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Reality Check on Trump Administration Claim: “We Have Clean Air and Water"

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On Earth Day this year, the Trump Administration’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, appeared in a television interview in which he claimed America’s environment is dramatically cleaner than it used to be.

“A lot of younger people, a lot of Millennials voting for the first time, think that the state of the environment is horrible,” Wheeler said. “Actually, our air quality is 73 percent cleaner than it was in the 1970s. Back in the 1970’s, 40 percent of our drinking water systems did not meet the basic EPA regulations or standards. Today, 92 percent of our drinking water systems meet the EPA drinking water standards every single day. So we have clean air, we have clean water. But we can do better and we are doing better.”

This is a theme – that the environment is doing well-- often repeated by both the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans as they propose cutting EPA’s budget by 31 percent and slashing regulations that control air and water pollution.

The idea is this: If voters think they don’t really need EPA so much anymore – or more broadly, government in general – that will allow politicians to cut back government and give companies a freer hand to make more profits by dumping more pollution into our waterways and atmosphere.

The problem is that Andrew Wheeler’s comments contain narrow elements of truth, but are more generally misleading.

For example, although water pollution from sewage plants has declined since the 1970s because of EPA, contamination from a much larger source of water pollution – farm fertilizer runoff – continues to grow. Hog and poultry production has more than doubled since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Over-application of manure and farm fertilizer is feeding more toxic algal blooms in waterways nationally – with three reports of toxic blooms in 2010, and 256 in 2018, according to research by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

“These algae blooms can be really bad for public health both in drinking water and in recreational exposures,” said Ann Schechinger, senior economics analyst with EWG. “In drinking water we’ve seen a lot of cities – both big and small cities – that are really struggling with removing algae toxins out of their drinking water. And these toxins can have some serious public health impacts.”

In the face of this pollution, the Trump Administration is now proposing to eliminate federal Clean Water Act protections for 51 percent of wetlands nationally and 18 percent of streams – mostly smaller waterways.

“The most recent estimate is that something like 200 million people depend on drinking water systems that are fed by those small, little creeks,” said Jan Goldman-Carter, Senior Director for Water Resources at the National Wildlife Federation. “So these small creeks play a significant role in our drinking water supply.”

In terms of air pollution, it is true that soot and smog have generally declined since the 1970s, said Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health for the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.  However, many parts of the country are still failing health standards for smog, which triggers asthma attacks and other health problems, Stewart said.

“The bad news is with regards to ozone/smog. For instance, Baltimore County has really shown a significant increase over the last few years, where they’ve more than doubled the amount of high ozone days,” Stewart said. “So it’s really a problem, and we’re seeing it getting worse because of the effects of climate change.”

So for the sake of your own health: don’t inhale the propaganda that implies the U.S. has earned the right to boast of "mission accomplished" when it comes to cleaning up the environment.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.