UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

November Elections and the Art of Voter Suppression

Source: Michael Latner/UCS

Voting rights violations are emerging across several states with less than a month before the conclusion of midterm elections in the United States. As a result of discriminatory election laws and procedures, representation and policy making power could be distorted in favor of powerful, entrenched interests, against the will of a majority of the electorate. The threat of such democratic dysfunction illustrates the need for meaningful electoral reform and the protection of voting rights for all citizens.

Early voting is underway in seventeen states, including at least two states where voting rights have already become a flashpoint in pivotal elections.

In North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and challenger Kevin Cramer is in a race that Cook Political Report rates as a “toss up.” The election could determine control over the US Senate—but the Supreme Court of the United States just refused to block the state’s discriminatory practice of requiring voter identification from a residential street address.

Because the US Postal Service does not provide delivery to rural reservations in North Dakota, most Native American tribal members use P.O. Boxes, which is listed on their identification. The state’s voter identification law specifically requires a street address for valid identification. Earlier this year a district found that nearly 5,000 members of North Dakota tribes lack valid identification, and many of them also lack supplementary documentation that allow them to cast a provisional ballot. Senator Heitkamp won her last election by fewer than 3,000 votes.

In an even more egregious smear on democracy, Georgia gubernatorial candidate and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp has frozen over 50,000 registration applications, most of them from African-American voters, according to an AP analysis. Kemp claims “voter roll maintenance” is necessary to preserve the integrity of elections and ensure that only legal citizens are voting. However, previous scientific and legal challenges have shown that voter impersonation is nearly non-existent.

Moreover, Kemp’s “exact match” tactic used to remove unvalidated voters from the state registration file was already prohibited as a violation of voting equality in a previous lawsuit, but the law was reinstated by the state legislature to allow for a “curing” of unmatched voters records within, wait for it, 26 months. Kemp has chosen to keep using this method despite scientific studies that show there are far superior methods for record matching.

Even though he knows about the disproportionate, discriminatory impact these laws have on African-American voters in Georgia, Kemp maintains that he is a defender of electoral integrity. His opponent Stacy Abrams, who would become the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States if she won, has a different title for Kemp: a “remarkable architect of voter suppression.”

Earlier this year, a Brennan Center analysis estimated that the purging of registered voters from state files has increased by approximately four million people since 2008. Much of the increase is attributed to states that were previously covered under the 1965 Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions.

The Mississippi governor’s race in 2019 may similarly turn on Jim Crow era electoral restrictions. Popular Attorney General Jim Hood has an opportunity to be the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades. However, the state constitution requires that the governor win not just a majority of the popular vote, but a majority of state House seats, which are heavily gerrymandered in favor of the incumbent party.

These and other restrictive election laws are distorting the representation of voters across the country, weakening the ability of already under-represented groups to protect their own health and safety. This is just one of many reasons why it is so important that citizens exercise their voting rights and mobilize communities to elect candidates that will advance effective electoral reforms before 2020.

Why Andrew Wheeler’s Social Media Actions Matter

Photo: Alamy

Andrew Wheeler took over as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency when former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid a flurry of ethics scandals. It is no less of a scandal that Mr. Wheeler has been engaging with racist content and conspiracy theorists on social media. Whether he remembers it, or claims it was a mistake or not, Mr. Wheeler’s actions disrespect people of color and demonstrate an affinity for theories that have no scientific backing.

Like all Americans, Mr. Wheeler is free to express his personal political views. But when a public official espouses views or, through his actions, legitimizes fringe voices who propagate dangerous race or conspiracy rhetoric—he has crossed a line that should give Americans across the political spectrum pause.

Mr. Wheeler’s position is to protect public health and safety from the impacts of pollution. And those people most impacted by that pollution, most in need of a high-level effective and committed voice in government, are the poor and communities of color. There is overwhelming evidence that these communities suffer more from pollution and have long been denied public health and safety protections.

The Environmental Protection Agency—and indeed all our government agencies—are mandated to use empirical evidence to advance the public interest.  Yes, they do so imperfectly. But, conspiracy theorists and racial baiting are the antithesis of any rational, fact-based approach.

As we saw with Pruitt, ideologies, values, and biases of public officials shine through in their governance. When biases flow unchecked from federal agency leaders, it reflects in their agency’s policies and actions and has lasting consequences. Racial bias is no exception.

This cannot be the norm. This administration has a long way to go to show the country that they care about all of us, not just their friends in industry, or in wealthy white communities. Mr. Wheeler has made that road even longer. Yes, he should apologize. But more importantly, he must show us all by his actions that he knows his job is to enact policies that actively protect those most impacted by pollution across the nation. Show us now.

Scientists Cut Out of EPA’s Particulate Pollution Standard Setting

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

In the latest of several moves targeting EPA air pollution protections, the Trump administration appears to have cut scientists out of a process for reviewing particulate pollution standards.  The move breaks with a longstanding process for how the agency gets independent scientific review into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections. Without such expertise involved, EPA won’t have the best available scientific input to keep people safe from air pollution, as the law requires.

What the heck is PM2.5?

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is responsible for thousands of deaths in the US annually. The Trump administration is undermining the science-based air pollution controls that have reduced particulate pollution for decades.

Particulate pollution or particulate matter (PM) is a kind of air pollution comprised of tiny solid particles (as opposed to gaseous air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide).  These particles—especially ones smaller than 2.5 micrometers—are especially harmful because they can reach deep into human lungs, causing pulmonary and respiratory issues.  In fact, particulate pollution kills more people in the US than any other form of air pollution, with tens of thousands of premature deaths per year attributed.

The good news is that PM pollution has gone down over the past few decades.  Most of the country now meets the current annual PM standard. Cities and industrial sources have invested significantly in technology and other strategies to keep their particulate emissions down.

NAAQS: A Science-based Process

Our nation has had success in reducing PM because of our strong science-based standards. Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), every five years the EPA must revisit the science of particulate matter pollution and health. After a thorough review of all science available and extensive input from PM experts, the EPA administrator will set a standard based on what level of pollution protects public health with an adequate margin of safety.  This process has worked remarkably well, at least until now.

The EPA relies on the air pollution and health expertise of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and pollutant review panels. CASAC (as I’ve written about before) provides the EPA with a recommendation for the standard based on its understanding of the science.  Both the EPA and CASAC rely on help from pollutant review panels to ensure they are using and interpreting correctly the best available science.

These review panels are comprised of experts on the pollutant under review specifically, allowing the agency to benefit from subject matter expertise. For example, CASAC will include folks with air pollution modeling or monitoring expertise and epidemiologists, but the PM review panel might include experts on the toxicology of particulates or an expert on particulate measurement error. This is especially important because CASAC is small (seven people). No matter how expert, it would not be possible for this group to have working expertise of all elements of the relationship between a pollutant and health AND have that knowledge for all six criteria pollutants under CASAC’s purview. As a result, EPA decisions on pollution standards can benefit from scientific expertise on all facets of the science on particulates and health.

Think of it this way: You could create a team of seven doctors from different disciplines to oversee your general health but if you developed a brain tumor you’d probably want the advice of a specialist who had experience in brain surgery.  Likewise, EPA needs the help of specialists to fully assess the state of the science on individual pollutants.

Nixing the PM (and Ozone) Review Panels?

Yesterday, the EPA issued a statement noting that CASAC would be leading the review of the science for PM and ozone standard updates, with no mention of the PM and ozone review panels that have always been convened to inform the scientific assessments.  This is a break with how the agency has always done things.  By nixing these panels, the EPA would be cutting off the vital expertise it needs to get the science right on the health effects of air pollutants.

The administration might claim to be making this move in the name of streamlining but there are much bigger consequences to eliminating science from the process.  Sure, it will be a faster process to update the PM standard without a review panel, but we’ll also have a less science-based process. Review panels effectively serve as a public peer-review of the EPA’s integrated science assessments, which detail the state of the science on pollutants.  Without a PM review panel, there is far less expert input informing the PM standard.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. The administration has made clear that they are interested in fast-tracking the PM and ozone reviews in order to set new standards before the end of the administration.  This is an aggressive timeline, considering that the EPA is only required to update the standards every five years, and usually needs more time to conduct the careful, science-based process of characterizing the state of the science on a pollutant’s health effects and working with scientific experts to issue a standard that is protective of public health. If you can eliminate this careful scientific assessment, you can speed up the process, but at the expense of public health.

An EPA hostile to clean air

The announcement is especially concerning in light of the other changes that the Trump administration is making to air pollution policy and science advice at the EPA.

  • Ongoingly the administration has been gutting science advisory committees at the EPA, replacing independent scientists with conflicted and unqualified individuals. Yesterday’s announcement continued this pattern, by removing four independent experts on CASAC and replacing mostly with individuals that work for state agencies. Only one academic scientist remains on CASAC, a committee historically dominated by academic scientists with extensive publication records on air pollution and health research.  The administration is treating advisory committee positions like political appointments. In reality, the science advisory committee are intended to capture the breadth of scientific understanding—not to have specific policy views, and not to get stakeholder input.
  • Last April a Presidential Memorandum outlined other changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards process, including restricting the kinds of science that EPA can use to inform the standards for PM and other pollutants. Implementation of these changes will limit the science EPA looks at in determining the relationship between air pollutants and health, i.e. the science that determines the health-based air pollution standards.
  • PM has also been the primary target of the EPA’s proposed rule to restrict the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking broadly. Chronic exposure to particulates is linked to premature deaths. As a result, reducing PM pollution has a huge bang per buck, saving many lives with every improvement in air quality. This fact is inconvenient for industries that want to continue to emit particulate pollution, making PM science a long-time target by ideological and financial interests that don’t want the tighter PM standards that save lives. The proposed rule to restrict EPA’s use of science is the latest assault to undermine the use of the science on PM’s health impacts.
Less Science, More Soot

These changes to the air pollution standard setting process will make it easier for the administration to weaken air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone.  With less science and fewer scientists to inform decisionmakers, challenge assumptions, and verify scientific assertions, we are on a path toward political decisions cloaked in science.  The administration might be able speed up the process by removing the crucial steps where the science is assessed, and experts weigh in, but this will come at the expense of our health.  Can the EPA protect public health if it doesn’t take the time to determine what level of pollution is unsafe?

If the PM standard is weakened, public health will undoubtedly suffer. Pollution sources would be able ease controls on their pollution and potentially build new polluting facilities in more places. And the health burdens won’t fall equally. Low-income communities and communities of color that are already disproportionately burdened by air pollution from industrial and traffic sources are likely to be harder hit.  Vulnerable populations like the children, the elderly and those with lung diseases are more likely to face health effects of increased soot in the air.  In near literal terms, by removing the science, we remove the air from our lungs.

