Quantcast
Climate

A smoggy view from the George Washington Bridge in 1973. Chester Higgins / US National Archives

EPA Under Siege: The New Assault on the U.S. Environmental Protection System

By Bob Sussman

The system took shape in the 1960s and 70s as the public and politicians sounded the alarm about the environmental legacy of decades of uncontrolled industrialization. Faced with the threat of unsafe and polluted air, contaminated rivers and streams, hazardous chemicals in homes and products and toxic waste sites, Congress enacted an ambitious set of laws calling for far-reaching protections of public health and the environment. Support for these laws came from across the political spectrum and from presidents as diverse as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.


Since 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been the prime mover in translating the lofty goals of our environmental laws into concrete progress. Thanks to many committed professionals and strong leadership at the top, EPA can take credit for impressive improvements in environmental quality.

Its accomplishments include the dramatic lowering of blood lead levels in American children, sharp declines in air pollution and an accompanying reduction in death and disease, and large reductions in harmful emissions from cars, trucks and factories. Add to that list the cleanup of thousands of contaminated waste sites and their return to productive use, recovery of the ozone layer after years of depletion, and restoration of numerous water bodies previously too polluted for fishing and recreation.

Many Americans take these environmental gains for granted, forgetting that they did not occur by chance but resulted from the hard work of a dedicated agency that insisted on results, refused to cut corners and held polluters accountable if they violated the law. Our environment is far from perfect, but a resolute EPA has enabled the U.S. to avoid the rampant environmental degradation that is endangering the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

Now, however, the EPA's credibility, professionalism and independence are facing a serious threat from the Trump Administration and its EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. The EPA has faced many challenges over its nearly 50-year history, but the president and Administrator Pruitt are putting at risk its effectiveness and even its survival to an extent that is unprecedented.

A historical strength of our system has been the stability and continuity of environmental policy from one president to the next. With rare exceptions, EPA leaders of both parties have built on the work of their predecessors, preserving protections on the books and adding new programs in response to changes in scientific understanding, emerging threats and public concerns. But Pruitt is turning this history on its head, both by a sweeping attack on the accomplishments of the Obama EPA and by extreme steps to dismantle the basic machinery of environmental protection.

In less than a year, Pruitt has moved to undo, delay, or otherwise block more than 30 rules issued by the Obama EPA, a far larger number than in any prior administration. These rules address serious threats to health and the environment, such as mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, contamination of rivers and streams from leaking coal ash impoundments and water pollution. Other rules the new administration has blocked cover catastrophic chemical releases from industrial accidents and spills, risks of hazardous pesticides to farmworkers and excess emissions harmful to air quality, and impacts on the climate from passenger vehicles and trucks.

The choice of these rules appears to be a knee-jerk response to right-wing grievances against EPA and the special pleading of industry lobbyists. If there's a guiding philosophy, it seems to be that the Obama EPA grossly overreached, cooked the books in its scientific and economic assessments, and abused its authority, all to the detriment of job creation and economic growth.

These are longtime articles of faith among vocal EPA detractors, but they've been refuted by many studies and don't represent the reality of what the Obama administration actually did. Missing from Pruitt's obsessive attacks on the Obama EPA is any meaningful explanation of how we might benefit from rolling back its rules and why we should sacrifice the basic human and ecological protections that these rules provide.

Nowhere has the administrator been more destructive than in his effort to reverse U.S. progress on climate change under President Obama—progress that EPA spearheaded through rules lowering carbon pollution from power plants, transportation, landfills and oil and gas production. A cheerleader for President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Pruitt has been a sharp critic of the scientific consensus on climate change, claiming that the contribution of human activity to global warming is unproven despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Despite these claims, Pruitt has been unwilling or unable to act on his rhetoric by making a case against EPA's 2010 "endangerment finding," an authoritative assessment of climate science that has been the driving force for cutting carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. Instead, he has made the dubious claim that the Obama EPA acted outside its delegated authority from Congress. This claim is being contested in court by many states and environmental groups resisting the rollback of Obama climate rules.

At the same time as he is undoing rules on the books, Pruitt is presiding over an unprecedented weakening of our nation's environmental protection capability. EPA's workforce, already at historically low levels, is being downsized further, resulting in the loss of irreplaceable expertise, and its budget is on track to be cut significantly. The elimination of research funding and turmoil on the agency's scientific advisory committees are together eroding the agency's technical and scientific competency. An effective moratorium on new rules is crippling EPA's ability to address emerging threats. Enforcement activity has dropped well below the levels of previous administrations, lowering the threat of civil and criminal penalties that deter violations. And budget uncertainties, attrition of key staff and conflicting signals from leadership have reduced EPA's ability to oversee state programs and assure that they maintain a fundamental floor of protection.

