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How Effective Is Pruitt? Plus Grizzly Hunts, and Vancouver and Alaska Air Choose Planet Over Plastic
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

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Illustration Sean McCabe
EPA's Deregulation Isn't Always Smooth Sailing 

In March, the EPA under the leadership of Administrator Scott Pruitt signaled that it wanted to relax standards for the storage of coal ash--which is a toxic byproduct of coal combustion and is generally kept in pits near power plants. Federal regulators imposed stricter safety rules during the Obama administration for coal ash ponds mandating that they must be lined to accept such waste--something the EPA under the current administration is trying to undo. 

As the Washington Post reported, EPA officials cited a study indicating that forcing utilities to get rid of unlined coal ash ponds too quickly could strain the electrical grid in several regions of the country. But when environmental advocates scrutinized the specifics, they discovered a problem: The evidence cited was not established scientific research. Instead, the agency was relying on a four-page document by the utility industry’s trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, which has acknowledged that its conclusions were not “part of or a summary of a larger study.” This is just one of several examples of flimsy rulemaking by the agency has been challenged in court. Others include the EPA's move to rollback fuel-efficiency standards for cars and courts forcing the EPA to restore limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations after a federal appeals panel concluded that their suspension was illegal.

While the EPA's moves toward deregulation haven't generally been final rules, critics are looking to exploit the early procedural errors as they challenge Pruitt’s efforts in court. More than 70 lawsuits have been filed against the EPA’s regulatory actions, according to an analysis by the office of Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). Of the six cases that have had a full court review, the agency has lost four and delayed arguments in one.

Why This Matters: The EPA's deregulatory actions create chaos. Rules are up in the air and it signals to industries that they can keep polluting while court battles ensue to determine if the EPA's final rules meet the requirements of their statutes. Ultimately, this isn't great for people or industries--the American public isn't being protected and companies (such as automakers) have no idea what regulations to expect so that they can incorporate them into their business calculations. 


Northern Arizona Forests Close as Fire Concerns Grow

Officials have moved to close large swaths of forests in Northern Arizona as dry conditions loom and a series of destructive wildfires early in the season indicate a serious threat of massive wildfires. As the Arizona Republic reported, "the U.S. Forest Service announced the closure of several popular areas across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest Wednesday. In Apache and Navajo Counties, all state-owned and managed lands closed Friday. Coconino National Forest closures are expected to start next week. Many of the closure areas include popular summer destinations, such as the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Fossil Creek west of Strawberry and a large area of the Mogollon Rim south of State Route 87."

The decision wasn't made lightly, said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.  "This really is a last resort," she said. Officials said the closure will likely remain in place until the monsoon rains hit in July. A full closure could be enacted if conditions worsen.

Why This Matters: There are several factors that play into an increased danger of wildfires, especially in Arizona. Counterintuitively, wildfire suppression policies actually make wildfires larger, hotter and more frequent because they don't let small natural fires clear forests on underbrush. When we don't let forests naturally burn, we leave overgrowth and dry brush sitting there waiting to act as fuel for wildfires. Climate change is also a major factor in increasing the risk for wildfires. Currently, Arizona is in the midst of a 21-year drought AND Earth just experienced its 400th straight month of temperatures above 20th-century averages, largely caused by humans. 



Possible Site of Largest Solar Field in KY  Photo: Berkeley Energy Group, via WFPL
KY Solar Project on Former Coal MIne Site Stuck in Limbo

What do you do with a coal mining site with no coal left?  Turn it into a solar field.  That is just what Berkeley Energy Group planned to do on the former mountaintop removal site in Kentucky.  According to the mining company, using mined-out sites for solar is one way for the land to be productive post-mining, rather than sitting vacant.  It seems that turning from coal to solar is actually quite difficult and may ironically involve more coal mining in order to get the solar project built. 

The original plan was to install 50 to 100 megawatts of solar panels on a surface mine site -- and it would have been the biggest solar plant in the state.  According to Inside Climate News, The problem is that Kentucky Fuel, a local coal company, is years behind in a nearby cleanup that must come first in order to stabilize the site.  Four years ago, settling one of the largest enforcement actions in Kentucky's recent history, the coal company's owners promised state officials that they would clean up several sites, including this one, by September 2015. But to pay for the cleanup the company wants to scrape out any remaining coal and the state would need to issue a new mining permit for that. 

Interestingly, scientists are close to creating “hybrid” solar cells that generate power not just from sunlight but also from raindrops. This means we may soon see all-weather solar panels that work when it is cloudy and
 if it’s raining -- making even mountaintops like this one that is often shrouded in clouds good sites for solar. 

