Op-Ed: Earth Day Contaminated

The following Op-Ed was published on April 18, 2020 in the Times Union. It was written by Peter M. Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and member of New York’s Climate Action Council.

On 50th anniversary, Trump destroys decades of progress

For the past few weeks, we have all become increasingly mindful of two basic elements of life: air and water. Air is a focus because a respiratory illness is ravaging the world, robbing those afflicted of their ability to breathe. Water is a focus because we spend so much time fighting this awful virus by washing our hands in front of a faucet of clean running water. It is not the first time that these two elements have grabbed the nation’s attention.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Rewind five decades when strong laws protecting our air and water didn’t exist. Smog was choking our cities, rivers were on fire, acid rain was destroying our lakes. It took a movement of millions who were fed up with polluted status quo to get government to act. That first Earth Day led directly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as some of our most important safeguards like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Wrecking Ball Save EPA

Unfortunately, the progress we have made in the last 50 years is now fast disappearing. For more than three years, the Trump administration has taken a bulldozer to nearly every environmental regulation on the books and a wrecking ball to the EPA. When presented with a choice between protecting the health and well-being of Americans or helping out coal, Big Oil, or other polluters, Trump has hung Americans’ health and well-being out to dry every single time.

For example, the Clean Water Act helped clean up the Hudson River. It took New York harbor from an open sewer then to a gathering spot for whales today. But more than that, it has safeguarded New Yorkers’ drinking water by protecting streams, lakes, and wetlands around the state from pollution. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are bedrock laws that work for everyone who wants to drink the water coming out of their faucet and not get sick.

But it doesn’t work for the Trump administration, which is preparing to strip countless streams and wetlands of their protection, endangering our water in the process.

The Clean Air Act, too, has protected the health of millions New Yorkers. It has reduced air pollution here and in neighboring states, led to more fuel-efficient cars, and preserved majestic places like the Adirondack Mountains from acid rain. But yet again, this doesn’t work for Donald Trump, whose reckless assault on the Clean Air Act and misguided efforts to revive the coal industry have already led to more acid rain falling on the Adirondacks. His denial of New York’s request for help with pollution originating from states like Kentucky and West Virginia puts New York City dwellers at risk from deadly smog. And studies have shown that his recent decision to roll back vehicle emission standards will lead to more pollution and increased costs for consumers.

And what about the EPA — the federal agency whose mission is to protect human health and the environment? Every year in office, Trump has slashed its budget, and this year is no different — he is again trying to cut EPA by $2.4 billion (27 percent). He has also issued polluters a free pass by suspending enforcement of environmental regulations by the EPA during the COVID-19 crisis. His approach has been a careful and sustained operation to end the EPA, because its mission stands in direct opposition to the polluting industries Trump has allied himself with.

Last year, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer worked with House colleagues to block Trump’s cuts to the EPA. Now more than ever, we need that kind of leadership in order to ensure a fully functioning EPA that can enforce common-sense policies that protect and promote our air, water, and health.

A recent Harvard study showed that COVID-19 patients who lived in areas with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die than patients from cleaner areas. It’s a blunt truth — pollution kills people and more pollution kills more people.

As Earth Day approaches this year, let’s reflect on the cleaner air and water we have achieved in this last half century and the dirty course set by the Trump administration. Remember, all it took 50 years ago was people, fed up with pollution and poor health, to stand together and demand change. We can do it again.