Tag archive for EPA

Nerve gas for Ventura County, thanks to the Trump EPA

As Lily Tomlin has pointed out, “No matter how cynical you become, you can’t keep up.” Especially in these days of Donald Trump.

Last week (was it only last week?) a meticulously sourced story in the New York Times by Eric Lipton (Why Has the EPA shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Calls the Shots) detailed how a smart advocate from the American Chemistry Council, Dr. Nancy Beck, was given broad authority to take over the agency’s regulation of toxic chemicals and personally rewrite the rules. It’s a tremendous story with one particular angle of great importance to Ventura County.

To keep it as succinct as possible…last year, after decades of controversy, a bipartisan bill revising the rules of chemical regulation passed Congress and was signed into law. Lipton’s story frames what happened to that legislation under Scott Pruit, the new EPA administrator appointed by Trump, as a polite but edgy dialogue between a scientist named Wendy Hamnett, who spent her career at the agency, and was contemplating retirement, and Beck, who was given unprecedented rule-making authority by the new administration.

Hamnett wanted to believe the EPA would continue to conscientiously regulate chemical use under the new bill, but was taken aback to discover that one of the most dangerous of chemicals on the market — the pesticide Chlorpyrifos, which had been slated to be banned — would not be regulated.

“It was extremely disturbing to me,” Ms. Hamnett said of the order she received to reverse the proposed pesticide ban. “The industry met with E.P.A. political appointees. And then I was asked to change the agency’s stand.”

The E.P.A. and Dr. Beck declined repeated requests to comment that included detailed lists of questions.

“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in an email. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

Hamnett tried to keep the faith in the agency and the 2016 bill, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st century, but…back to the Lipton story: .

That would translate into a rigorous crackdown on the most dangerous chemicals, regardless of the changes [at the agency].

But her confidence in the E.P.A.’s resolve was fragile, and it had been shaken by other actions, including the order Ms. Hamnett received to reverse course on banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

The order came before Dr. Beck’s arrival at the agency, but Ms. Hamnett saw the industry’s fingerprints all over it. Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, instructed Ms. Hamnett to ignore the recommendation of agency scientists, she said.

The scientists had called for a ban based on research suggesting the pesticide might cause developmental disabilities in children.


Farm workers in a field picking berries. Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide blamed for developmental disabilities in children, is still widely used in agriculture. In March, Mr. Pruitt overrode agency scientists’ recommendation to ban it. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

To keep the pesticide on the market, under E.P.A. guidelines, the agency needed to have a “reasonable certainty” that no harm was being caused.

“The science and the law tell us this is the way to go,” Ms. Hamnett said of a ban.

But the reaction from her superiors was not about the science or the law, she said. Instead, they queried her about Dow Chemical, the pesticide’s largest manufacturer, which had been lobbying against a ban.

The clash is recorded in Ms. Hamnett notebook as well as in emails among Mr. Pruitt’s top political aides, which were obtained by The Times.

“They are trying to strong arm us,” Mr. Jackson wrote after meeting with Ms. Hamnett, who presented him with a draft petition to ban the pesticide.

Mr. Jackson, Ms. Hamnett’s notebook shows, then asked her to come up with alternatives to a ban. He asserted, her notes show, that he did not want to be “forced into a box” by the petition.


Ms. Hamnett recorded Mr. Jackson’s reaction to a pesticide ban in her notebook.

“I scared them,” Mr. Jackson wrote in an email to a colleague about his demands on Ms. Hamnett and her team.

As a possible compromise, Ms. Hamnett’s team had been talking to Dow about perhaps phasing out the pesticide instead of imposing an immediate ban. But Dow, after Mr. Trump’s election, was suddenly in no mood to compromise, Ms. Hamnett recalled. Dow did not respond to requests for comment.

She now knew, she said, that the effort to ban the pesticide had been lost, something Mr. Jackson’s emails celebrated.

“They know where this is headed,” Mr. Jackson wrote.

