For people whose lives have been forever damaged by a toxic substance, the passage of the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LCSA) appeared to be a giant step in the right direction. Receiving bipartisan support, the LCSA establishes a mandatory requirement for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate the safety of existing chemicals.
Considering that asbestos, which took 45,221 lives between 1999 and 2015, is not entirely banned in the U.S., this law cannot be put into action fast enough. Unfortunately, under Donald Trump’s direction, the EPA is being staffed by industry insiders who have spent their careers making it harder for the agency to do its vital work.
Corporate cheerleader Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA, has placed Nancy Beck, a chemical industry lobbyist, in charge of implementing the LCSA. That’s right. In Trump’s town, the lobbyists write the regulations. It’s all too obvious that Beck’s interests are aligned with the massive chemical companies she has served. She has fought back against regulations, and now she is the one who is in charge of reviewing the safety of toxic substances.
People expecting healthy regulations for toxic substances after the passage of the LCSA dreamt that, in the future, the country was going to make sure that fewer families were devastated by deadly asbestos fibers. Only a few months into the Trump administration, and all of that looks to be in jeopardy.
Paralyzing Instead of Eliminating the EPA
Even though Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) put forward a joke of a bill calling to terminate the EPA, it is highly unlikely that agency will be shuttered entirely. Americans generally understand and support the good work the EPA does in protecting individuals and the environment from dangerous pollution.
Instead of killing it, the special interests that want weaker EPA will seek to suffocate the agency by cutting its budget and dismissing scientists in favor of corporate hacks. This is what’s happening now. The EPA will most likely survive, but in its new form, Americans should expect fatal paralysis instead of the decisive action we need.
What Happens When Lobbyists Write Regulations?
Mere months before her appointment as deputy administrator at the EPA, Beck testified before the Senate on behalf of the American Chemical Council (ACC), which “represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry.” In her testimony, she was highly critical of EPA science, especially the agency’s assessment of toxic chemicals and substances.
As someone who represents chemical companies, it is no surprise that she is not a fan on EPA regulations. After all, for ACC companies like Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and Dupont, EPA regulations cut into their profits. Beck shares this perception, only she dresses it up in scientific language.
Beck talks a lot about the problems of “reproducibility” and “transparency” involving EPA science. Science should be open, honest, and consistent, but that’s not what this is about. Beck is part of the larger Trump-era movement to privilege industry science over independent and government science.
So what will she do as she reviews chemicals for their safety? One can expect, based on her track-record, that she will use her powers to ignore studies and research she doesn’t want to hear. She may even re-write the science to suit the corporations who have, until recently, paid her handsomely for her work.
A Troubling Investigation in Beck’s Past – A Worrisome Future Ahead
In 2009, Beck was investigated by the Senate for meddling in the EPA affairs. At the time, she worked in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and the investigation found that she had been part of an effort to “break” the EPA’s database for sharing information about the risks of dangerous chemicals.
Far from making things more transparent, Beck edited the “science” in the toxic chemical database with a business-friendly eye. In one case, the investigation found that she had made “numerous editorial comments altering language, and some appear to enhance uncertainty or reduce the profile of the effect being discussed.”
Essentially, the last time Beck was able to influence how toxic chemicals would be handled, she sugar-coated the language. That is the opposite of transparency, and with literally thousands of chemicals in need of review, Beck is the last person who ought to be in charge.
Old Fears Realized at New EPA
Public health does not live and die by quarterly profit statements. Maintaining clear air, clean water, and safe products are efforts that span decades. It’s reasonable for companies to be motivated by money, but only so long as the government is equipped and ready to check and balance those companies in the interest of long-term public health.
As the third President, James Madison, wrote at the founding of America, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It’s all too obvious that people are not angels, and so the work of a healthy democracy, according to Madison, was to supply “opposite and rival interests” in the offices of government “in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.”
What’s happening now at the EPA is exactly what Madison feared. Instead of a vigorous agency, full of different opinions and perspectives, Trump is concocting an EPA with one perspective: Big Business.
Ultimately, these lobbyists and industry insiders need to recognize that in the long term, corporate health depends on public health – not the other way around. How many lives does asbestos have to destroy before Trump’s Washington will remember the people they are supposed to serve?