UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Peter Wright’s 50+ Chemical Facility Conflicts: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Peter Wright, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, will face the Senate Environment and Public Works committee at his nomination hearing this Wednesday. Mr. Wright has spent the majority of his career working as an attorney for Dow Chemical Company (now DowDuPont). Would he make a smooth transition from defender of polluters to defender of the public? Under Pruitt’s lead, it seems unlikely that public safety would be at the top of his agenda.

As I wrote back in April, Mr. Wright is on tap to lead the EPA’s chemical hazards arm, including the Superfund program and the Risk Management Program (RMP). The agency is currently “reconsidering” the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would have improved the RMP by helping to make the communities surrounding the 12,500 facilities regulated under the program safer and better informed.

DowDuPont itself, or one of its subsidiaries, owns over 50 RMP facilities. An analysis of EPA data on accidents at those facilities shows that Dow, DuPont, and their subsidiaries averaged 7 chemical disaster incidents per year, for a total of 99 fires, explosions, spills or gas releases from 2004 to 2016. These accidents resulted in the deaths of 6 workers and caused over 200 people to be hospitalized or seek medical treatment for injuries.

Here are just a few accounts of accidents from those DowDuPont facilities:

  • At Dow’s Texas Operations plant in Freeport, TX, there have been a series of reported accidents from 2004 to 2016. One July 2014 fire resulted in $200,000 property damage, and a liquid spill later that month injured two employees. Then, in July 2015, a gas release and liquid spill shut down a major highway for several hours. Neither the city of Freeport nor its residents were informed by Dow Chemical; instead they learned of the release from the local news network. Freeport’s fire chief, who should have been notified by Dow through the community awareness and emergency response line, told reporters, “We can’t be left in the dark while we are trying to protect our community.”
  • In Hahnville, LA, Dow’s St. Charles operations had a chemical leak of ethyl acrylate in July 2009. Parish residents reported respiratory impacts that sent almost 30 people to the hospital with eye and nose irritation. Dow notified the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) about the leak, but it was unclear whether the EOC had adequate information from the company about the chemical’s risks. This facility has continued to have issues, including a 2014 liquid spill that injured one worker and a 2015 gas release that injured three plant employees.
  • A particularly infamous DuPont facility accident occurred at its insecticide plant in La Porte, TX in November 2014. Two workers died when exposed to methyl mercaptan as they were attempting to fix what they thought was a routine problem, and two other workers died after responding to the others’ distress call. After an investigation into the disaster, Chemical Safety Board chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said that “this investigation has uncovered weaknesses or failures in DuPont’s safety planning and procedures.” These weaknesses included inadequate gas detectors, nonfunctional ventilation fans, outdated alarms, no system in place to measure the quantity of toxins leaked beyond property lines, an inadequate process of assembling an internal response team, and nonfunctional emergency vehicles. This plant had been fined in the past for spills and gas releases that had injured workers. In 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued penalties summing $273,000 to DuPont for a variety of violations at this plant, and the company finally announced that it would be closing the plant in 2016.

Note that all three of these facilities are at increased risk of flooding due to hurricanes, like the disaster at the Crosby, TX Arkema plant as a result of Hurricane Harvey last summer. Improvements to the chemical safety rule would have helped facilities plan how to manage for future floods, including implementing plans crucial for mitigating incidents and exposures. As EPA prepares to rescind such improvements, Administrator Scott Pruitt is allowing business as usual at these facilities, which face the increased threat of potential flooding, spills, and releases as a result of natural disasters.

Accidents at chemical facilities that may injure and sometimes kill plant workers and residents of nearby communities are not to be taken lightly.  There have been 46 such incidents already this year. The future head of OLEM should be advocating for changes at plants that help to prevent disasters like these from ever happening. The Chemical Disaster Rule would have helped to ensure that adequate measures were in place so that emergency responders have rapid access to chemical risks before entering buildings after reports of a spill or release.

Mr. Wright has spent years defending Dow Chemical Co, a member of the American Chemistry Council, which has lobbied long and hard to avoid more safety precautions for chemical plants to save its member companies the money it would cost to make critical preparedness updates. At his hearing on Wednesday, Senators should ask Wright for one reason to trust that he would be looking after the public interest in his role at OLEM, because advocates in favor of the RMP amendments who spoke at last week’s public comment hearing certainly don’t see a 20-year run at Dow Chemical as supporting evidence. Perhaps Savannah Georgia community organizer Mildred McClain characterized the current situation best when she told the EPA, “If industries were authentic in their pursuit of justice for the communities, they would listen to the voices of the residents…The companies will just keep saying ‘I’m meeting the EPA standard’ while the community members are saying, ‘but we’re sick, we still smell stuff and we still don’t have a concrete plan as to what we’d do if there was a major disaster.”

While we wait to see how Mr. Wright responds to Senate questioning this week, there is still plenty of time to comment on the EPA’s proposed rule which is open until June 29th. You can join us in urging Pruitt to consider worker and community health over industry costs by submitting a comment today. For assistance developing a strong comment, check out this RMP public comment guide.

Flickr/Roy Luck

Contents Under Pressure: Speak Out Against EPA Proposed Chemical Facility Safety Rollbacks That Put Communities at Risk

The Chevron Richmond refinery fire, August 6, 2012. Photo: Greg Kunit/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Over the last year, we have written extensively on the actions that Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken to eliminate or weaken critical science-based protections, particularly on chemical facility safety. From the outset, Pruitt was determined to delay the implementation of updates to the Risk Management Plan(RMP) that called for the assessment of safer technologies, more accessible and quality information for communities near facilities, and improved emergency response coordination. Now with a new proposed rule, the saga continues as the EPA under Pruitt moves one step closer to eliminating hard-fought improvements to the RMP.

Tomorrow, the EPA will hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C. for comments on the proposed changes to the RMP amendments. This is the only hearing being held on the proposed rule, which means that, just like last year, the frontline communities affected by these decisions will likely not have an opportunity to speak out against it. I will be testifying on behalf of UCS, in hopes of amplifying the concerns of the communities that are unable to be present. You can see my prepared comments below.

The agency is currently taking written comments on the proposed rule, open until June 29, 2018. UCS has created an RMP public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for this particular rule, which can be found here. Please join us in telling Administrator Pruitt that the health and safety of frontline communities, workers, and first responders will not be best served by favoring industry.

***

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed amendments to the Risk Management Plan.

My name is Charise Johnson. I am here on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. This proposed rule rolls back many of the critical public safeguards implemented in the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Just last year, I was in this building along with many other partners and fence-line community groups asking EPA to end its dangerous delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule. Those updates to the original RMP were hard fought and deliberated by various stakeholders including multiple agencies and took several years to finalize. Now I am here today to ask the EPA to rescind these dangerous rollbacks.

This rule is particularly important to the health and safety of fence-line communities, first responders, and workers in the facilities. The Husky Energy Oil Refinery explosion in Wisconsin, the Valero Refinery explosion and fire in Texas, and the Chevron Richmond Refinery flaring of at least 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide in California are a few examples just in the past two months of how chemical facilities need to better coordinate with first responders, offer more direct access to information to communities to plan for evacuation, and assessment of safer practices that could make workers and surrounding communities safer in case of an accident. And with the strengthening of severe weather events such as intense hurricane seasons in the Gulf region, the frequency of chemical disasters like the Arkema explosion will become more commonplace for neighboring communities. 

The modest, commonsense requirements that the EPA is aiming to rollback include:

  • A requirement that industrial facilities presenting the highest risks undertake a safer technology alternatives assessment (STAA). Safer technology alternatives assessment is a business best practice, industry should be looking at ways to make their practices and technology safer for their facility, workers, and for the surrounding communities.
  • A requirement that an “incident analysis” include determining the “root cause” of the incident to avoid such incidents in the future. Root cause analyses are necessary to determine what the cause of an incident or a near miss is, so the facility can fix the problem and prevent a future disaster.
  • A requirement that qualified, independent third-party audits be conducted when a facility has an incident to ensure the cause of the incident is addressed. In the case of the highest risk facilities and extreme incidents a third-party audit of the facility should be necessary to gain an objective view and assessment of the safety of the facility.
  • A requirement that facilities provide the public with information critical to the surrounding communities’ understanding of the potential risks from these facilities, including how to protect themselves should a release occur and what potential health risks they might face from a recent release incident. Information sharing should be a basic tenet of this rule. The EPA requires individuals travel to their respective state’s federal reading room to acquire information on facilities, yet not every state has a reading room, and some must travel great distances. Communities and first responders deserve to have better access to basic information about facilities in their community such as 5-year accident history, safety data sheets, planned emergency exercises, and evacuation information. These provide basic access to information that the public has a right to know and hampers the ability of affected communities to know and prepare for chemical risks.
  • A requirement that facilities provide emergency planners and first responders with additional information needed for responding to a chemical release. The proposal would return to the status quo, where companies have more leeway to refuse to share relevant safety information with first responders.

EPA’s own rulemaking states that the proposed changes to this rule would impact low-income communities and communities of color the hardest. We are here in solidarity with our environmental justice community partners, including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) and Texas Environmental Advocacy Services (TEJAS), among countless others who among the few community voices able to make it all the way to DC to make sure the EPA considers vulnerable communities over industry profits.

Since the delay of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule, there have been at least 45 known incidents at chemical facilities. That is at least 45 incidents too many. The 2017 finalized amendments are commonsense protections that could have helped prevent and mitigate the harm of those chemical disasters and protect us from future ones. EPA needs to put the health and safety of the public first, and not move forward with this proposed rule.

 

New Evidence Shows Just How Bad the Trump Administration is at Governing

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

President Trump likes to brag about how many regulations his administration is removing. The President’s “2 for 1” order requires federal agencies to revoke two regulations for every new rule they want to issue. This order is aimed at getting “rid of the redundancy and duplication that wastes your time and money.” Call me crazy, but I’d like to keep the regulations on the books that protect consumers, safeguard clean air and water, and keep our kids safe. Forcing agencies to dump two rules for every new one requires agencies to take a sledgehammer to any imperfect rule (and its friend) when a scalpel would suffice.

Regardless of what the Trump Administration boasts, a dive into the data shows just how ineffective the President has been at both enacting and removing regulations. The Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reviews every rule that a federal agency wants to enact and has been counting how many rules have come through its doors. I took a look at the OMB database to find out how many rules – including repeals of existing rules and new rules – the Trump Administration has sent to OMB during its first 18 months compared to how many rules the Obama Administration sent to OMB during its first 18 months.

The results are striking.

The Trump Administration has sent about half the number of economically significant* rules and about a third of all rules sent to OMB for review compared to the Obama Administration over the same timeframe.

 

OBAMA

(1/20/09 – 06/01/10) TRUMP

(1/20/17 – 06/01/18) % DIFFERENCE Economically significant* rules sent to OMB 173 90 (75 concluded + 15 pending) -0.48% All rules sent to OMB 889 338 (273 concluded + 65 pending) -0.62%

*As defined in Executive Order 12866, a rulemaking action that will have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or will adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health, or safety, or State, local or tribal governments or communities.

