UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Mesothelioma Awareness Day: Our Past Must Dictate the Future

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that asbestos isn’t good for you. The mineral is a known carcinogen and has been tied to thousands of deaths from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases. On average, close to 3,000 people each year in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma. And for those unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the incredibly rare disease, the results are often not good. Patients are usually given a grim prognosis averaging somewhere between 12 and 21 months.

Asbestos-related diseases are rarely quick to present themselves, often taking decades before symptoms finally show. When you breathe in or accidentally ingest the invisible fibers, they enter the lungs and may lodge themselves deep into the lung lining, known as the mesothelium. The area becomes irritated and over the years tumors begin to form. Mesothelioma is often difficult to diagnose, which means the resulting cancer is caught later and treatment options are more limited.

Breaking down barriers

Armed with that kind of information, one would assume it’d be a slam dunk to phase out asbestos use in the United States. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Last year, roughly 340 tons of raw asbestos were imported into the US, primarily for use in the chlor-alkali industry. Some types of asbestos-containing materials can also be imported. The Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos use nearly three decades ago, but many of the rules established by the department were overturned in a resulting court decision two years later. Today there’s hope things could change in the coming years, including renewed interest from the EPA.

In 2016, Congress approved the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, amending the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and giving the EPA more power to regulate dangerous chemicals as they are introduced in an effort to more effectively remove those posing an unnecessary risk to public health. Chemicals deemed to pose an unreasonable risk during the evaluation process will be eliminated based on safety standards, as opposed to a risk-benefit balancing standard used under the previous TSCA requirements. What this means is that under the old TSCA, an unreasonable risk would require a cost-benefit analysis and any restrictions would have to be the least burdensome to addressing the risk. Under the Lautenberg Act, the “least burdensome” requirement is removed, though the EPA still needs to take costs of other regulatory actions and feasible alternatives into consideration.

The amendment also requires the agency to perform ongoing evaluations of chemicals to determine their risk to public health. In December, asbestos was included on a list of ten priority chemicals slated for evaluation and a scoping document for the mineral was issued in June. Problem formulation documents for each of the first ten chemicals are expected in December.

Drowning in red tape

Despite what the Lautenberg Act is doing to unshackle the EPA and allow it to properly regulate chemicals as it sees fit, the White House and Congress have taken actions that seem counterintuitive. For example, in January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order known as the “2-for-1 Order” forcing agencies to remove two existing rules for every new one they create. The risk here is that agencies like the EPA will have to pick which rules to enforce, creating a new series of public health concerns. When it comes to new hazards, the agency may be slower to react due to a new budget variable thrown into the mix. While it could help the agency identify rules that overlap others, it does create the risk of money taking precedence over public health.

In addition, the Senate’s recently introduced Regulatory Accountability Act, known in some circles as the ”License to Kill” Bill, poses a similar set of issues. If passed, the RAA could potentially resurrect much of the red tape that was removed by the Lautenberg Act. Once again, it would become difficult to regulate or ban chemicals in the future, despite dangers they may propose. For example, the EPA would have to prove that a full asbestos ban is the best option available to the agency compared to any other more cost-effective option. It also allows for anyone to challenge these decisions, which could delay a potential ruling for years or even halt the process entirely.

The EPA is also constrained by the people who have been appointed to several high level positions within the agency itself. Administrator Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, challenging rules he believes overstepped the agency’s boundaries. Deputy Assistant Administrator Nancy Beck, previously with the American Chemistry Council, lobbied for years against the very rules she has sworn to protect today. In 2009, Beck was criticized in a House report for attempting to undermine and create uncertainty regarding the EPA’s chemical evaluations while serving with the Office of Budget and Management for the Bush administration. The latest person nominated for an EPA position is Mike Dourson, who has, at times, proposed much less protective standards for chemicals than those in use by the federal government.

Where we stand now 

This Mesothelioma Awareness Day, we find ourselves one step closer to seeing asbestos banned in the US. Today, while we honor those who’ve lost their struggle against this disease, we also show support for those still fighting mesothelioma and refusing to give in.

The EPA has, once again, taken the first steps toward a potential ban, but until that day comes the need for more awareness is a never-ending battle. Mesothelioma is a misunderstood disease and asbestos isn’t something people might consider at work or at home, which is why educating others is so important. Mesothelioma is largely avoidable, but the need to remain vigilant to prevent exposure is paramount.

Asbestos exposure isn’t something that will come to a screeching halt overnight. Hundreds of thousands of homes, buildings, and schools still harbor the mineral and that is likely to be the case for years to come. But stopping the flow of raw and imported asbestos into the US is a great first step to combating the issue at large.

About the author: Charles MacGregor is a health advocate specializing in education and awareness initiatives regarding mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. To follow along with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and participate in a MAD Twitter chat on September 26, find them at @CancerAlliance

Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Devastated Electricity System

Photo: endi.com

Over the last few days, I’ve been glued to social media, the phone, and ham radio-like apps trying to find out more about the fate of family members in the catastrophic situation in my native Puerto Rico following Hurricane María. (Fortunately, I was able to confirm on Friday that everyone in my immediate family is accounted for and safe).

My family is among the few lucky ones. My childhood home is a cement suburban dwelling built on well-drained hilly soils, some eight kilometers from the coast, and well outside flood zones. But many of my 3.4 million co-nationals in Puerto Rico have not been so lucky, and are experiencing, as I write this, catastrophic flooding. Further, tens of thousands have been without electricity since Hurricane Irma downed many of the distribution lines. In addition, there are more than 170,00 affected in the nearby US Virgin Islands and Dominica, Caribbean islands who have also experienced catastrophic damages.

Just in the largest suburban community in Puerto Rico—Levittown in the north—hundreds had to be evacuated on short notice during the early Thursday dawn as the gates of the Lago La Plata reservoir were opened and the alarm sirens failed to warn the population. The next day, a truly dramatic emergency evacuation operation followed as the Guajataca Dam in the northwest broke and 70,000 were urged to leave the area. At least ten have been confirmed dead so far.

The government of the Commonwealth has mounted a commendable response, but has been hampered in large part by the lack of power and communications facilities, which are inoperable at the moment except for those persons, agencies, and telephone companies that have power generators and the gas to keep them running. This has been one of the main impediments for Puerto Ricans abroad to communicate with loved ones and for the Rosselló administration’s efforts to establish communications and coordination with many towns that remain unaccounted for.

Chronic underinvestment and neglect of energy infrastructure increases human vulnerability to extreme weather

Why has Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure been rendered so vulnerable in the recent weeks? The ferocity of Irma and María could stretch the capacity of even well-funded and maintained energy production and distribution systems. In Florida—where the power grid had received billions in upgrades over the last decade—Irma left two-thirds of the population without power (but was also able to bounce back after a few weeks).

But years of severe infrastructure underinvestment by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has led to a fragile system that has completely collapsed after these two hurricanes. Irma’s indirect hit damaged distribution lines but not production; María’s eye made landfall on the southeast and exited through the central north, placing it right on the path of four of the high-capacity plants that burn heavy fuel and diesel oil. These plants are also located close to, or within, flood zones.

The reconstruction of the power infrastructure in Puerto Rico is a monumental task as it is critical to guarantee the well-being of Puerto Ricans. More than 3.4 million US citizens are now in a life-threatening situation and getting electricity up and running in the near term is critically important as it can support rescue and recovery efforts.

Wherever possible, these immediate efforts should aim to align with a broader rebuilding mission that points Puerto Rico toward a more economically robust and climate resilient future, not repairs that repeat the mistakes of the past. There is a need also to build resilience against the climate and extreme weather vulnerability Puerto Rico is so brutally facing right now.

There is a great need also for economic alleviation of the high cost of energy in Puerto Rico: electricity prices for all sectors (residential, commercial, and industrial) are much higher in Puerto Rico than in the United States. Reliance on imported fossil fuels for generation is one driver of the high cost: in 2016 nearly half of energy production came from petroleum, nearly one-third from natural gas, and 17 percent coal). Only 2 percent comes from renewables.

While there is quite a bit of clean energy momentum in the United States, that impetus is not being transferred to Puerto Rico. There are many reasons for that, including lack of support from PREPA. But Puerto Rico has strong solar and wind energy resource potential, and renewable energy has been proposed as a way to help PREPA pare down its $9 billion dollar debt, help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and fossil fuel price volatility, lower costs to consumers, and contribute to an economic recovery for the Commonwealth.

This unprecedented catastrophe affecting millions of US citizens requires the intervention of the federal government

To ensure a safe and just economic recovery for Puerto Rico, Congress and the administration need to commit resources to help the territory recover. President Trump has declared Puerto Rico a disaster zone, and FEMA director Brock Long will visit the island on Monday. The priority right now is to save lives and restore basic services. To aid these efforts, Congress and the Trump administration should:

  • Direct the Department of Defense to provide helicopters and other emergency and rescue resources to Puerto Rico.
  • Provide an emergency spending package to the US territory.
  • Increase the FEMA funding level for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Puerto Rico.
  • Temporarily suspend the Jones Act. The Jones Act, which mandates that all vessels carrying cargo into the US and its territories be US Merchant Marine vessels, significantly increases the cost of importing goods into the island.

Once the state of emergency ends, Governor Rosselló needs to be very vocal that Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure reconstruction should help put the Puerto Rican people and economy on a path to prosperity and resilience from climate impacts. The 2017 hurricane season is not over yet, and the situation in Puerto Rico right now is catastrophic. Decisions about energy infrastructure will be made in the coming days, weeks, and months. Those decisions need to take into account the short- as well as the long-term needs of the Puerto Rican population and help make Puerto Rico more resilient to the massive climate and weather extreme dislocations that we are facing.

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Science Triumphs Over Disinformation in Initial Flame Retardant Victory

In a stunning victory for consumer safety and a powerful display of the ability of independent science to spur policy change, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) voted this week to ban a class of additive, polymeric organhalogen flame retardants (OFRs) that are present in many consumer products. Last week, I was one of many individuals who testified before the CPSC urging the body to grant a petition to ban the class of organohalogen flame retardants from four classes of consumer products: mattresses, children’s products, furniture, and electronic casings.

Of the 31 individuals who testified last week, there were only two individuals who advised the CPSC not to ban OFRs: representatives from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Information Technology Industry Council. As Commissioner Marietta Robinson pointed out during the hearing, the only comments opposing the ban “represent those with a financial interest in continuing to have these potentially toxic, and some of them definitively, toxic, chemicals in our environment.”  She also noted that the presentations by those opposed to the petition were not transparent and used materials relating to chemicals that were irrelevant to the petition, a drastic contrast to the numerous scientists and scholars whose heavily footnoted statements provided evidence to support the arguments of the well-bounded petition.

Scientific information trumps corporate disinformation

Commissioner Robert Adler, who submitted the motion to grant the petition, compared the chemical industry’s talking points at the hearing on reasons not to ban OFRS to the tobacco industry’s same denial of the health impacts of smoking. His statement read, “if we took the tobacco industry’s word on cigarette safety, we would still be waiting. Similarly, we have waited for years for our friends the chemical industry to provide us with credible evidence that there are safe OFRS. I have little doubt that we will still be waiting for many years, to no avail.” Sadly, he’s probably right.

We have seen this trend time and time again. Whether it was the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry, the sugar industry, the PCB industry, the agrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the oil and gas industry, corporate bad actors have known about risks of their products and have chosen not to act to protect the public for years, sometimes decades. Not only do they deny that there is harm, but they actively push for policies that allow them to conceal the truth for even longer. As Oxford University’s Henry Shue wrote about fossil fuel companies like Exxon in a recent Climatic Change article, noting that “companies knowingly violated the most basic principle of ‘do no harm.’” It is unethical and unacceptable that the public is not afforded the information we deserve on the harms of products we are exposed to every day in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and everything in between.

A 2008 EPA literature review on polybrominated diphenyl ethers, one type of OFR, found that 80 percent of total exposure to the chemical by the general population is through ingestion and absorption of house dust containing these chemicals. (Photo: Flickr/Tracy Ducasse)

Case in point: ACC’s statement after the CPSC’s vote included sticking to its talking points and pivoting from whether OFRs are safe to whether they reduce fire risk. During the hearing, the ACC representative argued that the petition was overly broad and that there was insufficient data on each OFR to ban them as a class. However, when asked by Commissioners for evidence that certain OFRs did not cause harm, he was unable to point to a specific chemical or cite relevant research. At a certain point, there is no place to pivot when the facts are stacked against you.

Dust is something I never gave much thought to growing up. If anything, “dusting” was always my favorite chore when faced with the options of vacuuming or washing the dishes. I never really gave much thought to what that elusive substance was composed of. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that within those seemingly innocuous dust bunnies hiding behind bookshelves were a mix of chemicals that could impact my health. Dusting has taken on new meaning for me since conducting research on flame retardants.

