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Jana Wilson
School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, November 29, 2010

As EPA turns 40, IU professor recalls its creation

Nov. 29, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Forty years ago this week, A. James Barnes was a first-hand witness to history: the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He was a special assistant to William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, and later his chief of staff.

Barnes, a professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and in the IU Maurer School of Law, said Ruckelshaus set a tone of fair and unbiased enforcement of environmental laws that served the agency well.

"Creating the agency was the right thing to do," he said. "And I think Bill Ruckelshaus turned out to be the best possible choice to run it."

Jim Barnes

A. James Barnes

Print-Quality Photo

The EPA will mark the 40th anniversary of its creation this Thursday (Dec. 2). Established pursuant to a government reorganization plan of President Richard Nixon, it consolidated federal standard setting, research, monitoring and enforcement activities related to the environment into a single agency.

Barnes recalled that a series of high-profile environmental catastrophes had produced an outpouring of support for government action. Pollution caused the Cuyahoga River to catch on fire. Lake Erie was dying from algae growth. A blow-out at an offshore well coated California beaches with oil. The bald eagle was threatened by DDT. Comics wisecracked about Los Angeles' dense smog.

With the first Earth Day in April 1970, he said, "you had literally millions of people demonstrating. A lot of individuals thought it was time to do something."

Barnes had worked on Ruckelshaus' unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate from Indiana in 1968. When Nixon tapped Ruckelshaus, then a Justice Department official, to head the EPA, Barnes joined him for the challenging task of assembling a new agency with employees from the departments of Agriculture, Interior and Health, Education and Welfare.

"Bill used to describe the process as being like trying to perform an appendectomy while running a 100-yard dash," he said. But the agency won early credibility thanks to Ruckelshaus' tough decisions and management ability, he said. When the United Nations had its first conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972, representatives of other countries looked to the U.S. for leadership on the issue.

Barnes said there was strong bipartisan support for environmental protection in the agency's early years. He laments that the environmental issues have become deeply polarized and that agency decisions have become increasingly political.

After practicing law in Washington, D.C., Barnes worked for the Department of Agriculture and then returned to the EPA in the 1980s as general counsel and deputy administrator, again under Ruckelshaus. He served as dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs from 1988-2000.

To speak to Barnes, contact Jana Wilson at SPEA, 812-856-5490 or; or Steve Hinnefeld at University Communications, 812-856-3488 or