Environment Made Headlines Over Past 30 Years

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 4, 2001 (ENS) - Oil spills, chemical poisons and toxic wastes were among the top environmental stories of the past 30 years, according to a new list compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But just as newsworthy are the actions taken by the U.S. government to counter these environmental threats, the agency concluded.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) turned 30 years old in 2000. To mark this anniversary, the EPA's Pacific Southwest regional office has compiled a timeline of 30 of the top national environmental news stories of the past 30 years, and 30 of the top regional stories.


Former Senator Gaylord Nelson started the enduring annual tradition of Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970 (Photo courtesy The Wilderness Society)
The stories range from the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 to the completion in 2000 of a program to destroy chemical weapons stored at the U.S. Army's Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System.

EPA's choices for the top environmental news include oil spills like the 1971 tanker collision beneath the Golden Gate Bridge that spilled 840,000 gallons of oil, a Shell Oil refinery spill that sent 365,000 gallons of crude oil spills into Carquinez Strait in 1988, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Other environmental disasters made the list along with the new legislation they inspired. For example, the 1984 explosion at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India led to the closure of many U.S. hazardous waste dumps, and to the 1986 passage of the Toxics Right-To-Know Law.

ozone hole

In 1974, scientists learned that certain chemicals can damage the ozone layer. In 1985, a hole in the ozone layer over Antartica was discovered. This image shows the ozone hole as of October 3, 1999 (Photo courtesy NASA)
The 1974 finding that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) damage the earth's stratospheric ozone layer led to several national and international actions, including a 1978 ban on CFCs in aerosol cans, the 1985 discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, and the 1987 signing of the Montreal Protocol, which orders the phase out of CFCs in the U.S. and 23 other nations.

The 1978 discovery of toxic wastes buried beneath the community of Love Canal, New York, made the list, as did the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

spotted owl

The 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act provided protections for creatures like the northern spotted owl - and headaches for the timber industry (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Several major legislative actions are on the list, including the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act, the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act, and several updates and strengthenings of the 1955 Clean Air Act. In 1980, the Superfund Law provided new funding for hazardous waste cleanups.

Many wildlife species, including the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon, have made a dramatic recovery since the EPA banned the use of the pesticide DDT in 1972. This long lived chemical, which builds up to toxic levels as it passes up the food chain, continues to poison birds and animals that eat fish from contaminated waters.

A number of the pro-environmental actions that made EPA's list were taken by President Bill Clinton's administration. In 1994, Clinton signed an Environmental Justice executive order, requiring all federal agencies to abolish and prevent policies that led to a disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards to low income communities of color.

The Brownfields Program, which provides funds to remediate and revitalize abandoned industrial sites, was launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1994.


Birds like this peregrine falcon benefited from the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT (Photo by Craig Koppie courtesy USFWS)
In 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act and Food Quality Protection Act mandated use of stricter new standards to limit contaminants in water and food. That same year, the EPA, eight western governors and four tribal government chairs reached agreement on a 40 year plan to restore clear skies over the Grand Canyon.

The Clinton administration took several actions to clean up the air around the country. In 1997, the EPA adopted stricter health standards for ozone and particulate matter, known popularly as the smog and soot rule. Opponents have delayed implementation of this rule, and the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing challenges to the rule in November 2000.

In December 1999, the EPA ordered tougher emission standards for sport utility vehicles, and just last month, the agency approved new emission standards for new heavy duty trucks and buses, intended to cut their pollution by 95 percent by the year 2010. The rule also requires that cleaner diesel fuel, with 97 percent less sulfur, must be sold by 2006.


An estimated 250,000 seabirds and thousands of other animals were killed when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound (Photo courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)
The automotive and trucking industries are expected to challenge these rules.

More of the national stories have been posted on EPA's national Web site, at http://www.epa.gov/history/timeline/

The EPA's regional office has posted its summary timeline at: http://www.epa.gov/region09/features/top30/