The Guardian: Origins of The EPA is the first of a four-
part series on the history of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency
EPA Historical Publication-1
Spring 1992

iinn'riian environmcntalism dawned as a popular movement
on a mild spring afternoon in 1970. Wednesday, April 22nd,
brought blue skies, light breezes, and temperatures in the 60s to
New York City and Washington, D.C. Much of the rest of the
country enjoyed similar conditions. On that day, the influence of
nature had particular meaning; the nation held a celebration of
clean air, land, and water. Encouraged by the retreat of winter,
millions participated.
The first Earth Day may have been prompted, in part, by the
recent moon landings. When the astronauts turned their cameras
homeward, capturing the image of a delicate blue planet, the
world looked upon itself with fresh understanding. The context
of Earth Day 1970, however, was far from celestial, reflecting the
turbulence of the time. Since the mid 1960s, the streets had
become a common outlet for political and social discontent. Yet
Earth Day, forged in an era of strife and change, had its own
personality; marijuana smoke may have hung in wisps over some
of the day's festivities, but violence and confrontation were
nowhere to be seen.
In America's largest city, Mayor John V. Lindsey decided to
commemorate the day in high style, closing traffic for two hours
on Fifth Avenue, from 14th Street to Central Park. Along its
broad path, multitudes choked the streets and sidewalks. Much
of the crowd's interest centered on Union Square, a crossroads of
political ferment during the 1930s. This day, "many more than"

100,000 onlookers saw teach-ins, lectures, and a non-stop frisbee
game at the famous intersection. An ecological Mardi Gras
lasting from noon to midnight sprang up along 14th Street from
Third to Seventh Avenues. While folksinger Odetta sang "We
Shall Overcome," a rock band played the Beatles' anthem, "Power
to the People." In Washington, D.C., Congress suspended
business as most of its members, regardless of ideology, felt
compelled to appear before their constituents. President Nixon
kept a regular schedule at the White House.

While Earth Day launched the idea of environmentalism in its
present sense, the realization of the value of wilderness and an
appreciation of the consequences of its destruction dates back
several centuries in America. For example, as early as 1652, the
city of Boston established a public water supply, a step followed
in the next century by several towns in Pennsylvania. By 1800, 17
municipalities had taken similar measures to protect their citizens
against unfit drinking sources. Still, anyone living in the great
cities of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Boston just
after the American revolution could not escape the ill-effects of
expanding urbanization: the stench of sewage in near-by rivers;
the unwholesome presence of animal and human wastes
underfoot; the odors of rotting food; the jangling shouts of
vendors in narrow lanes; and the constant grinding of hooves
and iron wagon wheels on unpaved streets.
Industrialism in the nineteenth century widened the impact
of environmental degradation. Literary people were the first to
sense the meaning of this trend. Herman Melville's epic novel
Moby Dick (1851) and Henry David Thoreau's Waldert, or Life in
the Woods (1854) emphasized, respectively, the power and the
tranquility of nature. A second generation of writers, perhaps
sobered by the final settlement of the American West, wrote
without fictional guise. John Burroughs published 27 volumes of
intimate, experiential nature essays. John Muir, the Scottish
prophet of the rugged outdoors, set down his observations in a
series of books, beginning with The Mountains of California in
President Theodore Roosevelt, who undertook a western
camping trip with Muir in 1903, came to symbolize the campaign
for conservation, which gained steadily in political popularity.
During and after his Administration, the use and retention of
natural resources became a preoccupation of government.

President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal enacted a number of
natural resource measures. The Soil Conservation Service,
founded in 1935, applied scientific practices to reduce the erosion
of agricultural land. The depletion of animal life received
recognition in the passage of the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act,

establishing a fund for state fish and wildlife programs from the
proceeds of federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.
Most ambitious of all, the Tennessee Valley Authority erected
nine dams and a string of massive generating stations.

