UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

The difference between 4,645 and 64 deceased in the aftermath of Hurricane María is… science

Over the last few decades, we have seen the Puerto Rican populace’s vulnerability to extreme weather hazards increase as the built environment and social services infrastructure decays, Puerto Ricans and their families flee at an increasing tempo to the United States, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean increases. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I lived through one hurricane (Hugo, 1989) and a few tropical storms, but nothing compared in ferocity and devastation to Hurricanes Irma and María.

Given the destruction and flooding from these two hurricanes, the ineptitude of the Puerto Rican government in handling the situation, and the unwillingness of the Trump administration to adequately assist the citizens of its territory, it was hard to believe that the death count had only reached 64 fatalities, as Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s Department of Public Safety claims. In fact, Puerto Rican society widely mocked the government’s numbers and suspected either incompetence or a deliberate undercount to minimize the magnitude of human toll.

A new study offers evidence of what Puerto Rican communities suspected. Independent researchers at Harvard University estimated that at least 4,645 people lost their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane María, with one-third attributed to interrupted or delayed health care. The researchers used household surveys to calculate an all-cause mortality rate after the hurricane, and compared this rate to official 2016 (i.e., pre-María) mortality rates to estimate excess deaths from the hurricane. That number is supported by the researchers’ methods and data, but it is also symbolic, as it represents the central estimate of between 793 and 8,498 deaths. For perspective, and to underscore that Puerto Ricans experienced a real catastrophe (contra Trump’s false assertions that I debunked here) 4,645 is more than those killed by the terrible calamities of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Among the statistical estimate of 4,645 we can count real people

Who were these thousands of people who lost their lives after the hurricane? We will likely never know for sure, but among them was Gaspar Cruz Agosto, a 73 year-old Puerto Rican man who was scheduled for surgery before the hurricane, but who could not be operated on because the hospital lost power after María. Mr. Cruz Agosto died two weeks after the hurricane because the hospital could not provide him with the critical care he needed. This sad case does not appear to be isolated, as Puerto Rico’s independent Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish) estimates that 60 percent of María-related fatalities ocurred in health care or retirement home facilities.

The difference between the official count and the estimate is vast—it is, in fact, more than 70 times the official figure. What can be the cause of the enormous discrepancy? Well, it’s clear that the answer is…science. The large undercounts appear to be due to established protocols that require that a medical doctor annotate a death certificate linking the clinical cause of death to the disaster event. As CPI explains, the attending physician in these cases is seldom the physician certifying the death of a patient. This means typically there was no contextual information included in a death certificate—information like lack of electricity, transportation services, or medicines, interrupted health care, dietary changes, temperature increases, or stress caused by the disaster. If we add to that the chaotic conditions after the hurricane, and the lack of communication with public health agencies, hospitals, and funerary homes, it becomes clear that obtaining an accurate count of fatalities was a very difficult task.

But the disaster conditions and the inadequacy of death certificate protocols in Puerto Rico do not excuse the Rosselló administration’s attempt to discourage at least two prominent Democratic senators from asking the Department of Homeland Security to ensure an accurate count of all storm-related deaths. The Puerto Rican government’s lobbyist who called Democratic congressional offices suggested that focusing on the death toll would negatively impact the image of Governor Rosselló, showing more concern for public relations fallout than for the well-being of our people. Didn’t we just see a similar disregard for human health and concern about a “public relations nightmare” in the Trump administration’s blocking of a study on hazardous chemicals on military bases in the U.S.?

Arguably, the lack of attention and resources given to Puerto Rico by the Trump administration also had a role in increasing the death count, as the President’s disparaging and dismissive tweets about Puerto Ricans and the disaster likely sent the message to all levels of the federal government that neither he nor his agencies should be very concerned about the plight of Puerto Ricans.

The public has a right to know the facts about natural disasters and their aftermath, and neither the Rosselló nor the Trump administrations have been honest with us about this. There is no way to overstate the severe public health crisis still unfolding in Puerto Rico nearly ten months after María. As we have seen in the botched attempts at restoring the electrical grid in anticipation of the next hurricane season (just a few days away from starting!), neither social nor economic justice has been prioritized. What is being prioritized by the Puerto Rican government are juicy contracts for unqualified (but well-connected to the Trump administration) contractors and government agency executives tasked with dismantling public schools, the social safety net, and labor protections. What is being prioritized is violent police repression to silence civil resistance to austerity measures by tear gassing children and other non-violent demonstrators.

Latinas lead the way towards a recovery in Puerto Rico

But there is hope. Leading the way towards an equitable recovery for Puerto Rico are multiple grassroots and national advocacy organizations—and Latinas are leading the way here. Recently I had a chance to see their work in action at a recent summit of Latina and Latino environmental professionals. The compañeras at the Fundación Fondo Acceso a la Justicia are providing legal assistance to appeal denied FEMA aid requests—a complicated and very cumbersome process. Local Sierra Club activists in Puerto Rico are providing solar panels and helping to increase the skills of local community leaders that can create strong and resilient neighborhoods for when the next hurricane hits. Latinas with Oxfam America have helped convene grassroots in Puerto Rico with FEMA officials so that the federal agency can have a better understanding of the language and cultural barriers that prevent people from accessing aid. Latina scientists from CienciaPR and other scientific organizations are convening a workshop in the fall in Puerto Rico to educate Puerto Rican and Puerto Rico-focused scientists on how to engage in the pressing science-policy debates and decisionmaking that are vital to safeguard our health, environment, and democracy.

We need to address climate change with the tools and knowledge produced by science. We need to do so with special attention to the most vulnerable populations, be they in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, or in inland cities or rural areas. If we do not, we will see more of these deadly impacts as climate change continues to fuel more intense and destructive hurricane seasons.

EPA Science Advisory Board’s First 2018 Meeting: What to Expect

Photo: Tony Webster/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

This Thursday and Friday, the EPA’s independent advisory body, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), will be meeting in person for the first time since Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his sweeping advisory committee directive last fall. I, for one, am thrilled that the EPA’s scientific sounding board is active and meeting in person at a time when the agency can use all the scientific counsel they can get. However, it is important to understand that since Administrator Pruitt has joined the agency, the context for science advice at the EPA has greatly changed.

Several important things have happened since the last time the SAB met:

  • Administrator Pruitt’s directive banning EPA-grant-funded scientists from serving on the agency’s advisory committee meant that six committee members were dismissed for that reason, six others were not renewed for a second term (which had been common practice), and the 17 new members joining the SAB include individuals who have questioned mainstream science, are funded by industry, or have actively opposed the very mission of the EPA.
  • Former chair Peter Thorne’s term ended, and he has been replaced by Michael Honeycutt, the head toxicologist of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, who has actively sought out weaker standards for a variety of environmental contaminants in his state and has even claimed that air pollution can make you live longer.
  • Administrator Pruitt has not answered the SAB’s September letter asking him to join the SAB during a meeting.
  • The EPA issued a proposed rule in April, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” that would effectively restrict the agency’s ability to use the best available science as it designs critical environmental and health protections. This will not only affect the science used to support EPA’s safeguards, but will limit the way in which the SAB will be able to review the scientific basis of those rules.

Typically these in-person meetings provide the committee members a time to discuss ongoing projects, charges from the administrator, or additional issues they might want to raise as the agency’s peer-review mechanism. The agenda for this meeting includes time to discuss the recommendations of a workgroup that was tasked with looking at the Spring and Fall 2017 regulatory agendas and figuring out what EPA regulatory actions merit review from the SAB on their scientific or technical merits. It turns out that since the agency has attempted to roll back several agency policies that would require scientific grounding (including the Clean Power Plan and the Glider Vehicle Rule), the SAB wants to weigh in. During the meeting, the full committee will have a chance to figure out what to cover and how they will do this.

It is imperative that the SAB strongly urge the administrator not to move forward with its restricted science proposal nor its deregulatory measures until the SAB has had ample time to review the actions and the science supporting them and provide objective advice on next steps. I will be asking this of the committee during my comment tomorrow. You can read my full written statement here.

The SAB is an invaluable advisory body that should be actively working to ensure that EPA’s science is unassailable. And thanks to the transparency measures of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the public will be able to hold the SAB to its charge and its conflict-of-interest policies to guarantee that its science advice is pure and untainted by political or ideological motivations, so that the EPA has the best available scientific information as a baseline for its decisions. Pruitt isn’t legally obligated to follow every piece of SAB advice, but we’ll know when he fails to—and you can bet that we’ll be demanding justification when his actions are in direct opposition to his agency’s mission of protecting the environment and public health.

 

Weathering the Storm: Building Community Resilience in Environmental Justice Communities

Art by Micah Bazant

In 2015, It Takes Roots convened a delegation of climate justice leaders to participate in mobilizations at the COP21 in Paris and proclaimed “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm.” When I first heard this statement, I was struck by the vivid imagery it evoked. I envisioned a tree with roots that, despite a powerful rainstorm, swirled, connected, and clenched with fortitude into the depths of its rich soil. I imagined branches growing and the emergence of leaves bearing fresh fruit.

I see these roots as representing the cooperative networks, social fabric, and human relationships that ground us firmly in the soil of our diverse communities. In the face of climate change, how do our community roots support neighborhoods — not only to withstand immediate disruption, but to thrive, sustain our cultures, and provide for future generations?

As a grassroots, environmental justice organization, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is addressing climate change through base building, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. The communities we organize, low-income Asian American immigrant and refugee communities in California, are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Therefore, our approach to resilience bridges mitigation and adaptation, with the aim of simultaneously addressing the risks from climate change alongside the inequalities embedded in our current systems that marginalize low-income communities of color.

APEN members and organizers in the East Bay

Emergency response must reach communities in their language

Since the 1980s, Richmond has been a home to many Southeast Asian refugees who were uprooted from their homelands by the Vietnam War. Our members live on the fence line of the Chevron Refinery and suffer from contaminated air, soil, and water due to their close proximity to industrial sites and toxic hazards. A major chemical explosion in March 1991 at the Chevron Refinery revealed Contra Costa County’s inadequate emergency response system, as monolingual residents were poorly informed of emergency safety procedures. In response to this, the Laotian Organizing Project launched and won a historic campaign that pushed the health department to implement a multilingual emergency phone-alert system.

This campaign is a lesson about the importance of accessible and targeted early warning systems to alert residents of predicted extreme weather events. This is particularly important for immigrant and refugee communities with limited English proficiency as well as communities living in proximity to industrial facilities, where coastal flooding and other climate disasters could exacerbate toxic releases and air pollution.

Housing justice is climate justice

In addition to organizing in Richmond, APEN works with low-income Chinese immigrants in Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown, like many immigrant communities, is a historic neighborhood offering essential services like health clinics, schools, and grocery stores in culturally and linguistically relevant ways. These institutions not only preserve Chinese traditions and practices, but keep immigrant families deeply rooted in a thriving, culturally rich community.

The growing crisis of housing unaffordability and homelessness is closely connected to climate vulnerability. Rising housing costs and displacement threaten to tear apart the social fabric of communities like Chinatown, making it more difficult to ensure that our communities have accessible emergency resources like health care, evacuation shelters, and transportation during a climate disaster. For this reason, our climate justice activism centers strategies like renter protections ordinances and anti-displacement in statewide policies.

Community microgrids promote energy democracy

Low-income communities have a higher energy burden, and thus are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and increased energy needs due to climate change. Power outages can leave the lights out when electricity needs are crucial, particularly for those that rely on medical equipment and families with young children. In light of these impacts, we are pushing for prioritization of critical facilities that serve our communities with emerging clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, solar, and storage.

Recently, APEN proposed a community microgrid project in Chinatown to strengthen a local school and health clinic’s ability to serve as emergency support facilities and offer services to the linguistically isolated families in the community. The accompanying economic savings and community ownership from these investments can root community organizations and institutions that contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhood.

In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis notes that “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” In order to address this intersectional crisis, then, scientists must acknowledge the underlying social inequities faced by disadvantaged communities and approach climate solutions through a lens of community development, public health, and social justice. As part of the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I am working on a project that analyzes climate vulnerability tools that integrate climate impacts and socioeconomic factors. Leading with values like trust, empowerment, and cooperation, researchers can equitably partner with grassroots advocates to advance our knowledge about community resilience. Centering these principles in our collective work will support meaningful policy and pave the way towards deeper systemic change.

