Tag Archives: EPA

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.

 

Kakistocracy

Kakistocracy is defined as government by the least competent or suitable. To which I would add: most corrupt. And that corruption goes well beyond the White House, where Trump’s incompetence is on constant display.

Examples abound. The Guardian recently reported accusations that the FDA has “direct links” to the opioid crisis.

The Food and Drug Administration is sacrificing American lives by continuing to approve new high-strength opioidpainkillers, and manipulating the process in favor of big pharma, according to the chair of the agency’s own opioid advisory committee.

Dr Raeford Brown told the Guardian there is “a war” within the FDA as officials in charge of opioid policy have “failed to learn the lessons” of the epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people over the past 20 years and continues to claim about 150 lives a day.

Brown accused the agency of putting the interests of narcotics manufacturers ahead of public health, most recently by approving a “terrible drug”, Dsuvia, in a process he alleged was manipulated.

Brown’s accusations come at a time when the FDA’s credibility is low; it has been damaged by  the opioid crisis and by accusations that the agency has behaved less as a regulator and overseer of the pharmaceutical industry and more like a business partner of drug manufacturers.

The FDA was also embarrassed by revelations that officials responsible for opioid approvals were taking part in “pay to play” schemes in which manufacturers paid to attend meetings to draw up the criteria for approving prescription narcotics.

Things are no better at the EPA.

The EPA is in charge of ensuring companies and utilities follow national environmental laws. Its enforcement has actually been on the decline for the past decade and reached 10-year lows in the fiscal year 2017, according to the agency’s own data. But the numbers really plummeted between the fiscal years 2017 and 2018, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, an advocacy group formed by university researchers to counter what they see as the Trump administration’s rejection of science.

The decline in enforcement is intentional, according to environmental groups and former EPA personnel.

“The administration has strongly sent a message, to the folks who do enforcement, that they should cut back on their role,” says Marianne Sullivan, a public-health professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and an EDGI volunteer who conducted the interviews. “There are declining resources. There’s much more deference to industry.”

Less enforcement, of course, means–among other things– that more Americans may be exposed to lead, smoke, and other pollutants that the EPA regulates.

Here in Indiana, we have  two recent examples of the consequences of EPA non-performance. In Franklin, Indiana, residents attribute a cluster of childhood cancers to a toxic site identified years ago by the EPA–after which nothing was done.

And in the small town of Wheatfield, Indiana, toxic coal ash is leaching into the groundwater.

In Indiana, coal ash ponds are leaking at 15 out of 15 power plant sites tested. But the problem isn’t limited to the Hoosier State, which currently has the most coal ash dumps in the country. Based on the industry’s own data, 92 percent of all coal ash ponds and landfills tested under the new rule have contaminated groundwaterwith harmful levels of toxic chemicals like arsenic and boron. Oklahoma reported in June that 4 out of 4 sites tested had contaminated groundwater, while Illinois revealed in November that 22 out of 24 coal ash sites tested positive for groundwater contamination. In total, the U.S. is home to more than 1,400 of these sites, many of them filled with millions of gallons of toxic ash.

As news about the contamination leaks out, coal companies and electric utilities are desperate to water down the 2015 regulations, including weakening the reporting, closure, siting, and cleanup requirements in the new rule.

Last March, Trump’s EPA heeded their wishes, proposing to gut coal ash regulationsjust as the nation began discovering that many coal ash ponds and landfills are leakingtoxic pollutants into groundwater. The 2015 rule opened a door to a hidden disaster; weak regulators now want to slam it shut. And they’re just getting started.

To characterize the current administration as “just” a Kakistocracy is to be kind. If it isn’t also a criminal enterprise, it’s close.

Learning From My Students

We’ve reached my favorite point in the semester–the point where I stop lecturing/haranguing and listen while student teams present their research. They teach me.

Each team of students is given fifty minutes within which to present the major arguments involved in an issue currently facing policymakers, and to do so in a manner that is fair to all perspectives. Teams are allowed to approach their presentations in any fashion they choose, and they’re graded on clarity of communication, breadth of resources used, logic and organization. (Creativity is a plus.)

