EPA rolls back fuel efficiency standards, the U.S. government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis

Photo by Eric Demarcq, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | April 1st, 2020

On Tuesday, the Trump administration weakened Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Over the past three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous efforts to combat climate change, but the rules compelling companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles were considered to be the federal government’s strongest attempt to combat the climate crisis yet.

The change lowers the rate at which auto companies are required to improve efficiency each year from 4.7% to 1.5%. This falls well below the 2.4% increase per year that the industry has said it would make even without regulations. 

Changing these standards will allow vehicles to emit about one billion tons more carbon-dioxide, equal to about a fifth of U.S. annual emissions. Critics warn that Americans will also be exposed to more dangerous air pollution as a result, and will be forced to spend more on gasoline. Communities near oil-processing facilities and highways, which often consist of poorer Americans and people of color, will face the worst effects.

The EPA argues that the change will make automobiles cheaper, allowing more Americans to buy newer, safer cars. Although the EPA has previously found that the benefits outweigh the costs of the Obama-era rules, they now argue the opposite by citing a more recent study that researchers say is fundamentally flawed

EPA revises plan to restrict use of environmental research

Photo of EPA Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler from The White House, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 6th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this week that it had revised a proposal giving preference to studies in which all data is publicly available. Scientists have warned that this proposal could allow the federal government to dismiss or downplay important environmental research.

The revised proposal takes a step back from completely excluding any research that doesn’t release its raw data. This includes medical information that is protected by privacy laws or confidentiality agreements, as was a study that definitively linked air pollution to premature deaths. 

Critics have said this measure is one of the government’s most far-reaching restrictions on science, and that the Trump administration’s real goal is to undermine the science behind existing regulations. Others warned that it took scientific decision-making out of the hands of scientists.

Andrew R. Wheeler, the current administrator of the EPA, said that the proposal is intended to bring greater transparency to government research, to ensure that studies “are available for transparent review by qualified scientists.”

New rule removes certain bodies of water from federal regulation

Photo by Jason Johnson Iowa NRCS, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | January 28th, 2020

The Trump Administration finalized the replacement of another Obama-era environmental regulation last week. Under the Clean Water Act, the 2015 “Waters of the United States” rule placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. 

The rule, which impacted farmers, rural landowners, and real estate developers, was repealed in September of last year. President Trump has called it “one of the worst examples of federal” overreach, and now has replaced it with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” 

This rule limits federally regulated waters to four categories: the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters. It also excludes from federal jurisdiction wetlands, previously converted cropland, and waste treatment systems. 

Spokesmen for the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Gas Association celebrated the new rule for its limiting of federal power. Environmental groups have warned, however, that the change could put the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk of contamination. A panel of government appointed scientists said earlier this month that the rule “neglects established science” by excluding certain bodies of water.

High PFAS levels found in Quad Cities drinking water

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Tyler Chalfant | January 23rd, 2020

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the drinking water of several U.S. cities. The Quad Cities had one of the highest levels of the toxic fluorinated chemicals found in the study, behind only Brunswick County, North Carolina. These two locations were the only two where PFAS levels exceeded the 70 parts per trillion advised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS have been found to interfere with natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of some cancers. Because the substances were once used in the production of consumer products, most people have some levels of PFAS in their blood, though those levels have decreased since they were phased out of production. PFAS are still used in a variety of industrial processes and in firefighting foams used at airstrips. Last year, high levels of PFAS were found near Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City.

Of the 44 locations tested, only three had levels of PFAS that were undetectable or below what the EWG considers hazardous for human health. The EWG places a stricter limit on PFAS levels than the EPA does, considering anything above one part per trillion to be harmful. At 34 of the locations sampled, PFAS were found that had previously not been detected by EPA testing.

EPA sued over lack of revised slaughterhouse pollution standards

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | December 26th, 2019

Twelve public interest groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month for its decision not to update slaughterhouse water pollution standards. An estimated 4,700 out of roughly 5,000 slaughterhouses nationwide discharge polluted water into public waterways, and have been identified by the EPA as the largest industrial source of nitrogen pollution. 

The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to review its standards for slaughterhouses each year to keep up with the latest technological advances, but the standards for discharging polluted water have not been updated for 15 years. These standards don’t require slaughterhouses to send their waste to sewage treatment plants before discharging into waterways, and according to critics haven’t adjusted to pollution-control technologies beyond the mid-1970s.

Many slaughterhouses are operating under even older rules, from 1974 or 1975. Three-quarters of meatpacking plants have been found to violate their pollution limits, though enforcement and penalties are rare. 

One meatpacking plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, that spilled 20,000 gallons of toxic waste into a sewer line running into the Des Moines River back in 2014, has frequently violated Clean Water Act limitations on nitrogen and ammonia pollution. 

The groups currently suing the EPA claim that the federal agency has also violated the law by not updating its standards. An attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the Environmental Integrity Project, Sylvia Lam said that some plants have already installed the technology to lessen their pollution, and by not requiring the same standards industry-wide, the “EPA is rewarding dirty slaughterhouses at the expense of the public.

EPA proposes rollback of coal ash regulations

Photo of contaminated water from Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., flickr

Tyler Chalfant |November 7th, 2019

The Trump administration proposed on Monday a rollback of EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants that could prolong the risk of drinking water contamination. The Obama-era rules focused on cleaning up unlined ponds used by companies to store coal ash residue. 

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. These regulations, created following a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, required all unlined coal ash ponds to begin closing last year, but the new proposal extends that deadline three years. Coal ash contamination has been found in at least 22 states, including Iowa.

The EPA also relaxed the limit on the amount of coal plant wastewater that can be discharged, citing improvements in technology which makes removing contaminants easier, as well as the $175 million in compliance costs they claim this change would save the industry. 

This move follows a pattern of efforts by this White House to support the coal industry. Researchers have found that lowering prices for competing energy sources, such as wind and natural gas, are more to blame for the decline of the coal industry in recent years than environmental regulations. 

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make key decisions regarding coal industry standards in the year before the presidential election, according to political experts. These could affect regulation on mercury and air quality standards.

Trump administration ethanol rules may help Iowa farmers

Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 10th, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture proposed new rules promoting ethanol consumption over petroleum. This move is considered primarily to be an economic strategy aimed at reducing the pressure placed on farmers by ongoing trade wars.

The plan would involve increasing biofuel sales above the current 15 billion gallons annually. It would also make 15 percent ethanol fuels more available at gas stations domestically as well as increase access to foreign markets. Iowa farmers say they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due as U.S. trade policy has destabilized agriculture markets and EPA waivers have decreased demand for ethanol. 

Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of ethanol biofuels, and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state. Elected officials from Iowa have criticized the Trump administration on previous moves perceived as harming the biofuel industry. In August, the EPA granted 31 waivers to oil refineries, exempting them from laws requiring them to blend biofuels into their gasoline. 

Since January 2017, the Trump administration has granted 85 biofuel waivers to small refineries. The new proposal claims that larger refineries will carry the extra burden by blending in ethanol for those exempted, although this is something that the EPA has not successfully enforced in the past. Farmers say that the new plan also lacks details on how these rules will be enforced going forward.