The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Obama made great strides in its mission to protect the environment, and the health and safety of Americans. Yet many of the provisions enacted during that time have already been eroded under President Trump. Trump campaigned partly on the basis of slashing regulations, and those in charge of the EPA are determined to protect little but the companies that pollute.
The past year has been horrific, with EPA Director Scott Pruitt hacking at the EPA budget and staffing, while making questionable spending decisions such as a $25,000 soundproof communications booth. But those of us who care about our environment may have a spark of hope, given that both Republican and Democratic members of Congress are fighting back against Trump and Pruitt’s efforts to increase the number of industry executives involved in EPA decision-making and leadership.
Can the Worst Get Even Worse?
One of the most recent travesties of the Trump administration was his pick to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP). Dr. Michael Dourson, like many of Trump’s nominees has connections to big business. His “research” firm, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), has been paid by Dow, Monsanto, and other massive chemical companies to conduct studies that are considered highly biased (in favor of industry) by the rest of the scientific community.
Dourson’s brand of shady statistics explains why Congresspersons from both sides of the aisle are greeting his nomination with criticism.
Dourson has been strongly opposed by senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). According to Udall, “Dr. Dourson has made a career of creating junk science for industry.” For example, TERA was hired to defend Dupont in court against charges of exposing people to PFOA, a chemical carcinogen that had contaminated drinking water. TERA’s findings suggested a “safe” PFOA limit over a thousand times higher than what the EPA later established in 2016.
Senators have rightly questioned Dourson’s evident biases and fitness for a job protecting the American public from chemical hazards. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republican senators from North Carolina, have said they would oppose his nomination. Since Dourson’s name has not gone to a floor vote, there may not be enough Senators who’d confirm him to the post.
As noted by Linda Reinstein, the CEO and President of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), one of the clearest signs that Congress may be pushing back against Trump and Pruitt’s EPA is the Alan Reinstien Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2107 (ARBAN). This bill would stop the use and importation of asbestos in 18 months of the time it was enacted.
Illnesses caused by asbestos continue to kill 15,000 Americans every year, and imports have even increased. Last year, around 705 metric tons of asbestos were brought into the U.S., a drastic rise from 343 metric tons in 2015. Asbestos has been known as a carcinogen since the 1970s, and the only known cause of the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
At the same time, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a lobbying organization for Big Chem, is pressing the EPA to allow asbestos to continue to be used in the chloralkali industry. As Reinstein writes, this exception is absurd since they are “the only remaining users of asbestos in the U.S.” She continues,
“Of course, a ban that exempts the sole users is no ban at all, and will do nothing to mitigate the risk this continued use would pose to the chloralkali plant workers, as well as those in the surrounding communities and involved with the related mining, transport, and disposal.”
TSCA in Trouble
At the end of the Obama Administration, the passage of the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was hailed as a promising development for American public health. This law obligated the EPA to regulate chemicals based on their health effects, and disregard costs to industry.
Yet the EPA under Trump and Pruitt has already damaged the TSCA, specifically by altering the definition of “conditions of use.” Now in its evaluations, the EPA only looks at how chemicals are currently used, and doesn’t consider past uses that have a continuing effect on human health. For example, while asbestos is no longer widely used as a construction material, it’s still present in many older buildings and remains a major health hazard, especially during renovations and demolition.
But while Trump and Pruitt are determined to dissolve both the EPA and TSCA, some in Congress are starting to push back against their plans. ARBAN would be an important first step in taking back the EPA from those who care more about industry than Americans’ health and safety.