A federal appeals court in California ruled on Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to ditch a proposed ban on a pesticide linked to brain damage in unborn babies and young children violated federal law.
The ruling generated embarrassing headlines for the Trump administration as it rolled out a number of attention-grabbing proposals that are also expected to face serious legal and legislative hurdles.
Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s disgraced former EPA chief, signed an order shortly after taking office in March 2017 that reversed steps by the Obama administration to ban the decades-old pesticide chlorpyrifos on farms. The insect-killing chemical was banned for household use in 2000, and advocates have petitioned to remove it from the food supply for more than a decade amid mounting evidence that chlorpyrifos can harm developing brains.
In a ruling that scolded the agency for ignoring its congressional mandate to protect the public from dangerous chemicals, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA on Friday to finalize a ban on chlorpyrifos within 60 days. The court said there was “no justification” for Pruitt’s decision to reverse course on banning the pesticide because the EPA had scientific evidence showing that chlorpyrifos residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.
The ruling was a major victory for a coalition of environmental, public health and farmworker groups that spent years pushing the Obama administration to ban the pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals called organophosphates that includes nerve agents and other chemical weapons.
“This court decision is a great victory for the health of our farmworkers and our families,” said Mark Magaña, president of GreenLatinos, a group focused on environmental issues that impact Latino communities, in a statement. “Production of food for our tables should not put at risk the neurodevelopment of children nor poison farmworkers.”
The ruling is the latest setback for an administration that has aggressively moved to dismantle environmental rules, social safety net programs and public health protections without legislation from Congress. Court rulings have blocked or stalled several of these policies, including efforts to roll back or delay various clean air protections and allow states to place work requirements on Medicaid recipients.
In a statement, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson boasted that the chlorpyrifos decision was his 12th legal victory against the Trump administration, and his office has yet to lose a case against Trump on the merits. Ferguson and other Democratic attorneys general joined the environmental coalition in challenging Pruitt’s chlorpyrifos decision and have worked together to file dozens of lawsuits against Trump administration policies.
Last week, Ferguson told reporters that he is confident about his legal challenges against Trump because the administration is “sloppy in how they do their work.”
He made his comments while announcing a lawsuit against a Trump administration decision to drop legal efforts that had prevented a libertarian developer from posting plans to 3-D-print lethal firearms on his website (a federal judge quickly issued an injunction blocking the plans from being released). As Truthout has reported, the hasty rollout of the administration agenda has left it open to legal challenges on both constitutional and procedural grounds.
Despite setbacks, the White House continued rolling out attention-grabbing policy proposals this week, including a plan to create a sixth branch of the military called the “Space Force,” and another proposal that would punish legal immigrants for using the public health system and other resources.
Vice President Mike Pence outlined Trump’s vision for consolidating existing military units focused on outer space into a Space Force, and the Trump campaign immediately began fundraising around the announcement. The proposal was mocked by Democrats, social media users and even an ex-astronaut, and critics were quick to point out that creating the Space Force would require a reluctant Congress to approve a new branch of the military.
The Trump administration also proposed giving immigration officials the power to revoke legal-resident status from immigrants if they use Medicaid and other social safety nets that are already available to them. This could force immigrants to decide between seeking medical care and keeping their families together, and would fall particularly hard on children and immigrants with disabilities.
Medical experts warned the Trump administration this week that such a policy would be a disaster for public health and would be met with legal challenges.
“People are going to have to make terrible decisions,” said Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, in an interview with a medical journal. “We will continue to fight this.”
The administration also proposed opening huge swaths of public land in California to fracking, which is bound to anger residents of a state where voters tend to be skeptical of fracking. However, opening federal lands in California to fracking would require a complex environmental review, and eco-groups have repeatedly used courts in California to block similar fossil fuel efforts in the past.
“I think it is true in some respects that [Trump officials] are making a decision on what they want the outcome [of their policies] to be, and then they are trying to find justification for it, and they are doing it really quickly,” Earthjustice attorney Marisa Ordonia told Truthout in an interview.
Ordonia said Pruitt’s decision to keep chlorpyrifos on the market stands out. By the time Pruitt took office, the EPA had plenty of scientific data showing that the pesticide posed a risk to young children and farmworkers. Under such circumstances, federal law requires him to protect the public. Pruitt essentially decided to ignore his own scientists.
“There wasn’t a way that this could go in the direction that they chose, not under the law, not under science,” Ordonia said.