Even in a Pandemic, EPA Funding is Still Being Rolled Back
This Trump administration has yet again proven to be against policies and regulations that protect the environment. This month, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out a series of temporary deregulations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. These rollbacks are not only harmful but may put the public health of hundreds of thousands of Americans at risk. On March 26th, the EPA announced that companies are now responsible for monitoring their own air and water pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than routinely reporting to the EPA. In addition, the EPA is not seeking fines or penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring or reporting obligations. This is in part said to support companies who may be short-staffed and to alleviate demands on EPA staff answering monitoring questions (Scipioni, 2020).
Car emissions standards are also becoming weaker through the midst of the pandemic. The 2012 standard, under the Obama administration, required 5% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions annually from cars and light fleet trucks. Trump’s new proposal, the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Act, will require just 1.5%. This act would put the US behind most countries in terms of fuel efficiency requirements. Most automakers are not even on board with the new act, citing that it would cause more instability and cost the economy 6,000 jobs (Leber, 2020). The difference between 5% and 1.5% may seem minuscule, but it could put American lives at risk. This increase in pollution can clog people’s lungs and in turn make them more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. The difference between reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5% and 1.5% annually could cost the United States up to 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 additional asthma attacks, 350,000 other respiratory problems, and $190 billion in health costs between now and 2050 according to the Environmental Defense Analysis (Environmental Defense Fund, 2020).
That’s not all though. In addition to reducing regulations and enforcement, the EPA is restricting which health studies it can consider for any of its scientific work through the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science Act. This would mean only studies which publish their raw data will be considered, ignoring whole fields of epidemiological research that rely on anonymized data to study the impacts of pollution (Leber, 2020). Many of these private studies cannot be published because of medical privacy laws. Preventing these studies from being included in consideration with the EPA means eliminating the very studies that are at the basis of our core air pollution protection laws. For example, the infamous Harvard Six Cities Study, which tracked thousands of children and adults and concluded that exposure to pollution increases your risk of dying, would not be considered under the EPA to enforce air pollution regulations (Grant, 2012). This rule was broadened on March 4 to not just include health studies but any “influential scientific information” (Ross, 2020), and the normal time period for public comment of 60 days has now been reduced to only 30 days as well. When the initial draft of the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science Act was published nearly two years ago, it drew over 600,000 comments around the nation, mostly from critics who have since renamed the act to the “Censored Science Rule.” With the rise of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders, opening the revised act for comment now is effectively limiting who is able to express concern on the act. The EPA has now moved all comments to an online format. Many low-income Americans, especially those in rural areas who may not have broadband access to the internet, will not have a chance to comment on the act. An additional 100 million Americans who do not have a subscription to broadband internet may also have limited opportunities to comment on the act. These comments are vital for laying the groundwork of future changes and for showing support or opposition for a rule change (Knickmeyer, 2020).
The rollbacks during this pandemic showcase the EPA’s rush to finalize its key environmental rollbacks by June. Any rule finalized by June has a lesser chance of being removed through the Congressional Review Act if Democrats were to gain control of the Senate in this year’s general election. So far, Trump has made some of the most unprecedented environmental rollbacks in history. The Trump administration has rolled back well over 50 years of environmental protections, including protections under the 50-year-old Clean Air Act. Out of the over 80 rollbacks proposed by the administration, some of the major ones have been repealing or weakening boundaries of protected lands, Obama’s clean water rule, major sections of the Endangered Species Act, and plans to close coal plants as well as increasing the allowed use of Atrazine, an agricultural pesticide, and barring California from setting its own emission standards.
The Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction in federally protected lands in United States history. In 2017, Bears Ears lost 85% of its protected land, and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument lost 51%. In the same year, the government also voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. By removing protections of these lands, the administration has opened them up to oil and natural gas companies. The government has since been in the process of reducing nine more land and marine national monuments (Wade, 2017). Many wildlife species may not be able to survive in areas dedicated to drilling and fracking, thus contributing to the global rate of extinction (Christensen, 2019).
