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Here are the “Transparency” Policy Documents the EPA Does Not Want You to See

Photo: US Department of Defense

On April 17th, the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained EPA records through three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests demonstrating that a proposed Trojan horse “transparency” policy that would restrict the agency’s ability to use the best available science in decision-making is driven by politics, not science. The records also embarrassingly showed EPA officials were more concerned about the release of industry trade secrets than they were about sensitive private medical information.

Three days later, EPA officials removed the records from an online portal where anyone could review them.

Today, UCS restored public access by posting almost all of the responsive documents (more than 100 out of the 124 responsive records) related to the so-called “secret science” policy.

The documents obtained by UCS provide insight into how political appointees and industry interests, not science, are driving EPA's pursuit of administratively implementing failed anti-science legislation.

The documents obtained by UCS provide insight into how political appointees and industry interests, not science, are driving EPA’s pursuit of administratively implementing failed anti-science legislation.

EPA removed the documents after extensive reporting on the contents, including by reporters at POLITICO, The Hill, E&E News, Reuters, and Mother Jones. In each of those stories, which I encourage you to read, journalists highlighted how EPA officials are attempting to administratively implement failed anti-science legislation advanced by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, to benefit industries the agency is in charge of regulating and at the public’s expense.

The documents provided a window into the considerations of many agency officials, and showed that a policy that would be a fundamental shift in the way EPA uses science, was driven exclusively by political appointees, not scientists.

There were a number of documents on other topics that were also included in the records that were responsive to our public records request, that we are still reviewing. However, as a result of EPA’s actions, public access was denied.

My colleague and I spent much of our Friday afternoon trying to figure out why the documents were taken down. We repeatedly reached out to the agency, and were informed that the records were removed because of concerns about “privacy information” and “attorney-client communication.” Before posting the documents online, we spent some time going through all of the records and removed any documents that could be considered as private in nature (i.e. family pictures, etc.) or represent such privileged communication.

The irony here is not lost on me, as EPA tries to hide records that are critical to understanding the policy development process while officials try to develop a policy about “transparency” in the agency’s use of science.

The agency on Thursday sent a proposed policy to the White House for review. This means that a policy to restrict independent science can be announced any day now. These documents are critical to reporting around the motivation for the policy and to evaluate EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s claims of improving transparency in policymaking at the agency.

So, in the spirt of the presumption of openness doctrine under FOIA, we believe that it is our responsibility to restore public access to these documents. It is up to us, the public, to watchdog EPA and hold agency officials accountable.

You can find the documents here.

Science on Wheels: Meeting a Scientist Right in Your Hometown

I moved to Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), five years ago, and I was impressed with the amount of science engagement activities available to the public. Any time of any day of the week there appeared to be something going on: Saturday Morning Science, Science Café on Monday nights, and Science on Tap on Tuesday evenings. An incredible variety of settings to pick and choose from, from auditoriums to cafés to breweries. Topics to satisfy all interests, from chemistry to astronomy to biology. Professors, grad students, undergrads—they were all involved in outreach. I couldn’t believe what a big role science played in the state.

Except, it isn’t in the state, it’s confined to the city. And you don’t have to go very far out of it to realize that it is a thin bubble. Drive 30 minutes south of Columbia to Hartsburg, population 101, home of the renowned Pumpkin Festival, and things look quite different. Science is a distant high school memory. There are no outreach programs readily available in town, and no one is going into Columbia to seek them out. Access is indeed a big challenge in science outreach.

As a land-grant university, the mission of the University of Missouri is to serve all the citizens of the state. Those living in college towns already have access to science, whereas those living in rural areas do not. Hence rural communities are the ones where science outreach could be more impactful. Hartsburg is not that far away from Columbia, but there are thousands of communities just like it that are over two hours away from the closest city. And after a long work day chances are you don’t feel like driving two hours to get to a science talk. So for a change I decided to be the one to drive those two hours, to bring the science to people—right where they are.

As humans we distrust things we don’t know, and often people don’t know science. In rural areas there are typically no opportunities to meet scientists. People living there don’t necessarily know what we actually look like or what we do. I set out to change that to show that science isn’t just something that happens in the Ivory Tower’s labs—it’s used in everyday life. I decided to focus my outreach program on the relevance of research rather than on the research itself. Every scientific pursuit has the potential to transform our lives, and we need to communicate that clearly.

Part of the problem is that after K-12 science disappears altogether from the picture. Ask most adults about the last time they thought about science—“What do you mean? Like in high school?” is the probable reaction. Adults are often left behind in the science outreach effort. Programs often focus on K-12 (the science pipeline!), but we forget about lifelong learning. That is a glaring omission given that over 3 in 4 US citizens are over the age of 18, and it motivated me to focus on this age group.

Science on Wheels members

Over the past summer I developed a program that would meet the needs I had identified. Science on Wheels travels to rural areas in any county of the state that requests it. Four to six graduate students give a five-minute overview of the relevance of their research to everyday life, and then mingle with the adult audience to chat more about science. So far we have reached seven counties, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the State.

Our crowds are small: we have had audiences as little as one person, and only as big as 30 people. But we don’t consider that to be a failure. It takes more time and capacity than hosting an event in Columbia, but the people we are reaching in rural areas are exactly the ones we need to be reaching. They are the ones who are not typically engaged with science.

Here’s an example of our experience: it was 5:50 pm on a Thursday evening last spring. We had driven over an hour to hold an event, but no one had come in yet. 10 minutes from the official start, things weren’t looking up. There was a passerby, and we were quite forward in trying to convince him to join in. He wasn’t having it: science was not his thing, and besides his wife was expecting him for dinner. Finally, we somehow convinced him, and we ran the program with only him in the audience. It was transformative. Over the space of an evening, he relaxed, started asking questions, and eagerly discussed science. That night we changed someone’s perception of science, and that is most definitely worth our time and effort.

The relationship that adults have with science is often reflected in their voting choices. Therefore, nurturing that relationship is key to ensuring that research may thrive in our country. Someone who understands the value of science may be more likely to vote for legislators who do as well. The tangible outcome? Increased science funding, attention to issues such as climate change and conservation of endangered species, data-driven policy decisions—for the benefit of society at large.

Where to next? This summer I will work on expanding Science on Wheels at the state level. I plan to involve the other three University of Missouri campuses, in order to be able to cover a larger territory and hold more events. A few years down the road, I would like to see other institutions nationwide, especially land-grant universities, take the Science on Wheels model and tailor it to their needs. 90% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. My vision for Science on Wheels is for every resident of the state of Missouri—and one day of the U.S.—to have met with one.

 

Arianna is a Ph.D. Candidate in Volcanology at Mizzou. When she is not sampling molten lava in the field, she is making her own lava in the lab by melting rock samples. She is also passionate about science communication and outreach, and never misses an opportunity to chat about her life as a scientist. Find her on Twitter at @AriannaSoldati 

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.

Internal EPA Emails Confirm that Scott Pruitt’s Secret Science Proposal Is Entirely Driven By Politics

Newly released documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under three separate Freedom of Information Act requests and first reported on by POLITICO demonstrate that the Trojan horse “secret science” proposal being floated by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is entirely driven by politics.

POLITICO writes:

“Since Pruitt announced plans for the new policy last month, researchers and public health proponents have raised alarms that it could restrict the agency’s ability to consider a broad swath of data about the effects of pollution on human health. But documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that top EPA officials are more worried the new restrictions would prevent the agency from considering industry studies that frequently support their efforts to justify less stringent regulations.”

Limiting the EPA’s ability to use vital public health studies

The documents also confirm that the anti-science chairman of the House Science Committee, Representative Lamar Smith, initiated a conversation with Administrator Pruitt about implementing his long-failed “secret science” legislation through administrative means on January 9, 2018. (See email below).

POLITICO continues:

“But Smith found an ally in Pruitt. The emails indicate that Smith met with Pruitt in early January and show that Pruitt’s staff quickly began working on a directive to “internally implement” the legislation.”

Chairman Smith also argued for and previously introduced legislation to limit the ability of independent scientists who received agency grants to provide EPA advice on its decisions. While the legislation never passed Congress, EPA implemented a similar directive last fall.

While EPA has argued on a partisan website that the policy would be about transparency in science-based decisions, the documents obtained by UCS confirm that this is not the case. The resurrection of Chairman Smith’s misguided proposal is nothing but a political attempt to restrict the ability of EPA to use the best available science to fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

What the documents show

In the documents released by the EPA, there are no concerns raised about the policy’s impacts on public health protections, or any suggestion to receive feedback from the broader scientific community, which has slammed this distorted effort previously.

However, emails between several EPA political appointees, including Nancy Beck, a former staffer for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the chemical industry’s trade association; and Richard Yamada, a former staffer for House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, show that the small group was grappling with how to incorporate loopholes and exemptions to limit the impact of the directive on industry data. (See below).

The emails also show that the concerns around confidential business information raised by Beck in her current job as the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (which is in charge of protecting the public from risks from toxic chemicals) are eerily similar to concerns she raised about data transparency last year in front of a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee, on behalf of her previous employer at the time and ardent supporter of Chairman Smith’s ill-conceived legislative proposal, the ACC.

Ultimately, what is crystal clear is that the EPA is still finding ways to abandon the tools that the agency needs to do its job. The proposal, if it is ever released, is not scientifically driven, and is simply a political ploy to undermine EPA’s ability to use independent scientific analysis. You can go through all the documents that were released to UCS here, here, and here.

Email from a staffer for Chairman Smith and an EPA official discussing a meeting between Administrator Pruitt and Chairman Smith in January 2018 to discuss how best to implement “secret science” internally.

Nancy Beck shares ideas with other EPA colleagues on why a company’s scientific studies should be protected because of confidential business information and potentially exempt from EPA’s secret science directive. Her comments are remarkably similar to language she used in testimony (below) before a Senate subcommittee while representing the American Chemistry Council just last year.

Competitive Enterprise Institute Counts Costs But Not Benefits of Safeguards—and Hopes You Won’t Notice

A shell game Photo: emilykbecker/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) released another misleading “study” about the “costs” of regulation (read: science-based safeguards, public protections) while virtually ignoring the benefits. They do this every year because some reporters fall for it and it confirms what some elected officials and editorial boards want to believe. Policymakers and the public would be best served by ignoring the latest edition of this report that is nothing more than propaganda to promote the rolling back of science-based safeguards that protect public health, safety, and environment.

CEI trots out an outrageous (and bogus) number about the cost of federal regulations. And of course, the report conveniently fails to look at the benefits. Instead, the anti-government think tank exaggerates numbers, takes data out of context, and tries to have the information they present fit a predetermined anti-regulatory narrative.

CEI's report is in denial about benefits of science-based safeguards and public protections.

CEI’s report is in denial about benefits of science-based safeguards and public protections.

The Washington Post’s factcheckers found “serious methodological problems” in the 2015 version of the report.  The latest version is just more of the same.

The author of the latest CEI analysis suggests that federal regulations in 2017 cost Americans nearly $2 trillion dollars. However, the report fails to take into consideration the many quantitative and qualitative benefits of regulations. In the minimal amount of time it does spend on the benefits of public protections, the paper casually dismisses a congressionally mandated draft report recently released by the Office of Management and Budget, which found that the benefits of major federal regulations from 2006-2016 was somewhere between $287 and $911 billion, and the costs were somewhere between $78 and $115 billion.

