Ep. 34: Inside the EPA's Regulatory Rollback Machine

President Donald Trump cuts a ribbon during an event on federal regulations in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump cuts a ribbon during an event on federal regulations in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At last count, the Trump administration has rolled back 60 environmental rules or regualtions. But what does this rollback mean and how it is affecting the work of the agency charged with protecting America’s environment and public health?

On this episode of Trump On Earth, we hear from ProPublica reporter Talia Buford, who dug into the undoing of one environmental regulation that was made after more than a decade of research and study by EPA scientists. The rule was meant to protect rivers and streams from the toxins in coal ash wastewater. Buford tells its fate from the perspective of the staffers who had spent years working on it. At the heart of the story is Betsy Southerland, a 30-year employee of the EPA who retired in August. Southerland was It read: “This action is another example of EPA implementing President Trump’s vision of being good stewards of our natural resources, while not developing regulations that hurt our economy and kill jobs.”

The action is that the EPA will now reconsider and review the rule. What was surprising to Southerland and her staff at the EPA was that they had gotten no negative feedback from Scott Pruitt on the rule in question.

“They told me that a lot of these [meetings with Scott Pruitt] almost felt like monologues, in the sense that they would kind of present their case and they would be very passionate about it, and [Pruitt] would ask a couple of clarifying questions but there was not a lot of pushback,” said Buford. “So they really thought that ‘OK, maybe they're convinced, maybe they're convinced that you know this is the best way to go.’

Southerland told Buford that she and her staff were blindsided when the rule was overturned with no debate.

“They didn't get the robust back and forth that you would expect when you're debating a rule, or even especially debating rescinding a rule that had been so meticulously crafted,” Buford said.

The rule itself is called the Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines rule, which set the first federal limits on toxic metals like mercury and selenium in coal ash wastewater that can be discharged from power plants into rivers or lakes. The research for it began during the Bush administration.

“A certain concentration of mercury or selenium...might not have a huge effect on an ecosystem or a community, but when you exponentially increase that, it can definitely cause things to go awry. They found tadpoles and bullfrogs that were missing entire rows of teeth, they were just deformed, and you saw a lot of these kinds of impacts like that on smaller animal species. There were some fish kills...and so you really saw the animal ecosystems kind of really taking it on the chin from a lot of these chemicals from the effluent,” said Buford.

Buford pointed out that the vast majority of power plants in the country would have already been in compliance with the new rule.

“This rule at the time that it was passed I think would have would have impacted about 12-percent of coal fired power plants in the entire country,” said Burford.

Buford said that what happened with the effluent rule is an indication of the direction the EPA is headed generally. She said she expected to see Secretary Pruitt push forward on President Trump’s agenda to roll back environmental protections, shrink the size of the EPA, and put a lot more responsibility on the states.

“This is an unprecedented administration and that operations, especially in the EPA, are unfolding in a way that is unprecedented. This is not business as usual,” said Buford.

Mentioned in This Episode:

Press Release: EPA to Reconsider ELG Rule


This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier and Kara Holsopple. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program. 

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