May 19, 2020
As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of having healthy air to breathe and clean water to drink and wash our hands. Yet in recent weeks the Trump administration has rolled back protections for clean air and water, right when we need them the most. In just the last several weeks – as thousands of Americans fight against a deadly respiratory virus – the Trump administration:
- Adopted a broad-brush, retroactive nationwide policy that significantly curtails enforcement of our nation’s bedrock environmental and public health laws and failed to consider the policy’s impact on public health, especially the health of low income and minority communities that are greater risk of suffering adverse outcomes from COVID-19.
- In a proposed action, decided not to tighten regulation of fine particulate matter (PM5), despite EPA analysis concluding that current PM2.5 standards lead to nearly 45,000 premature deaths each year, and despite an established link between exposure to PM2.5 and increases in deaths from COVID-19.
- Proposed a rule to gut federal clean car standards by reducing fuel economy increases to only 1.5% a year, a marked relaxation from the 5% annual increase previously required under the Obama administration and agreed to by automakers. Rolling back clean car standards will lead to more air pollution that contributes to climate change and harms our health.
- Finalized a new rule that significantly weakens federal rules protecting rivers and streams, threatening thousands of miles of waterways and millions of acres of wetlands across the West and left states without the resources and regulatory structures to protect their waters.
- Released another in a series of proposals in March that would eviscerate regulations that protect public health and the environment from the disposal of coal ash, the toxic-laden waste from coal-fired power plants. The most recent plan would allow operators to continue to dump millions of tons of coal ash in unlined, leaking pits — including pits that operators are currently obligated to close because of leaking, instability or dangerous siting. This proposal would undo protections designed to prevent harmful toxins such as arsenic, lead, and mercury from contaminating groundwater and flowing into wetlands, rivers, and streams.
These careless rollbacks threaten the health and safety of communities across the West
The Trump administration non-enforcement policy threatens public health
In March, EPA issued a non-enforcement policy that invites regulated industries to cease monitoring and reporting their emissions of pollution. Under the sweeping, open-ended policy, the EPA states that it will forgo enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws whenever polluters claim that adhering to the law is not “practicable” due to the pandemic. The EPA states further that it may waive enforcement even where a polluter’s failure to comply presents an imminent threat to public health or the environment. In the vast majority of cases, there is no requirement that the public be informed when industry invokes this non-enforcement policy, thereby failing to alert community members when their health and environment may be at risk. Thus, the EPA has improperly abdicated its authority at the very time that the federal agency should be working with states to protect minority and other communities from the ongoing pollution exposure that increases their likelihood of suffering serious health impacts, including death, from COVID-19.
It’s now the responsibility of Western states to continue monitoring and enforcement efforts instead of relying on a partnership with the EPA. A burden is also now placed on the public and community members living and working close to polluting facilities. Citizens need to be aware of the EPA’s non-enforcement policy and urge their state and local leaders to continue to monitor pollution levels. In the midst of this pandemic, it is of critical importance to inform the public when a nearby polluting facility is failing to take steps necessary to protect the health of communities.
Air pollution harms our health
For decades, research has proven that bad air is bad for our health. More recently, researchers at Harvard University found that places with even slightly higher levels of PM2.5 have higher COVID-19 death rates, compared with less polluted areas. Even without considering the added impacts of the virus, communities with higher concentrations of PM2.5 are already at risk for premature death, heart attacks, strokes, respiratory issues, and other adverse impacts caused by the pollutant. Despite this, the Trump administration proposed keeping the federal annual standard for PM2.5 pollution at 12 µg/m3.
According to the EPA’s own research, the current standard fails to prevent 45,000 premature deaths annually attributable to chronic exposure to PM2.5. If the administration lowered the standard to 9 µg/m3, more than 12,000 lives per year nationwide would be saved.
Cities and towns across the West already face dangerous levels of PM2.5. 2018 and 2019 air quality monitoring data submitted to EPA by the states show that annual levels of PM2.5 in counties including Adams, Weld, and Denver counties in Colorado, and Maricopa and Pinal counties in Arizona are above 9 µg/m3, so higher than the level that the EPA says is necessary to save more lives.
Importantly, monitoring data also show where there are PM2.5 monitoring stations and where there are not monitoring stations, and where there is insufficient monitoring data collected to determine PM2.5 levels in a particular location. In the absence of monitoring stations or adequate data in areas where there may be substantial sources of air pollution, there can be no assurance that concentrations of PM2.5 are low enough to protect public health.
