In a recent interview, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that access to clean drinking water across the globe is “the biggest environmental threat.”
However, these empty words represent the extent of Wheeler’s effort to support clean water. In reality, Wheeler’s countless actions show that the former coal lobbyist has actively dirtied our water. Since he stepped into the acting EPA administrator role in July of 2018 after the scandal-ridden tenure of Scott Pruitt, Wheeler has done nothing but maintain his predecessor’s dirty agenda.
1. Wheeler wants to slash funding for clean water in EPA’s budget
The Trump administration continues to claim that it puts a high priority on providing clean and safe water to all Americans. In 2018, President Trump said, “I want crystal clean water. And we’ve got it. We’ve got the cleanest country in the planet right now.” But Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the EPA tells a drastically different story, suggesting funding for clean water programs be set at just 61 percent of its existing, already insufficient levels.
These proposed reductions include a 34 percent cut to grants that are made to state agencies to ensure that drinking water meets federal standards. This is in spite of the evidence that state governments need more assistance, not less, in meeting water quality requirements. And when it comes to the large bodies of water that supply significant portions of cities’ drinking water, the president’s proposal suggests either slashing or eliminating programs that protect these vital watersheds, including a 90 percent cut to funding for both the Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay.
2. Wheeler is championing a dirty water rule
Again, following in the steps of his disgraced predecessor, Scott Pruitt, Administrator Wheeler has continued the process Pruitt set in motion to finalize a rollback to a rule that protects the drinking water sources for more than one-third of all Americans. Wheeler’s proposed version of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule would, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, cut federal protection for a whopping 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of all river and stream miles in the United States, exposing millions more Americans to unprotected and possibly polluted water. What’s more, this rollback looks an awful lot like a handout to the industries that Wheeler used to represent. Given the clear link between mining pollution and stream health, the coal industry, among others, stands to benefit from a narrowed definition of WOTUS under the new rule. In fact, public records show that the National Mining Association spent $3.5 million on lobbying efforts around the rule.
3. Wheeler has made it easier for coal companies to pollute waterways
As yet another giveaway to his former clients in the coal industry, Wheeler’s first action as acting administrator was to make it easier for coal companies to pollute water. In July of 2018, Wheeler moved to finalize a rule loosening requirements for monitoring groundwater around coal ash disposal sites near coal-fired power plants. Coal ash is generally collected in impoundments near these plants, but if they rupture, the sludge can escape and pollute the surrounding water supply. There have been two significant coal ash spills in the last decade—one in North Carolina and another in Tennessee—and a recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal-fired power plants in the country reported higher-than-usual levels of pollutants in the groundwater both surrounding and near their sites. Given that the EPA predicts that nearly 90 million Americans rely on groundwater for their drinking supplies, the effects of loosened coal-ash monitoring on clean water access have the potential to be significant.
4. Wheeler has slow-walked critical action to address toxic chemicals in drinking water
Wheeler has also dragged his feet addressing toxins in the nation’s drinking water supplies despite bipartisan calls for him to take strong action. The chemicals, called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used in common household items such as nonstick products (Teflon and water-repellent fabrics) as well as fire-fighting foam used on military bases. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the tap water for an estimated 110 million Americans is contaminated with PFAS, which have been shown to cause various cancers, thyroid disease, and a weakened immune system in children. Under Pruitt, the EPA suppressed a joint report with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) and the U.S. Department of Defense that showed PFAS to be unsafe to humans at much lower levels than previously thought. A Trump White House official referred to this report as a “public relations nightmare” in a leaked email.
In January 2019, Wheeler’s EPA finally released a plan to deal with the PFAS crisis across the country. Yet, according to an EWG analyst, “[N]owhere in Wheeler’s plan is a commitment to immediately set a drinking water standard that designates PFAS as a hazardous waste under Superfund, or provide the resources needed to clean up the mess, such as funding to clean up contaminated military bases.”
5. Wheeler’s climate denial and suppression of science is putting our nation’s water at risk
When asked recently whether he thought climate change was a pressing issue, Wheeler said that climate change impacts were probably “50 to 75 years out.” But, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), “[T]he impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.” When it comes to water specifically, the NCA4 predicts that climate change will cause rain, snow, and runoff amounts and quality to change and droughts to intensify, increasing water shortages in parts of the country. Climate change will also result in an increased risk of flooding in many parts of the United States as well as the reduction of groundwater availability. In addition, sea level rise and storm surges will threaten coastal aquifers, and increased temperatures will decrease river and lake quality.
Yet, despite these clear links between climate change and water quality, during an event last week in Miami, Florida, focused on wastewater infrastructure, Wheeler refused to mention the impacts of climate change on the very systems his announcement is intended to support. At a separate event, Wheeler mentioned that he had not yet been briefed on the contents of the NCA4, even though the report was prepared in coordination across 13 different agencies of the Trump administration, including the EPA. Wheeler has subsequently said that there will be additional “political oversight” of these sorts of reports in the future, adding to his concerning record of suppressing science.
Contrary to the president’s belief that our country has the cleanest air and water, the Trump administration—with Wheeler at the EPA’s helm—has been actively undermining efforts to protect water quality, improve water resources and infrastructure, and lessen climate impacts on water supplies at nearly every turn. Wheeler’s actions must be scrutinized by Congress to ensure that every American’s right to clean and safe water is maintained.
Sally Hardin is a research analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Claire Moser and Will Beaudouin for their contributions to this column.
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Senior Director, Energy and Environment Campaigns