Air pollution science under siege

Top EPA adviser attacks the agency for making decisions before major review of air pollution standards is completed.

Jeff Tollefson

28 MARCH 2019

A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top adviser to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.

The US EPA is reviewing its standard for fine-particle pollution

The national air quality standards are designed to limit the amount of six widespread pollutants — including airborne particles and ozone — that are present in the air that people breathe. State and local governments must develop plans to curb pollution in areas that do not meet the standards. The EPA must review the science, and if necessary, revise the standard for each pollutant every five years, though in practice the process often takes longer.

The current review started in 2015, and various delays pushed the deadline back to 2022. But former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced early last year that the agency would push to complete its review and revision by December 2020. In order to meet that deadline, the EPA will have to curtail their normal review and revision process. In October 2018, the agency also dismantled a scientific advisory panel that works in parallel with the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which advises officials on air-quality standards.

The latest development came on 28 March, when CASAC met to discuss a draft letter they had released several weeks earlier, which blasted agency scientists for relying on “subjective judgments” and “unverifiable opinions” in their evaluation of particulate pollution research. The head of CASAC, Tony Cox, is a statistician who has long questioned the evidence linking fine particulate pollution to premature deaths, and the draft letter reflects this scepticism.

The draft letter called on the EPA to do another research assessment looking at the uncertainties and inconsistencies in the scientific literature on air pollution. It said that the agency should include all relevant studies, including some authored by Cox, some of which were funded by industry groups.

The full committee removed much of the most controversial language during their 28 March meeting. But CASAC members remained divided on the link between fine particle pollution and premature death. The final text of the letter will reflect that division.

Nevertheless, the debate between CASAC members over the link between particulate pollution and public health has alarmed agency scientists, academics and environmental groups.

“They are just completely dismissing the science,” says Gretchen Goldman, an environmental engineer in Washington DC who tracks the issue for the Union of Concerned Scientists. She co-wrote a guest editorial1published on 21 March in Science urging the EPA not to abandon the scientific evidence on air pollution. “Without independent science, we risk having public-health decisions made for political reasons,” she says.

The benefits of preventing premature deaths from particulate pollution are also baked into other air pollution regulations, such as those targeting mercury and greenhouse gases. So downplaying the public-health impacts of particle pollution could help the Trump administration to roll back an array of environmental regulations, says Goldman.

Burden of proof

Cox defended his views in an email to Nature. The EPA process for reviewing air-quality standards is focused on “eliciting, synthesizing, and documenting the opinions and judgments” of the agency’s own scientists, which are often based on “ambiguous statistical associations that depended on unverified models and assumptions”, he said. His own research has raised questions about the link between reducing fine-particle pollution and saving lives.

But there is mounting evidence, compiled by a wide range of scientists from around the world, that links pollution to higher death rates. In a 2017 study2 of almost 61 million people, for instance, researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used satellite data and computer models to map out daily pollution levels on a 1-kilometre grid across the United States for 12 years. After controlling for factors including education and income, the scientists found that death rates increased in regions with more fine-particulate pollution and higher levels of ozone, a major component of smog — even if those areas met air-quality standards.

If anything, those results suggest that the national standard should be stricter than it is now, says Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician at Harvard University and a co-author of the 2017 study, as well as the Science editorial. But she stresses that her study is just one among many that have documented the public-health impacts from particulate pollution. “It’s about the whole body of evidence,” Dominici says.

Cory Zigler, a biostatistician at the University of Texas, Austin, says that Cox has effectively declared his own statistical methods king, writing off a variety of studies and methods demonstrating the link between air pollution and public health.

Cox says he is well aware of such criticisms and that he is only following the science where it leads, regardless of political consequences. “My sole motivation and commitment is to uphold and apply good science,” he told Nature.

Compressed timeline

The EPA’s recently confirmed administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is continuing the push to review and revise the particulate pollution standard by late 2020. But meeting the abbreviated deadline will be nearly impossible without damaging the integrity of the scientific review process, particularly in light of the delays caused by the government shutdown that ended in January, says an EPA official who is familiar with the process and who requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to talk to the press.

