Trump’s EPA Is Changing Its Math to Make Clean Power Plan Rollback Seem Less Deadly
When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.
Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.
.@EPA is planning to hide thousands of air pollution-related deaths by changing its math. Of course, the new math… https://t.co/2DdFp0QrXl— Friends of the Earth (@Friends of the Earth)1558395006.0
"Using fake math to hide the death toll from dirty air at the behest of the coal industry is sadly consistent with the Trump administration's complete disregard for public health," Environmental Working Group (EWG) Senior Science Advisor for Children's Environmental Health Dr. Olga Naidenko said in response to the plan. "This sleight of hand means that more adults may die early and more children may become victims of asthma."
New York University environmental law expert Richard L. Revesz called the proposed change a "monumental departure" from how the agency has calculated air pollution risk under past administrations from both parties.
"Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths," Revesz said.
The new method will be used in the EPA's final version of the Clean Power Plan replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, due to be released in June. The new rule would improve the efficiency of coal plants slightly while also allowing older plants to remain in operation longer, leading both to more climate-change causing emissions and more particulate matter pollution.
When asked if the new method would appear in the final plan, former chemical and fossil fuel lobbyist and current EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation William L. Wehrum said the final draft would include multiple approaches and that the agency had not officially changed its methodology.
However, Wehrum also called the focus on the 1,400 number "unfortunate" and said the agency was considering a number of alternative calculations that would lead to lower death tolls. He said the lower figure would be included to show that different assumptions could lead to different results, but said that any new method would be peer-reviewed before being used as the EPA's leading means of assessing air pollution risk.
EPA spokesman James Hewitt echoed that message in a statement to CNN.
"No change to this scientific method will be made unless and until the new approach has been peer reviewed," he said.
The EPA is considering the new method as part of its regular review of air quality standards, which it aims to complete by 2020, CNN reported.
In recent years, studies have shown a growing number of health risks associated with particulate matter exposure, including dementia. Colorado School of Public Health Dean Dr. Jonathan M. Samet told The New York Times that most new studies showed risks at levels of exposure below the EPA's legal limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter on average per year.
"It's not a hard stop where we can say 'below that, air is safe.' That would not be supported by the scientific evidence," Samet said. "It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don't seem to."
Revesz worried the new method would be used to roll back other environmental regulations as well.
"It could be an enormously significant impact," he told The New York Times.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
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Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.