Our Environmental Legacy

Feb/Mar 2017 VOL 15 No. 1

Larry Olson, PhD.


I 'm sitting here contemplating President Trump's budget proposal calling for a 31% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency (cuts of $2.6 billion out of an $8.2 billion budget) resulting in elimination of 50 programs and 3200 jobs (1/5 of workforce) and I can't help but remember where we were as a country when I graduated from college in 1970.  That was the year of the first Earth Day and the founding of the EPA.  We had only a skeletal environmental regulatory structure in place and as a consequence there were many parts of the country with very unhealthy air, rivers too contaminated in which to swim or fish, midnight dumps of hazardous waste, and new chemicals coming to market with very little oversight or understanding of their health and environmental impacts.  No one wants to go back to that, but too many have forgotten how many battles were fought, and how hard it was, to clean up the mess we had made.

The 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments began to regulate mobile source emissions for the first time.  The auto industry was adamantly opposed to any new regulations, but they forced new technology to be developed including catalytic converters in 1975, computerized emission controls, and better fuels with the result that today's cars emit up to 99% less tail pipe pollutants than 1960s era cars.

How important was this?  In 1970, the population in Maricopa County was 967,000, which was considerably higher than the 330,000 people living here when I was born in Good Samaritan Hospital (now Banner University Medical Center) or the 100,000 people in the county when my mother was born at Good Sam in 1927.  Today over 4.1 million people live in Maricopa County and as someone who grew up here through the 1960s, I can tell you that if we were all driving 1966 Pontiac GTOs no one would be able to breathe.

The first National Ambient Air Quality Standard for carbon monoxide was promulgated in 1971 and specified a 1 hour ave of 35 ppm and an 8 hour ave of 9 ppm which were not to be exceeded more than once per year.  In 1975, the annual second highest 8 hour ave CO level in Phoenix reached as high as 23 ppm.  There were still 84 days in which the 9 ppm CO standard was exceeded in 1984, but they declined to 4 days in 1990 and Phoenix has had no exceedances since 1996.  Nationally, there has been an 84% decrease in CO from 1980 to 2013 and there are no longer any CO non-attainment areas in the country.  Similarly, NO2 has decreased by 60% during this same time period and all parts of the country are now in attainment for NO2.  SO2 has decreased by 81%, but there are still numerous non-attainment areas including Hayden and Miami in Arizona.  Lead wasn't removed from gasoline because of concerns about human health but because it poisoned the new catalytic converters.  But a serendipitous effect was that average blood levels of lead in the U.S. decreased by 75% once the phase-out had been completed in 1995.  The fight isn't won yet.  Ozone and particulate matter have been much tougher for Maricopa County to conquer.  Levels have been generally decreasing but we are not in attainment yet.  But next time someone complains about burdensome government regulations, remember what our air quality used to be.

There are many other areas of similar progress in making our environment more livable including Arizona's historic Groundwater Management Act in 1980, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1984 for managing hazardous waste, and the Montreal Protocol on Stratospheric Ozone Depletion in 1987.  All were controversial and all cost money, but few people now would go back to where we were before they passed.  One can certainly argue that some (maybe many) environmental regulations need to be improved and can be implemented more effectively.  These problems, by their nature, require a comprehensive approach involving many different interest groups.  The process is not easy and requires time and money.  But we should not forget how far we've come and the lessons we have learned.

September 2018 Vol 16 No. 9