An examination of monitoring data available for the first time concludes that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.
The study by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from Earthjustice, used industry data that became available to the public for the first time in 2018 because of requirements in federal coal ash regulations issued in 2015.
The report found that found that the groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, among other pollutants.
"At a time when the Trump EPA — now being run by a former coal lobbyist — is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment," said Abel Russ, the lead author of the report and attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
"This is a wake-up call for the nation," said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice. "Using industry's own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate. The Trump Administration insists on hurting communities across the U.S. by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse."
The data came from more than 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells located around the ash dumps of 265 coal-fired power plants, which is roughly three quarters of the coal power plants across the U.S. The rest of the plants did not have to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule's groundwater monitoring requirements last year, either because they closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect in 2015, or because they were eligible for an extension.
EIP's analysis of the data found that a majority of the 265 coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash in the underlying groundwater. Fifty-two percent had unsafe levels of arsenic, which can impair the brains of developing children and is known to cause cancer. Sixty percent of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage.
Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.
The report lists and ranks the sites across the U.S. with the worst groundwater contamination from coal ash. Below are the "Top 10" most contaminated sites, according to the monitoring data reported by power companies in 2018:
- Texas: An hour south of San Antonio, beside the San Miguel Power Plant, the groundwater beneath a family ranch is contaminated with at least 12 pollutants leaking from coal ash dumps, including cadmium (a probable carcinogen according to EPA) and lithium (which can cause nerve damage) at concentrations more than 100 times above safe levels.
- North Carolina: 12 miles west of Charlotte, at Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station in Belmont, the coal ash dumps were built beneath the water table and are leaking cobalt (which causes thyroid damage) into groundwater at concentrations more than 500 times above safe levels, along with unsafe levels of eight other pollutants.
- Wyoming: 180 miles west of Laramie, at PacifiCorp's Jim Bridger power plant in Point of Rocks, the groundwater has levels of lithium and selenium (which can be toxic to humans and lethal at low concentrations to fish) that exceed safe levels by more than 100 fold.
- Wyoming: At the Naughton power plant in southwest Wyoming, the groundwater has not only levels of lithium and selenium exceeding safe levels by more than 100 fold, but also arsenic at five times safe levels.
- Pennsylvania: An hour northwest of Pittsburgh, at the New Castle Generating Station, levels of arsenic in the groundwater near the plant's coal ash dump are at 372 times safe levels for drinking.
- Tennessee: Just southwest of Memphis near the Mississippi River, at the TVA Allen Fossil Plant, arsenic has leaked into the groundwater at 350 times safe levels and lead at four times safe levels. Recent studies show a direct connection between the contaminated shallow aquifer and the deeper Memphis aquifer, creating a threat to drinking water for thousands of people.
- Maryland: 19 miles southeast of Washington, DC, at the Brandywine landfill in Prince George's County, ash from three NRG coal plants has contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of at least eight pollutants, including lithium at more than 200 times above safe levels, and molybdenum (which can damage the kidney and liver) at more than 100 times higher than safe levels. The contaminated groundwater at this site is now feeding into and polluting local streams.
- Utah: South of Salt Lake City, at the Hunter Power plant, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at concentrations 228 times safe levels and cobalt at 26 times safe levels.
- Mississippi: North of Biloxi, at the R.D. Morrow Sr. Generating Station, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at 193 times safe levels, molybdenum at 171 times safe levels, and arsenic at three times safe levels.
- Kentucky: At the Ghent Generating Station northeast of Louisville, lithium is in the groundwater at 154 times safe levels and radium at 31 times safe levels.
The researchers of this report could not determine the safety of drinking water near the coal ash dumps analyzed in this study because power companies are not required to test private drinking water wells.
However, the report contains examples of several well-documented instances of residential tap water contaminated by coal ash. For example:
- At the Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Montana, unsafe levels of boron, sulfate and possibly other pollutants migrated into a residential neighborhood. The owners of the plant had to provide clean water, and settled a lawsuit with 57 local residents for $25 million in damages.
- At the Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, contamination with elevated levels of molybdenum seeped from ash landfills into at least 33 nearby drinking water wells. Wisconsin Energy purchased at least 25 homes around the site and demolished several of them.
- At the Yorktown Power Station in Yorktown, Virginia, gravel pits were filled with fly ash, contaminating the water supply for 55 homes with arsenic, beryllium, chromium, manganese, selenium and other pollutants.
- At Battlefield Golf Course in Chesapeake, Virginia, about 25 drinking water wells had elevated levels of boron, manganese or thallium that may have leaked from coal ash used as a construction material beneath a golf course.
- At a coal ash landfill in Gambrills, Maryland, ash dumped in an old sand and gravel quarry caused unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium, lithium and other pollutants in multiple residential wells. Constellation Energy settled a lawsuit with impacted residents for $54 million.
Additional examples of contamination of residential drinking water outlined in the report are in Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin and North Carolina.
"This report is yet another example of why we must require full cleanup of these unlined and leaking coal ash pits," said Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, North Carolina, who lives near coal ash waste sites of the Duke Energy Allen Steam Station.
"The findings of this report are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising," said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action. "For decades, coal utilities have been dumping their toxic waste in primitive pits — often unlined, unstable and near groundwater — while state and federal regulators have mostly looked the other way. These dangerous coal ash ponds should have been closed and cleaned up years ago."
The report details steps that EPA should take to more effectively protect public health and the environment from coal ash pollution. A more successful regulatory program would: regulate all coal ash dumps, including those that are inactive; require the excavation of dumps within five feet of the water table; require more monitoring, especially of nearby residential wells and surface water; and mandate more transparency and public reporting.
New Report Reveals Severe #Groundwater Contamination at Illinois #CoalAsh Dumps https://t.co/kAM9ixJyRk @BeyondCoal @Coal_Ash— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1543788038.0
- All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into ... ›
- Groundwater Sustainability Is Needed More Than Ever ›
Power plants across Texas are leaching toxins into groundwater, according to new research. A report released this week from the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the state's 16 coal-fired power plants are leaching contaminants from coal ash into the ground, and almost none of the plants are properly lining their pits to prevent leakage.
"We found contamination everywhere we looked, poisoning groundwater aquifers and recreational fishing spots across the state," EIP attorney and report co-author Abel Russ told the Texas Tribune. "This confirms that dumping large volumes of toxic waste in poorly-lined pits is a terrible idea."
As reported by the Texas Observer:
"While power plants' propensity to foul nearby air is well-documented, the danger of coal ash dumping has seen much less play in the news media.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has loosened coal ash dumping rules, relaxing pollution thresholds for certain contaminants and allowing states to waive some groundwater monitoring requirements. The action fits within the larger trend of Trump and U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry trying their damndest to prop up coal despite it being a wildly inefficient vehicle for energy generation. At the state level, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) proposed in August a "deeply flawed" plan to regulate coal ash disposal, the report says. The TCEQ plan was later withdrawn.
Representatives from TCEQ did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the plants identified in the report are also major air polluters."
Groups Sue Utility Company for Leaking Coal Ash Into National Scenic River https://t.co/cz7GzKj7r1 @BeyondCoal @dirtyenergy @Coal_Ash— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1527803407.0
For a deeper dive:
- New Report Reveals Severe Groundwater Contamination at Illinois ... ›
- Coal Ash Was a Disaster in North Carolina Well Before Hurricane ... ›
- How a New York Town Has Shifted From a Coal-Powered Economy ›
- Human Fecal Bacteria Found in Protected Reef Ecosystem 100 Miles off Texas Coast ›
- Toxic Waste Ponds Dangerously Vulnerable to Climate Change ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
"Americans deserve an EPA Administrator more dedicated to first-class protection of human health and the environment than to luxury travel at taxpayer expense," Energy and Commerce Democratic leaders wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Pruitt.
The letter was signed by ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), oversight and investigations subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-CO) and environment subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko (D-NY).
"To date, your agency has failed to provide a clear explanation as to whether your travel since becoming administrator complies with all applicable federal regulations and Agency procedures," they continued.
"It remains unclear how any possible security threats warranted the frequent issuance of waivers authorizing you to fly first-class on domestic flights, or how sitting in a first-class seat is safer than sitting in economy class."
“Americans deserve an EPA Administrator more dedicated to first-class protection of human health and the environmen… https://t.co/JlZda4WUKc— Energy and Commerce Committee (@Energy and Commerce Committee)1519145358.0
The Washington Post, citing records obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project, reported earlier this month that Pruitt's use of taxpayer funds on first-class flights and luxury hotels exceeded previous administrators.
During a two-week stretch in June, the EPA head racked up at least $90,000 in taxpayer-funded travel. One of his short domestic trips from Washington, DC to New York was booked first class for $1,600—six times the amount spent on the two media aides who came along and sat in coach.
Pruitt was most recently spotted flying first class from the Washington metro area to Boston just a day after the Trump administration proposed cutting the EPA's budget by more than 23 percent.
While Exploding Military Spending, Trump Budget Eviscerates Funding for EPA, Healthcare and More… https://t.co/eGtKbLSVZK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518576605.0
Federal regulations call for government employees to "consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs" but they can use first class for security or medical reasons.
An EPA spokesman initially explained that Pruitt has a "blanket waiver to fly in first or business class" due to unspecified security concerns.
But the agency later backtracked that statement after criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Even Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the retired pilot who famously landed a plane in the Hudson River and now serves as a safety and aviation expert, commented that "first-class is not safer than economy."
An EPA spokesman now insists that Pruitt submits a waiver to fly in either first or business class for each trip.
"We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment," Pruitt told the publication.
"We've reached the point where there's not much civility in the marketplace and it's created, you know, it's created some issues and the [security] detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat."
Still, the Democrats are requesting documents and answers to a series of questions, including:
- Provide a list of all instances to date where Pruitt traveled by air domestically in first or business-class, including the total expense of these tickets.
- Has the Agency conducted any analysis to indicate enhanced security is achieved by premium travel?
- How do interactions with the American public at airports necessitate purchasing first-class plane tickets?
- Was any of Administrator Pruitt's first-class or business-class travel authorized or otherwise approved by the White House?
"I have no reason to believe otherwise," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday when a reporter asked if the president still has confidence in Pruitt and VA Secretary David Shulkin who also reportedly flew to Europe last year on the taxpayer dime.
"As we have said many times before, if somebody doesn't have the confidence of the president, you will know," she added.
By Nikolaos Zirogiannis, Alex J. Hollingsworth and David Konisky
These shutdowns and startups, as well as accidents caused by the hurricane, led to a significant release of air pollutants. Over a period of about two weeks, data we compiled from the Texas' Air Emission Event Report Database indicates these sites released 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants.
These types of emissions that result from startups, shutdowns or malfunctions are often referred to as "excess" or "upset" emissions and are particularly pronounced during times of natural disasters, as was the case with Hurricane Harvey.
However, as we document in a newly published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, they also occur regularly during the routine operation of many industrial facilities, sometimes in large quantities. And, even if unintended or unavoidable, the pollutants released during these events are in violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA).
With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) now revisiting the rules regarding these air toxics, our study shows how significant they are to public health—and how historically they have not been systematically tracked across the country or regulated comprehensively.
Excess Emissions in Texas
Our study examines the occurrence of excess emissions in industrial facilities in Texas over the period from 2002 to 2016. We focused on Texas because, unlike nearly all other states, it has established comprehensive reporting requirements. The state collects data on so-called hazardous air pollutants that cause harm to people exposed to them, such as benzene, as well as substances called criteria pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of ozone.
As a general rule, states set limits to industrial air emissions based on provisions in their State Implementation Plan (SIP), which is their strategy for meeting CAA requirements. The EPA in turn is responsible for ensuring that each state's SIP is drafted in accordance with the CAA.
The CAA requires sources of air pollution to achieve continuous emissions reductions, which in essence means companies need to install and maintain equipment to limit the release of pollutants that happen during routine operations.
Excess emissions occur when pollution abatement systems—such as scrubbers, baghouses, or flares that curtail emissions before they are released—fail to fully operate as the result of an unexpected malfunction, startup or shutdown. That is, a facility fails to maintain continuous emissions reductions, thereby exceeding its permit limits.