 

Amee Raval is a Policy and Research Associate at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an environmental justice organization that empowers Asian American immigrant and refugee communities across California through grassroots organizing, civic engagement, and policy advocacy. Through her role at APEN, she offers an environmental justice and health equity lens to climate and energy policy in California. She previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council on research and advocacy focused on the environmental and occupational health impacts of extreme heat and rising temperatures due to climate change on vulnerable communities. Amee has an MS in Environmental Health Sciences from UC Berkeley School of Public Health. @APEN4EJ

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

The ABCs of Sidelining Science by the Trump Administration

Photo: KE4/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

As the school year comes to a close, I took a look at what lessons the Trump administration has taught us about science. It’s a harsh lesson for our children and families, adding up to harms that will touch all of our lives. As someone who is immersed in watchdogging this administration, I was surprised how many new things I learned about how the Administration is dismantling public health and safety protections, increasing security threats, and attempting to undermine the role of government in serving All the people.

Here are the ABCs of Sidelining Science:

A

is for ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, whose report was suppressed on water pollution. Or the AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT, where Secretary Perdue has betrayed the trust of farmers and the public. Or ATTACKS ON SCIENCE, which occur at an alarming rate all across the Administration.

B

is for BERYLLIUM, which puts workers at risk—but the Administration has halted regulations to protect them. Or Dr. Nancy BECK, an appointee to lead efforts on regulating toxic chemicals despite massive conflicts of interest. Or  David BERNHARDT, who similarly has conflicts of interest in his job at Interior.  Or BLACK LUNG disease, which has afflicted miners for decades—but protections from coal dust were rolled back by the Administration.

C

is for the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, CASAC, now led by Dr. Tony Cox, a consultant to polluting industry for many years. Or CHLORPYRIFOS, a pesticide that impacts brain development in children, impacts endangered species, and is widely used on fruits and vegetables. EPA Administrator Pruitt rejected the science on this pesticide and refuses to restrict its use.  Or CONFLICTS OF INTEREST, which are rife in this administration, from the President to agency heads and political staff. Instead of draining the swamp, the President has brought conflicted lobbyists and business people into the agencies directly. Or CHEMICAL DISASTERS, which unfortunately are still an all too regular occurrence. But the EPA, in a recent proposed rule, wants to roll back all preventive measures at chemical facilities in order to reduce costs for industry, while ignoring impacts on the public. And of course, CLIMATE CHANGE, which is roundly ignored by administration officials and actions including communications to the public.

D

is for DATA SUPPRESSION, as webpages have been deleted or studies and grants cancelled. Or DOURSON, the nominee to serve at a senior position in the EPA who represented industry and dismissed the impact of toxics. His nomination was defeated due to widespread outrage. Or the DISINFORMATION PLAYBOOK, a set of tactics that some bad actors starting with the tobacco industry have developed, which now seem to be part and parcel of the Administration’s strategy to sideline science.

E

is for ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, the disproportionate public health and environmental impacts on low income communities and communities of color. The Trump Administration has sidelined environmental justice efforts as well as science. Or ESA, the Endangered Species Act, which Congress and the Administration are trying to weaken, particularly on public lands, to make room for oil and gas development. Or the ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency, which is mired in the scandals of Scott Pruitt and at the center of efforts to roll back public health protections. The agency’s science budget was on the chopping block by the President but was saved by Congress once the impact of the cuts became clearer.

F

is for Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), which has revealed that the EPA and other agencies are only listening to industry at the expense of the public. Or Fuel Efficiency as the EPA seeks to roll back standards for cars that were previously agreed to by the automakers and have enormous benefits. Or FEDERAL SCIENTISTS, vilified or ignored by this administration, but whose work does so much good for the country!

G

is for GUIDANCE MEMO, which is the way that agencies tell the public how they interpret their congressional mandates. The Justice Department has declared they won’t use this guidance in enforcing the rules, causing great confusion and opening up a huge gap for those with deep pockets in industry to avoid compliance. Or GUN VIOLENCE RESEARCH, which was banned from study at the CDC until recently even though guns are the cause of more deaths than auto accidents in recent years.

H

is for Hazardous Air Pollutants, which are likely to dramatically increase under new legal guidance put in place by the EPA, which was prepared by a former industry lobbyist now leading the Office of Air, William Wehrum.

I

is for INDEPENDENT SCIENCE, as the EPA has tried to pack its board of external science advisors with those with ties to industry and exclude academics. Or INTERIOR Department, where senior career staff such as Dr. Joel Clement were arbitrarily and capriciously reassigned to inappropriate jobs. Or IMMIGRATION policy of this Administration, which of course impacts science and scientists among all the other reasons it harms our country. Or IRAN and the dangerous act of withdrawing from the agreement to prevent the production of nuclear weapons.

K

is for North KOREA, which our Global Security Program tracks so carefully to debunk the myths. And L is for Public LANDS that the Interior Department is rapidly opening to private oil and gas development.

M

is for MACT—the Maximum Available Control Technology for cancer-causing pollutants that political appointees at the EPA say imposes too high a cost on the industries that release these chemicals into our air.

N

is for National Ambient Air Quality Standards, NAAQS, which are supposed to be set on public health criteria only—but the EPA is seeking to add economic and social factors to these limits. Or the need for federal agency professionals to make a NOTE FOR THE RECORD because some agencies are refusing to keep a written record of meetings and decision-making to avoid public scrutiny.

O

is for Ozone, a major public health pollutant that the EPA is re-evaluating and may increase allowable levels. Or the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OIRA, in the White House, which seems to be abdicating its responsibility to ensure regulations are based on a fair process with a clear analysis. Or the Office of Government Ethics, OGE, which should be addressing the conflicts of interest that are rife across this government from the White House on down.

P

is for PFAS or PFOA, chemicals that have been used in many products such as Teflon and in fire suppressing foam used by the military, which now contaminate water supplies across the country and particularly on military bases affecting military families. Or PUBLIC HEALTH, the primary mission of the EPA, which is too often ignored in this Administration.

Q

is for a Question on citizenship that the Justice Department wants to add to the Census even though there is substantial evidence it will result in misestimating our population, with wide-ranging effects on the distribution of government spending as well as elections.

R

is for RESTRICTED SCIENCE that can be used in making public health and safety regulations as proposed by the EPA. Or REGULATORY ROLLBACK, which is a hallmark of the Trump Administration but harms the health and safety of us all. Or the EPA’s RISK MANAGEMENT PLAN for chemical facilities that Pruitt has proposed should not contain any measures to prevent accidents.

S

is for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, SAB, which now is excluding academic scientists with grants in favor of scientists employed by industry. Or SUPERFUND, which is intended to clean up toxic waste sites but seems to be dragging even though it is supposedly an EPA priority. Or SEA LEVEL RISE, one of the most immediate and costly impacts of our changing climate—even while the President denies climate change is occurring.

T

is for the Toxic Substances Control Act, TSCA, now being implemented by a former chemical industry lobbyist. Or TIP RULES from the Department of Labor, which ignored the analysis that showed workers would be hurt if employers were allowed to control the distribution of tip revenue.

U

is for the URBAN ECONOMY, which will be badly impacted by the proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill if it passes.

V

is for VOTING RIGHTS under attack in this Administration in a way that threatens our democracy. Or VITTER a particularly egregious judicial nominee who seems to deny fundamental scientific evidence on a regular basis.

W

is for WORD BAN at the Centers for Disease Control to remove words that are politically unpopular in some circles. Or WORKER SAFETY, which should be continually improving but has been undermined by the Trump Administration.

X

is for XENOPHOBIC divisions in our society, stoked by the President  and harmful to all of us.

Y

is for Dr. Richard YAMADA at the EPA Office of Research and Development, who is leading the charge to restrict independent science at the agency.

Z

is for Department of Interior Secretary ZINKE, who is undermining the historic mission of the agency by shrinking National Monuments, opening public lands, and sidelining science and scientists across the Department.

It’s time to stand up for science and people

Now you know your ABCs. My colleague Shreya Durvasula called this “the world’s saddest children’s book.” My goal is not to depress you, but to remind everyone what’s at stake and why we need to fight back against these harmful actions.

For each of these issues (and unfortunately many more), the Union of Concerned Scientists has sought to explain why these actions matter, and how we can come together to fight back so we, once again, can work toward having a government that is by and for the people. So whether you are most concerned with Global Security or Climate Change or Public Health or all of the above, it is time to do something! Go to the UCS Action Center and see how you can get involved.

Did My Tea Leaves Reveal the Supreme Court’s Upcoming Gerrymandering Ruling?

This morning, I stirred my green tea vigorously to see if it would reveal the Supreme Court’s opinion on two partisan gerrymandering cases that are soon to be released. The tea spilled, I scalded my lap, then wondered why any Decent American Patriot would sip tea while the nation awaits a decision of such historic significance. I then made a cup of coffee and resolved to give up fortune telling.  So I won’t try and predict where the Court will come down on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. However, I will offer some guideposts to help interested parties (see what I did there) understand the significance of the decision when it comes.

1. Is there a real decision?

It is always possible that SCOTUS decides to re-argue the points next session if there is serious fragmentation of opinion about what constitutional principles, if any, should govern partisan gerrymandering. Of course, that did not stop the Court from issuing a fragmented opinion in Vieth v Jubelirer, the decision that unleashed state legislatures to gerrymander without restraint in 2011.  Or they could decide that plaintiffs in the first Wisconsin case, Gill, do not have standing because they were not harmed within a gerrymandered district.  That outcome could have serious implications, and could depend on who writes the majority opinion.

2. Who writes the opinion?

While all eyes have been on Justice Kennedy as the decisive swing vote in these cases, Chief Justice Roberts is the only justice who has not yet written a majority opinion from this session, which makes it more likely that Roberts will be the author. The possibility of a Roberts opinion has led to speculation at Election Law Blog and other sites about the possibility that the Court will take a narrow, district-level approach, focusing on arguments such as those offered by Republican plaintiffs in the Maryland case, Benisek.

As has already been pointed out by Gill counsel Nick Stephanopoulos, this would be a misguided approach for SCOTUS to take if the goal is to conservatively reduce the number of applicable cases and thus restrain court intervention.  Moreover, the logic of state-imposed harm on all voters of the targeted party is inescapable and would inevitably make its way back into legal arguments.  As Justice Kennedy has acknowledged, it is the state that is imposing the inequity, and it is a state-level harm, in the sense that it is the number of seats denied the opposition party from all seats in the statewide districting plan that causes targeted voters (who voted for the opposition party) to suffer vote dilution.

An opinion that does the work that Kennedy and the liberals require, but is narrow enough for Roberts to be on board, will likely require more than a demonstration of intent to discriminate.  Harm will have to be demonstrated empirically, with clear evidence that the relationship between party vote and seat shares has been intentionally manipulated to punish voters who favor the opposition party.  And that takes us back to some of the fundamental scientific questions that gave rise to these cases in the first place.

3. What kind of rights are we talking about? Equal Protection? Free Speech and Association?

One of the most interesting aspects of these cases from the perspective of constitutional theory resides in the variety of ways that plaintiffs and lower courts have linked the harm of gerrymandering to constitutional protections. Traditionally, gerrymandering cases have used equal protection arguments, specifically the 14th Amendment, to protect voters from districting plans that don’t treat voters equally.  Alternatively, Justice Kennedy specifically, and the Court more generally, has been more receptive to “free speech” arguments as of late, especially in campaign finance and other election law cases, so this has become a more popular strategy.

The basic claim behind this strategy is that a vote cast is a form of expressive association, such that diluting or suppressing the value of that act violates the 1st Amendment.  There is considerable disagreement over the extent to which such claims are still implicitly dependent on the equal protection provided by the 14th Amendment, so it is certain that the Court’s response to these claims will shape future litigation and legislation.

4. Will the Court rely on a single metric to determine harm?

Almost certainly not, but the Court could set parameters and narrow the bounds of applicable cases by emphasizing that in the two cases in question, all of the empirical measures relied on by lower courts converged. That is, in the worst cases of gerrymandering, it doesn’t matter which metric is used, those for partisan bias, efficiency, and mean-median gaps will all show that a plan gives an asymmetric advantage to the voters of one party over another.

At the same time, the majority decision, or concurring opinions, could provide more support to some metrics over others. The efficiency gap is among the newer kids on the block and should receive a good deal of attention, but the model of asymmetry was developed over 20 years ago, and is still dominant in the field.  Of greater interest for those following the election science is the degree to which the Court considers the constitutional implications of these different measures, which are significant.  Specifically, as litigation and legislation moves forward, such arguments will be relevant for clarifying just what the constitution demands of our electoral systems, and how we can distinguish its bugs from its features.

