Forty-nine Years Ago Today: Bill Ruckelshaus Sworn in as first Administrator of US EPA

Last week, Bill Ruckelshaus, the first Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, passed away.  He was one of the great leaders of modern American environmentalism, leading US EPA twice (1970-1973 and 1983-1985), appointed as Deputy US Attorney General by President Nixon in 1973, and then forced to resign soon thereafter in the famed “Saturday Night Massacre” which ultimately precipitated Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency because of Watergate.  Coincidentally, today marks an important historical milestone for him and EPA – forty-nine year ago, Bill Ruckelshaus was sworn in as the first Administrator of EPA.

Even though he was one of the great heroes of our times, for all he has done, his work was not without blemishes.  One area of concern was his leadership and direction of EPA on environmental justice issues.  As has been widely reported over the years, and acknowledged by EPA itself, the Agency’s enforcement of Title VI has been one of its most troubled and criticized programs.  In June 1971, early in his first tenure as EPA Administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus testified before the US Civil Rights Commission about the Agency’s stance on enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  While Ruckelshaus readily acknowledged the applicability of the requirements of Title VI to EPA, he also described his perception of tension between vigorous Title VI enforcement and the achievement of the objectives of federal environmental statutory objectives, such as federal water quality standards. At the time, he seemed to attribute that tension to the role of EPA as a regulatory agency and the attendant difficulties of applying the funding suspension remedy of Title VI in the event of a violation.

One can’t help but wonder how much of his ambivalence about the relationship of civil rights enforcement and environmental enforcement might have filtered down to the rest of the Agency.  Regardless, for many years following its creation, EPA failed to enforce the requirements of Title VI as vigorously as it did the requirements of the federal environmental statutes.  And the rise of the environmental justice movement with its claims of environmental racism and discrimination, including its criticisms of EPA’s handling of these issues, is now well-established history.

Of course, all of that potential criticism must be seen in light of the enormous task that he faced in leading a brand-new federal agency under the close scrutiny of Congress and a whole nation in the early 1970s.  A passage from an EPA history article written in 1993 sums it up well:

When sworn in as administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency on December 4, 1970, William D. Ruckelshaus shouldered the massive responsibility of organizing and leading the federal government’s most recent effort to protect the American people from the effects of pollution. He approached his task with the optimism and high expectations of someone setting out on a new endeavor. By the end of his initial term in 1973, he could identify with Sisyphus–the ancient Corinthian king forever condemned to pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down just short of the top. Ruckelshaus and his successors experienced the sisyphus effect every time the American people demanded a healthy and beautiful environment, but expressed uncertainty about the extent to which the federal government should act to achieve those ends.

Dennis Williams, The Guardian:  EPA’s Formative Years, 1970-1973 (1993),

The passage still rings true today in the work of the dedicated career staffers at EPA and other environmental agencies who remain committed to their institutional mission regardless of changing political winds.  It is that spirit that marks today, December 4, 2019, as the 49th anniversary of the swearing-in of the late Bill Ruckelshaus as the first Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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