Our Daily Planet: March 28, 2018: Pruitt's Unclean Hands, Making Plastics From Trash, plus look who's on the Grist List!
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

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Scott Pruitt's Dirty Politics

This week the New Yorker released online it's new expose (which will run in the April 2nd print edition) about Scott Pruitt's destructive 14 months as the head of the EPA. Margaret Talbot chronicled Pruitt's disregard for science, his coziness with industries that helped elect him into office in Oklahoma (while only meeting with environmental groups a handful of times), and his depletion of morale within at federal agency tasked with protecting the environment and human health. In his first year at the E.P.A., Pruitt has proposed repealing or delaying more than thirty significant environmental rules. In February, when the White House announced its intention to reduce the E.P.A.’s budget by twenty-five per cent—one of the largest cuts for any federal agency, Pruitt had no objections. 

Pruitt's fixation on "EPA originalism" has even worried Republicans, with the agency's first administrator William Ruckelshaus noting, “My principal concern is that Pruitt and the people he’s hired to work with him don’t fundamentally agree with the mission of the agency. They seem more concerned about costs associated with regulations.” The problem with “E.P.A. originalism” is that neither scientific knowledge nor the environment itself remains static, we have to adapt our approach to protecting it as better data becomes available.

From coal ash ponds to Superfund sites (that Pruitt has made a priority issue but has politicized by prioritizing sites in districts that voted for Trump), there has been a total lack of transparency and focus on human health in Pruitt's approach to tackling these formidable cleanup efforts . 

Why This Matters: Pruitt's review of existing EPA rules and lack of implementation has legal implications as well as public health ones. Courts hold agencies to the “arbitrary and capricious” standard: to rescind a regulation, they must demonstrate sound reasoning tied to a factual record. Additionally, federal agencies are supposed to abide by the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, to ensure that the work informing new regulations is transparent, reasoned, and not overly politicized. Aside from the dangerous disregard for the health of Americans and our environment, Pruitt's tenure at the EPA will cause the best and brightest scientists to seek employment elsewhere. If the EPA loses its commitment to science young talent might be compelled to work in in places like France where President Emmanuel Macron recently awarded thirteen research grants to U.S.-based climate scientists and invited them to relocate to France.

One of the engineers in EPA's renown NVFEL lab said that it might take a while to “rebuild capacity” after Pruitt. But it would be done. The public, he reminded everyone, “is expecting us to protect the planet.” He said, “Pruitt is a temporary interloper. We are the real agency.” 


Highly toxic PCB-contaminated streams in West Virginia Photo: Mandel NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Coal Country Desperately Need EPA's Help

Yesterday, Think Progress chronicled American mining towns that have seen mining operations shut down but have been left with the lingering pollution and damage to their communities. Minden, WV, for example,  is now a 'toxic wasteland where residents are afraid to drink the water and let their children play in their yards. Residents fear the PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic industrial chemical — that were stored at an old equipment site starting in the 1960s and later dumped in an abandoned mine are starting now making them sick and killing them.

Since Minden was designated a Superfund site in the 1980s, the EPA has not been able to determine why such a large percentage of the community — at least four times higher than the national average — has been diagnosed with cancer. Federal and state health officials claim the evidence does not support a finding of a “cancer cluster” in Minden, a conclusion that angers the town’s residents. They believe officials would come to a different conclusion if Minden’s residents were not working class. Over the past 30 years, the EPA has performed mostly cosmetic cleanup efforts. As a result, PCBs are still believed to be in the town’s water supply and its soil.

The EPA has vowed to assess if Minden qualifies to be on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), although the assessment could take years to complete. All the while residents are still living in dangerous environments as a result of their communities being used as toxic dumping grounds by industries. 

Why This Matters: While the EPA under the leadership of Scott Pruitt has continued to undermine environmental protection (just see the story above), the administrator has voiced that he wants to prioritize the nation's Superfund program. Unfortunately, until a town becomes listed on the NPL, residents can't receive federal funds to move and are stuck--some residents also believe that the EPA is using inaccurate information to make their NPL determinations. 

If you wait 10 years to relocate people and come up with the money to do it, you may as well spend that relocation money on burial plots and tombstones because I don’t know if they’re going to have anyone to relocate," said Brandon Richardson, the founder of Headwaters Defense, an environmental justice group based in Fayette County, WV.

 Climate Change

Photo: The Washington Post 
Conservative Hoover Institution Tackles Climate Change 

S/o to one of our favorite morning email gurus, James Hohmann for bringing us this story and making it the top feature in yesterday's Daily 202. (btw, he has a great, quick daily companion podcast, The Big Idea that gets you up-to-speed on what's happening in the political news). 

As the Trump administration continues to ignore climate change, even as our own military deems is a national security risk, the conservative Hoover Institution is trying to find ways to address the threat of a warming planet that has higher sea levels and more extreme weather. 

