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Replacing the Guardrails

By Larry J. Schweiger, President Emeritus, PennFuture

Note: With so many unfathomable, discordant, and unsettling things emanating from the Trump administration, it is important that the numerous environmental threats and terrible actions summarized herein not get lost in the cacophony. We are losing much and we must work together as never before to find new ways to push back.  

A number of years ago, my youngest daughter was driving back to college after her winter break and hit a patch of black ice and slid into the guardrails. I spent $500 replacing a single section of guardrail on I-79. I share this because I am watching the Trump administration ripping down critical environmental guardrails. Watching the loss of guardrail after guardrail, the questions I have been wrestling with include: Can the guardrails be repaired or replaced? If so, at what cost? Is there such a thing as being too late?

Until the recent tax bill was signed, many in the media had been suggesting that Trump isn’t getting anything done. That was simply not true. While Trump was distracting us with his perverse tweets and endless lies, important regulations have been rolled back and in many cases, ended completely at an astounding rate. The Trump administration has been demonizing government, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric, but its actions go far beyond Reagan’s. As Steve Bannon once boasted, the Trump appointees are “deconstructing the administrative state” at a pace that is hard to follow, and even harder to resist.

At the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt, we are witnessing the abandonment of the Clean Water Rules, the retreat from the Paris Accord, moving to end the Clean Power Plan and the endangerment findings, gutting the highly successful auto rules, the national clean air guidelines and on and on I could go. Harvard University has created an environmental rollback tracker that has identified 40 environmental protections. You can sign up for alerts here.

The failure to enforce existing law and the many inadequate settlements of prior enforcement actions, coupled with the stripping of publically funded climate science from their websites is and should be a continuing outrage. Despite the legacy of abandoned mines and polluted waterways in virtually every state where coal has been mined, the administration will not require the mining industry to provide financial assurances demonstrating that they have the capacity to clean up any and all pollution caused by mining. We are witnessing a race to the bottom with dark money and its appointed surrogates in charge of the very agencies that were created to protect our environment.

The tax bill got a lot of attention for the way it further advantaged the super wealthy and further concentrated wealth even more at a time when there is already grave inequities. What got very little if any coverage in the midst of this was the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge giveaway. To buy Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote for a bad tax bill, the Arctic Refuge was put up for oil development as an offset to some of the tax cuts for the wealthy. This is America’s last remaining pristine Serengeti. Covering 29,800 square miles of untrammeled wilderness, it will now be exploited by the oil interests who will destroy the core calving area of the Porcupine Caribou herd that has been finding insect relief along the coastal plain for millennia. The coastal plain is a critical mosquito relief habitat considered by the Gwich’in people to be sacred for 20,000 years.

Adding insult to this ecological injury, U. S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has put virtually all of the off-shore waters up for oil and gas leasing. While he was forced by their Republican lawmakers to retreat on the waters off the Florida coast for political reasons, the remaining waters are put at risk while Zinke abandoned all the important rules put in place after the disastrous BP oil spill, and he has scaled back the enforcement and monitoring procedures put in place to avoid another massive spill. Lessons learned from the BP spill are soon forgotten.

At the request of Utah’s uranium industry and other special interests, Zinke cut the heart out of two important monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante) so they can be leased for mineral development. He diminished the size of a total of six monuments including the lifting of fishing restrictions in a critical ocean sanctuary established by George W. Bush.

In another disgusting action, Zinke doubled the cost of entering a National Park to seventy dollars and in seventeen parks the fee will be seventy-five dollars. These fees will be prohibitive for many young families, for minorities and especially for the poor struggling to just make ends meet. Even before the doubling of the fees, only seven percent of the visitors to the parks were black according to a survey commissioned by the National Park Service. Do we really want our National Parks to be restricted to a privileged few?

Nine of 12 members of the Congressionally sanctioned National Park System Advisory Board resigned because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ignored the board for a year. The committee established in 1935 has been vital to the Park Service. In recent years the committee has advised the Interior Department on how to deal with global warming, emphasized the need to protect American historical sites and advised the service on how to encourage more young people to the parks.

If that was not enough, Zinke announced on Dec. 22 that he had come up with a new legal interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that strictly prohibits the unregulated killing of birds. Migratory birds landing on toxic waste impoundments often associated with fracking are often killed and have been treated as a violation of the law. The Zinke memorandum reinterprets the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to allow corporations to kill migratory birds outside of carefully established seasons and bag limits contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration since 1970.

Trump just put a 30 percent tariff on solar panels imported from China. This pushes the cost of solar higher. He is just one year in and we must expect more damaging environmental policies. Those of us deeply concerned with the environment must come to the realization that we must become much more active politically and begin to work with those seeking fundamental reforms to restore our democracy.

The environment will not be protected until we address the broken democracy. Environmentalists like so many Americans are shell-shocked. It’s a much more complicated situation and we are forced to dig deeper into our plight and find pathways to recover our floundering democracy. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took an important first step this week overthrowing one of the most egregious gerrymandered Congressional districts in the country. Much more must be done.

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