Abusing Planet Earth — A sampling of environmental setbacks (and some successes) — January 2018

Toxic chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency will indefinitely postpone bans on certain uses of three toxic chemicals found in consumer products: methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), ingredients in paint strippers, and trichloroethylene (TCE), used as a spot cleaner in dry-cleaning and as a degreasing agent. Public health experts had been pushing for faster review of methylene chloride-based paint strippers after several deaths from inhalation.

The EPA itself found TCE “carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure” and has reported that it causes developmental and reproductive damage. “Potential health concerns from exposure to trichloroethylene, based on limited epidemiological data and evidence from animal studies, include decreased fetal growth and birth defects, particularly cardiac birth defects,” agency officials noted in 2013. Methylene chloride is toxic to the brain and liver, and NMP can harm the reproductive system.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is “blatantly ignoring Congress’s clear directive to the agency to better protect the health and safety of millions of Americans by more effectively regulating some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man,” said Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and the ranking minority member on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

Good news about lead in paint

A federal appeals court on December 27 ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its nearly 17-year-old standard for dangerous levels of lead in paint and dust. The EPA must propose a new rule within 90 days and finalize it no more than a year later instead of the six years the Trump administration had requested.

This court ruling “means that children that otherwise would have developed very elevated blood lead levels will be protected from the damage associated with that, assuming E.P.A. follows the court order,” said Eve C. Gartner, a staff attorney for Earthjustice who helped argue the case.

The current regulations, issued in 2001, are outdated because research since then shows lead paint is more hazardous to young children than previously thought. With no explanation, the Obama administration had already delayed issuing a new, stricter rule for six years, a holdup the court said was unreasonable. According to the December 27 ruling, the EPA has acknowledged that “lead poisoning is the number one environmental health threat in the U.S. for children ages 6 and younger, and that the current standards are insufficient.”

The oil industry and the tax bill

The oil industry and its supporters in Congress have been trying for four decades to exploit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Now they’ve won. The tax bill passed by Congress in late December requires the Interior Department to hold at least two oil and gas lease sales in the next 10 years. The area of the refuge along the Arctic Ocean made available for drilling is the summer breeding ground for two hundred thousand caribou and millions of migratory birds. Any lease sale or drilling will likely be years away, assuming there is enough industry interest in the area for drilling.

Conveniently, the tax bill also includes cuts in the corporate income tax rates that will save the oil industry billions of dollars a year in taxes.

ANWR caribou 1_18

Caribou herd – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Follow up – mountaintop removal mining

In our November issue, we noted that the Interior Department stopped work last August on an independent evaluation of potential health effects from mountaintop removal coal mining. Now Indiana University researcher Michael Hendryx has found that about twelve hundred extra deaths each year occur in areas of Appalachia where mountaintop removal operations take place. His research shows that the air and water pollution caused by this mining practice, which involves deforesting and tearing off mountaintops to get at the coal, is leading to increases in cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, pulmonary disease, and birth defects.

To read the interview with Mr. Hendryx click here.

Quote of the month

China’s ban on the sale and processing of ivory went into effect on December 31, marking an important step forward in the fight to combat the poaching of African elephants. Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, said: “China has followed through on a great promise it made to the world, offering hope for the future of elephants.”

The White House magnolia

The grand magnolia tree on the White House lawn will be cut down. The tree, which was planted by President Andrew Jackson in 1835, has been in decline for decades. The First Lady made the difficult decision to cut the tree down based on an assessment by the U.S. National Arboretum. An offshoot of the iconic magnolia will be planted in its place, perhaps bringing the promise of new life and a more hopeful future.

Protecting birds

In early January of last year, the Obama administration, based on their interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), issued an opinion declaring that energy facility operators could face legal liability for the incidental deaths of birds ensnared by uncovered oil-waste pits or unmarked transmission lines. Now, in a lengthy opinion from the Solicitor’s Office, President Trump’s Interior Department announced it will no longer prosecute oil and gas, wind, and solar operators that accidentally kill birds. The new opinion states that the MBTA only applies to “affirmative and purposeful actions, such as hunting and poaching, that reduce migratory birds … by killing or capturing … ” but not to bird deaths from “incidental or accidental actions” such as energy projects.

Tim Charters, senior director of government affairs for the National Ocean Industry Association said, “This common-sense approach (by the Trump administration) ensures that lawful activities are not held hostage to unnecessary threats of criminalization.”

David O’Neill, chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society, said that the policy reversal could make it less likely that energy operators would invest in precautionary measures to prevent bird deaths. He believes the prospect of legal liability had provided an incentive for industry, such as developing bird-friendly guidelines for placing transmission lines. However, Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said that while the Obama administration’s interpretation was too sweeping, the new one is far too narrow. He prefers a federal regulation outlining permitting standards to protect birds that would provide the kind of certainty needed for these energy projects.

