Candidate Donald Trump never made a secret of his contempt for the Environmental Protection Agency. Asked by Fox News what he would cut from government, Trump responded, "Environmental Protection. What they do is a disgrace."
Trump's pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, had sued the agency fourteen times before taking the helm. The President called for cutting the EPA's 2017 funding by $3 billion and trimming staff by 3,500. Congress balked, mostly funded the EPA, and restored full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an ambitious long-term regional agenda with roots in the second Bush Administration.
There was a brief sigh of relief in the environmental community before Trump's 2018 budget revived savage EPA cuts. Meanwhile, Pruitt has forged ahead with a sweeping review and rollback of decades of environmental rules protecting land, air, water, and people.
"This administration is unlike any we have seen before," says Kyla Bennett, director of the New England chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. A former EPA employee, she's seen policy shifts between administrations, but never this extreme. "This is literally a war," she says. "The administrator of the agency doesn't want the agency to exist. He is delegitimizing not only the people who work there but what they stand for. It's a war on science and the EPA."
It may be a war, but it is not a surprise attack. Pruitt's fights against the EPA and for his corporate allies are a matter of extensive public record. A New York Times analysis of his schedule during his first four months found it skewed toward corporate assignations and away from public advocates. Pruitt's office was righteous, without apology.
The headlines keep coming: "EPA Decides Not to Ban a Pesticide, Despite Its Own Evidence of Risk"; "EPA Now Requires Political Aide's Sign-Off for Agency Awards, Grant Applications"; "Goodbye Science, Hello Industry."
Gliding through it all, firm in his convictions and isolated from both protest and professional challenge, Pruitt may be Trump's most efficient operator. He argues that environmental protection should be, whenever possible, the purview of the states. And, in his view, natural resources exist to be used.
At a Heritage Foundation event in October, Pruitt evoked a mythical apple orchard, one he claims environmentalists would fence off. "We should harvest that apple orchard," Pruitt urged. "We should use it to benefit our fellow mankind, but with environmental stewardship in mind for future generations."
But can this work? What if that orchard is bordered by eight states and two nations? What if that orchard is the Great Lakes, which hold 20 percent of the world's surface freshwater?
In 2008, after years of groundwork, Great Lakes states and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario forged the Great Lakes Compact, which regulated the movement of water out of the basin. That was a state-led initiative.
But before the EPA was created in 1970, the Great Lakes were largely run by the states and were in deep trouble--Lake Erie was once even declared dead. It was the EPA that sparked a Great Lakes revival that continues today, its progress hanging in the political balance.
"The EPA represents the federal backstop and leadership to make sure that the Great Lakes are protected and restored for all people, today and tomorrow," says Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "It is the foundation upon which the protections for the Great Lakes are built."
After World War II, Gary, Indiana, was a boom town. Postwar economic expansion kept the area's steel mills continuously producing. And polluting: U.S. Steel's facility annually released more than two hundred fifty tons of pollutants into the air. Three hundred million gallons of liquid waste sluiced daily into Gary's waterways. The city was on the road to its punchline designation as "the armpit of America."
Soot was everywhere, tap water ran foul, and infant mortality rates rose sharply. In the 1960s, a regional effort began to coax industry toward some kind of pollution control for the Calumet River, which plumbed the shorefront industrial complexes of South Chicago and northern Indiana. Environmental law was new, and...