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November 24, 2010

EPA: Three Letters to Be Thankful For

The Environmental Protection Agency celebrates its 40th anniversary next week. But I think it's worth taking a moment this week to be thankful for what the EPA has accomplished during four decades (and that's in spite of eight not-so-great years as part of the Bush administration). These are just some highlights.

For a start, Ohio's Cuyahoga River has stopped catching fire. Time magazine's 1969 cover story on the combustible, polluted river led to the Clean Water Act, the first Earth Day, and the creation of the EPA. Since then, the agency has been on the job to protect all of America's rivers, lakes, streams and, most importantly, drinking water. Factories and corporations don't always require clean drinking water, but wildlife and people do.

We also have the EPA to thank for cleaner air. That hasn't just improved the view from downtown L.A. and Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- it's saved tens of thousands of lives (every single year) and trillions of dollars. As EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said while commemorating the Clean Air Act's 40th anniversary, "For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return." So much for the idea that we must always choose between the environment and the economy.

Acid rain? That hole in the ozone layer? Two big problems that the EPA can take credit for solving by regulating chlorofluorocarbons and sulfur emission respectively. And the lead additives that used to be in gasoline are just one of the carcinogens the EPA has taken out of our daily lives. We'll never know exactly who didn't get cancer during the past four decades as a result, but it certainly could have been you or someone you love.

On a more mundane level, I can't think of another federal agency that's done so much to save millions of ordinary people money every day. Your refrigerator and other appliances cost less to run, thanks to the Energy Star program. You can take a hot shower using less water, which you spent less money to heat up. And you can choose a car with better gas mileage -- the EPA practically invented fuel efficiency.

Although it's called the Environmental Protection Agency, you could just as easily call it the Every-Person Protection Agency. That's because it's the EPA that has our backs when we might otherwise be at the mercy of corporate agendas that don't always make clean air, safe drinking water, or non-carcinogenic consumer products their first priority.

So let's be thankful for all the EPA's done, but let's also make sure we can keep counting on the agency's engineers, scientists, and environmental-protection specialists to be our advocates -- the ones who put people and the environment first. Whether it's regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, stopping the destruction of Appalachian watersheds from mountaintop-removal coal mining, or ensuring that we don't poison our drinking water with fracking chemicals and toxic coal ash, the EPA has some of its biggest fights still ahead of it (along with some powerful opponents).

So, happy birthday, EPA. You might well be the best idea Richard Nixon ever had.

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