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Environmental Regulations Are Being Rolled Back. In A Pandemic, What Does That Mean For Public Health?46:10
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Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, adjusts his mask at a hearing during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee oversight hearing to examine the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/AP)
Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, adjusts his mask at a hearing during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee oversight hearing to examine the Environmental Protection Agency, Wednesday, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/AP)

The Trump Administration has rolled back, or attempted to roll back, dozens of environmental rules, including regulations on emissions and air quality standards. We’ll touch on some of them and how they likely exacerbate existing health inequality.

Guests

Gina McCarthy, President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. 13th Administrator of the EPA, from 2013–2017. Chair of the board of advisors at the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. (@GinaNRDC)

Kendra Pierre-Louis, reporter for Gimlet Media, a narrative podcasting company.  Author of "Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet." (@kendrawrites)

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Former chief of emergency medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Former acting commissioner for public health of the District of Columbia. (@georgesbenjami7)

Interview Highlights

On the Trump administration’s efforts to axe Obama-era greenhouse gas standards

Kendra Pierre-Louis: “Under the Obama administration, they wanted to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles. This is great for consumers because you can get more miles per gallon, it's also great for fighting against climate change because the less gasoline you burn, the fewer emissions you emit. President Trump's administration made a decision to roll back the standards to such a degree that it was kind of an interesting tension because auto manufacturers actually didn't really want that. At the same time, there was a weird loophole in the law which allowed California to set its own regulations. And the Trump administration also attacked that loophole. And the net effect is that cars in the future will be less fuel efficient, but also will emit more greenhouse gas emissions.”

On the rollback of waste disposal regulations for some industries

Kendra Pierre-Louis: “Some of these it's not necessarily clear what the rationale is. But my best guess is that it's something called overburden. In that case, it is very difficult… generally speaking, it’s much easier to just dispose of something somewhat carelessly, you know, like it takes more effort for you to take a potato chip bag and find a garbage can when you're walking in the street and put it in the can, it's much easier to just crumple it up and drop it on the floor. It's kind of the same thing. Oftentimes coal plants are located near waterways. It's a very easy thing for them to dump it, not necessarily even deliberately, but like to not have that concern of whether or not it impacts the waterway.”

On the rollbacks rolling on through the pandemic

Kendra Pierre-Louis: “It has continued during the pandemic. And it's kind of continued in two ways… we often don't think about this, but rules have two components. You can make a rule, but if you don't enforce the rule, it's almost like the rule doesn't exist. So on the other side, the Trump administration has also been pretty lax in enforcement, and they've been lax in enforcement since prior to COVID. I think enforcement fell 50 percent over the time since they took office. But since COVID, they've gone kind of on the record saying things like they're not going to expect compliance with routine monitoring and reporting of pollution, and won't pursue penalties for polluters that are breaking the rules.”

"Rules have two components. You can make a rule, but if you don't enforce the rule, it's almost like the rule doesn't exist."

Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter

On the legal challenges to the rollbacks

Kendra Pierre-Louis: “There are two flavors of legal challenges. The first was one the administration first began during the rollback, they didn't sort of follow the process by which you have to undo or delay regulation. And so those changes were kind of immediately upheld because, you know, you didn't follow the rules and they still sort of went back to the drawing board and followed the process by which they have to, you know, undo those rules. And some of them have been successfully undone, and those rules have to be considered finalized. And it won’t be until another administration takes over, whether that's in four years or in November… The other kind of legal challenges which are still winding their way through the court is that some of the regulations that they brought back were put in place because of lawsuits that the federal government had to regulate these things in the first place. And so those challenges are saying that… like, the Clean Power Plan is a good example. They're essentially saying that the regulations that the Trump administration has put in place to replace the Clean Power Plan don’t go far enough. That [the regulation] does not meet the standards set forth by the legal challenges that sort of created the need for the Clean Power Plan in the first place. And those are still working their way through the courts.”

