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EPA AT 30: TOP ENVIRONMENTAL STORIES, 1970-2000

Release Date: 12/28/2000
Contact Information: Dave Schmidt, U.S. EPA, (415) 744-1578

     EPA NATIONAL AND REGIONAL HISTORY TIMELINES ALSO NOW AVAILABLE ON WEB

     The end of the year 2000 marks an important passage for the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency:  No longer a youth, the agency turns 30.  To mark this anniversary, the EPA's Pacific Southwest regional office has compiled the timeline below showing our choices of 30 of the top national environmental news stories of the past 30 years, and 30 of the top regional stories.  

     These stories were selected in part through a canvass of EPA employees in the region.  Obviously, there are dozens of other important regional and national stories.  More of the national stories have been posted on EPA's national Web site, at www.epa.gov/history/timeline/ The EPA's regional office today posted the summary timeline below on EPA's regional website, at www.epa.gov/region09/features/top30/

     We invite readers to send their own ideas for top environmental stories of the past 30 years, by phone (415) 744-1500, FAX (415) 744-1605, or email: r9.info@epa.gov .

1970

Earth Day (National)  On April 22, 20 million Americans, including a crowd of over 200,000 in Washington, D. C., participate in U. S. Senator Gaylord Nelson's national environmental teach-in.  Organizer Denis Hayes tells the crowd at the Capitol: "It will be a difficult fight.  Earth Day is the beginning."

      Clean Air Act Strengthened (National)  Congress amends the 1955 Clean Air Act to set national air quality and auto emission standards.

1971

Oil Tanker Collision, Spill Beneath Golden Gate Bridge  (Regional)  On January 19, two Standard Oil tankers collide beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at 2:00 a.m. in a dense fog, spilling 840,000 gallons of oil that fouls shores from Angel Island to Pacifica and Bolinas. Volunteers collect 4,318 live, oil-soaked birds.  Of these, 3,419 die despite efforts to save them.

Congress Restricts Lead-based Paint In Homes (National)  New law also bans lead paint on cribs and toys.  Lead poisoning from ingestion of paint chips retards brain development.

1972

California Legislature Passes Wild And Scenic Rivers Act (Regional)  New law bans dams on the Eel and other North Coast rivers, preventing construction of  proposed Dos Rios Dam in Mendocino County, which would have flooded Round Valley Indian Reservation and the town of Covelo.  Gov. Ronald Reagan, moved by Round Valley residents' pleas, signs the bill.

California Voters Pass Coastal Initiative (Regional)  By a 55% margin, voters approve a statewide proposition establishing the California Coastal Commission, mandating creation of a state coastal conservation plan, limiting coastal development, prohibiting widening coastal Highway 1 into a freeway, and allowing increased public access to the shoreline.

EPA Bans DDT (National)  An EPA regulation bans use of this long-lived pesticide, which builds up to toxic levels as it passes up the food chain, poisoning birds and animals that eat fish from contaminated waters.

Congress Passes Clean Water Act (National)  New law requires secondary sewage treatment; restricts other pollutants in rivers, lakes, and streams.  In 1972, only 30% of U. S. waters are safe for fishing and swimming. The EPA helps local governments meet secondary treatment standard by issuing billions of dollars in construction grants over the next 20 years.

1973

Endangered Species Act (National)  Congress approves, and President Nixon signs (on December 28), a new law to strengthen and expand the weaker 1966 endangered species law.

Enforcement Against Smelters' Air Pollution (Regional)  The EPA begins enforcement action against eight ore smelters in Arizona and Nevada which emit a total of two million tons of sulfur dioxide annually.  By the mid-1980s, some of these smelters install pollution controls; others shut down.  By the 1990s, SO2 emissions from these facilities decrease by 94%.

1974

CFCs Shown To Harm Ozone Layer (National)  University of California scientists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland publish their finding that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in spraycans, styrofoam, and in air conditioners and refrigeration equipment, is damaging the earth's stratospheric ozone layer, which protects life from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

1975

Catalytic Converters On All New Cars (National)  To meet auto emission standards under the 1970 Clean Air Act, automakers install smog-busting catalytic converters on all 1975 model cars, which run on unleaded gasoline only.  As a result, smog levels gradually decrease, and lead levels in urban air decrease by 99% over the next 20 years.

