U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

EPA gives $30 million to Puget Sound; but warming-related acidity attacks the food chain

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it's awarding $30 million to efforts to restore Puget Sound. Sounds like great news -- except that it was completely overshadowed by extraordinarily sobering new science unveiled today: Acidity levels in the Sound, driven by the same processes that are unnaturally warming the planet, appear to be dissolving the shells of oyster larvae. And the weak acid is killing plankton at the base of the food chain -- the one that provides sustenance for creatures all the way up to orcas. And people. 

Imagine a world without oysters. It means a lot more than just forgetting about oysters Rockefeller. Oysters are a basic part of the ecosystem, a big part of the processes that make the ocean what it is.

And then, given the news about the plankton, start considering a world without most forms of sea life that we currently know. It's not a big leap. Even for someone who has chronicled bad environmental news for more than two decades, this is an extremely grave development. 

Folks, this is really significant news. News reports from the Seattle Times, seattlepi.com and the Puget Sound Business Journal -- the early accounts that already are on line, at least* -- seem to count this as just one more strike against the Sound. But it's more. We're talking about harmful changes across the ecosystem at the cellular level. This is huge -- and hugely depressing -- news.

EPA allows experts to comment on oil spill; this looks like progress

We believe in giving credit where credit is due. And so after our recent outrage about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's news conferences where reporters were forbidden to identify government officials who briefed journalists, we today were pleasantly surprised by an EPA news conference that's back in the real world.

Specifically, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did a phone-in presser on the use of dispersants at BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notice specifically listed the names and titles of lower-ranking EPA staffers who would appear and provide information to the public: Paul Anasta, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development; and Dana Tulis, acting director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management. Jane Lubchenco, the Department of Commerce undersecretary in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also was on the call, along with Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.

Thank you, EPA! This is as it should be: Public officials appear at a news conference tell the journalists what they know (and who they are). Then, that information gets transmitted to the public.

Public officials who make statements to the public need to be held accountable for what they say, which can't happen when they journalists don't even know their names, as happened at the press conference last week on EPA's new rules for handling toxic coal ash. This was highlighted in an excellent story about the whole flap by Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Let's hope today's news conference is the start of a trend.

-- Robert McClure

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

AOL brings us a groundbreaking series on the dangers of nanotechnology

Folks, do yourself a favor and walk, don't run -- OK, just click through -- to see the important new investigative project on the dangers of nanotechnology, and what a pitiful job our government is doing monitoring this technology we now find in our medicine, beauty aids, soaps, sunscreens, clothes and food -- the very stuff we put on and in our bodies.

Nano, it's turning out, often appears to have serious health consequences when scientists look into it -- even causing harmful changes in DNA. Serious stuff, my friends. But it's proliferating at a rate that far eclipses researchers' ability to gauge the technology's danger. And it's being unleashed on America's consumers with almost no regulation.

Here's a pretty good summary of the danger:

"Nanoparticles can heal, but they can also kill. Thanks to their size, researchers have found, they can enter the body by almost every pathway. They can be inhaled, ingested, absorbed through skin and eyes. They can invade the brain through the olfactory nerves in the nose.

"After penetrating the body, nanoparticles can enter cells, move from organ to organ and even cross the protective blood-brain barrier. They can also get into the bloodstream, bone marrow, nerves, ovaries, muscles and lymph nodes.
 

The series is by my former reporting partner, Andy Schneider, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes in the past and could be on his way to another. Andy's a remarkable reporter -- a godsend, really. I'm so glad to see that after getting laid off with a bunch of us from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a  year ago, he's landed where he can keep doing important journalism.

Slow government action under Freedom of Information Act = a less robust democracy

I was driving the other day when my celphone started vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket. It was a call from a northern Virginia number I didn't recognize. I dutifully pulled over and answered. It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling back about a Freedom of Information Act request -- one that I filed nearly three months earlier, back in the first days of winter. Note that spring starts this Saturday. The phone call I took as I sat by the side of the road in my two-seater Honda was the first time I had spoken with an EPA official about the request. The story for which I was gathering information when I filed the request ran Jan. 12.

Now, at the time I filed the request, I was desperate for information about what the EPA had to say about a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I was putting together a story on new research that suggests dangerously high concentrations of these PAH chemicals may be coming off parking lots with coal-tar sealants.

Why was I desperate? Because, as I explained yesterday in kicking off this series of Sunshine Week posts, the EPA had simply refused to have a meaningful conversation about what was -- and still is -- emerging as a major potential threat to public health. (It's also a threat that has not been written about very much, btw. Our story for MSNBC was far and away the highest profile the issue has achieved to date.)

The caller from an EPA northern Virginia office was Crystal Samuels. She wanted to know if I still wanted that information. In her introduction, she was apologetic about the time lapse, telling me:

Obama administration pounds chest about transparency, but will have to better than this

The other day the Obama administration's "Chief Information Officer" -- or CIO... isn't that clever? -- was in Seattle decrying a "culture of faceless unaccountability" in government. His boast:

"This is part of the President's agenda: to make sure we’re hardwiring transparency into the culture of the federal government."

What a bunch of horse patootie.

At least that's the way Vivek Kundra's chest-beating looks from the trenches, for me and for other journalists trying to get information from the federal government, and particularly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kundra's statement in front of a geek-heavy audience in Seattle is worth examining now because today kicks off Sunshine Week, the annual exercise in which open-government activists yap it up with fellow citizens about the importance of our democratic government being truly transparent with citizens. As a journalist, a fair amount of what I do is find out what government is up to, and tell my fellow citizens.

Now,  Kundra's statement about Obama's agenda may be correct. But I'm here to tell you, friends, that the agenda ain't trickling down to the trenches.

Want proof? In this post today I'll detail how the EPA simply failed to engage with us for a recent InvestigateWest story of great nationwide importance.

Why do environmental regulators soft-pedal truly disturbing findings?

rm iwest mugIt's not like we needed another study to tell us that air pollution levels in some places are high enough to make people sick and even kill them. But the way New Jersey environmental regulators handled the public release of  this new study is noteworthy because it's a classic case of government soft-pedaling some truly disturbing news.

The chemicals within us

JenniferSitting before a Senate subcommittee is a young mother. She is slim, pretty, intelligent . . . and full of dangerous chemicals.

Molly Jones Gray of Seattle testified this week in Washington, D.C., regarding human exposure to toxic chemicals.  After participating in a study conducted by the Washington Toxics Coalition, a pregnant Gray was horrified to learn that her body contained a variety of dangerous chemicals. Gray said she was testifying not only on her own behalf, but also for her 7-month-old son Paxton. She told the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health:

On behalf of my son Paxton and all other children, I am asking for your help to lower our body burdens of chemicals that come between us and our health.

The Toxics Coalition conducted a study testing nine pregnant women from Washington, Oregon, and California for five groups of chemicals: phthalates, mercury, so-called “Teflon” chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, bisphenol A, and the flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A.

The study, entitled Earliest Exposures, examined the blood and urine of the nine women in their second trimester.