Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Attacks on science, Appalachia’s new prison, & the Florida torreya

When people agree to participate in research studies, they often only do so with the promise of confidentiality. Some fear backlash from local government: in rural Alabama, many residents who can’t afford septic systems are concerned about going on record about how they dump sewage straight into their yards. Others want to avoid fines: there are people in eastern Kentucky using cheater pipes to go around the meter so they don’t have to pay steep water prices. Some living with health problems due to pollution or contamination simply don’t trust the systems—academic, government, media—that have failed them repeatedly. Maybe they want to avoid a media frenzy or questions from their community. Or they just enjoy a sense of privacy. 

The Environmental Protection Agency relies on independent scientific studies when it sets standards for clean air and water. Most of the raw data from these studies isn’t available to the public because of patient privacy concerns or industry confidentiality. Under the guise of “more transparency,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is planning to restrict the use of science in EPA rulemaking. According to multiple reports, he will change the law so the agency will only be allowed to rely on scientific studies when the underlying data is made public. 

For years, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith has championed this idea, most recently through a bill called the HONEST Act. He and other conservative interests argue that the EPA has been crafting regulations based on “secret science” in order to advance its regulatory agenda. Changing this rule would mean reviewing regulations already in place, and could take years to implement—some risk assessments cite thousands of studies—and cost millions of dollars, according to one analysis.

This is the Trump administration’s latest move to unravel regulations and defund studies that show the impact of industry on the environment and public health. Pruitt has fought science at nearly every level of his agency: earlier this year he disbanded scientific advisory committees, barring recipients of agency grants from serving on agency advisory committees and replacing them with industry-friendly people and state government representatives. Last August, the Interior Department halted a study on the links between mountaintop removal mining and human health in Appalachia (a subject of which there is little data on in the first place). Soon after, Interior hit the brakes on a study to improve safety inspections of offshore oil and gas sites. The administration also struck a deal with carbon black (a sooty oil product) manufacturers in the rural South so they could override certain air quality standards, E&E News reported recently. A court ruled this month that the Trump administration broke the law when it missed its deadline to implement the EPA’s ozone pollution rule.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Lawmakers and experts who oppose the “secret science” rule say it will likely be used to narrow the science that helps guide environmental regulations including the Clean Power Plan, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act to help serve the industry-friendly goals of the administration.

This could have massive impacts on public health. It would eliminate the use of peer-reviewed, longstanding studies that underpin federal rules on particulate pollution, which comes from sources such as power plants, auto emissions, construction. The American Lung Association estimates 34,000 premature deaths a year could be avoided by reducing particle pollution by 1 milligram per cubic meter. 

This news comes just as some states begin to meet federal air pollution standards. For example, last year was the first time in 20 years that five counties in Tennessee were in compliance, mainly by burning less coal and increasing the use of public transportation; air quality has significantly improved in Georgia over the last decade, as well. 

Still, air pollution in communities across the country are at extremely high levels. This is especially true in the South, where chemical and fossil fuel companies have been allowed to operate on their own terms for decades. The Trump administration has made clear it will continue loosening industry regulations; now it plans to make it more difficult for scientific research to guide future protections. In doing so, not only could it harm public health, it could also erode the last bit of trust many of these communities have in researchers, government, media, and science. 

Stories worth your time

“Buried Truths” is a new podcast from WABE out of Atlanta hosted by journalist and professor Hank Klibanoff that examines racially-motivated killings in the South. The story is about three black farmers who decided to vote in rural South Georgia in 1948, and the horrific things white supremacists did to make sure they couldn’t. “This is not a whodunnit. We know who did it. Here, you’ll learn the why. Who were we? Who were we as a people that allowed this to happen? Because when we understand who we were, we can better understand who we are.”

Politico investigation reveals how the Trump administration held a double standard while handling relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. A few numbers from the story: “nine days after Harvey, the government had 30,000 personnel in the Houston region, compared with 10,000 at the same point after Maria. It took just 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas, compared with 43 days for Puerto Rico. Seventy-eight days after each hurricane, FEMA had approved 39 percent of federal applications for relief from victims of Harvey, versus 28 percent for Maria.”

News flying under the radar

Funding for 28 black lung clinics in 15 coal mining states will increase to $10 million from $2.7 million. It’s the first time in at least two decades that the federal government has agreed to provide the maximum funding authorized by law in 1977. But in Kentucky, a workers’ compensation reform bill may make it harder for miners with black lung to get benefits and tilt the process in favor of coal companies.

An auction of 77 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last week yielded few bids from oil and gas companies: they bid on 1 percent of the acreage, and the government made only $125 million off the winning bids.

A Louisville, Kentucky teenager built an app that allows people to track odor complaints around the city. A recent Courier Journal investigation revealed there have been 6,000 odor complaints since 2012; the city gets an average of three calls a day about “unpalatable aromas.”

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality approved erosion, sediment and storm water control plans for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which means it can begin full construction.

Last year in Florida, home builders lobbied to pass a bill to loosen building codes, even when insurers, engineers and safety advocates opposed it. Three months later, Hurricane Irma hit. Now other states are easing up on building restrictions too, even as the effects of global warming intensify.