Week 79: Zinke Ignores Damage to Public Lands

Week 79: Zinke Ignores Damage to Public Lands

Plus, Wheeler ignores factory farm pollution, and Trump ignores public opposition to drilling the Arctic Refuge.

Damage? What Damage?

If oil drillers damage a wetland owned by the public, and that damage cannot be undone, the Interior Department requires the company to offset its negative impact by paying to restore or protect wetlands somewhere else. This system, known as compensatory mitigation, is enshrined in law, and most people would call it reasonable, beneficial, and fundamentally fair.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke calls it “extortion” and “un-American.” According to a report this week in Bloomberg News, Zinke is planning to end the compensatory mitigation program, which has been his pet peeve since he took office, even though many Republicans, including President George W. Bush, have supported the principle.

Zinke’s claim that compensatory mitigation is un-American reveals his skewed ontology of American-ness. Some might suggest that cleaning up your messes is a basic American value. Compensatory mitigation is merely an extension of that idea: When your mess can’t be cleaned up, you pay money to offset the damage. Courts basically order people and companies to do this every day.

But Zinke seems to believe there’s an even higher principle in American thought: The government shouldn’t force anyone to do anything, even if their actions have harmed others, and especially if that harm is environmental in nature. Welcome to Ryan Zinke’s America, a chaos of pollution and unaccountability.

Pollution? What Pollution?

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, signed a rule this week that exempts even the largest farms from reporting their releases of hazardous air pollution.

This rule has a bit of backstory. Following the Love Canal tragedy in upstate New York, Congress passed the 1980 Superfund law, probably one of the most important environmental statutes on the books. The Superfund program not only provides funding to clean up toxic sites like Love Canal, but also established a system for reporting significant pollution to the National Response Center, which is tasked with coordinating the government’s response and protecting the health of nearby communities.

In the late 1990s, the EPA realized that the livestock waste at large-scale farms, commonly known as factory farms, is likely a major source of air pollution that should be reported. So in 2005 the agency launched a program to study emissions from 24 large farming facilities. The data would help the EPA understand how to deal with those emissions.

But a formal plan never emerged because factory farmers lobbied the George W. Bush administration to exempt them from reporting, and Bush complied. The Supreme Court struck down that exemption in 2008, but this past March, Congress granted factory farmers their wish through a provision in the FARM Act. And now the EPA has implemented the exemption.

This isn’t about small farmers; it’s about protecting communities near factory farms from the unfathomable volume of waste they produce. These operations expose their neighbors to ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other pollutants. The problem has social justice implications, too, because those living near industrial animal farms are disproportionately people of color.

Those who support exempting farmers from reporting requirements argue that the original law never envisioned regulating agriculture. But today’s agricultural system would be unrecognizable to lawmakers in 1980. Between 1997 and 2012, the average size of a hog farm grew 70 percent, and it has continued to grow since then. Over the same period, the average dairy farm increased in size by 50 percent. Factory farms now produce 13 times as much sewage as the entire human U.S. population. Factory farms are factories, and that’s how we should regulate them.

Drilling? What Drilling?

Although the oil industry and conservationists have been fighting over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years, the Trump administration seems to think it can start drilling in ANWR before anyone even notices. Last month the administration held its first and only public hearing in the lower 48 states on the ANWR drilling plan at 5 p.m. on a Friday, in a not-so-subtle effort to minimize participation and media attention. This week, it emerged that the Bureau of Land Management has been quietly planning seismic testing of the area to forecast the fossil fuel stores underneath the refuge―before the agency even officially begins the leasing process.

If President Trump thinks he can destroy one of the great national treasures on the sly, I think he’s in for a big surprise.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.