Trump’s EPA rolls back Obama-era coal ash regulations

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that it is relaxing rules for the disposal of spent coal used to fuel hundreds of power plants nationwide.

But environmental groups say the rollback of coal ash storage regulations established by the Obama administration in 2015 could affect drinking water near dozens of sites.

Dalal Aboulhosn, Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director for land and water, said legal action was being considered. “We are pouring through the rule change see what our next steps might be,” she said

The coal industry petitioned the Trump administration for the roll back, announced by Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here,” said James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Advisory Group, an industry organization that had pushed for the changes. “It just gives us additional time to operate those facilities and better synch them up” with the upcoming wastewater guidelines.

The EPA states that the relaxed rules will save affected utility companies $28 to $31 million a year in regulatory costs.

These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

The EPA extended the time by 18 months that the industry can use unlined coal ash ponds and groundwater-adjacent sites for dumping. The Obama administration sought to phase out those sites by April 2019.

The unlined ponds are considered by environmentalists to be the worst offenders for polluting groundwater that sometimes is tapped for drinking.

“The Trump administration is turing a blind eye to damage done to our drinking water,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel for environmental group Earthjustice. “This is aimed at saving industry money instead of protecting the public.”

[NBC News]

EPA’s Pruitt Made Young Staffers Pay for His Hotel Stays, Then Refused to Reimburse Them

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, already famously scandal-ridden, made even more ridiculously ethically questionable decisions than were previously known, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Two top Pruitt aides spoke to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about even more of what the administrator asked staffers to do for his personal gain, including pressuring them to arrange first-class travel for him and to find a six-figure job for his wife – all this against the counsel of many of his allies.

The new information comes after EPA’s chief ethics officer, Kevin Minoli, told the Office of Government Ethics last week that he thought the investigation into Pruitt should be broadened, saying: “additional potential issues regarding Mr. Pruitt have come to my attention through sources within the EPA and media reports,” the Washington Post reports.

Amazingly, a current and former EPA official also revealed that Pruitt would ask his assistants to put hotel reservations on their own personal credit cards – not his – on a routine basis.

According to former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski, during the presidential transition one staffer charged approximately $600 to her credit card for a hotel booking for Pruitt’s family. The staffer later approached Pruitt’s chief of staff to explain that the period for transition reimbursements had expired and that Pruitt had not covered the bill.

As the Hill first reported, Pruitt’s chief of staff ended up giving her $600 in cash – out of his own pocket.

“She literally went to Ryan and said, ‘Look, Pruitt needs to pay me back for this. It was $600 bucks.’ And Ryan took six $100 dollar bills out of his pocket,” Chmielewski told the Hill last month.

Scotty, for the love of God, man. There’s only so long the entirety of civilization can look down upon you. I hear in Oklahoma, the wind comes right behind the rain – neither of which may be around for too much longer if you stick around the Capitol.

[Mediaite]

Utah oil drillers won pollution break from Pruitt

Utah oil and gas producers tried for years to get the EPA to exempt them from smog rules meant to prevent ailments like asthma.

They finally got their relief after Scott Pruitt took charge of the agency, newly released emails show.

To groups opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies, the records are yet another sign that Pruitt has transformed an agency created to protect the environment into a tool for granting favors to industry. They say that’s troubling even if it falls short of the overt collusion his critics have accused him of amid revelations about his ties to lobbyists who helped him arrange housing and travel.

“The public is being shut out of the decisions that affect the air we all breathe while polluters have Pruitt at their beck and call whenever they ask to throw out a life-saving protection,” said Matt Gravatt, the associate legislative director at the Sierra Club, which obtained the emails in a lawsuit over a public records request.

EPA’s aid for the oil and gas companies in Utah came after an industry lobbyist, Marc Himmelstein, a former American Petroleum Institute executive with longstandingconnectionsto top GOP fundraisers, enlisted help from another like-minded Republican, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who has pushed legislation to promote oil and gas development and ease permitting requirements.

Himmelstein coordinated a July 2017 phone call between the Utah lawmakers and Pruitt, offering specific talking points for Bishop to use, according to the records obtained in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club.

