Environment

11 Ways the EPA Has Helped Americans

Trump wants to demolish a federal agency that has played a crucial role in American history.

11 Ways the EPA Has Helped Americans

A view of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters on March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The budget proposal Donald Trump’s administration announced yesterday will slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding by nearly a third, crippling an agency that has played a key — but often unnoticed — role in American life for nearly a half-century.

The main target of the president’s ire seems to be the agency’s programs that address climate change. “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said at a press conference. But cuts so large won’t just affect climate change-related programs — they will trickle down, affecting all of the agency’s work and the state environmental protection offices it supports.

Even Scott Pruitt, Trump’s climate science-denying EPA administrator, seems to feel Trump’s cuts go too far. When an initial budget proposal surfaced slashing the EPA’s funding from $8.2 billion to $6 billion, Pruitt expressed concern about the effect a reduced budget would have on programs aimed at cleaning up and repurposing toxic and polluted sites, a function of the agency that he supports. The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and Coral Davenport report that Pruitt lobbied Trump to rethink the cuts, but his appeal, apparently, didn’t work: Trump’s finalized budget flouts his EPA administrator’s wishes by calling for even deeper cuts than initially proposed, slashing the agency’s budget to about $5.7 billion.

That budget isn’t final. It will still have to get through a Congress where even Republicans who have staunchly opposed the agency in the past are worried about what the funding cuts will mean for their districts. So, given that some in Congress might be deciding if and when to take a stand, we thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of what the EPA has accomplished over the last 46 years since Richard Nixon signed an executive order in 1970 bringing the agency into existence. These successes were, almost unanimously, won despite the strenuous and well-financed objections of recalcitrant polluters, and are, almost unanimously, now taken for granted.

 
1. Patching the Ozone Hole

Remember the ozone hole? We don’t really either. But ozone concerns were front-and-center in the ‘80s when, frighteningly, scientists discovered that pollution was causing the part of the upper atmosphere that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to deteriorate. The issue came to a head when, in 1985, British scientists announced that an expanding hole had formed in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

The president at the time was Ronald Reagan, a zealous proponent of deregulation who did not seem to have strong feelings about environmental protection. But he surprised his advisers by vigorously backing the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty between 197 nations that banned chlorofluorocarbons, a chemical that was used as a refrigerant and was also found aerosol sprays, and was to blame for the hole. (Why did Reagan take up the cause? No one is quite sure. One theory is that Reagan’s own experience with skin cancer made him particularly sensitive to the topic.)

Once the Montreal Protocol was signed, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to give the EPA the power to enforce a ban on chlorofluorocarbons and protect the ozone layer. The agency’s success in doing so, along with the efforts of environmental regulators worldwide, helped the hole begin to repair itself — and also, it turns out, lessened climate change. Though scientists didn’t realize it at the time, chlorofluorocarbons contribute to global warming. If not for the Montreal Protocol, climate change’s effects might be twice as bad.

Susan Soloman of NOAA Aeronomy Lab and Rod Jones of the UK Meteorological Office review tests of Arctic ozone. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Susan Soloman of NOAA Aeronomy Lab and Rod Jones of the UK Meteorological Office review tests of Arctic ozone in 1989. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 
2. Cleaning up America’s Harbors

When the EPA was created in 1970, the water around America’s cities was in a notably different state than it is today. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was, famously, so thick with combustible industrial chemicals that it often caught fire. Manhattan was dumping some 150 million gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River each day. Around the same time, a failing wastewater treatment plant in Boston was also spitting out huge amounts of sludge, leading health officials to warn that anyone who fell into Boston’s Charles River or the harbor it emptied into should go immediately to the hospital to be assessed by a doctor.

It was the EPA’s job to deal with these problems. The Clean Water Act of 1972 charged the agency with cleaning up America’s waters, and provided billions of dollars to do so. Among other responsibilities, the EPA was tasked with laying down minimum standards for wastewater treatment before cities could release it. The EPA was also responsible for regulating city sewer systems so they didn’t overflow, spilling sewage into the streets during heavy rains.

This made a big difference in America’s cities. New York brought a large, new sewage treatment plant online in 1986, solving Manhattan’s dumping problem. In Boston, a series of lawsuits prompted federal action. “Secondary treatment of sewage is a national standard, which means no more Boston Harbors,” said Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell, who, as a former commissioner of Massachusetts’s Department of Environmental Protection, worked hand-in-hand with the EPA to clean up the water around the city. Boston Harbor is now one of the cleanest in the country.

