TO STAND on a pontoon besides the Anacostia River, which runs for 8.5 miles through Maryland and the southern part of Washington, DC, is to gauge the progress America has made in cleaning up its waterways. The Anacostia, which empties into the Potomac close to the Capitol, was once a slow-flowing garbage dump; on a recent sunny afternoon, hardly a soda can or plastic bag ruffled its sluggish brown surface, over which cormorants fizzed like arrows, rigid with intent. They are a sign that the river’s ravaged fish stocks are beginning to recover. But you still wouldn’t want to eat them.
Forty-five years after the federal government became obliged, under the Clean Water Act (CWA), to try to make America’s main waterways “fishable and swimmable”, the Anacostia is, despite the recent progress, in a disgusting state. Each year, two billion gallons of sewage and stormwater flow into it, making the water so cloudy with faeces that light cannot penetrate it. The weeds and mussels that once carpeted the river-bed are long gone. It is coated with black ooze, over ten feet deep in places, saturated with polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals and other industrial pollutants. Anacostia fish, often covered with toxic lesions, are poisonous, yet frequently consumed, a study suggests, by 17,000 mostly poor people.
The state of the Anacostia, and hundreds of other polluted waterways, is a rebuke to the argument, levelled by Donald Trump and other Republicans, that the EPA is running wild. At a rally in Florida on February 18th, Mr Trump said the agency was “clogging up the veins of the country with the environmental impact statements and all of the rules and regulations”. Addressing staff at the EPA on February 21st, its incoming director Scott Pruitt, who as attorney-general of Oklahoma sued the agency 14 times, suggested the unclogging would involve ending the agency’s regulatory “abuses”. As The Economist went to press, Mr Trump was reported to be preparing executive decrees to begin that effort. He is expected, for example, to try to replace the Clean Power Plan (CPP), Barack Obama’s main effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from thermal power-stations.
This is such a familiar Republican assault—even if Mr Trump may mean to go further than his predecessors—that it is worth noting that environmental protection was once a bipartisan concern. The EPA was founded by Richard Nixon, in 1970, to implement a flurry of environmental laws, including the CWA and Clear Air Act, that were also backed by Republicans. Two decades of rapid post-war growth had put America’s air and waterways under great pressure, which the states, locked in feverish economic competition with each other, had proved incapable of easing. The spread of television, which publicised such disasters as Californian peasoupers and the burning Cuyahoga river in Ohio, had helped foster public demand for action; the CWA passed the Senate 86-0.
This provoked a backlash from industry, which in turn led Ronald Reagan, and more forcefully George W. Bush, to turn against environmental protection. Both appointed weak EPA directors and tried to replace environmental rules with weaker alternatives. Yet they ended up retreating under the legal furore this caused. The political argument against environmental protection is not often legally based—as the fate of Mr Pruitt’s challenges to the EPA, almost all of which were co-sponsored by representatives from industry, indicates. None of the 14 has so far succeeded.
Mr Pruitt claimed to be championing states’ rights. His critics say he was an instrument of industry, and they seem to have a point. The EPA was formed, with authority to dictate standards to the states and intervene where they fail to implement them, precisely because their environmental stewardship had proved to be inadequate. Mr Pruitt’s legal arguments are a mixed bag, moreover. His most important, that the CPP stretches the EPA’s authority, is taken seriously by legal experts. But other challenges brought by Mr Pruitt, including a failed attempt to scupper a multi-state clean-up of Chesapeake Bay, on which some of the recent progress on the Anacostia is built, appeared frivolous.
His lack of success also indicates how hard it will be to poleaxe the EPA, as the president has vowed to do. Some of Mr Obama’s recent regulations, including one to control methane leakage from drilling operations on federal lands, are liable to be scrapped by the Republican-controlled Congress, under a little-used procedure called congressional review. Most cannot be, however. They would have to be replaced, through a long process of drafting and review, then defended against legal challenges. To replace the CPP would take Mr Pruitt at least a couple of years.
Reducing the EPA would be easier if Congress were to amend the environmental legislation underpinning the EPA’s rules—for example, by binning the provisions of the Clean Air Act on which the CPP rests. But there is currently no chance this could evade the Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and many Republican congressmen would not welcome the fight. Around 60% of Americans say they are in favour of more environmental protection.
A third possibility is more insidious. Mr Pruitt could try to sabotage his agency by ordering it to provide less regulatory oversight. That would get ugly; EPA workers are already rebellious, as illustrated by a recent protest by dozens against their new boss’s nomination, in Chicago. It would also be damaging; though perhaps less so than Mr Trump might expect. Far from being the liberal attack-dog of his imagining, the agency is already thinly stretched and environmental groups correspondingly accustomed to filling in the gaps.
The most hopeful development on the Anacostia, for example, takes the form of a $2bn sewage overflow system, which is due to come into use in 2018. It has been built by DC Water, which manages much of Washington’s sewage system, after it was sued over its discharges into the river by environmental groups. They had tired of the EPA’s failure to take action. Though 168 drains will still flow into the river, bringing dog faeces and gasoline from the capital’s roads, this should make the Anacostia swimmable for the first time in decades. “We’re getting close to dramatic progress,’ says Emily Franc, who serves as the Anacostia’s riverkeeper, a non-governmental watchdog role. “This is no time for the EPA to pull back.”