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Cokie Roberts On The History Of The EPA

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

California and 17 other states are suing the Environmental Protection Agency. They want to stop a controversial plan to weaken federal auto emissions standards. Of course, controversy is just part of EPA's history. The agency was founded in 1970 by President Richard Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Clean air and clean water, the wise use of our land, the protection of wildlife and natural beauty, parks for all to enjoy - these are part of the birthright of every American.

GREENE: Nixon then went on to sign the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, regulating environmental cleanup. Challenges to those regulations have caused many of you to raise questions that we are going to put to commentator Cokie Roberts this morning.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: All right. Let's get right to this. Our first question goes back to the origins of the EPA. It's from Sarah Fey, and she wants to know how controversial was its coming into existence, and how broad of support did it have at its founding?

ROBERTS: Well, the fact that the president so strongly supported it made a huge difference, but a lot of things had led up to this point, David. There had been horrible environmental disasters. The Cuyahoga River had burst into flames.

GREENE: Oh, in Cleveland, the river on fire, yeah.

ROBERTS: Right. You couldn't walk down the street in New York without getting soot in your eyes, and you couldn't walk by the Potomac River because it smelled so awful.

GREENE: Well, with all that happening through the '70s, you had a ton of legislation trying to address all of this, I mean, regulating pesticides and food quality. And the controversy around those gets to our next question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE HELLRUNG: This is Dave Hellrung from Chicago, and I would like to know how the agency has survived hostile agendas in the past and what plans, if any, they have to survive the current political environment.

ROBERTS: Well, the most difficult time before this one was during the Reagan administration when Anne Gorsuch, the mother of our most recent Supreme Court justice, was the EPA director. And she slashed the budget and cut way back on the number of hazardous waste sites that were forced to clean up under the Superfund law. When Congress subpoenaed documents relating to the law, she refused to comply. The House charged her with contempt of Congress. It was high drama. I covered it. It was quite something. That led to her resignation.

So a friendly Congress is one way to survive, but mainly, it's public pressure. The last Gallup poll on the question - 57 percent of people said the priority was to protect the environment even if it curbed economic growth. Now, that's down from a high of 71 percent in 1990 but up from a low of 38 percent in 2010 during the recession.

GREENE: The next question we have gets to the question of how to enforce environmental laws, and it comes from Derrell Durrett. (Reading) The current director claims no legal authority to regulate emissions. That seems at odds with my memory about the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. What is the EPA's legal mandate?

ROBERTS: Well, I don't think he claims no legal authority, but he has failed to issue regulations for methane emissions, and that's led to 14 states attorneys general suing Pruitt for violating the Clean Air Act. He's also rolled back the emissions standards for cars set by the Obama administration and says that California cannot set its own higher standards than his. Now, that's odd, David, since many Republicans call for state and local enforcement of the laws rather than federal enforcement. Florida freshman Matt Gaetz introduced a bill in this current Congress to abolish the EPA and leave it all to local government.

GREENE: Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts, and you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just email us - askcokie@npr.org - or you can tweet us. Just use the hashtag #AskCokie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. In fact, Nixon vetoed the act and was then overriden by Congress.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 3, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
We incorrectly say President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act. In fact, Nixon vetoed the act and was then overriden by Congress.