For decades now, consumers have been left powerless and at the whim of manufacturers who have decided for us what chemicals go into our homes and end up in our dust.

The result? Most Americans have at least one type of flame retardant present in our blood, young children have higher levels than their mothers, and children of color and those from low income communities bear disproportionately high levels of these chemicals in addition to a host of other chemical burdens.

Shue writes,

To leave our descendants a livable world is not an act of kindness, generosity, or benevolence…it is merely the honoring of a basic general, negative responsibility not to allow our own pursuits to undercut the pre-conditions for decent societies in the future.

This ban is beyond due. Moving away from these chemicals toward safer alternatives is a win for all, this generation and next.

Product safety is not a political issue

During the vote, Commissioner Adler said that he holds strong to the belief that “product safety is not a partisan issue and should never politicized” after a statement from one of the two Republican Commissioners that granting this petition through a vote down party lines would turn the issue into a political football. Commissioner Robinson defended Adler, stating that she was “absolutely flummoxed” and had “absolutely no clue what the science of this petition and these flame retardants has to do with whether you’re a Democrat or Republican nor what it has to do with my term being potentially up.”  The granting of a petition rooted in rigorous science is not a political action. However, obstructing this science-based rulemaking process would be.

While the CPSC has voted to begin the process of rulemaking to ban OFRs under the Federal Hazardous Substance Act and to convene a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel, the Commission will be shifting its composition as Marietta Robinson’s term ends in September. It is possible that this scientific issue could become politicized once President Trump nominates a Republican to join the CPSC and take back the majority. In fact, chairwoman Buerkle even suggested that the ban be overruled once the Republicans take back the majority. President Trump intends to nominate corporate lawyer, Dana Baiocco, who has defended companies that have faced charges regarding safety and misleading advertising of consumer and industrial products and medical devices.

We urge the Commission to continue the progress begun during yesterday’s vote to educate the public about the risks of OFRs and to create the policy that will ban these chemicals in consumer products for good. Let’s let science, not politics, have the final word. Our children will thank us someday.



Eric/Creative Commons (Flickr) Flickr/Tracy Ducasse

Puffins, Politics, and Joyful Doggedness in Maine

Puffins were nearly extinct in Maine in the early 1900s, hunted for their eggs and meat. Their re-introduction to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine in the 1970s became the world's first successful restoration of a seabird to an island where humans killed it off. Photo: Derrick Jackson

Eastern Egg Rock, Maine — Under bejeweled blackness, the lacy string of the Milky Way was gloriously sliced by the International Space Station, the brightest object in the sky. Matthew Dickey, a 21-year-old wildlife and fisheries senior at Texas A&M, grabbed a powerful bird scope and was able to find the space station before it went over the horizon. He shouted: “I think I can make out the shape of the cylinder!”

The space station gone, Dickey and four other young bird researchers settled back down around a campfire fueled with wood from old bird blinds that had been blown out of their misery by a recent storm.

They were alone six miles out to sea on a treeless six-acre jumble of boulders and bramble.

44 years of Project Puffin

On this seemingly inconspicuous speck in Maine waters, a man once as young as they were, Steve Kress, began restoring puffins. He was part of the world’s first successful effort to restore a seabird to an island where they had been killed off by human activity. The experiment began in the spring of 1973 by bringing down 10-day-old chicks down from Newfoundland, feeding them until fledging size in the fall, and hoping that after two or three years out at sea, they would remember Maine and not Canada, where decades of management have maintained a population of about 500,000 pairs.

Tonight it was a celebratory fire, flickering off faces with crescent smiles. Besides Dickey, there was team supervisor Laura Brazier, a 26-year-old science and biology graduate of Loyola University in Maryland and masters degree graduate in wildlife conservation at the University of Dublin in Ireland. There was Alyssa Eby, 24, an environmental biology graduate of the University of Manitoba; Jessie Tutterow, 31, a biology graduate of Guilford College; and Alicia Aztorga-Ornelas, 29, a biology graduate from the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Mexico.

In the two days prior, their routine count of burrows with breeding pairs of puffins surpassed the all-time record. The previous mark was 150, set last year. During my four-night stay with them in late July, the count rose from 147 to 157. The summer would end with 173 pairs.

“We did it. We are awesome. You guys are awesome,” Brazier said. “Puffins are cool enough. To know we set a new record and we’re part of puffin history is incredible.”

As the fire roared on, celebration became contemplation. As full of themselves as they had a right to be, they know their record is fragile. Where once there were no more than four puffins left in Maine in 1902, decimated by coastal dwellers for eggs and meat, Kress and 600 interns in the 44 years of Project Puffin have nursed the numbers back to 1,300 pairs on three islands. The techniques used in the project—including the translocation of chicks and the use of decoys, mirrors, and broadcast bird sounds to make birds think they had company—have helped save about 50 other species of birds from Maine to Japan and China. (I have the distinct pleasure of being Kress’s co-author on the story of his quest, “Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock,” published in 2015 by Yale University Press.)

Interns (Left to right) Alyssa Eby, Matthew Dickey, Alicia Aztorga-Ornelas, and Eastern Egg Rock Supervisor Laura Brazier hold an adult puffin they banded. Also on the team but not pictured is Jessie Tutterow.

In the crosshairs of American politics

But in the last decade, the Atlantic puffin, which breeds in an arc up from Maine and Canada over to Iceland, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom, has become a signal species of fisheries management and climate change.

On the positive side, Maine puffins are bringing native fish to their chicks that rebounded with strict US federal rules, such as haddock and Acadian redfish. Negatively, the last decade has also brought the warmest waters ever recorded in the Gulf of Maine. A study published in April by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that several current key species of fish “may not remain in these waters under continued warming.” Last month, researchers from the University of Maine, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, NOAA, and others published a study in the journal Elementa, finding that the longer summers in the Gulf of Maine may have major implications for everything from marine life below the surface to fueling hurricanes in the sky.

For puffins, there already is significant evidence that in the warmest years, the puffin’s preferred cold-water prey like herring and hake are forced farther out to sea while some of the fish that come up from the mid-Atlantic, such as butterfish, are too big and oval for small puffin chicks to eat. The new fish volatility is such that while puffins thrived last year on tiny Eastern Egg Rock, their counterparts could not find fish off the biggest puffin island in the Gulf of Maine, Canadian-administered Machias Seal Island. Last year saw a record-low near-total breeding failure among its 5,500 pairs of puffins.

The Atlantic puffin, from Maine to the United Kingdom, has rapidly become a signal bird for climate change via the fish the parents attempt to bring to chicks. The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming waters in the world and as a result, more puffins are bringing in more southerly species such as butterfish, such as the one pictured here. Butterfish are too large and oval for chicks to eat, leading to starvation. Photo: Derrick Jackson

In the European part of the Atlantic puffin’s range, warmer water displacing prey, overfishing, and pollution have hammered breeding success. According to an article this year in the journal Conservation Letters, co-authored by Andy Rosenberg, the director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former regional fisheries director for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the north Atlantic realm of the puffin is one of the most over-exploited fisheries in the world, as evident by the crash of several fisheries, most notably cod.

On the Norwegian island of Rost for instance, the 1.5 million breeding pairs of puffins of four decades ago were down to 289,000 in 2015. A key reason appears to be voracious mackerel moving northward, gobbling up the puffin’s herring. Even though there are an estimated 9.5 million to 11.6 million puffins on the other side of the Atlantic for now, Bird Life International two years ago raised the extinction threat for puffins from “least concern” to “vulnerable.”

Much of that was on the minds of the Egg Rock interns, because the very puffins they were counting are in the crosshairs of American politics.

Incessant attacks on environmental accomplishments

Puffins are on land only four months to breed so Kress and his team a few years ago put geo-locators on some birds to see where they migrate in the eight months at sea. Two years ago, the team announced that in the fall and early winter, many Maine puffins go north to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In late winter and early spring, they come south to forage in fish-rich deep water far south of Cape Cod. That area of ocean is so relatively untouched by human plunder, the corals in the deep are as colorful as any in a Caribbean reef.

The Obama administration was impressed enough to designate the area as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument, protected from commercial exploitation. While vast areas of the Pacific Ocean under US jurisdiction earned monument status under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, the canyons are the first US waters in the Atlantic to be so protected.

Yet President Trump, as part of his incessant attack on his predecessor’s environmental accomplishments, ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review Obama’s monument designations for possible reversal. Even though the Coral Canyons account for a tiny fraction of New England’s heavily depleted waters, the fishing lobby bitterly opposed monument status. This week, the Washington Post reported that Zinke has recommended that the Canyons and Seamounts be opened to commercial fishing.

The researchers on Egg Rock mused around the fire over the concerted attempt, led by the Republican Party and often aided by Democrats in top fossil-fuel production states, to roll back environmental protections for everything from coral to coal ash and broadly discredit science in everything from seabird protections to renewable energy. Some of the divisions of NOAA that are directly involved in studying waters like the Gulf of Maine are targeted for massive budget cuts by the Trump administration.

Maine’s puffins are direct beneficiaries of strict federal fishing management since the 1970s. In recent years, puffins have supplemented their traditional diet of herring and hake with species that have rebounded in the Gulf of Maine, such as the haddock pictured here. Photo: Derrick Jackson

Fighting against a stacked deck

“It’s funny how in the business world and the stock market, no one questions the numbers and facts,” said Brazier, who marched in April’s March for Science in Washington, DC. “They’re taken as facts and then people use them to decide what to do. But now it’s ok to question science.”

“I think it’s because if you can deny science, you can deny what needs to be done,” Eby said. “It’s too hard for a lot of people in rich countries to get their heads around the fact is that if we’re going to deal with climate change, we’re going to have to change the way we live and the way we use energy. That’s so hard, a lot of people would rather find ways to skip the science and live in their world without thinking about the consequences.”

Tutterow, who hails from North Carolina, where the General Assembly in 2012 famously banned state use of a 100-year-projection of a 39-inch sea-level rise, added, “If I was offered a state or federal job, I’d take it. I’d like to believe there’s a lot of career professionals who work hard to get the job done. But it used to be the main thing you worried about was red tape. Now you have to worry about censorship.”

Dickey said simply, “Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against us. But we just have to keep working as hard as we can until someone realizes we’re just trying to deliver facts to help the world.”

Puffins in Maine breed in burrows that wind crazily underneath boulders that rim their islands. That tests the ability of interns to reach for chicks to band for future study. Photo: Derrick Jackson

Joyful doggedness

The stacked deck is unfair, given the joyful doggedness displayed by this crew. On two days, I followed them around the perimeters of Egg Rock as they wrenched their bodies to “grub” under the boulders, contorting until they could reach their arm into the darkness to puffin chicks to band for research.

The simple act of banding has led to understanding the puffin’s extremely high levels of fidelity, coming back to the same island and burrow year after year despite migrating hundreds of miles away. One Project Puffin bird was in the running for the oldest-known puffin in the world, making it to 35 before disappearing in 2013. A Norwegian puffin made it 41 before being found dead.

On other Atlantic puffin islands, the birds can nest in more shallow cavities of rocks and mounds in grassy cliffs within wrist and elbow reach. Researchers on those islands are able to band scores of puffin chicks and adults.

But the massive size of jagged boulders on Eastern Egg Rock makes it so difficult to grub that the summer record was only 14. On my visit, the crew went from 9 to 17 chicks, with Brazier constantly saying, “Oh no, we’re not giving up. We got this. The next crew’s going to have work hard to beat us.”

No face was brighter than Aztorga-Ornelas’ when she took an adult puffin they banded and lowered it between her legs like a basketball player making an underhanded free throw. She lifted up the bird and let it go to fly back to the ocean to get more fish for its chicks. “I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life,” she said.

On another day, with the same enthusiasm displayed for puffins, they grubbed for another member of the auk family, the black guillemot. At one point, they caught four chicks in separate burrows within seconds of each other. They gleefully posed with birds for photographs.

“I wish people could feel why I’m in this,” Tutterow said. She talked about a prior wolf study project in Minnesota. “We tracked in the snow what we thought was one wolf,” she said. “Then, at a junction, what we thought was one single wolf, the tracks split into five different sets of tracks. Your jaw drops at the ability of these animals to perfectly follow each other to disguise the pack.”

Eastern Egg Rock went from the 1880s to 1977 with no resident puffins. This year, the number of breeding pairs hit a record 173. Where there were two or four birds left in the entire state of Maine in 1902, there are 1,300 pair today. Photo: Derrick Jackson

Getting it right

My jaw dropped at how bird science is making world travelers out of this crew beyond Egg Rock. Brazier has worked with African penguins in South Africa, loggerhead turtles in Greece, snowshoe hares in the Yukon, and this fall is headed to Midway Atoll for habitat restoration in key grounds for albatross.

Eby has worked with foxes in Churchill, Manitoba; oystercatchers, murres, auklets, gulls, and petrels in Alaska; and ducks in Nebraska. Besides wolves, Tutterow has helped manage tropicbirds and shearwaters in the Bahamas, honeybees and freshwater fish in North Carolina, loons in the Adirondacks, and wolves in Minnesota. Aztorga-Ornelas has worked with oystercatchers and auklets on Mexican islands and Dickey has helped restore bobwhite, quail, deer, and wild turkey habitat in Texas.

Brazier said a huge reason she helped rehabilitate injured endangered African penguins in South Africa was because of her experience tending to them in college at the Maryland Zoo. “I actually didn’t get the section of the zoo I applied for,” she said. “I got the African penguin exhibit and when all these little fellas were running around my feet, it was the best day of my life.”

Though he is the youngest of the crew, Dickey said his quail and bobwhite work gave him self-sufficiency beyond his years. “My boss lived two miles away and my tractor had a flat four times. It was on me to fix it and I figured it out, even though it was hotter than hell every day, sometimes 110.”

Tutterow, the oldest, originally earned a bachelors degree in nursing at Appalachian State University, but found far more satisfaction in an outdoor career. Among her fondest childhood memories was her parents allowing her to wander in local woods to read spot on a rock on a creek. “You can build a lifestyle around any amount of income, but you cannot build happiness into every lifestyle,” she said. “Working with these animals, I’m building happiness for them and me.”

No myopic set of politics and denial of science should ever get in the way of this level of career happiness. Aztorga-Ornelas and I, despite her limited English and my stunted Spanish, shared a dozen “Wows!” sitting together in a bird blind, watching puffins zoom ashore with fish.

Eby said, “It’s strange for me. We just came out of a conservative government in Canada (under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper) where they stopped lake research for acid rain, fisheries, and climate change and government scientists did not feel the freedom to speak out. And now that we’re getting more freedom, I’m here. I hope the US can get it right soon.”


Bringing Down the House: A Hostile Takeover of Science-Based Policymaking by Trump Appointees

The Trump administration is slowly filling positions below the cabinet officer level in the “mission agencies” of the federal government (e.g., EPA, NOAA , Interior, DOE, etc. whose job it is to implement a specific set of statutory mandates). The appointed individuals are leading day-to-day decision-making on policies from public health and safety to environmental protection to critical applied science programs. In other words, the decisions these appointees make will affect everyone in the country.

The job of the agencies and their political leadership is to represent the public interest. It is not to serve the private interests of particular industries and companies, or even to push political viewpoints, but to implement legislative mandates in the interest of the American public. After all, who else but government can do this? Our laws call for the water and air to be clean, our workers and communities to be safe, our environment to be healthy and our science to be robust and fundamental to better policy and decision-making. That is what mission agencies are tasked to do.

So, what have we seen so far? To be sure, the Administration has nominated and appointed some qualified individuals with good experience and little apparent conflicts of interest. But unfortunately, that is not the norm. In my mind, most of the key appointments with responsibility for science-based policymaking fall into three categories:

  • The conflicted: Individuals who have spent a significant part of their careers lobbying the agencies they are now appointed to lead to obtain more favorable policies to benefit specific industries or companies—and who will likely do so again once they leave the government. These individuals have a conflict of interest because of these connections. Despite President Trump’s call to “drain the swamp,” these appointees are well-adapted and key species in that very swamp (sorry, my ecologist background showing through).
  • The opposed: Individuals who have spent much of their careers arguing against the very mission of the agencies they now lead. This group is not entirely separate from the first, because often they made those arguments on behalf of corporate clients pushing for less accountability to or oversight from the American public. But further, they have opposed the very role played by the federal agencies they are appointed to serve. While they may have conflicts of interest as in (1), they also have an expressed anti-agency agenda that strongly suggests they will work to undermine the agency’s mission.
  • The unqualified: Individuals who are wholly unqualified because they haven’t the experience or training or credentials that are requisite for the job. Again, these appointees may also have conflicts of interest, and apposite political agendas to the missions of the agencies, but they also have no real place leading a complex organization that requires specific expertise.

With more than 4,000 possible political appointments to federal agencies, I of course cannot cover them all. In fact, scanning through the list of those 600 appointments requiring Senate confirmation, less than one-third have even been nominated for Senate action. But here is a disturbing set of nominees or appointments that undermine science-based policymaking.

The conflicted

William Wehrum is a lawyer and lobbyist nominated to lead the EPA Office of Air and Radiation (OAR). He previously worked at EPA during the G.W. Bush Administration. UCS opposed his nomination then. Mr. Wehrum’s corporate clients include Koch Industries, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and others in the auto and petrochemical industries. He has been a vocal spokesperson against addressing climate change under the Clean Air Act, which would be part of his responsibility as OAR director. While he has advocated for devolving more authority to the states for addressing air pollution generally, he also opposed granting California a waiver under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Mr. Wehrum has also been directly involved, both as a lobbyist for industry and during his previous stint at EPA, in efforts to subvert the science concerning mercury pollution from power plants, restrictions on industrial emissions, as well as lead, soot and regional haze regulations.

Dr. Michael Dourson has been nominated to be EPA Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. He is well known by the chemical industry, having spent years working as a toxicologist for hire for industries from tobacco to pesticides and other chemicals. Dr. Dourson has argued that the pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe despite a large body of science to the contrary. He has advocated for the continued use of a toxic industrial chemical called TCE, which the EPA determined was carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. [TCE was the chemical linked to leukemia in children in the 1998 film “A Civil Action.”] When asked about his controversial chemical risk assessment company, TERA, receiving funding from chemical companies, Dourson responded: “Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them.”

Dr. Nancy Beck, appointed to the position of EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator, now leads the agency’s effort to implement the Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which was signed into law last year. Dr. Beck was previously senior staff with the American Chemistry Council, the trade organization that worked very hard for years to weaken the rules protecting the public from toxic chemicals. The result? The new rules from the EPA are far weaker than those developed by the professional staff at the agency and remarkably similar to the position the industry favored, while dismissing the positions of other members of the public and other organizations including UCS. Previously, Dr. Beck worked in the G.W. Bush Administration at the Office of Management and Budget. During that part of her career Dr. Beck was called out by the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee for attempting to undermine EPA’s assessment of toxic chemicals and her draft guidance on chemical safety evaluations was called “fundamentally flawed” by the National Academy of Sciences.

Lest you think that the conflicted are all at EPA, consider David Zatezalo, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Health and Safety. He was formerly the chairman of Rhino Resources, a Kentucky coal company that was recipient of two letters from the Mine Safety and Health Administration for patterns of violations. Subsequently a miner was killed when a wall collapsed. The company was fined.

David Bernhardt has been confirmed as the Deputy Secretary of Interior. He was DOI Solicitor under the George W. Bush administration. In 2008, weeks before leaving office, Bernhardt shifted controversial political appointees who had ignored or suppressed science into senior civil service posts. While at his law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he represented energy and mining interests and lobbied for California’s Westlands Water District. His position in the firm—he was a partner—and the firm’s financial relationship with Cadiz Inc. (which is involved in a controversial plan to pump groundwater in the Mojave desert and sell it in southern California) has led to one group calling him a “walking conflict of interest.” Bernhardt also represented Alaska in its failed 2014 suit to force the Interior department to allow exploratory drilling at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The opposed

Susan Combs has been nominated to be the Assistant Secretary of Interior for Policy, Management, and Budget. She was previously Texas’s agricultural commissioner and then the state’s Comptroller where she often fought with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over Endangered Species Act issues. Notably she has a history of meddling in science-based policy issues like species protections. She has been deeply engaged in battling for property rights and against public interest protections; she once called proposed Endangered Species Act listings as “incoming Scud missiles” against the Texas economy. Of course, protecting endangered species, biodiversity and public lands is a major responsibility of the Department of Interior.

Daniel Simmons has been nominated to be the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Energy Efficiency to foster development of renewable and energy-efficient technologies. He was previously Vice President at the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative organization that promotes fossil fuel use, opposed the Paris Climate Accord, and opposes support for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. He also worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as director for their natural resources task force. ALEC is widely known for advocating against energy efficiency measures.

The unqualified

Sam Clovis, the nominee for Undersecretary of Agriculture for Research, Education and Economics, effectively the department’s chief scientists, is not a scientist or an economist nor does he have expertise in any scientific discipline relevant to his proposed position at USDA—like food science, nutrition, weed science, agronomy, entomology. Despite this lack of qualifications, he does deny the evidence of a changing climate. He was a talk radio host with a horrendous record of racist, homophobic and other bigoted views which should be disqualifying in themselves.

Albert Kelly has been appointed a senior advisor to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Chair of the Superfund Task Force. He is an Oklahoma banker with no experience with Superfund or environmental issues, but he was a major donor to Mr. Pruitt’s political campaigns. So far the task force has focused on “increasing efficiencies” in the Superfund program.

Over at NASA, the nominee for Administrator is Rep. James Bridenstine, (R. OK). While he certainly has government and public policy experience (a plus), he does not have a science background, a management background or experience with the space program. He has called aggressively for NASA to focus on space exploration and returning to the moon, rather than its earth science mission. In addition, he has been a strong advocate for privatization of some of the work of the agency. He has questioned the science on climate change and accused the Obama Administration of “gross misallocation of funds” for spending on climate research.

Michael Kratsios is the Deputy Chief Technology Officer and de facto head of Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House. He is a former aide to Silicon Valley executive Peter Thiel and holds a AB in politics from Princeton with a focus on Hellenic Studies. He previously worked in investment banking and with a hedge fund. How this experience qualifies him to be deputy chief technology officer is beyond me.

Can we have science-based policies?

This is by no means a full list of egregious nominees for positions that will have a big impact on our daily lives. So, the question remains, is science-based policy making a thing of the past? Will the conflicted, the opposed, and the unqualified be the pattern for the future?

Fortunately, we can and should fight back. We as scientists, concerned members of the public, and activists can call on our elected officials to oppose these nominees. If they are in place, then they can be held to account by Congress, the courts, and yes, in the court of public opinion. Handing over the fundamental job of protecting the public to champions for regulated industries and political ideologues is wrong for all of us. After all, if industry did protect the public from public health or environmental impacts, then regulatory controls would be superfluous.

We can’t just wring our hands and wish things didn’t go this way. Conflicted, opposed and unqualified they may be, but they are now in public service. Let’s hold them to account.

Consumer Product Safety Commission Takes On Flame Retardants

In 2014, Earthjustice and Consumer Federation of America, on behalf of a broad coalition of health, consumer, science and firefighter organizations, petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban a class of flame retardants, additive organohalogen flame retardants, from children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronic casings as hazardous substances.

Graphic: Consumer Federation of America

The CPSC is considering whether or not to grant the petition and held a public hearing yesterday, at which I testified regarding the risks of flame retardants in households and the way in which flame retardant manufacturers and their lead trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), have fought hard to keep these hazardous products on the market. The ACC is not a stranger to using the disinformation playbook. As we documented in our 2015 report, Bad Chemistry, the ACC has wielded influence to delay and quash important safeguards on a long list of chemicals, has funded science to exaggerate the chemicals’ effectiveness at lowering fire risk, and has employed innocuous-sounding front groups to do its dirty work without disclosing its relationship. A 2012 Chicago Tribune series did an excellent job of bringing much of the trade association’s activities to light.

The Commission will vote next week to determine whether they will grant the petition and begin to develop proposed rulemaking to ban these chemicals. We hope that the Commission will heed the recommendations of a long list of scientists, public health, and legal experts who agree that the CPSC has the legal authority and the scientific backing to ban these chemicals.

My testimony is below.

Good afternoon, I would like to thank Chairwoman Buerkle and the CPSC Commissioners for the opportunity to testify before you today on this important issue. My name is Genna Reed. I am the science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a national, nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stands with other members of the scientific community in supporting this petition calling upon the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to declare organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs) as a hazardous class of chemicals and to ban their use in children’s products, furniture, mattresses and the casings surrounding electronics. The scientific evidence laid out in the petition supports this regulatory change. The CPSC has the authority to protect the public from toxic substances that “may cause substantial personal injury or substantial illness.”

Since the Center’s inception, we have worked to protect scientific integrity within the federal government and called attention to incidences of special interests mischaracterizing science to advocate for specific policy goals. The chemical industry and its trade association, the American Chemistry Council’s, work to sow doubt about the science revealing harms about chemicals’ impacts on our health, including flame retardants, is an egregious example of this inappropriate behavior.