Although one might assume that such occurrences are rare, we found that excess emissions in Texas are frequent, sometimes large, and likely result in significant health damages for individuals living in communities near where these emissions are released.
Specifically, there are four important takeaways from our study.
First, excess emissions represent a sizable share of permitted (or routine) emissions. In the case of the natural gas liquids industry, excess emissions amounted to 77,000 tons over the period 2004-2015, representing 58 percent of the industry's routine emissions for that pollutant. Refineries emitted 23,000 tons of excess emissions (10 percent of their routine emissions of SO2) while oil and gas fields released 11,000 tons (17 percent of their routine emissions of SO2).
Second, the distribution of excess emissions is highly skewed. While thousands of excess emissions events occur every year in Texas, the top 5 percent of events release more pollutants than all the other events combined. In extreme cases, excess emissions events can release vast amounts of pollutants in a very short period of time. In 2003, a Total oil refinery in Port Arthur emitted 1,296 tons of sulfur dioxide within 56 hours, due to a power outage caused by a lighting strike. That was almost twice the amount of the total sulfur dioxide that refinery emitted that year from its routine operations.
Third, several industrial sectors account for a disproportionate amount of excess emissions. Facilities in just five sectors—natural gas liquids, refineries, industrial organic chemicals, electric services and oil and natural gas fields—emit about 80 percent of all excess emissions from industrial facilities in Texas.
Estimated damages from air toxics from excess emissions by county. Reprinted with permission. Copyright (2018) American Chemical Society. Figure compiled by the authors using data from TCEQ, EASIUR, QGIS and Manson et al (2017)
Moreover, a few facilities within each sector are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions. For example, the top six oil refineries are responsible for 70 percent and 77 percent of the excess emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, respectively, released from all 30 Texas refineries.
Finally, excess emissions have important health effects. Using a model that links pollution to mortality, we estimate that the health damages attributable to excess emissions in Texas between 2004-2015 averaged $150 million annually. These estimates are certainly not comprehensive as they only consider damages from premature mortality due to particulate matter (PM) emissions caused by the emission of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.
The model does not account for the direct damage from other pollutants or from nonfatal, acute health events such as asthma attacks. As such, our estimate can be considered a lower bound.
The data we analyzed in our study reveal the magnitude of the problem caused by excess emissions. Yet, it is important to remember that they only capture the situation in Texas. We know very little about excess emissions and their trends over time at the national level. That's because Texas is one of just a few states (the others being Louisiana and Oklahoma) that systematically track and make public information on these type of pollution releases.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has gone as far as to implement a system that requires facilities to publicly report excess emissions events within 24 hours of their occurrence, information that the TCEQ then makes available on its website.
Excess Emissions Are Underregulated
The EPA, after decades of leaving excess emissions outside of its regulatory focus, made a concerted effort to update its approach during the final years of the Obama administration.
Prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, the EPA issued a State Implementation Plan (SIP) call in 2015, asking states to revisit the way they regulate excess emissions. The agency found that certain SIP provisions in 36 states were " substantially inadequate to meet Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements."
This means that industrial facilities may have been regularly surpassing the limit of their permitted pollution limits, in part because of these excess emissions. But because of state agency exemption provisions, it could be the case that these facilities would not always be penalized. In other words, the EPA determined that many states had, as a matter of policy, often failed to treat excess emissions as violations and potentially shielded offending companies from paying fines.
The EPA is now revisiting its policy as part of the Trump administration's broader efforts to scale back many EPA regulations and decisions during the Obama era. Given the frequency, magnitude, and important adverse effects for public health, the EPA's ultimate decision on how states should treat excess emissions is consequential.
In addition, much is still to be learned about the magnitude of the excess emissions problem across the country. If an effective regulatory framework is to be designed to reduce them, it is imperative that more states begin tracking excess emissions events in a detailed and systematic way, following the example set by Texas.
Why Climate Change Is Worsening Public Health Problems https://t.co/fA6gJI3k1H #climatechange #publichealth @NRDC… https://t.co/RbQYlSoC6u— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1516985903.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on first or business class flights while his aides generally fly coach, according to the Washington Post. Pruitt has also used military jets to travel back and forth to events.
During a two-week stretch in June—around the same time President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement—the EPA boss and his top aides racked up at least $90,000 in taxpayer-funded travel to help tout Trump's agenda, the newspaper reported, citing EPA receipts obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project through Freedom of Information Act requests.
One of Pruitt's short domestic trips from Washington, DC to New York was booked first class for $1,600—six times the amount spent on the two media aides who came along and sat in coach. Another $36,000 was spent on a military flight from Cincinnati to New York.
Previous EPA administrators usually refrained from such premium bookings. The Hill pointed out that federal regulations call for government travelers to "consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs" but can use first class for security or medical reasons.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the Post that all of Pruitt's travel expenses were approved by federal ethics officials.
She added that Pruitt's trips are aimed at furthering "positive environmental outcomes and achieve tangible environmental results."
"He's communicating the message about his agenda and the president's agenda," she said.
This is not the first time that Pruitt's taxpayer spending tab has been under scrutiny. Earlier reports found that the EPA head has spent more than $58,000 on private and military flights. Salaries for his infamous 24/7 security detail will cost at least $2 million per year. And let's not forget the $25,000 of taxpayer money spent on a phone booth.
Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, resigned amid fierce criticism in September after POLITICO revealed that his use of military flights and private jets cost more than $1 million.
EPA Under Siege: The New Assault on the U.S. Environmental Protection System https://t.co/2uIylMXmGr #EPA @NRDC… https://t.co/5UE4R4d7uL— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1515170572.0
By Rachel Leven
Engineer Jim Southerland was hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971 to join the nascent war on air pollution. He came to relish the task, investigating orange clouds from an ammunition plant in Tennessee and taking air samples from strip mines in Wyoming. Among his proudest accomplishments: helping the agency develop a set of numbers called emission factors—values that enable regulators to estimate atmospheric discharges from power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial operations.
By the time Southerland left the EPA in 1996, he was "frustrated and ticked off," he said, because the numbers he had helped develop were being misused. The original aim had been to paint a broad-brush picture of pollution. Instead, the numbers—meant to represent average emissions from industrial activities—were incorporated into permits stipulating how much pollution individual facilities could release. This happened despite EPA warnings that about half of these sites would discharge more than the models predicted. "These factors were not intended for permits," said Southerland, now retired and living in Cary, North Carolina.
The number of emission factors used by the EPA since Southerland's time has proliferated and stands at 22,693. The agency itself admits most are unreliable: It rates about 62 percent as "below average" or "poor." Nearly 22 percent aren't rated at all. About 17 percent earned grades of "average" or better, and only one in six has ever been updated. There is a slew of common problems, such as poor accounting for emissions from aging equipment.
The upshot: in some cases, major polluters are using flawed numbers to calculate emissions of substances such as benzene, a carcinogen, and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Regulators at times are flying blind. The factors color everything we know about air quality and many of the decisions the EPA and state environmental agencies make, from risk assessment to rulemaking.
In an email, an EPA spokeswoman told the Center for Public Integrity that the agency has been working on the problem for a decade. "EPA believes it is important to develop emissions factors that are of high quality and reliable," she wrote.
Some experts, however, say the agency hasn't done enough. The unreliability of the numbers has been flagged over a period of decades by the EPA's own internal watchdog and other government auditors. "This is what tells you what's being put in the air and what you're breathing," said Eric Schaeffer, former head of civil enforcement at the EPA and now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. "You don't want those numbers to be wrong."
Emission factors are based on company and EPA measurements as well as external studies. They are plugged into equations to estimate total emissions from industrial activities, such as the burning of coal in boilers.
As early as the 1950s, regulators in places like Los Angeles were using emission factors to try to pinpoint the origins of dangerous smog episodes. The numbers allowed them to avoid "time-consuming, expensive testing programs and extensive surveys of individual sources," according to a 1960 paper by the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District.
In 1965, the U.S. Public Health Service—which regulated air pollution at the time—released its first comprehensive list of factors, a document the agency would label "AP-42" in a 1968 update. The EPA, created two years later, kept revising the estimates as they became more widely used in emission inventories depicting pollution levels and sources around the country.
The EPA knew early on there were problems with the numbers. In 1989, for example, the Office of Technology Assessment—a now-defunct, nonpartisan science adviser to Congress—reported many U.S. metropolitan areas had not met their goals for controlling smog-forming ozone in part because of inaccurate emission inventories. In 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress gave the agency six months to make sure all emissions contributing to ozone formation were assigned up-to-date, accurate factors, and directed the EPA to review the numbers every three years thereafter.
The EPA missed both deadlines. It has failed to do at least some of the three-year reviews. It claims to have created all the necessary ozone-related factors, but questions about their accuracy remain.
For decades, government watchdogs, including the EPA's Office of Inspector General, have pointed out deficiencies in the factors, which drive actions ranging from enforcement cases to the drafting of regulations. "We believe the status of emission factor development … is a significant weakness that impedes achievement of major air program goals," the IG wrote in a 1996 report. The EPA's dependence on industry studies because of funding constraints could result in factors that minimized pollution, it warned. The U.S. General Accounting Office—now the Government Accountability Office—reported in 2001 that polluters rely on the estimates even though "facilities' actual emissions can, and do, vary substantially from the published factors." The EPA's IG came back with a targeted reproach in 2014, questioning the validity of factors used to estimate methane emissions from some pipelines.
Still, there was little movement. Whereas emission factors are recognized as crucial tools in understanding air quality and underpinning inventories, they tend to be forgotten. "That foundation is buried to such an extent that it's not often appreciated," said David Mobley, who worked on emission factors in the 1990s. "The urgency is rarely there."
Test Case in Houston
Accurate pollution data matters. Consider what happened in the ozone-plagued city of Houston, a hub of oil refining and chemical manufacturing.
The city had been using emission inventories to guide its ozone-control strategy. Air monitoring by researchers in 2000 found levels of volatile organic compounds—highly reactive ozone precursors, such as benzene, known as VOCs—were 10 to 100 times higher than what had previously been estimated. The study—conducted by what was then the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the EPA and more than 40 other public, private and academic institutions—singled out as culprits VOCs such as ethylene, a flammable gas used mainly in the production of plastics.
Houston, it turned out, had focused on controlling the wrong emissions from the wrong sources to lower its ozone levels, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. The city changed course, expanding VOC monitoring and developing rules to reduce emissions. Ozone production rates dropped by up to 50 percent in six years, Cohan and his colleagues found in a follow-up study. The study showed that reliance on emission factors alone is a bad idea, Cohan said. "We need scientists to measure these pollutants in the air to find out how much is really being emitted," he said.
The underestimation problem surfaced at individual facilities as well, including Shell's 1,500-acre petrochemical complex in the Houston suburb of Deer Park. A study begun by the City of Houston and the EPA in 2010 showed levels of benzene wafting from one Shell tank were 448 times higher than what the relevant emission factor had predicted. The discrepancy led to an EPA enforcement action; in a consent decree, Shell agreed to pay a $2.6 million fine and spend $115 million to control pollution from flaring—the burning of gas for economic or safety reasons—and other activities. Shell did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokeswoman told the Houston Chronicle in 2013 "the provisions of the settlement are consistent with Shell Deer Park's objectives and ongoing activities to reduce emissions at the site and upgrade our flaring infrastructure."
Despite the findings of these studies and others, the EPA didn't update emission factors for the U.S. refinery and petrochemical sector until 2015, seven years after Houston had petitioned the agency to do so and two years after it was sued by environmental justice groups.
Unreliable Methane Estimates
The low-balling of pollution isn't limited to toxic chemicals. Many emission factors used to estimate releases of methane—a potent greenhouse gas associated with oil and natural-gas development—are "far too low," said Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University. Identifying how much methane these operations discharge can help scientists calculate the impact of natural gas—which in 2016 displaced coal as the nation's biggest source of electric power generation—on global warming. This is crucial to preventing "runaway climate change," Howarth said.
Much remains unknown. A 2015 study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund found methane releases from oil and gas production and processing in the Barnett Shale Formation in northern Texas were 90 percent higher than what the EPA's Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions had estimated.
About a third of the factors used to estimate pipeline leaks and other natural-gas emissions in the most recent inventory, for 2015, are based on a 1996 study by the EPA and an industry group then known as the Gas Research Institute. The EPA's IG found in 2014 "there was significant uncertainty in the study data," meaning the EPA's assumptions on the amount of methane that spews from pipelines "may not be valid."
The harm caused by faulty estimates extends beyond oil and gas. An emission factor designed to estimate ammonia releases from poultry farms, for example, "is probably far too low" according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. These emissions contribute to problems like algae blooms, which can spread rapidly and kill marine life in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.
'Pandora's Box of Problems'
The EPA, according to its spokeswoman, has begun executing a plan to improve the science that underlies emission factors and review the estimates more frequently. Among the changes: some companies now must report pollution data electronically to the agency.
The Trump administration proposed slashing the EPA's budget by 31 percent for fiscal year 2018, although Congress has so far extended existing funding levels through a series of short-term resolutions. Progress on emission factors will hinge on "available resources," the EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email, declining to specify a deadline for the project.
The agency said it does not intend to limit the use of emission factors to the purpose for which they were originally intended—to inform pollution inventories. That means, for example, that the numbers will still be used in permits.
Many in industry are fine with that. When the EPA asked in a 2009 Federal Register notice for suggestions on how to improve the system, companies from electric power generators to auto manufacturers argued for the status quo, saying emission factors were sometimes their only data option. Trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council argued their members should not be penalized if the EPA discovered a deficient factor had caused a permit to underestimate pollution. API said it worried that additional industry data supplied to the EPA to help it improve the numbers "could be misused for enforcement or other purposes." Neither group responded to requests for comment.
Public health advocates, on the other hand, want more. Some companies game the system to avoid EPA permitting fees and civil penalties, said Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in Austin. "We don't know what the emissions really are," he said. "It's a real Pandora's box of problems."
Carman and other advocates say they understand emission factors will have to be used in some circumstances, and that some types of pollution can be estimated with reasonable accuracy. They also maintain, however, that air monitoring should be more widely deployed. "Where you can do direct monitoring of emissions, that should be required," said Schaeffer, of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Schaeffer faults the EPA for giving some companies an out. It allows operators of power plants, for example, to choose between using continuous monitoring to measure fine particles, or a combination of quarterly testing and emission factors. Some of these plants already have monitoring systems installed, Schaeffer said, but "it's easier to mask noncompliance using emission factors."
Shining a 'Bright Light' on Pollution
California's Bay Area Air Quality Management District changed its approach after studies showed leaks from oil refineries in the area—known as fugitive emissions—were likely underrepresented in emission factors. "We decided, based on that information, that we needed additional ways to better identify fugitive emissions and to shine a bright light on those fugitive emissions," said Eric Stevenson, the district's director of meteorology, measurement and rules.
In 2016, the district urged refineries to install "open path" monitoring systems—which use beams of light to detect the presence of gases like benzene—and make the data available to the public in real time. Chevron installed such a system on the perimeter of its refinery in Richmond, California, in 2013.
The company didn't respond to specific questions about the monitoring but said its focus "on running the refinery efficiently and investing in new technologies" has significantly reduced air pollution since the 1970s. Denny Larson, executive director of the Community Science Institute - CSI for Health and Justice, an environmental group that helps the public test for pollution, said the system in Richmond shows levels of chemicals in the air at a given moment and can alert residents to emission spikes that can trigger asthma attacks and other serious health problems.
"It's showing lots of pollution has been flying under the radar that's extremely toxic and problematic," Larson said. "We can prove what we've always known."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.
By Martha Roberts
The imposing limestone government building in central Washington where Scott Pruitt holds sway is increasingly operating away from public view with decisions made behind closed doors, once-public information blacked out, and influential insiders taking charge.
As the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Pruitt has also proven elusive, having spent more than half of his days away from Washington amid speculation he's really focused on a future run for Oklahoma senator or governor. His frequent travel to the Midwestern state at taxpayers' expense recently prompted the agency's Inspector General to open an investigation—and yet, Pruitt has found time to quietly and systematically tear down policies that protect our health and safety.
Here are the five most glaring examples of the EPA chief's pattern of secrecy, and what it means for you.
1. Suppressed Web Pages About Climate Change
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, my organization recently received EPA records detailing more than 1,900 items that had been modified or deleted from the agency's website since President Trump's inauguration day—including information about how climate change affects children and pregnant women.
2. Keeps His Schedule Secret
Pruitt is hiding from the public even the most basic information about how he spends his business hours and with whom. Contravening a bi-partisan EPA transparency practice, Pruitt no longer makes any senior management calendars—including his own—available to the public. Americans have a right to know how a high-ranking, taxpayer-funded public servant spends his time and makes decisions that directly affect their lives.
3. Suspends Pollution Laws Without Public Input
Over the past six months, Pruitt has taken actions to suspend environmental safeguards without providing any opportunity for public input—including protections against toxic wastewater, oil and gas pollution as well as climate pollution.
Among one of Pruitt's earliest actions was to suspend, without any public input, protections against safety risks at major chemical facilities. Just a few months later, the Houston-area Arkema plant exploded after Hurricane Harvey flooded the site.
Arkema Plant Explosion Sparks Criticism of Trump EPA Relaxing Chemical Safety Rules https://t.co/kNmJIROjgx @greenpeaceusa @foe_us— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1504305307.0
4. Attacks Reporter Covering the EPA
Pruitt's press team lashed out against an Associated Press journalist after he co-authored a report that exposed the EPA's absence at Superfund sites flooded after Hurricane Harvey. The agency's press release attacked the reporter without rebutting any of the article's factual findings, raising concerns about the politicization of press coverage when public safety is at stake.
5. Rolls Back Enforcement Against Polluters
Under Trump's administration, the EPA has quietly but dramatically reduced enforcement against polluters. So far, the agency has collected 60 percent less in civil penalties than previous administrations did during their first six months in office, a recent analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project found.
Not holding companies responsible for their pollution has tangible impacts in the form of more pollution, more illness and more avoidable early deaths among Americans like you and me.
So covert is Pruitt that he earned the Golden Padlock Award this summer from investigative reporters and editors who recognize the most secretive U.S. agency or individual. The judges were impressed by "the breadth and scope of Pruitt's information suppression techniques around vital matters of public interest."
Indeed, looking at the rapid transformation of the agency he led during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, former EPA Administrator Bill Ruckelshaus described Pruitt's first six months as someone "taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and environment and then hiding it."
Pruitt's efforts to hollow out the EPA and weaken the public health safeguards that the agency is required to uphold is why we're mobilizing, like never before, to protect and defend America's clean air and water.
Public opinion and, increasingly, the courts are on our side, but we cannot let up the fight for the future of our children and grandchildren at this critical time.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s inspector general has launched a "preliminary investigation" into administrator Scott Pruitt's frequent trips back to his home state of Oklahoma "at taxpayer expense" following congressional requests.
The Office of Inspector General said in a letter it will investigate the "frequency, cost and extent of" Pruitt's travel to Oklahoma through the end of July. The office will also try to determine "whether EPA policies and procedures are sufficiently designed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse with the Administrator's travel that included trips to Oklahoma."
According travel records obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project, Pruitt spent 48 of the 92 days in March, April and May traveling, including 43 days on trips that included stops in Oklahoma. Airfare for these trips reportedly cost more than $12,000.
Before being tapped by President Trump to lead the EPA, Pruitt served as Oklahoma's attorney general who sued the agency he now heads more than a dozen times over environmental regulations.
His visits home as well as his stops to 25 Republican-led states during his cross-country "listening tour" have fueled reports that Pruitt wants to run for higher office. According to POLITICO, "[he's] spending time with GOP leaders and influential industries and packing in as many media hits as possible, laying out well-rehearsed talking points to bash former President Barack Obama's EPA."
"Pruitt seems to be using these visits to launch his political career," Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce told Reuters. "Perhaps he should use polluter money to fund these trips if he's going to continue doing their bidding."
Reuters reports that Pruitt paid for some legs of the trips directly related to his visits home but it is unclear if he paid for all of them.
EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham defended Pruitt's travel.
"Administrator Pruitt is traveling the country to hear directly from the people impacted by EPA's regulations outside of the Washington bubble," Graham said. "This is nothing more than a distraction from the administrator's significant environmental accomplishments."
EPA Inspector General to examine EPA Scott Pruitt's "frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxp… https://t.co/KcTxvWLPNS— Eric Lipton (@Eric Lipton)1503944340.0
So far, the Trump administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been lighter on the pocketbooks of polluters than previous administrations, collecting 60 percent less in civil penalties than previous administrations had recovered from environmental violators on average by the end of July in their first year after taking office.
Federal records reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) also show a significant drop in the number of environmental enforcement lawsuits filed against companies for breaking pollution control laws, compared to comparable periods in the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations.
From President Trump's first day in office through the end of July, the U.S. Department of Justice collected a total of $12 million in civil penalties as part of 26 civil lawsuits filed against companies for breaking pollution control laws. This was less than the $36 million in penalties in 34 cases in Obama's first January through July; $30 million in 31 cases under the same period during George W. Bush's administration; and $25 million in 45 cases during Clinton's first half year.
"President Trump campaigned on a promise of 'law and order,' but apparently law enforcement for big polluters is not what he had in mind," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at EPA. "The early returns show fewer cases with smaller penalties for violations of environmental law. If this drop-off in environmental enforcement continues, it will leave more people breathing more air pollution or swimming in waterways with more waste."
This analysis is based on EIP's examination of federal consent decrees in EPA civil enforcement cases referred to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution that resolve violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. It does not include Superfund cases, which may be examined by EIP in a future report.
Reduced environmental enforcement harms public health because pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of fine soot-like particles known to cause premature deaths from heart attacks and lung disease.
Pollution reduction information is not available for all lawsuits. But according to available case information and formulas used by EPA, the pollution reductions from five civil environmental cases filed by the Trump administration so far will prevent at least 22 premature deaths per year. This is less than the estimated 229 premature deaths annually avoided by the emission reductions required in eight cases filed during President Obama's first six months, and 618 deaths per year avoided by four cases at this point in George W. Bush's administration.
Estimated Annual Emissions Reductions and Premature Deaths Avoided
Note: For civil cases lodged from first day in office through July 31 of first year.
The data for the Trump administration's record so far is just a snapshot and trends vary over time. Large future cases could potentially shift these results. "The actions that Justice Department and EPA take over the next year will indicate whether the disappointing results so far are all we can expect," Schaeffer said.
The numbers so far show that President Trump's Justice Department has collected about 60 percent less in penalties than polluters had paid by on average this time in the first year of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The cases this year are smaller, requiring much less spending on cleanup, and resulting in fewer measurable reductions in pollutants that end up in our air or water.
Below is a chart comparing the number of civil lawsuits and penalties during President Trump's first six months compared to the same period of time for the three previous presidents.
Total Environmental Cases Lodged (Civil) and Penalties Paid
Note: For civil cases lodged from first day in office through July 31 of first year. Premature deaths calculating using EPA's estimation methods.
The disparity between administrations is more significant when inflation is taken into account. For example, the $25 million in civil penalties paid from January through July of 1993, during the Clinton administration, is equivalent to more than $42 million in 2017 dollars (compared to the $12 million collected during a comparable time period in the Trump administration).
Beyond civil penalties, EPA also estimates the value of another outcome of environmental lawsuits: "injunctive relief." This means how much money violators will spend to install and maintain the pollution control equipment needed to reduce emissions and comply with environmental standards. This equipment includes scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide from smokestacks or treatment systems that decontaminate wastewater before it is released to a river. EPA has been making these injunctive relief cost estimates for the last two decades.
The value of court-approved "injunctive relief" has fallen to $197 million during President Trump's first January through July, compared to $1.3 billion under the same period of time at the beginning of President Obama's first term, and $710 million under the first half year of George W. Bush's first term, federal records show.
A coalition of environmental and public health advocates filed suit Wednesday to challenge a Trump administration rollback that could wipe out critical protections for cleaning up America's leading source of toxic water pollution: coal power plant waste.
The federal lawsuit seeks to invalidate an April 25 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order that abruptly put an indefinite hold on a set of safeguards to control the amount of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and other pollutants that spew from coal power plants into our public waters. By putting those protections on hold indefinitely, the Trump administration is allowing power plants to continue discharging toxics without any specific limits, using standards set 35 years ago.
"I don't think anything considered state of the art in 1982 would still be state of the art today, especially when you are talking about the number-one source of toxic water pollution in the country," said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar. "EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is not above the law and he doesn't have the power to roll back public health protections with the stroke of a pen."
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Clean Water Action in the District of Columbia's federal district court. Also joining the suit are the Environmental Integrity Project, PennEnvironment, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and Prairie Rivers Network, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project. The suit asks the court to find that the EPA didn't have legal authority to put the protections on hold, didn't give public notice or allow public participation before doing so, and selectively applied its action to prioritize the interests of the coal industry over public health.
"These standards would have tackled the biggest source of toxic water pollution in the country, and now the Trump EPA is trying to toss them out. It's indefensible," said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. "The EPA didn't even pretend to seek public input before plowing ahead with this rollback that could allow millions of pounds of preventable toxic pollution to go into our water."
The toxics in coal plant waste raise cancer risk, make fish unsafe to eat and can inflict lasting brain damage on children. Heavy metals in the waste, like lead, arsenic and mercury, don't degrade over time, and they can concentrate as they travel up the food chain, impacting fish and wildlife and ultimately collecting in our bodies and our children's bodies. Power plant pollution can also make municipal water bills more expensive, because water treatment plants may have to spend more money to ensure that they deliver safe water to their customers.
"By allowing power plants to continue to dump chemicals into drinking water sources, Trump's EPA is putting polluter profits above protecting public health," said Jennifer Peters, national water programs director for Clean Water Action. "For decades, power plants have been dumping toxic metals and other harmful contaminants, including bromide, which creates cancer-causing byproducts during drinking water treatment. Absent strong safeguards to limit this pollution, drinking water systems and their customers will continue to bear the burden of unchecked power plant water pollution."
After decades of inaction, limits for these toxic discharges from coal power plants were finally updated by the Obama administration in September 2015 due to a court order secured by some of the same groups filing suit today. The new safeguards would have required power plants to eliminate the vast majority of this pollution, protecting our nation's drinking water sources and making thousands of river miles safer for swimming and fishing.
Power plants were set to begin meeting these new safeguards starting in 2018, but EPA's Pruitt agreed to a coal industry request to reconsider the rule.
"EPA's action brings us back to the dark ages by not requiring industry to stay on schedule to curb toxic water pollution from power plants, the largest industrial source of this pollution," said Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. "Instead of requiring modern pollution controls that cost only pennies a day, the Trump administration is instead allowing this industry to continue to dump unlimited arsenic, selenium and other toxic pollution into our nation's waters."
Through the April 25 order, the EPA is telling the industry that it doesn't need to take any steps to modernize wastewater treatment while a potentially years-long rule-making process plays out.
"Today, we are making a firm declaration that we will not stand idly by as Trump's administration tries to steer America back to an era where rivers caught on fire and polluters dumped their waste in our waterways with impunity," Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, added.
"With the drinking water of millions of Americans at stake, we will fight tooth-and-nail to protect safeguards that restrict coal plants from dumping toxic heavy metals into our drinking water supplies and putting thousands of families at risk of poisoning each year. Though these irrational attacks against basic science and public health are horrifying, we are confident that common sense will win the day and the American people will prevail over polluter greed in the courts and in the streets."
By Jonathan Hahn
On President Trump's first Earth Day in the White House, he declared on Twitter that "we celebrate our beautiful forests, lakes and lands"—an amiable if blasé arm-punch to the planet from the leader of the free world.
Until a few hours later that is, when the president resorted to his usual right cross.
"I am committed to keeping our air and water clean," he tweeted, "but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!"
Rarely does President Trump or his surrogates miss an opportunity to propound that "jobs matter" when it comes to the nation's environmental policies—especially where climate change is concerned. This binary logic—environmental protection equals job killer—is deeply woven into their world view. Trump has repeatedly called Obama-era initiatives like the Clean Power Plan "job killers" and vowed to "rescind all the job-destroying Obama executive actions, including the Climate Action Plan."
The delegation of fishermen that set sail Wednesday from a marina in Solomons, Maryland, would beg to differ. The only "job destroyer" for them is climate change.
Concerned about the threat global warming poses to their livelihoods, a crew of sustainable ocean farmers began a three-day journey they're calling the "Climate March by Sea." At the tiller of the small commercial fishing boat is Bren Smith, owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm and the executive director of GreenWave. They're heading south down the Chesapeake before they plan to turn north up the Potomac on their way to Washington, DC.
Their final destination: the Peoples Climate March, when thousands of people, including indigenous, civic, social justice, business and environmental advocacy groups are set to take to the streets of the nation's capital to demand action on climate, jobs and justice.
"Climate change was supposed to be a slow lobster boil," Smith said in an interview before casting off. "For me, it arrived 100 years earlier than expected. We fishermen are the citizen scientists reporting that water temperatures are going up, species are moving north, the weather is becoming more extreme. We can see it with our own eyes. We're way beyond the idea of climate denial."
When it comes to environmental policy, the "job killer" argument is a red herring. According to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project, "two-tenths of one percent of layoffs are caused by government regulations of any kind, including environmental regulations. Layoffs are caused far more often by corporate buyouts, technological advances and lower overseas labor costs."
For fishermen, the real crisis isn't government regulation, but the threats climate change poses to healthy oceans and seas. Marine and coastal fisheries contribute more than $200 billion in economic activity and 1.8 million jobs in the U.S. each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The World Wildlife Fund reports that marine populations are in catastrophic decline, plunging by 49 percent between 1970 and 2012, thanks in part to ocean acidification caused by warming waters, rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of fisheries have crashed due to overfishing, resulting in upward of $50 billion in economic losses, the California Environmental Associates assessed in its Charting a Course to Sustainable Fisheries report. One out of four marine species is threatened as a result of overfishing and climate change, among other factors, with 37 out of 1,288 bony fish species facing extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
The Climate March by Sea will cover 150 miles over three days, making occasional stops to pick up supporters. The crew of ocean farmers and commercial fishermen will be posting and live tweeting along the way on GreenWave's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages with the hashtag #climatemarchbysea. They hope the voyage will help adrenalize public discourse about solutions to the climate crisis in the days leading up to the Peoples Climate March this Saturday.
