The words pollution and environment were on many politicians mind in 1969. Improvement of the environment was an achievement during the Nixon administration. Nixon grasped issues rapidly and presented a comprehensive and broad legislative environmental agenda. A number of ingredients- including a public outcry to stop pollution, a talented and dedicated group to put forth legislative proposals, a Congress whose majority was ready to act, and a President ready to accept comprehensive recommendations that often ran counter to the wishes of his cabinet officers- combined to produce the best conservation and environmental record since Theodore Roosevelt. Politically, Nixon was attacked from both sides: by those who bitterly resented the costs of environmental clean-up, and by those who insisted that the movement take absolute priority over all other considerations. Between these he steered a progressive middle course, establishing the environment as a nation priority, but doing so in a way that enabled economic growth to go forward- so that the nation could, in the longer term, continue to afford the cost of environmental clean-up together with the rising standard of living that the people demanded. Two pieces of legislation that demonstrated this was the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.
Lacking Congressional action on a comprehensive water pollution enforcement plan, President Nixon moved administratively in December of 1970, using the permit authority in the Refuse Act of 1899 as a vehicle to control industrial pollution of waterways. This allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require that, in order to obtain a permit to discharge effluents into navigable waters, industries had to disclose the amount and kinds of effluents being discharged. Therefore, much more accurate data on the precise nature and quantities of pollutants being discharged into the nation’s waterways could be obtained and the cost of obtaining the data was borne by industry. This program was stopped by court action in December 1971. Later the 1972 Amendment to the Water Pollution Control Act provided the authority to reinstate the program. John Whitaker believed the institution of a permit program was the single most important step the administration took to improve water quality. Environmental groups eventually accepted the permit program and it gave industry a greater sense of certainty in its pollution abatement planning.
Twenty years later the Clean Water Act made significant improvements in pollution control technology. The federal government invested $56 billion in municipal sewage treatment from 1972 to 1989, with total federal, state and local expenditures of more than $128 billion. These investments gained impressive results. The percentage of the U.S population served by wastewater treatment plants jumped from 42 in 1970 to 67 in 1975, to 70 by 1980, and up to 74 by 1985. As of 1988, plant providing secondary treatment or better served 58 percent of the U.S population. This improved treatment, according to EPA, has reduced annual releases of organic wastes by 46 percent, despite a large increase in the amount of wastes treated.
Another significant piece of environmental legislation during the Nixon administration was the Clear Air Act of 1972. The bill, indeed important, was another milestone in the nation’s struggle to ensure environmental quality. Nixon endorsed critical legislation that, for the first time, armed the country with sufficient power to address the horrible degradation of its air. The Clear Air Act remains the basis for air pollution control policy. It has four major components. First, it put into place National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Targeted at major polluting chemicals, such standards were intended to protect human health as well as the environment. These standards were to be developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Second, the EPA was to establish New Source Performance Standards to determine how much pollution should be allowed by different industries in different regions. Third, the Act specified standards for controlling auto emissions with the aim of reducing various gases by almost 90 percent. Finally, the law encouraged states to develop plans to achieve such standards and then required that the EPA approve state plans. If a state chose not to form such a plan or did not complete it by a specified date, the EPA would take over the administration of the law for that state. The states were also required to enforce the Clean Air Act.
Using a sophisticated array of computer models, EPA found that if the Clean Air Act did not pass, an additional 205,000 Americans would have died prematurely and millions more would have suffered illnesses ranging from mild respiratory symptoms to heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other severe respiratory problems. Other benefits which could be quantified and expressed in dollar terms included visibility improvements, improvements in yields of some agricultural crops, improved worker attendance and productivity, and reduced household soiling damage.
The Clean Air and Water Act spoke to the highest aspirations of the American people with regard to the environment they wished to inhabit. The Clean Air and Water Act set the stage that society needed to take to insure the continuance of a healthy and productive natural environment. The task of politicians today is to discover more efficient means, including the development of new technologies, in order to achieve the objectives set forth during Nixon Administration.