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Meet the 4 Horsemen of the EPA-pocalypse

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Meet the 4 Horsemen of the EPA-pocalypse

By Mary Anne Hitt

Every week, another decision that endangers our families seems to come out of Scott Pruitt's and Donald Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The latest facepalm/outrage comes in the form of confirmation hearings that start this week for four completely unacceptable nominees to critical leadership positions at EPA.


This Wednesday, Sep. 20, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works will decide whether to confirm Bill Wehrum to lead the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, David Ross as chief of the EPA's Office of Water, and Michael Dourson to head up the agency's chemical safety programs. Later this month, they will hold a hearing on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler as EPA's deputy administrator, the agency's second-in-command.

We can thank EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for these four horsemen of the EPA-pocalypse—four people who will gladly choose polluters over public health and clean air and water standards every time.

Andrew Wheeler, who Pruitt has tapped for the number two spot at EPA, was described by the Washington Post as a "longtime coal lobbyist" and has worked on behalf of a company which reportedly has numerous environmental and worker safety violations. Wheeler has spent his career challenging vital life-saving environmental protections that keep our air and water clean so that we can keep our families safe (I wrote this post about him earlier this summer). He also used to be an aide for outspoken climate-denying and corporate-polluter-loving senator, James Inhofe.

Bill Wehrum, Pruitt's pick to head up the office in charge of enforcing the Clean Air Act and keeping your air safe to breathe, is a lobbyist who represents a host of coal, oil, gas, and chemical companies, and was a former George W. Bush-era EPA official. If you recognize his name, it's because he was also nominated to this position in 2006—his nomination was withdrawn when he failed to earn support of the 60 Senators needed for confirmation.

And while he's nominated to lead the EPA's air and radiation office, ironically enough, he's said that the Clean Air Act shouldn't apply to the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change and superstorms like Hurricane Harvey. As my friend John Walke at NRDC put it, Wehrum "is an industry lawyer who was largely responsible for the Bush EPA's record of violating the Clean Air Act more often, and allowing more illegal emissions of harmful air pollution, than any EPA administration before or since."

David Ross, nominated for for the top spot at the Office of Water, has sued the EPA many times related to its clean water safeguards in his work representing fossil fuel states like Wyoming, including challenging the Clean Water Rule and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program (he lost the latter lawsuit, which the court called "long on swagger, but short on specificity"). According to E&E News, he "has represented states and industry in lawsuits against the agency—some of which were filed by then-Oklahoma Attorney General and now EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt."

Finally, Michael Dourson is on deck to head up the EPA division that oversees the chemical industry, called the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, "Dourson has extensive, longstanding ties to the chemical industry (as well as earlier ties to the tobacco industry). He also has a history of failing to appropriately address his conflicts of interest." The first example they cite hits close to home for me as a West Virginian—they report he was the sole spokesperson for an expert panel studying the 2014 Elk River chemical spill but failed to disclose, until cornered by a reporter, that he had previously "done paid work for both of the companies that produced the chemicals involved in the spill."

In addition, Dourson has spent much of his professional career writing studies that undermine existing science and concerns about toxic chemicals, and call for weaker regulations on chemicals like pesticides. As our friends at the United Farm Workers explain, Dourson was paid by Dow Agrosciences to downplay concerns about a toxic pesticide and cast doubt on a Columbia University study linking exposure to it by pregnant women to irreversible neurodevelopmental problems in children—in other words, to hide the fact that the pesticide is dangerous to kids. As you may have heard, in a highly controversial move the EPA recently reversed restrictions on the use of this pesticide, called chlorpyrifos, shortly after meeting with officials from Dow.

Senators shouldn't get fooled—Scott Pruitt has seized the EPA and is trying to install polluter lobbyists in key positions. We can't let dirty fuel lobbyists win—we need the Senate to draw the line and reject these nominations.

Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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