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Bury Myers’ NOAA Nomination

Photo: C-SPAN

We became scientists to make discoveries and explore the unknown, not to wonder why science is rife with sexual harassment and discrimination. But that is not how our paths have gone. One of us (Dr. Willenbring) survived severe sexual harassment at a remote field station in Antarctica, which only recently resulted in the firing of the perpetrator. The other (Dr. Freitag) is a NOAA contractor who has watched how handling of sexual harassment cases can make or break a career in science.

We knew from our own experience that sexual harassment in the scientific fields is all too common. And so we were appalled, but not surprised to learn that AccuWeather—led by the President’s pick to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Barry Myers—agreed to pay $290,000 to 35 women as part of a settlement after a federal oversight agency found the company subjected female employees to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. We also were not surprised that AccuWeather denied any knowledge of harassing activity, declined on-site access to investigators, and objected to any expansion of the investigation. And sadly, we were particularly unsurprised at the original 2016 complaint by a former AccuWeather employee alleged that she was, among other things, subjected to a hostile work environment and ultimately terminated due to her sexual orientation.

But despite our hard experience, we were surprised, shocked, and disgusted by the sheer extent of the harassment that occurred while Myers was CEO of AccuWeather, which was detailed in a federal report that became public earlier this month. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) found, “Over two dozen witnesses spanning many different departments and in positions ranging from administrative support to senior management described unlawful sexual harassment that occurred at the company. This sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive, that some female employees resigned.” The investigation confirmed that AccuWeather was indeed aware of the sexual harassment but took no action to correct the unlawful activity.

At the same time that women at AccuWeather were being subjected to this pervasive harassment, so were women scientists, observers and contractors at NOAA. After several came forward to alert Congressional leaders to a system that had failed to protect them, Congress passed legislation to require the agency to develop a comprehensive policy on sexual assault and harassment prevention and response. NOAA complied with that requirement in February 2018.

NOAA’s reforms are working. We have seen them play out in practice and are cautiously optimistic that progress is being achieved. But those steps forward are still incremental enough to be undermined and will only be as strong as the leadership of the agency enforcing them. Myers claimed to be unaware of rampant and pervasive sexual harassment in a company of only about 500 office employees, How are we to have any confidence that he will have the capacity to ensure that an agency with 11,000 employees and contractors, many of whom are at sea and in remote locations, is aggressively enforcing an anti-harassment policy? As we both know all too well, serial harassers thrive in isolate environments where their victims have little recourse.

Myers has already made clear how he views such matters. When asked by the Senate during his confirmation process if “any business where he served as an officer had ever been involved as a party in an administrative proceeding, criminal proceeding, or civil litigation,” he responded that the company has been involved in “routine civil and administrative actions, such as (1) contracts disputes; (2) employee claims for unemployment compensation, EEOC matters, workers compensation, and OFCCP compliance; and (3) other personnel matters.” In other words, he views a settlement of pervasive sexual harassment in his own company, and financial payouts to at least 39 women who were subject to that harassment, as “routine.”

The women and men of NOAA, and of the ocean science community, deserve better than for gross sexual harassment and a hostile workplace to be considered routine. The nation’s premier ocean science agencies cannot and should not be led by anyone who does not understand that. The environmental threats facing our ocean today can only be addressed by the best scientists and subject matter experts in the world – and they should be led by someone committed to protect them. Barry Myers has shown he is not up to the task. We urge the Senate to reject his nomination.

 

Dr. Jane Willenbring is an Associate Professor at the Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and Dr. Amy Freitag is a contract social scientist for NOAA.

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.

Photo: C-SPAN

Wheeler’s Breathtaking Ignorance of Science, in One Comment

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at the EPA Science Advisory Board meeting on June 5, 2019 Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Yesterday at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board meeting, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made comments on the agency’s proposed Restricting Science Rule that raised eyebrows for anyone who understands the basics of health studies. In his defense of the rule (which the scientific community agrees will severely hamstring the agency’s ability to rely on the best available science in its decision-making), Wheeler asserted that the EPA should be more like the FDA in its data transparency. The FDA uses double-blind studies and the EPA should be taking that approach, he suggested. Um, what?

To understand exactly how misguided this statement is, let’s take it from the top.

Dear Administrator Wheeler, this is what a double-blind study is

Double-blind studies involve study designs where both researchers and study subjects don’t know which subjects are given the placebo versus the treatment. These studies are a great way that researchers can reduce bias in scientific studies since those involved in reporting and collecting data won’t be influenced by knowledge of a potential effect. These study designs are especially useful in clinical trial research for new drugs, where scientists are interested in the efficacy of a drug, the presence of side effects, and other health outcomes.

The EPA and FDA study fundamentally different things

What would a double-blind study even mean in the EPA context? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here’s the problem: There is a fundamental reason that the EPA is different than the FDA. The EPA is studying environmental contaminants, i.e. pollutants that are out in the world. As a result, we have to rely on observational data of people living their lives in the world, with all the variability in pollution exposure that comes with that. We cannot control who is and isn’t exposed to pollution if we want to study populations. There are of course natural experiments that scientists can learn from but as I explain in a recent piece in Science, it is not possible or ethical for scientists to expose groups of people to harmful levels of pollution—something that would be required if we wanted to attempt a double-blind study. This is very different than the FDA context where researchers in clinical trials have a level of control over which study subjects are provided drugs.

Air pollution studies with Scuba gear?

But let’s entertain Administrator Wheeler’s idea, shall we? If we wanted to design a double-blind study on an EPA issue like air pollution, here’s what that would look like. You would need groups of people who are and aren’t exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. But to make it double-blind, both those people and the researchers conducting the study would need to not know whether they were breathing clean or dirty air (until after the data was collected). To do this, the participants can’t breath the ambient air because we wouldn’t be able to control the pollution level of the environment, i.e. it would mess up the study.

Thus, a double-blind EPA air pollution study would need to involve something like study subjects living their lives in scuba gear, where neither they nor the scientists studying them would know whether their scuba tank contained clean or contaminated air.

It is very easy to see how this is completely unworkable. Does Administrator Wheeler need a crash course in study design?

The FDA is not a poster child for the transparency Wheeler claims to want

Administrator Wheeler had complimentary remarks for FDA disclosure of scientific data in its decision-making. This is a head-scratcher for anyone who follows FDA decision-making.

The FDA is not always forthcoming in disclosing detailed information about its decisions on drug approvals, food additives, and other agency regulatory actions.While the FDA has made many improvements in process, leadership, and transparency, when it comes to drug review and decisions, information disclosure is still lacking. For other products like medical devices, the standard is less rigorous, and primary data is often not publicly available. Also of note, even FDA advisory committee members might only see summary reports from companies and FDA reviews, not the raw data itself. Finally, label changes and safety alerts may or may not be based on publicly available data.

Importantly, the FDA is certainly not following the extreme requirements in the EPA Restricting Science Rule. Like EPA, the FDA handles much confidential business information as well as personally identifying information. It is true that some studies involving this kind of information are released publicly in ways that protect the sensitive information. For example, by statute, large pivotal clinical trials are required for companies seeking approval for new drugs. When drugs are approved, the studies the FDA relied on are released publicly and more information is now becoming available through Clinicaltrials.gov. The FDA is not, however, releasing raw data in the way that the EPA Restricting Science Rule suggests.  This isn’t the model of disclosure that Administrator Wheeler claims to be aspiring toward.

Administrator Wheeler’s comments prove EPA desperately needs science advice

In conclusion, Administrator Wheeler’s comments suggesting that the EPA should mimic FDA’s use of double-blind studies makes zero sense.  Its almost as if he is in need of science advice from experts. The EPA Science Advisory Board could provide such expertise, if only the EPA will let them.

Thankfully, the SAB voted yesterday afternoon to fully consider the EPA Restricting Science Rule in addition to providing individual comments in a near-term consultation. If the administration makes good on its promise to release the final rule by the end of the calendar year, then the SAB advice would come later, but regardless of the timing these are issues where the EPA desperately needs science advice and the SAB must step up.

 

Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Understanding the New Restrictions on Fetal Tissue Research, and Attacks on the Scientists Who Use It

An intern doing scientific research in a US Navy laboratory. Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has announced new restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in research. Fetal tissue research has led to profound progress in understanding and treating countless diseases and public health threats, including chicken pox, HIV, Alzheimer’s, Zika, and Parkinson’s disease.

If you want to understand the consequences of these new restrictions, the toxic and skewed discussion around the use of fetal tissue in research, and the negative consequences for individual scientists and their work, here are some good places to start.

First, critical fetal tissue research can be and is done ethically.

“There is strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework,” evangelical Christian and NIH Director Francis Collins said in late 2018. There is no evidence that fetal tissue procurement has any impact on abortion frequency.

Second, there is currently no substitute for fetal tissue in research.

According to Science, Dr. Collins also told reporters that “[T]here are certain areas where it’s hard to imagine that we would know what we know without the access to fetal tissue,” such as work on how the Zika virus infects brain cells and causes microcephaly in utero.

Mice models created with fetal tissue implants are considered the “gold standard” model organism for studying the long-term effects of a drug or the progression of a disease. These model organisms are essential for studying how HIV affects human immune cells. According to NIH Associate Director for Science Policy Carrie Wolinetz, there are no good alternatives currently available for developing human immune systems in mice without using human fetal tissue.

“The consensus is that there are certain things about fetal tissue that make [it] unique,” UC Davis Professor Paul Knoepfler told StatNews. “Certain experiments can really only be done on actual fetal tissue.”

Although the NIH is currently funding efforts to find alternatives to fetal tissue, NIH officials told Time Magazine that “the intent was never to cause research to stop,” and an HHS spokesperson told STAT that “by no means was [the review] meant to halt or ban or cease research.”

Equity Forward also has a helpful backgrounder on the importance of fetal tissue for understanding and combating disease and the political context that is driving the new restrictions.

Third, fetal tissue researchers have been under threat for years. 

Many researchers will not speak publicly about their work because they have received threats or fear threats. Most universities and university associations refuse to speak openly about this type of research because they are justifiably concerned about safety. Some scientists have resorted to hiring guards for their labs.

We live in a world where misinformation easily proliferates on contentious issues. In 2015, doctored videos that erroneously suggested Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue were used as justification for a congressional Select Committee on Infant Lives, a 15-month McCarthy-style boondoggle led by then-Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who has since been elected to the US Senate.

Blackburn’s committee issued subpoenas to scientists around the country, including to medical doctor Eugene Gu. Dr. Gu’s fetal tissue research was designed to save the lives of infants who are born with non-functioning heart ventricles or missing kidneys. The committee sent armed US marshals to bang on his door to demand access to documents related to his work.

“I’m a very ordinary, small individual,” Dr. Gu told Science Friday. “I’m not a professor. I don’t have tenure at a university. When I was subpoenaed, I was an intern surgical resident basically making minimum wage. I couldn’t even afford an attorney.”

Dr. Gu was railroaded out of that surgical residency at Vanderbilt University (also in Tennessee) once he began speaking publicly about the harassment he faced. Dr. Gu told Science Friday that Vanderbilt attempted to cancel his appearance on the show.

Fourth, threats and restrictions slow down research.

As Emily Crockett wrote for Vox in 2016:

“Researchers have testified before the select panel that promising studies of diseases like multiple sclerosis have been delayed due to threats and political pressure.

That’s partly because those threats and political pressure are causing the supply of fetal tissue to dry up. Some abortion providers and tissue procurement companies have abandoned fetal tissue donation entirely — and not that many of them were even doing it in the first place.”

