Life or Death Powers over the Environment – Used and Abused – Again Now?

On March 2, 2017, the front page of the Washington Post the lead headline was “White House could slash EPA staff 20%”. The Post reported: “Though President Trump professes to care strongly about clean air and clean water, almost no other agency is as much in the cross hairs at the moment.1

The article was given appropriate prominence as the world faces two existential threats in both climate change and in public health. In 2013, an MIT report’s findings on the health consequences of air pollution recognized the importance of the problem:

“Researchers from MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment have come out with some sobering new data on air pollution’s impact on Americans’ health. The group tracked ground-level emissions from sources such as industrial smokestacks, vehicle tailpipes, marine and rail operations, and commercial and residential heating throughout the United States, and found that such air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year. Emissions from road transportation are the most significant contributor, causing 53,000 premature deaths, followed closely by power generation, with 52,000.”2

On March 3, 2017 the NY Times reports: “The Trump administration is expected to begin rolling back stringent federal regulations on vehicle pollution.”3

Image and quote courtesy of / IANS.

Presidents and A Livable Environment

In 1967, during the LBJ administration, I was a management intern in the Public Health Service working in the air pollution control program. One of my assignments was to serve as a Research Associate for air pollution control on a Task Force that produced a report to the Secretary of DHEW John W. Gardner titled “A Strategy for a Livable Environment.” Goal number one was to reduce air pollution by 90%.4 That goal was later enacted into the 1970 Clean Air Act.

In 1968, Nixon was elected and reorganized the pollution control programs of the Public Health Service and placed them in a new agency named the EPA. The effect was to downgrade the mission from protecting the health of people to protecting the environment. The new EPA symbol became a flower. The inside joke at EPA was that our new mission was to protect birds and bunnies. Nixon appointed the industry friendly Republican, William D. Ruckelshaus, to head EPA.

In 1970, I had the responsibility to supervise the emission testing of the vehicles in the Clean Air Car Race. The Race, created by students at MIT and Cal Tech, addressed the question: When could a 90% reduction in auto emissions be met?

The national debate was between a 90% reduction either by 1980 as proposed by Nixon or by 1975 as proposed by Sen. Muskie. Students demonstrated it could be done in 1970. Thus the Clean Air Act was enacted requiring a 90% reduction in auto emissions by 1975.5

In 1971, I chaired the EPA Task Force on the Environmental Problems of the Inner City. The Report was titled “Our Urban Environment – And Our Most Endangered People.” One recommendation was that EPA “Promulgate by January 1972 a regulation requiring all gasoline to be lead-free by 1977.”6

The elimination of lead from gasoline was important for two major reasons: a) to reduce lead poisoning in children and b) to enable catalysts on automobiles to achieve the 90% auto emission reductions required under the 1970 Clean Air Act.7

In 1971, at EPA I blew the whistle on changes being made in the emission test procedures used to measure the “90% reduction” and was fired on Nov. 19, 1971 by EPA under Ruckelshaus.8 9

I subsequently sued to get access to documents of the National Academy of Sciences that was required under the Clean Air Act to review the EPA program. The courts up to the Supreme Court ruled that I could not get access then under the Freedom of Information Act or the Federal Advisory Committee Act.10
Nearly two decades later, we learned from the Watergate tapes that Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca had secretly met with Nixon in 1971 to get the test procedures changed by EPA. Under Ruckelshaus, the new measurement of the 90% reduction in air pollution emissions actually was much less than the 90% reduction called for under the Clean Air Act.11

The result was that Americans have been forced, for decades, to breathe in more automotive air pollution than called for under the 1970 Clean Air Act.

In 2015, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus who had endorsed Obama in the 2008 election.12

Progress through Battles Won and Battles Lost 1966 – Present

In 1966, when I was a management intern in the PHS my first assignment was to help with the agency’s Third National Conference on Air Pollution. That agency was filled with honest, hard working, dedicated officials trying to protect people. One highlight of the Conference was Tom Lehrer’s song “Pollution” set to film.13

Rep. Daddario was my Congressman from Hartford, Connecticut and I called the Congressman’s office and asked if I could escort him through the exhibits. When I arrived, he introduced me to a lobbyist from a power company (Hartford Electric) and asked if he could join us. I said, “Of course.”

Entering the hall, before the film, there was a map of the U.S. illuminated with rapidly flashing lights, all at different rates, showing SO2 (Sulphur dioxides) emissions. The Congressman walked over to the map and asked what the three flashing yellow lights near Hartford were. I explained that each time a yellow light flashed it represented 100 pounds of sulfur dioxides emitted into the atmosphere. He asked what the source was and I said, “Probably power plants.” Then we went to see the film.

When we came out of the showing, the lobbyist was red faced and nearly apoplectic! His two clenched fists were pounding on an imaginary desk and he was saying: “Congressman! Congressman! This is downright communistic! My tax dollars producing this propaganda!”

Rep. Daddario put his hand on the lobbyist’s shoulder and said “Jack. Jack. Calm down. You’ll have a heart attack.” And then they left the exhibit hall.

I told my supervisor and he shrugged and said “‘Twas ever thus.”

The battles on getting lead out of gasoline, catalysts into cars for auto emission control, and improving auto safety have been part of a war that has raged for decades in the courts of public opinion and law, the Federal Executive and Legislative branches and at State and local levels. Ultimately, these battles resulted in major improvements in public health protection. I have been privileged to be a part of this effort to build a Safer America.14

Today we face new challenges to get Presidents to build a Safer America. Tools we can fashion to build a Safer America are both needed and possible.

Smoke rising from smokestacks
Image courtesy of

Imagine a “Trump Air Pollution Early Death Clock.” Since the MIT study found early deaths occurring in the U.S. at a rate of 200,000 per year, we can set it at zero on Jan. 20, 2017. At 548 deaths per day in the U.S. the clock would now read 24,660 early deaths.

For a Trump Early Death Clock for Auto Air Pollution, it would be 53,000 per year or 145 per day and by March 6, 2017 would read 6,525 early deaths.


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