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Pruitt Rejects Advice from Independent Scientists Based on False Premises

This week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to issued a new directive, following up on his speech at the Heritage Foundation, that bans scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory committee (see coverage here ). I want to share my perspective as a scientist who has served on numerous boards and panels advising government.

Mr. Pruitt’s rationale for making this decision rests on a set of false premises about science, grants and even the role of advisory boards. Given his record as administrator so far, this move is not surprising, but it is still damaging. In effect it means that the head of the agency is explicitly turning his back on independent science to guide his decisions.

“Balance” is needed in science advice: false

Mr. Pruitt seems to believe that a science advisory board needs a balance of opinions, as if it is a political body. In my experience as a science advisor, that’s not the job. The role of a science board is not to negotiate among different interest groups.

Boards exist to evaluate scientific evidence. The only balance needed is among different types of scientific expertise. Scientists can come from any sector, but there is no balance needed between their home institutions. This is even explicit in the EPA SAB’s 2017 Membership Balance Plan and Charter, which defines balance as members providing a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.”

There are many other steps in the process of deciding on a public policy option that enable interest groups such as industry, state and local governments, tribal governments, public interest organizations or affected residents to present their views. But the scientific evidence is not the place to incorporate those views and attempt to “balance” them. The weight of any piece of scientific evidence, and therefore advice, is a technical matter, not a political one.

Scientists who receive grants from the agency are conflicted: false

The fundamental premise of Pruitt’s action is that independent scientists (e.g. from universities or other research institutions) that receive grants from the agency ALL have an inherent conflict of interest that means their scientific views cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those who work for regulated industries with a direct financial stake in specific public policies shouldn’t be viewed as conflicted necessarily. This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head and misconstrues how grants work.

Research grants result from the agency putting out a general call for proposals on a topic that is important to the (usually long-term) work of the agency. Scientists submit proposals for research within the topic. They do not promise specific results. Rather, the researchers propose how new evidence will be obtained using appropriate scientific methods.

A grant proposal is evaluated by other scientists, usually from inside and outside the agency, for the appropriateness of the research questions, methods and likely usefulness of the knowledge developed for increasing understanding of how the world works. Proposals are ranked based on these criteria and then the program within the agency that issued the call for proposals makes a decision on which grants to fund based on the rankings and the resources available. It would be unusual and inappropriate for agency political staff to intervene in decisions on which proposals to fund.

When Mr. Pruitt says some researchers have received “millions of dollars” he is falsely giving the impression that the agency is shelling out big bucks for a scientist’s loyalty. It doesn’t work that way.

Grant funds are primarily used to support graduate students and research fellows or staff, as well as laboratory or field work. While some salary support may be covered for an faculty member, it isn’t some huge income driver for most.

The agency is not “buying” an opinion. It is supporting new research. The results may support, undermine or have no impact on agency decisions. So how can that possibly be a conflict of interest? It isn’t. Perhaps in Mr. Pruitt’s world, as he is an attorney, one only pays for a known opinion and you never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. But that isn’t how science works.

Why only grants to academic scientists?

Mr. Pruitt’s directive is nothing if not half-baked, like a cookie you really shouldn’t eat. He only refers to grants to university scientists it seems. But what about grants to states or tribes? Does that mean all of their scientists should be precluded from serving as advisors? Those grants are much larger than research grants. And what about contracts for services? Should all those scientists be precluded? Or what about industry scientists that are co-investigators on grants? Are they out too? Just where is it that he thinks his science advice should come from?

I suppose it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Administrator Pruitt really would prefer not to have any science advice. After all, he has already indicated that the budget for science advisory boards should be cut way back so that few meetings can be held. Now he wants to eliminate from consideration most of the scientists in the country who have expertise on the issues confronting the agency. I suppose that not weighing the scientific evidence would make decisions like the one he made to not ban a dangerous pesticide easier to justify. And it would fit in well with the industry playbook effort to cast doubt on science to avoid public health and safety protections.

But in the spirit of Halloween, I must ask, what is so scary about independent science? Really Mr. Pruitt, it won’t hurt you to save some lives by relying on science.

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

The EPA Science Advisory Board Is Being Compromised. Here’s Why That Matters.

The capture of the EPA by the industries it is supposed to regulate is expected to take another step forward as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is poised to compromise the integrity of the EPA Science Advisory Board.

Multiple sources inside and outside of EPA are reporting that Administrator Pruitt will purge independent scientists from EPA scientific advisory committees, appoint industry-tied representatives with views well outside the scientific mainstream in their place, shrink the size and scope of the Science Advisory Board, and issue a directive that prevents scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the board in the future. Doing so would effectively implement legislation that would politicize EPA science advice that Congress has repeatedly declined to pass.

Such a move bans some independent scientists from providing scientific advice while giving those with conflicts a free pass. Collectively, these actions create an abhorrent double standard: scientists who rely on public funding are left out, while industry scientists face no restrictions on service. Fossil fuel and chemical companies already enjoy undue influence over EPA policy under Pruitt. Now, they’re taking control over science advice to the agency.

“This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to try to exclude sound scientific expertise from these advisory committees, and is consistent with efforts to pack these committees with non-science-based interests,” Mark Wiesner, a Duke University civil and environmental engineer who sits on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, told Chemistry World.

When independent science advice at EPA is compromised, decisions that sufficiently protect public health become less likely.

By a back-of-the-envelope analysis, roughly half of current board members receive EPA funding. EPA grants are funded on the basis of merit and promise. Recipients tend to be the most knowledgeable experts on the issues that the EPA is supposed to address: protecting our air and water from environmental and public health threats.

Nothing good happens when independent experts are replaced by people who have financial incentives to skew the scientific analysis in the direction of the companies they represent. This decision would mean that scientists will be forced to choose between seeking out an EPA grant or eventually lending their expertise to volunteer as a public servant and advise EPA on technical questions.

While this post focuses on the EPA Science Advisory Board, the same rules will likely apply to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and other critical EPA science advisory committees.

What the Science Advisory Board does

The Science Advisory Board (SAB) was created by Congress to provide impartial science advice. It 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.

Before this year, the Science Advisory Board toiled away in relative obscurity. It dutifully answered scientific questions on emerging and established topics. Scores of scientists have served on the board, for free, as part of their commitment to public service. A few selected highlights:

In 2012, the board wrote this report after conducting interviews with EPA staff to develop advice on how the EPA can strengthen scientific assessments for decision making. The report had been requested by Administrator Stephen Johnson, who served in the George W. Bush administration.

In 2013, the SAB gave the EPA advice on which model to use as it evaluates the health effects of perchlorate, a chemical that can cause cancer and reproductive health and hormonal problems. This advice was used by the agency to help create a standard for perchlorate in water that is currently being considered by the agency.

The Science Advisory Board can also be important to rooting out political interference in science. In 2016, the board found that the EPA’s claims that fracking led to “no widespread impacts” on drinking water supplies was not supported by the best available science. Evidence at the time suggested that the agency had softened its scientists’ conclusions when presenting them in report materials. This, under the Obama administration, which some believed was hostile to fossil fuel extraction. The science advisers were essential to setting the record straight.

Don’t be fooled by appeals to “balance”

In the lead up to the announcement, we have heard predictable arguments from Administrator Pruitt. Let’s take them in turn:

The Science Advisory Board should have more “balance.” This argument fundamentally misrepresents the role of a science advisory committee. Members don’t sit around having discussions about politics or policy. Their work is to evaluate the state of the science, not to negotiate stakeholders’ viewpoints.

Science isn’t about providing equal time for different viewpoints. It is about methods and evidence. Science advisers are not representatives of a constituency or a sector; they are there because they possess specific expertise.

What really should matter is a diversity of expertise, as the board is asked to consider all kinds of scientific questions. “Pruitt would not know a conflict of interest if it slapped him in the face,” said Lawrence Lash, who advises the EPA on chemicals. “Having grant money from the EPA has absolutely nothing to do with advising the EPA on the underlying science.”

The board has been a “rubber stamp” for agency decisions. The Science Advisory Board does not have authority over agency decisions. They do have the ability to determine whether draft policies are supported by the best available evidence. Further, if agency decisions are not scientifically defensible, they can be challenged in court.

The views of scientists who receive “millions” of dollars from the EPA are suspect. There are so many inaccurate implications in just this one assertion. First, most funding pays for equipment, support staff, students, and scientific materials, not to pad a scientist’s wallet. In general, industry scientists get paid significantly more than those who receive public funding.

The move to exclude independent scientists from providing advice to the EPA is part of a greater pattern of corporate capture of the agency.

Second, there is no incentive for an EPA grant-funded scientist to have a particular view on science advisory board decisions. In fact, it isn’t clear what this would even mean.

EPA grants are given to scientists to further scientific understanding of a particular research topic. Science advisory boards give advice on the use of science in EPA decisions. These are often entirely different realms. If a scientist received a grant to study multi-pollutant interactions and their health impacts, does that mean they would be incentivized to say that EPA was or wasn’t following the science on the drinking water impacts of fracking?

Grants and SAB decisions are often on divergent topics and scopes. Even if a scientist wanted to come up with science advice that pleased EPA, it isn’t clear what that would be. Current or future funding is in no way correlated with a scientist’s work with the advisory board.

Third, scientists who receive EPA grants tend to be those with the most expertise on topics. Excluding such scientists means that the agency won’t be getting the best science advice.

(Historically) what happens when an advisory committee is stacked with conflicted experts?

Politicized advisory committees end up giving bad advice, agency decisions suffer, and legal challenges to rules and regulations are more likely to prevail. According to a former Science Advisory Board member:

“Over the past 35 years I have served on numerous federal scientific advisory panels, including EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and many committees and boards of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. In my view, the history of past purges shows that stacking the deck with like-minded advocates is self-defeating. That’s true whether those advocates come from industry or nongovernmental organizations–and especially if they represent only one political party.

“Recommendations from these “friendly” panels will not win broad support from the scientific community, and I predict the committees will quickly lose their credibility, legitimacy and influence. Consequently, policies and regulations based on the panels’ recommendations will be less likely to withstand public or political scrutiny and be more open to legal challenges than if they were based on more balanced input.”

The new restrictions mean that the most qualified scientists will be left out of the process. In their place will be those who will be more likely to remain silent or attempt to provide cover for decisions that are not grounded in evidence. While over the long term this process may be self-correcting, in the short term we will all suffer from a less effective Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s all consistent with a hostile takeover of science-based policymaking: those with true conflicts of interest are exerting control over not only staff positions but also the independent entities who are there to provide science advice. Without public protections that are fully informed by independent science, more people will die and get sick, and our quality of life will suffer. We should do all we can—including challenging the new directive in court—to prevent Administrator Pruitt from excluding independent scientific advice from the work of the EPA.

The Spookiest Halloween Costume of 2017: The Fossil Fuel Company Executive

Halloween is here, and we have a lot to be spooked about when it comes to the future role of science in this country. In addition to the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on science, companies are now enjoying greater access to decisionmakers than they’ve ever had. And no industry has capitalized on inappropriate access to decisionmakers more than the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, with very little accountability, the industry has deceived the public and policymakers, and enjoyed friendly policies from decisionmakers with clear conflicts of interest.

