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Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had its 40th anniversary in 2010. How effective has the EPA been and what are its biggest challenges today?                 -- Bill A., Seattle, WA

EarthTalkEPAAnniversary

Several environmental wake-up
calls during the 1960s set the
stage for the creation of the EPA
in 1970 by the Nixon administra-
tion. Pictured: EPA Administrator
Lisa Jackson (with Actor Anthony
Mackie) at the Riverside Valley
Community Garden in Harlem,
New York City, on April 22 (Earth
Day), 2010.Photo courtesy
greenforall.org/Flickr

By most accounts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which turned 40 in December 2009, has been very effective. The first dedicated national environmental agency of its kind, the EPA has been instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. The EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines.

Several environmental wake-up calls during the 1960s—from revelations about the hazards of pesticides to smog causing respiratory problems to rivers catching on fire as they flowed through industrial areas—set the stage for the creation of EPA in 1970 by the Nixon administration. The agency was charged with overseeing implementation and enforcement of a new raft of laws designed to protect Americans’ air, water and land from the ill effects of pollution, development and urbanization. The Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act are early examples of sweeping legislation that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA has also taken up the mantle of helping Americans find and implement remedies for pressing global problems from ozone depletion to climate change.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership and dialogue on wide range of topics, recently unveiled a list of “10 ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened America over the past 40 years.”

The home runs on the list—which was compiled by a group of more than 20 environmental leaders, including several former EPA officials—include: banning the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which was decimating bald eagles and other birds and threatening public health; achieving significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were polluting water sources via acid rain; changing public perceptions of waste, leading to innovations that make use of waste for energy creation and making new products; getting lead out of gasoline; classifying secondhand smoke as a known cause of cancer, leading to smoking bans in indoor public places; establishing stringent emission standards for pollutants emitted by cars and trucks; regulating toxic chemicals and encouraging the development of more benign chemicals; establishing a national commitment to restore and maintain the safety of fresh water, via the Clean Water Act; promoting equitable environmental protection for minority and low-income citizens; and increasing public information and communities’ “right to know” what chemicals and/or pollutants they may be exposed to in their daily lives.

 

As to the EPA’s priorities now under administrator Lisa Jackson, climate change is high atop the agency’s agenda, as are further improving air quality, assuring the safety of chemicals used in everyday products, protecting increasingly compromised waterways and coastal areas, building stronger state and tribal partnerships, and expanding protection for underrepresented communities. Any number of potential hurdles—from an unfriendly Congress to lack of White House resolve to public apathy, let alone future natural and man-made disasters that divert attention and resources—could hamper the agency’s progress.


CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; Aspen Institute, www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/EPA_40_Brochure.pdf.

 

Dear EarthTalk: Has the use of E-ZPass and similar programs to facilitate faster highway toll-paying cut down on traffic jams and therefore tailpipe pollution? Why do we need tolls at all?­-- Dianne Comstock, New York, NY

EarthTalkEZPass
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority ‘s
E-ZPass electronic toll collection system
has reduced toll plaza delay by about 85
percent overall and decreased overall
fuel consumption on the state's turnpike
system by some 1.2 million gallons per
year, cutting emissions of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) by 0.35 tons per day.
Photo courtesy Tennessee Wanderer/
Flickr



Yes, E-ZPass and similar programs have been a boon to both participating drivers and the environment by reducing or eliminating idling and traffic back-ups at toll booths. Maybe that’s why 25 U.S. states either participate in E-ZPass or have their own similar systems (FasTrak in California, EXpressToll in Colorado, SunPass in Florida, etc.) to speed up highway travel and reduce pollution.

A study conducted in 2000 to evaluate the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ‘s E-ZPass electronic toll collection system found that toll plaza delay had been reduced by about 85 percent overall for a total savings of more than two million vehicle-hours per year. Passenger car drivers saved a total of 1.8 million hours per year, while truckers saved almost 300,000 hours. The system’s “reduced queuing” decreased overall fuel consumption on the state’s turnpike system by some 1.2 million gallons per year and cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a key component of smog—by 0.35 tons per day.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation is about to take the concept a step further by installing express toll lanes along the a congested eight mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. Once the project is complete, drivers will be able to either zip through the express lanes to pay an electronically collected toll, or save their money and instead suffer through the congestion in the free, general-purpose lanes.

The toll amount will vary depending on the time of day and traffic conditions and will be assessed automatically via existing E-ZPass transponders or by photo capture of drivers’ license plates. Unlike existing E-ZPass-type systems in the U.S., there will be no penalty or fine for entering the express toll lane without a transponder—a bill for the toll will just be mailed to the address on file with the car’s registration. The new cutting edge express toll lanes in Maryland should be operational by 2014.

Why do we need tolls at all? Their original purpose was to raise funds for highway upkeep in a way that places the burden on the users of the roads and not simply on local taxpayers who may not even take to the highway or may do so only minimally. After all, a large percentage of highway traffic is trucks and other vehicles “just passing through,” often for commercial purposes. And environmentalists saw tolls as a way to discourage individual automobile usage, even make it unpleasant enough to hasten the day that people would begin to embrace a serious commitment to public transit. In that sense, it could be argued that E-ZPass and similar systems, in making tolls more bearable, could undermine the realization of that dream.


Given that the private automobile as our main mode of transportation is likely to be around for some time to come yet, it certainly behooves us to green up the experience as much as possible. With electric cars, plug-in hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles poised to come on strong in coming years, we certainly seem to be moving in that direction. But let’s not lose sight of the incredible benefits that public transportation could provide if we could just get our elected officials to pay it more than lip service.

CONTACTS: E-ZPass, www.ezpass.com; New Jersey Turnpike Authority, www.state.nj.us/turnpike; Maryland Department of Transportation, www.mdot.maryland.gov.

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