Over the years, the federal government has used the MBTA to impose large fines after environmental disasters. British Petroleum agreed to pay $100 million for violating the act as part of its compensation for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the money was earmarked for wildlife habitat restoration.

Some supporters of the new Trump policy point out that cats, cars, and collisions with glass on buildings cause many times more bird deaths than energy projects. But that should not be an excuse to take no action. On the contrary, the high number of accidental bird deaths each year from many causes is precisely why we should take action wherever possible to minimize the unintended killing of birds.

In a January 10 letter to Interior Secretary Zinke, seventeen former political appointees and career officials urged him to reconsider the new policy. The letter stated in part: “This legal opinion is contrary to the long-standing interpretation by every administration (Republican and Democrat) since at least the 1970’s…. This is a new, contrived legal standard that creates a huge loophole,…. allowing companies to engage in activities that routinely kill migratory birds so long as they were not intending that their operations would ‘render an animal subject to human control’.’”

Offshore oil drilling

On January 4 the Trump administration announced it is developing a new offshore oil and gas program. As predicted in our December issue, the new draft program includes selling drilling rights to oil companies offshore South Carolina. The draft program would allow harmful seismic surveys and drilling off the coast of every coastal state.

Then on January 9, Interior Secretary Zinke announced that Florida would be exempt from the new program because the state is “unique” and offshore drilling could threaten the state’s important tourist industry. Predictably this prompted most other coastal states to request exclusion from the program for the same reasons. In a January 16 letter to Secretary Zinke, Governor McMaster made a convincing case for excluding South Carolina from any offshore drilling activity. On January 19 the acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management muddied the waters further by saying Florida would still be included in the agency’s analysis for the new proposed program.

Whatever the outcome, drilling would not happen soon. It would take at least two years just to finalize the new program. The federal government will hold a public meeting about their plans in Columbia on February 13. The public may submit comments about the plan to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management until March 8. SIAN has provided additional information to members on our website about the public comment process.

Good news (maybe) on reducing methane emissions

The American Petroleum Institute announced the creation of an Environmental Partnership of 26 major natural gas and oil producers who will voluntarily begin accelerating reductions of methane emissions from production facilities. API president Jack Gerald said: “In establishing the Environmental Partnership, the natural gas and oil industry is working together to promote the most effective programs and opportunities to improve environmental performance throughout our operations.”

According to the EPA, methane is between 28 and 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 100-year time period.

Oil and gas firms participating in the API initiative have agreed to cut air emissions by monitoring and repairing leaks and replacing or retrofitting “high-bleed” pneumatic controllers. Because methane is the main component of natural gas and can be burned for fuel, the participating companies have a financial incentive as well to capture more methane.

Previously the Trump administration postponed rules put in place by the Obama administration to reduce methane emissions. According to the Environmental Defense Fund: “For years, many in the industry have argued against government action to address their climate impact, touting voluntary corporate pollution reductions as a substitute for regulations.” EDF argues that the API initiative is weaker than the delayed regulations. API promises to issue annual reports on the progress of the Environmental Partnership, so time will tell how effective it is.

Restricting access to climate change information

Early this month, The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) issued a report on “How Climate Change Web Content is Being Censored Under the Trump Administration.” EDGI is an organization comprised of academics and non-profit employees that promotes open and accessible government data and information along with evidence-based policy making.

In their report, EDGI notes: “Federal websites are an important interface between the public and the government, helping people better understand climate change and ways to address it via adaptation and mitigation.” … These websites “provide some of the richest educational materials on important science and policy topics,…” EDGI monitored and documented changes to federal websites during the first year of the Trump administration.

The report states: “Although there is no evidence of any removals of climate data, we have documented overhauls and removals of documents, web pages, and entire websites, as well as significant language shifts…. [T]hese changes have made it harder for the public to gain access to years of well-researched and organized information paid for by their tax dollars, information that is crucial in helping inform the important discussions on how to best mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.”

You can read the EDGI report here.

Most members of the National Park System Advisory Board resign

Nine of the twelve members of the National Parks System Advisory Board, which advises the Secretary of the Interior on management of the country’s national parks, have jointly resigned. In the January 15 resignation letter to Interior Secretary Zinke, Tony Knowles, the head of the advisory board stated: “From all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.” The board normally meets with Interior officials twice a year, but for the past year, Secretary Zinke has ignored the board’s request for a meeting. You can read the board’s resignation letter here.

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