As the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards described, this distorted valuation of the cost of regulations is as if a couple deciding to have a baby considered only the estimated cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 but failed to consider the priceless benefits of parenthood. Without the context and inclusion of a thorough conversation about benefits, it would be as if ESPN reported that the San Antonio Spurs won on Monday night by just saying ‘Spurs 101,’ without mentioning that the Golden State Warriors scored 116 points.

The author also argues that science-based safeguards are a “hidden tax.” However, it all comes down to who pays for environmental and public health problems: taxpayers or the companies that create these problems? Responsible businesses comply with common sense public protections because that makes the most business sense—they don’t want to hurt their customers. If they do, who will consume their product? They understand that regulations help create a fair and predictable playing field for all. And when irresponsible businesses don’t comply with regulations, or if there are no regulations on the books (see Facebook), taxpayers are left with the bill, whether that’s for cleanup of toxic rivers and dirty air, increased healthcare costs, or figuring  out how to handle the release of personal information.

Further, what CEI and other opponents of regulation also fail to acknowledge is that the regulatory process is transparent. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a black box (at least historically). Under laws that govern rulemaking and the development of public protections, public input is frequent, and industry groups engage at every step of the process. And public comments are just that—public.

When developing rules, agencies are required to show their work and justify their conclusions with evidence and the best available science. Rules that are arbitrary and capricious are thrown out by the courts. (I think some members of this administration may want to re-read the last couple lines, because that applies to deregulatory actions as well).

CEI’s approach to this study is fundamentally flawed. What the report does tell us is that cost-benefit analysis is not the most useful tool to understanding the impacts of science-based safeguards. Cost-benefit analysis consistently fails to adequately account for the benefits of public protections, many of which are unquantifiable. For example, how can we put a monetary value on a clean bill of health, or that of a life? It’s the result of regulations that we have better public health outcomes in the United States (and yet there is much room for improvement, as the better public health outcomes are not always equitable).

What CEI is advocating for through this report would likely mean less science-based safeguards, and less use of evidence in policymaking. Their approach to regulation is to make all decisions political, which has shown itself not to work very well when it comes to protecting public health, consumers, worker safety, and the environment.

Photo: emilykbecker/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

A Graduate Researcher’s (Brief) Guide to: Creating a Student Science Policy Group

Panel of speakers at the Opioid Epidemic Forum.

Research, telescopes, and computer models may consume the thoughts of many STEM graduate students, but do you ever find yourself distracted by current events? Are you ever caught up in conversations about how to fix problems in society? Have you ever “geeked out” about research that influences laws or policy? If you’re a graduate student and this sounds familiar, you have options: 1) ignore your burning desire to do something or 2) start a science policy group.

Assuming you’re considering option 2, the first and most common question you will have to tackle personally and externally is “What is science policy?”

Defining science policy

In short, it refers to the rules and regulations that govern the scientific workforce or the use of science to inform rules and regulations. After starting a science policy group in graduate school, myself and other graduate student members began to realize the nebulousness of this definition. Meeting with many policy professionals, we realized saying “I want to be involved in science policy” is as specific as saying “I want to be involved in science”.

You should determine what ways and which topics you would like to focus on for your science policy engagement. There is advocacy (addressing legislators), diplomacy (international policy efforts), education (science communication & awareness initiatives), and of course policy (informing or crafting rules and regulations). Using these approaches, there are many challenges you could address (e.g. scientific workforce issues, specific issues such as climate change or infectious diseases, STEM education, etc). As federal agencies, scientific societies and not-for profit organizations commonly focus significant portions of their resources on science policy efforts, it signals the scale of the issues, and shows it may take more than one motivated person to make a significant impact (even within your community).

Gathering a team

SPADE team

Creating a science policy group with driven members will allow you to help more people, as well as share the credit (and workload) for grand initiatives. Seek out like-minded graduate students with an interest in creating change but also appreciate that promising students can and should be found across a variety of academic fields. This provides your group with expertise and awareness to explore a wide range of issues. For my group, we found holding introductory meetings and sending recruitment emails through our graduate student government and graduate program coordinators was an effective strategy. However, you can also rely on forming collaborations with other groups on or off campus to expand your reach for members.

When you have a core group of students, create an executive board with titles (e.g. President, Treasurer, Commander Pikachu, etc.). Not only do they sound “fancy”, but they also help in establishing an expectation of duties, which saves time when planning initiatives. Another important task is to find a faculty advisor that has experience or an academic focus within science policy. This serves to address club rules on certain campuses (which could allow your group access to funds). It also helps you tap into your advisor’s experience and network (which is particularly helpful when searching for a guest speaker for an event).

Now what do you do?

So you’ve got your group and an advisor, what do you all do now?

As many topics related to science policy are national matters, it can be difficult to figure out how your rag-tag group of students will fit into the science policy landscape. Fortunately, there are many ways to address science policy topics and your group may find some original ways to address them. Based on my experiences, these are some common approaches student groups use to address issues:

Guest speaker events—Inviting a policy expert or professional to an event your group is hosting or to a panel being held on campus is a good way to get your group’s feet wet and establish yourselves as “active”. If there is not a big presence on your campus for science policy, your initial speaking events may be more effective (and better attended) if they are geared towards a general or profiled Careers in Science Policy discussion.

Forums—Similar to guest speaker events, forums will allow your group to invite policy experts for one event to explain to the public or other experts about research, concerns, and proactive actions to address an issue. For example, the opioid epidemic is a pervasive problem within in our local community. To address this, our group planned an Opioid Epidemic Forum. We hosted a physician, a policy expert, a police officer and two New York state senators to inform and empower the Long Island community.

Consider offering additional initiatives at your event to enhance your public service. For example, at the forum we also offered a Narcan training session for participants and an excess opioid drop off box (overseen by the Suffolk County Health Department and Suffolk County Police Department, respectively).

Advocacy—Your group could also go to Washington, DC, or local in-district meetings to discuss with legislators how an issue is affecting your community and/or how it may impact the scientific workforce. Contact your university’s government relations office and ask about opportunities to talk with local or federal legislators. They are a useful resource as they often have a line of contact to legislators. Additionally, your group could fundraise to subsidize fees for members in your community to participate or travel to local initiatives or marches related to science policy.

Science outreach events—Astound and inform your local community by hosting science events for the public, or joining events to discuss (in accessible ways) about the latest research you or fellow students and professors have been working on and how it may impact the public (or why it’s important to know). You could also work with local groups to create campaigns for important unspoken issues within your community that the public could help to address.

Moving forward

If you are still driven to do more after hosting a few events and being active within your community, there are several steps you can take. You can use these initiatives as a template during your journey into academia to help start initiatives to improve the lives of others alongside your research.

If you are driven to make this a career, there are fellowships that can help (and in some ways are integral) with your transition into the federal government or elsewhere as a science policy expert. Some fellowships such as the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and the President Management Fellowship are for recent (or soon-to-be) graduates. However, others including the Christine Mirzayan Fellowship are also open to students (domestic and international) who are currently in graduate school and provide them with unique experiences in the world of policy. However, there are many others—here is a full list of those offered.

Although this was only a brief summary, I hope this was helpful in informing your journey into the world of science policy.

 

Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn, New York native who recently obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. As a post-doctoral researcher, his major investigative focus relates to the effects of aerobic exercise on important support-like brain cells (oligodendrocytes). He is also a science communication professional who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he competed against roughly 100 scientists and won the 2014 National NASA FameLab science communication competition, which asks researchers to explain science topics accessibly in 3 minutes. He is also a longtime associate of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and has been recognized as an “Alda All-Star”. While in graduate school, he was a co-creator and acting president of a graduate student lead science policy group, Scientists for Policy, Advocacy, Diplomacy and Education (SPADE). His work through this group gave rise to an action oriented local Opioid Epidemic Forum, an official graduate level Introduction to Science Policy course and several other initiatives. Lyl also meets with government representatives to advocate for science issues and regularly develops programs at Stony Brook to tackle problems related to scientific workforce matters. Find Lyl on Twitter at @LylT88

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.

Peter Wright’s Nomination Means Superfund Conflicts of Interest in Almost All 50 States

Last month, the Trump administration nominated Peter Wright from DowDuPont to serve as Assistant Administrator at the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). This office plays a critical role in protecting public health by enforcing the Superfund program (the government’s effort to clean up sites that are contaminated with hazardous waste and posing a health risk). They also implement programs to help communities from chemical disasters, and deal broadly with regulations on hazardous waste disposal to best protect public health and hold polluters accountable.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has identified the Superfund program as a priority area, which so far has meant taking sites off of the National Priorities List, but not necessarily making sure those sites are adequately cleaned up.

According to his Linkedin page, Wright has spent 19 years as Managing Counsel at the Dow Chemical Company, which since merging with DuPont in 2017 is known as DowDuPont. According to the White House, while there, he has provided counsel to the company’s leaders and led the company’s “legal strategies regarding Superfund sites and other federal and state-led remediation matters,” and provided counsel on mergers, acquisitions, and significant real estate transactions for the company.

One of the main functions of OLEM is to hold companies accountable for polluting peoples’ water, land, and air which is why it is a huge conflict that someone who has long represented the interests of a company that is a currently liable major historic polluter would be at its helm. Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, or its subsidiaries are listed as the parent company for over 200 Superfund sites, 50 Risk Management Plan (RMP) facilities and over 50 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) facilities with corrective actions.

As the potential future head of OLEM, can we really trust that Wright would be making objective decisions regarding DowDuPont Superfund sites, ensuring its facilities with RCRA permits are cleaning up current problems with mismanagement of hazardous waste, and overseeing implementation of the RMP Rule at DowDuPont sites? According to Dow, Wright was “directly involved” with at least 14 cleanup agreements with the EPA, but which sites and whether he advised or was involved less formally in other cases is still unclear.

Wright’s Superfund conflicts from coast to coast

A 2013 EPA document lists 167 Superfund sites (both NPL and non-NPL) where either or both Dow Chemical Company or E.I DuPont de Nemours and Company were a listed responsible party. An additional 71 sites had Dow Chemical Company subsidiaries listed as a responsible party. An identifiably DuPont-linked site listed in 2014, the US Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago, has been added to this map as well (Source: EPA).

To get a better sense of exactly how many Superfund conflicts would arise if Wright were to be confirmed as head of OLEM, we mapped the locations of Superfund sites (those both on the National Priority List and not on the list) at which DuPont, Dow, or a subsidiary company were named as a responsible party according to a 2013 EPA list. While parent companies aren’t always financially responsible for cleaning up a subsidiary’s Superfund sites, these locations still pose a potential conflict of interest as Wright would not be wholly independent of these sites.

In total, using the 2013 list but eliminating any sites that have since been deleted by EPA, we found 180 still active, proposed or partial National Priority List (NPL) sites and 57 non-NPL sites equating to 238 sites tied to DowDuPont in 44 different states. There is one additional Superfund site, the US Smelter and Lead Refinery site in East Chicago, that was listed as a Superfund site after 2013—so was not included in our count—but that is publicly linked to DuPont.

As Dow and DuPont’s 2014 through 2017 10-K forms (here, here, here, and here) indicate that more Superfund sites were added than deleted for the companies every year, there are likely many more Superfund sites than those listed here that are not included on this map. And it’s important to remember that there is a strong financial incentive for companies to evade responsibility and avoid paying for expensive remediation efforts, so they employ several different strategies to do so including name changes, mergers, and bankruptcies.

