The EPA Is Off the Rails

The recent citation of San Francisco for excessive water pollution demonstrates the EPA's descent from a public trust to a petty bully.

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On Wednesday, the EPA cited San Francisco for allowing needles and waste from its homeless population to flow into the ocean, claiming it decreased water quality to an unhealthy level.

No one was fooled.

The dubious claim that waste from the homeless can affect water quality has been amply debunked and disproven. The EPA’s foremost motivation to cite the city came from Trump’s threat to do so, in a petty retaliation towards a very liberal city. The citation comes just after the administration revoked California’s authority to set more stringent automobile emissions standards — for no reason at all.

The EPA’s spurious science doesn’t stop at snubs to California — it even extends to mocking and undermining its own scientists. Recently, an advisory group of air pollution scientists, dissolved by the Trump administration, vowed to continue their work independently of the EPA. Another group of scientists, the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, was also disbanded after administration claims that it lacked enough input from “industry.” They, too, have reconvened to issue their own warnings.

The agency’s decisions — such as one authorizing M-44 cyanide traps to kill wild animals, which the agency eventually reversed — are so openly contemptible that it’s impossible to think of a moral way to justify them. The administration’s brazen hostility toward science and the planet has made the EPA a shell of its former self, filled with industry titans and oil company lobbyists in lieu of the scientists and public servants of administrations past.

Many scientists don’t pursue their Ph.D expecting to one day be a whistleblower, exposing government officials for conspiring to accelerate planetary collapse. Unfortunately, that’s become reality for at least six former EPA scientists, who worked in areas from regulating vehicle emissions to water quality standards. Many tell horror stories of drastic decisions made with no scientific input and the recrudescence of anti-environmentalism.

The history of the EPA is one of bipartisanship and reverence for the planet — a far cry from its goal today as an arm of industry. When Nixon — a Republican — founded the agency, protecting the environment was a common goal. We all breathed the same air, drank the same water, ate food from the same soil, and vacationed at the same national parks; it was in our collective interest to protect public goods from the private sector. Like oil spills and ocean water, profit and planet don’t mix. That was incontrovertible until just a few decades ago, when concern for the environment suddenly became divisive.

To combat climate change and environmental degradation, the next president must return the EPA to the agency it once was: an organization not just with the capacity to defend the planet, but also with the gall to do so. It is from policy made in the EPA’s prime that we have some of our most precious water and air quality protections. It’s easy to forget life before the environmental movement — when rivers caught on fire, PCBs were rampant, and DDT was ubiquitous — but we do so at our peril. The scientists fired by Trump haven’t forgotten. Neither can we.