Congress Does Industry’s Bidding by Cutting Public Safeguards

February 23, 2017 | 5:28 pm
Photo: Jack Pearce/CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The past month has not been kind to environmental and public health protections. A bevy of science-based rules are now on the chopping block thanks to the congressional sleight-of-hand called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows a simple majority in Congress to undo provisions issued within the final six months of the previous administration.

Right now, industries clearly feel empowered to try to roll back public safeguards in the name of profits. But the American public will pay a steep price from the erosion of these protections and science is being sidelined in the process.

Promoting water pollution

For a case in point, look no further than the recent overturning of the Stream Protection Rule issued by the Department of Interior’s Office of Stream Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). This science-based rule was designed to protect streams in the United States, including headwater streams, from the often devastating impacts of pollution with mining waste and debris.

All told, this rule would have improved the quality of some 263 miles of streams downstream of mines each year, the benefits of which would have been felt by nearby communities. But a CRA measure to overturn it recently passed in both the House and Senate and was signed on February 16 by President Trump.

The Stream Protection Rule was a commonsense safeguard based upon clear evidence that, once a waterway’s flow has been disturbed, it is very difficult to restore it to its original condition. This is bad news for all of the native plant and animal species in the ecosystem and for communities and farmers downstream who will reap fewer of the natural benefits that riparian buffers provide, like reduced flooding, filtration, and increased groundwater recharge.

Additionally, one of the mining techniques—known as long wall mining—extracts coal underground, which often causes sinkholes that can damage structures aboveground. This activity has led to all sorts of calamities including a cracked dam, homes and businesses with damaged foundations, structural problems with the sources of groundwater property owners rely upon, and even the disappearance of an entire lake once used for boating and fishing in a Pennsylvania state park.

Representatives Bill Johnson of Ohio and Evan Jenkins and David McKinley of West Virginia were among the sponsors of the legislation to revoke the Stream Protection Rule. Between them, they have taken more than $1 million in political contributions from the mining industry, which will no doubt benefit mightily from the removal of this commonsense check on their operations. The talking points of the National Mining Association and America’s largest mining company, Murray Energy Company, are also echoed in the representatives’ misinformed statements about the rule.

By overturning this protection, the bill’s sponsors are ensuring that residents across America will continue to see their water sources, their homes, and their environment degraded. And the message that their elected officials are sending is loud and clear: profits over people.

Sadly, several other efforts to rescind commonsense protections are also now underway. Here are some we’re watching closely:

Communities like Galena Park in east Houston need stronger health and environmental policies to protect residents from toxic air pollution and potential chemical release from nearby chemical facilities. Instead, Oklahama Rep. Markwayne Mullin is using the CRA to weaken those protections for the benefit of industry.

Undermining chemical safety

Oklahoma Representative Markwayne Mullin, who has received more than $410,000 from the oil and gas industry during just two terms in office, has introduced legislation to remove a rule issued by the EPA last year designed to improve safety at facilities that use or store large amounts of dangerous chemicals and to further protect first responders and fenceline communities. Major industrial facilities, including oil and gas companies, have been vocal in their opposition to this rule, and Mullin has become the elected mouthpiece of those entities.

The updated EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule is a commonsense, science-based provision designed to regulate industrial facilities all across America that release toxic chemicals. On average in recent years, approximately 150 catastrophic accidents have occurred annually at these facilities, posing often-grave risks to the workers and to the neighboring communities.

There are a significantly greater percentage of African Americans, Latinos, and people in poverty living near these facilities at higher risk for exposure to chemical releases. As noted in the 2016 report written by UCS and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s), Double Jeopardy in Houston: Acute and Chronic Chemical Exposures Pose Disproportionate Risks for Marginalized Communities, residents in Houston communities with RMP facilities have a higher risk of developing or worsening lung diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis due to exposure of high toxic concentrations of air pollutants including harmful chromium compounds.

