‘Cut Through Fog’ to Cover Trump’s Fast-Moving Environmental Policy Changes

July 18, 2017

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SEJ News: ‘Cut Through Fog’ to Cover Trump’s Fast-Moving Environmental Policy Changes

Environmental journalists must go into overdrive to keep up with fast and furious changes coming during the Trump Administration, advised policy experts and leading reporters who spoke at a July 6 forum in Seattle hosted by the Society of Environmental Journalists to explore what the Trump presidency may mean environmentally.

“You guys have to cut through the fog, because there’s just a tremendous range of activities that are going on,” urged lead speaker Dennis McLerran, former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 administrator under President Obama.

Dennis McLerran fielding a query from moderator Jeff Burnside at the SEJ forum
Former EPA official Dennis McLerran, left, fielding a query from moderator Jeff Burnside at the SEJ forum in Seattle July 6.

McLerran, who also acknowledged “I’m not an unbiased speaker,” ticked off a long list of Trump’s executive orders, presidential proclamations and moves by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt [read a PDF of his full remarks here].

Take, for example, Executive Order 13781, which seeks a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the executive branch. “What will that look like? What will that mean? Will EPA go away with this proposal?” McLerran asked. He added that a check on such a dramatic change are the statutes that ensconce federal agencies like EPA. Still, “watch that one closely,” he cautioned.

Cuts to environmental agencies cause for worry

Seattle attorney Karen McGaffey, whose firm represents many businesses, noted that the business community faces uncomfortable uncertainty for the foreseeable future. “You want to know what the rules are going to be to make sensible business decisions,” she noted.

Also, while the new administration portends reduced staffing and funding at regulatory agencies, McGaffey said that in her 20 years of obtaining permits for various companies, she routinely sees how agencies that are increasingly thinly staffed have trouble issuing the environmental permits that businesses need.

She said she has wondered: Is there any way to get more staff so agencies can do the work that is needed? As for the prospect of further cuts to environmental agencies under Trump, she said, “It worries me.”

Darcy Nonemacher of the Washington Environmental Council noted that states are in a poor position to pick up the slack left by cutbacks from the Trump administration. Environmental programs in her state make up less than 2 percent of her state’s budget. “I just don’t think states have the resources to realistically bridge that gap,” she said.

‘Trump will not allow me to retire,’ says veteran reporter

Reporters speaking to attendees expressed frustration with the financial realities of today’s newsrooms — trying to do more with fewer resources.

Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes said what frustrates her is the stories she can’t get to. She said she knows perfectly well that when she spends weeks on an enterprise article on wolves, that means she isn’t covering something else — like pesticides — that already is undercovered.

Columnist Joel Connelly, a local institution at lightly-staffed Seattlepi.com, who has encyclopedic knowledge of environmental issues going back decades, said he had intended to retire, but he felt duty-bound to continue after the election: “Donald Trump will not allow me to retire.”

Former EPA Region 10 administrator McLerran urged journalists to carefully follow processes, noting that “there are checks and balances out there. … The laws haven’t changed. The statutes haven’t changed. The science hasn’t changed. The facts haven’t changed. The people who are administering it have changed. And they’re going to make some mistakes,” McLerran said.

“And the courts are there — as long as the courts don’t get packed — to be a check and balance on this,” he added. “So, you’re going to see a lot of litigation and a lot of things that are put into play by environmental groups and others to try to slow things down.”

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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