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Designed to Fail

A black plume hung over the rural town of East Palestine, Ohio, for several days in early February. The apocalyptic scene was caused by the derailment of a train carrying hazardous material on February 3 and the subsequent toxin burn. That same day, Governor Mike DeWine ordered an evacuation of the town, which he later extended to include people within a one-by-two-mile area of the chemical burn. DeWine’s office, informed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, did not deem conditions safe to return until February 8. Residents reported headaches, a burning sensation in the throat, and other symptoms. Authorities’ inability to handle the situation effectively and communicate clear information spurred distrust.

The train derailment in Ohio has incited a game of finger-pointing from within East Palestine and from those watching nationally. Norfolk Southern, the company operating the train, has received substantial criticism across the political spectrum. This anger is justifiable given the company’s history of high accident rates, its millions of dollars spent on lobbying for deregulation, and its refusal—even after apologizing for the disaster—to endorse bipartisan rail safety legislation. Norfolk Southern is responsible and should act as such, but so is the EPA.

Federal agencies have a critical responsibility to protect public safety. The EPA is no exception. The EPA’s self-professed mission is to “protect human health and the environment” based on “the best available scientific information.” Yet, it proved unable to do just that in Ohio because it was designed to fail in handling environmental catastrophes like the February derailment. Its state of weakness can be attributed to three causes: acute underfunding, environmental deregulation from corporate and GOP influence, and negative public perception. 

The EPA did not act with the urgency or diligence it should have. For example, the agency declared it was “confident that the municipal water is safe to drink” merely a day after state officials began recommending drinking bottled water, creating distrust. Furthermore, only on March 2, almost a month after the derailment, did the agency order Norfolk Southern to test for carcinogenic dioxins. “Testing for dioxin, a highly toxic substance, should have been one of the first things to look for,” argued Stephen Lester, a toxicologist and the science director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the EPA, voiced similar criticism: “[The EPA] should have ordered comprehensive testing the very day of the burn. It should have told residents, especially pregnant women and families with young children, not to return home until it was safe to do so.” 

The fact that the EPA did not take the urgent, recommended steps is a predictable result of their underfunding and understaffing. An agency-issued report in August 2020 found that, in real terms, the EPA had less than half of the funding it did in 1980, stating that the agency had been substantially “hollowed out.” The erosion of funding has led to an exodus of staff. Many professionals have also left in the past few years after becoming “dispirited” under the Trump administration. A few months ago, after years of cuts, the agency finally received a significant budget increase—an additional $576 million. However, as Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, remarked, the EPA still faces significant challenges to accomplishing President Biden’s ambitious climate promises, and vitalizing the agency “does not happen overnight.”

In addition to slashing funds for the agency over the past 50 years, corporate lobbying has resulted in several periods of regulatory rollbacks. Republican presidents routinely appoint a litany of industry lobbyists to become agency leaders. Notably, former President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt and Andrew R. Wheeler, who led the agency as it voided over 100 environmental regulations. Many of the rollbacks directly limited the power of the EPA to regulate emissions from power plants, cars, and trucks. 

Under Pruitt, the EPA cited an industry-funded study in its decision to weaken restrictions on super-polluting trucks. The study was later debunked, though the EPA claimed its decision did not rely on it. Wheeler, who succeeded Pruitt in heading the agency, was no better. He spent much of his career as a coal lobbyist before joining the EPA, with Murray Energy as one of his biggest clients. In 2018, while Wheeler still worked with Murray, the company issued an “Action Plan” for the EPA to advise the Trump administration. The document suggested cutting the EPA “in at least half.” Another Trump appointee, Samantha Dravis, chairwoman of the EPA’s deregulation team, formerly worked as a top official at the energy industry-funded Republican Attorneys General Association. 

Even with President Biden’s efforts to reinstate previous regulations, Trump’s environmentally-catastrophic legacy remains. Today, the EPA is still less potent than it was before 2016. This is in part because of Trump’s judicial nominations, which have provided opportunities for efforts to weaken the EPA’s regulatory power in the courts. In West Virginia v. EPA, the majority-conservative Supreme Court slashed the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The consequences of the case are far-reaching, as it can serve as a legal basis to strike down other EPA actions that are not explicitly authorized by Congress. 

Additional targeted efforts by the GOP and the agency’s mishandling of past incidents add to the decrepit public image of the agency. A right-wing Koch-funded super political action committee, Americans for Prosperity, led and funded a campaign to publicly attack and villainize the EPA through video ads blaming the agency for spiking gas prices and inducing mass job losses. Amidst the train incident in East Palestine, many right-wing media outlets utilized the event as an opportunity to criticize both the Biden administration and the EPA. The hypocrisy in these headlines is evident given the GOP’s track record of ignoring environmental hazards.

The incident may not be as prodigious as the name adopted by some right-wing commentators—“Chernobyl 2.0”—suggests. However, the EPA clearly did not respond to the train derailment quickly and decisively. The EPA similarly lagged in its response to similar incidents involving exposure to toxins and contaminants, resulting in confusion and compromising public health. One prominent example is the mismanagement of the Superfund site program under Anne Gorsuch’s time leading the EPA in the 1980s. Another is in Flint, Michigan, where Enck claims she witnessed the consequences of the EPA deferring too much power to state officials. For years, the EPA reported safe levels of lead contaminants in water sources to community members in Flint, yet residents faced significant health complications from lead exposure. Without enforcing concrete federal procedures and authority, the agency “timidly stood back, leaving local authorities, corporate interests, and rumors to fill the void,” Enck wrote. 

These past incidents involving sluggish responses, poor communication, and the EPA’s susceptibility to corporate influence cultivate distrust and paranoia. “I just don’t trust anybody,” said Mike Routh, an East Palestine resident, referring to government sources and Norfolk Southern spokespeople alike. Another resident stood on a street corner holding a sign reading “Profits over people/They Poisoned the Community.” Another sign: “The EPA nuked a town to open the Railroad #OhioChernobyl.”

Agencies like the EPA have considerably little power, resources, and authoritative public influence. They are too easily manipulated by corporate and political will. As Nina Lakhani, a journalist for the Guardian, commented, “It’s an American political psyche where big business is boss… we see it in many countries… but I think in the [United States], it’s so much an everyday part of life.” Lakhani continued, “The health and safety of individuals, communities, of the environment, the planet, the water supply, really has always played second fiddle to profits.” 

Yet, the agency is crucial to cutting American carbon emissions and holding companies accountable. As long as the EPA lacks the ability to work unhindered toward its mission of protecting “human health and the environment,” climate goals will be unattainable, and citizens will remain subject to environmental health hazards. Paranoia will also persist, misinformation and conspiracy theories will spread, and the American government will fail to protect its people.