 

This evidence further supports claims that the White House and our federal agencies have been hollowed out by the Trump Administration, which has ostracized longstanding public servants, failed to fill key roles, and created a working environment no one wants to join. In 2017 alone, nearly 400 workers left the EPA, and the agency’s staffing has reached its lowest point in almost 30 years. If every EPA employee eligible to retire by 2021 does so, the EPA would have about less than 8,000 employees by the end of President Trump’s term – a cut of nearly half.

Overall, this weakening of the federal government’s ability to enact and update rules is having a negative effect on public health and our environment. EPA has fewer staff to push back against an attempt by EPA Administrator Pruitt to delay rules designed to prevent chemical disasters. The Department of Interior is accepting early retirements and has less staff to manage our public lands and push back against industry petitions for oil and gas drilling permits. And, the White House itself seems unable to present a coordinated approach to policy, both foreign and domestic.

But fear not! The good news is that UCS is helping mobilize people across the country to #StandUpForScience, and is helping organize events to promote the use of science in sound rulemaking. UCS is also working to stop the rollback of rules designed to protect public health and fighting the Trump Administration’s efforts to stymie the effectiveness of the federal government. You can join these efforts too! All it takes is signing up for some emails and devoting some time to help make a difference. See you there!

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Supreme Court Ignores Science, Enables Voter Purging, But Data May Have Final Say

The Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, has upheld a restrictive Ohio election law that initiates a process to purge eligible voters from its voter list if they fail to vote in a single election. A number of other states and localities have also implemented voter list purging tactics, and it is expected that this decision will result in additional states adopting more restrictive voter list purges.

The central question is whether or not the law, which relies on failure to vote as a trigger to remove voters from the voter registration list, violates the prohibition in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) that voters can be removed from a list based solely on a failure to vote.

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito interpreted the law’s request to confirm residence as additional criteria, enough that this “supplemental process” complies with basic requirements of the NVRA. In dissent, Justice Breyer held that the law is in violation of the NVRA, which includes a “broad prohibition on removing registrants because of their failure to vote.” He continues:

Ohio’s system adds to its non-voting based identification system a factor that has no tendency to reveal accurately whether the registered voter has changed residences. Nothing plus one is still one.

The factor Breyer refers to is the notification requiring targeted voters to prove their residency. Indeed, voter data analysis revealed that the Ohio system would have disenfranchised over 7,000 eligible voters in 2016. Plaintiffs found that most people throw the verification requests in the trash, such that the method is not a reliable indicator of voter eligibility.

Moreover, I have previously noted that there are far more effective methods for verifying voter eligibility through database matching algorithms, but Alito’s opinion effectively ignored all of the science available on the topic, in addition to ignoring the possibility of implementing voter list maintenance procedures that are less invasive of voting rights.

However, the data may still get its day in court, as suggested in Justice Sotomayor’s individual dissent. Sotomayor criticized the majority for “distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that…contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.”

As Richard Hasen notes at Slate, Justice Sotomayor also laid out a path to directly challenge these discriminatory laws under the Voting Rights Act, and through the ballot box, as more conservative states inevitably adopt similar laws.

Justice Sotomayor focused her dissent on the requirement that any removal program “be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act” and illustrated the disparate impact of voter purging on minority, disabled, veterans, and low-income voters. Specifically, she described the inequalities in removals between downtown, African-American communities in Cincinnati (10%) and the more affluent, white suburbs of Hamilton County (4%).

Empirical demonstrations of the discriminatory impact of voter purging laws can be used in future litigation to have them thrown out in violation of the Voting Rights Act, even though the impact of such laws was barely considered in the Court’s ruling.

In addition, voters themselves can fight back at the ballot box. By supporting reforms such as Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), which provides greater security over voter lists and improves political participation, voters can ensure that they are protected. Over a dozen states have already adopted AVR, and many more are following. The crucial difference between standard voter registration procedures and AVR is that eligible citizens are automatically registered through interaction with a state agency (typically the department of motor vehicles), and must “opt-out” rather than being required to “opt-in.”

Finally, voters have the opportunity, this November, to support meaningful, effective reforms that protect and strengthen the right to vote. That will require that we help to make sure that people are registered, that they have adequate ballot access, and that they are mobilized. Effective participation in the 2018 elections could very well determine the impact of this divisive, divided decision that the Supreme Court has given us.

Debriefing the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Meeting

I spent most of Thursday and Friday this week at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board meeting in Washington, DC, as the 44 members gathered to discuss EPA’s regulatory agenda and hear updates from EPA programs on lead, perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). As I explained earlier this week, it was the first meeting for 18 of the members who had been appointed after Administrator Pruitt issued his directive barring EPA-funded scientists from serving on the committee. Much of the meeting turned out to be an exercise in reaching consensus in a group of over 40 people on a select few decisions (you can follow my twitter thread for more detail here), but there were some important things that came out of the two half-days.

Overwhelming public support for more review of scientific underpinning of EPA regulations

My colleague, Dr. Dave Cooke, during the public comment period.

During the public comment period section, 21 speakers provided comments on the EPA SAB workgroup’s memos on the EPA’s regulatory agenda. Public comment periods at these meetings don’t usually last a full hour, but scientists and experts in person and on the phone clearly wanted to express their support for the EPA SAB’s review of several rulemakings in process that would effectively roll back science-based regulations on vehicle and power plant emissions. Many of the oral comments echoed the same concerns that the SAB workgroup raised in its assessment of glider vehicles, namely that EPA had not undertaken an assessment of the emissions impacts from this rule and should, and that the technical information relied upon in the proposal was both at odds with EPA’s own tests and had now been withdrawn by the body conducting the research. Additionally, and notably, nine of the oral commenters (including myself) from different fields were in strong support of SAB review of the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule.

Consensus from SAB on general lack of analysis supporting EPA’s regulatory decisions

After the comments finished up, the SAB moved on to discuss the recommendations of the workgroup (here and here) and to come to a consensus on the advice that would be contained in a letter to the administrator coming out of this meeting. At first, some of the newer members advocated that the SAB postpone review of several of the regulatory actions that had been flagged as meriting review by the workgroup until more information was provided by the EPA. In fact, SAB member, Dr. Christopher Frey told Politico on Thursday that, “Basically they just didn’t provide us with any answers,” said Frey. “That kind of put us in a position where all we can really do is say EPA has not identified the science or any plan to review it, and clearly there are science issues that are in the proposed rule.” Luckily, after much conversation, there was an acknowledgement, even from the newest members, that it is better to agree to review and find out later that the scope of the review can be narrowed than to simply kick the can down the road and hope for better information from EPA. Thus, the full SAB was able to vote in favor of recommending to Administrator Pruitt that they review all five deregulatory actions identified by the workgroup as requiring scientific review.

Agreement that Pruitt’s restricted science proposal warrants review

Then the committee moved onto the question of whether to review the EPA’s April proposed rulemaking on transparency in regulatory science. From the outset, all members seemed to agree with the workgroup’s recommendation that it merited review. Dr. Honeycutt even justified the need for SAB review because of the sheer number of questions (27) that the EPA posed in such a short proposed rule. Stanley Young was the only member to show support for the rule, arguing that “mischief has been done” in the past with “studies hiding behind data,” calling out the Six Cities study as an example. This is a common talking point used by Administrator Pruitt and others when talking about so-called transparency, however it’s easily countered by showing that after all of the controversy around the study, once the data was reanalyzed by the Health Effects Institute, its findings were confirmed. The majority of members, however, were supportive of SAB review of this policy and ultimately voted unanimously in favor of recommending that Pruitt charge them with that duty.

Calls for delay of SAB review come from Pruitt-appointed members

The sentence proposed by committee member, Dr. Steven Hamburg, on the restricted science proposal. It will likely be edited during the drafting of the SAB’s letter to Administrator Pruitt.

The perhaps more contentious piece of this conversation happened on Friday when the SAB had time to consider exactly what they would be asking of the Administrator Pruitt regarding this rule. The question became: would they just ask to review the rule or would they also request that the agency defer all action on the rule (moving any further in the rulemaking process) before SAB’s review was complete. Interestingly, only new members disagreed with asking for agency deferral and Dr. Kimberly White of the American Chemistry Council commented that she thought SAB review shouldn’t begin until the rule is in final rule stage. It’s important to note that the American Chemistry Council has lobbied on similar legislation in Congress (the HONEST Act). Not only is it supportive of the rule, but its member companies stand to gain financially from such a rule that would limit the agency’s ability to use independent science to implement strong standards on chemicals that are environmental contaminants. Thus, Dr. White’s interest in delaying SAB review until it’s too late is right in line with her employer’s agenda in getting this rule finalized and implemented as soon as possible.

Another reason for delaying SAB review of regulatory actions is to wait until the makeup of the committee changes again this fall. Some 15 committee members’ terms will end at the end of September 2018 and while 8 of them have only served one term and could be reappointed, it is likely that Pruitt will not do that and appoint all new members. The final 11 members who were appointed under the Obama administration have terms expiring in September 2019, 8 of whom have only served one term. By the end of 2019, it is possible that Pruitt could have a hand-selected SAB and so far, Pruitt appointees appear more interested in delaying SAB review and allowing EPA actions to get farther into the rulemaking process before SAB weighs in. But, the SAB’s role is to be involved in EPA’s deliberative process and providing advice early enough in the rulemaking process that it can actually have an influence on the science considered by the agency. Advice received after a rule is already finalized is useless.

The ball will soon be in Pruitt’s court

At the very end of the meeting, the SAB agreed that Dr. Honeycutt and the Designated Federal Officer would draft a letter to Administrator Pruitt that would be sent to members for comment. This letter will then be sent to the Administrator’s office and once there, there are no requirements for him to respond in any window of time and no mandates that he follow the SAB’s advice. He could agree with the SAB and charge them with reviewing EPA actions within a matter of months, he could do the same thing but have them do it over the course of the year (at which time several of the rules under review might already be finalized), he could disagree with their recommendations and give them no charge or a different charge altogether, or he could ignore them completely. It’s hard to foresee what he will do because while he seems uninterested in scientific backing for his deregulatory agenda and never responded to the SAB letter sent in September 2017, he took quite an interest in EPA’s federal advisory committees when he issued a directive that changed the composition of many of them in October.

It would be in the public’s best interest for the SAB to have the opportunity to review these EPA regulatory actions so that there is at least some public record of scientific input and peer review feeding into the rulemaking process that has been entirely lacking at the EPA under the Trump administration. Administrator Pruitt should listen to his advisors on these issues, charging them with immediate review of these potentially destructive policies. Otherwise, the message he’ll be sending is that he can’t handle the truth: best available science will not support his deregulatory agenda.

 

The difference between 4,645 and 64 deceased in the aftermath of Hurricane María is… science

Over the last few decades, we have seen the Puerto Rican populace’s vulnerability to extreme weather hazards increase as the built environment and social services infrastructure decays, Puerto Ricans and their families flee at an increasing tempo to the United States, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean increases. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I lived through one hurricane (Hugo, 1989) and a few tropical storms, but nothing compared in ferocity and devastation to Hurricanes Irma and María.

