Former EPA official decries Trump rollbacks

Former regional EPA director Judith Enck speaks at Bennington College. Photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger
BENNINGTON — Judith Enck described a tragic incident of pesticide poisoning to illustrate what’s at stake as the Trump administration overturns decades of environmental regulation and slashes agency budgets.
Speaking at Bennington College, the former regional EPA director described a case she helped investigate in which a father and two sons suffered neurological damage and now use wheelchairs, and the mother, a dentist, sustained nerve damage, causing her hands to shake.
The poisoning occurred while the family stayed in a luxury condo unit on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, she said, and the cause was traced to fumes from a banned pesticide that got into the ventilation system.
“This family was permanently broken,” Enck said.
And she stressed that incidents of pesticide poisoning are far from uncommon, but typically farm workers are the victims and that doesn’t draw the same amount of attention.
“The EPA has never been attacked by a sitting president,” Enck said, as it has been under President Donald Trump, whom she termed “aggressively anti-environmental.”
The president has bragged about “rolling back regulations,” she said, but “what regulations really are are protections for all of us.”
Enck said the agency was established under President Richard Nixon 48 years ago and has generally had bipartisan support in Congress. But the president’s first budget for the EPA called for a 31 percent cut in one year, and although there is resistance to that in Congress, staffing levels have been sharply reduced and top posts have been given to people from the industries the EPA regulates.
Trump’s appointees to environmental positions are “really dismantling the agency,” Enck said, referring to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and others.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, Enck said. Over the past year, she said, Pruitt has repealed 20 major environmental regulations in effect under the Obama administration, when she served as regional director for New York, New Jersey, eight Indian nations, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She said 47 other regulations are in the process of being overturned.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. EPA photo
Pruitt “is definitely there to gut the EPA,” Enck said.
Vermont’s three members of Congress receive high rankings for voting on environmental issues, she said, but the rest of the institution has to “step up their game” to limit the damage to the federal agency.
In addition to regulatory changes, civil penalties paid by polluters “are down by 49 percent” under the Trump administration, she said, which sends a message to companies that “there is no environmental cop on the beat.” Also, existing court complaints against companies are being settled by the government for slap-on-the-wrist figures, she said.
‘Gloom and doom’ era
Despite what she admitted is a “gloom and doom” era for many in the environmental protection field, Enck often drew laughter with her characteristic humorous asides about a dire topic — in this case, “The Trump Assault on Environmental Protections and What You Can Do About It.”
Displaying a photo of Trump administration appointees, she said of Perry, “I really liked him much better on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ He didn’t do that much damage.”
Many in the audience of area residents, students and faculty at Bennington College were familiar with Enck because of her key role in making public PFOA contamination in water supplies in nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
After learning that local and state officials had been in settlement talks for more than a year with the firms believed responsible for the PFOA without informing the public, she sounded the alarm.
The former ChemFab plant in North Bennington. File photo by Ben Garver/Berkshire Eagle
That led in early 2016 to discovery of perfluorooctanoic acid in hundreds of wells around two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington, and wells around a former factory in Pownal.
Enck’s talk Friday was sponsored by the college’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which has been active on these issues through its Understanding PFOA project.
Beyond cutbacks in staff and regulation at the current EPA, Enck considers climate change “singularly the most important issue” facing the nation now and in the long term. And the Trump administration “is going absolutely in the wrong direction” on that issue, she said, making this era “a really serious moment in our country’s history.”
The “carbon blanket” that is forming around the earth because of the use of fossil fuels and other pollution has already produced record high temperatures, shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea levels along our coasts and drier forests and more destructive wildfires, she said.
Yet the Trump administration has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, which was agreed to by 195 nations, and data on global warming has been yanked from the EPA website, Enck said.
What can be done?
But there are steps students and others can take to reverse the current direction, she said, and listed several.
Those include advocating and protesting for a reversal of administration policies; supporting pro-environment candidates in the mid-term congressional elections; writing letters to the editor and supporting local media that report on environmental issues; joining an environmental organization; talking “in a calm way” to Trump supporters about their reasoning and engaging them on environmental topics; and watching and attempting to “understand Fox News.”
Speaking to the students present, Enck advised thinking about a career in the law and/or environmental protection, whether working for the government, an environmental organization or a business. She urged them to “really dig in on the climate change issue” and consider majoring in a related subject, and to “live life in sustainable ways” to effect change from the personal level first.
Since the president took office, Enck said, about a third of students considering law school “say the reason is Trump. It’s called the Trump bump.”
In the short-term, Enck said it’s imperative that people focus on the November mid-term elections, while also not forgetting about the 2020 presidential election.
“If he is re-elected,” she said, “I don’t think the EPA will ever recover.”
Enck also insisted that “the solutions are within our reach,” such as working toward deriving 100 percent of energy from renewable sources, which she believes is possible and far more certain to spur future employment than fossil fuel industries.
Greater regulation of carbon emissions and of the release of hazardous industrial chemicals before expensive cleanup projects become necessary also are feasible, as Europeans have shown, Enck said.
“There is not a shortage of ideas,” she said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Former EPA official decries Trump rollbacks.