For the past two weeks I’ve included news about President-elect Donald Trump’s environmental agenda. I’ve tried to be objective, limiting my commentary to the facts as best I know them. In spite of that, I’ve been criticized (including by some people for whom I have a great deal of respect) for prejudging the situation – for not giving President Trump a chance to show us what he really believes about the importance of conservation. So today I’ll try to be even more precise and factual. Like most people who care about the environment, I desperately want to be optimistic about coming four years.
Let’s begin with the selection of the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency – Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General from Oklahoma. As this piece from the New York Times reports, Attorney General Pruitt’s agenda for the EPA is crystal clear. He fundamentally opposes its mission and operation and has built his career in the public sector attempting to dismantle basic programs to protect air, water and wetlands. Here is an excerpt from the Times:
Since becoming Oklahoma’s top legal officer in 2011, Mr. Pruitt has been a bitter opponent of the E.P.A., joining in one lawsuit after another to kill off federal environmental regulations. He has challenged standards for reducing soot and smog pollution that cross state lines. He has fought protections against mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from power plants. He has sued to overturn an E.P.A. rule modestly enlarging the scope of the Clean Water Act to protect streams and wetlands vital to the nation’s water supply.
Why does this matter? This may sound like a gratuitous question. But the next few articles provide a current slant on the answer. Paul Krugman, writing in the Post and Courier reminds us that it wasn’t too long ago – about forty years – that American cities were vastly dirtier places. Not as bad as Beijing or Mumbai, perhaps, but definitely hazardous to your health. Los Angeles was almost synonymous with smog. New York was oppressive. Even smaller cities like Atlanta and Charlotte were suffering. Reducing air pollution has been one of the great accomplishments of the environmental movement. Today, America’s cities are among the cleanest, healthiest in the world. Krugman notes:
The key point is that better air didn’t happen by accident: It was a direct result of regulation — regulation that was bitterly opposed at every step by special interests that attacked the scientific evidence of harm from pollution, meanwhile insisting that limiting their emissions would kill jobs.
Eventually, over this opposition, those regulations were promulgated and enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, in collaboration with the states.
Some people might argue that the work is done, that the need for regulation and the EPA has passed. This next article, by Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier, provides just one of hundreds of examples of why that argument would be dead wrong. Bo reports that researchers have discovered concentrations of toxic chemicals in alligator plasma from animals in North Inlet, Kiawah and Bear Island. Significantly, these are among the least polluted places on the South Carolina coast and, therefore, on the entire eastern seaboard.
As Bo reports:
The Environmental Protection Agency has issued health advisories on the (perfluorinated) chemicals for causing problems such as cancer and birth defects, along with weakening immune systems. Industries are moving to other chemicals.
The finding is hardly a surprise, given the prevalence of the chemicals in the marine food chain. But it sounds an alarm. The animals got it eating the same fish we do, and the dolphins – mammals like us – have been shown to become sick from it, their immune systems weakened.
It gets worse. The research is an extension of studies that found Lowcountry dolphins and bald eagles, among other species, have been poisoned by a slurry of other man-made chemicals discharged in wastes. Among them are mercury, antibiotics and clothing fibers.
The reality is that, although it has not been easy, we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit over the past 40 years, curbing the worst abuses of the environment, but the challenges have gotten more complicated, more difficult and more urgent. The EPA is by no means a perfect agency, but Pruitt’s agenda has not been to reform it. Rather, it has been to oppose exactly the programs that are essential to removing insidious pollutants from the environment.
While we are on the subject of water pollution, and in case you think that, like air pollution, water pollution is a thing of past, consider the recent $40 million fine against Princess Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival, for persistent pollution with intent to cover it up. This article from the Post and Courier reports that Charleston will be one of the ports, and the Carnival Ecstasy, one of the ships that will be under greater scrutiny because of the lawsuit.
We have spent the past seven years pushing for more rigorous enforcement of discharges from cruise ships. The S.C. State Ports Authority has consistently dismissed the possibility that these ships would illegally dump pollution in or near Charleston, just as they have ensured us that their voluntary compliance with cruise limits, and the industry trade group’s promise to protect the environment, were more than enough protection.
The reality is that even with clear, enforceable laws on the books, Carnival and Princess have intentionally, systematically and deceitfully fouled water and air. All of this is to say that anyone who thinks we can do without environmental regulations and the agencies that enforce them is entertaining a dangerous illusion.
Besides EPA, the most important cabinet position for the environment is the Secretary of Interior, who oversees the expanse of public lands – national parks and forests, wildlife refuges and monuments – that constitute the physical heritage of the nation. To this position, President Trump has named Washington state Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Rep. McMorris Rodgers cosponsored a bill in 2011 that, had it passed, would have directed the sale of 3 million acres of public lands. Additionally, she has consistently supported mining and oil exploration on public lands.
This is not encouraging, but I’m willing to admit that her record in Congress is too thin to draw a definitive conclusion. Here is a New York Times editorial by the brilliant David Quammen reminding us of what is a stake. David focuses on the Statue of Liberty, at 15 acres, as one of the smallest national holdings.
South Carolina is home to Congaree National Park, which began its life in the public realm as a national monument. Congaree is the largest stand of old growth bottomland swamp in North America. Its designation as a monument followed a multi-decade long battle between conservationists and business interests, especially the S.C. Forestry Association (who viewed the highest and best use of the ancient forest as siding and toilet paper). These are just two examples of the extraordinary, irreplaceable inventory of public lands.
National groups are gearing up to oppose Pruitt and McMorris Rogers’ nominations. Under the proposition that air and water pollution, public health and our national heritage of public lands should not be partisan issues, you could contact Senator Lindsey Graham at (202) 224-5972 and Senator Tim Scott at (202) 224-6121 to let them know what you think of these choices.
Last week I got a friendly e-mail telling me that brevity is a virtue. And it wasn’t because last week’s e-mail was short. So enough on the national front.
Quickly, and with the observation that what happens locally is arguably more important than what happens in Washington, here’s the local stuff. Brian Hicks with the Post and Courier tackles an issue that is potentially even more controversial than air pollution and public lands – apartments.
Brian points out that public anxiety over the number of new apartment complexes in the Charleston region has reached the boiling point. He quotes me as stating that issues of multifamily housing are particularly complicated and frustratingly misunderstood. Dense housing is not only not a bad thing, it is the best option to avert the rapid destruction of rural areas, and perhaps counterintuitively, to ease traffic congestion.
Apartments generate considerably fewer vehicle trips than single family houses do. Combined with the right public amenities – sidewalks, bike lanes, public transit, a grid of streets – and located in proximity to offices, schools and parks, multifamily housing can dramatically change travel behavior and land consumption, and for the better.
But here is the rub. Cities have been spotty in their delivery of these essential complements, often approving multifamily housing without the functional elements that will allow their benefits to be realized. This is the challenge of the decade, as populations grow and age, and as consumer preferences change – to create cities that can meet the needs of the future with a minimum of environmental damage.
Finally, finally for the week, the world’s oldest mother (that we know of). USA Today reports that a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, estimated to be 66 years old, is expecting.
This is wonderful news and illustrates the point that nature needs very little – a tiny plot of high land, clean water, a healthy marine environment – to thrive and flourish. Poignantly, you may remember that Midway is within flying distance of the notorious “Pacific garbage patch,” a plot of ocean larger than the state of Texas that is full of plastic pollution, some of which is microscopic in size. Laysan albatrosses, and dozens of other species, have been the victims of our profligacy in creating these toxic gyres.
And yet, somehow, Wisdom has had the tenacity to prevail, and to succeed, producing new offspring year after year, for more than six decades. If this isn’t testimony to our obligation to clean up our act, as a species, I can’t image what else would be.
Have a great week, keep the faith, and call your senator!
PS Last week I mistakenly said Stephen Hawking was an American physicist. He is 100% British, as much as we would like to claim him.