The Disaster at Love Canal

In the 1920s, an abandoned canal and failed model town near Niagara Falls, N.Y., became a chemical dump site. The surrounding area grew over the decades and in 1953, the city of Love Canal, desperate for extra land, purchased the covered dump site from Hooker Chemical Company for one dollar. The company, which had alerted the city to the waste, covered the toxins with a layer of clay. By the late 1970s, several breeches of the buried canal and torrential rains brought the chemicals to the surface. EPA witnesses reported dead vegetation and puddles of waste in yards and school grounds. Even more alarming was the city's high rate of birth defects, miscarriages, illnesses and white-blood-cell counts. President Jimmy Carter approved federal aid for victims of the disaster and evacuated much of the town.

Shortly after the Love Canal disaster and a similar incident at Times Beach, Mo. in the 1980s, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) instituted Superfund. Superfund is an environmental initiative that authorizes the EPA to evacuate populations, perform emergency removal actions and pursue polluters. The agency also maintains a National Priorities List (NPL) of known dangerous sites.

History of the EPA

By the 1960s, the United States was poisoning itself with pesticides. National parks and crops gave a false impression of healthy, vibrant agriculture but hid chemicals that were destroying the environment. Pesticides were killing insects and animals as well as threatening human health. In 1962, the naturalist Rachel Carson wrote a book that catalyzed the environmental movement. "Silent Spring," serialized in the New Yorker and eventually a New York Times best-seller, documented the detrimental effects of DDT, a synthetic pesticide, and other chemical compounds that caused harm to wildlife, especially to birds.

The book piqued the public's interest in environmentalism. Ecology, previously an obscure academic field, became a legitimate topic of public discussion. State and local governments enacted environmental laws, regulating polluters or banning the use of certain chemicals. But the mass of laws was confusing and often ineffectual. The United States needed a comprehensive environmental policy.

President Richard Nixon was initially reluctant to create a federal agency that set, monitored and enforced environmental laws. In 1969, he formed an environmental council and advisory committee, but met with public charges that the organizations had no effectual function. But by January 1, 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which promised to institute a federal role in environmental protection. Nixon recognized that such federal legislation needed the attention of an exclusive agency. By the summer of 1970, he submitted Reorganization Plan Number Three to Congress, which called for a single entity to govern the United States' environmental policy [EPA].

The EPA inherited environmental charges that had been arbitrarily assigned to other governmental departments. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare no longer monitored air pollution, water hygiene and waste management; the Department of the Interior no longer had responsibility for federal water quality and pesticide research. Misplaced environmental programs were finally unified under a single agency.

With the reassignment of environmental programs and the formation of a comprehensive agency to deal with them, the U.S. was well on its way to effective environmental policy. In the next section, we'll learn about some well-known EPA programs.