To recap, this isn’t only a Trump-era phenomenon. Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their products contribute to global warming, while they’ve led and funded disinformation campaigns to squash sensible climate policies. Nowadays, though, the tactics are often more elaborate than simple climate denial. These days, some fossil fuel companies are acknowledging climate change—and even their role in it—on the surface, while carrying on business as usual behind closed doors.

For instance, while ExxonMobil publicly urged the US to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, it also continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),which called Paris a “bad deal”, and other anti-climate lobbying groups. And the company has yet to release a plan to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming under 2C, despite demands from its own shareholders and the public. It’s the same old tactics we’ve always seen, only this time with a mask over it.

The Disinformation Playbook is the Fossil Fuel Industry Playbook

To help unpack the many ways that companies undermine the use of science in decisionmaking on climate policy and beyond, this week the Union of Concerned Scientists released the Disinformation Playbook. The playbook showcases five plays that industry runs, and the fossil fuel industry in particular has been complicit in all of them:

  • The Fake – Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research
  • The Blitz – Harass scientists who share results inconvenient to industry
  • The Diversion – Manufacture uncertainty about science where little exists
  • The Screen – Buy credibility by building alliances with academic institutions or scientific societies
  • The Fix – Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
A Deceptive Halloween: The Fossil Fuel Industry Executive

To help you scare all your friends this Halloween, we put together everything you’ll need for the spookiest costume of the season: fossil fuel industry executive!

1. Briefcase full of money

This prop is to pay trade groups, front groups, and political candidates to do your bidding against climate science and policy. Such arrangements are very convenient for you as you can dissociate your company’s brand from all the anti-climate lobbying you are doing.

To show just how effective this strategy can be, let’s look at company versus trade group positions on climate action.  While some major fossil fuel companies publicly support policy actions to curb carbon emissions, they also fund trade groups to fight climate mitigation efforts at every turn. ALEC proclaimed, “The Paris Climate Agreement is a bad deal for America.” The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the Clean Power Plan, citing its “failure to incorporate potential benefits associated with increased temperatures,” and the group joined the federal lawsuit opposing the plan. The American Petroleum Institute has continued to emphasize climate uncertainties, part of its long history of communicating climate science disinformation to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science.

Shareholders too have noticed this lack of transparency between fossil fuel companies and their ties to other groups. In 2017 Exxon and Chevron shareholders voted in large numbers to demand that these companies disclose their direct and indirect lobbying activities and expenses. Currently companies can operate almost in the dark when it comes to their lobbying and support for third-party groups — spooky!

2. Smug disregard for the wellbeing of the planet and its people

Fossil fuel companies have made it clear, especially in recent times, just how little they care about protecting people from the threats of climate change. In fact, they often don’t even appear to be protecting themselves from climate impacts or preparing for future changes in climate.

For starters, oil companies often fail to disclose details about the climate-related risks they face. The recent impacts of Hurricane Harvey show us what is at risk when it comes to oil and gas infrastructure and extreme storms and flooding. Several facilities around Houston sustained serious damage that adversely affected surrounding communities and first responders. At an Exxon refinery in Beaumont, Harvey damaged a sulfur thermal oxidizer, releasing 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide—far exceeding the company’s permit allowance. The company’s response? “No impact to the community has been reported.”

Also of concern: none of the major fossil fuel compan ies have a real plan to operate under a two degrees C scenario, the goal set by the Paris Agreement (which they publicly supported); they are clearly not planning for real greenhouse gas reductions or the safety of life on our planet. Worse, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Total SA even funded a report attacking the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure recommendations, which offered ways companies could better prepare and disclose on climate.

3. Scheduler to keep track of your meetings with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:

If you’ve followed the activities of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at all, you’ll know that fossil fuel interests have ample opportunity to meet with a new EPA head sympathetic to their needs. Pruitt’s schedule shows that his daily planner is jam-packed with industry group meetings. With his new sound-proof box, the administrator is also free to have confidential phone calls with all his industry friends.  Currently, the EPA is also being stacked with other staff with direct ties to the fossil fuel industry.  EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman (who recently told off the New York Times rather than provide information to the media like a public servant is charged to do) came from American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association that also brought scientist Nancy Beck to the EPA to rewrite chemical safety rules to be more industry friendly.  Michael Dourson is another industry puppet who’s been nominated for a top spot at EPA and has worked extensively sowing doubt for the petrochemical industries. This slate of characters is now in charge of an agency they spent years trying to dismantle.  I’m afraid now they are free to act like unsupervised children in front of a “please take one” bowl of candy. They are slowly taking the agency down from the inside, and ensuring that fossil fuel companies aren’t hit with any pesky climate-friendly regulations.

But let’s not stay spooked

While much of this is our unfortunate reality, there is much we can and must do to fight back against the deception and inappropriate influence that the fossil fuel industry has over our decisionmakers. We must remember that public servants and elected officials work for us, the public, not the fossil fuel industry. We must demand accountability, transparency, and policies that protect people not profits. But in the meantime, have a happy Halloween, however you choose to be spooked.

 

Spectrum of Harm: Ripple Effects of Trump’s Macabre Environmental Policies

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

The front pages of last Sunday’s Washington Post and New York Times starkly exposed how concerned citizens, fearful immigrants, and career scientists alike are smothered by the Trump administration’s macabre environmental policies.

Worming through the EPA

The Times zeroed in on Nancy Beck’s voracious worming through the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of dangerous chemicals and poisons. She is figuratively trying to eat enough holes in the rules to make chemicals harder to track and control and therefore shielding polluters from prosecution.

Beck is the former regulatory science policy director of the American Chemistry Council and was appointed by President Trump in May as deputy assistant secretary in the EPA’s department of Chemical Safety and Pollution Protection. Before the American Chemistry Council, she served in the George W. Bush White House, where she badgered the EPA in such a picayune manner for proof of chemical harms that she was criticized by the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences.

During President Obama’s tenure, Beck performed the same function for the nation’s leading chemical lobbyist, questioning regulation on arsenic and other chemicals used in perfumes and dry cleaning. But Trump’s election turned the world upside down. Beck was brought back by his White House under special provisions that exempted her from ethics rules that would have prevented her from being involved in decisions involving former employers.

She has since wasted no time declaring herself a puppet of industry instead of a searchlight for safety.

Weakened rules on a kidney cancer-causing chemical and other harmful toxins

The Times highlighted Beck’s heavy hand in weakening rules on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a kidney cancer-causing agent that many large companies, including BASF, 3M, and DuPont, volunteered to phase out during the Obama administration. PFOA is present in such common items as nonstick kitchenware and stain-resistant carpeting.

But even with a total phase out, that chemical remains in millions of cabinets and on millions of floors around the nation. Beck’s rewriting of rules made it seem that the EPA would no longer make risk assessments on “legacy” use of products containing PFOA or their storage or disposal. That so alarmed staffers at the EPA’s Office of Water that they wrote a memo, obtained by the Times,  warning that PFOA’s potential to continue to pollute drinking water and ground water remains so strong that it “is an excellent example of why it is important to evaluate all conditions of use of the chemical.”

PFOA is only one of several chemicals that the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, with Beck as a relatively little-known henchwoman, are limiting scrutiny on to protect industry. Before Beck arrived, the Trump EPA had already refused—over the objection of staff scientists—to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide believed to stunt child development. The agency, as the Times reports, is also re-considering proposed bans of methylene chloride in paint strippers and trichloroethylene, which respectively are used in paint strippers and dry cleaning and are linked to illness and death.

A relentless assault

This relentless assault is remaking the EPA into the Everyday Pollution Agency and has reached such a pitch under President Trump that Beck’s immediate boss, Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, left the agency last month after 38 years with the agency. Hamnett supported the ban on chlorpyrifos and had a long track record of elevating public health impacts into her consideration of chemical harms, particularly on lead paint in homes. As she told the Times, science can rarely be 100 percent sure about anything but if a chemical is “likely to be a severe effect and result in a significant number of people exposed . . . I am going to err on the side of safety.”

With a White House that now errs on the side of industry, Hamnett told the Times that she resigned because, “I had become irrelevant.”

“You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze”

A Trump administration dedicated to making science and scientists irrelevant surely has worse in store for everyone else. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services released a report revealing how low-income residents and people of color regardless of income are more likely to live near toxic chemical facilities in the Houston area.

The Post’s story on Corpus Christi shows that the worst is happening already. For decades, the predominately African American and Latino community of Hillcrest has abutted a massive oil refinery complex that includes a gasoline production facility for Citgo and a Koch brothers plant making jet fuel for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

One resident, 56-year-old Rosie Ann Porter, retired from a job supplying helicopter parts, told the Post that her daughter grew up with serious asthma. Other neighbors complained of other chronic lung diseases. Porter said,  “You can’t let your windows up and enjoy a fresh breeze coming through the house. When they’re up and the refinery’s spilling out those fumes, it’s nothing nice.”

In a solid example of environmental justice reporting that displayed the agency of residents, the Post made it clear that the residents refused to succumb to the fumes without many fights. But victories were fleeting. A federal jury found Citgo guilty in 2007 of spewing benzine, a known carcinogen, into the community. The company was fined $2 million, but the verdict and fine were completely overturned on appeals, based on improper instructions to the jury. A report last year by the Department of Health and Human Services found higher rates of asthma and cancer in males than the Texas average.

Living in the shadows of soot

More recently, Hillcrest rose up against a massive proposed $500 million bridge spanning high above the Corpus Christi shipping channel. The bridge would allow supertankers to ply beneath it, but construction of the span and a highway addition would completely box in and isolate Hillcrest from any other neighborhood.

Citing civil rights laws and banking on support from an Obama administration sympathetic to the history of highway projects ripping apart communities of color, Porter and other Hillcrest residents filed a complaint with the Federal Highway Administration. The complaint resulted in an unusual compromise in 2015. Texas officials were so eager to increase commerce that they agreed to buyout residents at two or three times their average home value of around $50,000.

That victory came with some major asterisks. One is that the buyouts still may never fully compensate residents for home values that were depressed for decades because of the encroaching refineries. Another is that undocumented residents, whom the Obama administration assumed were eligible for buyouts under nondiscrimination laws, were cut out of the deal by Texas once the Trump administration took over with its anti-Latino immigrant animus. No one knows how many undocumented families are affected because a public complaint might result in deportation.

Thus one set of people, after decades of industrial abuse, are about to set off for other parts of Texas with a payout that may or may not help them buy new homes. Another set of people will continue to live fearfully in the shadows of soot. And in Washington, an administration continues to draw a shroud over all of environmental protections, working to the day that science and safety are, to borrow from Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, irrelevant.

#Sandy5: Will the Nation Act on Climate Change Reality?

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

The 29th of October marks the 5-year anniversary of when Hurricane Sandy first made landfall on the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. It comes at a time when Americans are reeling from the unprecedented hurricane season that devastated communities in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Lives were lost, homes destroyed, schools and hospitals among other essential services were interrupted, and energy, transportation and water systems and other infrastructure were fractured. Associated health challenges can be life threatening and have lingering mental health impacts. The ability of homeowners to handle the economic damages is in question given the level of destruction to homes and low take-up rate of flood insurance.  Many homeowners impacted by these hurricanes are falling behind on their mortgages.

Hurricane Harvey may have exposed to flooding more than 160 of EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory sites, 7 Superfund sites, and 30 facilities registered with EPA’s Risk Management Program.

