Bringing Home Trump’s War on the Environment
Bringing Home Trump’s War on the Environment
Allyson Siwik, Executive Director, Gila Resources Information Project
Updated May 8, 2017
In his first 100 days in office, the president has released a barrage of proposed budget cuts and executive orders that will devastate many of the core environmental programs that Americans depend on to protect public health and the environment. How will Trump’s war on the environment affect our community health and quality of life here in southwest New Mexico?
Despite last week’s passage of the continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels through the end of September, the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint that begins October 1 demonstrates a deeply disturbing disregard for the water we drink, the air we breathe and the ecological systems we rely on for our survival. The proposal includes a $2.6 billion or 31% reduction in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, including reduction of 3000 staff, elimination of a variety of important programs, and a 44% reduction in grant funding to states.
The proposed 24% reduction in EPA’s enforcement budget has been described by some as a “race to the bottom.” The disinvestment in enforcement sends the wrong message to polluters who will likely scale back their environmental compliance. Relying on the cash-strapped states to enforce federal environmental laws means that many violations won’t be addressed.
This is good news for Grant County’s biggest polluter, Freeport-McMoRan, owner of the Chino, Cobre and Tyrone copper mines, but bad news for our local environment. Federal regulations apply to the mines’ use of millions of gallons of sulfuric acid every year to leach copper from ore stockpiles, their air emissions of toxic dust and acid aerosols, and hazardous waste handling. The mines emitted 12,900 pounds of sulfuric acid aerosol to the air and produced more than 7 million pounds of lead and other metal compounds in 2015 according to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. That year Chino also generated 109 tons of hazardous waste.
Over the past 20 years at the mines, there have been violations for numerous spills of toxic leachate into creeks and groundwater, improper handling of hazardous waste, tanker truck spills of sulfuric acid, and exposure of workers to toxic fugitive emissions from leach operations. With an anti-environment governor and state regulations like the Copper Rule that give copper mines in New Mexico a license to pollute our groundwater, we need EPA to be the enforcement backstop when the state doesn’t do its job to protect our environment.
Indeed our community needed EPA back in 2009 when Freeport scheduled the demolition of the Hurley smelter without any plans to protect the public health of people living adjacent to the site. GRIP appealed to EPA to step in. The agency reviewed the situation and required Freeport to implement dust control measures to prevent toxic dust produced by the imploding stacks from drifting into neighboring homes and exposing people to harmful dust.
Our community has also relied on EPA’s Superfund program for cleanup of historic mine contamination at Chino and at abandoned mine sites, the legacy of our region’s mining history. Superfund oversees the NM Environment Department and Freeport’s implementation of the Administrative Order on Consent to clean up contamination in Hurley, Hanover, Lampbright and Whitewater creeks, and other polluted areas at the Chino mine. Superfund cleaned up and reclaimed the Cleveland Mine and Mill and Hearst Mill sites that were polluting with toxic metals the streams that drain into San Vicente Creek that runs through the center of Silver City and recharges our groundwater. The Pinos Altos Mining District, with 800,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils, remains on the cleanup “to do list.” The president’s proposed 30% cut to the Superfund program means less funding available to reclaim these sites that continue to pose a risk to our water, people and wildlife.
Cuts to EPA’s drinking water quality monitoring program is also of concern as we recently learned that 17 drinking water systems in New Mexico have lead levels higher than federal drinking water standards. But with EPA’s lead reduction program proposed for elimination, it will be harder to address. Twenty-nine New Mexico communities, including Silver City, Hurley, and Lordsburg, have higher percentages of children with elevated lead levels than Flint, Michigan, where a switch in water supplies resulted in potential exposure of more than 100,000 people to high levels of lead.
Elimination of Clean Water Act non-point source pollution prevention programs will significantly reduce available federal funding to states for watershed restoration projects. The Clean Water Act 319 program currently funds $300K of projects in Grant County to carry out watershed restoration on the Gila River in the Cliff-Gila Valley and on San Vicente Creek in Silver City.
And cuts in other agencies will impact our water supplies and environment. A proposed $498 million reduction to the Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater Loan and Grant Program will severely impact small rural communities. This program has provided funding for the decommissioning of Tyrone’s wastewater ponds and connection to the Silver City wastewater treatment plant, as well as the Grant County Regional Water Supply Project to connect Hurley to a reliable water supply. The president’s proposed budget also eliminates the Department of Energy’s weatherization program that has helped low-income households to save energy, reducing energy costs and cutting air emissions.
In addition to proposed budget cuts, Trump’s executive orders combined with the Republican Congress’s actions under the Congressional Review Act will turn back the clock on progress to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets under Obama’s climate policies and potentially reduce the size of or nullify designation of some national monuments, including New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments.
President Trump’s war on the environment runs counter to Americans’ desire for environmental protection. According to a 2016 Pew Charitable Trust survey, 74% of U.S. adults said “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 23% who said “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.”
In the coming weeks, the 2018 federal budget will be discussed and the administration will accept public comment on reform of environmental regulations. Everyone who cares about public health and environmental quality needs to speak up now and defend our nation’s successful framework of environmental safeguards before it’s too late.