EPA Rollbacks Are Hurting Americans Where They Live
From the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency in the tall, modern Ralph Metcalfe Building in downtown Chicago, teams of scientists, investigators, and lawyers enforce the nation’s environmental laws across the EPA’s Region 5: a vast swath of the midwestern United States that includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio as well as the lands of some 35 Native American tribes and the enormous Great Lakes.
On a recent visit, the 12th-floor office walls sported photos of EPA officials actively cleaning up spills, analyzing lab samples, and engaging with community residents. But interviews with current and former staffers struck a strikingly different note as they described the current work environment with a discordant mixture of despair and defiance, candor and fear.
Tasked with one of the hardest workloads in the nation because of the heavy industrialization in many parts of the 388,000-square-mile region they oversee, these career government officials say their office is a prime example of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to hollow out the EPA and sideline science—with potentially devastating consequences for the environment and for Americans’ health.
Lilly Simmons, a Region 5 environmental scientist, inspects industrial injection wells to make sure hazardous wastes don’t pollute groundwater. “When I started, we had 10 inspectors,” she says. “Now we’re down to three.”
Michael Mikulka, president of the local union of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most of Region 5’s 1,000 employees, laments the loss of Superfund investigators. “We had four Superfund civil investigators,” he says. “Now we have zero.”
As Mikulka explains, these investigators did the gumshoe work needed to uncover pollution in communities. “These were the investigators, much like police detectives, who would go out to ask people who live by factories, ‘What did you see?,’ ‘What did you do?’” he says. They would talk to people who worked in industrial plants and discover that the companies had dumped liquid wastes in the back lot, he says. “And then they would dig a circle in the ground and ask them, ‘Where’d you dump it?’”
At the time of my visit in February, Steve Faryan, who rushes to emergency and hazardous waste cleanups for the agency in his capacity as a so-called on-scene coordinator, had recently returned from assisting government efforts in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. He told me that, this year, his office will likely get to many fewer than the 60 contaminated sites it usually inspects annually. Wayne Whipple, a chemist sitting next to Faryan, spelled out the consequences: “A lot of poor people stuck with [toxic] plumes, and fenceline communities living next to refineries getting impacted,” he says. “If the EPA keeps slowing everything down, what’s the point? The EPA should be leading, especially with many states pulling back on their environmental regulations.”
Soft on polluters...
Stories like these bring home the realities of today’s EPA. Region 5 may well be especially hard-hit, but the aggregate numbers tell a similar story.
All told, at least 1,200 employees have left the EPA since the election of President Trump, who turned the agency over to Scott Pruitt, a man notoriously hostile to its mission—having personally sued the EPA 14 times on behalf of industry in his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general. The most recently announced tally of EPA employees (14,162 nationwide) is the lowest in three decades. And, given that nearly half the remaining staff reportedly becomes eligible for retirement over the next five years, attrition may help accomplish Pruitt and President Trump’s goal of dramatically shrinking the agency. The very real possibility that the EPA staff could shrink to fewer than 8,000 employees would be the lowest level since the first two years after the agency began in 1970.
The numbers are important because the evidence is clear that a shrinking staff also means less enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws and that, in turn, means more pollution reaching our communities and imperiling our health and that of our children.
A February report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a group led by Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA Office for Civil Enforcement in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, found that the Trump EPA successfully prosecuted and resolved 48 civil cases in its first year, collecting $30 million in penalties from polluters. Even the George W. Bush administration—hardly known for drawing a hard line on environmental enforcement—resolved more than twice as many cases in its first year (112) and collected some $70 million in penalties (see the figure).
A review by UCS of the EPA’s own enforcement database offers more detail. Here are some examples:
- The number of formal enforcement actions to remove pollutants from the nation’s public drinking water supply is at its lowest level since 2011.
- In Region 5, the number of such enforcement actions in Indiana has been dropping steadily for years, from 202 in 2011 to just 26 last year.
- The dollar amount of penalties collected for air pollution violations tells a similar story; it is down by roughly a third since the start of the Trump administration.