 

(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Tires litter Baltimore Harbor in 1973. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

 
3. Cracking Down on Lead

For years, industrial players who used lead fought regulation, with disastrous effects for Americans. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 people died each year from lead-related heart disease. Tackling lead poisoning was one of the agency’s founding agenda items, and it did so over strenuous objections from the industries that put it in their products. The metal is now virtually illegal, leading to dramatic improvements in public health.

Legislation in the 1970s effectively banned lead from paint, and a 1985 EPA order required that the amount of lead in gasoline be cut by 90 percent by the following year. Five years later, a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act demanded that lead be completely removed from gasoline by 1995. The EPA also reduced the amount of lead that could be emitted by smelters, mines and other industrial operations, leading to an 85 percent decrease in the amount of airborne lead pollution between 1990 and 2015.

The effort, of course, was imperfect. A December 2016 Reuters report following Flint, Michigan’s lead crisis found 1,100 areas around the country where lead levels were regularly four times what they were at the peak of Flint’s contamination. Many, like Flint, were in poor regions neglected by state and federal policymakers. Unlike other toxic chemicals, lead does not break down over time. But the agency’s efforts did have an enormous effect. A 2002 study found that the level of lead in young children’s blood fell by more than 80 percent from 1976 to 1999, and that IQs increased as a result.

 

Traffic in Cincinnati, August 1973. Lead was banned from paint in the 1970s but remained in gasoline until the '90s. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Traffic in Cincinnati, August 1973. Lead was banned from paint in the 1970s but remained in gasoline until the ’90s. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

 
4. Making the Air Safe to Breathe

The agency also cracked down on other forms of air pollution, leading to a decrease in particulate matter and chemicals in the air that cause asthma. Their efforts meant a visible decrease in the smog that often choked cities in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

To do this, the agency cracked down on vehicle emissions and the pollutants coming from the smokestacks of factories and power plants. As the number of miles Americans travel per year has steadily climbed and the amount of power Americans consume has grown, emissions have fallen.

That saved hundreds of thousands of lives per year, and meant millions fewer cases of asthma and respiratory diseases. According to a peer-reviewed EPA study, these regulations in particular meant 165,000 fewer deaths per year in 2010 than in 1990 and 1.7 million fewer cases of asthma. One recent study found that, thanks to these air pollution controls, children in Southern California have lungs that are 10 percent larger and stronger than children’s lungs were 20 years ago.

 

The George Washington Bridge in heavy smog, photographed during the early 1970s before many of today's clean air protections were put in place. This photograph is part of the Environmental Protection Agency's series to

The George Washington Bridge in heavy smog, photographed during the early 1970s before many of today’s clean air protections were put in place. This photograph is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s series to “Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern,” compiled 1972-77. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives/Flickr)

 
5. Cleaning Up Industrialism’s Legacy

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, residents of Love Canal, New York noticed an odd smell coming from the 99th Street School. And they noticed that odd things were happening too: Childrens’ sneakers melted to the pavement; dogs burned their nose when they sniffed it. Turns out, the school was built on top of a toxic waste dump. The “canal” for which the town is named was filled with toxic waste by the Hooker Chemical Company for three decades — 22,000 tons in all — before, in 1955, the area was paved over and a school was built on top of it. The chemical company had sold the property to the city for $1 — part of the deal, the “Hooker clause,” was that the company would not be liable if anyone got sick or died in the school.

When residents of Love Canal uncovered this sordid history, it provoked national outrage. Efforts to regulate toxic chemicals had already been in the works — in 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as part of an effort to respond to concerns about illegal, toxic dumping, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, which gave the EPA the authority to protect public health by regulating toxic chemicals. But in 1980, largely in response to Love Canal and other toxic disasters that garnered headlines, Congress established a program to make use of a “superfund” that would clean up America’s most toxic places, and throughout the ’80s the EPA put the money to work, cleaning up heavily polluted sites from landfills to oil spills, factory fires to sludge pits, throughout the US. A program for less-urgent but still important cases, the Brownfields Program, was launched in 1995, tasked with cleaning up sites where contamination was an impediment to putting a vacant property to better use.

These programs, taken together, amounted to a formalized, government-supported environmental justice initiative, improving toxic sites that were unjustly distributed across America’s poor and minority neighborhoods. But, in recent years, shrinking appropriations from congress have slowed cleanup efforts.

 

Rusty oil cans near a home in Broad Channel, Queens in May 1973. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Rusty oil cans near a home in Broad Channel, Queens in May 1973. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

 
6. Making Water Safe to Drink

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, giving the EPA the ability to regulate the water that came out of Americans’ taps. The agency ended up banning more than 90 contaminants from the water supply and cracking down on companies whose business practices poisoned Americans.

