Has Earth Day Had Any Impact? California Environmental Chief Weighs In

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Apollo Earth photo
View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. (NASA)

California’s Environmental Protection Agency is carrying an extra burden these days.

In late March, its federal counterpart said that it would essentially stop enforcing environmental regulations for the time being. Couched as a "temporary enforcement discretion policy," the move was announced as a relief measure for businesses working under contraints forced by the coronavirus pandemic. EPA did not establish a timeline for the stand-down but said in its announcement that it would "assess the continued need for and scope of this temporary policy on a regular basis."

Reaction among enviromentalists and some former EPA officials was stunned disbelief, with former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy calling it an "open license to pollute."

On this 50th Earth Day, KQED’s Craig Miller spoke with CalEPA chief Jared Blumenfeld about the EPA's move and about the relevance of Earth Day, which is 50 years old today. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back over the last 50 years, what impact do you think Earth Day has had?

I do think that it has had a major impact on policy. Back in 1970, we didn't have the Clean Air Act, we didn't have the Clean Water Act, we didn't have any federal legislation, really, relating to the environment. And people went out on the streets, made their voices heard. And I think it became for the first time a political issue. And it continues to be. At the time it was really bipartisan. So Republican President Nixon signed into law the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, all these landmark laws that protect water and land. And it really was a factor. Politically, people were worried if they didn't take action on the environment, they'd be booted out of office.

And since 1970, I think Earth Day continues to galvanize people and build on that belief that we're all in this together, and especially now during COVID-19, I mean, we really are all in this together. And what we can do individually, collectively as school kids or corporations or government, we all have a part to play. I think Earth Day reminds us of that fact.

On balance, would you say we're better or worse off in terms of environmental progress?

On the political front. I think we are going, unfortunately, backwards. It's become a very bipartisan issue at a time where we all realize we're in this together, and yet it's been divisive. It's been used as a wedge issue. So if I had one hope for Earth Day it's that we really bring people back together.


Do you see the EPA stand-down as an abdication of its responsibilities?

Jared Blumenfeld: I think the federal government did abdicate its responsibility. It really walked away from the enforcement obligations that Congress gave them. And there aren't really very good reasons for doing that in this case. If there was a specific hardship that an industry could point to, let's say the restaurant industry has been particularly hurt or retail. I think on a case-by-case basis there's a reason for looking at that, working with them collaboratively. But to paint with broad brush strokes, exemptions for industry in general makes no sense and is actually damaging to public health and the environment at the very time we need to be bolstering our resilience to cope with COVID-19.

EPA basically caved immediately to pressure from extractive industries and polluters and said, 'We're not going to levy fines, we're not really going to do enforcement.'

I think there's now more than 90 initiatives that the Trump administration has taken to roll back protections and standards for human health.

California is not looking for a fight. We really want to work together where we can, and COVID-19's, a great example of where we've been able to collaborate.

Your agency has pledged to pick up the slack during EPA's hiatus. Is that an additional burden, especially during a pandemic?

Well, we already do. California and local agencies do about 130,000 inspections a year. And the federal government probably does in the in the range of 500 inspections a year.

One example, for instance, is inspecting hazardous facilities like oil refineries. We're going to work with locals and others to make sure that for those facilities that would pose a larger risk to human health and the environment, we continue to inspect those.

Craig Miller is a contributing science editor to KQED, specializing in climate and Earth sciences.