October 9, 2017
Our news feeds are full of reports on Trump’s latest outrageous tweets or high-profile failures—witness his tone deaf, racist response to the disaster in Puerto Rico. But the real damage is going on relatively quietly: The White House is systematically undermining the federal agencies that do the hard work of actually governing, and their efforts could lead to lasting destruction that costs lives. Nowhere is this more evident or alarming than at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is squarely in the cross hairs of the strongly pro-business Trump White House. The administration has doubled down on fossil fuels, an archaic technology that is destroying the environment, while the rest of the world is moving swiftly into clean energy--a decision that will have disastrous consequences for our nation’s physical and economic health and for the fate of humanity.
Trump’s war on the EPA started with the nomination of Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s former attorney general, to head the agency. Since his confirmation, Pruitt has worked diligently to gut the agency, unravel decades of consumer protections and defund science while serving as a handmaiden to the industries he's supposed to police—including convincing Trump to back out of the Paris Climate Accords. None of this should come as a surprise: Pruitt earned his political stripes being a close friend to Oklahoma’s fossil fuel industry and as that state's attorney general, virtually shut down its Environmental Protection Unit, which monitored illegal dumping and pollution belched out from refineries. He spent most of his time as Oklahoma’s AG filing 14 lawsuits against the U.S. EPA.
“The appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA head is as serious a threat to our environment as we’ve ever faced,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told Rolling Stone. “Pruitt’s entire career represents the exact opposite of the EPA’s mission, which is to protect us from the reckless polluters and disastrous consequences of climate change.”
The list of changes is dizzying—and more are on the horizon. The White House has proposed cutting EPA funds from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion—a 31 percent budgetary rollback that is unprecedented and would cripple the agency’s ability to enforce health standards. Climate change is one of their biggest targets. Earlier this week, Pruitt announced plans to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the signature policy of the Obama Administration, aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In addition, the program for even reporting on greenhouse gas emissions is scheduled to be eliminated, the office that drafts climate regulations will see its budget cut by 70 percent, and more than 1,900 agency web pages on topics like climate change and pollution have been taken down.
Also on the chopping block are all regional cleanup and restoration programs, including the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Champlain, Long Island Sound and South Florida; grants that help states monitor public water systems (proposed cuts would whittle funding from $102 million to $71 million); and superfund programs, which make federal funds available for the cleanup of sites contaminated by hazardous substances and pollutants, would be slashed by nearly half, from $404 million to $221 million. The budget also eliminates monies for vehicle testing and fuel standards, as well as a $6 million research and screening effort to identify endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment, which have been linked to breast cancer and birth defects.
Perhaps most alarming are proposed cuts for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources division. DOJ lawyers conduct the litigation that compels super polluters to clean up sites that have been contaminated with hazardous wastes and often leak into the groundwater, sickening local residents. The EPA reimburses the DOJ about $20 million a year to handle these cases. Enforcement actions are already down 60 percent, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, and losing the legal muscle of the DOJ further weakens the EPA’s ability to enforce the rules. “Without the DOJ, we can't do any enforcement and this lets polluters off the hook because they're not going to prosecute anything,” says John O’Grady, an environmental scientist and president of AFGE Council 238, the employees union at the EPA.
Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt has cozied up with industry, although he’s kept it mostly secret; unlike all of his predecessors, he’s refused to release his daily appointments calendar, answer oversight questions from Capitol Hill lawmakers or make himself available to reporters. He’s accompanied by round-the-clock armed guards, the first EPA director to ever request such tight security, and he’s shelling out $25,000 of taxpayer dollars to have a secure phone booth installed in his office so no one can monitor his conversations. But investigations by the Washington Post and the New York Times, which were forced to file Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain Pruitt’s calendar (something that other EPA directors have released willingly in order to be transparent public servants), reveal he’s had numerous meetings at EPA headquarters with honchos from the industries his agency is charged with regulating—automotive, fossil fuel and mining—and subsequently made decisions that were favorable to those groups.