Given the destruction and flooding from these two hurricanes, the ineptitude of the Puerto Rican government in handling the situation, and the unwillingness of the Trump administration to adequately assist the citizens of its territory, it was hard to believe that the death count had only reached 64 fatalities, as Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Department of Public Safety claims. In fact, Puerto Rican society widely mocked the government’s numbers and suspected either incompetence or a deliberate undercount to minimize the magnitude of human toll.

A new study offers evidence of what Puerto Rican communities suspected. Independent researchers at Harvard University estimated that at least 4,645 people lost their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane María, with one-third attributed to interrupted or delayed health care. The researchers used household surveys to calculate an all-cause mortality rate after the hurricane, and compared this rate to official 2016 (i.e., pre-María) mortality rates to estimate excess deaths from the hurricane. That number is supported by the researchers’ methods and data, but it is also symbolic, as it represents the central estimate of between 793 and 8,498 deaths. For perspective, and to underscore that Puerto Ricans experienced a real catastrophe (contra Trump’s false assertions that I debunked here) 4,645 is more than those killed by the terrible calamities of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Among the statistical estimate of 4,645 we can count real people

Who were these thousands of people who lost their lives after the hurricane? We will likely never know for sure, but among them was Gaspar Cruz Agosto, a 73 year-old Puerto Rican man who was scheduled for surgery before the hurricane, but who could not be operated on because the hospital lost power after María. Mr. Cruz Agosto died two weeks after the hurricane because the hospital could not provide him with the critical care he needed. This sad case does not appear to be isolated, as Puerto Rico’s independent Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish) estimates that 60 percent of María-related fatalities ocurred in health care or retirement home facilities.

The difference between the official count and the estimate is vast—it is, in fact, more than 70 times the official figure. What can be the cause of the enormous discrepancy? Well, it’s clear that the answer is…science. The large undercounts appear to be due to established protocols that require that a medical doctor annotate a death certificate linking the clinical cause of death to the disaster event. As CPI explains, the attending physician in these cases is seldom the physician certifying the death of a patient. This means typically there was no contextual information included in a death certificate—information like lack of electricity, transportation services, or medicines, interrupted health care, dietary changes, temperature increases, or stress caused by the disaster. If we add to that the chaotic conditions after the hurricane, and the lack of communication with public health agencies, hospitals, and funerary homes, it becomes clear that obtaining an accurate count of fatalities was a very difficult task.

But the disaster conditions and the inadequacy of death certificate protocols in Puerto Rico do not excuse the Rosselló administration’s attempt to discourage at least two prominent Democratic senators from asking the Department of Homeland Security to ensure an accurate count of all storm-related deaths. The Puerto Rican government’s lobbyist who called Democratic congressional offices suggested that focusing on the death toll would negatively impact the image of Governor Rosselló, showing more concern for public relations fallout than for the well-being of our people. Didn’t we just see a similar disregard for human health and concern about a “public relations nightmare” in the Trump administration’s blocking of a study on hazardous chemicals on military bases in the U.S.?

Arguably, the lack of attention and resources given to Puerto Rico by the Trump administration also had a role in increasing the death count, as the President’s disparaging and dismissive tweets about Puerto Ricans and the disaster likely sent the message to all levels of the federal government that neither he nor his agencies should be very concerned about the plight of Puerto Ricans.

The public has a right to know the facts about natural disasters and their aftermath, and neither the Rosselló nor the Trump administrations have been honest with us about this. There is no way to overstate the severe public health crisis still unfolding in Puerto Rico nearly ten months after María. As we have seen in the botched attempts at restoring the electrical grid in anticipation of the next hurricane season (just a few days away from starting!), neither social nor economic justice has been prioritized. What is being prioritized by the Puerto Rican government are juicy contracts for unqualified (but well-connected to the Trump administration) contractors and government agency executives tasked with dismantling public schools, the social safety net, and labor protections. What is being prioritized is violent police repression to silence civil resistance to austerity measures by tear gassing children and other non-violent demonstrators.

Latinas lead the way towards a recovery in Puerto Rico

But there is hope. Leading the way towards an equitable recovery for Puerto Rico are multiple grassroots and national advocacy organizations—and Latinas are leading the way here. Recently I had a chance to see their work in action at a recent summit of Latina and Latino environmental professionals. The compañeras at the Fundación Fondo Acceso a la Justicia are providing legal assistance to appeal denied FEMA aid requests—a complicated and very cumbersome process. Local Sierra Club activists in Puerto Rico are providing solar panels and helping to increase the skills of local community leaders that can create strong and resilient neighborhoods for when the next hurricane hits. Latinas with Oxfam America have helped convene grassroots in Puerto Rico with FEMA officials so that the federal agency can have a better understanding of the language and cultural barriers that prevent people from accessing aid. Latina scientists from CienciaPR and other scientific organizations are convening a workshop in the fall in Puerto Rico to educate Puerto Rican and Puerto Rico-focused scientists on how to engage in the pressing science-policy debates and decisionmaking that are vital to safeguard our health, environment, and democracy.

We need to address climate change with the tools and knowledge produced by science. We need to do so with special attention to the most vulnerable populations, be they in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, or in inland cities or rural areas. If we do not, we will see more of these deadly impacts as climate change continues to fuel more intense and destructive hurricane seasons.

EPA Science Advisory Board’s First 2018 Meeting: What to Expect

Photo: Tony Webster/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

This Thursday and Friday, the EPA’s independent advisory body, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), will be meeting in person for the first time since Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his sweeping advisory committee directive last fall. I, for one, am thrilled that the EPA’s scientific sounding board is active and meeting in person at a time when the agency can use all the scientific counsel they can get. However, it is important to understand that since Administrator Pruitt has joined the agency, the context for science advice at the EPA has greatly changed.

Several important things have happened since the last time the SAB met:

  • Administrator Pruitt’s directive banning EPA-grant-funded scientists from serving on the agency’s advisory committee meant that six committee members were dismissed for that reason, six others were not renewed for a second term (which had been common practice), and the 17 new members joining the SAB include individuals who have questioned mainstream science, are funded by industry, or have actively opposed the very mission of the EPA.
  • Former chair Peter Thorne’s term ended, and he has been replaced by Michael Honeycutt, the head toxicologist of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, who has actively sought out weaker standards for a variety of environmental contaminants in his state and has even claimed that air pollution can make you live longer.
  • Administrator Pruitt has not answered the SAB’s September letter asking him to join the SAB during a meeting.
  • The EPA issued a proposed rule in April, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” that would effectively restrict the agency’s ability to use the best available science as it designs critical environmental and health protections. This will not only affect the science used to support EPA’s safeguards, but will limit the way in which the SAB will be able to review the scientific basis of those rules.

Typically these in-person meetings provide the committee members a time to discuss ongoing projects, charges from the administrator, or additional issues they might want to raise as the agency’s peer-review mechanism. The agenda for this meeting includes time to discuss the recommendations of a workgroup that was tasked with looking at the Spring and Fall 2017 regulatory agendas and figuring out what EPA regulatory actions merit review from the SAB on their scientific or technical merits. It turns out that since the agency has attempted to roll back several agency policies that would require scientific grounding (including the Clean Power Plan and the Glider Vehicle Rule), the SAB wants to weigh in. During the meeting, the full committee will have a chance to figure out what to cover and how they will do this.

It is imperative that the SAB strongly urge the administrator not to move forward with its restricted science proposal nor its deregulatory measures until the SAB has had ample time to review the actions and the science supporting them and provide objective advice on next steps. I will be asking this of the committee during my comment tomorrow. You can read my full written statement here.

The SAB is an invaluable advisory body that should be actively working to ensure that EPA’s science is unassailable. And thanks to the transparency measures of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the public will be able to hold the SAB to its charge and its conflict-of-interest policies to guarantee that its science advice is pure and untainted by political or ideological motivations, so that the EPA has the best available scientific information as a baseline for its decisions. Pruitt isn’t legally obligated to follow every piece of SAB advice, but we’ll know when he fails to—and you can bet that we’ll be demanding justification when his actions are in direct opposition to his agency’s mission of protecting the environment and public health.

 

Weathering the Storm: Building Community Resilience in Environmental Justice Communities

Art by Micah Bazant

In 2015, It Takes Roots convened a delegation of climate justice leaders to participate in mobilizations at the COP21 in Paris and proclaimed “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” When I first heard this statement, I was struck by the vivid imagery it evoked. I envisioned a tree with roots that, despite a powerful rainstorm, swirled, connected, and clenched with fortitude into the depths of its rich soil. I imagined branches growing and the emergence of leaves bearing fresh fruit.

I see these roots as representing the cooperative networks, social fabric, and human relationships that ground us firmly in the soil of our diverse communities. In the face of climate change, how do our community roots support neighborhoods — not only to withstand immediate disruption, but to thrive, sustain our cultures, and provide for future generations?

As a grassroots, environmental justice organization, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is addressing climate change through base building, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. The communities we organize, low-income Asian American immigrant and refugee communities in California, are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, our approach to resilience bridges mitigation and adaptation, with the aim of simultaneously addressing the risks from climate change alongside the inequalities embedded in our current systems that marginalize low-income communities of color.

APEN members and organizers in the East Bay

Emergency response must reach communities in their language

Since the 1980s, Richmond has been a home to many Southeast Asian refugees who were uprooted from their homelands by the Vietnam War. Our members live on the fence line of the Chevron Refinery and suffer from contaminated air, soil, and water due to their close proximity to industrial sites and toxic hazards. A major chemical explosion in March 1991 at the Chevron Refinery revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system, as monolingual residents were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures. In response to this, the Laotian Organizing Project launched and won a historic campaign that pushed the health department to implement a multilingual emergency phone-alert system.

This campaign is a lesson about the importance of accessible and targeted early warning systems to alert residents of predicted extreme weather events. This is particularly important for immigrant and refugee communities with limited English proficiency as well as communities living in proximity to industrial facilities, where coastal flooding and other climate disasters could exacerbate toxic releases and air pollution.

Housing justice is climate justice

In addition to organizing in Richmond, APEN works with low-income Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown, like many immigrant communities, is a historic neighborhood offering essential services like health clinics, schools, and grocery stores in culturally and linguistically relevant ways. These institutions not only preserve Chinese traditions and practices, but keep immigrant families deeply rooted in a thriving, culturally rich community.

The growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness is closely connected to climate vulnerability. Rising housing costs and displacement threaten to tear apart the social fabric of communities like Chinatown, making it more difficult to ensure that our communities have accessible emergency resources like health care, evacuation shelters, and transportation during a climate disaster. For this reason, our climate justice activism centers strategies like renter protections ordinances and anti-displacement in statewide policies.

Community microgrids promote energy democracy

Low-income communities have a higher energy burden, and thus are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and increased energy needs due to climate change. Power outages can leave the lights out when electricity needs are crucial, particularly for those that rely on medical equipment and families with young children. In light of these impacts, we are pushing for prioritization of critical facilities that serve our communities with emerging clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, solar, and storage.

Recently, APEN proposed a community microgrid project in Chinatown to strengthen a local school and health clinic’s ability to serve as emergency support facilities and offer services to the linguistically isolated families in the community. The accompanying economic savings and community ownership from these investments can root community organizations and institutions that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhood.

