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Addressing the Quiet Crisis:
Origins of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
In September 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D–Wi.) was attending a conference in Seattle. Since encouraging President Kennedy to embark on a 5–day, 11–State conservation tour in September 1963, the Senator had been searching for a way of focusing attention on the environment. During his conservation speaking tour in the summer of 1969, he had an inspiration:
In Seattle, he announced plans for a nationwide grassroots demonstration on the environment in the spring of 1970. The first Earth Day would take place on Wednesday, April 22, 1970. The organizers' manifesto explained the purpose:
Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster, to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re–examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind's expense—a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who short–change the necessary programs . . . . April 22 seeks a future worth living. [As quoted in Hill, Gladwin, "Nation Set to Observe Earth Day," The New York Times, April 21, 1970]
President Nixon and his staff anticipated that much of the Earth Day rhetoric, including comments from potential rivals in the 1972 president election, especially Senator Muskie, would be directed at his Administration. Still, with proper planning, the issue might be turned to political advantage, as Flippen described:
The first–term Republican, like many politicians in Washington, recognized the opportunity the occasion posed to sway a wide segment of voters. Environmentalism, it appeared, was particularly strong in critical electoral college states, including Florida, California, New York, and much of New England. Indeed, with polls indicating that the environment was a key issue among the nation's youth, Earth Day offered a chance to score points with an important demographic group, a voting block not traditionally allied with Nixon. [Nixon and the Environment, p. 8]
To counter the expected anti–Nixon rhetoric, the Administration launched an environmental initiative that included the statements and press releases on enactment of NEPA and the appointment of the CEQ leadership. In addition, the President's State of the Union Address on January 22, 1970, included a strong environmental theme. "Occasionally there comes a time when profound and far–reaching events command a break with tradition. This is such a time," he said. "The moment has arrived to harness the vast energies and abundance of this land to the creation of a new American experience, an experience richer and deeper and more truly a reflection of the goodness and grace of the human spirit." He restated a sentiment he had expressed when signing NEPA:
He turned to foreign policy, including the Vietnam War, explaining that the Nation was closer to peace than it was when he took office ("our foreign policy is to bring an end to the war in Vietnam in a way that our generation will be remembered not so much as the generation that suffered in war, but more for the fact that we had the courage and character to win the kind of a just peace that the next generation was able to keep"). He discussed the economy ("we have the greatest opportunity for progress at home of any people in world history").
Finally, he returned to the environment:
The "worst polluter of the air," he said, was the automobile:
Adequate control requires further advances in engine design and fuel composition. We shall intensify our research, set increasingly strict standards, and strengthen enforcement procedures—and we shall do it now.
The Nation needed "comprehensive new regulations" and must require "that, to the extent possible, the price of goods should be made to include the costs of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment."
He was not advocating that the Nation turn from economic expansion:
Each American should take up the cause, focusing on where "we spend 80 percent of our time—in our homes, in our places of work, the streets over which we travel." He explained:
Street litter, rundown parking strips and yards, dilapidated fences, broken windows, smoking automobiles, dingy working places, all should be the object of our fresh view…Each of us must resolve that each day he will leave his home, his property, the public places of the city or town a little cleaner, a little better, a little more pleasant for himself and those around him.
Government policies would have to change:
After recounting his vision of an America of peace, prosperity, and environmental recovery, he said:
Let it not be recorded that we were the first American generation that had the means but not the vision to make this dream come true.
He called on Americans to "recognize a fundamental truth" that he described as:
The first meeting of CEQ took place in Chicago on February 6, 1970. President Nixon invited the Governors of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin to join him, CEQ, and the Cabinet Committee on the Environment to discuss the future of the Great Lakes. He followed up on February 10, 1970, with a special message to Congress on environmental quality. Among other things, the President called for:
In a transmittal message, Nixon said:
The task of cleaning up our environment calls for a total effort by ourselves and by our next generation…With vigorous Federal leadership, with active enlistment of governments at every level, with the aid of industry and private groups, and, above all, with the determined participation by individual citizens in every State and in every community, we at last will succeed in restoring the kind of environment we deserve.
He issued Executive Order 11514 on "Protection and enhancement of environmental quality" on March 5, 1970. It spelled out the responsibilities of CEQ and other Federal Agencies under NEPA, beginning with a policy statement:
The Federal Government shall provide leadership in protecting and enhancing the quality of the Nation's environment to sustain and enrich human life. Federal agencies shall initiate measures needed to direct their policies, plans and programs so as to meet national environmental goals. The Council on Environmental Quality, through the Chairman, shall advise and assist the President in leading this national effort.
In these and other ways, the Nixon Administration attempted to blunt the criticism that would be directed at the President during Earth Day.
