The Remarkable and Entirely Underappreciated Achievements of the EPA

The Supreme Court is gutting an agency that has a measurable history of saving lives.

Branko Marcetic

Environmental Protection Agency workers in protective clothing checking soil in area of closed plant for toxic waste contamination. Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s June 30 strikedown of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity producers was met with widespread dismay. Critics assailed the Court’s claim that the agency needed specific direction from Congress to do so, with even George W. Bush’s EPA administrator — a frequent target of environmentalists’ ire during her tenure — decrying the decision as a body blow” to the country that would make all regulation more difficult. 

The Court’s reasoning may well point to the overarching goal of its right-wing majority: The long-standing conservative dream of abolishing the modern administrative state, where Congress delegates broad powers to federal agencies to issue rules and regulations on those agencies’ own initiative. 

This eradication of the administrative state would be a disastrous development for solving any number of slow-burning crises. But it would be particularly gutting for the EPA, which since its creation in 1970 has relied on the pile-up of broad, statutory authority given to it by Congress to tackle all manner of environmental issues without having to wait for action from a gridlocked Capitol. 

While the EPA has no shortage of blemishes on its record — owing chiefly to corporate-backed campaigns to weaken or subvert its power — just a brief tour through the agency’s history of accomplishments shows its pivotal role in modern American life. From dramatically improving air quality and banning cancer-causing substances, to cleaning up toxic sites and making long-poisoned natural attractions habitable again, the EPA has been the worst nightmare for right-wing, anti-government forces: an example of government power working for the benefit of the average person.

Banning cancerous pesticides

We can thank the EPA’s broad authority for the disappearance of a host of deadly chemicals from U.S. air, water and soil. Top of the list is DDT, once among the most popular and widely used pesticides in the country and world, used by the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, even as evidence piled up through the 1960s that it caused cancer in animals and humans. 

With responsibility for pesticide regulation vested in the agency upon its creation, the EPA’s first administrator, third-generation Republican William Ruckelshaus, hit the ground running. He built on years of growing awareness of DDT’s cancer-causing properties to hold a series of hearings on the pesticide and, ultimately, ban it for crop use. It wasn’t a second too soon: The substance continues to contaminate the Great Lakes decades later, and the health problems it created in those who were exposed have been passed on to their kids and grandkids. 

The EPA has banned or restricted a host of other cancer-causing pesticides in the decades since. It banned heptachlor and chlordane a few years later, banned EDB (ethylene dibromide) as a soil fumigant and pesticide in the 1980s, barred the use of daminozide (traded under the name Alar) in 1989 because of its presence in children’s diets, and prohibited in 2000 all home and garden use of chlorpyrifos — for decades one of the most widely used pesticides on food and lawn. This was finally upgraded to a full ban of chlorpyrifos on all food crops just this year. 

It’s worth noting that other than with DDT, all of these efforts were halting and piecemeal, requiring an inordinate amount of public and activist pressure to make happen. Between unfavorable court rulings, business opposition, and Republican administrations staffing the agency with personnel hostile to its very mission, the EPA often needed to have its hand forced to act as far and fast as it needed to. Yet even this shows the value of the agency, as one powerful tool that environmentalists and progressive activists can use in the face of powerful forces. 

In the process, the EPA has used its broad mandate to improve workplace safety. After taking a small step to rectify the New Deal’s exclusion of farm laborers by passing a worker protection standard for them in 1974, 40 years later, the agency strengthened that standard by putting in place for the first time a minimum age for working with pesticides, given children’s heightened risk of health problems for exposure. Though set at the too-low floor of 16 years to appease businesses, this is still an important step for the 6% of farm workers who are younger than 18, as of 2014, and demonstrates the potential go much further. 

Preventing air and lead pollution

The removal of cancerous pesticides is just one part of the story. The various legislation passed by Congress over the decades — the Clean Air, Clean Water, Toxic Substances Control, and Safe Drinking Water Acts, to name just a few — gave the EPA the power to phase out and control a panoply of dangerous chemicals. 

The result has been a marked improvement in U.S. air and water quality. According to the EPA’s figures, total emissions of six common pollutants — carbon monoxide, lead, particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen and sulfur dioxides — have declined 71% over the past 40 years. That’s a significant reduction in chemicals that can cause everything from heart disease and asthma to learning disabilities and lung diseases. Since 1990 alone, the concentration of each of these chemicals, other than ozone, has dropped by well more than 40%, with sulfur dioxide falling 90%. 

That last pollutant was especially targeted by the EPA as part of its Acid Rain Program, which Congress’ 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act put into motion. Creating the world’s first cap-and-trade system, the program saw sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions plummet annually by 93% and 87% respectively. Multiple studies since then have determined the program saw a gradual reduction in mortality rates, with one estimating the economic benefit of the annual lives saved at anywhere between $51 to $109 billion by 2005 — far beyond the program’s $3 billion price tag. This was paired with the agency’s gradually more stringent regulation of sulfur levels in diesel fuel. 

The agency took similarly concerted action against lead, focusing particularly on phasing it out of gasoline, with the result that lead air pollution fell 92% by 2010, and that the number of children with toxic levels of lead in their blood fell by 2 million a year between 1970 and 1987 alone. When the scale of damage to the ozone layer became clear, the agency also worked to phase out chlorofluorocarbons starting in the 1970s, helping lead to the gradual, ongoing shrinking of the ozone hole. 

