UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

Oil and Gaslighting: The American Petroleum Institute Misses the Mark on Environmental Justice

Last month, the American Petroleum Institute (API) made a feeble attempt at refuting the findings of the latest report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force, “Fumes Across the Fence-Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities.” The report highlights the disproportionate risk of health problems facing Black communities in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

Specifically, the study found that more than one million Black people live within half a mile of natural gas facilities and in counties where the cancer risks from natural gas facilities emissions are higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern. The analysis considers risks associated with oil and gas facilities, while recognizing the various other sources of pollution with which Black communities are burdened. In a post on the API site, Uni Blake, a toxicologist by training and current scientific adviser to API, attempted to discredit the work of environmental justice groups and to diminish the environmental health issues facing communities of color.

Objectivity, that old chestnut

Ms. Blake used the age-old qualifier of “I am an objective scientist” to denigrate the very real problems facing Black communities. She claims that “…the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted [my emphasis], within the African American community.” In other words, objectivity for API means refusing to acknowledge the importance of traditional knowledge from local communities in developing research questions. “Objectivity” to API means instilling doubt about links between pollution from industry operations and negative health impacts. This is not new for API, which has for decades been in the business of spreading disinformation on science, but it is still appalling.

Racism in environmental health and scientific methodology

Racism in scientific research has always been an issue. Prejudices abound in research questions and methodology, and even the way results are interpreted. As the NAACP astutely captured in their report, “The nature of the vulnerability of African American and other person of color fence-line communities is intersectional—subject to connected systems of discrimination based on social categorizations such as race, gender, class, etc.”

Ms. Blake is clearly not coming from a place of understanding of the historical and current inequities placed on Black Americans, which is inexcusable since environmental injustices have long been documented. An extensive and expanding body of scientific evidence finds that people of color and those living in poverty are located more often in communities—termed environmental justice communities or overburdened communities—that are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of environmental pollution than Whites or people not living in poverty (See here, here, here, here, *pauses to take a breath* here, here, here, here, here, and even here).

Ms. Blake’s piece lacks actual evidence to back her claims.  Here are a couple of Ms. Blake’s arguments, followed by my comments:

  • “…attacking our industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans.”

Leslie Fleischman, a Clean Air Task Force analyst and study co-author, clarified the goal of the report: “The data in our report looks at the cancer risk and health impacts of ozone smog among the population and so, if that population is more vulnerable because of these factors, then it is even more important to address aggravating factors that are easily avoidable like controlling unnecessary leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.” It would seem that API is detracting from the purpose of the study, mischaracterizing what was demonstrated by the NAACP study.

  • “Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care.”

All I hear is: “Well, if you changed your lifestyle, had more money, and didn’t have such weak genes, you wouldn’t have health problems! Our operation has nothing to do with your inability to handle the hazardous air pollutants.”  The report she linked to maintains that “Asthma has a strong genetic component, although for this to be manifest interaction with environmental factors [emphasis mine] must occur.” Somehow, she interpreted this to mean “your house is too dusty and you have mold, these health problems are your fault alone,” thereby ignoring the contributions of oil and gas industry on health impacts to the substandard environment people are then forced to endure, as well as putting the onus on the very communities she recognizes as having “socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities” (e.g. lower income, less access to health care).

As for preventative care, here’s a thought—oil and gas facilities need to quit finding loopholes and touting their successes meeting the bare minimum standards (not to mention constantly pushing for less stringent rules or delaying them). From that same study, “Exposure to airborne allergens and other irritants [emphasis mine] both triggers asthma attacks and is associated with the development of chronic asthma in infants.” Why not investigate some of those other irritants, API?

Same old stuff, different day

This tactic of diverting attention from the real issue is not new to us in environmental justice research and advocacy. We’ve even seen it recently with pushback from the Delaware Department of Health on our recent collaborative report. In October the Union of Concerned Scientists—working closely with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections Inc., and Coming Clean—released a report that demonstrated the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in Delaware’s industrial corridor. We analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data for risk of cancer and respiratory illnesses stemming from toxic outdoor air pollution, as well as proximity of communities to industrial facilities that pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident.

In November, Karyl Rattay from the Delaware Division of Public Health wrote an op-ed personally attacking UCS and the report findings. She said, “The most common risk factors for cancers are related to lifestyle behaviors (e.g. tobacco use) and genetics.” So, lifestyle choices carry more weight than environmental factors when determining cancer risks? Not only is this argument a baseless racist victim-blaming line, but it shows that Dr. Rattay failed to even understand our study.  The study, like the NAACP study, focused solely on environmental risks to communities. Of course, we all know that our health is determined by a wide range of factors. That’s why it is so important to study the contribution of environmental exposures. Otherwise, such risks are often (and have historically been) overlooked.

I urge Ms. Blake and API to stop blaming the communities living in the danger zone. It’s time for the oil and gas industry to take accountability for their polluting ways and honor their commitment to protect the health and safety of the communities where they operate.

A Toxic Nomination Hangs in the Balance: Who Will Stand Up to Finally Topple Michael Dourson?

Photo: www.epw.senate.gov

Three weeks ago, North Carolina’s Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, announced their opposition to the nomination of Michael Dourson to run the office of chemical safety in the Environmental Protection Agency. Only one more vote is needed to doom his nomination, assuming unified opposition from all 48 Democrats and Independents.

The question is, who will have the courage to step forward next?

It should take no courage at all, if science and public health matter. Dourson is already in the EPA, serving as an adviser to Administrator Scott Pruitt. But, given Dourson’s outrageous record of working to undermine science-based standards for toxic chemicals on behalf of the chemical industry, he is clearly unfit to lead the office overseeing chemical safety at the federal level.

Belittling the health effects of dangerous chemicals

Dourson’s private research firm has represented companies such as Dow, Monsanto, and PPG Industries, and has had some research funded by Koch Industries.

Michael Dourson helped set a state safety standard for the chemical PFOA 2,000 times less strict than the level deemed safe by the EPA. Photo: pfoaprojectny

He and his firm have routinely judged chemicals to be safe at levels hundreds of times greater than the current standards issued by the EPA. Among those chemicals whose health effects he has tried to belittle is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in the manufacture of nonstick cookware such as Teflon and stain-resistant household products such as carpets. Dourson helped the state of West Virginia set a safety standard for the chemical 2,000 times less strict than the level deemed safe by the EPA.

That decision alone threatens the health of many Americans. In 2012, research by scientists at Emory University found workers at a West Virginia DuPont PFOA plant were at roughly three times the risk of dying from mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease as other DuPont workers, and faced similarly elevated risks for kidney cancer and other non-cancer kidney diseases. A more recent study, published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health linked reductions in exposure to PFOA across the country to a sharp decline in pregnancy-related problems including low-birth-weight babies.

In North Carolina, an as-yet-unregulated chemical meant to replace PFOA as a non-sticking agent, Gen X, has already been found at significant levels in the Cape Fear River. And the state is still reeling from nearly 1 million people being exposed to drinking water at Camp Lejeune that was contaminated with chemicals such as benzene, vinyl chloride, and trichloroethylene (TCE) from the 1950s through the 1980s. The Obama administration established a $2.2 billion disability compensation program for Camp Lejeune veterans suffering from cancer.

Serious concerns from North Carolina

Expecially troubling, if confirmed, Dourson would be responsible for oversight of the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act. In its final months, the Obama administration selected the first 10 chemicals to be reviewed under the new act for their “potential for high hazard.” Of the 10, Dourson has claimed in research that several were safe at levels far exceeding the science-based standards currently established by the EPA. They include solvents linked to cancer such as 1,4 dioxane, 1-Bromopropane, and TCE, the latter of which has been found in the water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Dourson’s nomination to the full Senate in late October on a party-line 11-10 vote. But the candidate’s past was too biased for Burr and Tillis, despite the fact that both voted to confirm EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Burr said of Dourson in a statement, “With his record and our state’s history of contamination at Camp Lejeune as well as the current Gen X water issues in Wilmington, I am not confident he is the best choice for our country.”

Tillis’s office seconded that with a statement saying, “Senator Tillis still has serious concerns about his record and cannot support his nomination.”

Issues of great importance in Maine

In the immediate aftermath of Burr’s and Tillis’s rejection of Dourson, it seemed that Maine Senator Susan Collins might quickly follow suit. She said, “I certainly share the concerns that have been raised by Senator Burr and Senator Tillis. I think it’s safe to say that I am leaning against him.”

Collins has said nothing since then. Her office did not respond to repeated requests this week from the Union of Concerned Scientists on her latest position. And Dourson’s nomination stands in limbo, presumably as the Republican leadership worries that they may not have the votes in the full Senate to confirm him. In theory, Collins’ concerns should mirror those of Burr and Tillis because Maine has dealt with its share of water and soil pollution at military bases such as the former Brunswick Naval Station and Loring Air Force Base, both Superfund sites. She has also been active in bipartisan efforts to deal with cross-state air pollution.

Collins was the only Republican to vote against Pruitt’s nomination to run the EPA. Pruitt, who repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of industry as attorney general of Oklahoma, is aggressively attempting to relax chemical regulations and reverse Obama-era rules such as the Clean Power Plan. The EPA has moved to remove products containing PFOA from being studied for lasting impact in the environment and refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to damaging the developing brains of fetuses and young children.

When she announced her opposition to Pruitt, Collins said, “I have significant concerns that Mr. Pruitt has actively opposed and sued EPA on numerous issues that are of great importance to the state of Maine, including mercury controls for coal-fired power plants and efforts to reduce cross-state air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the Agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment.”

If Collins truly maintains those concerns, she surely would not want to augment the problems of Pruitt’s already disgraceful tenure by supporting Dourson. But even if she for some reason shies away from a no vote, there are many other Republican senators whose states also have military installations with rampant pollution affecting adjacent communities.

Many more Republican senators should be unnerved

With Camp Lejeune as a haunting example of military pollution of its own soldiers and adjacent communities, the US armed forces are in the midst of investigating potential water contamination at nearly 400 such active and shuttered sites. That fact should unnerve many more Republicans, even those who generally support Pruitt’s actions. According to a Politico report three weeks ago, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Bob Corker of Tennessee were noncommittal about supporting Dourson’s nomination.

Toomey’s office released a statement also reported by the Bucks County Courier Times saying he “remains concerned about the PFOA issue” in towns next to closed military bases in the Philadelphia area, where compounds from firefighting foams may have leached into drinking water sources. Elevated levels of pancreatic cancer have been found in the area.

With so much concern about elevated levels of cancer around the nation linked to water pollution, this is not the time to put someone in charge who made a career out of downplaying the risks of chemicals. It is bad enough that Dourson is already at EPA, advising Pruitt. But that remains a long way from actually having his hand on the pen that can help sign away people’s safety.

He should never hold that pen.

Concerned? 

Call your senator today and ask him or her to oppose the confirmation of Michael Dourson!

The Penn State Science Policy Society: Filling the Gap Between Science and Community

Graduate school. It’s where generations of scientists have been trained to become independent scientists. More than 60 hours per week spent in lab, countless group meetings, innumerable hours spent crunching data and writing manuscripts and proposals that are filled with scientific jargon.

Unfortunately, it’s this jargon that prevents scientists from effectively communicating their science to the non-technical audiences that need it. Penn State’s Science Policy Society aims to bridge this gap by helping current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows learn how to bring their research into the community.

We occupy an important niche at Penn State as we continue to educate members of the Penn State community about the connection between our research and public policy, with a dedicated focus on science advocacy. We are helping our future scientists translate their stories and make connections with community members and policy makers.

