Put simply, the EPA has been charged with cleaning up the messes left by our industrial economy, and in case you think that industry might just take care of that on its own, remember the lead that used to be in your gasoline. Oil companies began adding lead to gas right after the First World War. As early as 1924, 35 employees of Standard Oil had been diagnosed with lead poisoning. But it took the EPA to phase out lead from gasoline, a process finally completed in 1986.
Now Donald Trump proposes to neuter the EPA by gutting its budget. Oh, the laws will still stand, but no one will be around to enforce them. If you think you don’t like environmental regulations, I invite you visit places where such regulations are lax and unenforced.
Poland still burns lots of coal, and this winter the coal smog has been so bad in Warsaw that Polish health officials liken breathing the air there to smoking six cigarettes a day. In China, the air pollution (again, mostly from coal) is so pernicious in major cities that health authorities there estimate it is killing one million people each year. Colleagues of mine in China look at our EPA with a mixture of jealousy and desperation.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the EPA. It has been pretty effective at doing the things it has been charged to do. The air and water are cleaner than they were in the 1960s, and the lead is gone from house paint and children’s toys, too. And that fire on June 22, 1969, was the last time an American river burned.
Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University and is one of our regular community contributors.