‘Just do your jobs’: Ex-EPA chiefs go off on Trump administration

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

“Afraid.” “Concerned.” Or just plan ticked off.

That is what past leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency said they felt when they think about the direction the agency has taken under President Trump.

Four former EPA chiefs — three Republicans and one Democrat — spent Tuesday criticizing the EPA’s shrinking size and ambition in testimony on Capitol Hill, saying the agency has moved away from its core duties under Trump, The Post’s Brady Dennis and I reported.

“I’m deeply concerned that five decades of environmental progress are at risk because of the attitude and approach of the current administration” Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who led the agency during the George W. Bush administration, told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Climate change is real, and the administration is abdicating its responsibilities by denying it,” added Whitman, once the governor of the coastal state of New Jersey.

Similar worries dominated the testimony of Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA during the final years of the Obama administration and has been an outspoken critic of the current one.

Like Whitman, McCarthy bemoaned the exodus of longtime EPA employees and what she calls the sinking morale of many career staffers. She and others raised questions about whether the Trump administration is adequately relying on science to drive its policy decisions, and said the White House is ignoring the threat of climate change amid an aggressive push to scale back environmental regulations.

And for McCarthy, the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back her own work.

“I’m here for one reason and one reason only, and it’s not to weep about all my precious rules being rolled back. Although I admit that the constant roll back is beginning to tick me off a bit,” McCarthy said. “Maybe even more than just a bit.”

“I’m here to remind the political leadership at the EPA that what they do matters, and it’s time for them to step up and to do their jobs. Just do your jobs,” she continued, adding the current EPA seemed to value lowering costs to industry more than safeguarding public health.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment on the testimony. Earlier this year, the agency touted its work during the first two years under Trump, highlighting dozens of deregulatory actions and saying that it had “continued to deliver on its promise to provide greater regulatory certainty while protecting public health and the environment.”

The Hill hearing was intended to “address the mission and future” of the agency, according to Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the committee chairman. It comes after seven past EPA chiefs, representing Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote to House lawmakers in April, offering Congress help with oversight of the agency.

“We are united that there has never been a more important time for us to put aside our differences and advocate collectively for public health and the environment,” they wrote in the letter, which was first reported by E&E News.

The letter was signed by the EPA’s first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, a Republican who also has been critical of the Trump administration’s approach, as well as a host of other past leaders.

The ex-EPA chiefs, who served under Reagan, Obama and both Bushes, pressed Congress to use its oversight power to rein in the current deregulatory push and to ensure the EPA relies on science over politics in its actions. House Democrats who invited the former officials echoed their concerns and promised they are already looking into the rollback of air and chemical rules.

“The four former administrators with us this morning truly know what is at stake and how to accomplish EPA’s mission,” Pallone said.

Some Republicans on the committee criticized McCarthy’s management of the EPA for what they saw as exceeding her authority, pointing to the EPA’s efforts to drastically slash emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“Under her leadership, I think the EPA went rogue,” Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) said.

Other Republicans emphasized how often their constituents, many of whom are rural farmers, have to contend with difficult-to-understand regulations on pesticides and fertilizers. And at times, the former administrators acknowledged the challenges of making the public understand their work.

“It’s not an accident that the president can say the kind of things he said about wanting to break up EPA into little bits,” said former administrator William Reilly, who served under George H.W. Bush.

But Reilly still expressed apprehension with what he sees as the pro-industry direction the agency has taken, with its revisions to Obama-era air pollution rules on mercury and methane.

He noted that while the EPA needs to consider the “economic impact” of its actions, “the environment and health come first.”

Lee Thomas, a Republican who led the EPA from 1985 to 1989, compared the current EPA management to the tenure of Anne Gorsuch Burford — Reagan’s controversial first EPA administrator.

Burford, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, resigned amid sharp budget cuts, a rift between political and career staff and a scandal over mismanagement of the Superfund cleanup program.

“EPA in 1983 was in the middle of chaos and turmoil,” Thomas said. “There were six different congressional committees that were investigating what was going on at EPA … There was a deregulatory agenda. There was an attack on science at many levels.”

“All that sound familiar?” he added. “ Well there’s an awful lot of that going on today.”