It was a rare step for the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump: The EPA decided to create a new public health protection, when so far it has focused on loosening or outright eliminating rules seen as bad for business.
But any credit from environmentalists the EPA might have been seeking for its partial ban on the use of a deadly paint-stripping chemical was quickly blunted by criticism from by families of those killed by it -- and public health advocates who say the EPA did not go far enough.
The outcry highlights the growing gulf between the Trump administration and major environmental groups after more than two years of rollbacks of dozens of environmental rules. Even as Trump's EPA opted to create more regulation -- over objections from chemical manufacturers -- environmentalists and Democratic allies are still not satisfied with its strategy.
The EPA restricted the use of paint strippers containing methylene chloride by regular consumers after dozen of deaths have been linked to the toxic chemical. But the agency stopped short of a total ban, as The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report.
That means that while do-it-yourselfers will no longer be able to use the paint strippers, commercial painters can as long as they are trained to do so. The agency is seeking public input in creating a certification program.
The problem with that plan for public health advocates is that the victims include professional workers like Kevin Hartley, a 21-year-old who died while refinishing a bathtub despite being trained to use the stripper, according to his mother, Wendy Hartley.
Wendy Hartley were once "cautiously optimistic" about a full ban on the chemical after meeting last year with Trump’s top environmental minister at the time, Scott Pruitt. But now a year later, she says she is “deeply disappointed” with the EPA’s decision.
“Workers who use methylene chloride will now be left unprotected and at risk of health issues or death,” Hartley said in a statement. “I will continue my fight until the EPA does its job.”
But the brother of another victim, Drew Wynne, who died while using a paint stripper on the floor of his North Charleston, S.C. coffee company, still described the decision has a victory.
“You take a win when you can get a win,” Brian Wynne told The Post. “And in this climate, a win is almost impossible.”
Last year, Pruitt had signaled the EPA would follow through on an Barack Obama-era proposal to ban paint strippers containing a toxic chemical. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said his office was “assured in writing would be a ban that protected both consumer users and workers from this deadly chemical.”
Now Carper, along with a senator who co-wrote the chemical safety law the EPA used to limit use of the chemical, Tom Udall (D-N.M.), are criticizing the agency for not following through.
“EPA’s action today is a watered-down protection that apparently values industry profits at the expense of public health and safety — particularly for the hard-working people who will still be risking their lives with exposure to these deadly products,” Udall said.
Perhaps anticipating the backlash, the EPA did leave the door open for a further ban on the commercial use of products containing methylene chloride.
Alexandra Dunn, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told reporters that “if the agency decides the chemical cannot be used safely in commercial operations, it could determine that it also poses an unreasonable risk to public health,” Eilperin and Brady write.
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— Drill, baby, drill: The Trump administration is moving forward with plans to expand oil and gas drilling on two fronts. It announced plans on Friday to ease protections for the greater sage grouse to allow for more oil, gas and mining opportunities, The Post’s Eilperin and Darryl Fears report. That came a day after an Interior Department official said the Atlantic coast would be part of the administration’s plans to expand federal offshore leasing.
The final sage grouse plan issued Friday was met with praise from several Western governors, including Democrats, who “praised the new plan for scaling back restrictions adopted in 2015 and empowering state officials to authorize energy development without imperiling the sage grouse’s survival,” Eilperin and Fears write. But many local politicians from both parties remain staunchly opposed to new drilling in the Atlantic.
— A new Arctic defense strategy: The administration is drafting a new Arctic defense strategy zeroing in on competition with China, “whose expansion around the world has drawn increasing scrutiny from senior U.S. officials,” The Post’s Dan Lamothe reports. U.S. defense officials are turning their focus to the Arctic, as receding sea ice means there are new paths for sea vessels. The strategy document will detail how the Defense Department can “support security and stability in the Arctic,” Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told The Post. “We welcome any country to operate in the Arctic as long as that presence is in compliance with international norms and rules of behavior,” Michael added. “The United States and its Arctic ally and partner nations work together in numerous forums to address shared regional concerns including fisheries management, shipping safety and scientific research.”
