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Obama's EPA Head Is Very Worried About Our Health

Motherboard talks to Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

With the election of Donald J. Trump as President, the Environmental Protection Agency got a boss that views it with contempt—even calling to dismantle it entirely. Motherboard called up former Obama-era EPA administrator Gina McCarthy—who helped orchestrate two rules Trump is already trying to undo: the Waters of the US rule and the Clean Power Plan—to wrap our heads around what this means for our environment and health.

MOTHERBOARD: The necessity of the EPA has been under heavy scrutiny lately. The President has proposed billions of dollars in budget cuts—why is the EPA so important?

Gina McCarthy: You know people don't really understand that we really are all about public health. It's not about how many acres of open space did we save. We are frontline in terms of their ability to get clean air and clean water. You know we're the ones that got lead out of gasoline so that our kids could actually think when they got to school. It's so fundamental to life for us.

I think [budget cuts] could have a really significant impact on public health over time and frankly even in the near term. I don't think that anyone can really argue that we have found the magic bullet to keep our environment as clean as it is or to address the more complicated challenges like climate change moving forward, with fewer people, and with almost half of the scientists that are basically part of that cut as well.

One regular argument by opponents of the agency is that it's "redundant" and most of its tasks could be taken over by the states. Is this something that is actually feasible?  

There's no way in which states have the kind of technical expertise and resources that EPA has. You simply can't duplicate that at the State level. And so the answer is an easy no. When there is a problem [states] call EPA. We do the sampling, we do the analysis, we tell them how to clean it. Frankly, states don't have the resources.

Second—pollution doesn't respect boundaries. It would be ridiculous to think that you could address air pollution and water pollution problems by keeping that within the borders of the state. I just don't see it at all. I think it's a dangerous formula and it will fail.

President Trump signed an executive order instructing EPA to begin dismantling and replacing the Waters of The US rule, arguing that it's unlawful, and a job killer. What does this clean water rule actually do to protect our drinking water?  

Simply put, it protects the waters that provide our drinking water as well as our recreation and our fisheries. We identified what waterways work together in order to protect the downstream drinking water supplies for 117 million people. You know half of the rivers and streams that were contaminated when the EPA came around, remain contaminated. So we haven't made the progress in water that we would've liked.

Also in the crosshairs of this administration is to rollback the Clean Power Plan—a rule aimed at drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Could undoing this block EPA from fulfilling its directive of protecting public health?  

The thing that people need to realize is that climate change has direct public health implications. It can impact whether or not we can deliver clean air and clean water. You're talking about heat related disease as well as cold. With extreme warm air, comes more ozone. With ozone, comes more public health impacts. More kids having more asthma attacks. More respiratory diseases. Tell me the great public health benefits of having NO water, because you're in drought, and your wells have run dry?

Lastly, all the talk about staff cuts, and budget cuts surely must be having an impact on morale. How does this kind of an atmosphere affect the ability of the agency to do its job?  

I'm hoping they're doing ok. I think if the budget can be resolved—these are all adults—and many of them have been through changes before. But I think what they're going to want to look for is whether or not the leadership above them, Scott Pruitt and the president, really embrace the mission of the agency.

I knew there was a lot of political rhetoric during the Trump campaign about dismantling EPA and some of these protections. Frankly, I hoped saner heads would prevail, and that when they got there they'd realize what we do for a living. And how important it is. And how many lives we save. And how it's really about our kids health and well being. Not about whether the business community is inconvenienced.