5. How much is too much?

Again, it would be surprising for the Court to establish an empirical metric of “x percent.” Rather, a workable, manageable threshold would reflect both what is constitutionally required, but also respects judicial restraint.

This is why Maryland seems like an especially important case, in that a decision overturning that state’s Democratic gerrymander (the governing party manufactured an extra seat when they are already the dominant party) would provide a rather clear guideline, a one-seat principle. That is, if it can be shown, through whatever metrics, that the opposition party’s voters are effectively and reliably denied a minimum of a single seat as the result of an adopted plan, which is what would be required for vote dilution to occur, it would be grounds for overturning a districting plan.

If the Court can provide such guidance to lower courts, as to how much is too much inequality, that is as much as we can ask for. For the current situation is clearly too much, in the opinion of experts and citizens alike.

EPA Extends Comment Deadline, Schedules Hearing on Science Proposal After Pretty Much Everyone Complains

The EPA today extended the comment deadline to August 16 on its proposal to restrict the types of science that can be used in EPA decisions after pretty much everyone—from the American Home Builders Association to the American Geophysical Union—complained that a thirty-day comment period was grossly insufficient for a rule with such potential wide-ranging consequences. The EPA also scheduled a public hearing to be held in Washington, DC on July 17.

The EPA’s proposal would prevent the EPA from using many public health studies when making decisions. Scientists now have more time to comment on the potential harm that this proposal would have on public health and the environment.

The move gives scientists the ability to develop more sophisticated comments and ensure that their peers have the opportunity to detail how the rule would impact their own public health research and its use in EPA decisions—and to submit for the record specific studies that could be set aside. It is important for scientists to explain how and why specific communities would be harmed by excluding legitimate, peer-reviewed public health research from consideration by EPA.

In just three short weeks, nearly 100,000 comments were submitted.

From the beginning of the comment period, scientific organizations repeatedly and pointedly repudiated the EPA’s claim that the new rule is consistent with scientific transparency standards. The EPA heard from both industry and the science community that the short comment period on such a vague and badly written rule was wholly inadequate and possibly even in violation of the Clean Air Act and other statutes. Now scientists will have a few more weeks to fully detail the impact that such a fatally flawed rule would have on public health and the environment.

UCS and its partners have produced a guide for scientists and organizations on filing an effective public comment on this rule, and will be encouraging people to provide testimony at the July 17 hearing.

Between Two Terns: A Conversation on Endangered Species and Social Justice

Pictured: The interior least tern (Sterna antillarum), a federally protected endangered species. USFWS

Endangered Species Day was enacted by Congress in 2006 to encourage “the people of the United States to become educated about, and aware of, threats to species, success stories in species recovery, and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.” This year, Endangered Species Day (May 18) began with a devastating school shooting. It really had me questioning how appropriate it would be to emphasize the importance of wildlife conservation while so many in the world and our nation seem to place little value on human lives. In a time where human rights are being enthusiastically attacked by the Trump administration, however, it has become necessary to think critically about how our nation promotes policies that undermine public protections and the way this affects vulnerable communities. Basically, I realized that there are connections between our wildlife conservation policies…and the social disparities built therein.

Hear me out. The connection is not necessarily obvious at surface level, I understand. Social justice is at the core of environmentalism. Conservation works to ensure the preservation of cultures, heritage, and livelihoods. The spaces we often deign as devoid of “nature” or “environment” are not as readily included in conservation conversations, often at the risk of alienating entire communities and ecosystems. From pristine lands to over-burdened industrial areas, environment is all around us.

I had a conversation with Lia Cheek, fellow woman of color and colleague at the Endangered Species Coalition, to further explore the relationship between endangered species protections and social justice.

Defining environment

Charise: Why do you think the way we view the environment is important for conservation and how is this tied to social justice?

Lia: We look at nature as something to use up. Something that exists to serve our needs.  We look at it without emotion, without acknowledgement of the life it holds and its right to existence. Even the words we use to describe it, Nature, natural worlds are inanimate.

Charise:  I like how you emphasized the idea of Nature with a big N. When we view it that way, it tends to be exclusionary of underrepresented groups – and that spills over into environmental regulations and even the research questions that are asked. We see this especially with policies and processes that are based solely on economic considerations, with very little regard for both science and community input.

There is also a tendency to forget that “environment” includes built environments, urban areas. Loss of biodiversity affects us all. And we’ve seen the benefits of conservation in urban areas: greater accessibility to green spaces improves mental health and well-being, marked increases in perceived safety, cleaner air to breathe, protection and restoration of terrestrial and aquatic species. The assumption that city-dwellers (especially those who aren’t as socially privileged) do not care about or benefit from species biodiversity in their communities, that they do not notice when the trees are cut down and the birds stop singing, is unfounded. Social justice is the fair treatment of others. We should not put the needs of wildlife above those of humans, rather, we should treat both fairly, and consider more than just our wallets and convenience. It is unjust to distribute resources unfairly, and it is unfair to expect those being treated unjustly to consider conservation their top priority.

Lia: Sure! This is part of the same thread.  The way we currently manage wildlife and natural areas feels a lot like colonialism.  It’s all about control isn’t it? Controlling the populations of animals that we find inconvenient, like predators, boosting the populations of species that we gain an economic benefit from.  That same mindset is built into our other government institutions, which are built around increasing profit and subduing inconveniences, and these goals can often mean stepping all over people’s rights, case and point, the battle at Standing Rock and the keystone pipeline.  It’s a very ego and self-driven model that is in the fabric of the way our country is run.  The question then becomes, who is this system of benefits really for, and how do we make our institutions expand the circle of who is benefiting from this policy of profit to include folks who have been marginalized.

Wildlife and social justice

Charise: How is wildlife conservation, specifically, a social justice issue?

Lia: The underlying decision to use differences to other a community or another life, rather than a recognition of the similarities is the same. When you “take” an animal without awareness of or respect for its right to existence, without acknowledgement that it has a purpose, a desire, a meaningful existence besides fulfilling your intended use for it.  Or without understanding that it experiences moments of joy, the understanding of what family is just like you do.   This is the same act of “othering” that creates space for injustice and the violation of human rights when they become inconvenient.  The refusal to recognize another life as similar to one’s own is the choice that is at the heart of both colonialism and extinction.

When we think about what it means for a species to go extinct, to cease to exist in any form or feather, memory or song, forever, this knowledge can manifest such a deep sadness in us that we can try to turn away from it to protect ourselves. We push away the instinctual pain we feel that comes with the knowledge that we’ve lost a species to extinction, or the pain and fear we feel when we have to hear about the injustices committed against African Americans by the institutions we are a part of, or the empathy we might feel with immigrant families being torn apart while we stand by and watch. We can choose to close our eyes to the painful and frightening, but when we do this, we are also closing our eyes to the humanity of others, and the connection we have to life on earth. And this is important because we make this choice every day. With when we choose to stand up and speak out about an injustice or sit quietly and watch it play out. When we choose to open that email asking for your help or delete.  It’s something about ourselves that we all need to be aware of and watch carefully.

Charise: Yes, beautifully put. I would add that the right to existence is what makes this a justice issue, not just for wildlife, but for people. Through diversity of life, we can exercise our human rights to food, health, and culture. If certain people are not given access to this right, that is unjust. On the flipside, if certain groups are not provided with the basic freedoms afforded others based on race, income, religion, or otherwise, we cannot expect conservation efforts to succeed. We can’t say we’re dedicated to conservation when there are still people being eradicated through the country’s prison pipeline, gun violence, and toxic pollution, with little input on solutions.

Conservation requires conversations

Species conservation is necessary for the protection of wildlife, a valuable natural resource. With so many attempts to dismantle science-based environmental regulations, we are putting more than our natural resources at risk. But we can change the narrative of who gets to benefit from “nature.” We can push for more consideration of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in scientific research and policy decisions. Instead of stifling community members or excluding them from discussions outright, we have to listen to and incorporate the problems and solutions they have already identified. Addressing the inherent biases in our institutions from an intersectional perspective is the first step to engaging begin to serve vulnerable communities justly. You can start by joining the conversation. If you’d like to learn more about how our Science Network members engage in their communities around justice-based issues, check out our Science for Justice blog series.

 

Testimony Reveals the Real Controversy over Census Data and Voting Rights

On Friday, May 18, the acting head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division repeatedly refused to answer questions about his role in the Justice Department’s December 2017 request to the Department of Commerce to add a new citizenship question to the Decennial Census.

John M. Gore, who refused to show up to a May 8 hearing, claimed that he would not “make any statements today beyond those in the Department’s letter (requesting the question) or other publicly available information.” Gore claimed that his silence was required by “longstanding department policy” against discussing litigation outside of court, referring to the four lawsuits that have been filed against his department on behalf of numerous states and voting rights organizations. These lawsuits seek to prevent the addition of the citizenship question, given its anticipated negative impact on the quality of the Census enumeration, which only takes place once every ten years.

Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) lost his patience early on, shouting at Gore: “I asked you did you talk to your boss! You mean you’re going to tell me that you can’t answer a question as to whether you talked to your boss who we pay?” At one point, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) moved to subpoena Gore to answer these questions, but a Republican motion to block the subpoena passed on a party-line vote of 22 to 15.

In addition to entertaining several questions about hypothetical registration and voter fraud (which has been demonstrated, in court, to be nearly non-existent), Gore did at least acknowledge the actual scientific controversy at the heart of the Justice Department’s justification for the question. On the one hand, he acknowledged that the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, has never depended on the use of Census citizenship enumeration data directly. Indeed, he even acknowledged that there has NEVER been a public challenge brought under the VRA that was dropped due to inadequate data on racial voting patterns.

On the other hand, Gore did reference a private litigation case in Texas where the party was unable to move forward due lack of adequate data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which provides population estimates of the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP). However, he did not reference the case in his submitted testimony. Nevertheless, the claim is clear: census enumeration data is required for the VRA because in small, sparsely-populated districts, such as rural school districts, the margin of error associated with population estimates from the ACS may not be precise enough to make statistically valid inferences about those populations.

Survey samples like the ACS draw random (as possible) distributions of individuals, which provides estimates of population characteristics (i.e., a district is 49% eligible African-American voters) with a margin of error that accounts for sampling inaccuracies (say plus or minus 3% for a sample of about 1,000, such that the actual distribution is nearly always between 46 and 52%). In a census, we attempt to count the entire population, but any uncounted individuals (undercounts) distort the data, leaving us with a less accurate assessment of the actual universe of individuals. Samples, by their nature, may have less precision, but census counts, especially among hard-to-reach populations, can be less accurate, and it is more difficult to correct for undercounts.

This point was driven home by Justin Levitt, Loyola Law School professor and former attorney at the same division of the Department of Justice where Gore serves, who did show up on May 8 when he was invited to testify before the government oversight committee. Levitt’s testimony included an assessment of actual cases, public and private, where he too found one Texas case, Fabela v. City of Farmers Branch, Texas, where ACS data was not itself up to the task of validating a VRA violation claim. However, Levitt demonstrated that complementary, well-tested and judicially accepted techniques were used to assess the claims. More importantly, Levitt describes how the goal of VRA population data

is not to definitively predict the precise vote count in a future election based on ironclad certainty about an individual’s voting preferences based on her race or ethnicity, and her propensity to register or turn out to vote for a particular candidate. Instead, the purpose of the analysis is to determine whether past voting behaviors generally indicate that racial or language minority communities would vote similarly most of the time, and whether they would be likely presented with effective equitable electoral opportunity more often than not.

And here we get to the heart of the question, because it is the evidence that we need a citizenship question on the Census short form, which is sparse, that must be weighed against evidence about the negative impact that the addition of such a question might have on the accuracy of the Census count. That evidence is compelling. Indeed, we know from Census analysis that Latino populations are already undercounted, such that the addition of a question that would further reduce response rates among legal immigrant residents will create artificially low population estimates of VRA-protected groups in such cases, making it more difficult to identify and remedy VRA violations.

The addition of a citizenship question is far more likely to inhibit the successful trial of VRA cases, by increasing the inaccuracy of the Census, than it is to improve the assessment of VRA claims due to greater precision. Even Thomas Brunell, once a candidate to direct this Census, recently acknowledged that the administration is not making a scientific, but “a political decision.”  For these reasons, and for all of the reasons provided by all of the past Census directors, the scientists, the civil rights advocates, and all those who have dedicated their lives to advancing both science and sovereignty in our democracy, we have a mutual obligation to protect the scientific integrity of the Census. You can do your part by urging Congress to adopt the 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act, legislation that would protect the accuracy of the 2020 census and ensure that any proposed changes to the count are properly studied, researched, and tested.

