This Is A Story About The EPA’s Success. Weirdly, The EPA Didn’t Want To Talk To Us About It.

"When this all started, there were rivers on fire from debris and pollutants.”

Few groups have earned as much praise for America's clean air and water as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, we decided to take a look back at the EPA's contributions over the years toward making our planet safer and more habitable. Both Earth Day and the EPA were established in 1970, when public concern about taking care of the environment was so overwhelming that Republican President Richard Nixon, a Democratic Congress and the United Nations simultaneously felt a need to take action.

Today, though, the nonpartisan, unified push for environmental protections seems like a distant memory. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to roll back environmental regulations, even pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Partisan infighting in Congress has left environmental legislation in limbo. Oddly, while we were reporting this story, the agency itself seemed reluctant to go on the record in an interview about its own previously publicized successes.

Foam on the polluted Androscoggin River.  06/1973
Foam on the polluted Androscoggin River.  06/1973 Charles Steinhacker / US National Archives

"When you think back to when the EPA was formed and when this all started, there were rivers on fire from debris and pollutants," Ruth Greenspan Bell, who served as assistant general counsel in two different departments at the EPA from 1979 through 1996, told A Plus. "There were cities where it was really hard to breathe — think about Pittsburgh. I was raised in Los Angeles, and sometimes the air was literally visible. You could actually see the air."

Christine Whitman, a former EPA administrator and onetime governor of New Jersey, echoed Bell's sentiment in an interview with A Plus. Whitman referenced the 1960s, when lakes and streams were so acidic that they killed trees, and garbage dumps were "all over the place" in every corner of the country. 

Detroit Lake Shown at an all-time Low in the fall of 1973. David Falconer / EPA.
Detroit Lake Shown at an all-time Low in the fall of 1973. David Falconer / EPA.

As the EPA began its work in the 1970s, it hired freelance photographers to document how America looked when there was little legislation to safeguard the environment. We have included those images throughout this article.

From 2001 to 2003, during her time as EPA administrator, Whitman oversaw initiatives like the first-ever State of the Environment report and the implementation of legislation that cut admissions from off-road diesel engines by 95 percent. At the time, Whitman says the National Resources Defense Council called those emission cuts "probably the most positive step for human health since we had taken lead out of gasoline."

A tongue-in-cheek sign during the energy crisis. 11/1973. David Falconer / EPA.
A tongue-in-cheek sign during the energy crisis. 11/1973. David Falconer / EPA.

Today, though, most Americans take for granted the fact that they can safely jump into rivers for a swim, drink water from their faucet and breathe in the air, Bell said. That didn't just happen. The EPA has been pushing legislation since 1970 to reduce pollutants, lower the acidity of rivers and streams, and clean up massive waste spills across the country.

In its 48-year history, the EPA has overseen the evolution of legislation like the Clean Air Act, originally written in 1963 and considered today to be one of the most important environmental laws in U.S. history, as well as an amendment to an earlier law that became the Clean Water Act. Its achievements are diverse: it classified secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, established programs specifically designed to protect children from pollutants, and supported the pursuit of clean energy programs and innovation. The EPA's oil spill prevention program mandates that facilities storing large amounts of oil and fuel have a written plan in the event of a spill. The EPA's Safer Choice Program gives consumers the option to purchase more environmentally friendly products. All of these separate but related bills and programs were pushed forward by the EPA to pull America out from a toxic environment that was once much closer to the norm. 

A paper mill and a metal plant on the Columbia river. 04/1973. David Falconer / EPA.
A paper mill and a metal plant on the Columbia river. 04/1973. David Falconer / EPA.

But with the appointment of Administrator Scott Pruitt, who spent years as Oklahoma's attorney general suing the EPA for attempts to regulate mercury and pollution, the agency has been in a kind of existential crisis. Environmental activists have described it as the "fox guarding the henhouse," and Pruitt appears to be on a mission to slow-walk the implementation of new regulations and roll back old ones. 

While reporting this story, A Plus approached the EPA for an interview with a current EPA employee — any EPA employee — regarding the EPA's major successes over the past five decades.  Over the course of a two-day email chain, an EPA press officer offered A Plus a press release from mid-2017 touting air quality progress ascribed to the Clean Air Act, followed by a link to the EPA's 2017-2018 Year in Review report and an excerpt from Pruitt's 2017 testimony to a House subcommittee. 

Both Whitman, who used to have Pruitt's job, and Bell found the EPA's apparent lack of interest in talking up its own success in an interview odd. Whitman speculated that it might be the result of internal pressure.

Pruitt testifies to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in D.C. on Jan. 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
Pruitt testifies to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in D.C. on Jan. 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

"Morale is very low and they don't want to get their heads chopped off," Whitman said of current EPA employees. "If they get noticed, seen, call any attention to themselves, they get sent away to various assignments… they're scared to do anything."

"The current leadership is very challenged by the notion that EPA actually did its job and did it well," Bell said.

A Plus reached out to the EPA for comment on whether there is any pressure within the organization for individual employees to avoid commenting on past successes, regulatory or otherwise. The EPA did not respond to follow-up questions by time of publication.

Whitman believes regulations — and their enforcement — are key to a sustainably livable environment.

"I've got 7 grandchildren and I want them to live healthy lives," Whitman said. "All you have to do is look at Flint, Michigan and see what a disaster that was, and that's because we weren't enforcing regulations."

Cub Pack 16 cleans up beach litter in Portland. 04/1973. David Falconer / EPA.
Cub Pack 16 cleans up beach litter in Portland. 04/1973. David Falconer / EPA.

While Whitman and Bell are both concerned for the EPA, they expressed optimism that the people pursuing a healthy environment — both inside the agency and out — will prevail. Whitman is now the president of The Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm specializing in energy and environmental issues. She emphasized that although recent deregulation by the EPA made for splashy headlines, she's not so sure that it will hold up in court. In order for implemented regulation to be overturned, new evidence should be presented that it's no longer needed. She did note, however, that she believes efforts to slow-walk new regulations are allowing bad actors to go unpunished, which she thinks will take years to undo.

Bell, who is now the president of the Environmental Protection Network, a bipartisan coalition of environmental scientists and policy wonks formed in 2017 in response to threats to the EPA budget, expressed optimism too. But for a simpler reason.

"The American public likes clean air and they like clean water," Bell said. "I think what's going on right now is a detour … but I do feel pretty confident that we're going to get through this and we're all going to go back to work. The EPA is doing only what Congress tells them to do, and it is doing it well."

Cover image via Environmental Protection Agency.

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