Category Archives: Trump administration

Disaster-Born Safety Rules Topple in Trump Rollback

  • Chemical safety measure is latest Obama-era rule to be eased

  • White House says it can protect both public and businesses

Bloomberg News, by Ari Natter and Jennifer A Dlouhy, Nov 22, 2019

The Trump administration’s move to relax an Obama-era chemical safety regulation put in place after an explosion at a fertilizer plant is the latest example of the White House easing rules established in the wake of disasters.

Trump’s professed goal of rolling back “job-killing” regulations has led to weakening mandates proposed or enacted after three of the worst industrial accidents of the last decade: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan and 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train in Canada.

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Smoke billows from controlled oil burns near the site of the BP Plc Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010.  Photographer: Derick E. HingleBloomberg

“There is a clear pattern of the Trump administration targeting rules that were put in place in response to massive public health, safety, and environmental disasters,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The public expects our government to respond to these types of public disasters with regulations that protect them.”

Backers of Trump’s drive to repeal rules say that there is a natural rush to regulate after a high-profile disaster that can go too far.

“Some of these rollbacks come with the wisdom of time to say ‘we went further then we needed to go now that we have more information,’” said Dan Bosch, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum, a Republican-aligned think tank.

Related: EPA Eases Safety Standards Put in Place After Deadly Texas Blast

Representatives of the White House reject the notion the rollbacks risk safety.

“Those trying to connect any health and safety risks across the country” to those efforts “are dangerously wrong — there is no evidence to support such ridiculous claims,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The administration is focused on relieving undue burdens and protecting public health and safety.”

Still, the changes have set off alarm bells with public safety advocates.

“They have picked out some of the most important safety regulations,” said Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant. “The Trump deregulation bank has a withdrawal window that’s wide open and industry is taking advantage.”

Earlier: Rail Industry Hails Repeal of Electronic Brake Mandate

In 2015, the U.S. Transportation Department imposed regulations meant to address a series of fiery crude-train derailments, most notably the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Canadian officials determined that a crew member’s failure to appropriately secure the train was one of nearly 20 causes of the derailment.

U.S. regulators mandated, over the objections of the industry, electronically controlled pnuematic brakes to shorten stopping distances. But that measure was rescinded by the Trump administration, which cited a lack of research showing the brakes were better and questions over whether the benefits were justified by the costs.

In some cases, the Obama rules have been left intact while some key provisions have been eased. That opens the administration to complaints it is rolling back safeguards even when it keeps many pieces untouched.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to rescind portions of a risk management law following the 2013 fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people in West, Texas, retained provisions cheered by safety advocates such mandating coordination with first responders and emergency exercise requirements.

But it axed mandates that required more public disclosure about what chemicals are stored at industrial sites, automatic third-party audits after accidents and a rule that companies assess safer technology options as a way of reducing risk.

Related: Trump Gives Oil Drillers More Leeway by Easing Post-Spill Rule

That was also the case with the White House’s decision to relax some of the mandates imposed by the Obama administration in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

In May, the Interior Department rewrote about a fifth of that 2016 Obama rule, easing mandates for real-time monitoring of offshore operations and third-party certifications of emergency equipment.

But the department rebuffed oil industry pressure to lift a specific requirement for how much pressure must be maintained inside wells to keep them in check. Instead, companies now can apply for exceptions to that “safe drilling margin” requirement earlier in the permitting process.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with three of its five members Trump appointees, voted 3-2 in January to strip down a rule requiring nuclear plants to upgrade their protection against flooding and earthquakes that was meant to prevent a Fukushima-style meltdown from occurring in the U.S.

The nuclear industry argues that rather than redesign facilities to address increased flood risks, it’s enough to focus on storing emergency generators, pumps, and other equipment in concrete bunkers.

Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagrees.

“It’s just bad science and bad policy because of the philosophy that we are not going to impose any new regulations,” Lyman said. “It’s dismissing science, it’s not taking into account the impact of climate change that could lead to more severe flooding events.”

— With assistance by Ryan Beene

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    EPA rule change: power plants can dump fine powder, sludge and contaminated water

    EPA to scale back federal rules restricting waste from coal-fired power plants

    Agency chief Andrew Wheeler argues that Obama-era rules ‘placed heavy burdens on electricity producers.’ Critics call the changes unwarranted and potentially dangerous.
    The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.  (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
    The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

    The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.

