With health care and infrastructure legislation stalled for now, one of the few (if only) policy areas where the Trump administration is making progress is in nullifying the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.
Yet even in announcing the rollback of rule after rule, the Environmental Protection Agency has still been stymied by the fact that few political appointees have been installed under environmental chief Scott Pruitt.
Finally this month, those positions are beginning to be filled out. During the August recess, the Trump administration has named two people — Trey Glenn and Cathy Stepp, who each had controversial tenures running the state-level regulatory agencies in Alabama and Wisconsin, respectively — to leadership positions at two of the EPA’s 12 regional administrative offices.
Though they receive less attention than EPA headquarters in Washington, the regional offices are essential to carrying out the agency’s agenda — which, in Pruitt’s case, is to ease the regulatory burden on businesses and work more closely with the states in which those businesses operate.
“One of the hallmarks of Administrator Pruitt’s agenda is to work better with the states,” said Frank Maisano, an energy policy expert at Bracewell, a law and lobbying firm. “But in order to do that effectively you need to have political people in the field who can help build those relationships.”
Both Glenn and Stepp appear to be cut from the same cloth as Pruitt. Both reduced enforcement of regulations at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources --to the chagrin of local environmental groups who accused them of putting business interests ahead of citizens’ health.
In making its appointments, the EPA praised the records of both officials.
Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, praised Stepp’s ability to ensure “regulatory certainty at the state level to promote a strong and growing economy” while Pruitt said in a statement that Glenn will “help us carry out President Trump’s vision of creating a more streamlined and efficient EPA.”
Glenn will lead the Region 4 office, which covers eight states in the Southeast. Stepp will be deputy regional administrator at the Region 7 office, which oversees EPA operations in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas. She will be the acting regional head until the EPA appoints a permanent one.
Glenn’s time in Alabama is marked by an ethics investigation that began in 2007 when he ran the state's Office of Water Resources prior to leading the environmental department.
Glenn was accused of traveling to Walt Disney World and Hilton Head. S.C., on flights paid for by a public relations firm representing an environmental engineering company that did work for the water resources office.
A grand jury chose not to indict Glenn in 2009, but that year he resigned from his job heading the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in order to "pursue opportunities in the private sector,” according to AL.com. Since resigning, he has worked as a lobbyist for the Business Council of Alabama.
“When you’ve been forced to leave a state-level agency because of ineffectiveness, it just doesn’t bode well to be put in charge of a whole region,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
Her group, along with other environmental organizations in the state, found that ADEM handed out only $286,100 in water pollution violations in 2009 — a 78 percent drop from each of the two preceding years.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, Stepp generated headlines last year after ordering the removal of information about manmade climate change from the website of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Similarly, Pruitt, who questions the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, removed the federal agency’s climate-change website from public view in April.
Enforcement was lax under Stepp, too. Last year, nonpartisan auditors concluded that Stepp’s department failed to follow its own enforcement policies against water polluters more than 94 percent of the time between 2005 and 2015.
Stepp has run the department since 2011. In 2015, the department’s fines for polluters fell to a 30-year low.
Mindy Lubber, the chief executive of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres and a former regional administrator of the EPA’s New England office under President Clinton, said that regional heads have wide discretion to set enforcement standards as they see fit in the states they oversee.
“You can put more resources into enforcement,” Lubber said, “or you can say, we’re going to be less stringent.”
She added that if Pruitt’s appointees did the latter, “that would be unfortunate, but not shocking.”
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-- Just a quick call about corn: President Trump called Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday morning to talk about -- ethanol -- ahead of the committee’s scheduled hearing with Donald Trump Jr.
Russia, and the committee’s ongoing investigation of alleged coordination between the president’s campaign and Kremlin officials, did not come up during the call, according to Taylor Foy, Grassley’s committee spokesman.
Foy said that it was Trump who called Grassley, and that Grassley told the president he would tweet about their conversations and the president’s support for ethanol. The call was approximately two minutes long, Foy said, and the only other subjects that came up were Hurricane Harvey and U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, the former governor of Iowa.
Why make this call now? A White House official told The Post that Trump had heard rumors that the ethanol industry thought the president was abandoning his campaign promise. Trump sent mixed signals during the campaign about requiring ethanol to be blended with gasoline, supporting it during the caucus in corn-growing Iowa but then later opposing the mandate.
-- Harvey doesn't discriminate: Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.) was temporarily trapped inside of his home with his family on Wednesday.
“I am absolutely trapped in my house. I don’t have a way to get out until floodwaters recede here,” he said during an interview with CNN.
Babin told CNN’s Jim Acosta he was at his home in Tyler County with one of his children and grandchildren. The network later reported that a spokesman for Babin said the congressman was able to get out of his home.
The Texas Republican said he’d never seen such a storm.
