Public Health Environmental Protection Agency
by
Mark Robson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0060

Introduction

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal agency of the US government with the responsibility to protect human health and the environment. EPA is charged with the development and enforcement of regulations based on laws passed by Congress. The EPA was established by an executive order of President Richard Nixon and began operation on 2 December 1970. The agency is led by its administrator, who is appointed by the president and approved by Congress. It has regulatory authority through a variety of legislative acts, and also acts as a public health agency that issues advisories and formal risk assessments in areas where it lacks regulatory authority. The EPA’s FY 2010 budget requested $10.5 billion in discretionary budget authority and included a staffing request for 17,384 employees. In the FY 2010 budget request, the agency described its main purpose under five strategic goals: clean air and global climate change, clean and safe water, land preservation and restoration, healthy communities and ecosystems, and compliance and environmental stewardship. EPA headquarters, including its program offices, are located in Washington, DC; it also has ten regional offices around the country. In addition, the EPA operates twenty-seven specialized laboratories throughout the United States that focus on various aspects of environmental research and assessment. This entry includes sections discussing reference resources, reviews and reports, policy assessments, initiatives, historical background, environmental justice, science in decision making, and EPA strategy documents.

Reference Resources

As one might expect, the reference resources for the EPA available on the Internet are enormous: pages and pages of useful information that range from very citizen friendly references and resources, to highly technical writings containing complex data and analytical tools. Described as a new and useful online resource that provides citizen friendly data, and encourages public participation, with transparency and collaboration being its key elements, the Health & Environmental Research Online (HERO) database provides the scientific literature used in risk assessment development. WaterSense is another citizen-friendly database that allows one to explore the issues of water protection and water conservation. The EPA is a federal agency, but many of its programs are delegated to state lead agencies within the fifty states and the territories. Its website is a useful online resource for the agencies that are responsible for protecting environmental quality at the state or territory level. Finally, the EPA budget available online is a very useful resource; it provides details on the resources deployed to protect the nation’s environment, the agency’s staffing levels, dollars spent, and also the major program initiatives of the agency as outlined in the most recent presidential budget.

Reviews and Reports

This section lists reviews developed by the EPA on the state of the environment as well as select reviews of specific EPA programs by outside agencies. Environmental Protection Agency 2008 is a comprehensive report compiled by the EPA that tracks a series of indicators on a range of environmental parameters. The EPA has been criticized heavily almost from its inception for being subject to too much outside influence, both from the regulated community as well as political interests, in assessing its performance in achieving its goals of environmental protection. One of the EPA’s largest programs is Superfund, which receives funds for cleaning up waste repositories from industry. Government Accountability Office 2008 is a comprehensive review of how the EPA manages this large program with billions of dollars spent to assess and remediate hundreds of hazardous waste sites that are located throughout the country. Its review of the program is very critical as far as timeliness of recommendations, regular adherence to EPA policy, and inconsistent reporting and recommendations within the regulatory framework. One of the major tools in the EPA risk assessment program is the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), and Office of Inspector General 2010 strongly criticizes the EPA for the timeliness of its reports, completion of assessments, and outdated databases and information used to support such assessments. Barcelo 1993 describes methods used by the EPA and other agencies in prioritizing water pollutants of concern, such as pesticides.

Policy Assessments

The EPA budget is enormous, and there have also been a number of books written on the topic of return on investment for a variety of the cleanup strategies or programs that have been implemented as well as the costs associated with the regulations for the industries to be regulated and consumers. Environmental Protection Agency 1991 describes how the agency invests in cleanup practices for contaminated sites. Law 1988 and Landy, et al. 1994 evaluate the policy decisions of the agency as they relate to the public welfare. National Research Council 1977 and Union of Concerned Scientists 2008, a follow-up report, assess the quality of the science used in making policy decisions at the EPA. The EPA’s broad powers also mean it is involved in most major environmental disasters in the United States; Collin 2006 explores some of the major responses by the EPA.

  • Collin, Robert W. 2006. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning up America’s act. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A profile of the EPA, including its history, structure, high-profile cases, and controversies. Topics covered include the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island incident, and the Clean Air Act as well as biographies on EPA administrators.

    Find this resource:

    • Environmental Protection Agency. 1991. Environmental investments: The cost of a clean environment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

      Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      A report of the EPA’s administrator. It tells industry what to expect in the way of direct, out-of-pocket expenses for implementing pollution control measures and undertaking compliance activities for environmental laws. It also projects the costs of new and future environmental protection programs.