At the beginning of the semester, I assign teams (I use an “algorithm” called the alphabet) and give each team a general policy area (the economy, the environment, education, social policy, etc.) from which they then choose a specific issue to address.

In the past, teams have done skits (complete with costumes!), debates, power-point presentations, multi-media presentations, even movies. The only hard-and-fast requirement is that  all perspectives/sides of the debate be presented as fairly as possible. That said, students are permitted to “weigh in” on one side or the other after they’ve explored the arguments.

Last Monday, one of the teams presenting compared Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CCP) to Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Act(ACE).

They began by discussing the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the underlying legal context (the role of government, the contending interests of state and federal governments, and the ongoing argument about the extent to which market forces should control policy).

They then launched into a comparative analysis of the two measures, focused on environmental impact, energy needs, the impact on jobs (no, Trump isn’t bringing those mining jobs back), and public health.

Let me share just a few of their (copious) findings:

  • The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas on the globe. CPP was designed to reduce such emissions; ACE “makes no such commitment.”
  • By 2030, CPP would have reduced carbon emissions by 19%. ACE will cut them between 0.7% and 1.5%
  • Coal production will be higher under ACE, but will still decline.(That pesky market!)
  • There is only one “clean coal” plant in the entire country, and the cost of factories able to produce “clean coal” is in the billions, so no others are likely to be built.
  • One-third of the nation’s electricity is still generated from coal, and the percentage is declining.
  • That decline is a market phenomenon, not a result of regulation, although regulation has disadvantaged some types of coal over others.
  • Renewable energy technology is increasingly making alternative sources more cost-effective.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the analysis–at least to me– was the impact of the two plans on public health; the EPA’s mission, after all, focuses on giving citizens clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. The differences were striking.

The CPP passed by the EPA under Obama estimated the social damage done by carbon emissions at $50/ton. The ACE estimated the damage at somewhere between $1 and $7 per ton. Among the reasons for what the students labeled a “drastic” difference was that Trump’s EPA discounted the impact of climate change, and the Obama administration included the identified human health impacts of both climate change and the decline in ambient air quality.

There was much more.

Each semester, I am amazed and impressed at the amount of data these student teams collect, synthesize and analyze–and more significantly, the policy conclusions they draw from that data.

The real reward of teaching is what I learn.

What The Jury Said

I have heard damning stories about Monsanto for years, so it didn’t surprise me when Trump’s EPA retreated from Obama-era findings that a chemical in one of the company’s herbicides, glyphosate, is a carcinogen. Glyphosate is a component of  Round-Up, which is widely used; numerous studies have linked that use to cancer, shortened pregnancies and other serious health outcomes.

The EPA may have backed off, but just last month, the Guardian reported a fairly stunning legal victory over the company.

Dewayne Johnson tries not to think about dying.

Doctors have said the 46-year-old cancer patient could have months to live, but he doesn’t like to dwell on death. These days, he has an easy distraction – navigating the international attention on his life.

The father of three and former school groundskeeper has been learning to live with the gift and burden of being in the spotlight in the month since a California jury ruled that Monsanto caused his terminal cancer. The historic verdict against the agrochemical corporation, which included an award of $289m, has ignited widespread health concerns about the world’s most popular weedkiller and prompted regulatory debates across the globe.

Johnson, who never imagined he would be known as “dying man” in dozens of news headlines, is still processing the historic win.

What is especially telling about the verdict is that Johnson–the first cancer victim to sue Monsanto and win– alleged that the company had spent decades intentionally covering up the cancer risks of its herbicide.

The groundbreaking verdict further stated that Monsanto “acted with malice” and knew or should have known that its chemicals were “dangerous”.

Monsanto, of course, has already filed a motion seeking to throw out the verdict– and prevent Johnson’s family from receiving the money. When a David like Johnson faces a Goliath like Monsanto, the eventual odds favor Goliath, and there are indications that the Judge is listening to Monsanto.

That said, deceiving the public about the risks of its products is hardly the only “rap” against Monsanto. I’ve read stories for years about the company’s vendetta against small farmers who save patented seeds they’ve purchased for use in ensuing years.

The agricultural giant Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers in the United States in recent years in attempts to protect its patent rights on genetically engineered seeds that it produces and sells, a new report said on Tuesday.

