Editor’s Note: Starting today, longtime author and environmentalist Larry J. Schweiger will write a weekly environmental column for the Pittsburgh Current. After today’s installment, the column can be found each Tuesday.
By Larry J Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump claimed, “I am an environmentalist. I want clean air, I want clean water, and I want safety.” In another campaign speech, Trump claimed: “We want crystal clear and clean water and beautifully clean air.”
Trump lied to voters. The recently announced “dirty water rule” ordered by Trump’s executive order directed the hasty repeal of the carefully crafted 2015 rule that was informed by an extensive peer-reviewed scientific report and positively reviewed by the independent Science Advisory Board. The original rule received 1.1 million comments, with more than 80% of those being supportive. Obama’s EPA also listened to more than 400 stakeholders, and this rule was consistent with the Supreme Court’s two separate decisions about the waters covered under the Clean Water Act.
This pending radical rule change ignores the long-held precept that drinking water should originate from protected high-quality sources. The evisceration of the clean water rules will eliminate Federal protections on many intermittent waterways and critical wetlands that are nature’s filtration systems. Half of the Nation’s wetlands have already been drained. Remaining wetlands are crucial to ecosystem health in the face of the big storms of the climate crisis since they hold back and filter contaminated runoff and replenish groundwater supplies. According to Jan Goldman-Carter who was an instrumental advocate in the development of the 2015 Rule, “somewhere between 20-70% of the tributary system, 50% wetlands, and impacting drinking water supplies of tens of millions of people in the US. It is the most significant rollback of jurisdiction in the history of the act.”
Just as we would be outraged to discover that our milk came from diseased cows kept in filthy concentrated animal feeding operations even if the milk gets pasteurized, every American should be outraged by this dangerous decision removing protections from critical waters. Even the EPA conservatively estimated that more than 16,000 permitted discharges will now be outside of federal jurisdiction. Our drinking water may be filtered and chlorinated. Still, they may not be safe since the destruction of viruses is uncertain, and myriad carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic chemicals can easily pass through conventional water treatment processes. We must keep clean headwaters clean.
While promising to drain the swamp, Trump stacked vital environmental and natural resource agencies with the worst assemblage of actors in history who have gone about plundering resources, and wheeling and dealing with polluters. Early in the Trump presidency, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) disclosed President Trump’s dark agenda in his cabinet picks. Bannon made clear that the appointments were aimed at “deconstruction of the administrative state…” Trump’s first EPA Administrator was Scott Pruitt, who was canned when his many personal scandals hit the tipping point. Replacing Pruitt as administrator was Andrew Wheeler-a low-key revolving door lobbyist for coal, chemical, and the uranium mining firms that pushed for the gutting of Bears Ears National Monument.
Politicians in the back pocket of polluters have long misled farmers that EPA was coming after them to regulate their mud puddles and drainage ditches. Senator Ted Cruz for example while running for President claimed in a March 29 CNN town hall in Milwaukee suggested, “the Waters of the United States Rule (is) where the EPA has tried to define a puddle or a drainage ditch on your farm to be navigable waters and thus subject to massive environmental regulations.” Later at an Iowa farm event, Trump promised farmers that he would “eliminate regulations like the waters of the United States rule, which is a disaster.”
Trump’s EPA has been cluster-bombing vital environmental protections. The agency has already gutted 45 regulations and in the process of eliminating many more. It was telling that Administrator Wheeler and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James signed the so-called dirty water proposed rule not before the Farm Bureau but at the National Association of Manufacturers headquarters. The many perverse efforts by the Trump administration to undercut environmental protections are going largely unreported and mostly unchallenged in the media that is overwhelmed, covering Trump’s troubling daily lies and outrageous activities.
The 1972 Clean Water Act would not exist without unprecedented and widespread public demands. Things got very bad in waterways across America before the public finally woke up to the consequences of environmental degradation. At the time, Pennsylvania had more than 10,000 miles of rivers and streams heavily damaged by acid mine drainage, untreated sewage, and industrial wastes. In Pittsburgh, the Monongahela River was a dead river polluted with cyanide-laden pickle liquors from the steel mills. At the same time, the Allegheny River ran with blood from the slaughterhouses on Herr’s Island. Efforts by many clean water activists finally paid off when Congress, after more than twenty years of halfhearted measures and empty promises, finally passed a powerful clean water act.
Contrary to urban legends, President Nixon did not sign the Clean Water Act. He vetoed it because he thought it reached too far and because it authorized $18 billion in federal assistance to clean up sewage treatment plants. With a strong push back from concerned Americans, Congress finally mustered enough votes to override the President’s veto and passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972. The Clean Water Act became law without Nixon’s signature. Nixon responded to this defeat by “impounding” the Congressionally appropriated funds for sewage treatment construction.
In response to Nixon’s executive overreach refusing to release Congressionally appropriated funds, Congress responded by enacting the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. This law reasserted the Constitutional authority that Congress has the sole power of the purse. Specifically, Title X of the Act established procedures to prevent the President from unilaterally substituting their own funding decisions for those of Congress. (The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 is once again in the news as on January 16, 2020, the General Accounting Office determined that Trump violated the law when he obstructed the GAO’s efforts to investigate the matter and he violated the 1974 impoundment act when he withheld the funds that Congress appropriated for Ukraine.) No President should put their personal interests over the public trust, whether acting to undermine our elections or our access to clean water.
Pittsburgh’s rivers have rebounded since 1972 but are certainly not pristine. The headwaters and wetlands need continued protection and Federal oversight against widespread damage caused by numerous waste discharges, fracking and pipeline activities. West Virginia, where Monongahela has its origin, has no specific laws requiring permits for an activity that may affect wetlands. Absent Federal oversight, West Virginia does not have adequate protections for wetlands. As we watch Trump erode safeguards, many do not appreciate what a fragile thing clean water is nor do we realize how many special interests are out to erode protections. At the time of this writing, half of America’s rivers and streams are still degraded and considered impaired. We must not let the Clean Water Act be gutted by wrong-headed rule making.
Author and Environmentalist Larry J. Schweiger is the former President & CEO of PennFuture, former President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation for a decade, past President and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Conservation Leadership. His latest book is The Climate Crisis and Corrupt Politics: Overcoming the Powerful Forces that Threaten our Future.