Fighting Polluters Since 1970


NRDC uses law, science, and the collective power of people to tackle the world’s pressing environmental problems from every angle. And we’ve been winning for 50 years.

We fight for every person’s right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy, thriving community. And we steadfastly protect our treasured lands and waters and imperiled species.

Explore some of NRDC’s biggest milestones over our half century of progress. And then join us in this fight.

San Juan National Forest in Colorado.


These are dark days. Industry's impact on the environment has gone unchecked for nearly a century—and the threats are escalating.

The Cuyahoga River had caught fire many times before 1969. Pictured are firefighters battling a blaze on the river in Cleveland in 1952.

Ohio's polluted Cuyahoga River has just caught fire.

Aerial view of a spill from an offshore oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969.

Santa Barbara, California, is scrambling to clean up a recent 80,000-barrel oil spill off of its coast.

A lark stands amid smoke.

White birds are turning black with soot while migrating above the Rust Belt's coal-fired power plants.

But people are taking notice and taking action.

People gathered in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park to observe the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

In 1970, 20 million people come together to celebrate the first Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is established, and a small group of tenacious lawyers form the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NRDC staff sitting and talking outdoors.
NRDC staff at its first staff retreat at Mohonk in New Paltz, New York, in 1975.

Their strategy is simple: Put together a top-notch team of lawyers, scientists, and policy experts to help write and pass evidence-based environmental laws. Then enforce those laws through tireless litigation.

Thanks to NRDC, the 1970s become a decade of signature legislation.

Girl Scout in canoe, picking trash out of the Potomac River during Earth Week


NRDC helps pass the landmark Clean Water Act.

The law will soon keep 700 billion pounds of toxic pollutants—like ash from coal-fired power plants and chemicals from manufacturing—out of waterways each year. The law also makes it possible for citizens to sue polluters directly, even if they’re not impacted by the pollution themselves.

A herd of antelope shared its range with the Dave Johnston power plant of Pacific Light and Power Co. near Glendo, Wyoming, in 1974.


NRDC helps pass a set of amendments tackling dangerous loopholes in the Clean Air Act. Companies must now install state-of-the-art technology to limit pollution when they build or make changes to coal-fired power plants and other facilities. States are now also required to establish programs to reduce emissions from power plants.

These plants spew a toxic, smog-forming cocktail of pollutants like mercury, arsenic, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, among others. People can now breathe easier.

As levels of these pollutants go down, so do rates of illnesses like asthma, lung and heart disease, and cancer.

Paula Yates sprays her hair with hairspray during Fashion Aid at the Royal Albert Hall on November 5th, 1985.


A pile of discarded aerosol cans.

Aerosol spray cans are releasing powerful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are ripping a hole in our planet's ozone layer.

Three Mile Island is the site of the worst commercial nuclear accident in the United States. On March 28, 1979, the plant suffered a partial meltdown and thousands of local residents were evacuated.

America is reeling from a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the worst commercial nuclear disaster in the country to date.

NRDC deputy executive director and future president Frances Beinecke (right) with her colleagues during a trip to the USSR for discussions on nuclear weapons.

But the power of the environmental movement continues to grow, and NRDC proves that seemingly insurmountable environmental crises can be solved through international cooperation.

Students at Claremont College heckled Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan as he spoke at the campus.

1984: NRDC scores its first victory toward reducing the nuclear threat.

Crowds gathered for a No Nukes rally protesting the development of nuclear weapons in New York City, circa 1980.

For decades, toxic and radioactive waste from nuclear weapons facilities has contaminated thousands of sites across the country.

These facilities have been evading environmental oversight for nearly 50 years.

This all changes when NRDC wins litigation that requires these facilities to abide by the same environmental laws as everyone else, ending a half century of secrecy and self-regulation and triggering a massive cleanup effort.

Nuclear testing also poses serious health risks to nearby communities—
risks that propel NRDC to urge Congress and the White House to stop nuclear testing globally.

Stacks of 50-gallon drums and fiberglass-covered boxes containing radioactive waste (mostly low-level, long-lived plutonium) sat in the storage area at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, circa 1974.

