January 28, 2011
By Becca Bayham, Nicholas 2012
Most birthday parties include presents, or at least cake. However, the Jan. 24 “party” at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens was far from typical: attendees were celebrating the 40th birthday of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the EPA’s honor, 16 speakers offered their prospective and retrospective opinions on the extraordinary influence the EPA has had on our environmental health since its creation in 1970.
The symposium, entitled “The EPA at 40,” followed two earlier events (“The EPA at 20” and “The EPA at 30,” held at Duke Law School in 1990 and 2000, respectively). Last Monday’s event was sponsored by the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, the Duke Law School and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Prior to the EPA’s creation, the U.S. was both a “superpower and supermarket,” mass producing food and consumer products for the world, UNC-Chapel Hill professor Pete Andrews said. But that cornucopia came with a cost: air pollution, toxic dumping and rampant pesticide use, among other problems.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, highlighted the pesticide DDT’s devastating impact on certain bird populations, and catapulted the U.S. into environmental awareness. Congress authorized the creation of a new environmental agency in 1970, the EPA, to unite an assortment of pre-existing organizations, and it enacted the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.
“Resources are usually insufficient, while responsibilities are piled high ... sometimes I wonder how we got anything done,” said Gordon Binder, who served as chief of staff to the administrator of the EPA during the first Bush administration.
Several speakers mentioned how the EPA is subject to the “swinging pendulum” of politics. The Nicholas Institute’s Tim Profeta pointed to a recently-Republican majority in the House as evidence that the pendulum has swung again; facing deep budget cuts and increased scrutiny, the EPA has been forced to adopt a “bunker, rather than constructionist, mentality.”
“The narrative is that Democrats are good and Republicans are evil. We aren’t going to make a lot of progress until we’re able to move past that,” said Yale law professor E. Donald Elliot. “Environmentalists do better if the two parties compete for their support rather than when they are assumed to be the property of one party, and then the other party opposes them,” Elliot said.
Elliot and Binder both touched upon the theme that crises -- real or perceived -- are another powerful mechanism for change. Major environmental legislation is often preceded by well-publicized catastrophes, such as the Santa Barbara oil spill (followed by the Clean Air Act) and the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio (followed by the Clean Water Act). Kepone, Love Canal and the Exxon Valdez oil spill also helped usher in influential new legislation.
The question is, what kind of crisis will it take before Congress enacts legislation to significantly address climate change?
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