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‘Trump is Attacking Unionized Scientists,’ AFGE Local 704 President Says

January 29, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

CHICAGO, Ill.—The Trump administration’s reversal of an Obama-era regulation will drastically decrease protections against water pollution, says the head of the union representing Environmental Protection Agency workers in the Great Lakes region.

The Trump administration just ignored scientists and weakened the Clean Water Act.

The rule change, announced Jan. 23, is “part and parcel of the attacks on scientists at the EPA,” Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, told LaborPress. “The scientists were not listened to, because Trump is attacking unionized scientists.”

The new Navigable Waters Protection Rule eliminates the EPA’s 2015 expansion of what it considered “waters of the United States” covered by the federal Clean Water Act, including wetlands and streams. Litigation had blocked it from going into effect in at least 27 states, and President Donald Trump ordered the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to review it in February 2017.

The EPA said it was “delivering on President Trump’s promise to finalize a revised definition for ‘waters of the United States’ that protects the nation’s navigable waters from pollution and will result in economic growth across the country.” 

“EPA and the Army are providing much needed regulatory certainty and predictability for American farmers, landowners, and businesses to support the economy and accelerate critical infrastructure projects,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement, adding that the new rule would end “decades of landowners relying on expensive attorneys to determine what water on their land may or may not fall under federal regulations.”

The EPA said the rule would “protect the nation’s navigable waters and the core tributary systems that flow into those waters.” 

“It’s saying that we only need to regulate navigable waters,” says Cantello, a senior counsel for water enforcement at EPA Region 5, which covers six Great Lakes states. That excludes seasonal waters, wetlands, and groundwater, she explains, and would deregulate 75% of the Colorado River watershed. “It’s truly astounding.”

For example, if a stream that flows into a Colorado River tributary is dry most of the year, the new rule would permit dumping mine tailings containing toxic heavy-metal compounds into its bed. But when the snow on the Rocky Mountains melts in the spring and the stream flows again, those pollutants would be washed into the Colorado.

“If you can’t stop the pollutants from getting in there, how are you going to keep our waters clean?” she asks.

Opponents of the Obama rule often argued that it was such a governmental overreach that it would prevent a farmer from digging or filling in a cattle pond. “The problem is that pollutants are being dumped into those streams,” Cantello responds.

In October, a 14-member EPA science advisory board, including some scientists appointed by the Trump administration, warned that the proposed rule “decreases protection for our Nation’s waters” and “neglects established science.” In particular, it said, “there is no scientific justification for excluding ground water,” because it is often connected to other bodies of water. The rule’s exclusion of farm irrigation canals was dangerous, it added, because “the presence of E. coli [a toxic bacteria that most commonly comes from excrement] in leafy vegetables is often traceable to irrigation water contaminated by animals in feed lots or pastures adjacent to the canals.”

The rule will go into effect March 22, 60 days after it was announced. Environmental groups and the attorney generals of several states are planning lawsuits to stop it, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Like AFGE Council 238 head Gary Morton, Cantello believes the Trump administration is trying to destroy the EPA by shrinking it. Region 5, which comprises Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, had 1,100 employees at the end of the Obama administration in 2016. Last year, she says, it fell to 941, the lowest level since the 1980s. 

“The Trump administration has made it such a miserable workplace, he’s driving people out,” she says. “I can’t keep up with how many people are leaving.”

One reason she can’t keep up, she explains, is that under the contract EPA management imposed unilaterally last July, the agency stopped giving the union monthly reports about how many people were hired or left. Now, she has to rely on reports posted online quarterly by the EPA’s controller.

Cantello is pinning her hopes on the “EPA Workers’ Bill of Rights” that Council 238 announced as contract talks began early this month. Its 10 points include the right to scientific integrity, whistleblower protections, and “to protect human health and the environment, to protect environmental justice communities, and to work without fear of reprisal.”

“We all know that this administration is hostile to science and the environment,” she says. She hopes that public and congressional support will enable EPA workers “to do the job that we were hired to do.”

January 29, 2020

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