EPA was set to declare that the tribal land in the Uinta Basin in Utah was not meeting standards for smog, or ozone pollution. Once that happened, oil and gas producers wouldn’t be able to use a streamlined permitting process and would instead have to seek approval for each of the thousands of wells they aim to drill there.

“We ask the Agency to develop a streamlined permitting solution for future development of the Basin,” Himmelstein’s talking points for Bishop said.

In April, EPA proposed just that.

[Politico]

Whistleblower says Pruitt kept secret calendar to hide meetings with industry reps

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides maintained “secret” calendars in order to prevent controversial meetings or calls with industry representatives getting out publicly, according to a CNN report.

The news outlet reported on Monday that the findings were revealed by a former EPA official who is scheduled to testify before Congress soon.

The report says that EPA staffers consistently met in Pruitt’s office to go through a process in which they would either remove or alter records from the EPA chief’s calendar. Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, reportedly said the reasoning for this was because the meetings could “look bad.”

The scrubbing led to a noticeable difference between Pruitt’s public calendar and what internal EPA schedules and emails show. CNN notes that more than two dozen meetings, events or calls were removed from his public calendar.

Chmielewski, who said he was forced to leave the agency in February because he questioned its spending and management, said some meetings were purposefully omitted from Pruitt’s calendar after they happened. For example, Pruitt’s meeting with Cardinal George Pell, who faces multiple historical charges of sexual offenses, was removed from the calendar.

“We would have meetings what we were going to take off on the official schedule. We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN. “It was a secret … and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

CNN noted that if the allegations are true, the EPA’s practice of removing or altering public calendars could violate federal law.

[The Hill]

Trump admin tightens media access for federal scientists

The Trump administration is directing federal scientists in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to get approval from the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, before speaking to reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

USGS employees interviewed by the L.A. Times said the policy is a departure from decades of past media practices that allowed scientists to quickly respond to media requests. The employees said that the new policy will significantly undermine this.

A spokesperson for Interior disputed this description of the policy to the L.A. Times, saying that “the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false.”

Deputy press secretary for the Department of the Interior, Faith Vander Voort, told the outlet that Interior had only asked the USGS public affairs office to follow 2012 media guidelines established under former President Obama.

The guidelines say Interior’s communications office must be notified ahead of some types of interviews but does not say that scientists must get approval before speaking with reporters as an internal email obtained by the L.A. Times indicates.

The employees said that they believe the new policies were established to control the voices of Interior employees. They believe the move is a part of larger efforts to quell discourse about climate change, which the agency has produced research on.

[The Hill]

Trump rescinds Obama policy protecting oceans

President Trump is repealing a controversial executive order drafted by former President Obama that was meant to protect the Great Lakes and the oceans bordering the United States.

In his own executive order signed late Tuesday, Trump put a new emphasis on industries that use the oceans, particularly oil and natural gas drilling, while also mentioning environmental stewardship.

“Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” the new order states, mentioning energy production, the military, freight transportation and other industries.

“This order maintains and enhances these and other benefits to the Nation through improved public access to marine data and information, efficient interagency coordination on ocean-related matters, and engagement with marine industries, the science and technology community, and other ocean stakeholders,” it states.

The order encourages more drilling and other industrial uses of the oceans and Great Lakes.

The order stands in contrast to Obama’s policy, which focused heavily on conservation and climate change. His policy was written in 2010, shortly after the deadly BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling explosion and 87-day oil spill.

“America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other environmental changes, social justice, international diplomacy, and national and homeland security,” Obama’s order stated.

[The Hill]

Yellowstone chief says Trump administration forcing him out: ‘I feel this is a punitive action’

Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent said Thursday that he’s being forced out in an apparent “punitive action” following disagreements with the Trump administration over how many bison the park can sustain, a longstanding source of conflict between park officials and ranchers in neighboring Montana.

Superintendent Dan Wenk announced last week that he intended to retire March 30, 2019, after being offered a transfer he didn’t want. He said he was informed this week by National Park Service Acting Director Paul “Dan” Smith that a new superintendent will be in place in August and that Wenk will be gone by then.

