Critics accuse Pruitt of doing ‘bidding of powerful lobbyists’ with EPA chemical safety rollback

ThinkProgress

Critics accuse Pruitt of doing ‘bidding of powerful lobbyists’ with EPA chemical safety rollback

Obama’s EPA issued this Chemical Disaster Rule in response to the fertilizer explosion in Texas.

Mark Hand         May 18, 2018

Search and rescue workers comb through what remains of a 50-unit apartment building the day after an explosion at the West Fertilizer C. destroyed the building April 18, 2013 in West, Texas. Credit:Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to roll back an Obama-era rule meant to reduce the risks of chemical disasters at more than 10,000 facilities across the nation. The Chemical Disaster Rule, issued a week before President Trump took office, was the EPA’s central response to the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people.

The Obama-era rule amended the EPA’s outdated risk management program in response to data showing thousands of fires, explosions, and other chemical releases that the existing framework had failed to prevent. But on Thursday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt introduced a proposal to rescind the measures, saying it would save the industry tens of millions of dollars a year.

“The rule proposes to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year,” Pruitt said in a statement.

In the Thursday news release announcing the planned rollback of the safety regulations, the EPA included statements from chemical industry officials thanking Pruitt for saving them from the cost of updating their operations.

The EPA’s Chemical Disaster Rule, as proposed by the Obama administration “would have imposed significant new costs on industry without identifying or quantifying the safety benefits to be achieved through new requirements,” National Association of Chemical Distributors President Eric Byer said in a statement.

On May 17, 2018, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt signed the risk management program reconsideration proposed rule at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Trade unions and public safety advocates condemned Pruitt’s efforts to weaken chemical plant safety rules. Credit/EPA

There are about 150 major industrial chemical accidents each year in the United States, according to the BlueGreen Alliance, a group composed of labor unions and environmental organizations. At least one-in-three schoolchildren attend a school in the vulnerability zone of a hazardous facility.

On August 1, 2013, President Obama issued executive order, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, following several catastrophic chemical facility incidents, including the disaster in West, Texas. The focus of the executive order was to reduce risks associated with hazardous chemicals to owners and operators, workers, and communities by enhancing the safety and security of chemical facilities.

The Obama rule included requiring more analysis of safety technology, third-party audits, incident investigation analyses, and stricter emergency preparedness requirements for facilities such as petroleum refineries, large chemical manufacturers, wastewater treatment systems, chemical and petroleum terminals, and agricultural chemical distributors.

But the EPA received a petition from a coalition of chemical and energy industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council and American Petroleum Institute, to delay and reconsider the Obama-era amendments. Last year, Pruitt issued a delay of the rule in response to the industry requests.

Pruitt’s proposed rule change would “reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining consistency” with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s safety standards, the EPA said.

The decision to rollback the safety standards was condemned by trade unions and public safety advocates. The United Steelworkers accused the administrator of doing “the bidding of powerful industry lobbyists by rescinding important requirements to prevent and respond to catastrophic chemical incidents at industrial facilities.”

Trump puts public, workers at risk as he tries again to eliminate nation’s chemical safety agency

The EPA risk management program “is a crucial tool that the Obama administration rightly decided to modernize” after numerous incidents, the union said Thursday in a statement. The United Steelworkers pointed to the deadly explosion in West, Texas, and earlier incidents at United Steelworkers-represented facilities in Anacortes, Washington and Richmond, California.

The proposed rule will be available for public comment for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register. A public hearing on the rule is scheduled for June 14 at EPA headquarters in Washington.

“Trump’s EPA revealed a shocking, but unfortunately not surprising, plan to delete ‘all accident prevention program provisions’ of the Chemical Disaster Rule that President Obama’s EPA issued based on robust evidence of harm to workers, first-responders, and fence-line communities,” Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Thursday in a statement.

The people living and working near oil refineries and chemical manufacturers, who face repeated toxic releases and fires like the dozens of serious incidents documented in recent months, are disproportionately people of color and low-income people, Cheuse said.

Scott Pruitt embraces industry-backed chemical approval process under the guise of public safety 

Pruitt’s EPA wants to rescind amendments related to safer technology and alternatives analyses, third-party audits, incident investigations, and information availability. The agency is also proposing to modify amendments relating to local emergency coordination and emergency exercises, and to change the compliance dates for these provisions.

In response to Pruitt’s plans to weaken the rule, Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook said EPA administrators are supposed to push for safeguards to protect workers and residents from deadly catastrophes. The EWG is a nonprofit group that works to protect human health and the environment.

“But this is Scott Pruitt,” Cook said Thursday in a statement. “There apparently is no favor he won’t do for the chemical industry. Repealing safety measures at industry’s behest is just all in a day’s work.”

North American pipeline operators fold in assets after new FERC rules

Reuters

North American pipeline operators fold in assets after new FERC rules

By Anirban Paul, Reuters          May 17, 2018 

                                The Enbridge Tower on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber

(Reuters) – Three large North American pipeline operators said on Thursday they would absorb their midstream assets after a U.S. energy regulator removed some tax benefits for master limited partnerships (MLP) in March.