Did EPA Consult With The Chemical Industry While Working To Suppress A Scientific Study On PFAS?

Today, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to EPA requesting more information about a meeting with an industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), attended by Richard Yamada, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development.

The letter and subsequent reporting (paywalled) is based on additional documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through a Freedom of Information Act request last month. EPA subsequently took down those documents, in an action similar to what happened with some of our other public records requests.

POLITICO reports:

Top House Democrats are raising concerns about a meeting between one of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s top aides and representatives of the chemicals industry one day after a White House official raised alarm about a study of contaminants that has been stalled for months.

The American Chemistry Council represents companies that could face more expensive cleanup requirements if the HHS study were finalized, and the trade group appears to have had the ear of a top EPA official when it was being discussed internally, the House Democrats said.

A meeting titled “ACC Cross-Agency PFAS Effort” appears on the Jan. 31 calendar for Richard Yamada, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for research and development. The calendar was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act and cited by the Democrats in their letter to Pruitt Monday. One day earlier, Yamada and other EPA officials had received an email from the White House seeking to delay publication of the health study poised for release by HHS that would have increased warnings about certain PFAS chemicals.

A former staffer for the anti-science chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Yamada attended a meeting with the ACC to discuss EPA’s cross-agency efforts to address PFAS. As we chronicled in 2015, the ACC has a history of obstructing stronger science-based public health protections from harmful chemicals and have frequently used tobacco industry tactics to pressure policymakers. An ACC spokesman confirmed the meeting with POLITICO but said that the suppressed PFAS study (also discovered by a UCS public records request) was not discussed.

The meeting, which occurred on January 31, was held the day after the now infamous “public relations nightmare” email was sent by an unnamed White House staffer.

The letter from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is the latest in a string of oversight letters related to the potential suppression by the White House and EPA of a key health assessment that is being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Late last week, Representatives Brendan F. Boyle and Brian K. Fitzpatrick led another bipartisan letter demanding the release of the ATSDR study on the human health effects of PFAS chemicals.

Tomorrow, EPA is convening a national summit to discuss PFAS and the issues that states and communities are facing around the country. Unsurprisingly, one of the scheduled speakers is Jessica Bowman, an ACC attorney, who is talking first thing in the morning. And before a story in The Intercept, EPA failed to invite any community organizations and/or members to attend. After the reporting however, EPA has invited Andrea Amico, founder of Testing for Pease.

It remains unclear whether press will be able to attend, and according to the summit website, it appears as though the public can only view parts of the meeting online. Hopefully though, the agency will use tomorrow’s meeting as an opportunity to commit vital resources and concrete next steps to help remove these toxic chemicals from our environment.

Now Is the Time To Halt the EPA’s Restrictions on Science

If you have been following the news, I am sure you know by now that the EPA is proposing to restrict the science it will consider when developing new or revised health and safety protections. It may seem like a Washington game, but this proposed rule has huge implications for all of us.

For scientists, it means that much of your work may be dismissed from impacting policy out of hand because you must adhere to research ethics policies that restrict the release of private data. Or because you can’t and shouldn’t sacrifice intellectual property rights at the whim of the EPA. For industry, it creates greater uncertainty around the always thorny issues concerning confidential business information. And, most importantly,  for all of us, the proposal means that policies that protect our health and safety will not be based on the best available science because of inappropriate political interference.

So what can YOU do to fight back? Well, for all the political manipulation that we have been documenting at the EPA, the agency must still adhere to the law when making or changing regulations.  That means the EPA must make a proposal public, accept public comments from all who wish to submit them, evaluate and respond to those comments, and then decide on the final version of the rule. And they are subject to challenge in federal court on all actions.

That means YOU can submit a comment into the public record that the EPA is obligated to consider. And now is the time! For this proposal, the comment period is only 30 days—and it’s already more than half over. It closes at the end of May (though requests have been made to extend it, so far with no response from the EPA).

How do I make a comment?

The proposed rule is complicated and somewhat confusing. It is misnamed as an action to “strengthen transparency” in the rulemaking process, but it does no such thing. To have an impact, however, your comment needs to be specific and detailed, not just broad comments on the rule.

To help you better understand the proposed rule, we have produced a guide for commenters. The guide highlights topics for which the EPA is specifically requesting input and some of the issues you may want to consider in making your comment. It also gives you the links for submitting a comment and some suggestions for how to have the most impact.

I want to encourage scientists to submit as part of their comments examples of specific important scientific studies and evidence that are likely to be excluded if this rule is implemented. For example, the rule proposal says that studies will only be considered if all raw data, computer code, models, and other material in the study is fully publicly available.

On its face, that precludes using studies where personal confidential information is part of the “raw” data. Most Institutional Review Boards require researchers maintain confidentiality for human subjects data. Are their studies you have been involved in or rely on in your research that would be excluded a priori because of this restriction?

One of the reasons it is important to cite specific studies in the record is because that public record will be important in any future legal action. Also, our political leaders are usually not fully familiar with the scientific process. They need specific examples to inform their own views. How will your work be impacted scientists? How will community members be affected if certain public health and safety protections are not enacted based on good science?

A week of collective action

A coalition of groups including 500 Women Scientists, EarthJustice, and the Public Comment Project are joining forces to mobilize as many public comments as possible during the week of May 20-26.  This coordinated action—the National Week of Public Comments on EPA’s “Restricting Science” Policy—is part of the overall effort of Science Rising, which is working to defend science and its crucial role in public policy and our democracy more broadly. You can participate by sending in your comment and letting us know that you did.

This is still our government, our democracy, and our voices need to be heard.

Five Things You Should Know About EPA’s Proposed Giant Step Backward on the Safety of Chemical Facilities

Kentucky Army National Guard members training for disaster responseMembers of the Kentucky National Guard receive a brief on extracting the mock injured and wounded during the early stages of their external evalutation at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Butlerville, Ind. May 23. The purpose of the exercises and evaluation is to prepare the Kentucky Guard’s chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) teams to respond to such attacks and disasters. Photo: Spc. David Bolton, Public Affairs Specialist, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Kentucky Army National Guard/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

As one of his first acts in office, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided to put on hold the implementation of new regulations to improve the safety of chemical facilities around the country. Those regulations, finalized in 2017, called for consideration of safer technologies, better information for communities and first responders that are on the front lines of accidents and other incidents, better planning for accidents and disasters, and improvements in response capabilities including coordination and practice sessions with local first responders. These changes were made to update the so-called Risk Management Plan rule, last significantly modified in 1996.

Now, the EPA has proposed a new rule, modifying the 2017 regulations without ever implementing them. The new proposal, soon to be published in the federal register and open for a 60-day public comment period, basically rescinded all new requirements with a few minor exceptions and takes us back to 1996 at best. The justification by Pruitt’s EPA is that it will reduce industry costs if they don’t have to do these things, by $88 million. Rolling back these critical protections in the wake of a devastating hurricane season that demonstrated the need for increased planning for these chemical facilities and after there have been 43 reported incidents at chemical facilities since the rule was initially delayed demonstrates a lack of leadership and commitment to public health at the EPA.

The short summary is that Pruitt’s EPA has eliminated or weakened every provision of the rule to eliminate protection for fenceline communities or workers. The justification is possibly saving $88 million dollars in compliance and at the expense of immense public health and safety benefits to communities which were not calculated in the proposal.

When the Public Comment period is open, the EPA will hold exactly one public hearing to receive input in addition to written comments. That hearing will be in EPA Headquarters in DC, not in any one of the communities like Houston, TX and Wilmington, DE affected by the risks of chemical facilities, and frankly out of reach in terms of cost to most grassroots or local organizations. That’s a shame. It also means that the written comments submitted to the EPA are all the more important as the delay of the previous rule, and certainly this new proposal if it is finalized, are being challenged in court, including by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So here are five things you should note as you consider commenting on the new EPA proposal.

  • The 2017 rule required chemical facilities to evaluate and consider safer technology and alternatives defined by the EPA itself as “a variety of risk reduction or risk management strategies that work toward making a facility and its chemical processes as safe as possible.” Seems reasonable that these should be considered by facilities everywhere to reduce risks to workers, communities and first responders. The idea is to reduce the risks with safer alternatives before an accident or disaster takes place. The preventive medicine of the chemical facility so to speak. The new proposal completely eliminates this requirement for facilities to look at preventative, safer alternatives. The justification for the rollback was the costs to industry, without any consideration of benefits to the public or to the mission of the EPA (to serve the public interest).
  • Prior to the new rules set in 2017, it was nearly impossible to get much information about what chemicals were being held at a facility in a timely and regularly updateable way. To obtain any information, you had to prove you lived in the neighborhood around the facility and go to a special EPA reading room when it was open—if it was available, you were not allowed to use a copier, computer or scanner and you couldn’t take anything away. The 2017 rules eased these restrictions somewhat by allowing communities to ask for information and requiring companies to be forthcoming in a timely way. The new proposal eliminates that option. It goes back to a system where the public, including first responders, have little or no information in case of a chemical disaster or emergency chemical release in their neighborhood.
  • Prior to 1996, chemical facilities could leave most of the response capability for accidents and disasters up to the local government, with the cost borne by local taxpayers, not the company. That burden was only partially shifted in 2017 with greater participation and coordination requirements put on companies to work with local government and groups. The new proposed rule takes a step back again and weakens those requirements, though there would be some requirement for joint exercises to practice responding to an accident every few years. And they propose eliminating the requirement to report on the results of those exercises to improve performance.
  • Under the 2017 rules, when an accident occurred, an incident analysis would be required along with an analysis of the causes of the incident. Now Pruitt’s EPA is eliminating that requirement to analyze and report on accidents and their causes and make that information available to the community.
  • And, in 2017 the rules required the industry to hire third-party independent auditors to evaluate compliance with the rules and to investigate problems. The EPA is now proposing to eliminate that requirement and continue to allow companies to audit themselves.

Should you submit a comment? Yes! Because this proposal makes all of us less safe. It is simply unacceptable that we cannot do a better job of preventing and responding to the thousands of chemical accidents that occur every year in this country.

Bipartisan Outrage as EPA, White House Try to Cover Up Chemical Health Assessment

Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

Citing a potential “public relations nightmare,” the Trump administration successfully stopped the publication of a study measuring the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States. Many of the contaminated sites are on military bases across the country and affect military families directly. Multiple Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the censorship and have called for the report to be released, and Trump administration officials are scrambling to contain the political fallout. 

The two email chains (here and here) show the exchanges among White House, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD) attempting to strong-arm the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) into censoring the report. The emails were released to UCS by the EPA as part of a larger request under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to an attempt to restrict the types of science that are used in EPA public health protection decisions (the EPA subsequently tried to bury the documents).

The White House tried to cover up a study related to the health impacts of PFAS, a group of chemicals that are often present at dangerous levels around military bases. Firefighting foam used by the military contains PFAS chemicals. Photo: United States National Guard

Politico broke the story on Monday:

Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” newly disclosed emails reveal.

The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

Nancy Beck, one of the EPA political appointees with ties to the chemical industry involved in the effort to prevent the study from being released, knows very well how one agency can put pressure on another. She helped the Department of Defense slow down EPA efforts to protect drinking water from perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, when she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the cover-up and demanded the ATSDR report be released, including Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH),  Representative Mike Turner (R-OH), Representative Bryan Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and several Democratic senators including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito questioned embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a Senate hearing today about the EPA’s actions. Administrator Pruitt refused to take responsibility for slowing down the release of the study, but acknowledged that it is important for this kind of health information to be public. West Virginia has had specific problems with PFAS contamination.

This kind of congressional oversight of the administration is crucial as part of our system of government, the checks and balances the founding fathers talked about.  Executive branch actions have direct consequences for public health and the environment. We desperately need more congressional scrutiny of the ways in which science is being suppressed and sidelined in executive branch agencies.

And at least in this case, the pressure is working. According to Inside EPA (paywalled), ATSDR has subsequently begun preparations for releasing the report. Below are more details about this developing story.

A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee visits a home to test well water for chemical contaminants. Photo: Michigan DEQ

What are these chemicals?

“PFAS” stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” “PFOS” and “PFOA,” the two most studied PFAS, stand for “perfluorooctane sulfanate” and “perfluorooctanoic acid,” respectively. PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals found in many consumer products (such as non-stick cookware and water-repellent clothing) as well as in firefighting foam used by the military. Studies on PFOA and PFOS have indicated links to cancer, thyroid disease, and immunological effects. Here’s the EPA’s current FAQ on PFAS.