Wheeler has also drawn criticism for disbanding the scientific review panel last October, which normally works in parallel with CASAC. The current CASAC members — all of whom were appointed after Trump took office — lack the scientific expertise in epidemiology and other fields to properly evaluate the EPA’s work on air-quality standards, says Christopher Frey, an environmental engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Frey formerly chaired CASAC and was on the scientific review panel that Wheeler dissolved in October 2018.

Cox and other CASAC members have publicly acknowledged this criticism and say that they need access to additional experts. During the 28 March meeting, the committee revised its draft letter to include a request for the EPA to either reinstate the previous review panel or create a new one.

Frey adds that the normal process for assessing the science has been repeatedly reviewed and approved by CASAC, and that every prior assessment has confirmed the link between particulate pollution and death rates. “That finding is one of the most robust scientific findings in air-pollution health,” Frey says.

There is some difference of opinion within CASAC. Although the recent draft letter is highly critical of the EPA, individual comments submitted by some panel members, and included with the draft letter, were more supportive of the agency’s science assessment on particulate pollution. And three of the seven members called for the disbanded review panel to be reinstated.

What happens next is unclear. Normally, the EPA would revise its evaluation of the scientific research on the pollutant in question after input from CASAC and the larger scientific advisory panel. Then it would conduct an assessment focused on health risks and exposure trends. If the EPA found that an update to the standard was justified, it would then formally proposes a change. But many scientists and environmentalists expect the EPA will try to consolidate these steps in order to finalize a new standard next year.

To read Jeff Tollefson full article click here.

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Lake Roosevelt Forum Bus Tour

The annual LRF Bus Tour is June 19, 2019.

The LRF hosts a bus tour along the Upper Columbia River, down to Lake Roosevelt for interested organizations and community members. The tour includes RI/FS updates to the lake and UCR site operations. Participants learn from presentations and have the opportunity to network with each other to consider their common interest: the health and well-being of Lake Roosevelt and the upper Columbia.

Register today

Click here to sign up for the June 19th LRF Bus Tour. After registering you will receive meet-up time and locations and other tour information soon. 

Northport Waterfront – Ecology Investigation Underway

INVESTIGATION UNDERWAY

WA State Department of Ecology is directing and funding an investigation and cleanup of smelter-related metals contamination on Northport’s City Park and boat launch waterfront area. The project area includes all permanently and seasonally exposed areas of the Columbia River bank and shore directly next to the Northport City Park and boat launch. From the river, this area is between Smelter Rock downstream to the Northport Highway 25 Bridge, and is associated with the historic Le Roi Smelter that was located at and around the City Park. The area remains polluted by smelter wastes that were dumped and dispersed along the shore. Our goal is to assess options for protecting people and restoring the environment next to the City Park. We look forward to working with local government, businesses, and residents during the investigation and cleanup process to understand your concerns and the community’s vision for the waterfront.

First round of beach sampling complete.  SitePageImageHandler

We held a comment period March 13 – April 11, 2019, for the Remedial Investigation (RI) Work Plan and related State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) documents. Learn more about the investigation in the notice that was mailed to local residents and businesses.We responded to comments from two people and thank them for their input. 

Next steps

The draft RI Report will take several months to prepare following the initial field work and be publicly available later this year. We will hold a comment period for it when the draft Feasibility Study Report that lays out cleanup options is also ready.

Prior to that, we are planning to hold a public meeting to share the investigation results and start discussing options for cleanup. The purpose of having a public meeting prior to public comment on the reports is we’d like to incorporate the community’s City Park shore improvement and development ideas into the cleanup options.

CONTAMINATION

The information gathered during the investigation will help Ecology understand where contamination exists and develop options for cleaning it up. However, based on past investigations in this area, we know several metals are present in smelter wastes in this area:

Metal levels known to be present do not pose an immediate, acute human health risk. However, long-term exposure may increase the risk of certain health problems. You can take simple actions to protect yourself and your family from exposure.

RELATED INFORMATION

  • Dirt Alert program  – Industrial air emissions and pesticides used in farming have polluted large areas of soil with arsenic and lead. Our Dirt Alert program provides information on how you can protect yourself and your family.