The 2017 hurricane season recovery challenges will sound familiar to those communities who are remembering the devastation Hurricane Sandy wrought.  At that time, multiple weather systems collided and hit one of the most populated places in the mid-Atlantic region.  While the Obama Administration declared Federal disasters in 12 states and the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York felt the brunt of destruction. Communities lost 159 lives, had 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed and thousands of businesses were forced to close.

The climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy

Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Brigantine, NJ, it formed over the Caribbean where it developed into a Category 1 hurricane on October 23, 2012 followed by landfall the subsequent days near Kingston, Jamaica and then the southeastern part of Cuba and Haiti as a Category 2 hurricane. Experts spoke to the climate connection, here, here, and here, and since then we have gained even more ground on the climate change fingerprint on Hurricane Sandy.

Scientists estimate that without climate change driven sea level rise, the footprint of Sandy would have been at least 10% less than observed in New York City, equivalent to $2 billion dollars of damages and an additional 11.4% people affected and 11.6% more housing units flooded.

Just this week, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published new science (reported on here) that finds flooding in New York City due to tropical cyclones will be more frequent and the flood heights will be higher because of rising sea levels. Using a worst-case scenario for sea level rise which combines the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change high-emissions scenario along with newer research on accelerated melting of Antarctic ice sheets, they find that sea level rise in New York City could reach from 3 to 8 feet by 2100 and “500-year” flood events could happen every five years.

UCS’s own analysis When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities looks at the entire coastline of the lower 48 states and identifies communities that will experience flooding so extensive and disruptive that it will require either expensive investments to fortify against rising seas or residents and businesses to prepare to abandon areas they call home.  We found that the extent of flooding associated with the storm surge event from Hurricane Sandy in 2100 under a high emissions scenario, would happen every other week. We also found that hundreds of communities could avoid this type of chronic inundation if we keep future warming below 2°C.  In New York curtailing future warming and sea level rise could spare two New York communities from chronic inundation by 2060 and three to 13 communities by the end of the century—including four boroughs of New York City.

Community recovery

Five years later what does recovery look like?  NJ Resources Project released The Long Road Home, a report that compiles stories by Sandy survivors, facts on the recovery process based on surveying 500 survivors, and local, state and federal recommendations.  It’s a sober reminder of the long road ahead the communities impacted by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria face when it comes to recovery.

In a step in the right direction, this week NJ Governor Christie announced an additional $75 million for their Blue Acres buyout program for flooded homes to help move people to less risky areas. Buyouts are widely recognized as an essential flood risk resilience tool, but research postSandy has found that improvements can and need to  be made to ensure people truly are better off after the buyout. Additional research indicates we still have a lot to learn on how to do buyouts well, and hopefully the proposal the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reportedly considering will take these recommendations into account.

Community mobilization

Communities hit by Sandy know these realities all too well and they’re mobilizing and calling for action. A few examples include:

  • In NYC communities are mobilizing around #Sandy5 and will march in NYC on October 28 to demand action by their elected officials.
  • In New Jersey:
    • NJ Future convened the Shore of the Future symposium to underscore the need for a regional approach to coastal resilience as well as state actions the new governor can take in the face of climate change
    • Floodplain managers are convening for their 13th annual conference around changes under the Trump Administration to federal agencies and policies as well as the change that will come with the upcoming election of their new governor.

These efforts are a call to action at all levels government, but particularly the federal government. So what’s this Administration doing?

As warnings on climate change risks soar, the Trump administration’s actions place the nation in peril

The Sandy anniversary comes at a time when we not only could not imagine the 2017 hurricane season,  but we also could not have imagined the vast degree of President Trump’s roll backs on climate change policy including pulling the U.S out of the Paris Accord and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

In the first six months of this administration, UCS tracked the vast efforts to sideline science including stacking heads of federal agencies with climate deniers and appointing conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions. One can argue that the Department of Defense is the last department where federal employees can speak to climate change.

Last month the watchdog for the federal government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their “high risk” report calling on the need for government-wide action is needed to reduce fiscal exposure to climate change by better managing climate change risks.  This week, GAO released a report on the economic costs of climate change and finds that without climate change in check, costs could be as high as $35 billion per year by mid-century while Zillow’s recent analysis finds that nearly 2 million U.S. homes could be underwater in 80 years if oceans rise 6 feet or higher by 2100.    GAO “high risk” 2017 report includes broad strategic recommendations as well as specific actions to:

  • Protect federal property and resources by federal agencies’ consistently implementing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (as well as other measures);
  • Under the federal flood and crop insurance programs, build climate resilience into the requirements for federal crop and flood insurance programs;
    • President Trump: released a piecemeal reform proposal to reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • Provide technical assistance to federal, state, local, and private-sector decision makers
    • President Trump: signed an executive order  revoking executive orders that helped prepare the nation for climate change; encourage private investment in reducing pollution; and ensure our national security plans consider climate change impacts.
  • Under disaster aid, adequately budget and forecast procedures to account for the costs of disasters.
Here’s what an effective national disaster response looks like

In recognition of the size and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy, in just over a month, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Led by Sec. of HUD, Secretary Donovan, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force brought together 23 federal agencies and local and state leaders from NY, NJ, CT MD, RI, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation. At the foundation of the task force report was the use of better science and technology to inform decisions in rebuilding efforts and recovery efforts. The task force recommendations included:

  • Promote resilient rebuilding based on current and future risk and through innovative ideas
  • Ensure a regionally coordinated, resilient approach to infrastructure investment
  • Providing affordable housing and protecting homeowners
  • Supporting small businesses and revitalizing local economies
  • Addressing insurance challenges, understanding and accessibility
  • Building local governments’ capacity to plan for long-term rebuilding and preparation for future disasters

Why is this approach a model response for federally declared disasters?  It’s a model that recognized a national response must bring the “whole of government” and communities together, including those who have been historically marginalized. At the core was the understanding that we must plan for the future based on the latest climate science and future conditions. The Task Force also fostered creative, comprehensive, innovative strategies to increase community resilience bringing in all sectors and types of infrastructure. The Task Force also understood that keeping small businesses’ lights on and building the capacity of local governments to plan for long-term rebuilding were both vital to sustaining local economies.

Congressional actions needed

This week the Senate approved $36.5 billion in disaster assistance which comes after a $15 billion disaster assistance package after Harvey and includes $18.7 billion to build up the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program as well as $1.2 billion for nutrition assistance and wildfire funding.

In contrast, after Sandy, in December of 2012, the administration submitted a $60.4 billion request for supplemental funding for disaster assistance and recovery.  In 2013 Congress approved Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 or the “Sandy relief bill” at $50.5 billion (as well as an additional $9.7 billion in new borrowing authority to NFIP).

As total cost estimates of damages are still coming in, we know the Congressional disaster relief packages to date are just a drop in the bucket. Towns, cities, and states cannot be left on their own to face the costs of increasing their communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.  After the battering one-two-three punch of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria and on the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Congress must come together on bipartisan actions in the near-term to:

  • Defend science by protecting federal agency budgets;
  • Pass legislation to reinstate the flood risk management standard to ensure federally funded infrastructure is “flood-ready”;
  • Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure risk based flood insurance rates as well as affordability of flood insurance, science informed flood maps that reflect risk and future conditions including climate change driven sea level rise, consumer protections, and robust pre-disaster mitigation measures that invest in innovative strategies to reduce risk through buy-out programs and nature-based solutions; and
  • Authorize the Department of Defense to invest in understanding and mitigating the risks climate change pose to our national security and our military installations and surrounding communities.

Will Congress take bipartisan action to pass these policies?

The jury is out but the sad reality is that it still won’t be sufficient to address the water that will come. In fact, as we make the case here, we must have a comprehensive strategy to:

  • phase out policies that encourage risky coastal activities;
  • bolster existing policies and funding;
  • and put forth bolder, comprehensive solutions to help communities retreat from risky areas.

 

 

 

New Jersey Resource Project

Science and Democracy Engages the Science of Democracy: The Kendall Voting Rights Fellowship

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

This fall, I am excited to help launch a new chapter in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ commitment to putting science to work toward building a healthier planet and a safer world. My research training is in the field of electoral systems and their impact on representation and public policy. I am most recently a co-author on the book Gerrymandering in America: The Supreme Court, the House of Representatives and The Future of Popular Sovereignty. As the new Kendall Voting Rights Fellow, I will be studying the impact of elections on many of the broader policy goals that UCS is pursuing.

In this context, a healthier and safer world means an open, resilient electoral system that can fairly and accurately convert aggregated preferences into policy choices. There are a number of opportunities where UCS can make an important contribution to improving voting rights and electoral institutions.

Fighting voter fraud and voter suppression

Perhaps no area in the field of voting rights has received more attention than President Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally to deny him a popular vote majority. The entire event serves as a painful reminder of how scientists can lose control over how their research is used. While we can say with absolute certainty that the president’s claim is false, there is no scientific consensus on how to best estimate levels of voter fraud.

We know that voter fraud occurs, but techniques for accurately estimating fraudulent votes cast, which lie somewhere between allegations and convictions, are difficult (but see discussions here and here). UCS will be working to provide the public and policy makers with the most accurate science available, and we will work with partner organizations to build safeguards that assure the integrity of voting for all who are eligible, especially those who are at risk of being disenfranchised through overly restrictive eligibility and voting requirements.

Similarly, there is a great deal of anecdotal information about the negative impact of voter suppression tactics. Previous scientific studies have shown that laws like voter identification have a negative impact on minority groups, but more recent work has been critiqued on methodological grounds. UCS will work to identify the participatory consequences of administrative laws ranging from early registration deadlines to online and automatic registration, early voting, and ballot access laws.

Improving policy outcomes through electoral integrity

When voting rights are compromised, it is typically because policy makers are attempting to insulate themselves from electoral pressure on critical policy issues. As we have seen in areas as diverse as climate policy, transportation, food systems and even global security, when policy makers are shielded from electoral accountability, they are more susceptible to the influence of powerful, narrow interests.

Scientists are in a unique position to bring policy expertise to questions regarding the consequences of restrictive election laws. In addition to assessing the extent to which our current electoral methods, including administrative law, electoral districting, and the Electoral College, create opportunities and threats to electoral integrity and security, we will work to identify how these methods impact legislative policymaking and social outcomes.

UCS already plays a crucial role in educating the public and combating environmental racism and public health risks. However, there is a gap in research exploring the link between electoral gamesmanship and the environmental and health injustices that afflict the most vulnerable communities. UCS can draw on expertise across numerous fields to help fill this gap.

In addition, analyses and research products on electoral integrity that UCS can provide will allow us to strengthen existing partnerships with communities dedicated to the advancement of environmental justice, political equality and human rights. From local communities to the U.S. Capitol, we will work with organizations to improve electoral integrity though the adoption of open and secure election laws.

Developing a reform agenda

An area that should be of particular interest to the UCS community and members of the Science Network is election information security and technology, a field where computer scientists have as much to say as political scientists. There is widespread agreement that not only are many of the nation’s voting machines outdated and vulnerable to hacking, but that cyber-attacks on election software and records will play an ever-increasing roll as a threat to electoral integrity.

