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As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.
“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the past three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like having to go to work knowing it’s unsafe,” Wiles said of the U.S.-wide economic reopening. “It’s hard to see how this ends. There are just going to be more and more people infected, and more and more deaths. It’s heartbreaking.”
China’s actions over the past week stand in stark contrast to those of the United States. In the wake of a new cluster of more than 150 new cases that emerged in Beijing, authorities sealed off neighborhoods, launched a mass testing campaign and imposed travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, President Trump maintains that the United States will not shut down a second time, although a surge in cases has persuaded governors in some states, including Arizona, to back off their opposition to mandatory face coverings in public.
Commentators and experts in Europe, where cases have continued to decline, voiced concerns over the state of the U.S. response. A headline on the website of Germany’s public broadcaster read: “Has the U.S. given up its fight against coronavirus?” Switzerland’s conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper concluded, “U.S. increasingly accepts rising covid-19 numbers.”
“The only thing one can say with certainty: There’s nothing surprising about this development,” a journalist wrote in the paper, referring to crowded U.S. beaches and pools during Memorial Day weekend in May.
Some European health experts fear that the rising U.S. caseloads are rooted in a White House response that has at times deviated from the conclusions of leading scientists.
“Many scientists appeared to have reached an adequate assessment of the situation early on [in the United States], but this didn’t translate into a political action plan,” said Thomas Gerlinger, a professor of health sciences at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. For instance, it took a long time for the United States to ramp up testing capacity.
Whereas the U.S. response to the crisis has at times appeared disconnected from American scientists’ publicly available findings, U.S. researchers’ conclusions informed the actions of foreign governments.
“A large portion of [Germany’s] measures that proved effective was based on studies by leading U.S. research institutes,” said Karl Lauterbach, a Harvard-educated epidemiologist who is a member of the German parliament for the Social Democrats, who are part of the coalition government. Lauterbach advised the German parliament and the government during the pandemic.
Despite its far older population, Germany has confirmed fewer than 9,000 coronavirus-linked deaths, compared with almost 120,000 in the United States. (Germany has about one-fourth of the United States’ population.)
Lauterbach cited in particular the work of Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, whose research with colleagues recently said that forms of social distancing may have to remain in place into 2022. Lipsitch’s work, Lauterbach said, helped him to convince German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the pandemic will be “the new normal” for the time being, and it impacted German officials’ thinking on how long their strategy should be in place.
Regarding the effectiveness of face masks, Lauterbach added, “we almost entirely relied on U.S. studies.” Germany was among the first major European countries to make face masks mandatory on public transport and in supermarkets.
Lipsitch said Thursday that he was not previously aware of the impact of his research on German decision-making, but he added that he has spoken to representatives of several other foreign governments in recent weeks, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials or advisers from Canada, New Zealand and South Korea.
Even though Lipsitch cautioned it was impossible for him to say how or if his conversations influenced foreign governments’ thinking, he credited the overall European response as “science-based and a sincere effort to find out what experts in the field believe is a range of possible scenarios and consequences of decisions.”
Lipsitch said he presented some of his research to a White House group in the early stages of the U.S. outbreak but said the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic did not reflect his conclusions. “I think they have cherry-picked models that at each point looked the most rosy, and fundamentally not engaged with the magnitude of the problem,” he said.
European researchers dispute that the U.S. government’s reliance on scientists to inform decision-making comes anywhere near the degree to which many European policymakers have relied on researchers.
After consulting U.S. research and German studies, for instance, German leaders agreed to make reopening dependent on case numbers, meaning restrictions snap back or reopening gets put on hold if the case numbers in a given region exceed a certain threshold.
Meanwhile, several U.S. states have reopened despite rising case numbers.
“I don’t understand that logic,” said Reinhard Busse, a health-care management professor at the Technical University of Berlin.
Lauterbach said that even though most Germans disapproved of Trump before the pandemic, even his staunchest critics in Germany were surprised by how even respected U.S. institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, struggled to respond to the crisis.
