The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created on December 2, 1970, by executive order of President Richard Nixon to "permit coordinated and effective government action on behalf of the environment." Fifteen different environmental programs from various federal offices were combined and placed under the jurisdiction of the newly created EPA. The EPA was designed to serve as an "umbrella agency" through which most federal environmental laws, regulations, and policies would be administered.

The creation of the EPA was one of several significant events with respect to the environment that took place in 1970, with the first Earth Day commemorations having been held in April of that year and the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which had been passed by Congress the previous year. NEPA was a result of the environmental movement of the 1960s, and, although it was not the first U.S. federal environmental protection law, it was viewed as the proclamation of a new era in the country's efforts to protect the natural environment. NEPA's purpose was to reform governmental decision-making processes concerning natural resources and the environment, and NEPA included the requirement that all federal agencies "consider the environment" and prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) before pursuing any "major" federal project that may have a significant effect on the environment. Creation of the EPA was, therefore, one among various steps taken by the government in 1970 to promote more vigorous and effective protection of the environment.


The EPA's powers and programs are established through legislation passed by Congress. (Such legislation delegating powers to an agency is known as "enabling" legislation.) Today the EPA is charged with the administration of a myriad of federal environmental laws dealing with air and water pollution, drinking water quality, radioactive wastes, pesticides, solid wastes, and noise pollution. Those environmental statutes include, for example, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA—the Superfund Program), the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In general, the EPA develops standards or regulations pursuant to environmental statutes; enforces those standards, regulations, and statutes; monitors pollutants in the environment; conducts research; and promotes public environmental education.

The main office of the EPA, which is located in Washington, D.C., oversees implementation of national environmental laws and programs, oversees the EPA's regional offices and laboratories, and submits budget requests to Congress. Research is conducted through the EPA's main office and at its regional field laboratories. There are ten regional EPA offices and field laboratories that work directly with state and local governments to coordinate pollution control efforts. The EPA uses a portion of its federal funding to provide grants and technical assistance to states and local governmental units that seek to prevent pollution.

The EPA is organized to fulfill five main objectives, which are called "core functions." The first is "pollution prevention," which is also know as "source reduction." The second is "risk assessment and risk reduction," which is the task of identifying those risks that pose the greatest risks to human health and the environment and taking action to reduce those risks. The third is "science, research, and technology," which involves research designed to develop innovative technologies to deal with environmental problems. Fourth is "regulatory development." That involves developing standards for operations of industrial facilities, including, for example, standards for air emissions of pollutants pursuant to Clean Air Act permits and standards for discharge of effluents under Clean Water Act permits. Fifth is "environmental education," pursuant to which the EPA develops educational materials and provides grants to educational institutions.


The administrator of the EPA is appointed by the president of the United States and approved by the U.S. Senate. Also appointed by the president and approved by the Senate are a deputy administrator, nine assistant administrators, an inspector general, and a general counsel. The inspector general is responsible for investigating environmental crimes, and the general counsel provides legal advice.

Within the EPA there are four "program" offices. They are (1) Air and Radiation; (2) Water; (3) Pesticides and Toxic Substances; and (4) Solid Waste and Emergency Response. There is also an office for Research and Development that works in coordination with each of the four program offices.


The EPA works closely with state and local governments in their pollution control efforts. During the early 1980s there were efforts by the Reagan and Bush administrations to implement what has been called the "New Federalism." The New Federalism refers to efforts to "downsize" federal government and hand over more responsibility for enforcement of regulatory programs to state and local governments. In the area of environmental law, this has been implemented in programs in which states are encouraged to pass their own statutes and regulations that meet or exceed the requirements of the federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, RCRA, and CERCLA. Upon certification by the federal EPA, such states take over day-to-day enforcement of a specific statutory program such as the Clean Air Act and of the regulations implementing that program. As a result, businesspeople in many states find that their day-to-day contact with enforcement officials regarding environmental statutes and regulations is with a state counterpart to the EPA rather than with the federal EPA itself. For example, in Michigan a business applies to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ—Michigan's counterpart to the EPA) for emissions permits under the Clean Air Act and effluent permits under the Clean Water Act; it files its "hazardous waste manifests" required by RCRA with the DEQ; and it deals with the DEQ with regard to identification of and cleanup of a contaminated site under the Superfund program. Even when a state has been certified to administer such a program, however, the federal EPA continues to oversee the state's enforcement activities. It provides assistance to state officials and sometimes participates directly in major enforcement actions against violators of environmental laws.

