EPA Official Confirms: Brooklyn Superfund Cleanups Will Proceed

Cleanup at three Brooklyn superfund sites will continue as planned, a Public Information Official working with the EPA told NYER last week. The work to remediate the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, and the lead-contaminated Red Hook Ballfields will move forward, despite any actions by the new Trump administration.

In recent weeks, controversy and confusion has swirled after the Trump’s transition team ordered a freeze on all EPA grants and subcontracts. According to ProPublica, the move could “affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.”

There has been a flurry of information leaking from sources within the EPA—most unable to be officially confirmed—but an EPA employee aware of the freeze spoke with ProPublica and stated that:

“…he had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency. Hiring freezes happened, he said, but freezes on grants and contracts seemed extraordinary. The employee said the freeze appeared to be nationwide, and as of Monday night it was not clear for how long it would be in place.”

However, Elias Rodriguez, the EPA officer assigned to the Brooklyn projects, told NYER that “the EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”

In general, Superfund cleanups are primarily funded not by the government but by “responsible parties” that contributed to the pollution.

As of press time, Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, had been confirmed by the Senate Committee. Republicans suspended the Environment and Public Works Committee’s rules to approve the cabinet pick despite a Democratic boycott.

Red Hook Cleanup

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EPA official taking soil samples in Red Hook Park in March 2015. Photo via EPA.

In 2015, the EPA closed multiple baseball fields in Red Hook after high levels of lead were found in the soil. The contamination was caused by a former smelting and refining facility that was once sited at the corner of Hicks and Lorraine, directly atop ball field #7. The factory operated from the 1920s through the late 1930s.

The fields impacted include Ball Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8 and Soccer Field 7.

The cleanup, performed by the New York City Parks Department and overseen by the EPA, is slated to begin this fall and cost approximately $105 million.

Gowanus Cleanup

The Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site in 2011. Cleanup is in progress, beginning with debris removal late last year, and is expected to continue until at least 2022.

 Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek competes with the Gowanus Canal for the title of the most polluted body of water in New York City. It was named a Superfund site in 2010, but studies are still ongoing; feasible cleanup recommendations are expected by 2019.

 

Gutting the EPA Hurts Real People

This post was written by Rachel Cleetus, Lead Economist and Climate Policy Manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and originally published on the UCSUSA blog.


News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.

This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.

Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.

Why we need the EPA

Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”

Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.

The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.

We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.

Gutting the EPA hurts real people

Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.

When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).

The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.

The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.

The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”

These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. ­­­­­­­­­­­­There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.

But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.

Health vs. economic growth is a false choice

We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show that over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.

In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.

We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.

Using science and economics to tackle pollution

The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.

And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.

Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.

Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.

What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?

Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.

President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?

Cuomo Can Bypass Trump’s Anti-Climate Agenda Now, Lawmakers & Activists Say

With President-elect Trump’s inauguration only days away, individual states are preparing to lead the way on responding to climate change – how to prepare for it, and how to reduce its worst effects by cutting carbon emissions.

New York State has already shown that it is prepared to prioritize human health over fossil fuel extraction with its refusal in 2014 to permit high-volume fracking. Now Governor Cuomo is being urged to support what advocates say is the “most ambitious climate legislation in the country” – the Climate and Community Protection Act.

Details on the Bill

The bill, which has already passed the New York State Assembly, has four key objectives:

• Commit New York State to the use of 100% renewable energy by 2050, and 50% by 2030;
• Dedicate 40% or more of climate investments to environmental justice and low income communities;
• Create good local jobs in clean energy, and protections for workers impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels; and
• Use funding to “accelerate a worker and community-centered transition to a sustainable economy.”

Read the text of the legislation here.

“New Yorkers have witnessed firsthand the devastating loss of life, homes and livelihoods caused by Superstorm Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee,” said Assemblymember Steve Englebright after the bill passed the Assembly in June. Englebright chairs the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation committee and is the bill’s lead sponsor.

“These extreme weather events are related to climate change…storms, the migration of lobsters to cooler waters, new pests, and threats to public health all point to the undeniable fact that climate change is happening now, not in some distant future,” he continued.

“This legislation includes provisions to both minimize the potential impacts of climate change and address the impacts that cannot be mitigated. It will also advance environmental justice and provide new well-paying jobs in the field of clean energy,” Englebright concluded.

