Why Pruitt's 'Cooperative Federalism' Spells Trouble for Clean Water Protection
By Brooke Barton
A majority of Americans value strong federal protections for clean air and water, which provide both environmental and economic benefits.
But they should be very worried that the basic human expectations of healthy air and safe water will quickly turn cloudy if the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator's pledge to regulate through "cooperative federalism" becomes a reality.
Cooperative federalism, at its most benign, is about allowing each state to tailor its own approach to enforcing environmental rules. At its worst, it's about the federal government turning a blind eye to states that shirk the nation's environmental laws or that simply don't have the coffers to pay for monitoring and enforcement.
"Process, rule of law and cooperative federalism, that is going to be the heart of how we do business at the EPA," said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has promised to follow the Trump administration's will to slash EPA's budget and soften its rules.
To see how cooperative federalism erodes environmental protection, look no further than the 2015 Waters of the United States rule. President Trump issued an executive order last week announcing plans to undo the rule, which clarifies the federal government's authority to limit pollution in bodies of water not explicitly covered by the Clean Water Act.
Interactive Map Shows if Your Drinking Water Is at Risk From Trump's Executive Order https://t.co/tnV4CwKmaq (via @EcoWatch @ewg)— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1488724203.0
Those smaller bodies of water—typically streams, wetlands and rivers, which account for more than half of the nation's freshwater resources—feed into larger water bodies that provide key drinking water and recreational opportunities for the public, as well as water supplies for business. Keeping them clean is vital for the nation's health and economic prosperity.
The executive order, coupled with the administration's penchant for cooperative federalism, send a strong message that if states choose not to protect smaller streams and wetlands, they won't get pushback from the federal government.
And as state environmental budgets shrink, many simply don't have the resources to ensure healthy streams and clean drinking water on their own, even if they wanted to. Forty state environmental agencies have reduced staff in recent years, with the biggest cuts being in North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, New York, Illinois and Arizona, according to a fall 2016 report by the Center for Public Integrity.
Pruitt's home state, Oklahoma, for example, spends a paltry $13 million on environmental protection. Compare that to Connecticut, which has an environmental budget twice the size of Oklahoma's but less than one-tenth the land mass or with neighboring Arkansas, with a budget nearly triple the size of Oklahoma's.
Water pollution from industrial-sized poultry farms operating in the northeast corner of Oklahoma and in neighboring Arkansas, has been a source of huge controversy, health concerns and lawsuits for more than 25 years. Phosphorus, the primary pollutant in poultry manure, can trigger toxic algae blooms, threatening rivers, lakes and other waterways that feed into the Illinois River.
Algae bloom in Florida.
Cooperative federalism gives Oklahoma and Arkansas more opportunity to turn a blind eye to manure runoff and other untreated pollution in waterways covered by the Waters of the United States rule.
Similarly, though the U.S. Geological Survey has linked oil and gas hydraulic fracturing drilling to groundwater and surface water pollution, Oklahoma has yet to identify whether its surface waters face pollution threats from fracking activity. J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board said that Oklahoma does not have the budget for widespread testing in the state.
These same challenges can be found in states across the country.
North Carolina has a long history of water pollution from coal ash spills and manure lagoons—a legacy that gained national prominence last fall when Hurricane Matthew triggered massive flooding and pollution overflows from thousands of hog farms. At the same time, contentious political battles in that state have contributed to a dramatic decrease in its environmental budget, from $126 million in 2011 to just $81 million in 2015.
Aerial Photos Document Massive Flooding of 36 Factory Farms https://t.co/jL4v1dvixx @TheCCoalition @OccupySandy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1478308507.0
Even states with larger environmental budgets may struggle to protect smaller waterways under cooperative federalism because of political fights that play out at the state level.
In Kentucky, regulators and utilities are pushing to loosen regulations on the state's coal ash ponds and landfills. Yet over the past six years, arsenic and selenium have been found to be leaching from a coal ash pond at a major power station into groundwater and directly into Herrington Lake. Despite remedial measures taken by Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities, the pollution persists and is poisoning fish in the lake.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has gutted the state environmental agency—earning him a scathing "environmental disaster" editorial in the Tampa Bay Tribune. In addition to cutting support for clean water and conservation programs, state-driven enforcement has disappeared nearly altogether—enforcement cases fell by 81 percent from 2010 to 2015.
Pruitt's cooperative federalism mantra, where states should see us as "partners, not adversaries," sends us down a perilous path of continued diminishment of precious natural resources across the country.
Leaving states on their own to protect the nation's vital water resources, without holding them to minimum standards or supporting them financially, is a slippery slope indeed towards a dirtier America—an America that the vast majority does not want.
Brooke Barton is the senior program director of Ceres' water and food programs.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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