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Trump’s EPA is not following through on promises to protect our air and water

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The Trump administration has never pretended that environmental protection would be a priority. In fact, the administration has been true to its promises broadly to roll back environmental protections and has done so not only for rules protecting against climate change, but also regulations that protect our parks, preventing pollution, and Arctic drilling.

But the Trump administration also promised to refocus EPA on clean air and clean water enforcement. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt added a promise to revitalize the Superfund program to clean up the country’s most contaminated industrial sites. Over the past week we’ve learned of reasons to doubt that these promises will be fulfilled.

{mosads}The New York Times reported in the last week that clean air and water enforcement by EPA has moved in just the opposite direction. Enforcement actions are way down under the Trump/Pruitt EPA, as are fines for polluters.


Pruitt has gone so far as to prohibit EPA regional offices from requesting air monitoring data from companies without first getting EPA headquarters approval. Without data on the levels of pollution being emitted, EPA has no basis to enforce the law prohibiting dangerous levels of air pollution.

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 to address the troubling growth in air pollution and its effects not only on the environment, but also on the health of large numbers of Americans living in areas where simply breathing the air was becoming a health hazard.

We look at photos of Beijing and New Delhi today with dismay at the visible pollution people living there are forced to breathe. But photos of major American cities, like Los Angeles, taken in the 1960’s and early 1970’s were not much different. The difference between U.S. cities then and now is due largely to the Clean Air Act and 45 years of enforcing it by EPA.

The same is true for many of the lakes and rivers across the country. It is hard to imagine now, but a major impetus for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio — set aflame in 1969 as a result of decades of industrial pollution dumped into the river. Our waterways today — protected by more than forty years of Clean Water Act enforcement – generally don’t ignite, and in many places, parents are now not afraid to let their children swim.

So, while prior administrations never stopped enforcing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, this administration is right to state that these laws should be enforced. Unfortunately, that’s not what is happening.

The New York Times report, which was challenged by EPA, shows instead that EPA enforcement actions under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are down dramatically since the Trump administration took over.

Comparing enforcement actions of those Acts during the first 9 months by the Trump EPA to the same time periods in the Obama and Bush administrations, the Times reported that EPA’s pollution related enforcement actions are actually down about 33 percent from actions by the Obama EPA and about 25 percent from actions under Bush.

The story on Superfund may be heading the same way. This is an area where Pruitt has repeatedly said EPA will focus and will speed up desperately needed and long-awaited cleanups.

In what looked like a positive step forward, in his first months on the job Pruitt commissioned a task force to review the Superfund program that generated 42 recommendations for fixing the program, eleven of which Pruitt ordered to be implemented immediately.

That action gave hope to communities living in the highly contaminated Superfund sites that they would finally be protected from the dangerous contaminants polluting the air and ground around them. And, last week EPA published a list of 21 Superfund sites targeted for “immediate and intense” cleanup.

But the publication of the list raises new concerns. The focus of immediate attention should be where there is the greatest risk to people – and particularly, to children – living in close proximity to a Superfund site. That does not appear to be how these sites were selected. Instead, according to EPA, the sites were put on the list because Pruitt’s personal involvement might further some aspect of clean up at the site, and placement on the list might “spur action” where there are opportunities to “act quickly and comprehensively.”

Unfortunately, there are many Superfund sites where action is urgently needed that won’t make a list on that basis and, more importantly, the list focuses on just 21 of the more than 1300 Superfund sites across the country. Many of the most dangerous sites are complex and won’t be solved or cleaned up quickly. But people living nearby are endangered. Their health and safety should be the basis for assigning EPA’s priority focus.

To be fair, several of the sites on the list clearly fit these concerns. And, over the past few months, Pruitt has both visited a few of them and met with residents living in these highly contaminated neighborhoods. The added attention from him at the sites on the list is positive.

More significantly, and a basis for skepticism about quick and comprehensive cleanups, is the reality of the cost of cleanups. Typically, millions of dollars are involved and sometimes hundreds of millions. The Trump budget, which is supported by Pruitt, calls for a 25 percent cut in the Superfund budget. It’s simply not possible to do so much more with so much less.

So what can we expect of the Trump administration’s promises for more focus on clean air and water and a reinvigoration of the Superfund program? It appears, not much — while polluters go unchallenged and our children’s health is threatened.

Nancy Loeb is a clinical associate professor of law and the director of the environmental advocacy clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. The clinic represents residents of Superfund sites in Illinois and Indiana. 

Tags EPA Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt Superfund sites

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