Environment, Trump Administration

NC State professor “retained” by Chemours is basis for claims that DEQ groundwater standards too stringent

NC State University professor of toxicology Damien Shea says his analysis of GenX shows current health advisory goals are too stringer. Shea has been “retained” by Chemours for his expertise. (Photo: NC State University)

This post has been updated with comments from Damien Shea, who responded the day after this story was posted.

Analysis by a NC State University professor and scientist paid by Chemours is the basis of the company’s claim that voluntary state groundwater standards for GenX are too stringent.

Damien Shea is a professor of environmental toxicology at NC State and the principal investigator and University Director of the Department of Interior’s Southeast Climate Science Center.

 Although his work is widely published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, Shea also testified at a federal trial as an expert witness on behalf of BP. He told  the court that data from the Deep Horizon oil spill showed there was “no harmful exposure from oil-related chemicals or dispersants in nearly all of the area investigated.”

Federal government experts had criticized Shea’s findings, saying that they were based on too broad of an area to be definitive. NOAA scientists found large die-offs of marine species, including turtles, and lingering reproductive effects on survivors.

Last week Chemours called the state’s interim groundwater standard of 10 ppt for GenX — based on the EPA’s benchmark — “arbitrary, unfair and capricious.”  Chemours made these claims in a 30-page response to the Division of Air Quality’s notice that it could prohibit the company from emitting any GenX or related compounds from its Fayetteville Works facility.

Chemours told DEQ that internal company studies found 70,000 ppt was safe for groundwater and drinking water. Shea’s analysis is included the 950 pages of supplementary documents. He wrote that someone would have to drink 1,400 liters of water per day “from the most contaminated tap for their whole life” for their health to be harmed.

Shea argues that while GenX can cause liver tumors in mice, that is not applicable to humans. However, exposure to GenX can be linked to many non-cancer but equally harmful health effects on the liver.

Nor do Shea’s findings address harm to other organisms, both land and aquatic.

Shea could not be reached for comment. 

Shea said that he had raised concerns about the procedure and data the state used last summer to determine the provisional health goal for drinking water. Six months later Chemours contacted him, Shea said, and asked if he would complete his analysis and put it in writing.

“My analysis and the documents I wrote are entirely consistent with the opinions I expressed before Chemours ever contacted me,” She said. “I can assure you that I would provide an objective an unbiased analysis of the data regardless of who was financially supporting the work.”

DEQ said it is still reviewing Chemours’ response.

Scientists often debate findings and research. However, when a scientist receives payment from a private company for their analysis, it raises questions about the independence of the methods.

Overall, peer-reviewed science is scarce on GenX, regardless of where the compound is entering the environment — groundwater, drinking water or air. In fact, the lack of peer-reviewed studies is one of the main challenges facing the state’s Science Advisory Board as it tries to recommend a drinking water standard for GenX.

There are no studies involving humans, and only two on rats and mice. The state health department used one available rodent study in establishing the first provisional health goal of 70,000 ppt for drinking water; a second rodent study prompted state officials to reduce the acceptable level to 140 ppt.

The EPA has not set a groundwater or a drinking water standard for GenX.

Jamie Bartram, chairman of the Science Advisory Board, declined to comment on Chemours’ findings. The SAB, he told Policy Watch, “is still studying the issue. It would be inappropriate for us to pre-empt its conclusions.”

The SAB could make its recommendation on a drinking water health goal in June.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Chemours in North Carolina and its corporate parent, DuPont, have not been transparent in their dealings with the public and DEQ. Chemours has repeatedly failed to disclose the full extent of spills, discharges and air emissions. DuPont hid internal studies showing similar compounds, PFOA and PFOS, harmed public health, while those very substances were entering the drinking water supplies in Ohio and West Virginia.

Chemours is not alone in this conduct. It’s common for companies’ internal studies to downplay or deny health and environmental harm from their products: the tobacco industry and cigarettes, the biotech industry and pesticides, Westinghouse and PCBs.

It’s also common for industry influence to shape EPA decisions. But under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, there is not even a pretense that science is the foundation of its rule-making.

As Chemours accused state environmental officials of being too tough on the company regarding groundwater standards for GenX, national media reported that the EPA intentionally hid damning data on the health effects of similar fluorinated compounds.

Several national media outlets, including the Washington Post and Politico, reported that the EPA has suppressed a study showing that PFOA and PFOS are dangerous to human health at lower levels than previously thought.

The EPA in 2016 set a health advisory — which is not enforceable — of 70 ppt combined for PFOA and PFOS. According to national media, federal toxicologists found that exposure at one-sixth of that level could be dangerous for sensitive populations, such as infants and breastfeeding mothers.