DowDuPont has over $200 million in payment obligations for Superfund sites alone, according to its own financial statements. Were Wright to be confirmed, decisions made about the timely cleanup of DowDuPont sites across the country will be made by a man who spent two decades on the payroll of that same company. And judging by the way the EPA’s ethics office has so far allowed conflicted appointees to participate in policy issues related to their former employers, it seems likely that Wright will be weighing in on issues in which he has a vested interest on day one.

When conflicts of interest hit close to home

There are over 30 DowDupont or subsidiary Superfund sites in New Jersey alone. One of the country’s most polluted waterways, Berry’s Creek, is located in the Hackensack Meadowlands and is represented on the map by the large orange dot (Souce: EPA).

A little-known fact about my home state of New Jersey is that it is home to the highest number of Superfund sites in the country, with 114 sites on the National Priority List alone.

Who knew such a small state could pack in so much hazardous waste! No wonder the one superhero hailing from our state is named the Toxic Avenger

The consideration of what to do with the remediation of one DowDupont site in New Jersey, Berry’s Creek, will occur in the next few months, and because it comes with a large price tag ($80 million according to DowDuPont), its fate could be decided by Administrator Pruitt himself, who we know has already been swayed by Dow’s influence at least once before, with the counsel of Wright.

For me, Berry’s Creek is not a faraway place. I’ve been there. I grew up nearby. My parents now live a mile downstream. During college, I spent my summers as a chemistry intern, running water and sediment samples from the Hackensack River and other locations in the surrounding Meadowlands, extracting and measuring contaminants ranging from heavy metals to PCBs to pesticides.

These chemicals have contaminated the water and land surrounding the Meadowlands for decades, since the thoroughfare has been home to landfills, power plants, and other industrial sites that had been free to pollute without penalty until the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972. On one of many water sampling boat trips on the river, we approached a tributary of the Hackensack river, Berry’s Creek, and my environmental scientist colleague explained a little bit about its history and why we might not want to fall off the boat if we valued our health.

Hackensack Meadowlands, New Jersey. (Photo: Flickr/samenstelling)

A mercury processing plant was operated by Ventron/Velsicol adjacent to the creek between 1927 and 1974 and was named a national priority site for the EPA’s Superfund program in 1984. The site was acquired by a long list of companies, but its liability has fallen to Rohm & Haas, a wholly owned subsidiary of DowDupont. According to NOAA, which is working with EPA to evaluate remediation efforts at the site, the mercury levels in Berry’s Creek are among the highest found in any freshwater ecosystem in the United States. The creek is hydrologically connected to wetlands that surround it and because it’s a tidal estuary, contamination has flowed both up and downstream of the original site. In 2005, EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USEPA) found dissolved mercury concentrations as high as 4,100 µg/L, 2,000 times the New Jersey groundwater quality standard of 2 ug/L! Mercury concentrations in the sediment at Berry’s Creek has been recorded as far deep as six feet below the sediment surface.

The area is also contaminated with cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, other heavy metals, and PCBs at levels exceeding New Jersey standards and will be until action is taken by DowDupont to finally clean it up. It’s only a matter of time before contamination issues are worsened by flood risks resulting from climate change, since the site is low-lying and the NJ towns surrounding the Meadowlands are in a high-risk area.

Wright is a great fit for Pruitt’s EPA (and that’s not a compliment)

My colleague, Andy Rosenberg, detailed why many of Pruitt’s team members and leadership at the EPA are incapable of protecting public health and safety. Wright fits the bill as well.

Wright’s confirmation hearing has not yet been scheduled by the Senate, but I look forward to seeing members of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ask him how exactly he expects to protect us from harmful chemicals and hold companies accountable for pollution prevention when he has direct financial conflicts of interest from haunting him from his previous employer in nearly every state. I’d like them to get some clarity on which DowDuPont Superfund sites, RMP, or RCRA facilities he has directly worked on or been involved with in any capacity and whether he will be recusing himself from all decisions made about those sites.

I agree with the Trenton Times editorial board that Wright’s nomination is “horrible, horrible news” not just for the state of New Jersey’s long list of contaminated sites and my friends and family living downstream, but for the rest of the country and for the integrity of the agency and its ability to protect public health over industry profits. I’d love to be proven wrong by Pruitt and Wright and to see Berry’s Creek and other NJ Superfund sites be the cleanup success stories we’ve been waiting for as long as we’ve been the NY metropolitan area’s dumping grounds.

But New Jersey and other states with Superfund sites (including Dow Chemical Company’s home state of Michigan) have been burned too many times by responsible parties and developers. We can’t afford to have another industry apologist making the calls about whether sites and communities are cleaned up and that responsible parties are held accountable.

I would like to acknowledge and thank my colleagues Emily Berman, Juan Declet-Barreto, and Yogin Kothari for their invaluable input. 

Flickr: Steven Reynolds/samenstelling

DOI Caught Lying About a Staff Purge. Congress Has Questions

Department of the Interior. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz. CC-BY-2.0 Wikimedia.

Last week, the Interior Department Inspector General’s office released its report on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s controversial mass reassignment of senior executives last summer, requested by alarmed Senators shortly after the reassignments took place. 

Secretary Zinke does not like what they found.  

The report painted a picture of incompetence, discrimination, and political retaliation. It described how the board that made the reassignment decisions was politicized, how they covered their tracks by keeping no records, and how they failed to “remember” anything about their instructions or motivations. The report described a sham of a process that was clearly intended as a purge. 

As if intent on demonstrating just how Zinke would be leading the agency, his team checked every box for poor workplace management. It was so damning that House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, immediately smelled a rat and has requested that Chairman Rob Bishop hold a hearing immediately “on the disturbing findings.” This story is not yet over. 

As one of the reassigned executives, I had a front row seat to this debacle last summer. Now, to be clear, every new administration moves a few senior executives around for various reasons when they take over, but no agency from any administration has come in and reassigned dozens of career senior executives at one time, and certainly not with such apparent intent to dislodge us from the civil service entirely.  

To do this they moved people into jobs unrelated to their area of expertise, many were moved across the country, they were reassigned without any prior consultation, many of them were retirement age, most had families, and a very disproportionate number of them were American Indians.  

So for starters, this was just horrible workplace management.  

But then Secretary Ryan Zinke, the only Senate-confirmed employee at DOI at the time, testified to Congress the following week that he would use such reassignments, along with attrition and other means, to trim the DOI workforce by 4,000 people.  

As any thoughtful individual would surmise, reassignments only trim the workforce if they cause employees to quit, and while senior executives can certainly be moved, even involuntarily, it’s unlawful to use reassignments to get employees to quit. Zinke admitted his unlawful strategy directly to Congress that day. 

We work for the American people. We are not there to play politics for any president or cabinet member. Yet Secretary Zinke last year demanded loyalty to President Trump and effectively pledged to get rid of employees who wouldn’t play along.   

Knowing all that, I was still stunned by what the IG found. 

The Executive Resources Board (ERB), the body making the reassignment decisions, is meant to consist of an equal number of political appointees and civil servants. The IG found that the Zinke ERB consisted only of recent political appointees.  The board did not document any sort of plan or reasons for selecting executives to reassign; it did not review executive qualifications or gather other information necessary to make such decisions; and it did not communicate with either the executives or their managers before make the reassignments.

There was a complete absence of a paper trail for the reassignment actions – a remarkable and reckless approach to governing that can only suggest that they did not want their reasons known.  

The IG even caught them in a lie. ERB members claimed that they had three criteria for moving executives – moving people that had been in their jobs for a long time, moving people out of Washington DC, and moving people to new functional areas. The IG found no evidence at all to show that they evaluated the reassignments against those stated criteria, and the ERB members were unable to recall the criteria that they ultimately used instead. 

While the IG certainly found the ERB members to be incompetent and unable to remember even the broadest details of their efforts, it would be naïve to think that this was simply a matter of incompetence. If they had legitimate reasons for moving us around, you can bet they would have recorded them. Instead, these actions can only be interpreted as malicious, retaliatory, and discriminatory. 

But when the IG asked the executives themselves, the criteria became quite clear. Seventeen of us indicated that the reassignment was likely political retaliation or punishment, and 12 of us felt that that it was probably related to former work on issues such as climate change, energy, and conservation. This ERB was not even subtle about its objectives – they moved me, the climate policy advisor, to the office that collects and disperses oil and gas royalty income. 

Behind this keystone cops display lurks a dogged determination to reward supporters and purge the agency of senior executives who might not salute the Secretary’s flag. To accomplish this they assembled their ERB hit squad of six political appointees who could be relied upon to sign off on whatever the political leadership decided. It’s hard to imagine a scenario that would more clearly demonstrate a politicization of the civil service workforce. 

This is a long-established no-no; there are important reasons to keep the civil service partitioned from the political winds and whims of each new administration. The mission of the agency depends on operational consistency in administering programs and services. While every incoming administration would love to bend the career ranks to their every wish, they generally know better than to try, and there are laws and regulations to prevent it. 

The Trump Administration just doesn’t know better, and the consequences are serious.  

In addition to muzzling science and stifling important climate change efforts on behalf of Americans, this purge adds up to political retaliation, discrimination, wasted taxpayer dollars, and a callous disregard for the career staff at the agency. Thankfully, some good folks in Congress have taken notice and I hope to see a deeper examination of these issues in the near future. Each of the ERB members should be forced to testify, on the record, that they just don’t remember how or why they reassigned us. This precedent can’t stand. 

I’ve left federal service for now, but my thoughts go out to all of the career folks who still have to endure this type of work environment, keeping their heads down and wondering who’s next. I hope our institutions can stand up to these abuses of power so they can get back to work serving the American people. 

Scott Pruitt’s Regulatory Rollback Recipe  

Vehicle pollution is a major issue for human health and the environment.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to stack the deck in favor of industry interests. At least two members appointed by Pruitt to the EPA Science Advisory Board received funding to conduct misleading research that EPA used to justify reexamining vehicle fuel efficiency standards – a regulation forecast to save consumers over $1 trillion, cut global warming emissions by billions of metric tons, and advance 21st century vehicle technology.

This shameless attempt to use shoddy research that was funded by the oil industry and used by automaker trade groups to overturn a regulation that is based on sound science and widespread public support is a perfect example of how Pruitt intends to rollback regulations at the behest of his industry-tied former donors.

Pruitt’s plan is a simple (though perhaps illegal) five-step recipe. Here’s exactly how he has been cooking up a regulatory repeal (or re-peel) soup of equal parts corruption, paranoia, and apathy.

Step 1: Separate independent science from the record, then discard

Make it exceedingly difficult for academic scientists to join the advisory committees that help your agency set pollution thresholds, compliance deadlines, and cost estimates.  These committees are supposed to represent the viewpoints of both independent scientific experts and industry stakeholders, but you can argue that the composition of these committees is solely at your discretion. So go ahead and kick those academic nerds off the advisory committees and replace them with industry-funded friends.

Step 2: Liberally add industry-funded junk science to your liking

Promote the “studies” of your new industry-funded advisory committee friends. Bonus points if they use junk science to show that health benefits from reducing smog “may not occur,” rising carbon dioxide levels are beneficial to humanity, or that people don’t want more fuel efficient cars and trucks. At the same time, give your employees new talking points on climate change to ensure any public facing communications either cast doubt on the science your agency has previously relied on or doesn’t mention it at all. Ruthlessly reassign or fire any employee who fails to comply.

Step 3: Bake junk science into the record

This step is important. Copy the text from industry-funded studies into your official justification to reevaluate, suspend, or rollback rules that science has already shown to be effective. The fastest and easiest way to do this is to just copy the text verbatim. Don’t worry that the administrative record supporting the original enactment of these regulations is chockfull of academic, peer-reviewed studies and thousands of public comments that demonstrate why these regulations are reasonable, achievable, and necessary. Also ignore trepidation from agency career staff who think you are opening the agency to legal challenges or failing to use sound science to justify your agenda.

Step 4: Set legality setting to uncertain, and wait until lawsuits have settled

Use the vast legal resources at your disposal to make any legal challenges to your efforts take as long as possible, which, in the federal court system, can be a very long time indeed. While the courts struggle with whether you have overstepped your authority, your rollback will remain in place – effectively stymying the impact of the regulation on industry for potentially years.

Step 5: Clean your workspace to eliminate traces of corruption and outrageously bad ethics

Make sure you have the support of your boss as you engage in some light to medium graft and corruption. You will probably need a soundproof “privacy booth” that costs taxpayers close to $43,000, a security detail that costs $3 million and protects against non-existent death threats, and a cheap condo rented from the wife of corporate lobbyist for the fossil fuel and auto industries. Keep public leaks of your missteps to a minimum and refrain from using social media to say anything of value.

Overall, this recipe is a disaster for both independent science, and public health. Help UCS push back against Pruitt’s effort to cook this regulatory rollback soup by checking out our new nationwide mobilization effort called Science Rising. This effort isn’t a one-day march—it is a series of local activities, events, and actions organized by many different groups. Our shared goal is to ensure that science is front-and-center in the decision-making processes that affect us all—and to fight back against efforts that sideline science from its crucial role in our democracy.

Will you join us to keep #ScienceRising?

 

The White House Clearly Does Not Like the EPA’s “Secret Science” Plan

The EPA’s plan to limit the types of science that the  EPA can use to make decisions may run into an unusual roadblock: the White House itself. In a Senate hearing yesterday, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan questioned White House official Neomi Rao about the EPA plan (watch here, beginning at 59:02), and the answers suggest that the EPA and the White House are not on the same page.

Ms. Rao heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The office is responsible for overseeing the administration’s regulatory agenda. Agencies submit rules for OIRA review before they can be finalized.

The White House tends to enthusiastically support federal agency initiatives. But in a hearing Thursday, the administration’s representative, Neomi Rao was pretty lukewarm about the EPA’s proposal to limit the use of science at the agency. Archival photo via C-SPAN.

Some speculate that OIRA is not keen on the EPA’s proposal because it could make it more difficult for the EPA to weaken clean air and clean water protections. A court can strike down agency actions that are not grounded in evidence—both decisions that improve public protections and decisions that erode them. So in a perverse way, their desire to go back to 1950s regulatory standards could be hampered by the EPA’s proposed science restrictions.

Senator Hassan began buy questioning Administrator Rao about a proposal to give restaurants owners more control over service workers’ tip money. The Department of Labor purposely hid analysis showing the proposal would take billions of dollars out of the pockets of food servers, baristas, and many other hardworking people. OIRA allowed the department to move forward with the proposal, even though it lacked sufficient data to do so (Senators Heitkamp and Senator Harris asked great follow-up questions later in the hearing).

Then Senator Hassan moved on to the EPA (my emphasis added):

Senator Hassan: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is reportedly considering a proposal that would prevent the EPA from using a scientific study unless it is perfectly replicable and all the underlying raw data is released to the public. That is problematic for a whole host of reasons. For example, it could require the release of confidential medical information, which in turn may reduce participation in studies, but it would also prevent the EPA from considering some of the best evidence we have available to us when making regulatory and deregulatory decisions. Have you and your office provided any input to Administrator Pruitt on this proposal?

Administrator Rao: The questions about information quality are very important to us, and that is something that my staff has been working with the EPA on to develop best practices in that area.

Senator Hassan: Do you think such a proposal as the one I just described, the one that is from the EPA that would limit the information agencies can use by preventing them from considering best available evidence makes sense?

Administrator Rao: Well I think we want to make sure that we do have the best available evidence. I think it’s also important for the public to have notice and information about the types of studies which are being used by agencies for decision making, so I think that there is a balance to be struck there, and I think that’s something that the EPA is working towards.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and some evidence that the friction between the White House and EPA extends beyond numerous ethical scandals to the agency’s style of policymaking as well.

“Scientific evaluation and data and analysis is an ongoing process,” continued Senator Hassan. “As you know, we’ve talked about one of my priorities is the response to the opioid crisis in my state and across this country. If we wait for so-called perfect science, we’re not going to have evidence-based practices out there that are saving lives. And so I think it is critically important that we continue to honor scientific process and make sure that we are using best available data when we make policy.”

At one point, Senator Hassan posed this direct question: “Would you generally support agencies changing their procedures in ways that prevent them from using the best available evidence when making these decisions?”

“No, I would not,” replied Administrator Rao.

On that, they could agree.

Brace Yourself for Unhealthy Air: The Trump Administration Weakens Clean Air Protections

Yesterday the Trump administration started chipping away at one of the strongest science-based public health protections we have in the country. In a laundry list of industry wishes, President Trump has ordered the EPA to make several sweeping changes to how it implements ambient air pollution standards.

I’m saddened at the potential for this to weaken the clean air protections we enjoy every day because of our nation’s long history of strong science-based policies. Other countries have strict air pollution laws but not all of them come with teeth. In the US, we are lucky to have air pollution laws at work. They work because they require decisions be made based on what’s protective of public health not on what’s convenient for regulated industries. And importantly, the Clean Air Act includes consequences for failure to meet air pollution standards, ensuring strong incentives for states and industries to comply.

I’ve been proud to live in a country where these protections save thousands of lives and prevent thousands more respiratory illnesses, cardiac illnesses, and missed work and school days every year. But now it’s less clear if my family and yours will enjoy the same.

Here are four ways the new executive order will undermine our science-based air pollution protections.

1. Requiring science advisors to consider non-scientific information in their advice to EPA

This is one of the most concerning changes in the executive order. The EPA relies on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) for independent scientific advice on where the agency should set air pollution standards in order to protect of public health. Comprised of air pollution and health experts from universities and other entities outside of the EPA, the committee dives deep on exactly what the science says about the relationship between air pollutants and the health of Americans. This system has worked remarkably well to ensure the EPA is making decisions consistent with the current science and holding the agency accountable when it doesn’t. (See more on the important role of CASAC and the independent science that feeds into the EPA process here and here).

In a striking reversal of precedence, the president’s order asks the committee to also consider “adverse public health or other effects that may result from implementation of revised air quality standards.” This is scientifically problematic and likely illegal.

The Clean Air Act mandates that ambient air pollution standards be determined by what is protective of public health with an adequate margin of safety—and that’s it. Economic impacts, costs to industry, etc. cannot be considered. The Supreme Court affirmed this in 2001 in its Whitman v. American Trucking Association decision. Ordering the EPA’s science advisers to consider information outside of the health impacts of pollutants shoves a wrench into a functional science-based process for protecting the nation’s health.

This move builds on other administration efforts to weaken the technical chops of CASAC and other government science advisory committees, by allowing them to sit idle and replacing qualified independent scientists with conflicted or unqualified individuals.

The order’s section on science advisers also signals that the agency will explore ways to “ensure transparency in … scientific evidence” considered by the committee, in what is likely a nod to the Trump administration’s expected move on addressing “secret science.” (Learn more on the many reasons this proposal is flawed.)

2. Restricting the science that can be used to protect public health

Many more people could now be living in areas that evade air pollution protections, thanks to a provision that limits what scientific information the agency can use to determine who is breathing bad air.

The Trump administration just moved to weaken our nation’s strong ambient air pollution protections, paving the road for increased pollution across the country.

The order includes an innocuous-seeming provision declaring that the agency should “rely on data from EPA-approved air quality monitors” to decide which areas need to improve their air. The EPA, of course, already relies heavily on monitoring data to make decisions about where air pollution standards are being met. But it can’t do this everywhere. Not every county or jurisdiction will have a monitor (accurate long-term monitoring isn’t cheap), so in areas without monitors for specific pollutants the EPA uses modeling or satellite information to determine air quality.

This can be a cost-effective way to determine where air is unhealthy and for some pollutants it can be impressively accurate. For example, for pollutants like ozone that form in the atmosphere, scientists know that ozone levels are very consistent over large distances, i.e. if a monitor tells me ozone levels are high, I’m confident that ozone levels are also high five miles down the road.

For other pollutants, modeling can be crucial for ensuring that people are protected from industrial emissions. Sulfur dioxide, for example, is emitted from coal-fired power plants and its concentrations can vary a lot over space, i.e. a place directly downwind of a power plant could get hit hard with sulfur dioxide pollution, while an area five miles away could have clean air. In these cases, modeling air pollution concentrations can allow the EPA to protect people from pollution that might otherwise be harder to characterize through a few monitors. (If you want to know more on this point, I know a good dissertation.)

Preventing the EPA from fully using available tools for scientific assessments means many areas, especially suburban or rural areas, could have unhealthy air that goes unnoticed and won’t be cleaned up.

3. Increasing demands without increasing resources for the EPA and states

Several provisions of the executive order focus on expediting permitting and implementation processes. In theory, this is a good idea. We would all benefit from more time-efficient government processes. However, it cannot be done in a vacuum. The EPA has been asked to do more with less over the years. Expecting the agency to expedite processes without providing additional resources could mean cutting corners or less rigorous analysis. This wouldn’t help the agency meet its mission of protecting people from air pollution; it would make it easier for lapses in implementation to happen.

This is especially true when we look at permitting processes, which are largely handled by the states. States won’t have additional resources to conduct air pollution modeling, analyze measurements, and evaluate permit applications for new industrial sources. Asking them to expedite this process could make it easier for industrial sources to be built in already polluted areas.

4. Allowing for more pollution in already hard-hit areas

In several ways, the order stands to increase pollution in areas that already face disproportionate impacts from air pollution. In addition to the expedited permitting discussed above, the rule also allows for interstate trading of pollutant emissions. Such schemes have worked well in the past (e.g. we’ve been remarkably successful at reducing acid rain), but in this case, it will be important to watch closely how this is implemented. For the ambient air pollutants that fall under this order and some of their precursors, there are acute health effects. Thus, in a trading scheme, someone will get the short end of the stick in terms of breathing bad air.

In other words, trading emissions might allow one state to breathe cleaner air and emissions could be reduced overall, but that means another area will see an increase in emissions. When the pollutant in question has adverse health impacts, that’s a big problem for anyone living downwind of a plant that bought those emissions credits. Similarly, states that depend on interstate cooperation to reduce pollution in their borders are also likely to get a sore deal here, as Senator Tom Carper of Delaware rightfully pointed out yesterday in a statement.