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Sidelining Science Hurts Children

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

That week, her mother chose groceries over her daughter’s asthma inhaler. Food for your children over medicine for your children; for a parent, there is not a more tortuous game of Russian Roulette than this. That week, this mother lost that gamble. Her daughter had an asthma attack. There was no inhaler. She died gasping for air in their living room.

These are the words of Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus as he describes the disproportionate impact climate change has on black communities, particularly children. In this case it was a 14-year-old girl who lived in Southeast Washington, DC. The reverend explains here that 1 in 6 African-American children in the US have asthma, and 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a power plant.

The Reverend Yearwood’s story is one that I cannot shake ever since I heard it in-person when he spoke to the Union of Concerned Scientists nearly one year ago. It is a powerful story that illustrates that when science-based issues are poorly addressed, the results can be deadly, particularly for children and our country’s most disenfranchised people.

Yet, the Trump administration has made it easier for these power plants to release toxic air pollutants known to cause asthma and other disease. This administration  is literally deleting scientific evidence that climate change disproportionately affects the health of children. And then last week, they abruptly placed the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, which has the authority to weigh in on decisions around power plant emissions and many other public health threats, on leave. These decisions paint a worrisome picture for the future of the safety of children as UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest detailed here.

When science is sidelined, there is often an underlying story of the people who are hurt by these decisions and it is often children.

Impairing children’s brain development

When the EPA reversed course and decided not to ban the harmful insecticide chlorpyrifos, many families worried about their children and their health. Fidelia Morales notices chemicals float onto her children’s jungle gym in their very own backyard in California. Her children have had learning issues, and have suffered from bronchitis, asthma and other chronic illnesses. Morales fears the pesticides are the reason for these illnesses. There is a good chance that she is correct given that the swath of research showing chlorpyrifos affects the brain development, IQ, and health of developing and young children.

Children are losing parents

In 2017, President Trump rolled back President Obama’s Executive Order 13690 that would have increased protection from future extreme floods. Such floods are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, science that Obama’s Executive Order embraced, but that President Trump refuses to acknowledge. Ten days after Trump’s rescission of this executive order, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas with historic rainfall causing unprecedented flooding. The floods left an estimated 30,000 people in need of shelter.

One mother made the ultimate sacrifice saving her child during the floods of Harvey. A woman and her 3-year old child were swept out of a parking lot by the flood waters of hurricane Harvey. Two police officers spotted a child clinging to their mother in a canal. When the police arrived at the scene, the mother was unresponsive and pronounced dead shortly after arriving at an ambulance, whereas the child suffered from hypothermia but was cared for and released to family members in stable condition. What if we recognized the threats of climate change and prepared for them? Maybe this child could grow up knowing their mother.

Children lose when vaccines are lost

President Trump has on many occasions misrepresented overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. In 2015, when asked about getting the flu vaccine during an interview, Trump said, “I’ve never had one… Thus far I’ve never had the flu. I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body, which is basically what they do.” Such statements have bolstered the movement of people who refuse to vaccinate their kids, causing real harm to their and other children.

Flu season is upon us. Last winter, the flu took 172 children with it – the largest death toll in nearly a decade. One of those children was 6-year old Eden Murray, whose family thought that maybe she was just tired from school when she stayed in bed all day. Most families don’t think they are going to lose their child to the flu – this also was the case for the family of 6-year old Emily Muth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that most children that die from the flu (around 85%) are not vaccinated.

President Trump is wrong to lambast vaccines for children. Make sure your children and you are safe this season, go get your flu vaccine.

How many more children must suffer?

The Trump administration’s chlorpyrifos decision was reversed by courts this year – one strategy that has worked in favor of public health. These successes are great, but there are still major issues to be addressed. Extreme flooding is continuing this year. The floodwaters of hurricane Florence have been attributed to 35 deaths thus far. The Trump administration also is attacking air pollution standards on many fronts, even though there are a number of studies that provide evidence that increased air pollution is linked to decline in human health and life expectancy.

How many more teenage girls have to gasp for air? How many more children must grow up without knowing a parent? How many more mothers must worry about their children playing outside?

I never thought that I would be writing a blog to advocate for children’s health – it is seriously mind-boggling for me. And while this all may seem alarmist, these stories are real. Let’s acknowledge these stories, the lives, and faces of those affected by the sidelining of science – we must learn from them to protect children now and in the future.

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

Three Reasons Bernard McNamee is a Horrible Choice for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

President Trump’s nomination of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may not grab a lot of headlines but make no mistake – it’s a blatant (and oft repeated) move by the Trump administration to pollute an independent regulatory body with political operatives intent on carrying out his crony capitalism. A hearing to consider McNamee’s nomination is already set for Tuesday, October 16th – a clear sign that Trump’s political allies are trying to ram through his appointment without thoughtful consideration. But here’s three reasons McNamee is a horrible choice to be a FERC commissioner and why his potential confirmation should worry all of us.

But first, what is “FERC”?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – or “FERC” – is an independent federal regulatory body that is organized as part of the Department of Energy and that oversees much of our modern energy infrastructure. From pipelines, to hydroelectric dams, to our interstate transmission system and wholesale electricity markets, FERC is tasked with ensuring “reliable, efficient and sustainable energy services at a reasonable cost”. To put it simply: FERC’s decisions impact our wallets, our environment, and our climate.

Now that we understand why it’s important who our next FERC commissioner is, here are three reasons why Bernard McNamee is the wrong man for the job:

1. McNamee has serious conflicts of interest.

Bernard McNamee has been a key player in the Trump Administration’s unsuccessful attempts to bailout the coal industry. Now McNamee’s been nominated to join the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission despite a lack of qualifications and clear conflicts of interest.

President Trump and the Department of Energy led by Rick Perry have been trying to bailout their buddies in the coal industry since they got to D.C. In his positions with the DOE, McNamee helped craft a previous proposal to provide subsidies to uneconomic coal plants. That proposal was unanimously rejected by FERC in January. We also know that DOE is still working to find the legal authority to order subsidies – with cost estimates of $34 billion or more – be paid to these same plants.

McNamee almost certainly had a role in crafting this latest proposal that is opposed by nearly everyone except the coal industry. To date he has not divulged exactly what role he’s played, who he’s worked with, or what communications he’s had with FERC about the upcoming proposal. Working to craft a bailout proposal for the coal industry would create a serious conflict of interest if he were to then be appointed to FERC that would ultimately vote on the proposal.

Imagine if you were accused of a crime and, once the prosecutor had made his closing arguments, he was appointed to be the judge in your case. That is akin to what we’re now facing with McNamee’s potential appointment to FERC. Free and fair electricity markets, low-cost electricity, and our clean energy future are at stake.

 2. He’s horribly unqualified.

Bernard McNamee has no experience in the utility or natural gas utility industries and has no experience as a regulator of these industries. He was appointed to the Department of Energy (DOE) by President Trump, and before that worked for a conservative think tank in Texas and was an advisor to Senator Ted Cruz and the Texas Attorney General.

3. He would destroy FERC’s standing as an independent regulatory body.

FERC was specifically designed to be independent from political interference. BY nominating Bernard McNamee to join FERC, the Trump Administration is trying to pollute that longstanding independence.

FERC has a long history of steering clear of the political fray, particularly in its responsibility to protect free and fair energy markets. In fact, FERC is specifically designed to be independent from political influence so that it can remain objective. To protect against undue influence at the Commission, no more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same political party, FERC is not funded by taxpayer dollars (and therefore not subject to appropriations battles), and FERC decisions are not reviewed in advance by the President or Congress.

This independence has already been thrown into question by FERC’s chief of staff, Anthony Pugliese – another unqualified political operative inserted at FERC by President Trump. The appointment of McNamee to be a FERC commissioner would double down on Trump’s efforts to make FERC a pawn to his political agenda. Everyone should be concerned about the erosion of independent decision making and the precedent that would set.

Before any hearing is scheduled on his nomination, a full accounting of his activities since joining the DOE, including his communications with the coal industry and his role in the ongoing effort to bailout uneconomic coal plants, should be made public. Then it’s up to the Senate to ask serious questions about how he plans to fulfill his duties at FERC given his lack of qualification and his apparent conflicts of interest. If we can’t get acceptable answers to these questions, then it’s painfully clear that McNamee has no place at FERC.

Photo: Ryan McKnight Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change

“Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves,” notes Ross Racine, Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of “Food Distribution Programs,” largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)

It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities’ health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage, and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.

The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as “the Indian Wars,” from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and “removed” surviving communities to isolated “reservations.” Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging, and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.

Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation’s “1994 Land-Grant Institutions”—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education, and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs “teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples’ history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions.” Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive “success” of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father’s people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.

I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA’s Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona’s question to Mark and he responded: “How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?” It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.

Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation’s survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as “Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities,” or even more eccentrically, the “1994s.” Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.

Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a “land-grant scheme” whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to “clear the way” for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the “empty land” (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family’s entry into today’s Kansas with the words: “There were no people here, only Indians.”)  The federal “land-grants” were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government “granted” land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more “productive” alternatives.

The resulting institutions, today’s “Land Grant Universities,” thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society’s privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to “serve” the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the “1890 Land Grants.” It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern US) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as “the 1862s,” for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.

What Must “Science” Now Do?

Which brings us to the “1994 Land Grants.” It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent’s first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.

So this is where the federal government is now with this  project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe “improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species,” among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.

In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have “struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills,” and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report’s recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.

Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the United States in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation’s Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People’s Day.

Kids Deserve to Have Healthy Lives: The Uncertain Fate of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection

October 1 marked the beginning of Children’s Health Month, the month when health organizations, health professionals, government agencies, and others work to raise public awareness of children’s unique vulnerabilities and highlight their support for child health. And there certainly are many issues that merit our attention and efforts to protect and promote the health of our nation’s children, from prenatal care and adolescent health to immunization and nutrition.

These issues also include the environmental threats and hazards that affect the health and safety of our children, like air and water pollution, exposure to lead, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals and yes, even climate change.

From asthma to brain damage, exposure to chemicals and other environmental hazards can have both immediate and lasting effects on children’s health and well-being. What’s more, these hazards often affect children differently than they do adults, so it makes sense that public protections should take these differences into account. And, along with providing science, information, and expert advice, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be the cop on that beat.

Director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection: OUT

The EPA garnered significant news over the past week when it abruptly placed the director of its Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) on administrative leave. The director, Dr. Ruth Etzel, is a pediatrician, health scientist, and renowned environmental health expert who literally wrote the book on children’s environmental health.

If the surgeon general is the nation’s doctor, Dr. Etzel has been the children’s doctor at the EPA and a tireless advocate for children’s environmental health throughout her career. Her expertise and experience, along with the work of the OCHP staff, have been vital to informing the EPA on the unique vulnerabilities of children and how the agency’s proposals, policies, and efforts could affect them. There are no other MDs, much less a pediatrician, in this office.

The persistent sidelining of science and other scientists at the EPA makes it essential for the agency to explain how OCHP will continue to play a meaningful role in the agency’s decisions.

