Quantcast
Popular

Trump Vows to Kill 50 Years of Federal Health and Safety Protections

By Elliott Negin

President Trump wants to set the regulatory clock back to 1960, and last week he acted it out for the cameras.

Wielding a pair of golden scissors at a White House photo op, he cut red tape strung around two stacks of paper. One was a small pile of some 20,000 pages representing the amount of regulations in 1960; the other a mound of more than 185,000 pages representing those of today.


"We're getting back below the 1960 level," Trump declared, "and we'll be there fairly quickly."

There's only one problem. That mountain of paper Trump used as a prop symbolizes hard-won measures that protect us.

To refresh the president's memory, back in the 1960s, smog in major U.S. cities was so thick it blocked the sun. Rivers ran brown with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Cleveland's Cuyahoga River and at least two other urban waterways were so polluted they caught on fire. Lead-laced paint and gasoline poisoned children, damaging their brains and nervous systems. Cars without seatbelts, air bags or safety glass were unsafe at any speed. And hazardous working conditions killed an average of 14,000 workers annually, nearly three times the number today.

In response, Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and other landmark pieces of legislation to protect public health and safety. Some of those laws also created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal agencies to write and enforce safeguards.

None of those laws, or the regulations they spawned, existed in 1960.

Trump Grew Up on Dirty Air

Trump should remember quite well what it was like in the 1960s. After all, he lived in New York, at the time one of the dirtiest cities in the country. Garbage incinerators routinely rained ash on city streets, while coal- and oil-fired power plants spewed a noxious mix of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and toxic metals. John V. Lindsay, the city's mayor from 1966 to 1973, famously quipped, "I never trust air I can't see," but it was no laughing matter. On Thanksgiving weekend the year Lindsay took office, the smog was so bad it killed some 200 people.

The waterways coursing around the city's boroughs, especially the Hudson River, were just as filthy. In 1965, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller accurately called the Hudson "one great septic tank." Indeed, 170 million gallons of raw sewage fouled the river daily while factories along its banks treated it as a waste pit. A General Motors plant in Sleepy Hollow, 27 miles north of New York City, poured its paint sludge directly into the river. Even worse, General Electric manufacturing plants in Fort Edwards and Hudson Falls dumped about 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a probable human carcinogen, into the river over a 30-year period ending in 1977. Since 1984, a 200-mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls to Manhattan's southern tip has been on the EPA's Superfund program list of the country's most hazardous waste sites.

Protections Prevent Disease and Save Lives

Fast forward to today. By and large, the environmental laws Congress began passing in the 1970s have been remarkably successful.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, for example, tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash have been kept out of U.S. waterways since it was enacted 45 years ago. In New York City, harbor water quality has improved so much that humpback whales have returned for the first time in a century.

Thanks to the Clean Air Act, nationwide emissions of six common pollutants—carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (soot) and sulfur dioxide—plunged 70 percent on average between 1970 and 2015.

New Yorkers are breathing easier, too. On Earth Day last April, the city's health department released a report announcing that air pollution in the Big Apple is at the lowest level ever recorded. Between 2008 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter declined 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, while sulfur dioxide levels plummeted 84 percent after the city and state tightened heating oil rules.

That's all good news for public health. In 2010 alone, according to an EPA study, Clean Air Act programs that reduced levels of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone prevented an estimated 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 heart attacks, and 1.7 million asthma attacks across the country.

These accomplishments, however, do not mean it's time to eliminate or weaken environmental safeguards. There is still much left to do. Consider that in just one year—2015—polluters dumped more than 190 million tons of toxic chemicals into waterways nationwide; at least 5,000 community drinking water systems violated federal lead regulations; and some 116 million Americans lived in counties with harmful levels of ozone or particulate matter pollution, which have been linked to lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems and premature death.

If You Can't Kill 'Em, Just Don't Enforce 'Em

Fortunately, it will be very difficult for the Trump administration to roll back 50 years' worth of congressionally mandated rules protecting the public from industrial poisons, harmful drugs, adulterated food and defective products. Trump's regulation czar conceded the point immediately after the December 14 White House photo op.

"I think returning to 1960s levels would likely require legislation. It's hard for me to know what that looks like," said Neomi Rao, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. "Deregulation also takes time. If we're doing something consistent with the law, it takes time to reduce rules."

In the meantime, the Trump administration is resorting to the next best—or worst—thing, depending on your perspective: It has cut back dramatically on enforcing environmental laws.

A recent New York Times investigative report compared the number of enforcement actions filed in the first nine months of the Trump EPA with what the two previous administrations did over the same time period. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA initiated about 1,900 cases, about a third fewer than under Lisa Jackson, President Obama's first EPA administrator, and about a quarter fewer than under Christine Todd Whitman, who directed the agency under President George W. Bush and was not known for aggressive enforcement.

