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Trump Outdoes Himself in Picking a Conflicted Regulator

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The Editorial Board of the NY Times writes:

President Trump has made a habit of filling important jobs with people dedicated to undermining the laws they’re supposed to administer while pampering the industries they’re supposed to regulate. His nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency’s top clean air post, William Wehrum, is a retread from the George W. Bush administration with a deep doctrinal dislike of clean air regulations. His choice to runthe White House Council on Environmental Quality is borderline comical: Kathleen Hartnett White, a former Texas official who believes that the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is harmless. Yet no nomination has been as brazen, as dangerous to public health and as deserving of Senate rejection as that of Michael Dourson to run the E.P.A. office in charge of reviewing chemicals used in agriculture, industry and household products.

Mr. Dourson is a scientist for hire. A toxicologist and a professor at the University of Cincinnati, he has a long history of consulting for chemical companies and conducting studies paid for with industry money. He frequently decided that the compounds he was evaluating were safe at exposure levels that are far more dangerous to public health than levels recommended by the E.P.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies. His nomination is enthusiastically endorsed by the chemical industry. It horrifies environmental groups, public health advocates, firefighters and scientists and has inspired many letters in opposition to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which may vote as early as Wednesday.

Among the chemicals that received a favorable nod from Mr. Dourson is 1,4-dioxane, which is used by paint and coating manufacturers and is also found in shampoos and other personal care products. His analysis recommended a safe level that was 1,000 times higher than the E.P.A.’s recommended level; the agency considers the chemical “a likely carcinogen.”

Another is PFOA, a chemical used by DuPont to make nonstick surfaces. The compound has been linked to cancers, thyroid diseases and other health problems. Working for West Virginia on the recommendation of DuPont, Mr. Dourson in 2002 helped establish a safety threshold of 150 parts per billion for PFOA in drinking water. That is substantially higher than the standard of 1 part per billion that DuPont’s own scientists had recommended more than a decade earlier, and higher still than the health advisory level of 0.07 parts per billion set by the E.P.A. last year.

More broadly troubling is that Mr. Dourson, if approved, will set back an arduous, yearslong effort to improve the regulation of chemicals. Last year, after many false starts, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that updated the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that had made it very hard for regulators to ban or regulate chemicals by requiring the E.P.A. to meet a very high burden of proof before taking action. The law also made it easy for companies to keep data about their products hidden from the public by claiming the information was a “trade secret.” The new law simplified the task by streamlining it, directing the E.P.A. to review at least 20 substances at a time, giving priority to the riskiest chemicals. The money to do this work will come from up to $25 million in annual fees paid by chemical manufacturers and processors.

Experts fear that if confirmed Mr. Dourson will put a much greater emphasis on pleasing the chemical industry than on protecting public health. He could, for instance, order his staff to cherry-pick studies and data that in turn would lead to lax standards or even allow the continued use of chemicals that ought to be banned outright. In March, the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, rejected a staff recommendation to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which scientists believe has harmed farm workers and children. Any decisions Mr. Dourson would make would most likely remain in place for years or even decades. E.P.A. reviews take several years to complete, and the agency has a long list of chemicals it needs to study. . .

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In addition, note this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists: “EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Accelerates Politicization of Agency’s Science Advisory Board.” It begins:

Earlier today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt strongly suggested that the agency will not consider any candidate for EPA’s science advisory committees who has received a grant from the agency. Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.

So why now? Administrator Pruitt’s schedule offers some clues. House Science Committee Chairman and serial scientist harasser Lamar Smith is a champion of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, flawed legislation that would increase industry control over the Science Advisory Board and, yes, prevent EPA grant recipients from serving. UCS’s Yogin Kothari summed up the legislation for the New Republic:

“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”

Congress has for years failed to pass this legislation, which was vehemently and repeatedly opposed by UCS and many other mainstream science organizations. So in April 2017, a presumably frustrated Chairman Smith got together with Administrator Pruitt to talk about the bill. Pretty persuasion from the congressman seems to have worked.

Now keep in mind, Administrator Pruitt already has a parade of lobbyists and advisors providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. He already thinks he has all the right friends, but would be best served to hear from independent experts, too.

The Science Advisory Board, for now, can be a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight. I can see why a man of his outlook would want to neutralize it.

There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it. Getting science advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board is like getting basketball tips from 40 Steph Currys. It’s the best in the business, volunteering their time in service of the public good. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2017 at 8:47 am

Everyone Knew Houston’s Reservoirs Would Flood — Except for the People Who Bought Homes Inside Them

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Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, report:

When Jeremy Boutor moved to a master-planned community in Houston’s booming energy corridor, he saw it as idyllic.

Lakes on Eldridge boasted waterfalls, jogging trails and a clubhouse. It was upscale, secure and close to the office. A bus even picked up his two young sons in front of their house and took them to a nearby international school.

“This neighborhood was a paradise,” said Boutor, who moved to Houston from Paris two years ago after his employer, a French-based energy company, asked him to relocate.

Then, Hurricane Harvey changed everything.

As the downpours began and Boutor studied maps flashing on his TV screen, he realized that his home wasn’t at risk of flooding just because of record rainfall; it was also located inside one of two massive reservoirs that had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city.

Boutor ended up with more than a foot of water in his house and was forced to wade out of his home in knee-deep water with his 10-year-old son clinging to his back.

He and his neighbors are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. And nobody told them about it.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two reservoirs known as Addicks and Barker on what was then mostly empty prairie, their chief goal was to protect the center of the city, 20 miles downstream.

The vast basins are dry most of the time, dotted with wooded parks and sports fields, and are contained on their eastern boundaries by large, earthen dams. During rainstorms, floodwater accumulates behind those dams in areas known as “flood pools” and backs up to the west; how far it goes depends on how big the rainstorm is and where it hits.

That system worked well when the reservoirs were surrounded by prairie and rice fields. But in recent decades, development has encroached from all sides. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside them. During Harvey, when more floodwater accumulated behind the dams than ever before, 5,138 of those homes flooded.

Some local government officials, like Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, say they’ve warned residents for years about the risks of living in or around the reservoirs during town halls and other public events.

“It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” Radack said. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s top elected official, said residents must know they live in the reservoirs — the dams, he said, are right there.

“You’ve got a group that bought homes if not in, then on the very edge of reservoirs behind the dams, so that’s pretty obvious,” Emmett said.

But it’s clear after Harvey that it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. None of the more than half a dozen residents interviewed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica after the floods say they knew they were living inside Addicks or Barker — many of their neighborhoods are several miles away from the dams.

Several local officials — including Houston’s “flood czar” and a neighboring county executive — said they had no idea the neighborhoods had been built inside the flood pools. Several real estate agents said they didn’t realize they were selling homes inside the pools.

“When I started to rent this house, nobody told me,” Boutor said. “Even the insurance company told me that it was not a flooding area.”

But critics say those officials and developers had to know they were putting people and property at risk.

“They had full knowledge. They knew exactly what they were doing,” said Phil Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University who studies flooding in the Houston area. “It’s a huge geopolitical mistake. How are they going to fix it?”

The question of who’s to blame has reignited long-simmering tensions between Harris County and the city of Houston.

In recent interviews, Emmett, the county judge, claimed that the city regulates development inside the reservoirs. But the city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, called that “outrageous” and said the county plays a role, too.

Ultimately, all of them blame Congress. For more than a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified a number of major needs for Addicks and Barker — including a comprehensive study of how development affects the reservoirs — but hasn’t gotten enough funding to address all the issues.

No matter whose fault it is, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert — who has a portion of Barker Reservoir in his jurisdiction — said “you can’t take all that developed property off that land. It’s there. Whether it should have been allowed to be built the way it did … that wasn’t on my watch.”

But now that the homes and streets are there — instead of the prairieland that used to absorb rainwater — scientists, along with Harris County and federal officials, say they are sending more runoff into the reservoirs during heavy storms. That means the reservoirs are getting fuller with each big rain event, threatening not just neighborhoods inside the reservoirs but the integrity of the earthen dams, too. The dams have been considered at risk of failure for years. . .

Continue reading.

There’s more, and some interesting maps and photos at the link.

This is a failure of government.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 5:07 pm

The E.P.A. chief’s calendar: fine dining with industries he regulates but few meetings with public health advocates or environmentalists

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Plus, of course, lots of taxpayer-funded air travel, 24-hour security, soundproof rooms, etc. Eric Lifton and Lisa Friedman report in the NY Times:

For lunch on April 26, Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dined with top executives from Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest coal-burning electric utilities, at Equinox, a white-tablecloth favorite of Washington power brokers.

That evening, it was on to BLT Prime, a steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, for a meal with the board of directors of Alliance Resource Partners, a coal-mining giant whose chief executive donated nearly $2 million to help elect President Trump.

Before those two agenda items, Mr. Pruitt met privately with top executives and lobbyists from General Motors to talk about their request to block an Obama administration move to curb emissions that contribute to climate change.

It was just a typical day for Mr. Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general. Since taking office in February, Mr. Trump’s E.P.A. chief has held back-to-back meetings, briefing sessions and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from all the major economic sectors that he regulates — and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates, according to a 320-page accounting of his daily schedulefrom February through May, the most detailed look yet at what Mr. Pruitt has been up to since he took over the agency.

Many of those players have high-profile matters pending before the agency, with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in regulatory costs at stake. Some of these same companies and trade associations were allies of Mr. Pruitt when, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he sued the E.P.A. at least 14 times to try to block rules Mr. Pruitt is now in charge of enforcing.

He also took several trips home to Oklahoma for long weekends, often with one or two brief work meetings, followed by long stretches of downtime.

E.P.A. officials defended Mr. Pruitt’s industry-heavy appointment book.

“As E.P.A. has been the poster child for regulatory overreach, the agency is now meeting with those ignored by the Obama administration,” an emailed statement from the agency said, adding that the agency believed that The New York Times was making an “attempt to sensationalize for clicks” the administrator’s detailed calendar.

But William K. Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under the first President George Bush, described the level of meetings between Mr. Pruitt and industry executives as unusual.

“My sense is there is almost nothing about this administration that is traditional,” Mr. Reilly said. He said Mr. Pruitt’s history of suing the E.P.A. should have prompted him to meet regularly with public health advocates and environmentalists.

“I would think he would feel a responsibility to bend over backward to show a sense of judicious impartiality,” Mr. Reilly said.

In just the first 15 days of May, Mr. Pruitt met with the chief executive of the Chemours Company, a leading chemical maker, as well as three chemical lobbying groups; the egg producers lobby; the president of Shell Oil Company; the chief executive of Southern Company; lobbyists for the farm bureau, the toy association and a cement association; the president of a truck equipment manufacturer seeking to roll back emissions regulations for trucks; and the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The E.P.A. leader also scheduled a call with the Family Research Council, whose self-described mission is to “advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.” The topic: pulling “together a small group of key business leaders around the country who are very excited about Administrator Pruitt’s new leadership role.”

In recent weeks, Freedom of Information Act requests from environmentalists, other nonprofit groups and news organizations including The Washington Post have dislodged documents that hint at Mr. Pruitt’s typical day. But for the first time, the most recent release, based on an open records request by the liberal nonprofit American Oversight, includes a description of the topics discussed at each of the meetings, and a list of all the agency officials and corporate executives scheduled to attend.

Mr. Pruitt also has made frequent, government-funded trips to his home state of Oklahoma, even when the journeys included only a bit of official business. A trip to Oklahoma on May 5, which cost $1,043, was justified by the E.P.A. as an “informational meeting.” It consisted of a one-hour sit-down that Friday with Sam Wade, the chief executive of the National Rural Water Association, then a return flight to Washington the following Monday.

Mr. Pruitt flew to Oklahoma on May 19, a Friday, toured a chemical company for three hours the next day, then returned to Washington on Monday. The flight for that trip cost $2,122. These trips are being examined by the agency’s inspector general. . .

Continue reading.

Most corrupt administration in US history? Certainly the most corrupt in decades.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 October 2017 at 9:50 am

Puerto Rico is all our worst fears about Trump coming real

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Matt Yglesias reports in Vox:

For the first nine months of his administration, observers have had occasion to wonder — and wonder, and wonder, and wonder — how exactly Donald Trump would manage to handle a real crisis imposed by external events rather than his own impulsiveness. The answer is now apparent in the blackened streets of San Juan and the villages of interior Puerto Rico that more than a week after Hurricane Maria struck remain without access to food or clean water.

To an extent, the United States of America held up surprisingly well from Inauguration Day until September 20th or so. The ongoing degradation of American civic institutions, at a minimum, did not have an immediate negative impact on the typical person’s life.

But the world is beginning to draw a straight line from the devastation in Puerto Rico straight to the White House. Trump’s instinct so far is to turn the island’s devastation into another front in culture war politics, a strategy that could help his own political career survive.

The rest of us will just have to pray for good luck.

The president watches too much TV

Hurricanes Harvey and Irene were massive cable television events that dominated coverage on all the networks. MSNBC went so all-in on storm news that they sent Chris Hayes out in a windbreaker to stand around in the wind in Naples, Florida.

But as Dhrumil Mehta has shown at 538, Maria was relatively invisible on cable.

“People on TV news shows spoke significantly fewer sentences about Hurricane Maria than about Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” he writes, and “the spike in conversation about Puerto Rico right as the hurricane hit was also much smaller than the spike in mentions of Texas and Florida.”

Cable producers surely had their reasons for this. But something anyone in the media could tell you is that cable producers’ news judgment is not an infallible guide to the substantive importance of various stories. In particular, a broad range of issues — potentially including natural disasters in outlying US territories — have an asymmetrical quality to them, where if handled appropriately most people won’t care that much, but if botched it eventually becomes a big deal.

This is why traditionally presidents have relied upon staff and the massive information gathering capabilities of the American government for information rather than letting television set the agenda. Trump has a different philosophy, however, and spent the post-storm Saturday glued to his television and letting the hosts of “Fox & Friends” drag him into an ill-advised Twitter spat with NFL stars.

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . Now that Trump’s inadequate response to Maria’s devastation has become a big issue, the Trump administration is full of excuses for why their response was so inadequate:

  • Trump emphasized in public remarks on Friday that Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water” which makes relief difficult.
  • An anonymous administration officials told the Washington Post that “the Department of Defense, FEMA and the federal government are having to step in to fulfill state and municipal functions that we normally just support.”
  • Officials have also cited the Posse Comitatus Act as a complicating factor that helps explain why Trump was so much slower to dispatch assistance to Puerto Rico than the Obama administration was to send help to Haiti after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.
  • Last but by no means least, the reality is that this was a really big disaster. The storm was huge and powerful and it knocked out electricity and communications — that’s hard to deal with.

This is all true and it goes to show that being President of the United States is a difficult job. But none of the issues the federal response is wrestling with were unknown in advance. The world had days of warning that a hurricane was heading toward Puerto Rico. The perilous state of the island’s electrical grid has been apparent for years — as has the weak financial health of its electrical utility and municipal governments.

A president who was focused on his job could have asked in advance what the plan was for a hurricane strike on Puerto Rico. He would have discovered that since Puerto Rico is part of the United States, FEMA is the default lead agency but it’s the US military that has the ships and helicopters that would be needed to get supplies into the interior of a wrecked island. And he could have worked something out. Instead he didn’t get worked-up about Puerto Rico until over a week after the storm hit when he saw the Mayor of San Juan lambasting him on television. He lashed out with his usual playbook — one that will only make things worse.

Trump turns everything into a culture war

The substantive problem that Trump — and America — is now facing is that you can’t go back in time and do the preparatory work that should have been done. You can’t pre-position satellite phones, schedule timely visits from top administration officials, or quickly dispatch ships and helicopters once you’re starting with an eight-day lag. The best you can do is admit you were too slow and throw everything you’ve got at it.

But admitting wrongdoing isn’t part of Trump’s playbook.

Defensiveness and counterpunching is. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

1 October 2017 at 4:11 pm

Phoenix Will Be Almost Unlivable by 2050 Thanks to Climate Change

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The future has a grim aspect. Mike Pearl writes at Vice.com:

Sorry to put such a fine point on this, but even without climate change, Phoenix, Arizona, is already pretty uninhabitable. Don’t get me wrong, I spend a fair amount of time there, and I love it—particularly in the fall and winter—but without air-conditioning and refrigeration, it would be unlivable as is. Even with those modern conveniences, the hottest months take their toll on my feeble Southern Californian body and brain. The historical average number of days per year in Phoenix that hit 100 degrees is a mind-bending 92. But that number is rapidly rising as climate change bears down on America’s fifth-largest city.

“It’s currently the fastest warming big city in the US,” meteorologist and former Arizonan Eric Holthaus told me in an email. A study from Climate Central last year projects that Phoenix’s summer weather will be on average three to five degrees hotter by 2050. Meanwhile, that average number of 100-degree days will have skyrocketed by almost 40, to 132, according to another 2016 Climate Central study. (For reference, over a comparable period, New York City is expected to go from two to 15 100-degree days.)

And, tragically, all that heat costs quite a few Phoenicians their lives every year. Maricopa County keeps careful records of heat deaths and issues a morbid but extremely useful annual report. In 2016, 130 people died from heat—the most since the turn of the millennium and a big spike when compared to the 85 who died in 2015.

But as is the case with so much climate–related news, we shouldn’t go rushing to blame climate change for these deaths directly. Yes, 2016 was a hot year—Phoenix’s third-hottest ever, in fact—but, crucially, “it wasn’t exceptionally warmer than many other years over the time period for which they’ve been gathering these statistics,” Arizona State University climatologist David Hondula told me. (The exact cause of the spike in deaths remains a mystery.)

But Hondula told me that mystery just means that as the city heats up over the next few decades, there are other issues that deserve urgent public attention in the interest of saving people from getting cooked alive. These include”social service programs, homeless shelters, the opioid epidemic, [and] all these other intermediating factors,” he said, adding, “If we’re not paying attention to those at the same time we’re keeping an eye on the thermometers, we might really miss some drivers and some threat magnifiers.”

As bad as the deadly heat is getting, there’s another potential horror coming: drought. “As much as 20 percent of the [Colorado] River could dry up by 2050,” Holthaus told me.

The river is of enormous consequence to the fates of Arizonans. That’s because an agreement they made in the 1960s says that among those drinking from the Colorado River (Southern Californians also guzzle from the same stream, for instance), Arizona would be the first state to ration.

But in 2012, the Department of the Interior put together a famous climate change study (“famous” among water researchers in Arizona, that is) showing a yawning chasm opening up between water supply and demand by 2060—a 3.2 million-acre-foot shortfall of water, to be precise. That’s about five times as much water as Los Angeles uses in a year, according to the Washington Post.

Ray Quay, a researcher at the Decision Center for a Desert City project in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, told me, “Water is taken for granted right now.” Soon enough, “a crisis will occur, and people will say, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to do something. What do we do?’ One of the problems we face is that nobody’s really focused on that.”

According to Quay, the first time the river level gets extremely low, the shortage will really only be felt by Arizona’s farmers—meaning they’ll start getting water from wells. “Going to groundwater and mining groundwater is not sustainable, because groundwater is not like some giant Lake Michigan under Arizona,” he told me. “There will be impacts within that 2050 timeframe, but it’s going to be spotty, and it’s going to be in areas where the aquifers aren’t as large. That’s rural Arizona—particularly agriculture. You’ll see some parts of rural Arizona where some people have to pick up and move.”

“When the second shortage occurs, urban areas will feel that,” Quay added. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 October 2017 at 10:38 am

How military outsourcing turned toxic

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

IN AUGUST 2016, an inspector from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, a nerve center for the U.S. military’s global air combat operations, to conduct a routine look at the base’s handling of its hazardous waste.

Barksdale, like many military bases, generates large volumes of hazardous materials, including thousands of pounds of toxic powder left over from cleaning, painting and maintaining airplanes.

For years, Barksdale had been sending a portion of its waste to an Ohio company, U.S. Technology Corp., that had sold officials at the base on a seemingly ingenious solution for disposing of it: The company would take the contaminated powder from refurbished war planes and repurpose it into cinderblocks that would be used to build everything from schools to hotels to big-box department stores — even a pregnancy support center in Ohio. The deal would ostensibly shield the Air Force from the liabililty of being a large producer of dangerous hazardous trash.

The arrangement was not unique.

The military is one of the country’s largest polluters, with an inventory of toxic sites on American soil that once topped 39,000. At many locations, the Pentagon has relied on contractors like U.S. Technology to assist in cleaning and restoring land, removing waste, clearing unexploded bombs, and decontaminating buildings, streams and soil. In addition to its work for Barksdale, U.S. Technology had won some 830 contracts with other military facilities — Army, Air Force, Navy and logistics bases — totaling more than $49 million, many of them to dispose of similar powders.

In taking on environmental cleanup jobs, contractors often bring needed expertise to technical tasks the Pentagon isn’t equipped to do itself. They also absorb much of the legal responsibility for disposing of military-made hazards, in some cases helping the Pentagon — at least on paper — winnow down its list of toxic liabilities.

But in outsourcing this work, the military has often struggled to provide adequate oversight to ensure that work is done competently — or is completed at all. Today, records show, some of the most dangerous cleanup work that has been entrusted to contractors remains unfinished, or worse, has been falsely pronounced complete, leaving people who live near former military sites to assume these areas are now safe.

What the EPA inspector found when he visited Barksdale was an object lesson in the system’s blind spots.

Barrels of the waste hadn’t been shipped off and recycled, but rather were stored in a garage tucked away from the facility’s main operations. Further, shipping documents suggested that what waste had been sent off the base hadn’t gone to U.S. Technology’s recycling plant in Ohio, as an Air Force official first told the EPA, but instead had gone to company warehouses in at least two other states. Storing hazardous waste without a permit — and without immediately recycling it — can be illegal.

The inspection findings triggered an investigation to determine if the Air Force had been storing hazardous waste that it was supposed to have been recycling without a permit. It also suggested broader problems with U.S. Technology, which was already the subject of an inquiry in Georgia into whether it was illegally dumping waste — including material that could have come from Barksdale — near a residential neighborhood there.

Barksdale officials told ProPublica that the base “has never stored” hazardous materials at the request of U.S. Technology. The Air Force and the Pentagon declined to answer any specific questions about U.S. Technology’s work, except to say that the base had been working with the company for at least a decade.

ProPublica pieced together what happened at Barksdale using EPA records, including a 1,000-page document compiled by one of its lead investigators, as well as Air Force correspondence, court files, Pentagon contracts and other materials.

The documents make clear that officials at Barksdale should have been wary of doing business with U.S. Technology from the start. The head of one of its sub-contractors had been sent to prison in 2008 for illegally dumping hazardous waste under another Pentagon contract. U.S. Technology had been investigated for related wrongdoing — storing or dumping material it claimed to be recycling — in two other states. Indeed, a 2011 Pentagon report to Congress about contractor fraud included U.S. Technology on a list of companies that had criminal or civil judgments against them, but which still received millions of dollars in subsequent contracts.

Neither the Air Force nor the Pentagon would respond to questions about why the various military branches continued to award contracts to U.S. Technology despite its problems.

The EPA also would not say whether it was looking into U.S. Technology’s contracts with other bases — deals involving millions of pounds of toxic powder and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars — but such a step might well be prudent.

In April, U.S. Technology’s founder and president, Raymond Williams, was indicted in U.S. District Court in Missouri for trucking millions of pounds of its hazardous powder waste — from Defense and other types of contracts — over state lines, where, according to EPA documents, the company had been storing it instead of recycling it. In June, Williams was indicted in Georgia on federal charges related to bribing an Air Force official for recycling contracts. Williams has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Asked about Barksdale and other contracts that have gone awry, one of the Pentagon’s top environmental officials told ProPublica that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 September 2017 at 10:59 am

Montana residents desperate now for clean air to breathe

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Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, writes in the Washington Post:

It’s late August when I get a call from a grandmother. She lives in Seeley Lake, and she’s heard we have air filters that can help with smoke. She needs one for the baby’s room. I explain we don’t have any and tell her how to purchase one. She coughs and goes silent before asking how much they cost. Almost every person I talk to in Seeley Lake has this cough. The family doesn’t have much money, she says, but she promises to order a filter for the child. The next day, the wildfire moves closer, and the county sheriff’s office evacuates her neighborhood. I wonder if the filter will be there when the family returns home. I know the smoke will be.

As an air quality specialist with the county health department here, my job is to understand air pollution, control it as much as possible and help people protect themselves from its effects. I focus on smoke management: issuing permits for outdoor burns and updates about what to expect from the smoke when wildfires send it our way. In a typical wildfire season, my smoke-related responsibilities end when I hit “send” on twice-daily media updates.

If my job were only about fires and how the smoke moves, it would be simple. Not easy, mind you: Wildfire smoke is flashy and weird, and if anyone tells you they can reliably predict its behavior, they’re lying. It’s just that purely focusing on the science would be fun for a smoke nerd like me.

But in July, thunderstorms trekked across western Montana, igniting a ring of fires around Missoula County. One by one, they started blowing up, smothering small towns in smoke. The massive Rice Ridge Fire burns directly above the community of Seeley Lake, and every night, smoke fills the valley, building by the hour and creating dangerous breathing conditions the likes of which we have never seen. To our south, the Lolo Peak Fire sends daily smoke to the Bitterroot Valley, creating frequently hazardous, unbreathable air for its residents. Never have we seen so many wildfires so close to home for so many weeks.

As with most mountain valley communities, Missoula County’s most worrisome and prevalent air pollutant is the fine particulate in wood smoke, so tiny it can enter your bloodstream when you breathe it in. It’s a cumulative pollutant: The more you’re in it, the worse it is for you. The particulate aggravates asthma symptoms and causes reduced lung function and wheeziness. It increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and can damage children’s developing lungs. The elderly, people with heart or lung disease, pregnant women, and children are most at risk. Wildfire health studies are still part of a growing science, but we know the smoke is dangerous. We know there will be more emergency-room visits, more hospital stays and, probably, more deaths. We don’t know its long-term health consequences, and no one knows what six weeks in the worst smoke we have ever seen will mean for the people in Seeley Lake.

At monitoring stations scattered around the county, we measure the mass of fine particulate in the smoke. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate matter averaged over 24 hours is 35 micrograms in a cubic meter of air. Our monitor in Seeley Lake is registering 1,000, as high as the machine goes. It was built without the expectation of ever measuring such concentrations.

When smoke descends on the valley, the world shrinks. Anything more than a block away disappears behind a white wall of smoke. The birds are quiet.

Smoke makes its way through door and window cracks. It follows ventilation systems into homes. Without a filtration system, the indoors provides no refuge. And in rural Montana, where air conditioning is rare, most residents open their windows at night to seek relief from the hot, stuffy summer air, even amid the smoke. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2017 at 8:38 pm

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