Children are not little adults

Exposure to pollution, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals can make kids sick, as parents, family members, health care providers, teachers, and day care providers are generally well aware. They know, for example, that air pollution, second-hand smoke, mold, and some chemicals can trigger asthma attacks. Indeed, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 6.1 million children (8.3% of kids under the age of 18) suffer from asthma, and that there were 13.8 million asthma-related missed school days in 2013, plus the countless visits to doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitalizations.

They certainly know that lead can poison kids, seriously damage developing brains, and result in lasting cognitive and behavioral problems. They may know that there is no safe level of lead exposure in children and that lead exposure continues to be a significant problem in the US, with approximately 500,000 children ages 1 to 5 years having blood lead levels higher than the CDC reference level. And some may be waiting for the promised updated Federal Lead Strategy (see here and here), which is expected to be available for public comment in late 2018 (that means now, so what and where’s the hold-up?).

And then there’s the worry about the thousands of chemicals used in household and consumer products, home furnishings, building materials, and even toys. The saga of EPA’s decision on the pesticide chlorpyrifos is a story onto itself (see here, here), though one with a hopeful ending thanks to the courts (though the EPA intends to fight the decision).

In so many words, we know that in many cases chemicals and kids are a bad mix.

That’s why it’s particularly noteworthy that the EPA has both a policy and an office dedicated to children’s health.

OHCP: Not just another cog in a bureaucratic machine

In 1995, the EPA established a policy to “consistently and explicitly evaluate environmental health risks of infants and children in all of the risk assessments, risk characterizations, and environmental and public health standards.” In 1996, the agency established a national agenda to protect children’s health from environmental threats.

In 1997, the EPA Office of Children’s Health Protection (OCHP) was established by executive order. It is the only office in the agency totally dedicated to the health of children. The office was and for now remains located within the Office of the EPA Administrator. Its proximity to top EPA leadership reflects the importance of its fundamental goal, which is to “to ensure that all EPA actions and programs address the unique vulnerabilities of children.”

The OHCP’s web site further defines its major work as: “increasing environmental health literacy of health care providers through support of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units; and evaluating and communicating trends in environmental contaminants that may contribute to childhood disease through publication of America’s Children and the Environment.”

Kids are uniquely sensitive and vulnerable to environmental hazards. As the OCHP also notes on its web site, children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures because “their bodily systems are still developing; they eat more, drink more, and breathe more in proportion to their body size; and their behavior can expose them more to chemicals and organisms.”

Our nation’s doctors and nurses rely on the expert advice and resources in the OHCP in caring for our children. EPA policy makers need the same to effectively safeguard our kids.

Speaking out and what worries me most

That’s why it’s particularly troubling to see the EPA potentially put the work of the office in jeopardy (not to mention the notable timing given Children’s Health Month). More than 120 organizations have written to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler asking the EPA “to immediately clarify what action it has taken with regards to Dr. Etzel and with regards to OCHP, and make no further attempts to dismantle, re-organize, diminish, or otherwise reduce the abilities and authorities of OCHP.” Signatories include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the March of Dimes, National Association of County and City Health Officials, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, Moms Clean Air Force—and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But what’s even more troubling is the context in which this occurs. This administration has an established track record of devaluing and sidelining science and scientists. We are tracking these assaults on science here—but I admit it’s hard to keep up.

Just in the past week, we have also seen the EPA disband its Office of the Science Advisor (see here, here) and then appoint the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries to the top political position inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at the EPA. And we also learned that a rule to restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions was developed without involvement of the agency’s science advisor.

Also in the news this week are White House efforts to suppress attention to climate change and children’s health at the same time, scrubbing language about how climate change affects children’s health from a draft EPA proposal on heat-trapping chemicals.

So call me concerned? Heck Yeah. I’m troubled that there seems to be no due process in removing the EPA’s top expert in children’s environmental health. I’m worried that in the daily onslaught of the Trump administration’s efforts to sideline science, scientists, and elevate private profit over the public good, what’s happening to children’s health at the EPA will get lost in the shuffle as people move on to the next outrage.

We can’t let this happen

The health of each child in this country is just too important. The Trump administration’s EPA is actively reopening important protective rules—from mercury to methane, power plant emissions to how communities deal with chemical disasters. In the first two years of this administration, we have learned that reopening these rules is simply the first step in attempts to delay, weaken, or entirely gut health protections. We need strong science and scientists within the EPA to be in a position to stand up for children.

So please raise your voice again and again on this one. Call your elected representatives, tell your friends and neighbors, write a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper. Tell them what children’s health means to you, and why the EPA needs to push forward, not retreat, on protecting our families.

Take action now! Send EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler a message that we are paying attention and know these moves are dangerous and unacceptable.

Photo: Runar Pedersen Holkestad/Flickr

Electoral Reform Update: One State at a Time

Across the country this November, voters have an opportunity to improve the quality of U.S. elections in their states, and for the country as a whole.

Reforms ranging from redistricting to registration requirements and ballot access could lower voting barriers and reduce inequalities in turnout, particularly in environmental justice and other overburdened communities, where our recent analysis showed especially low levels of turnout. A handful of states are also trying to raise barriers to free and fair participation in elections, which we highlight below.

In the following states, these reforms would improve the quality of future elections:


Proposal 2, Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative—the organization Voters Not Politicians collected more than the required 315,654 signatures for the initiative.

A Detroit Free Press poll released last week showed the initiative ahead, up 48-32 percent, with 20 percent undecided. Proposal 2 receives significant support from both Democrats and independents, but is losing by 33-44 percent among Republicans.

Michigan’s “Promote the Vote” which will be Proposal 3 on the ballot, would allow for voter registration up to the day of the election, allow people to get absentee ballots for no reason and allow straight-ticket voting. Proposal 3 received the most support in the poll with 70 percent of those surveyed saying they’ll vote for the proposal, and 25 percent opposed.


Amendment 1 would create a position called the non-partisan state demographer, which would draw state legislative districts. The state demographer would be selected from a pool of applicants, with the state auditorstate Senate majority leader, and state Senate minority leader involved in the selection process. The state demographer would file the proposed map with the existing commissions, which would be permitted to amend the demographer’s map via a 70 percent vote of the commissioners, provided that amendments meet Amendment 1’s redistricting criteria.

Amendment 1 would also address campaign finance and lobbying policies related to state legislators and legislative employees. The ballot initiative would forbid the Missouri State Legislature from passing laws allowing for unlimited campaign contributions to candidates for the state legislature. Amendment 1 would establish campaign contribution limits for legislative candidates and their committees for a single election cycle to $2,500 per person to a state Senate candidate and $2,000 per person to a state House candidate.  Finally, the measure would prohibit making or accepting contributions using a fake name, using the name of another person, or through another person to conceal the actual donor’s identity.


With unanimous support from the state legislature and both state party chairs, Colorado will become the first state to have an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters on independent commissions that redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. Under the amendment, districts would need to be competitive. Competitive is defined in the amendment as having a reasonable potential to change parties at least once every ten years. Measuring competitiveness would entail evidenced-based analyses, voter registration data, and past election results.


Proposition 4 would create a seven-member independent redistricting commission to draft maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Members would be appointed by the governor and state legislative leaders. A person would not be eligible to serve as a commissioner if, during the four years before appointment, he or she was a lobbyist; was a candidate for or holder of any political or elected office; received compensation from a political party, political party committee, or political action committee associated with a political party.

The following states also have voting rights related initiatives:

Florida: Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative—automatically restores the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. A recent poll shows 42 percent of voters plan to vote “Yes” on Amendment 4, while 20 percent will vote “No.” But with 36% undecided, and the amendment requiring 60% to pass, its fate is still uncertain.

Maryland: Question 2, Election-Day Voter Registration Amendment—legislative Democrats voted to place the amendment the ballot. The measure was designed to authorize a process for registering qualified individuals to vote at a precinct polling place on election day.

Nevada: Question 5, Automatic Voter Registration via DMV Initiative—the measure was designed to provide for the automatic voter registration of eligible citizens when receiving certain services from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

A handful of other states are moving in the opposite direction, seeking to raise further barriers to voting:

Arkansas: Issue 2, Voter ID Amendment—would require individuals to present a valid photo ID to cast non-provisional ballots in person or absentee.

Montana: LR-129—The Montana State Legislature voted to place the measure on the ballot, through the support of 80 of 91 Republicans and one of 59 Democrats. The measure was written to ban persons from collecting the election ballots of other people, with exceptions for certain individuals.

North Carolina: Voter ID Amendment—This amendment was referred to the ballot by the state by the state legislature along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it and Democrats voting against it. It would create a constitutional requirement that voters present photo ID

North Dakota: Measure 2, Citizen Requirement for Voting Amendment Initiative—The measure was designed to clarify that only a U.S. citizen can vote in federal, state, and local elections in North Dakota.

These and similar restrictions have been proposed with the support of climate change-denial groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in an effort to entrench representatives under their influence.

Across the country, it is crucial that citizens get out to vote by November 6 and take part in this historic opportunity to reassert popular control over government and policy making.

Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Top EPA Science Office Sidelined as Political Appointees Hatched Controversial Science Proposal

The EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) was excluded from discussions around a proposal to restrict the types of science that could be used in agency decisions, according to an email obtained by UCS. Described by EPA as providing “leadership in cross-Agency science and science policy,” the OSA would normally be principally involved in such an effort. This is further evidence that the science rule was developed by political appointees while completely excluding top EPA scientific staff.

OSA Director Tom Sinks seemed taken aback when the rule was published.

“Even though OSA and I have not participated in the development of this document and I just obtained it (have yet to read it), I am listed as the point of contact,” he wrote in an email to colleagues. “No doubt we will all have a lots [sic] of questions re this – but I wanted you to be aware of this and encourage you to read about it.”

The email was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the Washington Post, which broke the story earlier this afternoon.

It’s a lot easier for fringe scientific views to take root when the agency’s own scientific experts aren’t even allowed a seat at the table. Adding insult to injury, EPA leaders announced last week that the Office of Science Advisor would be eliminated and that some of its functions would be buried deep inside one EPA office, diminishing the role of science advice at the agency.

The email from Dr. Sinks shows the exclusion of the science advisor’s office from important policy discussions started long before EPA leaders decided to get rid of it.

Previously, the EPA attempted to justify its proposed rule by claiming that it was consistent with recommendations from several prominent scientific organizations, forcing those organizations to disassociate themselves from the rule.

“Contrary to the stated purpose of the rule, the rule would result in the exclusion of valid and important scientific findings,” said Rush Holt, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in testimony before the Senate today, according to the Washington Post.

Hundreds of scientific associations, industry groups, public interest organizations, scientists have expressed concern about the proposal in public comments. Even the Department of Defense told EPA that this idea is unwise.

