Looking Back

How clean is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we grow our food in? This question echoes a major national concern during the 1960s and 1970s. Singly and in groups, people spoke out against the spread of noxious wastes. They protested the disappearance of wild places and wild animal species. They voiced fears over the buildup of radioactive wastes.

Around 1970, calls for environmental action reached a peak. That year, President Richard Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor the the environment’s health and to recommend cleanup actions. The EPA also got the job of enforcing U.S. environmental laws, the most sweeping of which were the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act.


These two laws had a huge impact. By reducing automobile and smokestack emissions, the Clean Air Act rapidly improved air quality. Killer smogs became things of the past. (See History, page 17.) By restricting the discharge of wastes into inland waterways, the Clean Water Act improved water quality throughout the U.S.

To broaden these gains, the U.S. Congress passed several other environmental laws. The Ocean Dumping Act of 1972 regulated the disposal of wastes in the ocean. The Coastal Management Act backed up this law by limiting the harmful effects of factory and housing development on the nation’s shores and on the fish and plants in the nearby oceans.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 made it an offense to buy, sell, or own animals and plants in danger of extinction, or products made from them. The law also banned federal projects–dam-building, for example –that threatened such species.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 empowered the EPA to set limits on bacteria and chemical levels in drinking water systems. In 1976, the Toxic Substances Act enabled the federal government to regulate the movement and dispersal of all poisonous wastes. Thanks to such laws, experts feel that more progress was made in cleaning the environment during the 1970s than during all previous history.

These improvements did not come without costs–steep costs, for some regions and industries. Faced with falling profits, several steel and plastics companies found it cheaper to shut down old factories than to improve them to meet EPA standards. Some companies that did install pollution-control systems found that increased costs made it harder for them to produce goods as cheaply as foreign manufacturers. Both factors led to job losses. In some places, the job losses were severe. Soon, some Americans began to question the wisdom of many environmental rules.


Two events in particular triggered the questioning. In 1976, the U.S. ordered a halt in the construction of a $600 million dam in Northern Maine because furbish louseworts–endangered plants–were found at the dam site. A year later, the U.S. stopped construction on the Little Tennessee River’s Tellico Dam, which had been almost completely built. Why? Because use of the dam would flood and destroy the last habitat of the tiny snail darter, a fish listed as endangered.

Debate over these projects helped alter public opinion. Polls showed that an increasing number of people felt that we had gone too far in protecting the environment. Instead, they argued, we should save jobs, cut energy costs, and help U.S. businesses compete in the world market.

During the 1980 campaign for President, Ronald Reagan pledged to ease or end environmental laws “that hamper business and strangle the economy.’ After his inauguration, President Reagan reorganized the EPA and sought to change several laws.

As a result, the federal drive to clean the environment slowed. Car exhaust rules were delayed. Funds for clean water programs were cut. Rules that limited emissions from smokestacks were eased. Soon, environmental activists came to view their former ally, the EPA, as an enemy. (See Government, pages 13-14.)


In 1983, scandals forced some Reagan appointees to resign from the EPA. Leaks of toxic gases and liquids in Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and New Jersey spurred a new awareness of environmental problems. Citizens pushed the government to clean up toxic dumps, nuclear wastes, acid rain, and polluted water. (See Special Report, pages 4-6.)

Canadians became incensed over acid rain “imported’ from the U.S. They blamed smoke from U.S. industries for damage to their lakes and forests. Several U.S. governors joined their protest. (See World, page 18.)

The upshot is that environmental quality has once again become a major political issue. In the current race for governor of New Jersey, for example, both major party candidates have given the environment top billing.

With several U.S. environmental laws up for renewal during the coming year, the environment is likely to be a hot area of contention between Congress and the Reagan Administration. This issue of UPDATE has been designed to help you make sense of that debate and of the environmental challenges the nation faces during the last half of the 1980s.

Source: Cusack, Michael. “Once more, environmental politics arouses the nation.” Scholastic Update 1 Nov. 1985