Even as the President was proclaiming his concern about the environment, he was distancing himself from the subject internally. In March 1970, he dictated a memo listing the subjects he thought should occupy his time. He identified many domestic issues, including crime, school integration, and the economy, but explicitly excluded the environment. "I consider this to be important, [but] I don't want to be bothered with the details. Just see that the job is done." [Reeves, Richard, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 261, quoted in Panda, p. 80]
The buildup to Earth Day was pushing the Vietnam War to the background as the President implemented his Vietnamization policy of training the South Vietnamese to fight their war against the North Vietnamese, so Americans could come home. Reporter Gladwin Hill of The New York Times observed that:
The campaign has been widely derided by campus radicals and black militants as a "white middle–class diversion" of public attention from the issues of Vietnam and racial equality . . . . By ironic coincidence, the Washington headquarters of the past year's Vietnam protest demonstrations announced Sunday that it was closing up shop. It cited the Administration's commitment to the withdrawal of the troops. [Hill, Gladwin, "Nation Set to Observe Earth Day," The New York Times, April 21, 1970]
On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans participated in Earth Day rallies, protests, teach–ins, and other events that brought together groups that had been fighting independently against oil spills, air and water pollution, nuclear power plants, freeways, and other contributors to environmental damage. So many Members of Congress were participating in Earth Day events that Congress was in recess. Rallies in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and other big cities attracted as many as 25,000 people in each location. Organizers claimed that more the 2,000 colleges, 10,000 public schools, and citizens groups in 2,000 communities participated.
Hill listed some of the diverse ways people celebrated Earth Day:
In some States, officials focused on environmental legislation:
A companion article by Nan Robertson reported on activities by other government officials:
She provided examples:
Senator Nelson, Robertson reported, "spoke at three colleges in his home state today" and "hopped from the University of Wisconsin to Denver and Berkeley, Cal."
President Nixon and his staff had debated whether he should participate in Earth Day, but decided against it:
President Nixon, through White House spokesmen, said he had said enough on his concern about pollution and hoped this one–day event would be the start of a continuing campaign against it.
Only two Cabinet Secretaries took part. Secretary Volpe attended an environmental teach–in at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Robertson reported that:
A spokesman for Mr. Volpe said today: "The past sins of the transportation industry have come to rest on this Administration and on his head." [Robertson, Nan, "Earth's Day, Like Mother's, Pulls Capital Together," The New York Times, April 23, 1970]
Baltimore was in the midst of controversy over Interstate construction through the city. After his speech at Johns Hopkins University, Volpe spoke with a "Miss Barbara Mikulski" and other members of Movement Against Destruction (MAD). He agreed to return to the city to meet with MAD to discuss plans for the East–West Expressway (I–170) through southwest Baltimore. The expressway was to be a 2.3–mile spur of I–70. (I–70 was designated from I–15 in Cove Fort, Utah, past the Baltimore Beltway through Leakin and Gwynns Falls Parks to I–95 a mile west of the Inner Harbor in downtown Baltimore).
(The meeting took place on June 25, 1970, in a community center on Edmonson Avenue. About 100 expressway opponents—preservationists, clergymen, and concerned citizens—addressed Volpe after he had taken a helicopter tour of the area. Prior to 1969, the city planned to build the I–170 through Rosemont, described in Baltimore Sun articles as "formerly a stable, middle–class Negro neighborhood." Planners had designated the community an "impacted" area, allowing them to purchase over 450 homes at a cost of more than $4 million. In 1969, Mayor Thomas L. J. D'Alesandro III (1967–1971) decided not to build the route through the community, even though acquisitions continued. Now that the route was being shifted, the city planned to rehabilitate the Rosemont homes and sell them to owner–occupants.
(However, citizens in the way of the new location objected to the displacement of residents along an entire city block in the Franklin Street/Mulberry Street corridor. Mikulski called the displacements a "new refugeeism" that would leave residents with next to nothing ("out in the cold," as one speaker put it). The Baltimore Sun reported that Volpe promised "no family will have their house torn down until they are relocated to a decent place to live." The audience applauded enthusiastically when Volpe "said that if roads 'don't serve the needs of the people, then we don't need them'." Members of MAD and other participants were cautiously satisfied with the meeting. "'We were looking for a chance to present our side to Mr. Volpe,' said Miss Mikulski, 'since the Department of Transportation can always talk with city and state officials.'" [Barbash, Fred, "Volpe Might Delay City's Expressway," The Baltimore Sun, June 26, 1970; O'Donnell, John B., Jr., "'Final' Route for Highway is Announced," The Baltimore Sun, July 21, 1970])
["Miss Barbara Mikulski," a social worker and community activist, won election to the City Council in 1970 and the U.S. House of Representatives (1977–1987). In 1986, she won election to the United States Senate where she continues to serve. In speeches, she still speaks of her years battling Baltimore's Interstate highways, helping to block, reroute, or alter them. Most of I–70 inside the Baltimore Beltway was withdrawn from the Interstate System. In 1979, a 1.4–mile, six–lane segment of I–170 was completed in the Franklin Street/Mulberry Street corridor, mostly depressed with high retaining walls. Because it no longer connected to the Interstate System, it was eventually deleted from the System and is designated part of U.S. 40.]