DOI’s New Policy Restricts Science Under the Guise of Transparency

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order, “Promoting Open Science”, purportedly to increase transparency and public accessibility of the research used by the Department to make science-based decisions. This seems dubious coming from a person who spent much of his career lobbying for the oil and gas industry and who at his confirmation hearing professed, “Here’s the reality: We’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but … policy decisions are made — this president ran and he won on a particular perspective.” The order, effective immediately, is not unlike the EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule, in that it restricts the use of science in important decisions that affects the public and our environment. At its surface, the order seems to make science a hallmark of DOI policy:

This Order is intended to ensure that the Department of the Interior (Department) bases its decisions on the best available science [emphasis mine] and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions. Further, it is intended to ensure that the American people have sufficient information [emphasis mine] about what their Federal Government is doing to assess where it is coming from and correct the Federal Government when we err.

The only problem is that science already is and has been part and parcel of the work of the Department.  So, what has changed?  When you dig deeper it is easy to see this order for what it is:  an attempt to place unnecessary burdens on the use of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda.

To date, this Administration has shown disdain rather than respect for science.  Here at UCS we have been tracking attacks on science and several are at DOI.  Our survey of DOI scientists (at the US Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, as well as the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement)  reveal deep concerns among the professionals in the agency about the way their political leaders are managing the science program in the department.  The following details from the order are also important to note:

Raw data and reproducibility

Any decision based on scientific conclusions that are not supported by publicly available raw data [emphasis mine], analysis, or methodology, have not been peer reviewed, or are not readily reproducible [emphasis mine] should include an explanation of why such science is the best available information.

Requiring that scientific data be publicly available means that some high-quality data can’t be used in federal government research. Raw data may include confidential information such as private addresses and locations of sacred spaces and cultural resources or even the locations of the last remaining individuals of an endangered species. A colleague said, “it’s like telling poachers where the last rhinos are living,” an astute analogy. Allowing such data to be publicly available could put individuals, species, and culturally or religiously important sites at risk. In some cases, data from older studies may be inaccessible where the authors or data sources may not be available. This would be an issue for reproducibility as well, especially considering that long-term studies and studies determining the natural history of species often rely on data obtained before the advent of modern data storage.

As Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists previously pointed out, raw data is not typically reviewed even in the most rigorous peer-reviews. Instead, the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions are reviewed to assess the quality of the work.

Also cited in the order is an excerpt from the Office of Management and Budget, Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality, Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Disseminated by Federal Agencies. “If an agency is responsible for disseminating influential scientific, financial, or statistical information, agency guidelines shall include a high degree of transparency about data and methods to facilitate the reproducibility of such information by qualified third parties [emphasis mine].”

In other words, the OMB guidelines already call for the science to be as transparent as is reasonable.  So, is this order calling for it to go beyond the bounds of reason?

Best available science

“The Department issues regulations on a wide swath of activities that have a tremendous impact on the lives of Americans. Accordingly, the Department has an obligation to the American people to ensure that decisions are based on the best available science [emphasis mine]. On March 28, 2018, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13783, ‘Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,’ declaring it ‘the policy of the United States’ that environmental regulations ‘are developed through transparent processes that employ the best available peer-reviewed science and economics.’”

No one in DOI political leadership seems to view science as anything more than an inconvenience. Instead it seems they are just industry favorable heads making decisions that sound like they’re in the public’s best interest – but are not. We’ve already seen how the DOI is treating science. In less than two years, the DOI has manipulated, dismissed, and ignored science and scientists; they’ve canceled studies on oil and gas operations, restricted scientists from attending conferences essential for keeping abreast of research and methods in their disciplines, gone against their own communication policy by requiring scientists to get permission to speak to media about their work…and subsequently hid the communication policy deep in the DOI website, buried a report on the effects that climate change and sea-level rise have on coastal communities, and even gone so far as to reassign scientists from their posts without justification. Recently, the DOI proposed a rule that would undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act by prioritizing economic considerations when determining endangered or threatened status for species.

Industry waivers

The requirements of this Order may be waived, in whole or in part, by the Deputy Secretary upon a written determination that a waiver is necessary and the least restrictive means of protecting privacy, confidentiality, including confidential business information and trade secrets [emphasis mine]; national security, and homeland security. With appropriate redactions, all waivers shall be posted on Regulations. gov (or any similar successor site) concurrent with publication of the related rule in the Federal Register.

There are waivers for industry. Of course there are. There is nothing explicitly mentioned about protecting the privacy of individuals, but hopefully this is implied and won’t require extra rigmarole. However, they made sure to be clear that any data revealing industry information and “trade secrets” could be eligible for a waiver by the Deputy Secretary, making it a wholly political decision.  Shouldn’t it be up to the scientists to decide when the scientific information is important in order to advise policy-makers?  Otherwise, policy-makers can just choose the information that supports their political positions.

The DOI’s decisions under this administration leave a trail of crumbs that lead to one thing: short-term economic gains at the expense of wildlife, public lands, and public health. Manipulating the process by which science informs policy only serves to tilt the scales farther in this direction.

Connecting the dots

Restricting the scientific information eligible for use at DOI would leave many agencies and bureaus therein unable to meet their missions and statutory obligations. This proposal could make the conservation of endangered species all the more difficult because of the requirement to reveal location data, landholder information and other information that is best kept confidential in order to protect endangered plants and animals. Additionally, these restrictions would increase burdens on agency scientists that are already encumbered by budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, resulting only in reduced capacity to make science-based decisions.

In his order, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt quoted late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynilian as saying “everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”, adding his own take, “Differences of opinion are inevitable as people of good will pursue different priorities. Differences of facts are not.” On that we can agree – so stop trying to choose what should be seen as fact. Adding unnecessary hoops is not in the best interest of the public, wildlife and lands that DOI is tasked with protecting, it only serves to slow down science-based decision-making processes as a part of the administration’s anti-science agenda. If DOI really wants to keep the public informed, they could start by not pulling studies and deleting information from websites, but by properly funding programs and offices committed to sharing knowledge with communities.

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Trump’s USDA vs. Science

The United States has a complicated history when it comes to science. The very birth of the nation is bound up with the European Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the notion that reason should inform the self-government of free peoples. President Jefferson wrote that science “is more important in a republic than in any other government.” Decades later, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

But science has also been frequently misused by the US government. And in the Trump era, independent scientific advice is increasingly under threat. Such advice has been ignored and devalued across federal agencies under this administration, including at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where last year, we might well have had a “Chief Scientist” with no scientific credentials at all, but for that nominee’s past racist statements and unseemly ties to Russians during the Trump presidential campaign.

And it is at the USDA that we are observing what follows after merely ignoring scientists. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is relocating, defunding, muzzling and otherwise belittling the standing of his department’s scientists. In a move that stunned the staff and administrators of the Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Secretary summarily announced, without consultation, that these agencies would be banished from their DC locations and that the ERS would be shuffled from its current position in the organizational chart, where it logically reports to the Department’s Chief Scientist, to within the Secretary’s office.

Lest you believe that these are obscure bureaucratic moves of little consequence, opposed only by self-interested researchers and administrators who are threatened by what Perdue is characterizing as a cost-saving, streamlining move, take stock that no informed observers accept or understand the Secretary’s stated rationale, including professional scientific societies, farmer organizations, and even the members of Congress charged with USDA oversight. In fact, over 1,100 scientists have stated their resolute opposition to this move.

But what is clear is that the agencies will become less effective in fulfilling their mission to support independent scientific research and analysis, that the agencies will be less appealing to scientists and economists, and that ERS in particular will be subjected to political pressure to ensure its analysis supports the Secretary’s agenda. In the words of Susan Offut, former ERS administrator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Secretary is “throwing away a world class research institution.” The Chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senators Roberts (R, Kansas) and Stabenow (D, Michigan), wrote Perdue asking for fuller explanation of the Secretary’s irascible move, including its legal premises. Rather than elaborating and illuminating his rationale, the Secretary responded obstinately, only restating his original rationale, the equivalent of a breezy teenage “whatever.”

And why would an administrator seek to diminish and dilute the labor of a first-rate scientific establishment? One doesn’t need to look too intently to realize that the various outlandish claims on which Perdue’s agenda is based are contradicted by the objective analysis of his department’s own scientists, ranging from the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the degree of economic concentration in agriculture and the asymmetrical distribution of government subsidies to large corporate farms.

Many won’t remember, but the Trump USDA’s efforts to suppress inconvenient facts are not without precedent. The predecessor to ERS was the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), shut down in the 1950s by the racist namesake of the USDA’s main building on the mall today, Jamie Whitten. Late in his life Whitten recanted some of his earlier odious social views, but when it mattered, the Representative from Mississippi and chair of the powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Committee opposed, among other progressive measures, all efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. And he did to the USDA’s economists what Perdue is again attempting to do now. The crime of the BAE? They documented the USDA’s discriminatory practices against the African-American farmers of Whitten’s home state of Mississippi. When Whitten was persuaded by President Kennedy to approve reestablishment of today’s Economic Research Service, he did so subject to the condition that its economists refrain from repeating such “hound dog studies.” In other words, this has happened before. It can happen again.

Let us be clear—as citizens of the 21st century, and particularly as people living in the United States—that none of the world’s current challenges, from climate change to clean power to agricultural sustainability, can be addressed effectively without sober and competent scientific perspective. For all their flaws and imperfections, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Age of Enlightenment and students of the Scientific Revolution. They fancied themselves giving pride of place to the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. The United States was the socioeconomic and political experiment they set up to to implement these novel and powerful insights. They envisioned the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. In this, they exemplified a kind of bold, novel pragmatism that aspired to put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base government policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.

That experiment, fraught as it has been, is—shall we say—clearly teetering at the moment. But it is an intent well worth remembering in today’s highly polarized political environment.

New California Laws Address Climate Change—Some Bills Fall Short

California State Capitol Photo: Rafał Konieczny CC-BY-SA-4.0 (Wikimedia)

It’s Fall. That means crisp morning air, dwindling sunlight, and a chance to take stock of legislative victories and setbacks in California, as Governor Brown has now signed or vetoed the last of the bills sent to his desk this year.

As always, the progress we make in Sacramento is not only improving Californians’ quality of life, but also keeping momentum going for other states and countries. Many of the gains we make in clean technologies, for example, are reducing costs and proving solutions at scale, charting a course from which others can learn.

Big wins to fight climate change SB 100 bill signing

Governor Brown signed SB 100 into law on September 10, 2018. Adrienne Alvord, UCS Western States Director, is pictured third from left.

The biggest victory this year for UCS—and California’s climate—was unquestionably passage of SB 100 (De León), which accelerated the state’s renewable electricity requirement to 60% by 2030 and set a goal to supply all of California’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.  The world is sure to be watching our state to see how the globe’s fifth largest economy can run entirely on carbon-free electricity while maintaining a safe and reliable power grid. UCS was proud to work with a large coalition of faith, labor, business, climate, and environmental justice leaders to move this bill across the finish line. Now that SB 100 is the law of the land, our state has an opportunity to lead the world by example and help produce the technological innovation needed to operate a truly carbon-free grid.

