When the 116th Congress is sworn in, it must immediately reverse course from the Trump administration's two-year assault on environmental and public health protections. To do so, Congress must strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency, defend scientific integrity and legislate to advance America's investments in air quality, clean water infrastructure and renewable energy.
Empowered by Congress and the White House for nearly 50 years, the EPA has set the standards for research and has become the home of world-class scientists, engineers, emergency responders, vehicle testing experts and more. A qualified, knowledgeable staff -- coupled with thoughtful enforcement -- has led to extensive air and water quality improvements.
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Yet President Donald Trump, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his predecessor Scott Pruitt have reversed the agency's progress through austere budget cuts, forced retirements, hostile workplaces, hiring freezes and office closures. In fact, Wheeler is preparing to reorganize the EPA by reshaping regional offices without the consent of Congress. The agency's upcoming restructuring of its regional offices appears designed to overhaul existing enforcement policies and chains of command, likely bolstering political leadership's ability to push reduced regional enforcement and more lenient compliance.
If Wheeler succeeds, he'll be better able to tamp down enforcement of public health and environmental rules that protect Americans -- wasting taxpayers' money and threatening their health. Wheeler has dismissed those claims, saying the restructuring will bolster coordination with headquarters.
But a new Congress can pose a unique challenge to Wheeler's objectives. Members of the House and Senate should stand with the career public employees of the EPA -- supporting the agency's authority to regulate pollution and replenishing its recklessly depleted workforce and budgets. America will always need an effectively staffed and fully funded EPA, so long as the agency continues to adhere to scientific principles like maintaining air quality, protecting water resources and cleaning up toxic sites.
But that's not enough -- Congress should also defend scientific integrity. And this starts with investigating the EPA administrator. Who is he talking to and relying upon when making critical decisions for the country? If his previous professional experience as a lobbyist for the coal industry and aide to climate-denier Senator James Inhofe is any indication, it's exactly the people he should not be consulting.
The EPA administrator has spent his tenure attacking science by appointing corporate cronies to consulting boards, relying on sham science in rolling back public health and environmental protections, and ignoring science when it gets in the way of his predetermined goals.
In mid-October, Wheeler stacked the EPA's primary air pollution advisory panel, known as Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC), with industry-disposed scientists. This panel advises the EPA on safe levels of air pollution. One of the new appointees claimed that reducing smog will not benefit public health; another said soot is not linked to lung health. (Virtually all scientists, including the EPA's own experts, disagree.)
Wheeler has proposed rolling back clean-car standards that would have saved American drivers money at the gas pump while reducing air pollution. In doing so, he was embracing the argument that requiring cleaner, more efficient cars is less safe -- not because those cleaner cars are less safe, but because people won't buy them and will continue to drive their less-safe old cars. He ignored his own technical experts at EPA, whose analysis refuted his nonsensical claims.
In another major rollback, Wheeler proposed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, a sham replacement for the Clean Power Plan that offers no hard limits on air emissions from coal-fired power plants. By the EPA's own technical analysis, it will lead to more smog and soot pollution and up to 1,400 more deaths each year over the course of implementation, and will do little to combat climate change.
Given his record thus far, it would appear Wheeler is not listening to world class experts. So is he still taking counsel from his former friends in the coal industry? Congress and the public deserve an answer.
In addition to providing EPA oversight, the new Congress should propose and pass stronger laws to protect our air, clean water and renewable energy investments. Protecting the environment and public health is popular with Americans from all walks of life: A majority of Americans believe the federal government is doing too little to protect air and water, and over 70% want more wind and solar power, according to Pew Research Center. Indeed, investments in safe drinking water supplies, cleaner transportation and energy, and a more reliable electric grid could all be popular and bipartisan parts of an infrastructure bill.
If Trump and his allies want to deny science and further endanger human health, they must be met with the opposition of the next Congress. Should the Republican-controlled Senate obstruct, or if Trump vetoes key legislation, Americans will know who stands for our environment and children's health -- and who does not.