In April of 1970, many of my fellow T.C. Williams High School students and I participated in the first Earth Day. We assembled during class hours and drove down to the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia, and cleaned our side of the Potomac River. It took three days to remove all the garbage and used tires and junk. That effort was followed a few years later by settlements under the Clean Water Act with polluters of the historic river, ranging from Washington Flour Mills to PEPCO, the Potomac Electric Power Company. By 1973, when my father drove us to a Redskins game over a tributary of the Potomac, the Anacostia River, he pointed out to us a place where he used to swim in the river. We were aghast, as the sludge-filled, stinking river could not even support sea life. Today it is finally recovering and property values are rising as the river heals from many years of abuse.
It is safe to say that my commitment to environmental issues is a lifelong one. After almost 20 years of Federal government service with the Environmental Protection Agency as our chief client, we could see progress in that the land was physically cleaner, the water was safer to swim in and drink and hazardous waste dumpsites were being identified and, more importantly, cleaned up. Many of our legal victories were legendary: Love Canal, Exxon Valdez, Three Mile Island. We sued polluters and won millions of dollars which not only cleaned the environment but also filled the government’s coffers. EPA owned a vast reference library on toxins, pollutants and chemicals that were carcinogenic and life-threatening. They attracted the best experts in many scientific disciplines from groundwater contamination to the effects of strip mining. The agency spent much of its time arguing with, suing and being sued by representatives of some of the worst polluters in American history.
At some point in the mid-1980s, the representatives of polluting industries decided on a novel approach in their fight to keep polluting. Their new mantra was that the government was overreaching its mandate by claiming their industries were being singled out or that the laws were too strict, or that our law enforcement was “strangling” their ability to make money. We could counter that if they had obeyed the environmental laws in the first instance, there would have never been a need to regulate their industries at all; but apparently, building a huge unlined lagoon filled with a variety of carcinogens and toxins was easier to fill than doing the right thing.
And then along came Donald Trump.
With a flourish to his signatures, Trump reversed our years of victorious hard work, scientific findings, lawsuits, settlements– and more importantly, our work on improving the still-polluted environment. He has deliberately undone billions of dollars’ worth of government time and treasure spent over many years of enforcement and subsequent litigation. The millions of hours spent by hard-working and dedicated employees of the EPA, Army Corp of Engineers, Department of Justice and all branches of the military to resolve environmental hazards were all for naught. It is impossible to measure the damage Trump has caused by his inability to comprehend even the simplest of things, much less the complicated interplay of government agencies that work in tandem towards a single goal. It is hard to say which is worse, his incompetence or his ignorance.
What is easy to say is that it will take years to undo all the damage he has single-handedly caused to our earth.
We cannot heal our planet, and similarly, ourselves without the active support of the government. We cannot tie the hands of the agencies responsible for our very lives. It is much better to have an unfettered government enforcing our laws than an unfettered industry permitted to contaminate the earth that we all have to share.