COVID-19, Environment

Polluters get a pass from EPA during pandemic

Andrew Wheeler, EPA photo by Eric Vance

Under pressure from industry, the EPA announced yesterday that it will not fine polluters who violate the law by failing to monitor their emissions and discharges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy suspending civil penalties is temporary, said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. It is retroactive to March 13.

The range of industries eligible for this temporary pass is vast, including many that operate in North Carolina, such as electric utilities, plastics and textile manufacturers, asphalt plants, and waste incinerators.

The EPA’s order states that “in general the agency does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the E.P.A. agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the E.P.A. upon request.”

According to the EPA’s press release, the agency expects regulated facilities to comply with the law, “where reasonably practicable, “and to return to compliance “as quickly as possible.”

Neither of those terms is defined in the policy announcement.

To skirt the penalties, facilities must “document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” Wheeler wrote. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The agency said public water systems should continue to operate normally, including routine sampling, “to continue to ensure the safety of our drinking water supplies.” Public water suppliers are required to regularly monitor for some contaminants, such as lead, copper and disinfection byproducts, that latter of which have been linked to cancer. These utilities must report results to both federal and state authorities.

The policy does not provide exempt polluters that intentionally violate the law, Wheeler wrote. Nor does the policy apply to pesticide imports, enforcement of Superfund sites or the disposal of regulated hazardous waste.

In its response to the pandemic, the EPA has been inconsistent in its leniency, particularly for public comment. Chris Frey is an NC State University environmental engineer professor who served on the agency’s Science Advisory Board from 2012 to 2018. He noted on Twitter that the EPA has refused to extend its 30-day public comment deadline on a controversial rule to limit the use of human health data in its environmental decisions.

Scientists and public health advocates have pleaded with the agency to extend the comment period, but the EPA has refused to do so.

COVID-19, Environment

Here’s another unexpected fallout from COVID-19: More trash, recyclables and tighter restrictions on disposal

The broken coffee pot. The mound of take-out containers. The lawn chair with the missing leg.

As more North Carolinians are forced to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they are also generating more household trash and recycling. But some cities and counties are changing or suspending some types of disposal services, particularly at convenience centers.

The City of Durham  has closed its convenience center on Club Boulevard, which accepts trash, recyclables, e-waste, appliances, tires, textiles and household hazardous waste, to the public, except for large commercial accounts.

Curbside collection for trash, yard waste and bulky items are not affected by the closure.

However, the city has implemented a change to cardboard collection. Because of COVID-19 and guidance from the National Institutes of Health, Durham city residents can no longer request pick-up of large amounts of cardboard, known as “special call-in” service. All cardboard must fit inside the blue recycling bins.

The new coronavirus “is stable” on cardboard for up to 24 hours, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated “there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” it is possible that cardboard recently left at the curb could transmit the disease. Sanitation workers would have to pick up that material since it is not in a bin.

Meanwhile, Durham County has temporarily suspended bulky item disposal at its four convenience centers: Redwood, Parkwood, Rougemont and Bahama. The centers are used by residents who live in unincorporated parts of the county.

Bulky loads include large unbagged items such as furniture, debris from do-it-yourself projects, broken appliances, large toys, etc. Residents with bulky loads are encouraged to seek a private transfer station to dispose of items, according to a Durham County press release.

Durham County is reporting significant increases in waste at it convenience sites because “greater numbers of people are at home” to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “This is especially challenging as options to unload full dumpsters for the department are being reduced,” the county wrote in the release.

Durham ships its trash 90 miles to the Sampson County Landfill. This does not include hazardous waste, which must be deposited in a special landfill and is transferred out of state.

Durham County officials did not return an email seeking further information, such as tonnage.

Wake County solid waste officials have noticed more customers at the convenience centers, “possibly because people are home and doing their spring cleaning,” said John Hamlin, Wake County communications consultant. These centers  are at the South Wake Landfill and East Wake Transfer Station. The March tonnage figures won’t be available until early April, Hamlin said.

In addition, solid waste workers are staying 6 feet away from one another and are disinfecting surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  Residents should expect delays when dumping construction waste at Convenience Centers on the weekends, Hamlin said, because the county is “prioritizing household waste and recycling.” Updates are at posted on the county’s website.

