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 ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
Map of damage to the town of Paradise from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Heavy Rain Could Trigger Mudslides in Fire-Weary California

Northern California, which is already reeling from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, is now bracing for heavy rainfall this week.

The forecasted rain could bring much-needed relief for the firefighters battling the Camp Fire in Butte County. However, it could also bring new hazards due to possible ash, mud and debris flows triggered by the rain.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
A Super Scooper firefighting plane makes a water drop during the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, California this October. David McNew / Greenpeace

What Should We Know About Wildfires in California

By Rolf Skar

The Camp Fire raging in Northern California is now the most devastating and deadly fire in the state's recorded history. Simultaneously, deadly and destructive fires are burning in Southern California, as the Woolsey and Hill fires have engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills. With dozens dead, hundreds missing and thousands of structures destroyed, our hearts go out to those impacted across the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Ambrosia artemisiifolia, common ragweed. PLOS ONE

Allergen Alert: Ragweed Is Spreading to New Regions

By Marlene Cimons

Cristina Stinson never had an allergic reaction to ragweed until after she started working with it. "I think the repeated exposure to the pollen is what did it," she said. It also didn't help that her community is chock-full of it. "There is plenty of ragweed in my neighborhood," she said. "In fact, it grows right outside my door."

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A sperm whale that washed up in Indonesia's Wakatobi National Park had plastic bottles, bags and cups in its belly. @WWF_ID / Kartika Sumolang

13 Pounds of Plastic Found in Dead Sperm Whale

Yet another whale has suffered from plastic pollution. A sperm whale that washed up dead in a national park in Indonesia had nearly 13 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach, park officials told the Associated Press.

Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the park's conservation academy uncovered more than 1,000 other pieces of plastic, including 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops and a nylon sack.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
The first smoke from the Camp Fire arrived in Ukiah and turned the daylight red. Bob Dass / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Winds and Wildfires in California: 4 Factors to Watch That Increase Danger

By Brenda Ekwurzel

Before we dive into the science behind the four factors specific to the California Santa Ana winds, let's review the current situation in California and wildfire disaster risks in general.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A woman stands amidst the ruins of her home following Hurricane Michael; if action isn't taken on climate change, some places could face up to six such disasters at once. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Tropics Could Face Six Climate Disasters at Once by 2100

In a year that saw record-breaking heat waves, record-breaking hurricanes and record-breaking wildfires, it's hard to imagine how the future could look any more like a disaster movie than the present. But that is exactly what researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa have predicted in a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
Zinke tours Paradise, Calif. Nov. 14 with Governor Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Zinke Blames ‘Radical Environmentalists’ for Historic California Wildfire

In an interview with Breitbart News on Sunday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke blamed "radical environmentalists" for the wildfires that have devastated California in recent weeks, The Huffington Post reported.

"I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them," he said in the interview.

You can listen to the whole thing here:

The remarks come as California has suffered the deadliest blaze in the state's history. The death toll from the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, has now risen to 79. Around 1,000 people are still listed as missing, and the fire is now 70 percent contained, according to an Associated Press report Monday.

California Governor Jerry Brown blamed climate change in a statement made last weekend.

"Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness," Brown said.

Regardless, Zinke has remained consistent in pointing the finger at forest management. His current criticisms echo his remarks following other fires this August, in which he said the increasingly frequent and violent blazes were the result of inadequate forest management, and not climate change. He continued in that vein during Sunday's interview:

"In many cases, it's these radical environmentalists who want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber. We can manage it using best science, best practices. But to let this devastation go on year after year after year is unacceptable, it's not going to happen. The president is absolutely engaged."

President Donald Trump has indeed vehemently blamed forest mismanagement ever since the recent batch of fires broke out, even threatening at one point to withhold federal funding if the forests weren't managed properly. During a visit to California Saturday to survey damage, Trump brought up forest management again, suggesting that the problem in California was that the forests were not raked enough.

"You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it's a whole different story," he said, as CNN reported. "I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic] ..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, however, told a Finnish newspaper he did not recall suggesting raking to Trump.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

Finnish people have taken to Twitter to poke fun at the U.S. President's statement using the hashtag "Raking America Great Again."

Despite Trump and Zinke's criticisms, the fact remains that the federal government controls almost 60 percent of the forests in California while the state controls only three percent. Paradise was surrounded by federal, not state, forests. Further, the fires in Southern California spread in suburban and urban areas, The Huffington Post reported.

Some think the emphasis put by Zinke and Trump on forest management is not about preventing fires at all but rather an attempt to justify opening more public forests to private logging interests.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Animals
Dolphin found with a bullet wound in California's Manhattan Beach. Marine Animal Rescue / Facebook

'Senseless Killing': Dolphin Found Shot Dead on California Beach

How could anyone shoot a dolphin? A dolphin that washed up dead in Manhattan Beach, California died from a bullet wound, according to local animal rescue workers.

Earlier this month, Peter Wallerstein, the founder of Marine Animal Rescue, responded to a call about a stranded dolphin on the surf, according to NBC News. By the time he arrived at the scene, the marine mammal was dead.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

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