By Andrew Rosenberg, Union of Concerned Scientists
Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is creeping up on us like watching a coal ash spill flow down a gentle slope. It slowly lays waste to the landscape as it advances, then engulfs you in toxic pollution.
Mr. Wheeler has been the Acting Administrator of the EPA since July 2018, when his predecessor Scott Pruitt left the post after a tawdry mudslide of scandals. And he has been very busy over the past 8 months while awaiting his Senate confirmation as EPA administrator.
An active acting administrator
In the past, when officials were serving in a high-level position on an acting basis, they were careful not to push forward policies too aggressively until Senate confirmation was completed. Not so Mr. Wheeler.
In his short time at the helm of the EPA, Wheeler has proposed rolling back requirements to reduce neurotoxic emissions of mercury from power plants. He has pushed forward with reducing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles in spite of overwhelming evidence showing that doing so would harm public health and make global warming worse. And he has moved ahead with new rules that weaken the requirements for protecting local communities from accidents at chemical plants.
When it comes to the air we breathe, Wheeler has attacked rules that have successfully reduced pollution. He has slackened requirements to reduce emissions of cancer causing toxics. And he has put even basic air quality at risk with respect to particulate matter and ozone.
All the while withdrawing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and replacing it with a plan seemingly designed to provide endless opportunities for the states NOT to take action to reduce emissions while encouraging the greater use of coal. Our water hasn’t escaped Wheeler’s watch either. He has proposed reducing protections for the nation’s waterways and delayed action to address widespread contamination of drinking water with PFAS chemicals, particularly near military bases.
Contorting the science basis for protecting the public
While these specific efforts are all worrisome threats to public health and safety, they are not the end of the story. Under the Trump Administration, the very process by which science informs public health and safety protections at the nation’s premier public health agency has been dramatically weakened.
Independent science advisors have been dismissed and replaced by a combination of those with deep ties to regulated industry and those with fringe views on key scientific issues such as the health impacts of pollutants or the science of climate change. The agency has proposed restrictions on the very information the agency considers in crafting health and safety rules, ignoring broad evidence of public health impacts in favor of information that primarily comes from regulated industry itself.
In the same vein, the EPA is trying to rewrite the ways that we consider the costs and benefits of health and safety protections so that only direct benefits are considered, discounting any “co-benefits” of taking regulatory action. And even the Office of the Science Advisor to the Administrator has been disbanded and put under direct political control.
At the same time, staffing in the agency, and the science staff in particular, is at levels below those of the 1980s. Inspection and enforcement of the rules on polluters has also dropped precipitously. So the bad actors in industry have less to fear and the good actors lose out.
Mr. Wheeler may be confirmed in his position this week, but that doesn’t mean we can give up the fight. Every time the agency withdraws a protection it must make a proposal, accept public comments, and then say how those comments were addressed in its final action.
That means you and I and everybody who works on and cares about these issues can provide detailed substantive written comments for the administrative record. Even if the agency doesn’t change course, those comments will be considered in legal action, they can be considered by Congress when they hold hearings to oversee agency actions, and they can help provide input in future for more sane, science based policies.
So don’t be silent! We can’t give in to flood of pollution flowing from Andrew Wheeler and the Trump administration. Even now, with Wheeler the confirmed Administrator of the EPA, Congress must serve as a check on this Administration. We have outlined many of the issues to be addressed. And Congress is more likely to exercise its oversight role when constituents speak up.