What Would Our Country Look Like Without the EPA?

It’s September, and if you’re like me, you and your family are getting out on the water, and plunging from a high rope swing as often as possible, before cold weather arrives. For us, the highlights of Indian summer include my kids, joined by friends, floating a couple miles down the Potomac while another dad and I paddle nearby in canoes.

For kids, it’s just another fun day on the river. For me—and other adult paddlers, swimmers, and anglers—it’s a miracle. We remember when the Potomac, the Great Lakes, and most U.S. waterways were so polluted that as Sen. Robert Kennedy said of the Hudson River, “You didn’t drown in it; you decayed.”

The backdrop of our good times on the river this fall is the current drive by some in Congress to drastically restrict—or abolish—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enforces the laws Congress enacts to protect water, air, and public health.

Imagine that. Imagine an America without the environmental protections that have improved our lives over the last 43 years.

Cue music for dream sequence: Scene One opens at a C&O Canal National Park campsite in Maryland. Ah, suppertime. No need to light a fire to cook those weenies! Just hold them over the open flame of the burning river. Though it might sound crazy to young people today, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, burning off industrial waste piped legally into it. Yes, legally.

That changed for the good when President Nixon created the EPA in 1970.

But now back to our dream sequence. Scene Two: After enjoying our flame-broiled weenies, we drive next day to Chesapeake Bay for some seafood. Sadly, there’s no local catch at the fish shacks. But we’re in luck! There’s tons of rotting fish floating belly-up in the bay. Dig in kids!

In the 1970s, dead zones arrived on the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and on river bays everywhere. Polluted waters were so oxygen depleted they couldn’t support life. There were massive fish kills. Today, after decades of EPA action, the agency estimates that 75,000 tons of bottom-dwelling clams and oysters still die in Chesapeake dead zones annually. But how much worse would it be without EPA?

Scene three: Deciding we’d like to swim, we drive to the mouth of the Bay. At the beach, the kids pick the least convenient time to—using a nautical term—hit the head. But no worries. The foul-smelling sand (without 43 years of EPA regulation) is a litter box covered in filth and TP.

Before EPA, America’s cities and towns discharged human waste straight out the pipe into waterways. The Clean Water Act enforced by EPA strived for sewage-free rivers and lakes by 1985. Though we’re still short of the goal, there are thousands of beaches across the U.S. today where you can safely swim today—that’s the honest poop!

Leaving our fantasy trip behind, my family hightails home to West Virginia, where EPA has stopped coal-fired power plants from dumping mercury into the air—just by enforcing existing federal law. Mercury, after all, is one of the world’s most toxic elements—causing cancer and stunted mental development in kids.

But wait. This is the real fantasy! EPA has not protected air and water in West Virginia. Big Coal and its friends in Congress have blocked all attempts to enforce the law. They claim EPA has declared “a war on coal,” a myth that denies the real reason coal plants are shutting—reduced demand due to cheap natural gas. There is no war on coal; only a war on America’s health, water, and air led by dirty industries and their friends in Congress.

Sure, EPA is a big bureaucracy. And like every public agency, it warrants oversight. But before EPA, most of our waters weren’t fishable or swimmable. They were open trenches reeking of sewage and industrial waste. And industry legally pumped poison into the air.

EPA, like American democracy, isn’t perfect. But if you need proof that we’re better off now than before EPA, all you need to do is take your kids down to the river to swim.

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