Ecology Hopes to Renew Air Monitoring in Northport

  MAY 8, 2018

Residents of Northport, Washington are being told that Washington state is looking into funding sources for air monitoring of emissions from a lead and zinc smelter some 20 miles away in British Columbia.

Monitoring of air quality on the Washington side of the border of the Teck Resources smelter in Trail, British Columbia has not been conducted since 2009. That’s after the company made major efforts to reduce its emissions of Lead, Cadmium and Zinc.

But some Northport residents feel the potential health threat is still there, and want the EPA to renew the air monitoring.

But the federal agency decided that analysis of existing data didn’t warrant any more testing.

EPA’s Cami Grandinetti says they turned down a petition from 100 residents asking for more testing.

“Back in 1999 to 2009, before their upgrades, even at those levels, we weren’t seeing a risk, so even at those higher historical levels, we weren’t seeing a risk, and we know they have been making improvements to that facility, which from our perspective means those numbers continue to go down or are lower than they were, so what was not a risk before is still not a risk,” she said.

Even so, the Northeast Tri-County Health District is one agency that has sided with the residents in calling for renewed air monitoring. Matt Shunts is the agency’s administrator. He says computer modeling of the emissions is enough to warrant renewed air testing.

“You know we have just immediately north of us, in that Northport area, is the largest zinc and lead smelter, I believe, in North America, and so it’s pretty important to our citizens who live in that area, and we who represent public health, to know what those impacts are,” said Shunts.

Shunts says some blood lead testing has been conducted in the community, but none of the testing has shown elevated levels of concern.

Despite EPA’s decision, the State Department of Ecology has decided it will try to begin the air monitoring again.

“Our toxicologist report indicates that there isn’t an imminent threat to the environment, but there is a potential increase in health risk over a lifetime of exposure,” says Ecology spokeswoman Brook Beeler.

The issue now is locating the funding. Beeler says it’s estimated the monitoring could cost $300,000 for two years.

“We don’t know if there are grants available for monitoring or if there is money available in our own budget. Right now we are in budget development, so we don’t have a good sense if money might be available,” Beeler said.

EPA officials say it is possible the state might be able to get some of the funding through the federal agency.

Please Help Our Community

To receive funding from the EPA, so Ecology can provide air monitors in and around our town, we are asking everyone (you don’t have to be a resident) to email the EPA.

It will just take a moment, simply request they provide air monitors in and around Northport to protect the health of the residents.

SEND EMAILS TO:

tonel.monica@epa.gov

cerise.kathy@epa.gov

stifelman.marc@epa.gov

Your email could help save countless lives for decades to come. Thank you!!

Northport’s Haunted House

image_from_ios.jpeg

Northport Welcome Center’s Haunted House and Membership Drive

 

WHEN

Wednesday, Oct 31 at 5 PM – 8 PM

WHO

Northport, WA Historical Society

WHERE

311 Columbia Ave., Northport, WA

 

COME JOIN US FOR A TERRIFYINGLY GOOD TIME!!!

Tribes to Recover $8M in Costs to Nail Mining Company

Karina Brown
September 14, 2018

(CN) – A Canadian mining company must pay the $8 million it cost the Confederated Tribes of Colville to dig up evidence showing the company dumped toxic wastewater into the Canadian headwaters of the Columbia River, the Ninth Circuit ruled Friday.

Teck Metals vehemently denied having dumped water contaminated with mercury, arsenic and lead into the upper Columbia River near its smelter in Trail, British Columbia. But the Confederated Tribes of Colville successfully petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. Based on the EPA’s findings, Teck’s U.S. subsidiary agreed to pay for a remedial investigation and feasibility study.

Then the tribes said Teck refused to initiate the cleanup the EPA’s order required. The tribes sued, spending $8.2 million investigating the pollution and tying it to Teck.

Two trials ensued, and U.S. District Court Judge Lonny R. Suko entered partial judgment finding Teck responsible for the pollution, which showed up as far as 150 miles south. Suko ordered the company to pay for the tribes’ costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act.

