Op-Ed: Saving EPA

By Malcolm F. Baldwin

In keeping with his campaign promise to “get rid” of EPA “in almost every form,” and with the confirmation of Scott Pruitt for U.S. attorney general, President Trump has signaled an intent to reduce immediately the funding, staffing and powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA has been the target of numerous lawsuits Pruitt has initiated as attorney general of Oklahoma. While perhaps unsurprising for this administration, the Pruitt plans to curb EPA’s enforcement, cut personnel, and delegate more authority to the states would reverse Republicans’ record of support for bipartisan federal leadership in combatting air and water pollution and other environmental threats.

President Nixon proposed the establishment of EPA in a reorganization plan sent to Congress in July, 1970, soon after the first Earth Day. That plan by Nixon’s new White House Council on Environmental Quality, strongly supported by White House Counsel John Ehrlichman (yes, the infamous John Ehrlichman of later Watergate fame), consolidated the air, water, and pesticide programs from three different agencies into a new EPA. The agency began work in December 1970, with a staff of more than 5,000.

Nixon fully recognized, indeed was largely motivated by, the political value of supporting environmental protection. After all, the Cuyahoga River around Cleveland had already caught fire, and citizens around the country had organized to observe Earth Day, spreading awareness of environmental issues among school children and citizens throughout the country. In Congress, meanwhile, Senator Edmund Muskie and the Congress—Republican and Democratic members alike—responded to these concerns with passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to give EPA substantial regulatory clout, and to shape and oversee effective state pollution control programs that have continued ever since.

EPA grew under Nixon’s first EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus, and it thrived over the next ten years. But then came Ronald Reagan, who had to learn some hard lessons about EPA’s value that President Trump might do well to study.

Like Trump today, Reagan sought to curb federal regulatory powers and return much environmental regulation to the states.  He appointed a cadre of totally inexperienced EPA leaders in 1981, led by Administrator Ann Gorsuch—the mother of recent Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch—who had been a state legislator and lawyer for a Colorado telephone company. But within two years, Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress—with 55 Republican and 204 Democratic votes—for withholding documents from congressional oversight, and Rita Lavelle, Gorsuch`s assistant administrator overseeing the Superfund program (established after the Love Canal disaster), was headed to prison for perjury and misuse of Superfund money. In late 1983 Reagan brought back William Ruckelshaus to set EPA back on course.

More recently, EPA continued its regulatory work under both Bush presidencies and Clinton and Obama, enduring frequent budget and staff cuts, but without threats to its existence. Sufficient numbers of Republicans have consistently joined Democrats in understanding that Americans’ health and welfare require a federal agency to ensure nationwide environmental protection. Cuts in acid rain during the 1990s were followed up under George W. Bush’s first term with actions to reduce mercury emissions from coal plants. More recently, Obama’s EPA took major steps to curb the devastating impacts of mountaintop coal mining, to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants, and to monitor and reduce release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from fracking operations.  Most notably, EPA has engaged vigorously, in cooperation with the Department of Energy to respond to the overwhelming scientific consensus (that Scott Pruitt has denied) that Earth is warming at a catastrophic rate and that human activities are to blame.

Today, thanks to EPA and the laws on which it relies, we don’t have rivers on fire, or evacuations from newly-discovered hazardous waste dumps (like Love Canal). The Potomac River on Loudoun’s northern border is fishable and swimmable and is no longer the open sewer it was 40 years ago. But the environmental challenges and investment requirements continue, as we learned from the lead poisoning of water supplies in Flint, Michigan.

Rather than assaulting EPA’s funding and authority, we now need to make EPA more efficient in achieving its mission by relying on those market-based mechanisms that can truly reduce regulatory costs while enhancing environmental benefits.  Some notable Republican figures support this course. Recognizing the global warming reality, George Schultz, Henry Paulson, and James Baker have proposed a carbon tax instead of more regulations to reduce CO2 and provide funds to help low income citizens in the process—a proposal causing favorable editorials from both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But all indications point to the Trump team’s preoccupation with deregulation and avoidance of market measures able to enhance environmental benefits and supplement regulations.  Forgotten are lessons Republicans learned from the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush experiences: that America’s welfare and “greatness” require respect for the integrity of the Earth and on our capacity to integrate environmental protection into our economic and social policies at home and abroad.  That result, along with pursuit of a happy future for our children and grandchildren, requires a revitalized, not a crippled, EPA.



Malcolm Baldwin began his career in environmental law in the mid-1960s when he joined The Conservation Foundation and co-authored a book on environmental law. He served in the White House Council on Environmental Quality starting in 1974 and left after serving as acting chairman in the initial months of the Reagan Administration. For the past 15 years of his career he worked and lived in developing countries to help protect their environment. He and his wife Pamela own WeatherLea Farm & Vineyard near Lovettsville.

10 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Saving EPA

  • 2017-02-17 at 11:49 pm

    So the environmental Nazi’s are a little worried, eh? While nobody wants a dirty environment, the EPA has become so divorced from reality it needed a major overhaul. When we stop all development because of a single species of fish, we know the crazies have way too much power.

    It was ridiculous to regulate CO2 under the clean air act since it cannot be localized to any region of the world. And there should not be arbitrary thresholds but rather allow for other alternatives that are more cost efficient.

    The enviro left is about to learn the consequences of their radical agenda of the last 8 years. It is about time.

  • 2017-02-20 at 1:10 pm

    A leftist one percenter, singing the praises of Dick Nixon. I’ve seen it all now.

