Documents Reveal USDA Risking Lawsuits by Ignoring Fracking Mortgages Review
By Brendan DeMelle
A major storm is brewing over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) sudden about-face on fracking and environmental laws. On March 20, the head of the USDA pulled a 180-degree U-turn and decided to reverse the call made by his staff specialists, who advised that the agency immediately stop giving special exemptions from environmental laws to people applying for federal mortgages on properties with oil and gas leases.
Now, environmentalists, members of Congress, and transparency groups are saying that something seems amiss and they are looking for answers.
It all started on March 19 when The New York Times ran a story with emails showing that the USDA planned to tell its $165 billion dollar mortgage program to stop financing properties with drilling leases until an environmental review of the impact of drilling and fracking on homes backed by the agency could be completed.
“The proposal by the Agriculture Department, which has signaled its intention in e-mails to Congress and landowners, reflects a growing concern that lending to owners of properties with drilling leases might violate the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, which requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent. Because that law covers all federal agencies, the department’s move raises questions about litigation risks for other agencies, legal experts said,” the story explained.
DeSmogBlog has obtained many of the emails and they make very clear that the staff specialists, whose job it is to interpret laws like NEPA, believe that environmental reviews are legally required and that the agency is vulnerable to litigation if it gives these mortgages a pass, called a “categorical exclusion.”
The emails come from staff specialists in the agency’s New York office as well as from headquarters.
One from a Congressional liaison, sent to members of Congress on March 8, said:
“The level of NEPA review known as a Categorical Exclusion (CE) streamlines the NEPA process for those actions that are so routine and harmless in nature that no further documentation or analysis is required.”
But fracking is hardly “routine” or “harmless," the liaison added in the email quoted by The New York Times.
“There is substantial controversy over the extent, range and issues associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for gas in the Northeast region of the U.S.,” the liaison wrote. “Approval of such leases would allow for a number of potential impacts to possibly occur which would need to be analyzed in a NEPA document that would be reviewed by the public for sufficiency.”
Why should anyone care about this?
First of all, the situation speaks to a larger trend. The specialists on the front lines came to one conclusion about what the science and law requires. The political appointees at upper ranks decided that such policy does not fit with the current agenda to promote drilling, so they went the opposite way.
But the review being called for by USDA staff also makes common sense. NEPA, sometimes called the magna carta of environmental laws because it is so fundamental and powerful, requires government agencies to understand the environmental impacts of decisions before taking action.
If a full environmental review under NEPA is done, the government would not only need to study the full range of fracking’s environmental impacts, but the public can weigh in on the adequacy of the review. If corners are cut, citizens can sue. And that’s exactly what so scares the Obama administration.
The pressure on the USDA to reverse the recommendation of its legal experts began almost immediately after the NY Times report.
For example, Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) immediately sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, protesting against a full NEPA review.
“Not only would an environmental review harm the individuals that need the loans the most, it would also be detrimental to our nation’s progress towards energy independence,” he wrote. “If we make potential home owners choose between getting a home loan to keep their house or maintaining a mineral lease, viable sources of oil and gas may become less accessible.”
Rep. Boren, who has leased his own land for hundreds of thousands of dollars and happens to be the son of Continental Resources board member David Boren, kept the pressure high.
“Our economy is in jeopardy and now is not the time to spend when it is unnecessary,” he wrote, referring to the cost of conducting the environmental reviews that NEPA requires.
Indeed, Sec. Vilsack’s office has attempted to disavow the clear counsel from his frontline offices and experts.
“The information provided to Congressional offices on March 8, 2012 was premature and does not reflect past, current or future practices of the department,” Mr. Vilsack announced yesterday, adding that he would immediately authorize an Administrative Notice “reaffirming” that rural housing loans are exempt from full NEPA reviews.
USDA Reversal Triggers Fierce Reactions
On March 20, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Ranking Member of the Committee on Natural Resources, sent a letter [PDF] to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the part of the White House that is responsible for overseeing NEPA, requesting information about how the administration plans to handle fracking and mortgages.
Many agencies, not just the USDA, issue or back mortgages, Rep. Markey explained, so he formally requested a full environmental review to protect taxpayers not only from being sued for failing to follow NEPA, but also from being liable for environmental damage from drilling on mortgaged lands.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) called on the USDA to pay close attention to the views of their experts. “There are many cases where these operations have contaminated water supplies and significantly downgraded air quality,” Rep. Hinchey said. “It is critically important that the appropriate federal agencies, including USDA, do everything they can to prevent these things from happening again.”
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group known for conducting aggressive litigation, said in interviews that it was considering filing lawsuits.
CBD sent a letter [PDF] to the USDA, Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), putting them on notice that their mortgage lending policies were in clear violation of NEPA.
The letter demanded that the agencies immediately conduct a legal review. It also called for the agencies to stop granting categorical exclusions to these properties and to conduct audits to determine how many categorical exclusions have already been granted for properties leased for drilling.
Good government groups also swung into action.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which specializes in whistleblower and open-records litigation, is hitting USDA with a broad Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
PEER is asking USDA to release a series of documents that may shed light on pressure that the White House may have put on the USDA to reverse the view of agency staff and instead continue granting categorical exclusions. It also seeks documents between elected officials and the agency about their decisions.
Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, described the reversal by USDA as “the antithesis of good public policy”.
“Throughout the rancorous debate on fracking, the Obama administration has signaled it will put the interests of the oil and gas industry ahead of the welfare of rural communities and U.S. taxpayers,” she said.
“It is embarrassing for Secretary Vilsack, who has been an outspoken advocate for renewable energy and for preserving the quality of life in rural America, to now do the Obama administration’s bidding and prevent environmental reviews that could protect the water and air resources of rural communities.”
For more information, click here.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Jessica Corbett
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Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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