by Robin O’Sullivan, author of American Organic
What is the raison d’être of the Environmental Protection Agency? It’s not a trick question… at least, it shouldn’t be. The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” One of the agency’s primary purposes is ensuring that “national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information.” Those words ought to be unequivocal. Like America’s rivers, however, they’ve become murky.
Richard Nixon entered the White House when ecological awareness—like the Cuyahoga River—was aflame. Nixon acknowledged that “restoring nature to its natural state” was “a common cause of all the people of this country,” so he signed the enabling act that consolidated several federal agencies into the EPA. Formally established on December 2, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was largely nonpartisan. Nobody wanted to assail clean air or clean water. The rationale for creating the EPA wasn’t radical. A bevy of pesticides were unregulated. Pollution was unchecked. Lead poisoning was a national scourge. The Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized eco-activists, and Earth Day—a festival born from fretfulness—was first celebrated. Evidence was incontrovertible: humans, plants, animals, soil, waterways, and the sky were imperiled. Former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, in an interview with the Public Integrity Project, said that environmental protection had enormous bipartisan support in the US during the 1970s. Ahh, the halcyon days when science was scientific, facts were factual, and the Lorax wasn’t alone in speaking for the trees.
Here’s the predicament now. Under the Obama administration in 2016, the EPA decided to ban chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide found in dangerously high levels in drinking water. Organophosphates are banned in households but permitted for agricultural use. Researchers from universities, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have revealed a litany of detrimental effects from chlorpyrifos and similar pesticides. After extensive research directed by EPA chief Gina McCarthy, the EPA itself deemed chlorpyrifos to be unsafe to farmworkers, children, and any person coming into contact with the contaminated water. Then—rejecting its own decision—the EPA, under the Trump administration, did an about-face. New EPA chief Scott Pruitt claimed that the studies by his own agency were flawed and said that chlorpyrifos would not be banned. This reversal took place after Pruitt met privately with the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris. Dow Chemical manufactures chlorpyrifos. American farms use 6 to 10 million pounds of chlorpyrifos on edible crops each year; meanwhile, studies have linked the chemical to autism, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental problems in children. Dow Chemical has extensive power in Washington. The mega-corporation spent over $13 million on lobbying efforts in 2016 and also wrote a $1 million-dollar check for Trump’s inaugural party.
Sure, science is not immutable. It changes when new evidence arises. However, it does not flip upside down immediately after ethically questionable cloistered meetings. Is the EPA confused about its own priorities? This could be a coincidence; but, if you were on the agency’s website in July 2017, reading its mission statement, you were invited to view the EPA’s priorities. However, when you clicked that hyperlink, you were directed to a page that said: “Page Not Found.” Perplexing, yes…and vexing.
What’s worse than an EPA that’s not protecting human or environmental health? Well, no EPA at all…and that’s a sobering possibility. A recent report from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, an international network of academics and non-profit employees, concluded—based on confidential interviews with present and former EPA employees—that Pruitt’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the EPA entirely. The Sierra Club has reported on the current president’s hostility to the EPA, asserting that “the Trump administration’s decision to not renew the appointments of 38 out of 49 advisers on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) is a clear attempt to break up the independence and institutional memory of the agency.”
What will change Scott Pruitt’s mind next? A burning river? Doubtful. A silent spring? Not likely. The American people? Perhaps. To get involved with EPA regulations, you can visit: https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/get-involved-epa-regulations. You might want to remind the EPA what its priorities are.
Robin O’Sullivan, Ph.D., teaches U.S. history, environmental history, and cultural history at Troy University in Alabama. She is the author of American Organic: A Cultural History of Farming, Gardening, Shopping, and Eating (2015).