Another key victory was passage of SB 1014 (Skinner), which will make sure ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft reduce global warming pollution from cars running on their platforms. The law requires that the California Air Resources Board adopt targets for reducing the average emissions associated with every mile a passenger travels on ride-hailing platforms. In practical terms these targets will encourage ride sharing (such as UberPOOL and Lyft Line) and greater use of cleaner vehicles, particularly zero-emission vehicles. Uber and Lyft have become an essential part of our transportation system, but their popularity has also raised concerns about increased congestion and emissions. As such, UCS was thankful to work with Senator Skinner on this first-in-the-nation law to make sure that ride-hailing companies are taking steps to address climate change.

There were many other noteworthy bills addressing climate change passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Brown into law. Key UCS-backed measures signed into law include:

  • AB 2195 (Chau)—Requires tracking of global warming emissions from production and transport of natural gas imported into California.
  • AB 3232 (Friedman)—Requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to assess the potential to reduce emissions from the state’s buildings to 40% below 1990 levels by 2040.
  • SB 700 (Wiener)— Reduces the cost of batteries to backup on-site solar energy systems at homes, businesses, and schools.
  • SB 964 (Allen)—Requires the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to analyze the financial risk of their investments due to climate change.
  • SB 1013 (Lara)—Restricts the use of potent global warming gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
  • SB 1072 (Leyva)—Creates regional climate collaboratives to help disadvantaged communities access state funding to address climate change.
  • SB 1477 (Stern)—Helps develop a market for low-emissions buildings and low-emissions space and water heating equipment.
Additional victories on nuclear weapons and scientific transparency

UCS also worked to advance priorities in the state Capitol beyond solutions to climate change. For example, we advocated for two resolutions – AJR 30 (Aguiar-Curry) and AJR 33 (Limon) – that passed the Legislature in August calling on the U.S. Congress to adopt several common sense reforms to reduce the threat of nuclear war. These resolutions call for the United States to renounce the option of using nuclear weapons first and to take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, among other changes.

We also supported AB 2192 (Stone), a bill to make more state-funded research freely available to the public. Governor Brown also signed this measure into law.

Some bills fall short

SB 64 failed to garner the 41 votes necessary to pass the California State Assembly.

Despite all the progress California made in 2018, numerous important bills failed to pass. A key loss for UCS was SB 64 (Wieckowksi), legislation we co-sponsored with environmental justice and clean energy groups to address air pollution that comes from cycling of natural gas power plants.  This is an important issue to California’s clean energy transition because natural gas power plants are likely to start and stop more frequently as the state uses more electricity from solar plants and wind farms. The bill sought to more clearly report power plant emissions data and study how to phase down use of natural gas power plants. SB 64 received 40 votes in the Assembly (one vote short of passing) before industry opposition whittled support down to 33 votes. The bill faced intense opposition in the final days of the legislative session despite its relatively modest ambition.

The highest profile bill we worked on that failed to pass was AB 813 (Holden), which would have paved the way for California’s largest grid operator, the California Independent System Operator, to expand its operations into other western states. UCS supports regional integration of the electricity grid as an important tool to meeting our clean energy goals, and we supported AB 813 for most of the year as the centerpiece of legislative debate on the issue. However, as the session came to a close, too many questions remained in the final version of the bill for our organization to remain in support and we decided to take a neutral position on the bill during the session’s final days. Going forward, we still see integration of western energy markets as a key solution to creating a reliable, cost-effective grid powered by renewable energy.

There is always next year

In 2019 California will have a new governor with his own new priorities, and a Legislature of mostly returning members who are sure to have many ideas of their own for how to address climate change. Here at UCS we have our own ideas too, and we look forward to continuing our work to make California a “coast of dreams,” striving to push the boundaries of new solutions to climate change and other pressing challenges.

Office of Governor Brown

The EPA Disbanded Its Office of Science Advisor. Here’s Why That Matters.

EPA office building with agency flag

Late last week, the EPA announced its intention to get rid of its Office of the Science Advisor (OSA) and bury its functions deep down in another agency office. This move will significantly diminish efforts to coordinate and standardize the way that EPA does science. The administrator will have significantly less access to scientific advice at normal times and during times of crisis. And it will be easier for agency leaders to sideline and politicize science.

E&E News broke the story, and the New York Times, Bloomberg, CNN, and NPR soon followed. Then, on Monday, the lead lobbyist for Koch Industries took a job as the top political appointee inside the office that is now in charge of science advice and coordination at EPA.

What the office currently does

The National Academy of Sciences in 1992 recommended that the EPA create a science advisor office to “ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science.” From NAS:

It envisioned that the essential function of the science advisor would be to ensure that EPA policy decisions are informed by a clear understanding of relevant science. The panel recommended that the new science advisor advise the EPA administrator, implement a peer-review and quality-assurance program for all EPA science-based products; be a key player when EPA makes a policy decision, ensuring that the science and uncertainties relevant to a policy or regulatory issue are considered; play a key role in evaluating the professional activities of EPA scientists; reach out to the broader scientific community for information; and maintain an appropriate relationship with EPA’s [Science Advisory Board]. The panel suggested that the role of the new science advisor might be somewhat analogous to the role of the general counsel, who will not approve a document destined for an external audience until it is judged legally defensible.

The EPA is disbanding its Office of the Science Advisor. By any measure, this is not good news for the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment. Cartoon: UCS/Jesse Springer

OSA staff are there to provide science advice to the administrator on the development of public protections and about how to respond to crises (including contamination from hurricanes, chemical disasters, and oil spills). They work to standardize scientific practices across different agency departments that develop and communicate science. They investigate allegations of political interference in science. They provide space to address contentious scientific issues. All of this requires them to have direct access to the administrator as well as sufficient authority and stature to influence other parts of EPA.

How it should work

The science advisor position is currently parallel to the head of the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). While the head of ORD has often served as science advisor, this has not always been the case. Administrator Lisa Jackson separated the two roles, which has distinct advantages, including a greater ability to guide scientific work across the agency and investigate violations of scientific integrity within ORD.

The best practice would be to make the science advisor more independent from ORD. Instead, they are going in the other direction by burying the science advisor’s responsibilities deep within the office. It’s highly unlikely that an ORD head is going to allow information to come from within that would put ORD programs in jeopardy.

Why this change matters

The elimination of the science advisor’s office accelerates the decay of the role of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office. The administrator needs someone who will tell it to them straight—even if it’s not the information they want to hear. Unnecessary layers between the science advisor and EPA leadership can do long-term damage to the agency’s scientific capacity, but they’re especially harmful during crisis situations when the administrator needs independent scientific analysis fast.

The move further compromises the ability of EPA to standardize and improve scientific practices across the agency. EPA’s work on human subjects protection, data sharing, peer review standards, and other best scientific practices will be diminished as their recommendations carry less weight.

Further, the agency’s scientific integrity policy (designed to prevent political pressures on scientists and scientific work) and its implementation will also be compromised. The scientific integrity officer’s ability to investigate allegations of political interference in science within ORD will be considerably more difficult.

The EPA’s response

The EPA claims that the agency is simply streamlining its workforce, and that there will be no reduced access or authority since the current acting science advisor is also the head of ORD. But this is based on several faulty assumptions.

First, it suggests that the science advisor doesn’t need a staff. Second, it assumes that there will never be a need to separate the ORD head from the science advisor position. Third, it completely ignores the OSA’s cross-organizational functions that will be significantly less prominent and that staff will be left out of important discussions due to rank.

The context

Unfortunately, the current EPA has consistently left EPA scientific staff out of the conversation on important public health matters. For example, EPA scientists were not consulted when the agency decided not to ban the brain damaging chemical chlorpyrifos (a decision that was later reversed in court). The proposal to restrict the types of science that EPA can use in decisionmaking was similarly hatched by political appointees without the meaningful involvement of agency scientists.

Under disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the ban on science advice from EPA grant recipients, the appointment of multiple industry insiders to high-level policy positions, the removal of climate change information from websites, and so much more has led to an understanding that science doesn’t count for much in the current EPA. Some were hopeful that Pruitt’s departure would bring changes.

In one of his first days on the job, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler met with agency staff and pledged to include agency scientists in the work of the agency. Yet this move suggests a lack of interest in unfiltered science advice and strong science standards, which can only make the agency less effective in protecting public health and the environment. The addition of a Koch Industries lobbyist as the liasion between the science office and the administrator’s office only amplifies the concern.

Environmental Justice Requires Electoral Reform: New Analysis

The Center for Science and Democracy has released a new analysis, Building a Healthier Democracy: The Link Between Voting Rights and Environmental Justice, which demonstrates the negative impact of restrictive election laws on voter turnout across Congressional districts (see the report and our impact maps here).

The study provides a snapshot of the conditions that need to be overcome in order to build a healthier democracy in the United States. Environmental pollution reduces voter turnout directly, as seen in the negative impact of poor air quality (as measured through the EPA’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model), as well as indirectly, through the turnout dampening impact of poverty, regional job loss, and other forms of socioeconomic distress (measured using the Economic Innovation Group’s Community Distress Index).

Voting inequalities are further exacerbated by restrictive election laws, many of which have been put in place by the same organizations responsible for climate change disinformation campaigns and other pseudo-science. For example, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was directly involved in the implementation of one of the nation’s worst Congressional gerrymanders in Michigan, and it has supported “proof of citizenship” and discriminatory photo identification requirements in many states. Discriminatory election laws further distort representation by keeping eligible voters out of the process. Our analysis shows that restrictive eligibility laws have a particularly suppressive impact on voter turnout, and that full participation of the electorate will require major electoral reforms.

Building a healthier democracy requires that we recognize the additional burden of restrictive election laws on communities already overburdened by economic and environmental distress. People cannot protect their communities when they are excluded from the process that generates electoral representation and public policy. Uncompetitive elections further reduce voter turnout, insulating political parties and candidates from public accountability. Representation in state legislatures and Congressional delegations is further distorted through racial and partisan gerrymandering that entrenches powerful interests at the expense of responsive government.

Environmental justice and voting rights communities can prioritize their common goal of empowerment by re-engineering U.S. elections through a series of evidence-based reforms. Removing the remaining barriers that keep eligible voters out of the voting process should be the first priority, as our analysis shows that the biggest institutional restraint on turnout occurs through strict registration requirements. Automatic voter registration, which requires citizens to opt out rather than opt in, can also ensure for more secure voter registration lists and automatic updating of voter records. In addition, pre-registration coupled with civics education, as well as early and extended voting periods would secure an open electoral process.

