April 7, 2020

Every Polluter's Ally

By Stephen Tuttle | March 24, 2018

You likely believe the primary purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to, you know, protect the environment. These days you would be wrong.

Since it was first created in 1970 during the Nixon Administration, the EPA has been a wonkish outfit full of scientists doing science stuff. It is, by its very nature, often at odds with major industries because it regulates much of what they can and cannot do. It should be the enemy of polluters, and it was for 46 years, regardless of who lived in the White House or controlled Congress. 

That has all changed since Donald Trump became president and appointed Scott Pruitt as the EPA administrator. 

Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General, has apparently decided the EPA's primary role is to unburden the industries it is supposed to regulate from the yoke of pesky rules.

His anti-EPA crusade started when he was still in Oklahoma and sued the agency 14 times for what he considered overreaches. He won one of those cases — on a procedural issue. Now, as EPA administrator, he doesn't need the courts; he can arbitrarily change regulations as he pleases. (Not laws, but rules and regulations promulgated by those laws. 

Let's see ... he reduced restrictions on methane gas emissions from new oil and gas wells. Methane is an especially onerous greenhouse gas contributing to climate change but Pruitt doesn't really believe in human-caused climate change, so that's an irrelevant fact to him. 

He reduced restrictions on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and their toxic emissions. He told coal industry leaders “the war on coal is over.” Since coal is by far the worst air-polluting fossil fuel, that's not such good news. 

He tried to reduce or eliminate restrictions on the use of chemical fertilizers in the agriculture industry. We know those fertilizers leach into groundwater and run off into our streams, rivers, and lakes. The algae blooms that occasionally show up in lakes are thought to be caused by these fertilizers, and they don't do our groundwater any good, either. The courts have, at least temporarily, blocked his decision. 

He lifted a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide the EPA's own scientists believe may cause neurodevelopmental problems in children. 

He has placed the rules that restrict the emission of mercury and arsenic, both known poisons and carcinogens, “under review,” the step he usually takes before eliminating regulations. 

He was and is an ardent foe of the Paris Climate Accords or any other climate rules since, as stated before, he's not sure humans or greenhouse gas emitters are responsible. 

He has proposed something he calls the “speed cleanup” of Superfund pollution sites. Not to worry, though. He has appointed a former banker to head up that effort, a man banned from banking for life because he made illegal loans. That top-notch group hasn't yet done anything. 

Pruitt has also banned any scientists who have accepted government grants in their work from serving on any of the EPA's many advisory panels. That pretty much narrows the field to those working for the industries the EPA is supposed to be regulating, somewhat skewing results. Pruitt's solution? He disbanded most of the advisory panels, realizing the last thing he needed was a bunch of scientific facts. 

Altogether, Pruitt has either relaxed, eliminated, or currently has under review a whopping 67 environmental rules and regulations. He has not yet explained how any of it was done in service to the environment. 

He has met with the leaders of the chemical, oil, gas, coal, and agriculture communities but has avoided environmental groups altogether. 

None of this has much helped morale at the EPA, where 700 employees have now left, fully a quarter of them scientists.

We all understand the urge of every new administration to try and attack a bloated federal bureaucracy. We know there is waste and duplication aplenty in most agencies and departments, and we'd welcome somebody actually doing something other than just talking about it.

But systematically dismantling the rules that protect our environment from polluters for the benefit of those industries doing the polluting is not at all what we had in mind. Nor is ignoring the science on which those decisions should be based. 

Prior to the creation of the EPA, we relied on “the markets” and industry itself to protect our land, air, and water. Under the markets’ watch, 70 percent of our streams, rivers, and lakes were unsafe to drink, swim in, or eat fish from. Our air was a toxic mix of lung-disease-causing particulates and toxic gasses.

We've come a long way since 1970, and most of us would not like to return to those days. Scott Pruitt, now in charge of protecting our environment, is one of the exceptions. His EPA has become Every Polluter's Ally. Just not ours.



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