  • 2017-02-21 at 6:56 am

    It’s difficult to argue against the EPA when it was created, in part, because Cleveland dumped so much toxic pollution into the Cuyahoga river, that it caught fire. Rivers, typically, don’t do that.

    Now, the EPA is headed by a man who wants to destroy it. Let the rivers burn! Let your children breathe mercury and eat lead.

  • 2017-02-21 at 12:24 pm

    Do you mean releasing heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, and all kinds of yummy stuff into Colorado’s Animas river like the EPA did two years ago? The EPA which refused to take responsibility until taken to court, and are still refusing to pay compensation to the Navajo Nation, and the state of New Mexico?

    That EPA Jonathan?

    The same EPA that knew, and had the authority to call an emergency, but sat on its hands for seven months, while the residents of Flint Michigan continued to chug down lead contaminated water?


    The same EPA that demands control of your property because rain falls on it? The same EPA whose most recent administrators violate the public records act by conducting government business under false names on private e mail accounts? Those ladies?

    The same EPA that was looking to stick it to rural farmers by wanting to regulate the gas from the south ends of their livestock? Hope they don’t get the idea to regulate dog gas, else’ I’m broke in a week.

    Never fear Jonathan. The Trump administration is following the Obama administration’s efforts to get the liability suit for the EPA’s Animas river contamination disaster dismissed.

    All is well.

    P.S., glad to see ya in the debate J.

  • 2017-02-21 at 8:14 pm

    Chris Manthos said:

    “Do you mean releasing heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, and all kinds of yummy stuff into Colorado’s Animas river like the EPA did two years ago?”

    “Releasing?” Where did the “yummy stuff” come from? Did the EPA manufacture it?

    Chris, you might as well take a big smelly doo doo on my front porch and leave a defective doggy bag so that when I clean it up to bring it back to you, and the bag breaks, you can say, “Look what Jonathan did,” and relieve yourself (no pun intended) of all responsibility for the mess.

  • 2017-02-22 at 10:52 am

    I’m not one who’s believes the world will turn into some industrial nightmare wasteland without tens of thousands of indifferent bureaucrats spending their time thinking up new ways to regulate every aspect of our lives. I’m forever astonished at the mindset that somehow, all of the education and progress America has made in environmental awareness will suddenly revert back 50-70 years overnight, without massive and wasteful government institutions to tell us wrong from right.
    I, and great great many people, already know wrong from right.

    It was the EPA’s job to clean up the mine. It’s what they’re paid to do. They screwed up, and now, are trying to get off the hook for it. If any other entity had done this, they’d be fined every single cent and then some, and then litigated out of existence. But not the EPA. They’re exempt from their own screw ups. It’s can’t be one set of rules for special people, and another set of rules for everyone else. Yet that is exactly what we’re seeing.

    • 2017-02-23 at 7:27 am


      This is a binary question.

      You are apologizing for the polluters.

      You are protecting the polluters.

      You are falsely claiming that “education and progress,” an amorphous concept will “revert.” But the topic of the op-ed is Pruitt’s intent is to roll back regulation. This has nothing to do with 50-70 years of “environmental awareness.” It does have something to do with 50-70 years of well-funded denial and propaganda.

      Are you a paid pollution defender?

  • 2017-02-23 at 11:03 am

    I can get paid for that? How much? (for all uptight folks, that’s humor. Try it sometime, and we’d all get along better.)

    Are you an advocate of one set of rules for government, and another for citizens? I don’t think you are, but that’s what your defending.

    Jonathan; you can’t possibly believe that if the EPA disappeared today, somehow someway everyone would start digging toxic waste sites in their backyards, or dump oil into streams and rivers. It’s not going to happen. People are far more aware of their surroundings, and how to take care of them than you imagine. Have some faith in your neighbors. Although, I’m appalled at the trash along Loudoun” roadways. It’s worse than ever.

    There are plenty of creepy regulations that require review. Let’s start with “Waters of the U.S. That, essentially gives the EPA/Government direct control over your property via deeming any low spot in your yard, or mud puddle on your driveway as “Waters of the U.S.” In essence – if rain falls on your land, it’s not your rain, nor your land, It’s the government’s. Not only is it totalitarian in nature, it’s completely creepy. I’m far more in tune with the land and waters on my place, than any self-proclaimed “scientist” or bureaucrat is. And I bet you are too.

  • 2017-02-27 at 11:02 pm

    It’s been gratifying to see discussion and debate about my article, despite what appears to be several misconceptions about EPA’s actions.

    But a point I didn’t address had I more space, was the important role that the White House Council on Environmental Quality played during the 1970s in particular (when I was there) in overseeing and often criticizing EPA’s actions — its data, its project funding, and sometimes its regulations. We did this from an environmental management efficiency perspective. And when Reagan came in, we tried (I as Acting Chairman) to get backing for market, fiscal-saving measures for environmental management by EPA and other agencies. All to no avail, as CEQ’s funding and staff — always tiny at about $2 million/yr — was cut by 3/4. The CEQ survived as an entity with sometimes useful roles under Clinton-Obama, but the Trump regime essentially disbanded it last week.
    EPA once benefited from oversight to promote environmental management efficiency, and it has lacked that for decades. Now prospects are even more dire as Trump’s policies support, by all indications, scientifically ignorant, governmentally hostile, and myopic business perspectives. In this era of remarkable polarization we even lack the objective capability — which CEQ once possessed — to measure the environmental conditions and trends that a toothless EPA will yield. But our ignorance will not bring bliss.

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