What are more specific health effects?

According to ASTDR, studies have shown certain PFAS may impact fertility; increase cholesterol; elevate cancer risk; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; and negatively affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children.

What is the current EPA guidance on the issue?

In May 2016, EPA established drinking water health advisories of 70 parts per trillion for the combined concentrations of PFOS and PFOA. This number is important because in “PFAS CDC Study 2,” an employee of the White House Office of Management and Budget was worried about the fact that ATSDR’s numbers for minimal risk for some populations went as low as 12 ppt. For more, see EPA’s factsheet on PFAS.

What’s the DoD connection?

The Department of Defense emerges in many PFAS water source contamination stories because DoD’s firefighting foam contains PFOS and PFOA. The Politico story notes that in a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where test of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines. These facilities have caused congressional concern and the Government Accountability Office has studied the issue.

How has the EPA approached PFAS?

Administrator Pruitt has publicly said that he wants to make controlling PFAS a priority and has planned a leadership summit on the issue next week. The summit was planned after the Senate refused to confirm Michael Dourson, President Trump’s nominee to lead EPA’s chemical safety division. North Carolina’s two Republican senators refused to support him for PFAS-related reasons; Dourson’s previous work for the chemical industry recommended dramatically higher “safe” levels of the chemicals than the EPA had found (more here and here).

Mick Mulvaney leads the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB has a history of interfering in or slowing down federal agency scientific assessments.

What do the two emails show?

In mid-January, an email chain with EPA political and career employees discussed a call between EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) about PFAS. Both the political and career employees noted that EPA and ATSDR did not entirely agree on the science.

In a January 30 internal email chain, an unnamed White House political appointee flagged for an EPA political appointee that ATSDR’s draft Toxicological Profile for four PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, PFHX, and PFNA) had very low Minimal Risk Level numbers. The OMB employee noted that ATSDR’s release of its draft would have a “huge” response, that the impact to EPA and the Department of Defense would be “extremely painful,” and that releasing the draft would be a “potential public relations nightmare.”

The OMB message was forwarded to three EPA political appointees: chief of staff Ryan Jackson, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development Richard Yamada; and Nancy Beck. Jackson noted that the ATSDR estimate is 10 times lower than the EPA’s numbers; Beck recommended OMB interagency review; Yamada noted that ORD was going to DoD to discuss. More than three months later, ATSDR still has not released its draft Toxicological Profile, and the agency initially said there are no plans to release it.

How should legitimate scientific disagreements between EPA and ATSDR scientists be handled?

Scientists may or may not agree with the ATSDR analysis. But there’s no way to critique a peer-reviewed study that isn’t public. Further, any legitimate disagreements should be handled among scientists, not negotiated among political appointees.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has a role to play in ensuring that agencies talk to one another. But it has also been used to try to alter science for political reasons. UCS has recommended that peer-reviewed scientific documents be shared publicly when sent to OMB for interagency review. The PFAS case is evidence for why this kind of policy is sorely needed.

CSPAN

Among President Trump’s Dismal Judicial Nominees, Wendy Vitter Stands Out for Promoting Unscientific Myths

Wendy Vitter has been nominated by President Trump for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court in Louisiana, and is expected to receive a vote in a Senate committee tomorrow. Vitter has a track record of promoting anti-science myths which call into question her capacity to impartially evaluate evidence and expert testimony as a future judge. Senators should think long and hard if they want someone with this kind of judgement on the bench.

Vitter is on record perpetuating the myth that abortion causes breast cancer. When speaking on a panel called Abortion Hurts Women’s Health, Vitter claimed that there is a “connection between cancer and post-abortive women.” The American Cancer Society has rigorously assessed this claim and dismissed it as false. So have the World Health Organization and numerous other medical associations.

Wendy Vitter answers questions at her April 2018 confirmation hearing. Vitter, who received the lowest “qualified” rating from the American Bar Association, is President Trump’s nominee for a lifetime judicial appointment.

At the panel, Vitter publicly urged people to pressure medical providers to distribute a brochure titled “The Pill Kills.” One of the most pernicious and unscientific myths included is the statement that hormonal birth control causes “spontaneous abortions” (the pill actually prevents eggs from ever being fertilized in the first place). The same literature claims that birth control causes miscarriages, makes women “more likely to develop lethal infections” and “die a violent death.” Through these false claims, Vitter confuses people about the science of birth control and makes it harder for them to access much-needed health services.

How could it be that such a nominee would not be laughed out of the Senate chamber? Well, let’s not forget that it’s considerably easier now to pack the courts with unqualified nominees since the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees. Further, the Trump administration does not have a great track record of vetting judicial nominees, and the Senate’s willingness to set aside unqualified nominees has been non-existent: not a single Republican senator has voted against a single nominee.

This allowed President Trump to appoint four times as many judges in his first year as President Obama did in his. The American Bar Association gave Vitter’s nomination its lowest qualified rating.

Multiple scientific and public interest organizations urged the Senate to vote against Vitter’s nomination:

Governmental policy and decision-making should be informed by scientific evidence and the best available data. When hearing cases involving governmental policies or actions, judges must be able to evaluate evidence about harms and benefits in an independent and careful manner by evaluating the weight of the evidence. Failing to consider relevant, compelling evidence and placing inappropriate weight on poorly supported assertions should disqualify nominees from judicial appointments…

To merit confirmation, judges must exhibit an ability to appropriately weigh and contextualize scientific evidence when matters involving science are before them. Vitter’s misrepresentations of scientific evidence call into question her ability to do so appropriately. 

Judges need to be able to evaluate expert testimony and scientific evidence in an impartial way. How can we trust Vitter to appropriately evaluate evidence and expertise in a courtroom when she refuses to disavow the distribution of materials that distort the science on women’s health?

Back to Bad Air: The Trump EPA’s Attack on Science and Our Health

Pollution coming from smokestacks at a large industrial facility Photo: Pexels/CC0

Most Americans wake up and breathe comfortably every day because we’ve enjoyed decades of strong science-based clean air policies. These policies limit the emissions from cities, cars, factories and more to keep the air clean and free from most harmful air pollutants.

When he was first appointed, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt vowed to bring the agency “back to basics” by focusing on clean air and water. One could be forgiven for assuming this meant he intended to preserve and strengthen America’s air pollution protections. That’s why it’s so jarring to see how severely his actions have undermined them. The Trump Administration’s EPA is working hard to unravel these life-saving protections on multiple fronts. This week, Administrator Pruitt and his air chief, William Wehrum, will testify on the Hill. They should be asked about how these actions bring EPA back to basics and fulfill its mission to protect public health and the environment.

More hazardous air pollutants with MACT rule change

In February, the EPA issued new guidance to weaken a policy that protects us from hazardous air pollutants from major sources like power plants and chemical manufacturing facilities. By repealing the “once in, always in” policy, the administration is allowing major polluters to evade using the maximum achievable control technologies (MACT) that have minimized our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals for years. Under the new guidance, at least 21 states could see increased emissions of pollutants like benzene and hydrochloric acid that can cause certain cancers and respiratory illnesses.

Gutting the science in ambient air pollutant decisions under NAAQS

Moreover, following up on a presidential memo last month, the EPA last week released guidance changing how the agency sets standards for ambient air pollutants like ozone, lead, and carbon monoxide. Together, the presidential memo and EPA guidance chip away at the long-standing science-based process that has effectively and drastically reduced ambient pollution in this country for decades.

Air pollution statistics cartoon

Changes at the EPA mean that the agency may soon have far less independent science feeding into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections.

The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are a widely effective program that ensures the government sets standards for protecting clean air, based solely on what’s protective of public health. This has, by and large, allowed science and public health to prevail even in the face of political or commercial pressures. But the Trump administration has now opened the door to upending this process.

While the EPA guidance claims to “differentiate science and policy judgments,” it in fact does the opposite. Under the proposal, the EPA and its science advisors must not solely consider public health (as the law requires) but must elevate consideration of potential adverse impacts from setting a health-based standard, such as economic impacts. The process would be removed from EPA’s Office of Research and Development—where much of the agency’s scientific expertise lies—and the comprehensive document outlining the state of the science on pollutants and health that the administration relies on to make a science-based decision may be combined with a regulatory impact assessment, blurring the distinction between scientific and political judgments. This builds on a presidential memo that limited the kinds of scientific analyses the EPA can use when determining whether states are meeting the standard.

Restricting the science that EPA can use for decisionmaking

To put more salt in the wound, these actions come on the heels of the EPA’s recent, widely opposed, and dangerous, proposal to restrict the science that the agency can use to make rules. This proposal originated as a ploy by the tobacco industry to stave off second-hand smoke rules, and while its effects would be far broader than air pollution policy, protections against pollutants like ozone and particulate matter are clearly its main target.

Dwindling air pollution law enforcement

EPA enforcement of air pollution laws is also down. The agency issued only around half the average number of penalties against polluters in the first year of the Trump administration as in the same period of the past three presidential administrations.

Wrecking EPA’s science advisory committees

As if these things weren’t enough to undermine the EPA’s basic responsibilities, the administration also has worked to gut the agency’s science advisory committees, kicking academic experts off and replacing them with unqualified or deeply conflicted representatives. Industry representation on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, for example, has tripled. The consequence will be far less independent science advice reaching EPA decisionmakers—and fewer checks on Pruitt’s ability to undo rules.

And we have some indications of the administration’s priorities here. In its proposed FY 2019 EPA budget, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt are looking to cut EPA funding that supports scientific research related to clean air by 27 percent.  Such a cut would threaten the ability of the EPA to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, examine the effects of air pollution on public health, and reducing associated risks, and provide models, tools, and technical guidance to states. This clearly signals the administration’s disregard for air quality work at the EPA.

Administrator Pruitt’s biggest scandal

The sum of these policy changes is likely to mean dirtier air for all of us. This increased pollution is especially dangerous for the vulnerable groups who already disproportionately suffer from the harmful effects of air pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases already face health challenges at current air pollution levels; weakening current standards will certainly exacerbate harm for these groups. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which already experience disproportionate impacts from air pollution due to the cumulative impact of being near multiple pollution sources, will also be harmed by these policy changes.

Looking out for public health is supposed to be the “basic” responsibility of the EPA and its administrator.  The most scandalous thing about Scott Pruitt is how he’s abandoned the mission of the agency. If he won’t do the job, the rest of us need to speak up for clean air and the science that helps us protect it. Our lungs depend on it.

Photo: Pexels/CC0

La EPA elimina una protección vital para mantener el aire libre de sustancias tóxicas, poniendo nuestra salud en peligro

View of the ship channel in Houston with city in the back, and air pollution.

Por décadas, la Ley de Aire Limpio nos ha protegido de los nocivos efectos a la salud que causan los contaminantes atmosféricos industriales. Muchos de estos contaminantes son tóxicos;  respirarlos o cualquier contacto con ellos puede causar cáncer, al igual que enfermedades respiratorias y neurológicas degenerativas que pueden causar la muerte. Algunas, como el cloro y el ácido hidroclorídrico, por ejemplo, pueden inflamar los pulmones y las vías respiratorias. El estireno, solvente utilizado con frecuencia en la elaboración de plásticos y hule sintético, está ligado a trastornos degenerativos como la esclerosis múltple y otras enfermedas similares al Parkinson. Gracias a las regulaciones que nos protegen de 187 sustancias tóxicas, la Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA en inglés) estima que se han evitado cada año desde 1990 la emisión de 1.5 millones de toneladas de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos.

Pero recientemente la EPA—sigilosamente—ha eliminado estas protecciones. A la extensa lista de los escándalos de corrupción, conflictos de interés, intervención política en la ciencia y nepotismo en la agencia, le añadimos la derogación de la política conocida como “once in, always in” (abreviada “OIAI”, y que se traduce “una vez presente, siempre presente”).

Este cambio, sin previo proceso de consulta pública y escuetamente anunciado como una “reinterpretación” de la ley, le permitirá a las instalaciones industriales altamente contaminantes, como las fundiciones metalúrgicas e instalaciones petroquímicas, eliminar el uso de tecnologías para controlar la contaminación tóxica que emiten al aire.  El uso de tecnologías y procesos para reducir contaminantes tóxicos se conocen como Maximum Achievable Control Technologies (MACT), y hasta hace poco fueron de uso obligatorio por parte de las instalaciones altamente contaminantes.

