Earth Day Action: 13 Major Environmental Accomplishments

With Earth Day 2012 officially over, it’s time to think about the aftermath of this holiday: what has the annual celebration of the environment helped to achieve? Since the first Earth Day on April 22nd, 1970, when 20 million people flocked to nationwide rallies, the event has grown to a worldwide phenomenon with over a billion participants. Earth Day helped highlight important environmental issues and spur legislative action that cleaned up pollution, reduced emissions and protected our natural resources.

1970: The Environmental Protection Agency is Founded

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Within months of the first Earth Day in 1970, one of the nation’s most vital agencies was founded. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got its start on December 2nd, 1970. Just before it was established, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio became so polluted that it caught fire – calling attention to the many environmental problems throughout America that needed to be addressed.

1971: Amtrak Founded

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Between 1920 and 1970, use of passenger rail dropped dramatically in favor of personal vehicles. Just when it seemed that the end of passenger rail in the United States was near, the government passed the Rail Passenger Service Act to ensure that railroads would continue to receive funds. Amtrak revived train travel, which is a low-impact form of transportation, though it was never able to regain its 19th century popularity.

1972: The EPA Bans DDT Pesticide

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Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which called attention to the devastating environmental effects of DDT insecticide, is often credited as the genesis of the modern American environmental movement. The book, published in 1962, also spurred the eventual banning of this chemical by the EPA ten years later. DDT spreads rapidly through the food chain to affect entire ecosystems, and was blamed for the near-extinction of the bald eagle.

1974: Congress Passes the Safe Drinking Water Act

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It seems like access to safe drinking water should be a right, not a privilege – but that’s not the case in most of the world. It didn’t become a law here in the United States until 1974, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. The act established national standards for acceptable levels of pollutants in water. In the 1980s, it was amended to require lead-free plumbing, new forms of monitoring, disinfection for groundwater systems and more enforcement powers for the EPA.

1974: First Emissions and Efficiency Rules for Vehicles

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Though California was ahead of the curve, as usual – setting its own emissions requirements in 1966 – the federal government followed suit in 1974. 1970’s Clean Air Act required a 90 percent reduction in emissions from new automobiles by 1975; that year saw the first generation of catalytic converters, which dramatically reduced lead levels in the air.

1977: The EPA Starts Phasing Out Toxic PCBs

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Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), pollutants that were once widely used in transformers and electric motors, have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption. In 1968, 400,000 birds died in Japan after eating poultry feed that was contaminated with PCBs. The chemicals were often dumped in areas where they could contaminate waterways. The EPA began phasing out their use in the mid-1970s and took over control of their disposal in 1978.

1977: First Plants Added to Endangered Species List

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Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was an expansion of the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act, designed to protect species as well as “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” While the list was initially made up only of threatened animals, plants were eventually added, starting in 1977.

1978: Congress Bans CFCs in Aerosol Sprays

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Used as propellants in aerosol cans for decades, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were found to be contributing to depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. In 1978, Congress banned the use of CFCs in aerosol cans, the first in a string of actions that would lead to a phase-out of CFCs that is still in process today. In 2007, about 200 nations agreed to speed up the elimination of CFCs entirely by 2020. CFCs are best known for their commercial name, Freon, and are still in use as refrigerants.

1980: Superfund Program Created to Clean Up Toxic Sites

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For decades, industries like chemical and plastic manufacturers buried, leaked or otherwise contaminated millions of acres of land with pollutants – land that is located adjacent to schools, neighborhoods and sources of food and water. The Love Canal disaster of the 1970s, in which hundreds of families were sickened by chemical waste, was a catalyst that helped spur the creation of the federal Superfund program. This program provides federal authority and funds to clean up contaminated sites all over the United States. It was an important step, but unfortunately, it is currently under-funded and many sites still sit in limbo for decades before they’re remediated.

1984: 8.6 Million Acres of Wilderness Protected

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Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, millions of acres have been officially designated as protected areas in a bid to preserve America’s natural beauty and protect wildlife. 1984 saw one of the biggest gains in these lands, with a total of 8.6 million acres established in 21 states including Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico and Wyoming.

1988: Ocean Dumping of Sewage Sludge & Industrial Waste Banned

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The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 made it illegal to dump municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste in the ocean. It seems unbelievable now that just decades ago, the government had no control over ships intentionally dumping medical waste, garbage, chemicals, radioactive agents and other harmful substances into the ocean.

1990: EPA Establishes Toxic Release Inventory

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After Congress finally decided that the public has a right to know when toxic chemicals are released into the air, land or water in 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency began work on the Toxic Release Inventory. Debuted in 1990, the inventory gave the public access to information about toxic spills and releases in their own communities.

1992: The Energy Star Program is Launched

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Minimum efficiency standards for electronics were first introduced in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, but the EPA took it a step further in 1992 with the Energy Star Program. The voluntary program, which labels energy-efficient products including appliances, encourages manufacturers to produce goods that are better for the environment and helps consumers make green choices.

2008: EPA Releases a List of ‘Eco-Fugitives’

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Who are America’s worst eco-offenders? The EPA released its own list of fugitives in 2008, which is made up of defendants charged with environmental crimes like illegal dumping, smuggling in outlawed pollutants, and fudging records to hide improper disposal of hazardous substances.