The companies that manufacture OFRs have put significant time and money into distorting the scientific truth about these chemicals. As a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series noted, the chemical industry “has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.” In one case, manufacturers of flame retardants repeatedly pointed to a decades-old government study, arguing the results showed a 15-fold increase in time to escape fires when flame retardants were present. The lead author of the study, however, said industry officials “grossly distorted” the results and that “industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful,” as the amount of flame retardant used in the tests was much greater than would be found in most consumer items. The American Chemistry Council has further misrepresented the science behind flame retardants by creating an entire website to spread misleading ideas about flame retardants as safe and effective, even though research has consistently shown their limited effectiveness. In doing so, the American Chemistry Council and its member companies have promoted the prevalent use of OFRs at the expense of public health.

Looking at these chemicals through a strictly objective lens illustrates the need for CPSC’s swift action. Toxicity and exposure data support the assessment of organohalogen flame retardants as a class of chemicals under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA). Properties that are shared by OFRs include their semivolatility and ability to migrate from consumer products into house dust and exposure has been associated with a range of health impacts including reproductive impairment, neurological impacts, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity, cancer, and immune disorders.  As a class, there is an adequate body of evidence supporting the conclusion that these chemicals have the “capacity to cause personal illness” and therefore meet the definition of “toxic” under FHSA. Perhaps most egregiously, biomonitoring data have revealed that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to and bear high levels of flame retardant chemicals, adding to the cumulative chemical burden that these communities are already experiencing, from increased fine particulate matter from power plants or refineries in their neighborhoods to higher levels of contaminants in their drinking water.

I’ve seen firsthand the persistence of the earliest form of flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), that still plague the sediment and water of the Hackensack Meadowlands just a couple of miles from where I grew up in New Jersey. One of my first jobs was working in the chemistry division of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute where I spent my days extracting PCBs and organochlorine pesticides from the soil and sediment of the Meadowlands and analyzing that data. Despite being banned in 1977, these chemicals are still found in dangerously high amounts all over industrial hotspots of the country, and continue to bioaccumulate in a range of species. The ban of PCBs happened decades ago and we are still managing the damaging impacts of the chemical’s prevalence across the country. The next generation of these chemicals, organohalogen flame retardants, are inside of our own homes in a range of products, thanks largely in part to the disinformation campaign sowed by special interests. The fact remains that the science does not support their continued use.

Seeing firsthand the persistence of PCBs in my local environment inspired me to use my scientific training to work to design or improve policies that minimize public health and environmental risks to prevent future scenarios of chemicals overburdening ecosystems and households. That is why I’m here today to ask the CPSC to act with urgency to grant this petition and further regulate OFRs to protect our children and future generations.

Thank you.

What Scott Pruitt Still Gets Wrong About Chemical Safety Post-Hurricane Harvey

Photo: North Carolina National Guard/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

In a recent interview with ABC’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was asked about the agency’s role in responding to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and the devastation caused in Florida and Texas by the natural disasters. During the conversation, one of the hosts asked Administrator Pruitt about the EPA’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule and his decision to delay implementation of the amendments to modernize the standards for chemical facility safety (relevant because a chemical plant covered by this rule exploded after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston).

In the subsequent back and forth, Administrator Pruitt said something very concerning. He argued that one of the reasons the EPA delayed the new rule was not to limit information to the communities living next to chemical plants, but due to national security concerns. He argued that the 12,500 chemical plants covered under the RMP are in fact soft targets for terrorists. He went on to say that if you had too much information in the RMP, terrorists could use that and cause harm to the communities.

But this is not an accurate or truthful portrayal of the RMP amendments. Administrator Pruitt is either willfully ignorant or simply confused about how the RMP works currently and the updated rule.

First responders, workers, and fenceline communities need easier access to information so that they can be better prepared for chemical facility disasters.

First responders, workers, and fenceline communities need easier access to information so that they can be better prepared for chemical facility disasters.

First, the new rule does not require additional information to that which must already be disclosed to the public under existing laws and regulations. What the updated rule does do is provide an easier avenue of access to RMP data for local communities and emergency responders. If the updated rule was implemented, facilities would have to disclose certain basic information (such as 5-year accident history, safety data sheets, planned emergency exercises, and evacuation information) directly upon request from the public. Under current regulation, the public has to visit Federal Reading Rooms or file public records requests to gather this information in what is a really time-consuming and overly burdensome process.

Second, the RMP amendments were developed in close consultation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) so that the final rule is consistent with anti-terrorism standards and ensure that national security concerns are appropriately addressed. In fact, in its own FAQs about the RMP amendments, the EPA highlights that it coordinated the rulemaking closely with DHS and security professionals so that the agency could “strike a balance between information sharing and security.” The EPA already struck a balance between national security concerns and the safety of workers, communities, and first responders when it finalized the RMP amendments.

EPA, Implement the RMP amendments

The bottom line is that Administrator Pruitt’s desire to cloak his actions to delay a critical public safety and security safeguard is unjustified and flagrantly irresponsible. If he truly cares about public safety as he claims, the most immediate threat is already here. A lack of access to crucial chemical safety information led first responders to be needlessly exposed and caused mass confusion among the public and media as we scrambled to assess public risks.

By pivoting to national security, Administrator Pruitt is simply shifting the responsibility for his actions to gut a public protection that should have been implemented months ago. First responders in Houston are already suing Arkema for gross negligence (a reminder, Arkema submitted comments opposing the RMP amendments, specifically raising concerns about sharing information with first responders and the public). This is exactly why we need to have the updated regulations implemented right away. The RMP amendments, among other things, would result in:

  • Better access to information for emergency first responders and communities, along with a specific charge to improve coordination between facilities and emergency personnel
  • Ensuring that lessons are learned from serious accidents
  • A requirement that facilities with the worst accident records assess options for safer alternatives to remove hazards

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a long history of advocating for stronger chemical facility safety protections. We have submitted extensive comments to the EPA asking the agency to do more to secure chemical facilities and ensure safety for fenceline communities. We have worked in partnership with our colleagues at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), based in Houston, on a report highlighting the impact chemical facilities have had on neighboring communities for several years, if not decades, and the need for stronger chemical facility safety regulations. And as a result of Administrator Pruitt’s decision to postpone implementation of the RMP amendments, we have joined community and environmental justice groups, including t.e.j.a.s., in litigation to force the agency to reverse its decision.

Before Administrator Pruitt says that this is not the right time to talk about the RMP and chemical facility safety (like he did with climate change), let me just say that it’s not just the right time to talk about the science of the risks that these communities face, it’s actually long overdue. The New York Times reported that more than 40 sites have released approximately 4.6 million pounds of hazardous airborne pollutants due to Hurricane Harvey. The EPA needs to act to improve safety at chemical plants by immediately implementing the updates to the RMP rule. Fenceline communities in Houston and around the country, which are predominantly low-income communities and communities of color, cannot afford to wait any longer.

Recovery After Hurricane Harvey: Will There Be Justice for All?

Photo: Coast Guard News/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

What happens to Houston after the media coverage storm subsides, when the country has moved on from the reality that is the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey? Will the people of Houston, who will be affected by this devastation financially and emotionally for years to come, soon become just yesterday’s headline? I would hope not. But recent history shows we should be concerned.

Hurricane Harvey dumped 33 trillion gallons of water (nearly double the volume of the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed)—roughly 275 trillion pounds of water, onto Houston and surrounding areas. Some media outlets called Hurricane Harvey an “equal opportunity” disaster, meaning it negatively affected both the rich and the poor. Equal opportunity—but is it? Time will tell. What will happen when the less financially secure, mostly minority communities try to rebuild? Will they still receive equal opportunities to recover? Will the air pollution and contaminants from hazardous facilities have a disproportionate long-term effect on the communities of color living in closer proximity to toxic sites?

I’m skeptical because I know the history. Last year I did a report looking at the disproportionate impacts of chemical risk and toxic chemical exposure in four Houston neighborhoods: Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park in east Houston, along the highly industrialized ship channel, and Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge in more affluent west Houston. The study found that 90 percent of the population in Harrisburg/Manchester and almost 40 percent of the population of Galena Park lives within one mile of an RMP facility, compared to less than 10 and less than 15 percent of Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge residents. And far more accidents have occurred at the facilities in and around the east Houston neighborhoods.

As for the health impacts: Residents of the Harrisburg/Manchester community have a 24-30% higher cancer risk and those of Galena Park have a 30-36% higher risk, when compared to Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, respectively. The potential for residents to suffer from respiratory illnesses in Harrisburg/ Manchester and Galena Park was 24% and 43% higher than in Bellaire and West Oaks/Eldridge, respectively. It also bears noting that 97% and 86% of the respective east Houston communities’ residents are people of color, and the communities have up to ten times more poverty than the two in west Houston. Communities like Manchester have long not gotten their piece of the pie, they need to get their piece of Harvey recovery resources.

And already we are seeing evidence that Harvey’s impacts might not be so equal.

To quote my colleague, Juan Declet-Barreto, “The communities that have been living around those facilities have been saying for years that the regulatory frameworks to protect people from the negative aspects of petrochemical industry are not adequate.” The unprecedented rainfall and subsequent flooding was contaminated with waste from nearby toxic (Superfund) sites, leaving people exposed to a cocktail of harmful pollutants. The havoc wrought unto Houston by Harvey’s winds was intensified by the leaking of more than 1 million pounds of toxic pollutants from refineries and chemical facilities, including known carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene and respiratory irritants hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and xylene. Hurricane survivors spoke of harsh fumes burning their throats and eyes, making it difficult to breathe under already difficult circumstances.

We knew better

While we certainly cannot stop hurricanes from hurtling in uninvited, we can mitigate the severity of their consequences. For instance, the explosions and fires at the Arkema facility could have been prevented with safer alternatives, and workers and communities could have had more information and coordination with emergency responders. However, just this past January, amendments to strengthen the Risk Management Program (RMP), the oversight program designed to set safeguards on chemical facilities to protect public health and safety, were delayed until February 19, 2019. My colleagues and I delivered comments at the public hearing EPA held in April on the rule to delay amendments to the RMP (read here). If certain communities are being hit harder and their cries for help have yet to be heard, is it fair to say this was an equal opportunity disaster?

Broad impacts

It isn’t just Manchester that is likely to experience disparate impacts from a hurricane. Extreme weather events will continue; warming sea surface temperatures are a key ingredient in the storm recipe. Floodwaters have not completely cleared, but media coverage is already being diverted to the next big storm. In the week since Harvey descended onto Houston and surrounding areas, three more hurricanes have formed: Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia. Harvey’s five day-long deluge had all but ended before Caribbean islands were bracing themselves for Hurricane Irma, which struck the island of Barbuda hard on Wednesday. Over 90% of structures on the small, bucolic island—home to 1800 people—are said to have sustained major damage, according to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne.

Irma is currently tearing through the Caribbean, leaving many in Puerto Rico without power, and possibly hitting Florida this weekend. Puerto Rico is, like Houston, laden with RMP facilities that can spew toxic fumes into the air and with Superfund sites that could potentially flood and contaminate drinking water.

EPA Brownfields, RMP, and Superfund program sites and FEMA-designated flood risk zones in Puerto Rico.

What’s next

For the last week, coverage detailing every aspect and angle of the situation in Houston has inundated news outlets, putting the spotlight on and revealing the issues that are usually swept under the rug and ignored. I expect similar coverage for Irma. We mustn’t let this attention die down. We must demand a just recovery from Barbuda to the Buffalo Bayou.

Flooded by Hurricane Harvey: New Map Shows Energy, Industrial, and Superfund Sites

A new UCS analysis shows that more than 650 energy and industrial facilities may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters.

Harvey’s unprecedented levels of rainfall in Texas and Louisiana coasts have exacted a huge toll on the region’s residents. In the weeks and months ahead, it is not only homes that need to be assessed for flood damage and repaired, but also hundreds of facilities integral to the region’s economy and infrastructure.

To highlight these facilities, the Union of Concerned Scientists has developed an interactive tool showing affected sites. The tool relies on satellite data analyzed by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory to map the extent of Harvey’s floodwaters, and facility-level data from the US Energy Information Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The tool includes several types of energy infrastructure (refineries, LNG import/export and petroleum product terminals, power plants, and natural gas processing plants), as well as wastewater treatment plants and three types of chemical facilities identified by the EPA (Toxic Release Inventory sites, Risk Management Plan sites, and Superfund sites).

Chemical facilities potentially exposed to flooding

Hurricane Harvey may have exposed to flooding more than 160 of EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites, 7 Superfund sites, and 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program.

The Gulf Coast is home to a vast chemical industry. The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program lists over 4,500 facilities in Texas and Louisiana alone that are required to report chemical releases to the environment.

Before the storm hit, many facilities shut down preemptively, releasing toxic chemicals in the process. In the wake of the storm, explosions at Arkema’s Crosby facility highlighted the risks that flooding and power failures pose to the region’s chemical facilities and, by extension, the health of the surrounding population.

