EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler delivered an address laying out the agency vision for fulfilling its mission. Excerpts in italics with my formatting and bolds.
EPA’s mission has been straight forward since its founding. Protect human health and the environment. Doing this ensures that all Americans – regardless of their zip code – have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land to live, work, and play upon. Under President Trump, we have done this as well, if not better, than any recent administration. This is great news, and like most great news, you rarely read about it in the press.
- During the first three years of the Trump Administration, air pollution in this country fell 7 percent.
- Last year, EPA delisted 27 Superfund sites, the most in a single year since 2001.
- And agency programs have contributed more than $40 billion dollars to clean water infrastructure investment during President Trump’s first term.
For much of the latter part of the 20th century, there was bipartisan understanding on what environmental protection meant. Some of it was captured in legislation and some it by established practice. These principles formed a consensus about how the federal government did its job of protecting the environment.
But unfortunately, in the past decade or so, some members of former administrations and progressives in Congress have elevated single issue advocacy – in many cases focused just on climate change – to virtue-signal to foreign capitals, over the interests of communities within their own country. Communities deserve better than this, but in the recent past, EPA has forgotten important parts of its mission. It’s my belief that we misdirect a lot of resources that could be better used to help communities across this country.
So, if this is where we are – with misdirected policies, misused resources, and a more partisan political environment – and we want an EPA for the next 50 years – how do we get there? One way to do this – and I’ve spent more than 25 years thinking about this problem – is to focus on helping communities become healthier in a more comprehensive manner.
Communities that deal with the worst pollution in this country – and tend to be low-income and minority – face multiple environmental problems that need solving. Many of the sites EPA has responsibility for are in some of the most disadvantaged communities in this country. And I will point out a truism. Neglect is a form of harm, and it’s not fair for these communities to be abandoned just because they don’t have enough political power to stop the neglect.
So where does this put us as a country in 2020? The truth is this country is facing a lot of environmental and social problems that have not been dealt with the right way up until now. And while the focus of the next 50 years should not be like the last 50, it should be informed by it.
Many towns and cities in the United States are using the same water infrastructure they’ve used for over 100 years, and many schools use lead water pipes long after such pipes were banned from new buildings. The American public views our pesticide program through the lens of the trial lawyers who advertise on television instead of the way we manage the program. And the Superfund Program – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has become focused on process, rather than project completion.
These issues are challenging and would be difficult for any administration in office. But they would be easier to solve if people in power were more aware of the consequences of poor environmental policies.
It’s very disappointing to see governors on the East Coast, such as Governor Cuomo, unilaterally block pipelines that would take natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York and New England. These poor choices subject Americans to imports of gas from places like Russia, even in the face of evidence that U.S. natural gas has a much cleaner emissions profile than imported gas from Europe. Governor Cuomo is doing this in the name of climate change, but the carbon footprint of natural gas to New England through pipeline is much smaller than transporting it across the ocean. It also forces citizens in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to use more polluting wood and heating oil to heat their homes because of gas shortages in the winter months, which in turn creates very poor local air quality.
And there are many examples of poor environmental outcomes here in California, despite its environmental reputation. It should go without saying that dumping sewage into San Francisco Bay without disinfection, indeed without any chemical or biological treatment, is a bad idea, but that’s what been happening for many years, against federal law.
And just last month, the rolling blackouts created by California’s latest electricity crisis – the result of policies against power plants being fueled by natural gas – spilled 50,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Oakland Estuary when back-up wastewater pumps failed. As state policymakers push more renewables onto the grid at times of the day when renewables aren’t available, these environmental accidents will happen more often. CARB seems to have no appreciation for baseload power generation. Or at least their regulations don’t.
Instead of confusing words with actions, and choosing empty symbolism over doing a good job, we can focus our attention and resources on helping communities help themselves. Doing this will strengthen this country from its foundation up – and start to solve the environmental problems of tomorrow. We could do a lot of good if the federal government, through Congress, puts resources to work with a fierce focus on community-driven environmentalism that promotes community revitalization on a greater scale.
This will do more for environmental justice than all the rhetoric in political campaigns.
Over the next four years the Trump Administration is going to reorganize how it approaches communities so it can take action and address the range of environmental issues that need to be addressed for people and places in need. In President Trump’s second term, we will help communities across this country take control and reshape themselves through the following five priorities.
- Creating a Community-Driven Environmentalism that Promotes Community Revitalization.
- Meeting the 21st Century Demands for Water.
- Reimagining Superfund as a Project-Oriented Program.
- Reforming the Permitting Process to Empower States. And,
- Creating a Holistic Pesticide Program for the Future.
For communities, traditionally, EPA has focused on environmental issues in a siloed manner that only looks at air, water and land separately, and states and local communities end up doing the same. We will change this, and look at Brownfields grants, environmental justice issues, and air quality in each community at the same time and encourage them to do the same.
Since EPA’s Brownfields Program began in 1995, nearly $1.6 billion dollars in grants have been spent to clean-up contaminated sites and return blighted properties to productive reuse. To date, communities participating in the Program have been able to attract an additional $33.3 billion dollars in cleanup and redevelopment funding after receiving Brownfields funds.