The Climate & Community Protection Act is also being pushed by NY Renews, which describes itself as a multi-sector, statewide coalition of 100 environmental, social, labor and economic justice organizations.

The group’s stated mission is to “move New York State’s economy off of fossil fuels and foster a just transition to renewable energy.”

Lawmakers and activists are urging Governor Cuomo to include the legislation in his 2017 budget. In the State Senate, a bipartisan majority reportedly supports the bill.

New Yorkers can contact the Governor’s office at (518) 474-8390, or via his webform, to share their thoughts.

The National Context

New York State has already set the goal of an 80 percent cut in fossil fuel emissions by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels), as has New York City. It is unclear if the incoming Trump administration will have any objectives related to climate change.

Trump has stated publicly that there is no scientific consensus on climate change, and that the U.S. should exit the Paris Climate Accords. He has appointed a series of fossil fuel advocates to high-level cabinet posts, including Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil as the new U.S. Secretary of State; former Texas governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy; and Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the central arguments used to delay action on climate change is that cutting back on fossil fuel use and extraction will harm the U.S. economy and cause job loss.

NY Renews, which arose from organizing around the 2014 People’s Climate March, argues that New York State will be able to address climate change and socio-economic inequality with the same set of policies.

The coalition says that an economy centered around renewable energy has the potential to revitalize many local communities, and create thousands of new jobs, with the added benefit that jobs in solar, wind and hydro are safer for workers than jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

“This legislation offers tremendous opportunities to preserve and expand our workforce,” said Assemblymember Michele Titus, chair of the State Assembly’s Labor committee. “As our state begins to rely more on renewable energy, the demand for quality skilled jobs will also increase, offering hardworking New York families the job security they need and deserve.”

Five Things To Focus On As We Prepare For A Trump Presidency

Like everyone else, I have spent the last two weeks trying to wrap my head around the results of the presidential elections.

Without a doubt, Donald Trump’s election is a huge setback for this country’s efforts to come to grips with our changing climate and threatened natural environment.

Among my colleagues at NYER, there is a range of political opinions, but we are clear on the primacy of science, and everyone’s need for a healthy environment. The vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding an alarm for years that if our planet is to support future generations, we have to change course now, especially when it comes to fossil fuels.

For the time being, this country’s incoming leadership refuses to acknowledge the profound importance, and compromised state, of our environment. In light of that, here are five things that I am personally taking to heart as we head into 2017.

To be clear, these are my opinions, based on what I’ve learned as a reporter and as a person.

I really hope you’ll send us your feedback. And we’ll do our very best to keep covering the environmental issues — like air and water quality, trash management & recycling, energy supply, and climate resiliency — that impact readers in the metro area.

1.) We are not alone — there is a global environmental movement

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Local villagers celebrate the Indian government’s September decision to stop a coal company from mining in the Mahan forests of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. (Photo: Greenpeace)

There is not enough media coverage of the fact that people of all backgrounds are engaged in important environmental work across the world. You can hear their voices and stories from organizations like Greenpeace International, and news outlets like Democracy Now, which reported directly from the U.N. climate talks in Morocco last week.

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Activists protesting construction of the Iowa section of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Opposition to the pipeline in Iowa has not attracted as much media attention as the protests in North Dakota. (Photo via Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Facebook page.)

There are a myriad of important and useful ways we can support — and be a part of — the global environmental movement in the next year.

For starters, citizens of this country can contact incoming members of Congress, and the new administration, to voice their opinion on whether the U.S. should remain an active participant in the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, and its 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Will that accomplish anything?” a friend said to me the other day. Well, the alternative is that we remain silent as the Trump administration tries to pull the U.S. out of the global climate accords. Consider this: 48 nations — including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines — promised to “rapidly move to 100% renewable power” at the UN climate summit last week, the Guardian reported.

It’s worth noting that significant public resistance to the Keystone Pipeline paved the way for the Obama administration to squash it, and, yes, this battle may very well be fought again.

(There are more ideas on what we can do below.)

2.) The majority of the American people accept the reality of climate change, and want to address it.

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Over 400,000 participated in the September, 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. There were solidarity actions in 160 countries the same day.

According to a Gallup Poll earlier this year, 65 percent of Americans now say that increases in the earth’s temperature over the last century are primarily attributable to human activities, rather than natural causes.

This represents a “striking” 10-percentage-point increase in the past year and is four points above the previous high of 61 percent in 2007, Gallup reports.

