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Despite Hurricanes, House Republicans Work to Gut Environmental Protections

GOP lawmakers are increasingly out of touch.

A flare erupts from a tower at a flooded refinery in Port Arthur, Texas last weekend. Damaged refineries and chemical plants released thousands of pounds of toxic pollution after Hurricane Harvey, but that did not keep House Republicans from working to gut environmental protections this week, including a program that assesses the dangers of hazardous chemicals. (Photo: Alex Glustrum)

Earlier this week, while residents of south Texas wondered whether dangerous chemicals from the chemical plants, refineries and toxic waste sites that flooded during Hurricane Harvey were floating in their air and water as they returned home, Republicans in the House were working to eliminate funding to a federal program that identifies health hazards posed by chemicals in the environment.

On Friday, soon after passing a bill that would raise the federal debt ceiling through December and provide $15 billion in relief for communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the House considered a number of budget riders that would slash environmental protections established under the Obama administration. Those protections included rules designed to curb to pollution that scientists say contributes to a changing climate and intensifying storms.

With a comfortable majority in the House and Trump appointees at the helm of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), House Republicans have been eagerly working to gut environmental regulations and spending on interior programs. As Hurricane Harvey and Irma devastate coastal communities and wildfires rage across the West, these lawmakers are looking increasingly out of touch.

“We have climate change-fueled disasters happening across the country: two major hurricanes … and then, in the West, people are choking on soot from wildfires,” said Anna Aurilio, DC office director of Environment America, in an interview. “And instead of taking action to cut climate pollution — shift us toward clean energy and make our coasts and cities more resilient — the House of Representatives is working on legislation to take us in exactly the opposite direction.”

On Wednesday, a Republican-led House subcommittee held a hearing on the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, which conducts health assessments of chemicals and determines what levels of exposure are considered “safe” in air, water, food and soil.

The program’s findings are often used to justify regulatory restrictions that the chemical industry does not like, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dr. Thomas Burke, a former Houston resident and director of the Risk Science and Public Policy Institute at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the committee that the “capacity to evaluate the hazards of toxic chemicals is essential to protecting our public health.”

“This hearing is particularly timely, as Texas and Louisiana work to protect public health, restore safe drinking water and evaluate risks from contaminated floodwaters and chemical releases,” Burke said in his written testimony.

However, two experts with ties to the chemical industry criticized the program, and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Andy Briggs (R-Arizona), offered an amendment to a major appropriations bill for funding the EPA and Interior Department that would eliminate all funding for the Integrated Risk Information System.

The House’s $31 billion interior spending bill would slash the EPA’s budget by $528 million, a considerable cut but not as deep the more than $2 billion in cuts proposed by the White House and ultra-conservative lawmakers, according to reports.

The bill contains a number of riders that infuriate environmentalists, including measures that would block Obama-era standards designed to reduce smog, make oil and gas drilling in the Arctic safer, restrict the amount of climate-warming methane that oil and gas drillers can spew in the atmosphere, and require government agencies to consider the economic and social costs of carbon pollution when writing regulations.

Democrats offered their own amendments to the spending bill, including riders that would prevent the Trump administration from closing regional EPA offices and selling off public lands to private companies.

“There is a threat,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) during floor debate on Friday. “There are members of this body, and there are members of the president’s administration that are seeking to sell off our public lands.”

However, Republicans hold a powerful majority in the House, so amendments that environmentalists support may not survive ongoing budget negotiations. On Thursday, lawmakers voted down a bipartisan rider introduced by lawmakers in New Jersey and Virginia that would have prohibited federal funding for controversial seismic tests needed to initiate offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, despite widespread opposition to offshore drilling on the East Coast.

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