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  March 8, 2017

Trump's EPA Cuts Would Gut Programs for Hazardous Waste Cleanup

The administration's attacks on environmental regulation will expose low-income communities of color to greater levels of pollution, says Environmental Integrity Project Executive Director Eric Schaeffer
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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I'm Kim Brown.

As many predicted, the line between big oil and the federal government appears to be blurring further, as the White House press release appears to have quoted paragraphs from Exxon's press release verbatim, without crediting the source, as pointed out by both CNN and Washington Post reporters. This is one of the concerns of installing Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil as Secretary of State, and friend and ally of oil and gas companies, former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Let's take a look at a clip of Scott Pruitt, who has been the controversial new head of the EPA, in his first speech to EPA employees, just a couple of weeks ago, laying out his new plan.

SCOTT PRUITT: Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate. Those that we regulate ought to know what's expected of them, so that they can plan, and allocate resources to comply.

I believe that we, as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy in jobs, and pro-environment, that we don't have to choose between the two.

KIM BROWN: Also on the agenda, is a Trump administration's proposal to slash $2 billion, or a quarter of the U.S. EPA's operating budget, as part of an intent to reverse the former president Barack Obama's climate change initiative. And Trump's broader proposal to fund increased military spending by $54 billion. But, what could the effects on the ground be, as Americans across the country?

To discuss these issues, we are joined by Eric Schaeffer. Eric, who has served as the Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, since he co-founded the organization in 2002. Previously Eric served as the Director of the EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement, from 1997 to 2002, where he received a Presidential Rank Award, as well as the John Marshall Award from the Justice Department, for his leadership in negotiating an industry-wide clean up of petroleum refineries.

Eric's career at the EPA began in 1990, and included an appointment as Special Assistant to the Deputy Administrator. Prior to his service at the EPA, Eric worked as an environmental attorney for two and half years, at Morgan and Lewis and Bockius -- you can help me out with that, Eric -- and spent six years on Capital Hill, working for various members of congress.

Eric received his law degree from Georgetown University, and his bachelor of arts from Vanderbilt University. So, you're pretty well educated there, Eric. We appreciate your joining us here on The Real News.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: So, Eric, Trump has said that he would cut 24% of the EPA's budget, to help offset his wanting to increase the budget for military spending of more than 9%. Now, the EPA runs on an annual budget of $8 billion, with 15,000 employees, which sounds like a lot. But based on your work at the EPA, would you say that the EPA is, in fact, currently underfunded to protect public health?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: I would. The agency's lost more than 10% of its work force since 2008. It's actually gradually been shedding staff under the Obama administration, because of congressional budget cuts. So, the EPA's already down, this cut would really almost kill it.

KIM BROWN: And point out also, that the EPA already suffered a budget setback in the second half of Barack Obama's presidency, because the Republicans in Congress did cut the EPA budget already. So, this is even a further cut on top of that.

But when we talk about the role that the EPA plays, if we take a look at a map of superfund sites across the U.S. As of October 2013, you know, red indicates currently, on the final national priority list, yellow was proposed, and green is deleted, which usually means having been cleaned up.

So, what effects could the EPA cuts have on cleaning up hazardous waste from communities?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: Well, the President's budget would cut that program especially deeply, by nearly 30%. It means slower cleanups; it means the EPA has less leverage to negotiate with companies, to get them to do the job. You've got to remember some of the culprits here, some of the people involved in these sites; many of them are very large companies, sometimes multi-nationals.

And EPA has traditionally had the capacity, it's had the political will, it's had the authority, to get these companies to clean up those dumps. And it's going to be very hard for states and cities, to pick up the slack.

KIM BROWN: And even beyond what corporations have done to destroy, or taint the environment, effecting the air and water. When we look at a situation like in Flint, Michigan. When the change from the Detroit River to the Flint River, was something that was all in the hands of, not even necessarily elected officials, but government appointed administrators over that.

I mean, that's not a company that did that, that was a government decision to make that change, and a lot of blame got placed at the feet of the EPA, and the state EPA. So, obviously, cutting federal funds to the agency would impact issues like that, and incidences like what happened in Flint, as well.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: So, one thing about the Drinking Water Act is, the states have the primary authority. EPA does the oversight, and provides grant money to help clean up. That oversight that EPA does is very important, and they definitely dropped the ball on Flint, no question.

But the primary responsibility was the state, and that didn't work out too well. The state did not have its eye on the ball. The state, in fact, was cutting corners and putting an emergency manager in to run the Flint system. They tried to save money, and it ended up being a disaster. They didn't know what they were doing. You're going to have more of those if you keep whacking EPA, in the way that Trump wants to.

KIM BROWN: And the Trump administration's proposed $2 billion EPA budget cuts, would entirely eliminate the agency's Environmental Justice Office, which was formed in order to, "further integrate environmental justice considerations in all of the agency's programs". So, can we say with certainty, that these proposed cuts will be felt particularly hard in low-income communities of color?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: You can absolutely say that with certainty. If you're talking about wiping out the Environmental Justice Office, cutting the enforcement budget, cutting the cleanup program, cutting the clean water program, you're going to leave communities with less political power. A lot more exposed to pollution than you've got today.