Already, the Clean Air Act doesn’t do a great job of improving air quality in hotspots where pollutant levels may be uncharacteristically high compared to the surrounding areas. This executive order could make that problem worse. As Alex Kauffman discussed on the Huffington Post yesterday, the people most affected by this are likely to be communities of color, which are already burdened with disproportionately high levels of air pollution across the country. This of course adds to many other steps the administration has taken that worsen inequities in pollution exposure.

Brace yourself for bad air

The bottom line is that the president’s order is bad news for anyone that breathes air in this country. It represents a chipping away at the strong air pollution protections we’ve enjoyed for decades. It doesn’t serve the public interest and it certainly doesn’t advance the EPA’s mission of protecting public health. It serves only those who wish to pollute, exposing more American to unhealthy air. And this will come with consequences for our health. The fate of this new order will likely play out in the courts, but in the meantime, I wish we could all just hold our breath.

 

 

Stories, Improv, and What Science Can Learn From Comedy

Can you name a scientist? If your response was no, you are not alone. Eighty one percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, according to a 2017 poll that was conducted by Research America. As scientists, it is our responsibility to reach out to the public and talk to people about what we do, why it is important, and how it connects to their lives. We are not trained to make those connections and do public outreach, but luckily there are increasingly more opportunities to learn.

We are graduate students and members of Science in Action, a science communication and policy advocacy group at Colorado State University. Our goal is to encourage other scientists on campus to learn about and practice sharing their science. With financial support from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were able to take advantage of unique opportunities to do just that.

Acting for science: using improv techniques to communicate

Scientists are trained to methodically approach problems and rigorously analyze solutions, but not taught how to communicate the findings. We may be doing vitally important work that benefits humanity, but what if we cannot communicate its importance to the public?

Actors, on the other hand, are expert storytellers. They use specific techniques to connect with their audience—techniques that scientists can and should learn to use.

Members practicing “acting tools” with Sarah Zwick-Tapley.

To help aspiring scientists learn these tricks of the trade, we partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to host a science communication workshop. Sarah Zwick-Tapley, a local theater director and science communication consultant, introduced us to the “actor’s toolkit,” a set of physical and vocal techniques for audience engagement.

These tips were simple enough (land eye contact, change the tone, volume, and speed of your voice) but incorporating them all together while also describing the importance of your science? That is a challenge.

Another critical piece of the storytelling approach is using the “And, But, Therefore” sequence. We practiced this technique with an outlandish example. First, you start with what we know (“we know cancer is a deadly disease AND that it has many causes”). Next, you build suspense with what we have yet to discover (“BUT, we don’t know whether eating old books causes cancer”). Then, you finish with your contribution (“THEREFORE, I am eating Shakespeare’s entire body of work to see if I develop cancer”). Using this technique turns a simple list of facts into a powerful story.

The next step: put our new acting skills into action.

Why science matters for Colorado

Colorado is home to multiple national laboratories and major research universities.

Standing in front of the Colorado State Capitol after sharing our science with legislators and staffers.

Researchers at these organizations do important science and bring the best and brightest minds to the state. To help share these discoveries with our state legislators, we joined Project Bridge, from the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus, for a poster day at the capitol. Speaking with non-scientists can be a challenge, but we used our new acting tools to tell a story, both in our poster design and our presentation.

We also took this opportunity to meet one-on-one with our state representatives. Because they represent a college town, they recognize the value of research for our city, state, and country. We were encouraged to hear that they regularly rely on experts at CSU for advice on pending legislation. This is science policy in action.

Communicating for the future

As a scientist, you may recognize that communicating science is important, but are unsure how to learn these skills. Luckily, there are numerous organizations across the country that are dedicated to training scientists to communicate clearly and effectively. Many scientific organizations (the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Cell Biology, among others) hold science communication and science policy trainings and provide small grants for local groups. COMPASS is an international organization that hosts trainings and provides one-on-one coaching for aspiring science communicators. Many universities have also started in-house communication trainings and programs (Stony Brook University is home to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

These resources illustrate the fact that there are people and organizations dedicated to providing scientists with the tools they need to share their science with everyone.

 

Rod Lammers and Michael Somers are graduate students at Colorado State University. They are both officers in Science in Action, a science communication and policy group. Science in Action is a student-led organization at Colorado State University started in 2016 to engage campus scientists and provide opportunities for outreach to the public and policymakers. More information can be found on the organization’s website and Facebook page.

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.

With Pruitt Under Fire, Likely Successor Andrew Wheeler’s Coal Ties Deserve Scrutiny

Photo: Senate EPW

As ethics storm clouds build over Scott Pruitt, environmentalists eager for a new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should beware.

That is because the odds-on next leader of the EPA is Andrew Wheeler. He has been an unabashed inside man for major polluters on Capitol Hill. He lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy, a captain in that company’s bitter war against President Obama’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and enact more stringent clean air and clean water rules.

Wheeler assisted the efforts of refrigerant companies to resist stricter ozone rules and represented Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company that successfully pushed for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah 85 percent, despite all its riches in Native American archaeology and art.

Confirmation now up for a vote

Nominated last October by President Trump to be Pruitt’s deputy administrator, Wheeler’s confirmation has been in limbo. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked Wheeler for a vote that could come next week, by filing cloture.

The evidence is abundant that Wheeler stands squarely with the agenda of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt to render the EPA as ineffective as possible. When Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general between 2011 and 2017 on behalf of polluting industries, a top petitioner and co-petitioner in half those cases was coal giant Murray Energy. Wheeler was its lobbyist from 2009 to last year. Even with pro-coal President Trump well into his second year, CEO Robert Murray is still complaining in his current message on the company’s Website:

“Our industry is embattled from excessive federal government regulations from the Obama Administration and by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity. In my sixty-one years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we saw during the Obama presidency.”

An action plan for rollbacks

Wheeler accompanied Murray to the now-notorious meeting a year ago with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the one in which Murray handed Perry a 16-point action plan “which will help in getting America’s coal miners back to work.” That plan ultimately became the framework of a proposal by Perry to bail out struggling coal and nuclear power plants (Murray was also a nuclear industry lobbyist).

That particular proposal was shot down by federal regulators, but Trump and Pruitt have made good or are making good on most of those 16 points, including the US pullout from the Paris climate accords, the rejection of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and slashing the staff of the EPA down to a level not seen since the 1980s attacks on the agency by President Reagan.

In suggesting that EPA employees be cut by at least half, Murray’s action plan claimed that the verbiage of Obama-era EPA rules were “thirty-eight (38) times the words in our Holy Bible.”

Wheeler has denied helping Murray draw up that document, but he certainly shares its sentiments, telling a coal conference in 2016, “We’ve never seen one industry under siege by so many different regulations from so many different federal agencies at one time. This is unprecedented. Nobody has ever faced this in the history of the regulatory agenda.”

Longtime Inhofe aide

Wheeler’s vigorous lobbying career came after serving as a longtime aide to the Senate’s most vocal climate change denier, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe. When the Trump administration announced Wheeler’s nomination, Inhofe hailed Wheeler as a “close friend.” That closeness was evident last May when Wheeler held a fundraiser for Inhofe, as well as for Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee that advanced his nomination by a party-line 11-10 vote. The Intercept online news service reported that Wheeler held the fundraisers after it was reported that he was under consideration to be Pruitt’s second in command.

Up until now, Wheeler has escaped the harsh scrutiny that has forced the withdrawal of some Trump appointees who were seen as embarrassingly close to industry, such as Michael Dourson’s failed bid to oversee chemical safety at EPA. Part of that was his good luck in being paired in his committee hearing last November with Kathleen Hartnett White, who spectacularly flamed out with her blatant skepticism about the sources of climate change, once calling carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, the “gas of life.”

By contrast, Wheeler slickly held to dry, brief statements that climate change is real, while agreeing with Trump’s pullout of global climate change accords. He even tried to play the good Boy Scout. After Tom Carper of Delaware recited Scouting’s commitment to conservation, Wheeler said, “I agree with you that we have a responsibility in the stewardship of the planet to leave it in better shape than we found it for our children, grandchildren, and nephews.”

His long track record of lobbying suggests the opposite.

 

 

Pruitt Needs to Go—But So Do Others in Pruitt’s Conflicted and Corrupt EPA

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt seems to have a penchant for scandalous behavior, from misuse of public funds to special deals with corporate lobbyists. It was hard to keep up this week with Pruitt press.  Sometimes it is hard to remember that each of these inappropriate actions by the Administrator is connected to an action that undermines public health and safety protections, as described by my colleague Josh Goldman.

And there is really no question that it is time for Pruitt to leave the agency that he leads. He has done more than enough damage to the work of the EPA, sidelining science at the expense of Americans’ health and safety. I certainly hope that the White House hears from Congress and the public that we have all had enough of Mr. Pruitt.

Unfortunately, it will take more than just change at the top for the EPA to once again serve the critical mission it is charged with by Congress—and that all of us in the public need. Mr. Pruitt has filled key positions in the agencies with lobbyists for regulated industry, cronies from Oklahoma and others with deeply held positions in opposition to the agency’s mission.

The year of hiring dangerously

Several months ago I wrote that too many of the Trump Administration’s appointees either have deep conflicts of interest, are opposed to the mission of the agencies they are appointed to, or are fundamentally unqualified. At the EPA, all of those problems are on prominent display, and they don’t end when and if Pruitt is shown the door.

One of the scandals revealed this week is that Mr. Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to appoint Dr. Nancy Beck outside of civil service rules and the ethics requirements of the Trump Administration. He did this because, at the behest of the chemical industry, he wanted former lobbyist Beck to re-write (read: weaken) chemical safety rules. Dr. Beck couldn’t meet President Trump’s own ethics requirements because she previously lobbied for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) on those very rules and therefore has a deep conflict of interest. The result: the implementation of the Chemical Safety Act has been weakened and—shockingly—the rules now fully reflect the ACC stated desires, ignoring input from all other interested parties—like public health experts and affected communities.

Or this week, Mr. Pruitt withdrew common sense automotive fuel efficiency standards that clean our air and save drivers money at the pump. These are standards the auto industry had negotiated and applauded when taxpayers were footing the bill for a huge industry bailout in 2008. Nonetheless, Mr. Pruitt, working with the automakers trade group withdrew that standard without any supporting analysis. Integral to that rollback was EPA Senior Clean Air Advisor William Wehrum, a lawyer for oil, gas, coal and chemical industries. During his career he sued the EPA more than 30 times to rollback public health protections. Not only does he have conflicts of interest because of his recent clients, but this record shows he is largely opposed to the EPA’s mission. Recently he was the architect of a new EPA legal interpretation that has the potential to dramatically increase emissions of hazardous, cancer-causing pollutants from industrial facilities all around the country.

Conflicted and corrupted

Mr. Pruitt has also brought on board EPA staff Dr. Richard Yamada in the Office of Research and Development. Dr. Yamada previously worked with Rep. Lamar Smith (R–TX) to push forward legislative efforts to give regulated industries more seats on EPA’s Science Advisory Boards, as well as excluding certain peer-reviewed science the agency can consider when implementing health and safety protections. Neither of those efforts were successful in Congress. Undaunted, Mr. Pruitt and Dr. Yamada are pushing their implementation by administrative directives, circumventing the will of Congress. They are busy excluding independent scientists from serving as advisors while packing the Boards with industry-based scientists that have been employed to cast doubt on the need for public health protections.

