The Environmental Crimes of the Trump Administration

Old-growth Ponderosa Pine stump, Winema National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The word environment usually refers to what is around us: air, water, house, trees, grass, town. However, with the broadening of human understanding about the effects of pollution and industry on human health and wildlife, environment received the philosophical and legal definition of human responsibility of protecting both human health and the health of the natural world.

That new responsibility brought into being the US Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970. The mission of the EPA is to protect human and environmental health from pollution or any other violent attacks.

The Trump factor

To our misfortunes, since 2017, the United States has been governed by Donald Trump, an irresponsible president who dares suggest climate change is a hoax. Such audacious falsehood undermines the environment and sets the EPA under threatening convulsions.

Trump made his reputation on sleaze: indulging in the molesting of women, cheating workers, and countless other unethical actions. He is ill-disposed towards black Americans and other non-white minorities. He is taking advantage of his top position in the government for his personal benefit.

Trump inherited money and real estate. He also worked as a TV actor. His money and TV connection bought him a ticket to  the small but powerful class of rich Americans who have been trying to, literally, buy America. In 2016, his plutocratic agenda and populist propaganda made him a resident of the White House.

With the support of the Republican Party and the rich in America, Trump has been successfully manipulating this country’s politics, being the untouchable president.

But, in 2018, the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives. This was a blow against plutocracy, and Trump in particular, his desire to be reelected. Now the Democratic political opposition to emperor Trump is gathering steam for the 2020 presidential election.

The Democratic candidates for president accuse Trump of potential “collusion” with Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. They say Russia had a negative effect on the 2016 presidential election. Russian computer hackers turned American voters in favor of Trump.

Democratic party politicians also accuse Trump of racism and numerous other infractions, especially favoring his class with a trillion dollar tax cuts and lower taxes for corporations.

There’s little doubt Trump has been unsettling America, definitely shifting the gears of power towards Wall Street and the tiny minority of very rich, thus formally putting America under the thumb of the billionaire class. He is the harbinger of class war.

The environmental vulnerability of Trump

However, the aspiring Democratic candidates are largely missing the boat in highlighting why Trump deserves not an extra day in the White House. His greatest crime is hiding in the environmental record of his administration.

The Trump administration is responsible for about 83 rollbacks in air pollution, drilling and extracting petroleum, infrastructure and planning, animal protection, toxic substances and safety, and water pollution.

The consequences of these environmental “deregulations” are deadly. More greenhouse gas emissions are reaching the atmosphere and add fuel to the gathering mega storm of global warming. In addition, this extra air pollution from deregulation has been killing thousands of Americans.

It’s this evidence of callousness and death from the Trump administration’s environmental deregulations that should enter the knowledge and rhetoric of the Democratic presidential candidates. Yes, there’s terrible news from inequality, the drama of immigration, and the deregulation of Wall Street. But nothing equals the suffering and death coming out of the environmental deregulation of Trump.

Deregulating pesticides equals to brain damage for children

Trump’s executive orders “deregulating” environmental protection are mean attacks against Americans and the natural world. They also violate several laws. You cannot speed up approvals of pesticides, for example, without cutting corners with the science and the presumed “safety” of those farm sprays.

EPA has been facing this dilemma since its inception. During the administration of George W. Bush, the neurotoxic pesticides came up for renewal. However, EPA scientists were uneasy about seeing the continuation of such terrible chemicals in America’s food. The presidents of the unions representing EPA employees put this uneasiness down in writing. In a May 24, 2006 letter to the EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, they stressed the following:

In 2006, EPA had 20 neurotoxic pesticides scheduled for renewal required by the 1996 law, the Food Quality Protection Act. In the 1990s, EPA “reached partial cancellation agreements with the registrants.” The registrants are owners of pesticides. The neurotoxic pesticides included chlorpyrifos, methyl parathion, and diazinon.

The reason for such cancellation agreements, EPA scientists argued,  was “compelling information that these neurotoxic pesticides damage the developing nervous system of fetuses, infants and children.”

In addition, EPA scientists explained why Administrator Stephen Johnson had to act. They painted a canvas of toxicological, social and political injustice that nullified EPA’s mission:

“The partial cancellation agreements of the 1990’s mostly addressed residential exposures, but did not adequately consider continued exposure through foods eaten. As risk assessors, we continue to be troubled by the Agency’s failure to adequately consider exposure to neurotoxic pesticides by infants and children who commonly enter fields treated with these pesticides while accompanying their parents employed to perform post-application tasks. The children of farmworkers, living near treated fields, are also repeatedly exposed through pesticide drift onto outdoor play areas and through exposure to pesticide residues on their parents’ hair, skin, and clothing.

