Why the United States Needs the Environmental Protection Agency

A guest post by Greg Schiefer, Anne Fairbrother, Wayne Landis, Keith Solomon, Ralph Stahl, Jane Staveley

We are worried about the recently released White House budget and the failure to customarily renew one-term members of a key review panel, in particular, the Board of Scientific Counselors. Financial cuts and the absence of scientific rigor and integrity will permanently alter the way science informs policy.

Specifically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack, and we are compelled to speak up in its defense as representatives of a leading professional society composed of environmental scientists working in academia, business, NGOs and government. We are writing to both defend the science produced by the EPA and to express deep concerns with the unprecedented efforts to undercut EPA’s goal of protecting the nation’s environment and the health of U.S. citizens.

The massive reductions in resourcing for FY2018 proposed by this administration will interrupt or permanently end research in environmental protection and health implications and eliminate cleanup activities. Critical programs will be reduced or eliminated. EPA regional offices will be forced to close, which will reduce compliance monitoring and enforcement. Research on climate change will cease, which will hinder mitigation efforts. The calls to eliminate EPA or reduce its scope are short sighted and will be detrimental not only to the environment but to the health of people living in the U.S. Reducing EPA funding will also impact the multibillion-dollar chemical industry by increasing the time to obtain necessary permits and market new chemicals, stymie manufacturing, and eliminate jobs.

Without the science developed by the EPA, we would not have recognized the danger from lead in Flint’s drinking water, nor would we know how to predict the effects of pesticides on birds, pollinators, or people. The EPA supports monitoring done by individual states to ensure that streams and rivers are clean enough for fish and other wildlife and that sewer discharges do not interfere with drinking water supplies. EPA science evaluates new chemicals for human cancer risks and designs remediation techniques that have improved contaminated sites. The current administration has already made clear its intention to deprioritize EPA research on climate change, failing to recognize the undisputable danger greenhouse gasses present to lives, property, and the economy. EPA regulations protect human health and the environment by providing a level playing field upon which industries can compete while maintaining the high standard of healthy living U.S. citizens have come to demand.

The EPA was established by an Executive Order signed by President Nixon on 7 December 1970 and later ratified by the House and Senate with bipartisan support. The EPA was tasked with administering the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (amended 1970), the Clean Drinking Water Act (1974), the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, 1976), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA, updated 1972), and governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976) and the Superfund program (1980).

Prior to the establishment of the EPA, there was inadequate oversight of drinking water, water quality of streams and rivers, and hazardous waste discharge; pesticide use was regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and air discharges were managed by a patchwork of state laws. Environmental disasters abounded, including when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to the high amount of flammable chemicals in the water. Air pollution in cities resulted in regular smog alerts and higher rates of asthma in children, while lead pollution from car exhaust contaminated roadsides and elevated blood lead levels. Love Canal, NY, embodied the most dangerous practices of burying hazardous waste where it leached through soils into waterways, schools, and homes. These disasters demanded a scientific approach to cleaning up and managing risks associated with use of the chemicals that make possible our modern lifestyle and support an agricultural industry capable of sustaining a U.S. population of more than 320 million people.

Scientists worldwide recognize the immense contributions made over the years by the EPA in improving environmental quality and human health. The EPA has been a global leader developing scientific understanding and policies that have been copied in Canada, Europe, and beyond. The EPA has worked successfully to improve U.S. water quality, evaluate chemical safety for use, regulate disposal of hazardous waste, and manage the restoration of thousands of contaminated sites.  The research programs from EPA laboratories, such as those in Duluth, Minn., Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Corvallis, OR have resulted in easier and more efficient ways to manage chemicals in our environment. The EPA is host to the ECOTOX database – the globally recognized go-to place for data on chemical toxicity on humans, land and aquatic animals, as well as plants.

Our organization, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, was established in 1979, and grew up alongside the EPA. Our goal then, as now, was to enable a tripartite approach to science, bringing together researchers from academia, business, and government. Our members work in many of the leading universities, major corporations, and local and national agencies. We have found that this multiple scientific perspective is essential for achieving the insight and credibility needed to advance the use of science to inform the decisions and policies designed to protect our environment. This cooperative approach has seen many successes over the years, most recently in informing the restructuring of TSCA, renamed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.  With strong support from businesses and environmental advocacy groups, and nearly unanimous bipartisan cooperation in Congress, this Act allows the EPA to more efficiently and effectively ensure that chemicals used in our homes and workplaces do not present unreasonable risks to people and the environment.

Eliminating or greatly reducing the EPA will have a detrimental effect on environmental science and will lead to the same types of disasters that led to its establishment.  Pollution does not stop at state lines; it is imperative to have science based federal oversight protecting our resources. Hampering the EPA’s ability to enforce the laws and regulations that protect the health and well-being of our families will put businesses that strive to act responsibly – as do most leading corporations in the 21st century – at a disadvantage to those less responsible, weakening our country environmentally and economically.

Signed on behalf of the North America geographic unit of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry by:

Greg Schiefer, SETAC North America Executive Director

Anne Fairbrother, SETAC Fellow

Wayne Landis, Western Washington University, SETAC Fellow

Keith Solomon, University of Guelph, SETAC Fellow

Ralph Stahl, SETAC Fellow

Jane Staveley, SETAC Fellow

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