Message to Trump and state governors: Stop the war on the environment

In the past decade many state appointed environmental officials orchestrated the degradation of environmental protection.

Tens of thousands of American lives every year are lost early and unnecessarily to environmental health hazards.

Isn’t it hypocritical to profess support for personnel in the military and law enforcement pursuing their mission to protect American citizens from harm at the same time denying support for public servants who provide protection from environmental harm?

Americans require assurances regarding our physical security yet there is a disjunction regarding environmental health hazards.We do not draw this comparison to diminish the vital protections that our armed services provide, but rather to illuminate the salience of environmental health issues incurred by citizens every day, with environmental managers serving as the frontline protectors.

Many public environmental managers are not being allowed or supported to achieve their mission. No matter their politics, all Americans can agree that we want assurance that the water we drink, the air we breathe and objects we come in contact with (food, soil, toys?) are safe.

That assurance can only be given if our environmental protectors can name their “clients”. Are those clients the water systems and industries they regulate or the “the public.” 

Whereas our environmental protection historically consisted of permitting, monitoring for compliance, enforcement and technical assistance, many state environmental agencies have been unreasonably downsized (over 50 percent in some states) and these law enforcers have been relegated to act as clerks in state run “permit shops.”

By hollowing out our environmental regulatory enforcement capacity we are inviting vulnerability.

States that focus performance evaluations on how many environmental permits are quickly issued without equally providing resources for monitoring for compliance and enforcement are competing in a “race to the bottom.”

The “prizes” of this race are the lowest national rankings for water quality, air quality and increased rates of infant mortality. Increasing jobs by decreasing environmental protection does not work and is not logical; short-term benefits are significantly outweighed by the long-term environmental and social welfare costs incurred.

Most economists recognize that well-crafted and implemented environmental regulations force countries as well as industries to innovate, increasing efficiency and competitiveness. This “race to the top” approach results in economic success in states and nations serious about environmental protection.

This lack of mission oriented management is not only a result of strategic ineptitude but of malice. Leaders who do not support — let alone respect — their troops cannot expect them to sacrifice.

Governors opposed to environmental regulation appoint like-minded environmental directors who, not only ignore their mission and legal obligation to pursue it but openly display a distaste and disrespect to our public servants attempting to “protect human health and the environment”. We hear from environmental managers nationwide (many former students at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs - SPEA) that they have left or are preparing to leave public service.

As with Flint, Michigan the EPA is supposed to intervene when states fail to protect citizens from environmental harm. Unfortunately, the EPA has lacked the resources in terms of political will and funding.

Congress knows repealing the environmental protection laws for air, water and toxic materials would be wildly unpopular. Instead Congress threatened the EPA not to intervene and in many instances has made sure it does not have the funding to do so.

Further, the morale of our federal environmental managers has predictably been trending to a “petty bureaucrat” culture rather than the professional public protector many have been trained for. Is this civil-environmental manager disjunction not similar to civil-military disjunctions that we have witnessed before? It is certainly as dangerous. Thus, our citizens’ health is threatened by state and federal politicians who subscribe to the idea that the non-enforcement of environmental law is good for jobs.

Fundamental changes need to happen and we believe the new Administration can participate: Citizens must become aware that “institutional anorexia” (the pathological downsizing of both the EPA and state environmental agencies, paralyzing regulatory function) is a bureaucratic disease that is dangerous and like the actual human disease, requires lengthy and expensive convalescence.

As we fear with our military and law enforcement professionals, we must recognize that rigorously educated environmental management professionals like we train at SPEA will leave public service or decide not to serve for the protection of future generations.

Finally, strong and caring leadership is needed to allow EPA to assure that states do not sacrifice public health and that it is the citizens who are the most important “clients” of government services.

Marc L. Lame, Ph.D. is a former official with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and is a Clinical Professor at IU SPEA. Richard “Drew” Marcantonio, Master of Public Affairs, is a combat veteran who served in the United States Marines as an infantry officer and currently is a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.