Pruitt six months in: “taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it”

By Martha Roberts

In Scott Pruitt’s six-month tenure as President Trump’s EPA Administrator, his administration has firmly established a reputation for secrecy and for glossing over conflicts of interest.  

This pattern of making decisions behind closed doors and stocking EPA with industry representatives is problematic for many reasons, but most importantly because so many of those decisions are putting our health at risk.

Former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus — appointed by Presidents Nixon and Reagan —described Pruitt’s tenure thus far:

[I]t appears that what is happening now is taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it.

Pruitt’s troubling pattern of behavior has even caught the interest of the EPA’s Inspector General, who recently opened an investigation into Pruitt’s repeated travel to Oklahoma at taxpayers’ expense. And one of Pruitt’s handpicked appointees, Albert Kelly, was just penalized by a federal banking agency for “unsound practices” in his previous position as a bank CEO.

Weakening safeguards across the board

As we’ve documented, Pruitt has a troubling record of attacking public safeguards without providing any opportunity for public input – including protections against toxic wastewater, oil and gas pollution, climate pollution, and safety risks at major chemical facilities.

Pruitt took aim at limits on smog that would prevent 230,000 childhood asthma attacks every year. He tried to unilaterally delay these standards without any public input on his decision, until eventually he backed down in the face of legal and public backlash.

Pruitt also suspended enforcement of existing standards for pollution from oil and gas facilities without any public input. Pruitt’s announcement did not even mention the harmful health impacts from halting implementation of pollution controls for 18,000 wells across the country. Earlier this month a federal appeals court overwhelmingly rejected Pruitt’s move as illegal after a panel decision that deemed Pruitt’s actions “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”

Undermining enforcement that holds polluters accountable 

A recent analysis of EPA’s enforcement program showed that penalties against polluters have dropped by a remarkable 60 percent since the Inauguration. Not holding companies responsible for their pollution has tangible impacts in the form of more pollution, more illness, and more avoidable, early deaths.

The Trump Administration’s proposed budget calls for a 40 percent cut to EPA’s enforcement office, which would further hamper EPA’s ability to hold polluters accountable. Meanwhile, EPA overall would face a 30 percent cut, which also puts public health at risk.

Pruitt sometimes tries to mask his focus on rolling back important EPA initiatives. For example, he claims to be concentrating on cleaning up contaminated land through EPA’s Superfund program, yet the Trump Administration’s budget proposal would cut Superfund by more than 30 percent.

Pervasive conflicts of interest

In Pruitt’s former role as Oklahoma Attorney General, he was exposed for cutting and pasting industry requests and sending them to EPA on his official stationary. He shamelessly responded by calling his conduct “representative government in my view.”

At EPA, Pruitt and his most senior advisors are now driving vital decisions about public health notwithstanding clear, severe conflicts of interest.

As just one example, Dr. Nancy Beck, the senior political appointee in EPA’s toxic chemicals office, recently left her prior position at the chemicals industry’s main trade association. In her current role at EPA, she has a key role in implementing the new reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act passed last year. In this capacity, Dr. Beck is making decisions that directly affect the financial interests of companies she represented in her previous position on issues on which she advocated for the chemical industry as recently as earlier this year. The unsurprising result? Important protections are being weakened or reversed.  

Pruitt’s lax approach to ethics may also extend to his travel schedule. Pruitt’s travel records show that he traveled repeatedly to Oklahoma at taxpayer expense, straining EPA’s limited resources. (Some sources have speculated that Pruitt’s extensive travel may be a run up to a future Pruitt campaign for political office in Oklahoma.) As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, EPA’s Inspector General has now opened an investigation into the matter 

Pruitt’s appointment of Albert Kelly is another example of how he seems to tolerate behavior that other administrations would find unacceptable. Pruitt appointed the former banking CEO to lead a task force on Superfund cleanup sites. As we mentioned earlier, just this week Kelly was sanctioned by the FDIC, which issued a lifetime bar against his participation in any future banking-related activities and noted violations that involved Kelly’s “willful or continuing disregard for the safety or soundness of the bank” where he was CEO. Nonetheless, Pruitt continues to entrust Kelly with the responsibility for leading efforts to reform management of the billion-dollar hazardous waste clean-up program.

Pruitt’s pattern of secrecy

This summer Pruitt won the Golden Padlock Award, given by investigative reporters and editors to recognize the most secretive U.S. agency or individual.  

Robert Cribb, chair of the Golden Padlock committee, noted:

Judges were impressed with the breadth and scope of Pruitt’s information suppression techniques around vital matters of public interest.

Pruitt has overseen the elimination of important climate science resources that EPA previously made publicly available on its website. EDF recently received more than 1,900 items from EPA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for climate-related information and data deleted from, or modified on, EPA websites.

Even the basics of how Pruitt spends his business hours, and with whom he spends them, are hidden from the public. Contravening a bi-partisan EPA transparency practice, Pruitt no longer makes senior management calendars — including his own — available to the public. The website comparison below highlights this sudden change:

EPA’s website on January 19, 2017

And the same page today

The start of Scott Pruitt’s term as EPA Administrator has been marked by continuous attacks on our public health safeguards and government transparency. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that Pruitt is keeping Americans in the dark about his actions, because the more we learn, the more we see reasons to be outraged. The American public deserves better from the senior leader in charge of protecting our health and welfare from dangerous pollution.

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New Pew/RWJF report rigorously evaluates options and recommends 10 policies

By Tom Neltner

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

For the past 2 years, the issue of lead – in paint, water, dust, soil, food, toys, and kids’ blood – has been extensively covered in the news. The crises in Flint and East Chicago have laid bare the vulnerability of communities across the U.S. The evidence is now clear that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. What used to be tolerable is no longer acceptable. Evidence from studies of children show clearly that levels of lead in blood affect brain development at levels below those once considered acceptable and should not be tolerated. We must be vigilant to prevent young children’s exposure to lead.

We have already made substantial progress as a nation. From 1999 to 2014, mean blood lead levels in young children dropped 56% and the levels over 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood dropped 86%. This change was due to smart policies, effective regulations, funding, and vigilance from federal, state and local agencies as well as private and non-profit organizations. Despite this headway, lead exposure continues to be a significant problem, preventing our communities from thriving and holding back the future generations from achieving their full potential.

Last year, several organizations developed comprehensive plans1 to eliminate lead exposure. Each added value to the discussion. Today, a new report from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), provides a rigorous analysis of the costs of lead and the impact of various policy solutions to help protect children from the harms of lead exposure. My colleague, Ananya Roy, and I served as advisors on the project.

The Pew/RWJF report found that no source of lead exposure predominates and that a comprehensive response is needed to continue to make progress on protecting children from lead. The report estimates that for the babies born in 2018, if blood lead levels were kept to zero micrograms per deciliter, the benefits would amount to $84 billion, excluding the cost of intervening, and made five key findings:

  1. Removing leaded drinking water service lines from the homes of children born in 2018 would protect more than 350,000 children and yield $2.7 billion in future benefits, or about $1.33 per dollar invested.
  2. Eradicating lead paint hazards from older homes of children from low-income families would provide $3.5 billion in future benefits, or approximately $1.39 per dollar invested, and protect more than 311,000 children.
  3. Ensuring that contractors comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule that requires lead-safe renovation, repair, and painting practices would protect about 211,000 children born in 2018 and provide future benefits of $4.5 billion, or about $3.10 per dollar spent.
  4. Eliminating lead from airplane fuel would protect more than 226,000 children born in 2018 who live near airports, generate $262 million in future benefits, and remove roughly 450 tons of lead from the environment every year.
  5. Providing targeted, evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions to the roughly 1.8 million children with a history of lead exposure could increase their lifetime family incomes and likelihood of graduating from high school and college and decrease their potential for teen parenthood and criminal conviction.

Collectively, the federal, state and local governments would receive an estimated $3.2 billion in benefits from the first three actions through education savings and increased revenues. The Pew/RWJF Report describes 10 policies to provide a comprehensive strategic response to reduce harm from lead. Each policy recommendation includes more details on the federal, state and local actions that need to be undertaken.

Priority Sources

  1. Reduce lead in drinking water in homes built before 1986 and other places children frequent.
  2. Remove lead paint hazards from low-income housing built before 1960 and other places children spend time.
  3. Increase enforcement of the federal renovation, repair, and painting rule.

