Brooke Gladstone: April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day. The last half-century is not marked by stunning success, but rather a one step forward two steps back Web of regulation and deregulation, regulation and deregulation that invariably sets business and environmental protection in eternal needless opposition.
Reporter 1: President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday it's directed the EPA to pull back Obama's Waters of The United States Rule.
Reporter 2: The Act gives the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in major bodies of water as well as in streams and wetlands.
Reporter 3: The President repealed a rule meant to prevent coal mining waste from going into waterways.
Reporter 4: Instead, there will be no federal program to reduce carbon-dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions.
Brooke Gladstone: In his proposed 2021 fiscal year budget, Trump has asked Congress for the fourth year in a row to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, essentially stripping away the last remaining programs aimed at curbing climate change. Meanwhile, earlier this month, as Americans were transfixed by the pandemic, Andrew Wheeler, EPA director, and former coal lobbyist announced that coal and oil-fired power plants need no longer comply with regulations that are designed to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants. To top off all of that, the EPA is also trashing a successful emissions program for cars.
Reporter 5: The Trump administration has tried to roll back ambitious Obama era vehicle emission standards, raising the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come, and gutting one of the United States's biggest efforts against climate change.
Brooke Gladstone: So, when did protecting the environment move from a bipartisan concern to a political football? How did the EPA, an agency created by a Republican president, become in the eyes of the GOP a job killer? To mark the day, we're re-airing a piece that aired in 2017 that reminds us of how far we have not come. It begins in the late 60s.
Brooke Gladstone: In 1966, dozens in New York City died from oppressive smog over a single weekend, and other cities suffered too. In 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill released an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, damaged sea life, and spoiled California beaches.
Reporter 6: This is a view inside Santa Barbara harbor showing pleasure boats that have turned black above their water lines where the crude oil lapped up against their hose. The oil slick followed nearly 50 kilometers of coastline.
Brooke Gladstone: Polluted waterways were clogged with flammable goo.
Reporter 7: The Cuyahoga River in Ohio is so loaded with the waste products of petroleum distillation that is actually in danger of catching fire.
Brooke Gladstone: In fact, fires on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River weren't rare, but in 1969, Blaze caught the country's attention. Randy Newman penned an ironic serenade.
Brooke Gladstone: It was a time of noxious, visible pollution, people cared. Nixon noticed.
President Nixon: The great question of the 70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.
Brooke Gladstone: Beset by protests over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women's rights, Nixon was in a bind.
Richard Andrews: He saw environment as an opportunity to jump in front of this mob coming toward him and call it a parade.
Brooke Gladstone: Richard Andrews is a professor emeritus of environmental policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Richard Andrews: The environment was just a dramatically popular cause. Four months into that period into the 1970s, in April, came the first Earth Day.
Richard Andrews: It's hard for people today to really imagine how big a celebration that- it was a celebration, not just an angry protest.
Reporter 8: Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival. Earth Day.
Richard Andrews: There were demonstrations, there were projects, there were things that really added up to the biggest nationwide celebration since the celebrations at the end of World War II.
Reporter 9: In Washington, the dire warning of civil rights leader, James Farmer, at the time, a Nixon administration official.
James Farmer: We all have a stake equally, because if we do not save the environment and save the Earth, then whatever we do in civil rights or in our war against poverty, will be of no meaning, because then we will have the equality of extinction, and the Brotherhood of the grave.
Brooke Gladstone: Nixon had no environmental policy when he entered office, but he grabbed one quick,
Richard Andrews: Then he started doing a lot of things administratively to use the President's power to reorganize government, which existed at that time, to create the EPA, to pull together these regulatory functions from the different agencies, put them into one place, and put in charge of them. Bill Ruckelshaus, a respected aggressive prosecutor from Indiana, a Republican, somebody who believed in public service and enforcing the laws.
William Ruckelshaus: My feeling was that what we needed to do at EPA was convinced the public that we were serious about protecting their health primarily, and protecting the environment.
Brooke Gladstone: William Ruckelshaus, was the founding Administrator of the EPA.
William Ruckelshaus: SO we filed a number of enforcement actions. We sued in one day Cleveland, Atlanta, and Detroit, filed actions against big corporations to get them moving toward compliance, to convince them that the government was serious about carrying out the public's wishes.
Brooke Gladstone: Did you yourself have any particularly strong feelings about the environment when you got pulled into the EPA?
William Ruckelshaus: Oh, yes, I did. I had seen it already in my home state of Indiana, and absent any government interference, not much was going to happen, no matter how bad the situation got. You couldn't rely on the individual causing the pollution to take steps themselves, without being pushed by the government are more or less common basis for their competitors.
Brooke Gladstone: When you say you saw it happening in Indiana, what were you seeing?
