Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 25 May 2018 16:02:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 Did My Tea Leaves Reveal the Supreme Court’s Upcoming Gerrymandering Ruling? https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/did-my-tea-leaves-reveal-the-supreme-courts-upcoming-gerrymandering-ruling https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/did-my-tea-leaves-reveal-the-supreme-courts-upcoming-gerrymandering-ruling#respond Fri, 25 May 2018 13:59:55 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58831

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.

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EPA Extends Comment Deadline, Schedules Hearing on Science Proposal After Pretty Much Everyone Complains https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/epa-extends-comment-deadline-schedules-hearing-on-science-proposal-after-pretty-much-everyone-complains https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/epa-extends-comment-deadline-schedules-hearing-on-science-proposal-after-pretty-much-everyone-complains#respond Thu, 24 May 2018 16:43:53 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58805

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.

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Between Two Terns: A Conversation on Endangered Species and Social Justice https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/between-two-terns-a-conversation-on-endangered-species-and-social-justice https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/between-two-terns-a-conversation-on-endangered-species-and-social-justice#respond Thu, 24 May 2018 14:04:12 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58790
Pictured: The interior least tern (Sterna antillarum), a federally protected endangered species. USFWS

Endangered Species Day was introduced as a resolution 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 in serving 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.

 

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Testimony Reveals the Real Controversy over Census Data and Voting Rights https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/testimony-reveals-the-real-controversy-over-census-data-and-voting-rights https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/testimony-reveals-the-real-controversy-over-census-data-and-voting-rights#respond Wed, 23 May 2018 16:53:43 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58774

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.

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Did EPA Consult With The Chemical Industry While Working To Suppress A Scientific Study On PFAS? https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/did-epa-consult-with-the-chemical-industry-while-working-to-suppress-a-scientific-study-on-pfas https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/did-epa-consult-with-the-chemical-industry-while-working-to-suppress-a-scientific-study-on-pfas#respond Mon, 21 May 2018 18:31:25 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58750
Photo: EPA

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.

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Now Is the Time To Halt the EPA’s Restrictions on Science https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/now-is-the-time-to-halt-the-epas-restrictions-on-science https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/now-is-the-time-to-halt-the-epas-restrictions-on-science#respond Mon, 21 May 2018 13:07:17 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58703

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.

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Five Things You Should Know About EPA’s Proposed Giant Step Backward on the Safety of Chemical Facilities https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/five-things-you-should-know-about-epas-proposed-giant-step-backward-on-the-safety-of-chemical-facilities https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/five-things-you-should-know-about-epas-proposed-giant-step-backward-on-the-safety-of-chemical-facilities#comments Thu, 17 May 2018 21:18:53 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58684
Members 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.

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Bipartisan Outrage as EPA, White House Try to Cover Up Chemical Health Assessment https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/bipartisan-outrage-as-epa-white-house-try-to-cover-up-chemical-health-assessment https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/bipartisan-outrage-as-epa-white-house-try-to-cover-up-chemical-health-assessment#respond Wed, 16 May 2018 21:04:09 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58662
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 Office of Management and Budget (OMB), 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, White House OMB political appointee Jim Herz flagged a message from an unidentified White House intergovernmental affairs official for EPA political appointee and Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves that ATSDR’s draft Toxicological Profile for four PFAS (PFOS, PFOA, PFHX, and PFNA) had very low Minimal Risk Level numbers. The White House intergovernmental affairs official 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 White House 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
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Among President Trump’s Dismal Judicial Nominees, Wendy Vitter Stands Out for Promoting Unscientific Myths https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/among-president-trumps-dismal-judicial-nominees-wendy-vitter-stands-out-for-promoting-unscientific-myths https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-halpern/among-president-trumps-dismal-judicial-nominees-wendy-vitter-stands-out-for-promoting-unscientific-myths#comments Wed, 16 May 2018 17:01:10 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58646

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?

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Back to Bad Air: The Trump EPA’s Attack on Science and Our Health https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/back-to-bad-air-the-trump-epas-attack-on-science-and-our-health https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/back-to-bad-air-the-trump-epas-attack-on-science-and-our-health#comments Tue, 15 May 2018 18:14:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58620

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: Eltiempo10/CC BY-SA 4.0 (Wikimedia)
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