The EPA works closely with other federal environmental control agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Coast Guard. The NOAA engages in long-range research on pollution problems, especially problems affecting the ocean and the atmosphere such as the hole in the ozone over Antarctica, which is currently of great concern to scientists and citizens throughout the world. The EPA works with the U.S. Coast Guard on flood control, dredging activities, and shoreline protection. Since 1970 the EPA has worked closely with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a relatively small executive agency that was created pursuant to the NEPA. Its mission is to advise the president on federal policy and action in the environmental area and to ensure that other federal agencies comply with NEPA. Compliance with NEPA includes the requirement that any federal agency pursue environmentally sound policies and that it prepare an EIS before undertaking any major action that might significantly affect the environment. Under the Clinton administration of the 1990s, the CEQ has become more active than in past decades as it has led the administration's efforts to revise environmental programs, cut paperwork, and foster partnerships among citizens, industry, landowners, and the individual states.


The image and effectiveness of the EPA throughout its existence have been closely tied to its administrator. When the EPA was created in 1970, it was headed by William Ruckelshaus (1932-), a loyal member of the Republican party who earned a reputation as a skilled administrator, who was able to work effectively with environmentalists as well as businesspeople.

The EPA faced little criticism until the early 1980s. Anne Burford (who later became Anne Gorsuch; 1942-) was appointed by President Reagan and took control of the agency in 1980. Early in 1983, the EPA came under criticism from the public and Congress. There were allegations of mishandling of Superfund monies, conflicts of interest related to ties between EPA officials and regulated businesses, manipulation of the Superfund for political purposes, and lax enforcement against polluters. Observers were concerned to see that under Burford the number of environmental crime cases referred by the EPA to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution declined from 255 in 1979 to 97 in 1982. Burford became known by her colleagues and the public as the "Ice Queen" as a result of her comportment within the EPA and her arrogance and cold public demeanor during an ensuing Congressional investigation. As a result of the investigation, Burford and 20 other EPA officials resigned from their positions; one of those officials, Rita LaVelle, went to prison after being convicted of perjury in her testimony on the affair before Congress. As a result of that affair, dubbed "Sewergate" by the news media, public confidence in the EPA plurmmeted.

Upon Burford's resignation in March 1983, President Reagan asked Ruckelshaus to serve as interim EPA administrator. Ruckelshaus agreed to do so, serving until the appointment of his successor, Lee Thomas, in November 1984.

The EPA and the environment were issues during the 1988 presidential elections when then-candidate George Bush campaigned with a pledge to be the "Environmental President." Upon his election, he named William K. Reilly (1940-), a former head of the Conservation Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, to be the EPA's new administrator. In doing so, Bush chose a moderate environmentalist. The Conservation Foundation was known for conservative reports and was not considered by other environmental groups to be politically active. In fact, the foundation has been called "the Vatican of the environmental movement" due to its conservatism. Yet, as a moderate environmentalist within the Bush administration, Reilly was viewed as an "out-and-out zealot." Overall, the Bush administration achieved a mixed environmental record. Reilly helped push through the first revision of the Clean Air Act in 13 years, resulting in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. The Bush administration agreed to phase out asbestos use by 1997 and supported a ban on importation of ivory products from Africa. But, the administration and the EPA were criticized for failing to commit to timetables or specific measures to deal with global warming and for failing to take action to preserve wetlands. Bush was sharply criticized for proposing a $400 million cut in water-pollution programs after his campaign promises to clean up Boston Harbor. Further, new EPA standards for pesticides were criticized as being too flexible and for giving too much weight to economic factors in deciding whether to take a pesticide off the market.

As of 1999, the chief administrator of the EPA, who was chosen by President Bill Clinton in December 1992 shortly after his election, was Carol Browner. Browner came from the position of secretary of environmental regulation for the state of Florida. She was considered to be prominent among a new group of environmentalists who view environmental protection and economic development as compatible objectives. Thus, her views were compatible with the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which directs the administrator of the EPA to develop and implement strategies to promote "source reduction." Source reduction refers to pollution prevention practices designed to reduce the amount of any hazardous substance entering the environment or any waste stream. Browner implemented several pollution prevention programs as an alternative to the EPA's former emphasis on "command and control" methods of regulation, which focus on regulating only that which comes from the "end of the pipe," such as the emissions coming from a smokestack. Leading the EPA in another departure from its past practices, Browner instituted a plan in 1993 to strengthen the EPA's Office of Enforcement by reconsolidating it and adding some staff. (It had been divided into different offices under the Reagan administration.) The office is working to target entire industries rather than focus only on individual companies breaking environmental laws.

In 1994 President Clinton supported legislation giving the EPA cabinet-level status and the legislation was approved by Congress. The main purpose of this change is to give the EPA the same status as the Education, Housing and Urban Development, and other departments within federal government. In addition, cabinet-level status is viewed as an important mechanism for promoting better interagency communication, increasing stature for the EPA with respect to foreign governments, and providing more efficiency within the EPA itself.