Identifying a gap between science and community

Penn State researcher Dr. Michael Mann discussing the science behind climate change at Liberty Craft House in downtown State College.

Early on, we recognized a growing disconnect between the local State College community and the groundbreaking research occurring at Penn State. A growing desire within the Science Policy Society became apparent. Our members wanted to help our fellow community members, but we didn’t have the skills or the relationships within the community. We began to plan events to address this problem, looking to others who have fostered strong community ties as guides.

We began our relationship with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in March 2016 when Liz Schmitt and Dr. Jeremy Richardson came to Penn State to discuss UCS’s efforts to promote science-community partnerships. In May 2016, SPS members traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with UCS staff for science advocacy training. With the help of UCS, we have been able to begin to build our own community relationships. We started with Science on Tap, a monthly public outreach event designed to showcase Penn State science in a casual downtown bar setting. By having leaders in science-community partnerships to guide us, we have been able to begin our own journey into outreach.

Science & Community: A panel event

While our Science on Tap events were successful, we still felt there was still a gnawing gap between Penn State science and our local community. The local news was filled with science-related issues in State College and the surrounding central Pennsylvania region, but it wasn’t obvious how science was being used to help decision makers. We recognized an urgent need to learn how other scientists use their science to help, or even become, activists that fight for their local community.

The Science Policy Society panel discussion on Science & Community. From left to right: Dr. David Hughes, Dr. Maggie Douglas, and Dr. Thomas Beatty.

On September 14, 2017, the Science Policy Society partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists to organize an event called “Science & Community.” Taking place at the Schlow Centre Region Library, the event was a panel discussion focused on how scientists and community activists can work together. The event featured three Penn State researchers: Dr. Maggie Douglas and Dr. David Hughes from the Department of Entomology, and Dr. Thomas Beatty from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Dr. Douglas works closely with local beekeepers and farmers to promote pollinator success, while Dr. Hughes is a leading member of the Nittany Valley Water Coalition, an organization that aims to protect the water of State College and the farmland it flows under. Dr. Beatty is a member of Fair Districts PA and speaks across central Pennsylvania about gerrymandering.

All three of these scientists saw problems in their community and decided to take action. Even more remarkable, most of these issues are outside their areas of scientific expertise. Astronomers typically aren’t trained in political science, but that did not stop Dr. Thomas Beatty from applying his statistical toolset to impartial voter redistricting. Same with Drs. Hughes and Douglas, who took their expertise into the community to help farmers and beekeepers protect their livelihoods.

Lessons learned

Easily the most important lesson that we learned from this Science & Community panel event was how hard it is for scientists to move into the local community and begin these conversations and partnerships. There was an overwhelming sense that the majority of the scientists in attendance did not feel comfortable using their scientific expertise to engage on local community issues. The reasons were numerous, but seemed to focus on (1) not knowing how to translate their science so that it is useful for non-specialists and (2) not having enough room in their schedule.

Moving forward, the Science Policy Society is aiming to address these concerns as we work towards filling the void between Penn State science and the surrounding communities. For example, we will be hosting science communication workshops to train scientists on how to strip jargon from their story of scientific discovery. Additionally, a panel event currently being planned for Spring 2018 aims to discuss how science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and will show how scientists can work with religious organizations and leaders to promote evidence based decision-making.

Graduate students looking to help their community are not given the necessary tools needed to do so. Hours spent in lab and at conferences talking only in scientific jargon leaves many unable to talk about their science to the general public. The Science Policy Society is filling this need by providing an outlet for scientists to learn communication and advocacy skills and begin to build relationships with community members and policy makers. With help from scientists and science outreach professionals, we are fostering science and community partnerships in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania.

 

Jared Mondschein is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. He was born and raised near New York City and earned a B.S. in chemistry from Union College in 2014. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State University, where he studies materials that convert sunlight into fuels and value-added chemical feedstocks. You can find him on Twitter @JSMondschein.

Theresa Kucinski is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. She was born and raised in northern New Jersey, earning her A.S. in chemistry at Sussex County Community College in 2014 and B.A. in chemistry from Drew University in 2016. She currently studies atmospheric chemistry at Penn State University as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry.

Grayson Doucette is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He was born into a military family, growing up in a new part of the globe every few years. He earned his B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech in 2014, continuing on to Penn State’s graduate program. At PSU, his research has focused on photovoltaic materials capable of pairing with current solar technologies to improve overall solar cell efficiency. You can find him on Twitter @GS_Doucette.

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.

 

Pruitt’s War on the Planet and the EPA—and What Congress Can Do About It

We have now endured almost a year with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His tenure is unprecedented—a full frontal assault on the agency he heads, and a retreat from the mission he is charged by law to advance. And thus far, Administrator Pruitt has not had to account for his actions.

But an accountability moment is nearing: for the first time since his nomination, Mr. Pruitt will appear before Congress to offer an update on the status of work at the agency—first before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 7, and next before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 31. These oversight hearings offer a critical opportunity for leaders on both sides of the aisle to ask tough questions, demand responsive information rather than platitudes, and voice their disapproval about how Administrator Pruitt has run the EPA.

Here are key topics for our elected representatives to focus on:

Mr. Pruitt’s empty “back to basics” promise

During his nomination hearing last January, Administrator Pruitt knew he would be questioned about his commitment to EPA’s mission and his repeated lawsuits against EPA when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He came equipped with a clever counter-narrative. He claimed that he would make EPA a more effective agency by de-emphasizing “electives” such as climate change. He promised to steer the agency “back to basics” by focusing on core responsibilities such as enforcing clean air and water laws and cleaning hazardous waste sites.

Members of Congress should compare that promise to Administrator Pruitt’s actions over the past year. Almost immediately after taking office, he signed off on a budget that would cut EPA by 31 percent, despite the absence of any financial exigency requiring such draconian action. A few weeks later, he approved plans to lay off 25 percent of the agency’s employees and eliminate 56 programs. The proposed budget cuts target not only items Pruitt may think of as electives, but also basic bread-and-butter functions. For example, he proposed to strip $330 million from the $1.1 billion Superfund program and cut funding for the Justice Department to enforce cases.

And, in a clear contradiction of his testimony that he would work more cooperatively and effectively with state environmental protection agencies, he proposed to cut the grants that EPA gives to states for enforcement by 20 percent.

We are already starting to see the results of this effort to hollow EPA out from within. Experienced and talented career staff are leaving the agency in droves. The Chicago EPA office, for example, has already lost 61 employees “who account for more than 1,000 years of experience and represent nearly 6 percent of the EPA’s Region 5 staff, which coordinates the agency’s work in six states around the Great Lakes.” This means, among other things, a smaller number of inspectors and likely an increased number of businesses operating out of compliance with clean air and water laws.

With less staff and fewer experienced staff members, it is no surprise that EPA has seen a roughly 60 percent reduction in the penalties it has collected for environmental violations compared with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations at comparable stages in their respective terms. And while the Obama administration cleaned up and de-listed 60 hazardous waste sites and added 142 sites over eight years, so far the EPA, under Mr. Pruitt, is far off that pace, deleting just two sites and adding only seven.

Perhaps most troubling, civil servants have been deeply demoralized by the combination of proposed cuts and constant statements by the president and Administrator Pruitt denigrating the agency as a job killer, which it is not. As one staffer said in a recent publication entitled EPA under Siege “I think there’s a general consensus among the career people that, at bottom, they’re basically trying to destroy the place.”

Said another: “Quite honestly, the core values of this administration are so divergent from my own, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity [for retirement]….I found it difficult to work for an agency with someone who is so disrespectful of what we do and why we do it.”

Members of Congress should question Mr. Pruitt about his “back to basics” promise. They should ask why he advocated for such deep budget cuts, layoffs, and buyouts, and demand that he explain with specificity how the agency can possibly do better with such drastically reduced resources. Congress should also require Mr. Pruitt to provide clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of the record of environmental enforcement during his tenure with that of his predecessors, as measured by inspections, notices of violation, corrective actions, fines and litigation.

Administrator Pruitt’s “Law and Order” charade

Administrator Pruitt put forth a second narrative during his confirmation hearing. He promised  to restore “law and order” to EPA, claiming that the EPA had strayed beyond its statutory authority during President Obama’s tenure.

The record tells a very different story. In less than a year, Mr. Pruitt’s actions have repeatedly been found by courts to be “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”

One example is particularly instructive. At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA issued a final rule requiring operators of new oil and gas wells to install controls to capture methane, a highly potent contributor to global warming. The rule was set to go into effect in early 2017. Administrator Pruitt unilaterally put the rule on hold for two years to allow EPA to conduct a sweeping reconsideration. This, the court found, was blatantly illegal, because it attempted to change the compliance date of a rule without going through the necessary rulemaking process.

Unfortunately, this tactic has become a pattern, as Mr. Pruitt has sought to put on hold many other regulations he doesn’t care for, including rules intended to reduce asthma-causing ozone pollutiontoxic mercury contamination in water supplies, and a requirement that state transportation departments monitor greenhouse gas emission levels on national highways and set targets for reducing them. Environmental nonprofit organizations and state attorneys general have had to sue, or threaten to sue, to stop this illegal behavior.

The EPA’s lawlessness is not confined to official acts, but also concerns the administrator personally. In an obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Pruitt played a leading role in the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Yet, just a few months before taking over at the EPA, Mr. Pruitt had led the legal fight against the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

In effect, he played the role of advocate, then judge and jury, and ultimately executioner, all in a matter of a few months.

In addition, Administrator Pruitt is under investigation for misusing taxpayer dollars for $58,000 worth of private chartered flights, and has wasted $25,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a secret phone booth in his office.

Congress needs to ask Mr. Pruitt how he can be said to have restored respect for the law at the EPA, when the EPA (and perhaps Administrator Pruitt personally) have been flouting it. They need to ask him about what role he played in the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and how he can square his conflicting loyalties to the state of Oklahoma (which he represented as an attorney) and to the American people (who he is supposed to represent as head of the EPA). Congress should also investigate his personal use of taxpayer funds and his penchant for cutting corners on legally mandated processes.

An “Alice in Wonderland” approach to science

The EPA’s five decades of success rest on its longstanding commitment to the best available science, and to its well-trained professional scientists who deploy that science. Administrator Pruitt has taken a wrecking ball to this scientific foundation.

First, he ignores staff scientists when their conclusions do not support his deregulation agenda. On the crucial scientific question of our time—climate change and what is causing it—Mr. Pruitt says he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary cause. Of course, this statement runs directly counter to the conclusions of EPA scientists (as well as those of the recently issued US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report). And, in one of his first policy decisions, Administrator Pruitt overturned EPA scientists’ recommendation to ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that presents a clear health risk to farmers, children, and rural families.

But Mr. Pruitt is not only ignoring staff scientists, he is also sidelining and suppressing advice from highly credentialed and respected scientists who advise the EPA. Last summer, he sacked most of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of leading scientific experts that advises the EPA about newly emerging environmental threats and the best use of federal research dollars. And he has used this as an excuse to suspend the board’s work indefinitely.

