Courts deal two major blows to Trump environmental agenda in one week

Legal action continues to be a winning strategy for those seeking to stop the president's onslaught of rollbacks.

Farmer spraying pesticides over crops. CREDIT: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images
Farmer spraying pesticides over crops. CREDIT: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s controversial onslaught of environmental rollbacks faced two major setbacks this week, as legal action continues to prove a winning strategy for opponents of the administration’s deregulation agenda.

In a boon to environmental advocates, court decisions on Friday rebuked the Trump administration’s coal ambitions, in addition to setting a deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban a common and hazardous pesticide.

Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court in Montana ruled late Friday that the Interior Department under former Secretary Ryan Zinke acted illegally when it sought to overturn a 2016 ban on coal mining on public lands. More than 40% of U.S. coal is currently mined from federal lands and the Obama administration imposed the ban on most federal coal sales three years ago.

The Trump administration sought to lift that moratorium as part of a larger effort to revive the coal industry, but Morris said that in doing so government officials ignored the environmental implications associated with selling large amounts of coal obtained from U.S. lands. The judge slammed Interior officials for describing the move “as a mere policy shift” in an effort to avoid environmental.

While Morris’ ruling does not go so far as to reinstate the Obama-era ban, legal experts said it would likely force officials to revise their justification for the decision. The judge has moreover said he will issue a second legal decision this year on whether the mining ban should be reinstated.


Also on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ordered the EPA to finally take action on widespread demands from environmental groups to ban chlorpyrifos, a toxic pesticide.

For years, experts have raised concerns about chlorpyrifos, which is commonly used on crops including apples, wheat, and corn. The pesticide has been linked to cognitive problems, especially in children, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed it hazardous to humans. But it remains widely used in the United States, and under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency denied a petition to ban chlorpyrifos, arguing that the science underlying the pesticide’s side effects is “unresolved.”

Last August, the 9th Circuit ordered the EPA to ban the pesticide within 60 days, but the Trump administration appealed. Now, the agency is once again facing a deadline. The court ruled Friday that the EPA has 90 days to make a decision on banning chlorpyrifos across the country, giving the agency until mid-July to act.

Environmental groups have expressed concern that the Trump administration may continue to drag out the case, but also sounded a note of optimism following the court’s ruling.

“We’ll find out in three months if the Trump EPA remains under the tight control of the chemical agriculture industry, or if Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler will finally take his job seriously and ban this brain-damaging pesticide,” said Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook in a statement to ThinkProgress and other publications.

Both court decisions serve as reinforcement for opponents of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to weaken and roll back environmental regulations. Environmental organizations, officials, and others have repeatedly taken legal action to stop such efforts, with significant success. According to deregulation tracking by Brookings, a large swathe of Trump-era environmental rollback efforts are stuck in the rule-making phase as they face legal opposition, something that has delayed their implementation.


But the Trump administration has also worked around such challenges. At the end of last month, Trump issued a new presidential permit allowing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to go forward. That move came after Morris, the Montana judge, invalidated Trump’s previous presidential permit over environmental review concerns, similar to Friday’s coal ruling. Experts have noted that the new permit comes from the president himself, seemingly in an effort to sidestep environmental review by the State Department.

The administration’s rollbacks and broader environmental policies have already come under scrutiny from Democratic presidential contenders. On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a sweeping public lands plan that would stop all new fossil fuel leases on federal property — a direct response to the Trump administration’s efforts to open lands up for drilling and mining. Warren said that she would also work “to restore protections” to the national monuments targeted by the Trump administration for fossil fuel production, like Bears Ears in Utah.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has also set her focus on chlorpyrifos. On Thursday, she introduced a bill that would restrict public schools from serving food containing any trace of the pesticide. Gillibrand is moreover the co-sponsor of legislation to ban chlorpyrifos nationwide, an effort Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has joined as well.

In a statement announcing the new bill, Gillibrand said, “As a mother of two young sons, it’s alarming that the food in school meals could contain even a trace of a chemical that could harm students’ development and ability to learn.”