In the Wall Street Journal, William Ruckelshaus — the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a panelist in the Nixon Library’s upcoming forum on RN’s environmental record — writesthat the Nixon Administration did much to tackle the environmental challenges addressed during the first Earth Day demonstrations:

We humans with our big cars and our big factories and our big cities were discharging terrible stuff into the air and water, and it had to be stopped or we would soon make our nest uninhabitable. The public was growing increasingly outraged. Every night on color television, we saw yellow sludge flowing into blue rivers; every day as we drove to work, we saw black smudges against the barely visible blue sky. We knew that our indiscriminate use of pesticides and toxic substances was threatening wildlife and public health.

But we didn’t do much about it. Until 1970, most regulation of industry was done by the states, which competed so strongly for plants and jobs that regulating companies to protect public health was beyond them.

Environmentally, it was a race to the bottom.

Until, that is, the public had enough and demanded action. A seminal moment: the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, when cars were buried and action was demanded from the Nixon administration and Congress.

And they both acted. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress, starting with the Council on Environmental Quality, passed a cascade of laws designed to clean up our act.

One of my first public actions as the first head of the EPA was to bring major enforcement actions against three large cities for violations of the Clean Water Act. We followed that with additional action against the steel industry and other industrial polluters. I knew that the job of the EPA would be far more contentious in the future if we didn’t establish its credibility and its willingness to take forceful—and symbolic—action right from the start. The American people had to know we were serious about meeting their demands.

Ruckelshaus continues by outlining a new strategy for new challenges. Continue reading here.