Additional Sources

  1. Reduce lead in food and consumer products.
  2. Reduce air lead emissions.
  3. Clean up contaminated soil.

Poisoning Response

  1. Improve blood lead testing among children at high risk of exposure and find and remediate the sources of their exposure.
  2. Ensure access to developmental and neuropsychological assessments and appropriate high-quality programs for children with elevated blood lead levels.

Data and Research

  1. Improve public access to local data.
  2. Fill gaps in research to better target state and local prevention and response efforts.

This report comes just in time for the federal government to update its 2000 strategy to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. In May 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, co-chaired by EPA and Department of Health and Human Service, is “developing an updated federal strategy to address lead risks to children from a variety of sources.” This effort was launched in November 2016 with an inventory of key federal programs to reduce childhood lead exposure. Past progress shows that sound policies can have an impact and the Pew/RWJF report shows there is much more that can be done. We hope the task force will take its recommendations to heart as it moves forward with the updated strategy.

 

1 See Coalition of 49 Health, Environmental & Children’s Organizations, Call for National Strategy to End Lead Poisoning and Lead Exposure (October 2016), Green and Health Homes Initiative’s Strategic Plan to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (October 2016), National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition’s Find It, Fix It, Fund It Campaign (December 2016), and National Lead Summit’s Playbook to End Lead Poisoning in 5 Years (March 2017).

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HSUS rescuers wade through Texas floods to save, evacuate animals

Today, our teams are doing rescue and response in Dickinson and League City, both in Galveston County. We’ve already been to Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Texas City. Above, The HSUS Animal Rescue Team returns with two cats who were trapped inside a home.

Photo by Anthony Rathbun/AP Images for The HSUS

During Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, it felt like The HSUS and other animal groups not only fought surging waters, rain, and wind, but we also had to fight some government agencies and key private agencies whose leaders just didn’t get it when it came to animal welfare. In the early stages of the response, some . . . 

The post HSUS rescuers wade through Texas floods to save, evacuate animals appeared first on A Humane Nation.

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California’s new methane leakage requirements for gas utilities are already delivering benefits

By Renee McVay

EDF Schneider fellow Scott Roycroft co-authored this post

California’s gas utilities have had their share of problems in recent years – so improvements in environmental impacts, operations, and safety are important to track.

In 2014, the California legislature passed a law to require utility companies to publicly disclose data on gas leaks and emissions while working to actually cut those emissions.  Now, three years later, utility reporting has been standardized, an emissions trend has emerged, and the results are significant.

Graphic 1: A depiction of the volume of methane emissions from California utilities between 2015 and 2016. Emissions from the Aliso Canyon blowout are shown as a separate category.

According to the emissions data, from 2015 to 2016, both Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) have shown a reduction in their total annual emissions of leaked and vented gas.  PG&E was in front, with an 11% reduction of natural gas methane emissions, while SoCalGas — the nation’s largest utility — reduced its emissions by 3%. Together – the reduction in emissions from these two utilities is equal to nearly 700,000 metric tons of CO2e on a 20 year basis.

Even with the reductions though, there is still much room for improvement. Overall, if you exclude emissions from the Aliso Canyon blowout, natural gas utilities across California emitted about 6.2 billion cubic feet of methane — enough to provide natural gas to over 165,000 homes in California for the year. This is gas that customers paid for but is never delivered – also referred to as Lost and Unaccounted for Gas. The top three sources of emissions are customer meter leaks, distribution pipeline leaks, and distribution station leaks. Together, these three sources comprise 73% of total statewide utility emissions – and each have solutions to reduce their pollution.

Graphic 2: A depiction of the source categories of methane emissions from California utilities in 2016. Note: emissions from the Aliso Canyon blowout are not included in this analysis.

A red flag on Grade 3 pipeline leaks

About a quarter of the state’s natural gas emissions from utility systems come from distribution pipelines – and more than half of pipeline leaks are what companies classify as “Grade 3” leaks.  Reason being: since Grade 3 leaks are technically non-hazardous, until now companies have not been required to repair them, regardless of size.

