The Trump administration can't seem to escape the topic of climate change.
Trump's Environmental Protection Agency has made it a key priority to focus on cleaning up toxic Superfund sites across the country, rather than policies to slow down global warming. But it turns out that at least 945 such waste sites face escalating risks from climate-fueled disasters.
A new study from the Government Accountability Office found that climate impacts threaten 6 in 10 Superfund sites, Brady Dennis and I reported. GAO investigators said the agency needs to take more aggressive action to acknowledge risks facing some of the nation’s most polluted sites — and to safeguard them amid a changing climate.
Even as they agreed with the congressional investigative office on certain points, Trump administration officials formally rejected a recommendation to clarify how preparing toxic sites to withstand the impacts of climate change is part of the EPA’s mission.
“The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program’s existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at non-federal [National Priorities List] sites,” EPA Assistant Administrator Peter Wright said in a statement Monday.
The disagreement marks the latest instance of the Trump administration rejecting the warnings from independent researchers about the extent of the risk that rising global temperatures pose. Previously, the administration has downplayed government research about the potential severity of climate impacts in coming decades and aggressively rolled back Obama-era regulations aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide.
The most common risk identified in Monday’s GAO report is flooding. At least 783 sites around the country were found to have a great risk of inundation due to rainier conditions brought about by warming temperatures. Another 234 toxic sites are at high risk from wildfires, including a half dozen in California, where devastating blazes have become a deadly annual occurrence. And at least 187 properties in coastal states are vulnerable to storm surges brought by Category 4 and 5 hurricanes.
The GAO conducted the analysis at the behest of a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers, including presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who asked the congressional investigative arm to look into the issue in 2017.
After the release of the report, Senate Democrats sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding an explanation for agency leaders’ “failure to embrace addressing climate change as a strategic objective.”
“We believe that EPA’s refusal to implement GAO’s recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense,” the lawmakers told Wheeler.
In 2014, the Obama-era EPA issued an agencywide plan for adapting to climate change that included steps to be taken by the Superfund program.
Since then, the agency has offered optional trainings on integrating climate change into the cleanup of sites. But on the ground, regional offices have inconsistently taken climate change into account. For example, EPA managers in the New York City area incorporated potentially stronger storm flows in the Passaic River in the remediation of a site in Newark. Yet regional EPA officials in Dallas, by contrast, told GAO they do not incorporate potential climate impacts into their assessments.
EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said the agency is in the process of implementing a “climate resilience action plan” at Superfund sites and has encouraged approaches that would allow specific sites to adapt to new and changing risks.
“The EPA recognizes the importance of ensuring Superfund site cleanups are resilient in the face of existing risks and extreme weather events and the agency has taken measures to include vulnerability analyses and adaptation planning into Superfund activities,” the agency wrote in response to the GAO’s findings.
Wheeler and his predecessor, former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, have sought flip the adminisitration's usual industry-friendly script by reinvigorating the Superfund program. Pruitt told agency employees in staff memos that Superfund cleanup efforts would be “restored to their rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission" and at times even sided with environmental groups over polluting companies on Superfund issues.
As a result, dozens of sites have been removed from the EPA’s National Priorities List, and the agency maintains an ongoing “priority list” for sites most in need of attention.
— Not all doom and gloom: The Post is launching a new Climate Solutions page that looks to highlight ways that people are taking action to tackle climate change at all levels. Check it out here.
- Why are we launching it: The initiative is “focused on the individuals, companies and other organizations that are exploring ways to address our most significant environmental problems,” The Post’s executive editor Martin Baron writes in a letter from the editor. “We will highlight the countries and companies that are pacesetters in reducing the emissions that cause global warming. And we will explore promising scientific innovations such as carbon capture and afforestation, as well as more contested concepts like solar radiation management.”
A few stories from it:
- Scientists are exploring radical ways to save coral: In 2016 and 2017, severe bleaching irreparably damaged almost 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef. It's a problem harming coral worldwide that's worsening as the planet warms, and scientists are trying to save coral reefs with radical measures. In Hawaii, for example, scientists are working on an effort called “assisted evolution,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports in this visual story. “Here, scientists study which corals are the most resilient to warming, and even bring them into the lab to condition them by exposing them to even more heat — almost like exercise. They also breed corals that are more heat-resistant to produce stronger offspring.”
A revolution in recycling? "Turning that trash into treasure has long held allure. Yet attempts have fallen short, and cynics abound," write Jim Morrison and Shoshana Kordova for The Post. But Israeli startup UBQ "says it has succeeded where others have failed, creating a radical technology that transforms garbage into the raw materials for plastics manufacturers and earns them a profit in the end."