“The fetal tissue research subpoena, demanding the names of anyone remotely involved in the research not only in the procurement of the tissue, is a direct attack on the scientific enterprise,” wrote my former colleague Pallavi Phartiyal in 2016. “It interferes with the ability of scientists to advance research on debilitating diseases, utilizing the most useful methodologies and research materials. [It] has the potential of dissuading a whole generation of early career scientists from entering controversial [fields] if they feel that they’d need to defend their science every time there’s a member of Congress who doesn’t deem their scientific methods appropriate or finds their results disagreeable.”

Ultimately, a severely skewed representation of the ethics and benefits of fetal tissue research is depriving all of us from research that can literally save us and our loved ones from disease. This is both irresponsible and sad.

Photo: John F. Williams, US Navy/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Put Them In, Coach: Why Sidelining the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Is a Disservice to Us All

Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

The EPA’s key scientific sounding board, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), will be holding its first full public meeting of 2019 this week. And as Administrator Wheeler’s EPA continues to roll back policies that were informed by science or devise new strategies to restrict the way that science is used in agency rulemakings, the committee formed to help review the agency’s science should have a very long to-do list.

But as we’ve noted before, the Trump administration has made it very clear across the board that incorporating independent science advice into its decisions isn’t a priority. This has been borne out in the agency failing to listen to its own scientists on regulatory decisions that affect public health, suspending or cancelling its own chemical assessments, and banning EPA-funded experts from advisory committees, which has significantly changed the composition of its advisors. While the SAB exists and has a full membership of over 40 individuals, Administrator Wheeler is now further attempting to strip the SAB of its responsibilities by narrowing its work to very specific pieces of problematic policy proposals (like restricted science) rather than charging its members with thorough reviews.

Why does this matter so much? Because the SAB serves an important role of checking the EPA’s science on a range of scientific issues—and that check can mean the difference between a policy that’s based on the best available science and one that’s based on the political whims of former coal and oil industry lobbyists now inhabiting powerful agency positions. Here are just a few examples of what could happen if this current SAB doesn’t have the chance to meaningfully weigh in on EPA’s policies on the table and political appointees continue to make decisions about the science that they have no business making.

  • Restricted Science: We already know the creation of this proposed rule, which would restrict the science used in public health policy, was a political maneuver first concocted by the tobacco industry and attempted many times legislatively in order to squash inconvenient science. If SAB continues to be cut out of this process, this policy could be issued without a single check on its scientific basis, on which a long list of scientific associations have come out in opposition. And this failure to charge SAB with reviewing the policy would set a concerning precedent that such policies don’t need to be rigorously reviewed by the scientific community. Allowing this rule to make its way as official agency policy would threaten public health science as we know it, erasing evidence of health harms caused by environmental pollutants because EPA isn’t allowed to use the science to protect us all.
  • Risk Assessment Guidelines: There have been several attempts to change the model used by EPA to evaluate risk of chemical exposure, including an interest from this administration (and industry) to remove the linear non-threshold model as the default assumption for contaminants. This model assumes that there’s no safe level of pollutants, whereas a threshold model assumes that there is a level below which exposure to a chemical is safe. The former is a more protective approach supported by the best available science and is the default assumption within the current cancer guidelines. If the SAB doesn’t have the opportunity to review changes to these guidelines, former American Chemistry Council employees now working inside EPA, like Nancy Beck, could write in industry’s wishlist of changes to these assessments to change the math used to analyze risks of chemicals, with the goal of making it more likely for the EPA to issue a finding that a chemical is safe, even when it’s not.
  • Cost Benefit Analysis: This administration has attempted to undermine the way in which EPA counts the ancillary benefits of regulations, including avoided particulate exposure in issuing clean air standards. Without SAB review, the agency could choose to ignore the science on the health benefits of avoiding pollutant exposure, changing the math so that the costs of creating important safeguards outweigh the benefits. This would be a great boon to the energy industry looking to continue business as usual, but would be a huge loss for anyone interested in breathing clean air. Alarmingly, such a move could have wide-ranging impacts on EPA’s ability to enact any new public health protection, since many EPA safeguards, from the mercury rule to the Clean Power Plan, rely on EPA’s ability to consider all relevant and quantifiable benefits in its rulemaking.
  • PFAS: The EPA’s PFAS action plan issued in February was light on the so-called action. Already, we are incredibly far behind in understanding the scope and scale of the contamination of these forever chemicals in our water, soil, and food. The agency needs to take swift action to protect us from further contamination and figure out how to clean up the mess made by manufacturers and users of this large class of chemicals. In order to act swiftly and in the best interest of the public, we need the smartest people in the room checking the agency’s decisions. Otherwise, we could be left with “action” determined appropriate and sufficient by people like David Dunlap, now leading the Office of Research and Development, who spent years working for Koch Industries, a parent company of PFAS-user companies like Georgia-Pacific.

While the aforementioned scenarios could play out even if SAB has the chance to review the policies in question, having a group of scientists publicly weigh in on these proposals is an accountability mechanism making it less likely that fringe scientific views find their way into final policy proposals. The bottom line is that the Science Advisory Board was created to serve as a check on the agency’s science. If there was ever a need for that check, it’s now.

I will be attending tomorrow’s meeting, providing a public comment, and tweeting the event from my handle, @gennareed.

Photo: sharply_done/iStockphoto

Let’s Stop Letting Minority Rule Give Us Science Fiction Abortion Laws

Photo: Elizabeth Greenwald/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

Missouri is still set to become the first state in over 45 years to not offer abortion as a part of healthcare. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have recently joined other states in not only limiting access to abortion (relying on misinformation), but also challenging its constitutionality. This is the latest phase of an anti-abortion strategy based on pseudoscience, which began after 2010, when conservative forces swept into power in numerous state legislatures. Since then, hundreds of restrictions on abortion have been passed, ranging from extended waiting periods, insurance restrictions and restrictions on clinics and doctors, to these more recent bills that ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Our arrival at this point, where public policies opposed overwhelmingly by medical experts as well as the majority of Americans might soon become law, shows how biased political institutions give way to extreme ideological forces untethered to scientific reasoning or evidence. A properly functioning democracy restrains such forces by relying on widely accessible information and institutions that give equal weight to public judgment. Abortion policy would probably be much different in the U.S. under institutions that actually respected political equality and majority rule.

Such extreme policies are unpopular in part because advocates peddle junk science and major medical organizations have been vocal in their opposition. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly opposes so-called fetal “heartbeat” (this language is medically inaccurate) legislation like that recently passed in Georgia and Alabama. They have also had to alert the public that “Claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards” in response to bill language from states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Idaho, South Dakota and Utah.

The science-defying bills don’t stop there. An Ohio bill including language about implanting ectopic pregnancies was “science fiction,” according to Daniel Grossman, OB/GYN and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco. Gynecologist and women’s health advocate Dr. Jennifer Gunter refers to such bills as “medically illiterate.” Similarly, the American Medical Association has consistently opposed politicians trying to determine what is medically necessary treatment or shielding practitioners from withholding care for moral or religious objections. And as political scientist Alex Keena has argued, such “supply side” policies that seek to limit access to care are generally opposed by the medical community because they actually increase health risks for women and children.

And yet these bills pass. They pass, in part, because biased representation in these state legislatures amplifies the voting power of these extreme viewpoints. Consider the states that have passed the most restrictive legislation since 2011. The association between biased institutions and restrictive abortion policy can be evaluated using the partisan bias measure that indicates how gerrymandered state legislatures are. Negative values are biased in favor of Republicans, positive values biased in favor of Democrats. We don’t have adequate election data for state elections in Alabama and Mississippi to estimate partisan bias. However, their Congressional districts are among the most gerrymandered in the country. It is easy to see that most of the early abortion bans were passed in heavily gerrymandered legislatures.

Gerrymandering critic David Daley recently described how the early abortion bans in Georgia and Alabama would not have passed in their current form without the advantage of electoral bias. Both states have recently held elections that were basically tied statewide between the two major parties, but most state legislative seats are uncontested or uncompetitive, and Republicans hold large majorities in both legislatures. Those large majorities increase the legislative strength of the anti-abortion faction. Even in Louisiana, where an early abortion ban passed with overwhelming support that included a dozen Democrats, a less biased districting plan might have resulted in a slightly less extreme bill, with exceptions for rape or incest.

It’s also worth pointing out that the most disenfranchised groups stand to be the most affected by extreme anti-science reproductive health policies. Restrictive voting laws in Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere systematically hurt Black voters both in practice and by design. And it is black women who may be affected the most by the abortion bans and other restrictions on reproductive healthcare. As journalist Samara Lynn points out, the facilities that provide abortions are also safe havens for women to receive prenatal care, sexual education, and pregnancy care. Closing of these facilities will disproportionately affect low-income black women and those in rural areas.

Women of color already face unacceptably high maternal mortality and infant death rates in the US, and barriers to voting don’t help. In addition to electoral bias in state legislatures and Congress, the Electoral College also contributed to this state of affairs. The latest wave of direct challenges to Roe v Wade, which secures the right to abortion into the 24th week of pregnancy, are aimed squarely at the two newest members of the Court, appointed by a president who lost the popular vote, justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Even if the first early abortion ban is overturned by the Court, there are many headed their way.

Imagine what the debate over abortion policy would sound like if it worked through electoral institutions that treated each voice equally? The cause of electoral reform is not only about securing equal voting rights, as important as that is. It is also a cause for sound public policy, policy that can receive full public scrutiny and equal consideration in a competitive electoral environment. Scientifically sound reforms, like those included in the For the People Act, would contribute to an upgrade in our electoral infrastructure that gives equal voice to all. Automatic voter registration, easy access to ballots and early voting, independent redistricting commissions, full financial disclosure for campaign donors, and similar measures would correct the bias that is currently amplifying such extreme, unscientific views on abortion.

Everybody deserves to be heard on this important medical and moral discourse. But what we have now reflects the distorted discourse of a minority view amplified through the bias of our political institutions. For the life of our democracy, we need to correct these inequalities and ensure that voters have an equal voice.

Photo: Elizabeth Greenwald/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)

Court Records Reveal Plan to Use Census for Racial Discrimination

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Just weeks before the Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of placing a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, newly released documents from a federal trial demonstrate that Trump administration officials falsely testified about the Justice Department’s motives and justification for adding the question, a decision that has been roundly criticized by the nation’s leading scientific and civil rights organizations. The documents reveal that renowned and recently deceased redistricting expert Thomas Hofeller played a direct role in advocating for a Census citizenship question that would provide data needed to implement racially discriminatory gerrymanders using citizen-only redistricting populations.

This new evidence, together with the Trump Administration’s previous attacks on voting rights and misuse of election science, underscores the importance of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions on both the citizenship question and the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. It is increasingly evident that through the distortion of science, core institutions of American democracy are under direct attack, and that the Constitutional protection of equality under the law will erode in the absence of judicial oversight.

Hofeller was commissioned for an analysis in 2015 that showed how the Republican Party could design even more extreme gerrymanders using the citizen voting age population to create districts, rather than the total population. This question was the subject of a voting rights case that same year, where Texas officials argued before the Supreme Court that the Constitution required that voters, not persons, be counted for apportionment of election districts.

Hofeller’s study of Texas state legislative districts showed that citizen-only districts would require expanding the geography of heavily Latino, traditionally Democratic voting districts, which in turn would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” But Hofeller concluded that “Without a question of citizenship included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire, the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable.”

Records show that Hofeller urged the Trump Administration to add the question, and that he worked directly with Mark Neuman, who then testified that using Census citizenship data was necessary to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and increase Latino political participation (despite the fact that VRA enforcement has never relied on Census citizenship data since it was passed in 1965).

