Clean record; EPA shows government at its best


by John P. DeVillars, Boston Globe

IT IS IRONIC that as a new Congress prepares to convene in Washington — propelled by public disenchantment with government’s seeming inability to serve the public interest — we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that has had an enormous impact on the nation’s economy and quality of life, and was established by a Republican president with the strong support of Democratic leadership in Congress. The agency’s success is, in part, defined statistically. Across the board — air, water, land, and sea — the environment is measurably improved. Emissions of the six most common air pollutants have been cut by more than 50 percent. Lead emissions are down 98 percent. Our cars are 99 percent cleaner. The percentage of the population served by advanced wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled. More than 3,000 Superfund sites have been remediated. All this has been achieved during a time in which the population increased by nearly 40 percent and the economy more than doubled.

For every $1 of public investment in achieving these advances, there have been $30 of public benefits in reduced hospital admissions, fewer premature deaths and lost work days, and the creation of a world-renowned environmental technology industry that last year alone contributed more than $250 billion to the US economy.

In 1969 Time Magazine displayed Ohio’s Cuyahoga River on fire and declared Boston Harbor the dirtiest harbor in America. Three years earlier the Charles River was fabled in song in The Standells’ “Dirty Water.’’ Today, as a consequence of the EPA’s stewardship of the 1970 Clean Water Act, kayakers are on the Cuyahoga, Boston Harbor is a rich ecological and recreational resource, and last summer the Charles was safe for swimming more than 90 percent of the time.

But EPA’s success and its standing as a model for public governance in an age of public disenchantment is defined by its means as well as its ends. It founded its regulations on strong science and sought to implement and enforce them with common sense. It has attracted and retained a highly educated workforce — the agency has more employees with graduate degrees than any federal agency other than NASA. With the notable exception of a brief period during the Reagan administration, it has been untainted by scandal. Consistently and steadfastly it has put the public interest ahead of special interests.

Of course, there is much more to be done, especially on climate change and other threats, from fracking chemicals to mountaintop coal removal.

But EPA also recognizes that government alone can not protect the environment. The agency’s leaders understood this from the beginning. We must “enhance the awareness of all the people and all the institutions of this society,’’ said William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator. And they understand it today. “It’s about empowerment; making sure the community is part of the command structure,’’ the agency’s current administrator, Lisa Jackson, has said.

From helping small businesses prevent pollution to providing information on toxic releases in communities, the EPA has recognized that protecting the environment is everyone’s job; the more the agency empowers others, the more effective it is.

Strong science, common sense, integrity, passion, commitment, partnership — these have been the agency’s watchwords for 40 years. They have served us well and provide a path for all of government to follow in restoring trust and confidence.

John P. DeVillars was the New England administrator of the EPA from 1993 to 2000. 

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