Moreover, there is increasing evidence that the very structure of systems such as the Electoral College create security threats by focusing the attention of hackers and disinformation campaigns on a small number of states that can swing a presidential election. UCS will partner with advocacy organizations to analyze threats and innovations in election security, and advocate for evidence-based policies to address these threats.

And as this month’s landmark gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court also made clear, scientists are playing a major role in providing recommendations about how to determine racial and partisan discrimination in districting plans, and studying the consequences of proposed legislative remedies. In addition to identifying causes and remedies for electoral discrimination, UCS experts can help fill the gap of understanding how such discrimination affects environmental, health and related policies, which tend to negatively impact specific populations.

Rigorous analysis of the impact of electoral integrity on policy, and the ways that electoral discrimination impacts our quality of life, will provide critical support needed for reform. The challenges are clear, but so is the mission: to understand and engineer the democratic institutions that we need to build a healthier planet and a safer world.

I Am a 30-Year Veteran Scientist from US EPA; I Can’t Afford to Be Discouraged

. . . And neither can you.

Since January, we have seen a continual assault on our environmental protections. EPA has put a political operative with no scientific experience in charge of vetting EPA grants, and the agency is reconsidering an Obama-era regulation on coal ash. The well-established legal processes for promulgating environmental regulations, and—very pointedly—the science underlying environmental regulation are being jettisoned by the Trump administration. As scientists, we must stand up for science and ensure that it is not tossed aside in public policy and decision-making.

Rigorous science is the foundation of EPA

Attending a march with some friends.

While at US EPA, I served as a senior scientist in human health risk assessment.  I was among the cadre of dedicated professionals who worked long, hard, and intelligently to provide the science supporting management of risks from exposure to environmental contaminants. Often, we engaged in the demanding practice of issuing regulation.

Regulations to limit human and environmental exposure are not developed overnight.  The laws that enable US EPA to issue regulations specify requirements and procedures for issuing rules; these can include notice of proposed rulemaking, multiple proposed rules, public comments on proposals, responses to comments, more proposals, more comments, review by other Federal bodies, review by States, review by Tribal governments—review, review, review. Often, the environmental laws also note requirements for the science leading to risk management choices. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 (SDWA) requires several judgments to be met affirmatively before any contaminant can be limited through regulation.

The US EPA Administrator must base his or her judgment, among other factors, on what SDWA calls the best available, peer-reviewed science.  This refers not only to experimental or epidemiologic studies, but also to the US EPA documents analyzing the risks and the best ways to mitigate them.

Requirements to regulate environmental contaminants in other media are no less rigorous.  To regulate emissions from coal- and oil-fired boilers used in electrical power generation, US EPA engaged in major scientific programs to understand the nature of these air pollutants (including toxic mercury), the risks they pose, and how best to deal with them. This began in 1993 and culminated in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) finalized in 2012. Building the scientific basis for the rule spanned several administrations and a few careers.  It was frustrating at times, and exhausting, but we kept our focus on the goal of doing the right thing to improve public health.

Regulation protects the public—and we’re watching it be undermined

The message here is that environmental regulation based on sound science is not a trivial exercise, nor should it be. Regulation can be costly, and sometimes may have societal impacts. But ask anyone who has lived in a society without sound environmental regulation, and she will tell you that legally enforceable limits on environmental contaminants are necessary. We estimated that each year the implemented MATS rule prevents 11,000 premature deaths and more than 100,000 heart and asthma attacks. And it greatly reduces release of mercury, which accumulates in fish and poses risk of neurotoxic effects to both developing children and adults.

The process that EPA follows to publish a regulation must also be used to reverse a regulatory action. Creating regulations is not a simple process—but undermining, overturning, and not enforcing regulations is easy and has major consequences for health and the environment. I fear that both the process and the science are being given short shrift as this administration acts to reverse sound regulatory decisions made by US EPA. This dismantling of environmental protection has begun in earnest, and I expect it will have severe, long-lasting effects.

Scientists must defend evidence-based regulation

There are ways to impede the regulatory roll-back. Writing, calling, emailing elected officials is one avenue. Another avenue is joining groups such as Save EPA, an organization of retired and former US EPA employees with expertise in environmental science, law, and policy. We are using our collective skills to educate the public about environmental science, environmental protections, and the current Administration’s assault on US EPA and our public health. You can help by reading our guide to resisting de-regulation; submitting public comments on rules being considered for rollback; and supporting our efforts to defend environmental regulations. As scientists, we must continue to insist on the validity and thoroughness of our discipline, and we must repeatedly communicate about this to decision-makers. In one of many hearings and reviews of mercury hazard, my late scientist friend and US EPA veteran Kathryn Mahaffey quoted John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” She was right.

Rita Schoeny retired from USEPA in 2015 after 30 years, having served in roles such as Senior Science Advisor for the Office of Science Policy, Office of Research and Development, and as the Senior Science Advisor, Office of Science and Technology, Office of Water. She has been responsible for major assessments and programs in support of the several of EPA’s legislative mandates including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Food Quality Protection Act. Dr. Schoeny has published extensively in the area of human health risk assessment.

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.

How the NFL Sidelined Science—and Why It Matters

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

Football was not just the most important social activity on weekends in New Jersey growing up, but it was woven into the family and community in which I grew up. My dad played football in his small town Vermont high school along with his older brother who went on to play college football at the University of Vermont. Hence, weekends at the Reed household were for screaming at TV sets or from real-life bleachers and theatrical displays of cheering played out in falling off of couches and crashing onto floors.

Football players have always carried a sort of badge of honor for playing America’s favorite sport, but it wasn’t until recently that that badge began to carry even more weight due to emerging knowledge about what even just a few years of executing football plays could mean for their quality of life down the line.

Even if you don’t closely follow football, you are likely aware that the NFL has been at the center of the news cycle in recent months, with players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The players’ protest has drawn fire from a number of directions, including the White House. (Here at UCS, our staff joined with the campaign #scientiststakeaknee, supporting these players’ right to protest and the importance of their cause.)

But these protests aren’t the only way that the NFL has come into the spotlight. It’s increasingly clear that the repeated head injuries many football players experience can cause long-term damage—but the NFL has worked hard to bury these facts.

The NFL’s foray into CTE science

A powerful slide from Dr. Ann McKee’s presentation summarizing her findings on CTE at the Powering Precision Health Summit. The BU Brain Bank most recently analyzed 111 brains of former NFL players, finding that all but one had signs of CTE.

The NFL spent years, beginning in the 1990s, working to control the science behind the health consequences of repeated head injuries incurred while playing football. By doing so, the company infringed on its players’ right to know and ability to make informed decisions about their health and career paths. And as the NFL failed to do its due diligence to conduct honest science on the game, players were consistently told to return to play after collisions only to be left with debilitating health issues and devastated family members.

The NFL’s actions closely track with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, and include examples of just about every tactic in our “Disinformation Playbook,” which are documented in Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s 2013 book, League of Denial. Just a few uses of the plays include:

The Fake: The NFL commissioned a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee that published a series of studies in the journal Neurosurgery in the early 2000s, which downplayed the risks of repeated head injuries by cherrypicking data and using incomplete data on the number of concussions that were reported during games.

The Blitz: Bennett Omalu, the pathologist who first discovered CTE in an NFL player, faced opposition from the NFL which called for the retraction for his article on the subject in 2005 and then called his second study “not appropriate science” and “purely speculative.” The second chair of NFL’s brain injury committee, Ira Casson, later attacked and mocked Boston University neuropathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, for her work on CTE.

The Diversion: Ira Casson acquired the nickname “Dr. No” by the authors of League of Denial as he willfully refused to accept that repeated head injury could lead to long-term brain damage in football players, even though he spent years studying boxers and had concluded that the sport was associated with brain damage. In a 2010 Congressional hearing on football brain injuries, he held tight to his denial of the link, telling members of Congress that, “My position is that there is not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long term brain damage.”

The Fix: The NFL was able to manipulate processes in order to control the science on head injuries sustained while playing football. The editor-in-chief of the journal Neurosurgery in which all of the MTBI’s studies were published was Dr. Michael Apuzzo, a consultant for an NFL football team. The peer review process for this journal, unlike others, allowed papers to be published even if reviewers were harshly critical and rejected the science as long as the objections were published in the commentaries section of the paper. Despite harsh criticism from reviewers who were prominent experts in the field, Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, the MTBI got away with publishing a series of papers downplaying the health risks of playing football.

In 2016, the NFL finally admitted that there was a link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain disorders like CTE after denying the risks for over a decade. The NFL has since changed some of its rules and has dedicated funding to help make the game safer for players, protections that President Trump argues are “ruining the game.” Trump’s blatant disregard of the evidence on the health impacts of playing football is beyond disappointing but not at all surprising, considering the way that this administration has treated science since day one.

From NFL player to science champion

Chris and I behind the scenes after a full day filming the PSA this August.

I have been fortunate to meet and spend time with former NFL player and science champion, Chris Borland, who has turned his frustration with the league into support for independent science on the impacts of playing football for its child and adult players. Yesterday, he spoke at a scientific conference on the role of the media and others in communicating the CTE science to the general public, so that we all have a better understanding of the risks of playing football, especially during youth. He also spoke about the emerging science on biomarkers that will help diagnose CTE in living players in the near future.

Here’s Chris’s take on why we should be standing up for science and exposing and fighting back against the disinformation playbook:

Chris and I are also featured on this week’s Got Science? podcast. Listen below:

In carrying out plays from the Playbook to sideline science, companies like the NFL break a simple social responsibility to “do no harm.” Take a look at our brand new website detailing the case study of the NFL along with 19 other examples of ways in which companies or trade organizations have manipulated or suppressed science at our expense, and find out how you help us stop the playbook.

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

Post-Harvey, the Arkema Disaster Reveals Chemical Safety Risks Were Preventable

Halloween is right around the corner, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been a perpetual nightmare to public safety since Administrator Scott Pruitt arrived, sending long-awaited chemical safety amendments to an early grave this year. The Risk Management Plan (RMP) is a vital EPA chemical safety rule that “requires certain facilities to develop plans that identify potential effects of a chemical accident, and take certain actions to prevent harm to the public or the environment”—but delays to the effective date of the long-awaited updates are putting communities, workers, and first responders directly in the way of harm, as we have witnessed from recent events following Hurricane Harvey.

Last Friday, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report finding evidence of harm caused to communities by RMP-related incidents in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The report serves as a supporting document in a lawsuit UCS is involved with against the EPA decision to delay the long overdue RMP update. Our objective was to further highlight how, if the improvements to the RMP had been allowed to go into place as planned, damage from chemical plants during Hurricane Harvey could have been diminished. We provided an in-depth analysis of the steps the Arkema facility could have taken with the proposed changes in effect, and estimated the toxic burden that the surrounding community was exposed to.

Additionally, we examined other incidents (i.e. spills, releases, explosions) that occurred at chemical facilities during Hurricane Harvey, as well as emphasizing the disproportionate impacts of chemical incidents on communities of color and low-income communities. I have taken “toxic tours” on Houston’s east side with our partners at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), and am all too aware that disparities in distribution of RMP facilities and concentration of toxic pollutants exist and are mostly unnoticed by the unaffected public.

Could Arkema have been avoided?

