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The Failures of Federal Leadership that Pollute our Environment

The recent legal actions by the attorneys general of Maryland and Virginia against the Trump Administration’s EPA over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup are evidence that the landmark 2010 Bay restoration agreement has failed.

Under President Obama, the Bay cleanup effort was actually making progress. The overall health of the Chesapeake improved from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 54 out of 100 in 2016, according to annual report cards issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

But under President Trump, the Bay’s health rapidly deteriorated, falling from a 54 in 2017 to a 44 last year. Now, some of that decline was because of increased rainfall, driven in part by climate change. More rain flushes more farm fertilizer and other pollutants into the Bay.

However, another cause was ideological: the Trump Administration is purposely weak on environmental enforcement – especially with regard to the Bay’s biggest polluter, Pennsylvania. And Trump’s EPA has been energetically working – even during the coronavirus shutdown – to eliminate pollution control regulations.  

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bay cleanup failed under Trump. Under his leadership, America is falling apart at the seams all around us. Just look at the tear gas and mayhem right outside the gates of the White House and in cities across the country. Millions of people are losing their jobs. Our health care system is in chaos.

And, in the face of a global pandemic, the President can’t seem to decide whether to avoid responsibility – by telling governors they’re in charge – or go full authoritarian, by ordering the U.S. military to crush protests of police brutality.  So he’s doing both at once, which makes things worse.

What ties all of these failures together – the common thread that binds the pollution in our Bay, the  lack of preparation in our hospitals, and the madness engulfing our streets – is a single fact.  We, as Americans, chose someone to run our government who doesn’t believe in government. 

It would be like hiring a football coach who, in his heart, hates the game of football.  How well do you think that coach would motivate a team of young football players? How many games do you think that team would win?

Or, it would be more like selecting someone to lead a national response to a medical crisis like the coronavirus pandemic who disregards medical advice and thinks he’s more expert than the experts.

But this crisis goes beyond just Trump. Since Ronald Reagan declared that government is the problem, not the solution, the majority in the Republican Party has believed that tax cuts and free markets are the cure-all vaccines for everything that ails  America and that all government needs is to be hollowed out.

Everything in government should be cut and stripped down, in their view, except the military, the police and the courts. Why?  So those in power can keep power. 

In moments of danger like this – when cop cars are burning in the streets -- it is not a time for despondency over the failures of leadership, but for picturing a way forward.

The first step toward saving our country, cleaning up our Chesapeake Bay, fixing our health care system or even reforming our police departments is to reject and vote out of government those who do not believe in government – those whose only loyalty is themselves and their profit, and who keep their knees on the throats of everyone else.

We need to rebuild the foundation of our democracy: the idea that government, elected by all the people, has a legitimate and active role to play in improving the lives of all of us, and protecting and improving our common shared spaces like our schools, our streets and our waterways.  


Photo of protests outside the White House from CNBC

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.