On what goes into writing and implementing environmental regulations

Gina McCarthy: “It's tough to do these rules. It takes many years to do the science that underpins it. Then when you do the rule, you have to look at all of the consequences of that rule, both costs and benefits, whether they're directly related to the rule or indirectly related to that rule. And so you have to do a wealth of information gathering, analysis, modeling, anywhere where climate is concerned, where many of these rules actually impact. And in a good way, we had to look at, obviously, the challenges associated with climate change, which can impact in particular our Clean Air Act rules. And we had to make the case that they were beneficial and cost effective. And so it's not an easy thing to do, these rules. It takes huge public input, for example, on the Clean Power Plan. We had more than eight million comments on that rule. And you have to answer them in order for it to be legally solid in terms of the case you're making. And so it takes a lot of work to get this done.”

"We have opportunities here to grow that clean energy economy, and instead, they're just feeding the beast of the fossil fuel companies. They're just providing lots of bennies to the oil and gas sector that they don't deserve and we cannot afford"

Gina McCarthy, Former EPA Administrator

On the damage that's been done to the U.S.’s environmental protection initiatives

Gina McCarthy: “The damage is that they have fundamentally tried to undermine science. And there are many scientists that have left federal service because they have been pigeonholed and harassed. And there's information that's not getting to the public. And there are a variety of rules that now are in limbo. So I want your listeners to understand that these rules, or many of them, in fact, most, I would argue, are likely to be reversed. But it means we're in limbo. We're losing opportunities. For example, NRDC itself has sued the federal government 115 times because of decisions that this administration has made. And we have a 90 percent success rate.

“But that's hardly fulfilling when you know that the rules we had in place — for example, the car rules would have reduced one hundred and fifty five million metric tons of CO2. And instead, now the Trump administration has acknowledged we're releasing 867 more million metric tons of CO2 with this rollback. And they're also costing our consumers, because the Obama rule would have saved drivers 86 billion dollars. And instead, we're talking about losing 22 billion and a loss of 10,000 to 20,000 jobs. So this has ramifications not just for our health and our natural resources, but it has ramifications on how we grow the economy. And clean energy is it, baby, whether this administration wants to recognize it or not. We have opportunities here to grow that clean energy economy, and instead, they're just feeding the beast of the fossil fuel companies. They're just providing lots of bennies to the oil and gas sector that they don't deserve and we cannot afford, from a health or a natural resource or an economic perspective.”

On the disproportionate impact environmental destruction has on vulnerable communities

Georges Benjamin: “The fact is that those communities are less likely to create the degree of pollution, but are much more exposed to air pollution, primarily because of where those communities are located. For example, we know that inner city communities are about nine degrees hotter than many of our white communities in the urban setting because they have less green space, you know, less trees, more dark surfaces. They also have a higher prevalence of chronic diseases, heart disease as my diabetes, lung disease, which makes them at a disproportionate risk of getting sicker or dying sooner should they be exposed more to the air pollution… and then when you think about what happens when you get in a pandemic like COVID, when it enters the community, well, these communities are already physiologically more vulnerable and more exposed. They're going to get sicker and die sooner.”

"The fact is that [vulnerable] communities are less likely to create the degree of pollution, but are much more exposed to air pollution, primarily because of where those communities are located."

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director, American Public Health Association

On the effects Trump’s rollbacks will have on underserved communities

Gina McCarthy: “If you think or anyone thinks that systemic racism and disinvestment in black communities and low-income communities is not related directly to your health, you're wrong. And so we have to connect the dots today between what's happening with COVID-19 and who's dying at greater rates than anybody else, which is the black community. We have to look at asthma rates, which run 10 times higher than Caucasians when you look at the Latino community. We have to look at who is left behind. And one of the reasons why you fundamentally do health protections is to level the playing field here. So much of what we were doing with the Clean Power Plan was recognizing that we're not protecting the planet. We're protecting people's health. We estimated thousands of people would be better protected because as you take action on climate, you reduce conventional pollutants. And we know that with climate change and excess heat, you are talking about multitudes of deaths as a result of those increased heat that you see, particularly in vulnerable communities, because it raises the amount of haze, the amount of pollution that's in the air. It makes our kids more vulnerable… It's just unconscionable how [the Trump administration] are forgetting the role of government to actually protect people.”

On whether the U.S. can get back on track in the fight against climate change

Gina McCarthy: "I expect that this will be a dam that breaks as soon as this administration leaves, which, make no mistake about it, I hope is in November. And then we'll move forward. We'll get these rules back in place and we'll do more and will expand the solutions that that really lead to a better future. This stimulus better invest in clean energy. It better not try to move us backwards because that's yesterday's problem, not the future for my kids and my grandchildren... I mean, it doesn't mean we're going to be able to reverse the damages that have already been done, but we can build resilience and adapt to a changing world. But we have to face it. You know, one of the you know, one of the wakeup calls, I hope, of COVID-19 is to tell us that our world can change on a dime. And frankly, so can people's behavior."

