Every President and every Congress in my lifetime has tried to improve our physical environment: make it cleaner, better-smelling, and less likely to make people sick and die. After nearly a century of industrial poisoning of our air, waters, and land, accomplished with a heedless disregard for long-term consequences, Americans realized what we had lost and the need to get it back. At every stage, industrial polluters fought new regulations, slowing down but never stopping the gradual clean-up of the environment and the increasing protection of our natural resources. Republicans as a Party may have been less enthusiastic about this work than Democrats, but the concern for environmental and human health was bipartisan.
The election of Donald Trump appears to have suddenly reversed decades of progress, but the reversal began earlier within the ranks of Republican elected officials. As soon as they controlled the key federal agencies in early 2017, a new 21st-century Republican policy has taken over, attacking environmental protection instead of environmental polluters.
Trump’s single-minded reduction of environmental protections also explains his seemingly confused coronavirus policies, and the larger ideology of the elected Republican Party, which stands, or perhaps hides, behind him.
The New York Times has again done the world a service by collecting every environmental regulation that the Trump administration is reversing. Environmental regulations, which consider a future decades away, may seem less important in this time of immediate existential crisis. I think Trump’s single-minded reduction of environmental protections also explains his seemingly confused coronavirus policies, and the larger ideology of the elected Republican Party, which stands, or perhaps hides, behind him.
The Times article is not a story, but a list, an accounting of every intervention the Trump administration has made and is trying to make on the environment. There is a link to a story on each of 98 separate efforts to reverse direction. Those stories begin repeatedly with words like “Revoked”, “Withdrew”, “Replaced”, “Cancelled”, “Weakened”. The new rules fall into basic categories: air pollution and emissions; drilling and extraction; infrastructure and planning; animals; toxic substances and safety; and water pollution. It’s an encyclopedia of disdain for human life.
The deep motivations of contemporary Republicanism can be found in three exemplary efforts by the Trump White House, with full support by Republicans in Congress.
The agency most vigilant about threats to the health of American workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, alerted by doctors and scientists across the world, long ago recognized a novel workplace danger. Since the 1990s, the popular trend toward using manufactured stone for countertops greatly increased the number of American workers who inhaled silica dust on the job. More and more of the men who do the cutting and polishing, often Hispanic men, had developed silicosis. OSHA had been created by the Democratic Congress in 1970 and singed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon. Within months, OSHA issued a rule limiting the permissible amount of silica dust in the air at workplaces. Because the dangers have recently increased, OSHA issued a “warning” in 2015 about the dangers of silica dust and a new rule in 2016, reducing by half the permissible levels of dust in the air at workplaces. The Trump administration cancelled this special emphasis on silica dust, ending the ability of OSHA to inspect countertop fabrication plants.
Congress had been concerned about reducing deadly chemical accidents since 1990, and established a new Chemical Safety Board to oversee the industry. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was also created by President Nixon in 1970. It first promulgated regulations to prevent industrial chemical accidents in 1996. In 2013, the whole country heard of the explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, that killed twelve first responders and two members of the public, and injured 180 workers. As one of its final acts under President Obama, the EPA mandated less risky practices at chemical factories, to go into effect in March 2017. The new Trump EPA immediately delayed the new “Chemical Disaster Rule” so they could reconsider it, and many states sued the EPA. In court, Trump’s EPA cited costs as justification, “the rule’s substantial compliance and implementation resource burden”. But the US Court of Appeals ruled decisively against further delay. In its 2018 opinion, the Court wrote about the history of environmental protection as a “cooperative effort by federal, state, and local governments” to “protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare.” The justices ruled that the EPA delay was “arbitrary and capricious”, “makes a mockery of the statute”, and “has delayed life-saving protections.” Taking another tack, Trump’s EPA wrote a revised rule in 2019 that rolled back most of the new requirements of the 2017 rule.
The crisis of lead in the water pipes in Flint, Michigan, shocked the nation and may have damaged a generation of children there. The rule about removing lead from water pipes had been written in 1991, requiring that a water system that exceeds maximum allowable lead levels must replace 7% of its faulty pipes every year until the level is reached. The Trump EPA has proposed a new rule reducing the repair to 3% per year, greatly extending the time that ordinary citizens would be exposed to unsafe lead levels.
I had to dive deeply into a chain of internet sources to put together those brief summaries of actions by Republicans in our government. They typify the other 95 narratives: quick reversals of decades of life-saving regulations after Trump took office, led by industry representatives, who had long been arguing about rolling back regulation, that he then put in charge of environmental positions in his administration.
In each case, the long history of bipartisan agreement about promoting the health and safety of Americans is being repudiated. Instead, the relative weights of saving lives and the “substantial compliance and implementation resource burden” have been shifted. Industrial finances now trump human life, a decision perhaps made easier by the disproportionate burden that industrial poisons put on the poor and the non-white.
The news these days about Trump, Republicans in Congress, and many Republican governors hastening to restart the economy before the most basic protections against spread of the coronavirus are in place is simply a continuation of this calculation. A week ago, Trump explained the Republican balancing act: “Will some people be affected, yes, will some people be affected badly, yes, but we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The Party that preaches “right to life” has fully embraced an ideology that puts economic considerations in front of the lives of Americans. Our lives have been systematically devalued since 2017. I have not seen all of Trump’s televised briefings, but I have seen many and read about others. Completely missing is any sign of sympathy for those who have died, are dying, and will die. Today the official number of deaths is over 83,000, and the Party of Death is in charge.
Taking Back Our Lives