When Did the EPA Jump the Shark?

Iron Eyes Cody cried at the sight of polluted waters and skies in a famous public service announcement, first aired in 1971. Old Iron Eyes may have been a faux-Indian, but his message resonated with people. The Crying Indian PSA was one of the most successful ever.


It resonated because it was true. In the early ’70s, the environment was a mess. Urban skies were noticeably tinged in sepia/grey. Rivers and streams were often clogged with discarded debris and fouled with chemical sludge.

April 1970 saw the first Earth Day. In December of the same year, the Environmental Protection Agency was born.

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, with the Clean Water Act to follow in 1972. 1973 brought the Endangered Species Act. [Note: see comments. The Fish & Wildlife Service & NOAA are the lead ESA agencies, with EPA in a support role. I stand corrected. Ed.]

Gradually, the environment improved. The bald eagle and the American alligator came back from the brink of extinction. Air quality improved, there was less litter, and the phosphate foam disappeared from streams.

And, rightly or wrongly, EPA got the credit. As the hippies of my generation greyed, they remembered their Earth Day Groove-In fondly.

Fast forward to 2011: the EPA has become a stifling, job-killing bureaucracy. What happened? When did the EPA jump the shark?

EPA takes credit for cleaning the air of Six Principal Pollutants: Lead, Carbon Monoxide, Ozone, Pariculate Matter, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide.

The snail darter and the spotted owl were harbingers. The 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilet brought the EPA into the Inner Sanctum of the average American’s home; in 1994, it should have been our clarion call.

In California, restrictions on brush-clearing favor the kangaroo rat’s habitat over humans’ habitations. In West Texas, a 3-inch lizard threatens to shut down oil drilling.


Beyond the Endangered Species Trump Card, the EPA keeps expanding its purview. The alphabet-soup of CERCLA and other Superfund-related legislation has benefited legions of environmental attorneys and consultants with precious little progress in cleaning up actual pollution. Under President Clinton’s Executive Order, the EPA made an issue of “environmental justice”, based on the anecdotal observation that oil refineries, landfills and chemical plants tend not to be built near posh neighborhoods and country clubs. Frustrated by inaction on Anthropogenic Global Warming, EPA expanded the definition of “pollutant” to cover carbon dioxide, which we exhale and green plants depend on for life. EPA has pushed to set acceptable urban ozone levels lower than the natural levels in Yellowstone Park.

But if commercial or property interests push back as the EPA expands its scope, they are characterized as “anti-environment”, without a critical look at the value of the regulation. The public in general is supportive of “the environment”, which translates into popular support of the EPA. Few are interested in cost/benefit analyses or even common sense.

But this screed is less an indictment of the EPA in particular than it is an indictment of bureaucracy in general. The problem is that budget growth is structurally built into the system. “Draconian budget cuts” are in fact decreases in a previously-projected rate of growth, not true cuts. Anything that grows at an annual rate of 8% doubles in size in just nine years. By not exercising fiscal restraint, meaning zero-based budgeting, weak politicians tacitly accept “mission creep”.


The bureaucracies have grown too large, too complex and too arrogant to accept Congressional oversight. They have expropriated legislative authority with “rulemaking”, and they enforce the laws as they see fit.

It’s not just the EPA, it’s virtually every branch of the government.

It’s killing our freedom and our prosperity.

We need conservative leaders with the cojones to stop it.

The Baby Cuckoo: my favorite metaphor for the result of unchecked bureaucratic growth. (The cuckoo is a parasite, not an endangered species!)

Cross-posted at stevemaley.com.

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