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As U.S. EPA leaders sell out environment, Illinois must step up

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Andrew Wheeler listens during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It’s time for Illinois to lead on environmental protection.

Over the past two years, we have witnessed a historic retreat by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from its mission to safeguard human health and the environment. This is due entirely to the agendas of the disgraced Scott Pruitt and his interim successor, Andrew Wheeler. The callous indifference with which Mr. Pruitt approached his responsibilities was replaced last July with the far more meticulous efforts of Mr. Wheeler to dismantle the bedrock of our environmental protection laws, and so it should come as no surprise that on Jan. 8, the president formally nominated Wheeler to lead the EPA.

OPINION

Wheeler will likely be confirmed by the Senate, which has shown an utter inability to function, much less demand qualified nominees to head federal agencies. We believe that Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and architect in a decades-long campaign to discredit climate change science, is grossly unfit for this position. And even if we ignore the previous chapters in his career, there remains his deeply troubling and disqualifying record as acting EPA administrator since he took over the position last summer.

During his tenure, Mr. Wheeler has unveiled the EPA’s polluter-friendly replacement for the Clean Power Plan (with the EPA’s own data suggesting this replacement plan could result in as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually from air pollution by 2030); he has reduced air quality standards to accommodate polluters including here in Illinois; he has acted to restrict consideration of scientific evidence in regulatory rule-makings; and he has moved to freeze federal requirements for improving fuel efficiency standards in automobiles. For the first time in four years carbon emissions have risen and referrals by the EPA of polluter crimes to the Justice Department are at the lowest point in 30 years.

During the recent holiday season alone Wheeler announced a series of insidious rule changes that bring devastating impacts to public health. He has proposed eliminating Obama-era pollution controls for new coal-fired power plants; he has unraveled the EPA’s success of protecting wetlands and sources of clean drinking water; and he has moved to strip the EPA of its ability to regulate mercury pollution as a matter of public health — keep in mind that mercury is a known neurotoxin.

These are not the actions of someone committed to environmental protection, nor they are the actions of anyone who is qualified to lead the EPA. These are instead the actions of someone intent on obliterating decades of bipartisan support for clean air and water protections, and on prioritizing polluter profits over protections for human health. His rollback agenda is subsidizing the cost of business for polluters and shifting undue balance on to the health and welfare of ordinary people.

In the event that Mr. Wheeler is confirmed by the Senate, it will be time for Illinois to act. We are calling on Attorney General Kwame Raoul to continue his predecessor’s exceptional record of challenging these rollbacks in court and we hope Gov. J.B. Pritzker will provide his administration’s full support. Our state must hold the line against Wheeler’s agenda, and adopt the strongest protections of public health and enact laws that ensure human lives are not sacrificed for profits.

If enough states commit strong environmental and public health regulations, it will force polluters to reduce their impacts, regardless of rollbacks at the federal level. Wheeler is wrong for the job at the EPA, but no matter his fate, it’s time for Illinois to step up.

Jerry Adelmann is the president and CEO of Openlands, one of the nation’s oldest metropolitan conservation organizations.

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