But there's a problem:
The United States is in an arms race with the Soviet Union and won’t sign a nuclear testing ban unless there’s a way to ensure that the Soviets will keep up their end of the deal.

The mushroom cloud from a 19 kiloton nuclear device that was exploded from a balloon over the Nevada Test Site during a weapons test in 1957.

So NRDC finds the solution:
New seismic stations, created by an NRDC-led delegation and run by a team of American and Soviet scientists, are placed around testing sites to accurately monitor for nuclear testing and provide scientific verification of compliance.

NRDC staff on a nuclear test–related trip to Nevada.

It works.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush signs a bill to suspend explosive nuclear testing. Tests on both sides grind to a halt.

Earth observation of Ireland, United Kingdom and Scandinavia on a moonlit night under an amazing and ever-changing aurora, on Feb. 6, 2015. Image captured by Terry Virts, a flight engineer on the International Space Station with Expedition 42.

1987: NRDC helps heal the ozone layer.

Thanks to our litigation, research, and pressure, 46 countries sign the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to phase out the industrial use of ozone-depleting chemicals and close up the gaping ozone hole growing over Antarctica.

Today, that pact includes every country in the world.

A cooling reactor which is part of Chemopol lets off steam in Most in the Czech Republic, October 20, 1998.


The fossil fuel industry continues to wreak havoc.

An oil well in North Dakota in 1997.

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker has just dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska’s remote Prince William Sound—the worst spill in U.S. waters to date.

On March 28,1989, workers steam-blasted rocks and washed down Alaskan shorelines soaked in crude oil from the leaking tanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 23, 1989. It spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil, which resulted in the largest oil spill in U.S. history until the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

In a historic Senate testimony one year prior, NASA scientist James Hansen warned that emissions from human activity are dramatically altering the world’s climate.

Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, testified before a Senate transportation subcommittee in 1989, a year after his history-making testimony telling the world that global warming was here and would get worse.

The primary culprit? The burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.

Petroleum industry workers confer on an offshore oil platform in Chile's Strait of Magellan while burning waste gas comes out of an exhaust pipe.

NRDC helps pass federal legislation to hold Big Oil to account and addresses the global climate crisis by pushing proactive policies on the other side of the world.

The United States Capitol Building.

1990: One year after the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill, NRDC pressures the federal government to pass the Oil Pollution Act.

Oil spill cleanup at the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach, California, in 1998.
Oil spill cleanup at Newport Beach, California, in 1990.

The landmark law means offshore polluters have to clean up their own messes and restore damaged natural resources after spills.

Meanwhile, NRDC looks to the future in China, the world’s most populous country and largest carbon emitter.

View from Coal Hill of the Drum Tower in Beijing in April 1996.

1996: NRDC launches the China Clean Energy Project.

NRDC senior attorney and Asia senior strategic director Barbara Finamore (center) and former NRDC director of International Energy & Green Building Programs Rob Watson (second from right) at the groundbreaking ceremony for the first LEED-certified green building in China.

The China Clean Energy Project promotes energy efficiency and green-building certification in rapidly industrializing cities across China.

This project helps birth China’s clean energy movement and lay the foundation for what eventually becomes an NRDC office in Beijing.

The White House.


President Bill Clinton prepared to sign proclamations creating three new national monuments to protect scenic lands in Arizona's Grand Canyon in 2000. He was joined by (from left) Congressman Ed Pastor, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Congressman Sam Farr, Lake Mead National Recreation Area superintendent Alan O'Neil, and field manager of the Bureau of Land Management Roger Taylor.

A new millennium sees federal and White House cooperation on environmental issues grind to a halt. In 2001, President Clinton passes a protective ban on roadbuilding across 58 million acres of federal land, but the new Bush administration enters the White House and weakens it.

In a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House in 2001, President George W. Bush made remarks on the global climate change working group's status report in preparation for the US-EU summit. Surrounded by his cabinet, including Secretary of State Colin Powell (left), Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham (second from left), Secretary of Interior Gale Norton (second from right) and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman (right), Bush reiterated his opposition to the Kyoto climate change treaty but vowed to continue working within the U.N. process.

