Bipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission

Bipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission

Four former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, criticizing the agency under the direction of the Trump administration and imploring Congress to push it to return to its mission.

“I’m here for one reason and one reason only. And it’s not to weep about all my precious rules being rolled back. Though I admit that the constant roll-back is beginning to tick me off a bit,” said Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyTrump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Trump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Overnight Energy: Trump order to trim science panels sparks outrage | Greens ask watchdog to investigate Interior's records policies | EPA to allow use of pesticide harmful to bees MORE, in her first appearance before Congress since heading the EPA under former President Obama.

“I’m here to remind the political leadership at the EPA that what they do matters, and it’s time for them to step up and do their jobs. Just do your jobs. Right now this administration is trying to systemically undo health protections by running roughshod over the law.”

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McCarthy joined Republican counterparts spanning the Reagan to George W. Bush administrations. Their appearance comes after they sent a letter to various members of Congress offering the help of former EPA staff, who, concerned about the direction of the agency, formed an association — The Environmental Protection Network.

The four former cabinet secretaries say the agency is reversing course and endangering human health along the way.

“Today, as never before, the mission of EPA is being seriously undermined by the very people who have been entrusted with carrying that mission out,” Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the agency under former President George W. Bush, said in her opening remarks. She pointed to a retreat from science, the influence of regulated industries, a disinterest in addressing climate change and a lack of a focus on public health as areas for concern. 

“This unprecedented attack on science-based regulations designed to protect the environment and public health represents the gravest threat to the effectiveness of the EPA — and to the federal government’s overall ability to do the same — in the nation’s history,” she said.

The EPA has faced a number of controversies under the Trump administration, ranging from ethical issues tied to former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Trump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Overnight Energy: Former EPA chiefs say Trump has abandoned agency's mission | Trump in Iowa touts ethanol and knocks Biden | Greens sue Trump over drilling safety rollbacks | FDA downplays worries over 'forever chemicals' MORE, to ignoring scientists both inside and outside the agency, to accusations it is rolling back regulations to favor industry.

That has spurred a growing response from a number of current and former employees of the agency, including the ex-administrators.

“I’ve never had a situation where four former EPA administrations, three Republicans and one Democrat…would come in and sounds the alarm the way they did today,” Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteBipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission Congress: Expand access to physical therapy for underserved communities Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider cost benefit analysis of air pollution rules | Interior gets new rules on free concert tickets | Dem challenges EPA for skipping hearing MORE (D-Colo.) said of her tenure on the committee.

EPA did not respond to The Hill's requests for comment. 

The hearing comes on the heels of a contentious meeting between the EPA and its Science Advisory Board and renewed concerns that the agency is sidelining scientists.

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“Science is important,” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Measure would force EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in water | Emails show Trump official consulted climate deniers | Democrats urge Puerto Rico to reject debt deal for power company MORE (D-N.Y.), one of the top Democrats on the committee, said after the hearing. “We need to get back to embracing the wholesome mission of the agency and the cost of not providing science-based policy making is measure in the loss of human life.”

McCarthy and Lee Thomas, who headed the agency under President Reagan, both highlighted a need for rigorous oversight of the agency from Congress. 

“I for one am here to implore the subcommittee to use its authority to ensure that EPA is focused on its mission. To question whether the agency is appropriately including career staff in decision-making, is protecting scientists from political interference, and is taking actions that make our lives healthier and our natural resources cleaner,” McCarthy wrote in her opening remarks.

“Evidence so far suggests that today’s EPA is not focused on the agency’s mission but is instead focused on specific results which will deliver on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE’s campaign promises to dismantle the EPA.”

As the agency approaches its 50th anniversary, the former administrators were clear in their consensus that the agency is backtracking on a number of notable fronts.

Several of them voiced concern over what they said is an agency pivot toward valuing regulatory rollbacks over environmental or public health benefits.

“We think that they should be focused on economics. That’s alright. It’s just that the primary justification for rules changes in this administration is always economic. Often the environment and health is not even mentioned. I’ve never seen that before,” William Reilly, who headed the agency under George H.W. Bush told reporters after the hearing. “The purpose of these statutes, obviously, is secondary to the economic deregulatory mission.” 

McCarthy echoed that sentiment. 

“I’m tired of hearing decisions made where all we talk about is how much it’s reduced manufacturing costs,” she said.

The former administrators criticized the agency for frequently portraying economic progress as being at odds with environmental regulations — two things, they say, can proceed in tandem.

The group also raised concerns over how the agency calculates the cost-benefit analysis of its regulations.   

“They minimize the benefits and they maximize the cost, McCarthy said. “We need to have credible science, credible cost-benefit analysis so you can make the decisions you’re supposed to make. This EPA is not making credible decisions. And it's distressing to see.”

Several committee Republicans said they viewed past EPA administrators as leading the agency beyond the scope of its authority.

Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyBipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission Bipartisan former EPA chiefs say Trump administration has abandoned agency's mission Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill MORE (R-W.V.) specifically called out McCarthy, saying, “Under her leadership I think the EPA went rogue and deviated from the historic missions you all were talking about.”

Committee Democrats said Republicans chose not to invite any of their own witnesses to the hearing.

Tonko said this administration’s EPA was “rejecting totally the work they’re supposed to be doing.”

Updated 3:43 p.m.