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Ruckelshaus, who started EPA and defied Nixon in Watergate, dies at 87

Bellamy Pailthorp
KNKX Pacific Public Media
William Doyle "Bill" Ruckelshaus, former CEO of Weyerhaeuser and longtime public servant led the EPA when it was created during the Nixon Administration. He's pictured here in his Seattle office at The Madrona Group in March 2017

This interview with the late Bill Ruckelshaus originally aired in March 2017. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Read a full obituary here

UPDATE, Nov. 27, 2019: 

William Doyle Ruckelshaus, who famously quit his job in the Justice Department rather than carry out President Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 87.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed his death in a statement Wednesday. Ruckelshaus served as the agency's first administrator.

The lifelong Republican also served as acting director of the FBI.

But his moment of fame came in 1973, when he was a deputy attorney general and joined his boss, Elliot Richardson, in resigning rather than carrying out Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

The firings became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

In his later years, he was a high-profile champion of cleaning up Puget Sound in Washington state, where he lived.

He talked with environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp in March 2017. Revisit the interview, and read the original story below.


Dramatic cuts proposed for the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency could hit home in the Puget Sound region.

The Region 10 office here, which covers ecosystems in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, employs more than 500 people.

In turn, many smaller firms around the Seattle area and beyond help write documents such as environmental impact statements to support EPA policies that many people fear could be wiped out by the Trump administration.

For context, 88.5 environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp turned to Bill Ruckelshaus,  an attorney, former politician and former CEO of the timber and paper companyWeyerhaeuser Corp. He’s also the man who, during the Nixon administration, basically created the original EPA.

Some Highlights From The Interview

On reading 'Silent Spring,' the classic non-fiction account of how ecosystems could be decimated if use of DDT continued:

“Sure [I read her]. I’m the one that banned DDT….” He says she was one of the scientists they turned to — that science has since been attacked.

Did his creation get out of control and run amok?

“I almost hate to say yes, because it will skew what I’m about to say. But the answer is yes. When we started EPA we had 2,000 people, in 1970. We now have 15,000.”   

Ruckelshaus says the EPA was a victim of its own success. He was called back in during the Reagan administration to fix it. 

Why does this need to be a federal program, not state-funded?

“States are not good regulators of industry because they compete so strongly for industry to locate within their borders. And because of that, EPA was formed” with the mission of protecting human health.

“People forget what the environment looked like 40 years ago, when we started all this stuff. You look at the front page of the New York Times about once a month, where they put Beijing and see how those people are suffering. Well, the same thing was happening here.”

Ruckelshaus says if you’re worried, get involved. Take a cue from the 1960s and the decade that followed and learn from that. Whatever your opinion, work hard on an issue that moves you, he says.

“That was going on in the '70s. I mean we made enormous progress in this country in the '70s. And it’s because people were putting their shoulder to the wheel and doing their part.”

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to