President Donald Trump considers himself an environmentalist.
He told The New York Times in late November, “Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water, is vitally important.”
Then in a meeting three weeks ago with several auto industry chief executives, he reiterated, “I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist.”
But the president’s actions speak much louder than his words.
In early December, he nominated former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For years, Pruitt has tried to undermine the agency’s regulations on clean water, air pollution, and other issues, even suing the EPA more than a dozen times.
Pruitt has opposed EPA efforts to reduce power plant pollution. He has also tried to block such things as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which limits power plant emissions like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are in soot and smog pollution, which can cause bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.
Trump appears to share Pruitt’s opinion of the EPA and environmental regulations in general.
The president has vowed to cut the EPA budget by as much as $1 billion, which, officials tell Healthline, will likely lead to a national public health crisis.
The EPA, courtesy of Richard Nixon
The EPA, which was established by former President Richard Nixon in 1970, has been largely responsible for reducing human exposure to toxins and making America’s air and water cleaner.
The national demand for a governmental body to address pollution was prompted by two events in 1969.
The first was the oil rig blowout that spilled 100,000 barrels of oil off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.
The second was the raging fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which was filled with toxic, untreated industrial waste.
Both environmental disasters led to the first Earth Day in 1970, when 20 million demonstrators nationwide pushed the nation in a new, more environment-friendly direction.
The EPA has been at the forefront of air and water pollution control ever since.
Former President Barack Obama used the agency, despite a generally unsupportive Congress, to protect the environment and improve public health.
Among other things, Obama set new pollution limits for power plant smokestacks, placed the first ever limit on carbon pollution, preserved 260 million acres by designating 19 national monuments, and, in a move just before his tenure expired, banned oil drilling in large parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
Obama also set standards for fuel efficiency for cars and trucks, signed the largest ever commitment to protect the Gulf Coast, and signed the first major environmental law in two decades to fix the broken chemical safety landscape.
But many Republicans think the EPA has too much power and is a bureaucratic waste of taxpayer money.
Trump’s plan to cut the agency’s budget by $1 billion, along with more expected executive orders and new legislation, will reverse most, if not all, of Obama’s momentum on protections against water and air pollution, toxic waste sites, and a host of other things.
But the cuts, orders, and policies, which Trump says are necessary to generate the country’s business machine, will have a devastating impact on American health, officials tell Healthline.
The environment and our health
David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group, said that environmental issues and health are inextricably linked.
“It has been demonstrated over and over in this country that when we improve environmental quality, we also improve overall public health,” said Helvarg, an author whose books include “The War Against the Greens and the Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”
“Trump’s policies will have a hazardous effect on the health of Americans,” Helvarg told Healthline.
The activist noted that last year, “somewhat miraculously,” a bipartisan environmental bill made its way through both houses of Congress.
The bill, which reformed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), broke a logjam in place for 20-plus years, Helvarg said, in terms of how the EPA evaluates chemicals based on the health risk they pose to the public.
The bill compelled the agency to get back to the job of protecting all Americans against dangerous chemicals, explained Helvarg.
“The EPA was not doing a great job on this,” he said. “Both sides agreed this was in the public interest. It takes an enormous amount of work to do it well, but thanks to the bill this is a new responsibility of EPA.”
But it seems inevitable that the new administration will revisit and possibly reverse this legislation.
In fact, one of Trump’s first acts as president was imposing a freeze on EPA grants and contracts.
According to a ProPublica report, that restriction could affect everything from water quality testing to toxic cleanups.
The new EPA director
When Trump nominated Pruitt to run the EPA, public health advocates and environmentalists were critical.
Pruitt also went after such things as ozone protection and air pollution standards.
Pruitt sued the EPA over the requirement that technology be added on to cut mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.
Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, told Healthline that power plant smokestacks are the largest source of mercury emissions in the country.
“Mercury is one of most potent neurotoxins there is; as it is emitted into the atmosphere, it drifts and deposits on water bodies, and people eating big fish like tuna and swordfish are in danger of mercury ingestion,” Kimmell said.
Approximately 60 percent of coal-burning power plants have adopted the technology to cut these emissions.
“It can be done. Technology exists, but for the 40 percent who have not, there is no reason for it,” said Kimmell.
Another issue that Pruitt went after when he was in Oklahoma is the complicated one of interstate air pollution.
Kimmell explained that pollution goes from state A to state B, and state B doesn’t have much ability to stop this pollution.
“The EPA’s purpose is to have federal regulations to police the problem of interstate air pollution,” he said. “Obama came up with a workable plan to address this problem. Pruitt sued to have it overturned. He was unsuccessful, but it is something he could choose to resurrect.”
The effects in your town
Trump’s EPA cuts are expected to trickle down into private, state, and municipal level entities, which receive some of their funding from the federal agency.
“The important point that many people don’t realize is that a lot of the day-to-day enforcement of our environmental laws that protect our air, water, landfills, etc., are done at the state level, but funded through the federal EPA,” Kimmell said.
The states agree to take on those things, he said, under the theory that they are closer to the ground and have a better understanding of what is going on in their own communities.
“Cuts of this magnitude won’t just take away bureaucrats’ jobs in Washington,” he said. “They will mean major cuts to state enforcement of environmental laws as well.”
As a result, Kimmell said fewer rivers and streams will get tested for such things as fecal bacteria, which can cause such pathogenic diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis, and hepatitis A.
