The Past, Present, and Future of the EPA

I heard an interesting story last week on NPR’s Morning Edition about the public’s perception of the current state of the environment titled “How The EPA Became a Victim of Its Own Success”.

You can listen above, but here’s a quick summary. This story aimed to convey that the support of the Environmental Protection Agency was not always a partisan issue, and to explain why this changed in very recent years. During the last election cycle, the public did not see the environment as a pressing issue that needed fixing. William K. Reilly, a past administrator of the EPA, responded to this by saying, “the kind of issues that were emergency issues that prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency have been very well addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency.” Thereby, the EPA is a victim of its own success.

Many of us have lived our entire lives in the age of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created by Richard Nixon in 1970. We take it for granted when our water is clear, and when we can walk through a city without suffocating from smog. However, it certainly was not always this way, as is cited in the NPR story. Pollution is not a new problem, and America is not the only country that has suffered from its effects.

While binge-watching The Crown, a series that follows Queen Elizabeth II’s monarchy, I learned of an extreme-pollution event in London. In Season 1 there is an episode (Ep. 4, Act of God) devoted to the true-story of the “Great Smog of 1952”. This deadly smog was caused by an unfortunate combination of a rare weather pattern and the excessive burning of coal. There was minimal worry regarding the impending fog, and therefore no actions were taken to decrease emissions in the days leading up to it. This led to a 4-day fog that killed upwards of 12,000 people (Bell, Davis, Fletcher 2004), and eventually to the Clean Air Act of 1956, which aimed to reduce air pollution.

Do Americans need to be reminded of events like these to realize the importance of the EPA? Although it may not be a deadly fog, environmental disasters from oil-spills, to gas leaks, to poisoned water, are all-too-common today. I’m not sure what it will take to convince the country that we are in crisis, but clearly these occurrences aren’t enough.

As most of us know, Scott Pruitt, a self-described advocate against the EPA, was recently confirmed as the head of the agency. Because of this, the 800 EPA employees who petitioned against him have a multitude of reasons to fear for their jobs, and the more than 300 million people in this country have reasons to worry about the future sustainability and safety of our country. At least big oil companies can add to their collective $200 billion in annual revenue now that they don’t have to follow all of those pesky regulations, right?….

I urge my fellow scientists and colleagues to remind the public of the core reasons for the creation, and success, of the EPA. For our future, and the future of our ecosystems, we must persist. For some ideas of how to do that, check out Nickie’s blog from last week.


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