In the Houston area, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals. Our analysis shows that over 160 TRI facilities, 7 Superfund sites, and over 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program were potentially exposed to floodwaters. Though most of the impacts from this exposure remain unknown, the risks include compromised facilities and the release of toxins into the air and receding floodwaters.

Energy infrastructure

In the week since Hurricane Harvey reached the Texas coast, disruptions to the region’s energy infrastructure have caused gas prices to rise nationally by more than 20 percent.

Our analysis finds that more than 40 energy facilities may have been exposed to flooding, potentially contributing to the fluctuations in gas prices around the country. As of yesterday, the EIA reports that several refineries have resumed operations while others are operating at reduced capacity.

More than 40 energy facilities–including power plants and refineries–may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters.

Wastewater treatment

Wastewater treatment facilities comprise the bulk of the facilities (nearly 430) that we identify as potentially exposed to flooding. The EPA is monitoring the quality and functionality of water systems throughout the region and reported that more than half of the wastewater treatment plants in the area were fully operational as of September 3.

With floodwaters widely reported as being contaminated with toxic chemicals and potent bacteria, wastewater treatment facilities are likely contending with both facility-level flooding and a heightened need to ensure the potability of treated water.

Nearly 430 wastewater treatment facilities may have been exposed to flooding during Hurricane Harvey.

About the data

It is important to note that the satellite data showing flood extent is still being updated by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, and that we will continue to get a better handle on the extent and depth of flooding as additional data become available from sources such as high water marks from the USGS.

As of Tuesday, DFO Director Robert Brakenridge stated in an email that they believe the data to be fairly complete, including for the Houston area, at a spatial resolution of 10 meters. Given uncertainties in the flood mapping as well as in the exact locations of each facility, it is possible that this map over- or underestimates the number of affected facilities. It is also possible that facilities, while in the flooded area, were protected from and unaffected by floodwaters.

Superfund Sites and the Floods of Hurricane Harvey: Foreseeable or an “Act of God”?

Photo: Patrick Bloodgood/US Army

Superfund sites contain some of the most dangerous chemicals known to humankind. It has been confirmed that Superfund sites in the Houston area were submerged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. Does this mean these hazardous chemicals were swept away off of Superfund sites into neighboring communities where people live, play, and work? If so, who will be responsible for cleaning up such a disaster?

There are approximately a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area that could have been compromised by floodwaters. The Associated Press surveyed seven of these sites and found signs of inundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that 13 of 41 Superfund sites in the area were flooded, using aerial images. Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, cautioned that “If the water picks up contaminated sediment from [Superfund] sites, that may get deposited in areas where people frequent—residential properties, parks, ballfields—that were never contaminated before. We can’t say for sure it will happen, but it’s certainly a possibility.” Residents of the area are rightfully concerned about being exposed to these dangerous toxins potentially leaking from Superfund sites.

Superfund sites in Houston are vulnerable to flooding

Extreme temperatures, sea level rise, decreased permafrost, increased heavy precipitation events, increased flood risks, increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, and increased intensity of hurricanes—all of these impacts are expected under climate change, and the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM; formerly the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Management) considers them threats that make their programs vulnerable, as stated in their climate change adaptation implementation plan. The Superfund program, which ensures that sites littered with hazardous chemicals (often cancer-causing) get cleaned up, may be particularly vulnerable to these climate change impacts.

Photo: SenseiAlan/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In a national-level vulnerability analysis, the EPA found that Superfund sites are particularly vulnerable to climate change related flooding and chronic inundation, impacts that would likely result in the “loss of remedy functionality and effectiveness indefinitely” with the possibility of hazardous chemicals being released from the site. We know that Superfund sites have flooded and overflowed previously, during Hurricane Katrina and Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy. In 2011, the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene led to release of benzene (a highly carcinogenic substance) beyond the protective barriers of the American Cyanamid Superfund site located in New Jersey. It is therefore no surprise that the EPA took action to reinforce the infrastructure of the site to withstand similar flood heights in the future.

Of course, impacts related to climate change are not solely to blame for the devastating flooding seen in Houston. The Houston area is relatively flat and only about 50 feet above sea level, with about a 4-foot difference between the highest and lowest elevations downtown. This means that when rain falls, that water takes a long time to drain out of the city. Houston’s urban sprawl also is partly to blame—the replacement of wetlands with impermeable pavement means there is less land to soak up water after a rainfall event. Additionally, much of the infrastructure in Houston is only built to withstand flood heights associated with a 100-year flood, and the rains of Hurricane Harvey resulted in flood heights associated with a 1000-year flood! And then there is Houston’s location right outside of the Gulf of Mexico, which puts it in the path of slow-moving storms that can dump a ton of rainfall on the city. All of these factors make Houston a flood-prone area.

Who’s responsible if extreme events, made more likely by climate change, result in the release of hazardous chemicals from Superfund sites that harm public health?  

The threats of climate change could alter the liability of responsible parties under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the federal hazardous waste law under which the Superfund program is regulated. CERCLA provides three defenses to strict liability for releases of hazardous substances. The potentially responsible party (PRP) must prove that the release was “caused solely” by (1) an act of God, (2) an act of war, or (3) an act of a third party.

Environmental attorneys expect that the “act of God” defense will be used more often as natural disasters become more common and severe with climate change. Under CERCLA, an “act of God” is defined as, “an unanticipated grave natural disaster or other natural phenomenon of an exceptional, inevitable, and irresistible character, the effects of which could not have been prevented or avoided by the exercise of due care or foresight.”

Were the catastrophic floods of Hurricane Harvey an “act of God?”

Some types of extreme events are more likely to occur with climate change, including heavier precipitation events (see Fig 1-08) that result in flooding. Additionally, it is expected that hurricanes will become more intense as a result of climate change. As my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel points out, global hurricane models that compare the past three decades with further climate change (RCP 4.5) toward the end of the century show an increase of average hurricane intensity, precipitation rates, and the number and occurrence of days with intense category 4 and 5 storms. However, hurricanes that develop over the U.S. North Atlantic Ocean may not necessarily fall in line with this global trend. We also know that sea levels are rising, increasing coastal flood risks.

We will continue to understand more as extreme weather scientists investigate the relative contribution of climate change to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey (via attribution science), but it is important to note that we already know that extreme floods are more likely to occur under global climate change scenarios. In other words, extreme flood events are foreseeable (i.e., not an “act of God”). This is the reason why Executive Order 13690, which had bipartisan support, created more stringent federal flood risk management standards that took into consideration the link between climate change and floods to increase the resilience of federal infrastructure. President Trump rescinded this order only weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit.

What would the courts do if hazardous chemicals were found to escape a Superfund site, harming the people of Houston, in the devastating wake of Harvey?

Prior cases may give us an indication. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Court in 2014, in which the “act of war” defense relieved World Trade Center owners and lessees of Superfund liability for toxic dust that infiltrated a building blocks away due to the 9-11 terrorist attacks, could be cited as a case for the proposition that hazardous chemical releases from Superfund sites during extreme events should be considered “acts of God.” This is because the court, in dicta, likened the attacks of a tornado (an extreme event) to an “act of God.” “It would be absurd to impose CERCLA liability on the owners of property that is demolished and dispersed by a tornado”, the court said. “A tornado, which scatters dust and all else, is the ‘sole cause’ of the environmental damage left in its wake.”

Professor Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law said that comparisons between terrorist attacks, tornados, and climate change would be dubious, “A tornado or terrorist attack in a particular location is not foreseeable; not so with sea level rise and the associated coastal flooding.” Gerrard said that “whether or not the act of God or third-party defenses are available will depend in part on whether adequate precautions were taken against foreseeable risks.” So far, the “act of God” defense has been disfavored by courts when toxins have leaked from sites during extreme weather events—these decisions may bode well for future decisions on predictable climate change impacts to Superfund sites.

Regardless of who is or is not responsible for such harm, we hope that the EPA is working to make Superfund sites more resilient to the impacts of climate change, especially as extreme floods become more common in the future.

¿Estás en zona de peligro de inundaciones por Irma o José? Entérate con éste mapa y pon a ti y a los tuyos a salvo

Irma, September 5. Photo: US Naval Research Laboratory

No bien hemos pasado el susto de la destrucción causada por el Huracán Harvey en Houston, ya se nos encima Irma, y José parece que no tarda. Preocupado por el paso de éstos dos peligrosos fenómenos , me dí a la tarea de crear un mapa que puedes utilizar para evaluar el riesgo de que el lugar donde vives se inunde.

Pones tu dirección o pueblo y te mostrará el área en que vives, y si está dentro de un área clasificada por FEMA, (la agencia federal para el manejo de emergencias) en el  uno porciento de riesgo de un evento de inundación. La definición es un poco compleja, pero aquí hay un video que lo explica. También incluí una clasificación de la vulnerabilidad social y económica de la población de Puerto Rico en base al análisis de los Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (se llama Social Vulnerability Index). Las áreas con colores verdes más oscuros indican las zonas donde las características de la población (ingreso, número de personas en el hogar, los ancianos y/o discapacitados, etc.) los hacen más vulnerables a los peligros ambientales como los huracanes. Claro está, el estar tu hogar fuera de las zonas inundables no significa que debas bajar la guardia. Estos análisis son en base a datos históricos y puede que debido al cambio climático, el nivel de la precipitación de los huracanes recientes sean mucho más que las de eventos anteriores. Esta es la lección más inmediata que podemos aprender de Harvey, y hay que tomar estos fenómenos con mucho cuidado.

Accede al mapa: http://arcg.is/2f0gyGz

En adición, y en colaboración con el Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information en Delta State University, hemos creado una serie de mapas útiles para asistir en tareas de búsqueda y rescate en situaciones de desastre.

Este mapa muestra el tipo de información relevante para identificar la localización precisa de una persona que necesite rescate o auxilio.

Estos mapas fueron creados en parte por mi mentor y colega Talbot Brooks, quien fue parte de un equipo que en 2005 identificó la necesidad de tener mapas con escalas cartográficas y sistemas de coordenadas en común, ya que lo existía al momento del Huracán Katrina en ese año eran mapas que dificultaban la coordinación de tareas de rescate entre múltiples agencias y cuerpos gubernamentales. Cualquier persona con un aparato móvil puede accesar la página https://usngapp.org/ para obtener la localización y comunicarla a un operador de 911, por ejemplo.

En base al peligro inminente que presenta Irma—y posiblemente José—le hacemos las siguientes recomendaciones al Gobernador Rosselló y reiteramos nuestro compromiso de colaborar con el gobierno del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico para crear herramientas que sean útiles durante y después de los huracanes:

  • Habilitar y/o establecer contactos con personal de FEMA o Department of Homeland Security que puedan utilizar los mapas USNG que estamos desarrollando. Estos mapas contribuyeron a salvar muchas vidas durante Katrina.
  • Hacer una petición formal de asistencia al “Stand-by Task Force” para que desplieguen la herramienta geospacial USAHIDI para facilitar a través del crowdsourcing operaciones de rescate en situaciones de desastre.

We Must Protect the Workers Who Will Rebuild after Hurricane Harvey

Workers make repairs in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Cox

Storm waters in the greater Houston area are subsiding and the scale of devastation and destruction is staggering. The personal loss, pain, and suffering of families and impacted communities are immeasurable.

As the immediate crisis of saving lives and providing emergency aid and shelter to many thousands winds down, the daunting task of recovery, cleanup, and rebuilding of homes, businesses, and essential infrastructure begins. And, with my 25-plus years of work and experience in occupational health and safety, I am all too aware of the myriad hazards, exposures, and risks workers will be facing in this long-term effort.

Safeguarding workers’ health and safety must not be an afterthought.

The work: dirty, dangerous, and risky

Post-disaster recovery, cleanup, and reconstruction operations present a panoply of risks and dangers—with workers on the front lines.

Some workers will be tasked with the highly hazardous task of getting the area’s oil refineries and chemical plants back on-line. Start-up operations can result in uncontrolled releases and explosions that place the workers and surrounding communities at grave health and safety risk. The US Chemical Safety Board has issued a safety alert, urging caution and providing a checklist for evaluating systems, tanks, instrumentation, and equipment before start-up.

Other workers will be working in and around the 13 highly contaminated Superfund sites that have flooded and sustained storm damage. As of this writing, the EPA reports that 11 additional Superfund sites remain inaccessible to response personnel, so the extent of damage is unknown.

And many if not most workers in the greater Houston area will be doing jobs that, at least in the short term, only compound the well-recognized hazards, exposures, and risks they generally encounter.

Hurricanes and super storms like Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina just pile on additional hazards, including mold, mold, and more mold; water contaminated with chemicals and waste; working in and around unstable structures; and carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of generators in poorly ventilated areas—an all-too-common event in post-disaster work. These are all on top of the falls, cuts, burns, amputations, and machine and musculoskeletal injuries that are all to frequent in today’s workplaces.  And silica, asbestos, and lead just add to the mix of dangers involved in demolition operations that will be ongoing in Houston. (You can also read my prior commentary on workplace injury, illness, and fatality tolls.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established protective health and safety standards for many of these hazards, and they remain applicable even during disasters.  Employers remain responsible for complying with these protections.