“In this administration, there will be far less protection of America’s rivers and streams that are used for swimming and fishing, and that puts us all at greater health risk,” he said.
This administration’s actions will also lead to dirtier air, he added.
“There will be less ability to enforce the laws that put caps on pollutants that come out of smoke stacks, for example,” he said. “Fewer hazardous waste sites will be cleaned up, and more toxins will get into our water supplies.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Kimmell said, “You will see a reversal of 50 years of progress we’ve made in providing clean air and water and providing a healthy environment, even while we have grown the economy.”
The changes have already begun
Last week, House Republicans voted to dismiss a rule that prohibits the dumping of toxic coal mining debris into streams.
As Time magazine reported, Rep. Bill Johnson, the Ohio Republican who sponsored the dismissal, said the Obama administration rule was not designed to protect streams but was “an effort to regulate the coal mining industry right out of business.”
But Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, strongly disagreed.
He told Time that repealing the stream protection rule would “sicken and kill the very people Donald Trump falsely promised to help,” including coal miners in West Virginia and other states.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, reportedly displayed a bottle of brownish water he said came from a constituent's well near a surface coal mine.
He challenged legislators to drink from it and said the stream rule was one of the only safety measures protecting people living in coal country.
Republicans in Congress later said that ending this rule was just the beginning of what will be many actions that reverse eight years of Obama’s regulations that they insist are excessive.
Is regulation getting a bum rap?
Kimmell said that the Trump administration is doing its best to tarnish the word “regulation.”
“Regulation is just a synonym for protections that all of us enjoy. It’s about government setting clear rules and enforcing those rules, and not allowing a corporation to get away with putting us all at risk,” Kimmell said.
He acknowledges there is a cost to having those rules in place, but says, “There is also tremendous benefit. If you don’t agree, go visit New Delhi or Beijing and try to take a jog around those cities.”
Trump has stated repeatedly that environmental regulations are bad for business and that renewables are a “bad investment.”
However, the findings of a major study published by the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) Climate Corps program dispute that.
It shows that the solar and wind industries are each creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.
EDF is one of the world’s largest environmental nonprofit organizations with more than 2 million members and a staff of more than 500 scientists, economists, policy experts, and other professionals around the world.
In its report, the organization concluded that solar and wind jobs have grown at rates of about 20 percent annually in recent years and collectively represent at least 4 million jobs in the United States, up from 3.4 million in 2011.
The renewable energy boom has been driven in part by state and local building efficiency policies and incentives and was supported by Obama.
Liz Delaney, program director at EDF Climate Corps, told Business Insider that Trump's current approach “is basically ignoring an entire industry that has grown up over the last 10 years or so and is quite robust.”
Kimmell said the irony of this is that while Trump touts himself as a job creator above all else, many of his anti-environment policies will be job killers.
“The U.S. can afford to have a growing economy and have clean air and water,” he said. “That choice is presented to us over and over, and it is a false choice.”
Kimmell said Congress for a long time has been “aching” to roll back these regulations.
“The only thing stopping them was President Obama, who vetoed those efforts,” he said. “We now have a Congress partial to industry and a president believing that regulations are bad for the economy. That will result in a lot of serious public health consequences.”
Minority health at particular risk?
The health of minorities living in America’s inner cities could be especially threatened by Trump’s cuts and orders, a number of officials told Healthline.
José Calderon, executive director of the Hispanic Federation, wrote in an opinion piece published in The Hill last week that the “EPA’s mission of protecting our health, including promoting clean air and clean water, is particularly important for Hispanic Americans, as many of us are at heightened risk from pollution and degradation because of where we live and work.”
In 2017, he added, 24 million Latinos lived in the country’s top 15 cities for smog pollution, and Latinos are also “overrepresented in outdoor jobs in industries like construction and agriculture, which place us on the front lines of air pollution and extreme weather.”
Calderon concluded that, like all Americans, Latinos care about their health and the health of our communities.
“We expect the administrator of EPA to also care about us, and to align with these values.” he wrote. “Scott Pruitt, however, has built his professional career suing EPA to block or rollback measures that protect Americans from harmful pollution and its negative health effects.”
Other impacts on public health
There are other decisions President Trump is likely to make that will affect America’s health, including the impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the possible privatization of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There are also new fears that Trump could try “to open up additional areas off the coast to oil drilling.”
Californians will fight any such effort.
California State Lands Commissioner Betty Yee announced last week she is opposing Venoco Oil’s application to expand its lease in California waters off the coast of the University of California Santa Barbara, which would be the first new or expanded lease in state waters since the 1969 spill in Santa Barbara.
“Oil drilling must not be expanded,” Yee said in a statement. “The Santa Barbara Channel is a world-renowned habitat that hosts vast terrestrial and marine diversity that deserves protection from the adverse environmental impacts of further oil drilling.”
The fight between California’s environmental interests and Trump’s energy policy will be one to watch.
Helvarg said citizens not just in Santa Barbara but from coast to coast are preparing to resist many of this administration’s actions.
“No one wants dirty air or dirty water,” Helvarg said. “Look at California, the sixth largest economy in the world. Gov. Jerry Brown has said they will stand for climate change and for the environment. There is already widespread resistance to Trump’s extreme agenda.”
Officials at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and at the White House declined requests to be interviewed for this story.