With Donald Trump’s nomination of business-friendly Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he began a drastic and dangerous shift away from science. Would the agency tasked with defending our planet come under the control of those who ignore science in favor of corporate interests? It looks like that is exactly what is happening.
On May 5, certain members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors were fired out of the blue. Weeks after they had been told their positions were secure, the agency told them they were no longer members. One of those let go, Robert Richardson, an ecological economist, said that, “This is a significant step toward the erosion of science, and I think that it is happening subtly throughout the agency.”
He’s right, only it is not just throughout the agency – it is throughout the entire government. These firings represent part of the larger Trump agenda to roll-back regulations that keep our water clean, our air clear, and our world safe. Along with Trump’s budget, which cuts the EPA’s funding by 31 percent, Congress is quietly rushing through legislation which will hamstring the agency.
2 Dangerous Bills Seek to Pervert EPA
The role of the EPA is to use scientific research to help the government make healthy long-term decisions that affect our environment. Unfortunately, the Republican-run House of Representatives has passed 2 bills intended to make the agency’s important work a lot harder.
As Representative Bernice Johnson (D-TX) warned in her statement to Republican colleagues, these bills are “designed to harm the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to use science to make informed decisions.”
The first bill, H.R. 1340, is the preposterously named “HONEST” Act (“Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017”). The bill embodies the new pro-business treatment of science, that’s for sure. As Rep. Johnson said of the so-called “HONEST” Act, “In reality this bill isn’t about science. It’s about undermining public health and the environment.”
The point of the “HONEST” Act, according to its supporters, is to restrain the EPA from doing anything, “unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support such action is the best available science.” This sounds good, but the restrictions in the bill are designed to keep the best science away from the EPA. For example, the mandate that the EPA can only use reproducible research is very problematic. As Johnson explains:
“The EPA might study natural or man-made environmental disasters such at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to better understand the effects on the environment or to improve disaster response. Under this bill, the EPA couldn’t use this type of information at all.”
It’s simply impossible to “reproduce” an experiment conducted on an oil spill. Or a river being polluted. Or a glacier melting. In this way, Republicans have twisted reproducibility, an important aspect of science, into a tool to prevent actual science from being heard.
Putting the Thieves in Charge
In H.R. 1431, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017, another bill which passed the House, Republicans seek to steer the agency in the interest of Big Business. Like the Board of Scientific Counselors, the Science Advisory Board reviews the work of EPA scientists.
What H.R. 1431 does then, it make it a lot easier for “industry experts” to serve on the board and a lot harder for academic scientists. This makes no sense – it’s like kicking out the cops to put thieves in charge of a bank’s security.
What happens if this bill is signed into law? In her floor statement criticizing these “reforms,” Rep. Johnson made the danger crystal clear. She referenced the past example of another time in U.S. history when insidious business interests sought to poison honest science through the EPA:
“[In the early 1990’s], the EPA was forming a Science Advisory panel to review the evidence of harm from second-hand tobacco smoke. Thanks to internal tobacco industry documents that have been made public, we now know that Big Tobacco made a concerted effort to stack the Science Advisory Panel with tobacco industry hacks.
We take it for granted now that tobacco smoke is dangerous, but at that time in the early 90s, Big Tobacco had succeeded in muddying the scientific waters around this issue by investing tens of millions of dollars in a coordinated attempt to defraud the American people.
If H.R. 1431 had been in effect back then, Big Tobacco likely would have succeeded in co-opting the Science Advisory Board. What would the effects have been on public health to have the EPA’s science review body controlled by tobacco interests?”
It’s terrifying to think about. Tobacco kills around 6 million people a year, and the industry still wanted to prevent honest science from coming to light. What this bill would do is ensure that only pro-industry voices are heard. Those voices, of course, have 1 goal: Profit. It’s only too obvious how dangerous this is.
Toxic Chemicals and Asbestos under Trump’s EPA
With enough votes in the House to pass bills they want, Republicans can also delay bills. While those 2 business-friendly bills passed the House weeks after they were introduced, a bill that protects people from toxic chemicals has been stalled for 3 months.
H.R. 59, the Frank Lautenberg Memorial Secure Chemical Facilities Act, was introduced to the House on January 3rd, the first day Congress met. This crucial bill provides a much needed overhaul to the country’s current framework for evaluating the safety of chemicals and substances used in our country. This bill has 1 goal, and that is to protect Americans. Unfortunately, these regulations might cut into Big Business’s profits. And in Trump’s Washington, putting people ahead of industry is not a priority.
This is especially scary for asbestos victims and people at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers on the job. Trump loves asbestos, and if science at the EPA falls into the hands of industry hacks, will they, too, come to his untrue conclusion that asbestos is “100 percent safe”?
In a statement to the House of Representatives, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) laid out the stakes of what could happen if America loses independent science:
“Our species went 1,000 years without science. We call those years, in retrospect, the Dark Ages. My time in this Congress has convinced me that we should be guided by scientific consensus, by scientific facts, not alternative facts.”
The facts are plain – asbestos presents a lifelong risk with no cure – but are the facts what this administration is interested in? Rep. Sherman doesn’t think so. Referencing the important 17th century scientist who was condemned by the church for saying the earth revolved around the sun, he concluded that “not since Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition have science deniers had such powerful friends.”
Science sometimes presents industry with facts it doesn’t want to hear: pesticides make people sick, pollution causes lasting damage, certain profitable chemicals are dangerous. With the shift orchestrated by Trump, Pruitt, and the Republican House, one wonders what the new reality is going to be. Instead of regulating fossil fuel and chemical industries, will the Trump EPA merely become a vehicle for increasing their profits?