The U.S. EPA celebrates the 40 year mark

Cuyahoga River fire

Like Hurricane Katrina and climate change, and the honey bee decline today, the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 caught people's attention about the state of our environment like headlines never did.

I was in high school when the Environmental Protection Agency opened its doors 40 years ago today.  That might not seem like something a high school student would be interested in, but as a budding environmentalist, passionate outdoor enthusiast and Earth Day organizer, I was very interested.

At the time of the late 60’s protection of the environment was not a high priority for our government.  Concerns about waste disposal, clean air and water, pesticides and wildlife were growing and regularly reported in newspapers and magazines.  Thanks in large part to the EPA, there is much to celebrate about the state of our U.S. environment.  Streams run cleaner, food is (arguably) safer, the air is much clearer in most parts of the country, and standards for pesticide safety have never been higher.  The bald eagle is back, as are peregrine falcons and ospreys and brown pelicans.

We’re certainly not without challenges and controversies today.  Rapid climate change has even our best scientists perplexed about causes and solutions.  Fisheries continue to decline. Pockets of unhealthy air persist. Toxic chemical waste proliferates, even with (or because of) our technological advances to computers.  Trash in our streams seems worse than ever thanks to our ubiquitous plastic.  Oil hasn’t run out, though we see the limits to fossil fuel based energy more clearly than ever.  Worldwide, more species have vanished, or are threatened, than we might have guessed 40 years ago.

With all the popular hue and cry about shrinking big government, I for one am thankful that our country had the foresight forty years ago to set up an independent agency to guard our natural heritage.

I know that government itself needs its watchdogs, and EPA is no exception.  Nevertheless, I fear that in our scramble to cut budgets, we may forget the progress of the past 40 years, and lose sight of the need for an independent arm of government with an interest in the future of our world at its heart.  A strong environmental ethic is exactly the export we need in this era of global exploitation of the environment.  Just look at the Aral Sea (formerly USSR, today Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and the Yangtze River valley (China) and many of the other environmental disaster areas if you need a reminder of what unrestrained environmental exploitation looks like.

Here’s a toast to all the dedicated workers at the EPA who have worked so hard to please Congress and Presidents past, while keeping their eyes on the prize of a cleaner world.

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