William Ruckelshaus: Seeing people that were grossly polluting the water and the air, discharging raw sewage into the rivers, it was very clear that something needed to be done, having attempted to regulate industry from the state, doing that alone, and that one state was not going to do it because they would move someplace else. In fact, George Wallace, who was then the governor of Alabama, would take out ads in Indianapolis newspaper saying Come on down to Alabama, we need a job. We don't care about the environment.
Brooke Gladstone: Because the EPA established an idea known as Environmental Federalism, it could set national requirements in Washington and leave it to the states to enforce them. Richard Andrews.
Richard Andrews: I think Bill Ruckelshaus referred to EPA as the gorilla in the closet, that the states could then say, we have to do this, all the other States have to do it. EPA is making us do it. If we don't do it, then the EPA is the backup to do it itself. Surely, Mr. CEO of one of our in-state corporations, you wouldn't want the EPA to be doing this directly to you.
Brooke Gladstone: In fact, the EPA had 10 Regional Offices, still has. Half of the EPA staff is out in these offices?
Richard Andrews: Yes, partly overseeing but really also partly sort of backing up and assisting the states. They've built enormous capacity at the state level in many states. Although, their philosophies under different governors vary about how tough they want to be.
Brooke Gladstone: Back to the Nixon era, a bit of a tangent, but during the fallout from Watergate in 1973, William Ruckelshaus was shuffled around, first as Acting Director of the FBI and then-Deputy Attorney General.
William Ruckelshaus: I was only there as deputy for about 23 days before we got involved in a squabble with the White House and the President over Archibald Cox.
Brooke Gladstone: The independent prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department to investigate Watergate. Nixon wanted Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson quit in protest. Then the President ordered Ruckelshaus to fire Cox.
Reporter: Richardson's Deputy William Ruckelshaus, has been fired. Ruckelshaus refused in a moment of constitutional drama to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor.
Brooke Gladstone: The events became known as The Saturday Night Massacre. Afterward, Ruckelshaus took a break from the government. In the meantime, the 70s saw the rise of deregulation from airlines to stock markets to telephone companies, and not just under Republicans, Jimmy Carter too, but Richard Andrews said it was Reagan who- expanded that philosophy to environmental protections.
Richard Andrews: Rather than trying to reform or tweak the environmental regulations that had come into play in the seventies, he tried to just reverse them and it didn't go well.
Brooke Gladstone: Reagan nominated Anne Gorsuch Burford as the EPA administrator. Incidentally, her son, Neil, was appointed to the Supreme court under president Trump. Anne Gorsuch and most of Reagan's other EPA appointees had no experience in environmental regulation. So, the EPA was blasted for supporting polluters over people and mishandling the Superfund program created to clean up toxic waste.
Reporter: Critics charged superfund hasn't been used enough, because of political delays or because EPA has been too easy on the industries, which polluted. Political delays example, the string fellow acid fits where not a penny of the federal super fund has been spent yet.
Brooke Gladstone: More than 20 EPA officials resigned or were fired from the agency. Public outcry led to congressional investigations and the head of the Superfund account went to prison.
William Ruckelshaus: Well, the public was riled up. They were mad. They were angry. They believed that this agency created to protect the environment and their health was being undercut, so they demanded change.
Brooke Gladstone: Once again, in the midst of public outcry, Ruckelshaus was asked to run the EPA by a president backed into a corner. When he returned to Washington, he was free to repair the tattered agency anyway he saw fit.
William Ruckelshaus: It was the one promise I asked the president to mak,e and that was to let me find the people who could take the place of those who were being replaced. President looked at me in the oval office and said, "Go ahead, obviously, we don't know what we're doing."
These were people that had been there before that I'd kept in touch with and we straightened it out in a big hurry.
Brooke Gladstone: You mean you didn't want to drain the swamp of all those experienced bureaucrats?
William Ruckelshaus: We didn't think of it as a swamp. It was a wetland, which is, be preserved.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote in the New York Times this week that as you were awaiting Senate confirmation for becoming the EPA chief the second time, you had conversations with the execs at chemical companies that stunned you. They were worried about the EPA having been gutted.
William Ruckelshaus: Yes, they really were. This group of chemical manufacturers, which are heavily regulated by EPA, asked to see me and I assumed they were going to complain about over-regulation.
Brooke Gladstone: That's what happened the first time you were at the EPA.
William Ruckelshaus: Yes. Everybody was complaining then, they came in and said just the opposite. They have no credibility with the public, that the agency charged with regulating their conduct had essentially been eliminated as far as the public was concerned, and that I needed to get in there and start regulating and start showing that the government was serious about protecting public health and the environment.
Brooke Gladstone: What were they afraid was going to happen, if the public couldn't trust them or the EPA?
William Ruckelshaus: Then the public will turn on them and take away their license to operate. They were finding that they had sold little support from the public, even from their own employees that the government needed to step in and say, we're going to protect your health. We're going to keep you safe. They requested that. You need an agency there to ensure that the rules are followed, that the rules are clear and fair, and protect the public.
