A Tale of Two EPAs

To what lengths will Scott Pruitt go to undo the good work being done by his agency’s scientists, researchers, and staff?

March 02, 2018
Homes next to an oil refinery in Wilmington, California

Citizen of the Planet/Alamy

Sometimes you really do have to stop and wonder what U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is thinking. And once you do, the conclusions you inevitably draw can be so frustrating that you just want to find the nearest wall and bang your head against it, hard. The people who work for him have never waned in their dedication; they continue to identify, study, and remedy the many environmental problems that face us. But Pruitt nevertheless seems intent on neutralizing—or even negating—all their good work.

Last week, on February 22, scientists from the National Center for Environmental Assessment—a branch of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development that studies the effects of pollution on human health and the environment—released a report that confirmed what many African Americans and Hispanic Americans could have already told you: People of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution. They’re exposed to more of it than white Americans and face more severe health problems as a result.

The report, published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at emissions and air pollution data from refineries and factories across the country and cross-referenced it with data on the demographic makeup of communities within 2.5 miles of these facilities. The researchers found that in all but a handful of states, people of color are exposed to more cancer-causing particulate matter than white people are. (In Alabama and Indiana, non-white people are actually exposed to twice as much particulate matter as white people are.) African Americans suffer the most, with exposure 54 percent above average. Hispanic Americans, with exposure 20 percent above average, aren’t far behind.

Other recent studies have come to similar conclusions. But that this study came out in a well-known scientific journal under the imprimatur of Scott Pruitt’s EPA seemed, in and of itself, significant. Sure, it wasn’t particularly well publicized. Nobody from the agency went on TV or the radio to discuss it. I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking, and I can’t find even the briefest EPA press release on the report. Still, the fact that it came out at all—that a paper supporting one of the environmental justice movement’s chief concerns wasn’t scuttled by an administration that’s been openly hostile to that movement’s goals—suggested that maybe, just maybe, Pruitt and other top political appointees at the EPA were finally listening to their hardworking scientists and experts and beginning to appreciate their roles as protectors of public health.

Then, just a few days later, came confirmation that the EPA plans to eliminate the National Center for Environmental Research, another branch of the agency’s Office of Research and Development that funds research on water safety, chemical exposure, and other points where the environment intersects with public health. The official line is that the department is being combined with others as part of a reorganization designed to “create management efficiencies.” But given how important the NCER’s role is in promoting extramural research into things like the effect of environmental toxins on children’s health (under its lauded STAR program), many people are worried. The White House, in both its 2018 and 2019 budgets, proposed defunding a number of major NCER programs, telegraphing its basic hostility to the kind of work that the center does. The EPA’s announcement does little to assuage doubts that this work will be able to continue without the agency’s, and the administration’s, full support.

So there we have it: two actions taken by the EPA just a few days apart, reflective of the deep tensions within an agency that’s currently torn between the best impulses of its hardworking scientists and the worst impulses of its administrator and his industry-coddling cronies.

It’s become almost too easy to bash the EPA these days. Scott Pruitt is so brazen in his disregard for its goals and disrespect for its employees that he’s become a cartoonishly villainous personification of the agency he’s been selected to (mis)lead. But it’s important to remember that Scott Pruitt isn’t the EPA, and—even more important—that the EPA isn’t Scott Pruitt. Thousands of dedicated scientists, researchers, analysts, and staffers continue to work there, valiantly carrying out the agency’s mission: protecting the American people by preserving the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the natural resources we use.

The NCEA’s report on how communities of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution is a perfect example of what the EPA should be doing, as is the NCER’s sponsorship of research into the most pressing environmental and public health issues of the day. That Scott Pruitt isn’t publicizing the former and is threatening to scuttle the latter tells us plenty about what’s on his mind: minimizing the reality of environmental threats to marginalized communities and maximizing the comfort levels of fossil-fuel and chemical-company executives. The good people who work for him deserve a better boss. America deserves a better EPA administrator.

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