"We can build resilience and adapt to a changing world. But we have to face it. You know, one of the you know, one of the wakeup calls, I hope, of COVID-19 is to tell us that our world can change on a dime. And frankly, so can people's behavior"

Gina McCarthy, Former EPA Administrator

From The Reading List

Excerpt from"Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet" by Kendra Pierre-Louis.

Copyright © 2020, Kendra Pierre-Louis. Excerpt reprinted with permission from the author.

Scientific American: "Rolling Back Environmental Protections under Cover of the Pandemic" — "In Malaysia, it’s happening so a housing development can be built. In Albania, it’s to make room for an airport. And in both Brazil and the United States, it’s to extract more minerals and fossil fuels. These are some of the reasons that governments have given for shrinking or eliminating protected areas in recent months, even as a global pandemic has limited the public’s ability to participate in these decisions."

The New York Times: "The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List." — "After three years in office, the Trump administration has dismantled most of the major climate and environmental policies the president promised to undo. Calling the rules unnecessary and burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other businesses, his administration has weakened Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks, and rolled back many more rules governing clean air, water and toxic chemicals. Several major reversals have been finalized in recent weeks as the country has struggled to contain the spread of the new coronavirus."

U.S. News: "Health, Equity and Place" — "New U.S. News Healthiest Communities findings released this week show that when it comes to health and the drivers of health, we are far from equal. The analysis measured race and ethnicity in relation to overall community health and well-being and to specific social determinants of health such as area economy, education and natural environment, and indicates that living in a community that's more heavily black or Hispanic means an unhealthy life is more likely than for those living in a community that's mostly white."

Axios: "EPA will no longer regulate toxic compound in drinking water" — "The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will not regulate or limit a toxic chemical compound linked to infant brain damage in drinking water."

NPR: "Trump Environmental Rollbacks Roll On Despite Pandemic. Opponents Cry Foul" — "Because of the pandemic, the Bureau of Land Management held virtual public hearings in April on a proposal to expand oil drilling in Alaska's North Slope. Do public hearings over Zoom unfairly suppress opponents' comments, or allow even more people to engage? That's just one point of dispute as the Trump administration pushes ahead with some of its most controversial environmental policy changes this spring despite the coronavirus pandemic. November's vote is driving momentum, since policies finalized too late could be overturned more easily should President Trump lose re-election or Democrats gain control of the Senate."

The Conversation: "Expert: Rollbacks of environmental protections imperil nature — and human health" — "Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, countries around the world have been shrinking or eliminating areas set aside to protect nature — some to drill for fossil fuels, others for urban development. Yet the environmental rollbacks that some governments claim could help humanity recover economically from the coronavirus could put humanity more at risk of future pandemics, writes Rachel Golden Kroner in a recent article in Scientific American."

The Washington Post: "Trump administration makes it easier for hunters to kill bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska" — "Hunters will soon be allowed to venture into national preserves in Alaska and engage in practices that conservation groups say are reprehensible: baiting hibernating bears from their dens with doughnuts to kill them and using artificial light such as headlamps to scurry into wolf dens to slaughter mothers and their pups."

"Popular Science: "Racism is undeniably a public health issue" — "Over the past couple weeks, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has faded into the background of national discourse as thousands across the country have taken to the streets to protest other urgent public health concerns: police violence and anti-Black racism itself. In the midst of widespread police violence and the arrest of more than 9000 protestors nationwide, local and state governments are pushing to recognize racism itself as a public health issue."

The Hill: "DOJ whistleblower cites Trump tweets as impetus for California emissions probe" — "A Department of Justice investigation into California’s efforts to reduce vehicle emissions appeared to be politically motivated, a DOJ whistleblower wrote in testimony to lawmakers that was released Tuesday. John W. Elias, a DOJ career employee slated to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, wrote that an investigation into California’s emissions agreements with four automakers was spurred shortly after tweets from President Trump complaining about the deal."

This article was originally published on July 01, 2020.

This program aired on July 1, 2020.

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