In late August of this year, Hurricane Harvey unleashed massive quantities of rain upon Houston and surrounding towns, flooding streets, homes—and chemical facilities. As a result, the Arkema plant in Crosby, Texas, a town 25 miles northeast of Houston, was inundated with floodwater and left without power or working generators. This meant the refrigerators needed for cooling volatile organic peroxides were not operational, which ultimately led to the exploding of 500,000 pounds of the unstable chemicals. Though we cannot say Arkema would not have had an incident, we do know the damage inflicted upon first responders and nearby residents could have been mitigated by implementing the revisions to the chemical safety rule, which would have required:

  • Coordination with local emergency response agencies—RMP has standards that would require industries to coordinate and provide information to emergency responders. This would have likely prevented the Crosby first responders from being exposed to noxious fumes—at the perimeter of the ineffective 1.5-mile evacuation zone, I might add—after the Arkema explosion. A group of injured first responders are now suing the plant for failing to properly warn the responders of the dangers they faced.
  • Analysis of safer technologies and chemicals—The facility would have had to begin research into safer technologies and chemicals for use in their facility, including less volatile chemicals, or safer storing and cooling techniques to preempt an explosion.
  • Root cause analyses—A thorough investigation of past incidents to prevent similar future incidents would have been required of RMP facilities.
Communities are at risk

Real life isn’t an action film, where explosions abound and the dogged hero emerges from a fiery building unscathed, nary a casualty to be found.  In real life, the consequences of a chemical explosion, leak, or spill are often dangerous and deadly. We have ways to hold chemical facilities accountable for taking necessary preventative measures, but we must urge the EPA to implement the changes to the proposed RMP rule in order to do so.

Voting Technology Needs an Upgrade: Here’s What Congress Can Do

Voting systems throughout the United States are vulnerable to corruption in a variety of ways, and the federal government has an obligation to protect the integrity of the electoral process. At a recent meeting of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on the Future of Voting, the Department of Homeland Security’s Robert Kolasky put it bluntly: “It’s not a fair fight to pit Orange County (California) against the Russians.”

While the intelligence community has not confirmed that the hackers working on behalf of the Russian government to undermine the 2016 election were successful at tampering with actual vote tallies, they certainly succeeded at shaking our confidence in the electoral process, which over time could undermine faith in democracy.

The management of statewide eligible voter lists is a particularly challenging but crucial responsibility. On the one hand, data entry errors, duplicate records and “live” records for deceased voters invite voter fraud and inaccuracies in voting data. On the other hand, overly broad purging of voter lists can result in the exclusion of eligible voters from the rolls.

Two problems with voter list maintenance

Validation of voter eligibility is typically done through “matching” of individuals on voter registration lists with other databases using unique combinations of traits of eligible individuals (birthdays and names, etc.). This process is error-prone in two ways. First, data may not be entered identically for individuals across databases (misspelled names, missing data, etc.), so that individuals fail to get matched and are excluded (false negatives). Second, the computer algorithms used to identify and match records may be imprecise, such that they match the wrong people (false positives) or exclude people from voter lists based on faulty matching techniques (false negatives).

Both assumptions, that matching databases have the correct data, and that the algorithm for identifying individual matches actually does so, have proven challenging. For example, research has shown that the surprisingly high probability that two people in a group of a given size share the same birthday can largely account for inflated estimates of double registrations and people double voting. That is, an algorithm that matches on birthday, and possibly last name, is a poor method for identifying voters, because lots of people share those traits.

But even that poor algorithm assumes that the underlying data is accurate, when it is often not. Even databases containing precisely individualized identifiers, like social security numbers, include enough error to be inappropriate for matching. Indeed, the Social Security Administration accidently declares over 10,000 people dead every year, and attempts to match voter lists with the last four SSN digits have produced error rates above 20%, such that the SSA Inspector General has warned against its use for this purpose.

Sloppy matching algorithms that do not attempt to correct for such data inaccuracies are prone to exclude high numbers of eligible voters. For example, the Crosscheck system, developed by the president’s Electoral “Integrity” Commission Chair Kris Kobach, has actually produced error rates as high as 17% in Chesterfield County, VA, prompting them to abandon the software.

Two solutions that improve voter list management

The solution to these problems is thus twofold: improving the quality of matching algorithms in order to create precise identifiers and overcome data inaccuracies, and reducing the probability of ineligible voters or inaccurate data getting on the voter list to begin with.

Recent advances in algorithmic design have shown that using multiple matching criteria with recoded data to account for common data entry inaccuracies can yield matches that are 99% accurate. For example, Stephen Ansolabehere and Eitan D. Hersh have demonstrated that using three-match combinations of Address (A), Date of Birth (D), Gender (G) and Name (N), or ADGN, is extremely effective in successful matching (and helps explain how Facebook knows everything about you).

For securing and maintaining precise voter list data from the start, the implementation of automatic voter registration, or AVR, is proving increasingly effective and popular. By automatically registering all eligible adults (unless they decline) when people update their own data through government agencies, and by transferring that data electronically on a regular basis, the process “boosts registration rates, cleans up the rolls, makes voting more convenient, and reduces the potential for voter fraud, all while lowering costs” according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates AVR.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have already approved AVR, and 32 states have introduced AVR proposals this year. It is a politically bi-partisan solution, with states as different as California and Alaska having already adopted the practice.
Road Island’s Democratic Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, has stated that “Having clean voter lists is critical to preserving the integrity of our elections, which is why I made enacting Automatic Voter Registration a priority.”

Republican Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner, on signing his state’s AVR law, explained that “This is good bipartisan legislation and it addresses the fundamental fact that the right to vote is foundational for the rights of Americans in our democracy.”

Given the seriousness of the threat, and the fact that such effective solutions for voter list management have already been developed, Congress should ensure that states have the capacity to implement these policies, which are among the most important infrastructure investments that we can make.

Trashing Science in Government Grants Isn’t Normal: The Case of the EPA, John Konkus, and Climate Change

There is now a political appointee of the Trump administration at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), John Konkus, reviewing grant solicitations and proposals in the public affairs office. It has been reported that Konkus is on the lookout for any reference to “climate change” in grant solicitations in attempt to eliminate this work from the agency’s competitive programmatic grants. So, is this normal?

Grants and government

The US Federal Government gave out nearly $663 billion in grant funding in fiscal year 2017. Such funding pays for a wide range of state and local government services, such as health care, transportation, income security, education, job training, social services, community development, and environmental protection. Additionally, approximately $40 billion in grant funding from federal agencies funds scientific research annually, although the amount of funding for research and development from the federal government has declined in recent years.

Given the large amount of grant funding that the federal government gives out annually, it is critical that the government has:  1) guidelines that provide guidance on what type of work the government grant will fund, and 2) a process for determining who receives funding. While each grant is unique in its considerations of what makes a good candidate for funding, there is a relatively standard process through which government grants are advertised and funded. The majority of this information can be found at www.grants.gov.

The grant solicitation

The first step in the process for funding of scientific grants is for a government agency to solicit proposals from interested parties (i.e., scientists working outside the government). The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal.

The agency must first consider what type of work is currently needed in the US. In the case of science, the agency assesses what is currently unknown in our scientific knowledge on a given subject. Additionally, agencies will determine what special considerations are needed to make the grant work more impactful—these may include work that focuses on environmental justice or coal communities, for example. These considerations are typically discussed in the FOAs, and grants that include these special considerations in their proposals are typically ranked as more competitive relative to others that do not.

The FOA is reviewed by a panel of experts, which consist of career officials across the federal government for most agencies. It isn’t uncommon for political appointees to review an FOA. Political appointees generally broaden the FOA so it’s more inclusive, asking questions such as, “do you think that we might want to consider adding a special consideration for communities recently affected by natural disasters?” What does seem to be uncommon is eliminating scientifically defensible language like the “double C word.”

Reviewing grant proposals and awards

At many federal agencies, grants are reviewed by career agency staffers who have expertise for the grant program. However, in the cases of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a panel of non-federal scientists who have scientific expertise in the relevant research areas and scientific disciplines review submitted proposals. All proposed federal grants typically go through a first round review where they are screened for eligibility. If the proposal does not meet eligibility criteria, it is not reviewed further.

Those proposals that are eligible for funding are then reviewed by a panel of career agency staffers who are experts for the grant program’s work. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant – for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Based on these criteria, the panel scores each proposal. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores.

Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded. The panel also takes into consideration other factors that may have been emphasized in the FOA (e.g., a community that was just ravaged by a natural disaster that is in greater need of funding relative to other communities).

The recommended set of proposals for funding are then sent to the head of the program, which can be a political appointee of a presidential administration. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. The appointee typically agrees with the recommendation of the expert panel. It would be uncommon for the political appointee to not fund a proposal recommended for funding, as is being done by Konkus.

Ignoring science in grants will harm others

Is it uncommon for political appointees to have a say in the grant funding process? No. What is uncommon is for political appointees to politicize science in grant solicitation language or in rescinding proposals that were recommended by a panel of experts. As former EPA administration Christine Todd Whitman chimed in on this issue, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”

As is common with this administration, we are seeing proposals that mention the “double C word” as a target. Konkus rescinded funding from EPA to two organizations that would have supported the deployment of clean cookstoves in the developing world—a simple solution to curb the impacts of climate change, but also to limit pollution that disproportionately affects women and children in these areas. Who knows what Konkus will rescind next, but it’s likely to have harmful effects on people. Maybe Konkus should leave decisions for funding up to the expert panels. They are categorized as experts for a reason.

The 5 Worst Plays From Industry’s Disinformation Playbook

When I was 13, this is what I identified as the hardest thing about life then. My trust issues were just beginning to manifest themselves.

I have always had a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism and a desire to hold people accountable for their statements built into my DNA. Usually, these were borne out in letter-writing campaigns. As a child, I sent a series of letters to the Daily News because I believed its campaign of “No More Schmutz!” was falling short after rifling through the pages and still having gray smudges on my fingers. Inky fingers is a far cry from misinformation about the dangers of fossil fuel pollution, but overall, my general pursuit for the truth hasn’t changed.

My newest project at the Center for Science and Democracy released today is a website that exposes the ways in which companies seek to hide the truth about the impacts of their products or actions on health and the environment. By calling out the plays in the “Disinformation Playbook,” we hope to ensure that powerful companies and institutions are not engaging in behavior that would obstruct the government’s ability to keep us safe, and at the very least aren’t doing us any harm. Unfortunately, as our case studies show, there are far too many examples in which companies and trade organizations have made intentional decisions to delay or obstruct science-based safeguards, putting our lives at risk.

In the Disinformation Playbook, we reveal the five tactics that some companies use to manipulate, attack, or create doubt about science and the scientists conducting important research that appears unfavorable to a company’s products or actions. We also feature twenty case studies that show how companies in a range of different industries have used these tactics in an effort to sideline science.

While not all companies engage in this irresponsible behavior, the companies and trade associations we highlight in the playbook have acted in legally questionable and ethically unsound ways. Here are five of the most egregious examples from the Playbook:

The Fake: Conducting counterfeit science

In an attempt to reduce litigation costs, Georgia-Pacific secretly ran a research program intended to raise doubts about the dangers of asbestos and stave off regulatory efforts to ban the chemical. The company used knowingly flawed methodologies in its science as well as publishing its research in scientific journals without adequately disclosing the authors’ conflicts of interest. By seeding the literature with counterfeit science, Georgia-Pacific created a life-threatening hazard by deceiving those who rely on science to understand the health risks of asbestos exposure. While asbestos use has been phased out in the US, it is not banned, and mesothelioma still claims the lives of thousands of people very year.

