By John O’Grady
Do you still want your government to run like a business?
Henry Darwin serves as chief of staff to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He seemingly subscribes to a philosophy that presumes government is wrought with waste, fraud and abuse. Darwin is outspoken and committed to improving efficiencies agency-wide.
Darwin is not a fan of big government or its employees, even though he is one. To justify that role, you might say he works for a bureaucracy focused on protecting the business environment — not the natural environment. Darwin’s ideology avows “unnatural selection” for industry, adhering to a lean management system where apparently much fewer employees are needed — half according to the White House. He serves at the pleasure of the president to reduce alleged waste while maximizing results for EPA’s “customers.”
Besides protecting the health of 327 million Americans and the environment, did you know EPA had customers? This White House tasks Darwin with creating “more effective ways to better serve EPA’s customers while freeing up the capacity of EPA employees to do more environmental good.” Beware of stealthy euphemisms claiming to streamline and modernize environmental protections. In this case, the customers are the oil, gas and coal industries who are cow towed to by the president and his loyal, EPA administrator.
By design, the EPA would employ fewer federal scientists and engineers who are grappling with an austere federal budget, which makes doing their jobs unrealistic. However, Pruitt’s predecessors, among others, warn that states overburdened by extraordinary costs and enforcement demands are set up to fail. When hand-picked industry executives chair self-regulating committees, it’s a recipe for disaster.
For example, the Trump administration said recently that it was reworking Obama-era rules like the Clean Power Plan that regulate pollution from fossil fuel energy extraction and production. This short-sighted and foolhardy action would save this White House’s donor class and EPA’s customers, including electric utilities, about $100 million per year, while the oil and gas industry accrues a windfall of at least $16 million by 2035.
Apparently, their business plan has no line item to defend human health, nor does the environment factor into the industry’s forecasts. Severe budget, staffing and regional consolidation changes proposed by Pruitt are the most recent in a series of austere actions by this White House to repeal science-based safety standards opposed by major coal, oil and gas producers.
Unlined and clay-lined coal ash ponds significantly pollute air and water for human health and the environment according to leading public health and conservation advocates. Scientists caution how weakening these rules further would lead to extremely unhealthy air and water. As for corporate social responsibility, we’ve seen when industry gives back, it’s called charity, if they can claim a deduction on their taxes.
The Trump EPA also proposes amending laws that give state regulators more authority over how utilities dispose of the ash left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity. The dumped gray ash contains lead, arsenic and other toxic, heavy metals that over time leach into groundwater or nearby rivers and contaminate local sources of drinking water.
For years, the coal industry and their allies in state and federal government supported unlined coal ash ponds claiming the earth naturally filtered contaminants and prevented toxins from discharging into groundwater. Ask landowners and other residents of Tennessee and North Carolina what they learned the hard way about coal ash pits leaching into area waterways.
Recently, a spokeswoman for the Ohio-based utility American Electric Power said the company, which owns 14 coal plants in eight states regulated by EPA’s coal ash rule, will continue publishing its pollution reports while they examine Trump’s proposed coal ash dumping rule changes. As one of the EPA’s “customers,” the utility company enjoys working with state officials rather than federal regulators because state regulators often take into account the importance of the business to the states’ financial interests before fashioning a solution to environmental problems.
While most Americans take for granted having a clean environment, our drinking water comes from lakes, rivers and groundwater. We rely on the federal government to maintain swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters. Pollution doesn’t recognize state lines and the policing of it shouldn’t be left up to state governments. People from many different communities rely on Lake Erie, the Hudson River or the Colorado River and many others for clean drinking water and recreation.
Nowhere in the new EPA proposals will you find mention of public health and safety. Though, defending precious water resources from this business-driven EPA will require a fully funded and staffed EPA, with a professional cadre of biologists, chemists, ecologists, engineers and toxicologists at the helm. It’s time to reclaim safety for a few hundred million Americans over so-called corporate customers.