Congressional representative Elise Stefanik should invite the new head of the U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, to visit her district. She might introduce Mr. Pruitt to the homeowners in Ballston Spa whose homes have been turned upside down thanks to release of some very bad chemicals from a nearby, now closed dry cleaning facility.
In July 2016, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requested that EPA perform an environmental assessment. In August 2016, the EPA collected air samples and detected high levels of chloroform; TCE (trichloroethylene); PCE; vinyl chloride; benzene; and naphthalene. These chemicals are likely in the ground water as well. This winter, EPA is evaluating homes downstream of the dry cleaners for vapor intrusion into those homes.
Or she might introduce Mr. Pruitt to the homeowners in Hoosick Falls whose lives have been turned upside down by the very dangerous and cancer causing PFOA (used in making teflon coating) contamination of their village drinking water. Here, it’s well documented that far from being a leader in alerting Hoosick Falls, the State of New York was a follower. Without some very determined, resourceful residents and the US EPA’s intervention homeowners might still not be aware that their village water was causing illness and deaths in their families.
This is the same EPA about which Scott Pruitt, during his confirmation hearing, could not name a single positive EPA regulation which benefited the country. This is the same EPA which, says Pruitt, should hand off much regulatory oversight to the individual states. These observations come from former regional administrator of EPA, Judith Enck, who has been speaking to the media since she left the EPA in January.
I am just scratching at the southern edges of Congresswoman Stefanik’s vast district. Many other examples of how EPA is investigating pollution in her district could be cited. Before he repeals the Clean Power Rule and withdraws funds from the Paris Climate Accord, as promised, Mr. Pruitt could also be taken on a tour by tens of thousands of New Yorkers impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The odds are that during his 4 years at EPA Scott Pruitt will be forced to confront the powerful reality of climate change upon Americans.
Pruitt’s record in protecting Oklahoma residents from fracking-induced earthquakes appears appallingly, willfully negligent. I imagine Trump and Pruitt may have suffered nature deficits as children, never exploring for fish, frogs and fireflies, or taken on tours of local, state or national parks, or the Adirondack Park. I have no idea if this is true. Yet, the lack of curiosity about science and empathy for people shown by Trump is suggestive. We don’t all have to grow up like Rachel Carson, who never lost her deep curiosity and protective instincts for the natural world and for the young nephew under her care, to appreciate the damage caused by nature deficits or even nature hostility in those wielding power. Yet, here are these men, Trump and Pruitt, in power and here is EPA, created under Republican Nixon, the poster child for “regulatory overreach” by a new breed of Washington Republicans whose aim is the “deconstruction” of the federal government. Any fool can (eventually) kick down a barn.
I come back to Rachel Carson. I was spellbound with the recent PBS American Experience about her life culminating in Silent Spring (1962). Even as I was allowed to tent camp with my sister in our woods in Maine (not too far from the comfort of the house lights) my grandmother and parents were drenching the big sycamore tree we played under every day with DDT. Yet, the spraying abruptly stopped after Silent Spring, and the subsequent CBS interview with Rachel Carson in 1963. The powders, emulsions and other DDT products used on our property every week sat in their original boxes, cans and jars in our backshed for years until we took them to an EPA-approved facility. The impact Rachel Carson had on the public consciousness and habits of our family and families across the country about casual use of biocides, and the impacts of Silent Spring on President Kennedy and subsequent Presidents – probably on President Nixon, too – were revolutionary.
And so, U.S. EPA came into existence and the biocide manufacturers came under regulation for the first time. During his hearing Scott Pruitt could at least have cited the ban on DDT as a benefit to Americans. Perhaps he is unaware that a bare fraction of the chemical compounds we use every day in this country have still received any toxocology study or regulatory oversight whatsoever. This is regulatory under-reach at EPA. It’s likely Pruitt has never read Silent Spring. You think? Then again, fifty-five years on, perhaps it’s time we all re-read it. I’m about to do just that.
I close on Judith Enck. Judith is one of my modern day heroes. As regional head of U.S. EPA for seven years, Judith was a very accessible environmental leader. She held listening sessions and workshops in the Adirondacks and all over the State and New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. We learned from her what the Clean Power Rule was all about, and how much flexibility it offered the states. We learned from her why NYS could no longer ignore its aging public sewer and water infrastructure, and what the price tag really was. We learned from her how much Hurricanes Sandy and Irene impacted her personally, and how determined she was to impart to the rest of us the climate lessons of these extreme weather events. We learned from her what informed, science-based and moral leadership looks like during the PFOA groundwater contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls. When in trying to protect a large wetland near my home from over-development I sought EPA’s help, Enck responded and directed me to a helpful person at EPA. The list is long of how well and often she communicated what EPA was doing and why it mattered to me and to you. Thank you, Judith.
Photo: EPA’s Judith Enck by Cindy Schultz, Times Union.