A global threat to the future of life on earth, millions sick and dying, species facing extinction, and the United States sharply polarized with cities torn by demonstrations and rioting and citizens arming on the right and the left.
No this is not 2020. It was 1970 and, while the country searched for its political equilibrium, the war in Vietnam and the rigid adversarial hostility of wedge issues such as race, law and order, and abortion were tearing the country apart. This created a seemingly unbridgeable partisan and social divide where family members could not engage in civil discourse and elected officials, frozen by the rigid ideologies of their critical electoral constituencies and fueled by a vengeful president, abandoned interpersonal and bipartisan relationships with their colleagues.
The Cuyahoga River was burning. The air, orange-brown with clouds of lead and other toxics, was unbreathable in cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and harbors, bays, estuaries, lakes, rivers, farmlands, lawns, and even schoolyards were poisoned with a chemical stew of industrial age chemical carcinogens.
And yet, in the summer of 1970, despite the great forces of social and political division, our nation united in singular purpose to fight a universal enemy that threatened public health and the environment.
Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970, sent to Congress in July by president Richard Nixon and supported by conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike, became law in September, creating the US Environmental Protection Agency. On December 2, 1970, Bill Ruckelshaus was sworn in as the first administrator, and EPA began the difficult work of addressing more than a century of polluted land, water, and air. With a united country behind it, the EPA successfully guided through Congress landmark science-based Clean Water, Clean Air, and Superfund legislation that set mileage standards in Detroit, national air standards from Los Angeles to Birmingham, and water quality standards that cleaned up the Great Lakes, the Potomac, and grossly polluted urban harbors from coast to coast, including Boston Harbor.
In the decades to follow, much of the world went on to model its own environmental protection agencies and regulatory structures on the success of the EPA. While mistakes have been made and the EPA has been subject to justifiable criticism for not always meeting the high standards and even higher expectations of the public, the agency continues to have broad public and private bipartisan support and commands respect throughout the world.
As President-elect Joe Biden said in his acceptance speech, “We are the United States of America. And there’s nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”
No doubt there are those who doubt the truth of these words as a bitterly divided and partisan nation faces the combined existential threats of a global climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. However, the EPA’s founding 50 years ago this month is proof that we have been here before. Americans have and will come together across a bitter and seemingly insurmountable divide to unite with singular purpose and resolve to protect our nation, the health of our people, and the sustainability of our environment as we once again lead the world with the example of what we can achieve together.
Bill Golden, a former Massachusetts state senator, was a civil servant on the Nixon administration’s President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, which drafted the EPA’s enabling legislation, and later joined the executive office staff of the first EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus.