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50+ Interviews With EPA Staff: Trump Poses 'Greatest Threat' to Agency in 47-Year History

From repealing and replacing Obamacare to constructing that border wall, President Donald Trump has broken a lot of promises that he made on the campaign trail. However, there is one area where Trump has been seemingly true to the his word—crippling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the first of a series of reports from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), the Trump administration poses the greatest threat to the EPA's 47-year history.

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30 Anti-Protest Bills Introduced in U.S. Since Election Day

By Andy Rowell

Since Donald Trump was elected, there has been an assault on the pillars of what many would be considered a free and fair democratic society: the right to protest and the right to free speech.

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Climate

House Committee to Challenge Climate Science

The House Science Committee will hear testimony March 29 that will question whether climate change is a human induced phenomenon. The hearing, Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications and the Scientific Method, is a just another prong in the current effort to undo the environmental progress made during the Obama years.

It coincides with the efforts of the Trump administration, which has proposed to strip the federal budget of any monies that would be targeted to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. To that end, the president has signed executive orders to weaken Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would cut CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030, and eliminate rules to cut methane emissions from natural gas drilling.

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Monsanto Faces Hundreds of New Cancer Lawsuits as Debate Over Glyphosate Rages On

Monsanto has been slapped with another slew of cancer lawsuits over its most popular pesticide as the debate over the health risks of glyphosate rages on.

Los Angeles-based law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed lawsuits last week on behalf of 136 plaintiffs from across the country who allege that exposure to Monsanto's glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Three bundled complaints were filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

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Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel at Our Children's Trust, stands with some of the youth plaintiffs from the landmark lawsuit Juliana v. United States. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

Trump Files Motion to Delay Kids' Historic Climate Lawsuit

The Trump administration filed a motion Tuesday seeking an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a federal judge's Nov. 10, 2016 order in Juliana v. United States. The Trump administration also filed a motion to delay trial preparation until after its appeal is considered.

Further, the Trump administration asked for expedited review of both motions, arguing the plaintiffs' Jan. 24 letter requesting the government to retain records relating to climate change and communications between the government and the fossil fuel industry was overly burdensome. The excerpt from the government's stay motion said:

"Plaintiffs … intend to seek discovery relating to virtually all of the federal government's activities relating to control of CO2 emissions ... Compounding the United States' burdens, Plaintiffs have indicated that their intended discovery has a temporal scope of more than sixty years ... Absent relief, there will most certainly be depositions of federal government fact witnesses ... that will explore the extraordinarily broad topic of climate change and the federal government's putative knowledge over the past seven decades."

Yet, in another complex case regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and BP, the U.S. produced more than 17 million pages of documents from April to September of 2011. Plaintiffs maintain that their requests are limited, reasonable and aimed at getting to trial this fall.

Appeals typically do not occur until a trial court has issued final rulings following the presentation of evidence, but the Trump administration is asking federal Magistrate Judge Coffin to exercise his discretion to allow the case to proceed to the Court of Appeals before final judgment.

Attorneys representing fossil fuel industry defendants are expected to file papers supporting the government's motions on Friday.

"The Trump administration argues that this is a big case and so the burdens of preserving government documents warrant an expedited review," Julia Olson, plaintiffs' counsel and executive director of Our Children's Trust, said. "They're right. It is a big case. We have a classic example of the government's misplaced priorities: They prefer to minimize their procedural obligations of not destroying government documents over the urgency of not destroying our climate system for our youth plaintiffs and all future generations?"

In the government's answer to the youth plaintiffs' complaint, they admitted that "the use of fossil fuels is a major source of [carbon dioxide] emissions, placing our nation on an increasingly costly, insecure and environmentally dangerous path."

The case was brought by 21 young plaintiffs who argue that their constitutional and public trust rights are being violated by the government's creation of climate danger. Judge Ann Aiken's November order denied motions to dismiss brought by both the Obama administration and fossil fuel industry defendants.

"This request for appeal is an attempt to cover up the federal government's long-running collusion with the fossil fuel industry," Alex Loznak, 20-year-old plaintiff and Columbia University student, said. "My generation cannot wait for the truth to be revealed. These documents must be uncovered with all deliberate speed, so that our trial can force federal action on climate change."

Other pre-trial developments

  • During Wednesday's telephonic case management conference between attorneys for the parties and Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took the view that the Trump administration, will have the opportunity to use executive privilege to prevent the release of evidence in the possession of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
  • DOJ attorneys said they recently informed the White House that NARA was in the process of gathering documents requested by the plaintiffs. It is the DOJ's view that former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, will have the opportunity to bar release of the records of their respective administrations, but President Trump will ultimately have the authority to bar release of any and all NARA records.
  • The next Juliana v. United States case management conference with Judge Coffin is scheduled for April 7 and will be telephonic.
  • Attorneys for youth plaintiffs are in the process of compiling a list of prospective witnesses to be deposed, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and expect to provide that list to defendants next week.

Juliana v. United States is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children's Trust, seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system.

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Judge Orders Trump's EPA Pick to Release Emails by Tuesday

The Oklahoma County Court on Thursday found Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Scott Pruitt in violation of the state's Open Records Act. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a lawsuit against Pruitt for improperly withholding public records and the court ordered his office to release thousands of emails in a matter of days.

In her ruling, Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons slammed the Attorney General's office for its "abject failure" to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

The judge gave Pruitt's office until Tuesday, Feb. 21, to turn over more than 2,500 emails it withheld from CMD's January 2015 records request and just 10 days to turn over an undetermined number of documents responsive to CMD's five additional open records requests outstanding between November 2015 and August 2016.

Thursday's expedited hearing was granted after CMD, represented by Robert Nelon of Hall Estill and the ACLU of Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit that has driven unprecedented attention to Pruitt's failure to disclose his deep ties to fossil industry corporations. On Friday, Pruitt is expected to face a full Senate vote on his nomination to run the EPA.

On Feb. 10, Pruitt's office finally responded to the oldest of CMD's nine outstanding Open Records Act requests but provided just 411 of the more than 3,000 emails they had located, withholding thousands of emails relevant to the request and still failing to respond to CMD's eight other outstanding requests. On Feb. 14 CMD filed a status report with the judge detailing the scope of missing documents, including 27 emails that were previously turned over to The New York Times in 2014.

"Scott Pruitt broke the law and went to great lengths to avoid the questions many Americans have about his true motivations," said Nick Surgey, CMD's director of research. "Despite Pruitt's efforts to repeatedly obfuscate and withhold public documents, we're all wiser to his ways and the interests he really serves. The work doesn't stop here to make sure communities across the country have the information they need to hold him accountable to the health and safety of our families."

Ahead of Thursday's hearing, Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Merkley, Booker, Markey and Duckworth—all members of the EPW committee—weighed in on the case, urging the Oklahoma court to require the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General to release documents relevant to CMD's open record requests as a matter of "federal importance." In a letter to the Oklahoma Court, the Senators stated:

"We are providing this information to the Court today because we have concluded [the] pending Open Records Act requests may be the only means by which the Senate and the general public can obtain in a timely manner critical information about Mr. Pruitt's ability to lead the EPA."

"We need to understand whether ... Mr. Pruitt engaged with the industries that he will be responsible for regulating if he is confirmed as administrator in ways that would compromise his ability to carry out his duties with the complete impartiality required."

Pruitt's continued lack of transparency extends from a difficult nomination process in which research from CMD demonstrated Pruitt's repeated pattern of obfuscating ties to deep-pocketed, corporate interests.

At his hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Pruitt faced a series of questions about his private meetings with major fossil fuel companies while chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association and fundraising for the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse concluded his questioning telling Pruitt his testimony "just doesn't add up." Despite failing to respond to any records requests for the past two years, Pruitt told U.S. Senators last week to file more open records requests with his office to answer 19 outstanding questions from his confirmation hearing.

After Democratic Senators twice boycotted the EPW Committee vote due to concerns over Pruitt's conflicts of interests and failure to fulfill open records requests, Republicans resorted to suspending Committee rules to advance his nomination.

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Sidd Bikkannavar at one of his solar car racing events. Photo credit: Shane Winter

NASA Scientist Detained at Border, Forced to Unlock Phone

Sidd Bikkannavar, a U.S.-born citizen and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) when trying to reenter the country from Chile late last month. Bikkannavar was in Patagonia racing solar-powered cars. He was detained by CPB in Houston without explanation and forced to unlock his NASA-issued phone.

After his passport was scanned, he was taken into a back room where other detained travelers waited on cots. Bikkannavar is a member of Global Entry, a CBP program that “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers" upon arrival in the U.S.

Bikkannavar asked "Why was I chosen?" But, no response was given, The Verge reported.

Bikkannavar was questioned on basic information already provided by his Global Entry membership and then asked to hand over and unlock his work phone. He was reticent to unlock his phone because it was issued by a federal agency and might contain sensitive information—NASA employees are told to protect work data. He tried to politely explain this when the CBP officer handed him an Inspection of Electronic Devices form.

While manual phone searches are legal, travelers are not required to unlock phones. But, travelers who do not unlock phones may be further detained.

"In each incident that I've seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they're obligated to unlock the phone, which isn't true," said Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, according to The Verge.

Bikkannavar's form listed detention and seizure among the consequences for not cooperating and he decided to turn over his phone and PIN. The phone was returned in about 30 minutes. He immediately turned his phone off and took it to the cybersecurity team at JPL upon arriving in Los Angeles.

Bikkannavar left for Chile on Jan. 15 prior to the Trump administration's travel ban, which targeted people from seven predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern and African countries, but returned to the U.S. four days after the ban was signed.

The ban is currently on hold after a federal appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge James Robart's ruling against the executive order. Bikkannavar, whose family name has roots in southern India, has been searched before but not to this extent. "Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban," he told The Verge.

Read Bikkannavar's account of the events from one of his friends who shared his tweet:

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8 Men Account for Half the World’s Wealth

The combined wealth of eight men is greater than the poorest 3.6 billion people, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam International.

This is a massive jump from last year's estimate, which cited the world's 62 richest people having a combined wealth equal to the poorest 50 percent of the population on the planet.

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Morton County

North Dakota Bill Would Protect Motorists Who 'Unintentionally Cause Injury or Death' to Protesters

By Kali Holloway

As Donald Trump takes office, pushing a wave of explicitly authoritarian federal policies and practices, Republican leaders at every level are following suit. The latest example is North Dakota lawmaker Keith Kempenich, who has introduced a bill that says a driver "who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense."

Kempenich, who spoke to the Bismark Tribune, was completely candid in expressing that he created the legislation in response to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The $3.8 billion project, which would span 1,100 miles and include Sioux land at the Standing Rock reservation, was halted in December after months of high-profile protests.

Rob Wilson Photography / Facebook

"It's shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian," Kempenich told the newspaper. The state Rep. went on to justify his bill, which would allow motorists to potentially maim or kill protesters using a vehicle—thousands of pounds of fast-moving metal—but complaining that protesters are "intentionally putting themselves in danger."

Kempenich's said his opposition to the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment-granted rights of free speech, is the result of his mother-in-law being inconvenienced while driving through protests. The lawmaker cited an instance when he said, as she drove past a long line of cars parked along shoulder of the road, a protester jumped in front of her car waving a sign. It seems just as likely that the protester emerged from a blind spot created by the stationary cars, as can happen in any situation where parked vehicles create a visual barrier. It's impossible to say definitively, since neither Kempenich nor any of the other six Republican sponsors of the bill were there at the time.

"It's shocking to see legislation that allows for people to literally be killed for exercising their right to protest in a public space," Tara Houska, a Native activist who works with environmental organization Honor the Earth, told NBC News. "These [bills] are meant to criminalize the protests with no real concern for constitutional law."

Along with Kempenich, other Republican backers of the bill include Michael Brandenburg, Vernon Laning, Bill Oliver, Karen Rohr, Dwight Cook and Donald Schaible.

This isn't the first time in recent months that GOP legislators have tried to push aggressively anti-free speech laws. In Washington State, Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen has proposed a law that would create "a new crime of economic terrorism" which could allow for the arrest and prosecution of any protesters who "block transportation and commerce, cause property damage, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk."

Ericksen is likely well aware of the fact that "blocking commerce" succinctly describes pretty much every protest, ever. Republican Rep. Kathy Lohmer of Stillwater, Minnesota, is floating a bill that further criminalizes and penalizes protesting on freeways. Lohmer's legislation would increase fines from $1,000 to $3,000 and raise jail time from 90 days to a full year.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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