Trump Turns Back Regulatory Clock to 1960

Photo: businessinsider.com

Those stacks of papers on the right with President Trump represent life-saving rules and safeguards. They look very different through the eyes of a parent of an asthmatic child, or a worker handling hazardous substances, than they do to a CEO concerned about quarterly profits.

The last 50 years are proof that a healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand.

1960 America was a very different place.

Before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, factories spewed pollution and freely dumped sewage into rivers. Those rivers sometimes caught on fire.

The Cuyahoga River was once one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. It has caught fire a total of 13 times dating back to 1868, including this blaze in 1952 which caused over $1.3 million in damages.

Photo: Cleveland State University Library

In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act brought additional protections for public health.

Smog was a defining feature of American cities’ skylines.

The George Washington Bridge in Heavy Smog. View toward the New Jersey Side of the Hudson River. The U.S. National Archives.

Photo: Chester Higgins, 1946

Gasoline was leaded. Smokestacks and tailpipes did not start curbing pollution until the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Bald eagles, whales and thousands of other species were not protected from extinction before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.

In 1967, there was no Environmental Protection Agency. There was no Council on Environmental Quality. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t exist.

Waterfront (late 1950s)

Photo: wnyheritage.org

Waterfront (today)

Photo: bfloharborkayak.com

I remember living in Buffalo, NY, where the waterfront was uninhabitable mainly because the water pollution from the steel mills made Lake Erie unsafe for any physical contact.

Occasional oil spills on the highly industrialized Buffalo River, which flows through the city, are carried in the Niagara River, causing slicks on the Buffalo Waterfront.

Photo: George Burns, 1896-1996, Photographer (NARA record: 1340567) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember the mayor and many, many others who worked in the city’s factories, who had missing fingers and limbs and suffered early deaths from the mills and cigarettes that doctors had endorsed on TV.

The government wasn’t required to tell people how federal decisions would affect their neighborhoods or the environment. The public didn’t have a chance to weigh in on these decisions until the National Environmental Policy Act became law in 1969. 

Back then, you could still build neighborhoods near toxic waste dumps without homeowners knowing, as the families of Woburn, Massachusetts and Love Canal, New York tragically found out.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and the Superfund came too late to prevent illnesses and deaths of children in those communities, but those critical tools govern how companies dispose of toxic waste and cleanup Superfund sites today. 

In 1972, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act brought regulation for pesticides. The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 regulated other chemicals—and that important law was just updated last year.

Exposure to harmful chemicals is still a threat to human health.

So how did all those pages and pages of regulations affect the U.S. economy?

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Gross Domestic Product in current dollars was $18.6 trillion at the end of 2016 compared to $543.3 billion in 1960. Our economy grew dramatically and our quality of life improved.

And all those regulations protect a lot more than the environment. Is the President going after seat belts that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and debilitating injuries? Or content labels on food—or civil rights rules for housing designed to make sure you can live in any neighborhood you want regardless of your race.

Pruning regulations back to 1960 doesn’t just “cut red tape” or eliminate “wasteful” regulations. It means making America less healthy, less fair and less safe.


Related Press Release: NRDC and Partners Sue Trump Administration Over 2-for-1 Regulations Order

About the Authors

Scott Slesinger

Legislative Director
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