For 37 mostly female farm-workers in California's Central Valley, U.S. policy under Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt became personal not long after sunup one day in May 2017.
Continue Reading Below
Picking cabbage that morning, the workers noticed a tarry smell drifting from a nearby orchard. Mouths and lips tingled or went numb. Throats went dry. Soon some workers were vomiting and collapsing.
Officials in California's farm-rich Kern County, where the workers fell ill, concluded that the harvesters were reacting to a pesticide, chlorpyrifos, misapplied at the neighboring orchard.
Five weeks before, in one of his first acts at EPA, Pruitt had reversed an Obama-era initiative to ban all food crop uses of the pesticide, which damages the brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children and has been prohibited as a household bug-killer since 2001.
While the new ban would not have gone into effect by the time of the Central Valley incident, Pruitt's action postponed any further consideration of barring the popular bug-killer on food crops at least through 2022. Chlorpyrifos is crucial to agriculture, and the farms using it need "regulatory certainty," Pruitt's EPA said in announcing his March 2017 decision, using a phrase that would become a watchword for his business-friendly environmental rulings.
In all, the Trump administration has targeted at least 45 environmental rules, including 25 at EPA, according to a rollback tracker by Harvard Law School's energy and environment program. The EPA rule changes would affect regulation of air, water and climate change, and transform how the EPA makes its regulatory decisions.
Pruitt, who resigned Thursday after months of ethics scandals, announced many of the policy changes quickly, and former EPA officials and environmental group predict that his proposed rollbacks will be vulnerable to court challenges.
"The world is focusing on Pruitt and his indiscretions, but they're minuscule when you look at the impact of that change" on decision-making, said Chris Zarba, who quit this year as coordinator of two of the agency's science advisory panels.
He was referring to allegations, now the subject of several federal investigations, about Pruitt's lavish spending on travel and security, including a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth, and claims that he misused his office for personal gain, including seeking a fast-food franchise for his wife.
"This is not phone booths and Chick-fil-A issues," Zarba said. "This is Americans' lives."
EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson defended the agency's work under Pruitt, although some achievements Ferguson noted were largely completed in previous administrations.
"The science is clear, under President Trump greenhouse gas emissions are down, Superfund sites are being cleaned up at a higher rate than under President Obama, and the federal government is investing more money to improve water infrastructure than ever before," the EPA spokesman said in a statement. The EPA declined to make an official available to speak directly on Pruitt's policy initiatives.
Among Pruitt's actions and proposals:
President Donald Trump, who famously called manmade climate-change an "expensive hoax" before his election, declared last summer that the United States would pull out of the Paris global accord on cutting climate-changing emissions from coal plants and other sources.
Pruitt, for his part, said he doesn't believe humans are one of the main causes of climate changes.
Pruitt in October formally proposed the repeal of an Obama-era rule targeting climate-changing emissions from electricity plants powered by coal and other fossil fuels, part of his pro-coal and gas policies. "The war against coal is over," Pruitt told Kentucky coal miners then.
The Obama rule would have cut power plant emissions by one-third. The Obama administration projected that it would prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths a year from air pollution.
Pruitt's other proposals affecting clean air include allowing truck-builders to retrofit new tractor-trailer bodies with old diesel engines that were built before tougher pollution standards. He called the Obama administration's ban on the dirtier truck engines an example of regulatory overreach that "threatened to put an entire industry of specialized truck manufacturers out of business."
Though just a tiny niche in overall truck sales, the Obama administration said the retrofitted trucks would account for up to 1,600 early deaths each year from the soot alone.
Pruitt suspended an Obama-era version of a rule that ultimately governs what farmers, ranchers and businesspeople must do to protect water flowing through their property on its way to lakes, oceans and bays.
The so-called Waters of the United States rule impacts the water supply for people and wildlife. Pruitt, who had not yet publicly released his rewritten version of the rule when he resigned, told Nebraska farmers that his version would provide clarity and regulatory reform. "That's how you save the economy $1 billion dollars," he added.
Americans already are living with results of slowdowns and rollbacks in environmental regulation, said Elizabeth Southerland, who resigned last year as director of science and technology of the EPA's Office of Water.
"Everybody in the country is now exposed to ongoing pollution, future environmental crises, because so many of these are being repealed," Southerland said.
Pruitt boosted industrial and business representation on panels that advise the EPA. Other Pruitt changes called for more consideration of the costs of environmental rules. And a major Pruitt change would allow EPA decision-makers to consider only studies for which all the underlying data is available.
Supporters say those changes are broadening the EPA's decision-making and making it more transparent.
Opponents said that change could throw out the kind of decades-long public-health studies, using confidential patient information, that drove landmark regulation of air pollutants and other threats.
Pruitt also paused or slowed action on some other regulations that were started but not completed during the Obama administration, as with chlorpyrifos.
Chlorpyrifos used as directed offers "wide margins of protection for human health and safety," said Gregg M. Schmidt, spokesman for DowDupont Inc., maker of the pesticide.
Industries said Pruitt's EPA is giving business and economic impacts the consideration and input that past administrations long denied them.
"This is about how you find the appropriate balance here, where we can continue to make significant progress in environmental and health protection while continuing to benefit the economy," said Mike Walls, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council trade group.
"The fact that industry no longer has an adversary in its government, and specifically at the EPA, is a huge step forward in common sense regulation," said Ashley Burke of the National Mining Association. The mining group's members include coal companies, which stand to benefit from proposed Pruitt rollbacks of Obama-era initiatives on fossil-fuel power plants and disposal of toxic coal ash.
Pruitt had put on hold the Obama administration's attempt to ban consumer sales of paint strippers containing the compound methylene chloride. But he reversed course in May after meeting with families of men who died after using paint stripper.
Brian Wynne, brother of 31-year-old Drew, is grateful. But if Pruitt's EPA had never stayed the rule in the first place, Brian Wynne believes, methylene chloride may already have been out of stores by fall 2017, when his brother went to a South Carolina home-goods store to buy paint stripper to use on the floor of his cold-brew coffee company. Drew Wynne was found dead at the business last October, killed by methylene chloride, according to coroners.