And that's something that's going to be felt over time. You may not see it the day after the budget cuts take effect, but we would be paying the price pretty soon.

KIM BROWN: Eric, we've seen what many have called an assault on climate science, by Trump and his administration, as well as the Republican dominated Congress. So, talk about the importance of the EPA's work, and how cutbacks to data collection -- that have been proposed, not only to the EPA, but also to NASA, and to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA -- and the censoring of that information.

What could silencing that data have in terms of what we know about climate change that's ongoing?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: Well, it takes us backwards. This one's especially frustrating. They single out climate work at EPA for an especially big cut. They're cutting those programs by over 50%, an awful lot of that, most of it really is science and research. And then there is some data collection, as well. What troubles me is, you heard it from Mr. Pruitt who's now the EPA Administrator, "Well, okay we... we acknowledge global warming exists, but we don't really know exactly how much humans are contributing to that problem."

First of all I don't think that's true. I don't buy that. But, I don't understand how you could say, we don't know enough, and then cut the research budget by more than half. They don't want to know.

KIM BROWN: And, finally, Donald Trump said last week, about the waterways rule, that, "The EPA's regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds or thousands." And this is an oft-quoted meme, that those environmental regulations kill jobs. So, what would your response be to that?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: First of all, I don't need to tell you, President Trump makes up different numbers every day -- and hundreds of thousands of jobs -- he doesn't have any basis for that. There's a great series of surveys that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has done for years and years and years, and they ask companies every year, "Why did you lay off people?"

We're talking now about large layoffs that effect more than 50 people at a time. Regulations don't even register on the scale, as a reason for those layoffs. It's two/tenths of one percent of the time, businesses say, "Well, it had something to do with regulations," any regulations, not just environmental regulations, two /tenths of a percent.

What causes people to lose their jobs are, you've got automation, and that's something that's been going on for decades. You have mergers and acquisitions, one company buys another, and they decide they don't need as many people, and they cut payroll.

You've got issues like losing your share in the marketplace. You didn't compete very well. You've got an effort to try to squeeze the labor force down, so you can improve profits for shareholders. Regulations being the villain, and kind of the whipping boy for job loss, that's really a pretty sinister lie, and I think you have to call it a lie. There's just no data to back it up.

KIM BROWN: You know, Eric, the concern from many, is that the United States, prior to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, was sort of like the wild west, for corporations who had pretty much carte blanche to pollute waterways. To pollute rivers and streams, and I think many are fearful that these cuts will take us back to a time where we saw rivers and lakes on fire, because of pollution and just entire fisheries collapsing, because the waters aren't meant to support wildlife, certainly not anything consumable by humans.

So, I mean, I don't mean to paint a sort of dystopic picture here, but what are we talking about, if a lot of this stuff gets rolled back? If a lot of the obvious data and research that has been collected about climate science is disregarded, what could potentially happen to the United States?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: I think, if our environmental programs deteriorate, the quality of the air gets worse, water gets more polluted, and you know, we continue to see a buildup in carbon and global warming increases. And those things all have devastating consequences. They hit your health -- that means more asthma attacks. It means more premature death from air pollution, which we get from fine particles. It means you can't fish or swim in rivers that you want to enjoy. And it means the sea levels rise, and I could go on and on.

I don't want to paint a really scary picture too, but you know, the progress we've made didn't happen by itself. It's a lot of people working hard, over a long period of time, to try to slowly get our environment to improve. You know, generally the air in most communities is cleaner, we still have a lot of work to do, but if you take away the programs that got us to that point, then we're going to move backwards.

KIM BROWN: So, Eric, I mean, then help us figure this out. What could be the other motivation for wanting to roll back the EPA budget so drastically, to roll back a lot of these codes, regulations that was put into place by Barack Obama, if it's not to cut money from the EPA to give it to the military, then what's it for?

ERIC SCHAEFFER: It's to get people out of the way. It's to get regulators out of industry's way. It's to make sure that you can, if you're an oil company, or a coal company, you can do a lot more of what you want. No matter how much pollution it causes, without anybody looking over your shoulder.

That's really what's going on here. You know, you cut the environmental program, you say it's about budget, really it's about taking people off the street, who's job it is to prevent pollution. That's what I think their game is here.

You know, here's a number, if I can throw this at you. So, they're cutting the EPA by $2 billion. They're doing that, they say, to build up our defense budget, as you pointed out. The cost over-run, on a single aircraft carrier, the one that President Trump visited last week, $2.4 billion so far. So, cutting the EPA by 2 billion isn't even going to make up for the amount of money that got wasted on a single ship.

So, we're really talking about a pretty small amount of money used to protect public health and the environment. And cutting this out of EPA's budget, it's not going to make a difference to the Pentagon. It's not even a rounding error for the Pentagon's budget.

KIM BROWN: Well, Eric we want to appreciate you making some time to speak with us today. Thank you.

ERIC SCHAEFFER: Thank you so much. Take care.

KIM BROWN: Thank you. And thanks for watching The Real News Network.




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