However, EPA officials did not want to disclose this information because it could be a “public relations nightmare,” especially for the Defense Department. Military bases have been contaminated with PFOA and PFOS because those compounds are found in firefighting foam, used in training exercises.

In Atlantic, NC, two drinking water wells at the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point tested above the lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt, according to results released May 4. That investigation is continuing.

 

Commentary, Trump Administration

Another big lie in new GOP tax law exposed

Donald Trump speaking

President Donald Trump

Rebekah Entralgo at Think Progress has an important story exposing one of the more blatant and outrageous scams in the nation’s new tax law that was enacted by President Trump and congressional Republicans last December. You won’t be at all surprised to learn that a loophole sold as a break for “small business” has actually turned out to be a giveaway to the richest Americans. This is from “Wealthiest Americans poised to take advantage of loophole left by GOP tax plan”:

“The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation released a report Monday detailing the effects of the GOP tax bill, ahead of a Tuesday Senate hearing on the same subject.

The findings indicate that nearly 44 percent of the tax cuts for so-called pass-through businesses will go to tax filers making more than $1 million in 2018, while more than 90 percent of the cuts will go to those earning more than $100,000.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, even though Republicans repeatedly claimed their tax plan would provide cuts for small business owners, pass-through businesses are not small businesses in the mom-and-pop sense, but rather are entities like partnerships, S-corporations, and limited liability companies (LLCs).

The final version of the GOP tax bill transformed the pass-through tax break into a deduction against taxable income, effectively cutting the top rate on pass-through income down from 39.6 percent to 29.6 percent.

This provides top pass-through earners — such as hedge fund owners and lawyers — with an enormous loophole, allowing them to effectively re-characterize parts of their income to pay taxes at a rate 10 points lower than what they are currently paying.”

The story goes on to explain that the tax break will also benefit multiple members of Congress as well as Trump himself and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Between the two of them, Trump and Kushner could realize and annual tax cut of $40 million.

Meanwhile, the story reports that average Americans aren’t faring quite as well as the rich.

“The non-partisan Tax Policy Center found that top 1 percent will get an average cut of $1,022,120, while the middle 20 percent will get an average cut of $420.

The public has appeared to catch on to the scam. A Monday Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans, from both sides of the aisle, aren’t sure if their taxes have gone up or down.”

Commentary, Trump Administration

Comments due Monday on Trump’s scheme to bring back health plan bars to pre-existing conditions

While last year’s legislative repeal-and-replace proposals were rejected resoundingly by the American public and by a slim majority in the Senate, the Trump administration has been moving on its own to implement changes to the current health care landscape. The latest proposal from the administration would enable insurers to sell “short-term” health insurance policies that last up to 364 days—hardly a short term under any reasonable interpretation when traditional health insurance policies last 365 days. While these plans are currently on the market, they can last no more than three months under rules put in place by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration touts these plans as a solution to the country’s high health care costs. But these plans have cheap premiums because they can cherry pick whom they will cover. Upon closer examination, these plans look an awful lot like those that left millions uninsured and drowned others in medical debt before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Here are some excerpts from a policy currently sold here in North Carolina by Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is a UnitedHealthcare company:

Preexisting conditions, and complications resulting from a preexisting condition, will not be covered under the policy.

Preexisting condition means those conditions for which medical advice, diagnosis, care or treatment was received or recommended, or a condition that had manifested itself, within the one-year period immediately preceding the effective date of a person’s coverage; or a pregnancy existing on the effective date of coverage.

Another reason that premiums are low for these plans is that you get what you pay for. These policies cover so few benefits and pay out so little in claims that insurance companies selling them actually reap much greater profits than on traditional plans. Short term plans routinely exclude benefits not just for coverage of pre-existing conditions, but also for essential services like prescription drugs, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, pregnancy care, and preventive care, among a host of others.

Even for the few services that are covered, enrollees will be stuck with large out-of-pocket bills. Some Golden Rule policies on the market have deductibles of up to $12,500 for a policy that lasts only three months, and some of these policies also impose dollar limits on what they’ll pay out in benefits over an enrollee’s lifetime or policy period. One Golden Rule policy in NC includes a $250,000 lifetime limit.

And that’s the trend: insurers make bank off of these policies while enrollees attracted by the low premium find themselves without adequate coverage and face-to-face with crushing medical debt once they need care.

These plans are dangerous to those who enroll in them. But they also undermine the ACA and those who benefit from comprehensive coverage there. Through their discriminatory premiums and benefit designs, short-term plans are designed to pull young and healthy folks out of the ACA coverage market, leaving the remaining risk pool older, sicker, and more expensive. This puts comprehensive coverage out of reach, especially for North Carolinians who make too much to qualify for premium subsidies under the law.