The CDC, for instance, initially botched the rollout of test kits in the early stages of the outbreak.
“Like many other aspects of our country, the CDC’s ability to function well is being severely handicapped by the interference coming from the White House,” said Harvard epidemiologist Lipsitch. “All of us in public health very much hope that this is not a permanent condition of the CDC.”
Some observers fear the damage will be difficult to reverse. “I’ve always thought of the CDC as a reliable and trusted source of information,” said Wiles, the New Zealand specialist. “Not anymore.”
President Donald Trump and his allies for years have amplified racist messages on Twitter while simultaneously reaching out to black and Hispanic voters, a dissonant balancing act that’s now rocking the GOP amid nationwide racial-justice protests.
The two competing forces collided Saturday on the Twitter feed of Trump campaign senior adviser Mercedes Schlapp, when she boosted a tweet that lauded a man in Texas in a viral video as he yelled the n-word and wielded a chainsaw to chase away anti-racism demonstrators.
After POLITICO reached out to her and the campaign Saturday morning, Schlapp then retweeted another account that posted a version of the video that muted the racist slur. After this story published, she removed both her retweets and issued a written apology Saturday evening.
“I deeply apologize and I retweeted without watching the full video. I deleted the tweet,” Schlapp wrote. “I would never knowingly promote the use of that word. This is time for healing the nation and not division.”
Beyond Trump’s inner circle, Republicans have been under fire over racist social-media posts in Texas, where the chainsaw incident happened, triggering strife within GOP circles.
A dozen GOP county chairs in the state are under scrutiny for sharing racist social media posts commenting on the unrest and uprisings across the nation in response to the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white Minnesota police officer. One county chair juxtaposed a Martin Luther King Jr. quote next to an image of a banana, and another commented that “pandemic isn’t working. Start the racial wars.”
Against this backdrop, Schlapp‘s Saturday retweets highlighted how the Trump campaign operates in contradictory worlds of its own making. On one hand, Schlapp favorably promoted a man spewing anti-black racism and on the other she urged black people to vote for Trump just three days prior in an online campaign discussion on race. In that setting, she attacked Joe Biden’s tough-on-crime past while eliding Trump’s past record and rhetoric.
“Joe Biden supported the mass incarceration of black and Hispanic communities and has failed to lift them out of poverty,” Schlapp said. “In stark contrast, President Trump has delivered unprecedented opportunity for black Americans.”
The Twitter activity from Schlapp was part of a longstanding practice by Trump and his backers who occasionally use Twitter to amplify inflammatory messages that are at odds with the campaign’s appeals to black and other minority voters. Trump, who has fought accusations of racism for years, was in the midst of a black-voter outreach effort when Floyd’s killing changed the political dynamics.
The night before Schlapp’s retweet of the video to her 140,000 followers, the president retweeted a clip of conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s interview with a conservative black commentator, Candace Owens, who has taken a lead role in bashing Floyd.
“@RealCandaceO gave her thoughts: ‘The fact that he has been held up as a martyr sickens me,’” Beck tweeted on Wednesday. Trump boosted the post Fridaywith a retweet.
Trump has not personally criticized Floyd, called on the federal government to investigate his killing by Minneapolis police and has also used his Twitter feed to praise supporters who are black.
But after the looting erupted amid some protests over Floyd’s killing, Trump was criticized for denouncing “THUGS” in a Twitter post that warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase traced back to a segregation-era Miami police chief. Twitter flagged the tweet for violating its rules against inciting violence. The White House then posted the message, getting flagged as well. Trump later claimed he didn’t know where the phrase originated.
Retweeting used to occupy a type of gray area on Twitter. The phrase “retweets are not an endorsement” was long a mantra of those who wanted to essentially repost content from another account on their own for a variety of purposes, from an interest in engaging in honest discussion to plausible deniability. But Twitter behavior evolved with new functionality to allow a person to comment on a retweeted post through “quote tweeting.” Now when campaign staff retweet messages, they generally lose the ability to credibly argue they weren’t reinforcing and broadcasting a message that aligns with their viewpoints.
