By Dave Wiggins, Al Sattler and Steve Dillow
For several months, the attention of America’s citizens, and its press, has been focused in large part on the Covid-19 pandemic now sweeping the world, and the dramatic impact it has had on our health, economy, natural environment and culture. But as the spread of the disease, and the nationwide debate over how best to respond have commanded our civic attention, the Trump administration, with little fanfare, has been chipping away at some of our most significant and protective environmental safeguards.
Let’s review just a few of the actions taken this year:
On January 23, the administration narrowed the definition of what constitutes a federally protected waterway, exposing millions of miles of streams, arroyos and
wetlands to unregulated pollution by industry, industrial farming and over-development. Its rationale: that the old regulations posed an unreasonable burden on local businesses, despite Trump’s oft-repeated claim that our economy is now stronger than ever.
On April 16, the EPA undermined its own Mercury and Air Toxic Standards by forbidding EPA policy analysts to consider the billions of dollars in societal benefits realized from ‘co-toxin’ reduction when stricter emission standards are imposed. The upshot of all this is to tilt the cost-benefit scales in favor of coal-burning power plants and decrease the chance of significant reductions in their horribly dirty emissions.
On March 26, the EPA alerted companies that it will not seek fines against those who suspend their legally mandated pollution monitoring and reporting programs, if they can demonstrate that the suspension was caused by the coronavirus crisis. While ostensibly intended to reduce risk to their workers, this ruling is effectively a license to pollute. By the way, it has no expiration date.
Perhaps most egregious of all, on March 31, the administration announced its rollback of Obama-era auto fuel efficiency standards, crippling what would have been this country’s most significant step forward in fighting climate change, and cleaning up our ever-dirtier air in the process.
Thankfully, these and other actions by the Trump administration are subject to legal challenge by the Sierra Club and others in a court system that seems to have maintained some degree of independence from the executive branch. For instance, on April 23 the Supreme Court, with support by one of Trump’s own appointees, ruled against the administration’s position, finding that the Clean Water Act requires licensure, monitoring and oversight for pollution discharges into the nation’s water systems, whether the discharge is made via groundwater migration through the soil or directly into a stream, lake or river. Hopefully, judicial vigilance of this sort will grow as more challenges to the administration work through the courts.
But in the end, only the ouster of Trump himself will allow the nation to right its course toward sane environmental policymaking. We can only plead that we all do everything we can to help the voters make that choice this November.