The definition of wilderness as an immense natural storehouse,
subject to human management, changed after the Second World
War. Life on the battle front, as well as the home front, curbed
the country's appetite for colossal federal projects. Moreover, the
almost immediate demobilization of the armed forces in 1945 and
1946 resulted in an unprecedented national birthrate. Cheap
home loans for veterans pushed suburban settlement far beyond
the city skylines. As the middle class found itself living on the
edges of open lands, political questions surfaced about the
preservation of the landscape just over the back fence. The
concept of ecology—which valued esthetics and biology over
efficiency and commerce—began to penetrate the public mind.
The growth of the cities also made plain the evils of
pollution. Media stories covered radioactive fallout and its effect
on the food chain, dangerous impurities in urban water supplies,
and the deterioration of city air. The subtle metaphor of a "web
of life," in which all creatures depended upon one another for
their mutual perpetuation, gained common currency. Hence, the
powerful reaction to Rachel Carson's 1962 classic Silent Spring, a
quietly shocking tale about the widespread pesticide poisoning of
man and nature. Her book elicited a public outcry for direct
government action to protect the wild; not for its future
exploitation, but for its own innate value.	\
In the process of transforming ecology from dispassionate
science to activist creed, Carson unwittingly launched the
modern idea of environmentalism: a political movement which
demanded the state not only preserve the Earth, but act to
regulate and punish those who polluted it. Sensing the electoral
advantage from such advocacy, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson
added the environment to their speeches and legislative
programs. In his 1964 and 1965 messages to Congress, Lyndon

Johnson spoke forcefully about safeguarding wilderness and
repairing damaged environments.
Richard Nixon showed as much eagerness as his
predecessors to profit from the issue, and he invoked it during
the bitter Presidential election of 1968. As President, however, he
acted with ambivalence, moving in two directions at once. On
one hand, he raised eyebrows by appointing a National Pollution
Control Council, a Commerce Department body comprised solely
of corporate executives. He also vetoed the second Clean Water
Act. At the same time, in 1969 and 1970, he approved and
directed a succession of sweeping measures which vastly
expanded the federal regulatory protections afforded the

Just four months after his January 1969 inauguration, President
Nixon established in his cabinet the Environmental Quality
Council, as well as a complementary Citizens' Advisory
Committee on Environmental Quality. Opponents denounced
both as ceremonial and Nixon, ever sensitive to criticism, rose to
the challenge. He had already asked Roy L. Ash, the founder of
Litton Industries, to lead an Advisory Council on Executive
Organization and submit recommendations for structural reform.
In November, the President's Domestic Council instructed Ash to
study whether all federal environmental activities should be
unified in one agency. During meetings in spring 1970, Ash at
first expressed a preference for a single department to oversee
both environmental and natural resource management. But by
April he had changed his mind; in a memorandum to the
President he advocated a separate regulatory agency devoted
solely to the pursuit of anti-pollution programs.
Forging such an institution actually represented the final
step in a quick march towards national environmental
consciousness. Congress recognized the potency of the issue in
late 1969 by passing the National Environmental Policy Act
(NEPA). This statute recast the government's role: formerly the
conservator of wilderness, it now became the protector of earth, air,
land, and water. The law declared Congressional intent to "create
and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist
in productive harmony," and to "assure for all Americans safe,
healthful, productive, esthetically and culturally pleasing
surroundings." Henceforth, all federal agencies planning projects
bearing on the environment were compelled to submit reports
accounting for the likely consequences—the now famous
Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). Secondly, NEPA
directed the President to assemble in his Cabinet a Council on
Environmental Quality. Undersecretary of the Interior Russell E.

Train agreed to be its first chairman. The Council's three
members and staff would assist the President by preparing an
annual Environmental Quality Report to Congress, gathering
data, and advising on policy. Signing the Act with fanfare on
New Year's Day 1970, Nixon observed that he had "become
further convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years
when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity
of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is," he said,
"literally now or never."
Pressing the initiative in his State of the Union Address
three weeks later, the President proclaimed the new decade a
period of environmental transformation. On February 10, he
presented the House and Senate an unprecedented 37-point
message on the environment, requesting four billion dollars for
the improvement of water treatment facilities; asking for national
air quality standards and stringent guidelines to lower motor
vehicle emissions; and launching federally-funded research to
reduce automobile pollution. Nixon also ordered a clean-up of
federal facilities which had fouled air and water, sought
legislation to end the dumping of wastes into the Great Lakes,
proposed a tax on lead additives in gasoline, forwarded to
Congress a plan to tighten safeguards on the seaborne
transportation of oil, and approved a National Contingency Plan
for the treatment of petroleum spills.


Having dispatched these initiatives in spring, by early July the
Administration could concentrate its full attention on the
capstone of its program. Acting on Roy Ash's advice, the
President decided to establish an autonomous regulatory body to
oversee the enforcement of environmental policy. In a message to
the House and Senate, he declared his intention to establish the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and left no doubts
about its far-reaching powers. Nixon declared that its mission
would center on:
•	The establishment and enforcement of environmental
protection standards consistent with national environmental
•	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.
The President accompanied his statement with
Reorganization Plan Number 3, dated July 9, 1970, in which he
informed Congress of his wish to assemble the EPA from the
sinews of three federal Departments, three Bureaus, three