Enbridge Inc , Williams Cos and Cheniere Energy Inc all said they would buy out their MLP pipeline or storage assets in multi-billion dollar deals.

An MLP is a limited partnership that is publicly traded and, as such, enjoys the benefits of paying no tax at the company level as well as the liquidity that comes with being traded on a major stock exchange.

But changes made by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) in March affect the ability of MLPs to recover an income tax allowance, making them less profitable for oil and gas companies.

“I would expect more of them to be rolled up in a similar fashion. If the reaction to Enbridge is stronger you might see TransCanada do the same thing but it’s not nearly as material to them,” said Ryan Bushell, president and portfolio manager at Newhaven Asset Management.

Enbridge said it would buy its independent units including Spectra Energy Partners and Enbridge Energy Partners as well as its pipeline assets and bring then under a single listed entity.

“Under the newly changed FERC tax policy, holding certain interstate pipelines in MLP structures is highly unfavorable to unitholders and is no longer advantageous,” Enbridge said in a statement.

Williams Cos is buying out its MLP William Partners LP in a $10.5 billion all-stock deal, while LNG company Cheniere Energy Inc will fold in its independent unit Cheniere Energy Partners LP Holdings for about $6.54 billion.

For Enbridge, the transaction will not hurt its three-year financial outlook, the company said.

The Calgary-based company, which has been trying to recast itself as a pipeline utility, has been under pressure to sell non-core assets and reduce its debt pile of more than $60 billion as of Dec. 31.

“This is the first step of the board taking control and taking steps to put the company in good standing,” Bushell said.

The company has been saddled with debt following its $28 billion takeover of U.S.-based Spectra Energy last year. Earlier this month, it sold some assets worth $2.5 billion.

Rolling up Spectra will allow mitigate impact from the tax related changes by 21 percent, compared with a zero percent benefit if long-haul assets are held in a MLP structure, analysts at Tudor Pickering and Holt said.

(Reporting by Anirban Paul and Akshara P in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)

Related:

Bloomberg

Two North America Pipeline Giants Bring Units Back Into Fold

Amanda Jordan      May 17, 2018

Two of North America’s biggest pipeline companies announced plans to repurchase subsidiaries as the industry seeks to curb future tax obligations in the face of a federal overhaul.

Williams Cos. is buying the remaining stake in Williams Partners in a $10.5 billion all-stock deal, it said Thursday. Enbridge Inc. earlier said it made all-share proposals to the boards of its units to acquire all outstanding securities.

The deals allow the companies to absorb partnership businesses that have come under government scrutiny. Pipeline stocks plunged in March after regulators said so-called master limited partnerships can no longer charge customers for taxes the companies don’t pay. Thursday’s announcements follow a similar move by Kinder Morgan Inc. in 2014.

Williams will acquire the outstanding stock of Williams Partners at a ratio of 1.494 of its shares for each unit of the subsidiary, according to a statement. The transaction represents a 6.4 percent premium to public unit holders, based on Wednesday’s close. It extends the period in which Williams isn’t expected to be a cash taxpayer through 2024 and will immediately add to cash available for dividends, it said.

Enbridge’s plan affects units Spectra Energy Partners LP, Enbridge Energy Partners LP, Enbridge Energy Management LLC and Enbridge Income Fund Holdings Inc., according to a separate statement. The proposed exchange ratios reflect a value for all the publicly held securities of C$11.4 billion ($8.9 billion), or 272 million Enbridge shares, if completed on the terms offered.

More from Bloomberg.com: How Much Money Do You Need to Be Wealthy in America?

Enbridge expects the deals to be “approximately neutral” to its three-year financial guidance and positive to its post-2020 outlook due to tax and other synergies.

Updates with details of Williams deal in fourth paragraph.

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Regulation has helped, not hindered California’s green economy

Engadget

Regulation has helped, not hindered California’s green economy

Andrew Tarantola, Engadget May 16, 2018 

Earlier this year, California raked in $2.7 trillion gross state product, overtaking the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy — only Germany, Japan, China and the US itself produce more annually. It isn’t just our lush farming regions or the technological wonders coming out of Silicon Valley that have made California an economic bellwether, the state’s strict adherence to environmental regulations, which go far and above what the rest of the nation demands, have certainly helped as well.

California has long been on the leading edge of environmental regulation. The state created its first Air Pollution District way back in 1947, a decade and a half before the passage of the US Clean Air Act, in response to public outcry over the air quality in Los Angeles.

The benefits of these environmental regulations are well-documented. For the past 25 years, the state’s GDP and population have steadily increased while per capita carbon dioxide emission rates have remained static. Since 2006, when the state passed its California Global Warming Solutions Act, per capita GDP has increased by $5,000 (nearly double the national average) and job growth has outpaced the rest of the nation by 27 percent while its per capita CO2 emissions dropped 12 percent, according to the annual California Green Innovation Index from California-based think tank, Next10.

“GDP growth in California has outpaced the US as a whole in recent years,” Meredith Fowlie, a professor of economics at University of California Berkeley, told NBC News in 2017. “Over this same time period, the state has implemented the most ambitious climate change policies in the nation. And CO2 emissions in the state have fallen.”

