EPA back to protecting children, environment

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Pamela Wood/Baltimore Sun

This editorial was written by the Baltimore Sun Editorial.

One of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s more ill-considered choices on environmental protection in recent years was his decision in 2020 to veto legislation banning the use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to childhood brain damage. A compromise was eventually reached: The Maryland Department of Agriculture banned general use of chlorpyrifos, with limited exceptions, through regulations implemented at the beginning of this year (Maryland General Assembly leadership having made clear that they’ll impose their own moratorium legislatively if the agency weakens their approach). The Aug. 18 announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it is banning the use of the chemical on food nationwide shows how wrong Maryland was to be timid. EPA Administrator Michael Regan called it an “overdue step to protect public health.” We agree completely.

It’s not as if the potential harm caused by chlorpyrifos was in serious doubt. Concerns about its adverse impact on public health have been around so long that it was banned from indoor use a quarter-century ago. California outlawed the pesticide’s sale to all growers in 2019. Hawaii did so even earlier. And the EPA under Barack Obama was moving toward doing the same nationwide but the agency changed direction sharply under Donald Trump. Under his administration, the inconvenience of a ban to farmers who have long used it on vegetables, corn, soybeans, cotton and fruit and nut trees overrode any perceived need to the protect the environment. Attacking insects was regarded as a higher priority than protecting the nervous systems of human youngsters and the likelihood of reduced IQ, attention deficit disorders and delayed motor development.

But while we appreciate the economic challenges facing farmers, this should never have been so difficult a call. And, sadly, it is far from the only time that much-needed environmental protection was neutered under the last president. Someday, academics will write lengthy dissertations on the lost opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and the price paid for that failure — during these last four years. Even now, one wonders why wildfires and hurricanes aren’t named after Trump or better yet, ex-EPA administrators Scott Pruitt (the climate change denier) and Andrew Wheeler (the former coal industry advocate). They are fortunate the American people are more focused on COVID-19 and Afghanistan these days to take note how the lax approach to environmental threats under these men may ultimately prove far more deadly than the pandemic and the 20-year war combined.

State-by-state bans of harmful chemicals are fine but nationwide approaches are better. That’s why we hope that the EPA’s overdue decision on chlorpyrifos signals a trend of renewed efforts to trust science — or at least be less swayed by deep-pocketed special interests. It’s all very well to support business and the agriculture sector where appropriate but not at the expense of humans. Consider, for example, the proliferation of PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances also known as “forever chemicals” in groundwater. A recent report by the Environmental Working Group found high levels of these toxics at nine military installations located around the Chesapeake Bay including Aberdeen Proving Ground and Martin State Airport. We await with bated breath any Department of Defense plans to clean up that unhappy circumstance. PFAs don’t just pose a threat to the local shellfish population, they are a danger to one of the region’s most precious assets, a healthy drinking water supply, as another recent report makes clear.

It is unfortunate that environmental protection too often breaks down to Democrats favoring it and Republicans opposing. There was a time when the Grand Old Party had leaders like the late U.S. Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr., who recognized the threat of pollution and were willing to take action. And there are surely moments when Maryland’s Republican governor “gets it” as well, at least before Hogan retreats on issues like tightening limits on greenhouse gas emissions, increased spending on public transit or banning chlorpyrifos. It’s all very well to talk up the Chesapeake Bay or the joys of Ocean City, it’s quite another to make the politically difficult choice of telling farmers they must stop using a harmful insecticide or that resort leaders are wrong to oppose construction of wind turbines many miles off the beach.

With an EPA of stiffened purpose and resolve as evidenced this month, one hopes the tide is turning and environmental protection becomes bipartisan (and broadly popular) again.

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