The Trump administration’s campaign of environmental deregulation demonstrates the immense power the executive branch can wield over the nation’s health. In just four years, the administration has relaxed or reversed nearly 50 rules at the Environmental Protection Agency, the primary executive agency responsible for preserving our shared natural resources and protecting us from environmental contamination.
Even in the last six months, with the country focused on battling a deadly pandemic, the administration has pushed through changes that increase the amount of mercury and other toxic heavy metals that power plants can release into air and water, and allow oil and gas facilities to emit more methane and volatile organic compounds into the air.
This astonishing pace belies the plodding regulatory process required to change federal rules, and outlines a playbook for the rapid and sustained action a Biden/Harris administration must take to reverse these changes.
EPA is granted significant authority by Congress to make rules governing how people or companies interact with the environment. As an executive agency, the process for making rules is different from how Congress legislates. It involves specific procedures designed to engage the public through notice of a proposed rule and an opportunity for the public to offer comments and suggestions before the rule is finalized. The rulemaking goals and agenda for EPA are largely influenced by its administrator, who is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The process for making a rule is essentially the same as it is for eliminating one, and EPA under the Trump Administration has used that process to dismantle key environmental regulations that protect public health.
Some of the more concerning rule changes will have sweeping effects on EPA’s core functions. One such rule the administration is rushing to finalize seeks to limit the type of scientific evidence that can be used in regulatory decisions, like setting the allowable amount of toxic chemicals in drinking water or harmful pesticides in food. It promises to exclude or give less weight to studies that cannot or do not release their underlying data. The title of the so-called Science Transparency Rule is misleading, because it implies that data that cannot be made publicly available are not “transparent.” However, researchers routinely rely on protected health information to conduct epidemiological studies linking environmental exposures to adverse health outcomes. And these confidential data often cannot be made publicly available due to privacy violations. This rule received an unprecedented response from concerned scientists and Americans with almost 400,000 public comments submitted throughout the course of review, requiring substantial revision and response by EPA and laying the groundwork for future litigation.
Although the Science Transparency Rule is not yet finalized, it has already been used to justify continued use of chlorpyrifos, a harmful pesticide that threatens the health of farmworkers and detrimentally affects children’s neurodevelopment. Chlorpyrifos was banned from residential applications in 2000 due to its toxicity, but six million pounds are still applied to a wide variety of crops (including almonds, citrus, grapes, corn, apples, and alfalfa) each year.
Prior to the start of the Trump Administration, EPA had announced a plan to ban the use of chlorpyrifos altogether, citing epidemiological research that links prenatal exposure to adverse neurodevelopmental effects in children. However, the Trump administration’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed course, negating his own agency’s prior consideration of epidemiological studies in the decision.
In the latest attempt to weaken chlorpyrifos regulations, EPA’s revised draft human health risk assessment excludes key epidemiological studies of the neurotoxic effect of chlorpyrifos on children. Omission of these studies allowed EPA to conclude that exposure risk to chlorpyrifos at current levels presents minimal risk to children’s health. By minimizing the use of human studies research as in the case of chlorpyrifos, EPA under Trump is testing its ability to restrict environmental regulations by making some of the best available health research ineligible for review.
Other seemingly technical proposals, including one to only include a narrow set of benefits when analyzing the costs and benefits of regulations, can have a profound effect on what actions can be taken and regulations set, ultimately determining our exposure to pollution.
The 2020 presidential election is a potential turning point for the environment and public health, although challenges will remain regardless of the new White House occupant. Four more years of President Trump almost certainly means further destabilization of environmental health policy. But a Biden/Harris administration must be prepared with the same swift and targeted action to rebuild environmental safeguards. States can make some progress in the absence of federal action, such as California’s decision to join Hawaii and New York in banning chlorpyrifos, but we need a science-informed EPA to equitably protect Americans from toxic substances in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the products we use.
But our engagement must not stop at the ballot box. We must ensure our voices continue to be heard after Election Day through robust engagement with the rulemaking process, via learning about implications of a proposed change, submitting a public comment, and making sure elected officials at all levels know where we stand on environmental policy.