Why This Matters:  These former coal sites should be cleaned up -- and it seems absurd that they would be allowed to mine more coal to pay for the cleanup.  Still, it is important to turn the corner and show the importance of clean renewable energy jobs in the heart of coal country -- not to mention making good use of the blighted mountaintops. Hopefully, the project issues will be resolved soon -- if they aren't, solar tax credits will expire and the project would likely be scrapped.  That would be a pity.  



Two female grizzly bear yearlings that were lethally removed in the St. Ignatius area. Photo: CSKT
Grizzlies Could Be De-Listed Then Hunted

One of the most iconic species in the U.S., the Grizzly Bear (in particular, the northernmost population segment) is on the verge of being de-listed as an endangered species -- a final decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected in September.  This comes after the Service de-listed the Yellowstone population segment last year.  The size of the northern continental divide population is estimated to be between approximately 1,000 grizzlies, a milestone achievement for a population that struggled decades ago. Grizzly bears were listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1975, but they are believed to be recovering at a steady annual rate of roughly 3 percent.  The Obama administration first proposed removing grizzlies as a threatened species in March 2016.

The move to de-list would turn over management of the species to the states of Wyoming and Idaho, which could then permit hunting them, a controversial proposal that Native American tribes and conservation groups strongly oppose. Tomorrow, the Wyoming Fish and Game Commission will vote on whether to approve a grizzly-bear-hunting season in the state this coming fall immediately following the de-listing decision. According to the Sierra Club, many biologists -- in a letter to federal officials --warned that the delisting was “premature,” and especially risky if females are killed by hunters. 

Why This Matters: The now steady recovery of the grizzly after more than 40 years of federal protection proves that with patience and persistence, the Endangered Species Act can work. And it is popular too. The Sierra Club reports that during the USFWS’s public comment period on grizzly delisting, 850,000 people sent comments to the agency, the vast majority of them in opposition to removing the bears from the endangered-species list.  We agree with the public - why take a chance de-listing grizzlies, much less allowing hunting of them, after so much time and energy has gone into saving them.



Photo: The Hill
Straw Bans Gaining on the Ground and in the Air

The city of Vancouver is the first major Canadian city to adopt a ban on a range of single-use plastics. Starting June 1, 2019, it will be against the law to distribute plastic drinking straws and polystyrene foam cups and take-out containers. Vancouver has set an ambitious goal of "Zero Waste 2040" - to eliminate the disposal of solid waste by 2040, which Vancouver City Council unanimously passed last week.

Similarly, yesterday, Alaska Airlines became the first U.S. airline to eliminate single-use, non-recyclable plastic stir straws on all its flights in favor of compostable versions made of white birch and will offer non-plastic, marine-friendly drinking straws to customers who request them.
 “Plastic is a serious issue for our planet. What’s important is continuing to move the global supply chain toward making sustainable materials accessible and affordable,” Shaunta Hyde, managing director of Alaska Airlines, said in a statement to USA Today

It is important to eliminate single-use plastics because, according to Lonely Whale Foundation executive director Dune Ives, “[p]lastic pollution is causing devastating marine life issues with plastic now found in the bellies of whales, turtles, and more including seabirds, of which 99 percent of all species are expected to have ingested plastic by the year 2050.”

Why This Matters:  Each of these actions means millions fewer straws being made and disposed of -- thereby decreasing the risk that they will end up in the ocean.  The City of Vancouver estimated that 7 million straws are thrown into the garbage every day. Every week, about 2.6 million plastic-lined cups and 2 million plastic bags are thrown out, with cups and take-out containers making up 50 percent of all items in public waste bins. It also costs taxpayers about $2.5 million a year to collect this trash. Alaska Airlines gave out roughly 22 million plastic stir straws and citrus picks on its flights and in its lounges in 2017. These decisions make economic sense and more cities and companies should follow suit. 


 Climate Change

This rendering depicts an aerial view of a flooded National Mall area in Washington, DC, in 2100 if global emissions rise and a Category 3 hurricane hits the city. Image: Professor Maria Caffrey
One Cool Thing: Interior Puts "Climate Change" Back into its Risk Report for National Parks 

From PRI: Backing away from attempts at censorship, the National Park Service on Friday released a report charting the risks to national parks from sea level rise and storms.

Drafts of the report obtained earlier this year by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showed park service officials had deleted every mention of humans causing climate change. But the long-delayed report, published Friday without fanfare on the agency’s website, restored those references.

The scientific report is designed to help 118 coastal parks plan for protecting natural resources and historic treasures from the changing climate.

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