President Donald Trump says that he wants to “promote clean air and clean water.” But the federal agency responsible for protecting those resources may soon have to make do with less: the White House hopes to slash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency budget by 31 percent, according to the administration’s 2018 budget proposal, released on March 16.
Though Congressional wrangling will alter the budget before it’s final, the implication is clear: The EPA, created in 1970 and tasked with safeguarding both human health and the environment, will likely soon have fewer resources and less staff. “This budget is a fantasy if the administration believes it will preserve EPA’s mission to protect public health,” former agency head Gina McCarthy told the Washington Post. “It ignores the lessons of history that led to EPA’s creation 46 years ago.”
Those lessons include often-recited examples of environmental disasters in the industrial East and Midwest. But polluted places dot the West, too, and before EPA cleanups and enforcement were in full swing, arsenic and lead spewed from smelter stacks; waste was dumped into ponds, creating acidic deathtraps for birds and other wildlife; and car engines and industrial activity sent lethal smoke and haze into the sky. Although some of these problems persist today, they’re generally much less severe now. While state-level efforts and a rising public awareness of environmental issues will likely keep the West from returning to its pre-EPA condition, the region is at risk if protective regulations are revoked, or if a lack of resources leaves them unenforced. The agency is often maligned by small-government proponents. Its critics say the agency exemplifies the kind of federal overreach Republicans would like to do away with. However, recalling a few of the environmental disasters of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s can serve as a reminder of how far the West has come under the EPA’s watch.