The Times also found that the Trump EPA is reluctant to seek civil penalties. In its first nine months, the agency tagged polluters for about $50.4 million for violations. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to roughly 70 percent of what the Bush EPA levied and only about 39 percent of what the Obama EPA sought over the same time frame.

To make matters worse, Pruitt is threatening to cut off funding for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, which files lawsuits on behalf of the EPA's Superfund program to force polluters to cover the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites. In recent years, the EPA has reimbursed the division more than $20 million annually.

In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism, Trump acknowledged at last week's photo op that purging a half century of protections could have an adverse impact, and he assured Americans that he would not let that happen.

"We know that some of the rules contained in these pages have been beneficial to our nation, and we're going to keep them," he said. "We want to protect our workers, our safety, our health, and we want to protect our water, we want to protect our air, and our country's natural beauty."

Somehow, I'm not convinced. Given the president's penchant for lying, his administration's abysmal track record, and now his avowed intention to kill nearly 90 percent of federal regulations, the smoke Trump is blowing is as thick as 1960s New York smog.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Health
A family wears face masks as they walk through the smoke filled streets after the Thomas wildfire swept through Ventura, California on Dec. 6, 2017. MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

How to Protect Your Children From Wildfire Smoke

By Cecilia Sierra-Heredia

We're very careful about what our kids eat, but what about the air they breathe?

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Hero Images / Getty Images

Study: Children Have Better Nutrition When They Live Near Forests

Spending time in nature is known to boost mental and emotional health. Now, a new global study has found that children in 27 developing nations tend to have more diverse diets and better nutrition when they live near forests.

The paper, published Wednesday in Science Advances, provides evidence that forest conservation can be an important tool in promoting better nutrition in developing countries, rather than clear-cutting forests for more farmland.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Navy torpedo bomber spraying DDT just above the trees in Goldendale, WA in 1962. USDA Forest Service

Maternal DDT Exposure Linked to Increased Autism Risk

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry Thursday found that mothers exposed to the banned pesticide DDT were nearly one-third more likely to have children who developed autism, Environmental Health News reported.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
Significant cupping of leaves from dicamba drift on non-Xtend soybeans planted next to Xtend beans in research plots at the Ashland Bottoms farm near Manhattan, KS. Dallas Peterson, K-State Research and Extension / CC BY 2.0

Top Seed Companies Urge EPA to Limit Dicamba

Two of the nation's largest independent seed sellers, Beck's Hybrids and Stine Seed, are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to place limits on the spraying of the drift-prone pesticide dicamba, Reuters reported.

This could potentially hurt Monsanto, which along with DowDupont and BASF SE, makes dicamba formulations to use on Monsanto's Xtend seeds that are genetically engineered to resist applications of the weedkiller. Beck's Hybrids and Stine Seed, as well as other companies, sell those seeds.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Baby son in high chair feeding father. Getty Images

Baby Food Tests Find 68 Percent Contain 'Worrisome' Levels of Heavy Metals

Testing published by Consumer Reports (CR) Thursday found "concerning levels" of toxic metals in popular U.S. baby and toddler food.

The consumer advocacy group tested 50 nationally-distributed, packaged foods designed for toddlers and babies for mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to journalists outside the White House West Wing before attending a Trump cabinet meeting on Aug. 16. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Zinke Announces Plan to Fight Wildfires With More Logging

The Trump administration announced a new plan Thursday to fight ongoing wildfires with more logging, and with no mention of additional funding or climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Wangan and Jagalingou cultural leader Adrian Burragubba visits Doongmabulla Springs in Australia. The Wangan and Jagalingou are fighting a proposed coal mine that would likely destroy the springs, which are sacred to the Indigenous Australian group. Wangan and Jagalingou

Indigenous Australians Take Fight Against Giant Coal Mine to the United Nations

By Noni Austin

For tens of thousands of years, the Wangan and Jagalingou people have lived in the flat arid lands of central Queensland, Australia. But now they are fighting for their very existence. Earlier this month, they took their fight to the United Nations after years of Australia's failure to protect their fundamental human rights.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Jones Gap State Park in Greenville County, South Carolina. Jason A G / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Victory for Clean Water: Court Reinstates Obama WOTUS Rule for 26 States

A federal judge invalidated the Trump administration's suspension of the Clean Water Rule, effectively reinstating the Obama-era regulation in 26 states.

The 2015 rule, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) defines which waters can be protected from pollution and destruction under the Clean Water Act. It protects large water bodies such as lakes and rivers, as well as small streams and wetlands.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

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