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As EPA turns 40, IU professor recalls its creation

Forty years ago this month, 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, an approach 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."

The EPA marked the 40th anniversary of its creation on Dec. 2. Established pursuant to a government Reorganization Plan by President Richard Nixon, it consolidated federal standard setting, research, monitoring and enforcement activities related to the environment into a single agency.

Its creation was a remarkable instance of an issue -- protection of the environment -- reaching the forefront of the national agenda almost overnight.

Against concerns about the Vietnam War, prosperity and crime, the environment was scarcely mentioned in the 1968 presidential campaign. But a series of high-profile environmental catastrophes 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. Los Angeles' dense smog was a national joke.

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

From a political perspective, Sen. Edmund Muskie, who was considered the front-runner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, was calling for a federal environmental agency. By creating the EPA, Nixon could claim the issue for himself.

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 5,743 employees drawn from the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Health, Education and Welfare and elsewhere.

"Bill used to describe the process of getting the new agency up and running as being like trying to perform an appendectomy on yourself while while running a 100-yard dash," he said.

But the agency won early credibility thanks to Ruckelshaus' tough decisions and management ability.

At the very start, it took legal action against Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit for sewage violations. Ruckelshaus rejected appeals by the U.S. auto industry to delay the implementation of 90-percent cuts in vehicle pollution mandated by Congress in the Clean Air Act. Eighteen months after the EPA was created, Ruckelshaus moved to ban most domestic uses of the pesticide DDT.

The auto emissions rules were eventually delayed after a court fight, causing consumer activist Ralph Nader to accuse the agency of selling out. "We used to think, if Ralph Nader and the head of GM both screamed, we'd done it about right," Barnes said.

Barnes eventually left government service in the 1970s (along with Ruckelshaus, who famously resigned as deputy attorney general rather than obey Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the "Saturday Night Massacre"). After practicing law in Washington, D.C., he served as general counsel for the Department of Agriculture and then returned to the EPA in 1983, working as general counsel, again under Ruckelshaus, and then as deputy administrator of the agency from 1985-1988. He served as dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs from 1988-2000.

Barnes said the environment was only a "small-p political issue" in the early years of the EPA, and there was bipartisan support in Congress for major pieces of legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act which incorporated long-time IU professor L. Keith Caldwell's suggestion that the potential environmental impact of major government actions and of possible alternatives should be assessed before the decisions are made.

He laments that the environmental issues have become deeply polarized and that EPA decisions have become increasingly political over the years.

"Environmental issues have always been tough issues," he said, "but you have to have the ability to deal honestly with the facts and the will to act in the public interest. Now I don't think we have either of those."