According to Suko, Teck’s leadership has known since the 1930s that it was dumping hundreds of tons of toxic wastewater slag into the Columbia River every day. Another trial phase still awaits the parties to determine whether Teck’s pollution damaged or destroyed natural resources in the Columbia River.

In the meantime, Teck appealed Suko’s order, arguing that the tribes lacked the authority to enforce CERCLA – more commonly known as Superfund – the trust set up by Congress to cover hazardous waste sites that need long-term cleanup.

On Friday, a three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit called that argument “irrelevant,” affirming Judge Suko’s ruling. U.S. Circuit Judges Ronald M. Gould and Rickard A. Paez, joined by U.S. District Judge Michael J. McShane, found that Suko properly separated the question of the tribes’ costs from its claims for natural resource damage.

The tribes’ investigative work showed that Teck emitted the toxic slag, and not, as the company claimed, other smelters. The tribes’ experts tied the pollution to Teck’s isotopic and geochemical “fingerprint,” the circuit found.

In addition, the panel concluded the tribes’ investigations count as a cost of removal or remedial action under CERCLA – even though the tribes used the information they uncovered in both their lawsuit and in support of the EPA’s investigation.

“Many, if not most, CERCLA plaintiffs study the contamination at a site with an eye to potential litigation, and it would make little sense to provide these costs only to parties that are disinclined to file suit,” Judge Gould wrote in the panel’s 34-page opinion.

 

Statistically Speaking – the EPA’s math doesn’t add up

Statistically Speaking

40% of the Community of Northport is sick with similar health issues. Yet, the EPA says, based on their research, the towns health issues cannot be linked to the Canadian smelter located 12 miles upriver from the town

 

by: Jamie Paparich

 

The EPA held a meeting to discuss their Human Health Risk Assessment of the 315 residents of Northport, Washington. There were 55 residents in the high school cafeteria that night, or 17.46% of the community, to hear why the EPA is certain that the communities’ chronic exposure to air pollution and slag emissions from Teck Resources, a Canadian smelter located 12 miles upriver, has nothing to do with their cluster of rare, similar health issues.

The 55 residents that attended the EPA meeting are part of a total of  383 past and present Northport residents who completed a  2011 health surveyAll  383 of these past and present residents, spanning 3 generations, have similar health issues.    That is  40% of 3 generations of Northport residents.

 

From a Statistical Perspective

Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease:

  • Annually approximately 2–14 people out of 100,000 are diagnosed with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s in the United States – or:  .006
  • 54 past and present Northport residents, spanning 3 generations, have been diagnosed with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis – or:   7%
  • Of the 315 current residents 19 people have been diagnosed –  or:   6%

 Multiple sclerosis (MS):

  • Annually approx. 10,400 people are diagnosed with MS in the United States – or:   .003%. 
  • 32 past and present Northport residents, spanning 3 generations, have been diagnosed with MS – or:   4%

Brain Tumors/Cancers:

  • Annually approx. 23,880 people are diagnosed with Brain Tumors in the United States – or:   .007% 
  • 19 past and present Northport residents, spanning 3 generations, have been diagnosed with/or died from a brain tumor – or:   49.7%

Teck’s Legacy:

  • From 1921–2005 Teck released 63,578 tons of heavy metal toxins (arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead) through their air emissions. 
  • From 1906–1995 Teck released 58,611,000 tons of slag into the Columbia river, the equivalent of a dump truck emptying 19 tons of slag every hour, every day, for 60 years.
  • Between 1994–1997 Teck’s discharges of arsenic, cadmium and lead equal MORE than the discharges of ALL the lead and zinc smelters COMBINED through-out the United States.
  • For Teck Smelter’s Timeline of Pollution read;  A Century of Evidence

 

Yet the EPA stood in front of those 55 people in the school cafeteria that night and tried to make them believe, statistically and scientifically, that their chronic exposure to heavy metal toxins from Teck Resources, and that of their family and friends, had nothing to do with 40% of their community being sick. Or at least, that is what their Human Health Risk Assessment will conclude….based on their statistic.

 

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