Week 122: Trump’s Power Plant Rule Could Kill Thousands. He’s Hoping You Won’t Notice.

Trump also kills 20 years of child health research and continues to neglect chemical safety.

May 24, 2019

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

Exhaust rises from the coal-fired Harrison Power Station in Haywood, West Virginia.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Smoke and Mirrors

According to a report in the New York Times, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to change how it calculates air pollution deaths in an effort to mask increased mortality rates.

Back when he was running for president, Donald Trump regularly slammed President Obama’s Clean Power Plan—the EPA regulation aimed at reducing pollution from aging power plants—as part of a nefarious “war on coal.” But Trump didn’t realize that the Clean Power Plan was more than a carbon-cutting measure. It also vastly reduced particulate matter and other forms of air pollution. Cleaner air means healthier lungs, which means fewer premature deaths.

When Trump moved to replace the Clean Power Plan last year, it became immediately apparent that he had a problem: His watered-down alternative would result in an additional 1,400 deaths per year, all related to increased air pollution. In trying to revive the coal industry, Trump was waging a war on health.

Decades of research, beginning with correlational epidemiology and now extending to the molecular level, have proved the link between air pollution and increased mortality. Tiny airborne particles travel deep into your lungs and arteries, triggering your immune system and leading to deadly inflammation. The risks are most significant for people with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular disease, a huge proportion of the population. More than 50 million people suffer from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, while nearly one-half of American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease.

The numbers clearly do not support rolling back the Clean Power Plan. The entire coal industry employs fewer than 76,000 people. Even if Trump’s replacement plan could preserve every single one of those jobs—spoiler: It can’t—that means Trump is willing to kill one person for every 54 coal jobs. Jobs are important, but lives are more important.

Faced with that grisly reality, the administration decided to paper over the numbers with bogus math that no reputable epidemiologist endorses. Here’s the trick: The administration assumes—despite mountains of evidence to the contrary—that improvements in air pollution beyond federal minimum standards will not improve health. Well, the human body doesn’t work that way—your immune system doesn’t turn itself off just because the air meets a negotiated government standard for cleanliness. Federal standards don’t represent perfect health; they represent the minimum level of safety the government is willing to accept.

Think of it this way: If the government says New York City meets federal standards for particulate matter in a given year, does that mean you couldn’t get cleaner, healthier air by moving to the Hawaiian island of Kauai?

There’s something quintessentially Trumpian about changing the math to obscure reality. After all, Trump businesses reported losses of billions of dollars during the 1980s and ’90s, losses that Trump said were merely accounting tricks. This time, though, Trump’s accounting trick is going to kill people.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

Here’s a story that didn’t get nearly enough attention this week: The EPA plans to cut off funding for research that has followed some of the same children for more than 20 years, monitoring their health changes over time as they encountered various pollutants. Even in an administration defined by cynicism and prostration to the most malignant corporate demands, this decision stands out as particularly repulsive.

Some background: Longitudinal cohort studies—the kind of research where you follow the same group of subjects over a long period—are the holy grail of health-care science. Researchers covet these cohorts because many health outcomes, like cancer, require years to manifest themselves. And since you can’t go back in time, groups of subjects whose lives have been carefully tracked are priceless. A researcher who is able to maintain a cohort for even a few years is a very popular person at a cocktail party of scientists. “Ooh, can we talk about potential collaborations? I have a great lab setup and an eager team of postdocs. You would, of course, be senior author on all the publications . . .”

The EPA research that is currently on Trump’s chopping block has followed people at 13 locations across the United States from the time they were in the womb. Researchers have drawn their blood, collected their urine, measured indoor air pollution in their homes, and looked for relationships between pollution and respiratory disease, cancer, brain development, and many other major public health concerns.

The Trump administration’s move to cut the program has nothing to do with budgetary constraints. With annual funding in the tens of millions of dollars, this program is a drop in the bucket of federal expenditures. This is all about destroying research that industry doesn’t like.

One of the studies to come out of the program, for example, suggested that the agricultural chemical chlorpyrifos inhibits child brain development. Dow Chemical is a leading manufacturer of chlorpyrifos and has been lobbying hard to protect its golden goose. The company donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. Dow’s president, Andrew Liveris, has shamelessly sucked up to Trump. And the company’s lawyers have begged various cabinet agencies to abandon research that threatens the continued use of chlorpyrifos by Americans. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Trump is trying to cut a one-of-a-kind research program with the power to prove beyond doubt whether chlorpyrifos is harmful?

Industry spokespeople, as well as officials in the Trump administration, often talk about the need for more research before taking any kind of action. More research on climate change. More research on carcinogenicity. More research on air pollution’s impacts on health. But when you’re not looking, they kill the research.

A One-Woman Show at the Chemical Safety Board

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent government agency that studies industrial chemical accidents and tries to prevent their recurrence. Despite the president’s efforts, Congress has continued to fund the board, but Trump seems to have found a way to completely neuter the watchdog: Don’t appoint anyone to it.

The CSB is supposed to have five presidentially appointed members, who must be approved by the Senate. In more than two years in office, President Trump hasn’t bothered to nominate a single one. There are currently three holdovers from the Obama administration, with terms set to expire in December 2019, February 2020, and August 2020. Since it takes the Senate, on average, more than 10 months to approve a nominee, the board will almost certainly consist of a single member for a significant portion of 2020. If Trump refuses to nominate anyone, the board will be empty as of September 2020.

This week, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General raised an alarm on the vacancies, pointing out the obvious inability of the board to work effectively with only one member. It’s not even clear that the remaining member, Kristen Kulinowski, would be able to do anything, as a single person may not represent a quorum.

You probably don’t need me to explain why this is a problem, but just in case, I can tell you that the CSB has investigated more than 130 chemical accidents in nearly 20 years. Its recommendations save lives. For example, after a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured more than 260, the CSB reported that first responders didn’t know how to handle the chemical that caused the disaster. Working with FEMA, the board developed a training program to protect firefighters from a repeat accident.

This is, incidentally, only the second-worst thing Trump has done to firefighters this week. He’s also threatening to cut off federal payments to local fire departments in California, a state that suffered record-breaking fatalities from wildfires last year.

Ban Chlorpyrifos

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.

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