Under Trump, EPA Workers Seek Bill of Rights to Allow Them to Protect the Environment and Public Health
The union representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers began negotiating a new contract with the agency Tuesday. But the workers are not just fighting for a fair contract or better working conditions. They are also fighting for the ability to do their jobs in an administration hostile to science and environmental regulations.
The EPA workers, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), have put forward a Bill of Rights that includes the right to scientific integrity, the right to enforce environmental laws and the right to help solve, research and discuss the climate crisis.
"EPA employees have committed our careers to protecting human health and the environment, working day-in and day-out to keep our air clean, ensure our water is safe to drink, and clean up our land so that we may live and work on it," AFGE Local 1236 President Bethany Dreyfus said in a statement reported by The Hill. "Yet time and time again, the Administration has attempted to silence research and gut our labor rights. That's why we're not just standing up for a fair contract, we're fighting to be able to do our jobs and protect public health — and we'll keep fighting until our voices are truly heard."
We are launching the EPA Workers Bill of Rights to #ProtectEPA. Join us in standing up for the environment at… https://t.co/jpUk7v0QRs— AFGE SF (@AFGE SF)1578429465.0
The Bill of Rights comes in response to the Trump administration's sidelining of science and commitment to environmental rollbacks. The AFGE pointed to a December 2019 New York Times article that detailed how the administration was cutting funding for research projects, pressuring some researchers not to speak publicly and relying less on science when making regulations. It has gotten so bad that even the EPA Science Advisory Board stuffed with Trump appointees said three major Trump-era policies ran counter to sound science. In particular, the board called out rollbacks of Obama-era water protections and emissions standards for cars and light trucks, as well as a rule limiting the kinds of studies that can be used to draft public health regulations.
All of this sidelining and deregulation has impacted morale at the EPA and even caused some people to leave. The New York Times cited the case of Matthew Davis, a biologist who left the EPA after 10 years. Davis' research on how mercury impacts children's health had been used to bolster rules limiting mercury pollution from coal fired plants, but he was then asked to help justify the rollback of those same regulations.
"I am now part of defending this darker, dirtier future," he told The New York Times.
Marie Owens Powell, who works for the EPA in Philadelphia as an underground storage tank enforcement officer, told HuffPost she planned to deliver the Bill of Rights to the agency with other staffers so that workers would not feel so disempowered and demoralized.
"We needed some kind of vehicle ... so these employees would feel like they had a voice," Powell told HuffPost. "As an employee for the past 27 years, I've never seen staffing levels cut this much, research stalled and morale at an all-time low."
The union, which represents 7,500 EPA workers, is also demanding more conventional labor rights. The negotiations come after the agency unilaterally imposed a contract in the summer that decreased employees' chances to work remotely and kicked union officials out of their offices.
AFGE District 7 President Nicole Cantello told reporters that the administration "declared war" on the EPA's staff by imposing the contract, The Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority eventually agreed with the union that the government had bargained in bad faith by imposing the contract, according to HuffPost.
"… Donald Trump took away many of those rights guaranteed under our collectively bargained contract and imposed … a unilateral anti-employee directive," EPA scientist Loreen Targos said, according to The Chicago Sun-Times. "We fought for six months for a seat at the table to win back our rights that were taken away."
The full Bill of Rights proposed by the union is as follows:
1. The right to scientific integrity in EPA work.
2. The right to enforce environmental laws without political interference.
3. The right to a fully-funded EPA budget and full staffing levels.
4. The right to an end of lockouts caused by U.S. government shutdowns.
5. The right to work on control of greenhouse gases, to discuss solutions to climate change, and to conduct climate change research.
6. The right to whistleblower protections.
7. The right to work-life balance that fosters productivity and sustainability.
8. The right to a fair contract that is collectively-bargained.
9. A right to a hate-free and safe workplace.
10. A right to protect human health and the environment, to protect environmental justice communities, and to work without fear of reprisal.
In response, the EPA claimed it already promoted scientific integrity.
"EPA has established, and continues to promote, a culture of scientific integrity for all of its employees. This policy provides a framework intended to ensure scientific integrity throughout the EPA and promote scientific and ethical standards. The policy allows for perceived misconduct to be reported for investigation," an agency spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. "Additionally, EPA and AFGE are returning to the bargaining table today and will be negotiating a number of articles, which include both Employee's rights and Union's rights."
However, a union survey of EPA workers found that 90 percent of them do not trust the agency to bargain in good faith, HuffPost reported.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
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Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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