Administrations, two Councils, one Commission, one Service,
and many diverse offices. The Interior Department would yield
the Federal Water Quality Administration, as well as all of its
pesticides work. The Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare would contribute the National Air Pollution Control
Administration, the Food and Drug Administration's pesticides
research, and the Bureaus of Solid Waste Management, Water
Hygiene, and (portions of) the Bureau of Radiological Health.
The Agriculture Department would cede the pesticides activities
undertaken by the Agricultural Research Service, while the
Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council
would vest radiation criteria and standards in the proposed
agency. Finally, the Council on Environmental Quality's
ecological research would be transferred to EPA.
The hearings on EPA, held in summer 1970, essentially
supported the President. The House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Executive and Legislative Reorganization,
chaired by Congressman Chet Holifield of California, convened
on July 22, 23, and August 4, to take testimony on
Reorganization Plan Number 3. Lead witness Russell Train gave
it unqualified support, predicting that its "vision of clean air and
water...will provide us with the unity and the leadership
necessary to protect the environment." Roy Ash testified the
following day about the fragmented state of pollution control, the
continuation of which "will seriously limit our solving the
problem even as we expand our commitment to preserve and
restore the quality of our environment." Meanwhile, witnesses
appeared on July 28 and 29 before the Senate Government
Operations Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization and
Government Research, chaired by Senator Abraham Ribicoff of
Connecticut. During these hearings, Senator Jacob Javits of New
York perhaps expressed the prevailing mood of the Congress
when he described the new organization as a "very strong and
overdue effort to arrest and prevent the erosion of the priceless
resources of all mankind and also to preserve that most priceless
asset, the human being himself, who, in a singularly polluted
atmosphere, may find it impossible to exist."
Congressman John Dingell of Michigan presented the only
serious alternatives to Reorganization Plan Number 3. A
strongwilled conservationist, Dingell wondered why the EPA
encompassed neither water and sewer programs in the
Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban
Development, nor the environmental operations of the Defense

and Transportation Departments. He proposed that instead of
erecting EPA, the House consider a more comprehensive, cabinet-
level Department of Environmental Quality. Despite his
suggestion, both subcommittees approved the President's
proposal and issued reports: the Holifield Committee on
September 23, the Ribicoff panel six days later. Having cleared all
its statutory hurdles, on December 2,1970, the Environmental
Protection Agency would at last open its doors.


While the EPA plan underwent Congressional scrutiny, practical
preparations proceeded at the Office of Management and Budget.
A nine-man Task Force on EPA Organization met through
summer and fall 1970 to design the structure of the new
institution. By early October, the participating government
Departments informed their employees of the transfer of
functions and personnel entailed in establishing the new agency.
Finally, on November 6,1970, President Nixon announced his
intention to nominate William D. Ruckelshaus to be the first
Administrator. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard
Law School, the 38-year-old Indianan had already compiled an
impressive record of government service. At the age of 28 he was
appointed a Deputy State Attorney General and in that capacity
drafted the Indiana Air Pollution Control Act of 1963. In 1967,
Ruckelshaus sought elective office and not only won a
Republican seat in the state House of Representatives, but also
became the first person to be named Majority Leader during his
initial term. A rising political star, he was nominated to run for
the U.S. Senate, but lost in the general election. At the time of
his selection to head EPA, Ruckelshaus was serving in the
Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil
During his confirmation hearings on December 1 and 2,
Ruckelshaus received a warm reception from the Senate
Committee on Public Works. His first words to the Senators not
only laid the basis for his term as Administrator, but for the
future of the Agency itself.
I think that enforcement is a very important function of this
new Agency. Obviously, if we are to make progress in
pollution abatement, we must have a firm enforcement
policy at the federal level. That does not mean that this

policy will be unfair, that it will not be evenhanded, but it
does mean that it will be firm....[A]s far as I view the
mission of this Agency and my mission as its proposed
Administrator, it is to be as forceful as the laws that
Congress has provided, and to present...firm support [for]
enforcement [by] the States.
After taking the Oath of Office on December 4, 1970 the
Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
officially welcomed his staff, transferred just two days before
from their former agencies and departments. William
Ruckleshaus appealed to their zeal and sense of mission as they
joined the newest independent federal agency, asking them to
"keep moving ahead with the valuable work which is already
underway [and] give us your ideas, your hard work and your
support in building a new and effective organization."

Additional copies of The Guardian: The Origins of EPA may be
obtained by writing to:
Public Information Center, PM-211B
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
401 M Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460
Photo Credits:
Cover, NASA, Apollo 16 Earth-Moon round trip
All others, EPA Historical photographs
Ron Farrah, EPA
Printed on Recycled Paper