Historian Douglas Brinkley recently visited Seattle to interview William D. Ruckelshaus, the founding head of the Environmental Protection Agency and advisor to a variety of Northwest clean water and community groups.

Ruckelshaus first made the connection between the environment and public health shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School when he returned to Indiana as a young lawyer. In the office of the Indiana attorney general, Ruckelshaus was assigned to the Indiana Board of Health, where he noticed that many of the state’s health issues were tied to air and water pollution, he says. It was a foundation for his work a decade later defining the mission and organization of the EPA.

Ruckelshaus with Nixon
William Ruckelshaus is sworn in as administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency as President Richard Nixon looks on at the White House on Dec. 4, 1970. (Photo Charles Tasnadi/AP)

“He’s really the long shadow of that institution,” says historian Brinkley, who interviewed Ruckelshaus for a book on the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Brinkley sought details about Ruckelshaus’s own story, and about the history surrounding the formation of the EPA during the Nixon Administration, as well as his time as acting director of the FBI and as deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ruckelshaus has no plans for a memoir. Instead, this will be the sum of his experiences for posterity. “Nobody tells a story better than Bill,” says Brinkley. And the hours of video from the interviews will be available to the public and for historians and scholars to use for years to come, he says.

Brinkley recently published Wilderness Warrior, a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and his creation of federal laws and national parks to protect wildlife. “He saw that protecting natural resources was directly in line with protecting America,” Brinkley says. “Ruckelshaus reflects T.R.’s approach.”

This is an interesting time for the focus, since there have been calls to eliminate the EPA and to open discussions of drilling for oil in the Florida Everglades. When the EPA was created the country had major problems with pollution coming from large, specific sources, says Ruckelshaus. For example, some cities had no sewage treatment at all. But since then, point source polluters have been brought under social control. Today, the problem comes from harder to control non-point sources like runoff from streets and farms. “And people forget how bad smog was,” he says. “That’s what makes the current assault on the EPA so difficult.”

While it benefits our nation to capture and chronicle this history, it is also of special value to Washington, where Ruckelshaus has made his home and has served as a volunteer leader in water quality and salmon recovery issues, says Michael Kern, director of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a joint project between Washington State University and the University of Washington to resolve conflicts surrounding public policy issues.

The Ruckelshaus Center supported the efforts to record the extensive interviews and will maintain them in its archives.

On the web

William D. Ruckelshaus Center (a joint project between Washington State University and the University of Washington to resolve conflicts surrounding public policy issues)