— Even weather patterns are seen through partisan lens: A new poll from The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found even as people across the country agree their regions have experienced extreme weather events, there’s differing views along party lines about whether climate change is to blame.
- By the numbers: “In the coastal states from the Carolinas to Texas, more than 8 in 10 Democrats and more than 7 in 10 Republicans said their areas have been hit by extreme storms,” The Post’s Scott Clement, Emily Guskin and Dan Balz reports. “But while about 6 in 10 Democratic-leaning adults in the region pointed to climate change as a major factor, barely 2 in 10 Republican-leaning adults saw it that way.” The poll found 56 percent of Republican-learning adults say the seriousness of global warming and climate change have been exaggerated.
- Why it matters: “The results highlight the degree to which regional weather patterns are now viewed through partisan lenses, just as the national debate about climate has been dominated by sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats over whether scientific evidence of climate change is valid.”
— Sierra Club rolls out political ad ahead of Democratic debate: The environmental group is planning to air its first television ad of the 2020 election cycle, featuring actual solar company employees in order to highlight the economic opportunities of the "green energy economy." The 30-second spot will air on MSNBC — twice during "Morning Joe" on Wednesday, twice on Thursday and once during pre-debate programming, according to the Sierra Club — as the cable news network plans to host the next Democratic debate with The Washington Post on Wednesday in Atlanta.
— Climate activist group backs Hickenlooper opponent: The Sunrise Movement announced its endorsement of Andrew Romanoff, the former Colorado Democratic state House speaker challenging former governor John Hickenlooper in the Democratic primary race for Senate.
- Why not Hickenlooper? Sunrise Executive Director Varshini Prakash cast both Hickenlooper and current Republican Sen. Cory Gardner as being “in cahoots with the billionaires who got us into this mess.” Acording to Colorado Public Radio News, Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, resisted "numerous voter-led efforts to limit the oil and gas industry in Colorado." And during his short-lived presidential bid, "he signed the group’s No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, then backed out after realizing it banned donations from company executives.
— Lawmakers call for probe into grant to ease forest protections: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter urging the Agriculture Department’s inspector general to investigate the U.S. Forest Service's move to award a grant to Alaska that the state then used to weaken protections for the Tongass National Forest.
- What happening in Alaska: The Trump administration has proposed expanding logging in the 16.7 million-acre national forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America. Alaska’s congressional delegation supports the move, but conservationists along with several Democratic allies from outside the state oppose it.
- From the letter: “The Tongass is our largest National Forest and is essential to addressing the climate crisis,” the letter reads. “It is critical that we ensure this taxpayer funded grant was properly awarded and used."
— Trump vs. California: The state announced it would stop buying vehicles for state government use from General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler and other companies that have sided with the White House in the fight over fuel-efficiency standards. Starting in January, the state will only buy from automakers that recognize California’s legal authority to set emissions standards," Reuters reports.
- By the numbers: Between 2016 and 2018, California purchased $58.6 million in vehicles from GM, $55.8 million from Fiat Chrysler, $10.6 million from Toyota. Presumably, those sales will now start going to Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America, the four automakers who signed a deal with California to raise their average fleet’s fuel efficiency.
Extinction Rebellion DC protestors are currently on hunger strike occupying Nancy Pelosi's office. We are demanding a one hour meeting on the climate crisis. pic.twitter.com/p0WEuEy2do— Extinction Rebellion Washington DC (@XRebelDC) November 18, 2019
— Another climate protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office: Extinction Rebellion demonstrators in Washington occupied the House speaker’s office, calling for a one-hour, on-camera meeting with the California Democrat to discuss the climate crisis. The demonstration is part of a Global Hunger Strike organized by the environmental activist group in 27 countries, according to the group.
— Biggest coal plant in the West officially shutters: The Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi, has shut down, the Arizona Republic reports. The power plant located near Page, Ariz. burned the last of its coal stockpile on Monday after serving the region for nearly 50 years. “The decision to close came after years of the utilities fighting to keep the plant running economically while remaining in compliance with air-quality regulations. But after a deal was struck with the Environmental Protection Agency to keep the plant open at two-thirds capacity, economics prompted the closure vote,” per the report. “…The coal facilities employed 750 people before operations began to wind down two years ago, and nearly all of the workers were Native Americans.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on pending nominations and legislation.
- The House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing federal action on PFAS chemicals.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on “Concepts for the Next Water Resources Development Act."
- The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on creating a climate resilient America on Wednesday.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a hearing on reclaiming U.S. leadership in weather modeling and prediction on Wednesday.
- The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s role in addressing climate change on Wednesday.
— Bye bye, Bei Bei: The National Zoo has been sharing a series of images amid a week of special activities to bid the giant panda a final farewell before he leaves for China on Tuesday, The Post's Dana Hedgpeth and Michael E. Ruane write.