More recently, he issued a new policy which states that a key outside Science Advisory Board will no longer include academic scientists who have received EPA grants in the past, under the purported theory that the grants render them less objective. Yet, Administrator Pruitt will fill these posts with industry scientists who are paid exclusively by industry, and with scientists who work for state governments that receive grants from the EPA. This new policy has enabled Mr. Pruitt to fill these boards with scientists who are clearly aligned with industry, scientists such as Michael Honeycutt, who has railed against EPA limits on soot and even testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

Administrator Pruitt’s attack on science also includes the EPA deleting vital information from agency websites. For example, the EPA has deleted key information about the Clean Power Plan, even though the agency is in the middle of a public comment process on whether to repeal that rule, and what to replace it with. The EPA has also eliminated information on the “social cost of carbon” and the record of its finding that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers public health.

These deletions seem designed to make it more difficult for the scientific community, and members of the public, to access the scientific information that stands in the way of Mr. Pruitt’s agenda.

Congress needs to probe deeply on these multiple ways that Administrator Pruitt has diminished the role of science at EPA. Representatives and senators should make him explain why he thinks he knows more about climate science and the harms of pesticides than his scientists do. They should demand that he explain why it is a conflict of interest for academic scientists who receive EPA grants to advise the EPA, but not for state and tribal scientists who receive these grants, or industry-paid scientists. And Congress must find out why so much valuable information about climate science, the social cost of carbon, and other matters have vanished from EPA websites.

Making the world safe for polluters

In December 2015, more than 190 countries, including the United States, approved an agreement in Paris to finally tackle the greatest challenge of our time—runaway climate change. Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of this agreement when he ran for office, but for six months into his term, he did not act on the pledge, and there was an internal debate within his administration.

Mr. Pruitt led the charge for the US withdrawal from that agreement. He has followed up on this by going after almost every single rule the Obama administration had put in place to cut global warming emissions. This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the “re-opening” of the current fuel economy standards that are now on target to roughly double cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025, the repeal of data gathering on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and tampering with how the EPA calculates the costs of carbon pollution, among many other actions.

But Administrator Pruitt’s rollback of safeguards is not limited to climate-related rules; it also includes cutting or undermining provisions that protect us all from more conventional pollutants. He has started the process of rescinding rules that limit power plants from discharging toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into public waterways; regulate the disposal of coal ash in waste pits near waterways; and improve safety at facilities housing dangerous chemicals.

The breadth and ferocity of these rollbacks is unprecedented. Congress needs to push back hard. For starters, representatives and senators need to demand that Mr. Pruitt explain how it fits within his job duties to lobby the president against one of the most important environmental protection agreements ever reached. Similarly, they need to highlight the impacts on human health and the environment from all of the rollbacks that Administrator Pruitt has initiated, and force him to explain how the EPA can be advancing its mission by lowering environmental standards.

Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever

Many aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure are truly unprecedented. However, he’s not the first EPA administrator to display fundamental disrespect for the agency’s mission. As one legal scholar has noted, during the Reagan administration there were “pervasive” congressional concerns that former Administrator Anne Gorsuch and other political appointees at the agency “were entering into ‘sweetheart deals’ with industry, manipulating programs for partisan political ends, and crippling the agency through requests for budget reductions.”

Congressional oversight back then was potent: among other things, Congress demanded that the EPA hand over documents about the apparently lax enforcement of the Superfund law requiring cleanups of hazardous waste sites. When the EPA head refused to comply with those demands, Congress held Administrator Gorsuch in contempt. Senators, including Republicans such as Robert Stafford and Lincoln Chaffee, publicly voiced their alarm. Eventually, President Reagan decided Ms. Gorsuch was a liability, and he replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon, and a well-respected moderate who stabilized the agency.

These oversight efforts were “the decisive factor in causing Ms. Gorsuch, as well as most of the other political appointees at the agency, to resign.”

It may be too much to expect that the current, polarized Congress will exhibit the same level of tough, bipartisan oversight it did in the Reagan era. Yet, bipartisan support for vigorous environmental protection remains strong today and some Republican leaders have already called upon Administrator Pruitt to step down. It is high time for Congress to do what it can to ensure that Mr. Pruitt’s EPA does not continue to put the interests of a few industries ahead of the clean air, water, and lands that the agency is mandated to protect.

Virginia’s Gerrymander Is Still Alive—and a Deadly Threat to Environmental Justice

This week, Virginia’s Board of Elections certified results from the November 7th elections, paving the way for three crucial recounts that will determine control of the Virginia House. The Democratic Party would need to take two of those seats for a majority, having already defeated more than a dozen incumbent Republicans and flipping three seats. If this wave is enough to push the Democratic Party over the 50-seat mark, many in the press will declare that the Virginia GOP’s gerrymandered districting plan is no more. But they will be wrong. The value of some Virginians’ votes are still diluted, as they were before the election. In turn, voting inequalities continue to bias the legislature’s responsiveness to environmental and health threats.

Virginia’s gerrymander has proven durable over the decade. Majorities of voters have supported the Democratic Party over the last four election cycles, only to win about one third of legislative seats. This bulwark against majority rule was engineered after the 2010 Census, by an incumbent party with absolute control over redistricting the assembly. Despite earning a substantial (nine-percent) majority of votes over incumbent Republicans this year, Democrats still have less than a 50/50 chance of gaining majority control, and if they do it will be by one seat. The fact that there is any uncertainty over whether a party with a near 10-point majority vote will control the chamber is proof of just how durable the gerrymander is. What happened on November 7th in Virginia was near historic, but it did not breach the gerrymander.

2017 Democratic district vote shares (blue), sorted by 2015 Republican vote shares (red). Democratic vote shares in 2015 uncontested GOP districts are sorted by 2017 Democratic vote share.

Democratic voters wasted far more votes in uncontested safe districts, 26 in fact, compared to 11 overwhelmingly Republican districts where Democrats did not field candidates. This is illustrated in the graphic below with full blue bars (left), indicating uncontested Democratic seats, and bars that are filled red with no blue, uncontested Republican seats.  While Democrats tend to reside in higher density, urban regions, one of the most powerful gerrymandering tactics is to pack opposition voters into districts so that their surplus votes (over 50%) are wasted. This year, extensive mobilization efforts, coupled with a Gubernatorial campaign tainted with racist overtones, provided the bump that Democrats needed in the most competitive districts (around the 50% mark). The middle of the graph depicts the contests where Democrats reached 50% or higher, reaching into the competitive districts held by GOP incumbents (and several open seats).

In districts that were contested in both cycles, Democratic candidates gained an average of 9.6 points (with a 5-point standard deviation). Democrats also contested far more districts than in 2015 (the solid red area with blue bars), picking off several seats against incumbents where they had not previously fielded candidates. Had the wave reached into districts where Republicans typically win by 15-20 points, we would have seen the type of gerrymander backfiring that occurred in Congress in the late 1800’s. In 1894, for example, a vote shift of less than 10 points against the Democratic Party cost them more than 50% of their seats, the largest loss in Congressional history.

The Democratic wave was enough to sweep away the GOP’s supermajority, but not enough to reverse the tides. Unless the Democratic Party can repeat their impressive turnout effort in 2019, it will be impossible to hold on to those marginal seats. Of course, under a fair system, a party with a nine-point statewide lead would have a cushion of several seats for close legislative votes. Even if Democrats do gain control, that one seat majority is vulnerable to being picked apart by the same powerful actors that helped engineer this electoral malpractice in the first place, at a great cost to Virginians.

Probably the single most powerful player is Dominion Energy. Consistently one of the largest donors to state election campaigns, Dominion greatly benefitted from a gerrymander engineered in large part by one of its biggest supporters, Appropriations Chair S. Chris Jones. Since 2011, Dominion has been remarkably successful at pushing through a rate freeze law that allowed it to hold on to over $100 million it would have paid back to customers, limiting the growth of clean energy technologies like solar power, and avoiding regulatory oversight of the toxic pollutants that it dumps into Virginia waterways. Remarkable enough that several of the successful Democratic challengers in this election made Dominion’s political influence central to their campaigns, refusing to accept their contributions.

The Dominion rate freeze passed the VA House on a 72-24 vote, so it’s not clear that even a fair districting plan would have stopped it, but it definitely would have changed the terms of negotiation. And because it has still insulated the legislature from an accurate representation of public support, the Virginia gerrymander weakens voters’ ability to protect themselves against current and impending health threats. For example, measured by the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into them, Virginia’s waterways are among the worst in the nation. Hundreds of companies are allowed to legally discharge toxins into waters upstream from recreational places where people regularly swim and fish. Arsenic levels up to 400 times greater than what is safe for residential soil have been measured along the James River.

Dan River coal ash spill. Photo: Appalachian Voices

According to a University of Richmond study, eight coal ash disposal sites along major rivers are significant hazards to nearby communities. Yet Virginia’s legislative oversight and regulatory programs are “bare boned and fragmented”, with utilities failing to provide adequate information about the amount, condition and stability of toxic chemicals and containment.

Nor do Virginians bear this burden equally. 76 percent of Virginia’s coal-fired plants are located in low-income communities or communities of color, including Possum Point, Spruance Genco and the Clover Power Station. Cumulative chemical exposure in such communities increases the risk of cancer, lung, and neurological diseases. The cancer rate in rural Appalachian Virginia is 15% higher than the national average, reflecting both environmental threats and lack of access to health care.  Earlier this year, an effort to expand Medicaid was killed on a party-line vote.

And as the impact of climate change becomes more pronounced, Virginia is on the front lines. A UCS analysis of the impact of tidal flooding showed that cities like Norfolk could see four times the frequency of flooding by 2030, while they already spend $6 million a year on road improvement, drainage and raising buildings. In places like Hampton Roads, sea level has already risen by more than a foot over the last 80 years. Yet members of the Virginia House, entrenched in power, continue to deny even the existence of sea level rise. Unfortunately, even a gerrymander as durable as Virginia’s cannot stop actual rising tides.

For their own safety, and the future of the Commonwealth, Virginians must continue the fight to have their full voting rights restored. Many are already suffering, and many more will pay a heavy price for policies that are unresponsive to public needs. Political equality and the integrity of the electoral process are prerequisites to evidence-based policy making that is in the public interest.

Lessons from the Land and Water Songs to Heal

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

Recently, I was fortunate to be selected as an HJ Andrews Visiting Scholar, and was able to complete an HJ Andrews Scholar Writing residency, where I had the incredible opportunity to view the forest area through a Traditional Ecological Knowledge lens.

I had scheduled the residency specifically so that I could take my child along, teaching Traditional Knowledge as it has been taught to me, passing along generations of information and skills in areas that had been historically traversed by ancestors. There were times when I doubted my decision, as complaints of spotty wifi access began. That quickly subsided as complaints turned to questions, and I knew I had made the correct decision. Spiritually my child felt it; there was connection again, as I’d hoped.

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

My child and I sat at the river’s edge, watching the water roll by. We discussed the water, and the tall trees and the bushes that walked alongside the water’s path. We discussed the tiny bugs skimming around on the water, and the spiders, and the rocks. We joked about how Sasquatch must love this area because of the incredible beauty. Time stopped, and the symphony of wind and water rose around us as we watched branches and flowers dance and sway.

At one point my child broke out in traditional song. To most, this would not seem unusual, but to those who live traditionally, this is spectacular. It was song that came to him, gifted through, and from the waters, about the water and the beauty he found. The water ran clean, and the birds sang freely.

This is who we ARE. As Native People, we are living WITH the land, rather than simply ON it. We engage with the tiniest of tiny, as well as with the largest of large. This is a concept that many cannot fathom. Reciprocity with the land is at the core of where we come from, and has been a basis for our survival as well as our identity. It has been essential that we as Native people continue to nurture the land as it nurtures us. Reciprocity is in traditional information, and is an everyday integrated expectation, that fosters well-being of ourselves and our identification as Natives.

Reciprocity with the land

Photo: Samantha Chisholm Hatfield

Our identity is connected with every tiny droplet. Every tiny speck of dust. Every rock, every tree, every winged, every insect, and four-legged. We are one among many, we do not have dominion over, but rather have congruence with.

It is not vital that we share the same communication language, it is not vital that we appear in the same form. The tiny fly deserves as much respect as the bison, or the person standing next to me. Those of us who work to protect have been given orders to do so, often by our Elders, who are at the forefront of holding our wisdom. Oral histories and Traditional Knowledges hold information and instructions that direct and guide us. There is a belief that we are entrusted to care for the earth, and for the seventh generation to come, so that life, and the earth, will remain just as it is currently, if not better for our future generations.

We are borrowing the resources that we live with, caring for the investment of life that we are blessed with. We are taught to have forward-thinking vision in our actions. We work for all, even for those who are antagonists. We do so, because we have been gifted visions by our ancestors of what Seven Generations means, and what it takes to get there. Vision, of how to care of a world that is quickly losing its grip on reality of situations that are dominating, destructing, and devaluing knowledge. Vision, of what needs repaired, who needs helped, and what path needs to be walked.

Respecting how much Traditional Knowledges can teach us

Many question the validity of TEK, and are not be able to ‘connect the dots’. It is difficult to view a system in an alternative perspective if you have not have grown up in it, nor have been enculturated to it. It can seem foreign and be discounted as baseless. Western mainstream promotes the “dominion over” ideology. Controlling and manipulating that which would challenge or hinder human desires. Reciprocity and gentleness are values taught and held in high esteem in many Native communities.

There are no separations from the environment and ourselves, it is a knowing that what befalls the land, befalls The People.

There are no escape diversions, no malls to buy excuses from, no spas to run to for the weekend.

Our escapes come in the form of clear streams, and old growth towering majestically, in the form of waves crashing on shores and dirt under our feet. We are guided alongside teachings of congregations of the finned, and the winged, the hooved, and the crawlers. Our songs, our prayers, our way of life depends on these aspects, but only when they are connected, and healthy.

Half a book, half a lesson, half a river, half a tree, half a story cannot teach. It cannot sustain culture, it cannot sustain life. Anyone’s.

The integration of knowledge is often viewed as an interloper, incongruent and irrelevant to the daily lives of westernized systems of thought. This could not be further from the truth.

 

Dr. Samantha Chisholm Hatfield is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, from the Tututni Band, and is also Cherokee. She earned a doctorate from Oregon State University in Environmental Sciences focusing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Siletz Tribal Members, from Oregon State University. Dr. Chisholm Hatfield’s specializations include: Indigenous TEK, tribal adaptations due to climate change, and Native culture issues. She’s worked with Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and successfully completed a Post-Doctoral Research position with Northwest Climate Science Center. She’s spoken on the national level such as the First Stewards Symposium, National Congress of American Indians, Northwest Climate Conference, and webinars. She’s helped coordinate tribal participation for the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon State’s Climate Boot Camp workshops. Her dissertation has been heralded nationally by scholars as a template for TEK research, and remains a staple conversation item for academics and at workshops. She is a Native American Longhouse Advisory Board member at Oregon State University, was selected as an H.J. Andrews Forest Visiting Scholar, is actively learning Tolowa, Korean, and continues her traditional cultural practices. In her spare time she dances traditionally at pow wows, spends time with family, and is the owner of a non-profit organization that teaches the game of lacrosse to disadvantaged youth.    

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.

 

 

New Tax on Graduate Students Would Harm the US

A graduate student demonstrates how her tax burden would increase by nearly $10,000 if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. Photo: Amanda Rose

On November 16, the House of Representatives and the Senate Finance committee voted to advance tax reform legislation. These bills, both of which are named the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act,” propose to disproportionately and negatively impact the middle class, threaten to leave millions of Americans without health coverage, would add as much as $1.5 trillion to the deficit, and could burden graduate students with a giant tax hike.

Many graduate students have taken to social media to demonstrate how their tax burden would change if the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act became law. This picture and calculation were made publicly available via the Facebook page of Amanda Rose, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, NY.

The version passed by the House of Representatives includes a new tax provision that would require students to pay tax on the value of the tuition that is waived for graduate student research and teaching assistants. Given the low pay of such positions, this would make it nearly impossible to pay cost of living expenses while attending graduate school. As a former graduate student myself, and having been a teaching and research assistant, I understand how critical every dollar of a stipend is to purchase groceries, pay rent, and maybe even take care of your own health (if you can afford it).

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act is an attack on higher education in more ways than one. It also proposes to repeal the student loan interest reduction, graduate student tuition waivers, the Hope Scholarship Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and other educational assistance programs. But it isn’t just graduate students who will feel the consequences; such moves stand to affect us all.

Science is linked to economic prosperity

Investment in science is investment in our nation. Many international comparisons still place the US as a leader in applying research and innovation to improve the country’s economic performance. A prior review by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that since World War II, United States leadership in science and engineering has driven its dominant strategic position, economic advantages, and quality of life. Indeed, researchers have long understood that there is a link between economic prosperity and investment in science and technology.

The leadership of the United States in science explains, in part, why the country is ranked as one of the most economically competitive nations in the world. Across a number of metrics, the United States is still the undisputed leader in basic and applied research.

Researchers in the United States lead the world in the volume of research articles published, as well as the number of times these articles are cited by others. The United States is not just producing a lot of raw science, it also is applying this research and innovation, as other metrics show.

The United States has a substantial and sustainable research program, as evidenced by the number of Ph.D. students trained; it invests heavily in research, as shown by the country’s gross domestic expenditure on research and development; and it is a leader at turning science into technology, as evidenced by the high number of patents issued.

Graduate students are critical to US science and innovation

If the production of science has helped the United States economy remain competitive, graduate students are largely to thank. They are pivotal to the production of novel science and innovation in the US, and they are also the professors, inventors, and innovators of the future that our economy depends on.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act would make it difficult, if not impossible, for many of the brightest minds in America to enter into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, ultimately decreasing America’s international competitiveness in science and technology.

A provision in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed by the House of Representatives would tax graduate students on their tuition costs. This would reform the Internal Revenue Service tax code, section 115(d), which allows universities to waive the cost and taxation of tuition for graduate students who conduct research or teach undergraduate classes at approved universities.

An estimated 145,000 graduate students benefit from this reduction with 60 percent of these students in STEM fields. Thank goodness such provisions exist for tuition waivers and scholarships as even some of our senators likely wouldn’t be where they are today without this benefit in our tax code.

If graduate students were taxed on waived tuition, many who serve as research or teaching assistants would find it more difficult to cover basic living expenses with the stipend they receive. For example, a graduate student at Columbia University might receive $38,000 for a stipend and a tuition waiver for $51,000. Currently, they pay $3,726 in taxes, but that could go up to $13,413 under the House’s proposed legislation reducing their monthly take home pay for food, rent, and health from $2885 to $2078.

Some students have reported that they would see their stipends cut from $27,000 to $19,000, or from $13,000 to $8,000 for the year if the House’s tax reform bill became law. While some students may be able to depend on their families to defray the costs of these taxes, many graduate students who come from poor and middle class backgrounds could not. As the majority of Americans who come from poorer backgrounds are also minorities, this would deter diversity in higher education, where we already know it is sorely needed.

Some universities could cover tuition and the tax on that tuition for some students, but they wouldn’t be able to do it for all. Taxation of tuition waivers also would likely make the US less attractive to international students, many of whom are graduate students in STEM. Ultimately, this regressive tax legislation means fewer graduate students at universities and, therefore, decreased research in the United States.

An anti-science message is in the air

If you are surprised that graduate students are being targeted, you are not alone. Many organizations who support the higher education community have signed on to letters and published statements expressing concerns for graduate students, including the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It is unclear if a final version of a tax reform bill will include provisions that burden graduate students with enormous tax hikes. While the Senate’s version of a tax reform bill would retain many of the tax benefits for undergraduate and graduate students (including a non-taxable tuition waiver), it still includes many provisions opposed by organizations supporting higher education.

Regardless of what tax reform bill is pushed through, there is still the question of why the House targeted graduate students in the first place? Is it because they are an easy target having little representation on the hill? Is it because this would be one way to dismantle the pipeline of those pesky academics?

These are Americans who work hard to teach and produce transformative research that greatly benefits the United States economy–and they already do this for very little pay. Furthermore, the amount of money that the government would gain from these taxes has been said to be “miniscule” compared to trillions of dollars in national debt. It is absurd that graduate students are being targeted.

Speak up for all scientists now and in the future!

I’m a former graduate student and I would not have been able to afford graduate school if I had to pay tax on my graduate student tuition and certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without this benefit in our tax code. That’s why I’m speaking up for all the early career scientists now and in the future–everybody deserves the same opportunities that I had, and the United States deserves the continued prosperity that science affords it.

Call your senators today at 1-833-216-1727 and urge them to vote ‘no’ to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

The full Senate will vote on this bill after Thanksgiving. Learn more about the current tax reform legislation and how you can push back.

Giving Thanks to Climate Researchers of the Federal Agencies

Most of my science career I worked for the Department of Energy as a climate modeler and numerical expert at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since my retirement in 2010 I have written a text on computational climate modeling and taught graduate level engineering classes on climate science at the University of Tennessee. I had the privilege of working with many talented and dedicated scientists and hate to see their work go unappreciated because climate has become such a politicized issue. In particular, the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) Special Science report is the culmination of many years, even decades of scientific focus that the Congress and the nation should study with an open mind and use to reset the climate discussion in the United States.

In the early 1990’s I was one of the principals organizing an “Inter-agency agreement’’ between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our researchers were called the CHAMMPions (a long acronym worth remembering as Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics, Model Physics, Inter-agency Organization for Numerical Simulation). Most of us were new to climate research with my own background in applied mathematics. The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment of 1990 had not found any U.S. based modeling groups producing a high-quality climate model. They borrowed the Canadian and Hadley Center models to complete the first US NCA in 2000. A little bit of national pride and the opportunity to one up the rest of the international community by using U.S. developed high performance computers was a timely motivation for our group. The models we developed and continued to improve through the 1990’s ad 2000’s contributed to many national and international studies, in particular the CMIP (Climate Model Inter-comparison Project) study series sponsored by the DOE. We faithfully followed through on giving policy makers better tools for making informed decisions. Focusing on the science and not the politics supported our DOE sponsors through a variety of administrations.

As a DOE funded climate researcher for 20 years, I had a privileged view of the motivations behind DOE climate research. It all started with the first Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger. He read a report from the Russian scientist, Mikhail Budyko, suggesting the link between earth’s climate and CO2 levels in the atmosphere, a physical theory of climatology. Knowing that the department could not ignore this connection, he asked his department heads what they were going to do about it. This was the start of DOE’s exemplary Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program in 1977.

The model that the inter-agency agreement developed is now one of the worlds most respected models. It is open source meaning that anyone can see what is in it and even new groups are welcome to contribute new physics or chemistry or ecology to the earth system modeling effort. The Climate Science Special Report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I is the first to provide regionally specific results. The global temperature is not the only climate parameter that can now be discussed with confidence. For example, one of the findings pertains to extreme events from heavy rainfall to heatwaves that can impact human safety, infrastructure and agriculture.

This kind of detail would not have been possible without the new capabilities that the U.S. modeling effort provided. Indeed, the report draws from the results of many modeling groups by measuring the skill of different models compared to the observational record.

The scientists I have worked with through the years in these inter-agency projects have performed a service to the nation with their dedicated focus on staying true to the science and providing usable information for policy makers. I for one am grateful for their effort and support continuing to invest in our federal scientists to help move forward on research for solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the research capabilities and resources of the National Lab system and my colleagues who always put science first.

 

Dr. John. B. Drake was a researcher and group leader at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 30 years and lead the climate modeling efforts at ORNL from 1990 to 2010.  Since his retirement from ORNL, he has taught graduate courses on climate modeling in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee and conducted research into the impacts of climate change. 

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.

4 Ways to Discuss Congressional Budget Riders at the Dinner Table this Thanksgiving

Holiday gatherings with the family can be awkward, especially if you aren’t prepared for the inevitable table talk. Feeling like you don’t have enough fodder to sustain a conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table this month?

Fret not! Every year around this time, my colleagues write about the budget process as the clock ticks for Congress to pass a clean budget – that is, a budget free from “poison pill” policy provisions and seemingly innocuous regulatory process riders that would hamper agencies from utilizing the best available science in rulemaking. These anti-science riders are extraneous special interest policies tacked onto a must-pass spending bill, a sort of parasitic mutualism, if you will.

This year, I have a gift for our readers ahead of the holidays: a brief list of harmful anti-science riders that would weaken science-based safeguards, potentially putting the health and safety of families at risk, repurposed as a guide to navigating uncomfortable silence and forced interactions with your family at Thanksgiving.

1. Start with an icebreaker

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen your least favorite Uncle Stewart, or your cousin Meg has brought a new date, you might consider starting with an icebreaker to relieve tension. Try this one:  A rider to “legislate” that the burning of trees for energy is positive for climate change has been proposed. This language encourages burning trees to generate electricity and ignores scientific evidence on impacts of carbon emissions. Who needs an icebreaker if the sea ice continues melting at record levels?

2. Share a story from your past

Take a stroll down memory lane and regale your guests with tales from the days of yore. Here’s a crowd favorite: In 1996, following the release of a study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found keeping guns in the home increases the risk of homicides in the home, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied former Congressman Jay Dickey to target the CDC’s funding. Congressman Dickey introduced the provision that he would later come to regret, sneaking it into a must-pass spending bill. Now, over 20 years later, the CDC is still unable to research gun violence as a public health issue, though current events (including the recent tragedies in Las Vegas,  Sutherland, Texas, and Rancho Tehama, California) and statistics show the need is there.

3. Talk about the weather

A tried and true small-talk starter, who can resist commiserating about the sweltering heat we endured this year, even as the temperatures have finally dropped? Now is the time to casually mention the proposal that would delay implementation of science-based standards, like the EPA’s most recent update to ground-level ozone, which is solely based on public health. If this passes, companies would be allowed to pollute at levels currently deemed unsafe, which would contribute to an increase in days with unhealthy ozone levels and increase risk of respiratory illnesses – risks that are exacerbated by an increase in heat waves caused by climate change (see: icebreaker).

4. Give thanks

There are many things to be thankful for, but often the most important ones go unnoticed. This year, remember to lift your glass in thanks – to clean water. Give a toast to the Clean Water Rule, which extends protections of waters under the Clean Water Act to include the streams and wetlands that feed drinking water sources for over 117 million people nationwide. Don’t forget to mention the rider that would permit the administration to ignore scientific and public input as Scott Pruitt’s EPA attempts to withdraw the Clean Water Rule. The rule was borne out of extensive public engagement and rigorous scientific analysis that the EPA administrator has chosen to set aside.

And as your mother stands poised to carve the golden turkey, remember to give thanks to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for offering protections to the fowl’s cousin, the greater sage grouse. A rider would allow policymakers to overrule biologists and wildlife managers when it comes to protecting threatened and endangered wildlife, such as the gray wolf and the oft-fought-over sage grouse.

While this list of “poison pill” riders is by no means exhaustive, there are some great dinner-table conversation starters that are sure to keep the family engaged in a riveting discussion they’ll be talking about for years to come. The anti-science riders above have all been introduced this year and negotiations over which ones to include in a final spending deal are happening right now (and remember, none of them should be included, because we want a clean budget free from “poison pill” riders).

If you didn’t manage to invite your representatives to dinner this Thanksgiving, be sure to take the time to tell them to pass a clean budget with no anti-science “poison pill” riders this holiday.

Trump Nominee Kathleen Hartnett White Ignores Climate Change In Her Own Backyard

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to chair the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), testified at her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday and, like many Trump nominees to date, showed herself to be an unqualified, polluter-friendly ideologue who rejects mainstream climate science.

“Your positions are so far out of the mainstream, they are not just outliers, they are outrageous,” Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey exclaimed at one point in clear exasperation. “You have a fringe voice that denies science, economics, and reality.”

What Markey failed to note, however, is that White has personally experienced climate change-related extreme weather events in her home state of Texas, and scientists say they are only going to get worse.

Unqualified from the start

White, who Trump previously considered for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, is a cattle rancher and dog breeder who chaired the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — the Lone Star State’s version of the EPA — from 2001 to 2007 and was a member of the Environmental Flows Study Commission, the Texas Water Development Board, and the Texas Wildlife Association board.

Her qualifications for those positions? None.

White earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Humanities and Religion at Stanford, attended Princeton’s comparative religion doctoral program, and completed a year of law school at Texas Tech. It’s not quite the background one would expect for someone serving on environmentally related boards, let alone running the TCEQ. But in Texas, as in Florida and Wisconsin, ideology trumps science credentials, and White holds a politically correct pro-fossil fuels viewpoint.

That bias serves her well in her current job with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by what Texans for Public Justice characterized as a “Who’s Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies.” Among TPPF’s benefactors are Chevron, Devon Energy, and ExxonMobil; Koch Industries and its family foundations; and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. White, who joined TPPF in January 2008, runs the nonprofit’s energy and environment program and co-heads its Fueling Freedom Project, whose mission is to “push back against the EPA’s onerous regulatory agenda that threatens America’s economy, prosperity, and well-being.”

Climate paranoia strikes deep

Recent media coverage of White’s nomination for the CEQ post has shined a light on her lack of scientific understanding — and her paranoia about the rationale for addressing climate change. She falsely claims that climate science is “highly uncertain,” characterizes it as the “dark side of a kind of paganism, the secular elite’s religion,” and argues that the “climate crusade,” if unchecked, would essentially destroy democracy.

That’s right. White believes the United Nations and climate scientists are bent on establishing a “one-world state ruled by planetary managers.” Further, she routinely trumpets the benefits of carbon emissions, insisting that carbon dioxide “has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health.” Carbon is a good thing, she says, because “the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth and thus the world’s food supply.” Never mind that farmers and ranchers in her own state have been whipsawed in recent years by devastating heat waves, drought, and floods, all linked to climate change.

At her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, White cited reducing ground-level ozone in Houston and Galveston when she chaired the TCEQ as her greatest accomplishment. But according to a recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News, she pushed for weaker ozone standards while she was at the helm of the agency.

“Her record is abominable,” the October 17 editorial stated. “White consistently sided with business interests at the expense of public health as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She lobbied for lax ozone standards and, at a time when all but the most ardent fossil fuel apologists understood that coal isn’t the nation’s future, White signed a permit for a lignite-fired power plant, ignoring evidence that emissions from the lignite plant could thwart North Texas’ efforts to meet air quality standards.”

Predictably, White also disparages renewable energy. “In spite of the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices for renewables are still far higher than prices for fossil fuels,” she wrote in her 2014 tractFossil Fuels: The Moral Case. “At any cost, renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass remains diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic….”

In fact, fossil fuels have received significantly more in federal tax breaks and subsidies for a much longer time than renewables; new wind power is now cheaper than coal, nuclear, and natural gas; and the Department of Energy projects that renewable technologies available today have the potential to meet 80 percent of US electricity demand by 2050.

Ignoring the evidence

Most of Trump’s nominees for other key science-based positions — notably EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — agree with White’s twisted take on climate science and renewables. What sets her apart, besides her penchant for calling advocates for combating climate change “pagans,” “Marxists” and “communists,” is her up-close-and-personal experience with climate change-related extreme weather events.

White and her husband, Beau Brite White, live in Bastrop County, an outlying Austin bedroom community, and own a vast cattle ranch of 118,567 acres — more than 185 square miles — in Presidio County, which sits on the state’s southwest border with Mexico.

Bastrop and Presidio counties are both struggling with drought due to low precipitation and high temperatures and, like the rest of Texas, suffered from an especially extreme drought in 2011. Part of a prolonged period of drought stretching from 2010 to 2015, the one in 2011 was the hottest and driest on record, and climate change likely played a significant role. A 2012 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that the high temperatures that contribute to droughts such the one that struck Texas in 2011 are 20 times more probable now than they were 40 to 50 years ago due to human-caused climate change.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment report, released on November 3, agreed. “The absence of moisture during the 2011 Texas/Oklahoma drought and heat wave was found to be an event whose likelihood was enhanced by the La Niña state of the ocean,” the report, authored by scientists at 13 federal agencies, concluded, “but the human interference in the climate system still doubled the chances of reaching such high temperatures [emphasis added].”

The 2011 heat wave was particularly intense in Presidio County. According to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a meteorology professor at Texas A&M University, the county “achieved the triple-triple: at least 100 days reaching at least 100 degrees.”

Bastrop County, meanwhile, has become a tinderbox. Wildfires are happening there with greater frequency and intensity for a variety of reasons, including rising temperatures and worsening drought as well as population growth and development. In 2011, the county experienced the worst wildfire in Texas history, which destroyed more than 1,600 homes and caused $325 million in damage. Two years ago, in October 2015, the Hidden Pines Fire torched 7 square miles in the county and burned down 64 buildings.

White’s neighbors know better

White may refuse to acknowledge what is happening in her own back yard, but most of her neighbors realize that human-caused climate change is indeed a problem, according to polling data released last March by the Yale Program on Climate Communication. The survey, conducted in 2016 in every county nationwide, found that a majority of residents in Bastrop and Presidio counties — 67 percent and 78 percent respectively — understand that global warming is happening, while more than half of the respondents in both counties (52 percent in Bastrop and 62 percent in Presidio) know it is mainly caused by human activity.

Majorities in both counties also want something done about it. More than 70 percent want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant and at least 65 percent in both counties want states to require utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewables.

Given their responses, White’s neighbors in Bastrop and Presidio counties make it clear that if they were polled on whether she should become the next chair of a little-known but powerful White House office that oversees federal environmental and energy policies, a majority would likely say no — and with good reason: Unlike White, for them, seeing is believing.

Scientists, Please Don’t Listen to Scott Pruitt

Everything about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive to change the agency’s science advisory boards was damaging to the way that science informs policy at our nation’s premier public health agency. Mr. Pruitt based his action on a set of false premises. The logic of the action is fundamentally flawed and turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head. The specific appointments made are of people with deep conflicts of interest who have long espoused views concerning threats to public health divergent with the weight of scientific evidence on many issues.  In fact, in a slip of the tongue at the start of the press conference Mr Pruitt said, “We are here to change the facts [FACs]…I mean the FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act committees).” He had it right the first time.

But in some sense the most disturbing statement Mr. Pruitt made was that scientists had to make a choice—either to pursue research grants or to engage in public service by serving on an advisory committee. This is a false choice of the first order. I hope scientists everywhere categorically reject the idea of a choice between doing research and serving as advisors to public agencies. In fact, I believe that it is scientists who have been and perhaps still are active researchers—on the cutting edge of knowledge—who should be providing scientific advice to government. Obtaining a government research grant never buys one’s loyalty to any particular policy position. That may be a convenient political talking point for Mr. Pruitt and his supporters like Cong. Smith (R-TX) or Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) who joined him for the announcement of his new directive, but it is still nonsense.

I believe that serving on a government advisory committee is public service and something that every scientist who has the opportunity and inclination should seriously consider. Many universities have public service as part of their core mission right alongside teaching and research. Serving on an advisory committee is one way that broader service to the public grows out of the day to day work of science. And it is exactly because one does outstanding research that your voice is so important as an independent source of scientific information in the process of making public policy.

So please don’t choose between public service and grant-funded research. I for one hope that more scientists will try to do both. Just because Scott Pruitt is hostile to scientists in public life doesn’t mean you should stay out—beyond serving in advisory committees, here are other ways you can put science to work for people. Don’t make the false choice Scott Pruitt called for.

 

Would Chemical Safety Measures Under Dourson Protect Military Families? Probably Not.

Dr. Michael Dourson, a toxicologist with a history of providing consultation to the chemical industry, could become the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dourson has consistently defended the use of several chemicals found to pose major adverse health effects, manipulating his research in favor of industry interests. This could spell trouble for public health and safety, particularly in low-income communities and communities where residents are predominately people of color—which often includes military bases.

Over this past summer, ProPublica released a series of articles on the excessive toxic pollution problems at military bases. This immediately caught my attention: I work on chemical safety issues at UCS and spent my formative years living on army bases around the country. Although I had passing knowledge of the dangerous chemical agents at storage sites on a base in Aberdeen, Maryland (including nerve and blistering agents like mustard gas, sarin, tabun, and lewisite), I never once considered the impact exposure to toxics might pose to military personnel and their families, let alone the potential for exposure from burning of munitions, toxic releases, and proximity to Superfund sites. I naively assumed we were safe from harm, and didn’t give a second thought to the acrid odors wafting in the air. Who would knowingly put the people who fight for our country at risk in their own homes?

Can we trust Dourson to keep military families safe?

Judging from his track record of downplaying the health risks posed by several EPA-regulated compounds, including 1,4-dioxane, 1-bromoproane, trichloroethylene (TCE), and chlorpyrifos (which are currently under review), I don’t believe Dourson has the best interests of military families in mind. I worry that exposure to toxics on military bases may only worsen under his industry-partial leadership. I am not alone in my sentiments: retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and current U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) has been critical of Dourson, calling his work on toxic chemicals “reckless”. She is acutely aware of the contamination and associated health effects at military bases like Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where drinking water is highly contaminated by Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Interestingly, Dourson researched PFOA—a chemical linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer—and came to the convenient conclusion that a weaker safety standard than what EPA recommends would be just fine.

That is why this potential appointment is personal. If past administrations have done a substandard job of handling chemical concerns, putting an industry shill in charge of limiting and preventing exposure to toxic chemicals may result in even less protection for the public.

“[The sentiment is that] what we don’t know can’t hurt us. We don’t know [what is going on], we’re on a mission! But when you get out, you’re on your own. How do you know what’s going on in your system after 20 years [of service]?” – my dad, former Army drill sergeant, Airborne ranger, and Air Assault instructor on the lack of information given military personnel and families. He hates taking photos.

Conflict of interest is an understatement

It’s obvious Pruitt and his team intend to dismantle regulatory protections in favor of industry based on their actions to date, as well as the nominations and appointments of chemical industry advocates, including Dr. Nancy Beck (former representative of the American Chemistry Council) and Michael Dourson.

Dourson’s past work includes giving the green light on several chemicals that have been shown to have serious adverse health effects. He has even weighed in on TCE, a toxic chemical that is prominent on military bases, to ask to weaken the safety standards. See a list of locations where chemicals he has “blessed” have been found at alarming levels here. Of the states, towns, counties, and cities listed, I have lived in four at various stages of my life. Nearly two decades later, and I’m just now uncovering this. I’ll let that sink in.

We must defend the defenders

Veterans Day is approaching, which means food, retail, and recreation discounts for military veterans and active-duty personnel.  This is a nice (if not cursory) gesture to show our gratitude, but it’s still superficial at best considering the challenges our veterans and military families  face. Our country’s leaders profess to have the utmost respect for our military, even tearing the nation into a frenzy over a peaceful protest by claiming that kneeling for the national anthem disrespects those who have fought for our freedom. Is this the brownfield we want to die on? Our military need more than lip service and deserve better than Dourson.

Charise Johnson

While We Aren’t Paying Attention, the Trump Administration is Making Products Less Safe

Have you ever checked to see if a product has been recalled because of a safety concern? As a parent of a young child, I am deeply familiar with this task. Babies are expensive and buying used products cuts costs, but it’s crucial to check if products have been recalled because baby products can often be recalled for safety concerns. When you have a little one, you want to protect them as best you can. But now, the Trump administration is putting my family and yours at risk.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission: Keeping our families safe

To our nation’s benefit, there’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The little-known federal agency plays a crucial role in making sure that the products we bring into our homes and trust with our families’ lives are safe. I depend on this every day when I put my child down for a nap, put him in a car seat, or give him a toy. Because of the CPSC, I trust that the crib won’t injure him, the car seat is built properly, and that his toys don’t have parts he can choke on.

You might only hear about these kinds of recalls when they’re high-profile like those scooters that everyone got for Christmas one year that had a tendency to catch fire or the exploding Android phone debacle. But the reason you don’t hear more about these issues is because the CPSC is doing its job. Scientists at the CPSC monitor product injuries and deaths, issue recalls and work with companies to help prevent unsafe products from ever reaching the market.

Dana Baiocco: A dangerous pick for CPSC commissioner

Now, the Trump Administration is threatening the CPSC’s ability to keep us safe. President Trump’s nominee for CPSC commissioner Dana Baiocco—who will be voted out of committee tomorrow on the hill—has spent her career defending companies whose products have harmed people (Check out this reporting from Sharon Lerner at the Intercept). When people fought for justice because their loved ones had mesothelioma from asbestos exposure because of the negligent company, Baiocco was making sure widows wouldn’t get their money. When Yamaha knowingly kept on the market unsafe ATVs that caused injuries and deaths of several people, including children, Baiocco worked to make sure the families didn’t get compensation. When Volkswagen was caught cheating on their emissions testing, Baiocco was there to defend them. And when the tobacco conglomerate R.J. Reynolds needed help defending harms caused by smoking, Baiocco was there too, defending the tobacco giant from cancer victims.

Clearly, Baiocco is the wrong choice for the CPSC. Nothing about this past gives me confidence that she’ll use science to make decisions in the public interest if she is appointed a CPSC commissioner.

Would Baiocco keep us safe from harmful flame retardants?

This year the CPSC is slated to work on organohalogen flame retardants. As my colleague Genna Reed reported last month, the CPSC made the science-based decision to phase out the harmful class of flame retardants from products, despite chemical industry opposition. This was a huge victory for science and for public health. I celebrated this move. No longer would I have to spend hours reading labels, pouring over scientific studies and buying costly foreign baby products to avoid exposing my child to these unsafe flame retardants.

Now the CPSC will be implementing that rule. Baiocco’s nomination will have a huge impact on how that implementation happens. Commissioners have a lot of power when it comes to implementation, timing, and overall agency priorities. Will harmful flame retardants be phased out under a proper timeline and sufficiently eliminated from products? If Baiocco becomes commissioner, this flame-retardant rule could be delayed or weakened in its implementation, and that won’t be a victory for anyone other than the companies that produce them.

The dangers of a politicized CPSC: The case of the lead lunch boxes

We don’t have to look too far to see the devastating consequences of a CPSC where science is compromised. In 2005, under the George W. Bush administration, the agency tested children’s lunchboxes and found unsafe levels of lead. In the case of one test on a Spiderman lunchbox, the agency found 16 times the federal standard for lead. Rather than immediately announce this finding and recall a potentially unsafe product, the CPSC changed their lead testing technique and employed an averaging scheme that scientists said underestimated the level of lead in the lunch boxes. With the backing of the vinyl industry, the CPSC continued to defend this testing method while allowing the product to stay on the market, potentially exposing children to lead poisoning.

The Senate Commerce Committee should vote no on Dana Baiocco for CPSC commissioner

As a mom, I worry a lot about the safety of my son. There is nothing more important to me than making sure he can grow up in a safe environment. I know I can’t keep him safe from every danger in the world, but I can make sure he’s surrounded by safe cribs, strollers, car seats, and toys. In order to do that though, I depend on a CPSC that uses science and works in the public interest.

And so I ask the members of the Senate Commerce Committee, do you trust that Baiocco will keep your family safe? Do you have confidence that she will make sure that my child and yours are protected from unsafe baby products? If a recall would be inconvenient to a company’s bottom line, would she still prioritize public safety over corporate profits? How will Americans know if products are safe to use in our homes? This isn’t just a policy preference. This could cost American lives, and Baiocco is not on our side. As a parent and a scientist, I urge you to vote no tomorrow for the safety of all Americans.

 

EPA Chief Pruitt’s Recent Halloween Trick Will Scare the Health Out of You

On Halloween, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt gave Americans the equivalent of an apple filled with razor blades.

Instead of picking the best experts for his agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to protect public health, Pruitt appointed candidates who oppose the very laws the EPA is supposed to enforce.

To make matters worse, Pruitt did not renew terms for a number of respected members and even dismissed several independent scientists before their terms were up. All told, Pruitt shrunk the SAB from 47 to 42 participants and more than doubled the number of its polluter-friendly members.

Undermining the SAB’s integrity might make sense to a former Oklahoma attorney general who openly promotes the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But doing so jeopardizes the independent science the agency needs to protect American health and safety.

Pruitt’s ill-advised appointments

The Science Advisory Board was established by Congress nearly 40 years ago as an impartial reality check. As my colleague Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), recently explained, the board “doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.”

The SAB’s role as “arbiter of scientific fact” has proven to be invaluable. Over the last five years, for instance, the board provided the EPA recommendations for integrating science more effectively into its decisionmaking process; advised the agency on the best model to use when evaluating the health threats posed by perchlorate, a likely carcinogen; and determined that the EPA’s preliminary finding that the hydraulic fracturing drilling process has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water resources was not supported by the best available science. The final version of the fracking study, released in December 2016, correctly concluded that the technique has indeed contaminated some drinking water supplies across the country.

As reconstituted by Pruitt, however, the SAB is more likely to come down in favor of industrial polluters than public health.

Take the new board chairman, Michael Honeycutt, who directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division. Over the last decade, Honeycutt rolled back the state’s protections for 45 toxic chemicals, including arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. He also attacked EPA rules for ground-level ozone (smog), which aggravates lung diseases, and particulate matter (PM) (soot), which has been linked to lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, reproductive problems and premature death. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence linking fine soot particles to premature death, Honeycutt testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM makes you live longer.”

Many of Pruitt’s other appointees to three-year terms on the SAB share a similar disregard for established science.

  • Robert Phalen, who founded an air pollution laboratory at the University of California at Irvine, maintains that children need to breathe dirty air for their bodies to learn how to ward off irritants. “Modern air,” he said during a July 2012 interview, “is a little too clean for optimum health.” His October 2004 study, “The Particulate Air Pollution Controversy,” minimized the threat posed by fine soot particles. “Although reproducible and statistically significant, the relative risks associated with modern PM are very small and confounded by many factors.”
  • Kimberly White is senior director of chemical products at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the country’s largest chemical manufacturing trade association. Representing the interests of 155 corporate members, including BP, Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil, the ACC has delayed, weakened and blocked science-based health, environmental and workplace protections at the state, national and even international levels.
  • Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, produces industry-friendly papers and testimony for chemical companies and trade groups, including the American Chemistry Council. He has downplayed the risks of monosodium methanearsonate (MSMA) for the arsenic-based weed killer’s manufacturers and testified on behalf of Dupont during a kidney cancer trial involving perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the main ingredient in Teflon.
  • Economist John D. Graham, who ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for five years during the George W. Bush administration, has a long history of emphasizing industry’s costs to reduce pollution, while discounting scientific evidence of exposure risks and ignoring the benefits of a cleaner environment.
  • Anne Smith, a senior vice president at NERA Consulting, is another economist with a pronounced corporate bias. Over the past few years, NERA has written reports for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other industry trade groups arguing that the EPA underestimates the cost of its rules, including ones designed to lower mercury emissions and reduce ground-level ozone. In February 2015, Smith testified before Congress against the Clean Power Plan to curb coal-fired power plant carbon emissions.
  • Donald Van der Vaart, former secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, was the agency’s point man against federal air quality rules, including a cap on nitrogen oxide emissions, a major component of ground-level ozone. Last November, he sent a letter to President-elect Trump denouncing “federal overreach” and asking him to all but eliminate the EPA. “By returning responsibility for implementing these laws to the states,” Van der Vaart wrote, “your administration can avoid the agenda-driven federal regulatory process that has stifled our country’s competitiveness.”

Pruitt also enlisted Richard Smith and S. Stanley Young to serve on the board. The two statisticians co-authored an August 2017 study claiming there is “little evidence” of a connection between fine particulate pollution and premature death, ignoring established scientific understanding of air pollution and health risks. Three other appointees, meanwhile, directly represent the energy industry: Merlin Lindstrom is vice president of technology at Phillips 66, Robert Merritt was a geology manager at Total, and Larry Monroe was the chief environmental officer at Southern Company.

Independent scientists shut out

Perhaps most shocking, Pruitt upended four decades of precedent by banning scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the SAB or any other agency advisory panel. Why? In Pruitt’s estimation, they have a conflict of interest. He followed through by kicking at least a half-dozen EPA-funded scientists off the SAB before their terms were over.

Pruitt’s attack on EPA grantees particularly rankled Center for Science and Democracy Director Andrew Rosenberg, a former regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The suggestion that federal research grants would conflict with advisory board work is frankly dishonest,” Rosenberg said. “Pruitt is turning the idea of ‘conflict of interest’ on its head by claiming that federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board while industry funding shouldn’t. The truth is: EPA grants don’t come with strings. They’re meant to help promote the best independent science.

“Independent science is absolutely critical to making good policies that keep our air and water clean and our communities safe,” he added. “But this administration — particularly Administrator Pruitt — seems to have taken every opportunity to cut science out. Pruitt’s Halloween announcement is a blatant effort to stack the board and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety. We will pursue all legal options available to us to prevent any scientist ban from remaining in place.”

USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

I like to say that @USDA‘s new motto is “Do right and feed everyone.” Feel like today at our first #USDAFamilyDay we did just that. pic.twitter.com/CFl6X1rJck

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) June 24, 2017

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

Kathleen Hartnett White Nomination Spells Trouble for the Magna Carta of Environmental Law: NEPA

NEPA is a landmark law that is crucial for identifying and considering environmental impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment. Photo: Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance

President Trump’s nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to lead the nation’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) comes as no big surprise. She will be just the latest addition to a Trump team determined to slow, stem, stymie, and roll back environmental and public health protections with reckless disregard for the well-being of all Americans. 

Despite the up to $180 billion in devastation caused by a climate change fueled-hurricane in Houston, Hartnett White, the former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, does not believe that climate change is a danger to society. Ever a friend to the oil and gas industry, she sees efforts to address climate change as simply an attack on the fossil fuel industry.

I could go on (and on and on) to express my dismay and alarm about this impending appointment, and others have—see here, here, and here—but that’s not where I’m headed with this post.  Instead, I want to tell you why you should care about two acronyms most American’s have never heard of: CEQ and NEPA.

CEQ does what exactly?

The national Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is a small but important office within the Executive Office of the President. Established by a 1969 law (more on NEPA in a second), the council essentially functions as the president’s chief advisor on environmental quality within the White House.

CEQ was created to gather information on environmental quality; develop and recommend to the president national policies to foster and promote the improvement of environmental quality; set regulations that guide agency compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA; and be a source of information for the public.

In other words, CEQ is meant to play a critical role in protecting and promoting the quality of our environment, and the head of CEQ will be a primary source of advice and information for President Trump on the issue of environmental quality. 

NEPA: The Magna Carta of environmental law  

First, a bit of history. While environmental protection is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Richard Nixon, his administration ushered in some sweeping changes and had singular environmental achievements. NEPA is a case in point.

President Nixon signed the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on January 1, 1970. This landmark law charges the federal government and its agencies with a responsibility to promote environmental protection, preservation, and restoration, and notes the responsibility each generation has to act as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.

NEPA has inspired the adoption of similar requirements in 16 US states, and over 130 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of Environmental Law, a reflection of just how important and valuable it is considered around the world.

NEPA is important for three main reasons

1) Identifying and considering impacts on people, communities, and our shared environment

NEPA established the requirement, with certain exemptions, that all federal agencies undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) when they propose legislation and any other major federal action that significantly affects the quality of the human environment.

Such actions include but are not limited to specific projects (such as road construction), plans or proposals to manage and develop federal land (such as national parks), and federal permitting or funding of private sector projects (such as granting an easement for a power lines or a permit for use of a waterway).

This is critical in order to ensure that federal agencies identify and consider environmental impacts on the people, communities, places, and environmental resources (i.e., air, water, land) that will be affected by their proposed actions.

2) Explaining the environmental impacts of different alternatives 

In formulating an environmental impact statement, agencies must explain the purpose and need for action, and importantly the different reasonable alternatives for addressing the need so that decision makers are fully aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. The document must explain the environmental impacts of these alternatives, and possible measures to reduce adverse impacts.

The EIS always includes as part of its analysis a “no action” alternative, that is, what would happen if the action was not taken at all. (For more, check out the Wiki page on EIS; it’s good. For a more detailed look at NEPA, check out chapter 5 in this book.)

Per Executive Order #12898, agencies are also required to consider issues of environmental justice in the NEPA process–including environmental effects on human health, and economic and social effects, specifically within communities of color and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by environmental risks and harms.

3) Allowing the public to have a say in decisions (a.k.a. democracy)

NEPA also advances two essential features of our democracy—transparency and public participation. Federal projects and actions can have profound effects on our surrounding environments and thus on our daily lives—from the air we breathe and the food and water we consume to the roads we travel and the places we love.

We, the people who may be impacted by a project for years to come, should have the right to know what the agencies are planning; what alternatives they are considering; and have an opportunity to comment, question, and suggest different alternatives. Indeed, in 2007 the CEQ itself published A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA: Having Your Voice Heard.  (I suggest you you read it now; it could easily disappear.)

So, for example, the public—not just business interests—would get to weigh in when the federal Department of Transportation proposes to build or extend the interstate highway system that might cut through communities or nearby farmlands. Or when the US Forest Services plans logging activity on federal lands, which could potentially impact tourism and local water quality. Or when the Army Corps of Engineers develops plans for flood control or river transportation on the nation’s waterways. Or when an oil and gas company needs a permit for a new drilling operation. Or for a pipeline. NEPA provides a critical opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed actions and alternatives.

Flexibility and recourse

While the process provides opportunity for public engagement and is meant to ensure that decision-makers consider different alternatives and their environmental impacts, agencies have flexibility to make the final decision they deem most appropriate.

Specifically, agencies are not bound to select the least burdensome alternative. However, agency decisions are appealable and open to judicial review. And the EIS, along with the record of public comment, provides information that can be used to fight an agency decision in court. Without getting into the legal weeds, the courts generally tend to review decisions if 1) the proper process was followed, 2) there was appropriate public participation, and 3) the alternatives considered and decisions made were not “arbitrary and capricious.”

In other words, the agency must have a logical basis for its decisions following public input. As a standard, that’s not bad!

Hartnett White: Here’s the rub

The White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) oversees the implementation of NEPA. It issues and interprets NEPA rules and regulations and reviews and approves NEPA procedures in agencies. So it matters who is running the show. Is it someone who will put public health and environmental protection first, or someone who will sideline science in favor of industry? Is it someone who truly believes in the public process and the opportunity for different perspectives and interests to be at the table, or only the most deep-pocketed players?  Is it someone who will staff the office with people who understand and support the statutory missions of the agencies or people from regulated industries who have been vocal critics of NEPA, regulatory protections, and the agencies they will oversee?

Do we want the chief environmental quality advisor in the White House to be someone who views carbon dioxide as a harmless and beneficial gas rather than a proven climate pollutant? Who sees “global warming” as a “kind of paganism” for “secular elites.”  Who has tight and profitable connections with the fossil fuel industry? If yes, then Kathleen Hartnett White is the person for the job.  President Trump certainly thinks so.

With federal promises to address our aging infrastructure in the offing, you may find yourself with a newfound interest in this somewhat arcane, often lengthy, and sometimes contentious process. As well as exceedingly grateful for a functioning NEPA and a CEQ that puts public interest first.

My worry is that powerful private interests will persuade their friends in the administration to “streamline” (read: WEAKEN) NEPA protections and processes. And a willing CEQ with Hartnett White at the helm will be instrumental in the process.

If you’re worried too, call on your senator (you can reach him or her via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) to oppose the confirmation of Kathleen Hartnett White!

On Climate Change, a Major Public Health Conference Stands in Stark Contrast to the Trump Administration

Our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—begins its 2017 conference on November 4. Photo: Courtesy of APHA

The Trump administration may be hell-bent on sidelining any effort to address global climate change—or even have an intelligent conversation about it—but the public health community is having none of it. 

Public health experts know full well that climate change is an existential threat to people’s health, safety, and security. So much so that our nation’s oldest, largest, and most highly respected public health organization—The American Public Health Association—declared 2017 as the Year of Climate Change and Health.

“We’re committed to making sure the nation knows about the effects of climate change on health. If anyone doesn’t think this is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.”  APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, in The Washington Post

The organization is also ready to host its annual meeting. Attended by thousands of public health professionals from around the country, the theme of this year’s meeting is Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health.

I’m struck by the enormous disconnect between what is happening in our nation’s capital and what’s happening in the community of public health experts. There is quite a gulf on so many issues—from gun violence, reproductive health, exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and worker safety to minimum wage and health disparities.

But let’s cut to the chase and talk about climate change.

Sidelining climate change: A round-up of recent Trump administration actions

We all know where President Trump stands on climate change; we knew it well before he took office. His suggestion that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is maybe his most memorable tweet on the issue, but he’s followed up this nonsense with real action—perhaps best personified in the successful nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. And then fulfilling his promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Followed by fossil-friendly Pruitt announcing his intention to repeal the Clean Power Plan.

And they are just getting started, using every tool in the toolbox.

Here is a quick round-up of the administration’s efforts to seriously sideline climate change – just over the past couple of weeks.

