Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Environmental Protection Agency from Environmental History and Global Change: A Dictionary of Environmental History

US agency established in 1970 with the aim of protecting human health and preventing air and water pollution, implementing federal laws protecting the environment, and defining the standards required to protect natural resources and the environment at state and local level (Fiorino 1995, Mintz 1985).

Summary Article: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

Agency established to safeguard the environment.

Congress officially brought the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) into existence in 1970, but its roots go back as far as 1962. The impetus for the USEPA was a best-selling book by Rachel Carson, a bird watcher, titled Silent Spring. The carefully researched and wonderfully written work focused on the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Her book was to the environmental movement what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to the abolitionist movement and brought together more than 14,000 people who formed a grassroots effort to protect the environment.

From 1962 to 1970, the environmental movement gained strength and support. In a nation disillusioned by the war in Vietnam and civil rights struggles, the environmental movement was something positive for people to concentrate on. Further, the environmental movement has had staying power in the politics and culture of the United States.

In May 1969, President Richard Nixon called for the establishment of a Cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council and a Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the environment. But he was criticized for the weakness of these agencies, and so that December he appointed a White House committee to investigate whether there was a need for a separate environmental agency. In the meantime Congress had developed a bill called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) sponsored by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat from Wisconsin. Nixon signed the act on New Year’s Day 1970, establishing the USEPA.

The popularity and support for USEPA and the success of the first Earth Day celebration in April 1970 (when Americans of all backgrounds took part in activities that improved the environment) helped to strengthen a recommendation from Roy L. Ash, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who argued that the environmental agency must operate independently. Originally reluctant, Nixon eventually accepted the two arguments that if the environmental agency operated under another agency it would remain biased toward that agency and that such a situation would affect objectivity. Satisfied, Nixon called for “a strong, independent agency.” The mission of the USEPA included establishing and enforcing environmental protection standards, conducting research, providing assistance to other environmental groups, and helping to develop and recommend new policies. One of the most important charges of the new USEPA involved becoming the enforcement arm for federal environmental legislation.

Component parts of the USEPA originated in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; the Food and Drug Administration; the Atomic Energy Commission; and various other agencies and departments. Nixon named William D. Ruckleshaus as the USEPA’s first administrator, an excellent choice. Ruckleshaus immediately began gaining headlines and publicity for the fledging agency. Only nine days after opening its new offices, the USEPA gave the mayors of three cities six months to bring their water supplies into compliance with government standards or come to court. By the end of its first year, the USEPA had tackled other problems large and small. It ended the year with the Clean Air Act of 1970, an effort to reduce polluting emissions from American automobiles, among other things. The USEPA’s mission and its focus of protecting human health and the environment have remained stable and constant throughout its 39-year history. In 2003, the USEPA employed about 18,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $7 billion. As such, it ranks as one of the largest federal agencies, and its regulatory functions are emulated by similar agencies at the state level.

See also: Volume Two: Environment.

  • EPA Timeline.” January 10, 2003. Available:; accessed February 2, 2003.
  • Lewis, Jack. “The Birth of EPA.” November 1985. Available:; accessed September 17, 2001.
  • Lisa A. Ennis
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
    Encyclopedia of Global Health

    The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting the public health of Americans and for safeguarding the...

    Full text Article Environmental Protection Agency (U.S.)
    Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Society

    The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970 to centralize and coordinate federal efforts to assess, prevent,...

    Full text Article Environmental Protection Agency
    Green Politics: An A-to-Z Guide

    The Environmental Protection Agency works with other government agencies to implement Superfund site cleanups. These U.S. Army Corps of...

    See more from Credo