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Trump’s War on the Environment Imperils Us All

Halsey, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

While the eyes of the nation are on the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the industry lobbyists he put in charge of federal environmental regulatory agencies have been busily carrying out an underhanded war on the environment. Attacking long-standing regulations on pollution of air, land, water, and endangered species that have, in large part, served the nation well has been their mission from day one of the Trump administration. Now, adding to the rogue’s list of rollbacks, the EPA has decided to gut the Clean Water Act, imperiling us, our children, grandchildren, and generations yet to come.

This development, which will have very damaging and long-lasting consequences, may have surprised some because Trump had already repealed the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule. Suffice it to say his impression that the only way to benefit businesses is to let them run hog wild with environmental destruction and consumption of public resources is wildly off-base. Obviously, the Obama rule was not significantly detrimental to the booming economy Trump inherited. And clean water is one of our most precious public resources without which, regardless of political affiliation, we cannot survive.

The mechanism Trump’s administration used to roll back the regulations is via administrative rulemaking. While most people rightfully believe making laws is the job of Congress, the reality is that once Congress passes a bill and it’s signed into law, the agency responsible for implementing the law must promulgate the highly complex “rules” to fit the wide variety of situations virtually any law must cover.

Importantly, once administrative rules are adopted, they carry the force of law – in effect giving bureaucracies significant latitude to basically make their own laws. Legally, the administrative rules are supposed to be bound by the statutory language of the law they implement. Unfortunately, it often takes a lawsuit to overturn administrative rules that go beyond the laws they are intended to implement and they stay in effect until overturned.

So now we are faced with yet another attempt by the Trump administration to gut long-standing beneficial environmental laws via administrative rule-making. And like the gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, these rules will stand until the EPA is taken to court and the rules are overturned.

In this case, the last thing the Environmental Protection Agency is protecting is the environment. The Waters of the United States rule judiciously regulated the dumping of industrial pollutants, fertilizers, and pesticides into waterways. And since water runs downhill, wetlands and intermittent streams were protected for the very good reason that everyone lives downstream and the only way to ensure clean surface and groundwater is to protect the uphill sources from pollutants.

Moreover, wetlands are one of nature’s true miracle workers. A variety of aquatic plants very efficiently pull pollutants out of the water as it slowly seeps through. So allowing developers or farmers to fill in wetlands is one of the absolutely dumbest things anyone could do if protecting water quality is the goal.

If anyone needs a reminder of what unregulated water pollution looks like, they need only turn their eyes to Butte, Anaconda, and the Clark Fork River that comprise the nation’s largest Superfund site. We learned that lesson 50 years ago, when the Clean Water Act was enacted by Congress. But now, with a science-denying president and a corporate-controlled EPA, we are about to repeat the tragic and incredibly expensive mistakes of the past as Trump’s war on the environment increasingly imperils us all.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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