“This hurricane is of a magnitude I’ve never seen before, I’m from this part of the country, I’ve seen many tornadoes and hurricanes and flood events,” Babin said. “Never have I seen one like this.”
-- “So you’re going to play a climatologist tonight?”: In a contentious interview Wednesday night, CNN’s Chris Cuomo and senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway spent several minutes in a back-and-forth over the Trump administration’s plan to avoid the politics surrounding lawmakers’ attempt to fund relief for Hurricane Sandy victims in 2013, before turning to a conversation about the potential influence of climate change on hurricances like Harvey.
“One of the themes that’s coming out of this. And it’s not a discussion just to have now but certainly in the weeks and months going forward, is whether or not what happened in Harvey and why it’s happening and why these storms happen, open up a conversation about climate change,” Cuomo said. “Is the president, is the administration, open to that conversation?”
Conway said she did not believe it was an appropriate time for that discussion.
“Chris, we’re trying to help the people whose lives are literally underwater and you want to have a conversation about climate change,” she said. “I am not going to engage in that right now.”
After Cuomo asked whether we “we could find ways to reduce the number of these storms” or “figure out why a 100-year-storm seems to happen every other year,” Conway interrupted him to ask: “So you’re going to play a climatologist tonight?”
Conway, who said she would prefer the role of “professional helper to those in need,” continued: “I’m going to focus on them in the short term, perhaps the long term, because I see pregnant women, I see people including on your channel who are in need, who say they are shivering, or their kids are hungry or they’re worried about their belongings or they had to leave their pets behind, can somebody rescue them or they haven’t heard from an elderly relative. That’s what I’m going to do — that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Good, you should,” Cuomo said. “But that doesn't mean you should do that to the exclusion of question of why storms happen. At some point that could be part of the conversation. I asked about it. You gave an answer. We'll move on.”
-- Explosive: Two explosions were reported early Thursday morning at the power plant in Crosby, Tex., where company officials warned damage from flooding and rising temperatures could cause the chemicals to combust.
“A threat of additional explosion remains,” said a statement from Arkema, the chemicals group that runs the plant, The Post’s Alex Horton and J. Freedom DuLac reported.
Horton notes that beyond the explosions, toxic fumes also pose a risk after already sending one police deputy to the hospital.
All remaining workers were cleared from the site on Tuesday and residents within 1.5 miles were ordered to evacuate. The Harris Country Fire Marshal’s Office tweeted it had “worked with local law enforcement and Crosby FD over the last 2 days to ensure residents were notified in the evacuation zone.”
We have worked with local law enforcement and Crosby FD over the last 2 days to ensure residents were notified in the evacuation zone. https://t.co/oqKEInjrxw— Harris Co. FMO (@hcfmo) August 30, 2017
The fire marshal’s office also warned people to stay clear of the area in an update this morning:
On Wednesday, Richard Rowe, chief executive of Arkema’s North American unit said the "the high water and lack of power leave us with no way to prevent" an explosion. Flooding from Harvey damaged the plant's refrigeration, which is used to keep the chemicals at low enough temperatures to prevent combustion.
-- Oil shortages beyond Texas: The continued storm and flooding in Texas may interrupt the flow of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to the East Coast from a major pipeline that runs from Texas to New Jersey.
The Colonial Pipeline, the biggest fuel pipeline in the United States, said it’s experiencing issues with its system as a result of Harvey, the Wall Street Journal reported, with service at fuel loading and pumping stations throughout Texas interrupted.
The pipeline stretches 5,500 miles and across 12 states.
-- Two workers were killed early Wednesday morning after inhaling toxic fumes at a power plant in Pennsylvania, the Associated Press reported. Other workers were also injured after a part of a pipe was removed during work at the power plant, according to the report. Hydrogen sulfide gas was released into the air in a “confined, well-type” space and two of the workers, 34-year-old Kevin Bachner and 42-year-old John Gorchock, were unable to make it out of the area.
The site is also FirstEnergy Corp.'s largest plant, according to the AP. FirstEnergy is one of the coal-fired plants supplied by Murray Energy mines, which CEO Robert Murray tried to get the Energy Department to keep open using emergency authority. The Trump administration denied Murray’s request.
From Politico’s Alex Guillen:
-- Decreasing in power: Harvey was downgraded to a tropical depression Wednesday night by the National Hurricane Center. But the center warned of continued catastrophic flooding, and said heavy rains are expected to continue “Northeastward over the Mississippi and Tennessee Valleys during the next day or two.”
-- Meanwhile: Tropical Storm Irma has formed in the Atlantic on the heels of Harvey, according to the National Hurricane Center, which expects the storm to become a hurricane sometime today. At 11 p.m. Atlantic Standard Time on Wednesday, Irma was 545 miles west of the Cabo Verde Islands, moving westward at 12 miles an hour with maximum sustained winds to near 65 mph.