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis notes that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” In order to address this intersectional crisis, then, scientists must acknowledge the underlying social inequities faced by disadvantaged communities and approach climate solutions through a lens of community development, public health, and social justice. As part of the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I am working on a project that analyzes climate vulnerability tools that integrate climate impacts and socioeconomic factors. Leading with values like trust, empowerment, and cooperation, researchers can equitably partner with grassroots advocates to advance our knowledge about community resilience. Centering these principles in our collective work will support meaningful policy and pave the way towards deeper systemic change.

 

Amee Raval is a Policy and Research Associate at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an environmental justice organization that empowers Asian American immigrant and refugee communities across California through grassroots organizing, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. Through her role at APEN, she offers an environmental justice and health equity lens to climate and energy policy in California. She previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on research and advocacy focused on the environmental and occupational health impacts of extreme heat and rising temperatures due to climate change on vulnerable communities. Amee has an MS in Environmental Health Sciences from UC Berkeley School of Public Health. @APEN4EJ

 

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.

 

The ABCs of Sidelining Science by the Trump Administration

Photo: KE4/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

As the school year comes to a close, I took a look at what lessons the Trump administration has taught us about science. It’s a harsh lesson for our children and families, adding up to harms that will touch all of our lives. As someone who is immersed in watchdogging this administration, I was surprised how many new things I learned about how the Administration is dismantling public health and safety protections, increasing security threats, and attempting to undermine the role of government in serving All the people.

Here are the ABCs of Sidelining Science:

A

is for ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, whose report was suppressed on water pollution. Or the AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT, where Secretary Perdue has betrayed the trust of farmers and the public. Or ATTACKS ON SCIENCE, which occur at an alarming rate all across the Administration.

B

is for BERYLLIUM, which puts workers at risk—but the Administration has halted regulations to protect them. Or Dr. Nancy BECK, an appointee to lead efforts on regulating toxic chemicals despite massive conflicts of interest. Or  David BERNHARDT, who similarly has conflicts of interest in his job at Interior.  Or BLACK LUNG disease, which has afflicted miners for decades—but protections from coal dust were rolled back by the Administration.

C

is for the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, CASAC, now led by Dr. Tony Cox, a consultant to polluting industry for many years. Or CHLORPYRIFOS, a pesticide that impacts brain development in children, impacts endangered species, and is widely used on fruits and vegetables. EPA Administrator Pruitt rejected the science on this pesticide and refuses to restrict its use.  Or CONFLICTS OF INTEREST, which are rife in this administration, from the President to agency heads and political staff. Instead of draining the swamp, the President has brought conflicted lobbyists and business people into the agencies directly. Or CHEMICAL DISASTERS, which unfortunately are still an all too regular occurrence. But the EPA, in a recent proposed rule, wants to roll back all preventive measures at chemical facilities in order to reduce costs for industry, while ignoring impacts on the public. And of course, CLIMATE CHANGE, which is roundly ignored by administration officials and actions including communications to the public.

D

is for DATA SUPPRESSION, as webpages have been deleted or studies and grants cancelled. Or DOURSON, the nominee to serve at a senior position in the EPA who represented industry and dismissed the impact of toxics. His nomination was defeated due to widespread outrage. Or the DISINFORMATION PLAYBOOK, a set of tactics that some bad actors starting with the tobacco industry have developed, which now seem to be part and parcel of the Administration’s strategy to sideline science.

E

is for ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, the disproportionate public health and environmental impacts on low income communities and communities of color. The Trump Administration has sidelined environmental justice efforts as well as science. Or ESA, the Endangered Species Act, which Congress and the Administration are trying to weaken, particularly on public lands, to make room for oil and gas development. Or the ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency, which is mired in the scandals of Scott Pruitt and at the center of efforts to roll back public health protections. The agency’s science budget was on the chopping block by the President but was saved by Congress once the impact of the cuts became clearer.

F

is for Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), which has revealed that the EPA and other agencies are only listening to industry at the expense of the public. Or Fuel Efficiency as the EPA seeks to roll back standards for cars that were previously agreed to by the automakers and have enormous benefits. Or FEDERAL SCIENTISTS, vilified or ignored by this administration, but whose work does so much good for the country!

G

is for GUIDANCE MEMO, which is the way that agencies tell the public how they interpret their congressional mandates. The Justice Department has declared they won’t use this guidance in enforcing the rules, causing great confusion and opening up a huge gap for those with deep pockets in industry to avoid compliance. Or GUN VIOLENCE RESEARCH, which was banned from study at the CDC until recently even though guns are the cause of more deaths than auto accidents in recent years.

H

is for Hazardous Air Pollutants, which are likely to dramatically increase under new legal guidance put in place by the EPA, which was prepared by a former industry lobbyist now leading the Office of Air, William Wehrum.

I

is for INDEPENDENT SCIENCE, as the EPA has tried to pack its board of external science advisors with those with ties to industry and exclude academics. Or INTERIOR Department, where senior career staff such as Dr. Joel Clement were arbitrarily and capriciously reassigned to inappropriate jobs. Or IMMIGRATION policy of this Administration, which of course impacts science and scientists among all the other reasons it harms our country. Or IRAN and the dangerous act of withdrawing from the agreement to prevent the production of nuclear weapons.

K

is for North KOREA, which our Global Security Program tracks so carefully to debunk the myths. And L is for Public LANDS that the Interior Department is rapidly opening to private oil and gas development.

M

is for MACT—the Maximum Available Control Technology for cancer-causing pollutants that political appointees at the EPA say imposes too high a cost on the industries that release these chemicals into our air.

N

is for National Ambient Air Quality Standards, NAAQS, which are supposed to be set on public health criteria only—but the EPA is seeking to add economic and social factors to these limits. Or the need for federal agency professionals to make a NOTE FOR THE RECORD because some agencies are refusing to keep a written record of meetings and decision-making to avoid public scrutiny.

O

is for Ozone, a major public health pollutant that the EPA is re-evaluating and may increase allowable levels. Or the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OIRA, in the White House, which seems to be abdicating its responsibility to ensure regulations are based on a fair process with a clear analysis. Or the Office of Government Ethics, OGE, which should be addressing the conflicts of interest that are rife across this government from the White House on down.

P

is for PFAS or PFOA, chemicals that have been used in many products such as Teflon and in fire suppressing foam used by the military, which now contaminate water supplies across the country and particularly on military bases affecting military families. Or PUBLIC HEALTH, the primary mission of the EPA, which is too often ignored in this Administration.

Q

is for a Question on citizenship that the Justice Department wants to add to the Census even though there is substantial evidence it will result in misestimating our population, with wide-ranging effects on the distribution of government spending as well as elections.

R

is for RESTRICTED SCIENCE that can be used in making public health and safety regulations as proposed by the EPA. Or REGULATORY ROLLBACK, which is a hallmark of the Trump Administration but harms the health and safety of us all. Or the EPA’s RISK MANAGEMENT PLAN for chemical facilities that Pruitt has proposed should not contain any measures to prevent accidents.

S

is for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, SAB, which now is excluding academic scientists with grants in favor of scientists employed by industry. Or SUPERFUND, which is intended to clean up toxic waste sites but seems to be dragging even though it is supposedly an EPA priority. Or SEA LEVEL RISE, one of the most immediate and costly impacts of our changing climate—even while the President denies climate change is occurring.

T

is for the Toxic Substances Control Act, TSCA, now being implemented by a former chemical industry lobbyist. Or TIP RULES from the Department of Labor, which ignored the analysis that showed workers would be hurt if employers were allowed to control the distribution of tip revenue.

U

is for the URBAN ECONOMY, which will be badly impacted by the proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill if it passes.

V

is for VOTING RIGHTS under attack in this Administration in a way that threatens our democracy. Or VITTER a particularly egregious judicial nominee who seems to deny fundamental scientific evidence on a regular basis.

W

is for WORD BAN at the Centers for Disease Control to remove words that are politically unpopular in some circles. Or WORKER SAFETY, which should be continually improving but has been undermined by the Trump Administration.

X

is for XENOPHOBIC divisions in our society, stoked by the President  and harmful to all of us.

Y

is for Dr. Richard YAMADA at the EPA Office of Research and Development, who is leading the charge to restrict independent science at the agency.

Z

is for Department of Interior Secretary ZINKE, who is undermining the historic mission of the agency by shrinking National Monuments, opening public lands, and sidelining science and scientists across the Department.

It’s time to stand up for science and people

Now you know your ABCs. My colleague Shreya Durvasula called this “the world’s saddest children’s book.” My goal is not to depress you, but to remind everyone what’s at stake and why we need to fight back against these harmful actions.

For each of these issues (and unfortunately many more), the Union of Concerned Scientists has sought to explain why these actions matter, and how we can come together to fight back so we, once again, can work toward having a government that is by and for the people. So whether you are most concerned with Global Security or Climate Change or Public Health or all of the above, it is time to do something! Go to the UCS Action Center and see how you can get involved.

Did My Tea Leaves Reveal the Supreme Court’s Upcoming Gerrymandering Ruling?

This morning, I stirred my green tea vigorously to see if it would reveal the Supreme Court’s opinion on two partisan gerrymandering cases that are soon to be released. The tea spilled, I scalded my lap, then wondered why any Decent American Patriot would sip tea while the nation awaits a decision of such historic significance. I then made a cup of coffee and resolved to give up fortune telling.  So I won’t try and predict where the Court will come down on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. However, I will offer some guideposts to help interested parties (see what I did there) understand the significance of the decision when it comes.

1. Is there a real decision?

It is always possible that SCOTUS decides to re-argue the points next session if there is serious fragmentation of opinion about what constitutional principles, if any, should govern partisan gerrymandering. Of course, that did not stop the Court from issuing a fragmented opinion in Vieth v Jubelirer, the decision that unleashed state legislatures to gerrymander without restraint in 2011.  Or they could decide that plaintiffs in the first Wisconsin case, Gill, do not have standing because they were not harmed within a gerrymandered district.  That outcome could have serious implications, and could depend on who writes the majority opinion.

2. Who writes the opinion?

While all eyes have been on Justice Kennedy as the decisive swing vote in these cases, Chief Justice Roberts is the only justice who has not yet written a majority opinion from this session, which makes it more likely that Roberts will be the author. The possibility of a Roberts opinion has led to speculation at Election Law Blog and other sites about the possibility that the Court will take a narrow, district-level approach, focusing on arguments such as those offered by Republican plaintiffs in the Maryland case, Benisek.

As has already been pointed out by Gill counsel Nick Stephanopoulos, this would be a misguided approach for SCOTUS to take if the goal is to conservatively reduce the number of applicable cases and thus restrain court intervention.  Moreover, the logic of state-imposed harm on all voters of the targeted party is inescapable and would inevitably make its way back into legal arguments.  As Justice Kennedy has acknowledged, it is the state that is imposing the inequity, and it is a state-level harm, in the sense that it is the number of seats denied the opposition party from all seats in the statewide districting plan that causes targeted voters (who voted for the opposition party) to suffer vote dilution.

