Trying to point out the mistakes, transgressions and failures of the Trump administration is like trying to load frogs into a wheelbarrow. For every one you get, a dozen get away. The latest example comes courtesy of Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt has gotten some attention for his efforts to roll back measures aimed at curbing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. There have been stories about his obsession with secrecy, which led to the installation of a $25,000 soundproof booth in his office.
But nothing has gotten more criticism than his habit of flying first class despite the burden on taxpayers. The reaction probably comes as a surprise to Pruitt, who may wonder why burning through $1,641 for a flight from Washington to New York evokes universal horror when slow-roasting the planet doesn’t.
Even his complacency about global warming, though, has gotten more attention than his subversion of the central mission of the EPA: protecting human health and conserving the natural environment by attacking air and water pollution.
When Republican President Richard Nixon established the EPA in 1970, he recognized this concern as one transcending party and ideology. “We can no longer afford to consider air and water common property, free to be abused by anyone without regard to the consequences,” he said. “Instead, we should begin now to treat them as scarce resources, which we are no more free to contaminate than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.”
Let’s leave aside for the time being the matter of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the unwelcome effects they could have. Judged solely by what he has done with regard to old-fashioned pollution, putting Pruitt in charge of the EPA is the equivalent of letting Nick Saban call the plays for Auburn.
Under Pruitt, the agency’s funds would be cut by $2.5 billion, or 23 percent — a contrast from the roughly $300 billion in new spending in other areas that Congress and the president recently approved. Given that the president is content to allow the budget deficit to rise to $1 trillion, it’s hard to argue the federal government can’t afford to adequately fund the EPA. Pruitt and Trump just don’t want to.
Their goal is to weaken and constrain the agency. Pruitt has reduced the number of personnel to the lowest level since 1988 — with stated plans to cut it by another 2,500 in the next two years. Just as fewer cops would lead to fewer arrests, the staffing reductions diminish the agency’s ability to prevent pollution and clean it up.
The budget plan would slash funds for enforcement by about 12 percent, notes Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The agency’s enforcement actions are at a 10-year low already, and this would just compound that number,” she says.
This is good news only for bad actors. Companies are obligated to report when they discharge pollutants above allowed levels. But with fewer people to monitor such reports, says Nicole Cantello, head of Local 704 of the American Federation of Government Employees (which represents EPA employees in the Great Lakes region), “there will be all these things we wouldn’t even know about that we would have gone after five years ago.”
Pruitt’s agenda goes beyond merely making it hard for his people to do ordinary enforcement of the laws. He also wants to take away the authority that lets them identify and ameliorate environmental harms.
Pruitt wants to repeal the Clean Power Plan — an Obama administration program that would improve air quality enough to save an estimated 3,000 lives each year. He wants to abandon the previous interpretation of the Clean Water Act, allowing more toxic waste in streams and wetlands. He is expected to try to roll back standards for ozone, a component of smog, which aggravates asthma and damages lungs.
Nothing else Pruitt is doing compares to the malignant effects of his permissiveness about pollution. Many Americans may not worry about climate change or preserving wild areas. But they should care about the consequences of dirtier air and water, as summarized by Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA under George W. Bush: “People will get sick and die.” You could be one of them.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.