The creation of the EPA brought the efforts to combat pollution and protect the environment under one regulatory roof. Since its creation forty-seven years ago, the EPA has also had to balance safeguarding the environment and promoting economic growth. Critics of the EPA, like President Trump and Congressman Gaetz, believe that fewer environmental regulations will boost the economy. Trump has already signed a measure rolling back an Obama rule that would have limited dumping coal mining waste into waterways. Trump described the regulation as “another terrible job killing rule.” He claimed that revoking it would save “many thousands American jobs, especially in the mines, which, I have been promising you — the mines are a big deal.” Supporters of the EPA contend that strong regulatory bodies keep Americans and our environment safe by making sure companies don’t dump dangerous chemicals into our waterways. Additionally, the revoking of this regulation will not reverse the decades-long decline in coal mining thanks to rising costs and low-cost alternatives like natural gas.
The budget President Trump released yesterday calls for a 31% reduction in funding for the EPA. This is not the first time the EPA has faced such a major threat to its existence. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 by promising to shrink the size of the Federal government, give more power to states, lower taxes, and invest in the military (sound familiar?). Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch (whose son, Neil, is Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court) as EPA administrator. Gorsuch enacted Reagan’s policies with gusto. She slashed the EPA budget by 22%, cut clean water regulations, reduced the number of prosecutions against polluters, and hired administrators from the companies the EPA was tasked with regulating. Gorsuch resigned from the EPA after the Reagan administration withdrew its support of her refusal to turn over Superfund financial records to Congress. After leaving office, she complained that
Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only ‘crime’ was loyal service, following orders. I was not the first to receive his special brand of benevolent neglect, a form of conveniently looking the other way, while his staff continues to do some very dirty work.
Gorsuch left the EPA with a legacy of corruption and mismanagement. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator, returned to the post to clean up the mess that Gorsuch left behind. It’s no surprise that in one of the biggest movies of the 1980s, Ghostbusters, the villain—apart from Gozer the Gozerian—is an administrator from the EPA who impedes the heroes and triggers a catastrophe (before getting covered in marshmallow).
Despite the controversy and opposition from conservatives, the EPA has had some remarkable triumphs in its history. The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit and think tank, has identified the “10 Ways the EPA has Strengthened America.” These include banning the widespread use of DDT, getting rid of acid rain, removing lead from gasoline (and the air), establishing fuel efficiency standards in cars, cleaner air and water, and keeping the public informed about its activities. The EPA has also taken on a greater role of working with businesses and legislators to find ways to encourage innovation while also protecting the environment. This challenge, as we’ve discussed above, represents the biggest threat to the future of the EPA. The Aspen Institute report concludes that
The ultimate measure of EPA’s success is the degree to which it has helped engender a culture of compliance within American industry and civil society, not simply through threats of fines or litigation, but by forming cooperative partnerships and rewarding proactive efforts to meet and exceed environmental standards through innovative practices and technologies.
Anne Gorsuch’s tenure at the EPA gives us a guide to what the agency might look like under new administrator and global warming denier Scott Pruitt. Using Gorsuch as a guide, we also know that there will be a lot to clean up when Trump, Gaetz, and Scott Pruitt are all done. In the meantime, we, the people of the United States, will suffer, but the environment will be the biggest loser of all.