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Why We Need the US Environmental Protection Agency.

January 25, 2017

Today, President Donald Trump issued bans on communications on public media from employees of the US Environmental Protection Agency, The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. He also froze payments to contractor who carry out EPA policy as well as a freeze on grants issues by the EPA. I plan to write similar posts about the other departments but today I want to concentrate on what the Environmental Protection Agency has meant to the United States. A few caveats. I am not a historian and I am not an environmentalist. I will also draw some conclusions that I do not have the time to totally vet the way my scientific proclivities would have me. But I think it is important to expose people, unaware of the EPA’s functions, to the important contributions the EPA has made to their overall quality of life. That said, here goes.


The Cuyahoga River fire of 1952 (photo credit: Cleveland State University Library)

The US EPA was formed in 1971, largely as a response to what was perceived as the growing environmental crisis of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 and again in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, bringing the deterioration of our surface waters to the attention of the nation in a stark, visual way that tables of concentrations of pollutants never could. The publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in 1962, raised the alarm further. By 1970, a movement was underway that would result in the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. The next year, the agency was up and running with a charge

“To declare national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”

It did not take long for the agency to get to work, with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 that authorized the EPA “to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards” followed quickly by the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971, the testing of vehicle fuel economy (end of 1971), the ban on DDT (1972) and finally the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, or Ocean Dumping Act, both passed in 1972. In two years, the EPA had been given the ability to regulate air and water quality as well as the power to regulate one of the primary sources of environmental lead in children, and had moved, without legislative input, to remove a pesticide that was implicated in the decline of the bald eagle and other bird predators at the top of food webs and begin the nation’s move to greater fossil fuel efficiency. These actions very quickly led to safer air, safer water, safer homes, the recovery of bird species on the brink of extinction, and the first steps toward becoming more energy independent.

Now, one might argue about the effects of the formation of the EPA on these issues but one way in which scientists assess the effects of these types of unreplicated experiments is by examining trends that were occurring before the treatment and compare those trends to trends occurring after the treatment. What was happening to air quality before and after the formation of Clean Air Act of 1970? We can look at some data from Smith et al. (2011; Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 11:1101-1116).


What you will notice about this figure is that after the formation of the EPA, sulfur dioxide levels go steadily down. Another way to test whether and experimental treatment has an effect is to compare it to a control. In this case, a control would have to be another industrialized country that did not impose the experimental variable (regulations on air quality), for example…China. As you can see, China’s emissions continue to increase into the 21st Century.

Lead in gasoline began to be phased out on the basis of recommendations from the EPA in 1973. What happened to lead levels in children as a result of regulating lead in paints and gasoline? See below from Nevin (2000):


Beginning in the mid 1970s, lead in products (black line) has been declining. This curve correlates highly with blood levels in children. So, regulations reduced lead level. But Nevin (2000) goes further in claiming that lead levels are correlated (after accounting for time lags due to development of children into young adults) might be implicated in the decline in violent crime in the US (red and purple lines).

You can go and log onto the EPA website and look at their history of accomplishments but it should be clear that this is an agency that has been effective at safeguarding America’s waters, air and people for 46 years. Has this cost US industries money? Certainly. But these costs have been passed on to the people who benefit from the use of the products that created the pollution EPA regulations were designed to correct (I’ll talk more about internalizing costs and the economics of doing what is right in a later post). And in the process, the EPA has made us a much healthier nation.

My main point is that, if you want to drink clean safe water, if you care about the health of ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit those ecosystems, if you care about the safety of your children, if you care about the long-term viability of the American economy, if you never want to see a river literally on fire, then you need the EPA to continue to do its job free of partisan politics. Countless career scientists at the EPA have safeguarded Americans since 1971 and I think it would be a shame to lose that a mere 46 years after its founding.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2017 9:05 am

    I agree with you that the EPA has done a heckava job cleaning up our air and water. I don’t think that most on the right would say, “Hey, we really don’t want clean air and water.”

    The issue is that the EPA has also become a bureaucracy that churns out regulations that harm jobs. I think it is entirely appropriate to take a step back and say, “Hey, is the environmental benefit we might be getting from this regulation worth the cost in terms of money and jobs and people?”

    If you’re spending a buck to save a single endangered animal, most people would agree that’s probably a decent investment. If you’re spending a billion dollars for the same result … maybe not.

    A lot of people on the right feel that, under the previous administration, the EPA either didn’t do such evaluations or they slanted the analysis too far to the side of protecting the environment. I see Trump’s move as a prudent step.

    • January 25, 2017 10:43 am

      Hey, Thanks for reading and thanks for the reply. I get what you are saying with this. I have had this same conversation with colleagues before (spending a million dollars a year on a species that is probably doomed due to genetic bottlenecks for instance). But a lot of times the jobs thing is a red herring.

      My next post which I probably won’t get to until this weekend is going to be about economics and how companies can externalize costs of production by going overseas to produce a product in a place where there are fewer environmental regulations, fewer worker safety regulations, no benefits, lower wages, etc. and then sell that in the USA and people just buy it up because it is cheap even though it is cheap because the people selling it have externalized a certain amount of the cost of production to people who don’t get much benefit from the production and sell of the product. In the USA. Because we have benefits and safe work places and healthy environments to live in, things made in the USA cost more but that is at least partly because the costs of production are actually internalized into the cost of the product in more formal ways because of said regulations.

      So, if we want to have more risky workplaces for workers, pollute the environment, make people pay for their health care out of the $1.00 per hour wage (I am not sure what people in other countries make per hour, I should look it up and report a real value here), make them work until they die because they don’t have a retirement plan, use natural resources in unsustainable ways, etc., we should get rid of these regulations and productss made in America would become cheaper and on par with the cost of things made in China. But I think that is a race to the bottom, economically, that it would be hard to get people here on board with.

      • January 25, 2017 11:03 am

        It’s not a red herring when thousands of dollars and months to years are added to construction projects due to the necessity of completing a dubious environmental impact review.

        • January 26, 2017 2:58 pm

          We would have to unpack your post a little bit. If the environmental impact review is all that is at issue, this review does cost money, money that is well spent unless the review is truly dubious. So I guess I would need to know what the criteria of a “dubious” environmental impact statement is as opposed to a “non-dubious” environmental impact statement.


  1. Do EPA Regulations Cost Jobs? The resounding answer is NO. | sciencemalcontent
  2. On Externalizing Costs, or…The Price of My Couch | sciencemalcontent

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