“I feel this is a punitive action, but I don’t know for sure. They never gave me a reason why,” Wenk said. The only dispute he’s had with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the park service, was whether the park has too many bison, Wenk said.

Ranchers in neighboring Montana have long sought reductions in Yellowstone’s bison numbers because of worries that they could spread the disease brucellosis to cattle and compete with livestock for grazing space outside the park. Brucellosis causes animals to prematurely abort their young and can be transmitted through birthing material. It also can infect people.

Park biologists contend the population of more than 4,000 bison is sustainable. But Zinke and his staff have said the number is too high, Wenk said, and raised concerns that Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley is being damaged by overgrazing.

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has paid close attention to projects back home, including proposing a new national monument near Glacier National Park even as he pushed reductions to monuments elsewhere in the U.S. That’s stirred speculation he has future political ambitions in the state.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment directly on Wenk’s assertions or the issue of bison management. She referred The Associated Press to a previously issued statement saying President Donald Trump had ordered a reorganization of the federal government and that Zinke “has been absolutely out front on that issue.”

Wenk said he had multiple conversations with Zinke and his staff about bison, most recently this week.

“We’re not a livestock operation. We’re managing a national park with natural systems,” he said. “We do not believe the bison population level is too high or that any scientific studies would substantiate that.”

The livestock industry wants Yellowstone’s bison herds reduced to 3,000 animals, a population target specified in a 2000 agreement between Montana and the federal government. Montana Stockgrowers Association interim vice president Jay Bodner said Zinke “understands the issues around bison, not only in the park but how that impacts the livestock issue.”

[NBC News]

Scott Pruitt Sought ‘Business Opportunity’ With Chick-fil-A While Leading E.P.A.

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave a political aide the task of helping him seek a “business opportunity” for his wife with the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A.

Emails released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act show that Sydney Hupp, a former scheduler for Mr. Pruitt, contacted Chick-fil-A’s chief executive, Dan T. Cathy, in May 2017 at Mr. Pruitt’s behest to set up a meeting.

After a back-and-forth in which Ms. Hupp initially said the administrator “didn’t mention a specific topic” of discussion, she told the company’s director of regulatory affairs that Mr. Pruitt’s request was of a personal nature. “The Administrator would like to talk about a potential business opportunity with Mr. Cathy. Nothing very pressing, just hoping to connect sometime in the next month or so,” Ms. Hupp wrote.

Mr. Pruitt ultimately spoke by phone with Chick-fil-A representatives.

Mr. Cathy, reached by phone, referred questions to a company spokeswoman, Carrie Kurlander. Ms. Kurlander said she would not comment further. In an email to The Washington Post, which first reported Mr. Pruitt’s effort to seek a business deal with Chick-fil-A, Ms. Kurlander had said the call was about the possibility of Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, opening a franchise of the fast food chain. Ms. Kurlander told the Post that Mrs. Pruitt never completed the franchisee application.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt had been engaged in “unethically and illegally seeking personal benefits because of the job Donald Trump has entrusted him with.”

The revelation that Mr. Pruitt asked an E.P.A. employee to help coordinate efforts to seek a personal business opportunity comes amid a wave of investigations into the administrator’s spending and management decisions including his first-class travel and spending on security, as well as his decision last year to accept a $50-a-night lease on a condominium from the wife of a lobbyist with business before his agency. Currently Mr. Pruitt faces 12 federal investigations.

 

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/climate/pruitt-epa-chick-fil-a.html

Trump Team Moves To Lift Ban On ‘Extreme’ Hunting Tactics In Alaska

The Trump administration on Monday proposed rolling back a 2015 rule that bans aggressive predator control tactics in national preserves in Alaska, including shooting bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens ― a move immediately blasted by environmental groups.

The proposal, slated to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, would amend the National Park Service’s current regulations to again allow for controversial sport hunting and trapping techniques on roughly 20 million acres of federal lands in Alaska. The park service, part of the Department of the Interior, said lifting the prohibitions would increase hunting opportunities on national preserve land, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for in a pair of secretarial orders last year.

