When Scott Pruitt visited Boise in June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator was facing a series of ethics and spending scandals, overshadowing his announcement that Idaho would take control of a key water pollution oversight program.
Controversy surrounding the EPA leader continued to drown out news of policy changes occurring at the agency until Pruitt’s resignation last month. But many of the regulatory rollbacks that began during his tenure — from auto emissions to mining cleanup — are deeply concerning to environmental groups and could have lasting impacts around Idaho and the West.
Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is expected to stay on the same deregulation path as Pruitt, experts say, following President Donald Trump’s campaign promises of clearing environmental rules and red tape.
“It’s all about greasing the skids for what they believe is in the best interests of business,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League and one of several people who met with Pruitt in Boise.
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Indeed, at least two Idaho industry groups approve of the pending rule changes. The Idaho Farm Bureau said it was pleased the EPA suspended a rule limiting pollution in small waterways, and rejected a proposed ban on the insecticide chlorpyrifos. And the Idaho Mining Association backed scrapping a proposal requiring mining companies to prove they can fund pollution cleanup.
“It is encouraging to see the administration live up to its promise to roll back regulation at the federal level,” said Sean Ellis, an Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman, adding other regulatory areas should be left to states.
Environmental groups, of course, take an opposing view.
“We’re seeing a pretty systematic approach,” said Austin Hopkins, an associate at the Conservation League. “If it’s good for the environment, they’re against it.”
Fuel economy standards loosened
The latest EPA policy shift came on Thursday, when the agency proposed a rollback of fuel economy standards mandated under the Obama administration.
Instead of ratcheting up average fuel efficiency requirements for new cars to about 50 mpg by 2025, the Trump administration said it would freeze in place the 2020 requirements of about 35 mpg. It also said California could no longer set its own, more aggressive vehicle emissions rules.
Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, said the changes aimed to “strike the right regulatory balance” for consumers, indicating the looser standards would help keep the cost of new cars down.
But environmental experts argue the change will quickly unravel progress made on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at UCLA, recently wrote the rollback would be “the single most consequential and devastating act against Obama-era climate policies the Trump Administration has taken.”
That’s because the transportation sector “is experiencing increases in emissions and just surpassed the electricity sector as the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. Recent contributing factors to the emissions growth include low gas prices, more driving and a purchasing shift toward less fuel-efficient SUVs.
The looser fuel economy standards also will hurt air quality in the Treasure Valley over the long run, Hopkins said, a region already nearing the limit on federal ozone pollution standards.
“The more people that live here, the more cars we have and the less efficient those cars are — the more we’re going to press against those federal standards for air quality,” he said.
Potentially harmful insecticide allowed
As Obama left office, the EPA was preparing to ban chlorpyrifos — an insecticide widely used on crops in Idaho and elsewhere — after studies found exposure could potentially cause brain damage and other health problems for children and farm workers.
The chemical had already been banned in 2000 for most household uses, such as bug killers, due to its dangers.
But by spring 2017, Pruitt had signed an order scrapping the ban. He argued the previous administration’s decision had relied largely on “novel and uncertain” scientific study outcomes. The order contradicted recommendations by his agency’s own chemical experts, and the conclusions of research at Columbia University and elsewhere.
The insecticide — frequently sprayed on Idaho sugar beets, corn, wheat and other crops — will continue to be used, which is a welcome development for the Idaho Farm Bureau, Ellis said.
First registered in 1965, chlorpyrifos “has been approved several times, which means it has passed a host of strict federal pesticide safety standards,” the spokesman said.
Clean water rule suspended
In January, the EPA suspended a controversial Clean Water Act rule created under the Obama administration, and previously set to take effect this year.
The “Waters of the United States” rule — hotly debated in Idaho for several years — added many smaller tributaries to the list of protected streams and wetlands, even if water didn’t flow in them year-round. The goal was to better protect these smaller waterways from pollution, such as fertilizers.
Proponents of the Obama-era rule said it provided much-needed clarity on which bodies of water are protected, and which environmental standards must be met by landowners. But farmers and various industry groups in Idaho and around the West came out strongly against the regulation, saying it was overly broad and an unnecessary power grab. The Trump EPA is expected to release its own, less stringent version of the rule sometime this year.
“Our members are glad that common sense is finally prevailing,” said Ellis of the Farm Bureau, “and that EPA is recognizing that they have no legal authority to regulate practically every area that is wet, or could possibly become wet.”
Mining cleanup regulation halted
Idaho and surrounding western states have a long history with toxic pollution from hard rock mining — from the silver, zinc and lead operations contaminating the Silver Valley in north Idaho, to a gold and antimony mine recently leaking heavy metals into the South Fork of the Salmon River.
A proposed Obama-era EPA rule — published shortly after he left office — would have required mining companies to prove they had the financial ability to clean up their mines, by acquiring bonds or insurance.
But Pruitt dropped the rule late last year. He said it was unnecessary because of “modern industry practices,” as well as existing state and federal requirements that deal with such pollution risks. The rule “would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy,” Pruitt said; the same press release quoted Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who called the decision “another victory for returning power to the states.”
The reversal was concerning to the Idaho Conservation League, which has been involved in a lawsuit over the issue. Hopkins pointed out mining is the largest source of legacy pollution in the country, and Idaho in particular “has a significant history of mining.”
“We’re left with the health risks, we’re left with the polluted air and the polluted water, and we’re left footing the bill, and that’s not OK,” he said. “We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the public — both economically and from a health perspective — and we’re going to be keeping track of that [issue] pretty closely.”
Benjamin Davenport, executive vice president of the Idaho Mining Association, said his organization’s members welcomed the rule reversal. He echoed Pruitt’s argument, saying “technologically advanced” mining practices and existing regulations already “are adequately covering the risk to the environment and the taxpayer.”
He pointed to an EPA estimate that projected industry costs of complying with the rule were as much as $171 million per year, which he said would translate to job cuts in rural America.
The Idaho Conservation League’s Johnson said he is trying to remain optimistic about the sweeping EPA policy changes, considering the often drawn-out nature of revising government regulations.
“There is certainly an objective on (the Trump administration’s) part to speed it up as fast as possible. Not surprisingly, there is an effort on our part to slow it down,” he said. “A lot of these things have been announced, proposed — but they haven’t happened yet. We will see.”