— “The recovery is fragile”: For the third time, the Trump administration has proposed cutting EPA funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a six-state and District of Columbia partnership that has helped with the bay’s steady and significant recovery. The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem is the healthiest it’s been in generations and experts warn cuts to the program could halt that progress, The Post’s Marissa J. Lang reports. “Last year, [Trump] recommended a similar 90 percent chop. In 2017, he suggested eliminating federal contributions to the Chesapeake restoration effort altogether,” she writes. “In both cases, Congress rejected the president’s proposals and restored funding to the program. Lawmakers say they expect a similar repudiation this year. Still, Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said ‘spending political capital’ to convince members of Congress to fight for the program’s survival has no guarantees.”
— Massive flooding in the Midwest: The hurricane-like “bomb clone” that battered the region and led to historic flooding killed at least two people and prompted officials to declare states of emergency in Nebraska, Wisconsin and South Dakota. Iowa’s governor also issued disaster proclamations. “The surging water, fueled by a powerful winter storm, overwhelmed infrastructure, threatened a nuclear power plant and cut off access to some towns and cities,” The Post’s Mark Berman and Reis Thebault report. The Cooper Nuclear Station in southeast Nebraska may have to shutter, facility officials said, but they added a shutdown would not harm the reactor.
— The U.S. recycling effort is collapsing: In hundreds of towns and cities in the country, recycling programs are being suspended. Philadelphia is burning recycling material to convert waste into energy, Memphis has been sending collected recyclables to the landfill. “Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States,” the New York Times reports. “That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.” That means recycling companies have to charge more, and cities have to decide whether to raise taxes to pay for those costs or cut the recycling services.
— 376 weeks later: After more than seven years, monitors say the state of California is drought-free. It’s the first time the state has been free of some form of drought since Dec. 20, 2011, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. “The storms this year have really helped snowpacks, the reservoirs,” Jessica Blunden, a climatologist with NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, told NBC News.
— SEC sues VW over diesel cheating: The Securities and Exchange Commission is suing Volkswagen and its former chief executive, alleging it misled investors in the Germany car company’s diesel emissions scandal. “Volkswagen made false and misleading statements to investors and underwriters about vehicle quality, environmental compliance, and VW’s financial standing,” the SEC said in the summary of its complaint, The Post’s Taylor Telford reports. “By concealing the emissions scheme, Volkswagen reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in benefit by issuing the securities at more attractive rates for the company.” In a statement to The Post, the automaker said the claims are “legally and factually flawed,” adding the regulator is “piling on” years after Volkswagen admitted wrongdoing and paid billions in fines and settlements.
— PG&E’s wildfire woes: The embattled utility is reportedly likely to name the retiring leader of the Tennessee Valley Authority as its new chief executive as it looks to get through turmoil that includes potentially billions in liability claims after deadly wildfires in California. Although Bill Johnson “is the front-runner for the job, his new role hasn’t been finalized and other candidates were still being interviewed to ensure he was the best choice,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The utility is also set to announce an overhaul of its board, which it “vowed to remake . . . after criticism of its safety practices in the wake of the wildfires.”
— Refinery fires over the weekend: A fire broke out over the weekend at an ExxonMobil facility in Baytown, Tex., one of the largest oil refineries in the country. The fire was contained and the company was monitoring air quality but said there was no evidence of “adverse impact,” the Houston Chronicle reports. The fire came hours after a Phillips 66 refinery in Los Angeles was partially shut Friday night after a fire. “The fires, which come at a time when gasoline inventories are in decline with a number of refineries closed for seasonal maintenance, threaten to further increase gasoline pump prices that have already risen 31 cents a gallon since early January to edge above year-ago levels,” Bloomberg News reports.
- The Environmental Law Institute holds an event on PG&E bankruptcy and implications for clean energy in California.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on geopolitics, energy security and the U.S.-Japan alliance on Wednesday.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.
— Watch youth activists demand climate action around the world: