To celebrate GW’s Environmental Law Program’s 50th anniversary, the law library’s current display recognizes Rachel Carson’s influence on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmental policy in the United States at large.

Rachel Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. She began a fifteen-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor in 1936 and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During this time, she also wrote a trilogy on ocean life Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1952), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) made her famous as a naturalist and science writer.

In 1962, Carson published Silent Spring, which quickly became a best seller. It used a literary style to present a readable text about what could happen to the natural and human world if the use of pesticides and chemicals went unchecked and unregulated. First published in serial form in the New Yorker magazine, the book focused on the hidden dangers of chemicals, particularly the insecticide DDT, and their invisible harm to both humans and the natural environment. Carson chastised the chemical companies’ greed and faulted the government for succumbing to their influence and not protecting its citizens. It was chosen as a Book-Of-The-Month for October 1962 and resulted in a CBS Reports special, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.

The backlash from agricultural and chemical industries was strong and swift after the publication of Silent Spring. One chemical company threatened Houghton Mifflin with a libel suit if the book was published. The National Agricultural Chemical Association (NACA) took out advertisements and penned letters to the editor explaining the safety and importance of agricultural chemical use. Advocates of pesticide use claimed that without chemicals, agriculture would collapse and leave a growing world population without adequate access to food. These industries also carried out a long campaign of misinformation to discredit Silent Spring. Two chemists at the American Cyanamid Company used the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, held annually since 1900 and published in American Birds, to assert that bird populations had actually increased since the introduction of DDT and chemical pesticides. Widely picked up by agricultural newsletters and newspaper columns, the Bird Count argument was not published in a scientific journal until 1964, when scientists refuted it.

In 1971, the journal Environmental Affairs published an article that claimed banning DDT would cause the collapse of its use in fighting malaria, leading to an increase in human deaths. However, eventually the World Health Organization stopped using DDT due to mosquitoes acquiring resistance to the chemical. These industries worked hard to undermine the benefits of federal government chemical regulation as they sought to convince the public that U.S. government regulation of DDT would have long lasting negative effects on nature and human life.

As decades of pollution became more visible, public concern for the health of themselves, their children and their communities began to grow and organize. The New Yorker’s serial printing of Silent Spring caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy who directed federal agencies to investigate the pesticide problem. In May 1963, a report on pesticides was issued by the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The report called for more research and restraint in the use of these chemicals. Carson appeared before Congress providing testimony at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce as they debated legislation on chemicals.

From 1962 to 1970, more media and citizen attention was given to environmental deterioration in its many forms and eventually led to President Nixon’s establishment of a cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council and a Citizen’s Advisory Committee in May 1969. However, these bodies were criticized for lack of authority. In response to this, in December 1969, President Nixon appointed a White House committee whose charge was to consider whether a separate environmental agency should be created.

On January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that established the broad national framework for protecting the environment and assured that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. In February 1970, the President announced a 37-point environmental action program. April 22, 1970, was the first Earth Day celebration. In April 1970, The President’s Commission on Executive Reorganization submitted its report arguing strongly for the establishment of an independent environmental agency to coordinate all of the Administration’s new environmental initiatives. On July 9, 1970, President Nixon sent Reorganization Plan No. 3 to Congress. The Reorganization Plan transferred 15 programs from other federal government agencies. The President’s charge to the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was to provide a broad systems approach to controlling pollution, treating “air pollution, water pollution and solid wastes as different forms of a single problem” and strengthen environmental enforcement. Air, solid waste, radiological health, water hygiene, and pesticide tolerance functions and personnel were transferred from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; water quality and pesticide label review came from the Department of the Interior; radiation protection standards came from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council; pesticide registration came from the Department of Agriculture. Assistant Attorney General, William D. Ruckelshaus was confirmed on December 1, 1970, as the first EPA Administrator. EPA opened for business in offices located at 20 th and L Sts N.W. Washington D.C. on December 2, 1970.

Post authored by Karen Wahl and Germaine Leahy

Library display by Karen Wahl

Image courtesy of Karen Wahl