Looking back on environmental moves in November, 1963

Amid the recent commemorations of John F. Kennedy, an environmentalist can’t help remarking that Camelot never was associated with Green. Why? Because the environmental movement wasn’t institutionalized when JFK was president: In particular, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wasn’t established until 1970. Nonetheless, 1963 marked a set of events that led directly to the EPA. In this story, seldom told, Connecticut has played a big role.

The story is about the Clean Air Act of 1963, the first major environmental legislation in U.S. history. Before this Act, pollution was regarded as a state problem, with the federal government providing only technical assistance. The arrangement imposed heavy burdens on the states, however, whose priorities and budgets regarding pollution differed markedly in the absence of any nation-wide public health standards.

Finally, during the Kennedy administration in 1962, an initiative to promulgate and enforce federal clean air standards emerged from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), whose Secretary was Connecticut’s Abraham Ribicoff. Kennedy took no particular leadership in the matter initially; also, Ribicoff resigned from HEW midyear to run (successfully) for the Senate.

Nonetheless, a day after Christmas that year, an HEW official flew to Palm Beach for a briefing with the vacationing President Kennedy and convinced him to support the department’s goal.

Following up quickly in February, 1963, Kennedy gave a Health Message to announce this position; meanwhile, in Congress, Ribicoff led off with his first bill as Senator proposing federal air pollution controls.

A key House chairman from Alabama, affected by severe pollution in Birmingham, agreed to sponsor an air-pollution bill that HEW drafted: It passed in July. Next, the Senate, having established a Special Committee on Air and Water Pollution under Maine’s Edmund Muskie, held hearings to refine the Ribicoff bill. It passed on Friday, Nov. 19, one of the last votes in Congress before Thanksgiving recess and the tragedy of Nov. 22.

Lawmakers meeting on Dec. 4 to reconcile the House and Senate bills could hardly have had much perspective on this landmark legislation, yet together they wrote a conference compromise that passed both chambers by wide margins and was signed into law on Dec. 17. Thus, the Clean Air Act became the first significant Kennedy legacy in President Johnson’s new administration.

The Act lasted. Seven years later, after Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson, he established the EPA, whose primary purpose was to implement the Clean Air Act.

This past November, 50 years after the original Kennedy-HEW-Ribicoff connection came to fruition, the air is cleaner nationwide. In the story’s final bow to Connecticut, who is leading the EPA today? Gina McCarthy, former Commissioner of our Department of Environmental Protection. Her most recent work on air pollution standards will largely eliminate public health dangers from the “Sooty Six” power plants in or near Milford, factories in Birmingham, paper mills in Maine.

This past November, Hot Air gave thanks for clean air, and for all the people who make government work to protect the environment