What Is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in December 1970 by an executive order of United States President Richard Nixon. The EPA is an agency of the United States federal government whose mission is to protect human and environmental health. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the EPA is responsible for creating standards and laws promoting the health of individuals and the environment.

Understanding the Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA was established in response to widespread public environmental concerns that gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s. The EPA seeks to protect and conserve the natural environment and improve the health of humans by researching the effects of and mandating limits on the use of pollutants.

The EPA regulates the manufacturing, processing, distribution, and use of chemicals and other pollutants. In addition, the EPA is charged with determining safe tolerance levels for chemicals and other pollutants in food, animal feed, and water.

The EPA enforces its findings through fines, sanctions, and other procedures. Under the Trump administration, the EPA's recent regulations of carbon emissions from power plants, automobiles, and other contributors to climate change, instituted by President Obama, are largely being rolled back. The EPA's size and influence are also diminished, and criminal prosecutions for those who aren't following regulations are at a 30-year low.

Key Takeaways

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is a United States federal government agency whose mission is to protect human and environmental health. 
  • The EPA regulates the manufacturing, processing, distribution, and use of chemicals and other pollutants.
  • The agency enforces its findings through fines, sanctions, and other procedures. 
  • It oversees programs to promote energy efficiency, environmental stewardship, sustainable growth, air and water quality, and pollution prevention. 
  • Some of the areas that aren't covered by the EPA include wildlife, wetlands, food safety, and nuclear waste.

EPA Programs

The EPA oversees a number of programs intended to promote energy efficiency, environmental stewardship, sustainable growth, air and water quality, and pollution prevention. These programs include:

  • The EPA Safer Choice program—formerly Design for the Environment—a product-labeling program that allows consumers to select the chemically-safest products available, without sacrificing function or quality.
  • The Energy Star program, which helps consumers choose energy-efficient appliances.
  • The Smart Growth program, which supports sustainable community development.
  • WaterSense, which encourages efficiency in water use via high-efficiency toilets, faucets, and irrigation equipment.
  • The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters.

The EPA protects human health and the environment with programs like Safer Choice and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

The EPA also runs programs to prevent, control, and respond to oil spills, control air pollution and forecast air pollution levels, and foster the manufacturing of more fuel-efficient vehicles. The EPA works to enforce laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the National Environmental Education Act, and the Clean Water Act, some of which predate the formation of the agency itself.

The EPA is also responsible for the detection and prevention of environmental crimes, monitoring pollution levels, and setting standards for the handling of hazardous chemicals and waste.

What the EPA Doesn't Do

Because of its name, there tends to be some confusion about what the EPA does and doesn't do. The EPA doesn't handle each and every issue or concern that affects the environment. The agency suggests contacting local, state, or other federal agencies to find out who is responsible.

For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the Endangered Species Act, while local and state wildlife offices are responsible for concerns about foxes, birds, rabbits, and other animals. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the agency that determines and issues permits for wetland areas. Food safety is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while issues about nuclear waste are handled by the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management.