President Donald Trump went to North and South Carolina on Wednesday to tout his administration’s response to Hurricane Florence, whose epic downpour killed at least 37 people, swamped thousands of homes and roadways, stranded a nuclear power plant and unleashed toxic pollution from coal-ash pits and hog-waste ponds.
“There will be nothing left undone,” Trump told federal and state officials in North Carolina before heading out to tour the storm damage. “You will have everything you need.”
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Here’s what he didn’t talk about: His administration’s environmental policies are likely to worsen the devastation from future disasters like Florence.
From gutting climate rules to letting developers fill in more water-absorbing wetlands, the administration’s push to relax Obama-era regulations threatens to reverse years of federal efforts to reduce the property damage, contamination and human suffering that extreme rainfall and surging seas cause.
“The Obama administration took steps in the right direction and now we’re going backwards,” said Geoff Gisler with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “If the federal government doesn’t take action and doesn’t move in the right direction, we will not only be equally unprepared the next time a major storm hits one of our states, we’ll likely be less prepared.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s policies have had little real-world effect so far — they haven’t even come into force yet in much of the country, and former President Barack Obama’s efforts were still a work in progress when he left office. But these are five examples of how the regulatory rollback will matter in the coming years and decades:
Relaxing federal building standards
Obama directed federal agencies in 2015 to stop putting their money into construction in flood-prone areas, requiring that funding for projects like new veterans’ hospitals, schools and highways go to less low-lying places or that the projects be elevated.
But the new requirements drew the ire of business and real estate interests, who feared they could stanch the flow of federal cash to their projects. And last year, Trump revoked it — shortly before Hurricane Harvey inflicted a major flooding disaster on the Houston area with as much as 60 inches of rainfall.
A Trump White House adviser later mused that the administration was considering issuing its own flood standards “to build back better, faster and stronger.” But to date, it has not.
The 2015 order “anticipated exactly the sorts of flooding that the nation has experienced,” said Samantha Medlock, a former senior Obama White House adviser on flood policy. She added: “Many states and local governments no longer rely solely on outdated flood maps but instead have integrated the latest science and adopted higher standards to reduce risks of loss of life and property in floods. It is past time for the federal government to follow their lead.”
Weakening wetlands protections
Wetlands act as nature’s sponges, soaking up flood waters and filtering pollution before slowly releasing it downstream. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands in the U.S. are lost every year, often filled in to build parking lots, strip malls and subdivisions.
In Houston, unchecked development that decimated the region’s prairie wetlands made Hurricane Harvey’s flooding far worse. Harris County lost 30 percent of its wetlands between 1992 and 2010, according to research by Texas A&M University. Altogether, the researchers found that the Houston area lost roughly 4 billion gallons’ worth of lost flood retention through destroyed wetlands.
Now the Trump administration is in the process of unwinding federal protections for a broad swath of the country’s wetlands.
A rule that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last summer would revoke a major 2015 Obama administration regulation that had been aimed at protecting headwater streams and wetlands. Those include specific types of wetlands that are common in the Carolinas, which researchers have found play a key role in regulating flooding in the Lower Neuse River basin, where much of Florence’s flooding occurred.
The Obama-era rule has drawn criticism from a broad range of industries, including oil, gas, mining, farming and development, that argue it is a vast federal overreach. Trump has ordered EPA to replace it with a much narrower regulation that is expected to restrict federal protections that limit development and pollution to a far smaller set of waters.
Delaying action on coal ash ponds
The hurricane-prone Southeast is dotted with coal plants where toxic ash left over from power generation is stored in pits, ponds and landfills, often on the banks of rivers and lakes. North Carolina alone has 14 coal ash sites collectively holding more than 150 million tons of the toxic waste.
Florence’s historic rains have already caused more than 150 dump trucks’ worth of coal ash to break free from a Duke Energy landfill north of Wilmington, some of which made its way into a nearby lake used for fishing and recreation. But a worse disaster was probably prevented because a state law required ash to be excavated from impoundments next to the lake. Coal ash basins at another site in Goldsboro, N.C., were also inundated, potentially displacing ash there, too.
But similar leaky ponds are still in use in most other states — and the Trump administration has taken steps to extend their lifespans.
A 2015 Obama administration rule would have required coal ash ponds built in or near water to be closed by April 2019. Instead, the Trump administration this summer extended that deadline by a year and a half, and may yet roll back the rule even further. And language in a proposal last spring has environmentalists suspicious that the Trump EPA may create new loopholes that allow coal ash ponds that don’t meet structural integrity standards to continue operating.
“People in the Southeast will be surely placed in greater jeopardy,” Lisa Evans, an attorney with the group Earthjustice, said of the Trump administration’s rollback of the coal ash rule. She called the Obama-era regulation a matter of “such plain, common sense.”
“Everybody can understand that you shouldn’t have a toxic waste site on the edge of a river,” she said.
Loosening reins on chemical storage
Hurricane Harvey resulted in more than 100 releases of toxic chemicals, sending dozens of tons of the contaminants into the water, air and land, according to an Associated Press and Texas Tribune analysis of county, state and federal records months after the storm waters receded.
But this summer, the Trump administration decided not to issue spill prevention rules for huge, above-ground chemical storage tanks like the one that developed a massive leak in West Virginia in 2014. Environmentalists had sued EPA to demand action after that spill sent 10,000 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal into the Elk River, just upstream from the drinking water plant in Charleston, W. Va.
Although spill prevention rules exist for petroleum, Trump’s EPA concluded that similar regulations for other chemicals “would be duplicative and unnecessary,” then-Administrator Scott Pruitt said in June. The agency said 2,491 spills of hazardous substances had occurred between 2007 and 2016, not counting spills related to transportation. It said 117 of the spills had significant impacts like water supply contamination or casualties.
Enacting a wholesale rollback of climate rules
While scientists are reluctant to attribute any individual storm to climate change, the world’s foremost panel of climate experts has concluded that global warming stands to make them wetter and more intense. The warmer the atmosphere, the more moisture it can hold — and the United Nations’ climate panel estimates that a temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit is likely to cause hurricanes to dump 10 to 15 percent more rain in the coming decades.
In the case of Florence, a team of scientists from Stony Brook University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that warming conditions caused the storm to dump 50 percent more rain than it would have without climate change.
Meanwhile, climate change is causing sea levels to rise, in turn prompting hurricanes’ storm surges to be higher and reach further inland than they used to. Oceans have risen by an average of 8 inches globally since recordkeeping began in 1880, including 3 inches of rise in the past 25 years.
The U.S. government’s most recent report by top climate scientists predicts that seas will rise by at least another few inches in the next 15 years and by 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century. Other research has concluded that sea levels could rise by more than 6 feet by the end of the century because of faster-than-expected melting in Antarctica.
Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty, and EPA’s subsequent unwinding of the three major Obama-era regulations aimed at slashing carbon pollution from power plants, vehicles and oil and gas operations, set the country on a path that makes Florence-like storms all the more likely, experts say.
Meanwhile, state and local policies can create their own hurdles for preparedness. For instance, in 2012 the North Carolina Legislature banned the state from relying on sea-level rise projections from its own Coastal Resources Commission when making planning decisions. That move followed pressure from real estate interests that argued it could hinder oceanfront development.