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Right v. Wrong: True Story on Air Pollution, Science & the Law

— August 4, 2017

Right v. Wrong. It’s a concept most of us were taught as children. It’s also one that many, especially those in positions of power, sometimes forget. This true story on air pollution, science, and the law is a perfect example.

Right v. Wrong. It’s a concept most of us were taught as children. It’s also one that many, especially those in positions of power, sometimes forget. This true story on air pollution, science, and the law is a perfect example.

1966 – LBJ President

As a hereditary Republican who had worked in Connecticut to get delegates for Barry Goldwater’s nomination, I came to Washington in 1966 to work on air pollution control in the Public Health Service (PHS).

I was impressed with the honesty, dedication, and candor of top managers in the PHS working to protect people’s health by reducing air pollution. My first assignment as a management intern was to help with the Third National Conference on Air Pollution, Dec. 1966. You can see one of the videos produced as a highlight of the Conference and the story of meeting my first lobbyist.1

I then was assigned to serve as a Research Associate for air pollution control on a Task Force that produced a report to the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW), John Gardner, titled “A Strategy for a Livable Environment” dated June 1967. Goal number one was to reduce vehicle and plant stack emissions of air pollutants by 90%. 2

The Task Force was given temporary offices in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) building. Over a period of months going up and down the FDA elevators, I detected a strong whiff of corruption in the air. It was transitory but palpable and disturbing to overhear. And that experience led me to jump to an erroneous conclusion and a big personal mistake later in 1971.

Smokestacks from a wartime production plant, World War II; image courtesy
Smokestacks from a wartime production plant, World War II; image courtesy

1970 – Nixon President

In the summer of 1970, I had the responsibility to monitor auto emission tests of the Clean Air Car Race organized by engineering students at MIT and Cal Tech. The tests were performed at MIT in Boston, the Federal Air Pollution Lab in Ann Arbor, MI, and at Cal Tech in Los Angeles. The objective of the Race was to determine the feasibility of meeting the 90% reductions in auto emissions proposed by Nixon for 1980 and proposed by Sen. Muskie to be met by 1975.

The winning team from Wayne State University demonstrated the technical feasibility of meeting the 90% reductions in 1970 (at a time when auto companies were saying it could not be done for many years). The Race results provided support for setting the Muskie goal of meeting the 90% reduction in emissions in the Clean Air Act by 1975.3

At the end of 1970, the PHS air pollution control program, along with other PHS programs, was reorganized into the new EPA headed by Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus. At EPA, I chaired a Task Force that produced the report titled “Our Urban Environment”.4

Later in 1971, I became alarmed that new EPA air pollution officials, from the FDA, were changing the emission test procedures such that the measurements would appear to be reducing pollution far more than emission levels were actually being reduced. The 90% reductions required by law were not going to be achieved. I blew the whistle, erroneously thinking that this was a power play by former FDA officials. I was fired from the EPA effective December 3, 1971.5

Decades later when the Nixon Tapes were released, I learned that on April 27, 1971, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca had met in the White House. Ford’s remarks refer to Ruckelshaus as follows: “Uh, we would somehow from Mr. Ruckelshaus and how he, uh, runs his test procedures, uh, if he can help us a little bit, we can probably meet the ’75 schedule. We hope we can, we’re not sure we can.” 6

And on May 13, 1971, President Nixon met with GM’s James M. Roche and told Roche: “John Ehrlichman is handling Ruckelshaus. Uh, we do as well as we can, having in mind we have heavy legislative and, uh, pressures here. But, uh, we’ll, uh, find ways to deal with that situation.” 6

1975 Law Suit To Open National Academy of Sciences

Upon my firing from EPA, I tried to obtain access to the documents of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that had a role under the Clean Air Act to study the feasibility of meeting the 1975 emission standards. The NAS denied me access to their deliberations for 50 years.

A young public interest lawyer at Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Interest Representation was willing to represent me. Before I agreed, I asked the elderly Professor of Law who headed the Institute what my chances were. He said it depended on which Judge was appointed to hear the case. Republican John Sirica became the Judge, sided with the team of lawyers from Steptoe & Johnson and ruled in favor of the NAS.7

Thus Ruckelshaus, the EPA, the NAS, Judge Sirica, and the appellate judges were able to prevent disclosure of weakened air pollution regulations that allowed excess air pollutants to be emitted into the air. As a result, both the people and the planet have been damaged by excessive amounts of air pollutants for the past nearly 50 years. I was right and they were wrong.

2016 – Obama President

What happened to Ruckelshaus? He went on to be fired by Nixon as part of the Saturday Night Massacre. He again became EPA Administrator under President Reagan after Anne M. Gorsuch resigned.

Years later, President Obama awarded Ruckelshaus the Medal of Freedom. Ruckelshaus’ role in protecting auto companies and my whistle blowing were briefly described in a recent interview by Legal Reader.8

Today we have the recent scandal of Volkswagen (VW) cheating on diesel auto emissions. VW developed software to pass the laboratory test procedures yet emit much higher levels of pollution on the roads. The cheating continues to harm the public health to this day.9

Recently, I wrote about the first Earth Day in 1970 and what we can do now to fight for the “Livable Environment” that we all continue to need.10

2017 – Trump President

To this day, we continue to need transparency and truth to have trust in government, corporations, and the media. As the Trump investigations are slowly teaching people – lying to the public is not a crime.11

As I write this, the Trump Auto Air Pollution Early Death Clock, based on MIT estimates, is approaching 30,000 deaths in the U.S. since President Trump took office.12


  1. Tom Lehrer Sings Pollution 1967 and Presidents and a Livable Environment
  2. A Strategy For A Livable Environment Report Of The DHEW Task Force On Environmental Health And Related Matters July 1967
  3. Climate Change Leadership From California Officials
  4. Our Urban Environment
  5. EPA Whistle-Blow
  6. Nixon Transcriptions
  7. Lombardo v. Handler, 397 F. Supp. 792 – Dist. Court, Dist. of Columbia 1975
  8. Interview: Louis Lombardo on Whistleblowing and Vehicle Emissions
  9. What Have VW and Other Auto Makers and Government Officials Done To Our Health?
  10. Powers of the People on Earth Day 2017
  11. Transparency + Truth = Trustworthiness
  12. Trump Clocks

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