Backyard Talk

Lisa Jackson Steps Down at EPA

The public is loosing a key ally in the fight for clean air, water and environmental justice. Lisa Jackson is resigning as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the end of January. Jackson’s legacy will be her dogged commitment to protecting the environment and supporting environmental justice advocates in the face an incredibly hostile Congress and emboldened industrial lobby. The move is not surprising as few agency administrators stay on during a second presidential term. She will be sorely missed.

Jackson‘s ascendency to the as the head of EPA in 2009 was truly a “breath of fresh air” following the W. Bush years of regulatory purgatory. She was a determined advocate for environmental issues and was constantly butting heads with congressional republicans, industry lobbyists and others who opposed environmental protections under the guise of saving jobs. At no other time since the agency began has there been such organized opposition to the agency.

What Jackson was able to accomplish in her four years is really quite remarkable.  Her administration was instrumental in stopping the Keystone XL oil pipeline, issuing new controls on coal-fired power plants and on particulate pollution, and doubling fuel efficiency standards. Her key successes include the following:

  • Addressing climate change by declaring that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare and proposing to use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
  • Making historic progress in fuel efficiency that will reduce the pollution and carbon footprint of passenger cars and trucks and save consumers billions of dollars while promoting the country’s energy independence.
  • Preventing tens of thousands of illnesses and premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks by far-reaching reductions in mercury and other toxic air emissions from power plants, industrial boilers and cement kilns.
  • Putting in place long-overdue health standards for pollutants including fine particles, soot, and sulfur dioxide that include new targeted monitoring to protect children and other vulnerable people who live near highways or downwind of major sources of pollution.
  • Making measurable progress in restoring critical watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades and the Great Lakes and taking on the tough issues of nutrient pollution.
  • Reforming toxic chemical oversight by taking action to address the risks of ten chemicals found in everyday products that have been linked to a range of health effects from reproductive and developmental problems to cancer; expanding chemical testing for endocrine disruption; and removing confidentiality claims for more than 150 chemicals.

  • Jackson’s EPA did not always do what was in the best interest of the public. At times it was easy to see that she and her staff had backed down from the political pressures posed by other side. But she was always welcomed pressure for environmental and environmental justice advocates to help her do her job. We could and should have done more of this.

    Replacing Lisa Jackson will not be easy. She clearly cared about the people exposed to toxic chemicals whose lives were directly affected by pollution in the air, land and water. She put in place historic standards that will save tens of thousands of lives and while doing so, EPA engaged in an extensive public engagement process that often gave those most directly impacted a voice in the process. We need to build on this legacy and to make sure that her successor makes the same opportunities available to everyone, not just the corporate polluters.

    Backyard Talk

    Today’s Rachel Carson

    Today’s Rachel Carson is a woman I know, admire and love, Dr. Beverly Paigen. I was reminded of how important Dr. Paigen is when asked to present her with an award from the Maine Environmental Health Strategies Center.

    When I began to think about what I would say about Dr. Paigen I realized how groundbreaking her research was back in 1978 at Love Canal. How when she presented her theories and her research findings around the Love Canal chemicals and adverse health problems she was dismissed, ridiculed, and harassed by those who wanted to silence her, just like Rachel Carson.

    Beverly conducted health studies and showed that 56% of the children were born with birth defects. She suggested that this rate may occur in the next generation as well. She found there were more girls than boys born at Love Canal. All of these finding and others were what we are calling today endocrine disrupting chemical effects. In 1978 endocrine disrupting chemicals were not on the radar screen of most environmental health scientists other than in wildlife, as Rachel’s work pointed out.

    Beverly demonstrated how the chemicals had likely moved out of the dumpsite the Love Canal and into the homes that surrounded the site. Again she was dismissed. Today, there is a name for this movement of chemicals called vapor intrusion and there is even an EPA approved technology to remove the chemicals from homes called vapor intrusion mitigation technologies.

    Beverly like Rachel Carson suffered for her commitment to speak truth to power. She worked for the State of New York Department of Health as a researcher at Roswell Cancer Institute. Her boss was the Health Commissioner who opposed acknowledging anything was wrong at Love Canal. The result of her speaking up . . . of her speaking out . . . was her staff at her research laboratory was cut, as was her budget, space and she was asked to keep a written record of everything she did.

    Later she was called in for a personal IRS audit. As the auditor began to open his file a news article about Dr. Paigen fell out. Beverly called foul play and asked the state of New York for an apology for harassing her. The State did publicly apologize.

    When the NYS Health Commissioner refused to sign the agreement for millions of dollars in research funds that would come to Roswell and the state from the federal government, she took her research money and left the state. But she didn’t stop her work with the Love Canal families. Beverly continued her research with Lynn Goldman at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital and published the first study on growth and maturation of Love Canal children exposed to environmental chemicals. This study like the others link slow growth of long bones in children with environmental chemical exposures.

    All of the studies that Dr. Paigen did at Love Canal were vindicated. NYS Department of health confirmed the birth defect rate of 56% and found that Love Canal children were giving birth to children with the same rate of birth defects. Her studies on abnormal sex ratio were also confirmed as was so many of her other findings.

    The State of New York has never apologized for their harassment and unfair treatment of Dr. Paigen. But, Beverly isn’t really looking for an apology she just wants the public health scientists to conduct scientific studies that are not politically manipulated, that answers as best as science can, the questions of environmental exposures and health. People, American families need honest answers in order to make decisions on their lives. Government health scientists need to be left alone to conduct scientific research regardless of the outcome, not be told what to do and say.

    I wanted to take this opportunity to publicly say thank you Beverly for your courage, passion and most importantly for providing the groundbreaking scientific findings to the world regardless of the consequences. You are today’s Rachel Carson.

    Backyard Talk

    Train Derailment in NJ: More of the Same – No Cause for Alarm

    [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”]

    Paulsboro train derailment.

    How many times have we heard the same refrain from government leaders and scientists involved in community wide exposures such as the recent train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ that released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air? “There’s no cause for alarm, we have everything under control.”

    If only this were true. Instead, many of the hundreds of people in the 27 block area that was evacuated remain frustrated by the lack of answers to their questions about health effects and accountability. This frustration is driven by how government leaders and scientists evaluate health risks and by the many uncertainties about what is known about the short and long term health effects of being exposed to vinyl chloride or other chemicals. Scientists can estimate risks and give their opinions, but we simply don’t know what’s going to happen to the health of the people who were exposed to vinyl chloride in the aftermath of this accident. Yet this is exactly what people want to know – what’s going to happen to their health or to the health of their children as a result of this accident?

    Here’s what we do know. We know that vinyl chloride is a human carcinogen and that it damages the liver and central nervous system; that more than 200 families within a half mile of the accident site were evacuated; that the Coast Guard and other authorities acted swiftly in evacuating the homes immediately surrounding the site of the accident; that the train pulling 84 cars derailed on a bridge over Mantua Creek; that seven rail cars derailed; 4 contained vinyl chloride; one ethanol; three fell into the creek; and one ruptured releasing vinyl chloride into the air (see photo).  We also know that 10 days later most people are back in their homes with assurances from the local authorities that everything is fine.

    This is not surprising because it’s the practical thing to do. But what was the scientific basis for this decision? Air samples taken by EPA on December 8th and 9th from throughout the surrounding neighborhood found vinyl chloride in every sample taken. Eight of the nine samples exceeded the EPA’s one-in-a million cancer risk value (EPA’s trigger level for action). Yet people are back in their homes. EPA’s interpretation of this data is that is that the results are within the agency’s “acceptable” risk range, which varies by a factor of 1,000. This is a ridiculously large risk range that has no meaning in protecting public health.

    So the stalemate is set up between government leaders and scientists telling people that everything is fine and a frustrated community that has no answers. Given this dynamic, it’s not surprising that 54 residents filed suit this week against Conrail and CSX for damages. What they want is medical screening for early detection of life threatening medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. This is actually a reasonable response to the many uncertainties that exist in the scientific understanding of what will happen to the health of the people exposed to toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride.

    Had the government leaders and scientists in Paulsboro recognized the scientific uncertainties and more honestly acknowledged how little is known about chemical exposures and health outcomes, there may have been a more satisfying resolution. A resolution that might have included practical steps forward such as medical screening for early detection of medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. Testing that should be paid for by the companies responsible for the accident and who own the chemicals.

    As long as decision makers continue to protect the companies responsible for area-wide chemical exposures such as what occurred in Paulsboro, this scenario will continue to play out as it has since the days of Love Canal more than 30 years ago. Isn’t it time we publicly acknowledge what we don’t know about exposures to toxic chemicals and stop deluding ourselves that using risk estimates that define “acceptable” exposures is the best way to manage toxic chemicals? There is no acceptable exposure if you‘re the one being exposed.


    Backyard Talk

    Poisoned Wells

    Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water, according to a ProPublica 12/12/12 article.

    “In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water. EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.

    You are sacrificing these aquifers,” said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. “By definition, you are putting pollution into them. … If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go.”

    As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted. We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect…

    The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be. Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.

    In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company’s application.

    The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined…

    “What they don’t often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will,” said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. “Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it’s difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property.”

    Backyard Talk

    Ohio citizens beat the ODNR at their attempt to play the old control game of divide and conquer.

    We all know the tactic where an agency sets up separate tables in large banquet or meeting rooms to break a meeting up into small discussion groups. This effectively keeps valuable information that would otherwise be revealed in the general discussion from being heard by the larger group, which would have enhanced communal brainstorming and questioning of the process or problem that is the citizens concern. This suppresses any controversial discussions that doesn’t fit the agency agenda, and inhibits networking or brainstorming on the issue.

    Over 100 Athens County citizens had requested a “public hearing” on a new permit to convert an old oil well into a class II injection well.  The Ohio Department of Natural Resources denied the citizens request and instead announced that they (ODNR) would hold an “informational meeting” instead.

    The following paragraph was included in the ODNR announcement to the community.

