Half Century of Progress

 

The project, "Protecting the Environment: A Half Century of Progress" includes a number of program-specific reports prepared by EPA-AA members who are identified as the authors. Each of these reports describes conditions before America's environmental consciousness was raised and effective environmental laws were enacted.  Those laws, the programs and regulations implementing them, and progress to date in abating pollution and protecting public health and natural resources are described in each report, along with a description of remaining and emerging problems.

The authors have made a significant effort to prepare documents that will help to inform students and members of the public about the importance of protecting our environment, and we thank them for their continuing contributions. Drafts of these papers are being shared here and members are invited to send comments to the authors. We have also begun exploring how these essays might be used in classrooms around the country.

 

Overview
Authors: Roy Gamse
 
 

The history of air pollution in the U.S. is tightly linked with that of energy – the growth in coal combustion to power the industrial revolution and heat homes and apartments in increasingly large cities, and later the explosive expansion of automobiles and associated oil and gasoline consumption, and the further shift to electricity for multiple industrial and domestic uses.   Although some early progress was made in reducing the worst air pollution in heavily industrialized ‘smoky cities,’ by the 1960’s progress had stalled.

 

Recurring air pollution episodes from combustion and factories in eastern cities were associated with measureable increases of ‘excess’ mortality.   In Los Angeles, increased automobile emissions combined with local meteorology in a virtual atmospheric cauldron that produced a new kind of air pollution – a ‘photochemical smog’ - that turned the sky brown and burned the eyes.    Pressure to do more about air pollution and environmental protection continued to mount.  By 1970 an estimated 20 million Americans attended one of many simultaneous ‘teach-ins’ around the country on the first Earth Day.  The overwhelming public concern led directly to the creation of EPA in December and bipartisan support for the signing of the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 into law. 

The Air We Breathe

Authors: John Bachmann, Margo Oge

 

The history of air pollution in the U.S. is tightly linked with that of energy – the growth in coal combustion to power the industrial revolution and heat homes and apartments in increasingly large cities, and later the explosive expansion of automobiles and associated oil and gasoline consumption, and the further shift to electricity for multiple industrial and domestic uses.   Although some early progress was made in reducing the worst air pollution in heavily industrialized ‘smoky cities,’ by the 1960’s progress had stalled.

 

Recurring air pollution episodes from combustion and factories in eastern cities were associated with measureable increases of ‘excess’ mortality.   In Los Angeles, increased automobile emissions combined with local meteorology in a virtual atmospheric cauldron that produced a new kind of air pollution – a ‘photochemical smog’ - that turned the sky brown and burned the eyes.    Pressure to do more about air pollution and environmental protection continued to mount.  By 1970 an estimated 20 million Americans attended one of many simultaneous ‘teach-ins’ around the country on the first Earth Day.  The overwhelming public concern led directly to the creation of EPA in December and bipartisan support for the signing of the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 into law. 

Clean Water
Authors: Jim Hanlon, Mike Cook, Mike Quigley, Bob Wayland

 

Water is essential for people – as our drinking water; to cook our food, brush our teeth, shower and to flush our wastes away through sewer systems; to enjoy splashing in during a day at the beach, wading in during a fishing trip or paddling across in the kayak; or used to irrigate the food we eat or support a local industry.  It is critical to the survival of fish, wildlife, waterfowl, mussels, and aquatic insects. The water we use today is the same water that was here in pre-Columbian times, that Lewis and Clark paddled in 1805 and that supported the industrial revolution, the evolution from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial nation and that we will need to support us through this millennium and beyond. Clean water is essential to support life – of humans and other living creatures.

 

Early federal laws provided only limited authority and funds to deal with the serious insults to the nation’s waters. 

Pesticides in Daily Life
Authors: Susan Wayland and Penny Fenner-Crisp

 

 

From the beginning of the era of modern agriculture, pesticides were primarily considered to be the farmer’s friend.  Laws from 1910 through the 1960’s focused the government’s attention on whether the pesticides worked and farmers wouldn’t be conned by “snake oil salesmen.”

 

The risks of pesticides were not a mainstream concern until Rachael Carson, a marine biologist, shook up the world in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring.  Carson’s book asked whether residues of DDT and its breakdown products (for example, DDE) could lead to a spring without birdsong.  This was a major wake-up call regarding the potential unintended effects of pesticides on living things.

Hazardous Waste and Materials Management
Authors: Marianne Horinko and Cathryn Courtin

 

In the decades before waste management was regulated in the U.S., discarded materials contaminated land and waterways and posed unacceptable risks to public health.  Solid and liquid waste, often containing toxic chemicals, was disposed of in rivers, burned in open pits, or dumped into unlined landfills or evaporation ponds.   This created fire hazards, odor problems, and contaminated land, groundwater, and waterways.  By the 1960’s pollution from waste was so pervasive that citizens and lawmakers began to call for action.  As a result, in 1965 Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act  (SWDA), which established the framework for state management of waste disposal.  Around the same time, as manufacturing boomed and toxic byproducts accumulated, the threat posed by hazardous waste grew, and little regulation existed for its proper disposal.  Growing volumes of all types of waste, municipal and industrial added to the persistent threat to human health and the Environment.

Emergency Response and Hazardous Site Cleanup
Author:  Tom Voltaggio

 

Prior to the 1970’s there were few controls on the handling and disposal of hazardous waste. Generators of waste typically disposed their wastes onsite or arranged for companies to transport them offsite, usually to locations unknown to the generator.  Once wastes left the plant fence line, companies usually had no idea where it ended up.  Unscrupulous transporters or disposers of such waste had little, if any, regulatory control and many times the wastes were disposed in locations which were not isolated from the environment and caused significant harm to the groundwater, surface water and soils.  This resulted in a legacy of sites throughout the country where public health and the environment was being seriously harmed.

 
Drinking Water
Authors: Marianne Horinko

 

Water is essential for people – as our drinking water; to cook our food, brush our teeth, shower and to flush our wastes away through sewer systems; to enjoy splashing in during a day at the beach, wading in during a fishing trip or paddling across in the kayak; or used to irrigate the food we eat or support a local industry.  It is critical to the survival of fish, wildlife, waterfowl, mussels, and aquatic insects. The water we use today is the same water that was here in pre-Columbian times, that Lewis and Clark paddled in 1805 and that supported the industrial revolution, the evolution from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial nation and that we will need to support us through this millennium and beyond. Clean water is essential to support life – of humans and other living creatures.

 

Early federal laws provided only limited authority and funds to deal with the serious insults to the nation’s waters. 

Toxic Substances
Authors: Marianne Horinko

 

Water is essential for people – as our drinking water; to cook our food, brush our teeth, shower and to flush our wastes away through sewer systems; to enjoy splashing in during a day at the beach, wading in during a fishing trip or paddling across in the kayak; or used to irrigate the food we eat or support a local industry.  It is critical to the survival of fish, wildlife, waterfowl, mussels, and aquatic insects. The water we use today is the same water that was here in pre-Columbian times, that Lewis and Clark paddled in 1805 and that supported the industrial revolution, the evolution from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial nation and that we will need to support us through this millennium and beyond. Clean water is essential to support life – of humans and other living creatures.

 

Early federal laws provided only limited authority and funds to deal with the serious insults to the nation’s waters.