    The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as coal ash, as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.

    The new rules would allow extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for as long as eight additional years. The biggest benefits from the rule governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.

    Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings and to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration. They also reflect President Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers.

    Under the Obama-era rule, coal ash ponds leaking contaminants into groundwater that exceeded federal protection standards had to close by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline to October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.

    In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into groundwater.

    In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”

    “These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”

    Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can convince regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.

    Moreover, if a company can demonstrate it is shutting down a coal boiler, it can petition to keep its storage ponds open for as long as eight years, depending on their size. Slurry ponds smaller than 40 acres could get approval to stay in place until Oct. 15, 2023, officials said, while larger ones could remain open until Oct. 15, 2028.

    In a phone interview Sunday, American Public Power Association general counsel Delia Patterson said the proposed rules reflect the fact that it can take time to design, permit and construct new facilities that can pass muster.

    “I think the EPA is actually acknowledging the reality of the situation. It’s just really not in anyone’s interest to rush this,” said Patterson, whose group represents publicly owned utilities that provide 15 percent of the nation’s electricity.

    Environmentalists have sharply criticized the proposals, arguing that these containment sites pose serious risks to the public at a time when more frequent and intense flooding, fueled in part by climate change, could destabilize them and contaminate drinking water supplies that serve millions of people. The rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days.

    During the past decade, Tennessee and North Carolina have experienced major coal ash spills that have destroyed homes and contaminated rivers, resulting in sickened cleanup workers and extensive lawsuits.

    The question of how to handle coal waste, which is stored in roughly 450 sites across the country, has vexed regulators for decades. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address the waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.

    Lisa Evans, an attorney specializing in hazardous waste litigation for the environmental group Earthjustice, said allowing the electric industry to extend the life of coal ash pits represents a particular threat to low-income and minority Americans, who often live near such installations.

    “Allowing plants to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking coal ash ponds for another 10 years will cause irreversible damage to drinking water sources, human health and the nation’s waters,” Evans said in an email. It was not surprising, she added, that the coal industry had lobbied against closing these storage sites. “Operating ponds is cheap. Closing them costs the utilities money,” she said.

    It is also likely to add to consumers’ costs. Last year, for example, a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission estimated it could cost ratepayers as much as $3.30 a month over 20 years — between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion — to clean up Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills in the state.

    The EPA’s proposals will retain several of the monitoring and public disclosure standards put in place in 2015, officials said, requiring companies to monitor nearby groundwater, publicly report the data and address any leaks that pollute area waterways. The “vast majority” of slurry ponds “are on the road to closure” under the new rule, an EPA official said.

    Using monitoring data disclosed for the first time under the 2015 rule, a report published jointly earlier this year by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater.

    The vast majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at hundreds of power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater at facilities from Texas to Pennsylvania to Maryland, according to that analysis. The report acknowledged, however, that the groundwater data alone does not prove drinking-water supplies near the coal waste facilities have been contaminated. Power companies are not routinely required to test nearby drinking water wells. “So the scope of the threat is largely undefined,” the report stated.

    The EPA on Monday will also revise requirements for how power plants discharge wastewater, which contains some of the same kind of contaminants. Under the Obama administration, EPA staff had concluded it was feasible to prohibit any releases of such toxic materials by having the units continually recycle their water. The agency has now concluded this is much more costly than originally anticipated, and technological advances have made it cheaper to filter and capture the waste through a membrane system, officials said.

    Under the new rule, plants would be allowed to discharge 10 percent of their water each day, on a 30-day rolling average. The administration projects the regulation would prevent 105 million pounds of pollutants from being released compared with the old standards because 18 affected plants would voluntarily adopt a more advanced filtration system. The administration also estimated it would save the industry $175 million each year in compliance costs and yield an additional $15 million to $69 million in annual public health and environmental benefits.

    However, even if the 18 plants voluntarily adopted more advanced filtration techniques, they represent a minority of the nation’s total plants.

    Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water, said the proposed rule “relaxes the 2015 treatment requirements allowing increased selenium discharges and [the] release of contaminated water from coal ash handling. Even worse, it exempts a large number of plants from these relaxed requirements, allowing them to discharge more pollutants and continue disposing of ash in leaking ponds.”

    Patterson said although it may be “just hard to understand” why companies need more time and flexibility, plant operators have no interest in contaminating nearby waterways. “They live in and around these communities,” she said.