That justification has been thoroughly discredited by election experts and several federal judges who have sided with scientific and civil rights groups seeking to stop the question from being added. Adding such a question, when adequate data is already available through the American Community Survey, would reduce the Census response rate, distort the results, and make it more difficult to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The Court now has before it concrete evidence that the citizenship question addition is an effort to deploy racially discriminatory gerrymandering to gain political power. Several other studies support Hofeller’s claims that citizen-only districting would dilute Latino representation in Congress and state legislatures, and that substantial power would shift away from areas with more immigrants and people of color, to already over-represented areas with more non-Hispanic whites and older residents. Unfortunately, the Roberts Court does not have a great record of relying on clear evidence when it comes to protecting voting and civil rights: It has already weakened the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v Holderturned a blind eye to voter purging from registration lists in Husted v Randolph, and showed extraordinary deference to executive power, including the president’s religious hostilities, in Trump v Hawaii.

This is disheartening because when one considers the three aspects of elections that this new evidence touches on, the path to entrenched minority rule and further erosion of democracy is clear.

  • A citizenship question on the Census would itself result in more non-citizens and other immigrants not completing it, distorting the apportionment of seats to the House of Representatives and the allocation of millions in federal funds to states and localities;
  • While the Court has unanimously upheld the right of states to count all persons in redistricting, at least some of the Court’s conservatives lean in the direction of allowing citizen-only redistricting, which would enable further discrimination and distortion;
  • Without a clear ruling to restrain partisan gerrymandering, mapmakers will use such data to mask racial gerrymandering as “partisan politics” when in reality the two are increasingly inseparable.

If the Supreme Court is to uphold its constitutional obligation, it must apply the unanimously supported opinion that Ruth Bader Ginsburg crafted in that Texas apportionment case, where she stated“As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote.”

Indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment binds us to the principle of political equality, and the Decennial Census is the scientific instrument that allows us to achieve it, at least as far as political representation gets us there. The Court must not allow the Census to be weaponized as a tool for the distortion of political power. Along with the Voting Rights Act, it is arguably our best means of securing the integrity of our electoral systems and our status as a democracy.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Trump Administration Puts Offshore Oil Rig Workers’ Lives at Risk

Photo: mliu92/Flickr

The Trump administration is failing to consider scientific evidence in rolling back a rule intended to keep lives of offshore oil rig workers safe. These are the very workers that the Trump administration claims to care so much about. But evidence suggest that this rollback on worker safety has been a long time coming.

First, a study was halted

The first step to rolling back oil rig workers’ safety was the Trump administration canceling a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study intended to investigate how to improve safety inspections of offshore oil rigs. While it is odd for any administration to cancel a study led by the country’s most prestigious scientific institution, it also was odd that this study was halted because the agency it was intended for asked for the study to be conducted…then made a U-turn and asked for the study to be halted.

In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and the spill caused an estimated $8.8 billion in environmental damages. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the most damaging in U.S. history.

A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sharply criticized the Interior Department’s offshore regulating body, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), for conducting inspections that are still based on pre-Deepwater Horizon standards. The report stated, “The use of outdated investigative policies and procedures is a long-standing deficiency.” In response to this report, the BSEE requested a study by NASEM to determine the best inspection practices to help avoid another catastrophic accident like Deepwater Horizon. The study was requested in 2016, but progress on the study was immediately halted in 2017. No reason was offered as to why the study was canceled.

Then, the waivers came

The Obama administration implemented safety requirements for offshore oil rigs in 2016. In September 2018, the Trump administration released a proposal for rolling back many of those safety requirements (subscription required). Many assumed that the administration would be waiting for public comment and review processes before the rollback could take place, but this did not happen.

In 2019, Politico revealed that the Trump administration had issued nearly 1,700 waivers on the offshore safety rules to states. These waivers were largely to bypass rules related to blowout preventers – the last line of defense that ensures an uncontrolled oil spill doesn’t occur.

The finale – A rollback issued

And the final rollback of safety measures has been issued by the Trump administration, putting more lives and our environment at risk of another catastrophe like Deepwater Horizon. The Trump administration says that they can achieve the same level of safety for workers and our environment with the revisions. How does that even make sense? That’s like saying that I’ll achieve the same quality of brownies if I leave the sugar and chocolate out. It’s just never going to be true. Additionally, it’s worth noting that BSEE didn’t even conduct a risk analysis on the revised rule.

So why ignore scientific evidence, cancel an investigation by the most prestigious scientific institution in our country on how to better safety standards, issue waivers quietly, and roll back protections for workers? You may have guessed it already – money.

The Interior Department estimates that the rollback will save industry more than $1.5 billion over 10 years. According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Most of the savings from the final rule—$919 million of it—is attributed to requiring less frequent testing of safety systems known as blowout preventers, which are the last line of defense against runaway wells.” Blowout preventers – the safety mechanism widely regarded to be the culprit of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The majority of comments submitted were in opposition to the proposed rule and many of its major proposals that rollback offshore oil rig workers’ safety. Yet, the administration didn’t listen to the public.

It’s ironic, don’t you think?

The Deepwater Horizon spill cost BP an estimated $67 billion in losses from the disaster. Yet, the Trump administration is willing to put the safety, the lives, of offshore oil rig workers on the line for $1.5 billion? I’m not a mathematician, but it seems like it’s cheaper in the long run to implement the safety practices that don’t result in $67 billion in losses. But, like I said, I’m not a mathematician. Also, making sure people don’t die is pretty good, too.

These are lives that the Trump administration claims to care about dearly. Yet, we have seen this administration plan to decimate protections for these workers since day one. There has been a coordinated plan that makes it clear – the Trump administration never cared one bit about the safety of these workers. It seems that the administration has their eyes on something else. Let’s just hope more lives aren’t lost on this irony.

Photo: mliu92/Flickr

Managing the Work: Reflections on a year of science advocacy from the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellows (Part 2)

Science and Democracy Fellows with trainers and fellows from COMPASS.

This is the second part of our series reflecting on the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellowship. You can read the first part here

Learning to be an effective science advocate isn’t just about developing advocacy skills and learning about science policy. It’s also learning about how you make advocacy a sustainable part of your life’s work. It’s easy to get frustrated, burnt out, and want to give up when change isn’t coming fast enough. Strategies for approaching advocacy in a thoughtful way can lead to more long-term gains and also make it feel less overwhelming.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

4. Pace yourself! Time management and self care are important.

Emily – Remember that “the work” is the work of a lifetime – while it may seem as if there is no time to wait, “there will be time, there will be time, there will be time” (to quote T.S. Eliot). Pace yourself! The timeline of the fellowship was not the timeline of the issues at hand, but was a start that led to meaningful and continued engagement, rather than a finite experience.

Tim – Emily brings up a great point that, for me, gets lost sometimes in this age of partisan political turmoil. I would add that focusing on what can be done rather than what could happen and being mindful of the moment allows the opportunity to take advantage of new possibilities that happen unexpectedly.  As an example, I was at a get-out-the-vote event and was able to network with other groups that were also there for a similar event that day. We took opposite sides of the student fairway and engaged more students together than we would have been if it had just been my group.

Adrienne – As Tim highlighted, look to build bridges with those already engaged in community building. No need to reinvent the wheel! Instead, think about how together you can do more.

Lindsay – It was really beneficial for me to have a timeline when planning my events, I am motivated by approaching deadlines. However I had a few very significant life changes last year that led to a shift in prioritization of my commitments. The timelines were essential, but so was extending grace to myself and realizing I’m just getting started, these are tools for a greater shift in engagement, not just tools to complete the Fellowship.

Shri – Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to share your struggles with your cohort. None of us are alone in these struggles.

Trainer Pamela Chang leads a group exercise at the fellows summit.

5. Remain detached from the outcome. Celebrate little successes.

Adrienne: Grassroots community advocacy work is a challenging long-game and successes didn’t always come in the form I expected during my fellowship. Thankfully, in times of frustration my UCS fellows reminded me to detach from the original goal and attach to each little success — a room full of students and community members at a LTE workshop (regardless if we didn’t get anything published), walking a few new voters to polls, or encouraging one more student to regularly call their representatives. I believe there is a gradual ladder of engagement and getting any individual to step up one rung is a success. Even just passively exposing constituents to a dialogue of science advocacy gives me hope that one day others will walk up the ladder towards more active advocacy.

Emily – As Fellows, our goal was to open a door into political engagement and advocacy for others who were new to the work, or for those who were seeking to collaborate. Who can tell where an opened door will lead at the start? Often, unexpected opportunities became available, and we learned to follow where they lead. Personally, I grappled with some opportunities becoming dead ends, but I learned that did not mean THE end of my work or goal. I just had to keep searching.

Lindsay –  Even if your actions don’t yield the results you were hoping for, your involvement is still valuable. Maybe it taught you an essential lesson to carry into your next action or prompted important dialogue within a partnering organization. I worked to increase indigenous attendance at a partner organization’s statewide event. While we didn’t get the attendance we had hoped for, we learned from the process and the partner organization realized its important to their membership that they are intentional about organizing inclusive events.

Shri – Celebrate connections made and recognize that it’s okay to go with the flow. Things become much less overwhelming when in good company.

Tim – I had to keep reminding myself that a healthy democratic process involves many differing opinions from people who must come together with compromise and common ground.  Engaging in a partisan way can make others feel excluded and or minimized.

Advocacy as a life-long pursuit

We started as neophytes who came to understand that advocacy is a continual learning process. While our Fellowship has ended, our advocacy and teamwork has not. In struggling and striving to enact positive change we developed powerful bonds with one another. Mutual appreciation, support, respect, and willingness to lift each other up after inevitable mistakes, let-downs, and self-perceived failures facilitated the formation of vibrant inter-connections. This sense of belonging to a purpose and movement greater than ourselves is priceless. We discovered that our individual experiences were not separate from other Fellows’ experiences, but rather like threads in a tapestry they provide variation in texture and color, supporting and complementing the other strands that make up our fabric.

 

 

Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.  

 

Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.

 

Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU.

 

Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.

 

Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.

 

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.

Fellows workshop ideas in small groups.

Drops, Ripples, Waves: Reflections on a year of science advocacy from the 2018 UCS Science and Democracy Fellows (Part 1)

In response to the increasing political attacks on science, in 2018 the Union of Concerned Scientists launched the Science and Democracy Fellowship to support scientists in becoming local advocacy leaders. We were selected for the inaugural six-month program to mobilize our local communities, in partnership with UCS, in confronting federal attacks on science.

Who are we, and what did we do?

We are five early- and mid-career scientists from Indiana (Adrienne), Maine (Shri), Missouri (Emily), Montana (Lindsay), and Nevada (Tim) who organized actions and events within our respective local communities to stand up for science-based policies at the local and federal level. Some common themes emerged as we reflected on our collective lessons-learned, which we’ll share in a two-part blog series.

  1. Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.
  2. Develop inclusive relationships.
  3. Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.

We continue to integrate these ideas in our advocacy and invite you to listen to our experiences in our own voices below.

1. Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.

Tim – Advocacy doesn’t have to be complicated or be some huge project. Little efforts, like letters to the editor (LTEs), are small acts of advocacy and achieve small action goals when people don’t have much time or experience.  Having success on these smaller projects builds momentum that can provide better support for larger projects. I found that once my group had done a smaller effort, it was easier to focus on a bigger goal.

Adrienne – I agree, Tim. Leading with small examples makes the bar lower for others to get engaged. For example, if you are trying to get others to call their congresspeople, are you also calling every week? Even better, can you get someone else to make a call with you during your coffee break? LTEs can be short, but should be timely which can be challenging to accomplish as a solo act. Can you get one other person to join you in writing a letter, getting them engaged, splitting the work, and enhancing inclusivity?

Shri – The template for writing LTEs provided by UCS made it so easy! Once I had a local paper in my hand it took about 5 minutes of skimming to find an article I could reply to. Then it was as simple as plugging in sentences according to the template. The biggest barrier during our LTE party was the fact that none of us actually read the paper! We realized that this was an important way to be connected to the local community.  Writing an LTE is a great place to start. If I were to do it over again I would get a bunch of people in the same room with a stack of papers. We could easily go through the whole process of skimming the paper, finding the article and writing the letter in an hour.

Emily – Remember that newspapers are struggling with shrinking budgets! Many editors and  reporters will be happy that you’re offering your own perspective in the form of an op-ed or LTE, and they don’t have to use vital resources to track a story down themselves.

Lindsay – It’s easy to make excuses that prevent you from engaging. It’s just as easy to engage. An LTE is a mere 150 words, we all have 150 words to share on a topic we care about! I put off writing an LTE for months, when I finally did it, it was a breeze. Having community members and representatives reach out to me on social media in response was validating, and made me feel silly for putting off such a simple, effective task for so long.  

  2. Develop inclusive relationships.

Shri: Build inclusive relationships, make connections, use your network. Consider who is at the table, be grateful to those who show up, and make the effort to reach out to the people who are not at the table, whose voices are under represented. When you prepare to take an action, take a step back and identify who is impacted, then make moves to raise their voices. This could mean putting your efforts on hold to support what they already have going on. Be intentionally inclusive and proactive about addressing equality. It’s helpful to make meaningful connections by keeping the ask low pressure, simple and sincere.

Tim – I think of this one as a network circle. A journey around my network circle includes members of science advocacy groups, such as the Nevada watchdogs, the communities who have a specific science supported goal, and the audience or recipient of the action or advocacy goal. I agree with Shri and the other fellows that inclusion is essential to success. This inclusion was a key to identifying important scientific question topics that we submitted to our Senate debate.

Emily – As Tim has said, a “network circle” is a great visual that really speaks to the core importance of advocacy communities. I envisioned a “ripple” when thinking about the network I hoped to build. As in, how far do my advocacy concerns resonate outside my immediate circle? Also, in thinking about diversity equity inclusion (DEI), it’s important to ask, “Who am I not seeing ‘at the table’? Who is missing, and why?” I’m learning not to assume that the people who show up to your actions are the only ones interested. Many others may be constrained by time, resources, or a feeling they don’t belong. But the strongest network circle is going to be the one that captures as many voices as possible.

LindsayDiversity, equity, and inclusion were at the forefront of all of my planning but I struggled to incorporate it in an effective way in my actions. This struggle led me to organize a discussion that was open to the community on the challenges and importance of creating inclusive spaces. My takeaway is that this is not always an easy task, but it is a task worth every ounce of energy. Be willing to learn in public spaces and learn from your neighbors.

3. Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.

Tim – In my experience, people have limited time but do want to get involved. That being said the more specific tasks or asks that you present, the greater the chance for involvement or success. I had two contrasting group events and saw a noticeable difference in engagement when I was able to drill down to a single or few items for each person to accomplish in a project rather than an open format that allowed individuals to work out the details of a larger project.

Shri – Use examples to show what a finished piece looks like, i.e., an LTE or letter to one’s representatives.

Emily – After you’ve made a specific ask, as Shri and Tim mention, it might be time to “adapt to the response”. Remember that your advocacy goals versus the goals of the groups or individuals you are working with may differ, but be prepared to lean into that difference. A community member who’s been engaged for longer than you has insider information as well as needs and constraints that are important to heed.

Each of us joined the Fellowship as a single drop, so to speak, but in joining our advocacy efforts with each other, and in engaging with members of our local communities, we made ripples in advancing science and policy advocacy in our respective states. Over time, these advocacy ripples became waves and influenced science and policy at a higher level. Just remember – we started as drops. Now, that little drop could be YOU.

Stay tuned for the second part of our series where we focus on how to make organizing and advocacy a sustainable endeavor–even while juggling work, school, and life.

 

 

Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.  

 

Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.

 

Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU.

 

Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.

 

Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.

 

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.

Children’s Health Research Centers Protect Our Kids. The EPA Just Defunded Them.

Photo: EPA

Almost 19 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into a partnership with the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to invest in children’s health. The EPA lauded this history just last October, noting the immeasurable value and singular focus of improving the health of children across every community. The partnership established a joint program to competitively fund community-based Children’s Centers across the country—centers where teams of researchers and child health experts come together to study and reduce environmental health risks to children today and into the future. Research on toxic substances linked to illnesses such as asthma, cancer, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can rob children and their families of the many joys of childhood and impact the child for a lifetime.

Over its history, the partnership program has awarded 46 grants totaling over $300 million to Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers from coast to coast (see map of grantees over time, pp. 10-11). And the research has been prolific (the EPA’s word, not mine), with more than 2,500 publications contributing to the store of knowledge on environmental impacts on children’s health.

In its 2017 impact report, the agencies detail the compelling need for this research and the impressive accomplishments to dateSo it’s a real disappointment—although not really surprising—that the EPA has decided to pull out of this decades-long partnership and stop funding grants to children’s environmental health research centers. More on this below, but first….

The need for children’s health research

Children are not little adults; they are uniquely vulnerable to environmental risks. Their organs and systems are rapidly developing; they eat, drink, and breathe more than adults relative to body mass; and their behaviors make them more susceptible to environmental exposures. In addition, prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants can result in preterm births, low birth weight, and birth defects that can impact a child’s health and quality of life well into the future.

The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that nearly 141.1 million people live in counties where monitoring shows unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle or both. That’s 43.3% of our nation’s population breathing unhealthy air. This helps explain why some 6.2 million children in the US have asthma (for more on childhood asthma, see info from the ALA and the Centers for Disease Control). In addition to the very real social impacts that asthma has on children (and their parents)—like missing school, being unable to fully engage in outdoor activities, the often frightening visits to emergency departments, and the need to take medication—are the enormous economic costs. A recent study of the economic costs of pediatric asthma in the US found direct costs totally $5.92 BILLION, with average annual costs per child ranging from $3,076 to $13,612.

There are equally compelling data on other serious health outcomes in children exposed to environmental toxins. From cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders to acute and chronic impacts associated with lead, arsenic, pesticides, and toxins in consumer products, like phthalates and BPA.  

The accomplishments of the Children’s Centers

The EPA has lauded the accomplishments of the partnership, noting that “Through their groundbreaking work, the Children’s Centers have pushed the boundaries of clinical, field, and laboratory–based research. The centers have been hubs for research across disciplines critical to children’s health—from medicine, toxicology, genetics, epidemiology, and biology to social science, statistics, and informatics. The research has been disseminated through thousands of publications in diverse and peer-reviewed journals. The research findings lay a critical foundation for reducing health risks and improving quality of life for children and adults” (Impacts Report, page 12).

Examples of groundbreaking research include:

  • Effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on children’s brains
  • Effects of maternal exposure to air pollution on preterm birth and reduced birth weight
  • Associations between leukemia and exposure to tobacco smoke, pesticides, paint, organic solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and PAHs
  • Cognitive and behavioral effects associated with prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Potential links between air pollution, pesticides, occupational exposures, phthalates, and risk of autism spectrum disorder in children
  • How chemicals in plastics and household items affect reproduction and onset of puberty

In addition, the centers go well beyond publishing their research in scientific journals. They serve as community resources, engaging in outreach, communication, and collaboration with community partners and organizations to disseminate vital scientific information on the ground. Their research also provides critical information for public health and environmental policy (for example, see here, here, here, here, here).

Another step backwards on children’s health

While the EPA’s decision to stop funding grants through the Children’s Environmental Health Centers may seem like a head-scratcher (or like looking a gift horse in the mouth, as my dear old dad would have said), it’s actually not so surprising.

Findings from long-term studies of the effects of chemicals on child health often pose economic, regulatory, and reputational headaches for the chemical industry and other producers. And industry interests are certainly top of mind for the Trump administration. The decision to cut this funding is just the latest in a pattern of rolling back public health and science-based protections at the EPA.

For example, the agency has decided that it’s no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and air toxics emissions from power plants. Yes, mercury! That well-known bad actor, especially hazardous to pregnant women, to the neurological development of their fetuses and to young children—causing impairments that can last a lifetime.

And let’s not forget the agency’s decision to override its own science on damaging effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on children’s developing brains. The ninth Circuit Court of Appeals saw it differently and ordered the EPA to finalize its proposed ban of chlorpyrifos, determining that EPA’s 2017 decision to refuse to ban the chemical was unlawful because it failed to justify keeping chlorpyrifos on the market, while the scientific evidence very clearly pointed to the link between chlorpyrifos exposure and neuro-developmental damage to children, and further risks to farmworkers and users of rural drinking water. 

Research today—healthy kids and adults tomorrow

Protecting our children from environmental harms is surely something we can all agree on. Doing the science to understand, reduce, and prevent these risks to children’s health takes knowledge, skills, interdisciplinary collaboration, and commitment. Researchers in the centers have certainly demonstrated all of that over the past two decades. But they need financial resources to continue this important and evolving work.

While we call out the EPA for its regressive decision, let’s also give a shout-out to the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Though it alone will be hard pressed to close the financial gap left by the EPA’s abrupt exit from the partnership, the agency has publicized plans to fund five grants for new “Children’s Environmental Health Translation Centers.”

And let’s join together as advocates for children’s health and our collective future to let our elected leaders know that continued funding for such centers of excellence is in our national interest. To me, it’s a no-brainer.

Photo: EPA

How Scientists are Responding to On the Media’s Reporting on Researcher Harassment

The prolific public radio show On The Media last week explored how open records laws are used to disrupt public interest research at public universities and examined the challenges of creating laws that allow for scrutiny while protecting free speech. The reporter, Alana Casanova-Burgess, treated the issue with the complexity it deserves, and in the days since, I’ve heard from several professors around the country by email and phone.

In case you haven’t followed the issue, a recap: companies and activists increasingly seek private correspondence of public university researchers through open records requests, hoping to find information they can take out of context to confuse the public and discourage public interest research. North Dakota and Rhode Island recently modernized their open records laws, and a California legislator introduced a bill to improve California’s law. The legislation was recently put on hold while supporters and opponents work out their differences.

For some researchers who heard the show, the chilling feeling was all too familiar. Several academics doing great research reached out to me to thank me for being interviewed for the story. Not one wanted to go public for fear of putting a target on their back.

“I teach at a public university in Texas,” wrote one scientist. “Although I don’t get any grant funding, I am super careful about what I put on my syllabus and in emails. All I know is how much I self-censor—not an easy thing for me to do when I teach about [public] health.”

One of my undergraduate degrees is in rhetoric and communication theory, so how information and misinformation spreads has always been a strong interest and area of study for me. And I’m so thrilled that the California legislation has helped amplify a national conversation about this issue. Through On the Media and other reporting, millions of people have been introduced to the issue of harassment of researchers. And through this public conversation, we are finding where there is common ground.

“You have a bunch of groups that all think they’re doing what’s good for inquiry and democracy,” Berkeley Law Professor Claudia Polsky, who wrote a recent law review article about this issue, told the show. “We’re all making the same core moral claim but it leads us to a very different perspective on records requests.”

That’s one of the reasons I believe there is a long-term solution to this problem: since we all want to protect research and promote accountability, we just need to agree, to the extent practicable, on the right mechanisms that can get us there. UCS won’t support legislation that goes too far and compromises accountability. But we still want to see laws that protect the ability of scientists to pursue policy-relevant research regardless of the results.

If 3M Really Cares About the PFAS Science, Here’s How They Should Move Forward

Photo: Dylan McCord/US Navy

Well, well, well, 3M. I’m glad to hear you are concerned about the science of PFAS, but let’s put some walk to that talk.

Let me explain. As I was googling several different PFAS-related search terms last week, I kept seeing this targeted ad at the top of the list titled “3M | Believe Science, not opinion: We proactively minimized PFAS impact, investing $50 million in carbon filtration systems.” When I clicked on it, it brought me to an ad on the Washington Post website titled “Why We Support Regulation of PFAS. Here’s How to Move Forward” written by the Senior Vice President of Research and Development and CTO of 3M, John Banovetz, that reads like an opinion piece (but presumably without the rigorous review required to get on the actual op-ed pages of the Post) and uses strong messaging of supporting science and “thoughtful” regulation.

Well, 3M, I know you think that your company has pulled out all the stops by spending a grand total of $100 million in testing water sources and $50 million in installing carbon filtration systems, but no one is impressed. Not only is it pocket change for a company with $33 billion in sales in 2018, but it doesn’t even come close to covering the past, current, and future health costs of the toxic chemical burden imposed on millions of bodies thanks in part to your company. Clearly you’ve noticed the magnitude of this issue, since your 2018 financial statement spends over six pages listing the many lawsuits involving your company related to PFAS.

Since you don’t seem to have a grasp on what being a responsible company looks like, I have created this handy roadmap for you to follow as you think about how you can help inspire confidence in drinking water. Here’s how 3M needs to move forward:

1. Stop lying about the science (and everything else)

We already know you covered up the science on the impacts of PFOA and PFOS decades ago, so why not just admit what you have long known—that PFOA and PFOS are hazardous and linked to a range of health problems and data on replacement PFAS are pointing to similar impacts. You can post ads in every newspaper in the country that assert your interest in science and science-based policies, but you won’t gain any trust until you start being honest about the mess you’ve made and start contributing to solutions that aren’t just band-aids. You can also start helping contribute to knowledge about the scope and magnitude of the PFAS contamination issue by endorsing legislation like the PFAS Detection Act, which would charge USGS with conducting nationwide sampling of PFAS in waterways, wells, and soil.

2. Clean up your mess

Once you start leveling with the public about your role in this public health emergency, you can support proactive legislative solutions instead of lobbying against them, pledge to swiftly and thoroughly clean up already contaminated superfund sites, and work with scientists across the country to figure out how best to remediate these sites and safely dispose of PFAS contamination. A good start would be to endorse the PFAS Action Act which would designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the EPA’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This would help feed into the PFAS Right To Know Act which would require the agency to list PFAS under the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory which would let communities know how much PFAS are released by nearby facilities. Giving communities information on where and how much PFAS are being released and then creating a trigger for cleanup of sites contaminated with PFAS would get the ball rolling on protecting our water.

3. Pay for the damage done

As you’re navigating cleaning up the sites that are clearly your responsibility, you’ll pay what you owe instead of shifting the burden onto small communities that are currently paying for their local water utilities to filter their water or connect them to the local water supply for contamination that’s not their fault. You’ll also pay for the technology that water utilities need to test for the variety of PFAS used in your products. You put it into the environment, it’s now your job to figure out how to find it so it can be rooted out. Remember it’s your fault, so you need to fix it. The House has introduced infrastructure legislation, the LIFT America Act, that would jumpstart this process by providing $2.5 billion in grants to PFAS-impacted communities to help clean up their water. What about a dollar-for-dollar match from 3M?

4. Don’t let it happen again

In order to protect public health and the environment and ensure the long-term viability of your company, you need to seek alternatives for the entire class of PFAS. The phase-out of PFOA and PFOS was just a baby step. The body of evidence of chemicals within this class make a strong case for regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals since their toxicological properties are similar. You need to accept this and dedicate research and development resources to developing alternatives while you phase out manufacture and use of short-chain PFBS and whatever’s next in the PFAS pipeline.

A suite of legislative solutions is just the start

According to your Washington Post piece, you support the EPA setting a national standard for PFOA and PFOS but have issues with the pieces of legislation on the table. There are some very important bills out there that will allow EPA to use the science to inform regulatory pathways under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and CERCLA. These bills would not create shortcuts to regulate PFAS without agency officials making decisions based on the best available science. Whether that science is convenient for you is another story.

If you really believe that science should determine PFAS regulation, then we agree and the next steps are very clear. I spent last Wednesday on Capitol Hill with a group of people adversely affected by PFAS. There were stories of disease and death, stories of lives that were altered forever by you and your industry’s negligence with these chemicals. You would be best served to listen to these stories, take them seriously and take action to ensure more people don’t face the same fate.

On Wednesday, May 15th I was fortunate enough to meet this inspiring group of people impacted by PFAS contamination who traveled to DC from across the country to advocate for legislative action on PFAS.

There are people who can’t drink their water, can’t swim in their lakes, can’t fish or hunt on their land, can’t sell their property, can’t pursue their dreams, and can’t say goodnight to their loved ones thanks to the chemicals you unleashed into the environment. You owe it to them to change course.

A Stroller Debacle at CPSC Politicizes Child Safety and I Have No Chill

I’m a self-proclaimed transparency nut. But now that I’m a mom, my need for information has grown exponentially. I want a label on baby food that tells me how much added sugar is in it. I want to know whether my daughter’s car seat or mattress contains organohalogen flame retardants. And I certainly want to know whether the stroller I’m using to cross busy DC streets is safe. But apparently that last bit is none of my business and that’s okay with some federal regulators who care more about acquiescing to industry wishes than keeping kids safe.

President Trump’s CPSC turns child safety into a partisan issue

The Washington Post recently reported that despite the evidence and staff scientists’ opinions that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) should recall a jogging stroller shown to result in injuries to children (and their parents), the commission worked with the company, Britax, to avoid the measure. From 2012 to 2018, over 200 documented injuries came to CPSC by way of its reporting mechanism, saferproducts.gov, leading agency staff scientists to pursue an investigation that lasted nearly a year. The agency’s health sciences division found that children could suffer “potentially life-threatening injuries” from the common issue of front-wheel detachment. CPSC staff ran engineering tests, put together injury reports, and pored over epidemiological data, eventually starting the recall process by issuing a preliminary determination that the front wheel of the stroller was a “substantial product hazard.”

But right as this was happening, a transition was occurring at the agency from a Democratic to a Republican chair and majority of the 5-member commission. President Trump named Ann Marine Buerkle acting chair of the CPSC and she awaits Senate confirmation for the position. Buerkle was appointed to the CPSC by President Obama in 2013 and has a history of siding with companies peddling unsafe products. According to sources within the agency, she kept information on the ongoing investigation from the Democratic commissioners long enough that key decisions about the potential recall would happen as more Republican commissioners were appointed, including Dana Baiocco and Peter Feldman.

When it came time to vote on the settlement with Britax, the two minority commissioners wrote a dissent that called it “aggressively misleading” to consumers. The company got off the hook by promising to initiate a public-safety campaign and offer replacement parts to customers. But the cherry on top of this story is that the replacement parts that Britax sent to customers to deal with the strollers in question were also defective. Not only did the company achieve getting out of the hassle of a recall but they have since maintained that there was no defect in the product and have accused those parents reporting injuries of using the product wrong. I mean, come on! This is exactly why the strollers should have gone through the full recall process to begin with.

Further, the value of a child’s life should not be decided based on political affiliation. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to band together to hold companies accountable to keep our kids safe, not align with the companies who seem to care more about playing the blame game than engineering safe products.

The value of consumer product regulation

There is nothing in this world that I want protected more than my daughter’s life. That’s why I value the mission of the CPSC and the work that has been done to help improve the safety of consumer products since its inception. Last year, UCS wished the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act a happy 10 year anniversary. This regulation addressed a long list of issues with product safety and transparency and gave the agency the power it needed to enforce provisions to keep us safe. We’ve come so far in getting rid of paint in children’s toys, requiring a set of standards for crib and other child furniture manufacturers, and in making it easier for consumers to share their experiences with the agency directly. It’s a relief to know that there’s a government agency that is holding companies accountable for the safety of the products they put on the market and that we buy for ourselves and our children. It’s one less thing for parents to worry about.

That’s part of why it’s so infuriating to see how CPSC commissioners with agendas have thwarted the very mission of the agency. Former commissioner of the CPSC from 2013 to 2018 Marietta Robinson wrote in a letter to the editor related to the Washington Post report, “The agency was formed more than 45 years ago for the very purpose of protecting consumers from unreasonably dangerous products such as the Britax stroller.” Without an official recall, people who buy these strollers from 3rd party sellers or used strollers on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace are rolling the dice. I say this as someone who is currently browsing these sites for used strollers and finding listing upon listing for these strollers without any disclaimer about their safety issues.

With no posting on the CPSC’s website, consumers have to rely on a Washington Post investigation to make a purchasing decision. This is unacceptable. It’s a clear demonstration of the importance of regulators looking out for public health and safety, not the bottom lines of the regulated industry. CPSC commissioners need to listen to their staff recommendations and stop politicizing consumer safety measures, and Senators need to take a long, hard look at Buerkle’s history and this case in particular when her confirmation vote comes up.

Photo: John and Christina/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr) Craigslist

Improving Transparency and Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest for Science Advisory Committees

Members of the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, in a December 2010 photo. USDA photo

On Wednesday this week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will hold a mark-up hearing in the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2019 introduced by Sen. Portman (R-OH). And before you stop reading, yes this is a science issue. The proposed amendments are intended to improve the transparency of the federal advisory committee process, including science advisory committees of scientists from outside government, and to disclose and reduce the impacts of conflicts of interest on those committees.

My colleagues and I have written extensively about recent problems with science advisory committees: Many aren’t meeting, some are rife with conflicts and some really have lost the capacity to provide independent advice for agencies across the government. That’s a serious problem for science-based policymaking. Science advice plays a crucial role in helping ensure our government makes science-based decisions on everything from air pollution standards to new drug approvals to worker safety protections.

What’s new

The proposed amendments require agencies to open nominations for committee positions, select and publicize from those nominations, and clearly distinguish independent scientists from those representing a particular interest group. They also require disclosure of conflicts of interest to the agency and the public and greater transparency of the meetings themselves. Also, political party affiliation cannot be used as a criterion for selection for a committee. This would be a useful requirement, since such political litmus tests have been used to distort and stack advisory committees under previous administrations.

When it comes to addressing conflicts of interest in government science advice, disclosure and transparency are a good thing but require effort. Under the bill, scientists serving on committees would need to file conflict of interest statements and meet the government ethics rules. I have had to do so for numerous committees, and I can’t say it is enjoyable to do the paperwork. But, if you believe the committee’s work is important, you sigh and fill it out. And then realize whining about it was more work than just doing it.

And yes, agencies would have to put in the effort to make more information public, but this kind of transparency would bring agencies more in line with the spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. And in the overall work of an agency, this is not that big a burden.

But there is opposition, it seems particularly from the biomedical community. The NIH is already exempt for the purposes of grant proposal reviews, but for other advisory committees, disclosing conflicts of interest is viewed as an overwhelming hurdle that will discourage participation on panels. I just don’t see it.

Starting to fix what’s broken

The Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments are an attempt to fix an advisory process that is, in this Administration, too often captured by regulated industry. Conflicts of interest are the core of that problem, and transparency is one way to push back. Are the amendments perfect? No. There are still issues of diversifying panels, clarifying roles of committee members with conflicts of interest, adequately recognizing participation, and better institutional support and encouragement for panelists, as well as being transparent in the least burdensome way. You can see our ideas on improving advisory committees here.

But these amendments go in the right direction. We, as scientists, need to realize the need to continue to build and maintain public trust in our work, and ultimately decisions based on science. Spending a little time on disclosure will not go amiss.

 

The National Academies Illustrates the More Nuanced Value of Transparency in Science

Photo: Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons

Ever think about reproducibility in science? Turns out you’re not alone! The National Academies of Science (NAS) just spent a year and a half studying the status quo and have released some important findings. An NAS committee released a report this week that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and OMB Acting Director Russell Vought should really read, titled Reproducibility and Replicability in Science. The group of experts was charged with answering questions about reproducibility and replicability, mandated by the 2017 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act. There are two key takeaways that are incredibly important for federal agency heads to understand as they are issuing sweeping policies that include language about these scientific concepts under the guise of transparency.

