environmental health

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?

Want to strike a blow on behalf of salmon for Earth Day? Get cracking on Corps' of Engineers rule change

If you want to strike a blow on behalf of imperiled salmon in honor of Earth Day, you better get cracking – there’s a deadline of Saturday to comment on a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that critics say would undermine efforts to bring back the icon of the Northwest. 

We’ll probably do a proper news story on this at some point, but there isn’t time for that before the comment deadline, so I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so far:

The Army Corps is responsible for the levees that are intended to keep rivers from spilling outside their banks, causing flooding. And the agency is pretty convinced it should prohibit any trees or even large bushes on the levees. The Corps claims – and this is apparently at the heart of the disagreement – that trees’ roots destabilize levees. People who want the trees left on the levees think just the opposite, that the roots help hold the levee soils together. The Corps admits the science is murky. 

Now, trees on levees are important to salmon for a number of reasons. Among them: Trees and bushes shade the waterways, keeping them cool, as salmon need. They also are home to bugs that fall in the water and are eaten by young salmon. And vegetation helps slurp up and filters polluted stormwater before it reaches the waterway.

The Corps, though, is proposing that plants and trees be chopped down once their trunks reach two inches in diameter.

This became something of a fixation for the Corps after the miserable performance of levees in and around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Doug Osterman is the guy who called this to our attention. He’s the Green-Duwamish-Central Puget Sound watershed coordinator for the King County government. The Corps’ rule against trees on levees led to toppling more than 1,000 of them already.

Pollution from cars makes our kids dumber

In-womb exposure to components of air pollution can depress childrens' IQ scores about as much as exposure to lead, new research shows.

In fact, it might cause as much of a diminution of intelligence as fetal alcohol syndrome, according to a Science News story by Janet Raloff.  The research by Columbia University's Frederica Perera traced exposure of expectant mothers in New York City's Harlem, South Bronx and Washington Heights neighborhoods to components of auto exhaust known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbonsscience-news-cover-august-07. (I can say that five times fast -- can you?)

The exposed children showed an average IQ drop of 4.3 points. While that doesn't sound like much unless it's your own child, Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, just up the road in Vancouver, B.C., told Raloff that if one extrapolates that across the whole United States:

A downward shift in IQ by 5 points will increase by 3.5 million the number of children who meet the criteria for mental retardation.

It's a pretty clear case of a situation where controlling the pollution would be cheaper for society in the long run, Raloff writes.

Perera's paper was one of several discussed this week at a National Academies of Science workshop that also touched on how car-based pollutants can spark athsma, and how contaminants can turn genes on and off even if they don't outright damage DNA.

The workshop, covered in a wide-ranging story by Bette Hileman in Environmental Health News, delved into whether pollutants might be doing damage by turning off genes, or turning them on at the wrong time in an organism's development.