At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the White House is pursuing a massive rollback of our nation’s environmental protections. Given everything going on in the world today, many people probably don’t realize that the most critical — and most egregious — of these rollbacks has been finalized just in the last three months.
To put it bluntly, while our country wrestles with a devastating disease outbreak, a debilitating economic crisis, and an outpouring of anger and grief over racial injustice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies have quietly burned the midnight oil to complete a march of policies certain to worsen our health, damage our environment and leave a toxic legacy for our children.
What’s worse is that underserved and overburdened communities will pay the greatest price for these reckless actions, including the Black community and other people of color — just as they have with the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the director of the Washington Department of Ecology, I don’t say this lightly. My agency needs the partnership of federal agencies to do its job. We continue to do what we can, but the administration’s repeated moves to freeze states out of crucial decisions has made it virtually impossible.
Some of these rollbacks are well-known, such as sweeping rollbacks of vehicle emission standards and massive increases in the air pollution allowed from coal power plants. The rollbacks of less-familiar protections are, if anything, even more egregious. This includes a vast abdication of federal oversight over wetlands and a direct attack on states’ ability to protect our own waters.
The latest provocation is President Donald Trump’s executive order earlier this month directing federal agencies to skirt environmental reviews for major projects, using the economic crisis as a pretext to rush through controversial projects without the opportunity for public input or a chance to understand the impacts.
This move seeks to undermine the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act. Oil and gas pipelines, power plants, highways and more could get federal approval without fully vetting the environmental impacts of these massive projects or hearing from states, local communities and the people who will be ultimately affected by these decisions.
Who pays the price? Often, communities of color and people living in underprivileged neighborhoods. These populations are disproportionately burdened by air and water pollution, and by exposures to toxics in their communities and at their jobs.
In Washington, Native American and immigrant communities who depend heavily on locally caught fish are far more exposed to toxic chemicals because the fish are contaminated from polluted waters.
More than 1,000 Washingtonians die each year from outdoor air pollution. Studies show that diesel and industrial emissions exact a disproportionate toll on communities like South Seattle, and have been linked to higher cancer risk, asthma and other health concerns. And several national studies have linked increased air pollution exposure to worse outcomes for people who have contracted COVID-19.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to the scientists and researchers at my agency: We’ve warned for decades about the risks that wildfire smoke, diesel particulates, ozone and other airborne pollution pose. Even once the current health crisis ebbs, those risks remain and will continue to exact an unacceptable toll in compromised health, shortened lives and stolen futures.
The full impacts of these destructive policies and diminished protections will be felt soon. The rule reducing federal protections for wetlands, for example, will take effect on June 22, although a federal court is weighing a challenge from Washington and 16 other states to block the regulation.
If the judge allows the rule to stand, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA will abruptly end their oversight of thousands of acres of Washington wetlands that provide critical habitat for wildlife and migrating birds; protect water quality for salmon; and reduce flooding and erosion. How can the Environmental Protection Agency defend a rule that completely undermines environmental protection for these critical water bodies?
Likewise, the administration has gutted tailpipe standards for cars and trucks, putting dirtier cars on the road, fouling our air and accelerating climate change. Even car manufacturers recognized that this is shortsighted, and many have pledged to work with states to continue pursuing cleaner vehicles.
That sort of forward thinking is nowhere to be found in today’s federal administration, and we in Washington state will pay an especially high price for policies that prioritize dirty, quick and cheap action over public health and environmental protection. Our salmon are at risk from higher water temperatures, and our orca are at risk from fewer salmon. Our coastlines are at ever greater risk from rising seas. And the snowpack our cities and farms depend on is shrinking.
While there is year-to-year variability, the World Meteorological Organization uses 30-year periods to define climate trends. Average winter temperatures have risen 2 degrees in the past century, and a 2018 study looking at more than 1,700 snow monitoring sites across the West found that 90% show declines, with a total drop of 15 to 30% since the mid-20th century.
The good news, if there is any in all of this, is that the same quick and dirty approach that drove these environmental rollbacks also crept into the federal regulatory process. That means the rules are filled with scientific mistakes and legal errors that may help overturn and block them.
When Congress wrote the Clean Air Act in 1971 and the Clean Water Act in 1972, they couldn’t anticipate all the ways that an administration in 2020 might twist the plain language of the law with bad faith and phony justifications. Since Congress wrote those laws, Congress should hold the administration to account.
But since Congress hasn’t acted yet, we have. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed 35 lawsuits challenging damaging environmental policies from the administration, including challenges to the rollback of motor vehicle emission standards and wetlands protections. The Department of Ecology fully supports and is lending its scientific expertise to these legal efforts.
We also implement and enforce Washington’s strong state laws that protect our land, water and air. We regularly meet with communities, tribes, local governments and stakeholders to learn how we can better accomplish our environmental objectives. We commit to making decisions that do not place disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and we seek to lift the weight of pollution and contamination borne by those communities today.
If we are to prevail and to protect the clean air and clean water that is our birthright here in Washington, we must redouble our efforts to fight for good science, strong laws and a better future for Washingtonians. Our communities deserve no less.