EPA Completes Clean Water Permits Effort (Regional)   EPA's completes an intense three- year effort to issue strict new permits for all major wastewater dischargers, such as factories and sewage treatment plants, in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Hawaii.  The permits mandate an estimated 90% reduction in pollutants entering surface waters.

1976

Congress Passes National Hazardous Waste Law (National)  The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act mandates phaseout of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and better hazardous waste disposal practices.

Voters Reject Anti-Nuclear Initiatives (Regional)  Statewide ballot propositions to phase out nuclear power plants and ban new ones fail to pass in California, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon.  Just before the California election, however, the Legislature passes, and Governor Jerry Brown signs, laws restricting new nuclear power plants.

1977

Clean Air Act Strengthened Again (National)  Congress passes, and President Jimmy Carter signs, a bill to further strengthen air quality standards to better protect human health.

1978

Stringfellow Acid Pits Threaten Overflow (Regional) Rains fill hazardous waste ponds at this abandoned disposal site, threatening overflows through neighboring Glen Avon, Riverside County, Calif.  To prevent this, state agencies remove 11.8 million gallons of liquid waste in 1978-1980.  The EPA and the state sue responsible parties in 1983 to pay for long-term cleanup.  

Toxic Waste Disaster in Love Canal, New York (National)  Residents of Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, find buried toxic waste seeping into their homes and yards.  

Ozone-killing Spray Cans Banned (National)  The federal government bans use of CFCs as propellants in aerosol cans because these chemicals harm the stratospheric ozone layer.

1979

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident (National)  Partial meltdown cripples nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; spurs evacuation of nearby towns.

1980

Congress Passes Superfund Law (National)  New federal law requires polluters to clean up hazardous waste sites; imposes wholesale tax on certain chemicals to create a "Superfund" to pay for cleanups when responsible parties cannot pay.

1981

Medfly Spraying (Regional) Intensive efforts to exterminate the mediterranean fruit fly by ground spraying, collecting fruit from backyard trees, and releasing sterile medflies fail to fully eradicate the crop-destroying pest, forcing Governor Jerry Brown to launch a controversial aerial spraying campaign in the Santa Clara (Silicon) Valley, using the pesticide malathion.

Acid Rain (National)  A report by the National Research Council shows acid rain worsening in the Northeastern U. S. and Canada, making lakes too acidic for frogs and fish.

1982

Toxics Found In Silicon Valley Groundwater (Regional)  Two drinking water wells in Silicon Valley are found to be polluted with toxic chemicals from leaking underground tanks at a semiconductor factory.  Sampling at other locations reveals widespread groundwater pollution stemming from leaking tanks and hazardous waste disposal at two dozen more high-tech sites.

Dioxin In Times Beach, Missouri (National)  Widespread dioxin contamination is discovered in Times Beach, Missouri.  The EPA buys out homes to permanently evacuate the town. The federal government and responsible parties share cleanup and buyout costs.

Pesticide Contaminates Milk In Hawaii (Regional).  The Hawaii milk supply is found to be contaminated with the pesticide heptachlor.  Until milk can be delivered from the mainland, Hawaii is milk-less.

Selenium Poisoning At Kesterson NWR (Regional) Scientists studying dying and deformed waterfowl and decreased fish populations at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California's western San Joaquin Valley trace the problem to elevated selenium levels.  Intensive irrigation in the area picks up selenium from local soil, then carries it into ponds at Kesterson.

1983

Groundwater Contamination In San Fernando, San Gabriel Valleys (Regional) The EPA investigates groundwater contamination from aerospace industry sites in Southern California's San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys.  The EPA adds these sites to its National Priorities List for cleanup under the Superfund program.

1984

Chemical Disaster at Bhopal, India (National)  A catastrophic leak at a chemical plant kills 2,500 people and sparks an international outcry for stricter regulation and public disclosure of toxic chemical use.  Congress responds by strengthening the 1976 law regulating hazardous waste storage, transportation, and disposal.  Most U. S. hazwaste dumps will shut down over the next decade because they cannot meet the new standards.