    “Public safety and traffic: Car-pooling to this meeting is strongly encouraged as attendance is expected to be high and parking is limited. The venue’s parking lot cannot accommodate buses. For public safety considerations, only small personal items and purses will be permitted inside the venue; for example, book bags and knapsacks will not be allowed inside the venue. All bags may be subject for inspection by law enforcement. Out of courtesy to the proceedings and participants, no video cameras, demonstrations or signs and banners will be permitted inside the venue. A “free speech zone” will be designated outside for those wishing to display signs and banners. “

    More than seventy-five residents were crowded inside ODNR Athens headquarters when they took matters into their own hands and transformed the ODNR’S planned “open house” into the public hearing they had requested.  The crowd was made up of concerned landowners, farmers, business owners, and mothers with young children.  Ex-county commissioner Roxanne Groff hosted the impromptu event.  She began by acknowledging Rick Simmers, Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resource Management, and moved on to take prepared public comments from the assembled crowd.  ODNR personnel were visibly at a loss.  Law enforcement quickly interrupted Groff, asking her to leave, at which point Groff asked the public if they would like her to continue.  The room broke into enthusiastic applause.  After law enforcement again ordered residents to leave, the crowd broke into a “mic check”, chanting as they left the building “The ODNR has been bought by the oil and gas industry!” “No new permits!” “When is the public hearing?”  When the public left, the room was nearly empty, except for ODNR personnel and the large law enforcement presence they had invited.

    After the public was ordered out, they were met outside by over 100 Athens County residents who had marched down E. State St. to ODNR headquarters to voice their objection to the ODNR’s continuing disregard of the widespread community concern about Class II injection wells.

    The marchers carried placards emblazoned with skulls and held a banner that read “Shut it Down! No New Wells!” and signs with slogans such as “Our Safety is Not for Sale”, “Defend Our Water”, “We Demand a Public a Hearing”, and “I Want my Concerns on Record” “.  Marchers wore hazmat style suits and respirators to draw attention to the fact that Class II injection wells accept massive amounts of radioactive fracking waste from out-of-state.

    Community objection to injection wells has been increasing lately, as landowners have realized that they do not have any say if an injection well goes into operation on or near their property.  Ms. Malvena Frost, who owns the property on which the Atha injection well is proposed in Rome Township, Athens County, does not want an injection well on her land.  She “fears her only source of drinking water, a private well…will be contaminated,” according to public comments submitted on her behalf to ODNR by her attorney, Mike Hollingsworth.

    As soon as this tactic was apparent, citizens labeled it as such, a “divide and conquer tactic”.  Once you label a tactic publicly, it loses its power.  This and many other industry/agency tactics can be countered with a minimum of wasted effort by keeping the lines of communication open with your fellow citizens and other similar interested organization.

    Congratulations  to Athens County Frack Action Network and Appalachia Resist and the citizens of Athens County, Ohio for standing up for your community.

    Backyard Talk

    If People Were Treated like Corporate Profits – Maybe We’d Be Safer

    Today families, school children, hundreds of residents were evacuated again from the area around the train derailment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which sent a cloud of vinyl chloride into the air early Friday. This event is yet another example of how our federal and state governmental agencies fail to respond in a health protective way. They failed to gather enough data to clearly, scientifically and honestly say to families it is safe to go home. They shot from the hip—said it was safe and they were wrong.

    Imagine on Friday all of the schools were in lock down – meaning no one could leave or even open the doors and the homes and businesses around the accident were evacuated. Other than 48 homes closest to the accident, people were told they could go home. Sunday people went to church, children played outdoors in the unseasonably warm weekend riding bikes, climbing on swings at the playground and more. People were assured the risk had been eliminated and they are safe.

    Today . . . Monday test results revealed that the area is not safe and schools were closed and homes and business were once again evacuated. This, it’s dangerous—not dangerous seesaw announcements, by trusted health authorities happens time and time again in every state. We’ll never know what that unnecessary vinyl chloride exposure to local small children and families did to their health. Vinyl chloride is a very dangerous chemical that causes cancer and nervous system damage. After 31 years of watching innocent families being victimized by corporation and then victimized by their own government authorities that are suppose to protect them, I am ready to scream. Why is it that chemical exposures are responded to with such casual concerns? Why can’t or won’t the authorities take precautionary steps when it comes to the health of innocent Americans?

    I know when I ask this question of government health authorities they said because, the problem is contained. Moreover, we know who was exposed and who wasn’t and unlike infectious disease or contaminated food products it won’t reach beyond the physical area.

    What is shocking is that somehow; those in charge of our health and environmental protection think this casual approach “because it’s contained” is acceptable. I don’t. There is no real urgency to accidents, spills or on-going pollution because it’s contained and what the authorities don’t say is it impacts on the responsible corporations’ bottom line. What about the American families’ bottom-line? They want protection, warnings, sound scientifically based information. They shouldn’t have to pay with their wallets and health.

    Odd as it might seem, I sometimes wish people were treated like corporations profits. If that was the case PA families would not have been told to return home when it wasn’t safe.