The study, produced jointly by the Center for Food Safety and the Save Our Seeds campaigning groups, has outlined what it says is a concerted effort by the multinational to dominate the seeds industry in the US and prevent farmers from replanting crops they have produced from Monsanto seeds.

In its report, called Seed Giants vs US Farmers, the CFS said it had tracked numerous law suits that Monsanto had brought against farmers and found some 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in more than 27 states. In total the firm has won more than $23m from its targets, the report said.

There are also allegations that Monsanto will sue farmers whose fields contain more than one percent of crops grown from seeds that have “blown in” from adjacent fields. I was unable to verify the accuracy of that claim, although I once had a colleague whose father was a farmer, and my colleague claimed his father been targeted in just such a suit.

Fifty-three percent of the world’s commercial seed market is controlled by three firms – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. That amount of power and market dominance undoubtedly has something to do with the EPA’s reversal, despite the conclusions reached by numerous scientists.

Of course, Trump’s EPA doesn’t believe any science. They probably put more stock in voodoo–and they’re probably sticking pins in a doll that looks like Dewayne Johnson now.

Get The Lead Out

Doug Masson recently shared a news article and a righteous rant.

The shared article was a report on lead contamination in northwest Indiana. It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.

The nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution is 20 miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Chicago in Indiana, churning more than twice as much of the brain-damaging metal into the air each year as all other factories in the region combined.

The company responsible is ArcerlorMittal (a company I’d never heard of); its Burns Harbor plant is the (ir)responsible emitter. According to the report, the plant has topped the list since 2013.

The continuing coverage of Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water generally includes a recitation of the effects of lead poisoning, and they aren’t pretty. They also aren’t reversible; if a child ingests lead through the water, as in Flint, or from flaking of old paint in run-down houses, or from areas of contaminated ground (we have a number in Indianapolis’ poorer precincts), the damage to that child’s intellectual functioning is life-long.

The referenced “rant” is how Masson describes his frustration–which I share–with conservatives’ constant attack on regulation. Pollution is the poster child for why regulatory activity is an essential function of government. As Doug points out, absent regulation, it will always be cheaper to pollute the air that others breathe or the water that others drink than to dispose of the waste from your manufacturing process in a manner that doesn’t harm others.

Meanwhile, pollution means that the market is getting incomplete information about the cost of (in this case) the steel being produced. They offload some of the costs of their production onto the people suffering brain damage from the lead pollution. Those people are, in effect, subsidizing the cost of production. Because the cost of the pollution is not reflected in the price of the steel, the market gets the signal that this form of production is more efficient than it really is. Polluters are rewarded and, consequently, environmentally sound production processes are put at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t force nearby residents to subsidize the process by breathing in the tainted air.

Economists call pollutants generated by manufacturing “externalities,” and note that failing to account for them in the cost of goods being produced distorts the market and–as Doug notes–puts manufacturers who are properly disposing of their pollutants at a pricing disadvantage.

Are some regulations onerous and unnecessarily broad? Sure. Are others inadequate? Absolutely. Regulatory activity by its very nature must be calibrated–ideally, rules governing commercial enterprises should be only as restrictive as necessary to the achievement of the desired result.

When we discuss government regulatory activity in my classes, I always emphasize the inadequacy of the usual political and ideological “either/or” formulations–as I tell my students, the need for and adequacy of any particular regulation will always be what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.” Issuing a wholesale assault on “regulation” writ large makes no more sense than advocating the elimination of “laws” because some laws are over-broad or unnecessary.

One of the most frustrating elements of our current impoverished and dishonest political discourse is the over-simplification of issues that are complex and/or nuanced. Too much of our public debate is conducted via bumper-sticker slogans and easy, inaccurate generalizations. When it comes to protecting the environment, those formulations are not only inaccurate, they are dangerously misleading.

Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants. It would be wonderful if we could rely upon the ethics of manufacturers to ensure the safety of our environment, but we can’t. We have no choice but to rely upon the government to promulgate and enforce rules against despoiling our air and water.

Of all the many obscenities being perpetrated by the Trump administration, watching the EPA play “footsie” with favored corporate polluters while refusing to discharge its most basic responsibility–to safeguard the environment– may be the worst.