Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dave Gibson on EPA: Rachel Carson, Richard Nixon, and Judith Enck

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.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

29 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    Well written, David!

  2. Boreas says:


    Good article! If anyone, I would think Adirondackers would have a strong appreciation for the EPA. Acid rain and mercury poisoning certainly are not mythical consequences of dirty power generated to our west. Only a strong, national regulating agency can effectively take on pollution across state lines. Our region (as most do) depends on clean air and water.

    • Paul says:

      In the Adirondacks we have a very good example of how Federal things are managed well by a state agency.

      As an example in the Adirondacks the APA regulates wetlands.

      I have seen first hand where the EPA has come in to check in to check on a project with wetlands involved and the APA was apparently doing a good job (a project on property that I own). They left me a very nice letter. They were not supposed to come on the property without giving me a heads up – but I didn’t mind.

      • Scott says:

        Check out the cemetery in Saranac Lake at the end of Forest Home Rd at Ampersand Ave and look in the back where the cemetery borders Little Colby Pond’s marshlands. Check out the after the fact APA letter to cover that wetland violation.

  3. Boreasfisher says:

    Some advice you may find helpful: engage brain before running mouth.

  4. Lorraine Duvall says:

    Thanks David. How can we arrange a meeting between Judith Enck and Congresswoman Stefanik?

  5. Randy P says:

    Thanks for a very good article. It’s going to be a rough ride for so many of us who don’t live in a bubble world made by billionaire hedge fund and real estate tycoons, or by naive, misinformed politicians who have promised to eliminate the very federal agencies they now will head. Pruitt’s Oklahoma is becoming an earthquake zone thanks to the draining of the massive aquifer under its surface (and several other states) for oil and gas extraction. I “get” the need for jobs and energy independence in our country, but not at the expense of the health of ourselves and our future generations. Those who blindly follow along with this current adminstration’s “alternative” reality will soon realize they play no part in the overall “game” being played out across our country, but will come to realize they are merely expendable pawns. I wish Mr Sage all the best when his beloved Adirondacks looks like it did when Stoddard took all those photos of decimated woodlands and when the upper Hudson was an open sewer.

  6. Balian the Cat says:


    I make no assumptions where you are concerned but I am constantly amazed by people who refer to thoroughly proven, peer reviewed, time and method tested facts as “crap.” That you can say “abolish the Forest Preserve so that our wildlife can be protected” is beyond my ability to understand. The thing that REALLY gets me, however – and I reiterate that I make no assumptions about you here – is that these same people will joyfully ride to Sunday gatherings and base their entire world view on something they can only describe as “faith.” A set of presumptions that even the great Rachael Carson couldn’t prove. Pretty amazing. As for “outsiders”, Sage doesn’t read as Iroquois/Algonquin to me so I presume you’ll be leading the exodus?

    • Boreas says:


      Don may be using a different definition of “crap”. Perhaps he thinks of it as simply something unpleasant that can’t be ignored.

  7. CommunityGuy says:

    Stefanic grew up outside Albany. She left college and immediately moved to Washington, D.C. She is ahead of the R move to eliminate Town Hall meetings or even publicize her schedule. The only place she has ever paid taxes is D.C.

    As a professional R, Stefanic will do everything she can to eliminate restrictions on the oil and gas industry along with the pharmaceutical industry. She will also support increasing the insanely bloated “defense” budget while reducing health care, environmental support, public education and public transportation.

    This was a good, gentle article about educating a Representative who represents other places and other people. Stefanic won’t meet with anyone to become educated about our needs. She already has her instructions.

    Hold on to your hats, Kids. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

    • Charlie S says:

      “Stefanic will do everything she can to eliminate restrictions on the oil and gas industry along with the pharmaceutical industry. She will also support increasing the insanely bloated “defense” budget while reducing health care, environmental support, public education and public transportation.”

      That’s what conservatives are all about… It’s a wonder they have so much power right now. Truly I believe the more ignorant a society the more conservatives will have power.

      • JohnL says:

        Ms Stefanik doesn’t represent EVERYONE in her District. She represents the majority who elected her. If she doesn’t do what the majority thinks she should, she’ll be a 1 term congresswoman. Pretty simple.