We can, in large part, thank the EPA for the virtual disappearance of indoor smoking, with the agency concluding in 1993 that secondhand tobacco smoke was a Class A carcinogen. The EPA faced fierce pushback, including a court ruling striking down its own finding, and an aggressive campaign from the tobacco industry, which warned that secondhand smoke represents a more serious threat to the industry than any other issue,” and plotted to destroy the agency’s credibility by deploying all of the EPA’s enemies against it at one time.” But the die was cast: The EPA’s report was widely cited by state and local officials as they restricted smoking in public spaces, formed the basis of OSHA restrictions on indoor smoke, and bolstered a class-action lawsuit against the industry. 

Unfortunately, this latest Supreme Court decision isn’t the first time the agency’s been frustrated in its attempts to clean up the country. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals swiftly overturned the EPA’s ban on asbestos in 1991, and the United States continues to be unique among developed countries in permitting its continued use. In fact, the agency is now trying for the second time to ban the substance outright, with public comment on the proposal just recently closed. 

Cleaning up toxic sites

The EPA has been on the front lines of numerous environmental disasters, financing and organizing clean-ups, fining polluters, and even ensuring compensation for the effects of pollution. 

Despite chronic underfunding and deliberate sabotage by GOP-appointed administrators, the agency’s Superfund program has done important work cleaning up toxic waste sites around the country, which about 73 million people are estimated to live within three miles of. At the peak of its funding from 1991 to 2000, the program completed construction on 71 projects a year, and even from 2011 to 2020, when it struggled with under-resourcing, it completed an average of 12 projects a year, with that number dropping to 10 in 2020.

A 2016 study found that children living near Superfund sites had higher rates of cognitive disabilities and lower test scores, and that the savings in special education costs would pay for the Superfund program in the long term. It also found that, conversely, a Superfund clean-up substantially benefits children’s cognitive development” and positively impacts a variety of long-term cognitive and developmental outcomes for children” — suggesting the continued benefits of the program, even as it’s seen its funding gradually choked off over the years.

Those sites included cases like Kentucky’s infamous Valley of the Drums, a 23-acre area near Louisville riddled with thousands of drums full of hazardous waste over the 1960s and 1970s, and which was cleaned up and removed from the National Priorities List, the EPA’s list of toxic waste sites to be targeted by the program, in 1996. After the town of Times Beach became covered with a toxic mix of waste oil and dioxin in 1982, the EPA used Superfund money to buy out 800 residential properties and 30 businesses, helping relocate its residents. The agency also spearheaded the clean-up of the Hudson River, once saturated with carcinogenic Polychlorinated Biphenyls, but is today safe for swimming and even being used as a source of drinking water. These are just a drop in the bucket of the many toxic sites the program has made safe over the decades.

Though separate from the Superfund program, one of the most high-profile clean-ups led by the EPA has been the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, created in 2010. Since then, the program has funded more than 2,500 projects to improve water quality in the Great Lakes area, reduce untreated runoff and more, while protecting and restoring more than 100,000 acres of wetlands and 48,000 acres of habitat. The program is tipped to finish work at 22 of 25 remaining Areas of Concern by the end of the decade. 

While the EPA’s enforcement actions are limited in what they can do — many large polluters can simply treat a fine, however large, as the cost of doing business — the agency has at times been able to use them to wring out added concessions. The EPA forced Olin Corporation to not just pay for the clean-up of the DDT its negligence allowed to seep into the surrounding area, but to pay the residents of the nearby town of Triana $19 million, plus another $5 million put toward a healthcare program for its residents. Similarly, historic settlements with the Virginia Electric Power Co. and ExxonMobil forced both companies to establish more stringent pollution controls and to fund local environmental projects, like installing solar energy panels. 

Meanwhile, the agency’s Brownfields program, which provides financing for the clean-up of contaminated properties, has had impressive results, freeing up just shy of 10,000 properties and nearly 150,000 acres for reuse. Since 2006, the state and tribal entities the program partners with have registered more than 200,000 clean-ups and freed up nearly 3.5 million acres for reuse. According to those who have relied on Brownfields loans for such work, these revitalizations wouldn’t have happened absent the EPA’s loans, with the private sector and even other government bodies unwilling to provide financing for projects with complicated clean-up requirements or in undesirable locations. 

An important tool

There’s a reason why right-wing judges dream of weakening the EPA, why nearly every Republican president after Richard Nixon has worked to undermine it, and why corporate America has launched a ceaseless barrage of campaigns against the agency. For all its flaws and limitations, and its systematic under-resourcing by successive administrations, the agency remains an effective vehicle for holding corporate power accountable, preserving biodiversity, and protecting Americans’ health — and one that’s proven consistently responsive to grass-roots pressure, at least with the right people in charge of it. 

If those like Neil Gorsuch have their way, the agency’s wide latitude to act free of a gridlocked Congress will be dramatically narrowed, and many of the measures it’s taken over the years would never have happened in the first place. The EPA is one of the clearest examples we have of how a government agency can succeed in its core mission, do measurable, transformational good for communities, and protect and improve Americans’ health and security. Its history should be understood, and its future defended. 

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

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