Brooke Gladstone: Clean and fair rules, but not too many. In the mid-80s, a democratic Congress overcorrected for Reagan's cuts by writing environmental laws that directed the EPA to issue a certain number of new requirements a year. This according to Richard Andrews is when the EPA's reputation began to sour.
Richard Andrews: We'd already regulated the big companies, so now we were doing things like regulating drinking water and underground storage tanks and things that hit much more heavily on small businesses and local governments.
Brooke Gladstone: Still, this issue remained bi-partisan for a time.
Richard Andrews: The first president Bush made maybe the last serious effort to really define himself as a Republican environmentalist president.
President Bush: I don't have to tell those of you who are hunters and fishermen how important the wetlands are as a habitat for fish and ducks and geese and other waterfowl, but they also help control flooding.
Richard Andrews: In 1990, he spearheaded the clean air act amendments that gave us cap and trade for a sulfur and nitrogen. Really one of the most effective innovations in environmental policy we've seen since the 1970s. In 1992, he was then beaten by Clinton running with Al Gore, who was clearly identified as an environmentalist.
Reporter 10: Saving the Earth's environment must and will become the central organizing principle of the post-Cold war world.
Richard Andrews: Over these several events, the Republican party generally decided that no matter how much they tried to burnish their environmental credentials, there would always be some democratic opponent who would push for more government action than they were comfortable with as a party, and so, they began to dig in deeper with the anti-environment constituencies and so forth, while the Democrats, in turn, said, okay, this is our winning issue. The environmental groups can be our ground-level support troops like teachers. My own assessment is I think it's unfortunate that environment has been captured by this increasingly polarized partisan dynamic as a big government issue.
President Trump: My first day in office, I'm also going to order a review of every single regulation issued over the last 10 years. All needless job-killing regulations will be canceled.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you have a sense of de javu?
William Ruckelshaus: Well, it's hard not to, people in EPA are afraid. They're afraid they're going to lose their jobs, that they're going to lose their ability to function as they believe they should. I would guess that their fear is justified.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think the EPA's number one priority should be now?
William Ruckelshaus: Well, I think they should do their job. I think they should do a better job of communicating with the public as to what they're doing and why they're relevant to their lives. The EPA doesn't have a whole lot of constituencies. There's not people who say my favorite agency of the government is the Environmental Protection Agency, quite the contrary. I also think that there are some legitimate criticisms of EPA. Sometimes regulators inspectors get arrogant. They push people around unnecessarily.
They need to be firm and they need to be fair, but at the same time, they need to recognize that while the people they're dealing with other customers. They've got to be better at convincing people that they really are on their side. I think also EPA can make some better choices in terms of what they really focus on. It would be a tragedy for this country to drop out of paying attention and taking a leadership role and dealing with climate change. If EPA were to go away, the ability to deal with climate change by our government would be severely compromised.
Brooke Gladstone: Why do you think then that so many congressmen and senators in the GOP are climate change deniers or agnostics?
William Ruckelshaus: Well, it's a number of factors. I think part of his religious, in the sense of the climate of the world is pretty much predicted by events that will occur in the future by the Bible.
Brooke Gladstone: Weren't they just as religious under Nixon and Reagan?
William Ruckelshaus: Yes. It's because they weren't as politically organized. Pollution was smell, touch and feel kind of stuff. You could see it. You didn't need to be told it was either coming as part of some biblical revelation. It was there. The climate change is a gradual problem that religiously, you can explain it in terms of something that's going to happen anyway, so why worry about it?
There are concerted efforts on the part of the fossil fuel industry, scientists that they hire, who will contest the overwhelming number of scientists who say climate change is real, and it's coming at an accelerated rate and that we need to do something about controlling carbon and other gases that cause climate change. If don't do that, then we have to adapt to it and that's a lot more expensive than trying to mitigate it.
Brooke Gladstone: There was a pew poll last year that found that most Americans, 74%, say that the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment. In terms of priorities, the environment ranks below issues like the economy and terrorism. It's almost as if the public is saying, Hey, could you just take care of this but don't make a big fuss about it.
William Ruckelshaus: It's about right, as they say, get to it, but it's not our first priority. In fact, when the economy's in trouble, it usually drops down to about the last priority. They think we can get at that when it's everything else is in good shape.
Brooke Gladstone: Where does this leave the EPA?
William Ruckelshaus: Unless the public rises up and tells their congressmen, we will stand for this, then it will continue to deteriorate in terms of its effectiveness. I think people have to make their voices heard as they are supposed to in a democracy. If they do it, they can stop this deterioration of regulation necessary to protect their health, but if they don't, then it'll continue and we'll be in real trouble.
Brooke Gladstone: William Ruckelshaus, founding director, and then reconstructor of the EPA under President Nixon and Reagan passed away last November. That's it for this week's pod extra. Tune in on Friday when we post The Big Show, this is On the Media.
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