An opinion that does the work that Kennedy and the liberals require, but is narrow enough for Roberts to be on board, will likely require more than a demonstration of intent to discriminate.  Harm will have to be demonstrated empirically, with clear evidence that the relationship between party vote and seat shares has been intentionally manipulated to punish voters who favor the opposition party.  And that takes us back to some of the fundamental scientific questions that gave rise to these cases in the first place.

3. What kind of rights are we talking about? Equal Protection? Free Speech and Association?

One of the most interesting aspects of these cases from the perspective of constitutional theory resides in the variety of ways that plaintiffs and lower courts have linked the harm of gerrymandering to constitutional protections. Traditionally, gerrymandering cases have used equal protection arguments, specifically the 14th Amendment, to protect voters from districting plans that don’t treat voters equally.  Alternatively, Justice Kennedy specifically, and the Court more generally, has been more receptive to “free speech” arguments as of late, especially in campaign finance and other election law cases, so this has become a more popular strategy.

The basic claim behind this strategy is that a vote cast is a form of expressive association, such that diluting or suppressing the value of that act violates the 1st Amendment.  There is considerable disagreement over the extent to which such claims are still implicitly dependent on the equal protection provided by the 14th Amendment, so it is certain that the Court’s response to these claims will shape future litigation and legislation.

4. Will the Court rely on a single metric to determine harm?

Almost certainly not, but the Court could set parameters and narrow the bounds of applicable cases by emphasizing that in the two cases in question, all of the empirical measures relied on by lower courts converged. That is, in the worst cases of gerrymandering, it doesn’t matter which metric is used, those for partisan bias, efficiency, and mean-median gaps will all show that a plan gives an asymmetric advantage to the voters of one party over another.

At the same time, the majority decision, or concurring opinions, could provide more support to some metrics over others. The efficiency gap is among the newer kids on the block and should receive a good deal of attention, but the model of asymmetry was developed over 20 years ago, and is still dominant in the field.  Of greater interest for those following the election science is the degree to which the Court considers the constitutional implications of these different measures, which are significant.  Specifically, as litigation and legislation moves forward, such arguments will be relevant for clarifying just what the constitution demands of our electoral systems, and how we can distinguish its bugs from its features.

5. How much is too much?

Again, it would be surprising for the Court to establish an empirical metric of “x percent.” Rather, a workable, manageable threshold would reflect both what is constitutionally required, but also respects judicial restraint.

This is why Maryland seems like an especially important case, in that a decision overturning that state’s Democratic gerrymander (the governing party manufactured an extra seat when they are already the dominant party) would provide a rather clear guideline, a one-seat principle. That is, if it can be shown, through whatever metrics, that the opposition party’s voters are effectively and reliably denied a minimum of a single seat as the result of an adopted plan, which is what would be required for vote dilution to occur, it would be grounds for overturning a districting plan.

If the Court can provide such guidance to lower courts, as to how much is too much inequality, that is as much as we can ask for. For the current situation is clearly too much, in the opinion of experts and citizens alike.

EPA Extends Comment Deadline, Schedules Hearing on Science Proposal After Pretty Much Everyone Complains

The EPA today extended the comment deadline to August 16 on its proposal to restrict the types of science that can be used in EPA decisions after pretty much everyone—from the American Home Builders Association to the American Geophysical Union—complained that a thirty-day comment period was grossly insufficient for a rule with such potential wide-ranging consequences. The EPA also scheduled a public hearing to be held in Washington, DC on July 17.

The EPA’s proposal would prevent the EPA from using many public health studies when making decisions. Scientists now have more time to comment on the potential harm that this proposal would have on public health and the environment.

The move gives scientists the ability to develop more sophisticated comments and ensure that their peers have the opportunity to detail how the rule would impact their own public health research and its use in EPA decisions—and to submit for the record specific studies that could be set aside. It is important for scientists to explain how and why specific communities would be harmed by excluding legitimate, peer-reviewed public health research from consideration by EPA.

In just three short weeks, nearly 100,000 comments were submitted.

From the beginning of the comment period, scientific organizations repeatedly and pointedly repudiated the EPA’s claim that the new rule is consistent with scientific transparency standards. The EPA heard from both industry and the science community that the short comment period on such a vague and badly written rule was wholly inadequate and possibly even in violation of the Clean Air Act and other statutes. Now scientists will have a few more weeks to fully detail the impact that such a fatally flawed rule would have on public health and the environment.

UCS and its partners have produced a guide for scientists and organizations on filing an effective public comment on this rule, and will be encouraging people to provide testimony at the July 17 hearing.

Between Two Terns: A Conversation on Endangered Species and Social Justice

Pictured: The interior least tern (Sterna antillarum), a federally protected endangered species. USFWS

Endangered Species Day was enacted by Congress in 2006 to encourage “the people of the United States to become educated about, and aware of, threats to species, success stories in species recovery, and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.” This year, Endangered Species Day (May 18) began with a devastating school shooting. It really had me questioning how appropriate it would be to emphasize the importance of wildlife conservation while so many in the world and our nation seem to place little value on human lives. In a time where human rights are being enthusiastically attacked by the Trump administration, however, it has become necessary to think critically about how our nation promotes policies that undermine public protections and the way this affects vulnerable communities. Basically, I realized that there are connections between our wildlife conservation policies…and the social disparities built therein.

Hear me out. The connection is not necessarily obvious at surface level, I understand. Social justice is at the core of environmentalism. Conservation works to ensure the preservation of cultures, heritage, and livelihoods. The spaces we often deign as devoid of “nature” or “environment” are not as readily included in conservation conversations, often at the risk of alienating entire communities and ecosystems. From pristine lands to over-burdened industrial areas, environment is all around us.

I had a conversation with Lia Cheek, fellow woman of color and colleague at the Endangered Species Coalition, to further explore the relationship between endangered species protections and social justice.

Defining environment

Charise: Why do you think the way we view the environment is important for conservation and how is this tied to social justice?

Lia: We look at nature as something to use up. Something that exists to serve our needs.  We look at it without emotion, without acknowledgement of the life it holds and its right to existence. Even the words we use to describe it, Nature, natural worlds are inanimate.

Charise:  I like how you emphasized the idea of Nature with a big N. When we view it that way, it tends to be exclusionary of underrepresented groups – and that spills over into environmental regulations and even the research questions that are asked. We see this especially with policies and processes that are based solely on economic considerations, with very little regard for both science and community input.

There is also a tendency to forget that “environment” includes built environments, urban areas. Loss of biodiversity affects us all. And we’ve seen the benefits of conservation in urban areas: greater accessibility to green spaces improves mental health and well-being, marked increases in perceived safety, cleaner air to breathe, protection and restoration of terrestrial and aquatic species. The assumption that city-dwellers (especially those who aren’t as socially privileged) do not care about or benefit from species biodiversity in their communities, that they do not notice when the trees are cut down and the birds stop singing, is unfounded. Social justice is the fair treatment of others. We should not put the needs of wildlife above those of humans, rather, we should treat both fairly, and consider more than just our wallets and convenience. It is unjust to distribute resources unfairly, and it is unfair to expect those being treated unjustly to consider conservation their top priority.

Lia: Sure! This is part of the same thread.  The way we currently manage wildlife and natural areas feels a lot like colonialism.  It’s all about control isn’t it? Controlling the populations of animals that we find inconvenient, like predators, boosting the populations of species that we gain an economic benefit from.  That same mindset is built into our other government institutions, which are built around increasing profit and subduing inconveniences, and these goals can often mean stepping all over people’s rights, case and point, the battle at Standing Rock and the keystone pipeline.  It’s a very ego and self-driven model that is in the fabric of the way our country is run.  The question then becomes, who is this system of benefits really for, and how do we make our institutions expand the circle of who is benefiting from this policy of profit to include folks who have been marginalized.

Wildlife and social justice

Charise: How is wildlife conservation, specifically, a social justice issue?

Lia: The underlying decision to use differences to other a community or another life, rather than a recognition of the similarities is the same. When you “take” an animal without awareness of or respect for its right to existence, without acknowledgement that it has a purpose, a desire, a meaningful existence besides fulfilling your intended use for it.  Or without understanding that it experiences moments of joy, the understanding of what family is just like you do.   This is the same act of “othering” that creates space for injustice and the violation of human rights when they become inconvenient.  The refusal to recognize another life as similar to one’s own is the choice that is at the heart of both colonialism and extinction.

When we think about what it means for a species to go extinct, to cease to exist in any form or feather, memory or song, forever, this knowledge can manifest such a deep sadness in us that we can try to turn away from it to protect ourselves. We push away the instinctual pain we feel that comes with the knowledge that we’ve lost a species to extinction, or the pain and fear we feel when we have to hear about the injustices committed against African Americans by the institutions we are a part of, or the empathy we might feel with immigrant families being torn apart while we stand by and watch. We can choose to close our eyes to the painful and frightening, but when we do this, we are also closing our eyes to the humanity of others, and the connection we have to life on earth. And this is important because we make this choice every day. With when we choose to stand up and speak out about an injustice or sit quietly and watch it play out. When we choose to open that email asking for your help or delete.  It’s something about ourselves that we all need to be aware of and watch carefully.

Charise: Yes, beautifully put. I would add that the right to existence is what makes this a justice issue, not just for wildlife, but for people. Through diversity of life, we can exercise our human rights to food, health, and culture. If certain people are not given access to this right, that is unjust. On the flipside, if certain groups are not provided with the basic freedoms afforded others based on race, income, religion, or otherwise, we cannot expect conservation efforts to succeed. We can’t say we’re dedicated to conservation when there are still people being eradicated through the country’s prison pipeline, gun violence, and toxic pollution, with little input on solutions.

Conservation requires conversations

Species conservation is necessary for the protection of wildlife, a valuable natural resource. With so many attempts to dismantle science-based environmental regulations, we are putting more than our natural resources at risk. But we can change the narrative of who gets to benefit from “nature.” We can push for more consideration of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in scientific research and policy decisions. Instead of stifling community members or excluding them from discussions outright, we have to listen to and incorporate the problems and solutions they have already identified. Addressing the inherent biases in our institutions from an intersectional perspective is the first step to engaging begin to serve vulnerable communities justly. You can start by joining the conversation. If you’d like to learn more about how our Science Network members engage in their communities around justice-based issues, check out our Science for Justice blog series.

 

Testimony Reveals the Real Controversy over Census Data and Voting Rights

On Friday, May 18, the acting head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division repeatedly refused to answer questions about his role in the Justice Department’s December 2017 request to the Department of Commerce to add a new citizenship question to the Decennial Census.

John M. Gore, who refused to show up to a May 8 hearing, claimed that he would not “make any statements today beyond those in the Department’s letter (requesting the question) or other publicly available information.” Gore claimed that his silence was required by “longstanding department policy” against discussing litigation outside of court, referring to the four lawsuits that have been filed against his department on behalf of numerous states and voting rights organizations. These lawsuits seek to prevent the addition of the citizenship question, given its anticipated negative impact on the quality of the Census enumeration, which only takes place once every ten years.

Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) lost his patience early on, shouting at Gore: “I asked you did you talk to your boss! You mean you’re going to tell me that you can’t answer a question as to whether you talked to your boss who we pay?” At one point, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) moved to subpoena Gore to answer these questions, but a Republican motion to block the subpoena passed on a party-line vote of 22 to 15.

