Madeline St. John, News Editor
When the EPA came into existence in 1970, during Nixon’s administration, it was backed by relatively strong bipartisan support for environmental regulation, likely due to politicians recognizing and responding to real, visible environmental problems across the country. “It was an era in which rivers were catching on fire and people were dying from respiratory diseases related to air pollution,” said Robert Neff, a professor in the Environmental Studies (ES) department.
In the current political climate, the topics of environmental protection and climate change have become divisive ones. A Senate hearing was called to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act, with the argument that it prevents mining and the creation of jobs. Carbon dioxide may be removed from its classification as a pollutant, preventing the EPA from regulating it. Congress approved a resolution to overturn a Stream Protection Rule that prevented companies from dumping waste in local waterways. The U.S. will likely quit the Paris Climate Accords. The list goes on.
Already, the White House has frozen EPA grants and federal contracts, cut in half the number of EPA employees attending an environmental conference in Alaska, and, along with other federal agencies, ordered the EPA to halt their communication with outside organizations.
Scott Pruitt is the new head of the EPA. Pruitt has lobbied directly against EPA regulations. More specifically, Professor Neff cited Pruitt’s opposition to the EPA’s pollution regulations in the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA calculates the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of the bay–the amount of pollution that the bay can handle each day–and divides these waste quantities among the surrounding states. These regulatory efforts for cleaner water have been proven effective. “The dead zone is shrinking, the oysters are coming back…Pruitt was opposed to this approach,” said Neff.
Pruitt’s “agenda would include providing new permits to drill oil and extract natural gas for energy production,” wrote Marko Salvaggio, a professor in Goucher’s ES department. “Not only will this increase carbon emissions, but [it also] threaten[s] our fresh water supplies and the health of the people who rely on this water.”
“Recent reports have demonstrated the petroleum industry’s efforts to confuse the public about the impacts of climate science – in the same way the tobacco industry worked to obfuscate the links between smoking and cancer…these types of campaigns that are now promoted by Scott Pruitt in the EPA,” wrote Emily Billo, a professor of Environmental Studies.
There has also been discussion of subjecting the EPA to political review. Typically, scientific research undergoes rigorous peer review, which, at the EPA, is followed by additional EPA-led review. If the White House adds its own review process, Neff stated, “this will be a complete corruption of that [scientific] process…How do we know that findings haven’t been altered for political reasons?”
Under the current administration, scientific research in general is threatened. Scientists expect to receive cuts in funding, and some will likely lose their government jobs. Cuts in national government funding for science will lead to job loss. This will affect recent graduates looking for jobs, who will have to compete with more experienced workers who will be back to job-hunting. Funding cuts will also likely result in less funding for graduate students.
Cynthia Kicklighter, a professor in the Biology Department, worries that changes in government will particularly impact funding for basic research. Basic research–research to improve scientific theories and understanding rather than, say, “find the cure for cancer”–is the kind of research almost all Goucher faculty conduct, and is the kind of research often “deemed as wasting taxpayer money,” said Kicklighter. She cited the example of a study which put shrimp on treadmills, with the purpose of seeing the effect on shrimp of low oxygen concentrations, which are often caused by algal blooms, in, for example, the Chesapeake Bay. “It sounds ridiculous,” she said, “but there was a legitimate scientific basis. Basic research is often made fun of. It’s misunderstood…Across the country, there is a lot of disconnect, and a lot of people don’t value it.”
Republican senators confirmed Pruitt, knowing that, only a few days after his confirmation, he had been ordered to release the 3,000 emails and other documents of correspondence that his Oklahoma office exchanged with fossil fuel interests during his time as attorney general.
In response to Pruitt’s nomination, about 700 former EPA officials sent a letter to the U.S. Senate opposing the nomination. This letter was covered in over 150 news outlets, raising awareness of the strong opposition to new EPA leadership. Among these former EPA employees was Goucher professor Dan Engelberg, who recently retired from 15 years at the EPA.
“This isn’t a new thing,” said Engelberg, in an interview, referring to the obstacles that the EPA now faces. “All of this has happened before, with Reagan, Gingrich and Bush. When was EPA last in a truly comfortable position?” he added, in an email.
Part of the EPA’s mission is to enforce regulations related to the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972, as well as create and enforce other legislation related to pollution control standards. In 1986, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act required that people know about toxic chemicals present in their communities. In the 2000s, the EPA’s role expanded to include climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
The EPA plays a big role in environmental protection, and has been very influential during the 47 years that it has been in existence. Engelberg, who worked there for years, was critical of the agency. He stated that “the old structure really wasn’t working as well as it should,” and that there are “chronic issues” in the agency that “are less urgent, but more important.”
“In the early days, the agency was being sued all the time, on both sides,” said Engelberg, meaning that environmentalists, as well as businesses and industry, took the EPA to court, holding them accountable to their own regulations. Certainly, with recent occurrences in Flint, Michigan, the EPA has come under fire, and Engelberg expects, and hopes, such attacks will continue.
However, according to Engelberg, 90% of the enforcement action of environmental regulation is conducted by states. Also, one-third of the EPA’s budget goes directly to states. Engelberg expressed his belief that changes in EPA administration will result more in a “shift to the right” than a “u-turn” or “sinking” of the metaphorical environmental protection “ship.”
“The EPA has roughly 15,000 employees,” said Engelberg. “The president can appoint about 80. That is less than one-half of 1 percent of the EPA’s employees.” He also emphasized that, in general, employees at the EPA “really believe in the mission,” a fact that will make it more difficult to run the organization in a way that goes against its stated purpose. “In a way, I’m optimistic,” said Engelberg.
All of the professors interviewed for this article stressed the importance of optimism, in conjunction with activism. “What makes Trump different [from previous presidents who opposed environmental regulation] is his manner,” Engelberg said. “He’s not intellectual; he’s not well-schooled. People are reacting to his language.” And Engelberg is hopeful that this can be a positive thing–that the pushback to Trump will “energize the public” and cause young people to “take a stand” and invest their time and energy in environmental issues.
Professors also commented on the importance of paying attention to marginalized communities. “[Native American] communities often rely on funding through EPA grants to monitor groundwater pollution, and without this support they are less likely to be able to halt projects that will have detrimental effects on their land and people,” wrote Billo. “Those who are protesting to protect their communities’ rights are also being investigated as criminals by the government, and in some cases forcibly and violently attacked.”
The options for counter-action are numerous. Kicklighter discussed the possibility of citizen science–citizens can volunteer to collect scientific data and make observations (cataloging when flowers bloom, for example), increasing the body of scientific knowledge, particularly in the area of climate change.
Alternatively, one can donate money to environmental organizations, or fundraise for money to donate. Volunteer to clean up streams. Vote, and vote for representatives that value the protection of the environment. Call representatives. Educate yourself on local issues. “There are daily occurrences of oil spills, water pollution, etc. that often go unreported or unnoticed,” wrote Billo. She cited the example of the Curtis Bay, Baltimore, where protesting high school students were able to prevent the installation of a high-polluting incinerator project in their area, where air quality is poorest in the city.
Write letters to your senators on issues related to the environment (for example, on the “modernization” of the Endangered Species Act). Plant trees. Decrease your personal environmental impact. Write an editorial. Take to the streets. Participate in the March for Science, on Earth Day, March 22nd, in Washington D.C.
“Persistent resistance,” said Neff. “Collectively, we’re terrifying.”