The proposed rule would allow hunters to lure brown and black bears with bait, hunt black bears and their cubs using artificial lights, shoot bear cubs and wolf and coyote pups in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears. It would also allow hunters to shoot swimming caribou from motorboats.

Environmental groups voiced disgust at the attempt to strip away protections.

“I’m outraged that [President Donald] Trump and his trophy-hunting cronies are promoting the senseless slaughter of Alaska’s most iconic wildlife,” said Collette Adkins, a lawyer and biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Cruel and harmful hunting methods like killing bear cubs and their mothers near dens have no place on our national preserves.”

Defenders of Wildlife said the 2015 park service rule prevented “extreme methods of killing predators.”

“The Trump administration has somehow reached a new low in protecting wildlife,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. “Allowing the killing of bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens is barbaric and inhumane. The proposed regulations cast aside the very purpose of national parks to protect wildlife and wild places.”

The park service said in an emailed statement the proposed rule would “establish consistency” with state regulations. 

“The conservation of wildlife and habitat for future generations is a goal we share with Alaska,” agency regional director Bert Frost said.

A 60-day public comment period begins Tuesday.

The proposal comes a little more than a year after Congress approved a measure to repeal an Obama-era rule that largely banned hunting of Alaska’s most iconic predators in Alaska’s national wildlife refuges. The Republican-sponsored legislation opened the door for the state to resume aggressive predator control tactics, including shooting bears and wolves from airplanes, on more than 76 million acres of refuge land.

Trump signed that bill into law in April 2017.

[Huffington Post]

Scott Pruitt and a crew of EPA aides spent four days in Morocco promoting natural gas

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt returned Wednesday from a trip to Morocco, where he talked with officials about their interest in importing natural gas as well as other areas of “continued cooperation” between the two countries.

The EPA disclosed the trip late Tuesday, issuing a media release that included photos and a statement from Pruitt saying that the visit “allowed us to directly convey our priorities and best practices with Moroccan leaders.”

“We are committed to working closely with countries like Morocco to enhance environmental stewardship around the world,” Pruitt said.

The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Pruitt took along seven aides and an undisclosed number of staff from his protective detail. The group included four political aides, including Samantha Dravis, associate administrator of the Office of Policy, and senior advisers Sarah Greenwalt and Lincoln Ferguson, as well as one career official, Jane Nishida, principal deputy assistant administrator of the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. Pruitt’s head of security determines how many advance staffers travel on any given trip, EPA officials said, and in this instance it was two.

At the request of Senate Democrats, the EPA inspector general is looking into Pruitt’s use of military and private flights, as well as his frequent visits to his home state of Oklahoma during his first few months on the job.

“It seems strange that Administrator Pruitt would prioritize a trip to Morocco to discuss natural gas exports while there is no shortage of more pressing issues here in the U.S. that actually fall within the jurisdiction of the agency he leads,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that Pruitt “acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill.”

Pruitt traveled in business class for three flights, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal agency matter, and in economy class for two flights. Asked about the travel arrangements, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox replied in an email, “Due to concerns from our security team, Administrator Pruitt was granted a waiver by EPA’s Chief Financial Officer to fly business-class.”

Wilcox said he could not provide the trip’s total cost because the travelers’ arrangements were booked through their respective departments.

Pruitt met with three top Moroccan officials, according to the agency statement, including the minister of energy, mines and sustainable development; the minister of justice and liberties; and the secretary of state to the minister of foreign affairs. Wilcox said Pruitt “discussed our bilateral free trade agreement, solid waste response, disaster relief and communications with top Moroccan officials.”

His visit came shortly after the EPA held a workshop in Rabat about solid waste management, public participation and crisis communication.

Morocco, the only African country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement, is a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate agreement and has collaborated in the past with U.S. officials on its push to expand domestic solar energy production. During the trip, Moroccan officials took Pruitt on a tour of the IRESEN Green Energy Park, which the EPA said showed the administrator “firsthand the work being done to promote environmental innovation, including solar energy across Morocco.”

[Washington Post]

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