Former EPA leaders question agency’s direction under Trump
Past leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency, including officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, criticized the agency’s shrinking size and ambition in testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill, saying the agency has moved away from its core duties under President Trump.
“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 Tuesday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration, the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” she added during testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
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 administration.
“It’s time for them to step up, and to do their jobs,” she said. “Just do your jobs.”
Like Whitman, McCarthy bemoaned the exodus of longtime EPA employees and what she calls sinking morale of many career staff members. She and others raised questions about whether the Trump administration is adequately relying on science to drive its policy decisions, and she said the White House has ignored the threat of climate change amid an aggressive push to scale back environmental regulations.
“The constant rollback is beginning to tick me off a bit. Maybe even more than just a bit,” McCarthy said, adding that the current EPA seemed to value lowering costs to industry more than safeguarding public health.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the upcoming testimony from former administrators. 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.”
Tuesday’s 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.
Four of the letter’s seven authors appeared at the House hearing Tuesday.
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 that 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 used the hearing as an opportunity to criticize McCarthy’s management of the EPA for what they saw as oversteps in authority under Obama, such as 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 GOP members emphasized how often their constituents, many of whom are rural farmers, have to contend with difficult-to-understand regulations on pesticides and fertilizers.
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.
Lee Thomas, a Republican who led the EPA from 1985 to 1989, compared the current administration of the agency 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 riff 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.”