The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 was one of the most important actions of Richard Nixon’s presidency, setting up an arm of the Federal government’s executive branch that now employs more than 17,000 people and operates a budget of nearly $10.5 billion. His decision to set it up was partly motivated by political concerns, and partly motivated by a keen consciousness of the importance to every American of living in a healthy, unpolluted world.
Although environmental awareness has been a long-running theme in American culture from Henry David Thoreau’s books like Walden to the present, and while Theodore Roosevelt’s initiatives to preserve the beauty of large portions of the American wilderness increased this awareness, concerns over environmental pollution are of more recent origin.

Warnings about the dangerous effects of chemicals and other pollutants on wildlife began to be sounded when industrial production increased as part of the effort to fight and win World War II, and it was just after that war that the legislation now administered by the EPA and other Federal agencies began to be enacted, or, in some cases, replaced earlier bills restricting pollution. It is worthwhile to note that such legislation as the Water Pollution Control Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act emerged from a Republican Congress.

But it was with the serialization of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the New Yorker in the summer of 1962, and its publication in book form that fall, that public awareness of the adverse effects of chemicals in the environment gained momentum. The following year, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act; in 1964, the Wilderness Act; and during the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in 1964-1968, a half-dozen more major bills addressed these concerns.

A leading figure in Congress in pushing such legislation through was Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. In late September 1963, Nelson had accompanied President Kennedy on a five-day, 11-state trip intended to raise public awareness of pollution and environmental issues. Although that effort had failed to produce the impact intended, because the press was more interested in questioning Kennedy about foreign policy and the economy, Nelson continued to push for more legislation through the 1960s. In this effort, he was strongly supported within the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

During the 1968 campaign, Richard Nixon devoted comparatively little time to speaking on environmental issues, focusing his speeches more on foreign policy and how to deal with the increase in crime and violent radicalism. But eight days after he took the oath of office and became the 37th President, on January 28, 1969, an event in California nearly swept all other news off America’s front pages and suddenly put environmental questions into the forefront of America’s consciousness to an almost unprecedented degree.

This event was a rupture of one of Union Oil’s platforms, off the Pacific coast, eight miles from Santa Barbara. 100,000 barrels of oil flowed out in the spill, polluting a 60-mile stretch of coastline from Goleta, just northwest of Santa Barbara, to Ventura in the south; disrupting the natural balance of the Channel Islands offshore; and wreaking havoc on fishing and other activities which formed an important part of the local economy.

The public’s reaction to the oil spill spurred Sen. Nelson and a group of like-minded colleagues to quick action. Just three weeks after the spill, Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington introduced the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Initially, President Nixon had some reservations about the sweeping nature of the bill, which called for action on a far broader scale than anything undertaken by the Federal government before.

But broad action, in the wake of the Santa Barbara spill and other much-publicized environmental mishaps like the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster of 1967 in England, was what the electorate wanted, and the Senate responded by passing the NEPA unanimously on July 10. Two months later, the House passed the bill by 372 votes to 15.

In June 1969, President Nixon set up the Environmental Quality Council by executive order to address the public’s concerns on these issues. During this time, Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel and Undersecretary of the Interior Russell E. Train (who had headed the environmental task force in Nixon’s 1968 campaign) were the leading White House figures discussing such issues in the media. Later that year, Nixon asked John Ehrlichman, at that time White House counsel, to head a White House committee examining the current status of environmental policy in the executive branch.

At the time, such policy was the responsibility of various offices, particularly in the Interior and Agriculture Departments, although other Cabinet departments, such as Health, Education and Welfare and Transportation were also involved. The lack of efficient coordination and the expensive overlap between these departments convinced Ehrlichman, a man with strong feelings about nature and ecology (to use a word rapidly becoming familiar to Americans in 1969), that the White House needed to consolidate these efforts into one strong unit to administer environmental initiatives.

After the House and Senate versions of NEPA were reconciled in committee, and President Nixon signed the finished bill on January 1, 1970, the Council on Environmental Quality, as provided for by NEPA, replaced the Environmental Quality Council. Russell E. Train became the chairman of the new Council and it set about examining the question of how to put together a high-level agency to deal with ecological and pollution issues. The public demand for increased education and awareness about ecology was answered when Sen. Nelson proposed Earth Day, an occasion for “teach-ins” (a favorite concept of the counterculture of that day) and promotion of environmental awareness. The first Earth Day was scheduled for April 22, 1970.

By this time, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Massachusetts, who had become the front-runner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, had made dozens of speeches focusing on ecology, and it was evident that the issue would be a major one in the 1970 congressional and gubernatorial elections. President Nixon, well aware that before the 1960s nature and wildlife issues had been ones where Republicans had taken a strong initiative, decided to support Train and Ehrlichman’s recommendations, sent Reorganization Plan No. 3 to Congress on July 9, 1970.

This plan followed up on several important initiatives launched by the White House, particularly its 37-point action program which had been announced on February 10. The plan called for the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency which would “set and enforce standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants,” and would have as its “principal roles and functions.”

The establishment and enforcement of environmental protection standards consistent with national environmental goals.

The conduct of research on the adverse effects of pollution and on methods and equipment for controlling it, the gathering of information on pollution, and the use of this information in strengthening environmental protection programs and recommending policy changes.

Assisting others, through grants, technical assistance and other means in arresting pollution of the environment.

Assisting the Council on Environmental Quality in developing and recommending to the President new policies for the protection of the environment.

One natural question concerns the relationship between the EPA and the Council on Environmental Quality, recently established by Act of Congress. [From the text of the President’s Special Message to Congress concerning Reorganization Plan No. 3.]

This plan was received with much enthusiasm and praise not only by legislators of both parties, but by many environmental activists and the general public. On November 9, William D. Ruckelshaus, Assistant Attorney General, was nominated by the President as the EPA’s first Administrator, and was quickly confirmed by the Senate. On December 2, 1970, the EPA started operations.

During its early years in Nixon’s first and second terms, the EPA quickly established itself as an agency that worked with an authority and effectiveness that met the expectations of its supporters, and in the forty years since it has continued to be regarded among President Nixon’s finest contributions to American life. Today, as the Internet and other forms of mass communication make Americans even more aware of the sometimes fragile nature of life on the planet than was the case in 1970, the EPA is an essential part of the effort undertaken to preserve our natural resources.