- Formal enforcement actions on hazardous waste violations are also down. In Illinois, for instance, the EPA had been averaging roughly 12 for each of the past six years; last year, there were four.
. . . Hard on communities
Nicole Cantello and Josh Zaharoff, attorneys in the EPA Region 5 office, explained how a directive from headquarters last May further tied their hands in their quest to pursue polluters. While regional investigators previously asked companies directly to provide air, water, or waste data, such requests must now be authorized in Washington, DC, especially those requiring testing and sampling or where the EPA and the state do not agree on environmental regulations. One staffer who did not want to be quoted by name said the new rules were intended “to shield oil and gas companies.” Zaharoff said he was aware of at least one water pollution inspection request that was approved, but two months were lost in the process. Others have thus far gone unanswered. “We’re dedicated, but this slowing down of the process chills the desire of people in the region to pursue violations,” Zaharoff said.
Data requests can wind up having a large impact on people’s health, Cantello explains. Back in 2014, she says, Region 5 analysts’ requests for air monitoring data intended to measure petcoke dust—a by-product of oil refining—from one facility in southeast Chicago detected elevated levels of manganese emissions from another company several blocks away, in a neighborhood of 20,000 people. Manganese, used in processing steel, is a food nutrient that can build bones. But it is a neurotoxin when inhaled.
“If we hadn’t issued the letter for the air monitors to measure particulates, we never would have found the manganese,” Cantello said, adding that the requests ultimately led the city of Chicago to strengthen regulations that forced the plant to curb its emissions.
In Chicago, as elsewhere around the country, air pollution is literally a matter of life and death. As a 2013 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found, air pollution kills some 200,000 Americans a year, with the average victim losing a decade of life expectancy. And research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association found that thousands of lives could be saved by even relatively minor reductions in fine particulate matter (or soot).
Devalued but Defiant
Of course, the EPA is charged with protecting us not just from air pollution but also from contaminants on land and in our water supply.
Felicia Chase monitors water quality in Region 5, and assisted in the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With so many water problems in Region 5, she says, her division was considering adding several more inspectors before President Trump’s election. Now, her division is down two inspectors. She says that means fewer people in the agency like Miguel Del Toral, the Region 5 water specialist who helped confirm the dramatically elevated levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water.
Chase says the changes since Trump took office have been dramatic, noting that her usual four to six data requests to municipalities have dropped to none. “It’s the first critical piece in initiating our work,” she says. “It’s how we see the red flags.”
These staffers see red flags where most Americans don’t. Flint reminded people that low-income communities and people of color are significantly more at risk of living with pollution and poor-quality drinking water, increasing the harm of asthma from soot and the irreversible loss of cognitive skills in children from lead at the tap.
“With all the hells of Flint, East Chicago, and so many other places around the nation with water at risk, I’m baffled by all the cuts,” Chase says. “We’re basically being told to stand down. . . . It’s very difficult when everything you do is devalued and dismissed. We didn’t sign up to do nothing. It’s like the president is sending signals about who he thinks is disposable and who he does not represent.”
Without repeating a recent spectacular slur by President Trump, Chase ruefully says, “Perhaps he views these places as African countries.”
With all the political attacks decrying the EPA as a job-killing agency, Chase says, it’s easy for most people to forget the passion EPA inspectors and investigators bring to their jobs and the difference it can make in people’s lives. She recalls visiting the home of a woman who was five months pregnant during the Flint water crisis and seeing how distraught she was.
When Chase’s colleague introduced the EPA team at her door, the woman said, “Stop! I don’t want to talk with you. Everyone who has told me the water’s safe looks like you.” Chase worked to win her trust. “Our work is so often belittled in the current environment, you can get to the point where you feel your input does not matter. But that episode sticks with me. It was a human moment. That woman hugged us before we left. And she brought home to me the true meaning of this agency.”
Derrick Z. Jackson is a fellow at UCS with a distinguished career as a journalist, author, and as an award-winning columnist at the Boston Globe.