Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

Former top Republican environmentalists urge Congress to act on climate change

Top environmental regulators for four Republican presidents told Congress on June 18 what many Republican lawmakers won’t: Action is needed on global warming.

In a congressional hearing organized to undermine Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s environmental proposals, Senate Democrats asked the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency for Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to discuss the risks from climate change and what should be done about it. Some Republicans dispute the science of climate change and have worked to unravel Obama’s steps to address it.

Action on Capitol Hill —where even a bland, bipartisan energy efficiency bill couldn’t get passed in May — has been in a deep freeze.

“We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus,” said Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey Governor and first EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, who resigned her post after disagreeing with the White House’s direction on pollution rules.

Whitman was joined by William Ruckelshaus, the nation’s first EPA administrator under President Richard Nixon, William Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H.W. Bush, and Lee Thomas, who was administrator under Reagan.

The strategy by Democrats was reminiscent of other high-profile hearings on climate change that created fanfare but resulted in little action. In March, Democrats staged an all-nighter on the Senate floor to talk climate change. In 2009, former Vice President Al Gore and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sparred before a House committee over climate change. Climate scientist James Hansen in 1988 told the Senate the planet is warming and pollution is to blame.

The EPA chiefs’ testimony apparently did little to bridge the divide. Coal miners packed the hearing to protest a new EPA plan to cut carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Before any testimony, top Republicans on the Senate environmental panel said the rule would kill jobs for no environmental benefit.

That view contrasted sharply with the opinions of the four EPA administrators, who said the Obama administration had worked hard to make the proposal flexible and workable, using authority provided by Congress.

The former EPA administrators told lawmakers that global warming was similar to other serious environmental issues they confronted, such as industrial pollution, dangerous pesticides or water contamination. But tackling those issues enjoyed broad public support.

“Inherent in all of these problems was uncertain science and powerful economic interests resisting controls. The same is true of climate change,” said Ruckelshaus, who also led the agency under Reagan. “In all of the cases cited, the solutions to the problems did not result in the predicted economic and social calamity.”

The four EPA chiefs also said that they are not alone in the Republican party.

“There are Republicans that believe the climate is changing and humans have a role to play. They just need some political cover,” said Whitman, in an interview before the hearing.

Reilly was even more direct.

“There is a lot happening on climate,” he said, citing efforts by states and corporations to tackle the problem. “It’s just not happening in Washington.”

climate_change-1

Supreme Court upholds cross-state air pollution rule

The Supreme Court on April 29 upheld, by a 6-2 vote, the cross-state air pollution rule, described by some environmentalists as one of the most significant health standards ever adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

John Walke, director of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, responded: “This is great news for millions of people who suffer from serious health problems caused by the soot and smog-causing pollution from power plants in other states. Implementation of these long overdue protections will prevent thousands of premature deaths and save tens of billions of dollars a year in health costs. The EPA safeguards follow the simple principle that giant utility companies shouldn’t be allowed to dump their dirty emissions onto residents of downwind states. The Supreme Court wisely upheld this common-sense approach.”

The rule would prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths each year and provide up to $280 billion in health and environmental benefits by reducing pollution that crosses state lines.

The EPA finalized the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in July 2011, requiring 28 states in the East, Midwest and South to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that cross state lines and worsen air quality in downwind states.

In August 2012, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals panel voted 2-1 to throw out the rule. But in a 44-page dissent, Judge Judith Rogers said the two-judge majority ignored the law and court precedent and instead applied their “own notions of absurdity and logic that are unsupported by a factual record.”

The Supreme Court decision sides with Rogers’ dissent and reinstates the health standards.

Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said, “The Supreme Court’s decision is welcome news to millions of Americans whose lungs are on the receiving end of badly polluted air. EPA’s 2011 power plant pollution rule is a vital public health protection that will each and every year prevent thousands of premature deaths, and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and other illnesses. People who live downwind from this deadly pollution have the right to breathe air that doesn’t sicken and kill them. After years of delay, the time is long overdue for this urgently needed safeguard to be allowed to take effect.”

Dark political money imperils Earth’s future

Political contributions designed to weaken environmental regulations can be difficult to track. They’re moved through a network of right-wing campaigns, foundations, think tanks and political groups.

Americans for Prosperity is  one of many such groups.

The State Policy Network is another, a web of 60-plus think tanks — or “stink tanks,” as they were called in a recent exposé by the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is yet another group. The organization of lawmakers, corporations and interest groups drafts and promotes “model” legislation on a range of issues. ALEC’s best-known laws are the anti-union, anti-voter and anti-immigration laws that were approved by legislatures around the country with the votes of lawmakers who receive huge donations from ALEC members. ALEC’s “stand your ground” model bill, a bonanza for the manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, is also well known.

But in 2014, ALEC is betting its seemingly unlimited supply of cash on a slew of measures aimed at weakening environmental protections, cutting renewable energy, increasing reliance on coal and dismantling energy efficiency standards.

ALEC’s “polluter agenda,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy, includes measures to:

• Oppose the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases from mobile sources.

• Give Congress the authority to block enforcement of federal protections on clean air and water and safeguards for mine workers.

• Create hurdles for state agencies attempting to regulate carbon gases.

• Oppose protections on carbon dioxide emissions.

• Prevent the EPA from overruling state permits for coal mining.

• Give legal protection to corporations against victims of lead poisoning.

• Privatize public water and sewage services and prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to meet labor standards.

• Oppose waste-reduction and mandatory recycling laws.

• Authorize state governments to open federal public land for oil, gas and coal exploration.

• Require that state environmental protections be approved by a corporate-backed panel.

• Criminalize environmental and animal-welfare activism.

ALEC, AFP and SPN all have ties to conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose preferred front groups have invested far more in the effort to deny, skepticize and belittle the significance of global warming than ExxonMobil, according to an analysis of information from Greenpeace, the Center for Media and Democracy and other sources.

“Like a play on Broadway, the climate change countermovement has stars in the spotlight — often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians — but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers in the form of conservative foundations,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and the author of a report on climate change denials published in Climatic Change. “If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what’s going on behind the scenes.”

What’s going on behind the scenes is wealthy polluters are investing in climate change denial and opposing environmental policies to protect their wealth and industries.

Koch Industries, a multinational group of companies invested in petroleum, chemicals, energy, gas liquids, asphalt and other polluting products, is the 10th worst air polluter in the United States, according to the Political Economy Research Institute. KI releases about 200,000 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide annually.

And Koch Industries has a long record of environmental crimes and violations. Greenpeace offered a review: 

• A $1.7 million fine by the EPA and a $500 million commitment to correct pollution violations in seven states.

• Millions of gallons of spilled oil from Koch pipelines.

• A $25 million settlement in 2001 for falsifying records for oil collected on federal and Native American lands.

• A $20 million settlement in 2000 for falsifying documents relating to a major release of the carcinogen benzene.

• A 1996 explosion, caused by a leaking gas pipeline, that killed two people.

Influencing local codes

Democratic state Rep. Brett Hulsey woke up one day after the spring election with a sunny outlook on the results in Iron County.

There, on April 1, Victor Ouimette, Brad Matson and Karl Krall defeated incumbent supervisors on the county board. The three were among seven candidates branded by Americans for Prosperity as opponents of Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin. AFP has strong ties to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, who own Koch Industries.

AFP invested in two full-color campaign mailings seeking to elect candidates in favor of the mine and to defeat those seen as opponents, although Krall and Ouimette had told news media they support the mine.

After the election, Hulsey pitched a proposal to create a Penokee Hills Conservation Area, noting that three people opposed by the Koch brothers won on Election Day.

“The Penokee Hills should be conserved forever, not strip mined by a big campaign donor,” said Hulsey, a member of the jobs and tourism committees in the Assembly. 

He argued that a conservation area could promote sustainable jobs, conserve recreational areas, promote sustainable forestry, protect drinking water sources, fisheries and wildlife habitat and also protect sacred Native American sites from destruction.

“Northern Wisconsin needs jobs now, not more arguing and lawsuits,” Hulsey said.

Proponents of the mine, which would be about 4 miles long and hundreds of feet deep, say it could create 700 long-term jobs. 

Opponents of the mine say the project, located about 7 miles south of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation, would pollute pristine rivers and local groundwater.

Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Scott Walker, cleared the way for the operation by stripping down the state’s mining regulations. Now, to some degree, the project’s future will be determined at the county level, where the county board and Gogebic are negotiating over zoning regulations.

County board races typically don’t catch the attention of national political groups, and Americans for Prosperity’s interest in Iron County has environmentalists across the United States concerned that the Koched-up organization — and other national right-wing groups with records of distorting the facts and manipulating the science on environmental issues — will plant more campaigns on local turfs.

“This is trouble, if these guys are moving into our towns and cities and wanting to influence local codes and zoning regulations and land use plans,” said environmental activist Tom Geske of Madison. 

The Koch brothers are significant supporters of Walker and his gubernatorial bids. Before the recall election, David Koch told the Palm Beach Post in Florida, “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”

Rubber Dodo

Last fall, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group, took notice of the Koch brothers’ work and gave them an award: the 2013 Rubber Dodo.

“When it comes to pulling levers behind the scenes for those who wreck our climate, destroy wild places and attempt to kill our last remaining wildlife, the Koch brothers are in a class by themselves,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the CBD. “These guys are the poster children for despicable corporate greed. The Koch brothers get the 2013 Rubber Dodo for a terrible global legacy that could take hundreds of years to undo.”

The award gets its name for the dodo, perhaps the most famous extinct species on Earth after the dinosaurs. The bird evolved over millions of years with no natural predators and eventually lost the ability to fly. Having never known predators, it showed no fear of the humans who found it on Mauritius, or the animals that accompanied them to the island in the Indian Ocean in 1598. The bird’s trusting nature led to its rapid extinction — by 1681, the dodo had disappeared. 

Lesson learned?

Suit against EPA seeks ban on pesticides in flea treatments

The Natural Resources Defense Council has filed a lawsuit seeking to push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  to respond to its petitions and ban two hazardous pesticides used in popular pet flea treatment products.

The EPA has restricted household use of some neurotoxic pesticides due to concerns that the products can harm children’s brains and nervous systems, but it still allows neurotoxic propoxur and tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) to be used in flea treatments for dogs and cats.

The lawsuit filed this week seeks to force EPA to respond to cancel all pet uses and manufacturer registrations fo the two chemicals.

“These flea collars leave a toxic residue on pets’ fur, exposing children to chemicals which can have harmful effects on their brains, similar to those from lead,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist with NRDC’s health program. “Luckily, there are less-toxic alternatives readily available to control fleas. Nearly a decade has passed since NRDC urged EPA to get these toxic chemical collars off store shelves, but the agency continues to drag its feet. After all, EPA decided long ago that nervous system-damaging chemicals shouldn’t be used indoors, so why is it OK to put them on our pets?”

Flea collars are designed to leave pesticide residues on pet fur, exposing people to the chemicals they contain when they play with their pet or touch pet bedding. Once on a child’s skin, the pesticide is absorbed through the skin or it can be ingested when a child puts their hand in their mouth.

Propoxur and TCVP are types of pesticides that are known to be toxic to brain development, nervous system communication and can cause cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable because their smaller bodies are still developing and their activities, such as putting their hands in their mouths after petting animals or playing, increase the likelihood and amount of these pesticides that can enter their bodies, according to the NRDC.

In large doses, these chemicals can also harm or kill dogs, cats and in extreme poisoning cases, even humans.

To protect against exposure to these chemicals, NRDC recommends avoiding flea collars brands that use them, including: Sergeant’s Pet Care Products, Inc., Wellmark International and Hartz Mountain Corporation. NRDC has updated its Green Paws product guide, which encourages consumers and pet owners to use safer methods of pet flea control.

NRDC’s Green Paws guide also ranks more than 125 flea and tick products based on ingredients, categorizing them by the level of their potential health threat to people and animals.

Farmworkers welcome planned changes to protection standards

Farmworkers welcomed an announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it will soon propose revisions to the Worker Protection Standard, which provides minimal workplace protections against pesticide exposures for farmworkers.

A coalition of farmworker, public health and other nonprofit organizations has long urged the EPA to include stronger protections for farmworkers. More than 20 years has passed since the rules were updated and the EPA has admitted for more than a decade that the standards are inadequate.

Following a review by the federal Office of Management and Budget, advocates expect the EPA will publish the proposed rule for public comment in the next few weeks. The farmworkers want to see updated rules for safety training requirements, safety precautions limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides and mechanisms to improve enforcement of workplace protections.

An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States with the nation’s 1 million to 2 million farmworkers facing the highest threat from the health impacts of the chemicals.

The federal government estimates there are 10,000–20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and even death.

Long-term exposure can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families and their children.

A petition for reform was filed by Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice in November 2011 on behalf of United Farm Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc., PCUN/Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, Farm Worker Pesticide Project, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Pesticide Action Network North America.

“While most Americans benefit from broad workplace protections, farmworkers are fundamentally disadvantaged and face dangerous exposure to poisons over the course of their working life,” said Eve Gartner, attorney for Earthjustice. “We urge the EPA to offer farmworkers a more protective safeguard.”

“Each year pesticide exposure poisons tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families, leading to injury, illness, and death,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice. “We applaud the administration for taking this step to help protect the men, women and children who labor to put food on our tables. We hope that the EPA’s revised Worker Protection Standard will include important safeguards for farmworkers and strengthen their right to a safe workplace.”

More than 100 groups oppose EPA weakening of radiation release guides

More than 100 environmental groups today called on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to withdraw new protective action guides that would allow exposure to high doses from radiation releases before the government would take action to protect the public.

The PAGs, according to a news release, are intended to guide the response to nuclear power reactor accidents like Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the United States, “dirty bomb” explosions, radioactive releases from nuclear fuel and weapons facilities, nuclear transportation accidents and other radioactive releases.

Official estimates of health risks from radiation have gone up substantially since promulgation of the old PAGs, the new EPA guidance contemplates radically increased “allowable” exposures in the intermediate and long-term periods after radiation releases.

The groups outlined in their statement the new PAGs:

• Propose five options for drinking water that would dramatically increase the permitted concentrations of radioactivity in drinking water, by as much as 27,000 times compared to EPA’s current Safe Drinking Water Act limits;

• Suggest relaxing long-term cleanup standards.

• Incorporate high and outdated allowable food contamination levels.

• Eliminate requirements to evacuate people threatened with high projected radiation doses to the thyroid and skin.

• Eliminate limits on lifetime whole body doses.

• Recommend dumping radioactive waste in municipal garbage dumps not designed for such waste.

“Rather than requiring protective actions to limit public radiation exposures, EPA is now saying it would allow the public to be exposed to doses far higher than ever before considered acceptable,” said Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap.

Added Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “Even though EPA now admits radiation is more harmful than previously thought, it is weakening rather than tightening radiation protections.”

The groups sent McCarthy a 38-page letter in regards to “Protective Action Guides for Radionuclides (Docket ID No. EPA–HQ–OAR–2007–0268).”

The letter states, “The current Obama PAGs now issued are in many respects as troubling as the Bush proposal, and in some particulars, even weaker in terms of public health protection. Some cosmetic changes have been made—e.g. vaguer language is used which may have the same disturbing effect. But at their core, rather than specifying protective actions to prevent public exposures, the PAGs would allow massive radiation exposures without any protective actions being recommended to limit them. We recommend the PAGs be withdrawn.”

Signers included representatives from Public Citizen, Beyond Nuclear, Greenpeace, National Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network, Sierra Club, Nukewatch and Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.

Obama brings America ‘out of the climate closet’

President Barack Obama, in a much-anticipated speech at Georgetown University on June 25, offered his plan to attack pollution while preparing for the realities of global warming.

The president was firm in his declaration that the debate over climate change and its causes is obsolete and now is the time to act. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” he said.

The president delivered the speech in mid-afternoon sunshine, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow. His remarks contained a mix of policy and politics, including a declaration that he’ll work with anyone – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – to move forward. Those in Congress who characterize the greening of America as a job-killer and an economic destroyer are wrong, the president said.

Specifically, the plan calls for new rules for cutting carbon pollution in America, including:

• Directing the U.S. Environmental protection Agency to write the first-ever regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants – a move described by many as spelling the end of coal-fueled power in the nation.

• Making up to $8 billion in loan guarantee authority available for advanced fossil energy and efficiency projects.

• Directing the Interior Department to permit renewable projects – such as wind and solar – on public lands by 2020 to power more than 6 million homes.

• Setting a goal to generate 100 megawatts of renewable power on federally assisted housing by 2020.

• Expanding the Better Building Challenge, focusing on helping commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings cut waste and become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.

• Reducing carbon pollution by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030 through efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

• Developing fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

The plan also contains proposals to prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change, including:

• Directing agencies to support local climate-resilient investment by removing barriers or counterproductive policies and modernizing programs.

• Piloting strategies in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region to strengthen communities against extreme weather.

• Creating sustainable and resilient hospitals in the face of climate change.

• Maintaining agricultural productivity by delivering tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers and landowners and helping communities prepare for drought and wildfire.

Varied responses

Responses to the president’s plan from environmentalists varied – “it’s huge,” “it’s about time” and “it’s too little, too late.”

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s best-known environmental groups, said, “This is the change we have been waiting for on climate.”

He also said, “The Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters issued a collective cheer as they heard the president declare that the most effective defense against climate disruption will be by tackling the biggest single source of carbon pollution: coal plants.”

At the National Audubon Society, president and CEO David Yarnold said the president’s speech offered a way to progress: “If we take advantage of this moment, it’s a chance for America to come out of the climate closet and to lead – the way America is supposed to do. Whether you’re talking about birds, wildlife or people, this is the most significant threat we all face, and addressing it is the most important thing we can do.”

And the National Resources Defense Council said it was “huge news” that Obama plans executive action to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

But Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, called the plan “a day late and a dollar short” because it lacks “massive investments, tough and specific standards and binding rules.”

Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel Bill Snape said, “We’re happy to see the president finally addressing climate change, but the plain truth is that what he’s proposing isn’t big enough, and doesn’t move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis.”

The organization said the pollution-control measures announced by the president would fulfill his administration’s pledge to put the United States on the path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But such a reduction falls far short of what the United States pledged in the Kyoto Protocol and, according to the center, would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature increases.

Snape said, “This plan is a small step in the right direction, but certainly begs for something bigger and bolder.”

Follow WiG on Facebook and Twitter.