The City of Raleigh has not received significantly more trash, but beginning Saturday, April 4, it will temporarily suspend collection of e-waste, yard waste, bulk items and other special load services, said city’s spokeswoman Julia Milstead, “so we can focus resources on garbage and maintaining public health and safety.”

There has been roughly a 10 percent increase in Greensboro, but no changes in service, according to solid waste officials. That city’s garbage is trucked to the Uwharrie Environmental Landfill in Mt. Gilead, about 70 miles south.

COVID-19, Environment, Trump Administration

Poll: North Carolinians say feds must address climate change, unhappy with Tillis

Sen. Thom Tillis has just a 31% job approval rating, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey.

More than 60 percent of North Carolinians surveyed said they think elected leaders — particularly the federal government — must act urgently to protect communities from the worst impacts of climate change, according to poll results released today.

And two-thirds said they strongly or somewhat approve of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan. Surprisingly, 40 percent of Trump voters said they support the plan, evidence of “a bit more partisan crossover than in the past,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling.

PPP conducted the survey last weekend on behalf of the NC League of Conservation Voters. It surveyed 781 North Carolinians. Half of the surveys were conducted by phone and the rest by text message. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5%.

A third of respondents identified as Republicans, with 40% as Democrats and 27% independents. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they were white.

On nearly every climate-related question, respondents said they supported a transition to clean energy, as well as recognized the public health risks associated with climate change.

More than 60 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a US Senate candidate who takes climate change seriously.

Sen. Thom Tillis’s record on climate change is inconsistent. In 2014, he said climate change was not “a fact,” and subsequently denied that humans’ reliance on greenhouse gas emissions was the main driver. Since then, he has acknowledged the science, but nonetheless urged President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Tillis’s job approval rating is just 31% among those polled, even lower than President Trump’s — 46%.

Gov. Cooper’s approval rating is 51%.

Dustin Ingalls, director of strategic communications for NCLCV compared the effects of the climate crisis on low-income residents and communities of color to those of the new coronavirus. “It’s impacting those communities first and worst,” Ingalls said. “They are exposed to more air pollution, which exacerbates health issues like asthma, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.”

The inadequate federal response to the pandemic bears hallmarks of its similar denials of climate change, Ingalls said.

“Like the climate crisis, the corona crisis has been made worse by a federal government which has defunded or eliminated response teams, rolled back regulations, ignored science and expert advice, treated it like a hoax, and jumped to action too late.”

Jensen said the coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of government’s role in protecting public health, including that related to climate change. Excessive heat, floods, hurricanes and insect-borne diseases are exacerbated by a warming planet — and the effects, while global, are felt locally.

“The overarching finding is that 61% of those polled think North Carolina leaders need to act urgently on climate change,” Jensen said. “North Carolina is so closely divided about a lot of things, it’s a pretty compelling poll finding.”

“The coronavirus has made voters more cognizant to be prepared for changes going on in the world,” Jensen went on. “It shows what happens when there’s an inability to prepare sufficiently. If you plan properly the effects don’t have to be as bad.”

COVID-19, Environment

Four legs good, two legs bad: How the wildlife trade contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic

A jaguar head that had been seized by US Fish and Wildlife Service officials. The head was displayed in an educational area of a USFWS facility in Colorado. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

A stool made from an elephant’s foot, another from a bear’s paw. A giraffe, missing its body, leaned in a corner. Dozens of jaguar heads, tagged and wrapped in plastic, lined a 20-foot-long shelf. Across the aisle, cowboy boots, in sizes that would fit toddlers through adults, sheathed in snake or alligator skin. Purses and lamps, rugs and blankets: all made from animals.

From ceiling to floor, a warehouse in Colorado, operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, holds thousands of seized animal parts, evidence of a widespread, illegal international wildlife trade. 

I visited the warehouse with other environmental journalists at a conference last fall. The sheer amount of body parts overwhelmed us. (We were prohibited from taking photographs in the evidence room, but could do so in the public educational areas.)

Roughly 7,000 species of animals, reptiles, birds and insects are trafficked, according to the Work Wildlife Seizures database. The wildlife marketplace, both legal and illegal, has not only ethical and ecological implications, but also public health consequences. Zoonotic diseases, as they’re known, can jump from animals and insects to people. Some are well-known — West Nile fever, the plague, Lyme disease, rabies, toxoplasmosis and ringworm — and others, like COVID-19, are new.

