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Reaction as Democrats boycott committee vote on Pruitt nomination

Democrats today boycotted a Senate committee confirmation vote on President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Seats for the 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were empty when the Feb. 1 meeting on the nomination of Scott Pruitt was called to order.

Republican leaders complained the move was political theater, but progressive leaders cheered on the Democrats.

Reaction to the development…

Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said, “Today’s actions by Democrats to resist Scott Pruitt’s nomination were necessary and commendable. Pruitt is wholly unfit and unqualified to lead the EPA and anything done by anyone to prevent his confirmation must be welcomed and encouraged. Sadly, efforts by Senate Republicans to move Pruitt’s nomination forward confirm what we now know to be true: most Republicans hold an aggressive disdain for science, public health and common-sense environmental protection. Moving forward, any senator of either party that supports Pruitt’s nomination will be judged as anti-science, anti-health and anti-environment, and be held appropriately accountable by the people.”

350.org executive director May Boeve commented, “The resistance strikes back. With Pruitt refusing to answer the most basic questions about his fossil fuel industry connections, Democrats are right to protest. This is the sort of principled leadership that the public is demanding from their elected officials.”

Environment America executive director Margie Alt said, “Americans deserve an EPA administrator who will fight to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the planet we love. Scott Pruitt fails on all these accounts. The Senate must stand with science. The Senate must stand up for our families’ health, clean water and clean air. The Senate must reject President Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.”

Obama sets rule to protect streams near coal mines

The Obama administration this week set final rules designed to reduce the environmental impact of coal mining on the nation’s streams, a long-anticipated move that met quick resistance from Republicans who vowed to overturn it under President-elect Donald Trump.

The Interior Department said the new rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters. The rule would maintain a buffer zone that blocks coal mining within 100 feet of streams, but would impose stricter guidelines for exceptions to the 100-foot rule.

Interior officials said the rule would cause only modest job losses in coal country, but Republicans and some coal-state Democrats denounced it as a job-killer being imposed during President Barack Obama’s final days in office.

Coal already is struggling under steep competition from cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas, as well as regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas pollution that contributes to climate change.

U.S. coal production has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, and several coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent months, including three of the country’s biggest coal producers, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the new rule a final, futile attempt by Obama to kill coal jobs and continue what he called Obama’s “war” on coal.

Bishop said he looks forward to working with Trump’s team “to overturn this unparalleled executive overreach and implement policies that protect communities forsaken by this administration,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed that “our unified Republican government will act to provide coal country with relief.”

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also criticized the rule, which can be rejected by a majority vote in Congress.

Manchin called the rule “alarming in its scope and potential impacts” and said he will “pursue legislation to ensure it does not harm our coal mining communities and economies.”

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, a lobbying group that represents coal producers, called the rule a “post-election midnight regulation” that is “a win for bureaucracy and extreme environmental groups and a loss for everyday Americans.”

Quinn and other opponents said the rule appears to support the environmental movement’s “keep it in the ground” efforts to reduce extraction and use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming. He argued that locking away coal reserves will put tens of thousands of Americans out of work and raise energy costs for millions of Americans.

The Sierra Club, not surprisingly, disagreed, calling the rule “a long overdue step toward guaranteeing every community in America is protected from the toxic water pollution caused by surface coal mining.” The organization said the mining dumps dangerous heavy metals such as mercury, selenium and arsenic into local waterways and “puts the health of families living near coalfields at risk.”

An Interior official projected that fewer than 300 jobs would be lost after the regulation takes effect next month.

The rule would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to conditions similar to those before mining took place. Companies also would have to replant native trees and vegetation.

The administration said the rule updates requirements in place since 1983. The biggest impact will be felt in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Wisconsin DNR fails to update lead testing guidelines for drinking water

Nine months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned against flushing water systems before testing for lead, the state Department of Natural Resources has not yet passed that advice on to public water systems in Wisconsin.

The EPA issued a memo in late February as the lead-in-drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan was exploding into public view. The memo, intended to clear up confusion over testing procedures, declared that flushing water systems before sampling must be avoided because it can conceal high levels of lead in drinking water

Water managers in Shawano and at Riverside Elementary School near Wausau say they were not aware of the change and have continued to use flushing when testing for lead.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University professor who helped expose the Flint crisis, said that updating the testing procedures is “essential for public health protection.” Any amount of lead can cause permanent damage, including reduced intelligence and behavior problems, according to the EPA. Infants and children are considered the most vulnerable to lead’s negative effects.

“As we saw in Flint, the old protocols effectively ‘hid’ lead in water problems,” Edwards said.

“Given what we now know, data collected using the outdated protocols cannot be trusted.”

The memo also instructed EPA administrators to pass the guidance along to state drinking water program directors. DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said the agency was notified of the guidance and she confirmed that “pre-stagnation flushing is not an appropriate sampling procedure.”

Sereno insisted the agency had responded appropriately. DNR presented the information at two industry meetings and sent an email to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association in March, she said.

Sereno added that the agency “is in the process of drafting a letter to all community water systems that will make them aware of this and other EPA memos and summarize the content.” The agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal drinking water standards in Wisconsin, expects to send the letters next week, she said.

A search of the DNR drinking water database Friday showed nearly 6,270 lead compliance sample results from 948 water systems have been reported to the agency since Feb. 29, when the EPA guidance was issued. It was not immediately known how many used the now-discredited procedure of pre-stagnation flushing, in which a water system is flushed for some period of time, water sits unused for six hours, and then samples are collected.

Sampling procedures listed on the DNR’s website indicate the water must be stagnant for six hours but do not address whether or not the tap should be flushed prior to sampling. Sereno said new instructions will be posted online to clarify this.

Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall
Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards talks with Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis before a symposium on drinking water Sept. 7, 2016 at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. Edwards said WisconsinÕs failure to notify local water managers of new lead testing protocols in the wake of the Flint, Michigan lead crisis could pose a danger to the public. —PHOTO: Dee J. Hall

In July, EPA sent a letter reminding states to post updated protocols to their websites, saying the agency would follow up with each state “to ensure that these protocols and procedures are clearly understood and are being properly implemented to address lead and copper issues at individual drinking water systems.” The EPA did not respond to a question about whether any other states had failed to notify water managers of the updated protocols.

While some municipalities, such as the Green Bay Water Utility and the Milwaukee Water Works, were aware of the EPA memo and updated their testing procedures, others continued using outdated methods that included a flushing step — making it possible dangerous levels of lead could go unnoticed.

Shawano included pre-stagnation flushing in the procedures used for this year’s testing, which was completed over the summer. Patrick Bergner, water manager for the city of nearly 10,000 between Green Bay and Wausau, said although he works closely with a DNR liaison, he was not aware of any EPA guidance against flushing.

“I’d be happy to be informed of any changes in the procedure,” Bergner said. One of Shawano’s 21 compliance samples had a level of lead nearly three times the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion; several more neared the limit.

DNR public water supply specialist Tony Knipfer acknowledged the need for clarification when flushing is appropriate. It is typically recommended as a way for consumers to reduce exposure to lead in their own homes, for example, but should not be done before testing.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some confusion or conflicting information out on the flushing,” he said. “But from a regulatory aspect and a health and safety aspect, we’re looking for representative samples of what’s likely to be consumed.”

Milwaukee Water Works issued a statement in June saying it immediately adopted the instructions not to pre-flush. Those new instructions will be put to use next year when the utility tests 50 homes and buildings for compliance with EPA regulations.

“Prior to February of 2016, MWW did instruct residents to flush their home plumbing prior to the required six-hour stagnation period, before collecting samples for regulatory compliance purposes,” according to the memo from Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis to Mayor Tom Barrett.

“The last testing cycle (for Milwaukee) was the summer of 2014. That cycle did include the pre-stagnation flushing instruction,” Lewis wrote. “The next cycle in the summer of 2017 will not.”

Other procedures that can mask the true level of lead in drinking water include removing or cleaning faucet filters called aerators that can collect lead particles; using narrow-necked bottles that result in a slower flow of water; and sampling in cooler months when lead concentrations are lower. The EPA also urged that those procedures should end.

“While we cannot undo the past harm done from failing to detect water lead risks,” Edwards said, “there should be zero tolerance for future needless harm that arises from a false sense of security created by bad data.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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EPA to keep strict gas mileage standards in place

The EPA has decided not to change government fuel economy requirements that force automakers to significantly increase the efficiency of new cars and trucks.

The decision announced this week follows a mandatory review of the standards established in 2012, when gas averaged $3.60 a gallon and small cars and hybrids were gaining favor.

The standards had required the fleet of new cars to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But there was a built-in reduction if buying habits changed — and they have, dramatically. Now, gas is averaging close to $2 a gallon and three of every five new vehicles sold in the U.S. are trucks and SUVs. As a result, the 2025 fuel-economy number drops to 50.8 mph.

That decline isn’t enough to satisfy car companies. They say they’re building small cars and electrics to meet the standards, but few consumers are buying them. Automakers had petitioned the government to lessen the standards.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement that based on the agency’s technical analysis, automakers have the technology to meet emissions standards and mileage through 2025. The requirements will increase the new-vehicle fleet’s average gas mileage requirement from 34.1 mpg this year while cutting carbon pollution and saving drivers billions at the pump, the EPA said.

“Although EPA’s technical analysis indicates that the standards could be strengthened for model years 2022-2025, proposing to leave the current standards in place provides greater certainty to the auto industry for product planning and engineering,” McCarthy said.

The EPA will take public comments on the decision until Dec. 30, meaning McCarthy could finalize the standards before President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated in January, even though a decision wasn’t required until April 2018. Trump has said he wants to get rid of the EPA and Myron Ebell, the leader of Trump’s EPA transition team, is director of a libertarian think tank that gets financial support from the fossil fuel industry and opposes “global-warming alarmism.”

The EPA, however, denied the rushed timetable was due to Trump’s election.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group that represents 12 automakers, including BMW, Ford, Toyota and General Motors, called the quick decision a “premature rush to judgment” and said it has asked Trump to review post-election regulations.

Ford Motor Co. called the EPA move “eleventh-hour politics in a lame-duck administration” and said it will work with the new administration and Congress. Ford has been a frequent target of criticism by Trump due to its plans to move some production to Mexico.

Environmentalists backed the EPA’s decision. Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said the standards already have pushed average new-vehicle gas mileage up by 5 mpg since 2007, reducing America’s oil use and helping to drive down gasoline prices worldwide.

Janet McCabe, EPA’s acting administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, said automakers have multiple technological pathways to meet the standards, from direct-injection gas engines to hybrids and electric vehicles. The industry is ahead of schedule, she said. More than 100 vehicles on the market are already meeting standards set for 2020. But electric vehicles still haven’t caught on. Last year EVs were less than 1 percent of U.S. new car sales.

“Leaving the standards as they are would give automakers the time they need,” McCabe said.

Automakers have warned that meeting the standards would result in additional costs that would be passed on to the consumer. McCabe said Wednesday that the estimated cost of the standards has fallen. The cost per vehicle to meet the 2025 standards is now $825, down from $1,100 in 2012, she said. Owners can easily make that back in savings at the pump, she said.

The industry has argued that the costs and consumer reluctance to buy the smallest, most efficient vehicles mean the industry will have trouble complying. “The evidence is abundantly clear that with low gas prices, consumers are not choosing the cars necessary to comply with increasingly unrealistic standards,” the Auto Alliance said.

Even if Trump rolls back the standards, the industry will continue to sell fuel-efficient cars in the U.S. because it has to meet mileage standards in other countries and California. “Automakers will still be on the hook to develop and produce these vehicles and will need economies of scale to make them profitable,” said Autotrader Senior Analyst Michelle Krebs.

After four years, Wisconsin GOP forced to adopt air pollution standards

After four years of Republican defiance and a lawsuit, the state Department of Natural Resources is finally ready to adopt federal air pollution standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published new limits on fine particulate matter in January 2013. Wisconsin law requires the DNR to adopt rules matching EPA standards to ensure state permits meet federal requirements but the Republican-controlled agency didn’t do it.

Environmental groups Clean Wisconsin and the Midwest Environmental Defense Center sued in 2014 to force the agency to comply.

The groups and the DNR quietly settled the lawsuit last year with an agreement calling for the DNR to get rules reflecting the federal standards into state code by March 31, 2017. Agency officials have now drafted the regulations and the DNR board is expected to adopt them at a Dec. 14 meeting and forward them to Gov. Scott Walker. If he signs off and no lawmakers object, the rules would likely go into effect in late March.

“We’re glad to see DNR finally adding these health-based air quality protections to help address the many respiratory illnesses like asthma, bronchitis and emphysema that many Wisconsin residents face,” said Amber Meyer-Smith, Clean Wisconsin’s government relations director. “It’s unfortunate that the DNR needs to be compelled to add these protections, but we’re glad they’re complying with the settlement timelines.”

DNR officials said at the time the lawsuit was filed that they were working on drafting the rules but it was slow-going because the rule-making process requires the DNR to analyze the standards’ economic impact. Agency spokesman Andrew Savagian said this week that Walker authorized the DNR to begin work on the rule in June 2015. He had no immediate comment on why work didn’t start until the settlement was reached.

Fine particulate matter is a mix of small particles and liquid droplets made up of acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil or dust particles often found near roads, dusty industries or in smoke from forest fires or power plants. The particles can pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs, causing health problems, according to the EPA. The federal rules revised the annual standard for the amount of particulate matter allowable in the air from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

DNR officials wrote in a Nov. 7 memo to Secretary Cathy Stepp that all areas of the state are currently within the new standards. They solicited information about what effect adopting the federal standards would have on businesses and particulate matter sources from more than 1,600 stationary sources in Wisconsin and a half-dozen business associations, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a staunch Republican ally, and concluded the regulations would have little to no impact.

The 2015 settlement also required the DNR to adopt tighter restrictions the EPA set in 2010 for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The DNR sent those rules to the Legislature in April 2015, shortly before the settlement was approved. They went into effect this August.

Savagian said that rule took so long because it was the first one the DNR’s air program implemented under the economic impact requirement.

Sulfur dioxide is a gas produced from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities. The gas has been linked to a number of respiratory ailments, according to the EPA. Nitrogen oxide results from vehicle emissions and contributes to smog. It can cause airway inflammation and exacerbate problems for asthma suffers, the EPA has said.

It’s unclear how Donald Trump’s presidency and solid Republican control of Congress will affect the future of environmental regulations. Trump has vowed to get rid of all federal regulations, and the GOP already has shown a willingness to do the same.

 

Study shows 2 dangerous chemicals released at Iowa plant

A federally mandated study has concluded that Pella Corp. inadvertently released two dangerous chemicals into the ground at its plant in Pella, Iowa.

The study said pentachlorophenol and dioxin have reached the groundwater.

Only those two chemicals were found at higher than acceptable levels, according to the Des Moines Register.

Pella officials said the contaminants do not threaten the city’s drinking water, which comes from the Des Moines River and the Jordan aquifer.

“There’s very limited exposure to human health for this,” Pella engineering manager Jim Nieboer said. “And really, it’s limited to people who work in our buildings and grounds crew who may be digging in our soil periodically planting flowers and tulips.”

Pella used pentachlorophenol to treat wood, and was stored in above-ground tanks and drums. Although the chemical was widely barred in the 1980s, it is still used as a preservative for telephone poles and railroad ties. Dioxins, a byproduct of pentachlorophenol manufacturing, are described by the World Health Organization as “highly toxic.”

The study was a result of a 2010 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, which required the company to test for 30 different possible sources of contamination. Nieboer said Pella will wait for guidance from the EPA on whether Pella must remove the chemicals from the ground.

“It’s primarily underneath our manufacturing buildings,” Nieboer said. “There are ways we can intercept and remove groundwater. Given the clay soils in Iowa, it could be a very long-term process of removal and treatment.”

Pella spokeswoman Heidi Farmer said the company does not know of any employees who became ill from the soil, but still continue to monitor and test the facility to ensure the health and safety of Pella’s team members.

Environmental Protection Agency pressed to oppose DNR pollution permit

Continue reading Environmental Protection Agency pressed to oppose DNR pollution permit

Feds investigating claims WDNR fails to enforce water pollution regs

Federal regulators planned to visit Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources headquarters this week to investigate claims the agency is failing to enforcing water pollution laws and regulations.

Midwest Environmental Advocates and 16 individuals petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review water regulations in the state to ensure the DNR is complying with the Clean Water Act.

The EPA in 2011 cited 75 deficiencies in how DNR handles water regulation.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports four EPA regulators planned to spend four days this week at DNR headquarters in Madison paging through the agency’s water pollution files beginning Tuesday.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick called the review standard procedure, although the review could result in the EPA stripping the state’s authority to enforce federal regulations.

Groups sue General Mills, say herbicide in Nature Valley granola bars

Three nonprofit organizations this week sued General Mills for allegedly misleading the public by labeling Nature Valley brand granola bars as “Made with 100% NATURAL whole grain OATS.” The lawsuit says the herbicide chemical glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup and hundreds of other glyphosate-based herbicides, is present in the granola bars.

The plaintiffs include Moms Across America, Beyond Pesticides and Organic Consumers Association and they are represented by The Richman Law Group, which filed the complaint under the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

“As a mother, when I read ‘100% Natural,’ I would expect that to mean no synthetic or toxic chemicals at all,” said Zen Honeycutt, founder and executive director of Moms Across America. “Glyphosate is a toxic chemical that the EPA recognizes as a ‘reproductive effector’ which ‘can cause liver and kidney damage’ and ‘digestive effects.’ It is unacceptable that Nature Valley granola bars contain any amount of this chemical.”

A national survey conducted by Consumer Reports in 2015 finds that 66 percent of consumers seek out products with a “natural” food label under the false belief they are produced without pesticides, genetically modified organisms, hormones, and artificial ingredients.

“Glyphosate cannot be considered ‘natural’ because it is a toxic, synthetic herbicide,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “Identified by the World Health Organization  as a carcinogen, it should not be allowed for use in food production and certainly not in food with a label that suggests to consumers that the major ingredient – oats – is 100 percent natural, when it is produced with and contains the highly hazardous glyphosate.”

“Food grown with dangerous pesticides like glyphosate isn’t natural. Consumers understand this. That’s why sales of natural products are booming. Unfortunately, companies’ misleading claims trick consumers into buying just what they’re trying to avoid. This has to be stopped,” added Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association

The case specifically cites the use and presence of the weedkiller glyphosate in General Mills’ Nature Valley Granola products.

The chemical is used during the production of oats, the major ingredient in these products, which are marketed as “natural” and labeled “Made with 100% Natural Whole Grain Oats.” As a result, glyphosate is present in the natural-labeled products.

Proponents of glyphosate herbicide use say the residue levels found in many foods and beverages in the United States are below the EPA allowable levels established in 2014 and therefore consumers have no reason to be concerned.

However, a 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Health found chronic, low-dose exposure to glyphosate as low as 0.1 parts per billion leads to adverse effects on liver and kidney health.

A study released in early 2016 found glyphosate can cause changes to DNA function resulting in the onset of chronic disease, including diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.

The lawsuit alleges that, when marketing Nature Valley products, General Mills misleads and fails to disclose to consumers of the use and presence of glyphosate and its harmful effects.

The plaintiffs are asking a jury to find that General Mills’ “natural” labeling is deceptive and misleading and therefore a violation of law, and require its removal from the market.

Editor’s note: This report will be updated.

EPA finalizing plans to supply water in Kewaunee

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says it’s finalizing a plan to supply water to some residents of Kewaunee County of northeastern Wisconsin, where manure from large dairy farms is being blamed for contaminated wells.

Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator for the EPA, told residents at a meeting organized by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin this past week that his agency will announce a plan within the next month to supply residents who have tainted wells. This is according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carried by the AP.

Farming practices have been a source of friction in many areas of Wisconsin.

The issue has been especially visible in Kewaunee County, which has longstanding groundwater problems, a large cattle population, and fractured bedrock that allows manure, waste from septic systems and other pollutants to trickle more quickly into aquifers.

In March, six environmental groups called on the EPA to step in and clean up unsafe drinking water in Kewaunee County.

“It is unacceptable that more than one-third of the private drinking water wells in Kewaunee County are unsafe — contaminated with bacteria, nitrates and other pollutants,” Elizabeth Wheeler, senior staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin, said at the time.

Clean Wisconsin, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee Cares, Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin and Environmental Integrity Project wrote to the EPA and requested federal support for clean, safe drinking water.

Also, in October 2014, the groups petitioned the EPA, asking for intervention under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The EPA, in a letter sent to the agency’s Chicago office, was asked to:

  • Immediately provide Kewaunee County residents with clean water.
  • Expedite test results of well water contamination.
  • Issue emergency rule changes to ensure the DNR has authority to protect water.
  • Provide more research and groundwater monitoring on sources of pollution.

The groups also asked the EPA to monitor closely the DNR’s efforts to develop a plan to implement recommendations.