How the EPA Works

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Protecting the environment seems to be on everyone's mind these days. Constituents encourage their representatives to propose carbon legislation. Grassroots environmental groups protest polluters. Average citizens concerned with global warming take simple measures to reduce their carbon footprints. But only one organization has the ability to establish and enforce the environmental policy of the United States: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA exists to protect human health and the environment.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with 10 regional offices around the country, the EPA creates and enforces regulations that enact environmental legislation. So while Congress sets environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, it's up to the EPA to determine how the United States will reach the goals laid out by the legislation. The agency delegates some of its permit-issuing and policy enforcement responsibilities to states and American Indian tribes.


An administrator, who answers directly to the president of the United States, governs the EPA. The administrator works with a deputy administrator and more than a dozen staff offices. The staff offices function like departments and handle issues like environmental appeals, administrative law, homeland security and public affairs.

The EPA is also one of the premier sources of environmental data in the United States. Its labs monitor the quality of water, air, land and human health to set national standards and keep track of programs' progress. Much of the information is public, creating an enormous cache of environmental records. To maximize its research potential, the agency gives grants to states, nonprofits and educational institutions for fellowships and environmental programs.

In this article, we'll learn how the EPA came to be established and explore some EPA programs and controversies.


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.


EPA Programs

Members of the EPA and U.S. Coast Guard in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina
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The EPA initially focused on creating programs that enacted several key pieces of legislation. The first, of course, was NEPA, which called for broad environmental improvements. But the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972 were also important early laws for the EPA to enact.

Today, the EPA manages more than a hundred programs that uphold a dozen major laws or statutes. The programs can be broadly broken down into six categories: air, pollution prevention, wastes and recycling, toxics and chemicals, water and pesticides. We'll discuss some of the EPA's most famous programs that fall into these categories.


  • Energy Star. Energy Star, run in conjunction with the United States Department of Energy, helps consumers select efficient appliances and homes, saving them money and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 2006, Americans offset GHG emissions equal to 25 million cars by purchasing products or properties that earned the Energy Star.
  • Acid Rain Program. In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act and called for reductions in the emissions of sulfur dioxide SO2 and nitrogen oxides NOx. In response, the EPA instituted the Acid Rain Program (ARP) which uses a rate-based regulatory system to limit NOx and a cap-and-trade program to cut SO2 emissions. The success of SO2 trading suggests the United States could support a broader GHG emissions trading program.
  • Endangered Species Protection Program. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) calls for the protection of endangered or threatened species and their habitats. While the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service administer the ESA, the EPA ensures through the Endangered Species Protection Program that other governmental agencies do not violate the act by using unsafe pesticides.
  • Food Quality Protection Act. The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act called for a change in national pesticide registration. To enforce the act, the EPA tests pesticides and antimicrobials to determine tolerances, aggregate risks and cumulative exposure.
  • Asbestos Program. Asbestos is a fibrous material used in some insulation and fireproofing. When the fibers become airborne and are inhaled, they can cause serious health problems. The EPA's Asbestos Program provides resources on how to identify and manage asbestos.

As a governmental agency, the EPA is under constant scrutiny and has its share of critics. In the next section, we'll learn about some recent EPA controversies.


EPA Controversies

Former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman testified at the House Judiciary Committee's inquest into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
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During the administration of President George W. Bush, the EPA has faced criticism regarding its commitment to enforcing environmental laws and pursuing criminal polluters. Lawsuits against the agency, congressional investigations, an overall drop in convictions and several high-profile resignations by frustrated EPA employees have critics suggesting that the EPA is no longer adequately performing its duty.

Even the Supreme Court confirms that the EPA has shirked some of its responsibilities. In April 2007, the court sided with environmentalists in Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the EPA was responsible for regulating new-vehicle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the Clean Air Act. It was the first Supreme Court case to investigate global warming.


The case began in 1999 when several environmental groups encouraged the EPA to establish standards for new vehicles' GHG emissions. Four years after receiving the petition, the EPA replied that it had no authority to regulate such emissions and even if it did, considered it unwise to do so [source: Supreme Court]. Massachusetts joined with other states, cities and groups to sue the EPA.

The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act and caused the state of Massachusetts harm by not doing so. The decision potentially gives states fighting for GHG regulations new power over the agency. California, which proposed stricter regulations in December 2005, is now suing the EPA for failing to make a ruling. The state is authorized to create its own air pollution regulations but needs EPA approval before doing so.

The EPA has also attracted attention for its sharp decline in new investigations, prosecutions and convictions -- all of which dropped by a third between 2002 and 2006. Civil lawsuits against defendants who rejected offers to settle outside of court dropped almost 70 percent [source: Washington Post]. The EPA's administration insists that numbers are down because the agency has shifted its focus to bigger cases with probable convictions.

In June 2007, former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman faced a Congressional hearing over the government's environmental response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the days following 9/11, Whitman assured the public that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe and that residents and workers could return to the area. However, the air was not safe and clinical reports from the Mount Sinai World Trade Center Screening and Monitoring Program have shown that 70 percent of 9,000 workers at the Trade Center site reported respiratory problems. Whitman denied accusations that she had manipulated EPA data under pressure from the White House [source: New York Times].

To learn more about the EPA legislation, policies and controversies, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • "2006 - 2011 EPA Strategic Plan." EPA.
  • "Asbestos and Vermiculite." EPA.
  • Barnes, Robert and Juliet Eilperin. "High Court Faults EPA Inaction on Emissions." The Washington Post. April 3, 2007.
  • Beck, Eckardt C. "The Love Canal Tragedy." EPA Journal.January1979.
  • Broder, John M. "California Wants Strict Auto Emissions Rules." The New York Times. May 23, 2007.
  • DePalma, Anthony. "Ex-E.P.A. Chief Defends Role in 9/11 Response." The New YorkTimes. June 26,2007.
  • Energy Star.
  • "Environmental Protection Agency." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • "Implementation of Requirements under the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA)." EPA
  • Lewis, Jack. "The Birth of the EPA." EPA Journal. November, 1985.
  • "Massachusetts et al. v Environmental Protection Agency et al." Supreme Court of the United States.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. "Rachel Carson." Time. March 29, 2007.
  • "Major Environmental Laws." EPA.
  • "Pesticides: Endangered Species Protection Program." EPA.
  • Solomon, John and Juliet Eilpenn. "Bush's EPA Is Pursuing Fewer Polluters." The Washington Post. September 30, 2007. /content/article/2007/09/29/AR2007092901759.html
  • Young, Samantha. "California to Sue Over Auto Emissions." The Associated Press. October 22, 2007. 2007. ADk3gD8SEKF7G1