The Blitz: Harassing scientists

Rather than honestly dealing with its burgeoning concussion problem, the National Football League (NFL) went after the reputation of the first doctor to link the sport to the degenerative brain disease he named Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. What Omalu found in Mike Webster’s brain—chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease mainly associated with “punch drunk” boxers and victims of brain trauma—broke the NFL’s burgeoning concussion problem wide open. But instead of working with scientists and doctors to better understand the damaging effect of repeated concussions and how the league could improve the game to reduce head injuries, the NFL went after the reputation of Omalu and the other scientists who subsequently worked on CTE. Just this year, Boston University scientists released a study of 111 deceased former NFL players’ brains, revealing that all but one had signs of CTE.

The Diversion: Sowing uncertainty

The top lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry in the western United States secretly ran more than a dozen front groups in an attempt to undermine forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies. As a leaked 2014 presentation by Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) President Catherine Reheis-Boyd revealed, WSPA’s strategy was to use these fabricated organizations to falsely represent grassroots opposition to forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies. WSPA and its member companies oppose science-based climate policies that are critically needed to mitigate the damaging impacts of global warming.

The Screen: Borrowing credibility

Coca-Cola quietly funded a research institute out of the University of Colorado designed to persuade people to focus on exercise, not calorie intake, for weight loss. Emails between the company and the institute’s president suggested Coca-Cola helped pick the group’s leaders, create its mission statement, and design its website. A growing body of scientific evidence links sugar to a variety of negative health outcomes, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol. Coca-Cola’s actions overrode sensible transparency safeguards meant to ensure the independence of research—and allow consumers to understand the risks of sugar consumption for themselves.

The Fix: Manipulating government officials

After meeting with and listening to talking points from chlorpyrifos producer Dow Chemical Company, the EPA announced it would be reversing its decision to ban the chemical that is linked to neurological development issues in children. In 2016, the EPA concluded that chlorpyrifos can have harmful effects on child brain development. The regulation of chlorpyrifos is additionally an environmental justice issue. Latino children in California are 91 percent more likely than white children to attend schools near areas of heavy pesticide use.

The secret to a good defense is a good offense

By arming ourselves with independent science, we can fight back against these familiar tactics. Granted, it’s not an easy task, especially in the face of a government run by an administration that doesn’t appear to value evidence, believing asbestos is 100% safe and claiming that climate change is a hoax. I hear powerful stories every day of communities working together to crush corporate disinformation campaigns with the hard truth.

Just a couple of weeks ago, community members from Hoosick Falls, New York attended the hearing for “toxicologist-for-hire,” Dr. Michael Dourson, the nominee to head up the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Senator Kristen Gillibrand paid homage to their bravery, “The water that they drink, the water they give their children, the water they cook in, the water they bathe in, is contaminated by PFOA. These families are so frightened.” These individuals had a powerful story to tell about the way in which DuPont downplayed the dangers of the chemical byproduct of Teflon, C8 or PFOA, and Dourson’s consulting firm, hired by DuPont, recommended a far lower standard for the chemical than most scientists believe would have protected exposed residents from harm.

We hope that reading through the playbook will encourage you to stand up for science and join us as we continue to challenge companies that attempt to sideline science, seeking business as usual at our expense. Become a science champion today and take a stand against corporate disinformation by asking your members of congress not to do automakers’ bidding by rolling back valuable progress on vehicle efficiency standards.

Stay curious, stay skeptical, and together we can work toward making corporate culture more honest and transparent by raising the political cost of using the disinformation playbook.

Michael Dourson: A Toxic Choice for Our Health and Safety

When it comes to conflicts of interest, few nominations can top that of Michael Dourson to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. Time after time, Dourson has worked for industries and against the public interest, actively downplaying the risks of a series of chemicals and pushing for less stringent policies that threaten our safety.

In short, Dourson pushes counterfeit science, is unfit to protect us from dangerous chemicals, and is a toxic choice for our health and safety.

A litany of toxic decisions

Consider the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, which contaminated drinking water supplies for 300,000 people with MCHM and PPH—two chemicals used to clean coal.

After the spill, Dourson’s company, TERA, was hired by the state to put together a health effects panel; Dourson was the chair. He did not disclose the fact, however, that he had been hired to work for the very same companies that manufactured those chemicals, a fact that only later came out while he was being questioned by a reporter.

Dourson was also involved in helping set West Virginia’s “safe” level in drinking water for a chemical used to manufacture Teflon (Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), or “C8”). It was 2,000 times higher than the standard set by the EPA.

In 2015, Dourson provided testimony for DuPont in the case of a woman who alleged that her kidney cancer was linked to drinking PFOA-contaminated water from the company’s Parkersburg, WV plant. Just this year, DuPont settled with plaintiffs from the Ohio Valley who had been exposed to PFOA from the same plant for $670 million after an independent C8 Science Panel made up of independent epidemiologists found “probable links” between PFOA and kidney and testicular cancer, as well as high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

From 2007 to 2014, Dourson and TERA also worked closely with Michael Honeycutt and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to loosen two-thirds of the already weak protections for 45 different chemicals.

The list of toxic decisions made by Dourson and his team goes on and clearly makes him an unacceptable choice for a leadership role at the agency charged with protecting public health and the environment.

A worst-case choice

During Dourson’s hearing before the Senate Committion on Environment and Public Works (EPW), his answers to questions about recusing himself from decisions regarding former chemicals on which TERA has worked closely with industry were cagey at best. It appears that because much of his work was through the University of Cincinnati, he will not be expected to recuse himself from decisions about chemicals that his research team was paid by industry to assess in the past. His ethics agreement confirms this. So much for the Trump administration’s draining of the swamp.

If Dourson is confirmed, I have no doubt that his appointment will be repeatedly cited as a worst-case-scenario of the revolving door between industry representatives and the government.

His work over the past few decades has been destructive enough, even from a position with little power to help the chemical industry directly skirt tough regulations. Putting him in charge of the office that is supposed to protect the public from toxins would be a grave mistake with national ramifications.

In the coming years, Dourson’s office will be making decisions about safety thresholds and key regulatory actions on chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids, flame retardants, asbestos, and the other priority chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act. There is no room for error, and unfortunately, error is likely with someone like Dourson in charge.

We join with many other members of the scientific community to oppose Michael Dourson for Assistant Administrator of OCSPP and to ask senators to vote no in upcoming committee and confirmation votes.

New UCS Report Finds High Health Risks in Delaware Communities from Toxic Pollution

Refineries, such as the Delaware City Refinery shown here, can emit toxic chemicals that can increase risks for cancer and respiratory disease.

For decades residents of communities in Wilmington, Delaware’s industrial corridor have dealt with high levels of pollution. People in these communities, which have higher percentages of people of color and/or higher poverty levels than the Delaware average, are also grappling with health challenges that are linked to, or worsened by, exposure to pollution, such as strokes, heart diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and chronic childhood illnesses such as asthma, learning disabilities, and neurological diseases. These are some of Delaware’s environmental justice communities.

To assess the potential link between environmental pollution and health impacts in these communities, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS collaborated with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections, Inc. and Coming Clean, Inc. Analysis of the following health and safety issues using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data were conducted:  the risk of cancer and potential for respiratory illnesses that stem from toxic outdoor air pollution; proximity of communities to industrial facilities that use large quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals and pose a high risk of a major chemical release or catastrophic incident; proximity of communities to industrial facilities with major pollution emissions; and proximity of communities to contaminated waste sites listed in EPA’s Brownfield and Superfund programs.

The seven communities analyzed—Belvedere, Cedar Heights, Dunleith, Marshallton, Newport, Oakmont, and Southbridge—were compared to Greenville, a predominantly White and affluent community located outside the industrial corridor, and to the population of Delaware overall. The findings from this analysis have been published in a new report titled Environmental Justice for Delaware: Mitigating Toxic Pollution in New Castle County Communities.

Proximity to major pollution sources and dangerous chemical facilities

TABLE 5. Sources of Chemical Hazards and Pollution in Environmental Justice Communities Compared with
Greenville and Delaware Overall. Note: All facilities are located within 1 mile of communities.
SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). No date (i). EPA state combined CSV download files. Online at www.epa.gov/enviro/epastate-combined-csv-download-files, accessed May 18, 2017.

Dunleith and Oakmont have several Brownfield sites and are in close proximity to facilities releasing significant quantities of toxic chemicals into the air. Southbridge has, within its boundaries or within a one-mile radius around it, two high-risk chemical facilities, 13 large pollution-emitting industrial facilities, four Superfund sites, and 48 Brownfield sites. Southbridge is home to more than half of all Brownfields in Delaware. Cedar Heights and Newport also have several large pollution-emitting facilities within one mile as well as being close to two EPA Superfund contaminated waste sites.

Effects of toxic air pollution on cancer risks and the potential for respiratory illnesses

TABLE 2. Cancer Risks for Environmental Justice Communities Compared with Greenville and Delaware Overall
Note: Cancer risk is expressed as the incidences of cancer per million people. For the respiratory hazard index, an index value of 1 or less indicates a level of studied pollutants equal to a level the EPA has determined not to be a health concern, while a value greater than 1 indicates the potential for adverse respiratory health impacts, with increasing concern as the value increases. SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015. 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment. Washington, DC. Online at www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment, accessed May 18, 2017.

Of the seven environmental justice communities studied, people in Marshallton face the highest cancer and respiratory health risks. Cancer and respiratory health risks there are 33 and 71 percent higher, respectively, than for the comparison community Greenville, and are 28 and 55 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

The communities of Dunleith, Oakmont, and Southbridge, whose residents are predominantly people of color and have a poverty rate approximately twice that of Delaware overall, have cancer risks 19 to 23 percent higher than for Greenville and 14 to 18 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in these three communities is 32 to 43 percent higher than for Greenville and 20 to 30 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

For Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights, which have a substantial proportion of people of color and poverty rates above the Delaware average, cancer risks are 21, 15, and 12 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and are 16, 10, and 7 percent higher than for Delaware overall. Respiratory hazard in Newport, Belvedere, and Cedar Heights is 44, 30, and 24 percent higher than for Greenville, respectively, and 31, 18, and 13 percent higher than for Delaware overall.

Children at risk

Kenneth Dryden of the Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and a former Southbridge resident leads a tour of toxic facilities to teach scientists and community members about the dangers of local air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic air pollution. Particularly concerning is that seven schools within one mile of Southbridge, with a total of more than 2,200 students, are in locations with substantially higher cancer risks and potential respiratory hazards than schools in all other communities in this study.

In addition to having daily exposure to toxic pollution in the air, children in these communities are at risk of being exposed to toxic chemicals accidentally released from hazardous chemical facilities in or near their communities. For example, the John G. Leach School and Harry O. Eisenberg Elementary School near Dunleith, with a total of 661 students, are located within one mile of a high-risk chemical facility.