A couple of years ago an equally great (and award winning) story by Liza Gross for The Nation detailed the fact that Ventura County is one of the most pesticide drenched lands in the state and the nation. To wit:

Oxnard and surrounding Ventura County grow more than 630 million pounds of strawberries a year, enough to feed 78 million Americans. But that bounty exacts a heavy toll: strawberries rank among California’s most pesticide-intensive crops. The pesticides that growers depend on—a revolving roster of caustic and highly volatile chemicals called fumigants—are among the most toxic used in agriculture. They include sixty-six chemicals that have been identified by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as the most likely to drift through the air and cause harm. Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked many of these chemicals—including the organophosphate chlorpyrifos and fumigants 1,3-Dichloropropene (1,3-D), metam sodium, methyl bromide and chloropicrin, all used in strawberry production—to one or several chronic health conditions, including birth defects, asthma, cancer and multiple neurodevelopmental abnormalities.

Dayane Zuñiga

Use of many of these sixty-six pesticides has fallen statewide since 2007. But a handful of communities saw a dramatic increase. By 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 29 million pounds of these chemicals—more than half the total used in the state—were applied in just 5 percent of California’s 1,769 census ZIP codes, according to an independent investigation by this reporter. In two ZIP codes that Zuñiga knows well—areas that include the Oxnard High neighborhood where she trained and south Oxnard, where she lives—applications of these especially toxic pesticides, which were already among the highest in the state, rose between 61 percent and 84 percent from 2007 t0 2012, records at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation show. Both are among the ten ZIP codes with the most intensive use of these pesticides in California. And both have sizable Latino populations—around 70 percent—thanks, in part, to the large number of farm jobs in the area. The great majority of the people who work in the strawberry fields in Oxnard, which hosts the largest population of farmworkers in Ventura County, come from Mexico.

As so often is the case, the wonky details and the fact that brown people bear the brunt of these chemical impacts means very little discussion of the continued use of Chlorpyrifos has ensued. One notable exception comes from Nicholas Kristof, who at least once a year points to the danger of chemicals in his Sunday Times olumn. This past Sunday Kristof was especially blunt in an interactive column called: Trump’s Legacy: Damaged Brains.

The pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children. It has also been linked to lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease in adults.


The colored parts of the image above, prepared by Columbia University scientists, indicate where a child’s brain is physically altered after exposure to this pesticide.

And now the Trump administration is embracing it, overturning a planned ban that had been in the works for many years.

What recourse can citizens who care about health — especially the health of people who live near strawberry fields — have except not to eat commercially-grown strawberries? I wish I knew.

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The hazardous truth: Santa Clara Waste Water

My old friends at the Ventura County Reporter ran my latest obsession/story, which I’ve been working on for the last six months or so, off and on, and did a nice job with the lay-out, may I say. Here’s the crux of the matter:

What really happened when Santa Clara Waste Water (in Santa Paula area) blew up? Why is the entire management of the company facing trial on 71 felony charges?

For answers, see here:


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Scenes from an explosion: Santa Clara Waste Water exec admits falsifying records

In the wake of the tanker truck explosion that set the Santa Clara Waste Water plant near Santa Paula on fire last November, causing a multi-million dollar disaster, not to mention many serious injuries, the Ventura County District Attorney presented 67 witnesses to the Grand Jury in building a massive case against SCWW. After the Grand Jury issued the indictment, and Judge David Hirsh unsealed it and fifteen search warrants, followed by arrests, included were records of the police interviews immediately after the explosion, fire, and toxic cloud of November 18th.

The records make for interesting reading.

The testimony is damning in the extreme in the case of vice-president Chuck Mundy. He admitted to falsifying records. He did not admit this in the first two interviews with police, claiming the plant handled only non-hazardous waste, even after a fire broke out under the boots of the firemen who came in the wake of the explosion, and even after investigators raided offices at Santa Clara and seized files. But when investigators came to Mundy’s house with a search warrant, he talked.

In testimony in the first of the search warrants, the special investigator Jeff Barry writes:

“During the execution of the search warrant at Mundy’s resident, he consented to a recorded interview with me, Supervising Investigator Frank Huber, and Special Agent Kristine Wilson of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mundy was not under arrest and was told he was free to leave. This was the third time I interviewed Mundy within a short period of time following the explosion.”

“Mundy admitted to falsifying and forging chemical analytical results and sending them to the City of Oxnard regarding waste product SCWWC sent to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center via a dedicated 14-mile pipeline. Mundy said he cut out lab results with acceptable numbers and then glued that piece of paper on the actual lab results for testing on waste (which had unacceptable numbers). The result was a forged and falsified document that did not represent the actual waste SCWWC was sending to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center and eventually the Pacific Ocean.”

Since that time, Mundy has hired a lawyer and no longer is talking to investigators. Twenty bags of evidence were removed from the site, including examples of forgery.

The District Attorney charged the company, its corporate parent, and seemingly the entire management team at Santa Clara Waste Water with felony crimes. But they threw the book at Mundy. He faces trial on 49 counts of 11 felony types, including “causing impairment to the body of an employee,” “handling of hazardous waste with reckless disregard for human life,” and “conspiracy to impede enforcement.”

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Chamber of Commerce: CO2 regs too costly to economy

"Stop the EPA from hijacking the economy!" So says the US Chamber of Commerce, and claims that the Obama administration's rules on power emissions will cost $50 billion. 


Jim Morin sees it differently. After all, the Sandy clean-up alone cost US taxpayers $100 billion, according to those wild-haired radicals at USA Today.  

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New climate regs just like Obamacare (or not)

The Obama administration takes a stand on carbon pollution, and calls for a 30% cut in power plant emissions by 2030. For environmentalists, this is heartening news, but what does it mean politically?

To Science, the "give states choices" method sounds a lot like Obamacare:

That more complex approach makes the new rules somewhat similar to another major Obama policy initiative—reforming health insurance—that was marked by give-and-take, [Stanford scientist Ken] Caldeira says. “If a simple price on CO2 emissions is the single-payer plan of climate policy, what we are getting is closer to Obamacare,” he says. “Better than nothing, and maybe the best we can achieve, but far less than what we need.”

To the New Republic, the plan is not at all like Obamacare — not a bit:

These proposed regulations are nothing like that. They will outrage powerful stakeholders, and thus provide Republicans a potent campaign trail talking point, particularly in coal states. But Democrats in those states will be free to oppose them, too. And crucially, though the actual rule won't be finalized for at least another year, the tussle over particulars will play out on a much smaller stage than the U.S. Congress. In that sense, it'll be more like the dread fluorescent light bulb "controversy," which drives right wingers, and only right wingers, insane, than like Obamacare, which drew widespread public dissatisfaction. As a general matter, the public supports reducing emissions.

This reporter can't help but note how muted the reaction from the GOP and conservatives has been to date. The NYTimes has an explanation for that:

In the new analysis section, The Upshot, Nate Cohn writes:

The war on coal hasn’t hurt the Democrats very much in presidential elections. Since 2000, when coal country and Appalachia helped cost Mr. Gore the presidency, Democrats have built an alternative path to victory with large margins in diverse, well-educated metropolitan areas, like Northern Virginia, Denver and Columbus, Ohio. Additional losses in coal country haven’t changed this because the areas don’t have enough voters to make a difference in battleground states.

And coal country has clear boundaries that limit harm to Democrats. In 2012, Mr. Obama suffered significant losses in the coal country of southwestern Virginia, losing as much as a net 30 points in traditionally Democratic Dickenson and Buchanan counties. Yet just a few miles to the east, in counties where there are no coal mines, Mr. Obama retained nearly all of his support. The same was true in southeastern Ohio.

At this point, Democrats don’t have much more to lose by trying to win the war.

So the country could actually act on carbon pollution? Holy cow. This is news! 

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Prominent Republicans call for climate action now

Here's some news you won't see on FOX News: Four former EPA chiefs, all Republicans, back President Obama's climate action plan, and call for even stronger action, immediately:

Each of us took turns over the past 43 years running the Environmental Protection Agency. We served Republican presidents, but we have a message that transcends political affiliation: the United States must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally.

There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm, with the last decade the hottest in modern records, and the deep ocean warming faster than the earth’s atmosphere. Sea level is rising. Arctic Sea ice is melting years faster than projected.

The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that warming becomes “locked in.”

The last phrase is a reference to an absolutely jaw-dropping study, brilliant laid out on Climate Central, on sea level rise.

(The phrase "locked in" has been used instead of the usual "commitment" to climate change, which is one of those hideously counter-intuitive scientific phrases — like "positive feedback loop — which expresses the exact opposite emotion evoked by the reality of climate change. "Locked in" is a vast improvement.)

Here's a look at that study by Ben Strauss, which predicts in our children's life time — or ours — well-known cities like Boston, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Sacramento, will be at least a foot underwater. 

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EPA appoints chem co rep to regulatory position

From the Chicago Tribune

As a lawyer and scientist for one of the world's largest makers of flame retardants, Todd Stedeford vigorously defended chemicals added to scores of household products — often by concluding the substances are far less dangerous than academic and government studies have determined.

Studies, legal newsletters and letters he wrote or co-wrote while at Albemarle Corp. also frequently contradicted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's positions and statements about industrial chemicals.

He argued, for example, that people could be safely exposed to one flame retardant at doses more than 500 times higher than a standard set by the EPA and accused regulators of basing their decisions about toxic chemicals on emotion rather than reason.

Now Stedeford is in charge of an EPA program studying whether dozens of industrial chemicals, including flame retardants, are too dangerous. The risk assessments conducted by his office will determine whether the agency enacts more stringent regulations for certain chemicals, attempts to force some compounds off the market — or chooses to do nothing at all.

Stedeford, who worked as an EPA scientist from 2004 to 2007, rejoined the agency a year ago following a four-year stint at Albermarle, surprising some independent scientists and environmental groups.

"It's hard to imagine going from one job where you are a hired gun to another where you are supposed to be protecting the public," said Julie Herbstman, a Columbia University researcher who led a 2010 study that linked exposure to certain flame retardants with lower IQ scores in children.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has publicly backed an overhaul of the way the EPA screens chemicals and urged Congress to grant the agency authority to require more testing before chemicals are allowed on the market. But the EPA is under intense pressure from the chemical industry and its congressional allies to back off.

The EPA would not make Jackson or Stedeford available for an interview.

Troubling: Especially the strong hint that the EPA may be caving to the chemical companies, and doubly so for the hint that Stedeford supports greatly increasing our exposure to chemical contaminants.

Already flame retardants and water repellant plastics such as PFOA, a toxic substance found in the blood of 98% of Americans, have been shown to have endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic effects in parts per billion concentration. And earlier this year, a huge and definite study of endocrine disruptors from Laura Vandenberg and a dozen other leading researchers, found beyond doubt that endocrine disruptors demand a different method of toxins assessment, because they can be most damaging at low parts-per billion concentrations.  

In Vandenberg's words

My colleagues and I have concluded in a new report that there truly are no safe doses for hormone-altering chemicals. Academic, regulatory and industry scientists must work together to identify and replace such chemicals that are ubiquitous in everyday consumer products.

In other endocrine news, a new study of overweight teen found that beginning about age ten, the overweight actually ate less than their thinner peers. From NPR:

A new study published in Pediatrics finds that overweight teenagers eat fewer calories than their healthy weight peers.

That's right — they eat less.

How much less? The study found that among 12- to 14-year-olds, obese girls consumed 110 fewer calories daily than healthy-weight girls. And overweight boys between the ages of 15 and 17 consumed about 375 fewer calories a day than healthy-weight boys.


"Once you become overweight, there are changes in your body that make you different from someone who's not [overweight]," explains Sophia Yen of Stanford School of Medicine. "You have extra fat cells, and you have different insulin levels," which can make it feel like you're eating less than you are.

"And once these effects have taken place, the fat deposition or the insulin changes in your body, then it's a lot harder to reverse," Yen tells The Salt.

Take fat cells, for instance. Once the body creates a fat cell, it lasts a lifetime.

"You can slim down that fat cell, but that fat cell will always be sitting there, waiting to be larger if you give it extra calories," she says.

As reported here a couple of months ago, leading experts now strongly suspect that endocrine disruptors contribute perhaps substantially to fat cell multiplication and growth in American young people.

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The heroism of the lonely PhD

Deep in a magnificent USA Today team investigation last week was hidden a revelation: How a PhD doctoral candidate doing historical research discovered — and publicized — a massive threat to public health.

From Ghost Factories:

In April 2001, environmental scientist William Eckel published a research article in the American Journal of Public Health warning about the dangers of old smelting factories. While working on his Ph.D. dissertation, Eckel had identified a historical smelting site unknown to federal and state regulators and wondered how many other sites had been forgotten over time, their buildings demolished or absorbed by other businesses.

Eckel used old industry directories, which he cross-referenced with EPA databases, to come up with a list of more than 400 potential lead-smelting sites that appeared to be unknown to federal regulators.

Eckel confirmed that 20 of the sites' addresses were factories — and not just business offices — using Sanborn fire insurance maps, which detail the historical uses of individual pieces of property. An additional 86 sites were specifically listed in directories as "plant" locations. He paid to have soil samples tested from three sites in Baltimore and five in Philadelphia. All but one of the samples exceeded the EPA's residential hazard level for lead in areas where children play.

Eckel's article warned that the findings "should create some sense of urgency for the investigation of the other sites identified here because they may represent a significant source of exposure to lead in their local environments." The research indicates "a significant fraction" of the forgotten sites will require cleanups — likely at state and federal expense — because most of the companies went out of business long ago.

The study points the finger at the EPA.

Of the 639 sites, 170 (27%) were listed in the US EPA Facility Index System database; 469 sites were not listed. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, US EPA regional offices reported having files on 14 additional sites (2%). After these 14 sites and 16 “officeonly” locations were eliminated, approximately 435 of the 639 sites identified in the literature search (68%) were apparently unknown to the US EPA. A further 5 sites (all in Massachusetts) were listed by state authorities among the 8 states with the largest number of sites, which left about 430 previously unrecognized potential sites (67%).

The EPA, perhaps due to a lack of resources, hasn't done much. But give credit to USA Today for its huge follow-up. The LA Times in the past has claimed to be the best at "gang-tackling" reporting, but in this case it clearly has competition. Amazing story.

Here's an image from a fire in a smelting factory in Philadelphia in l952 that "sickened dozens." . 


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Michigan Congressman attacks EPA, ignores constituents

Fred Upton, the newly-named chairman of the House Commerce and Energy Committee, was once a moderate Republican on climate issues. He supported measures to reduce the risk of global warming.

But after receiving a $20,000 donation from the climate-change-denying-fossil-fuel-billionaire Koch brothers, Upton now wants to strip the EPA of its Supreme Court-mandated power to regulate CO2 emissions.

But all that's old news. What's interesting, as reported in the Kalamazoo Gazette, is that two separate polls of Michigan voters, one taken state-wide, and one a poll in Upton's district, found that fully two-thirds of Michigan voters supported the EPA's right to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. 

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by his thick-headedness. Last December Upton wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (with a Koch brothers lobbyist) in which he declared the EPA's right to regulate CO2 emissions "unconstitutional" — even after the Supreme Court in 2007 not only affirmed the EPA's right to regulate atmospheric pollutants, including CO2, but rebuked the agency for its inaction. 

In other words, don't bring up the facts to Fred Upton — he's not interested. 


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Climate bill in trouble — should enviros care?

According to TPM, the lone Republican Senator actively supporting a climate change/energy bill, Lindsey Graham, pulled his support for the bill because the Democrats have decided to go ahead with immigration reform first. 

Graham, who has unquestionably put his status as a conservative at risk, sounds genuinely angry in a letter obtained by the website : 

Moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is
nothing more than a cynical political ploy. I know from my own personal
experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must
be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.


Some of the major provisions we embraced in 2007 — such as creation
of a Virtual Fence using cameras, motion detectors and other
technological devices to protect our borders — have been scrapped for
the time. Other issues we found agreement on at the time, such as a
temporary guest worker program, have unraveled over the past three


Expecting these major issues to be addressed in three weeks — which
appears to be their current plan based upon media reports — is
ridiculous. It also demonstrates the raw political calculations at work

But should enviros support a bill that, as Bill McKibben said in a column earlier this week, will trade away the duty and obligation of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate CO2 emissions? 

In the Washington Post on Earth Day, McKibben wrote: 

The bill's emission reductions are weakened by offsets and loopholes —
and to win support for even those concessions, it offers the fossil-fuel
industries a glittering collection of door prizes. President Obama
himself has already offered the first of these bent-knee offerings: a return to the full-on offshore drilling that was one of
the targets of the first Earth Day. Now a new generation will have a
chance to experience its own Santa Barbara oil spill, with its iconic
oil-soaked birds.

Worse, the bill might specifically remove the strongest tool the
environmentalists won in the wake of Earth Day 1: the Environmental Protection Agency's right
to use the Clean Air Act to bring the fossil fuel industries to heel.
Enforcement may be preempted under the new law. Even the right of states
to pioneer new legislation, such as California's landmark global
warming bill, apparently could disappear with the new legislation.

So when the media and the president hail it as a "landmark," understand
the shifting ground it actually defines: The environmental idea is too
weak right now to win passage of a tough bill to deal with our greatest

Or, as Toles put it in his uniquely succinct way: 

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