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“The EPA Messed Up The Animas River”: But The Real Threats Are Still Private Industry And The GOP

The American Southwest suffered a serious environmental crisis last week, after an Environmental Protection Agency effort to clean up old mining waste went disastrously awry, breaching a containment dam and releasing millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River. The city of Durango and San Juan County in Colorado, as well as the Navajo Nation (the largest Native American reservation in the U.S.), have declared a state of emergency, instructing their citizens to stay out of the water and avoid using it for agriculture or drinking for the time being.

It’s a giant screw-up by the EPA, which is scrambling to fix the problem. Yet it’s one that could not have happened without a monstrous failure of private industry, which means it bears directly on the 2016 presidential race, in which environmental issues will play an important role. The Animas River debacle shows that Republican dogma — which says that pollution is basically no problem and that the EPA should be sharply restricted, if not abolished altogether — is tantamount to a pro-poisoning position.

Mining has long been a fixture of the Mountain West, but it has slowed considerably from the go-go days of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of that was hardrock mining of gold and silver, which require very dangerous chemicals and the processing of thousands of tons of ore. Colorado is thus littered with thousands of abandoned mines, and the Animas watershed was no exception, with 400 old mines.

This is a problem, because the mountain mines inevitably fill with water that has leached through the rock, carrying heavy metals and other toxins with it. Cleaning this up is very expensive, and mine companies would obviously prefer not to do it. Early mine investors were notorious for setting up a shell mining company, extracting the material while paying their executive class a fantastic salary, setting up a token cleanup operation (or forgoing it altogether), then declaring bankruptcy and starting all over again.

That’s the profitable, job-creating businessman’s solution to mining waste: just poison the neighborhood, then skedaddle. Hey presto, someone else’s problem!

However, as regulations became more stringent (especially thanks to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), things changed. In general, companies (like Anaconda Copper) now work with the EPA and local communities to clean up old sites, often at great expense.

It was one of those old pools of mining waste — around Silverton, Colorado — that the EPA was testing when it accidentally breached a containment dam and released the water. It’s been a big problem for years; the EPA and the mine company have pushed for Superfund designation (which would have made more money available for cleanup), while locals have resisted, fearing for their property values.

Again, clearly the EPA is at fault here. But it’s also worth noting that this spill is relatively minor compared to previous similar incidents, and that the dam would have likely burst on its own eventually. The question is what to do about it. Left to its own devices, it’s quite obvious what private industry would do: nothing. When it comes to environmental externalities, there is simply no alternative to some kind of government policy. And since the waste is already in place, there is no way to set up a Pigovian tax scheme that would deter such waste in the first place. It’s the EPA or bust.

Nevertheless, bust is basically the Republican position. At every turn during the Obama years, they have advocated for fewer environmental controls, greater freedom for corporations to pollute the environment, a cut in EPA funding, and attacks on the science that makes the regulations possible. During the 2012 campaign, the EPA’s “job killing regulations” became something of a Republican catechism. These days, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) wants to abolish the agency altogether, while Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chair of the Senate’s environment committee, has merely compared it to the Gestapo.

Ironically, new rules stemming from the Clean Water Act have been the subject of particular conservative ire of late. A minor update in a rule interpreting the Clean Water Act sparked furious Republican outrage, as well as a proposal to abolish the rule that would make it dramatically harder to regulate American rivers and streams.

On pollution, the magic of the free market is supposed to be what takes the place of sclerotic EPA bureaucracy. You only have to look back to the Gilded Age to see what a farcical idea that is. The Republican utopia is one where cities suffocate under a cloud of choking smog; where the hearts of American children pump lead-clouded blood; and where drinking water will be sacrificed to pad corporate profits.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, August 12, 2015

August 14, 2015 Posted by | Animas River, Environmental Protection Agency, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Working For The Same Boss”: The Coal Industry Is Imploding. Why Is it Still So Powerful in Washington?

As its battle against the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan intensifies, Big Coal is getting a lot of help from friends in high places.

Leading the rush to the industry’s defense is Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has launched an underhanded campaign to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules for greenhouse gases from power plants. In a March 3 op-ed, McConnell suggested that states should refuse to submit a state plan for lowering emissions. A few weeks later he sent a letter directly to every governor in the country, warning that developing such a plan would allow “the EPA to wrest control of a state’s energy policy.”

To further encourage states to opt out of the rules, McConnell and co-sponsors Rob Portman, Roy Blunt, Tom Cotton and Orrin Hatch put forth an amendment to a budget resolution on Wednesday that would allow a state’s governor or legislature to duck the EPA’s authority if they determined that adopting a plan to reduce emissions would hurt their state. (A similar measure is pending in the House.) In order to opt out, according to David Doniger of the National Resources Defense Council, all a state would need to do is “to declare that meeting carbon standards would cost the polluters money.”

McConnell’s bases his appeal to the states on the claim that the regulations are “probably” illegal. In this argument he is is backed by “iconic liberal constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe,” who, McConnell practically crows, “was President Obama’s constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School.” In recent months Tribe has been busy writing legal briefs and op-eds and trotting himself out before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to make that case that the EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act is an egregious act of overreach akin to “burning the Constitution.” Tribe goes well beyond questions of legality, however, as Jonathan Chait points out, defending coal as a time-honored home-dug alternative to foreign oil.

Tribe’s starring role in McConnell’s circus is unexpected, but it’s not hard to explain: They’re working for the same boss. Tribe was hired to assail the Clean Energy Plan by Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal producer—and also the fourth-largest contributor to McConnell over the course of his career, according to The New York Times.

There isn’t enough support in the Senate to override the inevitable veto of any legislation that undermines the power plant rules. That’s why McConnell is appealing directly to the states. A dozen have already sued to stop the regulations, and it’s these legal challenges that have the most potential to cripple, or at least slow down, the plan’s implementation. The coal industry and nineteen states are also using lawsuits to try to wriggle out of new limits on mercury, arsenic and other toxic emissions; the Supreme Court heard arguments against that rule on Wednesday.

All of this suggests that Big Coal’s star is as bright as ever in Washington. The persistence of its political influence looks increasingly odd, however, when held against the fact that coal industry is imploding. The global market research firm Macquarie Research warned investors on Monday that the future for US coal companies is “increasingly bleak,” and the sector is likely to see “a wave of bankruptcies.” A report released Tuesday by the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative found that more than two dozen coal companies have recently gone bankrupt. Between 2005 and 2010 coal lost more than 10 percent of its market share in US power generation. Meanwhile, China continues its efforts to kick its own coal habit: This week officials announced that they will shut the last coal-fired power plant in Beijing in 2016. “This is an industry in crisis,” writes Ross McCracken of Platts Energy Economist. “Now it faces a slow King Canute style defeat.”

Why are coal companies having such a hard time? One reason is that it’s becoming too expensiveto mine coal for profit in some areas, now that the easy-to-reach reserves in Appalachia (if you consider blowing the top off a mountain easy) are tapped out. The costs of shipping coal are going up, while renewable energy is increasingly affordable. The Carbon Tracker report does point to EPA regulations, particularly on Mercury, as one of the significant challenges to the industry. But even more important is the 80 percent drop since 2008 in the price of natural gas. Coal just can’t compete anymore. “What is also striking is that these factors were not driven explicitly by carbon or climate considerations,” the report continues. “Without a global climate deal or a federal carbon price, US coal is already down for the count.”

Meanwhile the economy is growing (if horrifically unequally), indicating that coal isn’t nearly as relevant as the debate about the power plant rules would suggest. Giants like Peabody still have enough money to net powerful lackeys like Tribe. But at most McConnell’s campaign would amount to corporate life support, perhaps enough to keep Peabody alive. It’s certainly no plan to lift up the struggling coal regions he claims to be fighting for. McConnell isn’t fighting the “war on coal” just for Peabody’s sake, however. As a narrative through which to filter broader resistance to any challenge to corporate power made in the public interest, that “war” is far too useful to give up.


By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 25, 2015

March 30, 2015 Posted by | Coal Industry, Environmental Protection Agency, Mitch Mc Connell | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Effort To Mislead The Political Process”: McConnell Is Now Going Outside Of The Senate To Obstruct Obama

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows he has few options to derail the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cap carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. Even if he somehow got legislation past a Democratic filibuster, he would still face a veto from President Barack Obama. Courts could eventually overturn the new regulations, but he will have no say in their decisions. So McConnell is trying to thwart the rules by operating outside the Senate, where any anti-EPA bill would face a dead-end on Obama’s desk.

Earlier in March, McConnell encouraged states to opt out of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan with an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. On Thursday, McConnell took it a step further by sending a letter to all 50 governors asking them not to submit state implementation plans for curtailing power-plant pollution. By not submitting plans, McConnell thinks states will buy enough time for the coal companies to overturn the EPA in the courts. “They really can’t defeat this through federal legislation, and McConnell is trying to get the governors to do it for him,” Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program Director David Doniger said.

According to The New York Times, McConnell is arguing that the rule is unconstitutional and leaning heavily on Harvard University constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe’s opinion that the EPA overstepped its authority. Tribe has argued against the rules on behalf of Peabody Energy and has become an ally to Republicans in their fight against the EPA. But Harvard legal experts Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus picked apart Tribe’s legal arguments this week. “The President’ s proposed climate plan neither unconstitutionally ignores statutory language nor unconstitutionally takes anyone’s property,” they write. “Nor is State sovereignty unconstitutionally threatened by the proposed rule.”

New York University Institute for Policy Integrity Director Richard L. Revesz sees McConnell’s strategy as “an effort to mislead the political process,” because EPA opponents know their constitutional argument is weak. “The strategy therefore makes sense,” he said. “They can’t wait for a court to decide it, because Tribe’s constitutional arguments aren’t going to work. These are just legal arguments designed to mislead the political process.”

MConnell’s plan has many faults, including its most obvious problem: States can’t stop federal regulations by choosing to ignore them. If they do, the federal government steps in with its own plan. Notably, no governor has yet come out against submitting a state plan to the EPA. McConnell’s approach entirely hinges on the assumption that the EPA regulations will be thrown out in courts, which he can’t promise. Even Tribe said McConnell’s approach won’t work, because states “can’t count on” his being right that it will be overturned in courts.


By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, March 20, 2015

March 22, 2015 Posted by | Environmental Protection Agency, GOP Obstructionism, Mitch Mc Connell | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Indictment Of The ‘Pay-To-Play’ Political System”: Did the Chemical Industry Write Its Own Oversight Legislation?

For an instructive example of how unfettered money in politics corrupts the legislative process, consider a chemical-safety bill under deliberation in the Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Louisiana Republican David Vitter and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, would reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the chemical industry and environmental and public health advocates alike say is severely outdated. In the absence of solid federal protection from the roughly 1,000 chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency judges as potential health hazards, more than half the states have picked up the slack by putting their own regulations in place. The bill’s opponents warn it would undermine these state laws, without strengthening the EPA’s oversight powers enough to compensate. Unsurprisingly, the proposed overhaul has the “unequivocal support” of the chemical industry.

One of the bill’s chief critics is Barbara Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer, who has introduced a competing bill with stronger consumer protections, has been highly critical of the role chemical companies have played in the development of the Udall-Vitter legislation. “I’ve been around the Senate for a long time, but I have never before seen so much heavy-handed, big-spending lobbying on any issue,” Boxer was quoted saying in a New York Times article in early March. “To me it looks like the chemical industry itself is writing this bill.”

Boxer may have been right to question its authorship. Early in the week Hearst Newspapers got its hands on a draft version that was circulated by Udall’s office in anticipation of a committee hearing on Wednesday. Someone at Hearst checked the authoring information contained in the Word document—and found that it originated with the American Chemistry Council, the “leading trade organization and lobbyist for the chemical industry.”

Although Udall has a strong environmental record, he’s become cozy with ACC and other industry groups over the two years he’s spent working on the TSCA overhaul, as the same Times article revealed. He has raised “tens of thousands” of dollars from chemical interests, and the ACC even ran a television ad on his behalf. “The leadership he is providing is absolutely critical,” the group’s president and lobbyist Cal Dooley told the Times. Udall and the other sixteen cosponsors of his legislation received, on average, about 70 percent more from chemical companies than other senators.

Udall’s office and ACC insist the digital link between the document and the lobby group indicates only that after Udall’s office circulated the draft to stakeholders, someone at ACC saved a version and sent it back to the senator’s staff. But the Environmental Working Group, one of the bill’s chief opponents, and Boxer’s office told the SF Gate the draft version they received had the same authoring information.

Even if the bill didn’t fully originate with ACC, it’s clear that the chemical industry—which has a financial incentive to keep regulations loose—has left its mark on the Udall-Vitter legislation. The bill would bar states from regulating a chemical once the EPA designates it as “high priority” for assessment, a process that can take up to seven years. It requires the EPA to start reviewing a minimum of twenty-five chemicals within five years, but at that rate, it could be centuries before the agency got through the 1,000 chemicals it says need assessment. (To make matters worse, the underfunded EPA is known for missing deadlines.) To date the EPA has only ever banned five chemicals, and mandated testing on a mere 200 of the 80,000 in use in the United States.

Consumer advocates worry that if the bill passes, protections already in place would be completely undone while the EPA proceeds to examine only a small number of chemicals at a glacial pace. A number of organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Steelworkers and the Breast Cancer Fund, along with eight state attorneys general, have pointed out these and other serious flaws. Some, like the Environmental Working Group, consider it worse than the existing regulatory framework; EWG says it “fail[s] to ensure that chemicals are safe, fail[s] to set meaningful deadlines for safety reviews, fail[s] to provide EPA with adequate resources and [denies] states the ability to protect public health and the environment.”

Nevertheless, in a sign of how broken the 1976 law is—the oft-repeated example is that it doesn’t even allow the EPA to ban asbestos—other health and environmental groups support the bill anyway. Anything stronger, they say, and it will lose Republican support, making it impossible to pass. “I don’t want to be facing another Senate committee twenty years from now, testifying about a sixty-year-old law. Nor do I want have to tell my daughter that she and her future children will not have a greater level of protection because we failed to pass a good, even if not perfect, law,” Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health at George Washington University, testified before the Senate committee on Wednesday.

It may be true that a bill that truly protects consumers from harmful chemicals can’t pass Congress in its current form. But that’s a stone that shouldn’t be cast against advocates for something better than the Udall-Vitter compromise. It’s an indictment of the pay-to-play political system and the legislators who gamely reward their corporate sponsors.


By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 19, 2015

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Chemical Industry, Environmental Protection Agency | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Doing What They Do Best”: House Republicans Just Passed A Bill Forbidding Scientists From Advising The EPA On Their Own Research

Congressional climate wars were dominated Tuesday by the U.S. Senate, which spent the day debating, and ultimately failing to pass, a bill approving the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. While all that was happening, and largely unnoticed, the House was busy doing what it does best: attacking science.

H.R. 1422, which passed 229-191, would shake up the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, placing restrictions on those pesky scientists and creating room for experts with overt financial ties to the industries affected by EPA regulations.

The bill is being framed as a play for transparency: Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, argued that the board’s current structure is problematic because it  “excludes industry experts, but not officials for environmental advocacy groups.” The inclusion of industry experts, he said, would right this injustice.

But the White House, which threatened to veto the bill, said it would “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

In what might be the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing, the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest. “In other words,” wrote Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew A. Rosenberg in an editorial for RollCall, “academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”

Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., summed up what was going on: “I get it, you don’t like science,” he told bill sponsor Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. “And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

The House, alas, is staying the course, voting this week on two other bills aimed at impeding the EPA, including one that prevents the agency from relying on what it calls “secret science” in crafting its regulations — but which in reality, opponents argue, would effectively block the EPA from adopting any new rules to protect public health. The trio, wrote Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, in an editorial for the Hill, represents “the culmination of one of the most anti-science and anti-health campaigns I’ve witnessed in my 22 years as a member of Congress.”

The White House has threatened to veto all three.


By: Lindsay Abrams, Salon, November 19, 2014

November 22, 2014 Posted by | Environmental Protection Agency, Republicans, Science | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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