Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA)

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Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA)


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal government agency whose mandate is to protect the country’s natural environment. The agency has jurisdiction over air, land, and water. This includes the establishment of air, water, and soil quality standards, ensuring that these standards are met by monitoring activities and, if necessary, fines and legal action. As well, the EPA’s mandate includes human health as it relates to the environment.

The EPA can be concerned with the preservation of a site as a means of protecting the site from adverse change, as well as the clean-up of sites that pose a health hazard to humans.

EPA’s activities tend to be done in consultation with state, local, and aboriginal governments. As well, some monitoring can be done by these partners rather than by federal officials, although the data are evaluated at the national level.

As of 2008, nearly 20,000 people work for the EPA in the Washington, D.C., headquarters, 10 regional offices, and several laboratories located across the United States. About half of these are environmental professionals including scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other disciplines involved in environmental protection.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The 1960s were fundamentally important in the formation of the EPA. Then, the environmental consequences of human activities were becoming clearer. In 1962, the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson galvanized public awareness and concern over environmental degradation. Politicians were under pressure to respond.

U.S. President Richard Nixon was initially hesitant to form an agency dedicated to environmental protection, particularly the establishment and enforcement of environmental standards. But, on January 1, 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which promised federal participation in environmental protection. Once this initiative was in motion, the need for a central coordinating agency was recognized. The result, on July 9, 1970, was a submission by the president to Congress calling for a single agency responsible for U.S. environmental policy.

This executive order that created the EPA brought together the functions of other federal agencies to form a single agency to deal with pollutants that damaged the environment and harmed people. The creation of the EPA was in response to the recognized need for the repair of environmental degradation and to try to ensure that future environmental damage would be minimized.

By bringing the tasks of environmental legislation, monitoring, and enforcement under one agency, these tasks could be done more easily and in a more coordinated way than if they were the responsibility of multiple agencies with their separate bureaucracies.

Organizationally, the various functions are the responsibility of 12 offices. Examples include the Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Office of Environmental Information, Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, and the Office of Water. EPA’s administrator answers directly to the president.

The science base of the EPA is exemplified by its network of laboratories, which gather data on the quality of air, water, soil, and human health. The information is vital in setting and monitoring environmental standards and guidelines, and in tracking the success of programs. As well, EPA funds research programs in universities and nonprofit agencies.

One program that was begun by the EPA in 1992 is Energy Star. The program, which is voluntary and run in conjunction with the Department of Energy, has sought to decrease the use of energy by identifying, labeling, and promoting the use of machines that operate with less use of energy than similar machines. The program has been a particular success in the sale of personal computers and ancillary equipment such as monitors. A related program known as WaterSense seeks to increase awareness of the importance of clean water and to encourage water conservation and preservation.

The EPA administers many other programs and legislation. Some were created prior to the organization’s establishment. Examples include the Air Pollution Control Act (1955), Clean Air Act (1963), Water Control Act (1965), Water Pollution Control Act (1972), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), Wilderness Act (1964), Solid Waste Disposal Act (1965), and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986). Other acts such as the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 were formed after the EPA was established.

Impacts and Issues

As of 2008, the EPA administers over 100 programs that are concerned with air quality, prevention of pollution, reduction of solid waste, promotion of recycling, toxic compounds, water quality, and pesticides.

The positive impact of the EPA has been considerable. For example, the Energy Star program, consumer purchases of products bearing the Energy Star label, helped reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount equivalent to the exhaust of 25 million cars.

In a related program, fuel economy data that are advertised by automobile manufacturers are administered and are the result of EPA testing. New standards of fuel economy and emissions took effect in the 2008 model year. The fuel standards were revised to reflect the new driver realities of faster city and highway driving speeds, and more aggressive driving behavior including faster acceleration and more abrupt braking.

Despite the successes, the EPA’s record on enforcement of environmental legislation has been criticized. Part of this criticism reflects a shift in EPA policy. Once an agency whose decisions relied primarily on science, the EPA has increased the use of non-scientific personnel. This criticism has been particularly vocal among those who are leery of the influence of industrial interests on decisions concerning air quality, global warming-related emissions, and standards of fuel efficiency.

It was confirmed in 2005 that EPA documents on climate change had been scrutinized and edited by a former head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and a former lobbyist for the oil industry. Such controversies have eroded confidence in the EPA as an impartial regulator of environmental quality.


GLOBAL WARMING: Warming of Earth’s atmosphere that results from an increase in the concentration of gases that store heat, such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

PESTICIDE: Substances used to reduce the abundance of pests or any living thing that causes injury or disease to crops.

SUPERFUND: Legislation that authorizes funds to clean up abandoned, contaminated sites.

Public confidence was also shaken in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. In the days following the tragedy, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman publicly reassured people that the tremendous amount of debris created by the destruction did not pose a public health hazard, and that residents and disaster relief personnel could return to the area. In fact, the air quality was hazardous. A screening program conducted by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital revealed that upwards of 70% of the 9,000 workers at the Trade Center site subsequently suffered respiratory problems.

Primary Source Connection

Disposal of hazardous waste, during the past few decades, has been an enormous problem even for a developed nation like the United States. Hazardous wastes, especially those generated by industry, can pose significant risk to public health and can be a long-stand-ing danger to the environment. In the 1960s, hazardous waste dumps throughout the country raised serious health concerns for the public.

Subsequently, in 1979 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the formation of a Hazardous Waste Enforcement and Emergency Response System to counter this issue. It also identified sixty various sites that were targets of hazardous waste. The system recognized and gave top priority to cleaning up hazardous waste sites. It acknowledged the dangers posed by hazardous waste dumps, such as the leaching of toxic substances into groundwater systems, to the public.


Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum today named the clean-up of hazardous waste dump sites threatening public health the

“highest Agency priority” and established an agency-wide Hazardous Waste Enforcement and Emergency Response System to respond to hazardous waste emergencies.

Blum also released today the names of 60 newly-discovered sites containing wastes which may be public health and environmental hazards.

“We are now aware of 151 sites across the country which may contain potentially dangerous quantities of hazardous wastes,” said Blum. “We will continue to evaluate the extent of the hazards at these sites and force responsible parties to alleviate any immediate threat to the public.”

EPA is currently in the process of evaluating potential hazards at 111 sites known to contain hazardous wastes. These evaluations may result in legal actions or emergency Federal actions to contain the spread of contaminants where there is an imminent hazard and existing local authority and funding is insufficient.

At the moment, Federal legal action is pending on five sites, and the States are acting against 34 sites. Forty-five dump sites named earlier this year as potentially dangerous have been cleaned up or removed from the current inventory of imminent hazards.

Blum also stressed the need for greater Federal authority and funding to act in emergencies when it becomes clear that sites containing hazardous wastes are threatening public health.

“EPA must now identify a responsible party and prove that imminent danger exists before it takes legal action, often delaying emergency cleanup,” Blum said. “Responsible parties—generally site owners or operators if known—are often financially and logistically incapable of remedying hazards resulting from past careless dumping practices.”

Legislation proposed by President Carter and now before Congress would give EPA authority and money to clean up such hazards in emergencies from abandoned or inactive waste sites without going to court first. The legislation, referred to as “superfund,” would give EPA $1.625 billion in fees and appropriations over a four-year period for emergency cleanup of waste sites and spills. The fees would be levied on segments of the oil, petro-chemical, and inorganic chemical industries.

Under the legislation, owners of abandoned or inactive hazardous waste sites would have to notify the government of the site’s presence. The government could recover any cleanup costs incurred from the liable parties, if such parties could be identified.

EPA has also requested an additional $45 million and 70 positions to aid in cleanup investigations and to prepare legal casework. At the moment, the Agency has devoted some 100 people, primarily in its Regional Offices, to hazardous waste site investigation and enforcement.

To implement the system, Blum created a National Hazardous Waste Enforcement Task Force and a new unit in the Oil and Special Materials Control Division. The Enforcement Task Force, which will report directly to Blum, will coordinate Federal cleanup activity with its Regional Offices and with the States, including technical, scientific and legal support work. A status report will be kept of the number of sites containing hazardous wastes known to EPA and their cleanup status.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)


See Also Careers in Environmental Science; Emissions Standards; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regulation: Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution



Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning Up America’s Act. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2005.

DeLong, James. Out of Bounds and Out of Control: Regulatory Enforcement at the EPA. Washington: Cato Institute, 2002.

Web Sites

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “About EPA.” January 25, 2008. http://www.epa.gov/epahome/aboutepa.htm (accessed March 2, 2008).

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Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA)