(de)regulation nation: meet the new boss
“It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect.”
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This afternoon, the Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Wheeler had been the EPA’s deputy administrator since April and began running the agency in July, after then-administrator Scott Pruitt resigned under an Acme-sized anvil of ethics investigations.
Pruitt’s stumbles ranged from illegally firing staff to dodging government transparency rules. Some seemed to emanate from an outsized degree of self-regard. Remember his $3,000 “captain’s desk”? Or his $43,000 eavesdrop-proof telephone booth? Good times.*
There’s no hint that Wheeler will make similar unforced errors. He’s a D.C. insider who combines Pruitt’s pro-industry lean and deregulatory zeal with the expert legal knowledge of a coal lobbyist, which is what he was for eight years before becoming a Trump administration appointee. Before that, Wheeler was a longtime aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a foe of environmental regulations who once threw a snowball in the Senate to disprove climate change. (It was wintertime.)
Reporters for The Intercept last year found that Wheeler hosted fundraising events for Senate Republicans while awaiting confirmation as the EPA’s Number Two. But that was neither illegal nor a formal ethics violation, and Wheeler has steered the EPA ship quietly and professionally since Pruitt’s departure, advancing and adding to Pruitt’s deregulation drive.
Under Wheeler, the EPA is moving to upend a 2012 regulation to reduce legal levels of mercury pollution from power plants, along with cancer-causing metals such as nickel, chromium, and arsenic, and tiny particle pollution that causes asthma and heart disease. The proposed changes would alter how regulators factor the public health benefits of a pollution control policy against what it will cost industry to implement it. The change Wheeler’s EPA has proposed would allow regulators to consider only the expense to industry.
Check out Undark’s award-winning Breathtaking series for a look at what’s at stake in this seemingly abstract battle of how to tote up cost-benefit ratios. It’s a multimedia tour of the terrible toll that tiny particle air pollution (called PM2.5, because it’s particulate matter 2.5 micrograms across or smaller) is taking on people’s health worldwide, including more than four million unnecessary deaths every year. One of the features areas is California’s San Joaquin Valley.
• Not good times.
bad: ex-lobbyists are running the Department of Interior
A half-dozen of the top appointed officials in Trump’s Interior come from a rogue’s gallery of arch right-wing and anti-environmental regulation organizations like the NRA, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Heritage Foundation.
These appointees are violating so many ethics rules, the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center told The Intercept, that it “calls into question the true motives of our public servants tasked with the immense responsibility of managing the country’s natural resources.”
Among them: David Bernhardt, current acting Secretary of Interior and Trump’s nominee to replace scandal-magnet Ryan Zinke as agency chief.
Bernhardt is a D.C. insider: a former oil industry and Big Ag lobbyist, he was also Interior’s senior-most lawyer during the George W. Bush administration. He “has made it his mission to master legal and policy arcana to advance conservative policy goals,” and spearheaded the department’s drive to expand oil and gas drilling on federal lands, according to The Washington Post.
Bernhardt has publicly promised to fully follow ethics rules, and to remove himself from decision-making in matters involving former lobby clients, reports the McClatchy DC Bureau.
also bad: EPA semi-punts on a drinking water crisis
EPA is moving too slowly on a toxic chemical found in drinking water supplies and soil nationwide, say critics.
The problem involves a group of man-made chemicals called “PFAS” that are connected to cancer and other illnesses.
EPA has pledged to set limits on levels of two chemicals in the group by the end of 2019.
Currently the agency sets a non-binding upper PFAS limit on public water systems.
“What are PFAS?” The Wisconsin State Journal explains.
better: a GOP senator admits Trump’s policies “are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) broke party ranks to oppose Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation as the new head of the EPA, as Popular Science and other outlets reported.
Collins announced her intention the day before the vote:
good: Congress has begun digging into the Trump administration’s environmental moves
A day after Politico reported on Feb. 25 that the Interior department had given offshore drillers nearly 1,700 waivers to safety rules created after the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, House Democrats demanded documentation and explanations from Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
EPA officials were called to testify this week about plummeting civil and criminal fines against polluters over the past two years. “Inspections and evaluations dropped to about 10,600, half the number EPA conducted at its peak in 2010,” reports Matthew Daly of AP.
Democrats are also leading a new effort to figure out how the U.S. transportation system needs to change in response to climate change. Grist captured the highlights of the Tuesday hearing.
great: some Appalachian post-coal towns are cultivating outdoor recreation jobs
“Rural coalfield communities [are] seeing success building recreational opportunities on old mineland,” reports Mason Adams in this great feature for Ensia. “For example, West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trails consist of about 600 miles (966 kilometers) of off-roading trails weaving around and through former mining sites in multiple counties.” These outdoor amenities are already propelling about $22 a year in economic activity.
Other communities are also attracting hikers, bikers, paddlers, sport fishers, and off-roaders to nearby trails, lakes, and rivers, although coal mining has left enduring scars on the landscape.
In other towns, defunct surface mines are providing coveted flat tracts for new office and industrial parks, or “growing crops that do well on mineland, such as lavender or hemp.”
Renewable energy is another promising new economic sector in the region.
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This newsletter is written by me, Emily J Gertz. I’m a veteran environmental journalist. Learn more about me and see some of my work at my web site.
This week’s quote is by Colson Whitehead, from his novel “The Intuitionist.”
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