      Find this resource:

      • Landy, Marc K., Marc J. Roberts, and Stephen R. Thomas. 1994. The Environmental Protection Agency: Asking the wrong questions; From Nixon to Clinton. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

        Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        A critical evaluation of the EPA’s workings and performance. Incorporates topics of policy design and implementation. Utilizes case studies in order to examine EPA methodology and the history of the agency.

        Find this resource:

        • Law, Kevin. 1988. The Environmental Protection Agency: Know your government. New York: Chelsea House.

          Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          Traces the history of the EPA, describes its responsibilities, and explains why pollution is a serious threat to our environment.

          Find this resource:

          • National Research Council. 1977. Decision making in the Environmental Protection Agency: A report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from the Committee on Environmental Decision. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

            Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

            Examines the decision-making process of the EPA in order to formulate recommendations for the more effective use of scientific and technical information in making regulatory decisions.

            Find this resource:

            • Union of Concerned Scientists. 2008. Interference at the Environmental Protection Agency: Science and politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists.

              Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

              Concern over the suppression and distortion of scientific findings by policy makers led the UCS to investigate political interference in science at the EPA. The results of these investigations show an agency under siege from political pressures.

              Find this resource:

              Initiatives

              This section lists five representative examples of major initiatives that are under way at the EPA as of 2010. Parry 1998 looks at the still troublesome issue of phosphorous use in agriculture and water quality. As of 2010, this problem, related concerns, and its magnitude continue to grow. The EPA’s Strategic Plan 2009–2014 represents a response to those issues. It outlines all the major initiatives that the agency has in place or intends to implement over the next five years. There are new programs with the regulated community to lessen the environmental footprint and to reduce the harmful effects of commercial chemicals on the environment. These new partnerships have resulted in safer and more environmentally friendly products, such as alternative surfactants. Design for the Environment: Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative (SDSI) concerning the use of surfactants is an illustration of this positive and productive effort. American wetlands are quickly disappearing; wetlands are a complex resource as they are regulated by multiple federal agencies. Wetlands: Advance Identification discusses the suitability of these wetlands for accepting contaminated material, such as dredging material or spoils. Finally, one of the most contentious and complex issues in the early 21st century is the regulations and reduction of greenhouse gases. Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases looks at the causes and impact of six of the major greenhouse gases.

              Historical Background

              As of 2010, the EPA is nearing its fortieth birthday. The agency has broad powers, wide responsibility, an inadequate budget, and almost 18,000 staff members. The history of the EPA is one of great accomplishments, such as the removal of chlorinated pesticides from agriculture, in part a result of the publication of Silent Spring (Carson 1962). Additional achievements include the improvement of the nation’s water and air through new and strict regulations on emissions. The agency has also experienced periods of great mistrust and public scorn; these were highlighted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan when Anne Gorsuch served as EPA administrator. She was replaced by William Ruckelshaus, who had been the EPA’s first administrator. He initiated the use of formal quantitative risk assessment as a major operational paradigm for the EPA, which, along with its reliance on a congressionally mandated Science Advisory Board (SAB), has strengthened its scientific credulity. The SAB, an external advisory committee appointed by the administrator and acting through its standing technical committees, reviews internal scientific programs and major technical documents before their public release. Two pieces selected for historical background here provide a snapshot of the early environmental movement in the United States (The Guardian: EPA’s Formative Years, 1970–1973) and the early leadership of the agency, in particular, the extraordinary example and vision of William Ruckelshaus (The Guardian: Origins of the EPA). Finally, there is an oral history link that provides comments and commentary from major players in the EPA through personal assessments and interviews (EPA’s Administrators).

              Environmental Justice

              Environmental justice (EJ) is a term that has been in long use. The term has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Environmental justice gained attention when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order mandating that the impacts on communities, specifically those communities who are disadvantaged by lower socioeconomic status, be taken into consideration when assessing environmental effects and impacts. O’Neil 2007 provides a historical analysis of the order and its impact. The inequities of environmental burden fall heavily on minority and poor urban and poor rural populations. Robert Bullard has been one of the leading scholars in this area; he has written extensively on the related problems and their causes. Some of the approaches to lessening these disproportionate burdens on poor minority populations appear in Bullard 2007a and Bullard 2007b. In Compliance and Enforcement and Laws and Regulations the EPA describes major laws and how well it has been able to enforce these laws. The Environmental Justice Coalition provides a template for affected communities regarding environmental justice issues in its draft Environmental Justice Act of 2009.

