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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Visions of the EPA, Past, Present, Future

Air Date: Week of

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. (Courtesy of the EPA)

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day we look at the EPA’s past, present and future. Host Steve Curwood speaks with the first administrator of the environmental agency, William Ruckelshaus, and the current administrator, Lisa Jackson.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. Today we’re noting the 40th Anniversary of the first Earth Day: April 22nd 1970. Many consider that date a turning point in the modern environmental movement—and the tipping point, later that same year, for the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

CURWOOD: There have been just 18 EPA Administrators. The first, and the only one to serve two presidents, was Republican William Ruckelshaus. The current Administrator is Democrat Lisa Jackson. We spoke to both about how politics and policies have shaped the agency over the years. Mr. Ruckelshaus surprised us when he said that he didn’t consider himself—then or now—to be an environmentalist.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. (Courtesy of the EPA)

RUCKELSHAUS: I had not been an environmentalist. I mean there weren’t many people who were known as environmentalists back in 1970. I had been in charge of a representing the state board of health when I was in the Indiana Attorney General’s office and in most state offices in those days the board of health was where environmental issues were dealt with. The environment—both air and water, in particular, were primarily seen as health related issues.

CURWOOD: So, let’s go back to 1970. What—you’re 38-years-old, you’re an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice in D.C. and you get a call from the White House to head up the new EPA? As I understand it you were number three on that White House list, that their two other people had passed it up. What do you think they knew that you didn’t?

RUCKELSHAUS: [LAUGHS] I don’t know. Nobody ever told me that officially, I have read that but at any rate I enjoyed it very much. I’m sure they subsequently felt sorry not to have accepted.

CURWOOD: So the first Earth Day happened in April 1970. What—eight months later the Senate unanimously confirms you. Richard Nixon is your boss. What role do you think Earth Day had in the creation in the EPA?

RUCKELSHAUS: This was a new issue, certainly a new issue nationally, and new in the sense of its intensity and its breadth. And Earth Day was simply a manifestation of that public support, and it was that support, that public demand really that the president was responding to.

NIXON: Because there are no local or state boundaries to the problems of our environment the federal government must play an active, positive role. We can and will set standards; we can and will exercise leadership.

RUCKELSHAUS: To centralize that enforcement and regulatory responsibility at the national level made it much more difficult for industry to escape reasonable rules guiding their emissions into the air and water by running to a safe haven—to some state that did not as strictly enforce the standards. So, I felt that we had to initially show the American people we were serious about this by strictly—not only setting the standards—but strictly enforcing them to let people know that we meant business.

CURWOOD: The White House was pretty friendly with big business at this point though?

RUCKELSHAUS: Yes, that’s true. President Nixon, he admired the captains of industry, particularly those that had kind of beat their way to the top from rather modest beginnings, in many respects modeled on his own political rise. And I think he had a great deal of respect for American industry.

CURWOOD: And so, your busting some of his buddies, then?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, that’s true. And some of them didn’t like it, but I also felt that if my responsibility was to show that not only the EPA but the administration was serious about reducing the impacts of pollution on public health and the environment, we had to take a strong stand. But I never felt that the president was in any way intervening in what I was doing and trying to stop the enforcement of these laws.

CURWOOD: Of course by the time you really got going, president Nixon had other things on his mind.

RUCKELSHAUS: And you’re right; he had other things on his plate. There was the initiative to China, there were all kinds of things going on with the administration—there was an election in 1972, and afterwards, of course, he got snarled up in the Watergate. So that the irritation associated with EPA’s aggressiveness probably wasn’t the number one problem that he was concerned about.

CURWOOD: Now, you come back for a second bite of the apple of the EPA when you become administrator again—what, it’s 1983, it’s during the Reagan administration. Tell me, why did you come back and what changed for you in terms of your sense of the agency’s mission?

RUCKELSHAUS: I came back because the agency was in trouble and Berford who had been appointed by President Reagan had gotten herself in a whole lot of trouble, as did other appointees. They sort of bought the line that often is taken by Republicans in the administration that a lot of this social regulation—regulation to protect health, safety, and the environment—is an overreaction and the result of a sort of nanny state. She got in a lot of trouble as a result and president Reagan asked me to come back and help straighten the agency out.

CURWOOD: Now, wait a second—you’re a Republican.

RUCKELSHAUS: Right, well, I guess I still am. Barely.

CURWOOD: I believe you did support Barack Obama for president.

EPA administrator Ruckelshaus earned a reputation for bold action that was not politically popular.

RUCKELSHAUS: Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t changed my mind all that much in the last 40 years, but the Republican Party certainly has moved. What I think the Republican Party has done recently is sort of give up on the environment. They rarely talk about it. I don’t think many of the candidates, or even their constituents think about it that all that often. And I think that’s a shame because these problems many of them are real and need to be addressed in an aggressive way, or we’ll get in real trouble.

