Back in the 1960s, “green” was hardly a household word. The state of our environment was not visible on the national agenda. Over time, society and politicians became more sensitized to environmental degradation. They realized that current practices were unsustainable. Forty years ago this month, the first Earth Day helped raise awareness of the need to take action.
Since 1970, a comprehensive suite of environmental protection laws have been developed and strengthened. Industry lobbied hard against many of these changes. They had valid concerns about the cost of compliance, technological challenges, and decreased competitiveness in the global market.
However, society was no longer willing to pay the price for poor choices and associated long term consequences to human and ecological health. It was obvious that the “free for all” approach was not working. That is not to say that regulations are the only, or even the best answer. Balance is still essential. But more rules and limits were clearly needed. In some cases, regulation has spurred innovation. For example, to avoid the regulatory burden and cost associated with managing hazardous waste, many companies have switched to greener products and processes.
The list below highlights key events and environmental laws enacted since 1970. Note that in some cases, implementing regulations did not go into effect until several years later. While the Democratic party may lay claim to making the environment a priority, many key pieces of legislation were passed under Republican administrations.
- 1970: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to protect the environment and public health. The Clean Air Act was passed to limit industrial air emissions.
- 1972: The general use of DDT was banned in the U.S. The Clean Water Act replaced the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Act. It strengthened controls over discharges of pollution to waterways.
- 1973: The first wastewater permits were issued under the Clean Water Act. OPEC launched the Oil Embargo on the U.S., quadrupling gasoline prices and sparking a severe recession.
- 1975: The first fuel economy standards were passed.
- 1976: The Toxic Substances Control Act was passed to curtail environmental and human health risks associated with chemical manufacturing. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act instituted controls on hazardous waste management from cradle to grave, disposal of trash, and required prevention, detection and clean-up of releases from Underground Storage Tanks.
- 1977: The Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act was issued to control the environmental effects of coal mining.
- 1978: The Love Canal disaster made headlines. Lead paint was banned for residential use.
- 1979: The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred.
- 1980: Superfund was created to deal with legacy pollution.
- 1985: The hole in the ozone layer was discovered.
- 1990: The Pollution Prevention Act was signed, emphasizing the importance of preventing environmental damage, instead of just trying to clean it up once after the fact. The National Aquatic Invasive Species law was enacted at to protect against aquatic invaders like zebra mussels. Clean Air Act Amendments were made to prevent acid rain and ban ozone-depleting substances.
- 1996: The Food Quality Protection Act tightened standards for pesticides used to grow food. A requirement to notify homebuyers of the presence of lead paint became law.
- 2007: Executive Order 13423 strengthened environment, energy and transportation requirements applicable to federal agencies.
- 2009: Executive Order 13514 further strengthened requirements applicable to federal agencies, including controlling greenhouse gases.
- 2010: To be determined. With the economy in turmoil, further strengthening environmental rules will probably be an uphill battle.
Countries such as Germany have environmental laws that are even stricter than ours. On the other hand, in some developing countries, it is still perfectly legal to dump solid and toxic waste onto the land or into the water. Unlike CT, many states still do not require recycling of solid waste.
We may still have a long way to go, but we should take credit for the efforts we have taken in the U.S. to address the environmental harm we created, and to try to minimize future damage. Some of the changes that have happened in the U.S. since the first Earth Day have really helped make a world a cleaner, safer place.