“Additionally, we are concerned that unborn fetuses may also be exposed to these neurotoxicants when pregnant women are employed to handle (mix, load, apply) these pesticides or are employed to enter treated areas to perform hand labor tasks following pesticide applications.

“Our colleagues in the Pesticide Program feel besieged by political pressure exerted by Agency officials perceived to be too closely aligned with the pesticide industry and former EPA officials now representing the pesticide and agricultural community; and by the US Department of Agriculture through their Office of Pest Management Policy. Equally alarming is the belief among managers in the Pesticide and Toxics Programs that regulatory decisions should only be made after reaching full consensus with the regulated pesticide and chemicals industry. (emphasis mine)

“Administrator Johnson, we ask that you adhere to your pledge to protect the public health of our nation’s infants and children, ensure that final tolerance reassessment decisions are unbiased by outside political influences, and that any decisions be based on a transparent and complete database in conformity with the law, sound science, and our principles of scientific integrity. Until EPA can state with scientific confidence that these pesticides will not harm the neurological development of our nation’s born and unborn children, there is no justification to continue to approve the use of the remaining [neurotoxic] OP [organophosphate] and carbamate pesticides.

“The undersigned [EPA Union Presidents and scientists]… recognize that under the Constitution our role is only to provide the above advice to you, while your role is to faithfully execute the laws entrusted to your administration. We believe that by providing this advice in the strongest possible terms we are fulfilling our duty and helping you to fulfill yours.”

This letter is a telling example of the tragic state of EPA: here’s a national department essential for the health and protection of people and the natural world. Yet the 2006 letter is documenting corruption that makes the position of the scientists problematic and, in some instances, untenable. EPA scientists may remain silent for personal security or raise questions that may threaten their jobs. In this case, they highlighted the dangers of nerve poisons, especially affecting infants and children. They also warned their political bosses not to get too cozy with the polluters.

The warning did not convince the EPA administrator to be cautious and protect infants and children from brain-damaging pesticides like chlorpyrifos now – thirteen years later — boosted by the Trump administration.

Muzzling EPA scientists and ordering EPA to keep chlorpyrifosin the market is a straightforward crime of willfully poisoning children all over the country. This neurotoxin chlorpyrifos is related to chemical warfare agents. It affects the brain in deleterious ways: causing dizziness, confusion, autism, lower IQ, difficulties in remembering and learning, and death.

The chlorpyrifos example is the tip of an iceberg of corruption, spanning several administrations but reaching its apogee during the dark age of Trump.

Deregulating pesticides equals to biological warfare

In early 2019, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a report in which they argue that the widely used fungicide fludioxonil attacks fungi by blasting and killing their cells with a metabolic shock. Fludioxonil produces a damaging compound known as methylglyoxal for attacking a sugar-metabolizing enzyme found in all cells, not just the cells of fungi.

Fludioxonil started as a protector of seeds in storage. But now it has a vast global use in precautionary use for fruit and vegetables, extending their self-life. This means the harm it afflicts on non-fungal cells is also vast. It puts at risk all treated fruit and vegetables, including the seeds of major crops, and post-harvest treated food crops.

This is another example of how low we have fallen. With the life-saving exception of organic farmers, conventional farmers are essentially growing pesticide crops. And the Trump EPA and the Trump Department of Agriculture are crippled. They see the world through the eyes of the agrichemical and agribusiness political establishment, which controls Trump.

War against the rule of law, science, and public health

Telling coal companies not to worry and dump their wastes over creeks violates clean and drinkable water laws and the endangered species act.

Second, the Trump administration took its war on science and public health a step further. It dismantled the science at the US Department of Agriculture by firing hundreds of scientists who refused to move from Washington, DC, to Kansas City. It did the same thing at the Department of Interior, targeting scientists working on climate change.

These acts prove Trump cares less about science and public health. This, among several other defects of character, make him unfit to be president.

The rule of law, science and public health are not abstractions. They go to the core of civilization. The rule of law protects societies from anarchy. Science distinguish civilized people from barbarians. It’s our cherished legacy from Aristotle and the Greeks. And public health is of existential import, now we are facing the awesome threat from rising global temperatures.

The House of Representatives needs to dig deep into Trump’s utter failure to employ science for the protection of public and environmental health. His behavior challenges our claim of civilization. It merits an appropriate response. And that response is impeachment.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.