Tag Archives: EPA

Mourning The Loss Of Republicans Like Bill Ruckelshaus

Back when I was a Republican, the party included statesmen like Bill Hudnut, Dick Lugar and Bill Ruckelshaus, all of whom I was privileged to know. With the death of Ruckelshaus last week, all are now gone, along with the intelligent, ethical service they exemplified.

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a column from Counterpunch,  in which a reporter who had interviewed Ruckelshaus in 2006 reprinted the questions and answers from that interview.

“Ruck” is best known for his principled refusal as a Deputy A.G. to follow Nixon’s orders and dismiss the then-Special Prosecutor (in what has come to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”), but he was also the first administrator of Nixon’s EPA. (Yes, the EPA was established by a Republican President…How times have changed…)

For that reason, this particular interview focused upon environmental issues. From his answers, it was obvious that Ruckelshaus was scientifically knowledgable and passionate about the environment. He also displayed enormous insight into the policy process.

The first question asked by the reporter was “What is the greatest obstacle to implementing effective environmental policies?’

Ruckelshaus: Public distrust of the federal government. Unless the people can place some minimal degree of trust in their governmental institutions, free societies don’t work very well. To me, this is the central ugly fact confronting the government of the United States. The more mistrust by the public, the less effective government becomes at delivering what people want and need.

This is an important insight. The lack of public trust in governance is a significant reason for America’s current polarization. I’ve done some research on the trust issue–in 2009, I wrote a book, Distrust, American Style, in which I described some of the negative social consequences attributable to a pervasive lack of trust in government and other social institutions. (I also noted that “Fish rot from the head”…)

Particularly refreshing was Ruckelshaus’ answer to the question “What specifically do you think the U.S. should be doing in the area of environmental protection that it isn’t doing?”

I think we should adopt a Policy #1 that global warming is a real problem, and we are a major contributor to carbon in the atmosphere and we need to take serious steps to reduce it.

We should have some kind of Manhattan-style Project to find out how to a generate energy using less carbon and every form of energy should be open, including nuclear. Nuclear power is not economical right now and it also scares people to death, even though we have generated 20 percent of our electrical energy in this country using nuclear power for a long time and are likely to be generating something like that over the next 15 to 20 years when these plants are scheduled to phase out. But other alternative forms of energy, including really getting serious about conservation, can all be done within economic good sense.

Several other answers were notable both for their directness and Ruckelshaus’ obvious depth of knowledge. He described “politics” as the predictable reaction to regulations that threatened to diminish an existing benefit valued by a lawmaker’s “constituency.” (Constituency, in this case, is “special interest” i.e., clean air versus oil subsidies…)

In his last response, Ruckelshaus returned to the issue of trust. Asked whether he would consider a hypothetical offer to return to the top position at the EPA, he said probably not–that

in order to get constructive change in either our environmental laws or the way they’re administered, you have to have a fairly high degree of public trust. But if the public didn’t believe you and thought your decisions were favoring some constituency that the president had, it’s very hard to make any progress.

That, of course, is a perfectly accurate description of where we find ourselves today.

No one in his right mind believes that Trump gives a rat’s hindquarters about the environment–or, for that matter, that he knows anything at all about science or climate change or the government’s responsibility to safeguard the air and water.  The EPA is currently being run by a former coal lobbyist, and there is plenty of reason to believe that, in this administration, rules are only being made–or more accurately, relaxed and repealed–to “favor some constituency.”

The contrast between Republicans like Ruckelshaus and today’s Trump sycophants is sobering. If you care about America, it’s heartbreaking.

 

 

Air We Shouldn’t Breathe, Water We Shouldn’t Drink

Yesterday, I posted about the shorter-and-longer term consequences of Trump’s assault on various policies and norms. I noted in passing that the next administration–assuming it is Democratic (if it isn’t, the America we grew up in is gone)–will need to reinstate numerous environmental safeguards before it can address the critical threat posed by climate change.

Paul Krugman has laid out the dimensions of the Trump administration’s assault on basic environmental protections. Here’s his lede:

Given what we’ve seen in the impeachment hearings so far, there is literally no crime, no abuse of power, that would induce Republicans to turn on President Trump. So if you’re waiting for some dramatic political turn, don’t hold your breath.

On second thought, however, maybe you should hold your breath. For air quality has deteriorated significantly over the past few years — a deterioration that has already cost thousands of American lives. And if Trump remains in power, the air will get much worse, and the death toll rise dramatically, in the years ahead.

Krugman clarifies that, in referring to air pollution, he isn’t talking about the greenhouse gases driving climate change. He is addressing the issue of pollutants with a much more immediate effect. That includes, as he points out,  “fine particulate matter,” the small particles that make the air hazy.  Those particulates pose a significant health hazard, because they penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.

