Pollution prevention pioneers: Dirty tricks and clean air
The 1970s, and in particular, Richard Nixon's presidency, is often remembered as the era of Vietnam, "dirty tricks" and Watergate. President Nixon's administration, however, also left Americans the legacy of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
When Richard Nixon came to office in 1969, the world's attention was focused on the daily horrors being played out in the jungles of Vietnam. At home, Americans were divided not only over the war, but also issues such as civil rights, desegregation of schools, equal rights for women and welfare reform. The environment, which had been largely ignored during Nixon's campaign, was rapidly moving to the forefront as an issue Americans could get behind. The 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, had ignited green fever in Americans.
"The catalyst for legislation was the popular movement of the country," said John Whitaker, who served as Nixon's cabinet secretary and undersecretary of the Interior Department. "While Nixon and Humphrey were running for president, neither one of them paid any particular attention to the environment issue. Each one of them gave one or two small, modest speeches in that direction. But within a year after Nixon was president, the environment issue, which was rated number one by maybe one or two percent of people in the polls, had risen to about the third highest issue in the country, behind only foreign policy and the economy. So, it became a raging political hurricane almost overnight."
The first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, saw nationwide rallies and speeches signal the beginning of a movement. Even Congress stood in recess for the event. President Nixon and his staff quickly realized the potential of this unique political opportunity.
President Nixon helped to enact much of the protective legislation that is now taken for granted, including the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. His administration also created the Department of Natural Resources and the EPA. Additionally, in keeping with Nixon's "New Federalism" policy of moving power from the federal to the local level, his administration encouraged environmental regulation at the local level, leading to such agencies as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
"I don't think that Richard Nixon had a great desire to be green," said Dr. Stephen Lovejoy, a professor in Purdue's department of agricultural economics and a senior policy analyst with the EPA during the Reagan administration. "He recognized that the public was concerned about the environment. He was, in essence, satisfying that public demand, by pushing to have the EPA created."
While Nixon championed much environmental legislation, he also did not let it get in the way of his primary objectives. He faced a great deal of criticism for his firm stance. When, in 1972, the Clean Water Act did not meet the strict budgetary guidelines he had set, Nixon vetoed it. When Congress overrode his veto, Nixon impounded half of the act's $18 billion budget by refusing to appropriate it, saying that $9 billion would achieve the act's intended goals. The Supreme Court overturned his impoundment, but later legislation would back up the presidential imperative to impound congressional monies.
"He did not go overboard, like so many people did at that time, and say that all these environmental controls could be done with a free lunch. He recognized that there were costs. Specifically, he impounded that environmental water money because ... after a year and a half, or two years of that, Congress hadn't begun to spend even a modest portion of that fund, because it just couldn't be done that fast, even when they were trying, with the grant system they had," said Whitaker.
Later evaluations of the budget would show that actual expenditures during the act's first years were close to what the president had budgeted, and not Congress.
Nixon's administration established much of the framework for today's environmental legislation. "All the major pieces of environmental legislation, the statutes, most of them were initially passed when he was president, and those that weren't initially passed, many of them had major restructuring while he was president," said Lovejoy.
"He doesn't get the public acclaim he should," said Whitaker. "Frankly, he was the strongest environmental president we've had since Theodore Roosevelt, in my personal opinion."
Nixon's legislative efforts led to a basic restructuring of the way government approached the environment. Better controls have resulted in a better environment. "My students, who, many of them weren't around in the '70s say, 'Oh, it's terrible, it couldn't have been worse back then,' but, back then, we had rivers catching on fire," said Lovejoy.
"It sounds a little grandiose to say that we covered all the issues, but the main thing that Nixon did was completeness. He covered those issues from A to Z. " Whitaker said. "If there was a shortcoming, I think it was probably in the area of recycling of raw materials - the paper recycling that took place at a later date - that we did not come up with a program that adequately addressed that. Perhaps we could have done more on ocean pollution. We're still dealing with the Panamanian flag issue."
"One issue we never have solved, maybe never will be solved, is the land use issue," Whitaker said. "We made a federal proposal to give grants for land use controls that states themselves were supposed to administer. That was defeated narrowly in the Congress, and has never come back again, but we still grapple with the problem of unbridled development in suburbia."
"I personally would have liked to have seen a lot more market mechanisms put into place, and less command and control. But that is definitely in hindsight. Back in the early '70s, I don't this that they saw they had any options, other than just a command and control kind of philosophy," Lovejoy said.
The shame of the Watergate investigations and his 1974 resignation ultimately cast Nixon's environmental contributions as little more than a footnote to his administration. There is little chance Richard Nixon will ever be remembered as the environmental president. "History has seen him as too many other things," Lovejoy said.
Regardless, Nixon and his administration have arguably accomplished for the environment than any president since.
"We did a lot," said Whitaker. "I guess we weren't perfect, but we did a lot."
For more information, see the following
Nixon Reconsidered, by Joan Hoff, University of New York: Basic Books, 1994.
The White House Official Web Site - www.whitehouse.gov
The American Experience - The Presidents - www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/amex/presidents/indexjs.html
Natural Resources Defense Council -www.nrdc.org/bkgrd/geenvhis.html
National Archives and Records Administration -The Nixon Project (301) 713-6950
The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace - (714) 993-5075
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.
Mel Zimmerman, PhD, is chair of the Biology Department at Lycoming College Williamsport, Penn., as well as the director of the Clean Water Institute (www.lycoming.edu/biology/cwi/index.htm). His research and publications deal with wastewater parasites and wetlands and stream restoration.