How the EPA Works

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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.