Reports emerged recently that Trump’s EPA directed NASA to abort a mission to detect hazardous air pollution in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Rather than obtain information about the health risks faced by the people of Houston, the agency seemingly preferred to keep itself, and the public, in the dark.
This revelation is a gruesome one. We know that Hurricane Harvey damaged factories, storage tank farms, and other places rife with toxic chemicals. We know that Houstonians reported health problems commonly associated with chemical exposure in the days and weeks following the Hurricane, including rescue crews who risked their own safety to save others.
Yet, EPA — it says at the behest of state regulators — prevented NASA from using the most sophisticated scientific instruments to collect comprehensive data about toxic air pollution resulting from fires, spills or other effects of the hurricane.
The data NASA would have gathered about the prevalence and location of toxic air pollution could have detected serious threats to public health. Because the consequences of toxic exposure may not manifest for years or decades, better information could enable people to make better choices about their future health care, possibly saving lives through early detection of cancer or other latent diseases.
Or NASA’s data could have been consistent with that obtained by EPA and the state using less sophisticated means, providing peace of mind to hurricane victims. Instead, people are left to wonder: Was my cough a simple cold? Was my nausea the result of stress? Or was it something far more sinister?
We don’t yet know the details of how or why EPA made this decision. Natural disasters require snap judgments made in challenging circumstances and this could have been an understandable error in judgment made in the heat of the moment. What should alarm all of us, however, is that this decision is in keeping with other actions that EPA has taken in recent years to undermine environmental law by controlling information about environmental problems.
For example, it proposed a rule to prevent the agency from considering peer-reviewed scientific research on the dangers of toxins if that research was collected in a manner ensuring individual privacy. It has also repeatedly monkeyed with the scientific advisory boards designed to provide non-partisan advice from leading scientists.
The EPA administers the nation’s most important environmental laws — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law — which Congress enacted to protect public health and the environment from the ravages of pollution. These laws require companies to use sound pollution-control technologies and impose penalties when they fail. They also mandate that polluters, not the taxpayer, foot the bill for decontaminating the land and water.
The success of these laws depends on accurate information. If we don’t know about chemical releases, we can’t warn those in harm’s way, and we can’t bring to account those responsible. Put differently, eviscerating the protections afforded by our environmental laws does not require weakening the formal standards that are supposed to address air pollution, water pollution and the management of hazardous waste. Without accurate information, those standards are mere words on a page.
The current administration has demonstrated that it is willing to manipulate information to benefit regulated industries. Many of the Americans who will suffer as a result are the least powerful among us. Those who live in the neighborhoods in which polluting industries are most likely to be located. Those who couldn’t afford to leave Houston before the hurricane struck and remain away until the most immediate threats had been addressed.
EPA broke faith with the people of Houston, whether through inadvertence or cold calculation. A congressional investigation appears to be in the works and through it we will learn more about the agency’s motivations for spurning assistance from NASA. Hopefully, once under the microscope, EPA will resolve not to wield its considerable power to conceal difficult truths, and instead, rededicate itself to its duty to protect the American people.
Justin Pidot is a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where his teaching and scholarship focus on environmental and natural resources law. He previously served as the deputy solicitor for Land Resources at the U.S. Department of the Interior and as an appellate lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice.