The leaders who ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than a quarter-century, serving under Republican and Democratic presidents, agree that President Donald Trump has set the agency against science.
At an event Monday that was part of Climate Week New York, four prior EPA administrators endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, denounced Trump’s approach to the agency, and said the upcoming election is critical for the environment.
“The present situation is a total aberration,” said William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under President George H. W. Bush. “The first thing Trump did was fire all the environmental scientists at the agency.” To withstand court challenges, regulations enforced by the agency need to be based on empirical evidence. The past administrators said the agency’s ability to fulfill that function had been compromised because impartial scientist had been fired or forced out, in some cases replaced by former employees from industries regulated by the EPA.
“The claims are false,” said EPA spokesperson James Hewitt. “We have improved the role of science throughout the agency's operations.”
Carol Browner, who ran the EPA under President Bill Clinton and served under President Barack Obama, was likewise blunt in her assessment of Trump’s EPA. “This administration is simply gutting the Clean Water Act, letting polluters dump whatever they want into the waters.” She scoffed Trump’s claims about his environmental record, such as a move to ban drilling off the Florida coast. “The closest he has come to the Everglades is to golf.”
The Trump administration has been aggressive in pursuing rollbacks of regulations disliked by industries, particularly for fossil fuel. The EPA has been steadily trimming air and water regulations and undermining Obama-era regulations on emissions from autos and power plants. Just last month the Trump administration cut a part of a rule requiring oil and gas companies to detect and repair methane leaks, another source of planet-warming emissions.
“President Trump’s record on the environment proves you can have energy independence and a clean, healthy environment without destroying the economy, over-regulating, or burdening American taxpayers,” said Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokesperson.
Just before the event, current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler declared the success of the EPA under Trump. “We have done more in the first four years of the Trump administration to improve the environment than probably any administration except perhaps during the very first years of EPA,” Wheeler said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
That comparison to the EPA’s leader at its founding under President Richard Nixon drew disbelief. “How dare he compare himself to [William] Ruckelshaus,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who led the agency under George W. Bush. She argued that the EPA’s original legacy of protecting human health has been been met with indifference by Wheeler.
The deepest damage done to the agency, the former administrators agreed, had been dismantling its core scientific capacity. Rebuilding scientific staff at the EPA will take years. “We didn’t just lose four year of the ability of career people to do their jobs,” said Browner, “but those career people are being robbed of resources and support they need to do their work. We need to overcome what we have lost in these four year.”
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