CURWOOD: I’m talking with William Ruckelshaus, he was the first administrator of the EPA when it was founded back in 1970, and then headed that agency once again from 1983 to ’85. Mr. Ruckelshaus please wait a moment now because joining us from her hometown in New Orleans is the current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson. Ms. Jackson, welcome to Living on Earth!

JACKSON: Thanks for having me, Steve. Hi, Bill, how are you?

RUCKELSHAUS: Fine, Lisa, how are you?

JACKSON: I’m fine, thanks.

CURWOOD: I was just talking with Mr. Ruckelshaus about the early days of the EPA. You were, what, eight when it started?

JACKSON: [LAUGHS] That’s right. I was eight-years-old in 1970. Long, long ago.

CURWOOD: And you go your masters’ degrees in chemical engineering from Princeton and your first career job was at the EPA in, what, 1986?

JACKSON: That’s right. I started in EPA in ’86, and I missed Bill, unfortunately.

CURWOOD: So, maybe you hired her, Bill, but you weren’t there when she actually came to work?

RUCKELSHAUS: Yeah, but she’s grown a lot since!


CURWOOD: So you’ve been at the EPA for much of your professional life. What—you worked there 16 years before you ran the equivalent of the EPA in New Jersey, now you’re back as a top administrator. How do you think the mission has changed there, Lisa Jackson?

JACKSON: Well, I think the issues have changed because in many ways we were successful. I think you can’t look back at 40 years of EPA and a leader like Bill and not see that he did many of the things he set out to do. He said let’s attack pollution. So probably the most visible thing to most Americans is what happened to water quality, visibly and what you could smell of water quality in this country has changed.

And yet, there are still pervasive water pollution problems in many areas. There are new contaminants that we didn’t know anything about, they don’t enter our lakes or rivers from pipes, they come from runoff every time it rains. And so the mission has changed because the problems in some ways have become more complex and a little harder to solve.

CURWOOD: I want to play for you both a recording of Senator Gaylord Nelson. Now, he’s considered that founder of Earth Day. And this is a speech, part of a speech, that he gave that very first Earth Day, April 22nd 1970:

NELSON: Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty—well forget it! About the worst environments in America in the ghettos, in the Appalachians, and elsewhere—our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures. An environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger, and without war...our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense.

RUCKELSHAUS: Obviously, Gaylord Nelson was a real prescient figure in the evolution of the environmental movement. He was considerably ahead of his time when he made that speech.

Former EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus.

JACKSON: Mr. Nelson talked about ghettos and poverty—that’s one aspect of a broader understanding that I think everyone should have a clean environment. And the whole concept of environmental justice…I don’t think, though correct me if I’m wrong, was really much of the lexicon back in 1970s. What happened over time was that people said listen, as we work to address pollution we have to make sure we’re not transferring it. Not transferring our problem to those communities that are disadvantaged or don’t have a voice.

And what’s also happened, quite frankly, is that as this country’s moved away from manufacturing, in many ways communities are left behind. Where once you had a thriving industry center, you now have a community that’s just left with pollution and no jobs. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws—there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it. Much of what EPA has done in that field, and certainly we can do more, has been using the laws we have in a way to ensure social justice.

RUCKELSHAUS: Lisa is right that when EPA started the concept of environmental justice was not part of the lexicon of the environment at all. In fact that I had a meeting with a civil rights leader shortly after EPA was created—they were quite antagonistic to what we were trying to do because they saw it taking people’s energy and attention away from civil rights issues. There are elements of environmental justice the environmental movement, which frankly we weren’t paying much attention to when we started, which do need to be addressed.

JACKSON: I do think Bill’s point is a really interesting one, and it’s one I’ve heard before. It’s worth a whole show, really. This idea that somehow the environmental movement’s origins coincided with a lot of the work on civil rights. And I think people felt that they had to choose which one they were going to give their heart and soul to.

And it became a competition to some degree. Those times are actually long since passed, I have a 14-year-old and a 13-year-old—they don’t think of the environment as a purview of only the wealthy, or only those people who happen to be fortunate enough to live in beautiful places. Kind of the Theodore Roosevelt approach to conservation. They see pollution, they see rights, they see international issues.

And when you hear me talking about expanding the conversation on environmentalism, I don’t care what we call it, if I can get people to make the connection to clean air, and clean water, and clean land, and less toxic chemicals in our environment, then if they then call it whatever they want they’ve made that connection I know they’ll fight for environmental protection.

CURWOOD: Bill Ruckelshaus I want to ask you for some more advice for Lisa Jackson. And this is around the question of climate change, and it looks like Ms. Jackson’s agency, now the EPA’s going to get involved with administrating how to deal with carbon dioxide because Congress doesn’t seem to be there. What’s your advice as to how to handle this issue?

RUCKELSHAUS: She—I think she’s handled it very well so far, she’s indicated her willingness to follow Supreme Court’s lead and recognize that CO2 is a pollutant or methane, other trace gases that contribute to global warming, and indicated her willingness to regulate them if the Congress doesn’t act.

