What the West was like before the EPA

The agency’s legacy isn’t perfect, but the region’s air and water are cleaner now than they once were.

  • Discharge from the Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant along the Columbia River fills the sky in Longview, Washington. April 1973.

    David Falconer, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-5620
  • Strip mining with dragline equipment at the Navajo Mine in Yavapai County, Arizona, circa 1973.

    Lyntha Scott Eiler, U.S National Archives: 412-DA-1663
  • Spoil piles left by Burlington-Northern strip mining operations in Kootenai County, Idaho, 20 to 30 previously. June 1973.

    Boyd Norton, U.S National Archives: 412-DA-6690
  • Water samples taken in October 1972 after a pipeline of the Texas-New Mexico Pipeline Co. burst, releasing 285,000 gallons of crude oil into the San Juan River in southern San Juan County, Utah.

    David Hiser, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-3147
  • Old cars serve as a water break on Navajo Nation in Apache County, Arizona, circa 1972.

    Terry Eiler, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-1940
  • Dead fish at the wildlife refuge at Pahranagat Lake, Nevada, near Las Vegas, May 1972.

    Charles O’Rear, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-5250
  • Waste floating on Colorado River south of Parker, Colorado, May 1972.

    Charles O’Rear, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-6614
  • Crop duster plane over Imperial Valley farms, May 1972.

    Charles O’Rear, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-6396
  • Settling ponds of the Texas Gulf Sulphur Company’s Potash Division in Moab, Utah, May 1972.

    David Hiser, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-3140
  • Trash mounds at a homeless camp at 24th Street and South Platte in Denver, Colorado, May 1972.

    Shel Hershorn, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-2307
  • White dust creates a haze at the gypsum plant at Plaster City near El Centro, California, in May 1972.

    Charles O’Rear, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-6363
  • Sunbathers at Huntington Beach, California, with an oil platform visible in the distance, May 1975.

    Charles O’Rear, U.S. National Archives: 412-DA-1503

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.

One of the Western disasters that galvanized the modern U.S. environmental movement was a major oil spill off the coast of California, says environmental historian Benjamin Kline of De Anza College in Cupertino, California. In 1969, an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil gushed into the Pacific near Santa Barbara. Vivid images of dying, oil-soaked birds, fish, seals and dolphins blazed across the nation’s television screens. It was one of the first environmental catastrophes widely shown on TV, Kline says. “You actually saw it as opposed to just hearing about it,” he adds. “That really changed everything.”

Thick clouds of smog shrouding the skyscrapers of Los Angeles were another stark reminder of lax environmental protections, Kline says. Airborne pollutants such as ozone and lead harm both people and ecosystems: they reduce crop yields by damaging plant leaves, for example; and exposure to them can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and premature death. Congress first passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, then significantly expanded the law in 1970, leading to the development of national and state limits on air pollutants from sources like industry, utilities and vehicles and giving the nascent EPA enforcement authority. Since 1970, emissions of contaminants like particulate matter and carbon monoxide have dropped 71 percent nationwide, and thanks to the development of cleaner cars — spurred by technological innovation and the EPA’s tightened emissions standards — maximum ozone levels in the Los Angeles area have plunged more than 75 percent since the 1950s.

Airborne pollutants can also settle out onto the ground, contaminating soil. A smelter operated by the Asarco Company in Tacoma and Ruston, Washington, for instance, sent arsenic and lead into the sky for nearly 100 years, polluting more than 1,000 square miles of soil before shutting down in 1985. The area is now part of an EPA Superfund site. While government officials have removed dirt laced with heavy metals from lawns and parks in the area, contamination remains an issue.

Industrial waste has been another significant source of pollution to Western waterways. Images from an EPA photograph collection undertaken to document environmental issues and agency activities in the 1970s, for example, show rusty 55-gallon drums dumped into the Snohomish River near Everett, Washington and a dead, sludge-slicked duck and junked cars cluttering a 5-acre pond in Ogden, Utah. The pond was cleaned up under the direction of the EPA: “Some 1.2 million gallons of liquid was pumped from the site, neutralized and taken to a disposal site.”

Unintentional spills have taken a toll, too. An oil spill on the San Juan River in 1972 attracted national attention. That same year, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, laying out pollution control programs and contamination standards overseen by the EPA. The agency documented the oil spill, estimated at 285,000 gallons, and led cleanup efforts.

While the West is cleaner than it once was, the EPA doesn’t have a spotless record in the region: Accidents and mismanagement have at times hindered its efforts. The Gold King Mine spill in Colorado two years ago, the result of a botched cleanup by the agency, sent acidic mine waste and heavy metals down the Animas and San Juan Rivers. That incident and earlier mishaps have sown a deep distrust of the EPA among rural, conservative corners of the West. Critics of the agency say that states could act more efficiently on their own, without the bloated federal bureaucracy.

“Without some kind of national policy, though, it does appear that people in the past have simply done what was in their own self-interest,” Kline says. He and environmental historian and activist Robert Gottlieb, a professor emeritus at Occidental College in Los Angeles, note that the EPA arose out of a need for a national-scale environmental program. Statewide or regional environmental initiatives aren’t sufficient to address broad-scale, border-crossing problems, Gottlieb says. “You still need that kind of national — and in fact on some issues, global — presence to address the issues.”

One safeguard that may keep the West from returning to its pre-EPA state if the agency is diminished, Gottlieb says, is the much greater degree of environmental consciousness among the modern American public. But changing attitudes alone aren’t enough to prevent a backwards slide, says John Wise, a former deputy regional administrator of the EPA who retired in 2001. If car emission standards are loosened or not enforced, for example, he says, air quality will take a perceptible nose-dive. “To the extent that EPA is savagely cut, it’s going to have an effect on the environmental conditions in our cities and in our wilderness areas; in our ranches, in our forests,” Wise says. “It will manifest everywhere, and that, to me, is a grave danger.”

Emily Benson is an editorial intern at High Country News

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