The EPA also issues “revolving funds” to communities to for improvements to the infrastructure that brings water to homes and to water supplies.

 

Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that came from her well, and filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company, Steubenville (Jefferson County, Ohio), 1973. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Mary Workman holds a jar of undrinkable water that came from her well, and filed a damage suit against the Hanna Coal Company, Steubenville (Jefferson County, Ohio), 1973. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

 
7. Controlling Pesticides

The EPA has also played a role in regulating pesticides, which helps keep our food safe. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, a law that dates back to the Progressive Era, was put under EPA’s responsibility in 1972.

One of the agency’s first acts was to ban DDT, a pesticide that first came into use in the 1940s but poisoned wildlife and humans as well as bugs. The chemical’s effects were, famously, documented in Rachel Carson’s 1962 New Yorker serial Silent Spring, but the chemical industry, lead by Monsanto, fought bitterly to keep it in use. The EPA’s decision to ban it was a major environmental victory.

 

Portrait of American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907-64) in her office in Maryland, August 1962. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Portrait of American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907-64) in her office in Maryland, August 1962. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 
8. Attacking Acid Rain

We heard a lot about acid rain in the ’90s but don’t so much anymore. Congress took up the issue in 1990 — George H.W. Bush had, in fact, campaigned on addressing it. Despite opposition from electric utilities, Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Air Act so that the EPA could regulate the chemicals that were to blame: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

It worked. “Despite the doomsday warnings from some in the power industry that the regulations would cause electricity prices to spike and lead to blackouts, over the last 25 years, acid rain levels are down 60 percent — while electricity prices have stayed stable, and the lights have stayed on,” former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in 2015.

 

 
9. Paving the Way for Indoor Smoking Bans

Back in 1993, the EPA, in response to overwhelming research, classified secondhand smoke as a pollutant likely to cause cancer. At the time, this position was braver than it might seem today. Tobacco companies had waged a multidecade-long campaign to keep Americans smoking by questioning the link between cigarettes and cancer, even going so far as to suppress their own internal research that indicated otherwise.

The following year, tobacco CEOs admitted in testimony before Congress that cigarettes were dangerous, though their lobbying efforts against regulation would continue for years (a PR effort spearheaded by, among others, Myron Ebell, who resurfaced on Trump’s EPA transition team). But the EPA’s decision prompted a wave of city- and statewide indoor smoking bans; the majority of states now have them in place. And in the decade and a half following the EPA classification, the number of Americans who smoke — and, in particular, the number of high school-aged Americans who smoke — decreased dramatically.

 

A cigarette hangs from a smoker's hand in a Times Square bar in August 2002. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A cigarette hangs from a smoker’s hand in a Times Square bar in August 2002. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

 
10. Building a Cache of Public Data

One of the EPA’s greatest resources is the vast supply of information it has collected over four decades, some of which is available to the public through the internet. This data provides excellent documentation of the threat posed by climate change, but it isn’t limited to that. Spread across dozens of databases, the numbers include such information as the chemical compositions of various toxic pollutants and the locations in the US that those pollutants affect. The databases document the trends in air and water pollution, acid rain and the health of beaches and watersheds. It tracks which companies have been inspected and cited for enforcement.

Scientists are worried about the fate of this data under Trump, and have been scrambling to preserve it. “There is no reason to think the data is safe,” Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently told The Guardian. “The administration, so far, hasn’t given any indication it will respect science and scientific data, especially when it’s inconvenient to its policy agendas.”

 

An EPA scientist examines a water sample. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

An EPA scientists examines a water sample. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

 
11. Beginning to Address Climate Change

The US government’s effort to address the greatest climate threat to face the modern world will — at least for the time being — be cut short. But during Barack Obama’s second term, the EPA began the work of figuring out what serious US efforts to address climate change would look like. In the face of an intransigent Congress, Obama ordered the agency to take the lead, and under Administrator Gina McCarthy it did, drawing up plans to, among other things, raise the number of miles per gallon gas vehicles were required to achieve and to cut pollution from US power plants.

Both of those initiatives will be tossed out by the Trump administration. While they were on the books, they were enough of an indication of America’s commitment to dealing with the climate crisis that other large polluting nations — notably China — came to the negotiating table in good faith. That lead to the Paris Agreement, a pact that the US looks likely to either pull out of or ignore, but that the world appears likely to continue to uphold without us.

 

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, signs a power plant regulation proposal during a news conference in Washington, DC, on June 2, 2014. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, signs a power plant regulation proposal during a news conference in Washington, DC, on June 2, 2014. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

John Light

Reporter/Producer

John Light is a reporter and digital producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.