For example, one of their recent advisory board appointees has argued that “modern air is a little too clean for optimum health” and needs to be dirtier to protect the public. At the same time, Dr. Yamada is crafting rules to exclude from consideration many public health studies unless all the underlying raw data is released to the public. But since they are studies of public health they rely on the private medical information of real people that can’t be made public. In other words, the EPA shouldn’t use public health science to protect public health. That’s what I mean when I say some appointees seem fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency.

The collection of conflicted aides stretches into the dozens.

Another on the list: Liz Bowman, Associate Administrator for Public Affairs and Pruitt’s lead spokesperson (and former chemical industry exec) has sought to mislead the American public about Mr. Pruitt’s long list of scandals. Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, who previously lobbied with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, also faced pushback from Senators over the significant conflicts of interest she would face in her job with EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Erik Baptist, a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, joined Pruitt’s EPA as a top lawyer who was approved to advise Pruitt on the renewable fuel law.

And finally, there are the close aides Mr. Pruitt brought in with him to make the unprecedented assault on our children’s and families’ health and safety. One notable name is Albert “Kell” Kelly—disgraced banker (banned from banking for life by the FDIC) and friend of Pruitt from Oklahoma who has no environmental background, but was nonetheless hired to run the cleanup of Superfund sites. Twenty-five million Americans live within 10 miles of these highly toxic industrial waste sites—relicts of the days before polluting industries were regulated by the EPA. It should not escape anyone’s notice that these are the good ol’ days that Mr. Pruitt and his inner circle would like us to return to.

So, yes, Mr. Pruitt, we’re ready to say bye bye. But when you go, please take your corrupt and conflicted colleagues with you (more than I could name in a single post). The EPA needs to get back to doing what we need it to do—protect public health and safety. We don’t need the most extreme positions of some industry groups that oppose any and all regulation at the expense of our children and families. We need EPA and its many highly skilled and committed civil servants, scientists, policy experts, administrative professionals, lawyers and enforcement officers to do the jobs that they do so well. On behalf of all of us—the public.

Grasping for “Hopeful Signs,” Washington Post Downplays the Dangers of Trump Administration Attacks on Science and Public Health

The headline of a Washington Post editorial board piece caught me off guard last week. It read, “Trump’s record on science so far is a mixed bag.” I read on to try and understand the points made but found myself disappointed and confused by the message conveyed.

Somehow despite the Trump administration appointing several climate deniers to key public health positions, working more closely with the oil and gas industry on policy than with public health organizations, and failing to name a science advisor, the authors argue that that there are “hopeful signs” in the public health arena despite the failures to protect the environment and reasonably approach the risks of climate change.

But to the editorial board of the Washington Post I say: you cannot separate public health from the environment and climate change. Just because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has health in its name doesn’t mean it’s the only federal agency responsible for protecting public health. The fact is that our health is affected by a host of public policy decisions outside of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) purview. What about environmental health at the EPA? Occupational health at the Department of Labor? Nutrition and food safety at the Department of Agriculture? I have a hard time thinking of a single federal agency the decisions at which don’t have impacts on public health in some way. Every arm of the federal government has a responsibility to protect all Americans from a variety of potential harms, from malnutrition to the devastating health impacts of poverty.

You might not think of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, as having public health impacts. But, researchers have found that individuals receiving housing assistance from HUD are more likely to have access to health care than those on waitlists to receive housing assistance.

What about the Department of Commerce? The U.S. Census Bureau provides accurate and up-to-date statistics on a range of issues related to health in the United States, ranging from fertility to disability to health insurance coverage. This information helps other government agencies, state health departments, organizations, and the rest of us identify what health interventions might be needed for certain communities.

To narrow the focus of positive scientific developments to just one federal department and to use what I would consider a low bar for a good record on science fails to consider the ramifications that the Trump Administration’s actions and general disdain for science are having and will continue to have on public health. Yes, it’s true that the National Institutes of Health director and the CDC director are scientifically qualified to hold those positions. It’s true that Alex Azar, new head of HHS, has publicly stated that the CDC should be able to conduct research on the impacts of gun violence on public health. But, it’s also almost a year and half into the Trump administration and we’ve seen FDA’s Scott Gottlieb delay science-based added sugar labels at industry’s request, the previous CDC director resigned due to conflicts of interest so serious that she was unable to contribute to discussions ranging from tobacco to Zika vaccines, HHS removed LGBT health resources from its Office on Women’s Health website last fall and defunded over $200 million in teen pregnancy prevention program grants. The list goes on.

While there is promise of science-based policy decisions that will come out of HHS, there are also great concerns about the public health ramifications of this administration’s already very long list of attacks on science. At the EPA alone, the 22 deregulatory actions that Administrator Pruitt has bragged about saving taxpayer dollars actually will mean unrealized benefits for communities facing risks from environmental contaminants throughout the country.

For example, Pruitt has issued a proposed rulemaking to begin rolling back the 2015 Coal Ash Rule which would have required utility companies to monitor ponds storing coal ash waste (a byproduct of coal production), report leaks and spills regularly, and make lining ponds mandatory. If this federal requirement is no longer in place, we will see continued leakage of heavy metals into groundwater and surface water with known health consequences, including cancer risk, for nearby community members. Administrator Pruitt is doubling down on his misunderstanding of how science should inform policy by hinting at issuing a directive that would enact language from the HONEST Act. This would be an asinine move that would hamstring EPA’s ability to use a variety of scientific studies to support its policies which would have a drastic impact on its ability to enforce its own standards to protect public health from things like air pollution and lead contamination.

There have been several attempts at other agencies, like the Department of Interior (DOI), to stop monitoring and collecting data on environmental health impacts altogether. In August, DOI halted a National Academies study it had begun to fund that would have looked at the impacts of coal mining operations on residents of Appalachian states. Then, in December, DOI ordered NAS to cease yet another planned study that would review the department’s ability to inspect offshore oil and gas operations, originally commissioned to help prevent public health risks the likes of which were seen after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. These research endeavors would have contributed to the body of evidence to help the government better protect public health from oil spills and downstream impacts of coal mining, but the administration’s actions display apathy toward both evidence and protecting public health.

And while there has been some progress made in defense of science priorities, like the fact that the 2018 fiscal year budget from Congress was signed by the President even as it protected strong funding to the science agencies, the mere fact that the President’s budget initially called for a 30% decrease in funding for EPA, and its Office of Research and Development and enforcement programs shows that using science to protect public health is not a priority for this administration. Acknowledging this fact, we understand how important our role is to continue to defend the scientific work of each agency so that we can preserve as much of our public health safety net as possible, despite political appointees’ and industry lobbyists’ best efforts to undermine it.

This week marks National Public Health Week as designated by the American Public Health Association, and while we should think about how to better protect the health of the next generation this week, we should remember that there are children at risk every second. All arms of government and all of us have a role to play in improving their lives not just through better access to healthcare, but through public safeguards that minimize or eliminate risk from all exposures. From air quality controls to pesticide tolerance levels to gun safety reforms, it’s our duty to build, not to demolish, the public health infrastructure that will allow the next generation to accomplish all of the feats they aim to take on.

Follow along with the American Public Health Association’s National Public Health Week’s conversations on twitter @NPHW and with the hashtag #NPHW.

Science is Rising. Will You Rise With Us?

At last year’s March for Science, many wondered what would come next. Would the march be a blip, or did it represent a new era in science activism? We find that the enthusiasm for defending the role of science in public life has only deepened. Scientists and their allies went right from the streets into their communities and legislators’ offices, planning for the long haul.

At the same time, many scientists and scientific groups want to build on the successes and learn from the mistakes of others. That’s why today, UCS is partnering with a variety of science organizations to launch Science Rising, an initiative to help others make connections and put science to work for justice and the public interest.

Scientists are self-organizing, and are doing so around science issues in areas where they have not been as vocal in the past.

Scientists in Missoula, MT met with Republican and Democratic state legislators in March to better understand how to effectively communicate with elected officials.

Over the last year, some efforts were directly supported by UCS. The Penn State Science Policy Society convened a listening session to build relationships between scientists and community leaders. In Iowa, scientists organized a major advocacy day to urge the state legislature to restore funding for a sustainable agricultural research center. At the University of Washington, graduate students developed a workshop to better understand how climate policy works in Washington state.

Many efforts were not. The Data Refuge Project, made famous for safeguarding government data, is building a storybank to document how data connects people, places, and non-human species. The city of Chicago, which hosted climate change information on its website that the EPA took down, held an event in February to discuss how the city can support expanded access to climate and environmental data on its website and support research related to environmental policy decisions.

Scientific societies and universities have jumped into the fray. From Cambridge, Ohio to Corinth, Texas, the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union is helping scientists and community leaders tackle climate change and natural resource challenges. Then there’s the Concerned Scientists at Indiana, a recently-convened group independent from UCS that has held multiple events and trainings for scientists in Bloomington. 500 Women Scientists, which formed after the 2016 election, held science salons—public talks—around the world during Women’s History Month to raise funds for CienciaPR, which promotes science education and research in Puerto Rico.

Make no mistake: this is just the beginning. There’s a thirst among scientists to create the infrastructure that is necessary to share ideas, amplify efforts, and keep the momentum going. And it’s clear that scientists are ready to stimulate conversation around science policy and take actions that restore it to its rightful place in policy decisions. As we head into the midterm elections, scientists and their institutions will be increasingly active in getting congressional candidates to articulate where they stand on science issues and whether and how they plan to hold the Trump administration accountable.

But to really catalyze the energy that is out there, we have to pool resources. On the Science Rising website you can explore how to organize events in your community that help you stand up for science. How to connect with legislators and inform media coverage. How to organize events, get active on social media, connect with local community organizations. And ultimately, how to inspire others to follow your lead.

Zachary Knecht, who leads the Brandeis Science Policy Initiative, is excited about making connections through this project. “Even in our interconnected world, academic life can be very isolating,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical for those of us engaged in the science policy sphere to be able to coordinate our efforts, and Science Rising provides a centralized platform to do that.”

Find out what’s happening in your area. Check out what other scientists and groups of scientists are doing that you can emulate. Figure out how to take your own interest in activism to the next level. Other groups and individuals will share what they are doing and learning. Make your contribution at sciencerising.org.

Five (More) Pruitt Scandals That You Should Know About, But Probably Don’t

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been hit with a string of brewing corruption scandals that go beyond merely ordering a soundproof “privacy booth” that cost taxpayers up to $25,000, or spending over $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year on the job.

Stories broke this week that Pruitt allegedly: (1) rented a condo linked to lobbyists who represented an oil pipeline project the EPA approved last year and who donated to Pruitt’s campaign to become Oklahoma Attorney General, (2) looked into renting a private jet that would cost U.S. taxpayers $100,000…a month, (3) gave two of his staffers raises under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but not to actually work on water safety, and (4) lied to Congress about his use of private email to conduct government business.

This misuse of taxpayer dollars and pay-to-play corruption is infuriating – though unsurprising given what else is going on in this Administration – and indicates the type of person we have in charge of the federal agency charged with protecting our air, water, and health.

Pruitt doesn’t give two quarks about the U.S. taxpayer. Instead, these potential ethics violations highlight Pruitt’s penchant for using the office of the EPA Administrator to further industry interests, give handouts to his inner circle, and hide the evidence all along the way.