The EPA celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1995 by issuing a report describing progress that has been made in protecting the natural environment and public health. For example, significant improvements have been shown in the areas of air quality, water quality, waste, toxic substance regulation, and pesticide management. In the 1990s the EPA adopted more comprehensive and holistic approaches to environmental protection. For example, the EPA began to practice multimedia environmental protection, developing coordinated systems that consider water, air, and land management. The EPA also adopted more market-based incentives such as the use of an air emissions permit system that allows the sale or trade of unused air emissions credits. In addition, the EPA provides to the public information that is designed to empower individual decisions as they make decisions about their environment. For example, under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program of the Superfund program, the public has access to data regarding chemicals released from over 23,000 manufacturing sites and certain federally owned facilities in the United States. The EPA is working to expand the types of industry that are required to report data under the TRI program.

In 1996, under the leadership of Browner, the EPA established a Reinvention Action Council to oversee the EPA's efforts to "reinvent" itself in the late 1990s. Reinvention stresses strengthening existing programs along with more holistic, multimedia approaches to environmental cleanup and protection. Strengthening of existing programs includes, but is not limited to, the following: (1) measures designed to consolidate and simplify monitoring and reporting requirements placed on businesses; (2) use of market-based incentives to encourage pollution prevention; (3) harmonization of requirements across programs; and (4) assistance to regulated facilities as they self-identify and self-correct environmental problems. For example, Project XL encourages industry groups, government agencies, and individuals to test new pollution control and pollution prevention technologies by removing regulatory barriers that might impede such development. Holistic approaches to environmental protection include, but are not limited to the following: (1) new approaches to regulation that integrate environmental requirements for a facility, industry, or industry-sector; (2) community-based environmental protection; (3) a National Environmental Performance Partnership System designed to redesign and harmonize federal and state rules; and (4) programs to expand public access to environmental data that can be accessed using computers. For example, the TRI program, started pursuant to the 1986 amendments to Superfund, has been expanded to give the public access to data from over 23,000 facilities across the country, including manufacturing facilities and some federal facilities.

The Clinton administration has provided budgetary support for the EPA. For example, for fiscal year 1991, at the end of the Bush administration, the EPA's budget was just over $6.09 million. President Clinton's proposed budget for fiscal year 1999 was over $7.77 million, a 6 percent rise as compared to 1998. The Clinton administration's priorities for 1999 included increased efforts to clean up waterways and drinking water and a five-year program of tax credits and research subsidies to promote fuel-efficient automobiles and factory machinery that will, in turn, reduce the risk of global warming due to emissions.

It is widely agreed that the EPA must find more efficient and more cost-effective ways to clean up the environment and protect the public from further contamination than the methods it has used so far. For example, many businesspeople and environmentalists believe that the Superfund law doesn't work. Between its passage in 1980 and 1993, EPA identified over 1,200 "national priority" sites for clean up, yet, after spending nearly $20 billion by 1993, only a small number of those sites had actually been cleaned up. In the mid-1990s, however, the EPA reported significant progress, reporting that by 1996, cleanup activities had been started at 95 percent of the Superfund sites listed on the EPA's National Priorities List (NPL). In addition, the EPA reported that it had completed cleanup at over 400 of the NPL sites (29 percent of the sites) and that at least one phase of cleanup had been started at 95 percent of the Superfund sites on the NPL.

And there are many challenges beyond those associated with Superfund. The EPA must deal with constitutional issues involved when property owners are denied permission to develop land due to federal wetlands-protection laws and policies. The EPA must continue to work with foreign governments to study and to develop mechanisms to deal with global warming. And the area of environmental civil rights has come to the forefront in discussion of environmental protection. In February 1998, the EPA instituted a policy designed to deal with complaints by civil rights and environmental advocates. The policy is designed to ensure that minority neighborhoods are not forced to accept an unfair share of waste dumps and incinerators. The policy has been opposed, however, by business groups and state environmental agency officials. Thus, the EPA faces tremendous challenges in many areas as it moves into the 21st century.

[ Paulette L. Stenzel ]


Adler, Jerry. "'Ice Queen' under Fire." Newsweek, 21 February 1983, 24.

Bukro, Casey. "EPA Chief Ties Ecology to Economy." Chicago Tribune, 13 February 1993, 1-2.

"Bush and Congress Get Low Grades." Congressional Quarterly, 27 January 1990, 235.

Cahan, Vicky. "Can the EPA Chief Clean Up Bush's Image?" Business Week, II December 1989, 135-36.

Cushman, John H., Jr. "Pollution Policy Is Unfair Burden, States Tell EPA." New York Times, 10 May 1998, 1.

Gabriel, Trip. "Greening the White House." New York Times Magazine, 13 August 1989, 25.

"How 'Sewergate' Is Paralyzing the EPA." Business Week, 28 February 1983, 73-74.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The Facts Speak for Themselves: A Fundamentally Different Superfund Program." Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999. Available from www.epa.gov/Superfund/whatissf/ .

——. "Reinventing Environmental Protection—EPA's Approach." Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999. Available from www.epa.gov/reinvent/strategy .

——. "Twenty-five Years of Environmental Progress at a Glance." Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999. Available from www.epa.gov/25year/ .

——. "U.S. EPA History Office: Frequently Asked Questions." Washington: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1999. Available from www.epa.gov/history/ .

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