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What is America without the EPA?

NoteThis is part two of a four-part series about the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The agency, its policies, and the science that underpins those regulations has been under scrutiny in recent weeks. In fact, the agency is in danger of being drastically cut back or dismantled entirely. You can learn more about that by reading part one. This week we'll focus on the agency’s origin story. And check out this gallery of photos of what America looked like in the early days of the EPA.


“Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us—is rewritten—we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” ― Haruki Murakami

There is a story, often told as apocryphal, of American environmentalism in the 1960s.

The story goes something like this: In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it literally caught fire. This horrific evidence of the country's rampant pollution spurred Americans into action. On April 22nd,1970, the United States celebrated the very first Earth Day. A few months later, we created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. In 1972, the Clean Water Act followed.

This story is very neat and compact. It’s bookended by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring on one end—the tome awakened us to the risks of environmental pollution. And then the Cuyahonga River lit a fire under us, driving politicians to finally take action.

But it isn’t quite true.



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