And it’s not just the air we breath but also the structures we live and work in, that have also benefited from environmental regulation. While the state has only just recently proposed requiring new homes to come equipped with solar panels, California has been dictating environmentally-conscientious building codes for decades.

In 1978, California implemented a series of radical and far-reaching changes to its residential building codes that would gradually become more strict over time. The aim was “to reduce the electricity and gas now used in typical new buildings by at least 80 percent for new buildings constructed after 1990,” per the California Energy Commission’s 1979 biennial report.

LA smog in 1956

Compared to pre-code houses, the modern California home uses 75 percent less power. Taken together, statewide household energy savings since 1978 run equivalent to the output of seven 500 MW gas-fired plants. Overall, the state’s per capita energy use has remained flat since the 1970s despite its economy growing a whopping 80 percent over the same period.

“When you increase energy efficiency and clean energy, what are you doing you spending less on energy and more on jobs to install and retrofit existing buildings,” Pierre DelForge, Director of High Tech Sector Energy Efficiency, Energy & Transportation program at the Natural Resource Defense Council, told Engadget. “So this is actually reinvesting in the local economy.”

Even during the bad times after the 2008 recession hit, California lawmakers ignored calls to gut the protections in the name of economic growth and instead established the state’s greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program — the only one of its kind in the nation — which in 2016 cleared $2.5 billion in revenue from emission permits.

Interestingly, the 2008 recession and its fallout had an unexpected effect on the California economy, one which helped establish the state’s modern “green economy.”

“Blue collar industries initially left the state rather than stay in place, the pollution caused by those industries also left the state,” William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University who served as the planning director for the City of San Diego told NBC News. “But the economy then shaped around that kind of aftermath, and there was growth in other areas like the green industry.”

Today, green sector jobs outnumber those in the fossil fuel industry 8.5 to one. California has 300,000 jobs in green energy, more than double the 146,000 offered in Texas, the next largest employer in that industry.

“California is the most energy efficient economy in the world, and least carbon intensive,” Adam Fowler, a research manager at Beacon Economics, told Wired in 2017. “We have a very clear time series showing that the decoupling of fossil fuel use from GDP is possible.”

However, California’s aggressive carbon cutting programs could soon face an economic backlash. Last year, Stanford University energy economist Danny Cullenward released a study arguing that, should California continue to tighten carbon emission restrictions, it could price fossil fuel companies out of the state through exhorbitant operational costs. This, he asserts, could cause gas prices to skyrocket and potentially cause the environmental programs to lose public and political support. While the state looks to be on track to hit its 2020 carbon reduction goals, to actually hit the recently enacted 40 percent additional cut by 2030 could force California lawmakers into a legislative corner.

Luckily, there are already a number of potential solutions being discussed in the Capitol should that happen — everything from accelerating the development and deployment of renewable energy infrastructure to extending the cap-and-trade program to allowing regional power grids to share renewably produced energy across state lines.

“We’ve already decided as a state and as a Legislature that we want to dramatically reduce pollution and move forward toward a clean energy future,” Kevin de León told the LA Times. “That debate is over. Now we’re deciding how to get there.”

That decision will not likely involve any input from the federal government as many of these regulations run counter to the public positions of both Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the Trump administration.

In fact, in February of last year, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León raspberried the administration when he announced legislation that would ensure existing federal rules on air quality, water protection, endangered species and worker safety enacted prior to the start of the Trump administration would remain enforceable within the state, regardless of whether they were rolled back nationally.

“California can’t afford to go back to the days of unregulated pollution,” De León told an assembly of reporters during a press conference. “We’re not going to let this administration or any other undermine our progress.” The California legislature attempted a similar gamble back in 2003, during the George W Bush administration, when it sought to maintain existing standards for power plants while the Feds were relaxing regulations.

Then again in March of 2017, the California Air Resources Board voted to increase the fuel efficiency standards of gas and hybrid-electric vehicles in the state, just as the EPA was touting a nationwide rollback of those same regulations. Established in 2012, the fuel efficiency rules demand that vehicles hit 54.5 MPG by 2025. The Trump administration has tried to lower that standard.

“All of the evidence — call it science, call it economics — shows that if anything, these standards should be even more aggressive,” board member Daniel Sperling told the New York Times.

What’s more, this past April, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that is office is bringing suit against the EPA over its reportedly illegal rollback of the “Once In, Always In” policy. This policy required the state’s leading producers of air pollution, those that produce more than 10 tons of a single pollutant or 25 tons of mixed emissions (think, oil refineries), to take permanent steps to reduce their emissions.

“Instead of prioritizing the health of hard working Americans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to let major polluters off the hook. That is unconscionable, and it is illegal,” Becerra said in a statement. “If the ‘Once In, Always In’ policy is rescinded, children in California and around the country -– particularly those who must live near the polluting plant or factory — may grow up in an environment with tons of additional hazardous pollutants in the air they breathe. California will not allow that to happen. The EPA must be held accountable.”

These legal challenges are still before the courts but have already garnered support from a handful of other similarly-minded states. “A lot of small steps create big momentum,” said Lauren Navarro, a senior policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the LA Times. “These are pieces of what it takes to get to a clean-energy economy.”

Images: Getty Images (La smog, solar panels, Calif. AG)

This article originally appeared on Engadget.

White House, EPA headed off chemical pollution study

Politico

White House, EPA headed off chemical pollution study

The intervention by Scott Pruitt’s aides came after one White House official warned the findings would cause a ‘public relations nightmare.’

By Annie Snider       May 14, 2018 

Discussions about how to address the HHS study involved EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff and other top aides, including a chemical industry official who now oversees EPA’s chemical safety office. | AP Photo

Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” newly disclosed emails reveal.

The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

More than three months later, the draft study remains unpublished, and the HHS unit says it has no scheduled date to release it for public comment. Critics say the delay shows the Trump administration is placing politics ahead of an urgent public health concern — something they had feared would happen after agency leaders like Pruitt started placing industry advocates in charge of issues like chemical safety.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) called the delay “deeply troubling” on Monday, urging Pruitt and President Donald Trump “to immediately release this important study.”

“Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country,” Hassan said, citing POLITICO’s reporting of the issue.Details of the internal discussions emerged from EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow New Hampshire Democrat, called the delay “an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. … [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now.”

The emails portray a “brazenly political” response to the contamination crisis, said Judith Enck, a former EPA official who dealt with the same pollutants during the Obama administration — saying it goes far beyond a normal debate among scientists.

“Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations,” she said.

The White House referred questions about the issue to HHS, which confirmed that the study has no scheduled release date.

Pruitt‘s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, defended EPA’s actions, telling POLITICO the agency was helping “ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.”

Still, Pruitt has faced steady criticism for his handling of science at the agency, even before the recent spate of ethics investigations into his upscale travels and dealings with lobbyists. In his year leading EPA, he has overhauled several scientific advisory panels to include more industry representatives and recently ordered limits on the kinds of scientific studies the agency will consider on the health effects of pollution.

On the other hand, Pruitt has also called water pollution one of his signature priorities.

The chemicals at issue in the HHS study have long been used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam, and are contaminating water systems around the country. Known as PFOA and PFOS, they have been linked with thyroid defects, problems in pregnancy and certain cancers, even at low levels of exposure.

The problem has already proven to be enormously costly for chemicals manufacturers. The 3M Co., which used them to make Scotchguard, paid more than $1.5 billion to settle lawsuits related to water contamination and personal injury claims.

But some of the biggest liabilities reside with the Defense Department, which used foam containing the chemicals in exercises at bases across the country. In a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where tests of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines.

A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies.

The discussions about how to address the HHS study involved Pruitt’s chief of staff and other top aides, including a chemical industry official who now oversees EPA’s chemical safety office.

Herz, the OMB staffer, forwarded the email warning about the study’s “extremely painful” consequences to EPA’s top financial officer on Jan. 30. Later that day, Nancy Beck, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, suggested elevating the study to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to coordinate an interagency review. Beck, who worked as a toxicologist in that office for 10 years, suggested it would be a “good neutral arbiter” of the dispute.

“OMB/OIRA played this role quite a bit under the Bush Administration, but under Obama they just let each agency do their own thing…,” Beck wrote in one email that was released to UCS.

Beck, who started at OMB in 2002, worked on a similar issue involving perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel — linked with thyroid problems and other ailments — that has leached from defense facilities and manufacturing sites into the drinking water of at least 20 million Americans. Beck stayed on at OMB into the Obama administration, leaving the office in January 2012 and going to work for the American Chemistry Council, where she was senior director for regulatory science policy until joining EPA last year.

Yogin Kothari, a lobbyist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Beck’s January email “extremely troubling because it appears as though the White House is trying to interfere in a science-based risk assessment.”

Environmentalists say such interference was routine during the Bush administration.

“It’s why the Obama administration issued a call for scientific integrity policies across the federal government,” Kothari said in an email to POLITICO. “Dr. Beck should know firsthand that the Bush administration sidelined science at every turn, given that she spent time at OMB during that time.”

Soon after the Trump White House raised concerns about the impending study, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson reached out to his HHS counterpart, as well as senior officials in charge of the agency overseeing the assessment to discuss coordinating work among HHS, EPA and the Pentagon. Jackson confirmed the outreach last week, saying it is important for the government to speak with a single voice on such a serious issue.

“EPA is eager to participate in and, contribute to a coordinated approach so each federal stakeholder is fully informed on what the other stakeholders’ concerns, roles, and expertise can contribute and to ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners,” Jackson told POLITICO via email.

Pruitt has made addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a priority for EPA. The unpublished HHS study focused on two specific chemicals from this class, PFOA and PFOS.

States have been pleading with EPA for help, and experts say that contamination is so widespread, the chemicals are found in nearly every water supply that gets tested.

In December, the Trump administration’s nominee to head the agency’s chemical safety office, industry consultant Michael Dourson, withdrew his nomination after North Carolina’s Republican senators said they would not support him, in large part because of their state’s struggles with PFAS contamination. Dourson’s previous research on the subject has been criticized as too favorable to the chemical industry.

Shortly after Dourson’s nomination was dropped, Pruitt announced a “leadership summit” with states to discuss the issue scheduled for next week.

In 2016, the agency published a voluntary health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, warning that exposure to the chemicals at levels above 70 parts per trillion, total, could be dangerous. One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The updated HHS assessment was poised to find that exposure to the chemicals at less than one-sixth of that level could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers, according to the emails.

Dave Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, said those conclusions line up with recent studies on the health effects of PFAS.

“They are looking at very subtle effects like increased risk of obesity for children exposed in womb, lowered immune response, and childhood vaccines becoming not as effective,” Andrews said.

The HHS document at issue is called a toxicological profile, which describes the dangers of a chemical based on a review of previous scientific studies. It would carry no regulatory weight itself, but could factor into cleanup requirements at Superfund sites.

EPA scientists, including career staffers, were already talking with the HHS researchers about the differences in their two approaches to evaluating the chemicals when officials at the White House raised alarm in late January, the emails show. Those differences, according to the correspondence, stemmed from the agencies’ use of different scientific studies as a basis, and from taking different approaches to accounting for the harm that the chemicals can do to the immune system — an area of research that has burgeoned in the two years since EPA issued its health advisory.

Enck, the former EPA official, said she sees one troubling gap in the emails: They make “no mention of the people who are exposed to PFOA or PFOS, there’s no health concern expressed here.”

EPA watchdog knocked Pruitt aides for slowing probe

Politico

EPA watchdog knocked Pruitt aides for slowing probe

By Alex Guillen        May 14, 2018

The incident highlights early tension between EPA’s political appointees and the internal watchdog, which is now conducting multiple reviews of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s actions. | Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

EPA’s internal watchdog complained last year that Scott Pruitt’s top aides were delaying handing over documents to auditors probing the administrator’s travel practices, according to newly released emails.

That standoff between the EPA inspector general’s office and Pruitt’s team was resolved a month after the IG’s staff flagged the issue and warned that the reticence to release the documents came close to impeding their probe, the emails show. But the incident highlights early tension between EPA’s political appointees and the internal watchdog, which is now conducting multiple reviews of Pruitt’s actions.

And it shows that concerns about the lack of transparency atop the agency since Pruitt joined have rankled people inside the agency as well as outside. POLITICO reported last week that Pruitt’s political appointees were screening documents produced for public records requests related to the embattled administrator, slowing the release of information.

The new emails, released under a Freedom of Information Act request from California’s Justice Department, show the IG’s office was seeking information for its probe of Pruitt’s frequent travel to Oklahoma on EPA business, enabling him to spend numerous weekends at his home in Tulsa.

That probe was later expanded to look at Pruitt’s other travel practices, including his first-class flights that cost more than $100,000, and it is expected to be completed by this summer. The watchdog has since opened additional probes into Pruitt’s security spending, condo rental, soundproof phone booth, large raises for aides and allegations of retaliation against staff who questioned him.

Kevin Christensen, EPA’s assistant inspector general for audits, wrote in September to a top career official in EPA’s finance office to warn of a “potential situation” with the travel audit just two weeks after it began, the emails show. He flagged messages showing Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson was “screening” documents before releasing them to the Office of Inspector General.

“This does not fit the definition of unfettered access or comply with the Administrator memo on access and providing information to the OIG,” Christensen wrote to Jeanne Conklin, EPA’s controller who oversees financial management and reporting. “When we are denied access to information until approved for release, it raises the question as to what is being withheld and approved for release.”

The auditors were able to obtain the documents on Pruitt’s flights from the EPA’s finance office in Cincinnati, even as Pruitt’s staff continued to withhold them, Conklin wrote to Kevin Minoli, a career official who at that time served as EPA’s acting general counsel.

“Do they not understand in the [Office of the Administrator],” Conklin asked Minoli. “Perhaps someone can speak to them and make them understand that the OIG has the documents already and they appear close to impeding the audit.”

Both Minoli and Conklin stated in their email exchange that neither of them advised Pruitt’s staff that they had the power to delay or withhold handing over documents to the OIG.

Minoli said in an email a week later that Jackson had delayed providing the records over concerns the audit might make public some previously redacted information, such as Pruitt’s calendar and flight records. Minoli said he discussed the matter with the deputy inspector general, Chuck Sheehan, and noted the IG’s office “has a long-standing practice of not using privileged information in their published work unless absolutely necessary.”

An EPA spokesman on Wednesday declined to comment on the incident.

Other emails released to California’s Department of Justice under the FOIA request also show career ethics officials warning Pruitt’s aides about accepting industry awards and attending political events.

In March 2017, the Oklahoma-based National Stripper Well Association told Pruitt it would award him its “Industry Leader Award” at an annual gala, which was sponsored by Koch Industries. The group represents the owners of the hundreds of thousands of small wells that produce less than 15 barrels of oil or 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day.

But EPA ethics official Justina Fugh noted in an email to Pruitt’s schedulers, Sydney Hupp and Millan Hupp, that NSWA was registered to lobby the federal government and Pruitt would violate his ethics agreement if he accepted the honor.

The group had praised Pruitt’s decision that month to halt the Obama EPA’s request for oil and gas companies to provide the agency with information about methane emissions, a possible first step toward regulating pollution in those existing wells. “NSWA Got a Win at EPA Already!” touted an early March blog post by the group. It is unclear whether Pruitt’s award was directly connected to that decision.

Fugh warned the Hupps that Pruitt would have to walk a fine line in accepting anything from a lobbying entity. Items with “no other intrinsic value” like a plaque may be OK, she said, but “an ashtray or coffee table book” would not be.

ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT: More congressional panels digging through Pruitt records. By ANTHONY ADRAGNA

Pruitt ultimately appears to have accepted a plaque from the NSWA, according to a photo posted on the group’s site and his own internal calendars. Another photo posted on the NSWA’s Facebook page shows Pruitt posing with Koch executives.

Pruitt’s Outlook calendar, released in response to public records requests, lists the topic of the speaking engagement as “acceptance of award, thank you.”

EPA did not say whether Pruitt officially accepted the award from the group along with the plaque, despite Fugh’s advice.

“We gave the plaque to [the Office of the Executive Secretariat] who confirmed that we could keep it,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said. NSWA did not say Wednesday why it honored Pruitt.

Pruitt aides hinted to ethics officials last fall that he expected to be invited to increasing numbers of political events, which ethics officials warned raises a host of Hatch Act concerns about mixing political activities with his official duties.

Earlier in his tenure, Pruitt had decided not to attend an Oklahoma GOP fundraiser after reports revealed the event would feature a speech on EPA issues.

Last fall, Ronna McDaniel, the head of the Republican National Committee, invited Pruitt to attend an Oct. 25 fundraiser in Dallas for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that funnels money to the RNC and Trump’s reelection campaign.

“We will get more and more of these” invites as “political season” approaches, Jackson wrote to an ethics official.

Hatch Act restrictions would allow Pruitt to attend, but he would be barred from mentioning his EPA affiliation or asking for donations, Fugh replied. EPA could not cover his travel costs, although the agency could pay for his security detail’s travel, Fugh added. Event organizers could not specifically invite guests with issues before the agency and would need to rescind invitations to anyone with business before EPA.

Pruitt ultimately appears to have skipped that fundraiser.

EPA move on chemical study may trip up Pruitt

Politico – Energy & Environment

EPA move on chemical study may trip up Pruitt

Pruitt has blamed partisan witch hunts for the controversies around his spending and lobbyist ties. He’ll struggle to make the same case this time.

By Annie Snider          May 16, 2018

When Scott Pruitt returns to Capitol Hill Wednesday, he will likely be asked to explain why EPA helped to bury a federal study that would have increased warnings about toxic chemicals found in hundreds of water supplies across the country. | Pete Marovich/Getty Images

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing a new controversy over chemical contamination that could prove even more damaging than his spate of recent ethics scandals.

When Pruitt returns to Capitol Hill Wednesday, he will likely be asked to explain why EPA helped to bury a federal study that would have increased warnings about toxic chemicals found in hundreds of water supplies across the country. A handful of Republicans were quick to demand answers after POLITICO reported Monday that senior aides to Pruitt intervened after the White House warned of a “public relations nightmare” from the impending Health and Human Services Department assessment.

While Pruitt has said partisan witch hunts are to blame for the controversies around his first-class travel, extensive security spending and friendliness with lobbyists, he will struggle to make the same case this time. Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate the HHS study was being prepared for release in January, before EPA intervened. It has not been made public more than three months later, and the agency producing it says it has no timeline for doing so.

Long used in Teflon and firefighting foam, the chemicals PFOA and PFOS are linked with certain cancers, thyroid problems and life-threatening pregnancy complications. Studies have found them in 98 percent of Americans’ blood, and communities from West Virginia to Michigan to New York have been in an uproar after discovering that their drinking water has been contaminated with the chemicals.

Tristan Brown, who served as the Obama administration’s liaison between EPA and members of Congress when the agency issued a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in 2016, said that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are deeply concerned about the issue. He said anger over the Trump administration’s interference could snowball if powerful Republicans who have experienced contamination in their states speak out strongly.

“That could be the beginning of a breach of the dam,” Brown said.

Already, key Senate Republicans have shown their willingness to break with the Trump administration when it comes to chemical contamination. In December, North Carolina’s two Republican senators came out in opposition to the administration’s nominee to head EPA’s chemical safety office, industry consultant Michael Dourson, in part because of a crisis in their home state with a chemical similar to PFOA and PFOS, called GenX.

At least three Republican lawmakers have joined a host of Democrats in demanding answers from the Trump administration about the HHS study.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, which experienced a major chemical spill a few years ago and has a major PFOA and PFOS problem, said she wants to see the study made public.

“It’s important that the findings of the study are released so we can determine the health impacts and any potential threats our communities may face as a result of exposure to perfluorinated chemicals. I would encourage the administration to look into this matter,” Capito, a member of the Appropriations subcommittee with EPA jurisdiction, where Pruitt will testify Wednesday, said in a statement to POLITICO.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee, chimed in as well.

