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

EPA at 25

Air Date: Week of

One of the most contentious budget items is proposed deep cuts in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, created by executive order of President Nixon. As Congress debates future funding for the agency, William Ruckelshaus — EPA’s first director — comments.


CURWOOD: One of the most contentious items of the budget fight is a proposed deep cut in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA as we've come to know it. The EPA was created by the executive order of President Richard Nixon in 1970, in response to the outpouring of public concern following the first Earth Day. Nixon named William Ruckleshaus as the Agency's first director. As Congress debates future funding of the EPA, we invited Mr. Ruckelshaus, who is now chairman of the Waste Handlers BFI, to share his thoughts about the agency on its silver anniversary.

RUCKELSHAUS: The Environmental Protection Agency is 25 years old this month. The problems that led to its creation, gross air and water pollution, symbolized by belching smokestacks, uncontrolled automobile emissions, and rivers that caught on fire, smell touch and feel kinds of pollution, are now largely under social control. Not completely, but largely. This success is due to the combination of an outraged public in the late 60s, a political response in the form of the creation of EPA, and 10 statutes passed in the 1970s, massive regulations which followed and billions of public and private dollars spent to deal with pollution.

Twenty-five years later, the environmental problems we and the world face have evolved. The laws we put in place in the 1970s are no longer adequate. In many cases they are far to prescriptive, and set standards of perfection impossible to achieve. They force EPA to act in ways that defy common sense and often unnecessarily anger our citizens. These laws need to be rewritten to conform to the environmental realities of the 1990s. EPA needs way more flexibility and Congressional trust than it now has if it is going to be an effective, efficient, and fair instrument at carrying out our national purpose of protecting the environment.

In my view it will not happen by the quick fixes and name-calling that has so characterized the current debate in Washington. Reform will not happen by drastically reducing EPA's budget, or by this Congress prohibiting EPA from carrying out assignments given by previous Congresses, and which assignments are still in the law. This is the approach which some in Congress favor and which has created so much furor in Washington in the last several months. It will not work, and the gridlock now emerging in the Congress and between the Congress and the White House will make that fact increasingly apparent.

Hopefully, out of this gridlock will come a growing awareness about the need to forge a consensus about reforming our laws. And Congress will give the appropriate assignment to EPA and the states to continue to progress toward our environmental goals. This is what reform is all about. So let's lower our voices and get on with the hard work.

CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus is the chairman of Browning Ferris Industries and was the first administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.



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