You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

We’re on the Brink of a Major Environmental Disaster. Are We Ready?

The Trump administration is increasing the risk of a serious accident—and a key position in charge of disaster preparedness remains unfilled.

U.S. Coast Guard/Handout/Getty Images

Admiral Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, knows oil spills. As the lead coordinator for the government’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he directed tens of thousands of responders as they attempted a herculean task: recovering 200 million gallons of crude oil from the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Zukunft admits that task was impossible to complete, and that’s why he knows that drilling for oil in the freezing, unpredictable Arctic Ocean would be far more dangerous than drilling in the Gulf. “I can assure you that if there is an oil spill [in the Arctic], we’re not going to recover all that oil,” he told an audience at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, D.C. last month. “We don’t know what Mother Nature would do and we don’t know the long term impacts to one of the most pristine environments in the world. Its not an area we want to oil and then find out after the fact.”

But we are going to oil the Arctic. In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order attempting to open up offshore oil drilling in Arctic and Atlantic waters. “Today,” Trump said at the time, “we’re unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs.” Without saying it, he also cleared the way for a potentially massive and unresolvable oil spill. That’s not just because Arctic drilling is inherently risky. According to the New York Times, Trump’s executive order “calls for the reconsideration of a critical safeguard that is the most important action the government has taken to reduce offshore drilling hazards. This safeguard, the well control rule, tightened controls on blowout preventers designed to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells. The rule was based in part on lessons the commission learned about the root cause of the BP disaster.”

Kickstarting Arctic offshore drilling isn’t the only thing Trump has done to increase the risk of a man-made environmental disaster in just six short months. He’s starting a process that could open up almost the entirety of U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling. He’s moving forward with large pipelines like Keystone XL, a project that carries the danger of an enormous corrosive tar sands oil spill. He’s attempting (and so far, failing) to delay regulations on fracking while also trying to open up the practice on public lands, increasing the potential for man-made earthquakes. Trump’s hoping to ship more liquified natural gas, or LNG, using tankers that are likely targets for terrorist attacks. Trump is also loosening regulations to encourage more coal projects, and coal burning produces massive amounts of coal ash waste that is often stored in old, leaky ponds.

And yet, while Trump significantly increases the risk of a man-made environmental disaster in this country, he has done little to increase our preparation for it. He hasn’t yet named an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM), the department in charge of handling land-based environmental disasters. That’s important, said former EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, an Obama appointee. “In an emergency, what happens is, a lot of the direction comes out of Washington,” she said. Her fear is compounded by the fact that EPA regional offices—which do most of the grunt work during big inland oil spills—also don’t yet have Trump-appointed administrators. “Career staff there know what they’re doing, but no regional administrator has been named to provide real direction. If EPA headquarters is also a mess, that’s going to be a problem.”

Disaster preparedness experts are also concerned, not only by the lack of an OLEM appointee, but by the weakening of the regulatory state in general. “We’ve set ourselves up for a collision course of risk to the environment and human health,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “On the altar of trying to deregulate, we’ve gone though a extreme state where basic safety precautions that the public desperately needs are being thrown by the wayside. It’s not going to end well.”

It’s been awhile since America has faced a really big disaster. We’re overdue for one, but are we prepared? 

The federal response to a huge man-made environmental disaster varies depending on the situation. For big inland oil spills like the 2010 tar sands oil spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, or large releases of coal waste like the 2014 incident in North Carolina’s Dan River, the EPA will generally take the reins. For offshore oil rig disasters like Deepwater Horizon, the Coast Guard takes charge. And if a man-made earthquakes ever reached disaster-level strength—and some experts think they might—the Federal Emergency Management Agency would likely be responsible. 

Trump has taken some steps toward emergency preparedness at some of these agencies. He earned praise in June for his appointment of now-FEMA Director Brock Long, the former director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency. But Trump also proposed a $667 million cut to FEMA’s state and local program grants in an attempt to “shift the cost of paying for disaster preparation and response away from the federal government,” according to The New York Times. It’s unclear if that cut would be approved by Congress: FEMA funding was not included in the recently passed “minibus” House budget. 

Trump’s budget would have kept funding levels steady for the Coast Guard. And despite proposing enormous cuts to EPA in general, Trump’s budget did not specifically mention OLEM, the emergency response office. In addition, while Trump’s EPA is planning to buy out 1,200 employees by the end of the summer, the agency’s on-scene coordinators (OSCs)—who manage emergency response and are able to unilaterally commit EPA resources to solve problems—are not being targeted by those buyouts, according to Mike Mikulka, an EPA Region 5 environmental engineer and president of the local EPA employee union. “I have not heard that any are planning on quitting in the near future either,” he said.

Still, as disaster risk increases, Mikulka said it becomes essential that funding for emergency preparedness increase as well. That has not been the case for years, he said; funding for disaster preparedness at EPA has remained stagnant, not increasing even for inflation. “You can’t pay the same people the increased pay rate with the same amount of money every year. Which means every year you have to cut somewhere else: Equipment, training or travel,” he said. “There’s a slow erosion of the capability across the agency because they haven’t increased the funding.”

With an administration hell-bent on dismantling the EPA, it seems unlikely that there would be any funding increases in any department at the agency. (An EPA spokesperson in D.C. did not return my request for comment.) And that’s unfortunate, because disaster preparedness experts worry that the next environmental calamity is imminent.

“The Northwest is certainly on the brink of an environmental disaster,” said Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, a sustainability policy think tank focusing on the Northwestern United States and Canada. That’s not just because of Trump’s policies, but because of the number of new fossil fuel project proposals. De Place has inventoried all of those new fossil fuel project proposals: “15 oil-by-rail projects in Washington alone, 19 LNG proposals north of the border, six coal export terminals, a bunch of new gas pipelines and petrochemical refining,” De Place said. Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said the increase in projects alone is enough to raise alarm. “The more exploration you do, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong,” he said.

There are other concerns, aging infrastructure chief among them. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), about 45 percent of crude oil pipelines in the U.S. are over 50 years old. And as the federal pipeline safety authority, PHMSA is underperforming—at least according to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General. In a report last year, the OIG said the agency missed “about 75 percent of its mandated deadlines” in implementing new safety measures. In addition, technology disasters are concerning to Redlener—that is, the failure of technology that results in an accident. The Deepwater Horizon spill, for example, was a failure of a mechanical valve. Redlener is most concerned about the growing body of science linking fracking technology to earthquakes. “I’d like to say we’re preparing for that, but we’re not,” he said.  

Schlegelmilch said he’s not sure whether the U.S. is adequately prepared right now. A federal budget, after all, has not yet been approved; perhaps the necessary funds will be allocated in the end. And while some key emergency management positions may not be filled, the ones he has seen filled—like FEMA’s Brock Long—are encouraging. “This administration hasn’t been tested,” he said. “So it remains to be seen.” But those are hardly comforting words when it comes to our preparedness for the next environmental catastrophe—and rest assured, there will be a catastrophe sooner or later. It’s imperative that the Trump administration be ready for it.