Trump Administration Seeks to Gut Water Pollution Safeguards, Putting Communities at Risk
By Mary Anne Hitt
A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't make this up. One day after new data revealed widespread toxic water contamination near coal ash disposal sites, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt announced a proposal to repeal the very 2015 EPA safeguards that had required this data to be tracked and released in the first place. Clean water is a basic human right that should never be treated as collateral damage on a corporate balance sheet, but that is exactly what is happening.
This proposal clears the way for polluters, and polluter-funded politicians, to write weak standards for groundwater monitoring and coal ash cleanups, and attacks several core health and environmental protections included in the standard that was enacted in 2015. This comes as the first round of water testing, carried out under the new EPA standard, revealed some shocking results. As the New Republic reported:
"At more than 70 sites across the country, toxins like arsenic, mercury, and radium are leaching into groundwater from pond-like storage pits filled with the sludgy leftovers of coal burning. That's the most alarming takeaway from reports that the coal industry was required to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency this month, part of the first-ever federal regulations of the waste product known as coal ash ... So far, the reports have shown coal ash leaking into groundwater at storage sites in Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Washington, Michigan and Florida."
Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from coal-burning power plants and contains some of some of the deadliest known toxic chemicals, including heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium. For decades, coal ash disposal was subject to no EPA oversight, and this waste was dumped into giant unlined pits, where toxic chemicals then seeped into water and soil and blew into the air in many communities nationwide. Exposure to these toxics raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage on children.
Pruitt's latest proposal would replace science-based federal requirements that would fairly and consistently address water quality issues nationwide with a patchwork of state-by-state requirements that can easily be influenced by polluter interests. And yet federal requirements were put in place because state regulators had not implemented adequate water protections against coal ash! In reality, state oversight failed families for decades, resulting in catastrophic spills like those in Kingston, Tennessee, and the Dan River in North Carolina, as well as slow-motion disasters still unfolding in dozens of communities nationwide. My colleague Connie Wilbert in Wyoming is worried about exactly that, as she expressed in this article:
"We aren't seeing the state take a strong position on any number of issues related to fossil fuels in general," said Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming. "This proposed revision introduces a level of flexibility that we're pretty uncomfortable with."
I recently spent time with families in North Carolina that have been living on bottled water for over 1,000 days due to coal ash pollution, rallying outside the headquarters of Duke Energy and calling on the company to clean up their mess. The stories of these families were heartbreaking, and they aren't alone. Today, more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps are spread across the nation, and in at least 200 cases, the toxic waste is known to have contaminated water sources. More than 1.5 million children live near coal ash storage sites. Seventy percent of all coal ash impoundments disproportionately impact low-income communities.
The EPA's 2015 coal ash protections were basic common sense—they required utilities to test the water near their coal ash dumps to make sure hazardous chemicals were not leaking into drinking water sources. Requirements to monitor the water around dump sites—and to clean it up, if poisoned—went into effect at all coal ash dumps in 2018, and as noted above, the first round of findings from these reports was horrifying.
Further proving the point of just how terrible this idea is, the first state to take back the reins of managing its own coal ash is Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma, which has an abysmal and notorious track record that ThinkProgress described this way:
"In the eastern part of Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border, sits a small town named Bokoshe. Along with a population of just 512, Bokoshe also happens to be home to several old coal mines, which have been turned into landfills for another sort of coal product: coal ash, the toxic byproduct that results from burning coal ... For more than 20 years, residents of the town, plagued by high rates of asthma and cancer, have appealed to state and federal regulators for help. And for years those pleas have gone largely unheard, thanks to the complex web of regulations that address—or more often, fail to properly address—coal ash."
This is the legacy Pruitt's proposal will leave for dozens more communities. We will fight it in the streets and in the courts, to prevent it from being finalized. He and the Trump administration are trying to pull the wool over the American people's eyes about the dangers of gutting our clean water protections against coal ash, so that rich coal magnates will not have to pay to properly dispose of their toxic byproduct.
Weakening protections against coal ash is a betrayal of all the families across this country who have been living on bottled water for years, or have lost their health and property, due to coal ash pollution. Families are looking to EPA to solve the coal ash problem—not abandon them.
The EPA will take comments on this proposal until April 30 and will hold a hearing on these rollbacks in the Washington, DC area on April 24. Please join us in letting Scott Pruitt know that the American people won't stand for this polluter power grab.
EPA Blocks Clean Water Rule to Replace With 'Industry-Friendly' Alternative https://t.co/18AtfOJAlU #EPA… https://t.co/l0sYbblvmy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1517513679.0
Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.