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The EPA at 50: It’s Time to Correct Inequities and Think Big

Dec. 3, 2020, 9:00 AM

A half-century ago, Americans needed an environmental moonshot to control decades of pollution that degraded the environment and harmed people’s health—coastal oil spills, untreated sewage discharges, contaminated drinking water, and skies filled with black soot. Our country’s leaders were under significant pressure to find big solutions to big problems.

In April 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans demonstrated on the first Earth Day to demand cleaner air, water, and land, and express a collective vision of a sustainable planet. This was a significant turning point. On Dec. 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded with a mission to protect public health and the environment.

Today, the EPA’s mission remains the same, but we need an equally ambitious vision to tackle new threats to people’s health, the profound challenges of climate change, and systemic environmental injustices. It’s time to think big and reset the course of the EPA toward a renewed agenda.

Work Remains to Correct Inequities

Within 10 years of the EPA’s founding, Congress passed many of the bedrock laws that have protected us to this day, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. But much work remains, especially to correct inequities that have left low-wealth communities, communities of color, and indigenous people exposed to disproportionate and unacceptable levels of pollution.

Environmental progress hit a roadblock in 2017, as the Trump administration geared up to reverse years of progress. That year, a small group of EPA alumni founded a national, bipartisan organization, the Environmental Protection Network (EPN), to harness the expertise of former EPA career staff and political appointees—spanning multiple Republican and Democratic administrations—to provide an informed and rigorous defense against efforts to undermine the EPA’s very mission. Our more than 500 members use their broad expertise and experience to provide objective and detailed analyses of proposed budget cuts, regulatory rollbacks, and agency actions.

Looking to the future, EPN began to envision actions EPA leadership could take to recommit to the agency’s mission. EPN’s comprehensive project, Resetting the Course of EPA, addresses the most significant and pervasive threats to public health and the environment, and recommends specific immediate, 100-day, and long-term actions in 17 areas from environmental justice, to science, to environmental enforcement.

EPA Needs Adequate Budget, Trust in Career Employees

The report’s overarching goals include conducting scientific and economic analyses free from political interference, and incorporating environmental justice into every aspect of the agency’s work to truly address inequities that put already overburdened communities at greater risk. The EPA must also demonstrate the best ethical behavior, and consider a wide range of stakeholder views to rebuild its credibility.

Many of these goals cannot be accomplished without an adequate budget that gives the EPA, states, and tribes the resources they need to operate effectively. In addition, new leadership must turn to the EPA’s dedicated career employees whose professionalism and expertise will be fundamental in setting priorities and re-envisioning the EPA’s future.

With climate-induced hurricanes pounding our shores, wildfires destroying lives and livelihoods, and air pollution worsening the impacts of Covid-19, people are once again turning to their government for answers and actions.

Now is the time to think big and do what’s needed to protect the bipartisan legacy of progress toward clean air, water, and land. Fifty years from now, generations of Americans will be grateful we dared to set our sights on the moon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Michelle Roos is the executive director of the Environmental Protection Network, a bipartisan organization of more than 500 EPA alumni launched in January 2017 to provide an informed and rigorous defense against efforts to undermine environmental and public health protections. She previously served as special assistant to the assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Air and Radiation in Washington, D.C., and special assistant to the regional administrator of EPA Region 9 in San Francisco.

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