Reproducibility and replicability are important but not the be-all end-all of good science

The NAS committee was charged with defining reproducibility and replicability across scientific fields. Reproducibility is obtaining consistent results using the same input data, computational steps, methods, and code, and conditions of analysis. Replicability is obtaining consistent results across studies aimed at answering the same scientific question, each of which has obtained its own data. While the report acknowledges that reproducible and replicable studies help to generate reliable knowledge, it also is very clear throughout that these standards can be features of a scientifically rigorous study, but are not necessarily essential. The committee writes, “A predominant focus on the replicability of individual studies is an inefficient way to assure the reliability of scientific knowledge. Rather, reviews of cumulative evidence on a subject, to assess both the overall effect size and generalizability, is often a more useful way to gain confidence in the state of scientific knowledge.” There are many reasons why a study might not be able to be reproduced or replicated, not the least of which to protect the privacy, trade secrets, intellectual property and other confidentiality concerns associated with the underlying data. Challenges also arise when studying environmental hazards. We must use observational data for studies of air and water pollution and it is often not possible or ethical to recreate the conditions under which people were exposed to a contaminant.

As my colleague, Andrew Rosenberg, explained in a recent blog:

“Maybe we all learned that doing an experiment in a lab many times over can give you confidence in the results and that is the “scientific method.” Made sense in grade school. But lots and lots of critical scientific information and even analyses are not “reproducible” in this sense. Take, for example, the impact of a toxic pollutant on a local community. Should we release it again to see if it is really harmful? Or the study of a natural disaster? Should we wait for it to happen again to reproduce the results? The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative illustrated the many real-world examples of scientific studies that are neither feasible nor ethical to reproduce.”

In the EPA’s proposed restricted science rule issued last April, EPA argues that part of the reason for the policy is to allow regulators to better determine that key findings are “valid and credible.” It claims that the benchmark upon which validation and credibility are measured is reproducibility and replication of studies. But as EPA fails to understand and the NAS committee rightfully points out, “reproducibility and replicability are not, in and of themselves, the end goals of science, nor are they the only way in which scientists gain confidence in new discoveries.” The report explains that policy decisions should be based on the body of evidence, rather than any one study (replicable or not), and likewise, that one study should not be used to refute evidence backed by a large body of research. Further, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, whereby large bodies of evidence are evaluated, are an important method of increasing confidence of scientific results. The EPA and other agencies should have the flexibility to use their own criteria to judge the rigor and validity of the science informing rules as applicable, and should not rely on reproducibility and replicability as the principal criteria of scientific credibility.

Challenges of transparency and reproducibility in science are best handled within the research community, not the White House or EPA

Improvements in transparency can be and are being made by researchers, journals, funders, and academic institutions and the report gives many neat examples of ongoing efforts. It certainly is not one agency’s job to solve issues around science transparency. Indeed, they couldn’t do this even if they tried. The recommendations of the report are aimed at scientific institutions to work on educating researchers and ensure best practices in recordkeeping and transparency that may lead more reproducible and replicable studies. Nowhere does it suggest that federal agencies that are users of such science should be involved in deciding how transparent authors must be. The scientific community needs to drive the bus. End users of scientific information are not in a position to address challenges in the scientific community at large, especially considering the lack of infrastructure and resources needed to ensure privacy protections for sensitive data within agency rulemaking. Instead of making sweeping transparency requirements that would limit the government’s ability to use the best science, the report recommends that funding agencies invest in the research and development of open-source tools and related trainings for researchers so that transparency is fostered at the beginning of the scientific process instead of being used as an opportunity to exclude crucial public health studies that have already been conducted.

No crisis of reproducibility, no time for complacency

During the report release webinar, the study authors summarized their findings by saying that there wasn’t a crisis of reproducibility, nor was it a time to be complacent about issues related to transparency in science. This is a fair assessment of the situation and one that should be reexamined by the EPA as it reviews the 590,000 public comments it received on its restricted science proposal. There are absolutely ways we can use technology to improve recordkeeping and transparency throughout the scientific process so that researchers can better build on one another’s findings and advance knowledge. Smart minds at NAS and elsewhere are already working on this. The committee report highlights some of the ways this is happening thanks to the leadership of academic institutions, funders, and journals. Government has a role to play in helping to fund the infrastructure that will foster more open and accessible science and arm researchers with the tools to abide by best practices. The EPA, DOI, and OMB should listen to the scientific community and learn how best to accomplish that task. There is absolutely no role for the White House or federal agencies like the EPA to issue sweeping, prescriptive rules that limit the way that science is used to inform regulations.

Photo: Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons Source: NAS

The Science Denial is Crystal Clear: The EPA Ignores Scientists on Asbestos

We ignore scientists at our peril. Why doesn’t the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) get this?

The New York Times (subscription required) just reported that EPA officials actively ignored the advice of its own toxicologists last year on asbestos (yes asbestos of all things!) by issuing a rule (subscription required) that placed some restrictions on asbestos but did not fully ban it. More than a dozen EPA scientists and lawyers wrote to officials urging them to ban asbestos outright.

This is not the first time that EPA under the Trump administration has been criticized in the way it deals with asbestos. By not banning it, the EPA leaves open the door for the continued import of asbestos and provides a deal that allows industry a regulated but available pathway to use asbestos products in the US.

We have to listen to federal scientists

EPA scientists were disturbed by both the agency’s review process and with the rule itself. Reading through the two internal memos, it is exceedingly obvious that the EPA scientists were providing a thorough and scientifically valid evaluation of the rule and why it needed to better reflect the current science.

Specifically, the EPA experts criticized the agency’s use of a scientific methodology that was more than 30 years old. The EPA rule only looked at six asbestos fiber types as harmful to health, but the agency has known there are more than six deadly fiber types since the 1990s. This is a severe breach of methodology and runs counter to the EPA’s mission statement which states that agency will use the “best available scientific information” in environmental policy decisions. Thirty-year-old science just won’t cut it when lives are literally on the line.

Additionally, the scientists criticized the fact that only two health problems were considered during the evaluation: lung cancer and mesothelioma. This does not reflect all the ways that asbestos can harm a person. The scientists listed many more health maladies (“asbestosis and other respiratory ailments, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the stomach, esophagus, larynx and pharynx”) which should be considered in the regulation process for asbestos. When this type of health data is thrown out the window, then we cannot see the full effects of asbestos exposure, and therefore cannot enact policy decisions that is based on all the evidence.

Why haven’t we banned asbestos yet?

Asbestos was once considered a miracle mineral because of its heat resistance and strength and was widely used in homes built in the 1950s to the 1970s and in thousands of products. When the science began to show just how deadly asbestos exposure can be, some of the industries that have used asbestos in their products decided that risks to their profit margins were more important than the risks to public health. The manufacturer Georgia-Pacific, a conglomerate now owned by Koch Industries and previously the maker of an asbestos-containing construction material, began a campaign to flood scientific journals with counterfeit science, articles that attempted to cast doubt on the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. Faking science to benefit industry profits is unfortunately a well-known disinformation playbook tactic that has been used repeatedly for decades.

Even now, the vice president of regulatory and technical affairs of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group well known for its attempts to dismantle science-based regulations on chemical exposures, told the New York Times, “We ought not to be imposing regulation simply on the basis of hazard.” This is absolutely absurd – all public health regulations are enacted for the purpose of reducing hazards to people!

What is particularly tragic is that the US does not need to import asbestos, that we know that business can cope with the change. In 1989, the EPA under the George H.W. Bush administration, attempted to ban most asbestos-containing products and phased out most other uses. While this policy was overturned by the courts in 1991, we know that banning asbestos is more than possible in the US. And the fact that over 60 nations have banned all uses of asbestos, the ability of industry to cope without asbestos is simply undeniable.

Asbestos is really, really bad

Since the 1920s, we’ve known that asbestos exposure is deadly. But here is the worst part – the latest science is showing that asbestos is far, far more deadly than we previously thought. For years we used to say that asbestos is responsible for the deaths of 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every day. According to the best available science, this number now about 40,000 people dying a year. These numbers exceed deaths in America caused by gun violence or vehicle fatalities. Former Assistant Surgeon General Richard Lemen, now the science advisory board co-chair for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said that the “mortality rate of asbestos exposures is indeed of epidemic proportions.”

This is no safe level for asbestos, even the smallest forms of exposure can result in devastating illness decades later. Take the case of Heather von St James, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of mesothelioma because she as a child she would wear her dad’s jacket, a jacket he used when putting up asbestos-containing drywall. St James survived the mesothelioma and is now an advocate for banning asbestos, but her story is not the norm. Mesothelioma is estimated to be fatal in 90 percent of patients over a five year period.

Ban it, just ban it!

Here’s how the scientists ended their well-crafted arguments: “Rather than allow for (even with restrictions) any new uses for asbestos, EPA should seek to ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit — and because there are adequate alternatives to asbestos.”

Congress is taking a look at the issue, specifically the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, but the administration needs to do better on this. The American people deserve to live their lives without the threat of asbestos exposure, we need to ban this dangerous substance right away.

Challenging Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

Photo: House Speaker’s Office/Facebook

President Trump’s announcement in June 2017 that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement was both ignorant and irresponsible, placing the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of the health and well-being of current and future generations.  The Agreement represents an historic consensus among the nations of the world on the urgent need to respond to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, which would prohibit any federal funds from being used to advance the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.  The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, would also require the president to develop and submit to Congress a plan for how the U.S. will achieve its pledge under the Agreement to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Given its overwhelming support from House Democrats, H.R. 9 will pass the House; it may even attract a few yes votes from Republicans.  Of course, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no intention of bringing it up for a vote in the Senate.  But the vote later this week will send a signal that at least one body of Congress stands with the strong majority of Americans who want the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement and be a global leader on climate change, and with the thousands of U.S. companies, states, and cities that have committed to take the actions needed to meet our Paris obligations.  As House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone put it when H.R. 9 was unveiled on March 27th, “we are going to do whatever we can to say to the president, ‘Look, you say you’re going to withdraw from Paris. What is your plan? How are we going to address these climate issues?’”

Making the U.S. a rogue nation

Climate change is happening now, as the recent spate of floods, wildfires, superstorms and other extreme events here in the United States and around the world makes clear.  The latest international and U.S. government scientific reports are unequivocal: to keep these impacts from getting much, much worse, emissions must be cut sharply, starting immediately.  Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can avoid matters.

As the world’s largest economy and second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has a responsibility to stay in the Paris Agreement and to implement policies and measures to meet its 2025 emissions reduction pledge.  The Agreement has overwhelming support from other nations; in fact, after President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Agreement, Nicaragua and Syria – the only two countries that had yet to sign it – announced that they would do so.

By contrast, President Trump is dead set on making America a rogue nation on climate change, with harmful implications not only the environment but for our economy and our standing in the world.  As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it, “pulling out of the Paris climate agreement is a decision to abandon a cleaner future powered by good jobs.  A deteriorating environment is not the only thing at stake here.  When our leaders isolate America from the rest of the world, its hurts our ability to raise incomes for working families and achieve fairness in the global economy.”

Rhetoric vs. Reality

As the debate takes place this week on the House floor, we can expect to hear many well-worn critiques of the Paris Agreement from opponents of climate action: that it imposes unfair obligations on the United States, it would hurt our economy, it doesn’t require developing countries like China and India to do anything, or it won’t make a dent in global emissions.

