Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | By Rebecca Leber | No Comments
President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort will host the opening reception Wednesday evening for a conference where a recently bankrupt coal company will be a guest of honor. The annual Distressed Investing Summit will bestow one of its “Restructuring Deal of the Year” awards to Arch Coal for clearing $5 billion in debt after it filed for bankruptcy in 2016.
“They emerged from bankruptcy in 2016 after shedding huge amount of debt, obligations to workers, and environmental cleanup,” Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal director Mary Ann Hitt says. “When a company is in bankruptcy, you don’t have a lot of leverage in there with all the lawyers and stakeholders. To have them feted at Mar-a-Lago as a turnaround is salt in the wound for workers and people representing the public interest.”
The summit, hosted by financial company The M&A Advisor, has held its opening cocktail reception at Mar-a-Lago for the past two years, ever since Trump emerged as a serious contender for president. In its invitation email, M&A Advisor names Arch Coal as one of its winners alongside a number of other firms, including energy companies Alpha Natural Resources, Midstates Petroleum Company, and Venoco, an oil and gas development company.
Here’s how the invitation describes Mar-a-Lago, “the new Winter White House”:
The agenda for roundtables that are held at a nearby hotel reads like a laundry list of Trump’s campaign themes: “Making America Great Again,” “Informing and Silencing The Media,” and the “Art of Dealmaking: Getting Deals Done In The New Economic Order.”
Not everyone agrees that Arch Coal’s 2016 bankruptcy deal warrants celebration.During the bankruptcy proceedings, environmental opposition forced the company to abandon its proposal that taxpayers should foot the entire bill to clean up its abandoned mines. The company also laid off hundreds of its miners that same year.
In the years before bankruptcy, United Mine Workers of America complained that Arch Coal moved 40 percent of its employees’ health care coverage to Patriot Coal, a volatile offshoot company. When Patriot went under, those health benefits were at risk and continue to be because of Arch Coal’s bankruptcy. Patriot and Arch Coal are only two examples of a larger problem. The union shop has been pressing Congress for a long-term solution for 22,000 miners’ benefits in jeopardy because of coal bankruptcies—an issue that won’t go away no matter what happens to federal environmental regulations.
The idea that the coal industry can recover is a cherished narrative for Trump. Earlier this week, at a campaign-style rally in Kentucky, the president claimed that he will “save our coal industry” and put miners back to work with executive orders that are expected any day. Trump likes to blame “terrible job-killing” regulations, but there are other pressures beyond federal regulation driving coal out of business, namely competitive natural gas.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday evening, a coal turnaround will be celebrated. Even though it might only be, as the Sierra Club’s Hitt notes, “one of many of the alternative facts they like to celebrate at Mar-a-Lago.”
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is America’s last big, pristine and wild place, and it is facing challenges greater than at any time in more than a decade. When the time comes to decide its future, we must be sure lawmakers don’t repeat the mistake they made this week.
The state of New Mexico has sold 4 million acres of state trust lands to private interests and extractive industries, some of which endanger the health, environment, and economy of local communities, according to
Monday, March 20, 2017 | By Nathalie Baptiste | No Comments
In Flint, Michigan, residents still don’t trust the drinking water. After city managers switched its water source to the Flint River in 2014 in order to save money, residents began complaining about the smell and the taste almost immediately. Because water pipes were not treated with corrosive control agents, the river water began leaching lead from old lead pipes fitted in homes across the city. It’s been over a year since the EPA declared an emergency in the city and recovery efforts began in earnest.
On this week’s Inquiring Minds episode, host Kishore Hari talks to Siddhartha Roy, a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech, who was part of the group of civil engineers that went to Flint in August 2015—more than a year after residents began complaining—to perform research on the tap water. The Virginia Tech scientists discovered significant levels of lead in the drinking water, but Michigan officials continued to deny that there was a problem.
Roy says that the communications director of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality called the team “lead magicians” after they presented their findings. “This arrogance, this callous disregard for public health and this discounting of all this outside expertise and good intentions was very shocking to me,” he explained. At a city council meeting about the water crisis, a resident was arrested for raising her voice.
Eventually, in October 2015, a public health crisis was declared and the city switched back to its previous water source: Lake Huron water filtered through the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. Unfiltered water is still not safe to drink in Flint, because 20,000 lead-tainted pipes remain, but from a scientific standpoint, things are improving. “Flint is entering normal range,” explains Roy. “It’s not brown anymore. It’s probably the most well-researched water system in the country now.”
But the legacy of the water crisis continues in what Roy describes as a “trust gap.”
“They would not trust the system that failed them,” said Roy. Flint residents have been adamant that they will not drink from the tap until all of the city’s lead pipes are replaced—a costly and lengthy project. Activists in the city can often be found on Twitter reminding the public how long it’s been since their water was clean.
The lengthy denial by officials that there was even a problem has made Flint residents more reluctant to believe their own leaders in the future. “People who have been traumatized by this situation probably will never trust tap water again,” said Roy, “And I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t.”
Monday, March 20, 2017 | By Rebecca Leber | No Comments
Faced with the Trump administration’s assault on regulations, environmental advocates are planning to turn to the courts to limit some of the damage. Green groups are already crafting lawsuits to block any efforts to roll back rules on power plant emissions, vehicle pollution, coal mining, and pipeline permits. Environmentalists have been studying the record of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, whose Senate confirmation hearings begin Monday. They are trying to understand how he might handle cases on Obama-era climate initiatives, air pollution, and water quality, which may one day end up at the Supreme Court. Chief among their concerns are whether he will even allow them to have their day in court at all.
“He’s not one of those judges who wants to swing the courthouse doors [open] to environmental suits,” says Michael Gerrard, Columbia University Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “It would lower their probability for success for those few cases that made it all the way to the Supreme Court.”
When reviewing his record, environmental lawyers have paid a lot of attention to his decisions regarding the weight that should be given to a government agency’s interpretation of the law. Long before Gorsuch was on the federal bench, his mother, then known as Ann Burford, was the head of the Reagan administration’s EPA. A year after Burford resigned from the post, the Supreme Court issued a major decision on her rulemaking, a 1984 opinion establishing the precedent now known as Chevron deference. Under that precedent, courts defer to a government agency’s interpretation of a broad law if Congress did not clearly spell out its intention. Then-Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the Chevron case that “the Court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute” and instead must defer to the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act.
That principle has led to a number of government victories in lawsuits. For example, three years ago Chevron deference ultimately led to a Supreme Court win for the EPA on a major air pollution rule. It’s become the basis of the legal argument for many environmental cases since the 1980s, including the Obama administration’s attempts to defend its climate regulations in court. (The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on that case soon. It may well end up in the Supreme Court.)
Gorsuch, however, is not a fan of Chevron deference. In a recent opinion, he railed against the Chevron decision which he complained encouraged the executive branch “to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.” Gorsuch would rather see agencies narrowly carry out Congress’ expressed wishes, with judges interpreting exactly what those wishes were.
But there’s another way Gorsuch could deal a huge blow to the environmental community: By preventing their cases from ever getting into court at all. Throughout his career, Gorsuch has found creative ways of throwing judicial roadblocks in front of environmental litigation. In many instances, Gorsuch has ruled that environmentalist groups don’t have what is called “standing” to bring a case. Denise Grab, a senior attorney with the New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, found several examples where Gorsuch went “way beyond what’s the traditional consensus-type views on standing. He’s gone out of his way to take bolder steps than the Supreme Court has taken so far.”
So what exactly is standing? To sue, you have to prove you suffered some kind of harm, which is easy when there are direct economic repercussions, like when someone hits your car. Standing becomes harder to prove if your goal is to protect the planet, but environmentalists can nonetheless make a case on behalf of citizens who are hurt if the law isn’t enforced or is misinterpreted. As Gorsuch puts it, standing is the demonstration that “it’s ‘likely, as opposed to merely speculative,’… you’ve suffered an injury that can be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.'”
Many of the environmental decisions where Gorsuch quibbled on procedural grounds involved public lands disputes. In 2015, for example, the Montana-based public-lands advocates, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, sued the US Forest Service over a trail management plan that the group said was too lenient for motor vehicles. The merits of the case were never argued in court, because Gorsuch refused to let the case proceed. He reasoned that the plaintiffs couldn’t sue because if they succeeded in overturning the government’s plan, it could actually undermine the group’s interests. In other words, a weaker version of a rule would be better for the plaintiffs than the potential consequences of no rule at all, so weighing the potential costs and benefits, he concluded the group lacked standing to sue.
[A] victory for Backcountry in this case would seem to do nothing to help—and perhaps much to hurt—its cause…In the end, then, we find ourselves stuck where we started. A further victory for Backcountry in this case promises only more, not fewer, vehicles on forest trails and the group hasn’t offered a timely argument how that turn of events might help its members.
If Gorsuch’s logic were applied to other cases, plenty of environmental arguments would be at risk, says Grab. “Judge Gorsuch’s approach in this case is potentially worrisome to any organization that might want to challenge an agency’s tightening of a regulation as not being comprehensive enough,” she notes in a memo prepared on Gorsuch’s record. “If environmental groups or advocacy groups in general are trying to challenge an agency action as not being sufficient—without getting to court, those issues can not be addressed.”
Gorsuch has also attempted to limit the ability of green groups to defend environmental rules in court. Frequently, these groups seek to intervene in cases—essentially, joining the government as a defendant when regulations they support are being challenged. For example, more than a dozen environmental and public health groups have signed on with states, municipalities, and power companies to defend the EPA’s climate rule restricting coal plant emissions.
In New Mexico Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance v. US Forest Service, Gorsuch dissented from the majority’s decision on whether environmental groups could enter a suit. The off-road drivers’ association had challenged a Forest Service plan limiting where vehicles could go. Gorsuch argued that the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and WildEarth Guardians shouldn’t be allowed to join the case. “There is no actual conflict between the government and the would-be interveners over how to approach it,” he wrote. By adding more complexity to the case, Gorsuch reasoned, “the public’s interest in husbanding limited judicial resources” would be harmed.
That worries Sierra Club managing attorney Joshua Stebbins, who points out the Obama administration enacted a number of key environmental and public health protections. “The Trump administration may, through a number of different mechanisms, elect not to vigorously defend those safeguards before a court,” he says. If that happens, “it would become very important for the public interest community and the public health community to intervene in that lawsuit to make sure the Obama-era safeguards were being defended.”
The Supreme Court hasn’t gone as far as Gorsuch has to limit environmentalists on standing, but he does have a great deal in common with the justice he would replace, Antonin Scalia. “The conservative wing of the court for years has imposed a series of restrictions on standing to sue, and it looks like a Justice Gorsuch would continue in that tradition,” says Columbia University’s Gerrard. However, he doesn’t think Gorsuch would “be any worse” than Scalia was on limiting standing for environmentalists.
Scalia chipped away at standing in environmental cases as far back as 1992, with his opinion in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, when the court ruled that conservationists were unable to prove direct injury in their suit against the government over the Endangered Species Act. The environmental groups in the case “did not demonstrate that they suffered an injury,” he wrote of the case. He mocked the groups’ argument, which he said implied that “anyone with an interest in studying or seeing endangered animals anywhere on the globe” could sue.
It was known as the Great Pea Soup. In 1952, a thick, greenish-yellow fog smothered London, halting traffic and daily life. At the time, when households burned cheap coal for heat, factories spewed unregulated smoke, and buses burned diesel fuel, Londoners were used to a certain degree of greasy haze. But the Great Smog or Big Smoke, as this 1952 pea-souper was also known, was unprecedented. Bitterly cold air “soaked up the pollution and held it like a blanket over the city” for four days straight, according to the Daily Mail. Twelve thousand people died.
Sixty-five years later, our scientific understanding of air pollution has advanced immeasurably. We now know—because of events like the Great Pea Soup, but also a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study of smog-ridden U.S. cities and countless research papers since then—that short-term and long-term exposure to air pollution can kill people, particularly those with pre-existing conditions. “The evidence is so large,” said C. Arden Pope, a professor at Brigham Young University world-renowned researcher of air pollution’s impacts on human health. “There are very few people conducting this research and publishing it in the peer-reviewed literature who don’t think fine particles pollution can lead to death.”
There are, indeed, very few people who believe air pollution—specifically “fine particulate” pollution, or PM2.5—doesn’t cause death. Those who do, however, are getting louder and gaining influence in conservative political circles and inside President Donald Trump’s administration. These air-pollution deniers have just one hope: the repeal of clean-air regulations that have long protected Americans’ health.
At last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), during a little-noticed panel on climate change and environmental regulation, air pollution denial was rampant and went unchallenged. Steve Milloy, formerly a paid flack for the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and member of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team, argued that excessive air pollution is not linked to premature death. “My particular interest is air pollution,” Milloy said, alleging that EPA’s scientists are inherently biased. “These people validate and rubber-stamp the EPA’s conclusion that air pollution kills people.” Milloy also said, baselessly, that EPA scientists are “paying for the science it wants,” and that Trump must change the research process at the agency.
It is extensively proven, and widely accepted, that air pollution can harm humans, which is why the government regulates it. PM2.5 refers to tiny particles that are 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter—small enough to penetrate deep into the circulatory system and potentially infiltrate the central nervous system. The particles range in composition, originating anywhere from cement dust to tobacco smoke to pollen. They are currently regulated under the Clean Air Act, a widely popular law passed in 1963 that has seen major amendments receiving unanimous or overwhelming support in the Senate. The CAA currently requires Congress to set what’s known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter.
Even Breitbart, the alt-right media organization with close ties to Trump, seems to accept that air pollution is bad for human health. It has published dozens of articles over the years—many from wire services, but some from its owncontributors—that report, without opinion, about studies on the issue. “The chronic problem of pollution in China has been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths,” Thomas D. Williams, Breitbart‘s Rome bureau chief, wrote in 2015. “The fine particles are believed to play a role in cardiovascular disease, lung problems, cancer, and emphysema.” Earlier this month, Breitbart senior editor-at-large Joel B. Pollack reported, “Air quality in some East Asian capitals is famously poor, with residents of Beijing taking extreme measures to avoid the health risks associated with heavy pollution.”
But Breitbart has also provided a platform for those leading the charge for air pollution denial. Last year, it published a column by Milloy titled, “How stupid is air pollution ‘science’?” And earlier this month, Breitbart columnist James Delingpole—who usually sticks to columns attacking climate science—joined the fray. In an article declaring that “The EPA’s Air Pollution Scare Is Just Another Fake News Myth,” Delingpole took issue with the most recent State of Global Air report, which found that air pollution contributed to 4.2 million deaths in 2015, because the study was partly funded by the EPA—while conveniently ignoring that it was also funded by 23 car companies and Exxon Mobil. Delingpole cited Milloy exclusively and extensively, linking to Milloy’s “fact sheet” on air pollution.
“Frankly, it’s full of stuff and nonsense,” said Janice Nolen, the assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association, referring to Milloy’s fact sheet. “Particle pollution is one of the most researched topics in the scientific world, and has been reviewed extensively.”
There are pages of false claims in Milloy’s sheet, but a few are particularly egregious. He argues that two renowned air pollution studies that established the basic connection between PM2.5 and death—the aforementioned Harvard study and one by Pope, the BYU professor—have controversial methodologies that cannot be resolved because scientists refuse to make the raw data available. “For results to be considered to be scientifically credible, they must be capable of being independently replicated,” Milloy writes. This claim is the basis of a Republican-led bill currently being pushed through the House of Representatives.
There are several problems with this line of argument. The raw data Milloy seeks is private medical information on human subjects who were assured confidentiality when they participated in these studies. “There’s this issue if this data becomes public, will anyone be able to go and knock on these people’s doors?” said Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, an environmental health professor at Columbia University. Long-term health data is also difficult to reproduce because the people who participated in the study have grown up; many likely have died. This is why, scientists say, many public health studies simply can’t be replicated. (The Harvard study, however, was successfully replicated in 2001 by the Health Effects Institute, which is funded by EPA, the motor vehicle industry, and the oil and gas industry. A similar reanalysis was published in 2005.)
Milloy and Delingpole also claim that “not one single” epidemiological or toxicological study has ever shown that particulate pollution directly caused a death, either in the short term or due to prolonged exposure. Kioumourtzoglou says this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how scientists classify cause of death. When people die, they are given an International Classification of Diseases (ICD) code to signify what happened, and there is no ICD code for pollution. “If you died of a heart attack, you get the ICD code for a heart attack,” she said. “If exposure to PM2.5 has caused a heart attack, on your death certificate, it would still say heart attack, not PM2.5.”
Pope, whose study was one of the first to establish the connection between short-term exposure to fine particulate matter and death, also said Milloy’s claim misunderstands the type of person who dies from exposure. A perfectly healthy person is not going to croak from a short jog through haze. But people who are already unhealthy—who have asthma, or cardiovascular or heart disease—should be worried. “We often refer to it as triggering,” Pope said. “Particulates will trigger these acute events, such as heart attack.”
This is not to say that the research on this subject is flawless. Kioumourtzoglou, unlike Milloy, has lead and published studies on problems with the scientific methods surrounding the impact of particulate matter pollution on human health. Scientists cannot strap pollution monitors onto humans and follow them around for years at a time, so sometimes they rely on models that predict air pollution concentrations at certain locations and times. “We have to rely on less than perfect measurements,” she said. “And these are known to induce error.”
The error, however, is exactly the opposite of what Milloy claims. Kioumourtzoglou’s research has found that current air pollution measuring methods tend to understate the effects of air pollution. “In reality,” she said, “the effects are even worse than documented.”
The bad news is, we already know that outliers can have disproportionate impact on policy. Just look at the debate surrounding climate change. Despite near-consensus in the scientific community, one third of Congress are climate change deniers, as are Trump and his new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. What’s more, they’re using their fact-free ideology to dismantle policies that slow climate change. Trump is expected to issue an executive order this week undoing the Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants. He is also considering withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the landmark international accord to stop global warming.
Milloy and Delingpole surely would like air-pollution deniers to have a similar impact on national policy. Given Milloy’s closeness to Trump’s inner circle, and Breitbart‘s growing influence on the White House, and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. But even if that doesn’t come to pass, these deniers have already succeeded in shaping—or rather, creating—a debate that no politician or scientist should rightly entertain. And that debate is now a public reality. Milloy’s “fact sheet,” for instance, is the first result in a Google search of “PM 2.5 science.” A legitimate scientific article is second.
Wildfire approaches farm buildings in Woods County, Oklahoma, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Oklahoma Forestry Services/via AP
Cattle graze by a wildfire near Protection, Kansas. Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP
David Crockett, whose grandson Cody Crockett died in the wildfire, rides the scorched prairie of Franklin Ranch in the Texas Panhandle, searching for injured cattle. Michael Schumacher/The Amarillo Globe News via AP
Kansas rancher Greg Gardner surveys some of the damage to his ranch, which lost about 500 cattle to the fire. Mike Pearce/The Wichita Eagle via AP
Cattle graze by a wildfire near Protection, Kansas. Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP
While area politicians like Inhofe are scrambling to bring relief to the areas devastated by the conflagration, they are eerily silent on its context: climate change. No single event like a wildfire can be directly tied to a long-term trend like climate change, but science suggests that wildfires will be more common in the Southern Plains regionas temperatures rise.
As this 2015 report from the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub puts it, “Highly variable weather has been a benchmark of life and agriculture in the Southern Great Plains since long before the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas were formed.” However, “over the last 15 years, the region has experienced an increasing frequency of some of the more extreme events central to agriculture, a direct result of more dynamic atmospheric behavior,” including “extensive, crippling periods of drought that ended with record-breaking downpours and flooding.”
And more droughts mean “more frequent fires,” the report adds. One major driver is the rapid transition from wet weather, Jean Steine, director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma, told me. “We had pretty nice rainfall last summer,” she said. And that triggered lots of growth in grass and other plant matter. Come fall, the rains abruptly stopped—drying out all that grass. In late winter, “really strong winds and low humidity set in”—creating perfect conditions for big fires, Steine said, adding that this year’s are the biggest on record for the region.
The conditions are eerily similar to those that enabled the catastrophic fires that ripped through the region in 2010-’11— a “particularly wet” summer and spring “led to an abundance of shrub and grass growth,” which them dried out on a subsequent drought, “making the ideal fuel for rapid wildfire development and growth,” as this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report notes.
And sudden swings are increasingly common in the region, a peer-reviewed 2015 paper from University of Oklahoma meteorologists shows. They looked at the frequency of what they call “dipole events” (a drought year followed by a year of unusually high rains). They found that between 1896 and 1954, only three dipoles occurred in the Southern Great Plains region; while between 1955 and 2013, seven such events occurred.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used to acknowledge the need to address climate change; but later bitterly fought President Barack Obama’s plan to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants, deeming it “more of the Obama administration’s war against middle America.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is a steadfast climate denier, as is his predecessor, Rick Perry, now chief of the US Department of Energy.