Keeping climate change front and center: A look at the APHA public health conference

Public health scientists and practitioners have been raising the alarm about climate change and its impacts on human health for years (see for example, here, here, here, here, and here). And just this week, the Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, released a report on climate change and health, noting that its  impacts are “far worse than previously understood.”

This year’s APHA annual meeting stands in stark contrast to the control, alt, delete strategy we see coming out of Washington. I’ve done a quick scan of the upcoming APHA program and its keynote addresses, panel presentations, scientific sessions, posters, group gatherings, and continuing education offerings that are in store for the thousands of public health professionals and advocates who will be attending next week’s meeting.

Here’s just a snapshot of the breadth and depth of the discussions that will be happening.

  • Opening Plenary Session: Climate Changes Health
  • President’s Session: Climate Change and Health: The 21st Century Challenge
  • Global Faith and Health Perspectives on Climate Change: An Interfaith Celebration
  • Climate Change and its Impact on African Americans (Poster)
  • Climate Change and Vulnerable Populations
  • Nature and Human Health: Vectors and Climate Change
  • Climate Change and the Medical Care System
  • Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness
  • Climate Change Denial: Who Will Suffer Most and First?
  • Climate Change and the Possible Effects on Arbovirus Transmission in the Americas
  • Reproductive Health and Carbon Footprints
  • Climate Change and Health in Epidemiological Research
  • Climate Change, Energy, and Heat: Implications for Human Health
  • Climate-friendly Farming: A Public Health Imperative
  • Climate Change and Children’s Health
  • Ethics, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change
  • Climate and Geospatial Determinants of Health
  • Best Practices of Policy Initiatives at the Local and Community Level to Address Climate Change

On Sunday, I’m heading to Atlanta to attend the annual meeting. It’s something I look forward to every year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues from across the country; hear about new findings, issues, and initiatives from public health researchers and practitioners; share and test ideas; peruse new books, products, and educational resources in the popular exhibit hall (while picking up a couple of free tchotchkies and an occasional apple or piece of candy); and then come home with renewed energy and new friends.

APHA is a vibrant, active, and diverse community and, for me, the meeting helps recharge my battery. It’s like an annual booster shot. And this year’s booster is all about climate change.

Trust and listen to the public health community, not the Trump administration

There is real leadership here—and it’s not coming out of Washington.

The public health community, with far less capacity and significantly fewer resources than our federal government, is WAAAY ahead when it comes to understanding, exploring, planning, managing, advising, educating, and otherwise addressing climate change.

We can count on this community (my community) to put public health, public safeguards, and public protections first—including those focused on climate change. These experts come from every state in the nation and can bring voices and expertise to bear at every level of government.

We will come out of Atlanta next week more prepared and committed than ever to speak up, speak out, and hold our leaders accountable for failing to address this existential threat.

APHA members and public health supporters participate in the March for Science on April 22. Photo: David Fouse/APHA

Scott Pruitt’s EPA Grant Ban Doesn’t Apply to States or Tribes. Here’s Why That’s Interesting.

This afternoon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that nobody who receives an EPA grant should be allowed to provide scientific advice to the agency. Yep—those scientists, the ones that the EPA thinks do the most promising research related to public health and the environment? Their advice isn’t welcome anymore. We’ve written a lot about how this represents a major step in the political takeover of science advice at EPA.

Except! The ban doesn’t apply to states or tribes who receive government funding. Why would that be? Pruitt believes that anyone who gets millions of dollars from the government must have an agenda to impose regulations on the American people. Why wouldn’t this apply to states and tribes? Let’s go deep in the heart of Texas.

According to its own data, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) received $58,273,661.63 from the EPA in 2016. Michael Honeycutt is the lead toxicologist at TCEQ, a state agency that often acts as more of an advocate for the refineries that do business in the state than the environment it is charged with protecting. The American Chemistry Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association love Dr. Honeycutt so much that they labored unsuccessfully to get him appointed to the board in 2016.

In a press conference earlier this afternoon, Scott Pruitt suggested that the millions that university scientists had received in grant funding should make them ineligible to provide science advice to the agency. And then, in virtually the next breath, he turned around and appointed Dr. Honeycutt to chair the board. Not just a participant. THE CHAIR.

So, then, millions of dollars of government funding is A-OK.

Just as long as you’re giving the administrator the information he wants.

No wonder the American Association for the Advancement of Science was livid, noting that, “policymaking cannot thrive when policymakers use politics as a pretext to attack scientific objectivity.”

Scott Pruitt Deals Yet Another Blow to Independent Science Advice at the EPA

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

Before September, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was composed of 47 scientists volunteering their time as public servants to help advise the agency on issues ranging from the safety of selected chemicals to the types of models used by the agency to sufficiently study emissions.

The process of becoming an SAB member has always come with full ethics disclosures and careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest, from all sources of funding, whether it’s an EPA grant or industry funding. Scientists with agency funding have served on the board ever since the SAB was first formed, and because EPA grants are awarded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process, the objectivity of scientists with EPA grant funding was not likely to be questioned. SAB members with conflicts pertaining to specific subjects have mitigated those by disclosing them and recusing themselves from conversations that might represent a conflict.

After nearly 40 years of operation, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to change the rules of the SAB and possibly other advisory committees at the agency by ordering that no individuals receiving EPA grant funding can serve on the board. Why would the administrator of an agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment actively work to ensure that some of our greatest minds wouldn’t be allowed to advise him on pressing scientific questions? No need to ask Pruitt, just ask his friends from the regulated community who have been working to turn conflict of interest on its head at the agency in the name of “balance.”

Trade group gets warm and fuzzy about “balance”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, under which federal advisory committees operate, requires that committees are “fairly balanced,” and it’s up to the agency to determine what that means for each committee. For the EPA SAB, the 2017 charter and membership balance plan explicitly say that balance involves a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.” For the SAB and CASAC, balance should not be a balance of opinions or interests in the EPA’s policy outcomes. The American Chemistry Council and other industry representatives disagree.

In March, the American Chemistry Council endorsed the EPA SAB Reform Act, writing, “The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would improve the peer review process—a critical component of the scientific process used by EPA in their regulatory decisions about potential risks to human health or the environment. The Act would make peer reviewers accountable for responding to public comment, strengthen policies to address conflicts of interest, ensure engagement of a wide range of perspectives of qualified scientific experts in EPA’s scientific peer review panels and increase transparency in peer review reports.” The press contact on this release? Liz Bowman. Yes, the same Liz Bowman who is now a spokeswoman at the EPA. A cherry on top of the revolving door sundae.

After the bill passed the House in March, the ACC wrote again, “We urge the Senate to take up the bill and are committed to working with Congress to advance legislation that will enhance accountability and ensure appropriate balance in EPA’s peer review process.”

In May, the American Chemistry Council responded to Pruitt’s dismissal of BOSC members by saying, “A number of people and groups have been concerned in the past the membership of EPA’s scientific advisory boards lacked diversity: diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds, resulting in a narrow or biased perspective concerning issues EPA was researching,” Openshaw said. “Everyone benefits when regulations are based on the best available science.”

After the nominees were announced in September, the Heartland Institute told E&E news that: “We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards. There is a vigorous debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, and it’s vital that EPA acknowledge that fact and have a more balanced approach to the agency’s rule-making.”

Administrator Pruitt parroted these same arguments in his announcement on the impending SAB decision made at a recent Heritage Foundation event.

What’s in store for the SAB?

The new SAB will consist of five fewer members than it did before, operating with 42 instead of 47 members. According to its new charter, it will also meet fewer times, 6-8 instead of 8-10 each year. While there may be representation from more states in the name of diversity, the number of women scientists on the committee has been slashed by half from nearly 21 to just 10. The decision not to renew the terms of six individuals who had already been fully vetted and were qualified to serve again also breaks with precedent. Additionally, rather than appoint a current SAB member as chair as has been done in the past, it appears that Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will be leading this new board’s deliberations. Honeycutt was one of the individuals I urged Pruitt not to choose last month. Clearly, that plea fell on deaf ears.

The number of industry representatives on the SAB has more than doubled, which doesn’t include the individuals from consulting firms or state governments who have long histories of working very closely with the private sector.

New member Donald van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in 2015 criticizing the North Carolina Attorney General for his support of the Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart called an “act of overreach” and “federal intrusion.” He supported Myron Ebell as a suitable leader to run the EPA transition team. He later wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, alleging that the EPA has “run out of control,” is “agenda-driven” and an “autocrat.”

Also on the list are S. Stanley Young and Richard Smith, two of the co-authors on this paper, whose thinking on air pollution science is far outside the mainstream, ignoring long-held and understood concepts about air pollution and health risks.

The American Chemistry Council achieved its request for so-called “balance” to include more industry perspectives on the board, and gained an inside look at the SAB, as long-time staffer Kimberly White will also be a member.

These individuals are likely to dramatically skew science advice to the EPA in a way that will support Pruitt’s decisions to loosen pollution regulations and emissions standards. A hit on the quality of science advice at the EPA is a direct threat to our health and safety.

Fixing advisory committees to reach predetermined conclusions

Last week we introduced the plays of the Disinformation Playbook, often used by companies and trade associations to manipulate or suppress science in order to achieve a specific policy outcome. The way in which Scott Pruitt is stacking the Science Advisory Board to manipulate the science advice process is an example of “The Fix.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several examples of this play used by the likes of Dow Chemical Co. and the American Chemistry Council to cast doubt on the science to delay or obstruct public health and safety provisions just within the EPA in the past year.

In light of this blatant attack on independent science at the EPA, we’re calling on Congress to conduct oversight at the agency and to investigate Scott Pruitt’s actions with the SAB, CASAC, and BOSC as potential interference in the scientific process.

New Bill Puts Environmental Justice Right Where It Belongs: Front and Center

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

One of the most satisfying aspects of working for the Union of Concerned Scientists is that I get to help amplify and support the demands of environmental justice and other climate-vulnerable communities in their quest to obtain equitable protection under law from environmental hazards.

As a person of color, I am proud to see UCS partnering with environmental justice communities like t.e.j.a.s., Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice. We’re helping research, document, amplify, offer policy advice on, and in some cases litigate, the ways in which environmental injustices disproportionately expose low-income communities of color to dangerous toxic chemicals, climate change, water and air pollution, to name a few.

That’s why I am excited to announce UCS’ endorsement of the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, S. 1996/ H.R. 4114, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Raúl Ruiz (D-CA). It is important to recognize that this legislation was developed by Senator Booker and Congressman Ruiz working directly with grassroots environmental justice advocates.

The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 not only codifies Executive Order 12898 and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC); it places environmental justice at the forefront of our governmental considerations for permitting, development, and data gathering. The act mandates that maps and tools to assess environmental inequities be made publicly available at all times and requires the consideration of cumulative impacts in federal and state permitting decisions, making sure no community will be overburdened by, for example, petrochemical refineries or other toxic pollution sources. The bill also codifies environmental justice in the National Environmental Policy Act and increases data collection efforts of environmental hazards in vulnerable communities.

If the EJ Act of 2017 is implemented, communities will be given more opportunity for input on what facilities and pollution are allowed in their neighborhoods. Each agency would be required to receive comments by community members on design and implementation of research strategies. There is also a new method of redress for communities, and individual citizens will be able to file a private right to action for discriminatory practices under the Civil Rights Act.

In a time when the administration is rolling back environmental justice and environmental protection, UCS is glad to support the efforts of Senator Booker and Representative Ruiz to make sure that the environmental and public health of our nation is equitably distributed.

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