-- The climate conversation continues: A dozen years after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, and scientists debated the effect of global warming on the storm, the record rainfall and devastation in Texas has revived questions about climate change and hurricanes.
Following Harvey, The Post’s Chris Mooney writes that we may be closer to answering some of the same questions from 12 years ago.
What has changed? Computers and available analytical approaches have improved. There was Superstorm Sandy, whose abnormal path sparked new questions on climate. Mooney also noted researchers are “more willing to simply say that Harvey’s record rains were worse because of our hotter, wetter climate.”
He continues: “But it would be considerably more powerful to say that because of the warming of the planet, a storm like Harvey was statistically more likely to occur – and give the odds. And scientists just might be on the cusp of doing that.”
Researchers, like Penn State University’s David Titley, told Mooney he predicts it will take “weeks, not months to years” for studies to emerge on how Harvey’s path or rainfall was more likely in the current climate.
Mooney expanded on his piece on Twitter, where he put Harvey in the context of storms outside of the United States:
My latest piece on the hurricane and climate debate was long enough, so there are things i couldn't add... (1) https://t.co/P3Fl68BnCU— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
2. But if you are thinking about why the hurricane-climate debate not only isn't going away but seems to be gaining momentum...— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
3. ...then you have to look beyond the U.S. In particular, you have to look at two storms, Haiyan in 2013 and Patricia in 2015.— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
4. These were super strong storms and Patricia seems to have been the most intense in our admittedly limited records https://t.co/76czReoavg— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
5. Single storms don't prove anything, of course, especially with records being as poor as they are.— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
6. But if you are talking about amping up debate, these storms have to be considered key drivers, especially on the intensity question.— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
7. My story, though, shows that while the hurricane-climate debate really started out laser focused on storm intensity...— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
8. ....one key thing you've seen is a broadening of the discussion to focus on surge/sea level rise, rainfall, and other storm attributes.— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) August 30, 2017
On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted that he was anticipating a continued conversation on climate in Harvey's aftermath:
Our job today: make sure lives are saved in Houston. Our job tomorrow: understand the role that climate change has played in this tragedy.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 30, 2017
-- Depicting Harvey: We rounded up some of the many stunning graphics, maps, videos and photographs detailing the devastation throughout Texas from The Post and beyond.
- "Where are we supposed to go?": Scroll through staggering images, videos and audio from The Post of scenes from flooding rescue missions.
- Before and after: Here are some photographs showing the massive scale of flooding throughout the week.
- Zoom in: These maps show a close-up view of the flooding in Houston.
- Measuring the storm: See The Post's graphics on how water levels have changed during the largest rainstorm the continental United States has ever seen.
- Collecting water: The Capital Weather Gang looks at what the about 24.5 trillion gallons of water that has fallen on Southeast Texas and southern Louisiana looks like.
- All angles: Here's a 360-video of Houston from the New York Times.
- Harvey in photos: View a slide show of photographs from the Houston Chronicle.
- Mapping the property loss: A graphic in this Bloomberg story shows how Harvey hit areas in Houston already plagued by repeated foods.
- Energy impact: The Wall Street Journal detailed the storm's effect on the state's energy.
Flashback: “Hell and High Water”: If you missed it last year, here’s a look at the prescient March 2016 project from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that looked at how Houston, a “sitting duck for the next big hurricane,” wasn’t ready for the storm.
-- Meanwhile in Rhode Island: An environmental group filed a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell in Rhode Island on Monday alleging that the oil giant violated the Clean Water Act and did not protect the environment around a terminal from harmful pollutants.
The lawsuit, brought by the Conservation Law Foundation, charges that neither the EPA nor the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management have addressed the violations. The case accuses Shell of allowing “toxic pollutants known to be harmful to humans and allowing aquatic life, to persist in the environment, to bioaccumulate in fish and shellfish, and to cause harm to water quality and living marine resources.” It also adds that Shell has not adequately prepared for climate impact including “sea level rise, increased an/or more intense precipitation, increase magnitude and frequency of storm events, and increased magnitude and frequency of storm surges.”
Flashback: Last year, the Boston-based environmental group leveled a similar climate change argument in a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, and its oil storage station in Everett, just north of the city.
- The EPA’s Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the CASAC Secondary NAAQS Review Panel for Oxides of Nitrogen and Sulfur hold a public teleconference.
- Congress returns to Washington on September 5.
- The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications holds a hearing on the future of FEMA on September 6.
The Port Arthur mayor live streams flooding in his town:
President Trump tells Houston 'we will be with you every single day after' the storm:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praises Mexico's offer to help with Harvey:
Louisiana offers a hand to displaced Texans: