This time last year, Obama’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was poised to swiftly ban asbestos, having selected it as one of ten high-risk toxins for prioritized risk evaluation and regulation under the newly reformed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
One year later and now under a Trump administration, the EPA appears focused on cutting programs and killing regulations rather than cutting killer chemicals out of our lives.
Trump has been on the warpath to destroy the EPA since the campaign trail, vowing that, under his presidency, “We will get rid of [the EPA] in almost every form.” Since assuming office in January, he has wasted no time making this promise a reality.
Congress seems to have a different view than our President, though, on how the EPA should function, and leaders from both sides of the aisle are now stepping up to intervene.
Pushback Against Pruitt
The first crippling blow to the EPA was the appointment of Scott Pruitt as the Agency’s administrator. Pruitt’s nominations raised red flags from the start, given his notable lack of scientific credentials and his long career of suing the EPA in his former role as Oklahoma attorney general.
Since being confirmed to the post, Pruitt has wasted no time systematically sabotaging the Agency’s ability to perform its intended function. Under Trump’s direction, Pruitt’s EPA has begun eliminating a startling number of existing regulations. He is slashing both the budget and the workforce, effectively hindering the Agency’s capacity to function, while at the same time using huge chunks of taxpayer-generated funding to pay for trips home to Oklahoma and for controversial equipment, including a soundproof communication booth for the EPA’s office, which alone cost taxpayers $25,000.
What is even more concerning is that Trump and Pruitt are filling the ranks of the EPA with chemical industry cronies who have spent their careers lobbying against EPA intervention, including Nancy Beck, formerly Senior Policy Director at ACC, now Deputy Assistant Administrator in the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP). Most recently, Trump has nominated Dr. Michael Dourson, who has close connections to Big Tobacco, to lead the OCSPP as EPA Assistant Administrator. In fact, on December 6, Beck will host her first public meeting on TSCA, with a “pilot panel” featuring an ACC exec and other industry representatives.
If there was ever any question where Pruitt’s loyalties lie, his schedule makes it clear. Information uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act revealed a slew of meetings with lobbyists and industry reps, and earlier this month, Pruitt gave the keynote address at the annual conference for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the notorious Big Chem lobby shop that represents the only remaining users of asbestos, among others.
Fortunately, Pruitt’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. His spending has drawn question from Senators on both sides of the aisle, the media is repeatedly questioning his fitness for this role, and two House Republicans have called for Pruitt to appear before the House Environment Subcommittee for a hearing on Dec. 7, where he will have to answer for all of this and more.
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Dourson’s Many Detractors
Trump’s most recent nominee for a high-level EPA appointment is facing unprecedented opposition.
Dr. Michael Dourson, nominated to serve as the OCSPP’s Assistant Administrator, has deep-rooted industry ties that make him a concerning and entirely unfit choice for this important post. His research firm, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA), is known for conducting industry-backed studies that are widely questioned by the scientific community. TERA’s clients include Big Chem giants Dow, Monsanto, and many more.
The possibility of Dourson taking control of the office tasked with protecting the public from dangerous and deadly toxic chemicals has created a bipartisan chorus of opposition in the Senate. Most recently, North Carolina’s Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis said they would also oppose Dourson’s nomination.
Though Dourson’s nomination was voted through the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, it hasn’t yet progressed to a floor vote — an indication that he doesn’t have the votes he needs to be confirmed.
Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware expressed hope that this may be the moment the Senate comes together to stand up for the American public: “After casting votes for one troubling nominee after the other after the other, you reach a point where some of the Republicans will say, Enough already. No more.”
Taking Matters into Their Own Hands
The questions levied against Pruitt and the pushback against confirming Dourson show us that, as the EPA grows increasingly ill-suited to protect anything other than industry profits, Congress is coming together to intervene.
Perhaps the most promising stand Congress has taken in the wake of the EPA’s increasing degradation is a bill that would legislatively enact a ban on a chemical currently under EPA evaluation.
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2017 (ARBAN), S. 2072, would ban the import and use of asbestos within 18 months of enactment. It serves the dual purposes of expediting the EPA’s regulatory process, which could take as long as 7 years, while also preventing the EPA to write in deadly exemptions.
Scientists the world round, including those at EPA, have known for decades that asbestos causes cancer, and there is no safe or controlled use. Even the smallest fiber, if inhaled, can lodge in the lungs and ultimately trigger the disease that continues to kill so many.
Despite this, lobbyists from the ACC are pushing the EPA to allow the chloralkali industry — the only remaining users of asbestos in the U.S. — to be exempted from any asbestos ban or regulation. Of course, a ban that exempts the sole users is no ban at all, and will do nothing to mitigate the risk this continued use would pose to the chloralkali plant workers, as well as those in the surrounding communities and involved with the related mining, transport, and disposal. Based on the EPA’s preliminary updates on their ongoing asbestos evaluation, they appear poised to allow for this and other dangerous exemptions from regulation.
Last year, Congress was cheered for unanimously passing TSCA reform that required the EPA to regulate toxins based on their impact on human health, with no consideration given to economic impact on industry. Trump’s EPA, unfortunately, is looking for — and finding — ways to skirt this paramount rule.
The actions of Congress make clear they are aware of the undue industry influence gaining steam at the EPA, as well as the pitfalls of letting it continue unfettered. The scary truth is that Scott Pruitt and his underlings are poised to do damage to environmental policy that could take decades to unwind.
The ARBAN bill gives Congress the chance to prevent a small piece of this insidious sabotage — not only by banning, one and for all, a deadly carcinogen, but also by sending an unmistakable message to the EPA that if they won’t protect our future, Congress will.