03/07/2019 - EPA Mission Tracker - Student Work

Comparing EPA’s 2018 Year in Review with its Mission

by James Pollack, JD/MPP 2020

“The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” This straightforward mission should guide EPA in its work across a wide range of policy areas and statutes. Such a mission demands solid scientific evidence, sensitivity to public health concerns, close collaboration with regional offices as well as state and local environmental authorities, and coordination with other federal agencies. EPA under the Trump administration has subverted many of these goals and methods, and nowhere is this more clear than in EPA’s recently released 2018 Year in Review. Below we have listed each of the “accomplishments” listed in the report introduction, followed by an analysis of the relevant claims.

Unfortunately, these claimed “accomplishments” do little to advance EPA’s public health mission and in some cases work to undermine it. What they do represent is the Trump EPA’s continued indifference, if not outright hostility, to basic standards of integrity, transparency, and public responsibility. In some cases, what EPA lists as an accomplishment is fulfilling the self-seeking agenda of private industry. The Year in Review report is marked by claims based on cherry-picked or out-of-context data, the unexplained recitation of meaningless information, actions that amount to deregulation for its own sake and the ministerial implementation of actions already mandated by Congress. 

“REGULATORY REFORM: 13 deregulatory actions were finalized in 2018. To date, under President Trump, EPA has finalized 33 major deregulatory actions saving Americans almost $2 billion.”

While regulatory priorities and approaches may differ from one administration to another, the simple measurement of “deregulatory actions” alone does not provide a clear picture of what EPA is doing and whether EPA is upholding its mission to protect human health and the environment.

One example of a deregulatory action under the Trump administration is EPA’s reversal on the decision to ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is a highly toxic pesticide that is the most widely used conventional pesticide in the United States. EPA has narrowed the use of the pesticide over time, including banning household use. There is now clear scientific consensus that chlorpyrifos residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children. Environmental groups petitioned EPA in 2007 to “revoke all tolerances and cancel all registrations for the pesticide chlorpyrifos.” The Ninth Circuit ordered EPA to respond by October 2015, and EPA proposed a rule to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos for food application. In spite of an order by the Ninth Circuit to finalize the rule revoking all tolerances, the Trump administration EPA reversed course and denied the environmental groups’ petition in April 2017. States including California and Hawaii are actively working to regulate the pesticide, but this state-by-state action is simply inadequate in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence on the pesticide. EPA has a responsibility to act in accordance with its mission and to protect the health of children. Children who live in those states that are not taking action will bear the consequence of this sudden abdication of responsibility.

The report also fails to provide a clear accounting for the “almost $2 billion” in savings, other than clarifying later in the report they are “regulatory costs.” This decrease in compliance cost seems to include savings for industry who face lower mitigation costs, but it ignores losses faced by the public in the form of the significant health risks posed by the pesticide.

It is exceeding difficult, if not impossible, to protect public health by repealing rules, and to protect the environment by saving industry money. This listed accomplishment misses the mark.

“AIR: EPA reported that, during President Trump’s first year in office, greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial sources decreased by 2.7 percent.”

This “accomplishment” is surprising. It seems to take credit for something out of EPA’s direct control, presents a very limited picture of U.S. emissions, and focuses on the wrong year for the report. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fluctuations are due to a confluence of causes, including market forces, regulations that accelerate market forces, and state policies, as well as federal policies. It is difficult to isolate the particular effect of EPA’s work on climate. Even so, this accomplishment points to the first year of the Trump administration, 2017. In that year, Obama administration regulations were still in effect, and we may not see levels of emissions this low again because of Trump administration efforts to dismantle these regulations. Obama administration regulations that could have contributed to the GHG emission decrease include the pre-Supreme-Court-stay anticipation of Clean Power Plan compliance, the Waste Prevention Rule (also known as the Methane Rule), Oil and Gas New Source Performance Standards, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and the MACT Standard for industrial boilers.