In the early days of a disaster, OSHA rightly focuses on compliance assistance (outreach, information, and training for employers and workers). But it should shift to enforcement as the immediate crisis passes. We have seen, for example, the consequences of a lack of enforcement of required respiratory protection after 9/11, leading to the illness and death of workers exposed to toxic dust.  Federal agencies have resources and information about these general hazards, as well as disaster-focused resources and information for employers, workers, and the public (including here, here, and here).

While helpful, information on a website is not enough; workers, communities, and the impacted public will need resources and action on the ground. And this will surely strain the capacity and resources of agencies that must continue to meet their existing responsibilities at the same time.

The workers

As they did in the aftermath of Katrina and Sandy, day laborers will comprise a significant portion of the clean-up and reconstruction efforts in Houston. Homeowners (already stressed by their losses) and contractors alike will be looking for workers to remove debris, pump out water, remove and remediate mold damage, and demolish and renovate structures.

Houston has a large population of day laborers and low-wage workers, many undocumented, many Latino. These workers—who will likely be the mainstay of Houston’s recovery efforts—face a host of additional challenges. Fearing discrimination, family separation, and even deportation, they may be unwilling to ask for protective equipment and training or report unsafe working conditions and wage and hour violations.

Health and safety research and statistics tell us that Latino workers experience higher rates of workplace injury and illness than other segments of the US workforce and significantly higher rates of workplace fatalities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2013 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, Hispanic or Latino workers were the only racial/ethnic group with an increase in workplace fatalities in 2013. The 797 Hispanic or Latino worker deaths constituted the highest total since 2008 and a seven percent increase over 2012.

Of course, in addition to day laborers, many other workers will be needed for the area’s long-term clean up and recovery efforts. They, too, will face many of the same hazards and exposures as their counterparts who are picking up day jobs on street corners and in worker centers (like Fey Justicia Worker Center in Houston). All of these workers will be in it for the long haul, and deserve the protection, training, and equipment they need to help their cities and communities recover and rebuild without sacrificing their own health and safety in the process.

Lessons learned?

We’ve seen what can happen in the aftermath of a disaster if we take our eye off the ball in protecting our rescue and recovery workers. Katrina, Sandy, 9/11—all have lessons to teach. Most are applicable to what’s facing workers who are on-the-ground now responding to Harvey and who will be there for years to come.

Avoiding the additional tragedy of workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses in the recovery and reconstruction process will require the sustained attention of state, local, and federal agencies, employers and contractors, informed workers, and a vigilant public. This is made all the more difficult by the Trump administration’s all-out assault on workplace protections and his blatant ignorance and disregard for the value immigrants bring to our nation’s labor force.

Now is the time to ensure that our existing worker safety and health protections are strong and are vigorously enforced; it is not the time to roll back or weaken these worker protections—or environmental protections for communities.

Now is the time to ensure that our worker health and safety agencies have the staffing and budgets they need to fulfill their statutory mandates to protect the nation’s workforce. It is not the time to cut budgets for agencies already stretched to the limit in trying to do so.

Now is the time to honor, value, and protect those workers who rush into harm’s way in the face of disasters and those who stay with it to repair, rebuild, and revitalize the communities they hit. It is certainly not the time to turn the lives of immigrant and undocumented workers upside down.

Your voice matters. Let your elected leaders know that you expect them to support strong worker safety and health protections—and that you will hold them accountable if they don’t. Now is the perfect time. Here are some tips and resources that may be helpful.

Science Advice in Action: Highlights from an EPA Science Advisory Board Meeting

Here at the Center for Science and Democracy, we have been writing a lot lately about the importance of federal science advice and defending the value of advisory committees like the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) against threats of budget cuts and reform. When I saw that the full SAB would be meeting at the end of August, I jumped at the opportunity to attend so that I could share some highlights of the proceedings and go beyond the static information that meeting transcripts convey.

As the EPA administrator’s primary science advisors, the purpose of this SAB meeting was for the group to meet in person to discuss some ongoing work. This included a review of a draft SAB report on economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation; a review of a draft SAB report on the framework for assessing biogenic carbon dioxide emissions from stationary sources; and a review of a draft review of EPA’s draft risk assessment on a munitions chemical, Hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine, known as RDX. That’s a lot of reviews! The SAB also heard a briefing from the EPA’s Center for Environmental Assessment and the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) on how they are operationalizing systematic review to increase transparency, efficiency, and access to risk assessment products.

The 47 members, both in the room and on the phone, were ready to dive into conversations that for many of them, were slightly outside of their bailiwicks. Expertise in the room ranged from agricultural economists to pulmonary toxicologists to civil and environmental engineers, taking on issues running the gamut from the viability and longevity of economy-wide modeling and what research questions would help to improve EPA’s ability to predict the economic benefits of its regulation, to the importance of training EPA staff to conduct better and more standardized risk assessments without adding years onto their workloads.

Transparency and accessibility at the forefront

A strong commitment to transparency was a theme throughout the meeting. The first matter of business was to announce that a couple of members would be recusing themselves because of a potential conflict of interest. One of these members is affiliated with ExxonMobil and therefore removed himself from the discussion about biogenic carbon dioxide emissions, since Exxon is likely to be financially impacted by policy decisions on the matter. With clear disclosure of and checks on financial conflicts of interest, and a balanced composition, federal advisory committees like the SAB are able to operate harmoniously with members with a range of affiliations, including industry, the nonprofit sector, state government, and academia.

Accessibility is also a major consideration for the SAB, and they seem genuinely interested in making their reports easier for their general readership to digest and improving the transparency of their processes. The SAB not only was interested in the way that their own reports were used by the public, but their commitment to accessibility was clear in their recommendations to the agency as well.

As a member of the public, there was no registration required, but there was a sign-in sheet before entering the conference room and plenty of room to sit and watch the meeting of great science minds. There was even coffee made available for all! Public attendees came and went as the day wore on, but at most times there were about 20 people in the room, most of whom were interested EPA staffers eager to hear advice from these trusted counselors.

The meeting began promptly in the morning and ran through the packed agenda smoothly, thanks to the Designated Federal Officer’s leadership—he’s the EPA staff person who is responsible for ensuring that the committee is operating according to the Federal Advisory Committee Act—and the SAB chair, who leads the committee through the agenda and facilitates the meeting.

Discussions on the different agenda items were organized and thoughtful, and there was opportunity for public comment on each piece so that interested parties could give the SAB their feedback. Several members of the public had comments on the biogenic emissions report, including some critiques of the short timeline given to the public to review the document. The opportunity for the SAB to hear from members of the public and refer to their testimony throughout the proceedings is incredibly valuable and a testament to the importance of these public meetings on a regular basis to keep the advisors grounded.

A few major takeaways

The day-and-a-half meeting was chock-full of acronyms (both for agency offices and for indecipherable chemical names) and highly technical scientific jargon, and admittedly not the easiest for a member of the public to access fully without a 2-month primer on the ins and outs of biogenic emissions. However, attending this meeting allowed me to fully understand what it means to have a group of the country’s premier scientists in one room discussing scientific issues. It’s an all-star team of brilliant minds. At the end of the day, the EPA administrator could feel the utmost confidence that questions posed to this group have been carefully considered and conclusions come to with pointed discourse.

These scientists certainly do not always agree, but they talk about their disagreements and call each other out if they feel that a characterization is incorrect or off the mark in some way. They try to look at each charge question from all sides and from all disciplines, so nothing is left out of the equation. They respect one another as colleagues and as friends. At the end of the last day, there was a touching toast to celebrate the SAB chair, whose term will be coming to an end in September.

Appointments to the SAB and other federal advisory committees are taken seriously by those afforded the opportunity, and it’s no wonder. What better way for scientists to challenge themselves in a new setting by applying their expertise to support federal policy?

What is frustrating, however, is that Administrator Pruitt has so far not been involved with the SAB besides sending them a spring 2017 regulatory agenda, which includes EPA regulatory and deregulatory actions, for the SAB to review. The SAB plans to share some of their priorities with Pruitt and invite him to the next full board meeting. Seeing as Pruitt has already been a party to several incidents of sidelining science, including his plan for a “red team/blue team” exercise on climate change, he could clearly benefit from some science advice that doesn’t come directly from special interest talking points.

After hearing from the EPA’s IRIS division director and learning about how quickly staff has been implementing National Academies of Science recommendations to strengthen its review process, there was a motion from SAB members to inform Pruitt of the value of IRIS. This is especially timely given that this week, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, led by longtime IRIS critic Representative Lamar Smith, will hold a hearing to review the “integrity” of the division.

I would hope that those who have been critical of the SAB would attend a meeting so that the notion that these scientists are “conflicted” is laid to rest. Conflicts of interest are taken care of at the outset of the meeting, and the rest of the conversation has nothing to do with employer or political party or who’s occupying the White House. The only thing that matters to these individuals is being scientifically accurate and helping the agency to meet its mission. So next time you hear something or read something that categorizes SAB members as having agendas or lacking scientific integrity, try to remember that this job is actually just about the science. Let’s keep it that way.

Hurricane Harvey Magnifies Climate and Petrochemical Toxic Risks for Environmental Justice Communities in Houston

The ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, TX. Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The last few days have been difficult for people in Houston. Though they have been difficult for everybody, the environmental justice communities like Manchester and Galena Park in eastern Houston are now facing a double whammy of climate change and toxic contamination. Adding to the toll of human suffering, death, loss of livelihoods, and dislocation that Hurricane Harvey is leaving in its wake, environmental justice communities in Houston are now facing threats from the many petrochemical facilities that already expose them to acute and chronic air toxics emissions. Over the last few days, members of the community have been sending out reports of (worse than usual) smells, itchy throats and eyes. And there are already reports of chemical spills in the area.

In preparation for Hurricane Harvey, many petrochemical companies performed controlled shutdowns of many facilities, releasing large amounts of contaminants to the air, including benzene, toluene, carbon monoxide, butane, nitrogen oxide, ethylene, and other toxics. In other cases, tank rooftops and other structures collapsed due to the heavy rains.  Many of these acute air pollution events occurred along the Pasadena Freeway where many of the most vulnerable populations in Houston live (but many other shutdowns and malfunctions were reported in Goldsmith  and Old Ocean).

The map below shows facility incidents reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Air Emissions Event Reporting database for August 20-29, 2017. The incidents in this map were due to planned shutdowns and other contingencies related to Hurricane Harvey. For example, a roof in the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown collapsed due to excess rain, and the company estimated that around 12,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were emitted into the air.

If this wasn’t an already dire set of hazardous circumstances, threats such as those from the likely explosion of the Arkema plant that manufactures and stores the very volatile compound organic peroxide endangers the lives of Houston area residents. It’s already well known that low-income communities of color are more likely to live near facilities that process or store highly hazardous chemicals. It’s no wonder then that environmental justice advocates have correctly characterized the Hurricane Harvey disaster as the outcome of extreme weather fueled by climate change, failed chemical safety policies, and hazardous petrochemical facilities that have left Houston residents swimming in a “toxic soup.

Which begs the question—why are there no protections for these communities? It’s not due to lack of information or knowledge about these threats. The evidence is clear that climate change is making storms stronger. It’s also clear that low-income communities of color in Houston and elsewhere are more exposed to toxics from the petrochemical  industry. We know because the Union of Concerned Scientists partnered with the environmental justice community in Houston to document the disproportionate burden of toxics in their communities.

EPA scientists also know how industries that manufacture, process, or store dangerous chemicals can be more transparent in publicly sharing information on chemical inventories, improve accident prevention plans, data management, and federal coordination.  But the Trump administration continues to sideline federal science by delaying the implementation of amendments to the Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule.

The Arkema facility is a case in point, as it is one of many facilities that under the now-delayed RMP amendments would have had to research safer technologies and chemicals to limit the effect of a disaster or explosion on surrounding communities and workers.  The RMP rule would have also required this facility to begin coordinating with local emergency responders to make sure they have necessary information before heading into a volatile facility.

It is long past time for communities near industrial facilities to receive the justice they deserve. Industry must be responsible for their action, or too often inaction. And governments at all levels from local to federal must ensure that all companies follow the rules and are held accountable for the damage they do, not just when a storm occurs, but every day. No more excuses.

Want to help?

Donate directly to Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an Environmental Justice organization in Houston in the frontline of Hurricane Harvey, toxics, and climate change.