Although these corruption allegations are making headlines today, equal or greater attention must be paid to Pruitt’s somewhat quieter crusade to rollback regulations designed to protect our health and environment. These regulatory “reforms” haven’t garnered as much press coverage as Pruitt’s lavish spending, lobbyist connections, or shady dealings, but they are based on the same type of corrupt moral code Pruitt brings to the EPA and will cost more than just taxpayer dollars.

So, here are 5 regulatory rollback efforts currently underway at EPA that will impact our health and safety, and must be making headlines too

(1) Rollback of the “Glider Truck Rule”

Glider trucks are brand new truck bodies that manufactures cram an old polluting truck engine into so that the truck looks new from the outside but has an ancient polluting relic of an engine on the inside. The particulate matter emissions from these vehicles are estimated to cause 1,600 premature deaths each year. Pruitt’s EPA reopened a loophole that was closed under the Obama Administration so that these trucks can now be made primarily by a single company that has funded bogus science and anti-EPA politicians.

(2) Delay of Chemical Safety Standards

EPA had previously designed a suite of updated rules to protect fence-line communities and first responders from chemical accidents that happen like clockwork across the country. Over 2,000 incidents were reported between 2004 and 2013, and lives were lost. Over 17,000 people were injured and 59 people were killed during this period, and over 400,000 people experienced evacuations or shelter-in place orders because of a chemical-related accident. Upon entering office, Administrator Pruitt put this rule on hold almost 2 years later than the rule was supposed to go into effect. In just the last year, 33 more accidents occurred at facilities covered by these rules, and the consequences of these accidents may have been lessened or avoided if EPA didn’t initiate this delay.

(3) Rollback of the light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards

The light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards are a joint effort by EPA and DOT to improve the average fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles. These standards have been shown to not only reduce oil use and pollution, but also create jobs, give consumers more fuel-efficient vehicles across all vehicle classes, and have been widely supported. But, the EPA now doesn’t care about any of that as they have signaled that they are going to reconsider or rollback the fuel efficiency rules covering vehicle model years through 2025. This decision overturns thousands of pages of hard evidence, good science, and sound data, and undercuts one of the most important climate policies that is still on the books.

(4) Repeal of the Clean Power Plan

Last fall, the EPA issued a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a policy designed to reduce emissions from electric power generation approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. By the EPA’s own estimates, the Clean Power Plan would prevent 90,000 pediatric asthma attacks and save 4,500 lives each year. The agency is still taking comment on that proposal, which, in addition to making a mockery of the value of human health and the environment, attempts to reinterpret the Clean Air Act as well as how the power system works in order to avoid the need for meaningful regulatory action. UCS, along with 250,000 others, submitted comments to EPA in support of maintaining this policy, though EPA is forecast to rule in favor of industry, rather than individuals.

(5) Failure to require mining companies to clean up their waste

Pruitt’s EPA decided not to finalize a proposal that would have required mining companies to prove they have the financial means to clean up pollution at mining sites, despite an industry legacy of abandoned mines that have fouled waterways across the country. The estimated 500,000 abandoned mine lands in the U.S. can pollute waterways for more than 100 years and pose significant risks to surface and ground water. Pruitt claimed that safe-checking mining companies with a long history of pollution was unnecessary and enforcing a regulation that makes mining companies clean up their mess would impose an undue burden.

Guess who now has to foot these bills? The U.S. taxpayer. EPA spent $1.1 billion on mining cleanups between 2010 and 2014 and EPA’s own documents report at least 52 mines and their processing sites have had spills and pollution releases since 1980. Hard-rock mining companies would have faced a combined $7.1 billion financial obligation under the dropped rule, costing them up to $171 million annually to set aside sufficient funds to pay for future cleanups, according to an EPA analysis. These costs will likely now be borne by the taxpayer instead of the responsible parties.

 

Secretary Zinke’s Diversity Problem

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

I was a career senior executive and climate policy advisor at the Interior Department before I was involuntarily reassigned by the Trump Administration. In my role I had been focused on leading an interagency response to the slow-moving disaster in America’s Arctic, where Alaska Natives were faced daily with the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. With the safety of Americans at risk, I was stunned that the new Trump Administration would so callously leave these people to their own devices.

I should not have been surprised.

I was only one of the 33 senior executives Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned that night last June, and recently-released internal DOI documents that I requested months ago (and had to sue the agency to obtain) have shown that nearly half of the reassigned senior executives were minorities, a disproportionate number of them were women, and a full third of them were American Indian, as recently reported in Talking Points Memo.

This is appalling for many reasons, and not least because Interior plays an important role as the federal trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, (who, incidentally, make up 10% of the Interior workforce). For this reason there are special rules that provide an Indian preference in hiring for some positions, government-to-government consultation policies that require special effort to seek out and incorporate input from Tribes and Alaska Natives, and a long list of programs and activities—including my work with the Alaska Natives facing climate impacts—dedicated to their well-being.

Secretary Zinke, notoriously ignorant of the DOI mission, was briefed on these issues. During his address to all employees on day one of his new job as Secretary he included “American Indian sovereignty” as one of his top three priorities. Several weeks later, however, he inexplicably dropped this item from his list of top priorities and from his talking points when he addressed us at Interior headquarters once more. The anti-Indian tilt in last June’s mass reassignment action was just another insult to the American Indians that work for him.

Zinke wasn’t done insulting American Indians yet, though. In December, 2017 he traveled to Utah with President Trump to tell Americans that they were going to enact the largest reduction of protected lands in American history by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. This announcement was a slap in the face to the leadership of the four primary tribes who had advocated for protecting Bears Ears, a sacred area with one of the highest concentrations of archeological sites in the world. Subsequent document disclosures have shown that Zinke lied when he said there was no connection between this action and the oil and gas industry’s ambitions in the region.

Zinke’s neglect of the agency’s responsibilities toward American Indians and Alaska Natives even extends to grant programs that are meant to directly serve struggling tribal communities. The Tribal Resilience Grant Program was one of the few programs intended to help tribal communities specifically address their own resilience in the face of a changing climate and other threats, and he has refused to disperse the dollars that Congress has appropriated for this program. In 2017 DOI declined to announce a request for proposals, and the dollars still languish at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It remains to be seen if Zinke will be held accountable for this illegal act—known as impoundment—and forced by Congress to disperse those dollars in 2018.

While he seems to have it out for Indians in particular, Zinke has made no effort to prioritize diversity more generally. He was recently quoted as saying “I don’t care about diversity” and a recent scan of the DOI website found that the pages on diversity training have been cut back and in some cases eliminated.

It’s no secret that the Federal Government is a perennial laggard on workplace diversity—79% of Federal senior executives are white, for example—but at the Interior Department, the numbers of employed minorities are staggeringly low. Black representation at DOI is 5.6%, the lowest of any cabinet agency. Every Administration in recent memory has made efforts, some better than others, to improve these abysmal numbers, until now. It was almost comical, in a sad way, when Zinke’s spokesperson boasted that Zinke clearly cared about diversity because he had appointed two women and an African American to senior positions. Interior has 70,000 employees.

With his statements and actions, Secretary Zinke is stoking concerns that this administration is actively rejecting minorities and discriminating against American Indians and Alaska Natives, and that the 30% of his employees who belong to a minority will be singled out. Congressional staff have even speculated about which employees Zinke was referring to when he stated that 30% of DOI’s career staff are not “loyal to the flag” and one member of Congress has suggested that Zinke seeks to create a “lily-white Department”.

Until now, the media and public discourse has focused on Zinke’s efforts to stifle science, break down the agency, and hand public lands over to his oil and gas cronies. Certainly these actions will have direct consequences for American health and safety and the protection of our natural legacy. Compounding the mission failure, however, these recent revelations about Zinke’s discriminatory actions and lack of support for diversity in the workplace will have direct and tragic consequences for how one of America’s biggest federal agencies serves its employees, American Indians, and the American people.

It’s impossible to know what Zinke’s intentions are, but it’s clear that his actions are having a deleterious effect on the agency’s diversity, morale, and effectiveness. Rather than dismissing diversity and demeaning American Indians, Secretary Zinke should step up efforts to increase diversity and show that he is proud to serve and support the people who were making America great for millennia before the white man arrived.

New Report: One Year In, EPA Chemical Rule Delay Allows Chemical Disasters to Continue

A chemical plant disaster in Michigan in 2010. Photo: Dragonflylady/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr).

While news this week suggests that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is a walking ethics disaster, he’s long been paving the way for actual disasters—chemical disasters that is. A report released today, A Disaster in the Making, by community, environmental, health, workers, and scientist groups, illuminates how Pruitt’s unnecessary delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule continues to harm Americans.

More delays, more disasters

The report was released today by Earthjustice in partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coalition For A Safe Environment, Community In-Power & Development Association, Coming Clean, Environmental Justice & Health Alliance, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, and California Communities Against Toxics.

The key findings? One year after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s delay of the chemical disaster rule, otherwise known as the EPA Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, several serious chemical incidents have occurred—many of which might have been prevented or mitigated by requirements in the rule. Specifically, the rule would have begun to prevent and reduce chemical disasters in communities near over 12,500 facilities nationwide if the Trump Administration had not abruptly suspended it one year ago, in March 2017.

The Arkema Crosby explosions

For example, a UCS report released last September found that the peroxide tank explosions at Arkema’s Crosby, Texas facility in the wake of Hurricane Harvey might have been prevented if such a rule had been implemented. The rule would have required better coordination between companies and emergency responders. Such coordination might have prevented the harmful exposure to chemicals endured by first responders on the scene in Crosby. The rule also requires that companies conduct analyses after accidents to determine their cause and what steps might be taken to prevent future incidents. For some facilities there are also provisions guiding companies toward use of inherently safer technologies and chemicals. For Arkema, a company with several past mishaps and accidental releases at its Crosby facility, such provisions might have made a difference post-Harvey.

The human toll

And these disasters aren’t happening in a vacuum. Families and communities are living every day with the threat of disasters and the nuisances of living next to a chemical facility. For many, this has meant tolerating health impacts like headaches, eye irritation, and worse. The report also details lived accounts by people on the frontlines of this issue. Take, for example, the account of Jesse Marquez, a resident of Wilmington, California:

“Both my office and home are located near oil refineries; I can hear the emergency alarms blaring at all hours of the day and night,” says Jesse Marquez, who lives in Wilmington, California, a part of greater Los Angeles. “This has been happening my entire life.”

Mr. Marquez traces his civic activism to push for a cleaner, safer environment to the day four decades ago when deadly explosions at the oil refinery opposite his family’s house knocked them off their feet and sent a fireball overhead. He ran outside and jumped over a fence, and then heard a woman’s voice begging him to stop.

“I turned around and there was a woman with a baby in her hand, about six or seven months old. She was burned, the baby’s blanket was burned, and the baby’s face was burned. She said, ‘Please save my baby.’ She then threw the baby over the fence like a football for me to catch.”

Or consider the experience of Hilton Kelley of Port Arthur, Texas:

“I was dealing with a couple of crises at once after Harvey,” says Hilton Kelley, who lives near a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a majority black and Latino community. “The restaurant me and my wife own was flooded and severely damaged, and my father-in-law’s house was also damaged and flooded. While trying to help my family and neighbors get back on their feet, we were also being subjected to toxic and hazardous substances with virtually no protection.”

Last September, shortly after the hurricane struck, fire broke out at the refinery near Kelley’s home as workers were trying to get it running again. He and other local residents were ordered to stay inside shelter, he says.

“I take my granddaughter to the park twice a week but I can’t really enjoy my time with her because I’m worried about her being harmed by toxic substances,” he says.

We need protection from chemical risks now

Jesse, Hilton, and the rest of the nation don’t need to live like this. About 177 million Americans live in the worst-case scenario zones for chemical disasters and at least one in three schoolchildren attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility. The Chemical Disaster Rule includes much-needed improvements to the EPA’s Clean Air Act Risk Management Program (RMP) and would prevent and reduce chemical disasters, hazardous releases and resulting chemical exposures, while strengthening emergency preparedness and coordination with local first responders. When developing the rule, the EPA determined that prior protections failed to prevent over 2,200 chemical accidents around the country during a 10-year period, including about 150 incidents per year that caused reportable harm.

UCS has joined the legal fight to challenge the Trump administration on the needless and harmful delay of the chemical disaster rule. We are being represented by Earthjustice along with the Environmental Integrity ProjectSierra ClubCoalition For A Safe Environment (Wilmington, California), Del Amo Action Committee (Torrance, California), California Communities Against Toxics, Louisiana Bucket BrigadeAir Alliance HoustonCommunity In-Power & Development Association (Port Arthur, Texas), Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy ServicesClean Air Council (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (West Virginia). The United Steelworkers Union, fenceline communities, workers, scientists and 11 states are also fighting in the courts to help ensure that future communities and workers are safe from chemical disasters. Our families deserve this.

Betrayal at the USDA

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Unqualified government employees. Elected officials using their positions for personal gain. Policymakers favoring industry and disregarding science. Such betrayals of the public trust have become commonplace in the Trump administration. And while there’s been plenty of press coverage of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish dining set, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s shady condo deal, and President Trump choosing the White House physician to lead the VA, the same pattern is apparent in corners of the administration that have received less scrutiny.

Over the past year, I’ve tracked the actions of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his USDA. In a new UCS report released today, I document the many ways Secretary Perdue has, in his first full year on the job, betrayed farmers and the public he is sworn to serve. And I highlight ways we can push back (as some farmers are already doing—see below).

Welcome to the Department of Agribusiness

When Perdue took the helm at the USDA on April 25, 2017, he spoke of rolling up his sleeves and vowed to “work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.” Using his down-home Twitter handle @SecretarySonny, he regularly issues folksy tweets championing hardworking farmers. This week, he’s trundling through three states in an RV, making a show of getting out of Washington and talking to people in the heartland.

But over the past year, Perdue’s actual record of policy decisions has favored ideology over expertise and the interests of the Big Ag lobby over that of the majority of America’s 2 million farmers—and of all of us who eat.

A few examples:

  • There was the time last year when Perdue reversed newly-minted USDA rules meant to protect small farmers who raise poultry and livestock for big meat companies (think Tyson Farms and Smithfield Foods). As their name suggests, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have evened the playing field for those farmers, giving them more leverage in contracts with these corporate giants and making it easier for farmers to sue for abuses. (Lobbyists for the meat industry hailed Perdue’s action and suggested celebrating “with a top-quality steak.
  • Then there’s a pair of decidedly unscientific decisions related to nutrition, an important USDA responsibility that affects the health and well-being of our country. First, Perdue disregarded the best nutrition science in rolling back standards for school meals served to 45 million children every day. Under Perdue’s new rules, schools can serve “flavored” (read: sugar-sweetened) milk again and get a pass on implementing progressive sodium targets until at least 2020. In announcing the decision last May, Perdue assured reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk.” (The International Dairy Foods Association cheered.)
Farmers fight back

Secretary Perdue’s betrayal of farmers, in particular, may soon catch up with him. Already, his apparent failure to avert a Trumpian trade war that will hurt farm exports is causing anxiety and anger in farm country.

And now, a group of farmers is fighting his decision on the Farmer Fair Practice Rules in court.

In December, a handful of farmers and the watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets sued Perdue and the USDA, alleging that his decision to end the Farmer Fair Practices Rules unlawfully harms farmers. Just last week, the plaintiffs filed a new brief in the case, detailing the ways large agricultural companies have retaliated against them for standing up for their rights and how the now-rescinded rules would have helped them seek legal redress. The plaintiffs’ stories include companies lowballing them on price, retaliating against them when they complained, and even driving some out of business—practices they say the USDA’s own analysis shows are rampant in the livestock and poultry industries.

And OCM argues that Secretary Perdue and his USDA have failed to explain why rules that would prevent such actions are suddenly not needed.

Will sunshine be Sonny’s downfall?

Of course Perdue is siding with the agribusiness industry over the little guy. It’s who he has always been, going back to his days as Georgia governor. Back then, he made ethics pledges and promptly accepted gifts from lobbyists. He was fined by the state ethics board for campaign finance violations. And he went easy on big food companies in the state, which led to a pair of food safety crises—in the form of tainted peanut butter—that killed nine people and sickened more than 1,300. For all this, Perdue was named one of country’s the worst governors in 2010.

Anyone who studied Perdue’s record could have predicted how his tenure at the USDA would play out (and actually, some of us did). Still, over the past year, he has kept a relatively low profile as a member of the Trump cabinet “under the radar club,” avoiding serious scrutiny from the press while hewing closely to the boss’s deregulatory agenda.

As he hits the road this week, I’d like to see him field tough questions about why he is taking actions that hurt—rather than help—farmers and everyday people across this country.

 

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Burying Their Heads in the Sand: 11 Times the Trump Administration Quashed Scientific Studies and Data

Man on beach with head in the sand. Photo: Peter/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

One of the tactics that the Trump administration uses to get science out of the way of their policymaking decisions is to bury it and pretend like it never existed. This is quite problematic because science-based decisionmaking is ineffective when it doesn’t use…well, science. By trashing the most up-to-date studies and data that could help inform our governments’ science-based decisions, this administration is literally putting people’s lives on the line.

This is why it is so important to stay abreast of what is going on, so we can use our collective power to advocate for our leaders, whose salaries we pay, to do what is right—let science guide the decisionmaking process. We avoided any further cuts to scientific studies and data collection in the latest version of the budget, but we continue to watch where such programs may be cut through the appropriations process via the powers of this administration and Congress.

Here are 11 times the Trump administration has killed, ignored, or suppressed a scientific study or data collection, in no particular order (if you know of others, let me know in the comments).

  1. Environmental Analysis of Mining Operations Near Minnesota Wilderness Halted

The federal government was preparing an environmental impact statement to determine if mining operations to be located on land managed by the US Forest Service nearby Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness would have harmful effects. The Department of Interior (DOI) determined that a less stringent review was required only after a month that the agency decided to renew expired mining leases nearby the wilderness area. The wilderness is home to hundreds of migratory birds and is used for recreational purposes. There are not only concerns that nearby mining operations will harm Boundary Water’s environment, but that such harm would also hurt the region’s economy by driving away those that come to enjoy the wilderness area.

  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Coal Mining Study Halted

On August 18, 2017, DOI halted a study under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Division of Earth and Life Studies, entitled, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia.” The study was originally requested by states in Appalachia concerned about the health of their citizens. DOI’s reasoning for halting the study was suspicious. The agency said that it was reviewing all grants and contracts costing more than $50,000, but this study was the only one that was halted at the time the decision was made.

  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Oil and Gas Development Inspection Study Halted

 Another study aimed at investigating how the DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement could improve its inspections of offshore oil and gas development was halted by the agency. This study was requested by a number of experts and DOI itself in response to the catastrophic April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Officials from NASEM said that they weren’t given a reason why the study was halted. In its statement on the stop-order of this study, NASEM expressed “disappointment” that this “important study has been stopped.”

  1. Federal Program to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is Abruptly Canceled

The Trump administration cut nearly $214 million in funding for a federal program aimed to prevent teen pregnancy in the US. The five-year grants were ended halfway through their funding cycle across 80 institutions—a decision that is highly unusual. While the decision makes it more difficult for teenagers to access contraceptives, it also prevents researchers who were part of the program from analyzing the data they were collecting. According to notes and emails internal to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the decision to end these grants was directed by political appointees of the Trump administration.

  1. The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) Tropics Project is Cut

NGEE-Tropics was a ten-year project that aimed to study how climate change would affect the most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth. The Department of Energy (DOE) project would close down nearly seven years before its expected termination date. The project had proved successful to date, resulting in at least sixty peer-reviewed publications and a greater understanding of how these ecosystems function under a changing climate.

  1. Treasury Economists Barred from Producing Study on Tax Reform’s Economic Impact

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said that over 100 people were “working around the clock on running scenarios for us” to produce an analysis that would provide evidence that Congress’s proposed $1.5 million tax reform would pay for itself through great economic growth. Treasury economists stated that they were being barred from conducting comprehensive analyses, and that the analyses Secretary Mnuchin described did not exist. The Senate passed this sweeping tax reform on December 19, 2017 without considering any comprehensive analyses of the plan by the Treasury Department’s economists, and in lieu of the consensus of expert economists outside the government that the plan would not pay for itself through economic growth.

  1. Administrator Pruitt Ignores Analysis of HONEST Act Costs

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff-level analysis found that complying with Congress’s proposed “HONEST Act” would cost the agency more than $250 million per year. EPA career staff argued that the HONEST act would incur additional costs and time to implement, would limit research that gets conducted, and would deter industry and academics from working with the agency. The analysis that was sent to Administrator Pruitt’s office from experts at the EPA was to be sent on to the Congressional Budget Office as part of the agency’s analysis of the bill’s expected costs, but the study was never sent.

  1. Data Collection on Workplace Related Injuries No Longer Required

For over 40 years, larger employers in high-hazard industries have been required to keep accurate records of these types of serious, disabling events—and to maintain those records for five years. These records are vital to understanding the extent and nature of serious workplace injuries and illnesses in our nation’s larger workplaces—and preventing them. On a straight party line vote, the Senate repealed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) rule clarifying an employer’s obligation to maintain accurate records of serious injuries.

  1. Report on Costs of New Rule Affecting Service Employees’ Tip Wages Buried

In proposing a new rule that would allow employers to control service employees’ tip income, the Trump administration buried a study from economic experts at the Department of Labor (DOL) that estimated service employees will lose approximately $5.8 billion in income if the rule is implemented. The analysis was produced by economic experts at DOL, so the Trump administration sidelined their own employees.

  1. Study Showing Refugees Bring in Tens of Billions of Dollars in Revenue Trashed

The Trump administration wanted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. The problem: HHS had produced a study that showed refugees actually brought in tens of billions of dollars more in government revenue than they cost. This evidence ran counter to the Trump administration’s rhetoric that refugees and immigrants are an economic burden. The administration’s solution: reject the draft study and produce a three-page final report, which has yet to be released publicly, that discusses only the costs of refugees and none of the benefits.

  1. Collection of Data on Methane Emissions Stopped

On March 1, 2017, nine attorneys general from states with strong oil and gas industry interests and the governors of Texas and Montana asked EPA Administrator Pruitt to suspend an information request to gas and oil operations about their methane emissions and technologies used to reduce them. Just one day later, the EPA withdrew the request so that Pruitt could “assess the need for the information that the agency was collecting.”

Photo: Peter/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

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