Despite the uproar during his first year in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Donald Trump made very few surprising decisions. For victims of asbestos, his practice of ignoring facts in favor of business was nothing new. His tweets and actions were routinely shocking in their immaturity, but even then, Trump’s efforts align seamlessly with the character he has cut over a long and crooked career.
Looking back at 2017, the general trend of the EPA under Trump so far has been to increase the voice of Big Business within the agency while shutting out scientists. To sum it up: Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have turned the EPA into a tool for business, not a barrier for reckless and dangerous business behavior.
Rather than dismantle the agency, they have reinvented it to serve the interests of those it purports to regulate.
What the EPA Is Supposed to Do
Individual Americans have no way to test things like groundwater or air quality. The stated mission of the EPA is “to protect human health and the environment.” Since its creation in 1970, the agency has used the best available science to ensure the American people sustainable access to clean water, fresh air, and protection from toxic substances.
Over the years, the EPA has locked horns with corporate interests who find the agency’s regulations annoying and costly to their businesses. In the long run, though, many EPA rulings have paid back the American people a thousand times over. How many children have been protected from pain and death because of the EPA’s landmark bans on DDT, the cancer-causing pesticide, and poisonous lead-based paint?
Most Americans do not have powerful lobbyists influencing legislation in Washington. They must rely on the EPA to speak on their behalf. Can Americans expect the EPA to continue to serve this important function?
A Disturbing Change in Purpose
After assuming office, Trump moved quickly to install Scott Pruitt as the top-dog at the EPA. The nomination was astonishing given that Pruitt, then the Attorney General of Oklahoma, was an outspoken critic of the agency and had sued it multiple times. His shady ties to Big Business were well-documented, and many worried that under Pruitt’s leadership, the line between serving business and serving the people would blur.
On the other hand, the Trump administration pitched Pruitt as the antidote needed to rein in an activist agency that was choking business growth and stifling innovation. Environmental groups and lefties, Trump’s story went, had hijacked the agency, and under Pruitt, the pendulum was going to swing back to towards more enterprise-friendly policies.
In February, Republicans approved Pruitt without a single Democratic vote, suspending committee rules to secure his nomination. Since then, both Republican hopes and Democratic fears have come true.
Cuts, Dismissals, and Disappointment
Pruitt promised deregulation, and this meant that the EPA would have to reverse the policies it had been pursuing for the last decade. In an age where industrial farming and business literally reshape the planet, new regulations were needed to protect clean air and clean water. These policies impose costs on businesses and consumers. While the science is in favor of these regulations, businesses are not.
What did the Trump EPA do? Erase consistency: Seemingly overnight, climate-change went from being a priority to something the EPA was exceedingly skeptical about. Within months, EPA scientists were fired without notice or reason, the EPA’s proposed budget was slashed, and Pruitt began tapping industry insiders to do the important work of the EPA.
By June, when Trump disgraced America by stepping out of the Paris Climate Accords, American environmental policy had already been flipped on its head.
A New Balance of Power
Instead of working in the interest of public and environmental health to combat climate change, the Trump EPA now fights to end the “war on coal.” This is more than a change in rhetoric or tone – it is a significant redistribution of power from the people to business.
Consider Pruitt’s comments in the recent EPA press release about the agency’s Annual Regulatory Plan:
“EPA’s plan balances its statutory requirements to issue regulations and its commitment to providing regulatory certainty through improvements to existing regulations that were flawed, outdated, ineffective, or unnecessarily burdensome.”
In addition to its stated mission of protecting public health and the environment, the EPA is now on the hook for providing “regulatory certainty” to companies to ensure that regulations comply with their needs.
In the eyes of Pruitt, the health of citizens is now balanced with the health of corporations. The idea of balance is not, in itself, corrupt. Unfortunately, the way Pruitt and his cronies have tilted the “balance” at the EPA is scientifically and ethically bankrupt.
Foxes in Charge of the Henhouse
The ongoing travesty at the Office Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) serves as a clear example of the direction in which the new leadership is taking the EPA. According to their website, the OCSPP uses “sound science as a compass” in their mission to “protect you, your family, and the environment from potential risks from pesticides and toxic chemicals.”
In May, Nancy Beck was nominated as Deputy Assistant Administrator of this important office. Previously, Beck was getting paid as a lobbyist for the American Chemical Council (ACC), a powerful, billion-dollar industry trade association. Essentially, Beck went from being a representative of the chemical industry to regulating it.
Looking into her history does little to remove fears that Beck’s appointment presents obvious, and potentially disastrous, conflicts of interest. At her new position inside government, she commands tremendous influence, crafting legislation that impacts her former employers.
And appointments have continued in this vein. Michael Dourson, the nominee to fill the top position in the OCSPP, has made a career providing “junk science” to companies like chemical powerhouses Dow and Monsanto. Although Dourson withdrew his name from the running, his nomination is indicative of the new EPA’s loyalties.
The Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act
Sadly, the OSCPP, which is now staffed with industry insiders, is in charge of implementing the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, this bill mandates that the EPA update America’s primary chemicals management law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The TSCA is important legislation and provides cornerstone protections for Americans. That said, the bill is over 40 years old, and many questionable chemicals are still in use because of loopholes in the regulation.
Over a year ago, when the legislation first passed under President Obama, the EPA published a list of 10 chemicals that would kick off the much-needed revamping of the TSCA. The first chemical on that list? Asbestos. Unfortunately, despite having the time and resources to take action, the EPA continues to preserve hazardous loopholes in the TSCA by delaying any significant action.
In the words of Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt and the EPA are, “blatantly ignoring Congress’s clear directive to the agency to better protect the health and safety of millions of Americans by more effectively regulating some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man.”
With industry insiders writing the laws, real protections against toxic chemicals seem like a fantasy.
Happy New Year?
In 2018, Americans need to speak up and remind those in powerful government positions who they work for: we the people. Although voters will not likely have the choice of removing Trump from office – despite his historic unpopularity – there will be a chance to chip away at the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.
This is important, as Congressional Republicans have done nothing but aid Trump and Pruitt in their reinvention of the EPA by introducing toxic legislation and confirming industry shills to leadership roles in the agency.