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From Watchdog to Lapdog: An Insider's History of the EPA

A former EPA analyst explains how the governmental body set up to protect the environment has been undermined by political pressure and industry.

The EPA came into being in December 1970. President Richard Nixon created this new agency because of the massive failure of the government to protect nature and humans from the unkind touch of toxic chemicals and radiation. But Nixon's first priority was fighting the war in Vietnam, not environmental protection.

So the EPA was put together in a hurry from the failed pieces of larger government organizations, especially the pesticides office of the discredited U.S. Department of Agriculture, which made agribusiness and its lubricants, pesticides, possible.

Nevertheless, the EPA made a serious effort to fulfill its mission, protecting man and the environment from all "unreasonable" risks -- a tall order that lasted no more than four years.

The EPA warned the country it was a mistake to be addicted to pesticides. It banned DDT in 1972, the granddaddy of all agrotoxins, the insect poison that was the metaphor for silent spring: nearly wiping out the golden eagle and several other birds.

The EPA cited serious health effects from sprays and reported, in 1974, that weed killers would do much more than desiccate unwanted vegetation. They would also make the crops appetizing to insects while promoting larger insect populations.

What the EPA did not know was that protecting nature and public health from DDT had been a kiss of death. Chemical companies, agribusiness, and polluters took notice. They started lobbying the White House and Congress to teach the EPA who was the boss.

The White House and Congress unleashed the budget dogs of war, teaching the EPA a cost-benefit analysis it would never forget.

By the late 1970s, the EPA knew that some of the farmers' nerve-poison sprays were causing immediate and long-term neurological harm, decline of intellectual abilities and brain damage, especially to farmworkers. One did not have to have more than one accidental exposure to farm nerve toxins for suffering these unforgiving effects.

The EPA also had evidence that the dioxin-laced 2,4,5-T, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War, was causing miscarriages to women living in the woods of Alsea, Ore.

Those women sent a letter to the EPA describing their miscarriages; they complained that the U.S. Forest Service sprayed the woods next to their homes with 2,4,5-T. The EPA sent investigators to Alsea, where they found the feared dioxin in the creek near the neighborhood of the women. It was that discovery that forced the hand of EPA to ban 2,4,5-T.

The reaction of the industry and its White House friends to this news was fierce. They forced the EPA to "reorganize" out of existence its own science group responsible for its national research projects. The chief of the health effects branch responsible for the discovery of dioxin in Alsea had to report to a laboratory at the University of Miami, and a senior scientist was sent to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which promptly sent him to a project in Egypt.

The EPA also created a "farmworker protection" program to hide and diffuse its terrible secret that, in fact, farmworkers, and, by extension the rest of us, suffer from coming in touch with toxic sprays.

The "farmworker protection program" became a propaganda machine funding conferences, proposing unreliable "health standards" for farmworkers and issuing reports of cosmetic regulatory activities on the part of state governments, the EPA and the USDA.

As if these unsavory practices were not enough, the EPA was shaken to its core by another crisis. In 1976, a government pathologist caught the chemical and pharmaceutical industries using criminal schemes in order to deceive the government.

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