Earth Day & The EPA
With President Trump threatening to roll-back environmental laws in the US, Global Mining Observer looks at events that led Richard Nixon to found the country's Environmental Protection Agency in 1970
In January 1969, The Beatles were breaking-up, Nasa was planning the first moon landing, the Soviet Union was launching space probes, Richard Nixon was being sworn in as President of the United States and Steve Jobs was 13 years old, using his holidays to work part-time in a Hewlett-Packard factory.
Then on the morning of the 28th, eight days after Nixon's inauguration, an oil well blew out off the coast of California. The beaches of Santa Barbara were covered with 3 million gallons of crude oil, killing thousands of seabirds, seals, and sea lions.
Activists called for a blanket ban on oil drilling and for boycotts on gas stations. Fears that America's postwar boom had caused throwaway consumerism and environmental degradation came to a climax. A best-selling book in 1962, Silent Spring, had suggested that if pesticide use continued, bird populations would dwindle to extinction, and many Americans had started viewing their salad bowls as a toxic cocktail of chemicals. The country was meanwhile guzzling 30 billion glass bottles each year, almost all going into landfill.
With the electorate bitterly divided on many issues, from the war in Vietnam to civil rights, and with polls showing a surge in people worrying about the environment, politicians started seeing the planet as one thing everyone could agree on.
Nixon, who barely mentioned the environment during his campaign, was initially slow to respond to the Santa Barbara oil spill. But he visited the site, dipped the shiny black toe of his shoe into the oil slick and soon introduced new laws to protect endangered species and block the dumping of waste into the Great Lakes.
Nixon was not sold on the idea that the environment was a vote winner, but he did believe it was politically dangerous, so toyed with the idea of framing himself as a modern day Theodore Roosevelt, who had been an amateur zoologist. Nixon started fondly discussing parkland in his speeches, though in reality, his eyes were said to glaze over when aides discussed ecology. “In a flat choice between smoke and jobs, we're for jobs,” he once told a deputy. “But just keep me out of trouble.”
In April 1970, on a clear spring day across the United States, 20 million Americans turned out to celebrate the first Earth Day. Apollo 11 had landed on the moon nine months before and “when the astronauts
turned their cameras homeward, capturing the image of a delicate blue planet, the world looked upon itself with fresh understanding,” according to press reports at the time. Oil-coated ducks were dumped on the doorstep of the Department of the Interior, but Earth Day was largely a peaceful celebration. Traffic was shut off in New York and frisbees spun through clouds of marijuana smoke.
Nixon ignored Earth Day, keeping to his regular appointments at the White House, working as he was on the invasion of Cambodia. But as his political options narrowed elsewhere, and after several embarrassing political gaffes, including one rambling speech at 5am, he increasingly returned to the environment.
Environmental legislation was previously set on a piecemeal, state-by-state basis, which Nixon consolidated into one federal department, the Environmental Protection Agency, charged with pollution, pesticides, radiation and waste. “The 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air,” Nixon announced.
The EPA introduced national standards for air quality and limited the emissions that each industry could release. Its first administrator also insisted that it should be “forceful” in policing the new measures, which went far beyond technologies available at the time.
In its first few months, staff inside the department are said to have enjoyed “a state of cheerful chaos”, with teams scattered across several buildings in Washington. But the EPA marked a turning point in American history, and a peak in its pollutant levels, from carbon monoxide to lead, which have fallen ever since, even as the country's population has grown and its economy expanded.
Despite his scepticism, Nixon had done more to protect the environment than any other president in US history, though he grumbled in private that environmentalists could never be politically satisfied.
After winning a re-election landslide, he called time on the concessions, saying America was well on its way to “making peace with nature,” and began exempting power plants from clean air laws. Having left office, Nixon was once told that the environment had been his great political legacy. “For God's sake,” he said. “I hope that's not true.”
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