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What Does the Environmental Protection Agency Do?

What exactly does the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, do?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
February 6, 2017
Episode #225

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What Does the Environmental Protection Agency Do?A bill was introduced in Congress last week and referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology by Representative Gaetz from Florida to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency. If you’re thinking, but hasn’t the EPA been around for a long time?, you’re not wrong—the EPA was proposed by President Nixon in 1970 via an executive order which was later ratified by Congress. So why might Congress want to terminate an almost 50-year-old agency? Let’s look at how the EPA works and what the EPA does for those of us living in the US and for the rest of the planet.

What Is the Role of the EPA?

The stated mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to “protect human health and the environment.” So they ensure that the living and working environments of those living in the US do not pose a significant risk to our health. They do this primarily through research into environmental conditions, through educating the public, and through making sure the federal health and environmental laws enacted by Congress are enforced effectively.

In the 1960s, pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (or DDT) were widely used to protect crops from pests like insects. DDT in particular was considered a cure-all because it was toxic to a wide range of insects without seeming to cause any harm to cows or other farm mammals, it didn’t readily break down and so only required infrequent applications, and it was insoluble in water or didn’t get washed away by the rain.

However, in 1962, scientist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring which was a main catalyst for the movement to protect the environment and thus our own welfare. Her book grabbed the public’s attention who then put pressure on many state and local governments to enact laws regulating pollution and chemical use. After a few years of varied and disconnected attempts at regulation, it became clear that a dedicated federal agency was needed to sort through these efforts and unite them. In 1970, then President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA) and the EPA now monitors over 100 programs that uphold a dozen major laws.

Thus, the EPA does not on its own make laws but instead is involved before and after those laws are set. Beforehand, the EPA is tasked with ensuring the lawmakers are informed by the highest quality of research. The agency is tasked with monitoring water, air, land, and human health quality and provides the vast majority of this information to the public. In order to gather a range of perspectives, as well as draw from leading researchers in the field, the EPA also awards over several billion dollars in grants and fellowships.

After laws are ratified by congress, the EPA then determines strategies for enforcing those laws fairly. The maintenance of the national standards dictated by legislation is done in cooperation with state and local governments, as well as tribal governing bodies. Not all of the EPA’s work is fines and sanctions – they also coordinate volunteer programs for industry players looking to participate in pollution prevention and environmental conservation.

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