The front pages of last Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times starkly exposed how concerned citizens, fearful immigrants, and career scientists alike are smothered by the Trump administration’s macabre environmental policies.
Worming through the EPA
The Times zeroed in on Nancy Beck’s voracious worming through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of dangerous chemicals and poisons. She is figuratively trying to eat enough holes in the rules to make chemicals harder to track and control and therefore shielding polluters from prosecution.
Beck is the former regulatory science policy director of the American Chemistry Council and was appointed by President Trump in May as deputy assistant secretary in the EPA’s department of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection. Before the American Chemistry Council, she served in the George W. Bush White House, where she badgered the EPA in such a picayune manner for proof of chemical harms that she was criticized by the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences.
During President Obama’s tenure, Beck performed the same function for the nation’s leading chemical lobbyist, questioning regulation on arsenic and other chemicals used in perfumes and dry cleaning. But Trump’s election turned the world upside down. Beck was brought back by his White House under special provisions that exempted her from ethics rules that would have prevented her from being involved in decisions involving former employers.
She has since wasted no time declaring herself a puppet of industry instead of a searchlight for safety.
Weakened rules on a kidney cancer-causing chemical and other harmful toxins
The Times highlighted Beck’s heavy hand in weakening rules on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a kidney cancer-causing agent that many large companies, including BASF, 3M, and DuPont, volunteered to phase out during the Obama administration. PFOA is present in such common items as nonstick kitchenware and stain-resistant carpeting.
But even with a total phase out, that chemical remains in millions of cabinets and on millions of floors around the nation. Beck’s rewriting of rules made it seem that the EPA would no longer make risk assessments on “legacy” use of products containing PFOA or their storage or disposal. That so alarmed staffers at the EPA’s Office of Water that they wrote a memo, obtained by the Times, warning that PFOA’s potential to continue to pollute drinking water and ground water remains so strong that it “is an excellent example of why it is important to evaluate all conditions of use of the chemical.”
PFOA is only one of several chemicals that the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, with Beck as a relatively little-known henchwoman, are limiting scrutiny on to protect industry. Before Beck arrived, the Trump EPA had already refused—over the objection of staff scientists—to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide believed to stunt child development. The agency, as the Times reports, is also re-considering proposed bans of methylene chloride in paint strippers and trichloroethylene, which respectively are used in paint strippers and dry cleaning and are linked to illness and death.
A relentless assault
This relentless assault is remaking the EPA into the Everyday Pollution Agency and has reached such a pitch under President Trump that Beck’s immediate boss, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, left the agency last month after 38 years with the agency. Hamnett supported the ban on chlorpyrifos and had a long track record of elevating public health impacts into her consideration of chemical harms, particularly on lead paint in homes. As she told the Times, science can rarely be 100 percent sure about anything but if a chemical is “likely to be a severe effect and result in a significant number of people exposed . . . I am going to err on the side of safety.”
With a White House that now errs on the side of industry, Hamnett told the Times that she resigned because, “I had become irrelevant.”
“You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze”
A Trump administration dedicated to making science and scientists irrelevant surely has worse in store for everyone else. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services released a report revealing how low-income residents and people of color regardless of income are more likely to live near toxic chemical facilities in the Houston area.
The Post’s story on Corpus Christi shows that the worst is happening already. For decades, the predominately African American and Latino community of Hillcrest has abutted a massive oil refinery complex that includes a gasoline production facility for Citgo and a Koch brothers plant making jet fuel for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
One resident, 56-year-old Rosie Ann Porter, retired from a job supplying helicopter parts, told the Post that her daughter grew up with serious asthma. Other neighbors complained of other chronic lung diseases. Porter said, “You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze coming through the house. When they’re up and the refinery’s spilling out those fumes, it’s nothing nice.”
In a solid example of environmental justice reporting that displayed the agency of residents, the Post made it clear that the residents refused to succumb to the fumes without many fights. But victories were fleeting. A federal jury found Citgo guilty in 2007 of spewing benzine, a known carcinogen, into the community. The company was fined $2 million, but the verdict and fine were completely overturned on appeals, based on improper instructions to the jury. A report last year by the Department of Health and Human Services found higher rates of asthma and cancer in males than the Texas average.
Living in the shadows of soot
More recently, Hillcrest rose up against a massive proposed $500 million bridge spanning high above the Corpus Christi shipping channel. The bridge would allow supertankers to ply beneath it, but construction of the span and a highway addition would completely box in and isolate Hillcrest from any other neighborhood.
Citing civil rights laws and banking on support from an Obama administration sympathetic to the history of highway projects ripping apart communities of color, Porter and other Hillcrest residents filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration. The complaint resulted in an unusual compromise in 2015. Texas officials were so eager to increase commerce that they agreed to buyout residents at two or three times their average home value of around $50,000.
That victory came with some major asterisks. One is that the buyouts still may never fully compensate residents for home values that were depressed for decades because of the encroaching refineries. Another is that undocumented residents, whom the Obama administration assumed were eligible for buyouts under nondiscrimination laws, were cut out of the deal by Texas once the Trump administration took over with its anti-Latino immigrant animus. No one knows how many undocumented families are affected because a public complaint might result in deportation.
Thus one set of people, after decades of industrial abuse, are about to set off for other parts of Texas with a payout that may or may not help them buy new homes. Another set of people will continue to live fearfully in the shadows of soot. And in Washington, an administration continues to draw a shroud over all of environmental protections, working to the day that science and safety are, to borrow from Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, irrelevant.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.