Briefly

Stuff that matters


Superfund Man

The EPA is still cleaning up brownfields. So that’s something.

There’s a lot of totally rational concern over the future of the Environmental Protection Agency, especially in the wake of the skinny budget the Trump administration released last week.

While Scott Pruitt didn’t push back at Trump slashing his budget by 25 percent, the new EPA administrator apparently drew the line at defunding Superfund cleanups. He sees cleaning up our most contaminated land as a real business opportunity for future development.

To wit, the EPA announced yesterday that it would continue cleanup of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana, a community that’s been stricken by elevated lead levels in its soil and water supply. The $16 million recovered from “several potentially responsible parties” will go toward soil remediation at some 200 homes in the town.

The news follows the kickoff of a long-awaited cleanup over the weekend at the AMCO Chemical Company Superfund site in Oakland, California. More than a decade of debate took place over how to best remediate the site’s contaminated soil and water.

So fear not, the skinny EPA won’t completely waste away. (We hope.)


flood zone

Trump wants to ignore the effects of climate change when permitting infrastructure projects.

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said will streamline the environmental review required to get large public construction efforts — like roads, bridges, and buildings — off the ground.

From the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, the president proclaimed that the executive order would repair our “badly broken” process for garnering permits for infrastructure projects.

The policy sets a goal of two years for finishing a permitting process and assigns a lead government agency to helm each approval. The order also rescinds an Obama-era requirement that government-funded buildings take into account likely sea-level rise in design and construction. (States and other local agencies, however, will still be able to establish stricter permitting practices.)

Updating America’s “crumbling infrastructure” became a central tenet of Trump’s presidential campaign — and he promised billions to the effort. Trump called the current permitting process a “massive, self-inflicted wound on our country.”

“It’s disgraceful,” the president said.

The White House argues the order will bring “accountability and discipline” back to the permitting process. But many environmentalists decry it as an obvious attempt to skirt environmental rules — and cite it as further evidence of Trump’s anti-climate change agenda.


Standing Rock

The security firm that tracked DAPL opponents denies providing illegal services.

Last week, North Carolina–based TigerSwan answered a lawsuit brought by the North Dakota Private Investigative and Security Board alleging it operated without a license for months during anti-pipeline protests.

In its filing, TigerSwan describes its business in North Dakota as “management consulting” as opposed to security work. While the firm admitted to making recommendations to local law enforcement, it claims it “did not undertake or furnish ‘private security service’ or ‘private investigative service’” in the state.

In early June, Grist and the Intercept published details from situation reports prepared by TigerSwan for its client, Energy Transfer Partners — the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The documents describe the firm’s military-style surveillance tactics against anti-pipeline activists and their allies during the protests. That month, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners said it was no longer employing TigerSwan — though Louisiana later denied TigerSwan a license to work on another Energy Transfer Partners pipeline.

The North Dakota board sued TigerSwan in late June, seeking thousands of dollars in penalties. TigerSwan says the regulations referred to in the complaint are vague and asks for the court to dismiss the lawsuit.


the social science network

Your previously worthless tweets could be used for science.

There’s an enormous amount of information posted to social media sites every day, and increasing ability to sift it for patterns and trends. Scientists could potentially find useful data about ecosystems’ health on Twitter, according to a report in The Conversation.

Researchers recently tested this hypothesis with 300,000 tweets sent from the Great Barrier Reef. They filtered for useful tweets — those containing pictures or observations about wildlife, coral bleaching, or other environmental factors — and then plotted them on a map of where they had been sent.

The Conversation

Even though the tweets came from amateurs with no intention of participating in a citizen science experiment, passive info like location tags and timestamps could give scientists useful data, especially in places without other methods of environmental monitoring in place.

As the researchers write, “Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.”


doomsday trippers

Glacier National Park is overcrowded. Thanks, climate change.

A record-breaking 1 million people visited Glacier in July, up 23 percent from last year. Park officials are stuck dealing with overcrowded parking lots, more medical emergencies, and a shortage of open campsites.

While the number of visitors has fluctuated in past decades, it’s been on the rise over the past five years. Some attribute the park’s popularity to low gas prices (perfect for road trips!) and all the envy-inducing photos making their way to Instagram, while others blame our old pal climate change: All but 26 of the 150 glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in the late 1800s have melted away, and scientists say it’s “inevitable” we’ll lose the rest. Such predictions have prompted a wave of “doomsday tourists” who want to catch a glimpse of climate change in action.

“People tell us they want to see glaciers before they’re gone,” Pamela Smith, a Glacier campground volunteer, told the Missoulian. “They have come here to see the impacts of climate change for themselves.”


ready or not

We’re nearing peak hurricane season and New Orleans’ pumping system is “broken.”

More than a week after an intense rainstorm triggered a flood so bad locals called it a “mini-Katrina,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the city’s drainage system has “never been fully operational.”

A number of officials resigned when it was revealed that, contrary to their initial statements, 17 of the city’s 120 pumps were not operational during recent rains, and most of the power generating system to run the pumps was down, too.

While city officials are working around the clock to fix the pumps, local residents — many of them still dealing with the trauma of the 2005 hurricane — say help has been slow to arrive. Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, declared a state of emergency to help speed up the repairs.

The pumping system is necessary to remove rainwater because most of New Orleans is below sea level. The next two weeks are expected to be rainier than normal in the area.

On top of the city’s mismanagement of the crisis, Louisiana is dealing with heavy rainstorms more frequently thanks to climate change. And with seven named storms so far, this year’s hurricane season is on a near-record pace — the fourth-fastest since records began in 1851. Forecasters say the rest of the season could be “extremely active.”


fox in the henhouse

How can Pruitt sue himself? California wants to know.

The state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, filed a lawsuit on Friday to get the agency to say how it plans to handle Administrator Scott Pruitt’s potential conflicts of interest. Pruitt is now in charge of enforcing rules that he tried to unravel with numerous lawsuits as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

“Administrator Pruitt’s ability to serve as an impartial decision maker merits close examination,” Becerra said in a statement.

In April, Becerra filed a broad Freedom of Information Act request for documents tied to Pruitt’s potential conflicts of interest and efforts to follow federal ethics laws. Generally, agencies must respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, though they have some wiggle room. But four months later, the EPA has yet to turn over anything.

Liz Bowman, an EPA spokesperson, told the Los Angeles Times that the agency had twice told Becerra’s office they were working on assembling the documents. She said the lawsuit was “draining resources that could be better spent protecting human health and the environment.”

The suit from the Golden State is just part of the legal backlash Pruitt’s staring down: He’s already been sued over ozone regulations and the suspension of methane restrictions for new oil and gas wells.