And when combined with the Opportunity Zones created in the landmark 2017 Trump tax bill, economic development, job creation and environmental improvements can truly operate together at the same time. A study published last month found that Opportunity Zones, which have only been in existence since 2018, have attracted about $75 billion dollars in private investment, which in turn has lifted about one million people out of poverty through job creation in a very short time. While all the economic data isn’t available yet for 2019, it’s possible that Opportunity Zones are one of the biggest reasons black unemployment in this country fell to its lowest recorded levels ever in 2019.
One other way we are going to help communities is by creating one consolidated grant program that combines several smaller grants from multiple programs. It will help focus local communities to view environmental problems holistically, and it will help refocus EPA.
We can meet the 21st Century Demands for Clean Water by creating an integrated planning approach using WIFIA loans, our Water Reuse Action Plan, and our Nutrient Trading Initiative to improve water quality and modernize legal frameworks that have been around since the 19th Century. Over 40 percent of water utility workers are eligible to retire. We need to do a better job recruiting and training for 21st century threats to the water utilities industry.
And we can reinvigorate the Superfund Program. Roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a Superfund site today. That’s over 50 million Americans. EPA has allowed litigation and bureaucracy to dictate the pace of Superfund projects, instead of focusing on improving the environmental indicators and moving sites to completion. We need to fully implement the recommendations of the 2018 Superfund Task Force and reimagine the approach to clean up sites using the latest technologies and best practices.
We can improve the way we handle pesticide regulation. We do a good job approving pesticides on an individual basis, but we have not excelled in explaining to the public our holistic approach to pesticide management. The media and the courts tend to view our individual pesticide decisions in a one-off fashion, which has left the American public uninformed on our science-based process.
We will take into account biotech advances and better examinations of new active ingredients. Just this week, we announced a proposed rule that would remove onerous and expensive regulation of gene-edited plant protectants. We will safeguard pollinators to support the agriculture industry. And we can decrease reliance on animal testing to a point where no animal testing takes place for any of the agency’s programs by 2035.
Here are five things EPA is doing – five new pillars that have gone largely unnoticed by the public – that are changing the way the agency operates today.
The first pillar is our Cost-Benefit Rulemaking.
We are creating cost-benefit rules for every statute that governs EPA. The American public deserves to know what the costs and the benefits are for each of our rules. We are starting with the Clean Air Act, which will provide much better clarity to local communities, industry and stakeholders. And we will implement a cost-benefit regulation for all our environmental statutes by 2022.
Our second major pillar is Science Transparency.
The American public has a right to know the scientific justification behind a regulation. We are creating science transparency rules that are applied consistently. This will bring much needed sunlight into our regulatory process. Some people oppose it, calling it a Secret Science rule. Those who oppose it want regulatory decisions to be made behind closed doors. They are the people who say, “Trust us, we know what’s best for you.” I want to bring our environmental decision-making process out of the proverbial smoke-filled back room. The Cost-Benefit and Science Transparency rules will go a long way in delivering that. After finalizing the Science Transparency rule later this year, EPA will conduct a statute by statue rulemaking, much like the Cost-Benefit rule.
Guidance documents are the third pillar of agency change, and it’s an area we’ve made a lot of progress, and we have shined even more light.
The agency for years was criticized for not making guidance documents – which have almost the force of law – available for public review. The costs involved to uncover guidance documents became a major barrier for anyone wanting to improve their communities. Last year, EPA went through all our guidance documents from the agency’s beginnings, and we put all 10,000 documents onto a searchable database. We also rescinded 1,000 guidance documents. Now all our guidance documents are available to the public, for the first time. This is a huge change in administrative procedures at EPA, perhaps the biggest change in at least a generation.
The fourth pillar is our reorganization of all 10 of our regional offices to mirror our headquarters structure.
All the regional offices across the country now have an air division, a water division, a lands division, and a chemical division. This was a change that was needed for decades.
As the fifth pillar of EPA fundamental change, we have implemented a Lean Management System that tracks real metrics with which the agency can measure success or failure.
There is a lot of good news in these changes, but the best news is this: the problems I’ve highlighted are structural, and when a problem is structural or organizational, an agency can be changed. Until the Trump administration, EPA was not able to track how long it took to complete a permit, a grant process, or a state implementation plan, or really any meaningful task the agency had before it. Organizations do change; it can be hard, but they do change, and when they change, it’s usually for the better.
As I said at the beginning, EPA data points to 2020 air quality being the best on record. Here in California, where the modern environmental movement began – and from where President Nixon brought it to the rest of the country – it’s important to acknowledge the role states have in being laboratories for democracy, and in this case, laboratories for environmental policy.
But for environmental policy to work nationally, the federal government and states must work together as partners, not as adversaries. To do this involves a new vision, and for a country searching for a new consensus, on the environment as well as on many other things, this can seem tough. But I believe we can find a new consensus, if we strive to.
I believe that by focusing EPA toward communities in the coming years, our agency can change the future for people living in this country who have been left behind simply for living in polluted places. We are a nation made up of communities, and communities are the foundation of this nation, not the other way around.
If we can do the work before us – break down the silos between us as an agency and elsewhere – I believe we can both protect the places we love and bring back the places that have been hurt by pollution – and make them even better than they were before.
I see EPA beginning its second half century with big challenges, but ones that can be overcome with the same skill and tenacity that helped this agency, and this country, overcome the challenges of the last 50 years. I hope everyone can support our agency as we work to deliver this vision of a great environmental future for all Americans – regardless of where they live.