In addition to entertaining several questions about hypothetical registration and voter fraud (which has been demonstrated, in court, to be nearly non-existent), Gore did at least acknowledge the actual scientific controversy at the heart of the Justice Department’s justification for the question. On the one hand, he acknowledged that the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, has never depended on the use of Census citizenship enumeration data directly. Indeed, he even acknowledged that there has NEVER been a public challenge brought under the VRA that was dropped due to inadequate data on racial voting patterns.

On the other hand, Gore did reference a private litigation case in Texas where the party was unable to move forward due lack of adequate data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which provides population estimates of the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP). However, he did not reference the case in his submitted testimony. Nevertheless, the claim is clear: census enumeration data is required for the VRA because in small, sparsely-populated districts, such as rural school districts, the margin of error associated with population estimates from the ACS may not be precise enough to make statistically valid inferences about those populations.

Survey samples like the ACS draw random (as possible) distributions of individuals, which provides estimates of population characteristics (i.e., a district is 49% eligible African-American voters) with a margin of error that accounts for sampling inaccuracies (say plus or minus 3% for a sample of about 1,000, such that the actual distribution is nearly always between 46 and 52%). In a census, we attempt to count the entire population, but any uncounted individuals (undercounts) distort the data, leaving us with a less accurate assessment of the actual universe of individuals. Samples, by their nature, may have less precision, but census counts, especially among hard-to-reach populations, can be less accurate, and it is more difficult to correct for undercounts.

This point was driven home by Justin Levitt, Loyola Law School professor and former attorney at the same division of the Department of Justice where Gore serves, who did show up on May 8 when he was invited to testify before the government oversight committee. Levitt’s testimony included an assessment of actual cases, public and private, where he too found one Texas case, Fabela v. City of Farmers Branch, Texas, where ACS data was not itself up to the task of validating a VRA violation claim. However, Levitt demonstrated that complementary, well-tested and judicially accepted techniques were used to assess the claims. More importantly, Levitt describes how the goal of VRA population data

is not to definitively predict the precise vote count in a future election based on ironclad certainty about an individual’s voting preferences based on her race or ethnicity, and her propensity to register or turn out to vote for a particular candidate. Instead, the purpose of the analysis is to determine whether past voting behaviors generally indicate that racial or language minority communities would vote similarly most of the time, and whether they would be likely presented with effective equitable electoral opportunity more often than not.

And here we get to the heart of the question, because it is the evidence that we need a citizenship question on the Census short form, which is sparse, that must be weighed against evidence about the negative impact that the addition of such a question might have on the accuracy of the Census count. That evidence is compelling. Indeed, we know from Census analysis that Latino populations are already undercounted, such that the addition of a question that would further reduce response rates among legal immigrant residents will create artificially low population estimates of VRA-protected groups in such cases, making it more difficult to identify and remedy VRA violations.

The addition of a citizenship question is far more likely to inhibit the successful trial of VRA cases, by increasing the inaccuracy of the Census, than it is to improve the assessment of VRA claims due to greater precision. Even Thomas Brunell, once a candidate to direct this Census, recently acknowledged that the administration is not making a scientific, but “a political decision.”  For these reasons, and for all of the reasons provided by all of the past Census directors, the scientists, the civil rights advocates, and all those who have dedicated their lives to advancing both science and sovereignty in our democracy, we have a mutual obligation to protect the scientific integrity of the Census. You can do your part by urging Congress to adopt the 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act, legislation that would protect the accuracy of the 2020 census and ensure that any proposed changes to the count are properly studied, researched, and tested.

Did EPA Consult With The Chemical Industry While Working To Suppress A Scientific Study On PFAS?

Today, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to EPA requesting more information about a meeting with an industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), attended by Richard Yamada, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development.

The letter and subsequent reporting (paywalled) is based on additional documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through a Freedom of Information Act request last month. EPA subsequently took down those documents, in an action similar to what happened with some of our other public records requests.

POLITICO reports:

Top House Democrats are raising concerns about a meeting between one of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s top aides and representatives of the chemicals industry one day after a White House official raised alarm about a study of contaminants that has been stalled for months.

The American Chemistry Council represents companies that could face more expensive cleanup requirements if the HHS study were finalized, and the trade group appears to have had the ear of a top EPA official when it was being discussed internally, the House Democrats said.

A meeting titled “ACC Cross-Agency PFAS Effort” appears on the Jan. 31 calendar for Richard Yamada, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for research and development. The calendar was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act and cited by the Democrats in their letter to Pruitt Monday. One day earlier, Yamada and other EPA officials had received an email from the White House seeking to delay publication of the health study poised for release by HHS that would have increased warnings about certain PFAS chemicals.

A former staffer for the anti-science chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Yamada attended a meeting with the ACC to discuss EPA’s cross-agency efforts to address PFAS. As we chronicled in 2015, the ACC has a history of obstructing stronger science-based public health protections from harmful chemicals and have frequently used tobacco industry tactics to pressure policymakers. An ACC spokesman confirmed the meeting with POLITICO but said that the suppressed PFAS study (also discovered by a UCS public records request) was not discussed.

The meeting, which occurred on January 31, was held the day after the now infamous “public relations nightmare” email was sent by an unnamed White House staffer.

The letter from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is the latest in a string of oversight letters related to the potential suppression by the White House and EPA of a key health assessment that is being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Late last week, Representatives Brendan F. Boyle and Brian K. Fitzpatrick led another bipartisan letter demanding the release of the ATSDR study on the human health effects of PFAS chemicals.

Tomorrow, EPA is convening a national summit to discuss PFAS and the issues that states and communities are facing around the country. Unsurprisingly, one of the scheduled speakers is Jessica Bowman, an ACC attorney, who is talking first thing in the morning. And before a story in The Intercept, EPA failed to invite any community organizations and/or members to attend. After the reporting however, EPA has invited Andrea Amico, founder of Testing for Pease.

It remains unclear whether press will be able to attend, and according to the summit website, it appears as though the public can only view parts of the meeting online. Hopefully though, the agency will use tomorrow’s meeting as an opportunity to commit vital resources and concrete next steps to help remove these toxic chemicals from our environment.

Now Is the Time To Halt the EPA’s Restrictions on Science

If you have been following the news, I am sure you know by now that the EPA is proposing to restrict the science it will consider when developing new or revised health and safety protections. It may seem like a Washington game, but this proposed rule has huge implications for all of us.

For scientists, it means that much of your work may be dismissed from impacting policy out of hand because you must adhere to research ethics policies that restrict the release of private data. Or because you can’t and shouldn’t sacrifice intellectual property rights at the whim of the EPA. For industry, it creates greater uncertainty around the always thorny issues concerning confidential business information. And, most importantly,  for all of us, the proposal means that policies that protect our health and safety will not be based on the best available science because of inappropriate political interference.

So what can YOU do to fight back? Well, for all the political manipulation that we have been documenting at the EPA, the agency must still adhere to the law when making or changing regulations.  That means the EPA must make a proposal public, accept public comments from all who wish to submit them, evaluate and respond to those comments, and then decide on the final version of the rule. And they are subject to challenge in federal court on all actions.

That means YOU can submit a comment into the public record that the EPA is obligated to consider. And now is the time! For this proposal, the comment period is only 30 days—and it’s already more than half over. It closes at the end of May (though requests have been made to extend it, so far with no response from the EPA).

How do I make a comment?

The proposed rule is complicated and somewhat confusing. It is misnamed as an action to “strengthen transparency” in the rulemaking process, but it does no such thing. To have an impact, however, your comment needs to be specific and detailed, not just broad comments on the rule.

To help you better understand the proposed rule, we have produced a guide for commenters. The guide highlights topics for which the EPA is specifically requesting input and some of the issues you may want to consider in making your comment. It also gives you the links for submitting a comment and some suggestions for how to have the most impact.

I want to encourage scientists to submit as part of their comments examples of specific important scientific studies and evidence that are likely to be excluded if this rule is implemented. For example, the rule proposal says that studies will only be considered if all raw data, computer code, models, and other material in the study is fully publicly available.

On its face, that precludes using studies where personal confidential information is part of the “raw” data. Most Institutional Review Boards require researchers maintain confidentiality for human subjects data. Are their studies you have been involved in or rely on in your research that would be excluded a priori because of this restriction?

One of the reasons it is important to cite specific studies in the record is because that public record will be important in any future legal action. Also, our political leaders are usually not fully familiar with the scientific process. They need specific examples to inform their own views. How will your work be impacted scientists? How will community members be affected if certain public health and safety protections are not enacted based on good science?

A week of collective action

A coalition of groups including 500 Women Scientists, EarthJustice, and the Public Comment Project are joining forces to mobilize as many public comments as possible during the week of May 20-26.  This coordinated action—the National Week of Public Comments on EPA’s “Restricting Science” Policy—is part of the overall effort of Science Rising, which is working to defend science and its crucial role in public policy and our democracy more broadly. You can participate by sending in your comment and letting us know that you did.

This is still our government, our democracy, and our voices need to be heard.

Five Things You Should Know About EPA’s Proposed Giant Step Backward on the Safety of Chemical Facilities

Kentucky Army National Guard members training for disaster responseMembers of the Kentucky National Guard receive a brief on extracting the mock injured and wounded during the early stages of their external evalutation at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Butlerville, Ind. May 23. The purpose of the exercises and evaluation is to prepare the Kentucky Guard’s chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) teams to respond to such attacks and disasters. Photo: Spc. David Bolton, Public Affairs Specialist, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Kentucky Army National Guard/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

As one of his first acts in office, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided to put on hold the implementation of new regulations to improve the safety of chemical facilities around the country. Those regulations, finalized in 2017, called for consideration of safer technologies, better information for communities and first responders that are on the front lines of accidents and other incidents, better planning for accidents and disasters, and improvements in response capabilities including coordination and practice sessions with local first responders. These changes were made to update the so-called Risk Management Plan rule, last significantly modified in 1996.

Now, the EPA has proposed a new rule, modifying the 2017 regulations without ever implementing them. The new proposal, soon to be published in the federal register and open for a 60-day public comment period, basically rescinded all new requirements with a few minor exceptions and takes us back to 1996 at best. The justification by Pruitt’s EPA is that it will reduce industry costs if they don’t have to do these things, by $88 million. Rolling back these critical protections in the wake of a devastating hurricane season that demonstrated the need for increased planning for these chemical facilities and after there have been 43 reported incidents at chemical facilities since the rule was initially delayed demonstrates a lack of leadership and commitment to public health at the EPA.

The short summary is that Pruitt’s EPA has eliminated or weakened every provision of the rule to eliminate protection for fenceline communities or workers. The justification is possibly saving $88 million dollars in compliance and at the expense of immense public health and safety benefits to communities which were not calculated in the proposal.

When the Public Comment period is open, the EPA will hold exactly one public hearing to receive input in addition to written comments. That hearing will be in EPA Headquarters in DC, not in any one of the communities like Houston, TX and Wilmington, DE affected by the risks of chemical facilities, and frankly out of reach in terms of cost to most grassroots or local organizations. That’s a shame. It also means that the written comments submitted to the EPA are all the more important as the delay of the previous rule, and certainly this new proposal if it is finalized, are being challenged in court, including by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So here are five things you should note as you consider commenting on the new EPA proposal.

