By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Trump administration is routinely undermining your ability—and mine, and everyone else’s in this country—to exercise our democratic rights to provide input on the administration’s proposed actions through the public comment process. Public comments are just what they sound like: an opportunity for anyone in the public, both individuals and organizations, to submit a comment on a proposed rule that federal agencies are required by law to read and take into account. Public comments can raise the profile of an issue, can help amplify the voices of affected communities, and can show policymakers whether a proposal has broad support or is wildly unpopular.
It should be noted that public comments aren’t necessarily a reflection of public opinion as a whole. Whether or not people have an opportunity to comment depends on many factors, such as how long the public comment period was open, how accessible the language of the rule was, and whether interested parties raised awareness. But the amount of comments is a useful data point in assessing the degree of support a federal action is receiving or not.
As my colleagues and I have investigated the Trump administration’s continued attacks on science, we have noticed an insidious pattern. The administration has, time and again, approved rules for which the public overwhelmingly voiced opposition. Allow me to present eight times where the Trump administration not only ignored science, but potentially disregarded the will of the American people as indicated by the public comments.
1. Gutting the Endangered Species Act
A recent rule from the Department of the Interior (DOI) substantially dismantled the science-based protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead of allowing the best available science to guide decisions on the listing of endangered and threatened species, the new rule is forcing federal agencies to consider economics in the listing process, to ignore the impacts of climate change on habitats, and to allow the hunting, fishing, or unintentional killing of threatened species.
More than 800,000 public comments were submitted opposing the changes under the ESA.
2. Targeting legal immigrants who receive public assistance
Informally known as the “public charge” rule, this dangerous rule from the Department of Homeland Security gives the administration broad latitude to deny visas or green cards to immigrants who have ever—or might ever—receive public assistance, including food, medical, and housing assistance. As a result, participation in important safety net programs including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps), and public housing programs, is likely to fall among immigrant families. The science suggests that this will undermine public health broadly and will put the health and well-being of immigrant children, in particular, at risk.
3. Approving “cyanide bombs” that kill wildlife
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reauthorized the use of sodium cyanide in devices that are designed to kill natural predators such as coyotes, foxes, and wild dogs. But in reality, these “cyanide bombs” can hurt, maim or kill any type of wildlife that is unlucky enough to encounter them, including children and pets.
According to an analysis of public comments by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Environmental Law Center, the vast majority opposed the measure. Of the 22,400 public commentsreceived, only 10 submissions indicated support for this rule.
4. Harmful emissions from industrial farms are no longer recorded
Large industrial farms—especially CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate vast quantities of animal waste—can release hazardous air emissions that endanger people’s health. The EPA used to collect data on two hazardous gases emitted from farms, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, but they recently passed a rule to stop this valuable data collection to local authorities. Previous attempts by community groups to try and compile the same data at the state level have been largely unsuccessful, meaning that without the EPA’s data, there is no mechanism in place to collect these data.
Of the 87,473 public comments received, 99 percent were in opposition to the new rule.
5. Rolling back nutritional standards for school meals
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a rule which weakened the nutritional standards of lunches/breakfasts served at school and benefited the food industry at the expense of children’s health. The rule makes it easier for schools to obtain waivers to bypass whole grain requirements and serve less-nutritious white bread instead. In addition, the rule delays lower sodium limits until after 2020, and allows children to opt for sugary, flavored milk again. This may have been a pet issue for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, as he signaled wanting to carry out this action just weeks after coming into office.
Of the 85,000 public comments submitted for the rule, the vast majority favored keeping intact the original nutrition standards for sodium (96 percent) and whole grains (97 percent).
6. Rolling back safety protections for offshore oil workers
Remember the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, which killed 11 workers, injured 17 other workers, and was the largest environmental disaster in US history? A number of evidence-based measures were put into place afterwards to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. These included better/more frequent safety inspections and more testing of the blowout preventor, which is the last line of defense to stop an uncontrolled oil spill. And yet under the Trump administration, a DOI sub-agency has issued a rule rolling back these protections and claiming, without evidence, that it would provide the same level of worker safety.
The public clearly doesn’t believe that. Here’s what it says in the text of the final rule: “A large majority of the approximately 118,000 comments that BSEE [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] received voiced significant concerns about the proposed changes.”
7. Downplaying environmental concerns for oil/gas drilling in the Arctic
Back in December 2018, another DOI sub-agency released a draft of an environmental impact statement to examine the impact of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This is normally an intense review that takes a few years to complete. However, the Trump administration completed this one in just five months, and it has been widely criticized for ignoring the science, particularly for downplaying and underestimating the impact on polar bears, caribous, and other wildlife. Additionally, DOI leadership sidelined federal scientists at various stages, first in a different but related review of how polar bear populations would be affected by seismic surveys, and in 18 different memos where scientists identified significant gaps in the data used for the environmental impact statement.
The Center for American Progress conducted an analysis of the 1 million public comments that were submitted on the draft environmental impact statement; 99 percent of them raised serious concerns about it and about drilling in the region.
8. Dismissing evidence showing the benefits of preserving national monuments
There are a lot of reasons to praise national monuments. They are rich sources of paleontological finds (including dinosaur fossils), they encompass ancient Native American sites, and they provide boosts to the local economy. But that didn’t stop the DOI from proposing to shrink ten national monuments. Documents received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request offered an opportunity to see “behind-the-curtain” and learn how the agency considered the public comments. And the news isn’t good.
Senior DOI officials downplayed, ignored or dismissed evidence highlighted in the public comments that justified the continued protections of the monuments. They also boosted any evidence of benefits to shrinking the monuments (which primarily revolved around industry concerns). They seemed to have made up their minds before going into the process, with one official saying “barring a surprise, there is no new information that’s going to be submitted” in the public comments.
The public’s voice should not be silenced
The Trump administration really ought to be considering public comments. While the public comment process definitely could use some improvements, it provides a critical mechanism for the public to have a say in the decisions our government is making. Often, public comments are the only opportunity for the public to weigh in on proposed rules. And the process provides a way for federal agencies to consider the perspectives of people with diverse knowledge and skills.
But although the Trump administration has trampled this democratic process, we shouldn’t grow apathetic or disheartened. There is still real value in providing your voice in the form of thoughtful, well-written comments with scientific evidence – comments that are more likely to sway government officials. Your public comments will enter the administrative record and they are often used as evidence in court when judges are deliberating whether agency rules or rollbacks are necessary or appropriate. If the public largely opposes a rule or rollback, the judge will consider that when deliberating whether the rule should stand. This is likely one of the reasons that the Trump administration has lost over 90 percent of the court cases on deregulatory actions.
So don’t let the Trump administration off the hook – we need your voice in this fight more than ever. You can take action on the administration’s current efforts to rollback SNAP, an effective, evidence-based program that helps put food on dinner tables of millions of low-income families across the country. Keep speaking up, keep fighting the good fight, and keep exercising your democratic right to comment.