The Obama-era clean water rule was repealed in September 2019. Obama’s rule aimed to reduce pollution in 60% of US water bodies. It gave the federal government authority to oversee lakes, wetlands, and water bodies connecting to large waterways protected under the 1972 Clean Water Act and to better help define ‘navigable waters’. The repeal now limits the number of waterways the federal government can protect from pollution. This not only includes lakes and wetlands, but also ditches, groundwater systems, and storm control facilities. Repealing the rule now means that polluters can release toxic substances into these water bodies without penalty from the federal government. Environmental groups and the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board have criticized the new ruling, arguing that it will harm wildlife and the availability of clean drinking water. In support of the repeal have been farmers polluting into water bodies, oil and gas producers, and golf course owners (Ngan, 2019).
In August 2019, the EPA announced significant changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The 1973 ESA is credited with saving the bald eagle and grizzly bear from extinction. The ESA protects over 1,600 species and since its implementation, 99% of animals on the endangered species list have not gone extinct. The Trump administration has now limited protections through the ESA. Animals that are “threatened,” just one step away from classifying as endangered, will not receive the same attention as endangered species. Risks to species will also be reviewed on a case by case basis, limiting the definition of “foreseeable future” (Aguilera, 2019). These rollbacks were set in September, but the attorney generals of Massachusetts, Maryland, and California are currently leading seventeen states in suing the Trump administration over the changes (Rice, 2019).
Trump also supports helping coal plants remain open, despite market pressure from natural gas, wind, and solar industries making them economically unviable. In January of last year, the EPA released a new Clean Energy Rule. It is narrower than Obama’s Clean Power Plan and regulates emissions of individual power plants rather than regulating emissions on a state by state basis. Under the Obama administration, states determined their coal plant emissions but made it likely they would close because they are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. The Sierra Club tracks the closure of coal plants, and even since Trump’s election, 52 plants have closed. Most close because it is cheaper to generate electricity from less carbon-intensive natural gas (Brady, 2019). Trump’s pledge to help the struggling coal industry may not come to fruition. Coal plants are the biggest polluters when it comes to carbon dioxide and contribute significantly to global warming. Closing them down gives way for cleaner, more economical alternative energy sources to be used across the country.
Last November, the government released its announcement to weaken the regulation of atrazine, an agricultural pesticide. Atrazine has been strongly linked to harmful biological effects in wildlife, including frogs. High levels of atrazine can also cause damage to humans. Atrazine is ubiquitous in that it stays in the environment and passes down generationally. It interferes with hormone production and increases the production of estrogen, causing cancer in females and hermaphroditism (producing both male and female reproductive organs) in some wildlife. The change proposed by the Trump administration will increase the amount of atrazine allowed in waterways by 50%. The rule is rejecting decades of research showing atrazine is not safe at any level for consumption. The current Concentration Equivalent Level of Concern (CELOC) for atrazine in natural waterways over a 60-day period is 10 parts per billion. The proposed change raises the allowed level to 15 parts per billion (Nonley, Formuzis, 2019), almost 5 times as much as the 3.4 part per billion that the EPA determined to be acceptable in 2016 (Regulations.gov, 2016). This increase in atrazine will undoubtedly cause harmful effects to living organisms in the environment and in humans. Atrazine is not safe at any level to consume, and it is counterproductive to protecting wildlife and public health to increase the allowed CELOC.
These are just some of the environmental regulatory changes that have been made in the past couple of years. There are over 80 more, and if Trump is reelected, there may be more to come within the next four years. The Trump administration has made some of the biggest and fastest environmental rollbacks in US history. With this knowledge, it may seem unsurprising to some that these changes would continue even in the midst of a pandemic. What is surprising though is that even as the nation is reeling from the COVID-19 crisis, these rollbacks are being set forth with limited opportunity for the public to comment or oppose. It’s important to stay informed about environmental laws and regulatory changes throughout a president’s term. As we have now seen under Trump, these rollbacks will affect over 50 years worth of regulations and have a significant impact on environmental and public health. Even in a crisis, what the EPA is doing matters because it may affect you and will certainly affect the environment.
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