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Trump's lasting damage to the environment

Dave Keating
June 21, 2018

A new report concludes that the damage already done by the Trump administration to the environment, and the US agency that regulates it, will result in 80,000 deaths each decade.

Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. M. Monsivais

This week, it was announced that copper and cobalt mining will begin in the formerly protected federal US lands of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument of Utah. The mining is now possible after Donald Trump removed protection from 2.2 million acres of federal land in Utah — the largest elimination of protected areas in US history. 

It is only a fraction of the protections Trump has removed from federal lands since taking office in January 2017 — part of a general campaign promise to dismantle American environmental law, which Trump says is stifling economic growth.

The promises were not only made in campaign stump speeches. They were also set in the official Republican Party Platform adopted at the party's convention in August 2016. "The environmental establishment has become a self-serving elite, stuck in the mindset of the 1970s," the platform stated. "Their approach is based on shoddy science, scare tactics, and centralized command-and-control regulation."

Now, 18 months into the Trump regime, experts have concluded that the changes already made to environmental law will cause damage that would be difficult for a future administration to undo, and could result in 80,000 extra health-related deaths in each of the next decades.

National Guard showing water samples from Flint, Michigan
Rollbacks in air and water quality regulations will cause tens of thousands of additional deaths, the analysis saysImage: Getty Images/S. Rice

An analysis essay published in June by two Harvard University scientists, David Cutler and Francesca Dominici, looked specifically at the health impacts of changes to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) policies on air pollutants and toxic chemicals. They came up with the 80,000 deaths figure by analyzing the EPA's own data. 

The deaths would result from increased diseases from bad air and water quality, and would be in addition to the deaths that would have resulted from those diseases anyway under the previous trajectory before Trump scrapped the protections.

"This sobering statistic captures only a small fraction of the cumulative public health damages associated with the full range of rollbacks and systemic actions proposed by the Trump Administration," they said. The EPA has responded by saying the essay is "not a scientific article, it's a political article."

According to an analysis by the New York Times using Harvard Law School's Environmental Regulation Rollback Tracker, which is keeping a running tally of the regulatory dismantling program, the Trump administration has so far initiated the reversal of 67 environmental laws.

And that will have a lasting impact, experts say.

Out, and on the way out

The EPA does not deny that it is dismantling US environmental regulations. Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, the agency's head, to do just that.

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt was a fierce foe of the EPA and initiated several lawsuits against the agency to stop it putting into place environmental regulation. Pruitt, who has denied the existence of climate change in the past, believes the agency is a large bloated monster producing regulation for regulation's sake, stifling industry with red tape.

Sign at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC
The EPA under Trump has sought to undo environmental regulationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

Last week, Pruitt moved to kill an Obama-era Clean Water Rule, watering it down in a way that environmentalists say make it completely toothless. The effort was launched last year, but has had to overcome legal challenges.

It is only the latest piece of regulation to be undone. According to the Regulation Rollback Tracker, 33 environmental rules have already been overturned outright, while 34 are in the process of being rolled back.

The most significant of these is the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. It sought to overcome Congressional inaction on climate change by giving the EPA the power to regulate carbon emissions by classifying it as a pollutant. With the plan rescinded, there will be no instrument for the US to lower emissions in line with its commitments under the Paris Agreement — which Trump has pledged to pull the US out of in 2020

This week, Trump signed an executive order to revoke Obama-era protections for US oceans, coastlines and Great Lakes waters. The change will open these waters to energy extraction, fishing, trade and national security activities.

Also significant is the administration's move to scrap Obama-era emissions standards for cars. This could cause US automakers to fall behind in the clean vehicle innovation race with automakers in China and Europe, which both have such emissions standards.

Lukas Ross, a climate and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth US, says the rollbacks at the EPA are part of a broader dismantling being undertaken across the administration.

"Trump filled his cabinet and government agencies with unqualified corporate cronies whose devastating impact on our environment cannot be understated," he told DW. "Appointees like Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Ryan Zinke at the Department of the Interior use their positions of power to hand our government over to the fossil fuel industry."

As well as rolling back policies that protect air and water, he highlighted decisions to open American national monuments for drilling and mining exploration.

"These attacks on environmental and public health protections will have a disastrous impact on generations of Americans," he said.

Out of the changes made so far, Ross says the opening up of public lands for drilling and mining and rolling back clean air and water protections would be the hardest moves to undo.

"These changes will have real-world consequences that once done, cannot be undone," he said. "New pipelines and oil rigs can be shuttered by a different administration, but not the toxins and pollutants in our air, water and soil."

EPA in ruins

Even more difficult, experts say, would be restoring the EPA to its previous health under a new administration. The agency has been hit with mass resignations and firings since Pruitt took control and began cutting departments and programs.

The administration has sent intimidating memos asking for the names of climate change experts used by federal agencies, looking for environmental sympathizers within policymaking, and silencing EPA scientists.

USA Scott Pruitt
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is embroiled in a corruption scandalImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/C. Kaster

The agency has been staffed with Trump loyalists, right down to the media relations office. After an initial EPA media blackout, new press office personnel have allegedly focused on intimidating reporters.

Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesperson, reportedly told a reporter for the Atlantic earlier this month, "you have a great day, you're a piece of trash," when she requested comment on the fact that four top EPA officials had resigned in a week.

Pruitt himself is surrounded by one of the most extensive corruption scandals in US political history, accused of using agency resources for personal gain. Despite the ongoing scandal, President Trump has refused to call for Pruitt's resignation.

"Trump continues to support a fundamentally corrupt man as the head of the institution," says Ross. "Pruitt has wasted millions in taxpayer dollars on his lavish lifestyle instead of protecting our environment."

Pundits in the US doubt that Pruitt can stick it out at the agency much longer given the enormity of the accusations against him. But Ross warns that even if he were replaced by someone who cut back on the deregulation agenda, the damage has already been done. Even a future administration would have difficulty restoring the gutted agency to its previous health and staffing levels any time soon.

"A new administration would need a truly environment-focused agenda to reverse much of Pruitt's damage," he says.