"The center-right think tank, which is affiliated with Stanford University and home to GOP grandees like Condoleezza Rice, is pursuing a host of initiatives that treat climate change as a pressing national security challenge and a market failure that requires government intervention." Setting ideology aside, Hoover fellows see climate change as a market failure that requires government intervention. For example, George Shultz, who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, embraces the idea of a carbon tax. He says this would free up private firms to find the most efficient ways to cut emissions. At 97 he chairs an energy policy task force at Hoover that advocates for solutions like the expansion of America's nuclear power capacity. 

Why This Matters: Climate change puts the health and safety of all Americans regardless of political persuasion at risk. It is important for conservative and Republican voices to acknowledge its urgency and offer their solutions for action. Ultimately, the public policy changes we need to mitigate the consequences of climate change are going to have to have support from all sides of the ideological spectrum.


A "jack-up" rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: BOEM 
Offshore Oil and Gas Interest Dimming, Wind on the Rise

In the last week, the Trump Administration's all-out effort to boost offshore oil and gas drilling ran into strong headwinds.  First, last week's lease largest ever sale of tracts in the Gulf of Mexico, which the Secretary of Interior promised would be a "bellwether" for a future lease sales boom, actually resulted in very few bids.  More than 14,000 tracts were offered but only about 1% of them were sold.  This lukewarm response provided ammunition to opponents of the Administration's proposal to open most of the rest of the country's offshore areas to drilling.  "Trump is selling off our oceans and selling out coastal communities and marine life to the oil industry," said Kristen Monsell, of the Center for Biological Diversity.  Other groups argued that with such low demand, it was just a bad deal for the public -- with almost no competition for leases, the oil companies had little reason to pay competitive prices.  

Then two states poured more cold water on offshore leasing.  A Republican Congressman from Florida said that he had it on good authority that President Trump would not allow leasing in Florida, even though Secretary Zinke said in Congressional testimony the week before that leases in Florida were still under consideration.  And the New Jersey Governor is expected to sign this week a new law banning the State from approving any oil and gas leases off its coast, which effectively blocks any leases in New Jersey.  

At the same time, offshore wind along the East Cast is gaining steam.  Think Progress reports that a study released last Thursday by Environment America entitled "Wind Power To Spare" found that 12 of the 14 states on the Atlantic have offshore wind potential that exceeds current electricity needs. North America's first offshore wind farm came on line in 2016, a 30-megawatt project near Block Island, Rhode Island. Several other offshore wind projects off the Atlantic coast are in development.

Why This Matters:  Wind power development seems certain to exceed oil and gas drilling along the U.S. East Coast, especially for the near term.  What's really surprising is that interest in oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is waning, despite the bargain basement prices for leases.  That is the surest sign of all that the power market and industry are changing for good, and that there is plenty of energy potential in the lower 48 states, without needing to resort to drilling in remote and inhospitable places like the Alaskan Arctic.


Congrats to Ayana Elizabeth Johnson!

Last Friday we featured an exclusive interview with Ayana here in ODP.  This week she was named one of the "Grist 50" for 2018 -- their list of phenomenal, forward-thinking leaders who make you feel good about the future. Our favorite line: "Johnson won’t deny that she has a weakness for baby octopus videos on YouTube. But her true passion is people. Everywhere, she sees connections between the sea and all of us who rely on it."  We agree!  See the full "Grist 50" List here.  


Photo: Ariel Schalit, AP
Plastic Break Through 

UBQ, an Israeli company, has patented a process to convert household trash into reusable bio-based plastic, thus diverting waste from landfills.  After five years of development, the company hopes to revolutionize waste management and make landfills obsolete. 

  • Under UBQ's new process, recyclable items like glass, metals, and minerals are extracted and sent for further recycling, while the remaining comingled trash such as banana peels, chicken bones, dirty plastics, and soiled papers are dried and milled into a steely gray powder (see photo above).  This powder then enters a reaction chamber, where it is broken down and reconstituted as a bio-based plastic-like composite material. 
  • UBQ says its closely-guarded patented process produces no greenhouse gas emissions or residual waste byproducts and uses little energy and no water. 

For every ton of material produced, UBQ says it prevents between three and 30 tons of CO2 from being created by keeping waste out of landfills and decomposing.

This "wonder" plastic has its skeptics -- companies have been trying to do this for a long time, but the company is confident it will prove them wrong.  They hope to position themselves at the end the value chain so that trash comes directly to them instead of going into a landfill -- a limitless supply of raw materials.

Why This Matters:  We need to figure out a better way to deal with trash than just burying it. Five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by decomposing organic material in landfills. Roughly half of that gas is methane, which over two decades is 86 times as potent for global warming as carbon dioxide, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  We hope this is a real breakthrough.
From trash to products, using new Israeli technology.  Photo: Ariel Schalit, AP

 Climate Change

Video: CBS News
Earth Hour 2018

Today we leave you with a video of Earth Hour 2018 when the lights went out last Saturday night at famous landmarks all around the world to raise awareness of climate change.  Thanks so much for reading!  We will be back tomorrow!
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