The good news until a few years ago was that thanks to environmental regulation the concentration of fine particulates was in fairly rapid decline. The bad news is that since 2016 this kind of pollution has been on the rise again, reversing around a fifth of the gains since 2009.

That may not seem like a big problem, but estimates are that even this relatively small rise  led to almost 10,000 extra deaths last year.

If deaths don’t concern you (!), perhaps the economic cost of rising pollution will. A study Krugman cites puts it at $89 billion a year. As he notes, even in an economy as large as America’s, $89 billion is a pretty big number.

And things are poised to get much worse. The Trump administration is working on new rules that would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from making use of much of the scientific evidence on adverse health effects of pollution. This would cripple environmental regulation, almost surely leading to sharply worsening air and water quality over time….

Why is this happening? As many observers have pointed out, failing to act on climate change, although it’s an indefensible crime against humanity, is also in some ways understandable. Greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, and the harm they do is global and very long-term, making denialism relatively easy.

Particulates, however, are visible, and the harm they do is both relatively localized and fairly quick. So you might have thought that the fight against dirty air would have widespread, bipartisan support. Indeed, modern environmental protection began under none other than Richard Nixon, and retired E.P.A. officials I’ve talked to describe the Nixon era as a golden age.

Krugman says the GOP has become the party of pollution.

Why? Follow the money. There’s huge variation among industries in how much environmental damage they do per dollar of production. And the super-polluting industries have basically put all their chips on the Republicans. In 2016, for example, coal mining gave 97 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates and causes. And polluters are getting what they paid for….If Trump doesn’t succeed in destroying our democracy (a big if), his most damaging legacy will be the vast environmental destruction he leaves behind.

Krugman’s column centered on air quality; recent EPA rollbacks pose an equally serious threat to the nation’s water supply.

How corrupt do you have to be to value your bottom line over the health of your children and grandchildren?

 

We Don’t Need None Of Yer Dumb Facts…

The current version of the GOP seems intent upon retreating to its roots in the the Know-Nothing Party.

In September, a Republican lawmaker from Tennessee made an impassioned plea to get rid of higher education. 

It seems that evil professors and other “elitists” are brainwashing students, presumably by introducing them to “facts” and “science” and other matter likely to wean them from the verities preferred by the lawmaker.

A Tennessee state GOP lawmaker has called for getting rid of the entire higher education system, asserting that such a move would “save America” and cut out “the liberal breeding ground.”

State Sen. Kerry Roberts made the remarks while speaking on his conservative talk radio show last week. He addressed his problems with the higher education system while discussing a recent legislative hearing focused on abortion legislation.

“If there’s one thing that we can do to save America today, it’s to get rid of our institutions of higher education right now and cut the liberal breeding ground off,” he said, before questioning why public colleges were funded by tax dollars.

If you saw this, and dismissed it as a bit of buffoonery representative of a fringe belief, allow me to enlighten you. Anti-intellectualism is the default policy preference of the Trump administration. Science, especially, is perceived as an enemy to be overcome, rather than a source of valuable information.

According to the New York Times,

The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently.

Andrew Wheeler, the former fossil fuel lobbyist who is currently dismantling the EPA, has a soothing explanation: he says that good science that which can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, the new approach is simply an effort to ensure that the agency is using “good science.”

For people who don’t understand scientific research, that sounds eminently reasonable.For people who do understand research, not so much.

The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.

“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades — to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children — might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

For instance, a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University project that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths, currently the foundation of the nation’s air-quality laws, could become inadmissible. When gathering data for their research, known as the Six Cities study, scientists signed confidentiality agreements to track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 people in six cities.

As the Times reports, this is simply the latest in a stream of efforts to deny the negative effects of fossil fuels.

The change is part of a broader administration effort to weaken the scientific underpinnings of policymaking. Senior administration officials have tried to water down the testimony of government scientists, publicly chastised scientists who have dissented from President Trump’s positions and blocked government researchers from traveling to conferences to present their work.

The proposed rule is opposed by virtually every medical and scientific organization. Michael Halpern, deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it as a wholesale politicization of the process.

That politicization requires rejecting “elitism”–defined as reliance on facts, evidence, science, and belief in the value of knowledge.

Welcome to what has become of the Republican Party.

 

Now It’s Coal Ash

The Trump administration has announced its intention to roll back an Obama-era regulation that limited the leaching of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury into water supplies–heavy metals that are produced and leach into groundwater from the ash residue produced by coal-fired power plants.

I wrote about the dangers of coal ash back in 2015, quoting the Hoosier Environmental Council when they were bringing in a coal ash expert to speak at their annual “Greening the Statehouse” event.

Coal ash has special significance for Indiana, since the state leads the nation in the number of coal ash waste lagoons. There is arguably no person better in America to speak to this issue than Lisa Evans. As a coal ash expert with twenty-five years of experience in hazardous waste law, Lisa has testified before the U.S. Congress and the National Academies of Science about the risks of coal ash and federal & state policy solutions.