“This is not an issue of public relations — this is an issue of public health and safety,” he said in a statement Tuesday after writing to Pruitt on the matter.

“It would be unacceptable if the political considerations of those at the highest levels of the EPA led to the suppression of information concerning the public health of Americans,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) said in a statement. “The EPA must provide my constituents with answers to these allegations immediately.”

“It is vital that there are proper measures in place to perform accurate, expeditious, scientific assessments for chemicals that pose a threat to public health,” he said in a statement to POLITICO, citing his state’s “tragic history” with chemical contamination.

Pruitt says he is taking the chemicals issue seriously. Not long after the North Carolina senators torpedoed the chemicals nominee, Pruitt announced a “leadership summit” on PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals that is scheduled to be held at EPA headquarters next week.

But few are expecting his response to include any new regulatory action.

EPA has not regulated a single new contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act in more than two decades. The agency’s 2016 drinking water advisory only provided advice to the states and local water managers — it set no mandatory limits.

And Pruitt’s EPA doesn’t even plan to go that far for other chemicals. The agency’s No. 2 water official, Dennis Lee Forsgren, has told drinking water groups that under Pruitt, the agency won’t issue any new health advisories for GenX or other chemicals.

Betsy Southerland, a career staffer who led work on the 2016 health advisory as director of science and technology at EPA’s water office before resigning last year, said states would have to translate the information provided by EPA about the chemicals into health advisory levels or drinking water limits on their own, something few are equipped to do.

Pruitt’s “not allowing EPA to provide the state with that expertise,” she said.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox, defending the agency’s approach, said officials are “stressing that all options — not just health advisories — are on the table as we move into the National Leadership Summit and taking additional steps to address PFAS.”

EPA Pruitt’s meddling in health study ‘unconscionable’

Politico

Senator to Pruitt: EPA meddling in health study ‘unconscionable’

By Annie Snider, Alex Guillen and Anthony Adragna    May 16, 2018

Sen. Pat Leahy said efforts by the White House and political officials at EPA to block the chemicals assessment “unconscionable,” and he pointed to a community in his state that is grappling with contamination of that chemical. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Democrats tore into Scott Pruitt on Wednesday, blasting the Environmental Protection Agency’s meddling in a report on toxic chemicals as “unconscionable” and calling the EPA administrator’s multiple ethics controversies an embarrassment to the agency.

“You’re trailing a string of ethical lapses and controversies, they’re an embarrassment to the agency, an embarrassment to Republicans and Democrats alike,” Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) told Pruitt at a Senate hearing. “Forget about your own ego and your first class travel and your special phone booths and all these things that just make you a laughingstock and your agency a laughingstock.”

Pruitt has faced a wave of scandals over the past few months, with scrutiny focused on his first-class flights, extensive security detail, privacy phone booth, and below-market condo rental from an energy lobbyist. With news this week that EPA’s Inspector General would look into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts, he is now facing more than a dozen probes and investigations from Congress, the White House and his agency’s internal watchdog.

And earlier this week, POLITICO reported that EPA helped to bury a federal study that would have increased warnings about toxic chemicals found in hundreds of water supplies across the country. That report showed Pruitt’s senior aides intervened in the release of the Health and Human Services Department assessment into PFOA and PFOS after the White House warned of a “public relations nightmare.”

Leahy said efforts by the White House and political officials at EPA to block the chemicals assessment “unconscionable,” and he pointed to a community in his state that is grappling with contamination of that chemical.

“It’s incomprehensible to the people in Bennington and in Vermont why an agency that works for them — their tax dollars are paying for it — whose charge it is to protect their health, turns their back on them and tries to hide health dangers,” Leahy said in his opening statement.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) pressed Pruitt on his requests that his security detail use his vehicle’s lights and sirens to beat Washington traffic and get to a restaurant.

“I don’t recall that happening,” Pruitt answered. But Udall shot back by referencing an email from Pruitt’s former security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, that said “Administrator Pruitt encourages the use” of those lights and sirens. Udall’s office has not released that email. POLITICO has reported that Perrotta goaded and encouraged such behavior on security matters.

Even the Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Appropriations panel hosting Pruitt, said she saw “legitimate questions that need to be answered” about the ethics scandals plaguing Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“Unfortunately, I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts that you are engaged in are being overshadowed because of a series of issues related to you and your management of the agency,” Murkowski said at the opening the budget hearing.

Much like appearance last month in front of two House panels, Pruitt shifted the blame for many of the recent scandals, blaming “processes” at the agency not being followed for some of his ongoing spending and ethical issues, and he told Senate Appropriators he had taken steps to avoid similar issues going forward.

“There have been decisions over the last 16 or so months, that as I look back, I would not make those same decisions again,” Pruitt said.

But he stopped short of apologizing, and blamed critics of his deregulation agenda for the negative publicity.

