Six EPA Heads Dating Back to Reagan Advocate Sweeping Reset

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, adjusts his mask at a May 20 oversight hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Representing Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to the Reagan years, a half-dozen former Environmental Protection Agency heads issued a call Wednesday for an agency overhaul in 2021. 

The administrators sounded off in a letter attached to a report and hundreds of pages of recommendations compiled by the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former senior EPA officials.

Noting that the agency will mark its 50th anniversary this December, they say successfully navigating the next 50 years requires a present-day commitment to facing problems head on, depoliticizing the agency ranks, and recentering the EPA’s mission on how to best preserve the public health and manage nationwide responses to “new toxic hazards and other emerging or unmitigated health risks.”

“Climate change is having far-reaching impacts on air quality, infectious diseases, and water quantity and quality, as well as intensifying destructive climate events such as floods, storms, wildfires, and droughts,” the open letter from the former administrators states. 

President Barack Obama’s two appointees to the EPA, Gina McCarthy and her predecessor Lisa Jackson, are the most recent of the letter’s signatories, joined by Christine Todd Whitman, William Reilly and Lee Thomas, of the George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan administrations, respectively. Carol Browner, who led the EPA for both of President Bill Clinton’s terms, signed the letter as well.

President Donald Trump has appointed two heads to the EPA in just one term. His first pick, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, resigned in 2018 after a brief stint beset by ethics scandals. Longtime coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler took Pruitt’s place and continued the deregulatory campaign handed down by White House executive order.

While neither Trump, Pruitt nor Wheeler are cited by the former administrators in their letter, the report itself asserts that “actions during the Trump administration have further decreased public confidence in the agency’s credibility, undercut its historic dedication to high ethical standards, and affected employee morale.”

“In recent years, adverse changes to the way science is used and managed by EPA has: marginalized the scientific basis for EPA policies and decisions; significantly reduced the credibility of EPA actions and efforts; jeopardized human health and the environment; and provided opportunities for special interests to have a disproportionate influence on EPA actions,” another section of the report states.

Each section of the report takes on a different objective and ends with a list of recommendations. To restore science as the backbone of EPA decision-making, for example, the network calls for the EPA to “eliminate the inappropriately named transparency rule” and to “restore the integrity of the science peer-review process.”

The “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule was proposed by Pruitt, with the aim of excluding from EPA consideration any scientific studies that won’t make underlying data, including sensitive patient or test subject information, public.

While transparency is ostensibly a laudable goal, critics — among them members of the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board — have labeled the rule impractically vague and vulnerable to political manipulation.

Another recommendation for the agency is to improve its relationship with the press, allowing a “respectful exchange” so that reporters can better convey the complexity of the EPA’s work. 

In its first year under Pruitt, the EPA attempted to hire a Republican-backed opposition research firm on the taxpayer dime to monitor journalists. It was only after a lawyer for the firm was discovered sending frivolous Freedom of Information Act requests to climate scientists openly critical of Trump, however, that the EPA was forced to back out of the $120,000 deal.

Open attacks on reporters have become commonplace for Trump’s EPA. In 2017, AP journalist Michael Bieseecker reported that highly toxic Superfund sites in the hard-hit Houston, Texas, area had been plunged underwater by Hurricane Harvey. The EPA accused Bieseecker of false reporting but was eventually forced to admit that the sites had indeed flooded to dangerous levels. 

Wednesday’s letter calls it undeniable that the EPA needs to incorporate environmental justice into its policy work and increase the resources it allocates to addressing environmental harm on communities of color.  

Just last month, however, the Trump administration announced it would pare back the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement for the government to conduct environmental impact assessments before it gives the green light on a project breaking ground.

While the president says the oversight is too burdensome, experts have emphasized how changes in policy governing matters like coal-ash pollution will affect those who live near coal-fired power plants. Earthjustice found last year that at 6 of America’s 10 most-contaminated coal-ash sites are surrounded by majority-Black populations.

“Environmental injustices are putting lower-wealth communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities at disproportionately high levels of exposure, risk, and vulnerability to toxic pollution, not to mention the pandemic we are now facing,” McCarthy and others wrote Wednesday.

The report also calls it key that the EPA expand discrimination protections for entities receiving federal financial aid and launch a national “community pollution reduction” program specifically addressing concerns touching the Black, Latino, Indian and Asian-American communities.

Strengthening pesticide regulations, reinstating protections for farmworkers, and renewing international collaboration to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce shared exposure to everything from mercury to marine litter are other goals the report lauds from whoever takes the White House in November. 

“We are at an environmental crossroads and we are hopeful that American will again muster the resolve, the will, and the action needed to protect public health, the environment and our economy,” the administrators wrote.

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