Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

When the War on Science Really Began

Insights + Opinion

Approximately 210,000 gallons of crude oil leaked out of a 16-inch pipeline just south of Staples, MN, in Dec. 2009. MN Pollution Control Agency / CC BY-NC 2.0

By Tara Lohan

The New York Times keeps a running list of all the environmental regulations that the Trump administration has worked to trash since taking office more than three years ago.


It's at nearly 100.

That's just the start. The administration's anti-environmental agenda has also involved undermining and unraveling key government agencies, most especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There it's been death by a thousand cuts, with EPA staff facing untenable contracts, positions left unfilled and budget cuts across the board — not mention an appointed leadership that's opposed to the agency's own mission.

As bad as all this sounds, there's some important historical context to remember: It's been bad for a while, according to a new book, The War on the EPA: America's Endangered Environmental Protections, which tracks the "systematic propaganda campaign to discredit science" that began decades ago.

The book comes from the keyboards of husband-and-wife writing team William and Rosemary Alley, also the authors of two other environmental books on nuclear waste and groundwater.

"We wanted to write a good, readable book giving people more understanding of why this agency is important, what they do, and the difficulties involved in doing their job," says Rosemary.

They realized that in order to save the EPA, people need to know what it does — and a lot of people don't.

"We are trying to get people to understand how this matters to them in their daily lives," says William, who is also the director of science and technology for the National Ground Water Association and headed the office of groundwater for the U.S. Geological Survey for nearly two decades. "There's a lot that EPA does, like when we drink water from the tap, we're dependent on EPA."

Unfortunately, when people do talk about the EPA, it's usually misguided complaints.

"There's been a long demonizing of the EPA for over-regulating things, but the reality is that it's extremely difficult for EPA to regulate anything," Rosemary says.

Case in point: Despite a slew of new chemicals in our daily lives, it's been two decades since a new regulation addressed a drinking-water contaminant.

The Alleys also write about the complicated and time-consuming processes behind lots of other regulations — tracking how they were first established and what happened afterward. In many cases environmental regulations were loosened to accommodate industry after political pushback or legal challenges.

This plays out time and time again throughout the Alleys' book. Among the cases they cover: why feedlots continue to pollute waterways; what went wrong in Flint, Michigan; the long battle to remove lead from gasoline and continuing efforts to make cars cleaner; the continuing fight over what constitutes "waters of the United States"; President Obama's work to reduce mercury from coal plants and methane emissions from oil and gas operations — and Trump's push to undo those and many other regulations.

It's clear from the book that enacting protections to safeguard human health and the environment has always been an uphill battle — and that narrative runs alongside the agency's own successful creation story, as the Alleys also explain.

The 1970s saw the establishment of the EPA with bipartisan support from Congress (after a veto by Nixon) and the creation of bedrock environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

And for the first 10 years things went pretty well.

Part of the early success of the EPA came from strong public involvement, the Alleys say. In those days many environmental problems were incredibly visible — gray clouds of smog and trash dumped along riverbanks — and there was public pushback to fix them.

But in 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to lead the agency, and she threw down every speed bump and roadblock she could to impede the agency's work. Budgets were slashed, positions were cut and industry leaders were put in charge of environmental programs.

It's nearly identical to the tactics the Trump administration has used in recent years.

Things improved slightly after William Ruckelshaus, the agency's first administrator, was brought back in 1983. But when Newt Gingrich took control of the House of Representatives a decade later, the anti-science work began again and has continued ever since.

With Trump's election it kicked into high gear.

"We could have just as easily titled the book The War on Science, because science is just the absolute critical underpinnings of everything the EPA does, and that of course has been just tremendously damaged under the current administration," says Rosemary. "The war on science, of course, didn't start with Trump, but it's been exacerbated tremendously."

After detailing how this anti-science agenda influences making and enforcing environmental regulations, the Alleys' book ends with a look at why it will be critical to rebuild the EPA and the importance of scientific integrity.

"A lot of talent has been lost from the agency and that will be impossible to turn around overnight," says William. "If we have four more years of this, I have no idea how we'll get past that. [The Trump administration] is still rushing to try to get as much as they possibly can done. Or undone, as it seems."

Rosemary says she hopes that their book will provide an important jumpstart to conversations about the critical role of the EPA and efforts to fortify it.

"If you don't see what the agency does, it's hard to communicate the risk when it's damaged," she says. "We want people to understand why we need a strong EPA as much today as we did 50 years ago."

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A coke storage area is seen as steam rises from the quench towers at the US Steel Clairton Works on Jan. 21, 2020, in Clairton, Pennsylvania. White plumes of smoke billow above western Pennsylvania's rolling hills as scorching ovens bake coal, which rolls in by the trainload along the Monongahela River. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images

President Trump's claim that the U.S. has the cleanest air and water in the world has been widely refuted by statistics showing harmful levels of pollution. Now, a new biannual ranking released by researchers at Yale and Columbia finds that the U.S. is nowhere near the top in environmental performance, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Students walk by a sign reading "Climate Change" at the Doctor Tolosa Latour public school in Madrid, Spain on Sept. 9, 2014. In the U.S., New Jersey will be the first state to make the climate crisis part of its curriculum for all K-12 students. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP via Getty Images

New Jersey has invested in the future health of the planet by making sure the next generation of adults knows how human activity has had a deleterious effect on the planet. The state will be the first in the nation to make the climate crisis as part of its curriculum for all students, from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade, as NorthJersey.com reported.

Read More Show Less
Some reservations are reporting infection rates many times higher than those observed in the general U.S. population. grandriver / Getty Images

By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.

Read More Show Less
As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations. Sawitree Pamee / EyeEm

By Kaya Bulbul

The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.

As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations, many of which unidentified or insufficiently supported.

Read More Show Less
The coronavirus adds a new wrinkle to the debate over the practice of eminent domain as companies continue to work through the pandemic, vexing landowners. Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

By Jeremy Deaton

Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan is cutting a 400-mile line across the middle of Texas, digging up vast swaths of private land for its planned Permian Highway Pipeline. The project is ceaseless, continuing through the coronavirus pandemic. Landowner Heath Frantzen said that dozens of workers have showed up to his ranch in Fredericksburg, even as public health officials urged people to stay at home.

Read More Show Less
Weeds dying in a soybean field impacted by dicamba spraying. JJ Gouin / iStock / Getty Images

A federal court overturned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) approval of dicamba Wednesday, meaning the controversial herbicide can no longer be sprayed in the U.S.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Smoke rises from a cement factory in Castleton in the High Peak district of Derbyshire, England. john finney photography / Moment / Getty Images

Human activity has pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide to higher levels today than they have been at any other point in the last 23-million-years, potentially posing unprecedented disruptions in ecosystems across the planet, new research suggests.

Read More Show Less