By Andrew Wetzler, Natural Resources Defense Council
Monday marked the end of a public comment period, initiated by the political leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency, to identify regulations for possible modification and repeal. But a funny thing happened – it turns out most people care a lot about safeguards that protect our air, our water, and our health.
From the start, EPA’s “public” process seemed designed to do anything but encourage public participation. Meetings were organized by EPA Office (e.g., the Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Water, etc.) and were only held in Washington, DC. The meetings themselves were not always open to the public, space was limited, and notice, which appeared in a website one had to constantly check to keep up, was often provided only days in advance.
Despite this, people showed up in droves—on the phone (some of the meetings were “virtual”), in person, and by filing written comments with the agency. When the dust settled, I’m not sure EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or his political appointees got what they bargained for. Well over 60,000 comments were filed and, according to our sampling, comments supporting strong health and environmental safeguards out outnumbered those seeking to rollback protections by a staggering 73 to 1.
To be sure, comments can be found from lobbyists for the polluters, with numbing names like the “Utility Air Regulatory Group” and the “National Water Resources Association.” And those groups are ambitious. Among other things, industry representatives sought rollback in fundamental air, water, and public health regulation, such as those that protect air quality in national parks and wilderness areas, the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants, and safeguarding streams and wetlands from water pollution.
But the voices of polluters were vastly, vastly, outweighed by the voices of ordinary Americans standing up for the health of the planet. Nor was the environmental community silent. Over 100 national and local organizations wrote a letter opposing the Trump rollback agenda. Numerous members of Congress also sent letters to the EPA opposing weakening safeguards. And NRDC attorneys and advocates showed up at nearly every hearing that we were permitted to attend, providing oral testimony and filing detailed technical comments.
This is how we win. By showing resolve and relentlessly driving home the reality that people care about their air and water; that people care what is in their food; and that people care how toxic waste is regulated and cleaned up. There is no doubt that the EPA’s political appointees will still “find” regulations to be rolled back—after all, this was kabuki designed for that very purpose—but each one of those proposed rollbacks still has a long way to go. Any future proposals to weaken regulatory safeguards will still have to be formally proposed and published. The public will be allowed to comment on them one-by-one; EPA will have to justify its decision based on evidence and respond to those comments; and, if the agency doesn’t have a sufficient basis to weaken environmental protections (spoiler: they won’t), we will see them in Court.