When 50,000 acre-feet of water went gushing out of the Sacramento River last month, it fast became a test of California’s ability to protect its environmental policies from an increasingly hostile Trump administration.
The episode proved humbling.
Heeding the calls of big agriculture interests and area congressional Republicans, the administration pumped federally controlled water to Central Valley farms despite protest from the state that the move imperiled the endangered delta smelt. All California could do was temporarily shut its own pumps, which came at the expense of the state’s mostly urban water customers.
It was perceived by some in California as the kind of big agriculture water grab that the state had not seen in years. And it flouted a longstanding water-management partnership between California and Washington, D.C.
“This has never happened before,” Doug Obegi, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the pumping. “It has created a huge mess, and a lot of uncertainty.”
The incident was a jolting reminder of California’s limited ability to counteract the environmental retreat in Washington. Even in the state where resistance is the mantra, leaders can’t keep up with the pace of Trump’s environmental rollbacks.
The risk of exposure to toxic substances escaping from industrial facilities has been heightened by the suspension of federal safety rules. Climate change action is getting undercut by easing of restrictions on heavily polluting vehicles.
Even the authority of officials at the state’s national parks to prohibit plastic water bottles has been stripped.
So many rules and regulations have been rolled back that lawmakers can scarcely keep up. “I have lost track,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee. “It is dizzying.”
The Californian who ran the EPA division encompassing the state and others in the Southwest during the Obama administration is particularly concerned about the state’s exposure to toxic chemicals. “No one knows: Is this being covered? Who is covering it and how?” said Jared Blumenfeld, former EPA Region 9 administrator.
While the state has moved aggressively to implement tough restrictions at oil refineries in recent years, there are other categories of facilities where the federal government had been taking the lead. The EPA was imposing new requirements enabling regulators to keep track of what chemicals are stored where, and requiring plant owners to take proactive measures to prevent dangerous releases into the community. But the Trump administration suspended them.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the move was made in the interest of being “responsive to concerns raised by stakeholders regarding regulations so facility owners and operators know what is expected of them.”
The rules would have boosted safety provisions at plants such as the South San Francisco salami factory, which in 2009 released a plume of 217 pounds of poisonous ammonia, sending 17 people in the nearby community to the hospital, one of them for four days.
In many cases, California’s backstop is local fire departments. Some have experienced hazardous chemical experts on staff. Others don’t.
“It looked like Chernobyl,” Blumenfeld said of the 70-acre facility on the shore of Humboldt Bay when the EPA arrived on site. “Any seismic activity would have led to an unbelievable environmental catastrophe.” Trump’s plan to cut deep into the EPA budget would diminish the agency’s ability to monitor such facilities, and his plan to eliminate the U.S. Chemical Safety Board would deprive California regulators of a crucial partner in bulking up its own protections.
The state leaned heavily on the expertise of the board following the 2012 Chevron refinery explosion that drove 15,000 people in the Bay Area to seek medical treatment for issues such as breathing problems. Nineteen refinery workers narrowly escaped the ignition of a flammable vapor cloud that engulfed the facility. It was board investigators who discovered Chevron’s engineers had written a half-dozen reports pinpointing the corrosion that put it at risk for the type of disaster that unfolded.
“We never would have known about those reports if it were not for the Chemical Safety Board,” said Mike Wilson, director for occupational and environmental health at the Blue Green Alliance, a national coalition of labor and conservation groups.
The state was also looking to Washington to take the lead on protecting farmworkers against the dangers of chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide in California’s fields that EPA scientists warned should be banned. Studies find it inhibits childhood brain development.
When the EPA’s deadline to decide on a ban came in March, Pruitt declared the science is unsettled. He put off action until 2022.
State regulators are now in the midst of their own proceedings. They are conducting a separate review, which began over the summer and will extend at least into December — prolonging the time California agriculture communities are exposed to the pesticide, even if the state ultimately imposes its own ban.
The fight over the pesticide is another case highlighting the extent to which state regulators rely on a robust EPA to pursue California’s regulatory agenda. The army of scientists, attorneys, data crunchers and other regulatory experts may operate largely in the background, but they are a backbone of environmental protection in California. They are not easily replaced.
A legislative effort championed by state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) that would obligate the state to backfill Trump retreats on clean air and clean water has hit roadblocks. Industry groups have so far persuaded a Democrat-dominated Legislature that the lift would be too big and too complicated.
Even without it, Trump is still hitting big barriers imposing his agenda in California. Restrictions on methane releases at oil and gas drilling facilities were preserved by a lawsuit that California and other states filed, and other such legal challenges will likely blunt other air quality, water quality and public lands rollbacks. The state’s aggressive pursuit of climate action will go a long way in helping the United States meet the obligations under the Paris climate accord on global warming that Trump has spurned.
“Where we can, we will do everything in our power to hold this administration accountable,” said state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing, and we’ve already been successful numerous times. And where we can’t, California will continue to lead on its own path as we have done in the past.”
Some things, though, can be out of the state’s reach, even if they are happening in its backyard. A federal plan aimed at protecting endangered sea turtles and whales from drifting sword fishing nets off the West Coast was canceled. More of California’s federal land is being opened to oil and gas drilling, and the administration is signaling it may move to open its waters up, too. The EPA is moving to repeal new restrictions on a type of heavily-polluting truck California was relying on to meet its climate and air quality goals.
After California sued to stop the cancellation of another highway program aimed at tracking greenhouse gas emissions, the administration appeared to back off. Then it moved to cancel the program again.
John McManus is watching it all with dismay from his office in Northern California. The executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Assn. worries the state has only so much power to stop the federal government from pumping water out of California’s rivers that he says could kill off the fishery.
“The federal bureaucrats making these decisions have a new boss,” McManus said. “We got a glimpse in October of how they might act. If they can do this to the smelt today, they can do it to the salmon tomorrow.”