The controversy with Trump surged again in April when the president was criticized for retweeting a message that said “fire Fauci,” concerning one of his top advisers on the coronavirus pandemic.
Before he became president, Trump came under fire for a wide variety of Twitter activity — from promoting the false “birther” conspiracy about President Barack Obama to retweeting a false message about “black on black” crime. The following year, he tweeted an image of a Star of David set on a field of cash, which many viewed as anti-Semitic. The latter tweet has been deleted.
The president’s son and namesake last year questioned the race of Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), a candidate for president at the time who’s now on Joe Biden’s running-mate shortlist. He deleted the tweet after outcry.
In Schlapp’s case, she retweeted a quoted tweet of the viral video that had been viewed about 7.5 million times on Twitter as of Saturday afternoon. The video originated in McAllen, Texas, where demonstrators had gathered downtown, only to be confronted by a man with a chainsaw that he revved at them as they fled.
“Go home!” yells the man, who was arrested Friday. “Don’t let those f—— n—— out there fool you!”
The man’s use of racist language and violent threats were roundly condemned on social media, with some sarcastically referring to the cult classic “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie. A pro-Trump account from Texas, though, lauded the assailant on Twitter and said he is “a Mexican business owner.” Another pro-Trump account, called Latino Townhall, approvingly quote-tweeted the post Friday night and exclaimed: “That’s how to do it.”
Hours later, Schlapp retweeted that post. Schlapp, who is married to the prominent head of the American Conservative Union that hosts the popular CPAC conference, later retweeted it from another account that censored the racist comment but wrote the protesters had said “f— the police.” There is no evidence the demonstrators said that.
The man in Texas, identified as Daniel Peña by local press, exposed a little-discussed issue among Latinos: anti-black racism. The McAllen police department on Saturday confirmed Pena’s ethnicity as “White/Hispanic.”
The issue of anti-black sentiment among Latinos has surfaced as an issue in Schlapp’s original hometown of Miami, where Democrats and progressives fretted that support for demonstrations over Floyd have been under-represented by Hispanics in the community.
Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said his organization is trying to address the issue of racism among Hispanics while Trump’s is helping to fuel it.
“The Trump campaign strategy has always been to win through division. But Mercedes’ tweet shows they are taking it to the next level,” said Peñalosa.
“While most of us are having honest discussions on how to expose racism and eliminate it — the Trump campaign has moved beyond their 2016 dog whistles and passive nods to fringe racist groups,” he said. “Now they are giving racists a platform, retweeting them and actively amplifying their message. It makes my skin crawl.”
The federal agency overseeing the safe transport of hazardous materials released a stunning explanation of its May 11 decision striking down a Washington state effort to regulate trains carrying volatile oil within its borders. A state cannot use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth,” wrote Paul J. Roberti, the chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The statement appeared in the Trump administration’s justification for overruling Washington’s oil train regulation, which was challenged by crude-producing North Dakota and oil industry lobbying groups. The Washington rule seeks to limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.
Roberti wrote: “Proponents of the law insist Washington State has a legitimate public interest to protect its citizens from oil train fires and explosions, but in the context of the transportation of crude oil by rail, a State cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth or instituting a de facto ban on crude oil by rail within its borders.”
With this statement, PHMSA is codifying what has been clear for some time at the regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials by rail: that is, profits take priority over safety.
Rail Industry ‘Pre-emption’ and Safety Under Trump
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), PHMSA‘s parent agency, invoked the same legal argument, known as “pre-emption,” to overrule state efforts to require at minimum two-person crews for operating freight trains. As part of the explanation for that decision, the DOT‘s Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was adopting a policy of deregulation.
“DOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation,” wrote the agency.
