April 11, 2017

Why do so many of us express general support for environmental protection, but not see it as a priority issue? Is the EPA a victim of its own success?
“The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.” So stated Scott Pruitt, newly appointed head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at a recent meeting of big energy producers in Houston. He wasn’t kidding.

The Trump administration has signaled it will seek to rescind regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Also targeted for elimination are higher vehicle-fuel-economy standards and clean water rules issued in the final year of the Obama administration. On March 15, President Donald Trump called for a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget for fiscal year 2018, which would result in approximately 3,200 fewer staff positions. It’s the steepest spending cut for any federal department or agency. Environmental groups, legislators, and current and former EPA staff are alarmed by what they view as the rollback of the agency’s powers and resources. Others — including some Republican members of Congress and business leaders — applaud the changes as a curb on what they view as regulatory overreach that is hampering economic growth.

Where does the public stand? A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found three of five people believe the United States should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” But polls indicate the environment falls well below voters’ top 10 concerns, which include the economy, national security, healthcare, and immigration.

Why do so many of us express general support for environmental protection, but not see it as a priority issue? The EPA — and the environmental movement at large — may be a victim of its own success. The agency was created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon in response to overwhelming public demand to curb unchecked industrial pollution fouling the air and water. The work of the past four decades has largely eliminated conditions like smog-filled cities and water too dangerous to swim in, let alone drink. The environmental problems of today, such as climate change or contamination of underground water by fracking, are less visible to the average person and are not seen as an imminent danger.

Will the Trump administration truly roll the clock back to the bad old days of the early 1970s? That’s not likely, for several reasons.

The Environmental Protection Agency is not a single federal office in Washington. It’s a complex system of regulations and programs — or rules and tools — that is interwoven with state agencies, such as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Issuing new regulations — or rescinding old ones — is a complicated legal process that can take years to accomplish. And much of the actual work of enforcing the rules, cleaning up pollution, and advancing environmental goals depends on local people on the ground — who answer to state officials, not the political employees at EPA headquarters.

In addition, a good chunk of the agency’s budget flows through to the states to support local environmental activities, such as the federal Superfund program for cleaning up contaminated industrial sites. New Jersey, with the largest number of Superfund sites in the nation, draws nearly 40 percent of its $526 million environmental budget from the EPA. The Trump administration’s massive proposed cut to the EPA’s budget will ring alarm bells in Trenton, as well as other state capitals — red and blue alike — which depend on federal funding to support local cleanup projects, upgraded wastewater treatment plants, and more. The proposed EPA budget cuts will likely face Congressional opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.

History teaches us environmental protection can be a trial and error process. Forty years ago, when our air was poisoned with the silent killer, carbon monoxide, the solution was to invent the catalytic converter and mandate its use in motor vehicles. This invention solved the carbon monoxide problem but created another one: a spike in nitric oxides. We invented a solution to this problem, and now we face another one: an apparent increase in ammonia and particulate matter from tailpipe emissions.

The important point to remember is we need to keep trying to make environmental progress despite occasional setbacks. As in the past, things get done when lots of people complain about an issue or there are some adverse effects to human health that cannot be ignored. But changes are always profit-driven. If a change leads to loss of profits, it will not happen until it is cost-effective. That requires continued investments in new technologies and tools, the kind of activities the EPA encourages.

We can’t count on politicians to preserve the environmental progress we’ve made since the 1970s. We the people need to take the time to understand the new, quieter environmental threats the world faces today, and demand responsible action by our government, the business community — and ourselves.

The future may not be what it used to be. But as a wise philosopher once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Krassi Lazarova, Ph.D., is an associate professor of physics at Centenary University.


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