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High-stakes entrenched interests and the Trump rollback of environmental regulations
President Donald Trump talks with reporters before departing for France on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

Since his days on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has promised to roll back environmental regulations, boost the use of coal and pull out of the Paris climate agreement. And he’s been moving toward — or completed — all of those goals since his inauguration.

The president has pushed ahead with such action even as a report by the United Nations’ expert scientific panel released in October concluded that without much stronger measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels, a warming planet will witness the spread of tropical diseases, water shortages and crop die-offs affecting millions of people.

Supporters of the administration’s changes — some of whom are skeptical of accepted science — say the moves will save money, produce jobs and give more power to states.

But critics argue new strictures on scientific research and efforts to overturn standards for protecting air, water and worker safety could have long-term, widespread effects that would upend hard-won gains in environmental and public health.

Overall, there are many Trump administration environmental proposals, which vary widely in target and reach. For example, the administration has delayed the implementation and enforcement of many Obama-era rules, saying they need time to draw up new policies or study others already on the books. Industry generally agrees, claiming the rules are an overreach with negative financial consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently argued it needs until 2020 to decide on a controversial Obama-era directive that would expand to smaller streams and waterways the types of protections offered by the federal Clean Water Act. That directive might mean fewer pollutants released into tributaries of larger waterways, from which millions of people get their drinking water. But the controversial rule has been fought by farming, mining and other industry groups that claim it’s too restrictive.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has also sought to delay by nearly two years the enforcement of standards to protect workers and emergency responders at chemical plants, part of an Obama-era rule enacted in response to a 2013 fire at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed 15 people. Industry says the rule is costly and that providing information about chemical storage at plants could raise security concerns.

In March, then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt rejected a petition filed in 2007 by environmental groups seeking to ban a commonly used pesticide called chlorpyrifos, which the groups said harms health and is particularly damaging to children. The agency said it needed more time to study the chemical.

All three of these delays were blocked by federal court judges, although final outcomes are unclear pending potential appeals. But one thing is clear: Everyone is likely to spend a lot of time in court.

“Folks are already lining up to challenge the Affordable Clean Energy rule, and that’s probably true for just about anything this administration does when it comes to environmental reform,” Nicolas Loris, research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said.

The clean energy rule, introduced in August, would replace a more stringent Obama-era rule for coal-burning power plants that was never implemented. An EPA analysis said the proposal would reduce industry costs and create jobs.

The same analysis concluded, however, that the looser standards would cause as many as 1,400 premature deaths and 15,000 upper respiratory problems annually by 2030.

On another front, scientists are protesting new Trump administration policies they say would effectively curtail their ability to study the health effects of environmental exposures.

In the spring, the EPA proposed a rule dubbed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” which would restrict the use of studies if researchers have not released all of their raw data, potentially including medical records.

The Trump administration said this would be a step forward by ensuring data and methods could be checked for accuracy, echoing a long-running argument from industry and by some in Congress.

Scientists’ reactions were immediate, widespread and negative. Hundreds of researchers and dozens of public health organizations said the proposal would quash important research into the health effects of pollution and chemicals. No longer would they be able to promise confidentiality of medical records to people who take part in research studies, which would have a chilling effect on their willingness to participate.

Many of the submitted comments noted that such a law would have undermined key studies that led to pollution laws and the current zeitgeist about the interaction of environmental and human health.

Case in point: The seminal 1993 “Six Cities” research by Harvard scientists linking air pollution to premature death. That study did not disclose the identities of its 22,000 participants or their medical information.

In 1997, the study’s findings led to new restrictions under the Clean Air Act for fine particles, tiny pieces of soot, dust, carbon and other pollutants that get inhaled deep into the lungs, potentially causing asthma, lung cancer and other health conditions. By 2020, those rules are expected to prevent more than 230,000 early deaths.

Scientists say the administration is handicapping their ability to do important research. The plan comes amid other efforts critics see as attacking science, such as removing information from government websites about climate change, restricting who can sit on EPA advisory boards and proposing more narrow safety reviews of chemicals.

“By attacking the science that talks about adverse effects on health,” the administration hopes to allow deregulation but also claim “they are not harming people,” Francesca Dominici, professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The range and scope of the proposed changes has brought praise from some in industry and agriculture for loosening restrictions and giving states more flexibility. But the changes frustrate public health and environmental health advocates.

“We would like to be moving forward rather than fighting these kind of rollbacks,” Janice Nolan, assistant vice president for policy at the American Lung Association, said.