A regulatory agency announcing a broad deregulatory agenda was shocking. However, this latest move openly declares that, while Washington state may have an interest in protecting its citizens from “oil train fires and explosions,” that concern should not get in the way of the oil industry’s ability to ship more of its product by rail through the state, apparently even if that increases the risk of oil train fires and explosions to Washington residents. This logic reaches a new level of prioritizing profits over people as regulatory practice.
On May 15, Pres. Trump designated @PHMSA_DOT Administrator Howard “Skip” Elliott as Acting @DOTInspectorGen after removing Mitch Behm from his position – raising concerns about conflicts of interest created by Elliott’s simultaneous roles as an agency head & Acting IG.
— Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (@TransportDems) May 19, 2020
Historically, or at least, theoretically, government has based regulations on cost-benefit analyses, weighing the costs of complying for the regulated entities against the benefits, such as lives saved or accidents prevented, as a result of the new rules. Here, the DOT‘s new regulatory approach appears to weigh primarily the benefits for the rail and oil industries while downplaying the potential cost in human lives.
However, these industries did argue about costs to get to this point. As DeSmog has repeatedly documented, lowering the vapor pressure of oil below 9 psi is possible through a process called stabilization, which makes oil less volatile and less likely to ignite. Conditioning the oil in this way before loading on trains would require the oil industry to invest in stabilization equipment, which the industry has argued is not economically feasible.
In 2014, Myron Goforth, the president of Dew Point Control LLC, a manufacturer of stabilization equipment, put the situation in simple terms. “It’s very easy to stabilize the crude — it just takes money,” Goforth told Reuters. “The producer doesn’t want to pay for it if he can ship it without doing it.”
DOT‘s May 11 decision notes that “compliance with the [Washington] law can only be accomplished by (1) pretreating the crude oil prior to loading the tank car.” Exactly: Making the oil safe to ship on long, heavy trains through small towns and large cities requires stabilizing, or conditioning, before loading it into tank cars (just as the industry does before loading oil in pipelines or on ocean-going tankers, at least in Texas). DOT makes no argument about how companies could comply with the Washington law, outside of trying to avoid passing through the state entirely or using a different transportation mode other than trains.
A particularly telling clue behind the DOT‘s conclusion that the Washington law should be pre-empted is found in the commenters whose opinions the agency is highlighting: “In light of the infrastructure, equipment, and other logistical issues, the commenters have concluded that pretreating is economically infeasible or unrealistic.”
At an oil-by-rail conference in 2016, an API official described the industry’s attitude about the prospect of requiring oil stabilization for rail transport: “We in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation.”
“‘In Trump’s America, states are on their own to protect the health and safety of their citizens — until it bumps against the wishes of the oil industry,’ said attorney Jan Hasselman.” https://t.co/IErYvEIbgh
In December 2017, Trump’s Federal Railroad Administration repealed an Obama-era rule requiring modern braking systems on oil trains despite overwhelming evidence that these systems improve rail safety. Sarah Feinberg, former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, offered important context about rail industry opposition to that rule.
“The science is there, the data is there,” Feinberg said of the efforts to require updated rail braking systems on oil trains. “Their argument is, despite that data, [they] don’t want to spend the money on it.”
That seems to be the rule for overseeing rail safety under the Trump administration. If a rule costs industry money to improve safety and protect the public from oil train fires and explosions, the industry will push back against its regulators, who appear to be pushovers, especially but not exclusively under Trump.
The alternative of prohibiting oil transportation by rail, because it is apparently too dangerous and too costly to do safely, is never even considered.
Ignoring the Science
The latest decision on the Washington state case continues a trend under Trump to overlook robust science when regulating oil by rail. However, you might not know it from the comments of this decision’s supporters.
The North Dakota Congressional delegation opened its statement praising the May 11 decision with lip service to science: “We thank the administration for doing the right thing by putting sound, scientific evidence above partisan politics.”
And yet these statements don’t stand up to scrutiny. In my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, I present the evidence that Bakken crude oil’s volatility is higher than other regions and that this factor makes a difference. This crude oil is much more volatile than traditional crude oil from Louisiana or Texas, and that volatility, along with other factors, makes it more likely to ignite in oil train derailments.