In one particularly egregious incident—although there have been many--Pruitt met with officials from the Pebble Limited Partnership, a Canadian firm that had been stymied in its attempt to build a huge copper and gold mine in Alaska because the EPA felt contamination from the mine could endanger salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed. Within hours of the meeting, according to CNN, Pruitt directed his staff to withdraw a plan to protect the watershed, which is one of the most valuable wild salmon fisheries in the world. Ten days later, a legal settlement was negotiated that would allow the firm to reapply for permits.
Also on his calendar were meetings with executives at the National Mining Association, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers board, Boeing, General Electric, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and the Auto Alliance (the automotive industry's lobbying arm), among numerous others. He’s also had numerous appearances on right-wing media: Fox & Friends, Hannity, and Varney & Co. Noticeably absent from his crammed schedule were representatives championing the interests of average Americans, such as public health organizations or environmental groups.
The eventual toll all of this may have on the nation's well-being is far-reaching. “We’ve taken for granted that the EPA would look after our health,” says Jeremy Symons, associate vice president of climate change policy at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington D.C. “But when Scott Pruitt is best friends with the worst polluters, it puts the health of millions of Americans at risk, especially our most vulnerable people. Everything he is trying to do affects the water we drink, the air we breathe and the toxins that are in our environment.”
There is now a siege mentality at the EPA because of all the proposed cuts in both programs and in the workforce, with thousands of jobs on the line and an administration that is constantly bad-mouthing the EPA’s career civil servants, many of whom have Ph.Ds. “You have to be educated to do this job and I don’t know where to even begin to talk about our frustration,” says O’Grady. “I’ve been with the agency for 31 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it—employees are afraid of saying anything and afraid of losing their jobs.”
Scores of career scientists and policy experts, many of them veteran staffers with decades of experience and irreplaceable expertise, have resigned in disgust because they feel like they’re being targeted and they refuse to help dismantle the agency. In one high profile defection, Mustafa Ali, the founder and head of the environmental justice program at the EPA, who worked for nearly a quarter of a century to protect poor and minority communities from the effects of industrial pollution and tainted air and water, quit earlier this year rather than implement the deep cuts to programs that have helped more than 1,400 communities. In his resignation letter, Ali implored the new leadership to “continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”
Even the scientific advisory boards that provide technical assistance to the agency to ensure they’re basing decisions on solid science have come under fire. “Our job is to review the science,” says Deborah Swackhamer, an environmental chemist at the University of Minnesota and head of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. “Our work touches on every part of the work the EPA does, from regulating air and water quality to looking at the fallout from natural disasters or terrorist attacks or disasters like the BP Oil spill.” One of the boards has been “decimated,” in Swackhamer’s words, and whittled down from 68 members to just 11. Some of the scientists nominated to replace many of these experts come from places like the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank pushing the fossil-fuel-friendly-agenda that global warming is a hoax. “The fact they made it to the final list of nominees boggles the mind,” says Swackhamer. “They don't have what I would consider legitimate credentials.”
It’s a sad commentary on the fate of an agency that was launched with great fanfare in 1970 during the Nixon Administration, after a series of high-profile disasters (including the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, during which the heavily polluted Ohio river exploded in flames) spurred the rise of the environmental movement. In the nearly half-century since, the agency, which has ten regional offices and 15,000 employees around the country, has racked up an impressive track record despite a tiny budget (less than 0.2 percent of the federal budget) and a wide mandate to police some of the nation's largest and most politically connected industries. By cracking down on factories and chemical companies spewing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, the agency, as part of its mandate to enforce the Clean Air Act, will have prevented 230,000 premature deaths by 2020.
The EPA, which is also charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act, was able to hold British Petroleum accountable after its drilling platform, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and dumped more than 10 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The agency’s efforts resulted in a record $4.5 billion settlement in criminal fines and other penalties and served as a warning to other oil giants that criminal negligence and flagrant violations of environmental protections would not be tolerated. And because of its role in setting vehicle emissions standards, the EPA discovered that Volkswagen cheated on its emissions tests for cars and worked with the state of California to hold the company accountable.
O’Grady worries that we'll go back to the conditions that existed in the 1950s and early ’60s, with heavily polluted rivers (even the Great Lakes were dying), contaminated drinking water worse than Flint, and air so dirty that cities like Los Angeles were perpetually blanketed in smog. “If we want to have clean water and clean air for our children and our grandchild,” he says, “we need a strong EPA.”