William Ruckelshaus is sworn in as first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on December 4, 1970.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 6/08/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20580

On December 4, 1970, William ("Bill") Ruckelshaus (1932-2019) is sworn in as the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The newly formed agency is a conglomeration of 15 previously existing units from four federal agencies. Ruckelshaus ably brings them together during his two-and-a-half years as administrator to form an effective EPA that will accomplish a great deal during the early 1970s. In 1976 Ruckelshaus and his family will move to the Seattle area, and both he and his wife will become well-known for their work throughout Western Washington, which will remain their home except for a brief period in the 1980s when Ruckelshaus again heads the EPA.


Before the 1960s, there was relatively little concern over the impact human beings were having on the environment. Growth and development were considered progress and their side effects were only rarely considered, even with pollution fouling some of America's waterways and some of its major cities by the middle of the twentieth century. Though many states had limited antipollution laws on the books (and there was some weak federal legislation as well) these unsophisticated laws were seldom vigorously enforced. Growth was good and big business even better, and many state leaders didn't want to alienate big and successful businesses by enforcing their antipollution laws and watching those businesses move to another state.

This sentiment changed during the 1960s. In 1962 Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published her seminal book, Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers caused by then-rampant pesticide use and questioned science's belief that human control of nature was the answer. Many consider the book to have launched the environmental movement of the 1960s, which dramatically gained steam during the decade's final years.

President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was not a particular fan of the environment, but he was enough of a politician to appreciate that the public was. Shortly after his 1969 inauguration he asked Roy Ash (1918-2011), president and co-founder of Litton Industries, to head a commission (aptly known as the Ash Commission) to make suggestions on how to improve the executive branch and consolidate functions that were spread throughout the federal government. Later that year, Nixon asked Ash to consider whether there should be a separate environmental protection agency to replace the multiple organizations that then handled the nation's environmental issues. After House and Senate hearings in 1970, Ash recommended such an agency be created.

Ruckelshaus was not the first choice to lead the new agency. In the early 1990s, he explained "two [other] guys turned it down! I never knew who they were" (" ... Oral History Interview"). But Ruckelshaus, then working for the Justice Department, was interested. He easily handled a Senate subcommittee hearing to determine his qualifications, and on December 4, 1970, with his wife Jill (b. 1937) and President Nixon looking on, he was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907-1995) as the nation's first EPA administrator.

Fifteen in One

The EPA itself had officially opened for business two days earlier at 20th and L streets in Washington, D.C. It had been cobbled together in less than a year by transferring 15 units of previously existing organizations from four separate agencies into a single agency totaling 5,650 employees. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare contributed air, solid waste, water hygiene, radiological health, and pesticide tolerance functions (and personnel); the Interior Department contributed water quality and pesticide label review; the Department of Agriculture provided pesticide registration functions, while the Atomic Energy Commission and the Federal Radiation Council provided radiation protection standards and criteria.

Ruckelshaus moved quickly and decisively during his tenure at the EPA. A week after being sworn in, he publicly gave three major cities -- Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta -- six months to come into compliance with water-quality standards or face Justice Department action. At the end of the month, on December 31, 1970, President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, which (among other things) required the EPA to establish national air-quality standards and standards for significant pollution sources, including the automobile. The act set emissions standards requiring a 90 percent reduction of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide by 1975 and a 90 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides by 1976. America's carmakers protested and asked for an extension of time to implement the needed changes. Ruckelshaus refused, and in 1975 catalytic converters (which converted noxious emissions into water vapor and carbon dioxide) began appearing in American cars.

Another significant EPA achievement under Ruckelshaus came in June 1972, when the agency banned the use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, more commonly known as DDT. DDT was a controversial pesticide that had proven highly effective in killing disease-carrying insects, particularly the malaria-carrying mosquito. The pesticide was so effective that it killed most other insects too, boosting farm productivity in what some enthusiastically called a "green revolution," the term in the 1950s and 1960s meaning increased crop production. Others were more cautious, pointing out that many of these insects were beneficial to humans. Then it became known that DDT was getting into the systems of birds such as the bald eagle, causing them to lay eggs with shells so thin that many eggs cracked before the baby hatched. Another problem was that once DDT was used it had to be used in increasing quantities to maintain its efficacy. Though DDT wasn't known to represent a threat to humans, Ruckelshaus was concerned that its increasing use could tip the equation. "If we guessed wrong -- and it was in the fatty tissue of man in substantial amounts -- we could really have a problem on our hands" he later explained ("Bill Ruckelshaus," 27).

On to Seattle

Ruckelshaus served as the EPA's first administrator until April 1973. After serving briefly under Nixon in two other positions (and famously resigning in the "Saturday Night Massacre" during the Watergate scandal), and then spending several years in private law practice, in 1976 Ruckelshaus moved with his family to the Seattle area. He served as a senior vice president at Weyerhaeuser Company for the next seven years, and later served on its board of directors. He went back to Washington, D.C. in 1983 to head the EPA once again, and was there for nearly two years before returning to Seattle.

Back in Seattle, he worked with the Madrona Venture Group, a venture-capital firm focusing on technology. He also worked on nonprofit boards in the Seattle area, including the Seattle Aquarium and the Washington News Council, and between 2007 and 2010 he chaired the Puget Sound Partnership, a new state agency created to preserve and protect Puget Sound. Jill Ruckelshaus was similarly active in the Seattle area on both for-profit and non-profit boards, and became known for her work on women's rights.

In 2017 Bill and Jill Ruckelshaus received a Seattle-King County First Citizen Award from Seattle King County Realtors, honoring their contributions to the community over the preceding 40 years.


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ruckelshaus, William Doyle (b. 1932)" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org (accessed June 8, 2018); "William D. Ruckelshaus: Oral History Interview," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website accessed March 26, 2018 (https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/william-d-ruckelshaus-oral-history-interview.html); Jack Lewis, "The Birth of EPA," EPA website accessed March 28, 2018 (https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/birth-epa.html); Phil Wisman, "EPA History," EPA website accessed March 23, 2018 (http://archive/epa.gov/aboutepa/epa-history-1970-1985); Trova Heffernan, "Bill Ruckelshaus," Washington Secretary of State Legacy Washington website accessed March 26, 2018 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/legacy/who-are-we/bill-ruckelshaus-pdf.pdf).

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