How The EPA Became A Victim Of Its Own Success The Trump administration faces protests for its plan to aggressively rein in the EPA, an agency created by President Richard Nixon. But environmental protection was not always so politically divisive.
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How The EPA Became A Victim Of Its Own Success

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How The EPA Became A Victim Of Its Own Success

How The EPA Became A Victim Of Its Own Success

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate is expected to confirm President Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency later today. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt promises to roll back regulations which he says go too far. He'll likely face protests and lawsuits over those plans. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that protecting the environment wasn't always so divisive in Washington.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It was Richard Nixon, a Republican, who created the EPA.

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RICHARD NIXON: Each of us all across this great land has a stake in maintaining and improving environmental quality.

ROTT: William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the agency, was there with him for much of it.

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WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: It wasn't an issue that particularly interesting to him, but he didn't feel he could resist the public pressure to take this on, to do something about pollution.

ROTT: Ruckelshaus says Americans in those days saw the environment as a public health issue and it's easy to understand why. Smog was suffocating cities. Eagles, our national symbol, were nearly extinct.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The clean, clear waters that were once so friendly and useful become greasy and ill-smelling.

ROTT: The Cuyahoga River in Ohio literally caught fire. So the moves to create the EPA and pass environmental regulations were a political calculation for Nixon. And in the decades since, that calculation has shifted. Some administrations push for more environmental protections, others dial them back, or, in the case of Ronald Reagan, they try to undo them altogether.

WILLIAM REILLY: Reagan came in promising deregulation and making some of the same claims that we are hearing today.

ROTT: This is William Reilly, administrator of the EPA under President George H.W. Bush. And he says that some of those claims that we heard then and are hearing again now of EPA's overregulation...

REILLY: And interference with the economy...

ROTT: Of a business-stifling environment. In some cases, those can be true. Reilly says the rules EPA puts out should be debated and argued, but he also points out that Reagan's moves ended poorly. His EPA administrator resigned after just two years because of an administrative scandal. And in the wake of it all, the environment became a more important issue for voters again. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush called himself an environmentalist and was the first president to campaign on the issue of climate change.

Now, it's important to note that through all of this, the ups, the downs, polling shows that despite a growing partisan divide, the majority of Americans still want clean air, clean water and environmental protections. The same is true today. The difference is...

REILLY: They don't ask questions of Congress people. They don't vote the issue.

ROTT: In 2016, the environment wasn't even in the top 10 issues that people voted for. Reilly says he asked voters about this disconnect in a study he helped conduct while at Duke University in 2005.

REILLY: And the answer that came back was that the public essentially has concluded that there is no crisis, that the kind of issues that were emergency issues that prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency have been very well addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: People just assume they're going to have clean air and clean water.

ROTT: This is Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the EPA under George W. Bush. She and other administrators feel that the EPA has been a victim of its own success. Environmental threats are less tangible today than they were before - invisible greenhouse gases, oil leaks from cars that get into rivers. But Whitman thinks that will change as the effects of climate change become more obvious.

WHITMAN: As people are subjected to sea level rise and ever-increasing in severity of storms, of floods, of droughts, they know something's going on.

ROTT: Something else, she says, that can make the environment a top issue for voters again - if the current administration rolls back regulations to the point that it creates a public backlash. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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