Environmental Policy 1980-84

Hello ClimateRoots Readers!

We hope that May flowers have sprung wherever you are! In this month's issue we are covering the domestic environmental policies enacted between 1980 to 1984.

In addition to the approval of critical environmental policies, the 1980s are colloquially known as the beginning of the environmental justice movement. While environmental injustice has been a part of American history since its colonization, the environmental justice movement is said to have begun in 1982 with the Warren County PCB protests. Following the illegal spraying of ​polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the state of North Carolina decided to build a toxic waste landfill to bury the PCBs in Afton, NC. Warren County was a predominantly black, lower income community and had been targeted before by the state of North Carolina as a potential site for industry and waste facilities (BLUM and WILSON).

The health risks proposed by the PCB landfill, however, were drastic. Citizen action through the Warren County Citizens Concerned (WCCC) board was initially unsuccessful in their protests against the landfill, prompting the board to commission the help of prominent local civil rights activists, Reverend Luther Brown and Reverend Leon White (Lehmann). The intersection of the environmental movement and the civil rights movement in the Warren County case, “loosened the boundaries between environmental and civil rights cases”(McGurty) and set the precedent that the environmental movement was not just a white space.

In the end, the landfill was built despite the adverse health effects but the Warren County case kicked off a string of action from the Chesapeake Bay pollution clean up, to the Olin Corporation paying for the healthcare of residents they endangered with DDT, to the myriad of policies that were passed. Much of what the EPA did in the 1980s was connected to cleaning up toxic environmental waste that was so frequently the culprit of environmental injustice. Let's get into the policies from 1980-1984.

1980- The Superfund Program

Picking up on precedence set by The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1975, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and the Love Canal incident of 1979, Congress passed the Superfund Program in 1980. Officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), this program addresses “... the dangers of abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps by developing a nationwide program for: emergency response; information gathering and analysis; liability for responsible parties; and site cleanup” (Superfund History). This emergency response is funded by a trust, or rather, a “superfund” of money that until 1995 was “...financed primarily by taxes on crude oil and certain chemicals, as well as an environmental tax assessed on corporations based upon their taxable income” (Government Accountability Office). This is generally known as a “polluter pays” method and was the main source for the trust until 1995, after which Congress let the tax expire. From 1996 onward the EPA relied on funding from general tax payers and the remnants of the polluter pays trust, but the money ran out and by 2003, Superfund clean up projects significantly decreased (Funding the Future of Superfund).

1982 - Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA)

The Nuclear Waste Policy of 1982 essentially made it legal for nuclear waste to be buried deep underground as a means of disposal. According to the EPA, “the Act establishes procedures to evaluate and select sites for geologic repositories and for the interaction of state and federal governments” (OP US EPA). Under the NWPA, the Department of Energy is responsible for finding, building and maintaining any nuclear waste repositories, while the EPA is responsible for setting safety standards for the surrounding environment from the release of radioactive material (OP US EPA). The act specified that the government had until 1998 to establish a permanent nuclear waste repository and by 1987, Congress passed an amendment designating Yucca Mountain as the primary repository site. However, the site was never officially confirmed, being denied approval and funding by legislators during the Bush administration and the Obama administration (LinkedIn et al.) As of 2020, a permanent repository has still not been selected, and the Department of Energy continues to pay fees due to their inability to meet the 1998 deadline.

1983- Fishbowl Policy

In 1983, EPA director William Ruckelshaus committed the EPA to communicating as openly as possible with the American public. According to the EPA website, the guidance he set forth to all EPA employees asked them to “... keep the public in the loop on decision making and making more specific rules, like publicizing key officers' meeting calendars” (OA US EPA, Milestones in EPA and Environmental History). He also established a recusal system for the EPA directors, to ensure that personal interest did not interfere with the performance of director duties (OA US EPA, Ruckelshaus Takes Steps to Improve Flow of Agency Information [Fishbowl Policy]). This policy is still in the works today, as EPA administrator schedules are still available on the EPAs website!

Join us for the next month when we will be covering 1985-1989!



  1. BLUM, ELIZABETH, and CHARLES REAGAN WILSON. “Warren County, N.C.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by MARTIN MELOSI, University of North Carolina Press, 2007, pp. 275–76. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469616605_melosi.102.

  2. Funding the Future of Superfund. https://environmentamerica.org/reports/amc/funding-future-superfund. Accessed 5 May 2022.

  3. Lehmann, Hannah. North Carolina Activists Birth the Eco-Justice Movement While Fighting Toxic Waste, 1982 | Global Nonviolent Action Database. 2011, https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/north-carolina-activists-birth-eco-justice-movement-while-fighting-toxic-waste-1982.

  4. LinkedIn, et al. “What Is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act?” Treehugger, https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-the-nuclear-waste-policy-act-5112440. Accessed 5 May 2022.

  5. McGurty, Eileen Maura. “From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement.” Environmental History, vol. 2, no. 3, July 1997, pp. 301–23. academic.oup.com, https://doi.org/10.2307/3985352.

  6. Office, U. S. Government Accountability. Superfund: Funding and Reported Costs of Enforcement and Administration Activities. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-08-841r. Accessed 5 May 2022.

  7. Superfund History. 5 Feb. 2015, https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-history.

  8. US EPA, OA. Milestones in EPA and Environmental History. 20 May 2020, https://www.epa.gov/history/milestones-epa-and-environmental-history.

  9. ---. Ruckelshaus Takes Steps to Improve Flow of Agency Information [Fishbowl Policy]. https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/ruckelshaus-takes-steps-improve-flow-agency-information-fishbowl-policy.html. Accessed 5 May 2022.

  10. US EPA, OP. Summary of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. 22 Feb. 2013, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-nuclear-waste-policy-act.

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