In his State of the Union address in 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The speech has been archived by the American Presidency Project and quotes President Nixon saying, “Clean air, clean water, open spaces – these should once again be the birthright of every American.” That Republican president encouraged the nation to be better stewards of the country’s natural resources, explaining that it was time to repay a debt to nature incurred “[t]hrough our years of past carelessness.” He implored that “[r]estoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.”
The agency lived up to its mission of reducing pollution and protecting the country’s public health and environment for 46 years, despite well-funded efforts by the energy industry to circumvent those efforts. Yet, similar recent efforts to thwart the agency may be its toughest assault. The new EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who had been a staunch adversary of the agency with strong ties to corporate energy giants, creates a situation akin to putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house. The budget Pruitt proposed guts the agency’s primary programs and his plan to roll back a record number of regulations jeopardizes the health and safety of Americans from all parts of our country.
Fox Guarding the Hen House
Before he was appointed EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt served for six years as Oklahoma’s Attorney General and frequently sued the agency – fighting to block “efforts to regulate mercury, smog and other forms of pollution,” the Washington Post reported. The New York Times sums up more than 6,000 pages of emails made public in February just days after Pruitt was sworn in as EPA Administrator. The emails show how Pruitt “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations.” The backdrop of the emails make it obvious that Pruitt’s “back to basics” approach to running the EPA will benefit the companies that cozied up to him and other political operatives over the last few years.
Slashing EPA’s Budget
This conflict of interest became even more apparent when Pruitt submitted the agency’s fiscal year 2018 budget to congress. The proposed budget slashes agency funding by more than 30 percent, Fortune explains. When questioned by congressional members of his own party about the drastic cuts and the administration’s reasoning, Pruitt remained tightlipped on details and just referred to his “back to basics” plan for running the agency, CNN noted. However, the new administrator has found some support among a few members of congress including newcomer Congressman Matt Gaetz (R–Florida) who recently proposed legislation (H.R. 861) that seeks to “terminate” the agency.
Experts explain that the new administration’s so-called “back to basics” approach to running the EPA sets the agency’s budget back by nearly 40 years. The Washington Post says the “sledgehammer” budget tactic leaves few programs intact, preventing the agency from carrying out its basic mission and blocking it from holding bad corporate actors accountable. The cuts include:
• Eliminating major regional programs including ones designed to clean up freshwater sources such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, which have all suffered from decades of industrial contamination. These bodies of water provide millions of people with drinking water. (Washington Post)
• Reducing Superfund cleanup funding by approximately 30 percent. The Superfund program was established to clean up toxic chemicals, radioactive materials and hazardous waste carelessly discarded into local communities.
• Cutting in half the amount for grants that help state and local efforts to address issues such as air quality. Thousands of dollars will be taken out of local communities reducing their ability to monitor the air for toxic chemicals and tackle air exposure to hazardous pollutants such as pesticides. (Washington Post).
• Decimates the Environmental Justice Program with a 78 percent crushing blow to its funding, the Huffington Post reports. The program works to assist low-income communities with cleanup efforts and hold industrial polluters accountable for the damages inflicted on areas with populations that have been marginalized.
• National Public Radio described how one program that is popular across the board is also on the “back to basics” chopping board. The Energy Star program, which “saves consumers billions of dollars a year by boosting products’ efficiency.” Lowell Ungar with the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy explains that cutting the program will “destroy jobs and make air pollution worse.”
In its first 46 years the EPA ushered in a number of successes, including:
• Cleaner and healthier air, which is expected to prevent 230,000 early deaths annually by 2020 as a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act. This includes helping 2.4 million asthma sufferers breath more easily, cuts missed school days by 5.4 million and reduces the number of lost workdays by 17 million.
• Reducing harmful diesel exhaust from trucks, school buses and other equipment by 95 percent since 2000, which saved 40,000 lives each and year and prevented millions of respiratory illnesses linked to diesel exhaust.
• Uncovering Volkswagen’s emissions cheating software that hid the amount of toxic fumes produced by at least 500,000 of the manufacturer’s vehicles. The discovery helped expose other automobile manufacturers’ similar schemes and allowed the EPA to hold the industry accountable. (A cover-up addressed previously in this Report.)
These successes by the EPA are likely to be sacrificed through a combination of budget cuts and deregulation efforts currently underway. Since taking office Pruitt has begun the process of jettisoning EPA regulations that help protect public health and safety, the New York Times reports, in an attempt to lessen the regulatory impact on companies, which the administration believes will spur job growth and pass along the economic benefits to Americans. Yet, environmentalists and even some in the energy industry fear these efforts to let bad corporate actors off the hook will backfire and harm health and safety with very little economic benefit.
Some examples of the administration’s efforts to dismantle the EPA through deregulation include the following:
• Repealing the Clean Water Rule or Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which the Washington Post explains expanded the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate the pollution of wetlands and tributaries that run into the nation’s largest rivers. The goal of the rule was to clarify the ambiguity of the Clean Water Act that was passed in 1972, according to the Huffington Post.
• Chiseling away recent efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act. As previously mentioned, the Clean Air Act of 1990 helped reduce harmful air pollution and restoring the air to healthier, breathable standards. Pruitt’s EPA has delayed rules including: the oil, coal and gas royalties rule (which closed the loophole that allowed energy companies to pay lower royalties on their products produced on federal lands); the methane leak rule (which required energy companies to prevent leaks of methane and other hazardous gases from all new wells and drilling equipment); and the revised, stronger smog standards. It has also withdrawn rules including the methane emissions reporting request (which required energy companies to measure and provide detailed reports about the methane emitted from all their facilities in order to provide a clearer picture on the emissions and guidance on how to best control them).
• Weakening the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was the most significant overhaul of chemical-safety rules in decades. It was a rewrite of the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act and with “major bipartisan support, the updated standards strengthened the EPA’s authority to ban known carcinogens such as asbestos.” The new administration was left with the duty to implement the new standards. Yet, the rules it announced that would guide the implementation of the new standards included several business-friendly provisions including “giving manufacturers and other parties more time to submit information to influence whether the agency reviews a chemical’s risks and the conclusions it reaches,” Bloomberg BNA reports.
So while the EPA was created to be an independent agency, and while for years the agency was vigilant of large companies and big cities, the Washington Post explains, under Pruitt and the Trump Administration, it will no longer meet polluters with strong-armed aggressive responses. Rather, if it cannot fight the obvious efforts to demolish the agency, the EPA will wither away as promised during the past campaign season. Tragically, corporate bad actors will once again be allowed to freely pollute our land, air and water. I don’t believe that is what the overwhelming majority of Americans want. Hopefully, Congress will listen to people and not the polluters. That’s a decision that all Americans should be watching closely and our future depends on it.
Sources: The American Presidency Project, New York Times, Washington Post, U.S. Congress, Fortune, CNN, Montana Standard, PitWatch, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, Politico, and Bloomberg BNA
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