Earth Matters: Undoing the damage

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Earth Matters: Undoing the damage

Jennifer Wilston-Pines

Over the past four years the Trump administration has systematically undermined, overturned and weakened environmental regulations. The incoming Biden administration has a huge job in front of them to undo the damage and return decades of protections for clean air and water, health, wild lands, and birds and wildlife.

Laws protecting the environment and our health are not recent or frivolous. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were based on laws enacted in the 1940s and ’50s and amended in 1970 and 1972. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty dates to 1918. Over many decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have enforced and strengthened these rules until the Trump era.

An article in the New York Times, entitled “The Trump Administration Is Reversing More Than 100 Environmental Rules”, detailed over 100 actions by the Trump administration that were largely promoted by the regulated businesses to allow them to operate without having to be concerned with damage to air, water and health.

The argument that industry will self-regulate is completely laughable in the face of this assault on regulations. Another four years would have inevitably led to another Love Canal.

In the first week of January 2021, in final acts of environmental outrage, the Trump administration gutted protections for birds under the Federal Migratory Bird Act. The regulation change now shields companies from liability for killing birds unintentionally in oil spills, toxic waste ponds and other environmental disasters. This regulation has previously allowed huge fines to cover cleanups for disasters like Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon.

A second regulation change would prevent the EPA from considering certain kinds of studies when crafting policy. The targets are related health studies, as this policy concept was originally crafted by the tobacco industry. The Trump administration has already used this concept to reject a finding that the pesticide chlorpyrifos causes health problems.

One last swipe that failed was an auction on leases for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Every major bank stated they would not fund any loans and the auction only drew three bidders and 14 million vs. the 1.8 billion projected by the Department of Interior. Drilling was approved by Congress in 2017 to offset loss of revenues from the Trump tax cuts, but that has failed. It is expected that the leases will be bought back, and permeant protection of the Refuge be put in place under the Biden administration.

These changes have not been made without a fight. Currently coalitions of wildlife groups have filed suit to stop the delisting of the Gray Wolf from the Endangered Species act. With a total number of roughly 6000 individuals, scientists do not consider that sufficient for a stable or growing population. Delisting would also allow for hunting.

Some of the changes can only be described as gratuitously petty and mean spirited, like removing a rule that barred using bait like grease-soaked doughnuts to lure and kill grizzly bears on public lands in Alaska.

Or creating damage far beyond the original action, like overturning a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands. The lead not only contaminates the environment but also the animals that are shot, leading to increased lead levels in the hunters and their families.

Lead shot creates by-catch of scavengers and predators that feed on animals that were wounded, or on the shot, mistaking it for food. Over 100 species of birds are recorded as having been killed by ingesting lead shot.

The administration not only withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord but promulgated 27 changes to regulations that have resulted in increased greenhouse gas emissions and allowed the increased output of damaging chemicals like mercury and methane from power plants.

It is expected that the incoming Biden administration will tackle the changes with the worst impact on climate change first. The most egregious are rollbacks on clean cars, clean power, climate super-pollutants, methane leaks from oil and gas operations and gas from landfills.

The combined impact of those changes is projected to result in at least an additional 1.8 billion to 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2035, if not reversed.

But reversing regulation requires the same review process as putting them in place, often a multi-year process. There is some good news. Because of the outcome of the Georgia senatorial elections, a shorter process called the Congressional Review Act will enable the Democratic-controlled House and Senate to directly repeal the most recent Trump-era regulations. It is also expected that the current lawsuits against the government opposing changes will not be defended.

There is a long way to go in undoing the damage wrought in the last four years, but with the support of Congress, the Biden administration may move swiftly enough to reverse some of the negative impacts before they permanently impact our health and the environment. Please call or write your Senators and Congresspeople to urge them to work quickly to undo the damage.

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