              Science in Decision Making

              Since the 1980s several useful papers have been published that discuss the policy basis for some of the EPA’s earlier policy decisions as well as Collins, et al. 2008 that looks at the importance of developing testing methods and scientific tools to better protect the health of the public. Brown and Byerly 1981 makes the case for greater investment in science at the EPA; Ruckelshaus 1983 stresses the need for the scientific community to assume an active role in accurately explaining risks to the lay public. Collins, et al. 2008 describes the work of the National Toxicology Program, which provides health data on many environmental chemicals. Russell and Gruber 1987 examines the use of risk assessment in the policy decision-making process in government.

              • Brown, George E., and R. Byerly Jr. 1981. Research in EPA: A congressional point of view. Science 211.4489: 1385–1390.

                DOI: 10.1126/science.7466395Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                This is an important paper that emphasizes the need for the EPA to invest in science to be able to support the regulatory decisions it makes as well as protect the health of the population and the environment.

                Find this resource:

                • Collins, Francis S., George M. Gray, and John R. Bucher. 2008. Toxicology: Transforming environmental health protection. Science 319.5865: 906–907.

                  DOI: 10.1126/science.1154619Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  The US federal government supports the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to provide useful information on the toxicity of specific compounds regarding their acute and chronic toxicity, and potential human health risks. Risk assessment is an important regulatory tool.

                  Find this resource:

                  • Ruckelshaus, William D. 1983. Science, risk, and public policy. Science 221.4615: 1026–1028.

                    DOI: 10.1126/science.6879200Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    Ruckelshaus served under two different presidents as EPA administrator. In this paper, he makes the point that the scientific community has an obligation to better explain the risk assessment process to the lay public.

                    Find this resource:

                    • Russell, M., and M. Gruber. 1987. Risk assessment in environmental policy-making. Science 236.4799: 286–290.

                      DOI: 10.1126/science.3563508Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      Risk assessment is a tool that agencies use to set priorities for regulation. The EPA currently uses a variety of risk assessment techniques to establish priorities and develop regulations. Risk assessment is a complex tool and often controversial.

                      Find this resource:

                      Strategy Documents

                      The EPA itself develops a number of strategy documents that provide useful insight into the agency’s plans for a variety of environmental media. Environmental Protection Agency 2003 explains the agency’s framework and its approach to protecting public health. Specific documents provide details for specialized risks (Environmental Protection Agency 2000) or classes of chemicals (Environmental Protection Agency 1998b, Environmental Protection Agency 1997, Environmental Protection Agency 1998a.) Cost considerations are also part of the strategic process and are discussed in Environmental Protection Agency 2005, which provides a good overview of the regulatory approach.

                      • Environmental Protection Agency. 1997. Research plan for microbial pathogens and disinfection by-products in drinking water. EPA/600/R-97/122. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                        Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Disinfection by-products are a cause for concern for human health. Water is routinely treated to reduce pathogens and eliminate disease, but depending on the form of treatment, the resulting by-products can also pose a risk.

                        Find this resource:

                        • Environmental Protection Agency. 1998a. Research plan for arsenic in drinking water. EPA/600/R-98/042. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                          Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          The EPA developed this plan to evaluate arsenic, a known carcinogen, in water. Included in the discussion are treatment options and alternatives. Arsenic in drinking water is a global health issue.

                          Find this resource:

                          • Environmental Protection Agency. 1998b. Research plan for endocrine disruptors. EPA/600/R-98/042. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                            Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            One of the more recent issues in environmental health is the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on humans and wildlife. This research plan was developed to address a complex issue that is coming more and more into the public eye.

                            Find this resource:

                            • Environmental Protection Agency. 1999. Action plan for beaches and recreational waters. EPA/600/R-98/079. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                              Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              The EPA developed this plan to evaluate and assess the risks from infectious agents in recreational waters using a long-term, multiple-pronged approach.

                              Find this resource:

                              • Environmental Protection Agency. 2000. Strategy for research on environmental risks to children. EPA/600/R-00/068. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                                Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                Children’s exposures to various pollutants are a major cause of concern to Americans. Children are not “little adults”: their response to chemicals is very different, and a thoughtful and aggressive approach to protect children is outlined in this document.

                                Find this resource:

                                • Environmental Protection Agency. 2003. Human health research strategy. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                                  Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  Provides the scientific framework for EPA’s risk assessments and risk management decisions. The document offers a strategy for the agency to prioritize the issues affecting human health.

                                  Find this resource:

                                  • Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Environmental economics research strategy. Washington, DC: EPA, Office of Research and Development.

                                    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    Economics are a driver in developing environmental policy. The EPA has proposed an approach for assessing the economic factors that should be part of the decision-making process.

                                    Find this resource:

                                    back to top

                                    Article

                                    Up

                                    Down