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Week 17: A Would-Be-Banned Pesticide Is Blamed for Sickening Farmers—Thanks, Trump!

And the president nominates two more saboteurs to top positions at the Interior and Transportation Departments.

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

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At Least They Have Regulatory Certainty . . .

Dozens of California field-workers harvesting cabbage on a Bakersfield farm this week smelled a noxious odor blowing in from a nearby orchard. Many of the workers became nauseated and vomited, and five sought medical attention. The suspected culprit? The pesticide chlorpyrifos.

Scientists have worried about chlorpyrifos for decades. The widely used pesticide has been proven to be dangerous in large doses, and some epidemiological studies suggest even smaller amounts raise developmental concerns for children. A fascinating study from Columbia University that looked at pesticide levels in umbilical cord blood found chlorpyrifos exposure to be associated with slower fetal and early-childhood growth. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned residential use of the chemical in 2001 and was set to ban it entirely.

Then came Donald Trump. Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, derailed agency plans to ban chlorpyrifos because he wanted to “provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment.”

There are several problems with this statement. First, Pruitt’s worries over regulatory uncertainty are unfounded—there’s not a lot of ambiguity in the word banned.

“Hey, Scott, am I allowed to use this pesticide?”

“No, Farmer John, it’s banned.”

If this exchange confuses you, I suggest that your problems run deeper than regulatory uncertainty.

Second, the people who work on farms are humans, and chlorpyrifos is making them sick. If Pruitt were truly interested in protecting human health, he wouldn’t allow them to involuntarily ingest poison.

Finally, the Bakersfield incident shows that allowing the spraying of a noxious chemical on a farm raises individual liberty issues. Dan Andrews, the farmer whose workers were poisoned, doesn’t use chlorpyrifos—his employees were exposed to something a neighbor sprayed and couldn’t stop from drifting onto other peoples’ properties. Andrews even had to shut down his cabbage harvest.

Sick employees. Work disruptions. How does this situation provide certainty for farmers?

The Qualified Need Not Apply

Have you ever sued a federal agency? Do you fundamentally disagree with that agency’s mission? Have you accepted money from companies or trade groups that the agency is supposed to be protecting us from? Then the Trump administration wants you . . . to help lead that agency.

The official portrait of David Bernhardt—nominee for deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior—on the agency’s website

U.S. Department of the Interior

President Trump has nominated David Bernhardt, a partner at a law and lobbying practice, to the number two post in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt and his firm have represented oil and gas interests and mining companies, some of whom have business before the Interior Department. The firm has sued the department four times on behalf of one client, with Bernhardt himself handling the oral argument in one of the appeals. Bernhardt has also represented a company seeking to build a pipeline across federal land managed by the DOI, and, just to add a nice conflict-of-interest cherry on top of this massive conflict-of-interest cake, a portion of the firm’s legal fees were paid in the form of the company’s stock.

Bernhardt has promised to recuse himself—for a time—from issues in which a conflict might arise, but the notion that he could be a faithful representative of the people’s best interests when they come up against his former paymasters is fanciful.

“It would be hard to find anyone in the United States that is more conflicted and disqualified for this job than Mr. Bernhardt,” said California representative Jared Huffman. Huffman’s statement would normally sound hyperbolic, but under the circumstances it seems pretty accurate.

Trump also nominated Jeffrey Rosen as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation this week. Rosen represented business interests in their challenge to EPA tailpipe emissions rules, and as general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, he tried to free federal agencies from their obligation to limit carbon pollution.

Last but not least, news broke that Trump is expected to nominate conservative radio host Sam Clovis for the top scientist position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture—an interesting move since Clovis is not a scientist.

Maybe They’re Getting Lost in the Mail?

Senator Tom Carper, the Delaware Democrat and ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, says that Scott Pruitt has responded to only 2 of the 15 letters that Carper has sent to the EPA administrator. “During his own confirmation process, Mr. Pruitt assured our committee that he would be responsive to members' inquiries,” Carper told Politico’s Morning Energy. Carper is threatening to hold up confirmation hearings on other nominees until Pruitt finds his feather quill and inkstand.

Apparently Pruitt’s delay isn’t a matter of lack of free time, because Republican Senator John Barrasso, who chairs the EPW Committee, insists that Pruitt has been very responsive to him. Maybe Carper is mailing his letters in envelopes that look like junk mail, and Pruitt is accidentally throwing them in the trash. Happens all the time. Easy fix: Write an energy company’s name in the return address space. I’m pretty sure Pruitt opens those.

Talking Dirty

Scott Pruitt appeared on Fox and Friends on Wednesday to accuse President Obama of negligence in cleaning up the nation’s toxic waste sites and to claim that President Trump would cut down on the more than 1,300 Superfund sites awaiting remediation.

The Quanta Resources Superfund site in Edgewater, New Jersey, where the soil and groundwater are contaminated with various coal-tar processing chemicals

Anthony Albright/Flickr

The EPA chief failed to mention that Trump’s budget proposal attempted to cut the Superfund budget, which provides funding for the cleanups, by 31 percent. But he did insist that many of the remediations will be paid for by the private companies that polluted the sites, ignoring the fact that many of the Superfund delays exist because the polluters are no longer in business.

Of course, since Pruitt was appearing on Fox and Friends (emphasis on friends), the interviewers either hadn’t done their due diligence or decided they didn’t want to annoy the EPA administrator with inconvenient facts and figures.

To top it all off, Pruitt drew a distinction between President Obama (who “talked a lot”) and Trump (“a doer”) despite the fact that the Trump administration has yet to clean up a single toxic waste site. Hey, Scott, call me when you’ve accomplished something other than losing lawsuits against the EPA.

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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