Scott Pruitt resigned from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and his successor is likely to continue gutting regulations that limit air and water pollution
He’s finally gone. After a series of scandals, Scott Pruitt, head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), resigned last week. But while he may be leaving, he has already managed to gut many of the regulations that are aimed at curbing air and water pollution. What will his successor do differently? And how many of these can be reversed?
Over nearly 17 months at the helm, Pruitt oversaw the following actions at the EPA:
- Clean Power Plan repeal. The Clean Power Plan aimed to cut carbon emissions by 32 per cent by 2030, and limit toxic pollutants like mercury. The EPA announced a repeal of the policy in October 2017, and The New York Times reports the agency is now drafting far less ambitious limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The mercury rule is still under review. The EPA also suspended rules on coal ash waste, extending how long the toxic mix of heavy metals can sit in unlined ponds, and letting states alter how often they test groundwater for contamination.
- Clean water regulation suspended. The suspension lasts two years, during which time Pruitt has said the EPA will write new regulations. “What they’re trying to do is say that the only water that matters is navigable, wide enough that you can drive a boat on it. We know this from people inside the agency,” says Andrew Rosenberg at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts. That doesn’t take into account runoff or waste dumping in small streams or puddles that can leech into wider waterways.
- Clean Air Act cuts. Under Pruitt, the EPA eliminated part of the Clean Air Act that limits cancer-causing air pollutants produced in chemical manufacturing and mining operations. Because of where these industries are located, the hazards can disproportionately impact low-income communities, which is compounded by the fact that the environmental justice office within the EPA has been “effectively eliminated”, says Rosenberg. So the impacts of policy change on vulnerable communities is no longer part of the decision-making process, he says. The agency is also beginning a review of smog-limiting ozone standards, which is due to be completed by 2020. “Our analysis finds that it would lead to a whole lot more bad air days, and days with unhealthy air would be classified by the EPA as safe,” Rosenberg says.
- Lowering fuel efficiency standards. In April, Pruitt declared his intent to roll back limits on air pollution produced by cars, and has put fuel efficiency standards under review, effectively suspending them. The EPA has proposed freezing standards between 2020 and 2026
- Suspension of chemical facility safety rules. After a 2013 explosion at a chemical plant in Texas killed 15 people, the Obama administration put into place requirements for such plants to declare the types and quantities of chemicals they store. The EPA has now delayed those rules until at least 2019, and 11 states have sued to end the delay
- Refusal to ban pesticides. Under Pruitt, the EPA has reversed a plan to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used widely on US crops, which has been shown to harm brain and nervous system development in young children.
These changes are in various places along the spectrum from proposal to implementation, so they could still be altered. But they will have wide effects that may start now, while enforcement of previous rules is on hold.
Health experts have said that the combination of air and water pollution resulting from these and other regulatory roll-backs under the Trump administration is likely to lead to the deaths of 80,000 US residents per decade and lead to respiratory problems for more than 1 million people.
“Many of the most insidious impacts will be very difficult to eliminate or ameliorate,” says Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist who was the Administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009 until 2013. “He stacked the EPA with lobbyists who will continue to execute the same playbook that he was using – perhaps even more successfully. He cloaked the EPA in secrecy.
“He silenced scientists and others who understand the value of listening to scientific information. He promulgated lies about the environment, science and the consequences of the playbook’s policies. And he reversed EPA’s significant progress to protect public health and the environment. None of these is easy to reverse.”
Pruitt not only managed a major change in what the EPA does, but how it functions. In 2017, officials set aside $12 million for buyouts and early retirement packages, and by December 770 employees had left the agency.
Dramatic downsizing isn’t the only change. They’ve also cut scientists out of decision-making, eliminated advisory boards and stacked the agency full of industry folks, Rosenberg says. In a recent decision, Pruitt restricted the kinds of science that can be used as the basis of decisions. The new requirements say all data from those studies must be publicly available, which limits the use of public health studies based on confidential information.
The current deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, will step into Pruitt’s role – at least temporarily. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist with years of experience at the EPA and in Washington, DC. “All the controversy around Pruitt was certainly a distraction for the folks at EPA. In many ways, Wheeler is the polar opposite,” says Jeff Holmstead, former assistant administrator of the EPA for Air and Radiation.
“You’ll see a big change in style at EPA, but I don’t think you’ll see any change in substance. If anything, Wheeler will probably be more effective than Pruitt when it comes to carrying out Trump’s regulatory reform agenda,” says Holmstead. “To a large extent, he’ll just be quietly working to implement the regulatory reforms that Pruitt started.”
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