  • The 2017 rule required chemical facilities to evaluate and consider safer technology and alternatives defined by the EPA itself as “a variety of risk reduction or risk management strategies that work toward making a facility and its chemical processes as safe as possible.” Seems reasonable that these should be considered by facilities everywhere to reduce risks to workers, communities and first responders. The idea is to reduce the risks with safer alternatives before an accident or disaster takes place. The preventive medicine of the chemical facility so to speak. The new proposal completely eliminates this requirement for facilities to look at preventative, safer alternatives. The justification for the rollback was the costs to industry, without any consideration of benefits to the public or to the mission of the EPA (to serve the public interest).
  • Prior to the new rules set in 2017, it was nearly impossible to get much information about what chemicals were being held at a facility in a timely and regularly updateable way. To obtain any information, you had to prove you lived in the neighborhood around the facility and go to a special EPA reading room when it was open—if it was available, you were not allowed to use a copier, computer or scanner and you couldn’t take anything away. The 2017 rules eased these restrictions somewhat by allowing communities to ask for information and requiring companies to be forthcoming in a timely way. The new proposal eliminates that option. It goes back to a system where the public, including first responders, have little or no information in case of a chemical disaster or emergency chemical release in their neighborhood.
  • Prior to 1996, chemical facilities could leave most of the response capability for accidents and disasters up to the local government, with the cost borne by local taxpayers, not the company. That burden was only partially shifted in 2017 with greater participation and coordination requirements put on companies to work with local government and groups. The new proposed rule takes a step back again and weakens those requirements, though there would be some requirement for joint exercises to practice responding to an accident every few years. And they propose eliminating the requirement to report on the results of those exercises to improve performance.
  • Under the 2017 rules, when an accident occurred, an incident analysis would be required along with an analysis of the causes of the incident. Now Pruitt’s EPA is eliminating that requirement to analyze and report on accidents and their causes and make that information available to the community.
  • And, in 2017 the rules required the industry to hire third-party independent auditors to evaluate compliance with the rules and to investigate problems. The EPA is now proposing to eliminate that requirement and continue to allow companies to audit themselves.

Should you submit a comment? Yes! Because this proposal makes all of us less safe. It is simply unacceptable that we cannot do a better job of preventing and responding to the thousands of chemical accidents that occur every year in this country.

Bipartisan Outrage as EPA, White House Try to Cover Up Chemical Health Assessment

Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

Citing a potential “public relations nightmare,” the Trump administration successfully stopped the publication of a study measuring the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States. Many of the contaminated sites are on military bases across the country and affect military families directly. Multiple Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the censorship and have called for the report to be released, and Trump administration officials are scrambling to contain the political fallout. 

The two email chains (here and here) show the exchanges among White House, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD) attempting to strong-arm the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) into censoring the report. The emails were released to UCS by the EPA as part of a larger request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to an attempt to restrict the types of science that are used in EPA public health protection decisions (the EPA subsequently tried to bury the documents).

The White House tried to cover up a study related to the health impacts of PFAS, a group of chemicals that are often present at dangerous levels around military bases. Firefighting foam used by the military contains PFAS chemicals. Photo: United States National Guard

Politico broke the story on Monday:

Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” newly disclosed emails reveal.

The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

Nancy Beck, one of the EPA political appointees with ties to the chemical industry involved in the effort to prevent the study from being released, knows very well how one agency can put pressure on another. She helped the Department of Defense slow down EPA efforts to protect drinking water from perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, when she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the cover-up and demanded the ATSDR report be released, including Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH),  Representative Mike Turner (R-OH), Representative Bryan Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and several Democratic senators including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito questioned embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a Senate hearing today about the EPA’s actions. Administrator Pruitt refused to take responsibility for slowing down the release of the study, but acknowledged that it is important for this kind of health information to be public. West Virginia has had specific problems with PFAS contamination.

This kind of congressional oversight of the administration is crucial as part of our system of government, the checks and balances the founding fathers talked about.  Executive branch actions have direct consequences for public health and the environment. We desperately need more congressional scrutiny of the ways in which science is being suppressed and sidelined in executive branch agencies.

And at least in this case, the pressure is working. According to Inside EPA (paywalled), ATSDR has subsequently begun preparations for releasing the report. Below are more details about this developing story.

A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee visits a home to test well water for chemical contaminants. Photo: Michigan DEQ

What are these chemicals?

“PFAS” stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” “PFOS” and “PFOA,” the two most studied PFAS, stand for “perfluorooctane sulfanate” and “perfluorooctanoic acid,” respectively. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals found in many consumer products (such as non-stick cookware and water-repellent clothing) as well as in firefighting foam used by the military. Studies on PFOA and PFOS have indicated links to cancer, thyroid disease, and immunological effects. Here’s the EPA’s current FAQ on PFAS.

What are more specific health effects?

According to ASTDR, studies have shown certain PFAS may impact fertility; increase cholesterol; elevate cancer risk; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; and negatively affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children.

What is the current EPA guidance on the issue?

In May 2016, EPA established drinking water health advisories of 70 parts per trillion for the combined concentrations of PFOS and PFOA. This number is important because in “PFAS CDC Study 2,” an employee of the White House Office of Management and Budget was worried about the fact that ATSDR’s numbers for minimal risk for some populations went as low as 12 ppt. For more, see EPA’s factsheet on PFAS.

What’s the DoD connection?

The Department of Defense emerges in many PFAS water source contamination stories because DoD’s firefighting foam contains PFOS and PFOA. The Politico story notes that in a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where test of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines. These facilities have caused congressional concern and the Government Accountability Office has studied the issue.

How has the EPA approached PFAS?

Administrator Pruitt has publicly said that he wants to make controlling PFAS a priority and has planned a leadership summit on the issue next week. The summit was planned after the Senate refused to confirm Michael Dourson, President Trump’s nominee to lead EPA’s chemical safety division. North Carolina’s two Republican senators refused to support him for PFAS-related reasons; Dourson’s previous work for the chemical industry recommended dramatically higher “safe” levels of the chemicals than the EPA had found (more here and here).

Mick Mulvaney leads the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB has a history of interfering in or slowing down federal agency scientific assessments.

What do the two emails show?

In mid-January, an email chain with EPA political and career employees discussed a call between EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) about PFAS. Both the political and career employees noted that EPA and ATSDR did not entirely agree on the science.

In a January 30 internal email chain, an unnamed White House political appointee flagged for an EPA political appointee that ATSDR’s draft Toxicological Profile for four PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, PFHX, and PFNA) had very low Minimal Risk Level numbers. The OMB employee noted that ATSDR’s release of its draft would have a “huge” response, that the impact to EPA and the Department of Defense would be “extremely painful,” and that releasing the draft would be a “potential public relations nightmare.”

The OMB message was forwarded to three EPA political appointees: chief of staff Ryan Jackson, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development Richard Yamada; and Nancy Beck. Jackson noted that the ATSDR estimate is 10 times lower than the EPA’s numbers; Beck recommended OMB interagency review; Yamada noted that ORD was going to DoD to discuss. More than three months later, ATSDR still has not released its draft Toxicological Profile, and the agency initially said there are no plans to release it.

How should legitimate scientific disagreements between EPA and ATSDR scientists be handled?

Scientists may or may not agree with the ATSDR analysis. But there’s no way to critique a peer-reviewed study that isn’t public. Further, any legitimate disagreements should be handled among scientists, not negotiated among political appointees.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has a role to play in ensuring that agencies talk to one another. But it has also been used to try to alter science for political reasons. UCS has recommended that peer-reviewed scientific documents be shared publicly when sent to OMB for interagency review. The PFAS case is evidence for why this kind of policy is sorely needed.

CSPAN

Among President Trump’s Dismal Judicial Nominees, Wendy Vitter Stands Out for Promoting Unscientific Myths

Wendy Vitter has been nominated by President Trump for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court in Louisiana, and is expected to receive a vote in a Senate committee tomorrow. Vitter has a track record of promoting anti-science myths which call into question her capacity to impartially evaluate evidence and expert testimony as a future judge. Senators should think long and hard if they want someone with this kind of judgement on the bench.

Vitter is on record perpetuating the myth that abortion causes breast cancer. When speaking on a panel called Abortion Hurts Women’s Health, Vitter claimed that there is a “connection between cancer and post-abortive women.” The American Cancer Society has rigorously assessed this claim and dismissed it as false. So have the World Health Organization and numerous other medical associations.

Wendy Vitter answers questions at her April 2018 confirmation hearing. Vitter, who received the lowest “qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, is President Trump’s nominee for a lifetime judicial appointment.

At the panel, Vitter publicly urged people to pressure medical providers to distribute a brochure titled “The Pill Kills.” One of the most pernicious and unscientific myths included is the statement that hormonal birth control causes “spontaneous abortions” (the pill actually prevents eggs from ever being fertilized in the first place). The same literature claims that birth control causes miscarriages, makes women “more likely to develop lethal infections” and “die a violent death.” Through these false claims, Vitter confuses people about the science of birth control and makes it harder for them to access much-needed health services.

How could it be that such a nominee would not be laughed out of the Senate chamber? Well, let’s not forget that it’s considerably easier now to pack the courts with unqualified nominees since the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees. Further, the Trump administration does not have a great track record of vetting judicial nominees, and the Senate’s willingness to set aside unqualified nominees has been non-existent: not a single Republican senator has voted against a single nominee.

This allowed President Trump to appoint four times as many judges in his first year as President Obama did in his. The American Bar Association gave Vitter’s nomination its lowest qualified rating.

Multiple scientific and public interest organizations urged the Senate to vote against Vitter’s nomination:

Governmental policy and decision-making should be informed by scientific evidence and the best available data. When hearing cases involving governmental policies or actions, judges must be able to evaluate evidence about harms and benefits in an independent and careful manner by evaluating the weight of the evidence. Failing to consider relevant, compelling evidence and placing inappropriate weight on poorly supported assertions should disqualify nominees from judicial appointments…

To merit confirmation, judges must exhibit an ability to appropriately weigh and contextualize scientific evidence when matters involving science are before them. Vitter’s misrepresentations of scientific evidence call into question her ability to do so appropriately. 

Judges need to be able to evaluate expert testimony and scientific evidence in an impartial way. How can we trust Vitter to appropriately evaluate evidence and expertise in a courtroom when she refuses to disavow the distribution of materials that distort the science on women’s health?

Back to Bad Air: The Trump EPA’s Attack on Science and Our Health

Pollution coming from smokestacks at a large industrial facility Photo: Pexels/CC0

Most Americans wake up and breathe comfortably every day because we’ve enjoyed decades of strong science-based clean air policies. These policies limit the emissions from cities, cars, factories and more to keep the air clean and free from most harmful air pollutants.

When he was first appointed, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt vowed to bring the agency “back to basics” by focusing on clean air and water. One could be forgiven for assuming this meant he intended to preserve and strengthen America’s air pollution protections. That’s why it’s so jarring to see how severely his actions have undermined them. The Trump Administration’s EPA is working hard to unravel these life-saving protections on multiple fronts. This week, Administrator Pruitt and his air chief, William Wehrum, will testify on the Hill. They should be asked about how these actions bring EPA back to basics and fulfill its mission to protect public health and the environment.