  8. Jesse B says:

    The Adirondacks is a classic case study on the benefits of the Clean Air Act. The forests and waterways of northern New York were devastated by acid rain caused by sulfur and nitrogen emissions from midwestern power plants. This directly harmed the people of the Adirondacks socially, economically, and environmentally.

    By slashing the EPA, there will be no way to regulate, monitor, or police these types of hazards. No other agency has the legal authority. Arguing state responsibility for regulatory oversight is outrageous because pollutants don’t adhere to political boundaries. Protecting our air and water must be the responsibility of the government because of universal and unavoidable impacts to huge swaths of citizens.

    Any political representative of northern NY who votes in favor of cutting the EPA is absolutely failing their constituents. They should learn the lessons of the 1970’s and 80’s and realize how important it is to all people, but particularly those of the Adirondacks.

    • Boreas says:


      I agree. Don’t forget about mercury poisoning. I mentioned it above, but the thread got a troll trim.

      • Balian the Cat says:

        Sorry, Boreas – I guess that was my fault.

        • Boreas says:

          Not your fault. It was a thread that you replied to from Mr. Sage. I think the short thread may have been clipped.

          • Balian the Cat says:

            Yes, I believe that it was. It might not have if I hadn’t jumped ugly with Mr. Sage. I am glad you had another chance to reiterate your important point.

      • Jesse B says:

        Excellent point, Boreas. Looking beyond the Adirondacks, the EPA monitors these mercury releases to protect human health from heavy metal exposure. Once they get into the food chain, you put pregnant woman and children at greatest risk of harmful (e.g. life long) consequences.

        It’s a shame because the technology exists to prevent a lot of these toxic releases, either through scrubbers or converting coal sources to natural gas. In fact many plants have converted to cleaner fuels and still produce energy quite profitably. Yet, the EPA and environmental science has become so politicized that you have politicians willingly voting to eliminate these common sense safeguards, in order to keep a handful of dirty producers in business.

        • Boreas says:

          Jesse B,

          It all boils down to who pays the politicians the most – the taxpayers or special interest groups and industry. Monsanto is another scary example of industry-driven legislation and deregulation. Seen a honey bee lately? I haven’t seen one on my flowers for several years. Hopefully the bumblebees that I do see will move in to take up the slack in pollination across the country.

    • Charlie S says:

      ” Arguing state responsibility for regulatory oversight is outrageous because pollutants don’t adhere to political boundaries.”

      The whole idea of the states taking over responsibility is so that those conservatives in chief in whichever red state it may be will go the way the money flows Jesse. The less restrictions the more corporations are allowed to pollute. It’s cheaper to pollute than it is to be a responsible steward of the only home we know…earth. I see no hope for us as I always say but i’m trying!

  9. Naj Wikoff says:

    I encourage people to send other specific examples to Dave so he can present to our elected officials an overview of the many ways the EPA has been vital to protecting the health, well-being and livelihood of North Country. Acid rain and mercury poisoning damaged our forests and waters, mean people have to limit the number of fish they eat caught in our rivers, streams and lakes. The situation now is much better than it was twenty years ago, but removing hard fought protections could be a further setback. Already our skiing, ice climbing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and other winter assets have been severely compromised by climate change.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Jesse B says: “Any political representative of northern NY who votes in favor of cutting the EPA is absolutely failing their constituents.”

    I wouldn’t bet on that Jesse. Their constituents don’t vote for them because they’re green they vote for them because they’re red….which is the color of blood not coincidentally!

  11. Jim Fox says:

    The toxicity of air pollution from nineteenth century manufacturing that killed the trout in Adirondack lakes can be forgiven. Acid rain did not exist. Little did we know about the longlasting effects of environmental degradation. Recovery of dead lakes is not a quick fix. Late winter airlifting of lime from the Stillwater Reservoir parking lot to sweeten lakes in the Pepperbox and Five Ponds Wildernesses has been a yearly DEC project to restore western Adirondack lakes to pH levels that will sustain trout. It’s 2017. Sunshine Pond is will be limed this year. We know that EPA regulations for air quality directly effects the acidity of lakes downwind. To deny this today is unforgivable.