Unlike last year when the GOP-controlled Congress failed to revive these discriminatory plans through legislation, the Trump administration is proposing to do this through administrative rulemaking, meaning that members of the public can weigh in by submitting comments until the deadline on Monday, April 23. Click here to submit your own comment.

Education, News, Trump Administration

Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms

President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says Oklahoma teachers should return to their classrooms.

According to a Washington Post report Monday, the nation’s top public school official is taking aim at teachers in Oklahoma, who are protesting paltry public education funding.

Educators in several conservative states, including Oklahoma, are clamoring for better pay and better school funding, walking out of classrooms. But DeVos says the protests should not impact classrooms.

From The Washington Post:

“I think about the kids,” DeVos said Thursday, according to The Dallas Morning News. She had been touring a middle school and meeting with leaders of an anti-violence initiative in Dallas. “I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Her spokeswoman did not return a request for additional comment.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers converged on the state Capitol last week, demanding more money for the state’s schools, which have endured some of the steepest spending cuts in the nation. While the protest began over teacher pay, educators have shifted their emphasis, pressing lawmakers to invest more in classrooms and saying their walkout is in the name of students who are not getting the resources they need to learn.

Children in many districts — including the state’s two largest — have been out of the classroom for five days, and many schools are expected to remain closed this week as teachers continue their fight. Churches, community organizations and even the Oklahoma City Zoo have stepped up to provide childcare and to make sure children who rely on schools for meals get food.

The revolt in Oklahoma is part of a wave of teacher protests sweeping the country inspired by a successful teacher walkout in West Virginia. There, teachers pressed the state into giving them a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools for nine days. This month, teachers in Kentucky briefly shut some school districts as they protested pension reforms. Teachers in Arizona, where school funding has dropped steeply, are threatening to walk out unless the state restores funding and gives them a raise.

DeVos also weighed in during the West Virginia teacher walkout as it stretched on in February.

“It¹s now day 4 of #WVTeacherStrike. Whether you believe good teachers deserve better pay – I do – and/or states should be fiscally responsible – I do – we should all agree kids should not suffer for adult squabbles,” she wrote on Twitter. “But kids are directly harmed when they are barred from going to school to learn. So I hope both sides in WV come to the table to negotiate a swift resolution and get students back in their schools.”

Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma spends nearly 30 percent less on schools than it did a decade ago. School buildings are crumbling in many parts of the state, textbooks are outdated and tattered, and about 20 percent of districts have moved to four-day school weeks. Oklahoma teacher salaries ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association, a leading teachers union.

Read more

Commentary, Defending Democracy, Trump Administration

North Carolinian featured on list of Trump’s 10 most extreme judicial nominees

Thomas Farr

The good people at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have produced a list of the “Top Ten Most Extreme Judicial Nominees Pending in the Senate” and, not surprisingly, North Carolina’s Thomas Farr is featured.

As readers will recall, Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, decried Farr’s nomination last year as “repugnant” and “the culmination of a white supremacist political machine.” More recently, advocates at Democracy North Carolina put it this way:

“…Farr is famous for defending GOP mailers aimed at intimidating Black voters during Jesse Helms’ 1992 campaign. He is now the chief attorney for the NC Republican’s effort to disenfranchise voters of color, students, and the poor. Farr’s nomination is especially insulting because it’s for the long-vacant seat on the Eastern NC District Court that was denied to two highly-qualified African-American female nominees who Sen. Burr blocked from receiving a hearing.”

Here’s the full Leadership Conference list:

Kyle Duncan, nominated to the 5th Circuit (Louisiana seat)
Conservative movement lawyer who defended North Carolina’s monster voter suppression law (with Thomas Farr), fought against marriage equality and transgender rights, opposed DAPA and DACA, represented Hobby Lobby in its fight to deny working women access to contraceptive coverage, and worked to limit the rights of people charged with crimes.
Michael Brennan, nominated to the 7th Circuit (Wisconsin seat)
Served as chair of Governor Scott Walker’s judicial selection commission for state judges and recommended individuals who had made extreme and hateful anti-LGBTQ comments. Possesses a far-right judicial philosophy and does not respect stare decisis. Nominated over the objection of home-state Senator Baldwin.
Thomas Farr, nominated to the Eastern District of North Carolina
Defended North Carolina’s 2013 monster voter suppression law (with Kyle Duncan), represented Jesse Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign – which was notorious for suppressing the vote in Black communities – and represented corporations seeking to undermine workers’ rights and protections.
Howard Nielson, nominated to the District of Utah
Attempted to justify the use of torture and participated in politicized hiring at the George W. Bush Justice Department. Fought against marriage equality and sought to have a gay judge removed from the case. Challenged the legality of the Affordable Care Act and affirmative action. Hostile to reproductive rights and one of the NRA’s go-to attorneys. Read more