The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.
Following President Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal for corruption and bribery in Ukraine, the House Democrats have returned to investigating his everyday domestic corruption through a series of hearings in the Committee on Oversight and Reform. On Thursday, the Subcommittee on Environment focused its attention on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rollbacks on permissible mercury levels, a proposal with direct links to—and clear benefits for—Trump donor and coal executive Bob Murray.
“The president of the United States does not need to look to Ukraine for corruption,” said Representative Harley Rouda of California, chair of the subcommittee. “He simply needs to look to his own administration.”
The influence of Murray, the CEO of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, looms large in Trump’s federal government operations. After donating $300,000 to Trump’s inaugural ceremony, Murray was rewarded with a meeting with then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry and followed up with a 16-bullet-point wish list for regulation reforms in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence.
Murray’s shopping list included withdrawing from the Paris Agreement (which Trump did in November 2019), cutting the EPA staff in half, removing health and safety restrictions for miners, and rolling back the restrictions on mercury emissions from his coal mines through a reworking of the Clean Air Act.
The neurotoxin mercury can be released into the air naturally during forest fires and volcanic eruptions, but in the United States the majority of mercury is emitted during mining and coal combustion. The emitted mercury then pollutes the air and settles in the water, where it concentrates in fish. All 50 states have a mercury advisory for seafood and warnings against seafood consumption by children and pregnant women because of the irreversible damage mercury can do to a child’s development, both in utero and in early childhood.
The policy that Trump’s EPA is proposing doesn’t call for directly changing the acceptable level of mercury emission, a number defined by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Instead, it challenges a portion of the rule that says air standard regulations cannot put undue monetary burden on the coal industry. Currently, the cost to industry cannot be more expensive than the health and safety benefits. The new Trump proposal wants to change the calculations of these benefits. The Trump EPA now estimates this regulation costs coal companies between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion annually with a yearly health benefit of $4 million to $6 million. During the Obama administration, the EPA calculated the annual health benefit at $80 billion.
During the House hearing, experts and activists testified that corporate greed and lobbying were behind the Trump administration proposal and would only benefit coal companies and executives like Murray. The sole panelist to defend EPA’s new numbers was former Trump EPA administrator Mandy M. Gunasekara, who now runs a nonprofit called Energy 45, funded by anonymous donors, to promote the administration’s changes in environmental policy.
Gunasekara’s new job is just one instance of the administration’s revolving door and conflicts of interest with the energy industry. While still governor of Texas, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry accepted numerous donations from industry giants, including the developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and his son is the head of oil and gas investment at Grey Rock Energy Partners, according to American Oversight. Deputy EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler worked as a coal lobbyist for Murray Energy before his government role. And on an interim basis, Wheeler took over the top EPA job when Scott Pruitt was ousted for his lavish spending on travel and “work” expenses. Pruitt had come to the job after receiving campaign donations from Koch Industries when he ran for attorney general of Oklahoma and after an investigation and emails revealed that his actions in the role, including suing Obama’s EPA over regulations, were coordinated with the oil and gas company Devon Energy. As for witness Gunasekara, her husband also works as a lobbyist for the energy company Ameresco.
“Instead of ‘draining the swamp,’ President Trump has repeatedly helped prop up swamp monsters, prioritizing corporate lies and donors over truth and science,” Rouda said, in his opening statement. “If the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the MATS rule are successful, more children will have trouble breathing, learning, and surviving. More children will die. Instead of prioritizing the bottom lines of donors and polluters, the Trump administration should deeply consider the impact of his devastating action on current and future generations.”
Representatives of the Moms Clean Air Force and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, as well as the president of the Evangelical Environment Network, all gave emotional testimony about the negative health effects of the neurotoxin, bolstered by the scientific data on mercury poisoning.
“I’m baffled at the fact that we are still working to prevent our federal government from allowing industry to poison unborn babies’ brains. At this very moment, the Trump administration’s EPA is still engaged in a full-scale assault on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards,” said Heather Toney, national field director at Moms Clean Air Force. “Everything we know about these pollutants shows that controlling them is not just appropriate, but vital.”