What Is It?
Looking for your next summer vacation? How about a quaint cabin on a toxic plot of land, next to a sludgy lake full of dead fish? In a place with air so smoggy that you don’t want to go outside anyway?
If you ever end up on that vacation, you might want to know more about the Environmental Protection Agency, a department in the federal government charged with protecting human health and the environment.
Here are a few of the EPA’s many responsibilities:
- Protecting lakes, streams, rivers, and coastal ocean waters
- Protecting drinking water – which includes rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and many ground water wells
- Protecting the air from pollution
- Investigating and cleaning up when oil or hazardous chemicals make their way into the environment – or supervising those investigations and clean-ups
- Doing research to reduce the risks to people from contaminated land and groundwater, evaluate the health risks of chemicals, counteract human activities that hurt the environment, and much, much more
- Weighing the costs and benefits of changing environmental policies
When creating the EPA, President Richard Nixon said, “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.” Since then, the EPA has taken different approaches under different presidents. To learn about that and more, check out our podcast episode on the EPA: Understand Your Government. Watch Ghostbusters.
Why It Matters to You
A defunct garbage incineration facility in Florida. And old electronics plant in New Jersey. A 9,000-acre mining area in Montana. They all have one thing in common: the federal government has declared them Superfund sites. That means they’re chock full of hazardous waste and the EPA has authority to clean them up – and demand that polluters pay for the clean-up. Do you live near one of the more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the country? Find out – and stay in the know – here.
Real talk: air pollution kills more Americans every year – around 110,000 – than car accidents and shootings combined. The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave EPA the power to set standards for certain pollutants and require states to come up with plans for meeting those standards. That means the agency is interested in pollution from factories, cars, agriculture, and more.
Kids can be especially vulnerable to environmental contamination because their bodies are still in development and they eat, drink, and breath more in proportion to their body size. In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring all federal agencies to assess risks to children and coordinate their research priorities when it comes to children’s health. With that, the EPA created the Office of Children’s Health Protection, which focuses on childhood and prenatal exposure to environmental hazards.
Some businesses argue that the cost of environmental regulations is unreasonably high and that when the cost of doing business goes up, so does the cost to consumers. Energy companies often note that policies designed to preserve the environment can also make it more expensive to bring oil and gas to the market – and the people who can least afford that extra cost are also least likely to be involved in the public debate about them.
When it comes to clean water, there are two laws worth knowing about: the signing of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. They pretty much do what you’d think. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA tackles pollution in lakes, oceans, rivers, and other bodies of water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the agency watches out for microbial contamination (for example, the kind that can cause, ahem, gastrointestinal distress) and chemical contamination (for example, the kind that can cause cancer).
How to Make an Impact
This Rule Rules!
Like most federal agencies, the EPA must provide time for the public to comment on proposed regulations before actually issuing those regulations. Before a new rule goes into effect, companies, advocacy groups, lobbyists, and individuals can write in to share how it would affect them. This is also an opportunity to recommend ways to make the rule better or more fair, or to express your support or opposition. EPA issues regulations on all kinds of things, from updating nationwide air quality standards to renewing licenses for nuclear power plants to managing the sea scallop population in the Northeast. You can search all rules open for comment, and check out this handy Civic Genius guide on how to submit your own comment.
The president appoints the EPA administrator, but that’s not the whole story. The Senate still has to confirm that person. Did the president nominate someone who you think will lead the EPA in the right direction? Ask your senator to confirm them! Did the president nominate someone you think is terrible? Ask your senator to vote against confirmation! You can call, write, or ask for a meeting. And keep the pressure up by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper!
Climb That Hill
Capitol Hill, that is. Though the president decides who leads the EPA, it’s Congress that dictates the broad strokes of the agency’s work. Several congressional committees have oversight responsibility of the EPA, and you may want to follow their work to see what Congress is up to on environmental issues. On the Senate side, that includes the Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. On the House side, you’ll want to keep your eye on the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. But don’t stop there! If you have thoughts about what Congress should do on environmental issues, call, write, or ask for a meeting with your member of Congress or Senator and make your voice heard.
Remember how we said the EPA has 10 regions across the country? That means there are representatives of the agency in your backyard. Any of your elected officials can work with EPA’s regional offices, including your state and local representatives. Consider reaching out to your state legislators, mayor, or county government if you want to see the EPA take, or not take, a particular action. Sometimes starting closest to home is the smartest way to achieve your goal.
No one has time to follow every single thing happening on every single issue they care about. That’s why there are tons of organizations dedicated to keeping you in the know. Whether you’re just dipping your toe into environmental issues or you’re ready to take action, check out organizations working nationally or in your community to learn about their work and see how it aligns with your priorities. Once you find an organization you feel good about, work with them to advocate for the policies you want to see.
On the Ground
In St. Charles, Missouri, tests showed high levels of a hazardous chemical in the city’s well water supply. The cause of contamination? The local electric company. To keep people safe, the city began purchasing water from St. Louis – an expensive solution. The EPA began holding public meetings to understand the impact of the water contamination and determine what legal responsibility the electric company has.
Local leaders and environmental advocates in northwest Houston called on the EPA to expedite plans for cleaning up a Superfund site. A dry cleaning company, operating from 1984 to 2002, improperly dumped solvents that later seeped into soil and groundwater. People in the community say this toxic waste threatens their health.
States often have the power to use stricter environmental standards than the EPA requires. California, which views itself as a leader in climate change policy, is one of those states. As the country’s largest auto market, California sought to set tougher regulations for tailpipe emissions for cars and SUVs. The Trump administration blocked this effort, and the Biden administration later allowed it.
In Florida, two environmental organizations argued that the state wasn’t complying with the Clean Water Act – a particular concern to people eating fish from polluted waters. The groups petitioned the EPA to pressure Florida for updated regulations and made some progress: EPA gave Florida one year to update the state’s standards and to create criteria for 40 toxic pollutants. Florida’s government agreed.