WATCH: Justin Mikulka, Sept 2015: The Science of Bomb Trains
As I noted at the time of its publishing, the Sandia Labs study is deeply flawed and does not study the actual issue of oil igniting during train derailments.
As for whether Bakken oil’s volatility is “unusual,” a Wall Street Journal analysis found in 2014 that “Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.” These combustible gases are what give the Bakken oil much higher vapor pressure levels than most other crude oils from the U.S.
The combustible gases in the oil are natural gas liquids like butane and propane, which is why the oil is so volatile.
At the same time that the oil industry tries to say Bakken oil isn’t more volatile than other oils, it argues that Bakken oil’s value lies in these extra natural gas liquids. Stabilizing the oil by removing these gases from the oil not only would cost the industry money but the resulting oil would be worth less to the industry.
The DOT notes as much in its recent decision: “These higher vapor pressure hazardous materials, such as butane, ethane, and other natural gases, are deemed essential and valuable components of Bakken crude.”
The oil industry has no argument to make on a scientific basis here, only an economic one. Reducing the vapor pressure of oil by removing gases like butane and ethane makes it less volatile and less likely to ignite. That is established by research. But the industry has repeatedly argued that removing these flammable gases from the oil would make it less valuable, which is one of its justifications for not stabilizing the oil.
A Second Bakken Bomb Train Boom Could Be on the Way
The only things that have kept the estimated 25 million North Americans living along railroad blast zones safer from dangerous oil trains is the success of activists who have blocked new oil-by-rail projects and oil industry economics. Because transporting oil by rail is more expensive than by pipeline or ocean-going tankers, the industry moves much less oil on trains when oil prices are low.
Oil train protesters in Albany, New York, in May 2016. Credit: Justin Mikulka
With current oil prices at record lows in the U.S. and Canada, it doesn’t make economic sense to move oil by rail, which is good news for the millions of people living along the rails.
However, a current legal battle over the Dakota Access pipeline could make moving Bakken oil by rail a major mode of transportation, perhaps regardless of oil price.
A judge recently set a hearing to review the permitting process for the controversial pipeline, currently moving 500,000 barrels of crude per day. Depending on the outcome, that hearing could result in the judge vacating the pipeline’s permits, shutting it down and diverting all of that Bakken oil back onto the rails in a big way, at levels that would surpass the records of 2014. The Obama administration passed oil train safety regulations in 2015 in response to the fiery accidents and oil spills that coincided with the boom in oil train traffic.
The Trump administration has steadily worked to roll back the modest progress of those safety rules, with the last one, on vapor pressure for oil by rail, withdrawn from the rulemaking process the very same day the DOT pre-empted Washington’s vapor pressure rule.
Now, an essentially unregulated oil-by-rail industry poses a real risk to public safety and the environment. With the Trump administration shooting down Washinton’s rule and repealing previous safety regulations, the risks of moving volatile oil by rail are essentially the same as in 2013. That was the same year a train hauling Bakken oil exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.
Congressman Brian Higgins is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to immediately investigate and publicly report on the details leading to a train derailment in East Aurora on Monday night. https://t.co/og2s74xRzY
Today, Bakken oil is just as volatile — and dangerous. The trains pulling upwards of a hundred cars of oil have the same outdated braking systems. Regulators have no requirements overseeing train track integrity or wear (the two latest oil train derailments and fires in Canada were likely because of track failures). There are no regulations on train length. And while rail companies have phased in a newer class of tank cars, those cars have ruptured in every major derailment involving oil and ethanol trains.
The accident in Lac-Mégantic happened almost seven years ago. An early Wall Street Journal article after the accident quoted an oil industry executive who said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”
Which is true in most cases. But Bakken crude does explode like that because it is full of gases like butane, is highly volatile, and has much higher vapor pressure than most other crude oils.
While that doesn’t have to be true, the Trump administration is taking steps to make sure it is.