1985

Santa Cruz Launches Campaign Against Coastal Oil (Regional)  A ballot initiative to prevent offshore oil drilling by requiring voter approval for new onshore oil facilities wins support from Santa Cruz city voters.  By 1990, this leads to passage of similar ordinances in 17 California coastal cities and eight counties, from Humboldt County to San Luis Obispo County.  

Antarctic Ozone Hole (National) Scientists report that a giant hole in the earth's stratospheric ozone layer opens each Spring over Antarctica.

1986

  California Voters Approve Proposition 65 (Regional) New law requires disclosure to consumers about toxics in products they buy.  

Los Angeles Sewage Settlement (Regional) The city settles an enforcement case in which EPA alleged that it routinely violates the Clean Water Act by dumping sewage into the ocean without secondary treatment.  The settlement sets a 12-year schedule for the city to build new sewage treatment capacity.

Toxics Right-To-Know Law Passed (National) Congress passes, and President Reagan signs, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, to prevent Bhopal-like disasters and require annual disclosure of toxics use in each zip code throughout the nation.

1987

Ocean Sludge Dumping Ends (Regional)  Southern California cities stop dumping sewage sludge in Santa Monica Bay.

Ozone Treaty Signed (National)  The U. S. signs the Montreal Protocol, along with 23 other nations, agreeing to phase out use of CFCs and other chemicals that destroy the earth's threatened stratospheric ozone layer.  

1988

Carquinez Strait Oil Spill (Regional)   On April 23, more than 365,000 gallons of crude oil spills into Carquinez Strait from Shell Oil's Martinez Refinery. The spill, attributed to a valve improperly left open inside an oil tank, kills hundreds of birds and mammals. The spill damages 200 acres of wetlands and washed up on 52 miles of shorelines.

Ocean Dumping Ban (National)  Congress passes legislation to ban ocean dumping of sewage sludge and industrial waste. This action follows a summer in which large volumes of medical and other wastes wash up on beaches in in New York and New Jersey.



1989

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (National)  Oil tanker spills 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, harming fish and wildlife along hundreds of miles of shoreline.

1990

Clean Air Act Amendments (National)  Congress passes, and President George Bush signs, Clean Air Act Amendments including provisions to reduce hazardous air pollutants, tighten controls on industrial emissions, and require cleaner-burning gasoline in urban areas with unhealthy air.  Most oil companies plan to meet that requirement by adding MTBE.

1991

Sacramento River Chemical Spill (Regional)  Train derailment near Dunsmuir, California spills a tank car load of the deadly soil fumigant metam sodium into the Sacramento River, killing fish, wildlife, and plants along more than 40 miles of the river downstream from the crash site.


1993

Cryptosporidium Sickens 400,000 In Milwaukee (National)  The water-borne microorganism cryptosporidium in the Wisconsin city's drinking water sickens 400,000 people, and causes the death of 100 people with weak immune systems.  

Six-year California Drought Ends (Regional)  Heavy winter rain and snow ends the longest drought since California weather records began in 1850.  For the first time in six years, there is sufficient water to meet the needs of urban areas, agriculture, endangered salmon runs, and other fish and wildlife.

EPA Sets Salinity Standard For Delta (Regional)  Noting that the state of California has failed during the six-year drought to set water quality standards needed to protect fish in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, the EPA sets a salinity standard for the waterway.

1994

Bay-Delta Accord (Regional)  After decades of legal and political battling, urban, agricultural, and environmental water interests agree to support a cooperative effort by state and federal agencies to draft a long-term plan to meet Californians' water needs while restoring Bay-Delta fish and wildlife.

Environmental Justice Policy (National) President Clinton signs Executive Order 12898, ordering all federal agencies to abolish and prevent policies that led to a disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards to low-income communities of color.

Brownfields Program (National)  The EPA launches its Brownfields grant program to revitalize abandoned industrial sites.

