EPA: Let’s Low-key Save the Earth

By Robin Ye

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an unequivocally great federal agency. I’ve never been in another place that has inspired so much belief in a worthy mission. The EPA’s mission is “to protect human health and the environment” – and it does a damn good job at it. Even after one summer internship, I’m pretty convinced this won’t be my last tour through the EPA when it’s all said and done.

The EPA is a relatively small federal agency. Its 15,000 person workforce is the smallest its been since 1990. Its $8.1+ billion budget is smaller than all the other Executive Departments except Commerce. However, the EPA, under the Obama Administration, is one of the most aggressive. You can tell this because more than half of the states have lined up to sue over the landmark Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule. Naturally, House Republicans have responded by voting to slash the EPA’s 2017 FY budget by 34%, after a previously approved 9% reduction failed to pass the House because of some pesky Confederate flag amendments to the appropriations bill. Don’t be surprised if there are threats of a government shutdown over key parts of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

If you care about Democratic politics the health of the planet and human civilization, then what the EPA is doing should interest you greatly. If you don’t care about the intrinsic and inherent benefits of the natural world and collective society, then you could at least get on board with not breathing polluted air, drinking clean water, and saving tons of money over time. Report after report, analysis after analysis shows that the benefits of climate mitigation and adaptation towards cleaner fuels, sustainable energy, and better, less-polluting, less-toxic environmental practices far outweigh the (potential) short-term economic costs. Like any economic phenomenon there are winners and losers from any regulation, but we’re all better off if human health is protected by reducing water toxicity and improving air quality.

According to the budget (FY 2016), the federal government has taken on more than $300 billion in direct costs from the effects of extreme weather, such as floods, wildfires, and crop losses. Across the American West, a place near and dear to my heart, climate change has made wildfire season longer and more intense. Snow has melted earlier, rainfall has decreased, and our governments, fire districts, and emergency responders are not given enough resources. Beyond the clear danger to life and property in the burn zone, smoke and ash from large wildfires produces problematic levels of air pollution, threatening the health of thousands of people, often hundreds of miles away from where these wildfires burn.  Pollution emitted by these wildfires is extremely high and even more potent for the vulnerable, like the elderly and those with heart conditions; there have been increased emergency room visits for asthma sufferers and others with respiratory conditions.

We’re approaching a new norm of weather and climate trends. In the last month, California has experienced drought, flooding, and wildfires. Right here in Washington, D.C/Maryland/Virginia this summer we’ve had both the wettest June ever and the most summer days over 90 degrees ever recorded (and summer still has a month to go).

It’s an issue not just for the EPA or the U.S. It’s on the international Stage. With the Pope’s “Laudato Si” encyclical this summer, faith-based leaders have now spoken too. It’s more than simply an “environmental issue” – it’s an issue for all that we all need to address together. The stakes are high: President Obama and the world community’s aim, this December in Paris, is to reach, for the first time, a universal, legally binding agreement that will enable us to combat climate change effectively and boost the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies. COP 21, the climate conference where this will be discussed, hopes to be Kyoto 2.0, but this time led by the U.S.

Climate regulation is an opportunity, not a barrier, to smart and sustainable community development. It’s an opportunity we can seize to grow industries, create jobs, and build a modern, 21st-century clean energy economy. Investments in public health and environmental protection are consistent with strong economic growth. Economic prosperity and quality of life depends on public health protection that ensures clean air; clean water; and safe, healthy land. Healthy people, and healthy industry, need these things.

We at the EPA are here to protect human health and the environment. We protect the environment for humankind not from humankind. The environment and its riches give us many wonderful health, economic, and cultural benefits. The environment defines our communities. It is celebrated for its beauty. From the environment all things flow – for the environment it giveth and taketh away. This is no hyperbole. We are the last generation that can do something about climate change.

P.S. Yes, the timing of my boast about the EPA may be ill-timed. You might have heard about the EPA, accidentally spilling 3 million gallons of wastewater on August 5th near Silverton, Colorado from the Gold King Mine into the Animus River. The irony is wrought, I understand, especially given the Clean Water Rule finalized this summer, reinforcing the Clean Water Act. However, technical error aside, let’s not lose sight that the larger problem is that negligent oil and mineral companies have excavated the land and then abandoned the waste for environmental groups to clean up and protect public health. In Colorado alone there are 14,000 (known) abandoned mines that have not been cleaned up, many of which are leaking toxic discharge into river headstreams. The solution to these public health problems would NOT be to defund the very agencies that are capable of cleaning up these messes.

Note: in case you found any of this “old news,” this was written about a month ago.

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