Correct me, Lisa, if I’m misquoting you, but that the best way to control climate change, or control the carbon that is associated with climate change, is not through the use of the Clean Air Act as currently constructed, it’s better to deal with it in the context of a more comprehensive program from the Congress. But if the Congress isn’t willing to do it, she in turn, is willing to step forward and exercise her responsibilities.

JACKSON: That’s absolutely right, Bill, that’s what I’ve said. I’ve gone a little bit further, and I’ve said that my belief is that you can use the Clean Air Act in very smart ways. You know, there’s always going to be this whole doom and gloom element, and when the economy’s bad they get a bit louder—this idea that just pervades our country and our culture that you have to choose between having environmental protection and having a strong economy. It’s never been true. There’s not one shred of evidence out there that shows that most of the major environmental laws that people swore were going to destroy our country ever did.

And in fact, they’ve been engines of innovation and creativity—everything from fight smog to cleaning up our waste water treatment plants, we’ve been state of the art on environmental protection and the environmental industry for a long time. But we’re going to have to fight through that, and what I tell people is that the Clean Air Act, though not perfect, allows us lots of ways to begin to address greenhouse gases in a way that’s great for our economy.

The Clean Cars Rule is a great example of that. Although the price of a car goes up slightly, about 900 dollars, the savings from fuel for more efficient cars for an average American is over $3,000. It actually is a positive for our economy and it puts our auto industry back in a position to be competitive internationally.

RUCKELSHAUS: I think that Lisa’s right in dealing with a problem like climate change instead of looking at it as an all or nothing proposition, couching it as an insurance policy even if you have some doubts about its ultimate impact, couching it as an insurance policy makes sense, and in that way you can get at a lot of these issues associated with reducing carbon that are really economically very sound—it makes sense economically as well as environmentally to take them on, and plus the fact that getting away from reliance on foreign oil from places like Venezuela and the Middle East, and Russia, and Nigeria, makes great sense for the security, not only in this country, but in the world.

And if we can lead the way in developing clean energy and weaning ourselves from reliance on that oil, we would be doing a great service for peace in addition to public health.

CURWOOD: Lisa Jackson, let me ask you—you’re trained as a chemical engineer, how do you think your work would be different if you’d been trained as a lawyer, the way that Bill Ruckelshaus was trained.


RUCKELSHAUS: It would have been a lot worse than a lawyer!

JACKSON: I’m going to resist telling any lawyer jokes, but I think that actually first to give credit where credit’s due, the environmental movement much of the progress has come from the sophistication that come through environmental law, that field has really grown because those first laws were so tremendously powerful and in some ways so tremendously broad that there’s been a lot of time and effort spent, first I think by industry trying to use the courts as a weapon and now by advocates who’ve learned how to fight back and be progressive.

I think, you know, you play to your strengths, as an engineer my belief is that there is an unheralded connection between our society’s insistence on clean air, clean water and all the things that have come about as a result of that. So the fact that we’ve grown, our GDP has grown in 30 years by 126 percent, and yet the six major air pollutants have gone down by 54 percent is all about innovation—whether it’s catalytic converters, or diesel particulate filters, or any number of industries that simply wouldn’t exist if EPA hadn’t been there through it’s regulations, through its leadership.

So although I never thought about going to law school I think at each and every time, whether it’s on the legal side or the technical side, both have been critical to the success of moving forward on the environment in this country.

CURWOOD: And Bill Ruckelshaus, what would you have done differently if you’d been a chemical engineer rather than a lawyer?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, I probably wouldn’t have sued as many people as I did, when I was first there! [LAUGHS] On the other hand, both Lisa and I have discovered using one discipline to address the environment is not going to work—you have to use them all. You have to use what legal tools you have, you have to use the innovation associated with engineering, you have to use science.

And that was something I didn’t fully appreciate when I was first at EPA, I thought the problem, frankly, was legal and that since we had laws that were pretty weak and mainly administered by the states, that centralizing the authority and administering at the national level was all you needed to do. Well, it wasn’t long before I discovered it was a lot more complex than that and that I’d better learn some other disciplines if I was going to be effective.

CURWOOD: Bill Ruckelshaus, anything more you’d like to say before we go?

RUCKELSHAUS: No, I think that that’s enough. I wish Lisa well, I think she’s doing a wonderful job and I’m delighted she’s there.

CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA in 1970 and served again in the Reagan administration. He joins us from Seattle. And Lisa Jackson is that current administrator of the EPA and she joined us from her hometown of New Orleans. Thank you both and happy Earth Day!


JACKSON: Thanks. Happy Earth Day.

[MUSIC: Joni Mitchell “The Arrangement” from Ladies Of The Canyon (Warner Bros 1970)]

YOUNG: Coming up: veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find a new mission in environmental battles. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from The Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI – Public Radio International.



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