The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Ode to the EPA

Before Scott Pruitt and friends destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, it's worth remembering the good it has done over the years:

Whatever happens to the EPA, this might be a good time to reflect on its legacy, especially in urban spaces. Though environmentalism conjures “America the Beautiful” images of purple mountains and unspoiled wilderness, much of the EPA’s heaviest lifting in rescuing this nation from its own filth happened in cities.

Long before fracking made tap water ignitable, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire—a lot. The saga is a well-trod part of the EPA’s origin story, but it’s still worth revisiting. A 1969 river fire caught Time’s attention in an article on American sewage systems, headlined in print as “The Cities: The Price of Optimism.

The EPA also went to great lengths to clean up the Great Lakes. That Time article described Lake Erie as a “cesspool" created by the waste of “Detroit's auto companies, Toledo's steel mills, and the paper plants of Erie, Pa.” More notable city water cleanup projects include the agency’s 1983 project to restore the Chesapeake Bay or the 2002 project to clean up the Hudson River after New York City became the last city to dump sewage at sea in 1992.

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, but it was the creation of the EPA, combined with amendments to the law in 1970 and 1977, that added regulatory weight to the law’s mandate of reducing air pollution. The agency worked with companies and set limits on air pollutants and emissions from source like chemical plants, utilities and steel mills. Before the EPA, smog enrobed many U.S. cities in a lethal hydrocarbon haze, none more infamously than Los Angeles.

On that last point, I remember L.A. in the 1970s, and I watched it transform. Same here in Chicago. When Republicans whine about regulations hurting business, what they really mean is they want to pass along all the external costs of industry to us, the way they used to. Environmental regulations do cost industry money—because those are the real costs.

So when Scott Pruitt says he wants to reduce the burden on business, realize that he wants to put that burden right back on you.

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