Protecting The Environment

Only relatively recently has the federal government justified a significant amount of intervention into the economy to protect the environment. Although the first important U.S. pollution control law was passed in 1899, this law -- which made it a crime to dump any liquid wastes except those from sewers into navigable waters -- was almost never enforced. During the next 60 years, few other federal pollution control laws were passed.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans began increasingly to express concern about the impact of industrial growth on their nation and the world. Engine exhaust from the growing numbers of automobiles on the roads was blamed for the appearance of "smog" and other forms of air pollution in larger cities. Many environmentalists openly suggested that some economic growth would have to be sacrificed in order to protect the environment. Soon much legislation was passed to control pollution. One early accomplishment was the Clean Air Act of 1963, and its later amendments, which set goals and procedures for reducing automobile exhaust pollution. Other major laws enacted to control the spread of pollution include the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

In a major achievement for environmentalists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in December 1970, bringing together in a single agency the many federal programs to protect the environment. This resolved years of public debate over how best to protect the health and welfare of citizens from the hazardous byproducts of an industrial society. Many Americans had protested the government's lack of organization for exercising control over pollutants -- such as industrial smoke, open dumps, and untreated sewage and chemical wastes -- which were being discharged into the air, water and land.

The EPA's mandate is to control and abate pollution in the air and water, as well as that due to solid waste, pesticides, noise and radiation. The agency has the authority to coordinate and support research and antipollution efforts of state and local governments, private and public groups, and educational institutions. It sets and enforces tolerable limits of pollution, and establishes timetables to bring polluters into line with standards. Since most of the requirements are of recent origin, industries are given reasonable time, often several years, to conform to standards. Regional EPA offices develop, propose and implement approved regional programs for comprehensive environmental protection activities. Monitoring data show some improvements; for example, there has been a nationwide decline in virtually all categories of air pollution.

However, in 1990 it was felt that still greater efforts to combat air pollution should be undertaken; important amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed by Congress and signed by President George Bush. Among other things, the legislation incorporated an innovative market-based system designed to secure a substantial reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions that cause what is known as "acid rain." This type of pollution was thought to be causing serious damage to forests and lakes, particularly in the eastern part of the United States, as well as neighboring Canada.