They say regulations, we say protections

By Tamera Minnick

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposes to gut the Environmental Protection Agency with cuts of 31 percent and staff cuts of 20 percent, in some cases eliminating entire programs. Cuts include those to critical and popular programs such as grants to states to clean up brownfields, the program which partners with the state to help Mesa County residents remediate radon risk in their homes, and much of the external grant funding which comes to universities.

One of the brownfields grants funded in Colorado is to Bent County for asbestos remediation to provide transitional housing for homeless veterans and others.

This demonization of EPA is not an original idea. Upon entering office in 1980, President Reagan cut EPA’s budget by 25 percent. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator from 1970 to 1973, was invited to return to right the ship just 28 months after this disastrous decision.

Last week, Ruckelshaus wrote “a strong and credible regulatory regime is essential to the smooth functioning of our economy. Unless people believe their health and the environment are being safeguarded, they will withdraw their permission for companies to do business.”

Under Trump’s proposal, states must assume more of the regulatory oversight for clean air and clean water. Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder has provided an example of how cavalierly states may accept this responsibility. Emergency managers appointed by Snyder to implement an austerity program in Flint decided to save money by switching from Detroit’s clean water supply to the Flint River. They did so without understanding the basic need to add anti-corrosive chemicals to the water. Their ignorance was compounded by the lack of response by local and state entities as the crisis unfolded.

Sleuthing by an independent lab at Virginia Tech mobilized the help Flint’s residents needed. Snyder’s appointees are now facing felony charges. Consider the number of similarly tragic decisions that will be a consequence of cutting EPA’s compliance-monitoring activities and delegating this responsibility to inadequately staffed states, counties and cities.

The primary mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is “to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.” If states are unable to provide minimum levels of protection, the EPA steps in and does it for them.

As George Lakoff, a distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics, recently pointed out, by casting these protections as “regulations” and “government overreach,” we, and our elected officials, have been lured into adopting the point-of-view of polluters. From a corporation’s point-of-view, any regulatory oversight is “overreach” because it forces the corporation into internalizing the costs of polluting rather than externalizing those costs and having them covered by the public.

Instead, Lakoff recommends we identify this oversight from the public point-of-view, as protections. Thus, President Trump is proposing 31 percent less protection for the health of the American public and the environment in which we live. Did we vote for 31 percent less protection for our air and our drinking water?

Our quality of life would be substantively worse without these protections.

For example, the acid mine pollution draining into the Animas River for decades is the consequence of mining that was never cleaned up. The Gold King Mine spill was due to a network of interconnected mines left behind by corporations externalizing costs in the form of polluted water allowed to drain into our public waterways. Compounding this problem, local officials resisted the site being declared a Superfund to manage the problem at the large scale, instead of the piecemeal approach that was employed.

Our public lands were seriously overgrazed before they gained the protections enacted by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. Public lands now support wildlife, recreation, and livestock. Our rivers caught fire before we gained the protections provided by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Waterways now provide opportunities for fishing and swimming, as well as industry.

Grand Junction has been cited as the worst mismanagement of mill tailings in the country. During the 1950s and 60s, the Climax Uranium Company gave away 300,000 tons of fine tailings material for use in road and sewer construction and as other building materials, including for foundations of homes. According to John Elmer, a Department of Energy contractor, between 1983 and 1998, 4,266 properties in Grand Junction were remediated. This removed 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated material at a cost to taxpayers of $253 million.

We are fortunate to have people working on our behalf to ensure that we have the first-class protections for our health and our environment that we deserve. These protections allow us to enjoy a quality of life known to few people around the globe. As individuals, families, and communities, we should recognize government oversight activities for the protections they provide, and insist that our elected officials do so as well.

Tamera Minnick, PhD, is a professor in environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University. She is on the advisory council for the Bureau of Land Management’s Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.


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