The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Painting of polar bear and penguin balanced on small patch of ice surrounded by ocean
SMETEK / Getty Images

Just as the U.S. needs the military to protect its interests in the world, so too it needs an agency to police its natural resources at home. Since 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency has fulfilled that role, setting and enforcing standards to safeguard the land, air, ​and water as well as protect human health.

Public Demands Attention to Environment

Founded as a federal agency in 1970 following a proposal by President Richard Nixon, the EPA was an outgrowth of the growing public alarm over environmental pollution over the course of a century and a half of immense population and industrial growth. The EPA was established not only to reverse years of neglect and abuse of the environment, but also to ensure that government, industry and the public take better care to protect and respect the fragile balance of nature for future generations.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the EPA employs more than 18,000 people across the country, including scientists, engineers, lawyers and policy analysts. It has 10 regional offices - in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle -- and a dozen laboratories, all headed by an administrator who is appointed by and answers directly to the President of the United States.

EPA's Roles

The EPA's primary responsibilities are to develop and enforce environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act, which must be obeyed by federal, state and local governments, as well as by private industry. The EPA helps to formulate environmental laws for passage by Congress and it has the power to issue sanctions and levy fines. Among the EPA's accomplishments are a ban on use of the pesticide DDT; supervising the cleanup of Three Mile Island, site of the nation's worst nuclear power plant mishap; mandating the phased elimination of chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone-depleting chemical found in aerosols; and administering the Superfund, which finances the cleanup of contaminated sites throughout the nation.

The EPA also assists state governments with their own environmental concerns by providing research grants and graduate fellowships; it supports public education projects to get people directly involved in protecting the environment on a personal and public level; it offers financing assistance to local governments and to small businesses to bring their facilities and practices into compliance with environmental regulations; and offers financial assistance for large-scale improvement projects like the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the goal of which is to provide cleaner drinking water.

Climate Change and Global Warming

Most recently, the EPA has been assigned to lead the federal government’s effort to address climate change and global warming by reducing carbon pollution and emissions of other greenhouse gasses from U.S. transportation and energy sectors. To help all Americans address these issues, the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program focuses on improving energy efficiency in homes, buildings, and appliances. In addition, the EPA formulates vehicle fuel efficiency and pollution emissions standards. By partnering with states, tribes, and other federal agencies, the EPA works to enhance the ability of local communities to deal with climate change through its Sustainable Communities initiative.

Great Source of Public Information

The EPA also publishes a great deal of information for public and industrial education about protecting the environment and limiting the impact of people and their activities. Its website contains a wealth of information on everything from research findings to regulations and recommendations and educational materials.

A Forward-looking Federal Agency

The agency's research programs look for emerging environmental threats and ways to prevent damage to the environment in the first place. The EPA works not only with government and industry within the United States but also with academic entities as well as governments and non-governmental organizations in other countries.

The agency sponsors partnerships and programs with industrial, governmental, academic and non-profits on a voluntary basis to encourage environmental responsibility, energy conservation, and pollution prevention. Among its programs are those that work to eliminate greenhouse gasses, cut down on toxic emissions, reuse and recycle solid waste, control indoor air pollution and reduce the use of dangerous pesticides.