Twelve days after Donald Trump took office in 2017, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group NRDC filed its first lawsuit against the new administration, fighting an EPA rollback of a protection against mercury pollution. A week later, it filed another lawsuit against Trump for his two-for-one policy, which said the president would eliminate two existing regulations for every one regulation put on the books. A week after that, it sued the administration again for delaying plans to put the rusty-patched bumblebee on the endangered species list.
To date, the nonprofit has sued the Trump administration around 50 times. Those are just the new lawsuits; the organization has also taken on cases to defend final actions taken by the Obama administration that were later challenged by industry, and which the new administration refused to defend.
“All told, we’ve engaged in a new legal action or new lawsuit against the Trump administration about every eight days since the inauguration,” says Aaron Colangelo, the nonprofit’s litigation director. “It started right away. It started on midnight, or shortly before midnight, on the night of the inauguration.”
That night, the president’s chief of staff signed a memo to freeze or suspend any agency rules from the Obama administration that hadn’t yet gone into effect. That included the mercury rule, which required dental offices to install a simple system to catch old fillings before mercury, a neurotoxin, could go down drains and enter waterways.
By June, because of the lawsuit, the EPA reinstated the protection. “That case established a pattern that we then saw recur over the next few months in particular, which was that the administration would do something blatantly illegal, we would sue or others would sue, and before even defending themselves in court, the Trump administration would back down,” says Colangelo. (The victory for the bumblebee came particularly quickly, as the Department of the Interior listed the bee as an endangered species five weeks after the lawsuit was filed.)
The EPA, with a stated mission to protect human health and the environment, has been sloppy in its attempts to push the administration’s anti-environmental agenda as it rolls back regulations. That hasn’t made the job of organizations like NRDC easier, because it still has to track the torrent of new action from the agency and others, like the Department of Interior. “It seems like nothing is safe, no matter how widely supported or how light industry opposition is,” Colangelo says.
NRDC has worked on environmental law since it was founded in 1970 by a group of young lawyers. (Earthjustice, a similar group, was founded the following year, initially as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund; the Environmental Defense Fund started three years earlier, in 1967.) The organization helped shape and strengthen key environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, helping craft statutes in Congress and enforce the laws after they were passed. As the nonprofit grew, scientists and policy advocates joined the team, and the work has broadened. But acting as a law firm for the planet is still one of the group’s key roles. It now has more than 100 lawyers on staff in its U.S. offices.
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the organization had thought about a framework for responding to a Republican administration, but hadn’t anticipated the pace of the change that came.
“I think what’s just remarkable, and what frankly no one could have predicted, was the level of intensity around the attacks on the environment specifically,” says NRDC president Rhea Suh. “Of all the different things that are happening in this fairly chaotic administration that we’re seeing, the focus on trying to reverse environmental progress has been consistent, has been vociferous, and it clearly has been in the kind of bull’s-eye of what it is the administration collectively thinks it’s in their power to achieve. I don’t think anybody could have guessed that or frankly even planned that back in November of 2016.”
Among other things, the Trump administration revoked a rule that restricted coal companies from dumping mining waste in streams. It rescinded a prohibition on using lead ammunition on federal lands. The EPA withdrew a request for oil and gas companies to provide details on methane emissions. The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology Policy removed the word “science” from its mission statement in March 2017; in April, the EPA took down a website that explained climate change (a year later, the page still says that it’s being “updated.”) The State Department approved the Keystone XL pipeline. When EPA experts advised banning a pesticide associated with brain damage, EPA head Scott Pruitt rejected that advice.
Trump started dismantling the Clean Power Plan, and announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. NOAA canceled a rule to protect endangered whales and sea turtles from fishing nets. The Department of the Interior announced a plan to shrink two national monuments, canceled a study of the health effects from coal mines in Appalachia, and proposed the largest-ever auction of oil and gas leases in federal waters. Trump said that accidental killing of birds–such as the hundreds of thousands of birds killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill–was not a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reversing decades of policy. The EPA loosened regulations on air pollution from major industrial sources. The White House is reviewing policy that gives threatened species, such as the southern sea otter, the same protection as endangered species.
All of this–and more–has provoked a wide range of responses from nonprofits like NRDC, cities and states, and businesses such as Patagonia, which temporarily replaced its home page with the message “The President Stole Your Land” in response to the plan to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The apparel company, along with other groups, then sued. NRDC also sees the law as a key tool in the current political moment.
“Having litigation muscle to fight against what the administration is trying to do has been absolutely essential,” says Colangelo. “The courts are a bulwark against this administration’s worst attacks on the environment. That has been largely true . . . almost universally in the lower courts, US federal judges are apolitical and nonpartisan, and they evaluate claims on the merits. So when we get into court, and when we can get into court quickly, we have a great chance to stop some of the attacks coming from the new administration because we have a nonpartisan mediator.”
The work has required sustained and intense effort. As the administration began, the organization’s attorneys started working late at night and over weekends. But it hasn’t been challenging for the organization, or for its allies at other nonprofits and in state attorneys general offices, to keep up momentum, he says. “These are important battles, and people are ready to fight.”
The attacks on environmental and health protections have drawn new support for the organization’s work, Suh says. The group is also trying to reach out to new audiences through projects like a partnership with eBay for Charity, which is auctioning off prizes such as a voicemail message from Sarah Silverman. Support from a membership base–and helping organize and mobilize them to make it clear to elected officials that they will be held to account–is critical alongside litigation.
“We are seeing an increase in the actions that people are taking, in the number of people that are coming to our website, in the number of folks that show up to things like the Climate March and other protests that have happened,” says Suh. “I think this is where I get most hopeful, despite the difficult and dark times that we are in. We are really seeing just an outpouring of the old-fashioned people power . . . There is something really remarkable that is happening throughout our country, and it’s something that makes me feel very very hopeful and optimistic about the overall direction of where we’ll go and frankly I think where we’ll land even at the end of this year.”
As that support grows, the lawyers continue to fight in court. One recent case involves the Clean Water Rule, an Obama-era policy that made clear that streams, wetlands, and other small bodies of water protecting drinking water for 117 million people, should receive protection under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration wants to delay implementation. In another case, the EPA changed policy (without notice or the opportunity for public comment) to give large industrial polluters a loophole to pump more lead, chromium, and other pollutants into the air. NRDC joined Earthjustice and other nonprofits to file a federal suit. Multiple other lawsuits are ongoing.
“It takes effort and work and resources to stay vigilant,” says Colangelo. “But that’s part of what we’ll have to do for the next two and a half years, maybe more.”