Trump’s Hamstrung EPA Is AWOL As Toxic Chemicals Flood Houston

Republican presidential hopefuls have long made a boilerplate campaign promise of cutting and eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency. Donald Trump is no exception.

Since his election, Trump has been doing all he can to sabotage the EPA and render it unable to do its job. Part of this sabotage has been its willfully ignorant neglect toward nearly every department of government. But the EPA has come under particular scrutiny under a president who disbelieves in climate science and views environmental regulations as obstacles to his favorite industries like oil and coal. So Trump’s industry-friendly EPA director Scott Pruitt has been busily dismantling the organization from the inside, firing employees, cutting funding and generally wrecking the place however he can.

But the EPA doesn’t just try to tackle carbon emissions that contribute to climate change that exacerbates extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, or try to prevent and deal with the inevitable spills and damage that come from continuing to rely on legacy fossil fuels. The EPA is also responsible for cleaning up environmental disaster and Superfund sites.

There are many of those sites in the Houston area leaching toxic waste as a result of the flooding, and the EPA is nowhere to be found on the scene:

The Associated Press visited five Superfund sites in and around Houston during the flooding. All had been inundated with water; some were only accessible only by boat.

EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham could not immediately provide details on when agency experts would inspect the Houston-area sites. She said Friday that EPA staff had checked on two other Superfund sites in Corpus Christi and found no significant damage.

“We will begin to assess other sites after flood waters recede in those areas,” Graham said.

At the Highlands Acid Pit on Thursday, the Keep Out sign on the barbed-wire fence encircling the 3.3-acre site barely peeked above the churning water from the nearby San Jacinto River.

A fishing bobber was caught in the chain link, and the air smelled bitter. A rusted incinerator sat just behind the fence, poking out of the murky soup.

Across the road at what appeared to be a more recently operational plant, a pair of tall white tanks had tipped over into a heap of twisted steel. It was not immediately clear what, if anything, might have been inside them when the storm hit.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has called cleaning up Superfund sites a priority, even as he has taken steps to roll back or delay rules aimed at preventing air and water pollution. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget seeks to cut money for the Superfund program by 30 percent, though congressional Republicans are likely to approve a less severe reduction.

This, of course, is in addition to the chemical plant going up in flames whose officials refuse to release information to the public on what chemicals are being released into the air and the surrounding neighborhoods–because Texas in its libertarian wisdom doesn’t have a law stating that they have to. In Republican land, corporate profits and liability protection trump the public’s right to know what they’re breathing.

Trump and Pruitt are proving the old P.J. O’Rourke adage that says Democrats overpromise what government can do, but Republicans tell you that government doesn’t work, then get elected and prove it.

The EPA exists for a reason. As with so much else, it would have been nice if Trump knew what it was before he got elected and started dismantling it.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.