This reduction statistic relies on cherry-picked data from the wrong year, isolating emissions from a set of 8,000 industrial sources in 2016. While this does include some major emitters, it only shows a partial picture of GHG emissions in the U.S in a particular year. Recently, EPA released a report that shows 2017 data for all sectors, which shows a decrease in emissions by .3 percent. Current estimates for 2018—the actual year this “year in review” report claims to feature—show that GHG emissions increased by an estimated 3.4 percent. It is strange that the Trump administration EPA, which has focused so intently on dismantling Obama administration GHG-reducing regulations, would boast about GHG reductions. It is stranger still that they did so with imprecision.

“WATER: By the end of 2018, EPA closed seven WIFIA loans totaling nearly $2 billion to help finance over $4 billion for water infrastructure projects and create up to 6,000 jobs.”

While many of the other achievements on this report have major issues, this accomplishment seems to accurately portray the distribution of WIFIA loans to a variety of projects across the country. The projects cover a range of settings and regions, including places as varied as the San Francisco Bay Area and rural Georgia. Unfortunately, the program had to stop reviewing applications due to the government shutdown in late 2018/early 2019, and it is likely still working to catch up after the shutdown.

While it is positive that EPA is maintaining its traditional grant-making activities, this accomplishment ignores several critical water-related issues. EPA is currently modifying the definition of “Waters of the United States” to reduce the scope of waterways protected by the Clean Water Act and dramatically reduce the amount of wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act Section 404 program. Meanwhile, there are still areas of the country where the fundamental fishable/swimmable baseline of the Clean Water Act is not met, and where people lack drinking water that meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards. EPA has only recently decided to explore taking action on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, known as PFAs, which have been found in drinking water sources across the country and it is unclear whether it will lead to meaningful regulations and remediation. It is these issues, rather than the approval of seven grants, that compose the unwritten story of EPA’s action and inaction on water during 2018.

“LAND: EPA deleted all or part of 22 sites from Superfund’s National Priorities List in FY 2018 – the largest number of deletions in one year since FY 2005.”

This claim is quite deceptive – EPA has vocally prioritized Superfund cleanups, but this accomplishment is not what it seems. This “accomplishment” provides a clear example of how the Trump administration EPA has eroded traditional ethical norms and the mission of the EPA through rhetorical sleights of hand.

Early in the Trump administration, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he would prioritize the Superfund program. He even established a Superfund Task Force in order to provide “recommendations to streamline and improve the Superfund program.” At the same time, President Trump proposed a 30% cut in funding for Superfund (although the cuts were not adopted by Congress), and the program has hemorrhaged staff. The sharp increase in sites removed from the list is actually due to completion of projects that were nearly completed under the Obama administration. Cleanup projects typically take decades and sites are deleted after monitoring data show that remaining levels of contaminants meet the site’s clean up targets. The Superfund Task Force held no public meetings or hearings, and created no records of its meetings—potentially in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The appointed head of the task force, Albert “Kell” Kelly, was prohibited from communicating with the bank that formerly employed him. In spite of this order from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), he continued to communicate with the bank while on the task force. The Task Force is now under investigation by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General to determine whether EPA complied with the law “in creating the Superfund Task Force, and the development of the Task Force’s July 2017 report and recommendations.” The Superfund program is a microcosm of recent trends at EPA: misleading statistics, degradation of ethical norms, and clear deviation from the core mission of protecting public health.

“CHEMICALS: After inheriting a ‘backlog’ of 672 new chemical submissions pending review in January 2017, under President Trump, EPA aggressively worked to improve the review of new chemical submissions and, as a result, eliminated the initial backlog and reduced the number of cases pending review to 475 submissions by August 2018. EPA completed 99.7 percent of the 2,199 pesticide registration actions on-time, registered 23 new active ingredients and 147 new uses of existing pesticides, providing new tools to growers to meet their pest management needs.”

This framing of chemical review is revealing: rather than focus on the thoroughness of chemical review or how effectively it is working to ensure the safety of those chemicals it approves, EPA has framed this accomplishment through the speed with which it responds to the demands of the chemical industry. Unfortunately, EPA has placed industry desires before public safety in its treatment of chemicals, clearly setting its mission aside in spite of recent congressional action to update our nation’s chemical safety laws.

