7 Alarming Conflicts of Interest Tainting Trump's Environmental Picks
By Keith Gaby
Back when Donald Trump was a real estate developer whose projects involved thousands of construction workers, he repeatedly downplayed well-documented dangers of asbestos, writing in one of his books that the carcinogen was "100-percent safe, when applied."
It helps explain President Trump's pattern, amid ever-swirling ethical scandals, of selecting people with conflicts of interest for key environmental positions. These are appointments that will undermine the health of American families.
His latest consideration, according to The New York Times, is replacing experts on a federal science advisory board "with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate," again raising the issue of his administration's serious conflicts of interest when it comes to enforcing clean air and water laws.
Even if some of Trump's appointees are undoubtedly nice people, it matters a great deal who is running federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and what drives their interests and motivations.
Here are a few of the most conflicted people with power over health and environmental policies in his administration, including, at the top, the president himself:
1. Nancy Beck: Worked for chemical industry group
Beck has just been hired as the highest political appointee at the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, the office writing the rules for the nation's new chemical safety law. She last worked for the chemical industry's trade group pushing the EPA to write those rules in a way that set the loosest standards for companies, and provided the least protection for families.
Beck is now in a position to undermine the bipartisan law that has the potential to bring sanity to our chemical safety system. Toxic chemicals, as you know, are linked to cancer, diabetes and death.
2. Justin Schwab: Represented coal utility
Now a top lawyer at the EPA, Schwab was previously the attorney for a utility and other major industrial companies that likely have a financial interest in EPA decisions.
While at the law firm BakerHostetler, he represented, among others, Southern Company, one of the country's largest coal-burning utilities. Fun fact: Schwab also represented the "London Whale," the financial trader who was behind JPMorgan's monstrous trading losses in 2012.
Undermining limits on pollution from power plants will result in more asthma attacks and other health problems.
3. Andrew Wheeler: Lobbied for coal mining giant
Wheeler, a lobbyist for Murray Energy, has reportedly been tapped to become deputy administrator, the second-highest official at the EPA. Murray, the country's largest coal mining conglomerate—which has been fined for safety violations and repeatedly sued to block pollution limits—just called on the EPA to drop the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule.
The rule is already reducing the amount of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages children's brains, and other harmful pollutants in our environment. As deputy administrator, Wheeler would be in a position to influence a decision about whether or not to try to repeal this rule.
4. Carl Icahn: Oil refinery investor, billionaire
Icahn has been advising Trump on a range of issues, including important rules and environmental safeguards. He's been accused of promoting "policy proposals that benefit his own investments" that include stakes in an oil refinery. He also interviewed Scott Pruitt for the EPA job, asking him about issues that had a direct impact on his business interests.
Icahn is in a position to potentially influence regulatory issues in which he has a business stake.
5. Christian Palich: Lobbied for coal industry group
Palich recently got a senior position in the EPA's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Before that, he was head of the Ohio Coal Association and a registered lobbyist.
In that position, Palich praised President Trump for honoring his pledge to stand up to "radical environmentalists" by targeting clean air and climate safeguards.
6. Doug Matheney: Ran Ohio's "Count on Coal"
Recently hired as Secretary Rick Perry's assistant at the U.S. Department of Energy, Matheney is very familiar with industry players.
He has worked for both Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-backed political organization and as the Ohio director of Count on Coal, a public relations campaign funded by the coal industry.
7. Scott Pruitt: Sued the EPA 14 times
As has been well documented, the companies that Pruitt now regulates have contributed millions of dollars to his political campaigns and causes. Pruitt sued in court to block 14 EPA safeguards—protections he's now in charge of implementing and enforcing.
Pruitt recently made a big show of recusing himself from litigation over these safeguards. But he's made no similar assurance that he will not let his conflicts of interest skew his approach to rolling back and undercutting these important protections.
As he gets under way with targeting regulations that benefit his industry allies, 125 million Americans who already live in areas with polluted air can expect even more asthma attacks and other lung diseases.
Commander in Chief: Where the problem begins
With his appointments, Trump will ultimately be responsible if pollution increases and we see a rise in asthma attacks among children, more premature deaths from lung disease, and more communities suffering from unhealthy air pollution. Of course, his own conflicts are the most powerful and disturbing of them all.
Many of the president's family's business interests are overseen by the federal government, including important health and environmental programs.
There are many others in the administration, not all of whom are presidential appointees, with close ties to regulated, polluting industries. All of this in spite of the fact that President Trump signed a new "ethics" order when he first took office. In reality, the order weakens protections against improper influence.
Philosophical differences are one thing, but having a government run by those with self-interests that run counter to the public good is another. Unless we have a cleaner government, we're unlikely to have a cleaner world.
Keith Gaby is senior communications director for climate, health and political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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