These trends will take a large toll on EPA's effectiveness that will be difficult to reverse. Inevitably, this will mean dangerous backsliding in the overall level of public health and environmental protection, and the public will pay a big price as a result. The many Americans who value the environmental progress EPA has achieved and don't want to lose it should come to its defense before it's too late.

We don't have to sit and watch as Administrator Pruitt and his fossil fuel allies work to roll back the policies that protect our families and our planet. EPA introduced the Clean Power Plan to make dirty power plants cut the dangerous emissions choking our air and changing our climate. Now, Pruitt wants to repeal this vital policy, but Americans across the country are standing up to stop him. Join them and add your name to our comment by Jan. 15 and together we'll send a clear message to DC: Americans want clean energy.

Bob Sussman was senior policy counsel to the EPA administrator during the Obama Administration and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law Center.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Animals
Brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. NPS Photo / B. Plog

Trump Admin. Wants to Reinstate 'Cruel' Hunting Tactics in Alaska, Conservation Groups Say

The Trump administration has proposed new regulations to overturn an Obama-era rule that protects iconic predators in Alaska's national preserves.

Wildlife protection organizations condemned the move, as it would allow hunters to go to den sites to shoot wolf pups and bear cubs, lure and kill bears over bait, hunt bears with dogs and use motor boats to shoot swimming caribou. Such hunting methods were banned on federal lands in 2015 that are otherwise permitted by the state.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
An Asian elephant eating tree bark. Yathin S Krishnappa / CC BY-SA 3.0

5 Conservation Milestones to Celebrate on This International Day for Biological Diversity

Scientists are increasingly realizing the importance of biodiversity for sustaining life on earth. The most comprehensive biodiversity study in a decade, published in March by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warned that the ongoing loss of species and habitats was as great a threat to our and our planet's wellbeing as climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Deep-sea corals may not be flashy, but they deserve a second look. Oceana

Ignoring Deep-Sea Corals Is Risky for the Oceans, and for Us

By Nathan Johnson

The deep sea might be cold and dark, but it's not barren. Down here, an incredible diversity of corals shelters young fish like grouper, snapper and rockfish. Sharks, rays and other species live and feed here their whole lives.

Brightly colored coral gardens, far beyond the reach of the sun's rays, don't just nurture deep-sea life. They also help advance medical research and understand climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Kristian Buus / Greenpeace

Green Groups Balk at England’s Plan to Fast Track Fracking

Government ministers published proposals Thursday that would speed the development of fracking in England, igniting opposition from environmental groups and local communities, The Independent reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy

Before Royal Wedding Sermon, Rev. Curry Stood With Standing Rock Pipeline Opponents

Bishop Michael Curry, who delivered a passionate wedding sermon to royal newlyweds Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Saturday, also gave a powerful message about two years ago to Dakota Access Pipeline protesters at Standing Rock, North Dakota.

On Sept. 24, 2016 at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the reverend offered the Episcopal Church's solidarity with the water protectors, noting that, "Water is a gift of the Creator. We must protect it. We must conserve it. We must care for it."

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Coral bleaching like this (in the Great Barrier Reef) is killing the largest reef in Japan. Oregon State University / CC BY-SA 2.0

Only 1% of Japan’s Largest Reef Still Healthy After Historic Bleaching Catastrophe

In a sobering reminder of the impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, a survey by the Japanese government found that barely more than one percent of the coral in the country's largest coral reef is healthy, AFP reported Friday.

The reef, located in the Sekisei Lagoon near Okinawa, has suffered mass coral bleaching events due to rising sea temperatures in 1998, 2001, 2007 and 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy

Train Carrying 250,000 Liters of Fuel Derails on Kenyan Coast

A cargo train carrying 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of super petroleum, or unleaded gasoline, derailed off its tracks after taking a sharp turn along Kenya's eastern coast, forcing the closure of a major highway over the weekend, according to local reports.

The accident occurred early Sunday in Kibarani in Mombasa County, and prompted authorities to completely close off Makupa Causeway, the main link between the mainland and Mombasa Island, fearing a fire would break out after spillage of the highly flammable liquid, The Star, Kenya reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
The farm bill's historic conservation provisions are important for preserving grassland biodiversity, like this black-footed ferret and prairie dog. USFWS Mountain-Prairie / CC BY 2.0

Farm Bill Harmful to Endangered Species and Conservation Fails in House

A farm bill with dangerous consequences for endangered species and conservation efforts failed to pass the House on Friday, The Guardian reported.

The 2018 version of the major agricultural bill was criticized by environmental groups because it would have allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve new pesticides without assessing their impact on wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act. The bill would also have cut funding for land conservation programs by $800 million over the next ten years.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!