Briefly

Stuff that matters


Hurricane Maria

EPA says the water at a Puerto Rico Superfund site is safe. This congressman isn’t convinced.

At a hearing on the federal response to the 2017 hurricane season, New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler questioned the EPA’s decision to declare water drawn from the Dorado Superfund site OK to drink.

In 2016, the agency found that water at Dorado contained solvents that pose serious health risks, including liver damage and cancer. Yet after CNN reported that Hurricane Maria survivors were pulling water from the site’s two wells, the EPA conducted an analysis and found the water fit for consumption.

When Nadler asked Pete Lopez, administrator for Region 2 of the EPA, why his agency changed its position, Lopez responded that the chemicals are present in the water, but are within drinking water tolerance levels.

The EPA’s standards for drinking water are typically higher than international norms, John Mutter, a Columbia University professor and international disaster relief expert, told Grist. Nonetheless, he believes it is unusual for the EPA to declare water safe to drink just one year after naming it a Superfund site.

At the hearing, Nadler said the situation was “eerily similar” to the EPA’s response after 9/11 in New York. One week after the attacks, the agency said the air in the neighborhood was safe to breathe. But since then, 602 people who initially survived the attack have died from cancer or aerodigestive issues like asthma, and thousands more have become sick.

“The [EPA’s] history of making mistakes makes you feel like perhaps they should be challenged,” says Mutter, citing the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan.


mine country

So is coal great again or what?

Early last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. He told the assembled coal miners that the move promised boom times ahead. “You know what this says?” Trump asked. “You’re going back to work.”

Ten months later, the results are mixed. Behold the facts:

  • Jobs gained, jobs lost: Total U.S. coal employment was up about 1.6 percent last year, with most new coal jobs added in Virginia and West Virginia. But preliminary federal data obtained by Reuters shows that nearly two-thirds of coal-producing states reported coal job losses, including Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.
  • Closure ahead: About half of the gains in coal jobs will be wiped out if the 4 West Mine in Pennsylvania closes this summer as scheduled, laying off around 400 coal workers.
  • Coal jobs near historic low: Some 50,000 people work in the coal industry, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly one-third of what it was in the late ’80s.
  • More miner deaths: Last year saw 15 workplace-related coal worker deaths, an increase from nine in 2016.
  • Demand still sliding: Thanks to the usual suspects of cheap natural gas and falling costs for solar and wind power, old coal plants are getting less competitive, and U.S. demand for the fuel is decreasing.

One year after Trump was sworn in, his dreams of rolling back environmental policies have come true. But his promise to bring back coal is another story.


risky business

Climate change hits businesses where it hurts: their wallets.

Climate change and extreme weather topped the World Economic Forum’s annual list of risks facing businesses.

Out of 10 major threats to business in 2018, climate-related risks took slots 1 (extreme weather events), 2 (natural disasters), 5 (failure of climate change mitigation), and 7 (human-made environmental disasters) — outranking issues like terrorism, number 8. The forum ordered the risks by asking experts and companies to assess the likelihood of each risk.

In one vast, terrifying web, the report shows that environmental changes are linked to societal risks. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, for example, are linked to the spread of infectious diseases and food crises.

That’s the part of the report the authors seem to be most concerned about: the interconnectedness of all of these issues. “When risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of ‘runaway collapse,'” the report says. Scared yet?


Cash Rules Everything

Business interests are winning out over science under Trump.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists details how science advisory committees have gone by the wayside in the first year of Trump’s presidency.

Federal science advisory committees met fewer times in 2017 than in any year since the government started tracking them in 1997. Fewer experts serve on these committees at the Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, and the EPA than at any time in the past 20 years.

Some related news: In an interview with CBS correspondent Major Garrett, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he wants to “partner” with industry. When asked whether his philosophy was to protect the environment or protect business, Pruitt responded, “Well, it’s neither.” That’s coming from the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, folks.

Meanwhile, a photographer for the Department of Energy alleges he was fired for taking this photo of Secretary Rick Perry in a warm embrace with coal baron Robert E. Murray.

“Federal agencies are supposed to consider the evidence when they’re making policy decisions that impact all of us,” Genna Reed, lead author of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, said in a statement. “We can’t afford to let these policies be based purely on politics or lobbying by powerful industries.”


hot mesh

DIY internet is helping remote communities track local climate changes.

The town of Rigolet, in remote Newfoundland, has its own app — it’s called eNuk.

The app collects reports and photos from users. Among other things, it tracks the climate conditions that can make travel on thinning sea ice highways and hunting paths dangerous for residents. (The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate, and disappearing sea ice imperils traditional knowledge and lifestyles.)

But the app doesn’t work very well without internet, and that is a slow and sparse commodity in Rigolet, as Motherboard reports. That’s why Vancouver-based company RightMesh is rigging up an alternative.

It uses something called “mesh networking,” a decentralized way to extend internet access into far-flung regions by turning every receiver (your computer or smartphone) into a transmitter (connecting to other computers). Put enough devices together in one place and, voilà, you have a mini-internet.

RightMesh has other bells and whistles — blockchain! broadband trading! — but basically it’s getting the internet to places where big ISPs haven’t gotten much foothold. And that makes it a lot easier to share information in uncertain times.


bad news travels fast

Lots of popular climate change articles aren’t totally credible, scientists say.

Some of these articles are sensationalized very nearly to the point of inaccuracy. Others are cases of “elaborate misinformation.”

A review from Climate Feedback, a group of scientists who survey climate change news to determine whether it’s scientifically sound, looked at the 25 most-shared stories last year that focused on the science of climate change or global warming.

Of those, only 11 were rated as credible, meaning they contained no major inaccuracies. Five were considered borderline inaccurate. The remaining nine, including New York Magazine’s viral “The Uninhabitable Earth,” were found to have low or very low credibility. However, even the top-rated articles were noted as somewhat misleading. (Read the reviews here.) 

“We see a lot of inaccurate stories,” Emmanuel Vincent, a research scientist at the University of California and the founder of Climate Feedback, told Grist. Each scientist at Climate Feedback holds a Ph.D. and has recently published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Vincent says that the New York Times and Washington Post are the two main sources that Climate Feedback has found “consistently publish information that is accurate and influential.” (He notes that Grist’s “Ice Apocalypse” by Eric Holthaus also made the credibility cut.)

“You need to find the line between being catchy and interesting without overstepping what the science can support,” he says.


quitting time

Most members of the National Park Service Advisory Board got so frustrated they quit.

On Tuesday, 10 out of 12 advisory board members resigned, leaving the board crippled.

“We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday.

Zinke didn’t meet with the committee at all last year. The advisory board, which was established to help him designate historic or natural landmarks, has technically been suspended since May 2017.

In 1935, Congress chartered the advisory board to help the National Park Service preserve American heritage. Now, board members are worried that the Trump administration has set that original mission aside indefinitely. “I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case,” board member Carolyn Hessler Radelet wrote in a separate resignation letter on Wednesday.

But Zinke’s recent decisions, like disbanding the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council and the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, indicate that expert input is pretty low on his list of priorities.