An eclectic medley of individual, advocacy and corporate partners have come together to sponsor the journey, including celebrity chefs René Redzepi and David Chang, Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's, Dr. Bronners, 350.org, Bioneers, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and the Sierra Club, among others. The trip's organizers are also raising individual donations to help pay for supplies and to sponsor more fishermen.
During the voyage, the crew will cowrite a letter, addressed to President Trump, in which they intend to make clear that climate change itself, not the policies devised to combat it, threatens the economy, their jobs and their way of life. They will also demand an end to the planned cuts to agencies like NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Smith plans to reaffirm in the letter what has become his most ardent message: There will be no jobs on a dead planet.
"Climate change is an economic issue, not just an environmental issue," he said. "It's not just about the birds and the bees. It's also about how do I run a small business and make a living in an era of extreme weather? We're heading to DC to send that message—that our livelihoods depend on a healthy ecosystem. That for those of us who care about building domestic employment, we have to mitigate climate change and protect our water."
For Smith, the Climate March by Sea is the latest in a multi-decade career during which he witnessed the ramifications of overfishing and extreme weather firsthand. A high school dropout who grew up in a fishing village, Smith first cast out to learn how to fish when he was 14. He started working on the Bering Sea as a fisherman at the height of industrialized fishing, catching fish that mostly went to companies like McDonald's for fish sandwiches. "We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, producing some of the unhealthiest food," he said.
Later, after he'd set up his own oyster farm, two hurricanes in a row wiped him out: Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene. Smith lost 90 percent of his crops, he said. Most of his gear washed out to sea.
When he began the process of rebuilding, he took an interest in extreme weather and what was causing it. He quickly became disillusioned.
Smith developed an innovative form of marine polyculture featuring a mix of shellfish and seaweed, which he calls "3-D farming." Seaweed soaks up five times as much carbon as land-based plants and is rich in omega-3s, vitamins and minerals. It also serves as storm-surge protectors. "So you can see this nexus of new environmentalism, which isn't just about conservation," he said, "it's about jobs, environmental protection and addressing food security all at once. I think we're at that sweet spot."
Since then, Smith has also created GreenWave, a nonprofit, to open-source his model of sustainable ocean farming for other fishermen and to engage in policy work and research around ocean planning, such as developing new mobile hatcheries. He also runs Seagreen Farms, which is a for-profit in the early stages of building seafood hubs in poor neighborhoods.
"I'm not really an environmentalist per se," he said. "My journey has been trying to figure out how to spend my life working on the water. This jobs-versus-environment choice that the administration keeps telling us, whether we're coal miners or fishermen, is a false choice. Environmentalism and the future of the new economy are inextricably linked."
The Climate March by Sea will dock at the Washington Marina in Georgetown on Friday morning, where the crew will hold a press conference at 10:00 a.m. They'll host an event that night at Patagonia, where they will be shucking oysters, serving beer and making signs as they prepare for the Peoples Climate March the following day.
"The Peoples Climate March represents to me the future of environmentalism," he said. "It's also time to push back. We need to defend our ground, our waters, our funding. We need to drive home that there is a whole generation of blue collar people that believe in climate change and demand that it be addressed now."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
The DC Circuit Court ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday to close a loophole that has allowed hazardous substances released into the environment by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to go unreported.
"We applaud the DC Circuit Court's clear decision to enforce this vital environmental safeguard to protect public safety," said Earthjustice attorney Jonathan Smith, who helped argue the case before the court.
"In the words of the court, the risk of air emissions from CAFOs 'isn't just theoretical; people have become seriously ill and even died' from these emissions. But the public cannot protect itself from these hazardous substances if CAFOs aren't required to report their releases to the public. The loophole also prevented reporting of these toxics to local and state responders and the court held that plainly violated the law."
CAFOs are large-scale livestock facilities that confine large numbers of animals in relatively small spaces. A large CAFO may contain upward of 1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs or 125,000 chickens. Such facilities generate a massive amount of urine and feces, which is commonly liquefied and either stored under the facility or nearby in open-air lagoons. This waste is known to release high levels of toxic pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the environment.
The court's decision closes a loophole that exempted CAFOs from the same pollutant reporting required of other industries to ensure public safety. Prior to the promulgation of this loophole at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, federal law long required CAFOs, like all other industrial facilities, to notify government officials when toxic pollution levels exceeded public safety thresholds.
"Corporate agricultural operations have always been well-equipped to report on hazardous substances," said Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Now they will once again be required to do so."
This ruling is the latest turn in Earthjustice's advocacy on behalf of environmental and animal advocacy groups including Waterkeeper Alliance, Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Center for Food Safety and Environmental Integrity Project.
"People have a right to know if CAFOs are releasing hazardous substances that can pose serious risks of illness or death into the air near their homes, schools, businesses and communities," said Kelly Foster, senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance.
"This ruling ensures that the public will be able to obtain this information in the future and will hopefully spur EPA to start responding when hazardous substances reach toxic levels."
Nearly three-quarters of the nation's ammonia air pollution come from CAFOs. Once emitted into the air, this ammonia then redeposits on land or water, adding to nitrogen pollution and water quality impairments in places like the Chesapeake Bay.
"CAFO waste pollutes our air and waterways and creates dangerous food pathogens. This decision forces these operations to be transparent about their environmental impact," said Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety.
CAFOs can be terrible air polluters. People who live near them often suffer from constant exposure to foul odors and the toxic effects of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Low levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and high levels can be fatal.
"This safeguard isn't just about protecting the environment; it's about making entire communities safe for the people who live in them," said Sierra Club staff attorney Katie Schaefer.
Unsurprisingly, CAFO pollution also severely impacts the animals raised at the CAFO.
"Animal factories force billions of animals to suffer dangerously high levels of toxic air pollution day after day for their entire lives," said Humane Society of The United States' Chief Counsel Jonathan Lovvorn. "This ruling helps shine a light on the horrors of factory farms and the hidden costs to animals, people and the environment."