Profiles in Cowardice: Chemicals, Climate, and a Toxic Disregard by the Trump Administration

January 9, 2020 | 12:51 pm
Photo: Bob Walker/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Last month, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s 1956 classic Profiles in Courage, I kicked off a series of blog posts profiling the lack of courage we are too often witnessing in our elected leaders, their appointees, and other important stakeholders. My definition of cowardice: lacking the firmness of purpose to put the public interest first and foremost.

I knew there would be no lack of material for a series, and yesterday morning two cases of cowardice hit me smack in the face. Two that have profound implications for the health of our families, our communities, and our environment.

PFAS – Trump administration threatens to give forever chemicals another reprieve

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large class of man-made chemicals that are found in a wide variety of consumer products, such as kitchenware, rainwear, some furniture, and even take-out containers. It is also used in firefighting foam. It has contaminated drinking water supplies across the country, and it’s also really bad for human health.

They are called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in our bodies and our environment. And though not forever, the American public has been waiting an awfully long time for our government to take actual action to protect them from PFAS.

3M corporation first notified the EPA of the chemicals’ toxicity in 1998! And while the EPA issued a PFAS Action Plan in 2009 and a second PFAS Action Plan in 2019, there’s been no actual agency action to regulate PFAS emissions or set a PFAS drinking water standard. In fact, the EPA has already missed a self-imposed deadline for determining whether to set an enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS (specifically for perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid [PFOS]) as the end of 2019 came and went. Despite the fact that back in 2006, the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board found that PFOA was a likely human carcinogen, and other studies suggest that exposure to PFAS may adversely affect a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, and affect the immune system.

Tired of waiting for regulatory action, legislators in the House of Representatives sprang into action this year working to secure several PFAS provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that passed in December and also proposing a bill (H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act) to further regulate PFAS. The bill would require the EPA to issue a federal drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years; it sets deadlines to restrict PFAS emissions into air and water; and designates PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances.” The “hazardous” designation would trigger manufacturing companies, like 3M and DuPont, to pay to clean up PFAS-contaminated Superfund sites across the country that are not being prioritized.

The House is set to vote on this bill as I write this, and it is likely to pass and go on to the Senate, where it is presumed dead on arrival. But just to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere, President Trump has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk. The administration and its allies in Congress don’t want to saddle industries and utilities with the costs of implementing the bill, instead allowing cleanup costs to continue to fall on the impacted communities burdened with rising health costs and water bills.

If that doesn’t comport with my definition of cowardice, I don’t know what does.

Hampering preparedness for climate change

The Trump administration’s antipathy for all things climate is pretty well known—from pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement to removing references and pages from federal web sites that mention climate change.

In keeping with the president’s disdain for climate change and climate science, we now have a 2019 National Preparedness Report from FEMA that fails to say a single thing about climate change; the grave threat it poses to our communities, health, and environment; and the role it plays in exacerbating disasters.

This willful blindness and failure to address climate change in a FEMA report does a profound disservice to our communities and first responders who are on the front lines of preparing for and responding to climate-related disasters and emergencies.

Calling out the courageous

There are plenty of them out there – speaking out, working hard, and leading the way.

They are the public servants who continue to toil away on behalf of the public interest, despite an administration that often denigrates them and the mission of their agency. They are the local citizens in our communities, who are raising their voices for fairness and action. They are the dedicated staff in organizations—small and large—working for social justice and the public good. They are our youth who are energized, organized, and demanding change.

It’s time for our elected leaders and their appointees in federal agencies to follow their lead and put the health, safety, and well-being of we the people first. It’s past time for action of PFAS. And with climate-related dangers already on our doorstep, it’s clearly time to recognize the threats and help our communities prepare for them.