By Timothy R. Smith / The Washington Post
William Ruckelshaus, a pragmatic and resolute government official who shaped the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1970s as its first administrator and returned to the agency a decade later to restore its shattered morale after its watchdog powers had been muzzled, died Wednesday at his home in Seattle. He was 87.
The death was confirmed by a friend, Philip Angell. The cause was not immediately known.
In a long career in government and private industry, Ruckelshaus was widely promoted as “Mr. Clean” as much for his uprightness as for his role with the EPA. He cemented his reputation for unshakable integrity when, in 1973, as Richard Nixon’s deputy attorney general, he refused a presidential order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in.
Decades later, as chief executive of Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries, the second-largest trash-disposal company in the country, he expanded the company’s presence into New York and worked with law enforcement agencies to help break mob control of the city’s trash removal business.
Between two stints at EPA, Ruckelshaus moved his family and five children to the Seattle area, where he had spent two years as an army drill sergeant at the Fort Lewis.
A longtime Seattle resident, Ruckelshaus served from 2007 to 2010 as the first head of the Puget Sound Partnership, an environmental agency. He led federal efforts to recover Chinook salmon and steered the ambitious state initiative to clean up and restore Puget Sound, where salmon and orcas are in danger. His focus on a collaborative science-based process helped set the course for the Puget Sound Partnership, which is charged with cleaning up inland waters by 2020.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Ruckelshaus, the scion of a prominent Indianapolis legal family, was a moderate, Princeton- and Harvard-educated Republican who rose in the Nixon-era Justice Department before guiding the EPA at its birth in 1970.
Hulking, rawboned and bespectacled, Ruckelshaus shepherded several federal environmental entities into a robust regulatory agency and did as much as anyone to mold the EPA’s mission.
During his three-year tenure, he created policies that forced cities to adopt anti-pollution laws, held automakers to strict emissions standards and banned the harmful pesticide DDT.
J. Patrick Dobel, a University of Washington public affairs professor who has written about Ruckelshaus’s leadership abilities, said he focused the agency’s mission and drew early media attention to the EPA.
“He got the EPA a lot of public support and built up visibility,” Dobel said.
Around the time Ruckelshaus stepped down from the EPA in April 1973, the Nixon administration was foundering amid accusations that it had obstructed justice by covering up its involvement in the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington.
Ruckelshaus, who had no connection to the scandal, was made acting FBI director and then deputy attorney general in an effort by the Nixon administration to rebuild public confidence.
On Oct. 20, 1973, Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor appointed by Attorney General Elliot Richardson to investigate the break-in, had requested complete access to Oval Office tape recordings of the time immediately after the break-in. Nixon rebuffed the request and ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned.
Shortly afterward, Gen. Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, phoned Ruckelshaus and instructed him to fire Cox.
“Your commander in chief has given you an order,” Haig said.
Ruckelshaus, who had promised the Senate during confirmation hearings that he would protect Cox, refused carry out Nixon’s order and then resigned. The duties of the attorney general were transferred to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to fire Cox.
The event became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” and precipitated the downfall of the Nixon presidency in August 1974.
Of his role, Ruckelshaus later said, “It was not a heroic act.”
After promising Cox the freedom to investigate the Watergate scandal, he said, “What I was requested to do was violate that promise.” The decision to quit, he said, was “very easy.”
Ruckelshaus was serving as vice president of legal affairs for Washington state-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser when President Ronald Reagan asked him to return as EPA administrator in 1983.
In 2008, Time magazine rated Ruckelshaus among the best Cabinet secretaries in U.S. history. (The EPA was given Cabinet-level status in 1990.)
William Doyle Ruckelshaus was born in Indianapolis on July 24, 1932. His family had long been active in the state Republican party. His father had once considered running for Senate but declined, believing a Catholic would never win in Indiana.
Ruckelshaus attended Princeton University, where he was a lackluster student. To discipline his inattentive son, his father, who was chairman of the local draft board, got his son drafted. He returned to Princeton after two years in the Army and graduated cum laude in 1957.
Ruckelshaus received a law degree from Harvard in 1960, then joined his family’s Indianapolis law firm. Later that year, he was appointed state deputy attorney general and worked as counsel with the Indiana Board of Health, where he took legal action against companies polluting state waterways. It was his first foray into environmental policy and contributed to his later EPA appointment.
His first wife, Harvard Law School classmate Ellen Urban, died during childbirth in 1961. The next year he married Jill Strickland, who later served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In addition to his wife, survivors include twin daughters from his first marriage and three children from his second marriage.
Ruckelshaus was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1966 and became the first freshman legislator to serve as majority leader. In 1968, he mounted an unsuccessful challenge against incumbent Sen. Birch Bayh, a Democrat.
After the election, Ruckelshaus was asked by the Nixon White House to become head of the Justice Department’s civil division. He quickly impressed Nixon and Mitchell by deftly handling student protests against the Vietnam War’s expansion into Cambodia.
By 1970, Congress had passed several environmental bills, including the Clean Air Act. The federal government, however, lacked an individual agency to enforce the laws. Regulation was spread across 15 separate agencies, which blunted the government’s influence on environmental policy.
Nixon created the EPA by executive order and appointed Ruckelshaus as its first administrator. Nine days into his tenure, he ordered the mayors of Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit to develop plans to correct water-quality violations or face the prospect of legal action. Within months, he ordered cities to enact clean-air standards by 1975, and factory owners were required to provide detailed reports on materials dumped into waterways.
“We did come out pretty fast,” Ruckelshaus told USA Today in June 2010. “There were a lot of handy targets around. And I felt we needed to show the public that we were serious.”
In 1988, Ruckelshaus became chief executive of Browning-Ferris Industries, a trash-removal company with a spotty environmental and legal record.
The Associated Press contributed.