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

Remembering EPA Head William Ruckelshaus

Air Date: Week of

William Ruckelshaus swearing in as the first Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Seen from left to right: President Richard M. Nixon, William Ruckelshaus, Jill Ruckelshaus (wife), Chief Justice Warren Burger. (Photo: Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Only one person has ever served as an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under two Presidents, and that’s William D. Ruckelshaus, who died the day before Thanksgiving. He was the first and fifth EPA Administrator, appointed by President Nixon in 1970, and returned to the agency during the Reagan Administration, to help “straighten the agency out” after a scandal over the mismanagement of the Superfund program. In a conversation with host Steve Curwood back in 2010, William Ruckelshaus reflected on his storied career.


CURWOOD: Only one person has ever served as an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under two Presidents, and that’s William D. Ruckelshaus, who died the day before Thanksgiving. William Ruckelshaus was in fact the first EPA Administrator, appointed by President Nixon in 1970, and in addition to laying the foundation for the agency and defining its mission, he oversaw the implementation of the Clean Air Act in 1970. Soon after he was tapped to run the FBI as acting director and then named deputy Attorney General. He was also fired by President Nixon during “Saturday Night Massacre” for refusing to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Back in 2010 we spoke with William Ruckelshaus about his career and his reflections on how the EPA had its origins in Earth Day activism that put pressure on President Nixon to protect the environment.

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: 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?

William D. Ruckelshaus served as EPA Administrator from 1970 to 1973, and again from 1983 to 1985. (Photo: FBI, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

RUCKELSHAUS: I came back because the agency was in trouble and Burford 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.

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 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: William Ruckelshaus, the first and fifth Administrator of the EPA, who died November 27th at the age of 87. He will be missed.



Listen to the full interview with EPA Administrators William Ruckelshaus and Lisa Jackson

E&E News “William Ruckelshaus, twice EPA chief, dies”

NYTimes | “William Ruckelshaus, Who Quit in ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ Dies at 87”


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