As Arkema Plant Burns, Six Things We Know About Petrochemical Risks in the Wake of Harvey

As Harvey continues to wreak havoc in the Southeast, one issue is starting to emerge as a growing threat to public health and safety: Houston’s vast oil, gas, and chemical production landscape. We’ve already seen accidental releases of chemicals at facilities owned by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others. Now we are seeing explosions at Arkema’s Crosby facility 20 miles northeast of Houston, due to power failures and flooding. And there remains a threat of additional explosions.

There is no reason to believe the Crosby facility is the only one at risk of chemical disasters right now. The coast of southeast Texas and Louisiana has a whole lot of petrochemical production—infrastructure that was exactly in the path of Hurricane Harvey and continues to be hit by its remnants. I’ve studied (and been worried about) chemical safety, sea level rise, and storm surge risk to oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf for several years, and many of those fears are now playing out. Here are some things we know about petrochemical production in the Gulf, its storm risks, who’s impacted, and who’s responsible.

1. Arkema’s Crosby Plant explosion risk shows the danger of President Trump’s chemical disaster policy.

Back in June the Trump administration delayed the EPA Risk Management Plan rule until February 2019. Finalized in January 2017, the new EPA RMP rule is designed to enhance chemical risk disclosure from companies, improve access to risk information for emergency responders and the public, and push companies to consider safer alternatives and preventative measures. Yet, the rule is now delayed more than a year, thus delaying the time when companies will be preparing for and disclosing details about their chemical risks and safety measures.

Today’s explosions at Arkema are exactly the reason that chemical safety policies are so important. We are witnessing in real time the confusion that results from limited access to chemical safety information in an emergency situation. As the situation at the Crosby facility (Tier 2 under the RMP) continues to unfold, the media, decisionmakers, law enforcement, and the public are scrambling to figure out what chemicals are on site and what public safety risks remain for nearby communities and first responders. The facility’s current risk disclosure is limited in detail. This shows that the improved RMP rule is sorely needed. The rule’s needless delay is putting public safety at risk.

2. Oil refineries are routinely damaged in major storms, climate change makes that worse.

You know how people tell you to buy gas when there’s a storm in the gulf? The advice isn’t unfounded. A significant portion of US oil refining capacity is in the Gulf of Mexico, and refining operations are shut down days in advance of storms. At least 22% of US refining capacity is offline right now thanks to Harvey. Such shutdowns disrupt major supply chains and affect gas prices across the country, for weeks or months after. Refineries are especially vulnerable to storm impacts, with 120 oil and gas facilities within ten feet of the high tide line. Oil and other chemical spillage is now expected during major storms. When Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, for example, Phillips 66’s Bayway refinery in Linden, NJ, spilled 7,800 gallons of oil.

Under a changing climate, this vulnerability worsens for a few reasons. The Gulf Coast faces rates of sea level rise that are among the highest in the world, partly because segments of land in the region are subsiding. This means storms ride in on higher seas, able to worsen storm surge levels. Further, thanks to warmer sea surface temperatures, climate change is expected to increase Atlantic hurricane intensity, meaning the storms that do form could be more damaging, with higher winds and greater rainfall totals. Yet, we’ve seen the Trump administration repeatedly roll back, walk back and revoke policies in place to help us mitigate and manage these types of risks.

3. Refinery spills and leaks harm surrounding communities.

After Murphy Oil’s Meraux refinery spilled 25,000 barrels of oil during Hurricane Katrina, more than a square mile of neighborhood was contaminated and Murphy Oil had to pay $330 million in settlements. Photo: UCS/Jean Sideris

What makes the above points more concerning is the fact that people live close by. Like really close. Thanks to a lack of zoning laws and environmental racism, people in Houston live at an eyebrow-raising proximity to oil and gas infrastructure.

Take the Manchester Community, for example, sandwiched between the major roadways, a rail yard, and oil and gas infrastructure. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.e.j.a.s) last year found that low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate impacts in Houston when it comes to chemical safety risk and exposure to harmful industrial emissions. The report found large disparities between Houston communities in terms of overall toxicity levels from chemical exposures, showing that toxicity levels from exposures in Manchester are more than three times higher than in more affluent and white Houston communities.

Low-income communities and communities of color are routinely exposed to adverse impacts from refinery emissions, and in storms they are also likely to bear the brunt of the impacts, with less money and attention spent on their recovery. We need to make sure that communities most impacted by this tragedy get a fair share of the recovery efforts. If you’d like to donate in a way that supports these communities, a list of organizations is here. And if you’d like to support T.e.j.a.s. and the Manchester community, you can do so here.

On top of this, we know that chemical spills are likely to be a more lasting and problematic element to the recovery than the water alone. Cleaning toxic chemicals out of houses is no easy or cheap task. After Katrina, for example, damaged tanks at Murphy Oil’s Meraux refinery spilled 25,000 barrels of oil, covering over a square mile of neighborhood and contaminating 1,700 homes. Murphy Oil paid $330 million to settle 6,200 claims, buy contaminated property, and perform cleanups. One graffiti sign in a nearby neighborhood read “Damaged by Katrina, Ruined by Murphy Oil, USA.”

4. Refineries are regulated, but that hasn’t been enough.

Where there are refineries, there’s exposure to toxic chemicals. Refineries are of course subject to regulations designed to protect people from harmful levels of pollution; however, disasters like Harvey show the inadequacy of those regulations. Refineries often have spikes in emissions that can expose nearby communities to unsafe levels of pollution. This happens on a normal day. During a storm event with flooding or wind impacts, these chemical releases are more likely. First, many refineries shut down in advance of approaching storms. This sounds positive, and emissions will stop, right? In fact, this can mean (and has, in the case of Harvey) a lot of  flaring that releases chemicals into the air.

On top of this, the state has temporarily shut down its air monitoring, leaving it to companies to self-report to nearby communities, a situation that likely means communities have limited access to air quality information. Ramping up refineries after a shutdown also comes with risks of explosions and unsafe emissions. The Chemical Safety Board, which monitors and advises industry on chemical safety issues, has urged companies to exercise caution and follow protocol closely when starting up refining operations after the storm, given the higher accident risks during startup. The Chemical Safety Board, by the way, was on the chopping block in the President’s recent budget. Without it, an investigation into what happened at Arkema’s Crosby plant and how to prevent it in the future will never happen.

5. Companies should be held responsible for any spills that happened.

Public companies are required to report and prepare for any material risks their businesses face, including extreme weather and climate change. Companies don’t always do a good job of disclosing this information, however. As a result, the public doesn’t know much about what risks companies have and what they are doing to mitigate those risks.

Indeed, investors, communities, and public interest groups have long been demanding that companies do a better job of disclosing such risks. In 2015, a group of investors and the Union of Concerned Scientists asked Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero to improve their disclosure of climate and storm risks. Some responded, but since then we’ve only seen modest improvements in company disclosure of such risks at their refineries.

In Exxon Mobil’s 2016 risk disclosures, for example, the company wrote that its facilities are “designed, constructed, and operated to withstand a variety of extreme climatic and other conditions, with safety factors built in to cover a number of engineering uncertainties, including those associated with wave, wind, and current intensity, marine ice flow patterns, permafrost stability, storm surge magnitude, temperature extremes, extreme rain fall events, and earthquakes.” Yet we learn few other details about what conditions they are thinking about and what preparations are in place to mitigate those risks. The irony, of course, is that these companies are dealing with the consequences of climate change, as they are continuing to contribute to it through emissions of their products.

6. None of this is new.

In many ways, Harvey is unprecedented. Its levels of rain boggle the minds of even the most imaginative meteorologists. But we had all the information we needed to prepare for this event. The hurricane was forecast far in advance. We knew that climate change stands to make such events worse. We knew how to prepare communities and infrastructure for major storms. We knew why we shouldn’t build infrastructure in floodplains and why we shouldn’t design infrastructure that can’t withstand wind and water risks.

Yet, we live in a world where our president revokes policies that ensure our infrastructure is storm ready, where climate mitigation efforts have stagnated, and where disaster relief efforts often don’t reach those that need it most.

We must do better. We must remember the tragedy that is unfolding before us right now and use it to advance policies that ensure that future events like this are less likely and less damaging when they do happen. Our nation’s future depends on it.

Global Solutions Start at Home

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Bigstock.

“Think globally, act locally.”

I first heard this phrase as a child who had just learned about Earth Day at school. To my 11-year old self, it felt empowering; I could help the environment by recycling and conserving water. While the idea of taking action to solve pressing problems continued to inspire me through to adulthood, I’ve recently come to fully appreciate the importance of local action.

Keep Hayward Clean & Green Task Force. Photo credit: City of Hayward

After I had spent several years in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative adviser in Congress and then as an analyst in the White House, life brought me to California where I now work as a technologist. Missing my connection to government, I successfully applied for an appointment to a standing task force in my city, Hayward, California. During this time, part of my technology work has included developing data-enabled solutions for distributed renewables such as rooftop solar and on-site batteries. While I left federal government believing I was leaving behind the ability to significantly impact policy issues that mattered to me, the intersection of my professional and my community work have shown me the importance of local government engagement.

Reflecting on my local engagement, two themes have emerged:

Local governments play a critical role in science-related policy issues, including those with global implications.

We often think of the most pressing science-related policy issues, such as climate change policy, as being national (or global) in nature. While many important policy decisions are made at the national level, local government can also play a significant role both as a testbed for new policy ideas and as the implementation arm for high-level policies.

An example of this is vehicle electrification, a solution advocated by Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as part of a broader environmental and climate change mitigation strategy. At the national level, the Obama Administration set goals for expanding the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. At the same time, states like California have been pioneering efforts to reduce emissions and encourage vehicle electrification. Municipal and regional governments provide the critical “last mile” for a comprehensive policy strategy. At this level, government policies can be as diverse as switching municipal fleets to EVs, ensuring the availability of charging stations in public garages, incentivizing or requiring EV-charging access in building codes, or implementing special permitting fees for EV chargers. To influence these crucial “last mile” policies, you must look to your state houses and city halls instead of to Washington.

There are few resources to help people, particularly engineering & science professionals, who want to get involved in their local communities…but we are trying to change that.

Once you appreciate the importance of local engagement, you may find yourself wondering where to start. While scientific professional societies have provided a conduit for informing engineers & scientists about national level policy issues for decades, fewer resources exist for helping people understand the issues and get involved in local (city, state, or regional) government. While a limited number of state-level fellowships provide the opportunity for a small number of engineers & scientists to work in state government, there are even fewer municipal programs.

You can, instead, create your own engagement opportunities. Visit your city’s website to read your general plan or learn about initiatives, attend city council meetings, request meetings with your city representatives—who are usually happy to meet their constituents—and apply for a board or commission. The latter is a particularly impactful, though too often overlooked, way to engage. Through my own task force involvement, I have had the opportunity to meet with leaders in my community and learn about issues ranging from gang prevention to compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

Despite its possibilities, local involvement seems to be the exception for people who are interested in science-related policy. Most of the scientists I know are unaware of how they can become involved locally and don’t realize they can have an impact. For this reason, I founded Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL).

ESAL is a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization dedicated to helping engineers & scientists increase their engagement in their city, state, and regional governments and communities. We are currently assessing interests and engagement levels of engineers and scientists. If you are a scientist or engineer, please share your interests and experiences with us through this survey.

The work of organizations like UCS helps engineers, scientists, and members of the broader public understand the critical role that science and technology plays across policy issues. This awareness has made technically informed discussions an integral part of policy formulation at the federal level. Local governments also grapple with important science-related issues. By getting involved as an engaged citizen, advocate, and volunteer in your local community, you can help shape local policies that align with global solutions.


Arti Garg is the Founder and Chair of Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL). She is a data scientist who specializes in industrial and internet of things (IoT) applications. Previously, she worked in the White House Budget Office overseeing a $5 billion portfolio or research and development investments at the Department of Energy. She also served as an American Physical Society-sponsored science policy fellow with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She was appointed to the Keep Hayward Clean and Green Task Force in 2015. She holds a PhD in Physics from Harvard University and an MS in Aerospace Engineering from Stanford University.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Halting a National Academy of Sciences Study Is Unacceptable

I have been a participant in National Academy studies as a scientist, a recipient of their advice as a federal agency manager at NOAA, and involved in setting up studies as a board member. Last week was the first time that I have ever seen a study in progress halted.

On August 18, the Department of Interior halted a study under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Division of Earth and Life Studies, entitled, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia.” The study was originally requested by states in Appalachia concerned about the health of their citizens. The agreed terms of reference for the study are here.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, first established by President Lincoln, are the nation’s premier institutions for advising our government and our people on the state of scientific evidence concerning key issues facing the nation. Members are elected by their peers to the Academies based on their deep experience and accomplishments across a wide range of fields in science, engineering and medicine.

Academy studies are commissioned to bring together, review and evaluate the scientific evidence on critical, and often controversial issues. The panel of scientists who perform a study are drawn from the broader scientific community. Each study is overseen by one or more academy members as well as professional staff to ensure it is of the highest quality. And the first step in every study I am aware of is an open discussion of possible conflicts of interest on the study panel to ensure transparency and independence.

