Why one former EPA advisor is suing the agency, and how he thinks we can reinvent it
In 2017, just a few days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, a freshman GOP lawmaker with only a few days on the job of his own, proposed House Resolution 861. Its language was ominous: “The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”
Photo by Lorie Shaull
I was in my sixth year on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board when H.R.861 was introduced. When I called senior EPA colleagues to assess the threat, I was assured that it would never happen; the nation’s environmental laws, and the agency that makes and enforces them, could not be killed in two years by a ten-word resolution written by a rookie congressman.
Then along came Scott Pruitt.
Since taking over as administrator, Pruitt has overseen the nominations and appointments of a diverse array of lobbyists and corporate insiders while at the same time letting key vacancies languish. He has put the brakes on enforcement, slowed or suspended progressive regulatory actions initiated by his predecessors, and defended draconian budget cuts proposed by the White House.
He has also gutted the agency’s science advisory boards, one of which I proudly served on. Pruitt’s directive to “reform” the EPA’s science advisory boards, which I believe is both unethical and illegal, led me to join a group of scientists who are suing the agency.
From where I sit as both a scientist and former EPA adviser, the motivation behind Scott Pruitt’s actions is as clear as day: He isn’t reforming the agency; he’s trying to kill it.
The good news for the EPA is that a majority of Americans support its fundamental mission to protect the environment and public health. And, judging by recent reports, bipartisan calls for Scott Pruitt to resign are growing louder. But for the EPA to really rebound after Pruitt’s repeated assaults, the agency will need to address some of its legitimate shortcomings.
Toxic and risky
I’ve been dedicated to environmental science since college, and I have devoted a large chunk of my academic career to government service since shortly after George W. Bush was elected president.
For third year running, popular fruit tops list of produce containing pesticides
It’s common knowledge these days that nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy, well-rounded diet. But according to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual “Dirty Dozen” list, there are some conventional produce items that it may be best to avoid.
Photo by snekse/Flickr
For the third year running, conventional strawberries topped the list of pesticide-contaminated produce. According to EWG’s analysis, 99 percent of sampled strawberries tested positive for residues of at least one pesticide, with an average of 7.8 pesticides detected per sample. The humble strawberry’s reign on top of the Dirty Dozen list isn’t entirely surprising — on average, every acre of strawberry field in California is treated with some 300 pounds of pesticides, including sprayed chemicals and toxic fumigants injected directly into the soil. But it is worrisome, given that the average American eats about 8 pounds of strawberries a year.
Of course, conventional strawberries, are far from the only contaminated produce making its way into American’s grocery carts. Overall, nearly three-quarters of conventional fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residue even after they are washed.
“I think most people are just really astounded to find out that about 70 percent of grown produce has measurable amounts of pesticides on them,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with EWG and lead author of the report. “People see food as being so clean, and symmetrical, and fragrant, and when you’re buying it at the grocery store, you’re hardly thinking about the farm fields.”
The EWG analysis is based on US Department of Agriculture testing, which found a total of 230 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on sampled produce. Some of the pesticides are relatively benign, at least in terms of human health. Others have been linked to serious risks, including damage to the brain and nervous system. Evidence suggests that humans are particularly vulnerable to exposure in utero and during early childhood. Farmworkers and their children, who are routinely exposed to these pesticides, are among the most at risk groups.
But we are still learning about the full range of potential effects of pesticide exposure. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that consumption of two or more servings of produce with high pesticide residues was associated with a 26 percent lower chance of …more
Activists hail news as a sign the project might eventually be scrapped due to public resistance
In a sea of bad news stories about human impacts on the natural environment and the toll already taken by a changing climate, good news stories are a welcome relief. So when American energy infrastructure company Kinder Morgan announced the suspension of work on its Canadian $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project yesterday, whether temporary or not, the news was greeted by activists with enthusiasm, relief, and renewed commitment to ensure the pipeline never gets built.
By William Chen/Wikimedia Commons
The announcement came a day after some 300 people braved stormy weather on Burnaby Mountain to demonstrate against the project.
Protests against the project — which involved expanding the existing Kinder Morgan line built in 1953 to increase its capacity to 890,000 barrels of crude oil per day — had ratcheted up in recent weeks in British Columbia, with hundreds taking part in numerous marches and sit-ins led by Indigenous rights activists and supported by local environmental groups.
“This is a sign that organizing works and it could well be the beginning of the end for this dangerous pipeline,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, Stop-it-at-the-Source campaigner with 350.org, who led one of the protests on March 17 and was arrested later that day. “Kinder Morgan’s investors have seen that people all across Canada are choosing Indigenous rights, clean water, and a safe climate over this dangerous pipeline. Now it’s time for Justin Trudeau to do the same.”
“The Indigenous chiefs who risked arrest today are some of the most visionary and principled leaders in the world,” author and climate activist Naomi Klein said during the Saturday, April 7, protest. “They are willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the land and water that are inextricable from their human rights as Indigenous peoples and from the habitability of our shared planet.”
In a press release, Kinder Morgan explained that the decision to suspend the project was the result of the opposition presented by the British Columbia government, which has been putting up barriers to the project in direct conflict with the Canadian federal government and the Alberta government. Kinder Morgan did, however, leave an opening for negotiation with stakeholders with a deadline of May 31 …more
The huge national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world
It is dawn on the shores of Lake Edward and the sun is rising over the volcanoes on the eastern skyline. Mist lies over the still water. In the forest there are elephant, hippopotamus and buffalo. Guarding them are 26 rangers in a single fortified post.
Then the silence is rudely broken. There are shouts, scattered shots, volleys from automatic weapons. Waves of attackers rush through the brush and trees. Some are close enough to hurl spears and fire arrows.
Later, the rangers will tell their commanders that their assailants numbered more than a hundred. For 45 minutes the unequal battle continues. Then the guards, ammunition running low, withdraw. They take with them the bodies of three of their comrades. At least a dozen of their enemy lie on the ground.
“This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, the deputy director of Virunga National Park, an enormous stretch of more than 5,000 square miles of woodland, savannah and mountains on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The clash last August was the bloodiest in the park for many years. There was little elation when the post was retaken four hours after the rangers’ initial retreat. The steady attrition of what Mburanumwe calls “a low intensity war” in the Virunga has claimed the lives of more than 170 rangers over the last 20 years, a toll earning the park a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.
“Every day when the patrols set out, we know that they may come under fire. We know we may lose someone or we may be killed ourselves,” said Mburanumwe.
The threats facing the Virunga, home to one of the world’s largest populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as hundreds of other rare species, are multiple.
There are armed rebel groups, hardened by years of combat against the Congolese government troops or those of neighboring countries, local bandits and self-defense militia, and poachers out for ivory or bush meat. Then there is the hugely lucrative charcoal industry, for which the …more
HR 2936 was pushed through the House by lawmakers whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry
A bill making its way through Congress would ostensibly protect our communities from wildfires. But it really would do more to enrich the timber industry keen on harvesting more trees from federal lands.
Over the past two years, the US Congress has conducted at least eight hearings on forest fires and the US Forest Service’s (USFS) supposed lack of resources to tackle them. But it hadn't moved on any legislation to deal with the problem until last fall, when the House passed a measure that blames the increase in the size and intensity of forest fires in recent years on a “decrease in timber production” that is leaving too much deadwood and trees that serve as fuel for the flames. The legislative solution? Make it easier for the timber industry to haul away the trees.
Last November, Members of Congress, many of whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry, pushed the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017 (H.R. 2936) through the House. The bill purports to streamline the ability of USFS and the Bureau of Land Management to "return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forested lands, and for other purposes" by expediting the environmental review process. In reality, the bill would allow these federal entities to bypass environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act and reduce the ability of citizens to challenge forest management projects and seek judicial relief.
The House passed the bill on a near party-line vote, with ten Democrats joining the Republican majority.
If the bill were to become law, it would undermine key environmental laws that protect our national forests. It would allow agencies to conduct timber sales after wildfires without requiring standard environmental review — in some instances, on parcels up to 10,000 acres (existing law caps this figure at 250 acres). In addition, it would establish a “State-Supported Forest Management Fund” that could use federal money to pay for timber sales.
The bill would also limit the agency’s consideration of alternatives for some Forest Service activities, including post-wildfire logging, to only two options — a proposed action — for example, logging to remove so-called “deadwood" — and taking no action. The USFS would also have to consider the effect of “no action” on the timber industry. (Traditionally, …more
Ryan Zinke revives grizzly bear recovery plan in Washington
Washington State's conservation community was understandably concerned when rumors began to circulate a couple of weeks ago that US interior secretary Ryan Zinke would be visiting the North Cascades to make an announcement about the proposed restoration of grizzly bears. Zinke hasn't exactly been a champion for nature since he ceremoniously arrived at his first day of work on horseback and overturned a ban on lead ammunition only hours after climbing out of the saddle. Then he began an unprecedented assault on America's national monuments, which included shrinking Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by an astounding 85 percent. What hope did we have that he'd endorse the long-awaited return of grizzlies to one of the most remote and rugged mountain landscapes in the Lower 48?
Photo by Robert Long
Well, in this particular case, hats off to Zinke and the horse he rode in on. The secretary apparently holds a special place in his heart for grizzly bears.
"I grew up on the flanks of Glacier National Park, so I've dealt with the grizzly bear all my life," Zinke told a small group of agency personnel and conservationists gathered at North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro Wooley, Washington, on March 23. He went on to say that he has directed his staff to accelerate the recovery planning process for grizzlies in the North Cascades — which his agency reportedly halted last December. "I'm in support of the great bear. I'm also in support of doing it right," Zinke said, adding pointedly that we're not talking about the "reintroduction of a rabbit."
True, grizzlies are not rabbits — they reproduce much more slowly, and tend to evoke a far less cordial response from people who encounter them. After Lewis and Clark blazed the trail to the Pacific in the early 1800s, a steady stream of fur traders and other settlers eradicated grizzly bears from the US West, with the last documented kill of a North Cascades grizzly occurring in 1967. Although a few grizzlies have been sighted here since, there hasn't been an officially confirmed sighting in more than two decades.
The North Cascades Ecosystem remains one of the wildest places in the Lower 48, with 6.1 …more
Lobbyist’s clients reportedly include ExxonMobil, Enbridge Energy, Colonial Pipeline, and Cheniere Energy
There is a growing political scandal surrounding the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the climate denier, Scott “Polluting” Pruitt.
The White House has launched a formal inquiry into any potential conflict of interest over the fact that Pruitt rented a bedroom in a centrally located Capitol Hill townhouse, which just happens to be co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist.
ABC News is reporting that Pruitt rented the bedroom in 2017 which was partially owned by “Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, who was registered to lobby for several environmental and energy concerns.”
The issue is further complicated as Pruitt’s daughter McKenna Pruitt, reportedly also used a second bedroom whilst she interned at the White House, despite the fact that Pruitt was supposedly only paying for one room.
Although a spokesman for the lobbyist, Hart denied lobbying the EPA since Pruitt took the job, this has not satisfied Pruitt’s many critics and the revelations have forced the White to investigate. You can see why people are concerned: Hart’s clients reportedly include ExxonMobil, Enbridge Energy, Colonial Pipeline and Cheniere Energy.
Worried about conflicts of interest, Pruitt now faces questions from members of Congress, too. Yesterday Democrats on the House panel on Energy and Commerce, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency sent him a letter: Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., wrote: “We are concerned that the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a potential conflict of interest”.
They continued that the rental agreement “potentially violates the Ethics Pledge you signed on becoming the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.”
Of particular concern, the letter says: “As Administrator, you have taken a number of actions to benefit industries regulated by the EPA, and this news raises the possibility that you may have personally benefitted from your relationship with industry”. The letter to Pruitt includes nine questions which he has to answer before April 16.
The growing political scandal cones as there was further news of Pruitt’s further …more