More hazardous air pollutants with MACT rule change

In February, the EPA issued new guidance to weaken a policy that protects us from hazardous air pollutants from major sources like power plants and chemical manufacturing facilities. By repealing the “once in, always in” policy, the administration is allowing major polluters to evade using the maximum achievable control technologies (MACT) that have minimized our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals for years. Under the new guidance, at least 21 states could see increased emissions of pollutants like benzene and hydrochloric acid that can cause certain cancers and respiratory illnesses.

Gutting the science in ambient air pollutant decisions under NAAQS

Moreover, following up on a presidential memo last month, the EPA last week released guidance changing how the agency sets standards for ambient air pollutants like ozone, lead, and carbon monoxide. Together, the presidential memo and EPA guidance chip away at the long-standing science-based process that has effectively and drastically reduced ambient pollution in this country for decades.

Air pollution statistics cartoon

Changes at the EPA mean that the agency may soon have far less independent science feeding into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections.

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are a widely effective program that ensures the government sets standards for protecting clean air, based solely on what’s protective of public health. This has, by and large, allowed science and public health to prevail even in the face of political or commercial pressures. But the Trump administration has now opened the door to upending this process.

While the EPA guidance claims to “differentiate science and policy judgments,” it in fact does the opposite. Under the proposal, the EPA and its science advisors must not solely consider public health (as the law requires) but must elevate consideration of potential adverse impacts from setting a health-based standard, such as economic impacts. The process would be removed from EPA’s Office of Research and Development—where much of the agency’s scientific expertise lies—and the comprehensive document outlining the state of the science on pollutants and health that the administration relies on to make a science-based decision may be combined with a regulatory impact assessment, blurring the distinction between scientific and political judgments. This builds on a presidential memo that limited the kinds of scientific analyses the EPA can use when determining whether states are meeting the standard.

Restricting the science that EPA can use for decisionmaking

To put more salt in the wound, these actions come on the heels of the EPA’s recent, widely opposed, and dangerous, proposal to restrict the science that the agency can use to make rules. This proposal originated as a ploy by the tobacco industry to stave off second-hand smoke rules, and while its effects would be far broader than air pollution policy, protections against pollutants like ozone and particulate matter are clearly its main target.

Dwindling air pollution law enforcement

EPA enforcement of air pollution laws is also down. The agency issued only around half the average number of penalties against polluters in the first year of the Trump administration as in the same period of the past three presidential administrations.

Wrecking EPA’s science advisory committees

As if these things weren’t enough to undermine the EPA’s basic responsibilities, the administration also has worked to gut the agency’s science advisory committees, kicking academic experts off and replacing them with unqualified or deeply conflicted representatives. Industry representation on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, for example, has tripled. The consequence will be far less independent science advice reaching EPA decisionmakers—and fewer checks on Pruitt’s ability to undo rules.

And we have some indications of the administration’s priorities here. In its proposed FY 2019 EPA budget, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt are looking to cut EPA funding that supports scientific research related to clean air by 27 percent.  Such a cut would threaten the ability of the EPA to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, examine the effects of air pollution on public health, and reducing associated risks, and provide models, tools, and technical guidance to states. This clearly signals the administration’s disregard for air quality work at the EPA.

Administrator Pruitt’s biggest scandal

The sum of these policy changes is likely to mean dirtier air for all of us. This increased pollution is especially dangerous for the vulnerable groups who already disproportionately suffer from the harmful effects of air pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases already face health challenges at current air pollution levels; weakening current standards will certainly exacerbate harm for these groups. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which already experience disproportionate impacts from air pollution due to the cumulative impact of being near multiple pollution sources, will also be harmed by these policy changes.

Looking out for public health is supposed to be the “basic” responsibility of the EPA and its administrator.  The most scandalous thing about Scott Pruitt is how he’s abandoned the mission of the agency. If he won’t do the job, the rest of us need to speak up for clean air and the science that helps us protect it. Our lungs depend on it.

Photo: Pexels/CC0

La EPA elimina una protección vital para mantener el aire libre de sustancias tóxicas, poniendo nuestra salud en peligro

View of the ship channel in Houston with city in the back, and air pollution.

Por décadas, la Ley de Aire Limpio nos ha protegido de los nocivos efectos a la salud que causan los contaminantes atmosféricos industriales. Muchos de estos contaminantes son tóxicos;  respirarlos o cualquier contacto con ellos puede causar cáncer, al igual que enfermedades respiratorias y neurológicas degenerativas que pueden causar la muerte. Algunas, como el cloro y el ácido hidroclorídrico, por ejemplo, pueden inflamar los pulmones y las vías respiratorias. El estireno, solvente utilizado con frecuencia en la elaboración de plásticos y hule sintético, está ligado a trastornos degenerativos como la esclerosis múltple y otras enfermedas similares al Parkinson. Gracias a las regulaciones que nos protegen de 187 sustancias tóxicas, la Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA en inglés) estima que se han evitado cada año desde 1990 la emisión de 1.5 millones de toneladas de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos.

Pero recientemente la EPA—sigilosamente—ha eliminado estas protecciones. A la extensa lista de los escándalos de corrupción, conflictos de interés, intervención política en la ciencia y nepotismo en la agencia, le añadimos la derogación de la política conocida como “once in, always in” (abreviada “OIAI”, y que se traduce “una vez presente, siempre presente”).

Este cambio, sin previo proceso de consulta pública y escuetamente anunciado como una “reinterpretación” de la ley, le permitirá a las instalaciones industriales altamente contaminantes, como las fundiciones metalúrgicas e instalaciones petroquímicas, eliminar el uso de tecnologías para controlar la contaminación tóxica que emiten al aire.  El uso de tecnologías y procesos para reducir contaminantes tóxicos se conocen como Maximum Achievable Control Technologies (MACT), y hasta hace poco fueron de uso obligatorio por parte de las instalaciones altamente contaminantes.

En una nota previa a completar nuestro estudio sobre las consecuencias de la derogación de ésta norma (aquí en inglés), advertí que aumentará las emisiones de contaminación causante de cáncer. Mi colega, la Dra. Gretchen Goldman, ya nos explicó (en inglés) que las comunidades de justicia ambiental–donde la mayoría de las personas son afroamericanos, latinos o pertenecientes a otras minorías étnicas  y/o de bajo ingreso—serían las más afectadas. En efecto, hemos encontrado en nuestro estudio que muchas de las comunidades donde ya existen altos niveles de contaminación tóxica se verán expuestas aún más.

Tomemos como primer ejemplo a las comunidades de Galena Park y Manchester aledañas al canal marítimo de Houston en Texas. Junto con nuestros colaboradores—vecinos de estos barrios y activistas de la organización TEJAS, quienes son en su mayoría latinos y muchos de bajos recursos—, hace poco demostramos que la cercanía a múltiples instalaciones industriales que al presente emiten muchos contaminantes tóxicos está teniendo efectos negativos en la salud de estas comunidades.

El distrito legislativo 29 (TX-29), donde están dichas comunidades, contiene 15 instalaciones que reducen sus emisiones de manera significativa mediante MACT. Con el cambio en la norma de la EPA, once de éstas pudieran emitir unas 205 toneladas de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos por año, lo cual representa un incremento de casi 70 por ciento.

Algunas fuentes mayores de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos como la fábrica de químicos Deer Park en Houston, TX (perteneciente a OxyChem), pudiera incrementar sus emisiones de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos de 0.64 a casi 25 toneladas por año si deja de utilizar MACT para controlar sus emisiones.

La nueva directriz impactará a los estados de formas distintas. Algunos estados dependen exclusivamente de las normas federales de contaminantes tóxicos para proteger la calidad de su aire, mientras otros estados establecen sus propios umbrales. Algunos de los estados con normas propias permiten las emisiones de contaminantes dependiendo del caso, mientras otros han establecido normas más estrictas en general.

¿Cómo puede usted conocer los posibles impactos en su región? Puede consultar el mapa interactivo que creamos donde mostramos el número de instalaciones que pudieran incrementar emisiones tóxicas en su distrito electoral. Por ejemplo, si selecciona el districto electoral 16 de Pensilvania (PA-16), podrá ver que once de las catorce instalaciones que al corriente usan MACT para reducir sus emisiones tóxicas pudieran emitir 209 toneladas por año, y que el estado no cuenta con protecciones adicionales para limitar contaminantes tóxicos.

Si desliza la ventana un poco hacia abajo podrá encontrar el nombre y número de teléfono de su representante. Le urgimos que lo contacte  para preguntarle cómo le exigirá a la EPA y a la agencia de calidad ambiental de su estado que protejan a la salud pública de este peligroso cambio.

¿Usted qué puede hacer?

Hay muchas maneras de expresar su preocupación sobre la posibilidad que las instalaciones industriales en su comunidad emitan contaminantes tóxicos del aire debido al debilitamiento de las protecciones existentes.

  • Si usted vive en un estado donde la contaminación tóxica del aire podría aumentar, presione a sus legisladores para que establezcan leyes estatales que protejan a su comunidad de estos contaminantes tóxicos. A continuación podrá encontrar algunas ideas para participar, y consejos para comunicarse con legisladores (enlace en inglés).
  • Pida un cita en persona con su representante o miembros de su equipo y comparta su preocupación.
  • Organice o participe en reuniones, cabildos abiertos, y otros eventos comunitarios. Aproveche el marco de las elecciones del 2018 en donde ocurrirán muchos de estos tipo de eventos y pida compromiso con este tema. Encuentre cabildos abiertos en este enlace  o en la página de su representante, y utlice esta guía para organizar un evento comunitario (en inglés).    
  • Pregúntele a la agencia responsable de la calidad del aire en su estado sobre cómo los cambios en “once in, always in” podrían afectar a su área. Encuentre su agencia estatal en la página de la EPA.
  • Utilice los medios de comunicación para atraer la atención del público sobre el tema. Escriba cartas al editor, editioriales, o reúnase con periodistas locales y juntas editoriales y comparta su preocupación. Lea estos consejos sobre cómo hacerlo (en inglés).
  • Contacte directamente a la compañía que opera la instalación industrial en su comunidad y pídales que se comprometan a mantener su clasificación y a utilizar la tecnología MACT con todos sus requisitos. Vuelva a contactarlos si no le responden en el plazo de una semana y comparta las respuestas, o los silencios, con medios locales, representantes y su comunidad.
  • Dígale a Scott Pruitt, director de la EPA, que cumpla su mandato de proteger la salud pública y al medioambiente y revoque la nueva directriz.
  • Envíele trinos en Twitter a Scott Pruitt, director de la EPA, y etiquete a sus representantes al congreso.

¿Quiere recibir la información más reciente sobre los ataques federales a nuestra salud, seguridad y protecciones ambientales, y notificaciones personalizadas sobre cómo usted puede defender la ciencia? Si tiene un posgrado, puede unirse a la Red de Científicos y su iniciativa de vigilancia (en inglés). Si usted es un líder local, únase a nuestro grupo de Science Champions (en inglés).

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