64 percent of U.S. adults told Gallup they are worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming — the highest reading since 2008.

3.) The facts, and science, will have the last word.

Satellite view of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Satellite view of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

According to an analysis released this month by the World Meteorological Organization, the planet just had its hottest five-year period on record, with 2015 claiming the title of hottest individual year, which will be beat by 2016.

“The effects of climate change have been consistently visible on the global scale since the 1980s,” the WMO reported, pointing to “rising global temperature, both over land and in the ocean; sea-level rise; and the widespread melting of ice. It has increased the risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, drought, record rainfall and damaging floods.”

The WMO singled out Superstorm Sandy as one of several “high-impact” global weather events whose likelihood was increased by climate change.

The October 29th, 2012 storm caused the deaths of 43 New York City residents and created $19 billion in economic damage in the five boroughs. Sandy had a ‘storm tide’ over 14 feet above Mean Low Water at the Battery. Fifty-one square miles of New York City flooded during the storm, 17 percent of the city’s total land mass.

4.) Local action is going to matter — a lot.

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When the gas industry first indicated that they wanted to carry out high-volume hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York, it was hard to imagine that a grassroots movement of regular people could stop it.

Some of this country’s most populous states — like California and New York — are moving ahead now to cut carbon emissions, and transform their energy supplies. How much will it matter? I heard a participant at the U.N. climate talks last week argue that local governments in the U.S. could accomplish half of our carbon reduction commitments, as per the Paris Agreement, without federal support.

In the next 14 years, New York State is planning to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, relative to 1990 levels. And the State says that half of New York’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The City of New York has similar goals, and says it is looking even further ahead to a 100 percent carbon free future, along with zero waste to landfills by 2030.

Undoubtedly, there are many hard questions to be asked about how, for example, the State is reconfiguring our energy markets, and whether New York City can get to a zero waste future. But, we are arguably on the road.

5.) Building an environmentally sustainable society will be a long, challenging process, but we already knew that.

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Since 2007, almost 50,000 citizen volunteers have helped plant more than one million new trees across New York City.

Building a truly sustainable society — which is not a net drain on the planet — could take generations. That was true before November 8th, and remains so.

And as quixotic as it may seem, we know that it’s worth it. Every child — and every adult — deserves a fighting chance at a decent life, which will not be possible on a degraded planet.

How can we participate? Here are just a few suggestions that show the wide range of actions (personal, and as part of a group) that we can take:

  • call your senators and congresspeople and tell them what you think about retaining the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the Clean Power Plan.
  • support candidates at all levels of government who share your views on clean energy, waste reduction, and strong protections for air and water
  • better yet, run for public office yourself!
  • get involved with and/or donate funds to national environmental advocacy organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and 350.org; and local groups like Environmental Advocates of New York and the NY League of Conservation Voters.
  • talk with your friends, neighbors and co-workers about climate change, and share fact-based information
  • participate in community meetings with local officials about issues like cleaning up polluted waterways and climate resiliency planning. If you live in NYC, these meetings are often sponsored by your local community board
  • learn about ways to reduce energy and water use, and generate less trash at home
  • participate in a neighborhood clean-up day
  • talk with the children in your life about environmental issues
  • you tell us — what can people do?

 

Finally, here are some interesting thoughts from Randy Cohen, who used to write The Ethicist column for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. In November, 2008, a Texas woman wrote to Cohen for advice because her neighbors had decided to lease their land for gas drilling, and she was under pressure to join them.

“For environmental reasons, we strongly oppose this drilling,” the woman wrote on behalf of herself and her partner. She asked Cohen if holding out, while all her neighbors went ahead, was a futile, meaningless gesture.

Cohen responded, in part:

“It is understandable that you feel powerless in the face of community-wide sentiment…but you should not sign the lease…

To fail to resist what you see as injustice simply because you fear that you cannot win the fight assures the very defeat you dread.

If nothing else, this is a short term view. Political struggle is long. Even if you lose the first battle, you fight on, and by resisting from the outset, you shape the conditions of that struggle.

The most potent argument for your declining to sign what you regard as a devil’s bargain is this: It violates your own principles…Ethics concerns our actions, not just our arguments.”

 

And so this next chapter in our history begins. As this post was being finished, President Obama moved to prohibit any new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, one of his last actions before leaving office.

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Photo: Greenpeace