The FBI is treating environmentalists as a domestic terrorist threat. The United States refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed by 192 parties that is meant to curb the greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis.

NRDC waits out the stalemate in Washington, D.C., by focusing on key local and international environmental fights.

A sunny tropical beach covered in pebbles.

2000: NRDC saves Mexico’s pristine Laguna San Ignacio from a planned massive salt factory proposed by Mitsubishi Corporation. The lagoon off the coast of Baja California is the last unspoiled breeding ground of the gray whale.

Baja California gray whale calf, Eschrichtius robustus, in Laguna San Ignacio.
“This remains one of the most significant environmental decisions of our generation—not just for Mexico, but for the world. The San Ignacio Lagoon is a World Heritage site, a part of the larger El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird refuge. We brought the full force of world opinion and consumer power to bear on Mitsubishi and Mexico to save the gray whale nursery. It would have been the worst place on the planet for industrial development.” Joel Reynolds, NRDC senior attorney

2008: NRDC launches the India Initiative, a series of projects that address the country’s unique public health, energy, and climate challenges.

Rajasthan, India.

Alongside a network of local partners, NRDC improves climate resiliency for some of India’s most vulnerable communities by putting early-warning systems in place for extreme heat waves and installing cool roofs that reflect sunlight.

We also help finance clean energy technology for remote villages and improve the energy efficiency of commercial building codes.

Smoke rises from a fire on the surface of the ocean.


The world watches in horror as BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explodes—killing 11 workers and spilling an eventual 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

A firefighter tried to stop a forest fire near the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya in Nizhny Novgorod region, some 255 miles east of Moscow, in 2010. Nearly 600 separate blazes were burning nationwide, mainly across western Russia. Hundreds of forest and peat bog fires had ignited amid the country's most intense heat wave in 130 years of record-keeping.Flood victims scrambled for food rations as they battled the downwash from a Pakistan Army helicopter during relief operations in 2010, in the village of Goza in the Sindh province of Pakistan. The country's agricultural heartland was devastated, with rice, corn, and wheat crops destroyed by floods. The UN described the disaster as unprecedented, with over a third of the country underwater.

The climate crisis can now be felt across the globe. There are droughts in the Amazon, floods in Pakistan, wildfires in Australia, and deadly heat waves in Russia. The higher stakes bring increased collaboration.

Flying bald eagle
Mountain lion standing on a large rock

Nearly 200 nations sign the Convention on Biological Diversity, committing to protect at-risk species around the world.

Calls get louder for environmental justice for the low-income communities and people of color who have long been disproportionately impacted by air and water pollution.

Pastor Alex C. Overton (center) stood amid water activists, a city councilman, and an attorney on the steps outside of the Genesee County Circuit Court in Flint, Michigan, after filing a lawsuit in 2015, that alleged the city had

2016: NRDC fights alongside the residents of Flint, Michigan, who have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water for years.

After NRDC files a federal lawsuit, the city of Flint and Michigan state officials agree to replace the lead pipes that are contaminating the water supply and endangering public health.

2019: NRDC helps negotiate the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act—the largest designation of wilderness in 25 years and a bipartisan vote of confidence in the future of public lands and waters.

The law safeguards more than 1.3 million acres of pristine natural habitat and nearly 620 miles of rivers across the United States.

It also protects historic and culturally significant landmarks, like the home of civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers and Camp Nelson, a Civil War recruitment and training camp for African-American volunteers in the Union Army.

Labyrinth Canyon, Utah
Umpqua River, Oregon

Our first 50 years are just the beginning.

The next half century will present unprecedented challenges and even higher stakes. Without urgent and collective climate action, scientists predict that ecosystems will collapse, food supplies will be stretched thin, and extreme-weather events will become more frequent and destructive. As always, low-income communities and people of color will be hit first and hardest.

Our work is cut out for us.
But NRDC was made for this moment. We have the science, policy, and legal expertise plus three million passionate supporters.

Together, we are an unstoppable force. Join us.