Letters from the West

Breathe deeply: Trump hasn’t gutted EPA yet, and many will defend clean air, water

A former Atlanta Gold Co. employee shows a previous water treatment system at its mine site outside Atlanta in 2008. In the background is a holding pond filled with orange-colored water from ferroarsenate, which still drains from an old mine there.
A former Atlanta Gold Co. employee shows a previous water treatment system at its mine site outside Atlanta in 2008. In the background is a holding pond filled with orange-colored water from ferroarsenate, which still drains from an old mine there.

President Donald Trump and his administration have left little doubt that protecting the environment won’t be a top priority.

His campaign promise was clear: He would get rid of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form.” His choice of climate change skeptic Myron Ebell, a native of eastern Oregon, to lead his EPA transition team made that apparent.

His pick for EPA administrator was Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general regularly sued the EPA, often alongside donors in the oil and gas industry. That proved his intentions to cut back regulations that businesses and Trump supporters say stunt economic growth and new jobs.

A one-sentence mention about promoting “clean air and clear water” was the only statement he made about the environment or public lands in his speech Tuesday night. That showed how little he cares about an issue that President Barack Obama made central to his presidency.

Now environmental advocates and even some Republican members of Congress are bracing for coming budget cuts. Anonymous administration leaks on the proposal say EPA cuts could total 24 percent of the agency’s $6 billion budget.

Many of the cuts are expected to aim at programs and staff that provide research and outreach on climate change, including partnership programs with states, local governments and Indian tribes. What isn’t clear is how these cuts will affect programs on the ground.

Idaho gets at least $36 million annually in federal matching dollars to help communities pay for local programs and state employees who protect streams and drinking water. Idaho’s tribes also get money.

I can relate to those who are fearful about the threat to environmental protection. But I say take a deep breath. Don’t overreact.

And if you are one of the majority of Idahoans who voted for Trump and are delighted that finally regulatory reform is coming, keep your expectations in check. Both sides should be vigilant and stay involved.

Even if Trump and his operatives want to get rid of the EPA and pass most of the responsibility for air and water protection to the states, it just won’t happen. Congress will limit the depth of the proposed cuts.

Members of Congress won’t survive long if they allow regular occurrences of crises like the lead poisoning of children in Flint, Mich. A week ago in Idaho, authorities said 4 Bros. Dairy intentionally pumped material from its 10,000-cow dairy into the Big Wood Canal Co.’s canal in Shoshone, and the pollution is showing up in people’s drinking water.

The Twin Falls Times News reported that South Central Public Health Department ordered homes within a 20-mile radius of the dairy to boil water, and that water from 20 homes is being tested.

“The water has a definite light green color and a definite smell. We’ve never had the smell or color before,” said Lynn Harmon of the Big Wood Canal Co., who ordered the dairy to quit dumping.

In floods and high water, these kind of events were routine in rural Idaho — until the EPA stepped in and ordered Idaho to enforce the Clean Water Act in the 1990s. The agency even forced some dairies and feedlots that wouldn’t stop pollution, or couldn’t because of the cost, to go out of business.

In the ’90s, some people complained to me that this amounted to over-regulation. I doubt many would make that case today.

Most would agree with Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, who says, “clean air and clean water are not luxuries.”

I’m sure there’s fat that can be trimmed in the federal budget, as House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley told the Idaho Press Club this week. He noted that in the recession, Idaho cut its overall budgets by about a quarter and we all survived.

But it did come at a price. One of the cuts was monitoring water quality in many of Idaho’s streams, which eroded the baseline data we need to keep cleanup programs on track.

Idaho is today paying million of dollars to take over the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit system because it was so understaffed by the EPA that communities and businesses couldn’t get permits in a timely fashion.

Idaho’s air pollution is not just a locally created problem but includes pollution coming all the way from China, underscoring the need for robust federal involvement with the states to protect the air we breathe.

Trump isn’t going to get rid of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act or other key environmental laws that protect us. And if the agencies drop the ball? The example of how the Idaho Conservation League and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center successfully sued Atlanta Gold because of its arsenic pollution of the Boise River shows there is a final line of defense.

“Where the state won’t enforce the law, we will,” the ICL’s Johnson said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker