10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year
By Elliott Negin
On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.
The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.
My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA's time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.
1. Sidelined Scientists
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency's policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency's Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.
2. Proposed to Restrict the Use of Scientific Data
Claiming his intent is to increase "transparency," Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency's ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.
3. Gutted the Coal Ash Rule
The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump's directive to "clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief" at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler's most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.
Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler's EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.
4. Recommended Unsafe Levels of Drinking Water Contaminants
Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.
In February, Wheeler announced the "first-ever nationwide action plan" to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency's voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is "a safe level for drinking water," despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.
While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA's response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.
5. Rolled Back Clean Water Act Protections
Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect "the integrity of downstream waters." Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.
Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, "We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country." Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.
6. Suppressed an Inconvenient Formaldehyde Report
Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. "I am sure we will release it," he said, "but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate."
In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
The EPA's review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. chemical industry's premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.
7. Ignored EPA Scientists’ Advice to Ban Asbestos
Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.
Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.
8. Weakened the Mercury Emissions Rule
In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the "co-benefits" of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.
Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule's benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.
9. Slammed Vehicle Emission Rules Into Reverse
Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled "Make Cars Great Again" published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and "raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles."
Parroting the Trump administration's line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.
In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans' wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 billion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.
10. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan
Perhaps Wheeler's most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler's so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA's own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.
Reversing Decades of Bipartisan Protections
If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to "Every Polluter's Ally." In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries' profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency's own accounting.
Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation's agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science."There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards," former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress's oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Arkilaus Kladit
My name is Arkilaus Kladit. I'm from the Knasaimos-Tehit tribe in South Sorong Regency, West Papua Province, Indonesia. For decades my tribe has been fighting to protect our forests from outsiders who want to log it or clear it for palm oil. For my people, the forest is our mother and our best friend. Everything we need to survive comes from the forest: food, medicines, building materials, and there are many sacred sites in the forest.
Map of the Knasaimos traditional lands.
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By Farah Aqel
Overthinkers are people who are buried in their own obsessive thoughts. Imagine being in a large maze where each turn leads into an even deeper and knottier tangle of catastrophic, distressing events — that is what it feels like to them when they think about the issues that confront them.
Ruminating<p>According to the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5796420/" target="_blank">ruminating</a> involves replaying a problem over and over in your mind. We ruminate by obsessing over our thoughts and thinking repetitively about various aspects of a past situation.</p><p>It usually involves regret, self-loathing and self-blaming. Rumination is associated with the development of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. </p><p>People prone to such patterns of thought may, for example, overanalyze every single detail of a relationship that breaks up. They often blame themselves for what has happened and are overcome with regret, with typical thoughts being: </p><p>- I should have been more patient and more supportive. </p><p>- I have lost the most perfect partner ever. </p><p>- No one will love me again.</p>
Worrying<p>Worrying is wanting to predict the future. It involves negative thoughts about things that might and might not happen.</p><p>- They'll not like me in the interview; they'll not give me the job. </p><p>- I haven't heard back from other employers. How long will I be unemployed?</p><p>These thoughts are energy-draining and distressing. They could happen to anyone under stress. But when you reach the point where your thoughts and worrying are preventing you from doing what you want to do — from living your life to the fullest — then you should take action.</p>
Catch Yourself Overthinking<p>Reuben Berger, a psychotherapist at the university hospital in the western German city of Bonn, recommends several practical steps that you could employ in your daily routine when you catch yourself worrying or ruminating.</p><p>One effective remedy, says Berger, is the <a href="https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9938" target="_blank">thought-stopping technique.</a></p><p>"When the negative thoughts come or ruminations start, you say to yourself: 'Stop!,'" he says, adding that it is more effective when you actually say the word out loud.</p><p>He even recommends having a rubber band around your wrist to ping against yourself while saying the word. Adding a visual component by imagining a stop sign also makes the technique more powerful, he says.</p><p>The main idea here is conditioning yourself to stop the loop of worrying (making future predictions) or rumination (obsessing over past events).</p><p>Berger says the technique could take up to two weeks to take effect and that it needs to be practiced every day. "Consistency is very important," he says. </p>
Thoughts Are Just Thoughts<p>Another way of dealing with negative thoughts often used in modern therapy is realizing that thoughts aren't facts, says Berger.</p><p>He says it is important when we think something to ask: Is that real? Did that really happen? What is the worst thing that could happen?</p><p>Flight anxiety is one example where untrue thoughts are accepted as facts. Although air travel is the safest way to get around, people suffering from fear of flying accept their thoughts and fears as reality, then act upon them by refusing to fly.</p>
Mindfulness<p>Berger also recommends the use of mindfulness techniques, in which attention is paid to experiences in the moment without judging them, as a way of reducing worrying.</p><p>"Mindfulness helps you to distance yourself from your thoughts and to be more present in the moment," he says.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3432145/#R2" target="_blank">Several studies</a> have shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on reducing stress-related behaviors such as rumination and worrying, as focusing on the moment makes anxiety about other problems impossible.</p><p>Mindfulness can be practiced during routine activities by paying attention to your body and your surroundings. For instance, when you leave for work in the morning, you can focus on sensing the breeze, listen attentively to birds, feel the gravel under your feet and monitor your breath. </p>
Trick Your Brain Into Happiness<p>People plagued by obsessive thoughts do not always choose healthy ways like mindfulness to distract from them, however.</p><p> Dr. Edward Selby, a psychologist at Florida state university, has shown in a study that people try to avoid rumination by engaging in a range of uncontrolled behaviors, such as binge eating and substance abuse.</p><p>But he says that a much better way to overcome such distress is by distraction and shifting attention away from problems that are obsessing us.</p><p>There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, he says, and people should choose the one that works best for them. Here are some examples:</p><p>- Listen to music</p><p>- Read a book</p><p>- Take a hot shower</p><p>- Dance or exercise </p><p>- Talk to a friend (not about the problem)</p><p>- Watch a movie</p><p>- Mindfulness meditation</p>
Changing the Perception of Events<p>The way people perceive a situation largely influences their emotions and behavior. It is not the situation itself that determines how they feel, but rather the way they interpret it.</p><p>Reframing negative thoughts can lead to positive emotions and, subsequently, healthier behaviors — including a reduction in damaging overthinking and worrying.</p><p>Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is currently a gold standard in psychotherapy. CBT aims to change the way people think and act. It largely involves challenging unhelpful beliefs or attitudes such as overgeneralization — thinking "I always fail at public speaking" when you have had one bad experience in front of an audience, for example — or "catastrophization," i.e., imagining the worst possible outcome to a situation. </p><p>A psychotherapist can teach people how to implement such thought-changing techniques into their lives. Techniques vary depending on their issues and goals.</p>
Solutions Are at Hand<p>Try to find ways of avoiding worrying, rumination and overthinking that make you feel most comfortable.</p><p>Incorporating any routine in your life when you're stressed isn't an easy task, but you can do it! If you feel overwhelmed, you can always seek professional help. </p><p><em>If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, <a href="https://www.befrienders.org/" target="_blank">at this website.</a></em></p>
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A 4,000-year-old ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic has collapsed into the sea, leaving Canada without any fully intact ice shelves, Reuters reported. The Milne Ice Shelf lost more than 40 percent of its area in just two days at the end of July, said researchers who monitored its collapse.
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By Michael Baker, Amanda Kvalsvig and Nick Wilson
On Sunday, New Zealand marked 100 days without community transmission of COVID-19.
Deaths From COVID-19 Per Million Population<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU0ODIyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjkzMDc1OX0.7Yp1h1hokihlMJUurDukGmq-Y8NJB0V-07O1ukEjGt0/img.png?width=980" id="0fe6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bce85a610aee18e2f4f1c1caca7b8a0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<div id="77fff" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce7b34f8986d3d36bee5d4d83ac0822c"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1292270210238447616" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">COVID-19 Update There are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand today. It has been 100 days since t… https://t.co/Cz55ixGZUz</div> — Unite against COVID-19 (@Unite against COVID-19)<a href="https://twitter.com/covid19nz/statuses/1292270210238447616">1596936201.0</a></blockquote></div>
Getting Through the Pandemic<p>We have gained a much better understanding of COVID-19 over the past eight months. Without effective control measures, it is likely to continue to spread globally for many months to years, ultimately infecting billions and killing millions. The proportion of infected people who die appears to be <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.03.20089854v4" target="_blank">slightly below 1%</a>.</p><p>This infection also causes serious <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2815" target="_blank">long-term consequences</a> for some survivors. The largest uncertainties involve <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02278-5" target="_blank">immunity to this virus</a>, whether it can develop from exposure to infection or vaccines, and if it is long-lasting. The potential for treatment with antivirals and other therapeutics is also still uncertain.</p><p>This knowledge reinforces the huge benefits of sustaining elimination. We know that if New Zealand were to experience widespread COVID-19 transmission, the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3310086/" target="_blank">impact on Māori and Pasifika populations</a> could be catastrophic.</p><p>We have previously described critical measures to get us through this period, including the use of fabric face masks, improving contact tracing with suitable digital tools, applying a science-based approach to border management, and the need for a dedicated national public health agency.</p><p>Maintaining elimination depends on adopting a highly strategic approach to risk management. This approach involves choosing an optimal mix of interventions and using resources in the most efficient way to keep the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks at a consistently low level. Several measures can contribute to this goal over the next few months, while also allowing incremental increases in international travel:</p><ul><li>resurgence planning for a border-control failure and outbreaks of various sizes, with state-of-the-art contact tracing and an upgraded alert level system</li><li>ensuring all New Zealanders own a <a href="https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/mass-masking-an-alternative-to-a-second-lockdown-in-aotearoa" target="_blank">re-useable fabric face mask</a> with their <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12354409" target="_blank">use built into the alert level system</a></li><li>conducting exercises and simulations to test outbreak management procedures, possibly including "mass masking days" to engage the public in the response</li><li>carefully exploring processes to allow <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/16/preventing-outbreaks-of-covid-19-in-nz-associated-with-air-travel-from-australia-new-modelling-study-of-alternatives-to-quarantine/" target="_blank">quarantine-free travel</a> between jurisdictions free of COVID-19, notably various Pacific Islands, Tasmania and Taiwan (which may require digital tracking of arriving travellers for the first few weeks)</li><li>planning for carefully managed inbound travel by key long-term visitor groups such as tertiary students who would generally still need managed quarantine.</li></ul>
Building Back Better<p>New Zealand cannot change the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it can leverage possible benefits.</p><p>We should conduct an <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/06/11/five-key-reasons-why-nz-should-have-an-official-inquiry-into-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/" target="_blank">official inquiry into the COVID-19 response</a> so we learn everything we possibly can to improve our response capacity for future events.</p><p>We also need to establish a specialized national public health agency to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2017/12/20/the-havelock-north-drinking-water-inquiry-a-wake-up-call-to-rebuild-public-health-in-new-zealand/" target="_blank">manage serious threats to public health</a> and provide critical mass to <a href="https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/02/05/a-preventable-measles-epidemic-lessons-for-reforming-public-health-in-nz/" target="_blank">advance public health generally</a>. Such an agency appears to have been a key factor in the success of Taiwan, which avoided a costly lockdown entirely.</p><p>Business as usual should not be an option for the recovery phase. A recent <a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12353555" target="_blank">Massey University survey</a> suggests seven out of ten New Zealanders support a green recovery approach.</p><p>New Zealand's elimination of COVID-19 has drawn attention worldwide, with a description just <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2025203" target="_blank">published</a> in the New England Journal of Medicine. We support a rejuvenated World Health Organization that can provide improved global leadership for pandemic prevention and control, including greater use of an elimination approach to combat COVID-19.</p>
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