The Obama Administration addressed those very real risks by passing new regulations in 2015; now, a series of newer rules expected from  the Environmental Protection Agency (courtesy of the former lobbyists now running the agency) will substantially weaken  regulations meant to strengthen inspection and monitoring at coal plants, and requiring plants to install new technology to protect water supplies from contaminated coal ash.

The E.P.A. will even exempt a significant number of power plants from any of the remaining requirements, according to quotations from people familiar with the Trump administration plan.

According to one report, 

Coal ash, the residue from burning coal, is stored at more than 1,100 locations around the nation, with about 130 million tons being added each year. Unlike emissions of carbon dioxide, which many climate science deniers consider a good thing, nobody doubts the dangers of the chemicals in coal ash—including arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium, among others. All are associated with birth defects and stunted brain growth in children. But the list of damages they can cause is far longer and includes cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, and behavioral problems.

Hundreds of ash storage pits don’t even have a simple liner to help prevent toxins from leaching into waterways. According to a 2010 EPA assessment, people who live within a mile of unlined coal ash ponds have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer. That’s more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable. Tainting of the water mostly happens in a trickle. But, occasionally, as in the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant’s sudden release of 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry in Tennessee, or the leakage of 82,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River, the contamination comes in a catastrophic rush.

Environmental activists criticized the 2015 rule, arguing that it fell short of what is needed to effectively deal with coal ash, and failed to classify the ash as a hazardous waste, which it obviously is. It was a step forward, however.

For every forward step taken by the Obama Administration, however, Trump’s “best people” take two steps back.

Like so many efforts being made daily by the Trump Administration, this move prioritizes the bottom line of industry over the health and welfare of citizens. In this case, that preference is especially galling, because it is intended to help an industry that is dying–and dying  thanks to market forces, not excessive regulations. Nor should its death be lamented: coal is a contributor to climate change, and the relatively few remaining jobs in coal mining are unacceptably dangerous.

Once again we are reminded that nothing this administration does–nothing–advances the common good, or makes environmental or even business sense.

Is Resistance Futile?

The Trump administration’s one area of consistency is its determination to lay waste to large areas of American government. Consumer protections have been hollowed out; the Department of Education favors for-profit private schools over the needs of public ones; public lands are being exploited and despoiled; the Department of Justice has been turned into a Presidential lapdog; and decades of diplomacy have been upended.

But arguably, the greatest damage has been to environmental regulation, as the administration has waged a relentless war on science and the EPA. Now, according to the Guardian, at least some scientists are fighting back.

An advisory panel of air pollution scientists disbanded by the Trump administration plans to continue their work with or without the US government.

The researchers – from a group that reviewed the latest studies about how tiny particles of air pollution from fossil fuels make people sick – will assemble next month, a year from the day they were fired.

They’ll gather in the same hotel in Washington DC and even have the same former staffer running the public meeting.

A spokesperson for the group said that Trump’s EPA has significantly weakened its science review process, and that the group intended to meet “as a public service” and  “tap our expertise and develop advice which we will share with EPA.”

It’s a noble effort. But…they are fighting people in a position to do substantial harm.

The Trump administration is accused by at least half a dozen whistleblowers of muzzling climate and pollution science.

The air pollution experts follow in the footsteps of a separate group that reassembled to call for the government to better prepare for climate disasters. Their advice will come as EPA conducts a scheduled review of its standards for particle pollution, the tiny specks that enter the lungs and cause breathing and heart problems that can kill.

Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the regulation the “holy grail” for industry, and she said that’s why the Trump administration wants to weaken it by the end of 2020, before a new president might enter the White House.

Trump officials evidently plan to argue that particle pollution isn’t as bad as previously thought. That would allow the administration to accede to industry arguments and roll back environmental and health protections.

Trump’s EPA ended the particulate matter advisory board nearly a year ago. The agency also replaced many of the academic scientists on a broader science panel with scientists from industry and conservative states.

Earlier this month, EPA chief Andrew Wheeler selected a new group of “non-member consultants” to assist that panel with work on both particle pollution and smog. About half of the new consultants are linked with industry. Their recommendations to the panel will happen behind the scenes, rather than in public meetings.

“Behind the scenes,” environmental protections are being gutted, and respected, non-ideological scientists are being replaced by industry hacks.

Kudos to the scientists who are fighting back by meeting–at their own expense– in defiance of the administration’s willingness to fatten the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies at the expense of the people who breathe polluted air. It is a valiant effort to hold the EPA accountable to its mission, but it’s unlikely to persuade the bottom-feeders who currently run the agency, and whose “mission” is to render it toothless.

Unless the 2020 election returns governance to people who actually believe in governing rather than looting, resistance is probably futile.