These talking points bear little or no relation to reality:

  • Emissions reduction commitments under Paris are nationally-determined; no other country is telling the U.S. what to do. Each country is expected to put forward pledges that represent the best effort they think they can make, to report on how they are doing in meeting those pledges, and to periodically update them based on developments in science, technology, economic feasibility, and other factors.  If a country falls short of its intended goals, there are no penalties – no fines, no trade sanctions, no other consequences.  This architecture, with universal participation by both developed and developing countries, self-determined commitments, and a robust and transparent reporting regime, represents what U.S. administrations — of both parties — have called for over the last two decades.
  • Reducing emissions is good for the economy; increasing climate impacts are the real threat. Greenhouse gas emissions have come down substantially over the last 20 years, as a result of technological advances and policies that have been put in place at the federal, state, and local levels – although that trend was at least temporarily interrupted in 2018.  The sharp cost reductions in wind, solar, LED lighting, and other clean energy technologies, together with low natural gas prices, is already leading to the shutdown of a substantial share of U.S. coal generating capacity, and analysts predict we will soon see similar tipping points reached for electric vehicles in the competition against gasoline-powered cars and light trucks.  Over 4 million Americans work in the clean energy economy, with the renewable energy industry employing about five times as many people as the coal industry.  And when the costs of climate impacts are factored in to the equation, it is clear that it is inaction on climate change — not bold action – that poses the real threat to the U.S. and global economies.
  • Major developing countries like China and India are taking significant action to constrain their emissions and are considering doing more.  China is on track to meet its goal of reducing the carbon intensity of its economy (emissions per unit of GDP) by 48 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and to achieve a peak in its national emissions well before the 2030 date put forward in its Paris pledge; an internal debate is now underway in China on increasing the ambition of its pledge.  Both China and India are making massive investments in deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, with India putting forward some of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy policies, including a national goal of ramping up solar installed capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022.
  • The aggregate commitments made under the Paris Agreement, if fully implemented, will have a substantial impact on global temperature increases, though much more must be done. The Climate Action Tracker consortium of analysts projects that these commitments would limit warming to about 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s baseline projections before Paris of a 4.1 to 4.7 degrees C temperature increase. Of course, as last October’s IPCC special report makes clear, much more needs to be done if the world is to meet the ambitious temperature limitation goals set out in the Agreement: keeping well below a 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average surface temperature above pre-industrial levels and aiming to get as close as possible to a 1.5 degree Celsius limit.  The need for additional action was explicitly recognized in the decision adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015, and many countries are now considering how they can increase the ambition of their initial pledges under the Agreement before they are finalized next year.
What comes next on Paris?

After this week’s vote on H.R. 9 on the House floor, the debate will continue over the Paris Agreement and the issue of climate action more broadly.  Voters are ranking climate change as one of their top issues, and activists – including the inspiring youth climate strikes – are pressing national, state, and local policymakers to take bold action.

There is unanimity amongst the large field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination that one of their first acts if elected president would be re-entering the Paris Agreement (assuming that President Trump follows through on his announced intention and withdraws the U.S. from Paris in November, 2020 – the earliest he is allowed to do so under the terms of the Agreement).  Climate change is already featuring as an issue as candidates campaign in the early primary states, and will certainly come up in the round of Democratic debates that start in late June.

On the Republican side, the one announced opponent of President Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, has said that the United States “must rejoin the Paris climate accords and adopt targets consonant with those of other industrialized nations.” And Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who is reportedly considering entering the Republican primary contest, is a founding member of the U.S. Climate Alliance – governors from 23 states who have committed to implement policies that will help meet America’s Paris pledge, and whose states collectively represent over half of America’s population and economic output.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be holding a leaders’ climate summit in New York on September 23rd during the opening week of the U.N General Assembly; he is calling on national leaders to come to the summit “with concrete, realistic plans to put us, once and for all, on a sustainable path,” and “to demonstrate how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and get to net zero emissions globally by 2050. That is what science says is needed.”  While it is unlikely that President Trump attend the summit, his isolation from other world leaders on the need to implement and strengthen the Paris Agreement will once again be on full display, even in absentia.

Finally, between now and 2020, countries will be considering whether to increase the ambition of their emissions pledges under the Paris Agreement.  Some have already announced their intention to do so, and others may join them at the September climate summit.  Also, states, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors will continue to build on the broad suite of commitments they announced at last September’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, helping lead the way to the decarbonization of the global energy economy that is needed to address the climate crisis.

This week’s House vote on the Climate Action Now Act adds to this drumbeat and will provide some hope to international observers that the United States may soon return to the fold of countries committed to climate action.

House Speaker’s Office/Facebook

Deadly Shooting at California Synagogue—Where is the Gun Violence Research, CDC?

This weekend I learned that my hometown of Poway, California, a sleepy suburban city just north of San Diego, was the location of a violent shooting at a Jewish synagogue. A 19-year old walked into a synagogue armed with an AR-type assault rifle and began firing on Jewish people who were gathered to observe the last day of Passover.

It is downright disconcerting when a mass shooting occurs in the place you grew up in. Every weekday I used to drive by the Chabad synagogue on my way to my high school classes. The hospital that the shooting victims were taken to is the same hospital where I got my wisdom teeth removed. I spent the weekend reaching out to family and friends in my community in an attempt to process this horrible act of violence.

But the sad reality is that these types of shootings occur every single day in the US. Only four months of 2019 have passed, and yet 496 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings—this equates to four people dead or injured every single day this year. And with hate-filled philosophies against ethnic and religious minorities inciting mass shootings in places as varied as Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, we need science more than ever to provide us with answers on how best to combat gun violence.

Here’s the thing: Congress gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the “ok” to investigate this long running problem back in 2018. It’s now been one year, but there are still no signs that CDC scientists have been able to begin their investigation into this public health issue. The more we delay researching gun violence, the more we delay implementing evidence-based policies that can prevent gun violence.

The CDC is still not researching gun violence…

Scientific research on gun violence has been stalled at the federal level for over 20 years. Congress has attached a rider called the Dickey Amendment to every appropriation bill since 1996. This has halted all research at the CDC on gun violence.

It is highly unusual for CDC to not investigate a significant public health issue, and one 2017 paper even quantified the effect on the research community. The study authors concluded that, when compared to other leading causes of death, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death at the CDC.

In March 2018, we saw some real movement for change. Just three days before the first March for Our Lives protest, Congress clarified that the CDC is able to pursue research to help stop gun violence, which cracked open the door for federal research. But the crack wasn’t wide enough—Congress has failed to allocate funding opportunities for gun violence research, and there continues to be an extreme dearth of scientific research on gun violence at the CDC.

… and yet CDC scientists are chomping at the bit to carry out this important research

One year later and we are in the same place as before. CDC scientists feel barred from conducting research on the causes and prevention strategies against gun violence, despite an increased desire to carry out this research. How many more deaths and injuries by firearms must occur before we provide our scientists with the ability to use science to find the best ways to prevent further tragedies?

In 2018, we surveyed scientists at 16 federal agencies, including the CDC. In this survey, as well as previous surveys, CDC scientists expressed palpable frustration at the politics that prevent them from researching gun violence. Here is a sampling of some of their quotes:

  • “The continued ban on funding for research on gun violence has resulted in a gap in knowledge about gun violence and how it can be prevented.”
  • “The policy to NOT allow study of gun violence is counter to our public health mission.”
  • “CDC does not conduct any research on gun violence, despite it being an issue that needs to be addressed in this country, all due to political influence.”
  • “No reasonable person can escape the conclusion that our country is experiencing an epidemic of gun violence, in particular mass shootings… CDC specializes in understanding epidemics, and could shed some light on this phenomenon using standard public health approaches… To me it is unconscionable to prevent dedicated scientists [from doing this research].”

My colleagues have written extensively on this topic before (see here, here, here, here, here). The continued stall in gun violence research by the CDC needs to be rectified. People are literally dying because we are not doing this research. We need to study the causes and effects of gun violence so that we can provide evidence-based measures that can halt this public health epidemic.

This can’t keep happening

I did a Google search of my hometown this weekend and Google suggested that I add terms like “shooting,” “shooter,” or “manifesto” after it. Poway, California, nicknamed “the city in the country,” will now forever be known as the place of a hate-filled shooting rampage that was directed at members of its Jewish community.

As our country faces yet another mass shooting, we need to demand that policies based on science are carried out to prevent another tragedy. But to do that, we need Congress to provide unwavering support to the CDC for them to research the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it. We need to demand that science be free to investigate the public health crisis that is killing and maiming Americans every single day.

 

EPA’s Plan to Ignore Co-Benefits will Cost American Lives

Photo: Tavo Romann/Wikimedia Commons

People who can afford to live in their most-desired neighborhood often select it for the primary reasons of convenience, cleanliness, and quiet. Those features come with what environmental scientists call social, economic, and environmental “co-benefits.”

For instance, streets lined with trees are associated with less crime, more neighborly socialization and child play, lower air conditioning bills in summer heat and less runoff problems in heavy rain. Other major co-benefits involve pollution. Besides trees, which also absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, such neighborhoods have drinkable water and playable soil. They do not abut roaring interstates, refineries, chemical factories, fracking operations or facilities with dust clouds swirling off mountains of scrap metal, ores or ash to aggravate the lungs of children with chronic asthma or rob young brains of IQ with neurotoxins.

The concept of co-benefits has moved center stage over the last two decades as scientists realize that nearly all the pollutants from burning fossil fuels can severely damage human health. Those pollutants include black carbon, methane, ozone, sulfur, carbon monoxide and non-methane hydrocarbons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its 2014 report that the inhalation of the pollutants related to climate change is responsible for 7 percent of the global burden of disease and nearly 8 percent of potential life years lost.

Since then, the World Health Organization has estimated that 4.2 million people a year die from ambient outdoor pollution through heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute respiratory infection. Outdoor and indoor pollution from poorly ventilated fuel burning in developing countries kills roughly 7 million people a year.

These dramatic figures appear to be of no concern to the Trump administration. In one of its most cynical schemes yet, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently on a mission to eliminate the co-benefits the Obama administration used to calculate the level of “appropriate and necessary” protections for air and water. Erasing the benefits that come from a clean environment allows industry to claim its toxic plumes, discharges and waste piles are nowhere as harmful as scientists have found, and thus, they need not be forced to spend money to contain them.

With the nation’s air quality deteriorating, according to the 2019 “State of the Air” report by the American Lung Association, this is no time to forget the co-benefits of controlling pollution for both the climate and human health. The science is as clear as ever that the many of the emissions contributing to a perilous future for the world’s climate are also a matter of life and death right now.

The fight over mercury

At the center of the Trump administration’s attack are rules implemented during the Obama administration called the Mercury Air Toxics Standard, or MATS. Mercury, a pollutant from coal-fired power plants, is a neurotoxin that can move in the atmosphere for hundreds of miles before falling back to earth. It can travel up the food chain in forests, rivers, and lakes until it poisons fish-eating birds such as loons and people who consume contaminated fish. Mercury exposure can cause cognitive loss and behavioral changes, damaging humans’ nervous systems and endangering wildlife as well.

The Obama administration created the new mercury standards in 2011 as part of its efforts to address the multiple related dangers of coal burning. Power plants spew far more than mercury into the environment, including particulates, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases.

Back then, the EPA estimated that it would cost industry up to $9.6 billion to comply with the standards. But, importantly, the agency concluded that its rules to cover the broad range of emissions were “appropriate and necessary,” because the estimated annual health benefits would range from $37 billion to $90 billion. It calculated that the standards could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, resulting in up to 5,700 less emergency room visits a year and 540,000 less sick days at work annually.

Then there is the co-benefit of less-harmed brains. In the Europe Union for instance, researchers found in 2013 that 1.8 million children were born every year with excess mercury exposure. They calculated that, removing that exposure would reduce brain damage and increase aggregate IQ scores by more than 600,000 points, translating into an economic benefit of nearly $12 billion a year.