In November 2017, the Trump administration EPA overhauled the TSCA review process by introducing a new framework governing agency review of new chemicals without providing notice and the opportunity to comment, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act. The rule creating this new framework is currently in litigation. EPA also issued two more TSCA rules in 2017 that are currently under legal challenge, the “Prioritization Rule” and “Risk Evaluation Rule.” These rules fundamentally altered Obama administration interpretations of the TSCA update (The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act) that required EPA to develop how it chooses chemicals to assess and how it conducts those assessments. All of these new rules were designed to limit the evidence required from applicants, and prevent EPA from considering other potential uses of chemicals that could threaten public health. EPA has stopped using consent orders to limit industry uses of chemicals only to those with proven safety, and instead it will rely on significant new-use rules to regulate chemicals. This shifts the burden of safety from industry to EPA, and ultimately puts the public at risk.

“ENFORCEMENT: In FY 2018, EPA enforcement actions required the treatment, disposal, or elimination of 809 million pounds of pollutants and waste – almost twice as much as FY 2017. The Agency also entered into the largest settlement in the history of EPA’s enforcement of the Risk Management Program with the responsible party spending $150 million on major safety improvements.”

This accomplishment is misleading—but to be fair, it is difficult to say exactly how any administration should accurately present its enforcement accomplishments. Perhaps the best way to do so would be through a comprehensive series of measures: settlements, civil penalties, criminal enforcement actions, and quantities of pollution removed. The presentation of “pounds of pollution” and a single settlement fails to present a holistic look at the enforcement program over a year. It also only benchmarks one of those measures and does so against last year.

The accomplishment starts to look less impressive if we look back further than 2017. In fact, 2018 was the second-lowest year of waste removal since 2008—only losing out to the first year of the Trump administration. The removal of 809 million pounds of waste sounds impressive in a vacuum, but the lowest figure from the Obama administration represented a removal of 25 percent more waste. In Obama’s last year in office, EPA removed 62,224 million pounds of pollution, dwarfing the Trump administration first year of 462 million pounds. Last year was not a time for celebration of EPA’s pollution removal—it should be a wakeup call.

When the focus zooms out, it becomes even more clear that EPA enforcement has dropped significantly under the Trump administration. This includes civil and criminal enforcement. For example, EPA conducted 22 civil investigations last year—down from 40 in 2017, and 125 in 2016. Civil enforcements have declined dramatically under the Trump administration EPA, as have criminal fines and restitution. EPA collected $86 million in criminal fines and restitution in 2018, down from $200 million in 2017 ($3 billion if you include the fine against Volkswagen initiated under the Obama administration), and $207 million in 2016. EPA inspection rates have fallen to a ten-year low.

As with so many of these accomplishments, there is more to it than meets the eye. But this is perhaps an extraordinarily egregious example in the document. Not only is the claim overly focused, the focus of its celebration is actually a source of disappointment.

“GRANTS: EPA awarded $4,451,520,905 in grants in FY 2018 including more than $63 million under the General Assistance Program, benefiting nearly all federally recognized tribes through awards to 500 tribal governments and approximately 25 intertribal consortia, $4.344 million in State and Tribal Assistance Grants, and 37 environmental education grants totaling $3,306,760 in 32 states to 13 colleges and universities, 23 stakeholder organizations, and one tribal community.”

This is a strange thing to celebrate—grantmaking is a core function of EPA, and it should be a given once Congress has appropriated the funds. The focus on the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (GAP) is particularly inappropriate. Under the Trump administration, EPA has requested the appropriation of GAP be cut by 30 percent every year in office, including in its most recent budget request for fiscal year 2019. The budget request includes no justification for this cut of crucial funding for Indian nations meant to improve environmental conditions in Indian country. EPA has highlighted its grantmaking for environmental education as well in this achievement. Not only does it appear that EPA did not award the full amount it was appropriated in 2018, in its most recent budget request, EPA requested the complete elimination of the environmental education budget line. Once again, there was no justification provided. This set of “accomplishments” also ignores pervasive issues with political appointees vetting grants rather than the tradition of civil servants without conflicts of interest. Altogether, grants may not be the accomplishment the Trump administration EPA thinks they are.

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