On the back end of the electoral process, where votes are converted into seats and legislative power, our analysis suggests that increasing electoral competition, and preventing state legislatures from engaging in racial and partisan gerrymandering, could significantly improve participation and the policy making process. Currently, our single-seat electoral districts for Congress provide a big incentive to game the districting process in favor of parties over people. We show that gerrymandered states have significantly worse air quality than non-gerrymandered states. Even without gerrymandering, the geographic concentration of voters inevitably produces uncompetitive seats dominated by a single party. Moving to a more proportional allocation of legislative seats in states and in Congress would substantially improve competition over leadership and the responsiveness of the electoral system. If we cannot fix our democracy, it is unlikely that we will fix our climate.

Fortunately, change is already underway in some states. Oregon, California, and nearly a dozen other states have already implemented or adopted automatic voter registration. A surge of voter opposition against gerrymandering is coming to a head this November in states like Michigan, Missouri and Utah, where reformers hope to join an increasing number of states to take districting out of the hands of state legislatures. Our analysis identifies reform movements happening across country and provides interested citizens with important information about how to get involved. Reform starts with engagement, and that means voting this November.

What is the Responsible Science Policy Coalition? Here Are Some Clues

An interesting new group has popped up called the Responsible Science Policy Coalition (RSPC) that seems to have a significant interest in chemical safety policy. Are they legitimate? As Congress prepares for another hearing into the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, it’s worth digging into who these folks might be.

PFAS have been in the news quite a bit recently because the White House was caught censoring a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on the health effects of PFAS exposure. These chemicals are widely used in products ranging from nonstick cookware to water-repellant fabrics, and they are especially prevalent in the water at military bases due to their use in firefighting foam. Bipartisan outrage about the censorship was swift and sustained, and the report was released in June. A new UCS analysis shows that many military bases have potentially unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water.

PFAS are used in firefighting foam. Some military bases have unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water. Photo: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

In July, the Responsible Science Policy Coalition surfaced at a meeting of the Council of Western Attorneys General where they expressed being “eager to help your state with your issues.” In their presentation to the attorneys general, the RSPC argued that there are “lots of problems with existing PFAS studies” and that these studies “don’t show the strength of association needed to support causation.”

The RSPC also submitted a comment on the ATSDR draft toxicology assessment that extensively detailed why, in their view, ATSDR’s scientific approach was sub-par.

Who is supporting the RSPC?

Where, then, did the Responsible Science Policy Coalition come from, and why do they care so much about PFAS? Here’s what we know. According to the PowerPoint presentation, RSPC is a new coalition made up of 3M, Johnson Controls, and unnamed other companies.

The inclusion of 3M is particularly notable because the company spent decades hiding the science about the dangers of PFAS. 3M used such chemicals in many highly-used products including Scotchgard and firefighting foam. According to the Intercept:

A lawsuit filed by Minnesota against 3M, the company that first developed and sold PFOS and PFOA, the two best-known PFAS compounds, has revealed that the company knew that these chemicals were accumulating in people’s blood for more than 40 years. …The company even had evidence back then of the compounds’ effects on the immune system…

The suit, which the Minnesota attorney general filed in 2010, charges that 3M polluted groundwater with PFAS compounds and “knew or should have known” that these chemicals harm human health and the environment, and “result in injury, destruction, and loss of natural resources of the State.” The complaint argues that 3M “acted with a deliberate disregard for the high risk of injury to the citizens and wildlife of Minnesota.” 3M settled the suit for $850 million in February, and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office released a large set of documents…detailing what 3M knew about the chemicals’ harms.

The government can protect families from excessive exposure to PFAS, but only with access to independent scientific information. Photo: nicdalic/Flickr

And you thought all they made was Post-its and tape!

RSPC seems to be led by Jonathan Glendill and James Votaw. Glenhill is the president of the Policy Navigation Group, whose list of past and present clients is dominated by industry groups. Votaw is a lawyer for Keller and Heckman; the address given for RSPC is the address of Keller and Heckman’s DC offices. Votaw has signed the three comments from RSPC on the ATSDR study (the first two were extension requests). Votaw’s practice concentrates on environmental and health and safety regulation, including chemicals and pesticides.

Keller and Heckman’s chemicals practice is more circumspect, but their pesticides practice is described in part as “[helping] clients defend existing markets worldwide against governmental pressure and environmentalist activism.” They can help companies “defend against an EPA enforcement action” and “secure successful tolerance reassessments.”

How many groups like this are there?

A name like the Responsible Science Policy Coalition makes insinuations of course—that most people are pulling numbers out of thin air and pursuing haphazard or irresponsible science policy, and we really need some adults in the room. The same words are reused again and again in the names of these types of organizations, and “responsible” is no different. There’s the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Reform, the Coalition for Responsible Regulation, and more.

Less charitably, groups like RSPC are known as front groups. Disguised by innocuous-sounding names and with a veneer of independence, they principally exist to create doubt and confusion about the state of the science to avoid regulation of the products their members create. Plenty of industries have them. The American Council on Science and Health has long conducted purportedly independent science that was in fact funded by corporate interests. The Groundwater Protection Council fights federal regulation of fracking. The Western States Petroleum Association, the top lobbyist for the oil industry in the western United States, was found in 2014 to be running at least sixteen different front groups in order to undermine forward-looking policies like California’s proposal to place transportation fuels under the state’s carbon cap.

Could the Responsible Science Policy Coalition meet its stated goal to “accelerate research and promote best practices and best available science in policy decisions?” Perhaps. But those looking to RSPC for advice should be wary of the fact that so far, it seems to exist to encourage more relaxed regulation of PFAS chemicals – a decision that is worth a lot of money to the organization’s funders.

PFAS Contamination at Military Sites Reveals a Need for Urgent Science-based Protections

A new UCS factsheet released today looks at PFAS contamination at military bases, revealing that many of the sites have levels of these chemicals in their drinking or groundwater at potentially unsafe levels. PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, have been used in everything from Teflon pans, to nonstick food packaging, to water-repellent raingear for decades. Only recently has it been revealed to the general public that these compounds are seeping into our waterways and causing health issues in people who are exposed to the chemical at elevated levels over time.

The contamination of drinking water and groundwater at military bases continues to be a problem because the firefighting foam used in training exercises and in operations contains PFAS. Living with this additional risk is an unacceptable extra burden that these men and women and their families should not have to bear. This is not just a story about a chemical that is largely unregulated, it is a story about the people who are dealing with the ramifications of its widespread contamination every single day.

What we found

A draft toxicology report released by ATSDR after emails obtained by UCS revealed that the White House had been suppressing the study suggested that risk levels for PFAS were 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA’s current standards.

The report’s findings, suggesting that PFAS are potentially more hazardous than previously known, are particularly concerning because of these compounds’ persistence in the environment and widespread prevalence.

UCS mapped PFAS contamination of groundwater and drinking water at 131 active and formerly active US military sites across 37 states. We translated the ATSDR’s risk levels for PFOA and PFOS into comparable drinking water standards in parts per trillion using EPA’s own methods and found all these sites but one exceeded the more conservative of those levels.

  • At 87 of the sites—roughly two-thirds—PFAS concentrations were at least 100 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.
  • At 118 of the sites—more than 90 percent—PFAS concentrations were at least 10 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.
  • Over half of the 32 sites with direct drinking water contamination had PFAS concentrations that were at least 10 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.
Urgent action needed

In the ATSDR’s scientific review of 14 PFAS, the association between exposure and negative health effects is clear. While there is absolutely need for more research into some of these associations and a lot more data to fill the gaps on the thousands of PFAS compounds that have not yet been looked at, there is a compelling case to be made for EPA to act urgently on the class of chemicals and there are no shortage of ways to do so, both by enacting enforceable standards and providing support to the states that have taken the lead on this issue.

Responding to high rates of contamination, communities have been on the frontline of getting action in their states. More and more states are setting standards for PFAS in drinking water and groundwater more stringent that the EPA’s health advisory, and places like Washington have banned the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging. And communities and organized and poised to get the changes they want.

Congress has also been hearing from their constituents and taking action. There have been an encouraging flurry of bills introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year. An amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act secured by New Hampshire’s Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has enabled $20 million funding for ATSDR to conduct a nationwide health study on PFAS. Other measures are still pending. The House recently passed an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that would allow commercial aircraft manufacturers and commercial US airports to use non-fluorinated chemicals in firefighting foam starting in 2 years. The PFAS Registry Act (S. 2719, H.R. 5921) would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry to ensure that veterans possibly exposed to PFAS via firefighting foam on military installations get information about exposure and treatment. The PFAS Accountability Act (S. 3381) in the Senate and the PFAS Federal Facility Accountability Act in the House would encourage federal agencies to establish cooperative agreements with states on removal/remedial actions to address PFAS contamination from federal facilities including military installations. The PFAS Detection Act (S. 3382) would require USGS to develop a standard to detect and test for PFAS in water and soil near releases, to determine human exposure, and report data to federal/state agencies & relevant elected officials.

Tomorrow, a Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs subcommittee is holding a hearing on the “federal role in the toxic PFAS chemical crisis” at which EPA and DOD representatives will be testifying. It is critical that these agencies provide members of the public with clear answers on how they will be doing their jobs to protect all of us from further PFAS contamination. Take action with us to hold these agencies accountable today.

Action Needed to Address the US Military’s PFAS Contamination

There was dead silence at a community meeting last week in Portsmouth, New Hampshire after Nancy Eaton spoke before a panel of top federal health officials planning a study of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base. She described how her husband David, who was healthy all his life, died quickly in 2012 at 63 from pancreatic cancer.

David Eaton served four decades in the Air National Guard based out of Pease and saw duty in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. Nancy said David drank the base’s water and the coffee brewed with the same water every day, on top of being exposed to toxic chemicals as an airplane mechanic.

“He loved every second of the 40.7 years he proudly served our country,” Eaton told the panel of experts from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, Eaton said, “my husband and I never had the chance to retire together, take a couple of trips nor build our retirement home.”

She said she was not alone as a premature widow, noting that several of her husband’s comrades died of cancer and others have  suffered tumors of the brain, lung, mouth and breast. She concluded by saying that her husband and others served their country without asking questions, “never thinking their lives would be cut short due to carcinogens on the job. Our families deserve answers as well as preventing this from happening again.”

Eaton’s sentiments were echoed by Andrea Amico, a co-founder of Testing for Pease, a group of parents whose children drank contaminated water at the site’s daycare center, and whose demands for a thorough investigation of PFAS harms have now resulted in establishing Pease as a key location in the first nationwide federal study of those harms.

A nationwide problem

Eaton’s and Amico’s pleas for answers are part of a growing chorus across the country. The latest scientific research suggests that this group of chemicals is more harmful to human health than previously recognized. The group of chemicals known as PFAS, common in many household products such as non-stick cookware and water-repellant carpeting, are linked to several cancers, liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma and reproductive and fetal health disorders. A report from the Environmental Working Group says as many as 110 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-laced water. Nowhere, however, is the problem as acute as it appears to be on US military sites where PFAS compounds have been heavily used for training in fire suppression and the chemicals have been routinely allowed to drain into groundwater.