En una nota previa a completar nuestro estudio sobre las consecuencias de la derogación de ésta norma (aquí en inglés), advertí que aumentará las emisiones de contaminación causante de cáncer. Mi colega, la Dra. Gretchen Goldman, ya nos explicó (en inglés) que las comunidades de justicia ambiental–donde la mayoría de las personas son afroamericanos, latinos o pertenecientes a otras minorías étnicas  y/o de bajo ingreso—serían las más afectadas. En efecto, hemos encontrado en nuestro estudio que muchas de las comunidades donde ya existen altos niveles de contaminación tóxica se verán expuestas aún más.

Tomemos como primer ejemplo a las comunidades de Galena Park y Manchester aledañas al canal marítimo de Houston en Texas. Junto con nuestros colaboradores—vecinos de estos barrios y activistas de la organización TEJAS, quienes son en su mayoría latinos y muchos de bajos recursos—, hace poco demostramos que la cercanía a múltiples instalaciones industriales que al presente emiten muchos contaminantes tóxicos está teniendo efectos negativos en la salud de estas comunidades.

El distrito legislativo 29 (TX-29), donde están dichas comunidades, contiene 15 instalaciones que reducen sus emisiones de manera significativa mediante MACT. Con el cambio en la norma de la EPA, once de éstas pudieran emitir unas 205 toneladas de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos por año, lo cual representa un incremento de casi 70 por ciento.

Algunas fuentes mayores de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos como la fábrica de químicos Deer Park en Houston, TX (perteneciente a OxyChem), pudiera incrementar sus emisiones de contaminantes atmosféricos tóxicos de 0.64 a casi 25 toneladas por año si deja de utilizar MACT para controlar sus emisiones.

La nueva directriz impactará a los estados de formas distintas. Algunos estados dependen exclusivamente de las normas federales de contaminantes tóxicos para proteger la calidad de su aire, mientras otros estados establecen sus propios umbrales. Algunos de los estados con normas propias permiten las emisiones de contaminantes dependiendo del caso, mientras otros han establecido normas más estrictas en general.

¿Cómo puede usted conocer los posibles impactos en su región? Puede consultar el mapa interactivo que creamos donde mostramos el número de instalaciones que pudieran incrementar emisiones tóxicas en su distrito electoral. Por ejemplo, si selecciona el districto electoral 16 de Pensilvania (PA-16), podrá ver que once de las catorce instalaciones que al corriente usan MACT para reducir sus emisiones tóxicas pudieran emitir 209 toneladas por año, y que el estado no cuenta con protecciones adicionales para limitar contaminantes tóxicos.

Si desliza la ventana un poco hacia abajo podrá encontrar el nombre y número de teléfono de su representante. Le urgimos que lo contacte  para preguntarle cómo le exigirá a la EPA y a la agencia de calidad ambiental de su estado que protejan a la salud pública de este peligroso cambio.

¿Usted qué puede hacer?

Hay muchas maneras de expresar su preocupación sobre la posibilidad que las instalaciones industriales en su comunidad emitan contaminantes tóxicos del aire debido al debilitamiento de las protecciones existentes.

  • Si usted vive en un estado donde la contaminación tóxica del aire podría aumentar, presione a sus legisladores para que establezcan leyes estatales que protejan a su comunidad de estos contaminantes tóxicos. A continuación podrá encontrar algunas ideas para participar, y consejos para comunicarse con legisladores (enlace en inglés).
  • Pida un cita en persona con su representante o miembros de su equipo y comparta su preocupación.
  • Organice o participe en reuniones, cabildos abiertos, y otros eventos comunitarios. Aproveche el marco de las elecciones del 2018 en donde ocurrirán muchos de estos tipo de eventos y pida compromiso con este tema. Encuentre cabildos abiertos en este enlace  o en la página de su representante, y utlice esta guía para organizar un evento comunitario (en inglés).    
  • Pregúntele a la agencia responsable de la calidad del aire en su estado sobre cómo los cambios en “once in, always in” podrían afectar a su área. Encuentre su agencia estatal en la página de la EPA.
  • Utilice los medios de comunicación para atraer la atención del público sobre el tema. Escriba cartas al editor, editioriales, o reúnase con periodistas locales y juntas editoriales y comparta su preocupación. Lea estos consejos sobre cómo hacerlo (en inglés).
  • Contacte directamente a la compañía que opera la instalación industrial en su comunidad y pídales que se comprometan a mantener su clasificación y a utilizar la tecnología MACT con todos sus requisitos. Vuelva a contactarlos si no le responden en el plazo de una semana y comparta las respuestas, o los silencios, con medios locales, representantes y su comunidad.
  • Dígale a Scott Pruitt, director de la EPA, que cumpla su mandato de proteger la salud pública y al medioambiente y revoque la nueva directriz.
  • Envíele trinos en Twitter a Scott Pruitt, director de la EPA, y etiquete a sus representantes al congreso.

¿Quiere recibir la información más reciente sobre los ataques federales a nuestra salud, seguridad y protecciones ambientales, y notificaciones personalizadas sobre cómo usted puede defender la ciencia? Si tiene un posgrado, puede unirse a la Red de Científicos y su iniciativa de vigilancia (en inglés). Si usted es un líder local, únase a nuestro grupo de Science Champions (en inglés).

Scott Pruitt’s Incredible, Perpetual, Public Time-Wasting Machine

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The limbo king of record worsts has notched another low.

Last month, awash in an unrelenting cycle of scandal after headline-stealing scandal, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt found himself summoned to a day of hearings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The performance affirmed an agency head devoid of personal accountability, with Mr. Pruitt managing to gasp his way to another day solely by clambering atop the back of one scapegoat after the next.

But even more arresting than that shameless show was the display of Mr. Pruitt’s overt disregard for science and statute. When confronted with questions about his evident regulatory malfeasance, such as by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree around his roll-back of the Clean Power Plan, Administrator Pruitt had the audacity to defend himself by suggesting he was simply awaiting policy vetting from “the marketplace”:

“I’ve actually introduced an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in the marketplace to solicit comment on our authority to regulate GHG.”

The catch, of course, is that this “marketplace” has already weighed in. Fully and completely. That authority in question? It’s already been determined. And that resulting authority? It was developed into a proposed rule. And that proposed rule? It was revised and strengthened based on expert insights and public comment. And that resulting revision? It was issued as a final rule. And hey, get this: that final rule? It was already even considered in court.

But Administrator Pruitt has elected to overlook all that and head straight back to square one—not just for the Clean Power Plan, but for rule, after rule, after ruleignoring those scientific inputs, blocking those expert comments, and forestalling those relevant legal judgments.

Marvel, indeed, at E. Scott Pruitt’s Incredible Perpetual Public Time-Wasting Machine.

Oh, how low that man can go.

Mr. Pruitt goes to market

Now you’d be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, Administrator Pruitt was referring to when he pushed back against assertions of inaction by suggesting he was simply awaiting direction from “the marketplace.”

The marketplace? Which marketplace?

Well, we know it can’t be the economic marketplace, because although one would be forgiven for concluding that Mr. Pruitt only navigates by the light of the corporate stars, the administrator spent the bulk of his latest visit to the Hill swearing up and down and side to side that there was nary a Pruitt impropriety to be found. Clean as a whistle, straight shooter through and through.

We also know it can’t be the legal marketplace, because it turns out that Mr. Pruitt has done everything he can to stave off Clean Power Plan judgments from the courts, despite the fact that the court has already heard the case, and, what’s more, the EPA is now mind-bogglingly using the resulting “legal uncertainty” and existence of “open questions” to support its decision to return to regulation creation square one.

And so it must be, then, that Mr. Pruitt intended to suggest his work would be informed by the marketplace of ideas, otherwise known as expert opinions, science advisement, and public comment.

Of course, up until this moment the administrator has been working incredibly hard to consistently and repeatedly ignore, block, or reject all the inputs, evaluations, and expert judgments that have been previously submitted to said marketplace. Like for the Clean Power Plan. And fuel efficiency standards. And hazardous air pollutants. And coal ash. And chemical disasters. And methane leakage. And on, and on, and on.

But still.

For the moment, let’s meet him where he says is. To the marketplace we’ll go!

The Clean Power Plan takes another spin ’round the public comment block

It just so happens that on the same day as Mr. Pruitt’s recent hearings, the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s landmark rule on carbon emission standards for the electric power sector—was confronting something of an ignominious milestone of its own: the deadline for comment on its Pruitt-proposed repeal.

Now because Administrator Pruitt has ostensibly committed himself to being guided by these comments, it seems instructive to take a closer look. So here, an array of excerpts from the more than 1 million submissions the EPA has received—starting with those from select relevant scientific, oversight, business, and governing experts:

  • Prominent climate scientists: “The compelling motivation for a United States response to human-caused climate change, including its increasingly damaging impacts, have led a number of us to participate both in defending the CPP as amici in the earlier D.C. Circuit Case, as well as now strongly urging against the rescission of the CPP proposed currently.”
  • Former FERC commissioners: “We are a group of former Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), who were appointed by President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama. […] The CPP does not interfere with the authority of FERC, nor does it threaten the affordability and reliability of the nation’s electricity supply. EPA’s suggestions to the contrary are incorrect and are not an adequate basis for its proposed repeal of this important measure to address climate change.”
  • Apple Inc.: “Apple believes the United States must re-assert its position as a global leader by deploying well-designed, nationwide strategies – with flexibility for states – to regulate and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. Apple believes the Clean Power Plan is one of those strategies. […] Repealing the Clean Power Plan will subject consumers like Apple and our large manufacturing partners to increased investment uncertainty, and frustrate reasonable expectations.”
  • US Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities: “We oppose the Agency’s efforts to repeal the CPP, as well as have concerns with the process the Agency is using to repeal and potentially replace the CPP. […] The nation’s mayors, councilmembers and cities strongly support the CPP as a means of nationally reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the growing negative impacts of climate change on our communities.”
  • Joint Comments of Environmental, Health, and Conservation Groups: “The Proposal’s complete flight from facts and evidence and abdication of the Administrator’s decision-making responsibility render the Proposal unlawful and arbitrary and capricious.”

UCS also filed comments of our own, as well as with coalition partners relating to the unlawful nature of the proposed repeal, the faulty assessments found in its supporting Regulatory Impact Analysis, a reiteration of climate science, and the flawed estimates of the social cost of carbon.

The Peoples Climate Movement, Washington, D.C., 2017. Credit: Audrey Eyring/UCS.

Our comments reminded the administrator that climate change is a real and urgent threat, and that the EPA has clearly established authority—and obligation—to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We called out the insufficient rationale for repeal, as well as the flagrantly unlawful disregard for the robust record underpinning the rule. Finally, we hammered the agency’s intentionally deceptive analytical practices that overstated costs, understated benefits, and effectively ignored at-risk populations.

And then, of course, there were the million or so other comments submitted to the docket, impassioned and thoughtful, touching on issues from asthma and public health to clean energy and the nation we hope to be.

To be sure, these offer just the faintest hint of a glimpse. No matter what, though, it seems clear that if Administrator Pruitt is actually ready to move forward with these comments, and not just use them to further stall, he’s got a whole lot of external intelligence to work with.

Looking up, looking ahead

It seems hard to believe that Administrator Pruitt has much time left at EPA, what with wave after pounding wave of scandal cresting and crashing upon him. But today, even as the flotsam and jetsam of corruption and malfeasance buffet him about, he’s still the head of the EPA, and he’s still setting record lows.

It’s time to stop wasting people’s time, and devastating public health.

It’s time to pull EPA back from the depths, and realign the agency’s work with its mission: to protect public health and the environment.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The New Farm Bill’s Pesticide Provisions are a Sneak Attack on the Environment

A bald eagle resting on a log by a lake in Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.

Bald eagles, such as this one in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire and Maine, were driven to near extinction in the contiguous 48 states by pesticides. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

If fish could wail, they would scream over the lethal powers granted to the Environmental Protection Agency in part of the draft farm bill recently rolled out by the House Agriculture Committee. The bill, passed out of committee by Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) on a party-line vote last month, desperately fails farmers and low-income families. It also contains a number of sneak attacks on the environment. One such provision would allow the EPA to approve new pesticides with no assessment of their potential impact on fish and wildlife covered under the Endangered Species Act.

That means that EPA would no longer need to wait for independent research on the toxicity of pesticides in rivers, wetlands and prairies from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department, or in estuaries and coastal waters from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Commerce Department. The bill chillingly specifies that the EPA administrator “shall not be required to consult or communicate with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce.”

To date, most of the national publicity about the House farm bill has understandably focused on its potentially devastating effect on America’s poor, with expanded work requirements that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would eliminate 1.2 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rolls. The CBO also estimates that 400,000 households would lose benefits under higher income thresholds, eliminating free school lunch for 265,000 children. The bill also slashes child support and home heating and cooling assistance.