The problems with Pruitt: A complete guide

By EMILY HOLDENALEX GUILLÉN and KELSEY TAMBORRINO

“I want to rectify those going forward,” Pruitt continued. “I also want to highlight for you that some of the criticism is unfounded and I think exaggerated. And I think it feeds this division that we’ve seen around very important issues affecting the environment.”

Pruitt highlighted the decision to install a $43,000 phone booth in his office as one he’d taken steps to avoid going forward, pointing to a memo that gave three top staffers authority today to approve spending above $5,000 on his behalf.

Udall, who called on Pruitt to resign because of the recent controversies, said Pruitt was unfit to lead the agency because he didn’t believe in its mission to protect human health and the environment.

“It needs to be said that your tenure at the EPA is a betrayal of the American people,” he said, criticizing not just the ethics scandals, but also his regulatory rollbacks.

“This isn’t cooperative federalism, it’s flat-out abandonment,” he said.

Jewish Voice for Peace responds to Gaza Violence

Jewish Voice for Peace

May 15, 2018

Do yourself a favor and listen to Noura Erakat as she brilliantly responds to CBS News on Gaza and the U.S. embassy move.

"I would recommend FREEDOM"

Do yourself a favor and listen to Noura Erakat as she brilliantly responds to CBS News on Gaza and the U.S. embassy move.

Posted by Jewish Voice for Peace on Monday, May 14, 2018

How can we lower drug prices?

Robert Reich posted a new video.

May 11, 2018

If Trump were serious about lowering drug prices he’d take on the U.S. drug manufacturers. But his so-called plan to rein in drug prices is nothing more than wi

See More

How We Can Lower Drug Prices? (When Big Pharma Pulls the Strings)

If Trump were serious about lowering drug prices he’d take on the U.S. drug manufacturers. But his so-called plan to rein in drug prices is nothing more than window dressing, letting Big Pharma continue its worst practices. Once again, he has put corporate profits ahead of the American people. What do you think?

Posted by Robert Reich on Friday, May 11, 2018

Keyless Cars Have Killed More Than 2 Dozen People Since 2006: Report

HuffPost

Keyless Cars Have Killed More Than 2 Dozen People Since 2006: Report

Nina Golgowski, HuffPost         May 14, 2018

A new report is highlighting the risks of keyless car ignitions after more than two dozen people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after mistakenly leaving a vehicle running in their garage.

Since 2006, at least 28 deaths and 45 injuries have been linked to keyless engines that do not automatically shut off after the driver exits the car, even if the driver leaves with the fob required to activate the engine, a review by The New York Times found.

In each case, the driver was found to have inadvertently left the car running in a garage. Many keyless vehicles do not need the fob nearby to remain running. The error caused the attached homes to fill up with the exhaust’s toxic carbon monoxide gas, which is odorless and colorless.

Doug Schaub, whose father, Fred Schaub, died in his Florida home after leaving his Toyota RAV4 running in his garage, summed it up as a simple mistake that can have grave consequences.

“After 75 years of driving, my father thought that when he took the key with him when he left the car, the car would be off,” he told The New York Times.

The exact number of deaths attributed to the keyless ignitions is not known, as official records have not been kept. The Times relied on news reports, lawsuits, police and fire records and incidents tracked by advocacy groups to complete its review.

After 75 years of driving, my father thought that when he took the key with him when he left the car, the car would be off. Doug Schaub, whose father died after leaving his keyless vehicle running in his garage

In 2016, a similar review of car poisoning deaths by the nonprofit safety group KidsAndCars.org found that there were at least 20 deaths involving keyless ignitions from 2009 to 2016.

Almost half the fatalities and injuries reviewed by the Times involved Toyota models, including Lexus, a luxury vehicle division of Toyota.

Toyota, in a statement to HuffPost on Monday, argued that its products meet all safety standards.

“Toyota’s Smart Key System meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards while providing added convenience, improved theft prevention and personal security benefits,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “Toyota’s Smart Key System also provides multiple layers of visual and auditory warnings to alert occupants that the vehicle is running when the driver exits with the key fob.”

For years safety groups have pushed for regulations that would prevent keyless cars from running unattended.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2011 said it was not considering requiring automatic shut-off systems in vehicles, saying that it was unable to determine a proper amount of time before the engine would shut down. Ford, which has an automatic shut-off feature for its keyless vehicles, turns engines off after 30 minutes.

The NHTSA also argued that some car owners want their car to remain running when they walk away, such as when they leave a pet inside that needs heat or air conditioning.

In 2015 a class action lawsuit that was filed against 10 automakers cited 13 deaths that it said were caused by keyless ignitions. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2016 after a judge ruled that it’s only “speculative” that the keyless feature causes death or injury, Law360 reported.

video posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website appears to agree that there are risks with such keyless technology.

“Since there’s no traditional key to operate, it can be easy to forget to put the car in park when you shut it off ― which can lead the car to roll away,” the video warns. “If the car is parked in an enclosed garage and you accidentally forget to turn off the engine, it can even result in carbon monoxide poisoning and death.”

Such deaths make up just a small fraction of fatal carbon monoxide poisonings annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recorded 2,244 carbon monoxide fatalities from 2010 to 2015, with most of them in the winter months.