An Indian pangolin (Photo by Ajit K. Huilgol via the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The current global health crisis began in a wildlife market in the province of Wuhan, China. The coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, might have incubated in a bat, and then passed to a pangolin, a mammal and scaly anteater that is widely trafficked for its meat and use in traditional medicine. And from the pangolin to us, humans.

An estimated 1 million pangolins have been poached in the last decade, in Asia and Africa, according to TRAFFIC, a non-governmental monitoring network based in the United Kingdom. 

The World Wildlife Federation reports that of the eight pangolin species, six are either critically endangered or endangered; two are considered vulnerable to extinction. They are protected under national and international laws, but nonetheless are often trafficked illegally.

Eating pangolins has been prohibited in China since 1989. However, under special circumstances, pangolin scales can be traded and used in China for medicinal use, according to a TRAFFIC report. “However, there is a lack of evidence on how effective the regulations are in preventing illegal trade in pangolin parts,” by traditional Chinese medicine shops and animal wholesalers, the report says.

A bat seized by US Fish and Wildlife Service (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The illegal wildlife trade is not limited to Asian and African countries. The US is a robust market for contraband, particularly for mammals and reptiles. An article in the academic journal Global Crime noted that from 2003 to 2013, US imports were “substantial, accounting for over 2.5 million animal products and over 90,000 live animals seized, bearing in mind that much of wildlife smuggling goes undetected or undeclared.” 

Moreover,  the US Fish and Wildlife Service has only about 300 federal agents to inspect more than 70 airports and seaports. (Most of the trade occurs in air cargo, although some smugglers also bring items in their personal luggage.)

Internationally, nearly 175 countries have signed CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 64,000 live wild animals belonging to 359 species were seized by authorities. But a report by Nature Conservation showed that less than a third of those nations reported seizures, suggested “that the records represent only a fraction of the actual animals being illegally traded.

Sometimes traffickers sell stuffed bodies of the animals. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)


FDA says chemical replacements for PFOA, PFOS more toxic than thought

The chemical structure of 6:2 FTOH (Illustration: ChemSpider)

In 2006, when 3M and DuPont, under legal and regulatory pressure, began phasing out their production of two types of perfluorinated compounds — PFOA and PFOS — the companies had a backup plan: By reducing the number of fluorinated carbon molecules from eight to six or fewer, they could produce new chemicals that would ostensibly be safer than their longer carbon-chain counterparts.

GenX, for example, is a short-chain perfluorinated compound.

But two new FDA studies show that theory isn’t true. The results were recently published in peer-reviewed, independent journals Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology and Food and Chemical Toxicology The Environmental Working Group announced the results of the studies.

The compound in question, 6:2 FTOH is widespread in the environment. It is present in fast food packaging, stain- and water-resistant consumer products, fire-fighting foam — even nap mats at child-care centers..  The general population is exposed to the compound by inhaling it, such as in indoor dust, and eating food packaged in materials containing the compound. 

FDA researchers found that 6:2 FTOH is toxic. It builds up in the liver and fatty tissues of rats, persisting for roughly the equivalent of a year in humans.

These findings are a departure from previous research, including some paid for by the fluorochemical industry, which determined the toxicity of 6:2 FTOH using studies of another short-chain compound, perfluorohexanoic acid, or PFHxA for short. Based on those findings, the industry concluded that PFHxA and other short-chain compounds were not toxic.

It turns out those studies were flawed.

“Our analysis demonstrates that 6:2 FTOH is significantly more toxic than PFHxA,” the FDA researchers wrote. They added that using toxicological studies of PFHxA to assess 6:2 FTOH exposure “may significantly underestimate human health risk.”

Since 2008, the FDA has approved and registered 11 substances on its Inventory of Effective Food Contact Substance Notifications; nine of these substances were plastics based on 6:2 FTOH, according to EWG. Chemours is among the companies that received federal approval to manufacture the compounds.

The chemical industry has produced at least 5,000 types of PFAS. Many public health and environmental advocates and experts have asked the EPA to regulate all PFAS as a class because of their similar toxic effects. But the industry has repeatedly countered that toxicity data, which is limited and primarily conducted by the chemical companies themselves, doesn’t warrant such a broad classification.