By Daniel Rosenberg, Natural Resources Defense Council
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency held “listening sessions” to hear public comment on Executive Order 13777, which requires an EPA Task Force to recommend “specific rules that should be considered for repeal, replacement and modification.” Not surprisingly few if any individual citizens or public interest groups asked EPA to weaken health safeguards designed to clean up air pollution, keep our water safe to drink, or protect people from toxic chemicals. But polluting industries and chemical manufacturers were out in force. NRDC and many of our allies attended the listening sessions and spoke out against the notion that EPA should be focusing its limited time and resources on rolling back existing protections, and should instead be acting to fulfill its mission of protecting health and the environment.
I was ambivalent about participating in the “listening session” I attended—which was focused on several parts of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program—out of concern that it would in some small way serve to legitimize the stated goal of President Trump, Steve Bannon and Scott Pruitt (#polluterpruitt) to deconstruct the administrative state, with a major emphasis on EPA. It is no secret that from the top down the Trump Administration is installing people who have dedicated their professional lives to blocking and undermining the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment.
It would be like putting George Steinbrenner and his minions in charge of the Boston Red Sox, only in this case, they won’t just be destroying a rival team, their intent is to destroy an Agency that the public relies upon to keep their air safe to breath, their water safe to drink and that protects them from exposure to toxic chemicals in their homes, schools, workplaces and in the marketplace.
EPA has had a difficult time meeting these basic objectives, because of the powerful and unrelenting opposition of giant corporations like Dow and Exxon for the nearly 50 years since EPA was first created. If corporations are people, these are people who would willingly harm their neighbors, or anyone else, to get ahead, and who have no qualms about their role in hurting people and the planet.
Small wonder then, that this Administration has so thoroughly allied itself with both companies, installing former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, and lauding Dow CEO Andrew Liveris at every opportunity. Andrew and Rex and the companies they currently or recently ran, fit in perfectly with President Trump, Steve Bannon and, now, Dr. Nancy Beck, who has just been handed the job of Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Toxics Office at EPA.
Dr. Beck’s work for the American Chemistry Council—the lobby arm of the chemical manufacturers—and her long-standing involvement in matters that are likely to arise as part of TSCA implementation over the next several years means she potentially has numerous conflicts that may require her recusal from many, perhaps virtually all, of the TSCA related matters with which the Agency will need to grapple in the next several years. To know for sure, there needs to be a thorough and public vetting of all matters on which she worked during her tenure with the American Chemistry Council and her specific role and time spent on all such matters. The Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition and other key allies sent a letter to Administrator Pruitt [#PoisonPruitt] today calling for just such disclosure and recusal of Dr. Beck from all actions and decisions for which there may be conflicts.
The TSCA program was supposed to be entering a period in which it was at least theoretically going to make a serious bid for credibility, based on new and expanded authorities recently granted by Congress under the revised TSCA. That was always at best a 50-50 proposition, based on the actual content of the new law, and the long-standing ability of the chemical industry to impose political pressure on the Agency through all Administrations.
But now, with the appointment of Dr. Beck to run the program, President Trump and Scott Pruitt (#PruittPollutes) are jumping the shark in the first 100 days of the new Administration. The Chemical Manufacturers are now, for all intents and purposes, in charge of running the office intended to regulate the chemical manufacturers.
The combination of putting Dr. Beck in charge of the Toxics Office, ignoring the agency’s previous scientific findings on the need to ban the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, and holding a few public meetings to take comment from polluting industries over which protections and safeguards they want to eliminate as the kickoff to its campaign of deconstruction (or as it should more accurately be called—destruction) has already run the Administration’s credibility on toxics issues into a ditch.
The chemical manufacturers have never been seriously interested in seeing TSCA become an effective law to protect the public from toxic chemicals, that is directly contrary to their economic interest. That was obvious during the decades in which they opposed any changes to TSCA, and denied that it needed to be fixed; it was obvious in the first version of the bill that it seems like they must have written that became the first Vitter-Lautenberg bill, and it is obvious now that Dr. Beck has been put in charge to run the TSCA program (as well as TRI and pesticides).
Every action now taken by EPA to implement these programs, absent a recusal from Dr. Beck, must be assumed to be intended to destroy the programs, and harm the Agency’s efforts to fulfill its mission. In addition to using all the tools at our disposal to oppose these efforts, the organizations that comprise the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition and the Mind the Store campaign, as well as our allies will increasingly devote our energies to shining a spotlight on those companies that support these efforts, without letting them hide behind the anonymity of some trade association.
Toy, auto, grocery, electronic, and other manufacturers that endorse or attempt to take advantage of the current moment, are on notice that their policies may be exposed and highlighted to their customers and consumers.
Nobody can say for sure what the next four years or beyond holds for federal toxics policy, but cheap stunts like these listening sessions only serve to underscore the importance of our resistance to the Trump/Bannon/Pruitt/Dow/Exxon anti-EPA, pro-cancer agenda.