Achieving environmental justice for vulnerable communities

Using multiple EPA data bases, the findings of this study indicate that people in the seven communities along the Wilmington industrial corridor face a substantial potential cumulative health risk from (1) exposure to toxic air pollution, (2) their proximity to polluting industrial facilities and hazardous chemical facilities, and (3) proximity to contaminated waste sites. These health risks are substantially greater than those for residents of a wealthier and predominantly White Delaware community and for Delaware as a whole.

This research provides scientific support for what neighbors in these communities already know—that they’re unfairly facing higher health risks. We need to listen to communities and the facts and enact and enforce the rules to protect their health and safety. Environmental justice has to be a priority for these and other communities that face disproportionately high health risks from toxic pollution.

Ron White is an independent consultant providing services in the field of environmental health sciences. Mr. White currently is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and also holds a part-time faculty appointment in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He earned his Master of Science in Teaching degree in environmental studies from Antioch University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental science from Clark University.  

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.

USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.

UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Accelerates Politicization of Agency’s Science Advisory Board

Earlier today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt strongly suggested that the agency will not consider any candidate for EPA’s science advisory committees who has received a grant from agency. Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.

So why now? Administrator Pruitt’s schedule offers some clues. House Science Committee Chairman and serial scientist harasser Lamar Smith is a champion of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, flawed legislation that would increase industry control over the Science Advisory Board and, yes, prevent EPA grant recipients from serving. UCS’s Yogin Kothari summed up the legislation for the New Republic:

“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”

Congress has for years failed to pass this legislation, which was vehemently and repeatedly opposed by UCS and many other mainstream science organizations. So in April 2017, a presumably frustrated Chairman Smith got together with Administrator Pruitt to talk about the bill. Pretty persuasion from the congressman seems to have worked.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is taking more steps to politicize the EPA Science Advisory Board, defying Congress in the process. Photo: Wikimedia

Now keep in mind, Administrator Pruitt already has a parade of lobbyists and advisors providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. He already thinks he has all the right friends, but would be best served to hear from independent experts, too.

The Science Advisory Board, for now, can be a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight. I can see why a man of his outlook would want to neutralize it.

There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it. Getting science advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board is like getting basketball tips from 40 Steph Currys. It’s the best in the business, volunteering their time in service of the public good.

Industry participation on the Science Advisory Board is not a problem. But candidates should be evaluated on their scientific expertise and ability to remain objective. So let’s recap: according to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not. It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work.

Soon, we’ll hear who the EPA will appoint after controversially dismissing qualified scientists earlier this year. Will the new appointees be Yes Men or responsible researchers? All signs point to the former.

If Administrator Pruitt continues to politicize the Science Advisory Board, he’ll be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment. It’s not something we should stand for.

US Withdrawal from UNESCO Will Undermine Collaboration on Science and Culture

The Trump Administration’s war on science has intensified with the announcement that the US is withdrawing from UNESCO, the international organization that works to promote peace & security through international cooperation on education, science and cultural programs. 

Founded in 1945, when nations were seeking ways to rebuild educational systems and cultural connections in the immediate aftermath of World War II, UNESCO today is a leading multi-lateral organization working on a range of issues crucial for achieving peace, equity and sustainability world-wide.

“Every day, countless Americans and American communities pour their time and their hearts into UNESCO-led international collaborations on science, on education and on culture” says Andrew Potts who practices cultural heritage law at Nixon Peabody LLP.  They work on preventing violent extremism via youth education, on literacy and educating women and girls, on science for development, and on free speech and journalist safety. And of course, they fight for cultural diversity and heritage through UNESCO projects like the World Heritage program, biosphere reserves and the Creative Cities initiative.

UNESCO recognition benefits US communities

Mission San Antonio de Valero “The Alamo”, in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: NPS

UNESCO recognition and connections can bring economic benefits to US communities. For example, according to a State Department news bulletin from August 2017, Tucson, Arizona, which was listed as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2015, has experienced an increase in tourism and restaurant revenues as a direct result, as well as millions of dollars of earned media coverage.

The US withdrawal announcement on October 12th came smack in the middle of Iowa City’s eight-day UNESCO City of Literature Book Festival. It also came right on the heels of San Antonio, Texas’ second World Heritage Festival, a new annual event that already attracts thousands of visitors to celebrate and learn about the San Antonio missions – including the Alamo – that were added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2015.

Although US World Heritage sites won’t lose their status when the US leaves UNESCO, there will likely be little or no federal support for collaboration and engagement with the international agency or its staff.

Relationship status: It’s complicated

The US has a complicated history with UNESCO. It helped to found the organization and has always been actively engaged, but it has also withdrawn once before.

At the height of the cold war in 1984, Ronald Reagan pulled the US out. At that time, a report on the implications for US science published by the National Research Council identified disruptions to international scientific collaborations, reduced confidence in US scientific leadership and forfeiture of the right to participate in governance of UNESCO-led scientific initiatives.

The US ultimately continued to provide an equivalent level of international financial support for science, culture and education, but the impacts of withdrawal were significant in the scientific community.

George W. Bush took the US back into UNESCO nearly 20 years later in 2002, and then in 2011, the Obama administration drastically cut back on financial support to UNESCO in response to Palestine being granted full membership.

The process for withdrawal takes some time, and the US will not formally cease to be a member of UNESCO until December 31st, 2018. The State Department has said the US remains committed to UNESCO’s important work and will seek observer status.

Secretary Tillerson could put action behind that talk by committing to put the equivalent of the US’s former UNESCO dues payments into other international collaborations in science, education and culture.

“Wars begin in the minds of men”

The opening words of UNESCO’s constitution carved in 10 languages in Toleration Square, Paris. Photo: UNESCO.

Meanwhile, it is the words of the American poet Archibald MacLeish that are enshrined in UNESCO’s constitution and etched in 10 languages on the Tolerance Square wall at the organization’s headquarters in Paris: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

According to outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “[that] vision has never been more relevant” than it is today. In a moving and very personal statement in response to the news of the US withdrawal, Bokova said,

At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.

Under Bokova’s leadership, with major involvement from the US, UNESCO has been at the forefront of efforts to protect heritage sites and museum collections in Iraq and Syria as ISIS forces have tried to destroy monuments and stamp out culture.

She has also spearheaded implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in a world where journalists’ freedom to work and safety is constantly under threat.

Through its Science for Sustainable Development program which many US universities participate in, UNESCO has launched important initiatives to increase the number of women in science, to ensure science is at the heart of policy-making for sustainable development, to fully value Traditional Ecological Knowledge and to champion open access to scientific information.

Protecting World Heritage

UCS led the team that produced UNESCO’s 2016 report on climate change and World Heritage. Photo: UNESCO.

It is probably for its work on World Heritage that UNESCO is best known to most Americans. The World Heritage Convention was set up to help protect for future generations, natural and cultural heritage deemed to be of universal value for humankind.

There are 23 World Heritage sites in the US, amongst them, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mesa Verde national parks. Many of America’s World Heritage sites and cultural sites are at risk from climate change impacts including worsening wildfires, more intense storms, sea level rise and coastal flooding.

The National Park Service, which is a global leader in researching and responding to the effects of climate change on protected areas, has historically been a major player in the World Heritage Convention under UNESCO’s leadership.

Indeed, just as the US is planning to withdraw from UNESCO, the international World Heritage Committee is preparing a major effort to step up its engagement with the implementation of the Paris Agreement (a global commitment to act to reduce global warming emissions to address climate change), and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and to update its policy on climate change for the first time in a decade.

UCS will be fully engaged in that process, building on the policy recommendations in our report on climate and world heritage, published with UNESCO and UNEP in 2016.

The Trump administration, however, is relegating federal scientists, experts and agencies to bystander status with one more pointlessly anti-science jab at the international community. In response Potts says,

Now more than ever, as with the Paris Agreement, it will be incumbent on US cities, universities and NGOs to pick up the reins of global education, science and cultural collaboration; to continue to make American contributions to all these critical endeavors and to make sure American communities benefit from their progress.

 

 

How Pruitt Listens: Removing Clean Power Plan Web Resources Undermines Public Engagement

On Monday, Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his long awaited formal proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the defining regulation in President Barack Obama’s battle against climate change. Talk of the repeal has made headlines for months, after President Donald Trump’s executive order addressing energy and climate policy and his announcement that he intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. News about a potential replacement for the rule has swirled for weeks.

Yet amid all of the discussion, the Web resources and information that the government has long provided to help inform us about climate change, the social cost of carbon, and the Clean Power Plan itself have been disappearing from federal websites. For members of the public looking to learn about the science and the policy analyses that underlie years of rulemaking and debate, the sources have become harder to find. We’ve found and reported on a number of examples of these types of removals through our work monitoring federal websites at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative.

Web resources gone missing

After the EPA’s announcement on April 28 that it would be overhauling its website to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt,” most of the sections of EPA.gov devoted to climate change and work to adapt to and mitigate its harms were removed. While most of these resources were archived, few have been returned or replaced on the official EPA website, where they can be most easily accessed. Certain portions, like “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” never even made it into an EPA Web archive, likely due to copying errors.

During the same set of EPA website removals, the website for the Clean Power Plan was itself removed and its URLs began redirecting to a new website about implementing President Trump’s executive order. While the previous website hosted resources for the public to understand the Clean Power Plan and for states to develop emissions plans, the new website links to the Federal Register, the order notice, and related news releases, but provides minimal informational resources directed at communicating the significance of the policy shifts to the public. The previous website linked to Spanish language Web resources, like Clean Power Plan facts sheets and community resources, which were also removed without being archived, likely as a result of the same errors mentioned above.

In Administrator Pruitt’s announcement and in the proposed repeal itself, Obama-era analyses of the potential health benefits of the rule and the overall social cost of carbon have been questioned and tossed aside. The information and resources that could provide the public insight into this debate have, once again, been removed: the EPA’s webpage on the social cost of carbon was part of the April 28 removals and the White House webpage on the topic, containing a wealth of relevant links, was removed and archived on inauguration day.

The legal basis for the requirement that EPA regulate greenhouse gas emissions, known as the endangerment finding, is another crucial resource in understanding the debate over the rule. But the EPA’s endangerment finding webpage, too, was swallowed up by the April 28 removals, and has since been either hard to access or, at times, simply not available.

The importance of well-informed public comment

Notice-and-comment rulemaking, used by the federal government whenever it puts new regulations in place or removes existing ones, relies on the ability of the public to provide informed input about the ways in which we will all be affected by a new regulation and how we weigh the costs and benefits. Public comment dockets today are often dominated by industry groups and civil society organizations. Making government-funded information harder to access simply serves to further the divide between those who have the capacity to craft a substantive public comment and those who do not.

A scientist or member of the public working on their own time to write a public comment, relying only on public information resources, can make an impact, as their comment has equivalent standing to any other submission and must be accounted for just the same. The public information that the government has historically made available about the Clean Power Plan’s projected air quality improvements, for example, would provide a way for people to weigh in on the debate over how to value the regulation’s predicted health benefits. But without access to public information, we’re allowing the idea of regulation with citizen input to become nothing more than a myth.

The likely replacement for the Clean Power Plan, if there is one, will be designed to masquerade as a sufficient regulation of emissions in order to evade litigation. Instead of a comprehensive rule like the Clean Power Plan, regulating pollution from coal power plants by considering wholescale how they use energy and produce emissions, it will likely focus only on reducing pollution through improvements in efficiency or fuel replacements at individual power plants. Past EPA studies have determined that these types of changes would result in only an approximate 4% increase in coal plant efficiency.