Leak Age (in years) Less than 5 5-10 10-20 20+
Total Leaks 18,333 2,279 468 51

 

Looking at discovery dates for Grade 3 leaks shows just how long companies often take to repair these leaks; according to the data some of these leaks were discovered in the late 1980’s and still have not been repaired. Although some utilities have implied they are committed to repairing these older leaks, real and sustained action is needed to ensure continued abatement of all Grade 3 leaks – action which is required in the state’s new leakage abatement program.

Leak information can be correlated to pipeline materials

Public utility companies keep detailed records of leaks they discover, including date of discovery, geographic location, pipeline material, and pipeline pressure. With the new reporting by utilities, the public has access to information on how leakage correlates to pipe material (for example, older cast iron pipes are more leak prone than newer plastic pipes) and other qualities.

New technologies find greater number of gas leaks

The data also reveals that some technologies are more effective than others at finding a greater number of gas leaks. PG&E uses advanced leak detection technology to locate a large number of Grade 3 leaks, whereas other utilities do not. This partially explains why PG&E is registering more leaks on its system today than in prior years and also likely part of why they may be experiencing larger emission reductions than others. According to recent analyses, leak discovery is expected to increase in coming years as these technologies are more widely adopted.

What can be learned from California’s leak data

Requiring companies to report gas leaks has been instrumental in increasing transparency and sheds valuable insights on the tools and practices that can deliver the biggest emission reductions. And it helps utility customers and consumer advocates learn more about the gas that customers pay for but is emitted into the atmosphere.

As a result of this data, in June 2017 the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) started requiring companies to begin the implementation of 26 best practices for reducing emissions – including targeting and scheduling Grade 3 leaks for repair. Once these practices are fully implemented, utilities are expected to reduce methane emissions by 40% by the year 2030.

It’s clear that better leak reporting is a critical part of reducing natural gas emissions. By requiring companies to disclose leak data California is once again demonstrating what climate change leadership looks like and setting a powerful example that other states can follow.

 

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Torrential rains and violent storm surge: Why hurricane impacts are getting worse

By Scott Weaver

Wikimedia

(This post originally appeared on EDF Voices)

As Hurricane Harvey barreled toward the coast of Texas last week with increasing intensity, forecasters were issuing dire warnings about life-threatening storm surge and torrential rain in addition to the dangerous winds that hurricanes bring.

It was no coincidence. As our climate warms, we’re experiencing ever-more devastating storm surges and record rainfalls during hurricane season – which is also why these storms are becoming more destructive and costly.

Evaporation means storms carry more water

Harvey, which formed quickly in an abnormally warm Gulf of Mexico, is dumping historic amounts of rain – 30-plus inches in the Houston area so far – with more expected, leading to catastrophic flooding in America’s fourth largest city.

So why do hurricanes bring more rain in a warmer climate? Evaporation intensifies as temperatures rise, increasing the amount of water vapor that storms pull into their systems as they travel across warm oceans. That makes for higher rainfall and more flooding when they hit land.

Unfortunately for Texas, Harvey has stalled out as a tropical storm, now drenching parts of Texas and Louisiana.

Sea level rise makes storm surges worse

Storm surge occurs when waters rise above their normal levels and are pushed inland by wind.

With Katrina, which hit land as a Category 3 hurricane, it was the storm surge that caused the levees to fail, leading to destruction to the New Orleans area. Storm surge was also responsible for an extra $2 billion in damage to New York City after Sandy hit that area in 2012, according to a Rand report.

This increasing phenomena is due, in large part, to sea level rise, which is triggered by human-caused global warming as warmer ocean water expands and land ice melts. The average global sea level has already increased by more than half a foot since the Industrial Revolution.

Storm-related flooding is on the rise

The devastating flooding we’re seeing in Houston is unusual because of its scale, but heavy rains and bad flooding are becoming the new normal in parts of our country as temperatures rise. Intense single-day rain events that cause flooding are on the rise.

Historic weather data measured since 1910 shows that in the contiguous 48 states, nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day rain events have occurred since 1990.

We don’t yet know what kind of damage Harvey or future hurricanes will cause. But they should serve as a reminder that today, more than ever before, we need to be guided by science to help us prepare for, and act, on climate change.

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