When I moved to Atlanta in 1990, the region had a serious, serious air-pollution problem that seemed destined to worsen. On hot summer days, ozone levels sometimes rose so high that breathing could be difficult and even dangerous, and you didn’t need an ozone gauge to tell you when things were bad. It was so nasty and thick that you could see it.
At the time, state environmental officials had been cowed into inaction by political pressure, and business and governmental leaders fought corrective action at the federal level. They whined that cleaning up the air couldn’t be done, that the U.S. EPA was setting impossible standards that couldn’t be met and would destroy the regional economy and the growth that fed it. Complaints grew particularly intense after the region was stripped of federal transportation money as a penalty for its failure to agree upon a cleanup plan.
But over time we reformulated our gasoline, tightened emissions checks, forced Georgia Power to clean up its power plants, canceled major highway projects and came to grips with the idea that density was not an evil commie plot. Growth didn’t stop — the Atlanta metropolitan statistical area has almost doubled in population since 1990 — yet the air that we breathe is significantly cleaner. We still experience smog alerts, but they are nowhere near as severe nor as numerous. This remarkable success story has occurred so gradually that most Atlantans didn’t even register it. But if you took them back to a hot July day in 1993, I guarantee they would appreciate the difference.
You could tell a similar tale about water. Twenty-five years ago, even a brief rainstorm in the city of Atlanta would send tens of thousands of gallons of raw, untreated, unfiltered sewage pouring into the Chattahoochee River for our downstream neighbors to deal with. Once again, state officials were all but useless, afraid to take a strong stance in public while in private almost begging federal officials to intervene. Once again, the EPA did intervene, as did environmental groups who went to federal court to require that the city live up to its obligations. And the improvements since then have been significant.
Similar stories can be told all over the state. I remember going through files at the state Environmental Protection Division for a company called LCP Chemical in Brunswick, and being shocked at what I read. Mercury, PCBs and other chemicals that are toxic in amounts measured by parts per billion were being emitted by the plant in amounts totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds. State officials knew it, but they were allowing the company to remain in operation.
Again, the U.S. EPA finally intervened and demanded the plant’s closure, and after a full investigation was launched, six company officials were later sentenced to federal prison for their actions. LCP Chemical is now the largest Superfund site in the Southeast, closed to human activity, and dolphins that cruise the nearby waterways have been found to have PCB levels ten times higher than ever previously recorded.
These aren’t stories from ancient history, either. More recently, after a massive fish kill on the Ogeechee River in central Georgia, state environmental officials issued a slight slap on the wrist to King America, the company that had been caught dumping unpermitted pollution into the river. Georgia EPD officials then compounded that mistake by issuing a permit that basically gave the company official permission to continue polluting the river. That changed only after environmentalists turned to the federal courts to demand enforcement of the U.S. Clean Water Act. Today, King America is still operating, although under new, more responsible ownership and under much tighter standards, and the Ogeechee is considerably cleaner.
These and similar stories of real progress can be told in almost every state in the country. State environmental officials are often so starved for resources and so intimidated by political pressure that they lack the ability to act effectively.
Now, in Washington, the Trump administration has begun efforts to castrate the EPA in similar fashion. The former head of President Trump’s EPA transition team says that the goal will be to reduce EPA staffing by at least half, most of it in enforcement. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has sued the EPA 14 different times to weaken its oversight of Oklahoma’s air, land and water, has now been nominated to lead the agency. Agency scientists are also under a gag order forbidding the release of any studies or analysis without review by political officials, most of whom will have no idea whatsoever about what they’re reading.
The goal is supposedly to return enforcement of federal environmental law to the state level “where it belongs,” as the explanation goes. They also talk about returning “balance” to the agency, but this isn’t a rebalancing, it’s a ransacking. The Trump administration and a Republican Congress don’t dare to try to gut the environmental-protection laws that have allowed us to make such progress. But they can achieve that same goal another way by pulling the environmental cops off the street, taking away their badges, guns and radios, halting prosecutions and otherwise ensuring that those laws are no longer enforced.
And some hard-won successes are going to be reversed in the process.