When it comes to wildlife, the bill envisions an EPA that pays no heed to environmental science, potentially wreaking a different kind of devastation.

Chlorpyrifos clearance only the beginning

This continues the attack on federal environmental science that began in earnest a year ago when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt derailed a ban on chlorpyrifos that was long in the works during the Obama administration. In 2000, the EPA ended that neurotoxin’s use in residential lawn and garden and indoor pest control for its toxicity to children. However, it remained America’s most-used conventional insecticide in commercial agriculture, used so heavily that the Obama-era EPA could not conclude that human exposure in residues and water runoffs met federal safety standards. One study last year found that 7-year-old children in Salinas Valley, California who lived near farms using organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion suffered deficits in intelligence and verbal comprehension.

But Pruitt cleared chlorpyrifos after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, the top maker of the pesticide. The Los Angeles Times exposed the meeting after an EPA spokesman lied that it never happened.

Emboldened by that success, Dow, which donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee and spent nearly $14 million on lobbying in 2016, pursued a far more outrageous free pass for its toxic products. It feared the results of a massive National Marine Fisheries Management study launched by the Obama administration that was not yet final, but that would likely render a very negative biological opinion on the effect of chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion on fish and wildlife. As reported by the Associated Press, Dow’s Washington law firm wrote Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urging them to dismiss any results that would come of that research, complaining that the methodology wrongly produced “unrealistically high and sometimes physically impossible estimates.”

A fleeting victory for science

For a hopeful second, it appeared that Dow had lost the argument when the fisheries service officially concluded that chlorpyrifos and malathion were each likely to directly “jeopardize” 38 species of sea life, including several species of salmon, sturgeon and killer whales, and diazinon would jeopardize 25 species. The pesticides would also “adversely” harm about the same number of critical habitats. The opinion emphasized: “Species and their prey residing in shallow aquatic habitats proximal to pesticide use sites are expected to be the most at risk.”

But Conaway (who has received nearly $5 million in campaign contributions from the agribusiness sector since 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) and his fellow republicans want to come to the rescue of Dow and the entire toxic agricultural chemical industry. Complaining that it took too long for EPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete reviews to register new compounds, all 26 Republicans, over the opposition of all 20 Democrats, voted to allow the EPA to utterly ignore any assessments by the NMFS or Fish and Wildlife.

If reauthorized as written, the farm bill would also allow the “lawful use” of pesticides to kill endangered species without fear of federal penalties and would prevent EPA and the states from requiring pesticide permits under the Water Pollution Control Act for discharges into navigable rivers. Plus, even though a vast majority of farmers embrace sustainable practices to avoid erosion and pollution, a fact recently highlighted by UCS Senior Analyst for Food Karen Perry Stillerman, the farm bill would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program.

For humans, the danger of chlorpyrifos alone was enough for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Working Group to write a joint letter to Pruitt last summer saying his EPA was rejecting years of the agency’s own science that said the pesticide’s “risk to infant and children’s health and development is unambiguous.”

A Dining Bald eagle in Conowingo, Maryland eating fish.

Dining Bald eagle, Conowingo, Maryland. In the DDT era, consumption of poisoned fished lead eagles to lay eggs too thin to hatch, leading to near-complete nesting failure by the 1970s. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

Specter of silent spring

For both humans and wildlife, the Republican reauthorization of the farm bill would usher in the weakest federal protections against pesticide abuse since Rachel Carson charted the destruction of species by overuse of DDT and other pesticides in her seminal 1962 book Silent Spring. She wrote of pesticide poisonings, and mental illness to people, documented by American, British, New Zealand and Australian researchers. One study by the University of Melbourne noted how three chemical scientists, eight greenhouse workers and five farm workers suffered from impaired memory, schizophrenia and depression. “All had normal medical histories before the chemicals they were using boomeranged and struck them down,” she wrote. She said their illness was “a heavy price to pay for the temporary destruction of a few insects, but a price that will continue to be exacted as long as we insist upon using chemicals that strike directly at the nervous system.”

As regards wildlife, Carson chronicled the near complete “annihilation” of young Coho salmon in one river in Canada and massive die-offs of trout, bluegill, sunfish, crappies, bass, catfish and many other prized fish and the insects and prey they eat in Maine, Montana, Alabama, California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Poisoned fish went up the food chain to lead to the near extinction in the contiguous 48 states of America’s national bird, the bald eagle.

In a haunting reminder of how far pesticides can travel and their ability to destroy far more than their intended pest, Carson wrote about a pesticide induced fish kill that stretched for 200 miles down the Colorado River and about how pesticides led to the decimation of 20 to 30 tons of some 30 different species of fish in a Florida salt marsh. A marine biologist by training, Carson concluded that the threat of pesticides to America’s freshwater and saltwater fisheries alike “can no longer be doubted. If we would divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways. When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?”

The proposed farm bill forces Americans to ask that question all over again. The House Agriculture Committee and the EPA under Pruitt already have their answer and the facts do not appear to matter to them. If concern for the developing brains of children was not enough to provoke the Trump administration into any real environmental protection with chlorpyrifos, concern for fish, birds and other wildlife will almost certainly not constrain EPA from approving toxic pesticides at will. The rest of America will have to wail for the fish and sing for the birds to prevent this latest attempt to roll back environmental gains from delivering another silent spring.

So, What Does the Endangered Species Act Mean to Me?

I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, a land of extremes. Temperatures could drop below -50ᵒ Fahrenheit in the winter and the darkness would seem to stretch out endlessly, while the summers provided radiant sunshine for months that infused a sense of magic into our town. Certainly, for me, the most charmed experiences from my childhood all happened in the Alaskan wilderness. I deep-sea fished on my grandparent’s boat in Prince William Sound, spending a week on the ocean each summer exploring coastline that would reach up and tower over me like a fern-covered arctic rainforest, trees hung with pale green moss. I saw sea otters floating on their backs in the surf, and watched sea birds dive for scraps cast off by anglers as they cleaned their catch on the docks. These experiences throughout Alaska shaped my desire to work in a field that allowed me to study and protect the natural world around me, including threatened and endangered species.

In southern Nevada doing some rare plants surveys.

I moved to Reno, Nevada to attend college, and ended up in the Great Basin Desert, a landscape that felt about a million miles away from the forests I’d grown up in. My first field research job entailed hiking around the desert one autumn mapping the water boundaries of the Amargosa toad, an amphibian up for listing consideration under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the time. Post-undergraduate work led me to an environmental non-profit, where I coordinated the monitoring of habitat restoration projects for the Greater sage-grouse, a large bird also being considered for protections under the ESA during that period. Now, in graduate school and subsequent professional experiences, I’ve worked on rare and endangered plant surveys, hiking across harsh desert terrain to search for shy little species like the Black wooly pod.

As I look back on my experiences, I’ve realized that in the decade since I began my journey as a research scientist, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in not one, but two ESA success stories. Through a collective effort by government organizations, private landowners, and other stakeholders, both the Amargosa toad and the Greater sage-grouse are no longer up for listing under the ESA. These accomplishments have been the product of incredibly large-scale collaborations across agencies, disciplines, and state boundaries, and were no easy feat. However, the Trump administration has recently proposed loosening the hard-won protections for sage-grouse, underlining the need for continued vigilance by scientists and science-supporters to ensure those interest groups benefiting from such a decision are held accountable.

I’m still early in my career, and I found it difficult at first to articulate what the Endangered Species Act means to me. But, after reflecting on my experiences, I’ve realized my personal and professional journey to where I am today has been wholly influenced by the ESA.

Nevada scientist Rob Mrowka and I went to Washington, DC, to meet with our legislators and advocate to protect the Endangered Species Act.

I was able to advance my support for the law when I traveled to Washington, D.C. this past February to take part in a collaborative effort between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition to bring awareness to threats against the Endangered Species Act. Along with Rob Mrowka, a career scientist from Nevada, I met with our state legislators and their staff to discuss the importance of protecting the ESA and the species it covers. In collaboration with other scientists from across the country, our collective efforts helped raise awareness of riders and amendments meant to weaken important ESA protections, and I am thrilled to say that many of these provisions were rejected by Congress in the end. To me, this victory reinforced how important our voices as scientists and science-supporters are, and how diving into the politics of science to contribute our expertise and opinions can truly have an impact. We should not feel helpless in these challenging times when we have so much power in collaboration.

So, what does the ESA mean to me? It means opportunities for research, and a chance to take lessons learned from one species’ survival story and apply them to other complex conservation problems. It means collaboration, among people that may not otherwise ever share a meeting. It means support, for those species awarded protections they might desperately need to stabilize and grow, ensuring we maintain our biodiversity on this planet. And it means hope, that a small toad only living along a single ten-mile stretch of road, or a bird that performs one of the most beautiful mating displays I’ve ever witnessed, can rise up from the threat of extinction, all because of the collective efforts of a community.

As scientists, please join me in signing this letter telling Congress to protect science and the Endangered Species Act, because our collective voices are louder and can do more than any one of us alone.

 

Cody Ernst-Brock is currently finishing her M.S. at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program. Her research centers on analyses of restoration projects implemented across the state, often in sensitive sage-grouse, pygmy rabbit, and mule deer habitat. She hopes to continue her work in conservation and restoration post-graduation, preferably in a capacity that allows her to travel. In her free time she enjoys exploring her home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where you can find her mountain biking, kayaking, and swimming in Lake Tahoe.

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 Would a Flawed 2020 Census Affect You? I Talked with Someone Who Knows

Not to be outdone by other Secretaries who are gaining a lot more public attention, on March 26, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said “Hold my beer…” then announced that he was going along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. The decision was announced despite concerns about the threat of a population undercount voiced by previous Census directors, the scientific and voting rights communities, and leaders in the public and private sectors.

Most people understand the threat of an undercount for the primary purpose for which the U.S. Census was designed: the apportionment of seats to the U.S. House of Representatives. The first Census, mandated by the Constitution and engineered by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, also included some demographic questions, but it was the total population data that Jefferson used to apportion seats, of about 30,000 persons per seat.

According to estimates from Election Data Services, the 2020 Census data will impact over a dozen states by changing their Congressional delegations. As the table below shows, under current population projections, and with the size of the House capped at 435, seven states look to gain at least one seat, and Texas and Florida could gain more. Nine states would lose seats, based on relative population changes.

States Gaining Districts (7) States Losing Districts (8 or 9) Arizona +1 (from 9 to 10) Alabama -1 (from 7 to 6) Colorado +1 (from 7 to 8) Illinois -1 (from 18 to 17) Florida +2 (from 27 to 29) Michigan -1 (from 14 to 13) Montana even or +1 (from At-large to 2) Minnesota -1 or even (from 8 to 7 or no change) North Carolina +1 (from 13 to 14) New York -1 (from 27 to 26) Oregon +1 (from 5 to 6) Ohio -1 (from 16 to 15) Texas +2 or +3 (from 36 to 38 or 39) Pennsylvania -1 (from 18 to 17) Rhode Island -1 (from 2 to 1) West Virginia -1 (from 3 to 2)

Apportionment is obviously very consequential for democratic representation (and partisan control of Congress), but there are additional, economic consequences of an undercount that are less well understood.

Andrew Reamer, Research Professor at George Washington University, has analyzed the fiscal impact of Census undercounts to states, and is producing a series of reports, Counting Dollars for 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds. In this series, Reamer breaks down the various types of programs that receive federal funds, and estimates what per capita and overall costs would result from undercount estimates.

For example, in a recent analysis of five Health and Human Service programs that rely on the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) funding formula, Reamer showed how an additional 1% population undercount for Texas in 2010 would have resulted in a nearly $300 million loss in funding for these programs. That’s more than $1000 per person.

In upcoming reports, Reamer is working to analyze approximately 300 programs and $800 billion of funding that could be affected by a Census undercount. Moreover, he pointed out that there would be losses in both the public and private sectors that would be very difficult to quantify, given the importance of Census data that is linked to so many organizational decisions throughout the U.S. economy.

For example, consider all of the geographically specific demographic data linked to the identification of medically underserved areas, used to allocate support for medical programs, including physician training and funding for doctors to serve specific services. Errors in Census data, which are used to weight and design the sampling surveys that provide medical supply and demand information, could have far-reaching rippling effects throughout the economy.