Fewer fuel-efficient cars on the roads means more climate and harmful air pollution
Cars and trucks are a significant source of air pollution, including gases that form PM2.5 and ozone. Concentrations of these pollutants are often higher around busy highways where they can disproportionately impact low-income communities. In addition, cars and trucks emit more than 25% of the total greenhouse gases generated in the U.S.
To reduce air pollution, protect communities near highways, and reduce climate impacts, it is critical that we shift to low- and zero-emission vehicles across the West. Doing so would improve our air quality, help address climate change and protect our health, while saving consumers money. Yet, the Trump administration recently issued a rule that significantly weakens fuel-economy standards set by the Obama administration and agreed to by car makers. This recent move follows efforts by the administration to block states from setting stronger vehicle emissions standards.
Decreasing federal fuel efficiency standards and preventing states from pursuing policies that promote low- and zero-emission vehicle adoption will lead to more emissions and more harmful air pollution, that damage our lungs, cause heart attacks and strokes, lead to premature death, and increase susceptibility to COVID-19. It also puts disadvantaged communities’ health at greater risk because low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be located near busy highways.
Clean water is essential for our communities
Just as COVID-19 has shown the importance of clean air, the pandemic also has demonstrated that communities need access to clean and safe water. This, too, has recently come under attack by the Trump administration.
In April, the EPA released a final rule limiting the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act. The new definition, released by the administration just before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, disregards science and significantly weakens protections for thousands of miles of waterways and millions of acres of wetlands across the West.
This decision hits the arid West particularly hard because it dramatically narrows which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. The rule ends protections for rivers and streams that flow after rain or as snow melts. In the West, huge areas are drained by these “ephemeral” streams, which are tributaries to rivers and lakes that provide drinking water and irrigation for millions of people across the region.
If ephemeral or intermittent streams are polluted because they are no longer protected, that pollution can and will flow downstream, contaminating other bodies of water. This could have an outsized impact across the West. For example, at least one significant study estimated that 81% of waterways in the Southwest flow seasonally. In Arizona, it is as high as 94%. In Colorado and Utah alone, the EPA estimates that over 5 million people receive drinking water from public systems that rely at least in part on intermittent, ephemeral, or headwater streams.
Further, wetlands that will no longer be covered by the Clean Water Act are vital to protect and improve water quality, prevent erosion, help reduce flooding, and provide essential wildlife and fish habitat.
The EPA’s new WOTUS definition threatens people, communities, and fish and wildlife across our region, and is out of step with the goals of the Clean Water Act to keep our country’s waters clean and protect our nation’s vanishing wetlands. Additionally, the new rule places the burden of protecting these waters exclusively on the states without providing them with the resources and the time to develop programs to do so.
Additionally, in March, the EPA proposed rules that would reverse essential restrictions on coal ash disposal by allowing operators to continue dumping of millions of tons of coal ash into pits that fail to contain this toxic material, including unlined and unstable disposal pits located in unsafe places, loosening the requirements for liners that cover the base of coal ash pits and prevent dangerous chemicals from leaking into local groundwater and, potentially, entire river systems.
Coal ash contains the byproducts of burning coal, including a host of hazardous and radioactive substances that, if not adequately controlled, leach into groundwater and nearby lakes, rivers and streams. Coal ash piles and pits also emit windblown dust that contains tiny toxic particles. This pollution of the air, water, and soil by coal ash is associated with serious health impacts such as cancer, respiratory illnesses, neurological impairments, developmental and reproductive issues, blood disease, liver disease, and thyroid damage. Water contamination has also caused massive fish kills and harmed aquatic life in U.S. waters. If coal ash pits and ponds are not properly lined and controlled, the chemicals found in the coal ash percolate through the soil and into the groundwater. The current rule, implemented in 2015, prevents about 1.4 billion pounds of coal ash from leaking into waterways every year.
Action by Western leaders is more essential than ever before
Western state and community leaders are currently demonstrating tremendous leadership and juggling many competing priorities. Protecting Westerners’ health and well-being in the face of the federal rollback of regulations will require additional leadership and resources from the states. In addition to working to keep current federal environmental rules in place, WRA is focusing our attention on the actions that states can take to protect air and water quality and decrease climate impacts because we know that given the current reality, states are often leading the way in protecting public health and the environment and in building more resilient systems and communities.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be fighting against these rollbacks and others, and finding solutions to other environmental challenges facing the West. We hope you’ll join us in this fight