Week 138: NOAA v. Hurricane Donald

President Trump revokes the Clean Water Rule and doubles down on his fake weather forecast, while the Bureau of Land Management hitches up its wagons to move west.

September 13, 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 (Trump photo: Michael Vadon)

Not So Sharpie

Only Donald J. Trump could turn a slight weather forecasting error into a scandal that runs for weeks and threatens to bring down the secretary of commerce.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, some background: As Hurricane Dorian was swirling around the Caribbean earlier this month, President Trump tweeted that, among other states, Alabama was likely to be hit hard by the storm. Precisely 20 minutes later, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service, in an attempt to settle Alabamian nerves, tweeted, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”

President Trump had good options at that point. He could have deleted or corrected his initial tweet. He could have picked up the phone—or hollered out his office door—and asked someone, anyone, to find out whether Hurricane Dorian was actually headed for Alabama. Instead he spent the next several days trying to convince the world that he was right and the National Weather Service was wrong—all while the storm swirled up the East Coast and nowhere near Alabama.

The effort reached its hilarious apotheosis last week, when Trump presented to the world a map showing the “cone of uncertainty,” the area where forecasters project a hurricane might go. The cone touched Florida and Georgia, but it clearly didn’t reach Alabama.

So someone—and I’m not saying who—took a black Sharpie and drew onto the map a second cone, one that budded off the official cone and extended over Alabama. Trump denied any knowledge of who might have altered the forecasting map, but as many people have pointed out, Trump has a history of using Sharpies.

It could have ended there, as a funny little story. But Trump is famously incapable of letting anything go. So, according to the New York Times’ sources, Wilbur Ross, who leads the Commerce Department (which includes the National Weather Service), set out to stroke the presidential ego. Ross threatened to fire people over the incident.

In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service, released a statement providing the president with a scrap of justification: The Birmingham office shouldn’t have spoken in such “absolute terms,” because the storm technically could have grazed Alabama. Hey, who knows? Dorian could also have popped up in Maine, or Ougadougou, or Faarlandington, which is a place name that I just made up. As Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing.” Something something about Schrödinger’s cat, or something, right? The NOAA statement was unsigned, presumably because NOAA brass were holding their heads and noses with their writing hands.

Hurricane Dorian has long since dissipated over the Atlantic, but this story continues to intensify. NOAA’s acting chief scientist will now investigate why his agency provided succor to Trump when the president was on the wrong side of the science. And some Democrats are calling for Ross to step down as Commerce Secretary over the incident.

Let’s just say Sharpie-gate is likely to leave a permanent stain on Trump’s record.

This Is Regulatory Certainty?

Soon after President Trump took office, he promised to undo the Clean Water Rule, an Obama-era regulation that clarified which types of waterways the Clean Water Act protects. Trump never said what he would replace it with (which he must do under the law). This week he officially revoked Obama’s rule. He still hasn’t come up with a replacement.

The 1972 Clean Water Act gave the federal government the responsibility of defending the “waters of the United States” from pollution. While the act was intended to be expansive—water pollution was rampant in the early 1970s, and Congress recognized that most waterways flow into others—opponents have doggedly tried to chip away at which bodies of water should receive protection. They won a partial victory in 2006, when the Supreme Court failed to form a majority to interpret what “waters of the United States” meant.

Besides more fully ensuring clean waterways, the intention of President Obama’s 2015 rule—called either the Clean Water Rule or the Waters of the United States rule—was to provide regulatory certainty for industry. The rule clarified that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would also protect seasonal waterways (spring streams and such) that connect to navigable bodies of water. But such protection would not be extended to puddles, ditches, stormwater systems, and similar waters.

From the beginning, Trump and his associates have lied about the Clean Water Rule. Trump claimed it brought puddles and ditches under federal control, which it explicitly does not. And while Trump hasn’t been clear on how he will seek to close the regulatory loophole that he just reopened, you can be sure his reboot won’t be limited to needlessly ensuring the EPA keeps its hands off puddles. More likely, Trump’s rule will remove many drinking water sources from EPA protection and put vast stream and wetland systems at risk.

Are They Moving Congress Too?

The Trump administration has announced plans to relocate hundreds of jobs in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), forcing longtime employees to choose between their jobs and their settled family lives. The administration claims that the move to the Midwest will help bring decision makers closer to the lands they manage, but the true motivation is clear: getting rid of experienced scientists and administrators.

Even top officials are unable to stick to the official line with a straight face. In August, shortly after the moves were announced, Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, mused to South Carolina Republicans: “It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker . . . but simply saying to the people, you know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven and move you out into the real part of the country, and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

Wait—I thought this was about moving workers closer to western lands.

Another layer of the pretext was peeled away this week, when internal BLM documents revealed exactly which positions were picked to move. Among them are legislative affairs specialists, people whose primary job is interacting with Congress. Last time I checked, Congress met in Washington, D.C. Also on the relocation list are international relations specialists, who deal with foreign officials who come to Washington—not to the Midwest.

This not only contradicts the administration’s stated rationale for the moves, but also breaks a promise: Interior officials had originally assured employees that legislative affairs job would stay in Washington, D.C., where they belong.

Protect Clean Water

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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