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EPA asked the public which regulations to gut — and got an earful about leaving them alone

President Trump visited the EPA on March 28, to sign a sweeping executive order that instructs regulators to rewrite key rules on U.S. carbon emissions. (Video: The White House, Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/The White House)

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency put out a call for comments about what regulations are in need of repeal, replacement or modification. The effort stemmed from an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year instructing agencies to reexamine regulations that “eliminate jobs, or inhibit job creation” and/or “impose costs that exceed benefits.”

More than 55,100 responses rolled in by the time the comment period closed on Monday — but they were full of Americans sharing their experiences of growing up with dirty air and water, and with pleas for the agency not to undo safeguards that could return the country to more a more polluted era.

“Know your history or you’ll be doomed to repeat it,” one person wrote. “Environmental regulations came about for a reason. There is scientific reasoning behind the need for it. It is not a conspiracy to harm corporations. It’s an attempt to make the people’s lives better.”

“Have we failed to learn from history, and forgotten the harm done to our air, water, and wetlands?” wrote Karen Sonnessa from New York. “If anything, regulations need to be more stringent. I remember the days of smog, pollution, and rivers spontaneously combusting. EPA is for the people.”

Some respondents made moral and religious arguments.

“Reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and limiting the effects of climate change is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time,” the Rev. John D. Paarlberg wrote, defending the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, an effort to regulate carbon emissions from power plants that the Trump administration has vowed to roll back. “For the sake of the most vulnerable among us, for the sake of future generations, for the sake of the planet, please do not undermine the Clean Power Plan and other critical environmental protections.”

Some folks resorted to all caps.

“Regulations are PROTECTIONS. Please enforce all existing clean air and water protections and consider creating more,” wrote Kristine Anstine.

“So here are my thoughts on doing away with existing EPA regulations, or doing away with the EPA itself: ARE YOU BLOODY CRAZY?????” wrote another.

One commenter simply wrote the word “No” over and over, 1,665 times.

EPA halts inquiry into oil and gas industry emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas

The thousands of comments echoed those at a three-hour “virtual listening session” that the EPA held earlier this month, in which a litany of callers — some representing environmental groups, others who identified themselves as concerned citizens — urged the agency not to jettison protections for clean water and clean air in the name of reducing burdens on corporations.

Both the call-in session and the written comments included some input from those who argued that some EPA regulations are unnecessary or overly restrictive.

A paper mill operator in Washington state said rules lowering the allowed amount of a harmful chemical into rivers endangered his company, according to an Associated Press account of the call, which also noted that a municipal water plant manager asked that the agency start accepting required reports electronically, rather than by fax.

The written comments also include submissions from business leaders and industry groups, suggesting technical changes to certain rules or asking EPA to streamline reporting requirements. The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, for instance, urged the EPA to make changes to the way it implements the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and the development of biofuels. The Renewable Fuels Association wrote about regulations it argued “are stifling growth in ethanol production and demand, inhibiting job creation, imposing unnecessary costs on both industry and consumers, and preventing renewable fuels from reaching their full potential.” 

But the vast majority of comments, thousands upon thousands, echoed the sentiments of Jeff Baker, an investment strategist in Huntsville, Ala.

“I’m well aware that excessive regulation can impose an undue burden on businesses both small and large. However, what is less discussed these days are the economic and societal costs already avoided and prevented by current rules,” he wrote.

“I implore you, as defenders of our nation’s health and security, to avoid shortsighted steps that might create prosperity for a few in the short term, at the expense of the many in the long term. The importance of clean air and water supplies, and of sustainable sources of energy and industrial raw materials, cannot be overemphasized in this day and age. These things are not, as many would claim, in conflict with mankind’s economic prosperity, quality of life, and freedom; rather, they are critically important to them, and integrally tied to them over a long enough timeline.”

The EPA has been among the main targets of the Trump administration, which has proposed cutting the agency’s budget by 31 percent. Trump and the EPA’s new leader, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, also have taken aim at Obama-era environmental regulations that they have called unnecessary, overly burdensome or unlawful. Among them: the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, which sought to define what waterways the federal government could regulate.

Pruitt himself also has shown an inclination to revisit existing regulations at the request of industry. The EPA agreed to reopen a review of the fuel economy standards that car companies must meet in the coming years, based on a request earlier this year from the nation’s automakers. In March, the agency announced it was withdrawing a request that operators of existing oil and gas wells provide extensive information about their equipment and its emissions of methane, citing a letter sent by the attorneys general of several conservative and oil-producing states that the request was burdensome and costly. And Pruitt recently refused to ban a commonly used pesticide that the Obama administration had sought to outlaw based on mounting concerns about its risks to human health.

So what will come of the 55,000 comments that the agency received about its regulatory reforms?

The agency said the findings will be given to a task force that has been assembled. The group is required to submit a progress report to Pruitt about regulations it has identified in need of altering or replacing altogether.

President Trump made climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Here's what you need to know about him. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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