While reviewing its grants, the Department of Interior decided to halt the study due to the “changing budget situation”. Given that the budget for the current fiscal year is set under the continuing resolution agreed in May, and the situation hasn’t changed, that seems an odd reason to quash this important work. It is also noteworthy that one of the first rules overturned by Congress and the Trump Administration using the Congressional Review Act was the so-called Stream Protection Rule enacted under President Obama. The rule was overturned despite clear scientific evidence that disposing of mine waste in streams alters their chemical and biological characteristics. But while agencies must base rules on scientific analysis, Congress is not required to do so. Their decision was purely political at the request of the mining industry.

By halting the National Academy study, the Department seems to be saying that it is not worth even looking at possible public health impacts of surface mining operations.  A representative from an industry group, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, was quoted as saying, “We feel our health problems are the result of heredity and are our poor personal habits and choices, not the industry….” He may well feel that way, but science is about evidence, not feeling.

The whole point of a National Academy study is to better understand the scientific evidence concerning critical issues such as public health impacts of a given type of activity. NAS Study reports are designed to advise policymakers as to what the science says about controversial issues. That advice is often used to make better science-based policies to protect public health and safety.

The marginal costs are small for such an in-depth review of the science. Study panel members are not compensated, and they bring enormous expertise to questions like this. Halting a study charged with identifying the direct and indirect public health impacts of surface mining implies that we don’t want to know the answer, but people’s lives and quality of life are literally at stake. Members of the Appalachian communities in Kentucky agree and say they want the results. “Science isn’t going to hurt us. What we don’t know very well could,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY.

Scientists and community members in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia can reach out to their members of Congress and urge them to tell Secretary Zinke to reinstate the study. But this is an issue not just for Appalachia and its residents, but for all of us. We cannot silently sit by while critical studies of public health are shelved because the answer might be inconvenient to one or more political interests. Secretary of Interior Zinke should immediately release the funds and let the study proceed.

Comments Needed Now! The Trump Administration Might Revoke Vital Beryllium Protections

Quick recap: I have previously written (here, here) about OSHA’s efforts to delay implementation of its final, protective standard for workers exposed to beryllium. The delays follow decades of work, a lengthy rule-making process, and solid scientific evidence. Despite this, in June and in response to pressure from the construction and shipyard industries, OSHA decided to (once again) solicit stakeholder comments on whether its final beryllium rule should extend protections to workers in these two industries. (Like there hadn’t already been ample time and opportunity—but I won’t go there.)

SOS! The comment period closes on Monday, Aug 28th.

As many workers and families know all too well, beryllium is a very dangerous material. It’s a carcinogen and the cause of chronic beryllium disease, a devastating illness. There’s no real rescue from this slow, incurable, and often fatal lung disease.

Please take a minute to send in a comment and let OSHA know that weakening this protection for construction and shipyard workers IS NOT OK. They should not do it. These workers need and deserve this protection.

Comments must be received by Monday, August 28, at 11:59 pm. Here is information on how to submit your comment.

You must include the line below that lists the agency name and the docket number.  (You can put that in the RE: line).

I am submitting this comment on OSHA Docket No. OSHA-H005C-2006-0870, Occupational Exposure to Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds in Construction and Shipyard Sectors.

To submit your comment, go here and click on the “Comment Now” box in the upper right corner. You can also fax the OSHA Docket Office: 202-693-1648

Here is some possible language, though I encourage you to add and make it your own.

Docket Office
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Docket No. OSHA- H005C-2006-00870
Room N-3653
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20210

I strongly oppose every provision of OSHA’s new proposal that revokes the ancillary provisions for the construction and ship yard sectors that OSHA had already adopted on January 9, 2017. The Agency must not revoke any of the provisions promulgated in the final rules on January 9, and they must assure that the full standards are implemented as published. Adopting any of the provision in this new proposal would lead to more death and disease among exposed shipyard and construction workers. I strongly oppose this proposal and its mission to create a two tiered system of protection for workers exposed to beryllium. OSHA must move forward and implement the rules as promulgated.


Your Name Here

Sign and date

Public comment is a critical component of our democracy. Please take a moment to weigh in on this one. And remind OSHA that their FIRST (and statutory) priority is the protection of workers’ health and safety, not the protection and preference of the industry in question.

Is Sam Clovis a Scientist? A Racist? 9 Questions the Senate Should Ask

Sam Clovis speaks at a Rushmore Political Action Committee luncheon while campaigning for US Senate, Sioux City, Iowa, March 24, 2014. Credit: Jerry Mennenga/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News

Things are not going so well for President Trump’s nominee for the position of under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE) at the US Department of Agriculture. This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department’s various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike. The job also encompasses the role of USDA chief scientist, leading Congress in 2008 to emphasize that the person who fills it should actually be a scientist. But Sam Clovis is not one. And that’s not the half of it.

Clovis is a climate denier. He has espoused racist and homophobic views and embraced wild conspiracy theories. He may even be caught up in the Trump campaign’s Russia mess, having reportedly recruited a key Russia-connected foreign policy advisor to the campaign. But while opposition to Clovis is growing, the White House, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and other boosters insist that he is just the guy for this job. I disagree, strongly. And I have a lot of questions.

Not a scientist…or an economist

Let’s start with Clovis’s scientific qualifications, which are non-existent despite the clear requirement embedded in federal law. Supporters have recently attempted to obscure his lack of training by describing him alternately as an economist or an academician. Let’s take those in turn:

Economist? No. Perhaps Clovis taught an economics class to undergraduates at Morningside College (or perhaps not), but even if he did that hardly makes him an economist. He has no economics degree and no published work in the field. If he really were a trained economist, especially an agricultural economist, that would seem to meet the legal requirement. But he’s not.

And what of the “academician” label? Well, sure, he has a PhD in public administration and taught college courses, so he has some academic cred. But as an ally from farm country quipped in an email last week, “so does an Oxford-educated Shakespeare expert but you wouldn’t have that person running USDA’s science office.”

Enough said.

An increasingly troubling nominee

Since news of his nomination initially leaked back in May, Clovis has been silent in public. But his racially explosive, offensive, homophobic, and just-plain-ignorant past statements continue to haunt him.

Transcripts and audio recordings recently uncovered by CNN show that he used his radio talk show in Iowa during 2011-2013 to hurl racially-charged insults at a variety of political leaders and to traffic in baseless fringe theories on topics ranging from then-President Obama’s birthplace and his reaction to the attack on the US embassy in Libya to the intentions of climate scientists and advocates. And just this week, new CNN reporting revealed that between 2012 and 2014, Clovis argued that homosexuality is a choice and that the sanctioning of same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.

This is all deeply troubling.

What the Senate—and the public—need to hear from Clovis

When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to convene a public hearing, at which its 21 members will have the opportunity to hear directly from the nominee and evaluate his suitability for the job. Based on this hearing, the committee members will vote to advance Clovis’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration…or not.

With that in mind, here are nine questions the committee members should ask the wannabe chief scientist:

1. Are we missing something? A science degree you’ve been keeping quiet about? In nutrition (like the last scientist to hold this position) or weed science (like the one before that)? Or soil science? Food science? Agronomy? Entomology? Any relevant scientific discipline at all??

2. Academic credentials aside, how do you explain your role in advancing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and making racially offensive and homophobic statements while a radio host in Iowa just a few years ago? We’ve read the transcripts and heard the audio of your racist comments about former President Obama and other black and Latino government officials and your theories about “LGBT behavior.” They are unscientific and deeply troubling, particularly in the aftermath of the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Explain yourself. Why should anyone take you seriously as a proponent (much less a practitioner) of fact-based decision-making? And how can we be confident you won’t throw science overboard in favor of special interest politics and pandering to the lowest common denominator of conspiracy theorists, racists, and homophobes?

3. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? You’ve made past comments that climate science is “junk science,” a view that is at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. And inaction on climate change is contraindicated by what agricultural researchers and farmers on the ground are seeing across this country every day—witness, for example, the “flash drought” that has wreaked havoc on wheat farms and cattle ranches in the Dakotas and Montana. Looking ahead, this recent study predicted that future harvests of wheat, soybeans, and corn could drop by 22 to 49 percent, mostly due to water stress. Are you aware that farmers are becoming more vulnerable to floods, droughts, heat, and pests triggered by climate change? What are your thoughts on the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would you seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and extension, and particularly the department’s network of regional Climate Hubs, to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

4. Okay, so you’re an “economist” (wink). What is your economic theory for improving conditions for everyday farmers and their communities, and what research would you prioritize to help get there? The Trump campaign, which you advised as a national co-chair in 2016, promised to help farmers and bring economic activity back to rural communities. What economic approach would best enable US agriculture to provide long-term benefits to farmers, American taxpayers, and eaters? What would be the most strategic investment we can make in research to prepare us now for a future that provides a plentiful, environmentally responsible, affordable and healthy food supply, buffered from destructive boom and bust cycles?

5. As chief scientist, would you seek to boost USDA funding for research, particularly in agroecology? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. Congress boosted funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers, though the appropriation is still well below the full amount authorized for AFRI. Agroecology, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. Nearly 500 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecological research. Would you support such investments in farmers and our food system?

6. How would you employ the research and education functions of the USDA to help farmers and communities curb water pollution? Agricultural water pollution is a serious and growing problem, as illustrated by this year’s biggest ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the repeated drinking water problems experienced by Midwestern cities such as Des Moines and Toledo in recent years. Are you familiar with long-term studies from Corn Belt land grant universities showing that farming practices such as perennial prairie strips and innovative crop rotations can dramatically decrease erosion and nitrogen runoff? How would you seek to use USDA research, education, and extension to help farmers adopt these methods and reduce downstream pollution?

7. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? In 2014, this program (formerly food stamps) lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being. The program is also a lifeline for many small towns and rural communities. As chief scientist, what research would you prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

8. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA partners with the Department of Health and Human Services to regularly update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These recommendations must be based on the best available nutrition science, and the process typically involves convening an advisory committee comprised of nationally recognized nutrition and medical researchers, academics, and other experts to review that body of science. The next update will happen under the Trump administration’s watch in 2020. As chief scientist, what USDA research would you prioritize between now and then to ensure that this process is based on sound science in the interest of public health, and not unduly influenced by food industry interests?

9. What would you do to ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. Actions and decisions at the USDA—and all federal agencies—must be strongly grounded in science to improve the lives of Americans. What will you do to swim against this administration’s tide and achieve a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will you commit to uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy? And how will you ensure that there are adequate resources and leadership to enable the USDA’s thousands of staff scientists to do their vitally important jobs?

The bottom line

The breadth of the under secretary and chief scientist position is vast and the challenges faced by our food and agricultural system are growing. We need a serious and highly qualified person in charge of the nation’s agricultural science office. That person must be thoroughly grounded in the scientific process and prepared to rely on evidence to help solve these challenges for all Americans.

I believe Sam Clovis falls far short on multiple counts. And I’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks to see how the Senate evaluates him, and if they come to the same conclusion.

Going in the Wrong Direction: We Need More Advice on the Impacts of Climate Change

As of Sunday, the federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment is no more.  The charter for the panel was not renewed. That makes little sense from any perspective I can imagine. This panel was advising the federal government on how to best improve the scientific information for state and local governments, businesses and the public on the ongoing impacts of climate change.

What is the best way to help inform local planning processes, for example in places experiencing chronic tidal flooding due to rising seas? What information do architects and engineers need and in what form? According to the website, the panel was due to report in 2018.  I guess the Trump Administration couldn’t wait to cut off that flow of science to the public.

I served on the advisory panel for the Third National Climate Assessment (the Fourth is in process) mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The Third Assessment advisory panel was responsible for crafting the assessment itself. In addition, we recommended that the government engage in a sustained assessment process which would provide ongoing information on the impacts of climate change on a continuing basis, rather than just every four years as in the full assessments. The reason is that a lot of changes are happening quickly from severe weather, like recent heat waves in the west,  to changes affecting fisheries in New England.

The sustained assessment effort is intended  to help government, business and the public have better information for decision-making. That’s exactly what many state and local officials have been asking for from the federal government according to the Washington Post report. Of course, the government can provide information without external advisors, but why would it want to? The advisors are not compensated and they bring substantial expertise in various fields as well as new perspectives. The government only stands to gain from their service.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time the Trump administration has gutted an advisory panel, nor is it the first time, unfortunately, that they have taken steps to sideline science. These actions are deeper than just a different perspective or approach to policy related to climate change or public health, safety and environmental protections. Terminating this advisory panel hinders efforts to get better information for the public. Is that the Trump Administration’s intent? Providing less public information doesn’t reduce or even hide the impacts of global warming, it just makes us all that much less prepared for those impacts.