Forty years ago today, a sweeping environmental panic that transcended socioeconomic class and political party spurred President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency. Charged with cleaning up a visibly soiled nation, the EPA spent its first 10 years enacting much-heralded air, water, and solid-waste regulations. But under President Reagan in the 1980s, the EPA began to develop the more complicated role it plays today. With the low-hanging fruit largely gathered, the agency passed deeper-cutting regulations and ended up butting heads more with industry.
Today, the EPA has become a rallying point for many conservatives, as Republicans in the House and Senate attempt to strip the agency of its authority (and court-ordered mandate) to regulate greenhouse gases.
Below, a historian, a clean air advocate, and a business lobbyist weigh in on where the agency has triumphed and where it's stumbled.
Adam Rome, environmental historian at Penn State University:
The most interesting thing to me about the EPA was that when it was founded, the first director, William Ruckelshaus, said two things I think were really fascinating. He said the mission of the agency was really to encourage an environmental ethic in the American people. It's probably an impossible task for a government agency, but that spirit is really fascinating. The EPA really did try, beyond issuing regulations, to speak for the environment, to try to change the way people saw our relationship to nature.