Since Donald Trump became President, the EPA has worked assiduously to remove, weaken, or delay a host of pollution-cutting rules. As a result, the agency is on a “reverse mission”. Instead of focusing on delivering what the public has always counted on the EPA to deliver – the protection of the environment and of human health from illnesses and premature deaths inextricably linked to pollution – the Trump EPA’s signature work is to deliver higher levels of pollution for longer periods of time. At the same time, the Trump EPA has created a set of markers pointing clearly to a larger, if less noticed, project of dismantling the EPA’s very ability to do its job.
The depth of the commitment to this reverse mission is illustrated by the sheer volume of individual pollution reduction rules they have put the agency to work on withdrawing or delaying. Yet, even that inventory tells only part of the story. In fact, the Pruitt/Wheeler EPA seems to be working equally hard on dismantling its very capacity to develop, implement, and enforce effective pollution reduction rules and programs and to carry out other vital public service functions, like advancing scientific research, sponsoring projects that promote community environmental health, and providing the general public complete and accessible information about public health and environmental issues. Pruitt has, and Wheeler is, also undermining the public’s legal right to hold the agency accountable when it fails to meet its obligations.
If it continues, the Pruitt/Wheeler dismantling project will leave behind not just a pollution-control regime that delivers fewer reductions in health-threatening pollutants. It will also leave behind an agency that – even beyond a shriveled budget and losses in experienced professional staff – will be bereft of the very institutional tools that have proven indispensable to carrying out the agency’s mission. These changes will have the effect of undermining the EPA’s capacity to fulfill its public health and environmental protection obligations.
While many of these changes can be reversed by a successor administration, the task will present that administration with a much greater challenge at the very beginning of its tenure, diverting resources and attention to institutional repair and away from pressing programmatic work to address substantive health and environmental protection.
We have begun to list and describe what amount to markers on the path to dismantling the EPA’s capacities. Below are many of the changes Administrators Pruitt and Wheeler have made to critical practices that the agency has relied on to carry out its public health, environmental and scientific mission. The list links to longer posts with more details.
Thanks to these changes, Pruitt/Wheeler’s EPA has already willingly compromised its ability to ensure compliance by sources with pollution-reduction requirements – or even to detect non-compliance in the first place. It has blunted the public’s ability to hold the agency accountable for carrying out its obligations, diminished its capacity to access high-quality scientific advice, introduced politics into competitive public benefit grant-making, and curtailed the public’s access to critical information about environmental changes and hazards.