This Day In History: December 2

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On December 2, 1970, a new federal agency opens its doors. Created in response to the dawning realization that human activity can have major effects on the planet, the Environmental Protection Agency heralded a new age of government action on behalf of the environment.

Concerns about pollution and other environmental issues began creeping into the American consciousness in the 1950s and 60s. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was a watershed moment for American environmental awareness, as were a major oil spill that affected California beaches and the burning of Ohio’s heavily-polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969.

That same year, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandated that government agencies compile environmental statistics and produce environmental impact statements before proceeding with projects that could affect the environment. Given the number of offices across the executive branch that were now tasked with enforcing environmental regulations, President Richard Nixon decided in July of 1970 to create a single agency to deal with environmental issues, and the EPA was born.

The EPA was flooded with resumes from environmentalists excited by the idea that the government would finally act on their concerns. It opened with 5,800 employees and a budget of $1.4 billion, led by former Justice Department lawyer William Ruckelshaus. Conscious of the importance of establishing the new administration's authority, Ruckelshaus acted aggressively to enforce the Clean Water Act, secure a ban on the pesticide DDT, and prosecute the corporations responsible for polluting the Cuyahoga. Thanks to his efforts, the EPA has maintained its role as a strong enforcer, and the position of EPA Administrator is considered cabinet-level despite the EPA not technically being a cabinet agency. Like all federal agencies, however, it is only as powerful as the executive allows—after years of relatively aggressive action on climate change, the EPA deleted almost all references to the global climate crisis from its website after President Donald Trump took office.