On the same day the United States became the country with the highest number of coronavirus infections in the world, the Environmental Protection Agency abdicated its core mission of monitoring the pollution released into earth, air and water. Susan Parker Bodine, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance at Trump’s EPA, retroactively declared that from March 13, 2020 onward, states and tribes are on their own in facing polluting industries. In her words, the federal government can no longer assure “limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water.”

The EPA memorandum consigns the entire nation to a present and a future of compromised breathing and unclean water. All of these elements have new urgency now that our lungs can easily fall prey to the virus, and washing our hands with clean water is the foremost protective action. To tragic effect, cities and states are navigating the coronavirus outbreak on their own. The national shortage of masks, protective gear, and ventilators leave tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans without the ability to breathe. But just as mayors and governors across the country are rising to the occasion and doing everything in their power to protect their constituents, so must we establish local standards to protect our communities and states.

As shocking as it is to abandon air monitoring exactly when air pollution directly impacts susceptibility to COVID-19 and to relinquish clean water standards at the very moment at which washing can determine life or death, this move aligns with the deregulatory agenda of Trump’s EPA. Their attempt to erase the Clean Water Rule and to stoke the profits of developers and oil corporations by relaxing requirements for environmental revenue already put us in a compromised position to confront a pandemic, but consigning us to the onslaught of toxins during one represents gross misconduct at the national scale.

If the United States is to continue functioning as a federal government, not to mention collecting taxes as one, then its citizens must persist in demanding that it fulfill its mandates. We are correct to sound the call that the federal government procure and provide the necessary medical supplies to support a population undergoing a global infectious disease. We should also insist that the federal EPA supply the necessary protective gear for its inspectors to support broader public health by monitoring the emissions, particulate matter, and point source pollution from factories and refineries.  

Exactly as governors and mayors have filled the leadership void by acting decisively, creatively, and compassionately, so must state and local level environmental agencies, along with university researchers, frontline community leaders, and nonprofit staff members establish limits to pollution. The process must begin now as part of the effort to flatten the curve of infection and continue afterwards to protect public health and states’ natural assets.

Great Lakes cities like Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee are currently besieged by the virus, but a history of collaboration between the Great Lakes states provides the perfect template for how to manage resources on a regional level. The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, amended in 2012, established targeted thresholds for fresh water that allow us to eat, drink, and swim. Republican senators have repeatedly stood with their Democratic counterparts when passing the just-renewed Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, even as they’ve supported slashing environmental regulation. Most significantly, the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, one of the most important regional agreements to protect and distribute water, was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush. The compact ensures that we keep Great Lakes water in the basin. It’s a common sense, bipartisan regulation that holds the key to our future as large parts of North America are facing drought. The compact has some glaring loopholes like allowing beverage corporations to bottle Great Lakes water free of charge and bestowing $4 billion in Wisconsin’s Foxconn deal along with seven million gallons a day from Lake Michigan to the Taiwanese corporation to build a factory that they are no longer building. Still, the compact provides a framework for states to work together to protect their water, air, and soil that can be quickly adapted from sea to shining sea.

We shouldn’t celebrate the demise of the EPA. A patchwork system for dealing with integrated ecosystems, like that underway for an interconnected country, will produce uneven protections and disastrous scenarios for our most vulnerable communities.  But bemoaning that the federal government has ceded responsibility to states without claiming the authority would be a mistake that would further impair future recovery.

Amidst the devastating losses of the pandemic, leadership crops up at many levels: workers in the food sector, health care professionals, organizational heads, state employees. We are also learning the abiding value of basic services. In this vein, state level experts must assume the mantle of environmental protection. It is not the ideal scenario, but it is the only way to survive these times and preserve structures on which to rebuild our country.

Rachel Havrelock is associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs The Freshwater Lab. She is a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.