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As Earth Day is marked, EPA in a fight for survival

Bernard Thomas/The Durham Herald-Sun/Associated Press

Gnon Choi and her son, Mikey, took shelter from the rain Sunday during Earth Day festivities at a park in Durham, N.C.

WASHINGTON - Many obvious signs of pollution - clouds of smoke billowing from industrial chimneys, raw sewage flowing into rivers, garbage strewn over beaches and roadsides - have disappeared from the American scene.

It was those images that heightened environmental awareness in the 1970s, and led to the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Such environmental consciousness caused Congress to pass almost unanimously some of the country’s bedrock environmental laws in the years that followed.

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Forty-two years after the first Earth Day, the nation’s pollution problems are not as easy to see or to photograph. Some in industry and politics question whether environmental regulation has gone too far and whether the risks are worth addressing, given their costs.

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has called for the firing of EPA chief Lisa Jackson, while GOP rival Newt Gingrich has said the EPA should be replaced altogether. Jackson has faced tough questioning on Capitol Hill so often in the past two years that a top Republican quipped that she needs her own parking spot.

“To a certain extent, we are a victim of our own success,’’ said William Ruckelshaus, who headed the EPA when it came into existence under President Richard Nixon.

“Right now, EPA is under sharp criticism partially because it is not as obvious to people that pollution problems exist and that we need to deal with them,’’ he said.

Environmental laws that passed Congress so easily in Ruckelshaus’s day are at the center of a partisan dispute between Republicans and Democrats. Dozens of bills have been introduced to limit environmental protections, and some question what the vast majority of scientists accept: that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming.

In an interview, Jackson said she believes that people in the United States still want to protect the environment.

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