Take a U.S. History Class and You’ll See We Still Need the EPA

Pollution from a factory burning discarded automobile batteries in Houston, Texas (1970).

Pollution from a factory burning discarded automobile batteries in Houston, Texas (1970).

Cuyahoga River Fire (1952).

Cuyahoga River Fire (1952).

Water pollution flows sluggishly down the Androscoggin River from the International Paper Company Mill in Jay, Maine (1970).

Water pollution flows sluggishly down the Androscoggin River from the International Paper Company Mill in Jay, Maine (1970).

Jay Lehr apparently skipped his U.S. History class. In a so-called “Policy Brief” for the Heartland Institute, a group largely funded by polluting oil and gas companies and other climate deniers, Lehr makes unsubstantiated claims calling for the complete elimination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Clearly he is too young to remember what the U.S. was like before the existence of the EPA. Or maybe he’s just forgotten the sickening air pollution or toxic waterways when states were left to protect our nation’s natural resources.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the photos above and you can’t deny how poorly the environment was regulated before the EPA. And there are thousands of similar photos from all over the country. States did such a poor job that our Republican president agreed we needed to create a federal governing body, citing an environmental crisis. Things have changed for the better because of the EPA. However, there is no evidence that many states, including my own Texas, would manage our resources today any better than they did in 1970.

Why we need national environmental regulations:

1)      Environmental pollution doesn’t respect state borders

Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning film A River Runs Through It is not called A River Gets to a State Border and Ends, and for good reason. The environment is not polite in abiding by our arbitrary state borders.

Think of air pollution drifting from one state to another; we know Kentucky and West Virginia pollute every state downwind of them. Maine and Delaware have no ability to stop plants in Kentucky and West Virginia from poisoning them. We cannot look at each state’s environment individually, because the actions and conditions of one state will invariably have consequences for others.

More importantly, people are not bound by borders either. How many times have you traveled to another state for business, pleasure, or visiting family? The very beginning of our Constitution declares its existence should promote the General Welfare of all U.S. citizens.

Our health shouldn’t suffer simply because you need to travel for work or to visit a parent or child in another state.

2)      Guess what? Pollution doesn’t respect international borders, either

Perhaps we need to remind Lehr we all live on the same planet, the health of which is a two way street. It’s pretty simple: We want other countries to care about us and our well-being, so we need to care about them. Yeah, the golden rule.

From a global perspective, solving international problems like the hole in the ozone and climate change ultimately must be done at a national level, not as a collection of 50 polluters. And only countries, not states, can enter into and enforce international obligations. If you need a success story for a national implementation of an international agreement, take a look at the Montreal Protocol, which was carried out by the federal EPA under President Ronald Reagan and is “widely seen as the most successful global environmental treaty”.

3)      If left to their own devices, some states will do little (if anything at all) to protect the environment

Hint, hint: the biggest in the lower 48 states. Coming from the Lone Star State with leaders who do little to protect the health of its children from pollution, except when required by the federal government, I can say without a shred of doubt that all states are not of equal environmental mind. In the past decade, Texas has not passed a single meaningful environmental standard that was stronger than the minimum required by the EPA. No floor is too low when it comes to Texas’ stance on protecting our natural resources and public health.

We need to protect all Americans from pollution. We can achieve more together and we need to solve problems on a national level. We can’t go back to the days of U.S. cities choking in smog and rivers catching fire. In my mind, the only people who would advocate eliminating the EPA must have failed their history classes.

Photo sources: US EPA and Cleveland State University Library

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