Secretary Hickel returned to Alaska for a teach–in at the University of Alaska. Flippen commented on the presentation:
Hickel's topic did little to appease critics: support for the Alaskan oil pipeline, a major privately funded engineering project that required federal permits . . . . Hickel . . . wanted to use the opportunity to argue that construction posed no hazard.
While recognizing the subject would not be a popular topic on Earth Day, President Nixon approved Secretary Hickel's speech because of concern about a possible fuel shortage that Alaskan oil might help alleviate.
As Flippen summarized:
Nixon made no statement or proclamation, although White House proclamations appeared that week for National Boating Week and National Archery Week. The speeches of the many participating subcabinet officials, of Whitaker, Train, [senior CEQ staff member William K.] Reilly, and other prominent individuals friendly to the White House reaped little coverage.
In all, the Nixon Administration's limited efforts on Earth Day were not successful in deflecting criticism. Even when White House staffers participated in cleanup of the Potomac River, Flippen found, "the cleanup appeared to be a lame attempt to shield the administration from further rebuke, far from any genuine expression of concern." He added:
With neither the major riot so many feared nor a significant Vietnam story, the media had more time to assess and critique the event, and the focus quickly turned to the administration. Ignoring the administration's efforts, the headline declared neglect by the White House—the very criticism Nixon had hoped to avoid. His actions—or, more correctly, lack of action [on Earth Day]—ensured condemnation . . . . [Nixon and the Environment, p. 14–15]
As Flippen put it, however, the criticism, in the long run, "made no difference":
On the night of April 30—only eight days after Earth Day—Nixon went on national television to announce his decision to send troops into Cambodia. It was not an "invasion," Nixon assured his audience. The troops would leave once they had disrupted the enemy's supply lines into neighboring Vietnam. "We will withdraw," he promised. The following morning, speaking to supporters, Nixon made an offhand remark describing student protesters as "bums," a slur the press readily quoted.
Protests erupted around the country:
Protesters rejected the effort. "Nixon's attempt to divert the handful of war protesters with his care for the environment had as little effect as Earth Day in diverting attention from the Cambodian attack." The environment would fade from the foreground, for now, as protests over the war escalated. [Nixon and the Environment, p. 15–16] Five days after the Kent State shootings, 100,000 people were in Washington for an antiwar march. President Nixon was taken to Camp David for his own protection while the protesters swarmed through the city in what observers thought looked more like a civil war than a protest.
(Secretary of the Interior Hickel was angered by the invasion, partly because he believed it would alienate America's youth after he had worked hard to bridge the gap with them. Hickel later recalled, "Earth Day raised expectations. The Cambodian invasion crushed them." Hickel drafted a letter of protest to the President, but did not send it. However, the draft was released to the press by mistake, making him a hero of the antiwar movement and an enemy in the White House. After deciding not fire Hickel immediately, the President instructed his staff to be "extremely cold" to him and "encourage his enemies" behind the scenes by building him up "as incompetent." Nixon fired the Secretary in November 1970. [Nixon and the Environment, p. 78–79])
Theodore H. White, writing in 1975, reported that, "Whether or not Richard Nixon came close to nervous breakdown in the events of May, 1970, is debated by his aides." Before going to the Lincoln Memorial at 4:15 am on May 9, he had called dozens of people beginning around 10:35 pm—38 calls in a 3–hour period, including a call to Secretary Volpe.
Perhaps the outrage marked the end of "The Sixties," the culmination of the anger that had grown over the war until it supplanted "Flower Power" as a means of effecting change. White said:
Looking back now , the firestorm of emotion that burst in the two weeks of May, 1970, may be seen as the last massive nationwide protest of the insurgency of the 1960's. But those who had to meet it could not know it was the last crest of a receding tide. [White, Theodore H., Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, Athenium Publishers/Reader's Digest Press, 1975, p. 130–131.
Or perhaps the end of "The Sixties" had come a few days before Earth Day, on April 10, when Paul McCartney announced he was leaving the Beatles and releasing his first solo album, titled McCartney. On May 8, 1970, the Beatles released their 12th and final album of new material, Let It Be. They had wanted to record it "live" to recapture some of the enthusiasm and spontaneity of their earlier years. On January 30, 1969, the band went to the rooftop of the Beatles' Apple Building in London to record their last live concert, part of which would be included on the album and in the documentary film of the same name. (As depicted in the film, the concert ended at the direction of police officers responding to noise complaints.)