“An accurate Decennial Census has a substantial impact on how the American economy functions,” noted Reamer, to “identify business opportunities, determine where to locate, and what to sell.” In addition to all of the market segmentation analysis that public-facing companies like Target and Walmart rely on to understand population characteristics and anticipate consumption patterns, businesses rely on Census-derived information (information that is not taken directly from the Census, but that builds on the basic population data provided by the Census) to make employment decisions, in order to invest in places with people who have the skills that they need to operate.

Small businesses use Census-derived data to make location and purchasing decisions, even if they don’t know it. Market analysis vendors repackage and augment this data when they provide consumer reports, consumer ratings, and the like to private and media clients. In short, there are very few areas of social or economic organization that are not impacted by the quality of Census data.

Professor Reamer’s next report will be a more complete listing of all federal financial assistance programs that rely on Census-derived data, hopefully released early this summer. You can follow the series at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

How Trump’s Proposed Cuts to the EPA’s Science and Technology Budget Endanger Our Health and Safety

Photo: Pesticide Action Network

Most people have a vague understanding of what our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does. Some people may have memories of killer smog and rivers on fire and how badly our air and water were contaminated in the not-so-distant past. They may know that the agency is somehow responsible for ensuring that our air and water are clean, that our land and treasured natural resources are protected, and that our health is not damaged by toxic chemicals and pollutants. 

Because the environment is a critical determinant of human health, the EPA is really a public health agency, with environment in its name. And science plays a fundamental and essential role in its ability of to fulfill its responsibilities to the American public.

With hearings and debates on the fiscal year (FY) 2019 federal budget getting underway in Congress, we are once again working to defend the budget of the EPA against attacks from the Trump administration and some in Congress. We are paying particular attention to the science and technology (S&T) component of the EPA budget because of the fundamental role that science plays across the agency in its mission to protect our health and the health of our environment.

Rather than cutting the resources for critical programs, our leaders should be boosting investment in them.  Here’s why.

Understanding the EPA’s Science and Technology account

The S&T account: It may sound esoteric and parsing this budget component can certainly be daunting. But what it covers and the benefits it brings us are easy to understand. Essentially, the S&T account funds science-based research throughout the agency.

Here’s just a snapshot of the programs, activities, and research and development efforts that fall under this EPA budget category—along with some info on what the Trump administration is proposing for them in FY19. These budget proposals are chilling and, if implemented, would certainly hamper the EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Proposed Budget for EPA Science and Technology Account (Dollars in Thousands)*

Clean air:  Know someone with asthma, heart, or respiratory disease?  The S&T account is critical to their health. It supports EPA efforts and activities to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, examine the effects of air pollution on public health, track progress in improving air quality and reducing associated risks, and provide models, tools, and technical guidance to states. The EPA is our nation’s primary source of atmospheric data on acid deposition, regional ground-level ozone, and other forms of particulate and gaseous pollutants that put our families and communities at risk.

And that pollution from cars, trucks, buses, nonroad vehicles (such as farm and construction equipment)—and the fuels that power them? The S&T budget is critical to developing and implementing standards to control their harmful emissions, as well as evaluating new control technologies. It allows the EPA to provide information and tools to states, local, and tribal agencies, as well as communities, to reduce air toxics emissions and risks specific to their local areas.

The S&T budget also supports our National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Testing Laboratory—a state of the art facility and national resource in Ann Arbor, Michigan that conducts the research and testing needed to develop and ensure compliance with tailpipe emissions standardsthe safeguards that control and protect us from breathing in harmful chemical and particulate pollutants from transportation sources. And remember the news that Volkswagen and  Audi were cheating on their US emissions tests by installing software in their  diesel cars?  It was our national Vehicles Lab that confirmed it and then recalled the offending vehicles.

Recent analysis has shown that the public will reap clean air benefits to the tune of $2 trillion (that’s trillion with a T) by the year 2020, compared to estimated costs of $65 billion in the same time period. Given that clean air is absolutely essential to our health and EPA efforts around clean air have been one of EPA’s biggest public health success stories, it’s pure folly to entertain cuts to these efforts. To keep them robust and up-to-date, increases in funding make much more sense. But President Trump has proposed cutting $30,845,000 from EPA S&T programs that focus on clean air. That’s 27% cut from the final budget passed in FY18. That certainly won’t help us breathe any easier!

Indoor Air: The administration is proposing to eliminate two indoor air programs funded by the S&T account and shift the responsibility of protecting families from exposure to indoor air pollutants back to the states. These include the radon program and the program to reduce risks from indoor air. Radon is a known human carcinogen and a significant cause of lung cancer, even at low exposure levels.

Other indoor air contaminants also pose health risks, and the EPA has been conducting and coordinating research on indoor air quality, doing field testing, and providing information and technical support to states and localities. As the EPA seeks to increasingly shift responsibility back to the states, it’s reasonable to question if the states will have the resources and capacity to address radon and other indoor air pollution in residents’ homes and living spaces and adequately help protect them from the associated health effects.

Given the public health significance of indoor air pollution and the fact that we spend the vast amount of our lifetimes indoors, what we really need to see is increased funding to support research and technology to reduce the health risks to our children, our families, and our communities.

Emergency Response Preparedness:  When emergencies and disasters strike, we expect our federal agencies to be ready to respond. Through its Homeland Security sub-budgets, the S&T account at the EPA ensures that the agency (and thus we the affected public) will have the science, analyses, sampling, and measurement capacity needed to respond to radiological or nuclear incidents, to oil and hazardous substance emergencies, to terrorist and cyber threats, and to all-hazard events on our nation’s critical water infrastructure.

The EPA is responsible for remediating contaminated environments affected by industrial accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. The S&T budget supports the research needed to fill the critical gaps in the EPA’s ability to carry out these responsibilities and help communities prepare for, absorb, and recover from disasters.

Given the many serious chemical emergencies experienced by our communities in just the past few yearslike explosions at oil refineries and chemical plantsalong with the health impacts, social disruption, and property damage caused by these events and by the increasing ferocity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods it is critical to ensure that the agency has the funding it needs to help us prepare, respond, and recover effectively when disaster strikes.

Pesticides: By design, pesticides are meant to killpests. But they are dangerous neurotoxins that can and do kill and sicken people as well. A 2012 study of human exposure to pesticides in the US reported an average of 130,136 calls to poison control centers from 2006 to 2010, with an average of 20,116 cases (17.8%) treated in health care facilities annually. The Agency for Health Care Quality and Research reported an annual average of 7385 emergency room visits during 2006 to 2008, and 1419 annual hospitalizations during 2005 to 2009. Between February 2016 and February 2017, 2,577 pesticide exposure incidents were reported by the National Pesticide Information Center.

The EPA is responsible for registering and re-evaluating pesticides to protect consumers, pesticide users, and workers who apply them, as well as children and other sensitive populations. The agency’s Chemical Safety, Pollution Prevention and Pesticide program relies on the science and analytical capability of two of its laboratories to evaluate possible adverse effects of pesticide use and determine the risks they pose to public health. EPA pesticide programs also use the latest science and conduct risk assessments to determine the risks that pesticides pose to human health and ecological effects on plants, animals, and ecosystems that are not the targets of the pesticide. The agency also has responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act related to pesticide use. Despite all this, the administration is proposing to cut the EPA pesticide licensing program by 15%.

Research: While most if not all of the above mentioned programs include analytical components, EPA’s S&T account specifically identifies several budget categories as research. These include:

  • Air and Energy Research provides scientific information to EPA programs and regional offices. This line item supports the analysis and publication of research to disseminate EPA research findings on air quality, emissions, and health impacts across all 50 states. It is the scientific cornerstone on EPA efforts to identify and recommend action to reduce air pollution, including the health disparities of air pollutants, and to protect the health and well-being of the American public.Our communities, local and state officials, public health agencies, and health care institutions rely on the findings of this research to stay informed and take necessary action. In this year’s proposed budget, down by a whopping 66%.
  • Chemical Safety and Sustainability Research evaluates how the use and disposal of thousands of chemicals, both existing and under development, might affect public health and the environment. This research provides the fundamental information, tools, and methods needed to make better-informed and more timely decisions about the chemicals in use in the USincluding those used in our homes, schools, and workplaces and that find their way into our consumer products, household items, water, and food.It also supports the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), the gold-standard of toxicity reviews that provides critical and impartial information on cancer and non-cancer health risksindependent of its use by EPA programs and regional offices. In FY18, the administration proposed eliminating IRIS, but Congress did not agree and provided IRIS with level funding. In its FY19 proposal, the administration plans to “review” IRIS, including moving from traditional IRIS assessments to “fit-for-purpose” products to ensure risk assessments remains responsive to stakeholders/partners. This modification will surely be welcome news to the agency’s industry stakeholders; not so much for their public, community, and public health stakeholders.In this year’s proposed budget, the chemical safety and sustainability research line is down 33%.
  • Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research provides the robust research and scientific analysis needed to inform policy making under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. This is the essential research needed to ensure that the water in our lakes, streams, and rivers are healthy and safe enough to drink, to fish, and to enjoy for swimming and boating. The program develops analytical methods for detecting emerging contaminants, and develops sampling protocols and risk models to help states and communities protecting human health from well-known contaminants, like lead in drinking water. One needs only to reference Flint to understand the critical importance of this research program.
  • Sustainable Communities Research supports regulatory activities and provides on-demand technical support for federal, tribal and state-led cleanup activities and during emergencies. It conducts health, environmental engineering, and ecological research, translating their findings into planning and analysis tools for communities to improve environmental and health outcomes. For example, program researchers found a way to estimate how drinking water, food, dust, soil, and air contribute to the lead levels in the blood of infants and young children. Communities take note: The administration proposes to cut this research program by 60%.
Our national labs

EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), supported by the S&T Account, supports three national labs and four national centers located in 14 facilities across the country. The experts in these labs and centers are the linchpins of research and development efforts that inform the EPA programs and efforts described above. They are also members of their local communities, maybe even your neighbors.  Locations include: Ada, OK; Athens, GA; Chapel Hill, NC, Cincinnati, OH; Corvallis, OR; Duluth, MN; Edison, NH; Grosse Ile, MI; Gulf Breeze, FL; Las Vegas, NV (soon to be shuttered); Narragansett, RI; Newport, OR; Research Triangle Park, NC; and Washington, DC.

Despite the centrality of ORD research to our public health, environmental quality, and emergency preparedness, President Trump has proposed cutting its FY19 budget by 46% and staffing levels by 37% compared to the FY18 annualized continuing resolution budget. Ask yourself: Does this ensure that EPA has the robust and necessary resources and expertise to meet the scientific challenges of the future? To me, this looks more like a giant step backwards.

From Alaska and Hawaii to the lower 48: cause for concern

No matter where you call home in this vast and beautiful country, we can likely all agree that our health, our communities, our air, land, water, our treasured landmarks, and our critical environmental resources need safeguarding and protecting. The song says, “This land is our land.” We need to remember that “this EPA is our EPA”we the people are meant to be the primary beneficiaries of its mission. Not the regulated industry.

Air pollution remains a significant risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and premature death across the country. More than half of all Americans166 million peoplelive in counties where people are exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution. Fairbanks, Alaska was ranked #1 for annual particulate pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas and #4 for 24-hour particulate pollution out of 201 metropolitan areas. Los Angeles – Long Beach, CA ranked #1 for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan areas, #7 for 24-hour particle pollution out of 201 metropolitan areas, and #4 for annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas.

A series of maps from UCS shows locations of facilities with reduced pollution control requirements and shows the potential emissions increases by congressional district.

And the recent EPA decision to strip away a key component of the agency’s “once in, always in” (OIAI) air pollution protection policy could result in increased emissions of toxic pollutants from major industrial sources in essentially every state. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced an interactive map of industrial facilities with reduced pollution control requirements and potential emission increases by congressional district. A double whammy when coupled with the proposed cuts in EPA clean air programs and research.

Oh, and don’t get me started on EPA’s new proposal to restrict the science going into its decision-making. Actually, the science community has sounded the alarm loud and clearhere, here, and here.

Stand up for science at the EPA

The EPA is a critical component of our nation’s efforts to protect our health and the quality of the environment on which it depends. Without a robust scientific enterprise, it is hard to imagine how EPA can address the problems we are facing today, let alone the known and unknown threats we will be facing tomorrow.

The current administration’s proposal for resourcing science and technology at EPA reflects dangerous short-term thinking. Now is the time to weigh in and ask your legislators to oppose any cuts to the EPA S&T budget and to support an increase in funding for the critical scientific research and staff needed to protect and advance our health now and into the future.

Call your legislators today at 202-224-3121, and ask them to protect—and invest—in science at the EPA

Pesticide Action Network

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