Former environmental chiefs blast EPA's retreat under Trump

Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Christine Todd Whitman

Under President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency is abandoning its core mission to protect the air, water and human health, former leaders of the agency told Congress Tuesday.

“Under the current administration, the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” said Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who led the agency under former President George W. Bush.

Whitman was testifying before a House panel alongside three other former EPA administrators – only one of whom is a Democrat – on Tuesday, as the agency moves to ease rules governing emissions from oil wells, automobiles and power plants.

“Agency leadership has been on a seemingly unstoppable crusade to roll back rules with seemingly little regard to the health impacts of their rollbacks,” Gina McCarthy, a Democrat who led the EPA under former President Barack Obama, said in her submitted testimony. “EPA is going backward on health protections in favor of lowering costs to polluting industries at every turn.”

“Right now, this administration is trying to systematically undo health protections” by running roughshod over the law and ignoring science, McCarthy said. “It feels like the fox is minding the henhouse.”

Representatives of the EPA did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. But the current EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has repeatedly emphasized U.S. progress in fighting air and water pollution, with reductions outpacing other countries and coming alongside nationwide economic growth.

Still the agency’s former officials have increasingly been sounding alarm about its current direction under Trump. Seven former administrators set a letter to House lawmakers in April offering to guide congressional oversight of the agency because “time is of the essence and much is at stake.”

The former EPA chiefs testifying Tuesday shared similar worries: eroding morale, resignations of skilled career staff and moves to shrink the role of science in agency decisions, despite growing alarm about climate change.

Whitman castigated the Trump administration for “a steady march” to reduce – and in some cases eliminate – the role of science in developing environmental policy, by seeking to limit what studies guide agency decisions, dismissing some scientists from a key advisory panel and putting strict constraints on a national climate assessment.

The former administrators also underscored that environmental protection historically hasn’t been a partisan issue. The EPA itself was founded by a Republican: former President Richard Nixon, who created it with an executive order in 1970. And, former President George H.W. Bush, also a Republican, championed congressional action to strengthen the Clean Air Act in 1990.

Now, the agency is rewriting rules enacted under Obama, in keeping with Trump’s pledge to rescind regulations he has described as throttling the American economy. But the EPA’s “appetite for rollbacks has been so voracious,” McCarthy said, that in some cases “EPA leadership has shown a total disregard to the concerns of the affected regulated industries” that are counseling against the reversals.

For instance, some electric utilities have pleaded with the EPA not to erode mandates for mercury pollution controls on power plants. And automakers have implored Trump to broker a compromise with California on auto emission requirements.

Congressional oversight is essential, said William Reilly, who led the EPA from 1989 to 1993. “There has never been a time it was more urgently needed.”