Week 107: The Butterfly Effect of Trump’s Inhumane Border Wall

Trump slices a butterfly sanctuary in two, the EPA celebrates its second-worst year on record, and the president goes oddly silent on climate when it’s warm outside.

February 08, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Gulf fritillary butterfly photo: Alan Schmierer)

Bulldozers Versus Butterflies

Heavy equipment rolled up to the National Butterfly Center, of all places, this week so workers could begin building a 36-foot-high structure along the border between Texas and Mexico. The Trump administration, which hasn’t secured funding for a wall, insists that this behemoth of concrete and steel is actually just fencing.

In addition to being a terrible idea all around, this segment of wall would divide the 100-acre protected habitat in two and be a disaster for wildlife that take refuge there, such as endangered ocelots. The wall would fragment bird and butterfly habitat, too, as it would be too high for several species to fly over. And the construction itself, along with the removal of 30 million square feet of vegetation, won’t be particularly conducive to feeding and breeding, either.

This is just another example of how amazingly freighted with symbolism this wall fight is. Just last week I wrote about the destruction of Joshua trees—themselves considered a symbol of welcoming immigrants—in the fight over President Trump’s border wall. This week, it’s the bulldozing of a sanctuary for delicate and vulnerable butterflies. It feels like Trump is trying to show his adversaries that his list of concerns has precisely one item on it: the border wall. Nothing else seems to matter to him. Not history, not beauty, not compassion.

The Bad and the Braggadocious

An analysis released late last week by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a government watchdog group, shows that pollution and hazardous waste reduction have reached a decadelong low under the Trump administration. This actually makes the Trump EPA the worst-performing on record, since the current accounting methods are only 10 years old.

We already know that EPA enforcement actions and referrals to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution have fallen off a cliff during the Trump administration. Trump officials tried to explain this away, arguing that they’re taking a more cooperative approach to enforcement by working to bring polluters into compliance rather than taking them to court.

But the new analysis shows that excuse is absolute nonsense. The amounts of pollution and hazardous waste prevented by the Trump administration’s EPA are embarrassingly low compared with those of previous administrations. Between 2017 and 2018, the Trump EPA eliminated an average of 636 million pounds of pollution and hazardous waste per year. The median annual reduction for 2008 to 2016 was 5.4 billion pounds—more than eight times Trump’s average. The lowest total for any year during the Obama administration was more than a billion pounds.

It’s especially strange that acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler is bragging about these numbers. Last week, the EPA issued a press release pointing out that the 2018 pollution reduction numbers were better than those of 2017, but it failed to point out that the 2017 numbers were, by far, the worst EPA performance on record.

Congratulations, Andy. You’re only the second-lousiest EPA leader. So far.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

The EPA Doth Protest Too Much

Here’s another way Andrew Wheeler acts like his disgraced predecessor, Scott Pruitt: They both try to intimidate the media with nasty press releases empty of substance. Take a look at this recent release: “E&E Publishes Hogwash Misleading Story.”

I object to this title on several levels. First, it’s a grammatical nightmare. Hogwash is a noun.

Second, an agency that’s actively trying to shield industrial pig farms from pollution reporting requirements probably shouldn’t bring up hogs sua sponte.

Third, it’s not the EPA’s place to get into a flame war with a news outlet. If the agency were doing even a passable job of stopping pollution, then maybe we could accept these juvenile press releases. But it seems like the EPA is putting more resources into press criticism than into its core mission of protecting public health and the environment.

Fourth, and most important, the E&E story isn’t hogwash at all. The reporter pointed out repeated contacts between Wheeler’s former lobbying firm and the agency he now leads. The EPA’s hair-on-fire press release accuses E&E of failing to provide a timeline of those contacts, but as a Washington Post follow-up explains, the E&E report provided an explicit and completely accurate timeline. There doesn’t appear to be anything missing or misleading whatsoever in the E&E story.

The EPA also accuses E&E of publishing clickbait: “Clicks are more important than facts for E&E News in their latest ploy by implying guilt by association constitutes a story.” Anyone who has read E&E will find this accusation hilarious. It is a technical, niche, subscription-only publication that’s read mainly by geeks like me. It’s not posting listicles of celebrity plastic surgery gone wrong.

SOTU: Hot or Not?

During the Midwest’s record cold snap last week, President Trump posted one of his patented cold-weather-disproves-climate-change tweets. Someone upstairs must be reading Trump’s tweets: In an act of meteorological retribution, unseasonably warm weather hit Washington, D.C., on the day of Trump’s State of the Union address.

To put it into context, cities along the East Coast saw a 60-degree temperature swing over the course of four days, and many locales set record-high temperatures for February. On Monday it was 61 degrees Fahrenheit in Syracuse, New York. I grew up outside Syracuse—61 degrees is a warm day in July. (I kid because I love.)

So the table was perfectly set for Trump to acknowledge in his State of the Union address that climate change is real, or at least that his habit of equating weather with climate is silly.

Wait­—you say he didn’t mention climate change at all? Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

Tell President Trump we demand immediate action on climate change

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Plus, NOAA deletes important renewable energy research, and the border fence steamrolls a national monument.

onEarth Story

Through wall-size juxtapositions of bright, open flowers and jagged, disjointed lines, artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood explores the fractured landscape along the U.S.–Mexico border.

Southeast Dispatch

Non-native tropical milkweed fuels monarchs on their journey through southern states, but when cooler weather hits, the plant can bring parasites and starvation. Here’s what butterfly-loving southerners can do.

onEarth Story

Plus, Big Oil (literally!) writes its own offshore drilling rules, Trump fast-tracks his border wall through more wilderness areas, and the Interior Department gets petty with its press releases.

NRDC in Action

NRDC joins with Monarch Watch to distribute free milkweed plants to schools across the country and turn students into butterfly gardeners.

onEarth Story

Trump’s already offensive wall will also endanger an already endangered species.

onEarth Story

And every extra day it lasts, the deleterious effects on our national parks, food inspections, and toxic waste cleanups grow bigger (and more difficult to stop).

onEarth Story

The president won’t subject his offensive border project to environmental review, but his administration will subject the EPA museum to censorship.

onEarth Story

Scott Pruitt is out—but can the new EPA chief escape Pruitt’s shadow of endless scandals, incompetence, and corruption?

onEarth Story

Plus, NOAA’s sick Twitter burn and the EPA’s corporate giveaways (which attorney general nominee William Barr seems cool with).

onEarth Story

Plus, the EPA’s stall on chlorpyrifos and Ryan Zinke’s criminal socks.

onEarth Story

Plus, NASA is ordered off climate research while Trump (maybe) acknowledges climate change.

onEarth Story

Also, Administrator Scott Pruitt equates hard questions (and mustache doodles) with security threats.

onEarth Story

In quantifying carbon pollution's damage to society, Trump sees America as an island unto itself—and we all know what climate change does to islands.

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