Environmental Conflicts in the 1980s

February 15, 1985

Report Outline
Federal Deadlock
Amending the Rules
Growing Complexity
Search for Solutions
Special Focus

Federal Deadlock

Pace of Environmental Decade Slowing

Fifteen years after earth Day marked the peak of national harmony on environmental issues, the public remains strongly committed to environmental cleanup despite the increasing costs and technical complexity of the unfinished task, and diminished federal support for enforcing laws unpopular with industry. Earth Day, April 22, 1970, focused national attention on environmental problems and opened the “Environmental Decade,” a period of unprecedented legislative activism in the passage of laws to remove harmful pollutants from land, air and water and to conserve the nation's natural resources.

It was a decade of success. Although “serious air and water pollution persists” in some areas of the country, the president's Council on Environmental Quality said in 1983, “unquestionably, overall environmental quality in the United States has improved since 1970….” Clean Air Act controls on auto and smokestack emissions have reduced five of the six pollutants that law regulates. Only nitrogen oxide emissions have increased. Similar progress has been made under the Clean Water Act. Sport fish are returning to rivers and lakes once so polluted that aquatic life declined or disappeared. Other laws passed in the 1970s sought to place wilderness areas, park land and scenic rivers beyond the reach of developers. Strip-mine operators were required to return the mined land to its original contours. Still other statutes were enacted to regulate pesticides and solid wastes, monitor chemicals and clean up toxic waste sites.

But by the end of the decade, the momentum was slowing and the politics changing. Industries complained that the regulations they were required to follow were too costly and yielded uncertain benefits. Throughout his successful 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan vowed to relax or eliminate environmental laws that he said hampered business and strangled the economy. During his first term, Reagan slowed the flow of regulations somewhat, but he was unable to alter the basic environmental laws.