By Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists
News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.
This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.
Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.
Why we need the EPA
Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”
Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.
The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.
Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.
We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.
Gutting the EPA hurts real people
Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.
When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).
The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.
The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.
The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”
These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.
But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.
Health vs. economic growth is a false choice
We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show that over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.
In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.
We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.
Using science and economics to tackle pollution
The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.
And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.
Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.
Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.
What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?
Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.
President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?