it.

Further Reading
  • Anderson, Terry L., and Donald L. Leal. Free Market Environmentalism. 1991. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Explains how markets can be used to improve environmental quality.
  • Cohen, Steven. Understanding Environmental Policy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Uses case studies, such as “Why Companies Let Valuable Gasoline Leak Out of Underground Tanks,” to explore the relationship between businesses and regulatory agencies such as the EPA. References and index.
  • Eisner, Marc Allen. Governing the Environment: The Transformation of Environmental Regulation. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2007. Argues that future improvements in environmental quality will require “the integration of public regulation and private sector initiatives.” Bibliography and index.
  • Morgenstern, Richard D., ed. Economic Analyses at EPA: Assessing Regulatory Impact. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1997. Experts assess the role that cost-benefit analyses have played in the EPA’s decision-making in such controversial areas as regulating lead in gasoline and water, asbestos, and stratospheric ozone depletion. No index.
  • Sussman, Glenn, Byron W. Daynes, and Jonathan P. West. American Politics and the Environment. New York: Longman, 2002. Explores how political decisions affecting the environment are made within political institutions, such as the EPA. Bibliographic references and index.

DDT banning

U.S. Department of Energy

U.S. Department of the Interior

Occupational Safety and Health Act

Tobacco industry

Water resources

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