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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.

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