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The EPA’s stunning gift to polluters in Chicago and across the Midwest

Since Donald Trump took office, the number of inspections by the EPA’s Midwestern office has plummeted by more than 60%. The fallout is palpable.

Environmental groups and neighborhood residents have fought for nearly a decade to better monitor the chemicals coming from this Veolia incinerator in downstate Sauget.
Environmental groups and neighborhood residents have fought for nearly a decade to better monitor the chemicals coming from this Veolia incinerator in downstate Sauget.
Odell Mitchell Jr. / BGA

The federal “enforcement” of anti-pollution laws is an “important tool” when it comes to protecting our air and water, says a spokeswoman for the Chicago office of the Environmental Protection Agency, “but it is not the only tool.”

Well, thank goodness for that.

Because we don’t think the EPA gives a hoot about enforcing the law, certainly not in the aggressive way it once did.

Let’s hope those other tools the EPA prefers, such as “self-audits” by potential polluters, are doing the trick.

Any bets?

From the moment Donald Trump was sworn in as president, his administration has worked to roll back environmental protections and weaken the effectiveness of the EPA. As we wrote last month when Trump visited Chicago for a day, one of his administration’s greatest disservices to our city and the State of Illinois has been its willingness to look the other way when polluters spew poisons into the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Now, a recent report by Brett Chase of the Better Government Association has put some big and disturbing numbers on this, revealing how severely the EPA has been emasculated by the Trump administration and the price we are paying for that.

Since Trump took office, the number of inspections of factories and other industrial plants by the EPA’s Midwestern office, based in Chicago, has plummeted by more than 60%, while inspections throughout the rest of the nation has declined by 30%. The same pattern of sharp declines has been true of enforcement actions aimed at getting polluters to change their actions through fines, cleanups and mitigation agreements.

Since Trump took office, about 150 fewer scientists, technicians and other employees are employed by the EPA’s Chicago Region 5, which covers Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. The 945 employees in Region 5 this year compare to 995 positions authorized by Congress.

And what has been the fallout from this gift to polluters?

The BGA offers several chilling examples.

In downstate Sauget, a tiny town near East St. Louis, environmentalists worked for a decade to get the EPA to force a waste-incineration plant to screen and reduce possibly dangerous emissions from three smokestacks. The environmentalists finally won — for about five months.

Two days before President Barack Obama left office, the EPA ordered that the smokestacks be continuously monitored for arsenic, lead, mercury and other harmful metals. For years, everybody in town had been holding their noses and wondering what kind of poisons they might be breathing in. But in June, after the personal intervention of Trump’s first EPA head, Scott Pruitt — the EPA reversed itself. The EPA would not require that the smokestacks be continuously monitored.

At the urging of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, federal health officials are now looking into the matter, an official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the BGA.

The BGA reports that a string of similar cases, in which environmental protections have been relaxed or reversed, have hit the Midwest since the Trump administration began sidelining the EPA. It cites three other specific examples:

  • The EPA curtailed tests for cancer-causing gases at three suburban plants, apparently overriding the recommendations of EPA scientists. Sen. Dick Durbin and his Democratic Senate colleague, Duckworth, have requested that the EPA inspector general investigate this decision, saying it may have been “politically motivated.”
  • In Minnesota, a copper and nickel mine was allowed to discharge wastewater even though some EPA staffers had warned that this threatens waterways that flow into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating this decision, responding to allegations of “procedural irregularities.”
  • In Wisconsin, the Taiwanese company Foxconn, which is building a massive flat-screen electronics plant near Racine, was granted an exemption from environmental regulations. The special break was given, the BGA reports, only after parts of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana were given passing grades by the EPA on air quality against the advice of the agency’s own scientific staff. Having declared the air clean — true or not — the EPA was able to give Foxconn a pass on buying the air filters that are required in polluted areas.

There was a day — more than a century, really — when Illinois and the entire Midwest sacrificed much in the way of a healthy environment in the pursuit of commerce and industry. Chicago turned its river into a chemical dump. We fouled almost all our Midwest rivers with pollutants, and we shrugged our shoulders — this was the price of progress — as mills and factories pumped industrial chemicals into our air.

Children couldn’t breathe. A toxic cloud hung above the Loop. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire.

But no more.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon established the EPA to put an end to such shortsighted destruction and, though there’s more to be done, great progress has been made. We never stop marveling at the sight of kayaks on the Chicago River.

Driving this progress has been a widely accepted new way of thinking: A factory has no more right to pollute your air and water than a neighbor has to throw his trash into your yard. The factory should clean up and pay for its own mess.

No matter where that factory is located.

What’s good for Mar-a-Lago is not too good for Sauget, Illinois.

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