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Demystifying the EPA

EPA logoFederal agencies can be a confusing thing. Starting on the hill in Washington D.C. and working their way down to small towns across America, it can be difficult to understand exactly what those agencies do, and why they do it. How does the local business owner feel the effects of a national regulation sent down from thousands of miles away? Sometimes, the work of a federal agency can be obscured and misunderstood, and in some cases, unnecessarily vilified. The EPA is one of these agencies whose regulations are felt all across the country. So what exactly do they do?

The Environmental Protection Agency of today is a federal agency established to protect human health and the environment by writing rules and regulations based on the bills passed by Congress. The agency first appeared as a response to the feeling in the 1950s and 1960s that a federal policy was necessary to incentivize federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions. And so the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) was passed. This Act declared a national policy to protect the environment, as well as creating the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Only a year later, President Nixon signed an executive order changing the NEPA to the federal agency: the EPA.

The EPA is led by an Administrator, who’s appointed by the President and must be approved by Congress. Beneath the Administrator, the EPA runs through 10 regional offices and 27 laboratories who are responsible for:


  • keeping track of quality of air, water, land, and human health to set national standards and monitor the agency’s own progress
  • conducting environmental assessments, research, and education
  • maintaining and enforcing national standards
  • working with industries and all levels of government on voluntary pollution prevention programs and energy conservation efforts.

So who works for the EPA?

The EPA employs just over 15,000 employees across the nation. More than 50% of these employees are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists. The other half of EPA employees include legal, financial, public affairs, and informational technologies positions.

The EPA manages more than 100 programs that uphold 12 major laws and statues including air, pollution prevention, wastes and recycling, toxics and chemicals, water, and pesticides.

The Chain of Command

How does the local business owner come to know the regulations of the EPA?

First, Congress must pass an environmental law. Then, the EPA writes a regulation responding to this law. Usually, the regulation will be written as a federal standard. States and tribes then enforce these standards through their own regulations.

How are EPA regulations enforced?

When it’s necessary, the EPA can and will take a number of actions against companies and individuals who don’t follow federal regulations. These actions are either civil administrative actions, civil judicial actions, or criminal actions. Civil administrative actions means there is no judicial court necessary, whereas the civil judicial actions means that a judge must be involved to establish the proper enforcement for the parties not following the federal regulations. In some cases, criminal action is taken, in which case the abusing parties are taken to court with criminal charges and will either be judged guilty or not guilty.

What kind of enforcement does the EPA use?

Typically, the EPA tries to enforce their regulations through one of two ways:

1) Federal Facilities Enforcement: This means that the EPA makes sure that federal facilities are complying with environmental regulations. If they are not, the EPA can take civil administrative, civil judicial, or criminal actions against the federal facility.

2) Clean up Enforcement: This is the more commonly known and used method of the EPA. Clean up enforcement means that the EPA will identify the person and/or company responsible for the pollution and/or contamination and they will negotiate for the party to clean up the area themselves; order the party to clean up themselves; or, ordering the person/company to pay for the clean up to be completed by a third party.

Where does the federal funding go?

The EPA functions on an $8 million budget. Nearly 50% of this funding is used in the form of grants that are given to state environmental programs, non-profits, educational institutions, and others working towards bettering the environment and standards of human health. Remaining funds are used for initiatives spanning scientific studies to community cleanups. The EPA also uses the federal funding to study environmental issues. EPA employees are responsible for identifying and attempting to provide solutions to environmental problems across the country. We can’t forget about environmental education and community action, either. The EPA takes advantage of sponsor partnerships with businesses, non-profit organizations, and state and local governments.

Perhaps you’re familiar with these EPA regulations:

Clean Air Act of 1970

This 1970 Act was one of the first major federal acts to change the government’s role in their ability to control air pollution. The central point of this act was to limit emissions from stationary and mobile sources. To regulate the act, four programs were instated: the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, State Implementation Plans, New Source Performance Standards, and the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.

In 1990, certain amendments were made to the Act which included:

  • authorization of programs to control 189 additional toxic pollutants
  • established permit program regulations
  • expanded and modified enforcement authority
  • established a program to phase out the use of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer

Today, the Clean Air Act regulates carbon monoxide, ground level ozone, lead, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.

Clean Water Act

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was amended in 1972 to become the Clean Water Act. The changes made in 1972 made it possible for the EPA to:

  • regulate pollutant discharges into US waters
  • allowed the EPA to implement pollution control programs like wastewater standards
  • made it unlawful for any person to discharge pollutants from a point source into navigable waters
  • funded construction of sewage treatment plants under construction grant programs

Food Quality Protection Act

This 1996 Act amended the previous Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The additions made in 1996 dramatically changed the EPA’s ability to regulate the use of pesticides.

Three main considerations were established with the 1996 Act:

  • special susceptibility of children to pesticides
  • aggregate risk from exposure to pesticides from multiple sources including food, water, and residential sources
  • cumulative exposure to pesticides that have common mechanisms of toxicity

This Act also required that the EPA expedited approval of pesticides meeting FQPA standards, provided lists of pests of significant public health importance, expedited review of applications to register antimicrobial pesticide products, and screen pesticides for disruption to the endocrine system.

The EPA’s New Administrator

Perhaps what has brought the EPA into the limelight most recently is the approval of their new administrator, Scott Pruitt. President Trump campaigned, in part, on dismantling the EPA and cutting down the numbers of employees working to ensure environmental and human health across the country.

In early February, Congress approved the nomination of previous Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruit, 52-46. Democrats in Congress advocated to hold the vote until the OK Attorney General’s Office released over 3,000 emails detailing the communication of Pruitt and fossil fuel industries.

What is most worrisome about the approval of Pruitt as EPA Administrator is his self described status as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Coming in second, a number of lawsuits against the EPA in years past initiated by Pruitt himself, and often in conjunction with other fossil fuel companies. He is not entirely against the EPA and its regulations; however, he believes that environmental regulations are better served on a state-by-state basis, and many of his lawsuits dealt with what he felt was the EPA overreaching their federal bounds. Lastly, and just as worrisome as the previous two comments, is that Pruitt is quoted as questioning the scientific consensus of global warming.

After a largely successful 8 years with the Obama Administration (Clean Power Plan, signing of the Paris Agreement), American citizens must remain cautious and vigilant to see what will become of the EPA with its new leader, and speak out when the wellbeing of our environment and national health is at risk.

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