1996

EPA Approves California Smog Plans (Regional)  The EPA approves the state's plans to meet federal health standards for smog-causing ground-level ozone in the Los Angeles area (by 2010), Southeast Desert (by 2007), Ventura (by 2005), Sacramento (by 2005), the San Joaquin Valley (by 1999), San Diego (by 1999), and Santa Barbara (by 1996).

Grand Canyon Clean Air Accord (Regional)  The Grand Canyon Visibility Transport  Commission, which includes the EPA, eight western governors, and four tribal government chairs representing over 200 American Indian tribes, reaches a historic agreement on a 40-year plan to restore clear skies over the Grand Canyon.

Truckee River Water Quality Agreement (Regional) Pact between the state of Nevada, Reno, federal agencies and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe settles decades of litigation on Truckee River water rights, ensures sufficient stream flows for endangered cui-ui fish to survive.

Safe Drinking Water Act, Food Quality Protection Act (National)  Congress passes Safe Drinking Water Act and Food Quality Protection Act, mandating use of stricter new standards to limit contaminants in water and food. The new standards are based on new technology that allows technicians to measure minute traces of contaminants -- as low as a few parts per trillion.

1997

Tahoe Presidential Summit (Regional)  President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visit Lake Tahoe, meet stakeholders, pledge federal resources to assist state and local efforts to save lake's renowned clarity.

EPA Joins Santa Monica MTBE Enforcement Action (Regional)  Responding to Santa Monica's request for assistance, EPA takes enforcement action against oil companies potentially responsible for polluting local drinking water wells with the gasoline additive MTBE from underground tank and pipeline leaks.  The L. A. Regional Water Board orders oil companies to pay for replacement water.  South Lake Tahoe shuts down several wells due to MTBE.

EPA Adopts Stricter Health Standards for Ozone, Particulates (National)  After more than a decade of reviewing scientific evidence, EPA adopts stricter ozone (smog) and particulate (dust and soot) standards to protect the health of 125 million Americans, including 35 million children. Opponents delay the new standards, appealing to the U. S. Supreme Court by 2000.  

1998

Safe Drinking Water Act Takes Effect (National)  New law requires water purveyors to disclose violations to consumers in annual consumer confidence reports; bans use of untreated irrigation canal water for drinking.  After years of resistance, California's  Imperial Irrigation District finally provides bottled water to customers using canal water.

National Oceans Conference in Monterey (Regional)  President Clinton and Vice President Gore attend national conference on oceans in Monterey. Federal, state and local agencies pool efforts on research, fisheries management, coral reef protection, clean beaches.  

1999

L. A. Smog Litigation Settled; Houston Smoggier (Regional)  The South Coast Air Quality Management District, settling 25 years of litigation, amends its smog plan with measures that the EPA and environmental groups agree will keep the Los Angeles area on track to meet the national health standard for ozone by 2010. For the first time, another U. S. city (Houston) is smoggier than L. A.

U.S./Mexico Border Hazwaste Pact (National and Regional)  The EPA and Mexico's National Institute of Ecology signs a bi-national agreement to exchange information on hazardous and radioactive waste management sites in the border region.  For the first time, both nations share information on existing waste facilities, as well as proposed new ones.

2000

Chemical Weapons Stockpile Safely Destroyed (Regional)  Under strict oversight of the EPA since 1990, the U.S. Army's Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS)  safely destroys a stockpile of about 400,000 chemical weapons.  The facility, on a small island about 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, is a model for similar ones to be built on the mainland.

CALFED Bay-Delta Water Plan Approved (Regional)  The five-year CALFED Bay-Delta water planning process, involving a consortium of state and federal agencies including the EPA, successfully completes its comprehensive plan for managing California's rivers, dams, and canals, balancing the needs of cities and agriculture, while restoring fish, wildlife, and wetlands.

EPA To Cut Pollution From Trucks, Buses  (National)  The EPA approves new emission standards for new heavy duty trucks and buses, which will cut their pollution 95% by the year 2010.  Cleaner diesel fuel,with 97% less sulfur, must be sold by 2006. Announced Dec. 21, this action comes one year after EPA approves tougher emission standards for new SUVs.

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