William Ruckelshaus, first EPA chief, dies at 87
Under Nixon, Ruckelshaus oversaw the enactment of the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, and the consolidation of a disparate set of environmental programs into a single federal agency. His second stint tasked him with restoring trust in the agency following the scandal around Gorsuch, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Much of the country knows Ruckelshaus better from his time at the Justice Department during the Watergate scandal. He resigned as deputy attorney general rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
In later years, Ruckelshaus raised eyebrows when he endorsed Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump. He has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration’s actions on the environment and described Trump as “very thin-skinned” and “scary.”
Ruckelshaus bristled at the Republican Party’s strident and ideological calls for scrapping environmental regulations, describing the GOP’s position toward the EPA as increasingly antagonistic. William Reilly, who ran the EPA under former President George H.W. Bush, credited Ruckelshaus with establishing the agency’s norms, which he said was a reflection of his moral character.
“He was deeply unhappy toward the end with the Trump administration and what had become of his agency, our agency,” Reilly said.
He described his two terms atop EPA as “very different” during a 1993 oral history project on the agency’s site and said he didn’t come to the EPA as an environmentalist. He said it was instead important to establish trust in environmental rules given the alternatives that would allow unfettered pollution.
“Public opinion remains absolutely essential for anything to be done on behalf of the environment,” Ruckelshaus said. “Absent that, nothing will happen because the forces of the economy and the impact on people’s livelihood are so much more automatic and endemic. Absent some countervailing public pressure for the environment, nothing much will happen.”
Ruckelshaus took the EPA’s helm at the age 38 during a period when pollution visibly choked American cities and poisoned the water and land. One of his early decisions was to ban DDT, overruling an Interior Department official who had concluded the insecticide did not pose a health threat. DDT is now banned in most countries except for limited use for malaria control.
He also ushered in some of the first clean air regulations, and that did not make him many friends, said Lee Thomas, who succeeded Ruckelshaus as EPA chief in 1985.
“Back in the early days of the EPA, you have to remember, he was tackling industry in this country at a time when it had not been regulated before. So he was going in and going after the steel industry, the coal industry, all of the big heavy industries on air pollution,” Thomas said. “His whole approach to compliance and enforcement was something that was rigorous and we understood that.”
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as former President George W. Bush’s EPA chief, praised Ruckelshaus’ bipartisanship and called him “a truly special person.”
“His passion for the environment, his devotion to our country, his willingness to work across aisle to do what was right is a model for all times,” she said in a statement.
Ruckelshaus also opposed the nomination of former Administrator Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, telling the Center for Public Integrity that “he does not support what the agency has been trying to do for 40 years.”
“He wants to dismantle — not improve or reform — the regulatory system for protecting public health and the environment,” Ruckelshaus said.
Current Administrator Andrew Wheeler mourned his passing in a statement Wednesday.
“Bill Ruckelshaus was the father of the EPA,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Administrator Ruckelshaus led the agency during a time when the first federal environmental statutes were enacted and set the original example for all subsequent EPA Administrators to follow.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder called him a “a conscientious public servant and a patriot.” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said “there was no one in Washington state with a stronger environmental legacy.”
Alex Guillen contributed to this report.