After approving the proposed repeal on Tuesday, Administrator Pruitt said, “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.” It’s clear from his Administration’s removal of Web resources, however, that he has no intention of enabling that pledge by ensuring that public resources remain available to help citizens understand the proposed policy shifts.

When the health and well-being of the public are threatened so directly by the harms of climate change, we cannot allow our government to censor the information that facilitates the public’s crucial expression in forming new policy.

How you can make an impact

While an overturn of the proposed repeal is unlikely, it is still important that we, as members of the public, weigh in on the benefits that the Clean Power Plan would have to the climate and public health. What we have to say must be taken into account during the rulemaking process and will bolster any litigation that occurs after the repeal.

Once the Federal Register publishes the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the coming days, the public will have 60 days to submit comment. Find out how to submit a comment here.

Resources

Here are resources about the Clean Power Plan and its benefits, some mentioned above, that have been removed from federal websites and can be used to craft your comment:

 

Toly Rinberg is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation working on documenting and contextualizing changes to federal websites, and understanding how these changes affect public access to Web resources. He also helps lead the website monitoring working group at the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, working with a volunteer team to track and report on changes to environmental, climate, and energy websites. He is currently taking time off from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

Andrew Bergman is a Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, where he is classifying changes to federal websites, and a member of the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, where he helps lead the website monitoring team. He is also working to monitor and coordinate response to environmental agency oversight issues with partners, like UCS. He is currently on leave from his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University.

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 Puts Coal Before Children

Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

In announcing his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt boasted, “The war on coal is over.”

That means the war on children has begun.

The irony is particularly cruel because a draft copy of Pruitt’s repeal order says with a straight face that it complies with President Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order protecting vulnerable populations.  The order says it is “unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples.” For further insult, the home page of EPA’s website has a banner at the bottom declaring that October is Children’s Health Month. “Children are often more likely at risk from environmental hazards,’ the banner read. “Find ways you can protect children from environmental risks.”

Pruitt is increasing the risks and making a mockery of the agency’s name in throwing out the CPP proposed by former President Obama to curb carbon emissions that harm both climate and health. Using Voodoo Economics 2.0, Pruitt claims repeal will save Americans $33 billion in needless industrial compliance.

The reality is that even without the CPP, which Pruitt helped hold up in the courts when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, renewable energy is a powerhouse that already dwarfs the supposed savings of CPP repeal. Its growth is being felt in red states, blue states, and purple states alike. Nationwide, the trade association Advanced Energy Economy estimates that the sectors of energy efficiency, solar and wind power add up to a $108 billion industry.

The $33 billion in total industrial savings boasted by Pruitt are obliterated by the annual benefits of up to $34 billion a year in better health from the cleaner air delivered by the CPP. The EPA projected 3,600 less premature deaths a year, along with 1,700 less heart attacks, 90,000 less asthma attacks and 300,000 less missed workdays and school days. An independent analysis two years ago by eight researchers, including scientists from Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found there would be about 3,500 fewer premature deaths with the cleaner air proposed by Obama. Their study concluded:

“Carbon standards to curb global climate change can also provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits.” The researchers found that in the scenario closest to the Clean Power Plan, most of the states with the highest health benefits are also those that burn the most coal to generate electricity. Some of those same researchers last year published a study on the financial benefits in the online science journal PLOS One. They found that the CPP would result in $38 billion in annual net health and social benefits. The study said, “The health co-benefits gained from air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized.”

The health implications are so widespread it indeed constitutes an environmental justice issue. The Department of Health and Human Services says Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma attacks than white children. And among all racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children have the highest rate of asthma, one in six, and had the highest rise in asthma from 2001 to 2009, 50 percent.

The benefits are also economic for the parents of these children. For instance, Latino workers are particularly vulnerable to the hotter temperatures of climate change as, according to the Department of Labor, they constitute 42 percent of construction laborers up to 75 percent of farm field workers.

But make no mistake, Pruitt’s repeal has the potential to hurt everyone. In response to Pruitt’s repeal of the CPP, an editorial Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald, a leading newspaper in the very white state of Maine, said, “Maine children have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation, partly as a result of our position downwind from the power plants in the Midwest and Great Lakes states, putting young lungs at the end of the nation’s tailpipe.”

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first decision Pruitt has made in his first half year running the EPA that puts children in harm’s way. He has reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to be associated with reduced brain function in children. He is reviewing or pledging to reverse other Obama-era rules designed to curb water pollution and toxic chemical spills.

In his press release Tuesday, Pruitt claimed he was “reinstating transparency into how we protect our environment.” All he actually did was clarify his role as a puppet of fossil fuel, at the utter expense of the health of the nation’s children. When the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, the health benefits to children were at its center.

The word “children” is not uttered once in Pruitt’s official announcement of repeal.

Conflicts of Interest? NOAA’s Nominees AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, and Dr. Neil Jacobs of Panasonic

The slow process by the Trump administration of selecting and nominating candidates for high level government positions to lead federal agencies is continuing to creep along now nearly ten months into his presidency.  

Why should we care? These agency leaders affect the lives of literally every person in this country. I recently reviewed some of the nominees for key science-based agencies.   There is a pattern of nominating people with conflicts of interest, or that have a history of opposing the very mission of the agencies they are appointed to lead.  And there are some nominees that just don’t hold the qualifications needed for the positions they are being appointed to.  While I didn’t do a comprehensive review, I found too many examples of these problems to ignore.

As a former NOAA scientist and manager, it was particularly troubling to me that two nominees this week to lead my former agency fit this disturbing pattern.  Last night, President Trump nominated Barry Myers to be the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, the Administrator of NOAA.  Earlier, he nominated Dr. Neil Jacobs to be the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction.  Adm. Timothy Gallaudet to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management.

To be fair, I believe that Admiral Gallaudet, former oceanographer of the Navy is an excellent choice for NOAA, as do others I respect.

Myers and Jacobs:  conflicted leaders?

A nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just been announced and follows the pattern of nominating conflicted business leaders to lead agencies.

The nominee, Barry Myers, is the CEO of AccuWeather. His company is highly successful and perhaps better known to many than NOAA itself. Basically, their business model is to take NOAA data and products on weather, developed with taxpayer dollars, and deliver them to the public in a proprietary form that customers want. He has been a strong advocate against NOAA having the capability to provide such products directly to the public, hence the rather boring form of NOAA forecasts which is interpreted and commoditized by companies like AccuWeather and many others.

AccuWeather has been active in efforts to undercut the role of NOAA. In 2005, AccuWeather, under the leadership of Myers’ brother Dr. Joel Myers, worked with Senator Rick Santorum on a bill to severely restrict the National Weather Service’s ability to provide weather forecasts to the public. The company donated to Santorum’s then Senate campaign and has been vocal about their interest in downsizing NOAA in the interest of privatizing weather forecasting.

Compounding these concerns, Dr. Neil Jacobs, Chief Atmospheric Scientist for Panasonic Weather Solutions has also advocated for a greater role for private weather data.  His company sells their data and model outputs to NOAA as input to weather forecasts.  He has advocated for a greater role for the private sector much as Mr. Myers has. Testifying before the House Science Committee in July Dr. Jacobs advocated for the proprietary model his company developed as “better” than the NOAA forecasting models.  According to a report from the hearing Dr. Jacobs stated that, “… that a private company like Panasonic can move more quickly than NOAA in improving its models and processes, because it does not have to go through the years of quality and reliability testing that NOAA requires when implementing major model upgrades.”  That is probably true but far from comforting for a service vital to public safety.  Will Dr. Jacobs carry that approach, shortcutting reliability testing in order to get a product to market, into NOAA?  I hope not.

If appointed, Myers and Jacobs will now be in a position to make such decisions about NOAA’s work. It is easy to see how private weather companies like AccuWeather or Panasonic could directly benefit from decisions made by Myers and Jacobs; and the likely incentivizes to make decisions that benefit Myer’s family’s business and the business Jacobs worked with and advocated for for years.

Will Myers cut all financial ties to AccuWeather before accepting such an appointment?  How about Jacobs? I won’t hold my breath, given the current industry ties still held many members of this administration starting at the top.

Do people have a right to accessible weather information that they pay for with their tax dollars? Myers and AccuWeather, as well as Jacobs and Panasonic appear to think not. I happen to think Americans deserve access to the life-saving forecasts and other weather information provided to the public by NOAA scientists.

NOAA’s mission is to protect people and property

Most of the public may only know of NOAA because their logo appears on hurricane or tornado forecasts. Others because they follow weather forecasting closely and many forecasts refer to NOAA.

For those of us who spend a lot of time on the ocean, we certainly know that NOAA is responsible for producing nautical charts. In fact the part of the agency that produces nautical charts critical to shipping, boating, and naval operations is the oldest physical science department in the government dating to 1807. The National Weather Service (NWS) in NOAA was formed in 1870, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which studies and manages living marine resources, dates to 1871. I am a proud former scientist and manager of NMFS, first as a student trainee and ultimately as the deputy director of the agency.

Ok, that’s all ancient history (including my time at NOAA), so what does the agency do? Simply put, NOAA does a wide range of basic and applied scientific research to better understand our oceans and atmosphere, from deep sea exploration to space weather. (If you can’t imagine why we care about weather in space, you can find out how it can affect everything from satellites to cellphones!)

NOAA’s research provides information to the public, policy makers, and other scientists in the US and around the world. NOAA scientists partner with a huge number of scientists in academia, industry, and private institutions in collaborative research in addition to providing critical long-term data series that no one else has the resources nor the mandate to collect and share with the public.

So NOAA is a science agency, but its science is applied to create weather forecasts, manage fisheries, protect whales and other marine mammals, help states manage coastal areas, create charts, inform international negotiations on addressing the challenges of management of shared resources in the oceans and atmosphere, forecast tsunami risks, measure and monitor the ongoing process of climate change, and more.

The leadership of the agency can impact all of us in one way or another. Care about severe weather and risks to your life and property? Better thank NOAA. Care about your favorite beach and whether it is eroding or will it be clean and safe? Better thank NOAA. Care about your farm and the coming growing season’s weather? Better thank NOAA. Or the fish you enjoy to catch or eat? Better thank NOAA.

A lack of respect for science

Mr. Myers is not a scientist but a businessman. That is in the same vein as many other Trump appointees. Some say that bringing a business approach to government is essential. I am not one of them. I have been a senior manager in government and have also run a small business. Totally different perspectives. But of course even these different perspectives can inform one another.

But NOAA is truly a science agency. The leader of the organization doesn’t have to be a scientist but needs to be deeply engaged in the process and perspective of science and scientists in order to be successful with regard to the public interest.

Mr. Myers was interviewed about his leadership of Accuweather by the Wall Street Journal in 2014. This Q & A jumped out at me:

“Did you ever think about going into meteorology?

I did actually. I was originally enrolled in meteorology as an undergraduate. I then dropped out of school because I was a horrible student. I was never interested in learning, which I look at now as sort of funny.

Well, not that funny really. There is always a lot to learn at NOAA. I found that out to my continuous joy. I hope the next leader of the agency is deeply steeped in its scientific work and embraces the chance to learn how that science is critical to the nation.

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