Symbolic of the internal dissention within the group, the Beatles had not been able to complete the album. They had asked producer Phil Specter, famous for his "wall of sound" girl group recordings, to try to pull an album out of the hours and hours of tapes. Specter's version was the album released as Let It Be. Neither the Beatles nor critics were entirely satisfied with the result although years later, in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine included Let It Be as 86th on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. (In November 2003, McCartney oversaw revision of Let It Be to remove the Specter "wall of sound" background and released it as Let It Be … Naked.)
Originally, the Beatles had planned to call the album Get Back, as if even the Beatles longed for a simpler time before the world they helped create began forcing them apart.
Reorganization Plan No. 3
In April 1969, President Nixon established an Advisory Council on Executive Organization. It was headed by Roy L. Ash, a cofounder of Litton Industries, a large defense contractor that built navigation, communications, and electronic equipment, as well as civilian products, including microwave ovens. The commission's mission was to review the executive branch and recommend changes to improve government efficiency.
In November 1969, the President's Domestic Council asked Ash to explore whether all Federal environmental activities should be shifted into a single agency. The President reiterated the charge in December.
On April 15, the Ash Commission, as it was known, submitted its report on executive reorganization to the President recommending creation of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was to be an independent body concerned with pollution abatement and monitoring, research, standard-setting, and enforcement of environmental laws. The commission also proposed expanding the Department of the Interior into a Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which would include an ocean agency to be called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The EPA would pull together elements of three Cabinet Departments (Agriculture, Interior, and Health, Education, and Welfare), three Bureaus, three Administrations, two Councils, one Commission, and one Service. Although some of the agencies that would lose elements to EPA objected to the change, the President approved creation of EPA and NOAA as Reorganization Plan No. 3. (The President rejected the DNR component of the Ash Commission recommendations. According to Flippen, the President concluded "that it posed too unrealistic a disruption of the existing congressional committee structure." [Nixon and the Environment, p. 86])
President Nixon announced Reorganization Plan No. 3 and submitted it to Congress on July 9, 1970. The advantages of an independent EPA, he said, justified "an exception to one of my own principles: that, as a matter of effective and orderly administration, additional new independent agencies normally should not be created." He explained:
He also recommended creation of the NOAA.
By submitting the proposal as Reorganization Plan No. 3, not a request for legislative authority, the President enabled EPA to begin operations in 60 days unless Congress formally objected. The House Government Operations Subcommittee on Executive and Legislative Reorganization, chaired by Representative Chet Holifield (D-Ca.) held hearings on July 22, 23, and August 4, as did the Senate Government Operations Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization and Government Research, headed by Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-Ct.) on July 28 and 29. Both committees issued reports in September supporting the reorganization plan.
With EPA set to open, President Nixon announced on November 6, 1970, that he intended to nominate William D. Ruckelshaus as the first Administrator. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Ruckelshaus was Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division in the Department of Justice at the time of his nomination. Appearing before the Senate Committee on Public Works during his confirmation hearings on December 1, he began by saying:
I think that enforcement is a very important function of this new Agency. Obviously, if we are to make progress in pollution abatement, we must have a firm enforcement policy at the federal level. That does not mean that this policy will be unfair, that it will not be evenhanded, but it does mean that it will be firm . . . . [A]s far as I view the mission of this Agency and my mission as its proposed Administrator, it is to be as forceful as the laws that Congress has provided, and to present . . . firm support [for]enforcement [by] the States.
Senator Muskie endorsed Ruckelshaus, telling him, "I hope that you pre-empt the title that has been tossed about loosely in recent years. I hope that you become known as Mr. Clean."
The Senate confirmed the nomination.
In a suite of offices at 20th and L Streets, NW., in Washington, EPA opened for business on December 2, 1970. Ruckelshaus took the oath of office, administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger, on December 4 in the White House Briefing Room. President Nixon said:
Ruckelshaus served as Administrator until April 30, 1973, when he left to become Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is widely praised for his independence at EPA and for his role in securing approval of environmental laws, rules, and regulations, including 1970 amendments to the Clear Air Act, the Resource Recovery Act of 1970, the Federal Environmental Pesticides Control Act of 1972, and many other measures. He was succeeded by Russell Train (September 13, 1973 to January 20, 1977).
(After Administrator Anne M. Burford (May 20, 1981, to March 9, 1983) resigned in the wake of controversies about her service, President Reagan nominated Ruckelshaus for a second term as head of the EPA. "Mr. Clean" served from May 18, 1983, to January 4, 1985, helping to restore the EPA's flagging reputation.)[This section was based in part on "The Birth of EPA" by Jack Lewis (EPA Journal, November 1985), and "The Guardian: Origins of the EPA" (EPA Historical Publication-1, Spring 1992), both of which can be found on EPA's Web site at http://www.epa.gov/history/origins.htm.]
This page last modified on 04/07/11