By Casey Shea
RepresentUs Marketing Director

Updated April 22, 2024

Happy Earth Day! Since 1970, this event marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. It allows us to think about how our actions impact our natural environment and what we can do to protect it. The United States has made some progress in ensuring clean air, water, and landscapes for more people. But more can be done.

Unfortunately, corruption has long harmed our environment. Actions that hurt the environment but protect the bottom line are too common. And they can come from corporations, government officials, or a mixture of the two. This Earth Day, let’s recommit to protecting our natural spaces by also committing to rooting out the corruption that threatens them.

Here are a few examples of how corruption affects our environment and health.

Environmental disasters spawned by corruption

The most vivid images of environmental damage often come from massive human-made disasters. And in most instances, the industry actors responsible for these disasters also worked to weaken environmental protections that threatened their profits.

East Palestine train derailment. Earlier this year, we got a crystal clear example of how unchecked corruption can damage our environment and harm public health. The devastating train derailment in East Palestine, OH, sent hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Millions of people across several states were impacted. As more details emerged about the cause of the derailment, attention focused on Norfolk Southern – the derailed train’s owner – and the rail industry as a whole. Over the past two decades, the four largest railroad companies and trade associations spent nearly $500 million on federal lobbying. Much of this spending went toward weakening existing protections or preventing new ones.

@representus "At the end of the day, this isn’t about Right versus Left, or rural versus urban. It’s about who has power in our government, and who our elected officials listen to." — Shea Williams. Our message is clear: elected officials must stop putting the needs of special interests over the needs of the voters. Shea has seen firsthand how corruption threatens the health of those living in East Palestine. Enough is enough. Join Shea, and us, by adding your name to our petition calling on the Biden administration to crack down on corruption and protect Americans' health. (link in bio). #EastPalestine #Democracy #Anticorruption ♬ original sound - RepresentUs


BP oil disaster. The horrifying images of the BP oil disaster for five months were a constant reminder of how human activity can decimate the environment. Yet it also represented the beginning of a years-long advocacy effort to ensure federal protections to prevent another disaster would never come to fruition. BP faced widespread public relations damage from the disaster. Yet, they immediately spent millions on lobbying and their lobbying efforts ultimately succeeded as the Trump administration relaxed federal protections in favor of more industry-friendly ones. Their corruption saw no restraint even as their reckless actions threatened the entire Gulf region.

Corporate lobbying efforts to stop environmental safety

One of the most direct links between corruption and environmental damage is corporate lobbying. Given free rein to lobby against protections, corporations will almost always spend on lobbying to save on not having to protect the air, water, and land.

Monsanto. Agrochemical giant Monsanto – known for its lengthy history of unethical behavior – recently pleaded guilty to illegally exposing workers to a dangerous pesticide. This action came after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled that pesticide and placed strict rules on its use. Since the cancellation, Monsanto has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against stricter chemical rules and enforcement. Corruption at its worst is lobbying to ensure your products can be more dangerous for your workers and consumers.

PG&E. When California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) pleaded guilty to crimes surrounding the 2018 wildfires their equipment caused, they showed the world how their corruption hurt our environment. PG&E has a long record of failing to protect the environment because doing so would hurt their bottom line. Meanwhile, the company lobbied the state extensively to pass legislation that would make customers – rather than the company itself – pay for liability costs.

To be pro-environment, we must be anti-corruption. Join our movement


Bad actors who let corruption overrule stewardship

When corporations try to skirt the law or grease the wheels, it comes down to government officials to put the environment first. Unfortunately, corruption impacts government and private individuals alike. Far too many officials have seen protecting their future job prospects as more important than upholding their current obligations.

Scott Pruit. When President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, criticism quickly emerged. Pruitt frequently sided with fossil fuel interests as Oklahoma’s Attorney General and sued the EPA numerous times. This criticism was warranted as he would face 15 federal investigations into his corruption. From misusing funds to ignoring independent advisors to shady lobbying practices, Pruitt was a flat-out ethical nightmare. Luckily, the weight of these investigations forced Pruitt to resign. But his corruption left the EPA in a cloud of uncertainty.

Joe Parrish and Gregory Scott. Parrish and Scott are former District of Columbia Department of the Environment air quality inspectors. As a part of their duties, they informed contractors at a DC apartment building that serious asbestos issues needed to be addressed. Yet, instead of fulfilling their obligations, they demanded and received bribes of $10,000 each to ignore the asbestos. This blatant corruption demonstrates how lower-level officials can abuse their position without regard for protecting the environment.


To be pro-environment, we must be anti-corruption

When green means money and not nature, we cannot trust that the best decisions are made for public health. This Earth Day, celebrate our one and only home planet by joining our movement to rein in lobbyists, defang special interests and crackdown on corruption

Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Alexi Santiago, RepresentUs Research Assistant

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.