Beyond the glare of official Washington, the story of President Donald Trump’s retreat on the environment is unfolding in extraordinarily consequential ways for the health and safety of Americans.
In just two years, Trump has unleashed a regulatory rollback, lobbied for and cheered on by industry, with little parallel in the past half-century. Trump enthusiastically promotes the changes as creating jobs, freeing business from the shackles of government and helping the economy grow.
The trade-offs, while often out of public view, are real — frighteningly so, for some people — imperiling progress in cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink, and in some cases upending the very relationship with the environment around us.
Since Trump took office, his approach on the environment has been to neutralize the most rigorous Obama-era restrictions, nearly 80 of which have been blocked, delayed or targeted for repeal, according to an analysis of data by The New York Times.
With this running start, Trump is already on track to leave an indelible mark on the American landscape, even with a decline in some major pollutants from the ever-shrinking coal industry. While Washington has been consumed by scandals surrounding the president’s top officials on environmental policy — both the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the interior secretary have been driven from his Cabinet — Trump’s vision is taking root in places as diverse as rural California and urban Texas.
In California, where over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown, farmworkers are being sickened by a pesticide that the Obama administration tried to ban. Picking cabbages last year, Bricmary Lopez, a mother of three, had to be stripped naked, showered in a decontamination tent and taken by ambulance to a hospital 20 miles away.
In the heart of West Virginia’s coal country, the state’s largest inland waterway is still being contaminated with hundreds of pounds of selenium, a pollutant that can wipe out aquatic life, while a coal-burning power plant in the suburban sprawl of Houston, one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises, is getting a free pass to continue spewing harmful levels of sulfur dioxide into the air.
Far to the north, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, booming energy production has brought greater prosperity, but pollutants from the burning and venting of methane are threatening health problems. Lisa DeVille, a member of a local tribe, learned last year that she had a respiratory ailment more commonly associated with people who work in the oil industry.
While the Obama administration sought to tackle pollution problems in all four states and nationally, Trump’s regulatory ambitions extend beyond Republican distaste for what they considered unilateral overreach by his Democratic predecessor; pursuing them in full force, Trump would shift the debate about the environment sharply in the direction of industry interests, further unraveling what had been, before the Obama administration, a loose bipartisan consensus dating in part to the Nixon administration.
In the words of Walter DeVille, who lives on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, “This is our reality now.”
An investigation by The New York Times showed how Trump’s deregulatory policies are starting to have substantial impact on those who experience them close up — and often are economically dependent on the industries the president is trying to help.
Here are five takeaways:
Trump has quickly undercut Obama’s legacy
President Barack Obama made protecting the environment a big part of his legacy. His administration, over eight years, carefully developed rules designed to clean up the environment, deter climate change and protect against dangerous chemicals. Many were completed in the final stretch of his presidency, often in ways that bypassed Congress.
But industry consistently balked at those regulations, calling them an overreach, duplicative and unnecessary, unleashing a backlash that has informed Trump’s approach.
So, with equal decisiveness, Trump has sought to undo his predecessor’s agenda by blocking, delaying and killing measures. The Trump administration cited its rollbacks as a victory and the fulfillment of a campaign promise.
The rapid change in policy direction shows how both presidents used their expansive executive powers — but for very different outcomes.
Environmental impacts span the country
The early impacts of the Trump rollbacks are beginning to emerge across the country, from California to North Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.
The Times visited the communities facing these changes, and found that local residents and business leaders are often divided. Some believe that the Obama administration went too far in imposing new environmental demands, while others worry that the changes the Trump administration is making will hurt their families, in particular their children.
The geographic diversity of the places grappling with the trade-offs highlights how pervasive the connections are between natural resources, health and economic opportunity.
In the vast farmlands of central California, day care centers have to take account of pesticide-spraying schedules. The local government’s revenues on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota have grown to $330 million from $20 million over the last 15 years because of vast fossil fuel reserves that can now be pumped from the ground using fracking. National forests 400 miles away can be clouded with haze produced by a coal-fired power plant near Houston.
The rollbacks touch air, water, chemicals and climate
No parts of the federal government during the Trump era have been more aggressive in rolling back rules than the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, which between them regulate much of the intersection between the environment and the economy. Together their rule changes have touched nearly every aspect of environmental protection, including air pollution caused by power plants and the oil and gas industry, water pollution caused by coal mines, and toxic chemicals and pesticides used by farmers nationwide.
In short, what is at stake is the quality of the air we breathe and the food we eat, the cleanliness of the rivers that flow past us, and the pace at which the climate is changing. Two years after Trump took office, the policy shifts are not nearly complete; dozens of other rules have been targeted for rollback.
After decades of legislation and regulation, the environment in the United States continues to get cleaner. What has changed under Trump in most cases is the pace of improvement, which has been slowed in a number of key areas compared to what it would have been if the Obama rules had been preserved.
The decline of coal has not been stopped
If there is a single industry that has been at the center of the fight — both during the Obama expansion of rules and the Trump rollbacks — it is coal. Obama targeted the industry as a way to combat climate change. Trump has defended and promoted it as part of his populist political and economic strategy.
Trump’s approach has been to slow demands for further steps to curb air and water pollution caused by coal-burning power plants.
The tug-of-war involves coal mines as well, which were ordered by Obama to take steps to help clean thousands of miles of rivers and streams, only be told by Trump that these measures were no longer necessary.
What has not changed is the decline of coal — both coal mines and coal-burning power plants. Even as Trump has used his executive powers to help the industry, coal production in the United States continues to decline. As the Energy Department announced this month, the country’s coal consumption for 2018 is “expected to be the lowest in 39 years.” The decline is mostly a result of power plants shifting away from burning coal.
Progress is slowing — but there’s still progress
At the core of the fight between environmentalists and the Trump administration is a debate over a simple question: How much improvement is enough? By some measures — such as overall emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two major air pollutants that cause smoke and haze and a variety of health ailments — environmental quality in the United States has continued to improve in the Trump era.
That is in large part because of the rapid closure of more coal-burning power plants. But the pace of those declines would almost certainly have been greater had Obama-era policies continued. So what is happening in the United States is a slowing of the pace of progress — not a return to the era, before the EPA was created in 1970, where a river in Ohio caught fire.
Another factor is that environmental change happens slowly. So the real impact of the Trump-era policies may not be fully apparent until years after Trump leaves office.