Some of the same researchers did a similar estimate for the United States, finding that stricter mercury regulations could increase aggregate IQ scores by some 264,000 points a year, with a corresponding annual economic benefit of $5 billion.

Common economic sense and basic humanity on health would seem to demand that we take such immense benefits and co-benefits into account. As law professor Cary Coglianese, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Regulation put it, “There is a risk any time regulators overlook all the effects of their actions, whether on the benefits side or the costs side of the equation.”

And make no mistake. Industry does its best to conjure up “co-costs” when it fights regulations. For instance, one reason that asbestos is still used today in car brakes and building construction is because the industry successfully argued in 1991 that the EPA did not fairly factor in the costs to industry and the safety of substitute materials either in brakes or for workers. But the actual cost to Americans for industry’s sleight of hand on asbestos has proven enormous. A 2018 study found that some 39,275 asbestos-related deaths in the United States in 2016—more than double previous estimates, and more than the number of Americans killed by gun violence.

Sadly, industry does not have to worry about the current EPA undercounting its co-costs with Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, running the show. The Trump EPA takes no issue with the Obama administration’s estimate of $9.6 billion in annual costs to industry. But Wheeler wants to throw the MATS co-benefits into the incinerator. Under his direction, the EPA is pushing to revise the standards so the agency is obligated only to consider the most direct effects of mercury contamination, such as the effect on children who eat recreationally caught freshwater fish, which they calculate as costing only somewhere between $4 million and $6 million.

Wheeler’s EPA is silent, meanwhile, on the fact that more than 90 percent of mercury intake by Americans actually comes via consumption of fish from the ocean. While marine fish indeed can come from all over the world, a 2017 review by university researchers from Harvard, Syracuse, Michigan, Connecticut, Washington and the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine (BRI) has done extensive research to map the toxic trail of mercury, finding “marked decreases in mercury in Atlantic coastal fisheries in response to decreases in mercury emissions.”

Despite the international body of work quantifying the economic impact of brains damaged by mercury and a 2017 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that concluded, “recent studies suggest that chronic exposure, even to low-concentration levels of mercury, can cause cardiovascular, reproductive, and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and carcinogenicity,” a December memorandum from Wheeler’s office claimed “it was not possible to quantify the estimated value” of those harms. And, as for the research by BRI to map the toxic trail of mercury in marine fish, the EPA now contends that, “more research is required to link these ecological effects to ecosystem services.”

In a crowning shame, the EPA memo utterly dismisses the other by-products of coal plants and thus the possible co-benefits of controlling them, such as particulates, ozone-related effects, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, chlorine, formaldehyde, lead, manganese, nickel and selenium, citing “data gaps, model capabilities and scientific uncertainty.” This is despite the well-established neurological and carcinogenic dangers of several of these heavy metals, and the plethora of environmental justice campaigns all over the United States to get rid of them.

Ignoring the science

It is hard to overstate the damage the Trump administration’s proposal on co-benefits could ultimately cause if it is widely implemented. For instance, Sir Andy Haines, an expert on the connection between climate change and pollution at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, wrote in a 2017 commentary in the Lancet that clean energy policies to hold planetary temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius could save a total of 175,000 American lives from pollution by 2030 and 22,000 lives per year thereafter.

Haines cited a 2012 study published in the Journal Science involving scientists from the EPA, NASA and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography which found that climate policies designed to reduce short-lived fine particulate, especially black carbon from incomplete combustion, could also prevent up to 4.7 million premature deaths from air pollution. As Haines put it: “In an era when powerful interests seek to cast doubt on climate change science, major ancillary near-term benefits (co-benefits) of climate action provide added justification for policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

These emerging projections clearly have the fossil fuel industry in a frenetic race against the facts. Of the $2 billion spent on climate change lobbying from 2000 to 2016, fossil fuel companies and industries dependent on oil and gas outspent the renewable energy lobby and environmental groups 10 to 1.

Beyond mercury: The threat to federal  water protections

Notably, as enormous as the implications are from ignoring co-benefits related to global warming emissions and air pollution,  the Trump administration is also trying to turn cost-benefit on its head for water pollution as well. The most obvious example is the attempted rollback of the Waters of the US Rule. In this arena, the Trump administration is trying to make the nation’s wetlands seem relatively worthless (thereby effectively allowing more industrial and agricultural pollution) by not considering the benefits and co-benefits these waterways offer.

The reality, of course, is that wetlands offer enormous benefits and co-benefits. They store water in drought, they absorb fertilizer and erosion runoff and provide nurseries for wildlife. Obama’s EPA said compliance costs of up to $476 million a year were outweighed by benefits up to $572 million a year. New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity now estimates the benefits of wetlands to range between $612 million to $1 billion.

But, while under Wheeler’s direction, the Trump EPA conveniently left the Obama EPA’s compliance costs intact, it cut out consideration of wetlands to claim the nation would get back only up $73 million in annual benefits.

Trump wants to roll back water protections despite the fact that, in the United States, nearly a half of rivers and streams, a third of wetlands and a fifth of lakes are in “poor biological condition.” Last year, researchers from the University California Irvine and Columbia University found that in 2015, 21 million people drank water from sources that violated health-based water standards. In no surprise, given the iconic tragedy of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, the study found gaps in compliance for water systems serving the rural poor and low-income communities of color.

The study said that generally, Americans can count on clean water, but enough water systems still fall out of compliance to give Americans more than 16 million cases of acute gastroenteritis every year, leading the researchers to write,  “Currently, state enforcement agencies lack a systematic procedure to select systems for additional inspection and monitoring.”

A deadly calculation

All the talk of aggregate deaths and dollar amounts doesn’t adequately bring the issue home. On behalf of UCS and The American Prospect magazine, I’ve reported on a neighborhood in southeast Chicago that, with the help of dedicated scientists in the regional EPA,  successfully protested against local mountains of petcoke from oil refining that blackened homes and smothered lungs with dust. Although the petcoke mountains were removed, dangerous levels of manganese and lead were respectively discovered blowing in the air and in the yards of residents.

Simply put, any industry that spews multiple sources of toxic emissions should be held accountable for all of them. And yet, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, leaving many scientists and close watchers alarmed that mercury is a Trojan Horse for a concerted effort to ignore the benefits of pollution control across all industries.

For instance, the Trump administration admitted last year that its attempt to kill the Obama-era Clean Power Plan would cost American lives. The EPA under President Obama estimated that the plan to curtail carbon pollution, including particulates, would save up to 3,600 lives a year and prevent 1,700 heart attacks and 90,000 asthma attacks. For $8.4 billion of annual compliance costs, the nation would experience the nation would experience health benefits worth up to $54 billion by 2030.

Even the Trump administration’s own figures admitted its plan to relax regulations would release so much more particulate matter into the air that up to 1,400 more Americans would die prematurely and there would be 15,000 more cases of respiratory diseases. The administration also seeks to rollback Obama-era clean air standards for vehicles and block states such as California from setting their own pollution standards. In Obama-era estimates that are still available on the EPA web site, stricter standards for cars, trucks, construction and agricultural equipment and rail and marine engines could save nearly 40,000 lives a year in 2030. For $15 billion of compliance costs, the nation would receive nearly $300 billion (20 times more) in monetized benefits according to this analysis of the co-benefits.

In an era when state pollution protections are notoriously spotty,  the federal Environmental Protection Agency ought to fulfill its role as the chief environmental inspector and protector the nation can count on. Instead, at every turn, the Trump administration’s EPA is now seeking to deny the scientifically established benefits and co-benefits of cleaner air and water. This is no theoretical exercise. Even by the Trump administration’s own accounting in the case of the Clean Power Plan, these changes will cost American lives.

In environmental justice circles, neighborhoods that abut toxic industries are sometimes dubbed “sacrifice zones.” In its effort to erase the concept of co-benefits from the American conscience, the Trump administration is making the entire nation a sacrifice zone.

Photo: Tavo Romann/Wikimedia Commons

Taking the “Public” out of Public Service, New Interior Secretary Bernhardt Refuses to Address Climate Change

Photo: US Department of the Interior/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Trump Administration Cabinet officials have hit a number of new lows in recent months, but there is a more troubling trend that gets lost in all the scandal and incompetence. In the past, industry-friendly administrations hired political leaders who would emphasize deregulation and industry priorities, and minimize work on conservation and American health and safety. You may not agree with their priorities, but as long as they operated within the law, they were entitled to impose their policy priorities on the executive branch.

The Trump administration, however, is not concerned about operating within the law, and newly minted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is exhibit A.

In a hurry to deliver for industry

As a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, Bernhardt has left no doubt as to his allegiances. Eager to bring quick “wins” for the administration, his handouts to industry came thick and fast as soon as he was first confirmed as Deputy Secretary in 2017. With Secretary Ryan Zinke attracting headlines with his scandals, Bernhardt was free to work behind the scenes, and he wanted his fossil fuel patrons to feel the love. He rushed environmental reviews of leasing programs in Alaska, reversed offshore oil and gas leasing restrictions, and even made BLM staff work during the government shutdown so he could get over 250 new drilling permits approved despite the rest of the agency grinding to a halt.

Rushing ahead with decisions that were neither supported by existing evidence nor properly vetted with the public, Bernhardt at first seemed to be very good at delivering for his industry patrons. He was described as a clever insider who knew how to pull the levers at the agency. It turns out, however, that avoiding required processes and legal scrutiny is not a recipe for ultimate success, and Bernhardt is starting to look more like an impatient grifter than a clever insider as the courts reverse his illegal decisions one after the other and the agency’s Inspector General began an ethics investigation into his actions just days after his confirmation as Secretary.

A dubious legal pretext

Given his preference to skirt the law, it is particularly rich that when asked by Congress why he has deleted climate change policies and refused to address climate change at Interior, he claimed that the law does not require him to do so. Suddenly a strict legal constructionist, Bernhardt referred to the Federal Land and Policy Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), the law  that gives the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) its multiple-use mandate, and claimed it requires him to maximize energy development.

For reference, here is how FLPMA defines multiple use: “The term “multiple use” means the management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people;…”

In other words, the law that Bernhardt is hiding behind to avoid addressing climate change prioritizes a consideration of future needs of the American people—needs that even Bernhardt admits will be impacted by climate change.

Rather than maximizing energy development, the FLPMA statement of policy says that public lands shall be managed “in a manner that will protect the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water resource, and archeological values; that, where appropriate, will preserve and protect certain public lands in their natural condition; that will provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and domestic animals; and that will provide for outdoor recreation and human occupancy and use” The FLPMA statement of policy doesn’t even mention energy development.

Ignoring inconvenient science

And while he claims to be very supportive of using the best available science, it apparently only applies when convenient, and certainly not regarding climate change. He has openly ignored, for example, the results of the US government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, approved by his own agency, which describes the dramatic impacts that climate change is having on the agency’s mission.

In fact, rather than acknowledge the overwhelming science behind climate change, he defended his decision to rescind the agency’s climate change policy—a policy requiring Interior to “effectively and efficiently adapt to the challenges posed by climate change to its mission, programs, operations, and personnel.” It is unclear what about that policy he found inappropriate, and how he could possibly square that with the conclusive science in the National Climate Assessment.

A political appointee in the Trump administration does not get the job because he or she is a visionary or proven leader or law-abiding public servant; they get it because they have demonstrated a willingness to skirt the law, parrot the president, and serve specific special interests rather than the needs of the American taxpayer.

Secretary Bernhardt is a perfect fit for this administration, but a very poor fit for a job in public service. My heart goes out to the career civil servants who are struggling to advance the important mission of the Interior Department, on the behalf of taxpayers, in the face of Bernhardt’s hostility toward that mission.

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