Improvements to the RMP rule would have helped to make facilities safer for surrounding communities, reduced the number of catastrophes, and ensure that first responders were fully informed and protected. While the original rule will remain in place even if the amendments are rolled back using the CRA, the status quo has not been enough to fully protect Americans from toxic chemical exposures, and people of color and in poverty will continue to bear the brunt of health impacts from future accidents and spills at these facilities.

The CRA bill that would nullify the EPA’s rule is still pending a vote in the House, and industry representatives are lobbying hard for its passage.

Fostering air pollution and hastening climate change

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was issued to update the Carter administration regulation that governs how oil and gas is extracted on federal land. The update would have reduced some of the most dangerous impacts of fracking for natural gas extraction, including leaks, venting, and flaring, which was especially timely given that reductions in methane pollution are needed to get us on track to meet emissions standards.

Two of the sponsors of the legislation that would eliminate this rule are Utah’s Rob Bishop and Wyoming’s John Barrasso, who have received over $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of their political careers. This effort is only the newest in a succession of attacks on this rule since it was first proposed. Recently released emails from the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General (yes, that of our newly confirmed EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt) reveal 2013 correspondence with a fracking company, Devon Energy Corporation, discussing how they both planned to meet with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to convince them to “completely do away with the present thrust” of the BLM’s methane waste rule.

Pulling the methane rule will result in the continued release of methane pollution, which perhaps not surprisingly occurs at the highest levels on tribal lands in Rob Bishop’s state of Utah—and John Barrasso’s state of Wyoming has one of the highest methane emission levels on federal lands, according to this 2015 report. Remember when a 2,500 mi2 cloud of methane floated over the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in 2014? We can expect more of that phenomenon to occur without these rules. ‘

And what does that mean for the livelihoods of Wyoming and Utah residents and all Americans? Well, increases in methane pollution can lead to increased ground-level ozone levels as well as other hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide, which can trigger asthma and even cancer. Not only will air quality continue to get worse in areas of highest methane emissions, but we will all experience the impacts associated with a changing climate thanks to excessive and irresponsible release of the most potent greenhouse gas.

This CRA bill still requires passage in the Senate to move onto the President’s desk.

Vitally needed: checks and balances

Along with rollbacks to regulations allowing polluters to freely pollute, industry is referencing another page from its playbook to chip away at transparency measures designed to keep companies accountable for their business dealings. The President signed a CRA resolution last week to roll back a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring that oil and gas companies disclose payments to foreign governments. Ohio representative Sherrod Brown remarked, “This kind of transparency is essential to combating waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement.” Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, was a vocal critic of this rule before his confirmation and can check that off of his to-do list now that he’s a cabinet member.

The first few weeks of Trump’s presidency have affirmed that money talks, and that power can be bought and used to further maximize profits. We have seen a corporate takeover of our government, as several individuals with strong industry ties were nominated and confirmed for key agency leadership positions; the President has issued legally questionable executive orders, one of which requires that agencies repeal two regulations for every one that it issues (with the intent of freezing regulation and allowing industry to get away with business as usual); and Congress is hastily working to nullify a slew of Obama-era regulations that would prevent industry misconduct, using the Congressional Review Act in an unprecedented fashion.

While industry is ready to profit from CRA rollbacks both here and abroad, a regulatory freeze, and industry-friendly cabinet appointments, everyday Americans will be missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits. And members of Congress who are using techniques like the CRA to undermine public health and safety are making a grave mistake that will surely catch up with them as Americans come to see the effects of these misguided rollbacks.

Our democracy is built on a foundation of checks and balances. Among these are the need for governmental protections to place a vital check on industry in order to keep our water, food, and environment healthy and our workplaces and our children safe. Unfortunately, in the current political environment, industry is influencing decision makers with political contributions, and effectively making many members of Congress beholden to them. The result: elected officials spouting off specious industry talking points and designing policies that leave industry excesses unchecked. When industry interference prevents government from making decisions based on science, it undermines our democracy and the public suffers.

We will continue to work to ensure that agencies have the freedom to fulfill their critical missions, and we will be ready to hold industry accountable for noncompliance or misdeeds.