Water Conditioning & Purification Magazine

William Ruckelshaus, a US EPA Chief to Remember

“I think 80 percent of the American people are advocates for the environment. At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself.” William ‘Bill’ Ruckelshaus

By David H. Martin

As this is written, America has learned that the dreaded coronavirus knows no borders. In the 1950s, America learned that the scourge of air and water pollution knows no borders. The acid rain devastation of Northeastern forests from airborne contaminants, blown in from the Midwest, alarmed Americans, along with the sight of Ohio’s Cuyohoga River in flames.

On October 20, 1997, I covered the Water Environment Federation (WEFTEC) convention, paying tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972, an ambitious program to protect and improve the quality of water in rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and coastal regions of the United States. On the stage that day was William ‘Bill’ Ruckelshaus who, in 1970, became the very first US EPA Administrator, appointed by President Richard M. Nixon ( the same year as the first Earth Day on April 22). At WEFTEC 97, Ruckelshaus called the Clean Water Act “the single most effective federal environmental law ever.” The thrust of his message to the WEF members was that much still must be accomplished, especially in the area of non-point pollution. Looking back, he was arguably the greatest US EPA chief in history.

Here’s how Scott Simon of CBS remembered Ruckelshaus in his Weekend Edition broadcast on November 30, 2019: “William Ruckelshaus was a conservationist, an Indiana Republican conservative who believed in conserving balanced budgets, limited government powers, constitutional checks and balances and clean air and water. ‘Nature provides a free lunch,’ he said, ‘but only if we control our appetites.’ He helped write Indiana’s first air pollution laws as a state Deputy Attorney General in the 1960s and was appointed the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon in 1970. As the first Director of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus banned DDT from US agriculture, went after steel and paper companies for water pollution, and told major cities to reduce the sewage they sent into water systems.”

“He reminds us how noble public service can be,” President Obama said, when he awarded Ruckelshaus the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, then added: “And our air and water is cleaner and our lives are brighter because of him.”

A second term, under President Reagan
During President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Ruckelshaus observed increasing turmoil at US EPA. When the deterioration became clear to the public, the same qualities of forthrightness that led him away from the agency during the Watergate scandal, drew him back 10 years later. In spring 1983, White House Chief of Staff James Baker asked him to return to the agency. Intent on restoring the institution he had founded 13 years before, Ruckelshaus overcame his own (and his family’s) resistance, on the condition the White House allow him maximum autonomy in the choice of new appointees.

Between May 15, 1983 and February 7, 1985, Administrator Ruckelshaus attempted to win back public confidence in the agency. It proved to be a difficult period, in which a skeptical press and a wary Congress scrutinized all aspects of the agency’s activities and interpreted many of its actions in the worst possible light. Yet when Ruckelshaus left US EPA, he did so with a sense of satisfaction. He had filled the top-level positions with persons of competence, turned the attention of the staff back to the mission and raised the esteem of the agency in the public mind.

Ruckelshaus biography in brief:

  • Born July 24, 1932 in Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Grew up in a distinguished Indiana family
  • Served two years (1953-55) in the US Army as a drill sergeant
  • Graduated in 1958 from Princeton
  • Earned a law degree in 1960 from Harvard
  • Joined the family law firm in 1960
  • In 1965, won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives
  • In 1970, appointed Assistant Attorney General under President Nixon
  • Also in 1970, appointed the first EPA Administrator by Nixon
  • In 1973, appointed acting FBI Director under Nixon
  • Also in 1973, became Senior Vice President of the Weyerhaeuser Company
  • In 1988, became Chairman, CEO of Browning Ferris Industries
  • In 2004, appointed by President G.W. Bush to serve on US Commission on Ocean Policy
  • In 2008, appointed to Washington’s Puget Sound Partnership
  • In 2010, named co-Chair of Joint Ocean Commission Initiative
  • Also in 2010, named to the Advisory Board of the W.D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington
  • Also in 2010, named Director of the Initiative for Global Development
  • In November 2015, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama
  • Died November 27, 2019 at 87 at home in Medina, WA

Ruckelshaus died last November at the age of 87, a conservative and a conservationist who conserved and protected the rule of law. A celebration of his life, his leadership and his accomplishments while US EPA Administrator should be heralded this December, when the agency marks its 50th anniversary. Current US EPA Director, Andrew Wheeler was scheduled to address WQA members at their annual convention in April, when the Coronavirus crisis forced cancellation of the event.

About the author
David Martin, President of Lenzi Martin Marketing, has more than 30 years experience in the water quality industry working with dealers, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404 or dmartin@lenzimartin.com.

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