EPA orders a science-ectomy

In the early 1950s, the Hooker Chemical Company decided to sell a piece of land in upstate New York for $1 to the local school system. It must have seemed a generous decision, even though Hooker had used the 16 acres as a dump. The contract included language sparing the company from liability in the event of future lawsuits. When 55-gallon drums full of chemical waste were unearthed during the construction of the 99th Street School, contractors simply moved the building so it wasn't directly over the landfill site. No doubt they were confident Hooker had acted in good faith.

What happened next turned the school and the surrounding community — a neighborhood known as Love Canal — into a national disgrace and a pretty good example of what happens when environmental protections are wholly inadequate. In 1977, a harsh winter storm caused widespread flooding, and chemicals long buried by Hooker rose into backyards like zombies in a horror movie. People had already been complaining about the prevalence of birth defects, strange smells and the possibility of toxic waste when their worst fears came true. In August of 1978, a federal health emergency was declared, Congress passed the Superfund Act to clean it and similar sites and hundreds of homes were evacuated.

Love Canal is what happens when science plays little to no role in dealing with potentially lethal hazards like benzene or carbon tetrachloride or dioxin. Here's an inconvenient fact people sometimes forget about the incident: Hooker hadn't violated federal environmental rules. There simply weren't sufficient regulations on the books six decades ago; people relied on industry to make informed business decisions. Do Americans really want to return to the era of business-based environmental policy?

That's the question raised by last Friday's decision by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to dismiss half of the agency's scientific advisers from a key scientific review board. A spokesman said Mr. Pruitt is thinking about replacing the scientists with representatives from the industries that produce the pollution the EPA regulates. In other words, the Environmental Protection Agency is looking to hire foxes to guard the hen house — or perhaps more accurately to tell the guards what to do. What bad could possibly come from that?

Given that Mr. Pruitt has already made it clear that he doesn't hold much stock in man-made climate change — widely regarded as the most pressing environmental issue of the day — this move doesn't bode well for the health and welfare of future generations. The handful of people the EPA summarily dismissed aren't from the political universe, they are mostly academicians, people who study complexities like chemical toxicity, groundwater movement or what exposure to hazardous waste does to people's health. They are neutral arbiters, the equivalent of umpires with doctorates. Not everyone is going to agree with their calls, but at least they are informed and not acting in self-interest.

Does anyone seriously believe that polluters aren't adequately represented in the regulatory process? Large companies in energy, chemicals, manufacturing and so on have teams of lawyers and lobbyists not only in Washington but in state capitals across the country to help shape regulations and laws. The notion that the U.S. is under the thumb of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or similar environmental advocacy groups simply isn't supported by the facts. If the greenies had taken over, you could probably get a decent glass of tap water in Flint, Mich., or U.S. women of childbearing age wouldn't have to be steered away from eating mercury-laden fish.

President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform promoting deregulation, but we don't recall any codicil about compromising everyone's health to achieve his 4 percent economic growth rate. Conservatives like to point to scientists as ethically compromised because they often accept government grants for research. Even if you buy that argument, replacing them with people who have no objectivity whatsoever — who are unrepentant tools of industry — is not bringing balance to the process, it's simply ignoring science and the public interest. Trusting industries to regulate themselves may be good for the companies involved, but it's also likely to spawn another Love Canal with a lot of Americans hurt and taxpayers left to help pick up the pieces of environmental disasters.

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