When attorney Nicole Cantello went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990, she never imagined she’d wind up speaking at public rallies or giving interviews to reporters.
She was fresh out of Northwestern Law School, and eager to work quietly to protect the Great Lakes from polluters.
But once Donald Trump got elected president, everything changed.
Since his January inauguration Trump has waged war on the EPA with a series of executive orders and proposed budget cuts that have sapped employee morale and raised concerns that they’ll be helpless to protect the public from pollution. Now Cantello and many of her colleagues in the EPA’s Region 5 office—which covers the six states around the Great Lakes—have stepped into the limelight, taking passionate public stands against Trump’s environmental policies.
“I spent 25 years being a happy bureaucrat working behind the scenes,” Cantello says. “I never talked to the press, never spoke at a rally. But they’ve dragged us kicking and screaming into the public arena.”
In the last few months, Chicago-area EPA employees have organized and led two protest rallies in Federal Plaza. They’ve been quoted by name in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and other national publications. On April 25 they’ll be featured speakers at The Girl Talk show at the Hideout. And now they find themselves talking to me—while pointing out that they’re speaking as private citizens and members of their employees’ union and not on behalf of the EPA.
Still, I haven’t encountered such outspoken public employees since, well, ever.
It’s not like they have much choice if they believe in their mission. As a candidate, Trump vowed to “get rid” of the agency “in almost every form,” claiming that the EPA saddled industry with needless rules and regulations. He said he didn’t believe that climate change was caused by human behavior—which is the position of the global scientific community—instead claiming that it was a hoax perpetrated by China.
Once in office, he appointed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Pruitt’s even more hostile to the environment than Trump is, if such a thing is possible. As the former attorney general of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA 14 times, usually alongside fossil fuel companies looking to abolish federal regulations that limit how much toxic pollution they can spew into the world.
It was Pruitt’s nomination that spurred Cantello and other EPA employees to action.
“We have this president who denies global warming,” says Felicia Chase, a geologist at the agency. “Are you kidding me? We had zero freaking snow in January and February [in Chicago]. And the president is telling us that climate change is fake news? If we don’t take a stand, we’ll come out of this era not knowing what the truth is.”
—Nicole Cantello, EPA attorney
Chase, Campello, and their cohort are most worried about Trump’s proposed budget cuts and recently signed executive orders. Let’s take the budget cuts first.
Chase was one of about 15 EPA water experts dispatched to Flint, Michigan, in 2015 once it became apparent that the city’s drinking water had been contaminated with lead.
“We were sent in for deployments of up to ten days,” says Chase. “No days off, working 12 to 14 hours a day. We were going door-to-door, asking people to let us into their houses so we could collect and sample the water.”
The case in Flint demonstrates why states often need federal oversight to do the right thing. The lead crisis began in 2014, when an emergency manager appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder approved a plan to draw the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. When residents complained that the water coming from their taps was making them sick, the state blew them off.
“People told us, ‘The state said the water was good, but we knew it was bad,'” Chase says. “These were low-income, vulnerable people. They were left exposed.”
Chase fears that Trump’s proposal to ax about $2.6 billion—or nearly one-third of EPA’s budget—would drastically undercut future emergency operations like the one in Flint.
In addition to the proposed budget cuts, EPA staffers are also concerned about Trump’s executive orders, such as the one pertaining to the Supreme Court’s 2006 Rapanos decision, that have garnered less attention.
The case Rapanos v. United States pitted the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers against John Rapanos, a farmer in Michigan. Developers wanted to buy his land and build a mall on it, but the feds objected on the grounds that his property were part of Michigan’s wetlands, protected from development by the Clean Water Act.
Rapanos contended that his land couldn’t be part of the wetlands because there was no water on it. The EPA countered that the water was underground, and if they let developers build a mall on his land, pollutants could bleed into drainage systems that emptied into two navigable rivers and, eventually, Lake Huron.
Ultimately, the court was divided, effectively allowing the feds to continue regulating the development of wetland property. However, the justices didn’t agree on the larger question of what constitutes the wetlands. In a strident opinion, the late Justice Antonin Scalia took up this question, castigating the fed’s assertions that Rapanos’s land was wetlands as being “beyond parody,” and arguing that the corps had exercised “the discretion of an enlightened despot.” If the government had its way, Scalia wrote, it would regulate “dry arroyos in the middle of the desert.”
Furthermore, Scalia argued that the feds should only be allowed to regulate wetlands that had a “continuous surface connection” to rivers and other waterways. In other words, water you could see.
Because the court didn’t settle on the question of what counts as a wetland, Scalia’s opinion wasn’t precedent setting. But on February 28, Trump issued an executive order declaring that the EPA “shall consider interpreting the term ‘navigable waters’ . . . in a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos v. United States.” In short, Trump’s trying to impose what the Supreme Court couldn’t agree on—Scalia’s restrictive definition of wetlands that limits the EPA’s regulatory authority.
As with many Trump executive orders, the full impact of this one isn’t clear. But EPA employees see it as a blatant attempt to bully them into backing off from proactively cracking down on potential polluters.
“The Scalia opinion is a business person’s opinion,” Cantello says. “It’s got nothing to do with protecting the environment.”
In my daydreams, I fantasize that one day Trump will experience a Scrooge-like awakening, where he’ll rise from his bed and tweet: “My God, I’m an ass. Sad.” And then he’ll try to undo the destruction he’s wrought.
Until that exceedingly unlikely event, the environment—like our public schools, and our health-care plans—needs all the allies it can get. Federal bureaucrats included. v