According to a new report and interactive map from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the levels at Pease, a Superfund site, are 43,545 times above what the ATSDR considers safe, and some 30,000 people live within three miles of the base. Some 9,500 employees work in the 250 businesses in the current trade port that was once part of the base itself. The military has shut down the worst polluted drinking water well but residents remain concerned about the groundwater contamination. An Air Force official told the Portsmouth Herald in July that it could take up to a decade to resolve the issue even with state-of-the-art water filtration.

Worse yet, Pease is just one of more than 100 military sites with similar problems. The UCS study looked at 131 military sites and found that all but one had levels in excess of what the government now considers safe. The vast majority–some 87 bases–reported PFAS concentrations more than 100 times safe levels and 10 of those military sites had concentrations 100,000 to 1 million times higher than the government’s recommended “safe” levels.

Trump Administration tried to suppress new findings

Concern has mounted over the past year about the danger posed by the PFAS group of chemicals. In May, UCS published emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that indicated that the Trump administration was suppressing a study reviewing the link between PFAS and disease in humans.

In a now-infamous January 30 email discussing the decision to delay publication of the PFAS report, Office of Management and Budget Associate Director James Herz relayed the concern of an aide in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs that: “The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful.” Herz fretted about “the potential public relations nightmare” it would be for the report to be released.

Thanks to pressure brought after the emails were exposed, the 850-page ATSDR study on the toxicity and prevalence of 14 PFAS compounds was released in June. The study sets new recommendations for safe exposure to PFAS compounds 7-to-10 times lower than currently recommended by the EPA. Notably, though, this group of chemicals has so far managed to escape any enforceable limits because EPA has never officially listed them on its registry of toxic chemicals.

It is nothing short of outrageous that worries of a public relations headache almost won out over the actual public health nightmare that millions of Americans face greater risks from exposure to PFAS than previously recognized. The entire class of PFAS should be immediately registered on EPA’s list of toxic pollutants and the Defense Department should ask Congress for enough resources to clean up the contamination.

Pressure mounts for action

Andrea Amico from Pease, age 36, said she worries every day if and when health effects might show up in her husband, who drank Pease water at work for nine years and whose first two children drank the water in day care. She said close to 100 people have contacted her, worried that their serious illnesses are related to PFAS exposure. “We’ve heard from women having problems with fertility to the point where one woman told me she worked in an office where all the women had fertility problems,” she said.

Similar concerns are being echoed all around the country. This week, Amico is scheduled to testify before a Senate subcommittee alongside Arnie Leriche, a former EPA environmental engineer who lives near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan. PFAS compounds there were recorded at 73,636 times the level considered safe by ATSDR’s new recommendations.

Asked how it feels to be to be advocating for answers on pollution after investigating it at EPA for nearly four decades, Leriche said he felt “a lot of disappointment that the agency hasn’t been able to conduct the mission the way it should,” both amid the Trump administration’s current attempt to gut clean air and water rules of the 1970s, and the inconsistent focus and inadequate EPA funding over the years by both Democratic and Republican administrations. “But there’s a lot of career employees at EPA, engineers, Forest Service who are sticking their neck out, not going to let this happen quietly.”

Michigan, with its heavy industrial history, has a long, troubled relationship with PFAS. Clean water advocates were staggered this summer when the MLive Media Group, which represents many newspapers in mid-sized cities in the state, discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request that the state Department of Environmental Quality sat for nearly six years on a report warning of potential widespread PFAS contamination. It is the same DEQ that sat on the Flint Water Crisis.

The report, prepared by state environmental specialist Robert Delaney, found perfluoroalkyl levels in fish “on an order of magnitude higher than anything documented in the literature to date.” With contamination evident throughout the food web, from algae and zebra mussels to mink and bald eagles, the report indicated Michigan was suffering from “widespread contamination,” with little monitoring and “an endless list of things that could and possibly should be done. However, first, those in authority have to be convinced that there is a crisis.”

One of those trying to convince the state to care about PFAS, despite its horrific neglect of Flint, is Cody Angell. He has been a lead advocate for testing and remediation of industrial PFAS in communities north of Grand Rapids. Like the residents at Pease, Angell says Michigan has many anecdotal cases of cancer and residents want answers and action to address the problem.

“Every day, more and more people are realizing that government has failed us,” Angell said. “When you hear that government is more concerned about public relations than people, that is really like saying they are knowingly poisoning people. But as long as we can keep PFAS in the news, we’ll get results at some point.”

Back at Pease, keeping PFAS in the news is precisely Amico’s goal as well. At the meeting, she read a letter from Doris Brock, widow of Kendall Brock, who served 35 years at Pease and died last year of bladder and prostate cancer at the age 67. Doris Brock said she keeps a list of 70 members of military families she knows were hit with organ cancers and 40 are now dead.

“We don’t want just studies,” Amico said. “We want medical monitoring and physicians have to know what these chemicals are so people can be treated properly.”

Ken Lauter, 69, who worked at Pease for 24 years in military and commercial aircraft maintenance and security, told the community meeting that he too has been battling cancer. His lymphoma was discovered when he went to the doctor for what he thought was a pinched nerve that limited use of his left arm.

He said that in the 1990s, people’s suspicions abounded about the water as taped signs with skulls and crossbones appeared above water fountains. Once, when an air tanker exploded, he said, he and other responders waded knee deep in fire fighting foam, a key source of PFAS.

“We were in (chemicals) up to our neck doing our jobs every day . . . I did my job. So did these other guys and this is the price we pay. Investigate. Please check it out for these people,” Lauter said.

It’s long past time for the government to act.

Puerto Rico: Maria’s Laboratory for Scientific Collaboration

CienciaPR’s education specialist, Elvin Estrada, trains educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico on how to use the Foldscope, a low-cost paper microscope, as part of CienciaPR’s Science in Service of Puerto Rico initiative. Each of the 500 students participating in the project will receive the instrument free of charge to observe the biological diversity in a terrestrial ecosystem that was impacted by Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy of Mónica Feliú-Mójer.

Reposted with permission by STEM + Culture Chronicle, a publication of SACNAS – Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, Ubaldo Córdova-Figueroa’s primary concern was for the safety of his students and research assistants. With communications shut down, it took over a month for the professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez to contact them all. “Having no access to my students or my research-lab members was very painful because I didn’t know what was going on with them. I just wanted to know that they were fine,” he says. Everyone was okay but became anxious when research was interrupted for months. Córdova-Figueroa had to reassure them that it was okay, to relax, and wait for things to return to normal. It was, after all, a catastrophe.

Córdova-Figueroa says many scientists are concerned about their future in research at the university, which was facing a fiscal cliff before the hurricane. “They are afraid that they may not get the support they need to recover,” he says. But consensus is building that devastation from last year’s hurricanes could change the way science is approached in Puerto Rico. The post-hurricane conditions provide a unique environment to study. There is also an opportunity to develop local, non-scientific and scientific collaborations as well as attract outside collaborators to work together across disciplines. The results could impact resiliency and innovation both locally and globally.

Local collaborations

“When you lose energy as we did after Maria, not only does your grid go down but with it goes your health system, your communication, your transportation system, your food distribution system, your education system,” says Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Cecilio Ortíz-García, “But none of those realms, in non-emergency times, talk to each other or understand each other. It’s time to establish a platform for cross-communication.”

The University only has a few pictures of the classrooms because most places were difficult to get through and some were forbidden because of fungus contamination.

Ortíz-García is on the steering committee of the National Institute of Island Energy and Sustainability (INESI) at the University of Puerto Rico. INESI promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on energy and sustainability problems and has a network of 70 resources across the university’s 11 precincts. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, it has been able to help establish collaboration at local, community, and municipal levels as well as with some of the stakeholders, says Professor of Social Sciences at the Mayagüez campus, Marla Pérez-Lugo, who is also on the steering committee.

The absence of strong federal and central government involvement following Hurricane Maria has prompted organized innovation and resilience on local levels that was never expected Ortíz-García says. The mayor of San Sebastian pulled together volunteers who were certified electricians, ex power-utilities employees, retired employees, and others like private construction contractors that had heavy equipment. “They put those guys together and started electrifying neighborhoods on their own,” said Professor Ortíz-García.

Solving real-life problems

Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR) is a non-profit organization that promotes science communication, education, and research in Puerto Rico. They received a grant from the National Science Foundation to implement project-based science lessons on disaster-related topics. The middle school education program features lesson activities that are related to what’s happening in Puerto Rico as well as culturally relevant.

The first lessons implemented included how to properly wash hands when clean water is scarce and understanding the effect of the storm on the terrestrial environment.

Educators at the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico learn how to use the Foldscope.

Each child is given a paper microscope and asked to conduct a research project to answer a question they have about how the storms have affected the environment. At the end of June, the students will share their findings with the community.

The project is funded by a RAPID grant, which is awarded for one to two years to respond to emergency or one-off events. The Foundation has awarded about 40 grants associated with Hurricane Maria, according to their website. Most of them are RAPID grants and about 25 percent of them have been awarded to scientists in Puerto Rico.

RAPID grants associated with Hurricane Maria have required INESI to adapt its vision, says Professor Pérez-Lugo. INESI’s basic mission is to look at Puerto Rico from a local perspective to insert local knowledge into the policy process. But the flood of effort coming from outside universities has required them to attempt to identify and coordinate those doing research and relief work in Puerto Rico. INESI initially counted 20 universities conducting research, but other initiatives and projects involving energy and the electric system have been identified since. In some cases, there were three or four teams from the same university working in Puerto Rico that were unaware of the presence of the other teams. “So, these universities found out about their colleagues through us,” said Pérez-Lugo.

The workers and researchers tended to be concentrated in only a couple of municipalities, leaving many areas neglected. INESI coordinated their efforts to avoid fatigue, to avoid saturation in some areas, and to distribute aid in a more just and equal way Pérez-Lugo says.

Updating approaches to disaster

Most classrooms at the University of Puerto Rico were filled with water, some with vegetation, and many with broken equipment.

According to Ortíz-García, INESI was founded prior to the arrival of Hurricane Maria in recognition of the flaws associated with the fragmented organization at the university. Like most universities, it is organized to accomplish the goals of teaching, research, and service, which is an organization best suited to the scientific processes of discovery, knowledge creation, and scientific inquiry. “But these are different times,” says Ortíz-García, “with problems that are not aligned with a fragmented, unidisciplinary approach.”

“But that’s an outdated approach because now we know that energy transitions are embedded in everything that society values, from water to health, to safety and security, and to food. So, multiple organizations will need to be involved to solve the problem and they need a common language to fix something.”

INESI has been working toward taking the University of Puerto Rico to the next level of university organization, with networks of interest and practice within and throughout interconnecting disciplines. “Instead of concentrating on a scientific development in one discipline, scientists need to concentrate on the effective design of solutions to issues that don’t belong to any discipline, like climate change,” says Ortíz-García.

Collaborative convergence platforms such as INESI can foster interdisciplinary dialogue and the generation of solutions for these issues. Now, inspired by the influx of representatives from other universities to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, INESI wants to build a platform of platforms.

RISE Puerto Rico

A group representing an inter-university collaborative convergence platform will meet for a foundational catalyst workshop at the end of June. Twenty-seven people from ten universities have already accepted the invitation and will meet face to face for the first time.

“The platform that we’re looking to build here, we’ve already preliminarily named it RISE Puerto Rico, which stands for Resiliency through Innovations in Sustainable Energy,” Pérez-Lugo says.

Starting these dialogs now will go a long way, Ortíz-García says, in reorganizing academic environments toward finding the solutions necessary to fix these problems. “In addition, it can foster innovation in ways our own organizational structure could never, ever think of because you would have spin-off after spin-off of academic conversations not only with the scientists but also community and other stakeholders’ knowledge that is out there from leading these events themselves,” he says.

Córdova-Figueroa is optimistic about the research opportunities in Puerto Rico.

He would like to see many scientists from around the world take advantage of the myriad research opportunities available. “Come to Puerto Rico,” he says. “You will learn something great here.”

Dr. Kimber Price is a science communications graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter: @LowcountryPearl

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 Department of Interior Does Not Care What You Think About Endangered Species

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

The Department of Interior simultaneously announced three majorly flawed proposals that would radically transform how the Endangered Species Act functions and gave the public just 60 days to provide feedback. Yesterday, without providing any reasoning, the department denied a request from UCS to extend the comment period. That means you have six more days to file a comment (Rule 1, Rule 2, Rule 3). This guide from UCS can help you craft an effective comment on one or all of these rules.

The way the government uses science to manage endangered species like the greater sage grouse may change significantly for the worse under a series of new proposals. Photo: USFWS

Public comments are more than just hyperbole. As part of the official record, they can be used by organizations that wish to challenge the government’s interpretation of a law in court. They are sometimes used by members of Congress conducting oversight over the work of federal agencies. And they can guide future administrations in how they carry out environmental and public health laws.

In a letter requesting a comment period extension, I noted the following:

These proposals could profoundly change the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and the public, including the scientific community, needs sufficient time to better evaluate the impacts of the proposed rule in conjunction with the other two administrative proposals to provide comprehensive and meaningful feedback on it…

Given the critical and comprehensive nature of this proposal, the current timeframe is wholly inadequate and will not allow for thorough public input on these proposed rules and their impact on FWS’s ability to fulfill its mission to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. 

When the EPA tried a similar stunt with its proposal to restrict the use of public health science in its work, the agency ultimately agreed to extend the public comment period by more than two months. By this measure, then, the Department of Interior is even worse than Scott Pruitt’s EPA.

Still, we must work with the limited democratic tools we have left. 1500 scientists signed a letter earlier this year that helped inform public understanding of current threats to endangered species by Congress and the Trump administration. Keep that momentum going by submitting a public comment by September 24, 2018. You can also sign on to a more general comment developed by UCS before the deadline.

Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

What’s for Dinner? A Preview of the People, Process, and Politics Updating Federal Dietary Guidelines

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Months behind schedule, two federal departments have officially kicked off the process for writing the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated and reissued every five years, these guidelines are the nation’s most comprehensive and authoritative set of nutrition recommendations. And although the process is meant to be science-based and support population health—and has historically done so, with some notable exceptions—there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Trump administration is preparing to pitch a few curveballs.

First, a little background: The two agencies responsible for issuing the guidelines are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Earlier this month, the agencies released a call for nominations to the advisory committee that will review current nutrition science and write recommendations for the new guidelines. For the first time, the guidelines will include recommendations for maternal nutrition and for infants and toddlers through 24 months—meaning we may see a larger advisory committee and some extra work put into developing these recommendations from scratch.

And that won’t be the only change since the last cycle. There was a bitter political battle over the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, in which the advisory committee made mention of environmental sustainability, noting that plant-based diets that include plenty of foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for both our health and the future of our food supply. These recommendations were ultimately omitted, and the episode culminated in Congress writing new legislation to limit the scope of the guidelines and mandate a so-called critical review of their scientific integrity. The full impact of this anti-science legislation, which was tacked onto a 2016 appropriations bill (despite strong opposition from public health and nutrition groups), will be brought to bear during the coming months.

All that said, there’s one thing that’s likely to remain the same: the industries that wielded influence over the 2015-2020 Guidelines haven’t gone anywhere. On the contrary, they may be emboldened by an administration that has repeatedly given preference to corporate interests, sidelining science and sacrificing the public good in the process.

The People: What will become of the Scientific Advisory Committee in the Trump era?

Typically, the first major step in developing new Dietary Guidelines is to identify the group of nutrition and health experts who will form the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (or DGAC). These nominees will be well-known in their fields, and will bring with them more than a decade each of experience as medical or nutrition researchers, academics, and practitioners. Members of the DGAC serve the committee for two years, after which they submit a final scientific report to the USDA and HHS with their recommendations.

This part of the process is happening in real-time. The 30-day call for nominations is now open and will close on October 6. (Read more about the criteria for nominees here.)

Photo: USDA

But the negligence the Trump administration has shown in maintaining existing scientific advisory committees is concerning, to say the least. An analysis by my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that, during the administration’s first year in office, federal science advisory committees met less frequently than in any other year since 1997, when the government began tracking this data. A majority of the committees are meeting less than their charters require, and committee membership has also decreased—with some agencies disbanding entire advisory committees altogether.

Furthermore, what happens after the public submits nominations to the DGAC happens largely behind closed doors. Nominations will be reviewed by USDA and HHS program staff, and the slate of chosen nominees will be evaluated and vetted internally. Formal recommendations for the committee will then be reviewed and approved by the USDA and HHS secretaries. Per their most recent communication, the agencies hope to announce the 2020-2025 DGAC by early next year.

If you’re thinking that the committee selection lacks a certain element of transparency, you’re not the only one.

In one of two reports released last year examining the Dietary Guidelines process (the result of the aforementioned legislation, passed in 2016 appropriations rider), the National Academy of Medicine recommended that the public have the opportunity to review the provisional committee for bias and conflicts of interest before it’s approved.

It’s worth repeating that the selection of committees in recent DGA cycles has successfully brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the process—resulting, for the most part, in strong evidence-based recommendations. But in an administration where the “D” in USDA has come to stand for DowDuPont, concerns about undue influence on the committee selection may be well warranted. (See “The Politics” below.)

The Process: More to do, and twice as fast

After the advisory committee is appointed, the committee begins to review the current body of nutritional science to generate its recommendations. The recommendations are based on a “preponderance of scientific evidence,” which means they consider a variety of research and study designs. (Though randomized controlled trials are typically the gold standard in science, this type of study is incredibly difficult to do with diet.)

The committee won’t review everything—there are certain topics that are selected each cycle, based on what new evidence has emerged and what issues are of greatest concern to public health. And here’s the first place you’ll see the 2020-2025 DGAs break from tradition: rather than identifying topics of interest after the committee is selected, USDA and HHS have developed a list of topics first, soliciting public comments in the process. You can read their list here.

There are immediate glaring absences in the topic list, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—some of the staples of what we consider a healthy diet. This may just mean that the committee won’t be revisiting these topics, and will instead default to existing recommendations—but the lack of clarity here is disconcerting. A brief note at the end of the topic list, perhaps meant to explain the omissions, has left public health and nutrition groups scratching their heads: “Some topics are not included above because they are addressed in existing evidence-based Federal guidance. In an effort to avoid duplication with other Federal efforts, it is expected that these topics will be reflected in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines by referencing the existing guidance. Thus, these topics do not require a review of the evidence by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”

Photo: USDA

Meanwhile, the topics that have been explicitly named include added sugars; beverages, such as dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol; the relationship between certain diets (think: Mediterranean Diet, vegetarian, etc.) and chronic disease; and different dietary patterns across life stages, including infancy and toddlers through 24 months. What didn’t make the cut? A mention of red meat or processed meats—which have been linked to certain types of cancer and other health risks. The agencies (predictably) sidestepped this issue, making reference only to types of dietary fats.

If this sounds like a lot to sort through, it will be. And the tentative timeline that the agencies have proposed is ambitious. After the committee is announced in early 2019, it will have just over one year to deliberate before releasing its scientific report. During that time, the committee will hold approximately five public meetings (last cycle, there were seven) and offer an extended period of open public comment. After the DGAC scientific report is released, the public will also have one final opportunity to comment.

But if there’s anything we learned from the last DGA cycle, it’s that what can happen during that gap—between the release of the DGAC scientific report and the issuance of the DGAs—is critical, and it isn’t always clear. Enter “The Politics.”

The Politics: When money talks

What happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle?

The DGAC advisory report, submitted in February 2015, included recommendations for plant-based diets that supported both human health and environmental sustainability—an unprecedented move. Per the report: “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

But eight months later, the writing was on the proverbial wall, in the form of a blog written by former USDA Secretary Vilsack and HHS Secretary Burwell. Sustainability is outside the scope of the DGAs and would not be included.

Two months after that, the 2016 appropriations bill was passed, stating that any revisions to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans be limited in scope to nutritional and dietary information.

By all appearances, the key concern seemed to be that science-based sustainability recommendations were outside the scope of the DGAs. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that many were more concerned about sales—as in, sales of foods that aren’t central to a plant-based diet. Like, for example, meat and dairy.

At a Congressional hearing on the matter, Rep. Mike Conaway, current chair of the House Agriculture Committee, put it this way: “[the inclusion of sustainability] could result in misguided recommendations that could have ill effects on consumer habits and agricultural production.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, current chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, put a finer point on his interests: “What can we do to remove policies that hinder milk consumption, and to promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?”

It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that what happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle—and to the advisory committee’s recommendations that were seemingly lost in translation—was a direct product of industry influence.

And though efforts to communicate the science behind more sustainable, plant-based diets have been all but stymied, there is still plenty at stake for industry groups in the 2020-2025 DGA cycle. Expect to see some of the usual suspects make an appearance, including the meat industry, dairy industry, and sugar-sweetened beverage associations, as well as formula companies, which will have vested interest in shaping the new recommendations for infants and toddlers. (This may be happening in real-time, too. Just this spring, Gerber announced it would join its parent company, Nestle, at its headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia—just a stone’s throw from the capitol.)

As this process unfolds, the Union of Concerned Scientists will be there—watchdogging and waiting. Stay tuned to learn more about how you can help us stand up for science and make the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans the strongest, most health-promoting edition yet.

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)