    Evans said environmentalists are likely to challenge the new rule on coal ash storage, and the federal government could again reverse course if a Democrat wins the presidency next year. She noted that, because 95 percent of coal ash ponds remain unlined, two-thirds lie within five feet of groundwater and 92 percent leak more than federal health standards allow, they could pose a risk to the public even as litigation winds its way through the federal courts.

    “We have to hope that no wells are poisoned and no toxic waste is spilled in the interim,” she said. “Crossing your fingers is not a legal or sane way to regulate toxic waste.”

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      Not just another Trump scandal – this one might actually bring him down

      The New York Times, by Nicholas Fandos, Eileen Sullivan, Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg, Sep 19, 2019

      Watchdog Refuses to Detail Whistle-Blower Complaint About Trump

      The complaint, being discussed in a closed meeting with House lawmakers, addresses a commitment that President Trump was said to have made to a world leader.
      Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said none of the previous directors of national intelligence had ever refused to provide a whistle-blower complaint to Congress. Credit Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

      WASHINGTON — The internal watchdog for American spy agencies declined repeatedly in a briefing on Thursday to disclose to lawmakers the content of a potentially explosive whistle-blower complaint that is said to involve a discussion between President Trump and a foreign leader, members of Congress said.

      During a private session on Capitol Hill, Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, told lawmakers he was unable to confirm or deny anything about the substance of the complaint, including whether it involved the president, according to committee members.

      The complaint, which prompted a standoff between Congress and Mr. Trump’s top intelligence official, involves a commitment that Mr. Trump made in a communication with another world leader, according to a person familiar with the complaint. The Washington Post first reported the nature of the discussion. The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has refused to give the complaint to Congress, as is generally required by law, the latest in a series of fights over information between the Democratic-led House and the White House.

      Few details of the whistle-blower complaint are known, including the identity of the world leader. And it is not obvious how a communication between Mr. Trump and a foreign leader could meet the legal standards for a whistle-blower complaint that the inspector general would deem an “urgent concern.”

      Under the law, the complaint has to concern the existence of an intelligence activity that violates the law, rules or regulations, or otherwise amounts to mismanagement, waste, abuse, or a danger to public safety. But a conversation between two foreign leaders is not itself an intelligence activity.

      And while Mr. Trump may have discussed intelligence activities with the foreign leader, he enjoys broad power as president to declassify intelligence secrets, order the intelligence community to act and otherwise direct the conduct of foreign policy as he sees fit, legal experts said.

      Mr. Trump regularly speaks with foreign leaders and often takes a freewheeling approach. Some current and former officials said that what an intelligence official took to be a troubling commitment could have been an innocuous comment. But there has long been concern among some in the intelligence agencies that the information they share with the president is being politicized.

      Andrew P. Bakaj, a former C.I.A. and Pentagon official whose legal practice specializes in whistle-blower and security clearance issues, confirmed that he is representing the official who filed the complaint. Mr. Bakaj declined to identify his client or to comment.

      Mr. Trump denied wrongdoing on Thursday, explaining that he would not “say something inappropriate” on calls where aides and intelligence officials from both sides routinely listen in.

      But whatever Mr. Trump said was startling enough to prompt the intelligence official to file a formal whistle-blower complaint on Aug. 12 to the inspector general for the intelligence agencies. Such a complaint is lodged through a formal process intended to protect the whistle-blower from retaliation.

      Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been locked in the standoff with Mr. Maguire over the complaint for nearly a week. He said Mr. Maguire told him that he had been instructed not to give the complaint to Congress, and that the complaint addressed privileged information — meaning the president or people close to him were involved.

      Mr. Schiff told reporters after the briefing that he still did not know the contents of the complaint and had been unable to get an answer to whether the White House had been involved in suppressing it.

      “I don’t think this is a problem of the law,” he said. “I think the law is written very clearly. I think the law is just fine. The problem lies elsewhere. And we’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is, to make sure that the national security is protected and to make sure that this whistle-blower is protected.”

      Mr. Schiff said he would explore potential recourse with the House’s general counsel to try to force the release of the complaint, including potentially suing for it in court.

      Mr. Schiff has said that none of the previous directors of national intelligence, a position created in 2004, had ever refused to provide a whistle-blower complaint to Congress. The House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena last week to compel Mr. Maguire to appear before the panel. He briefly refused but relented on Wednesday, and is now scheduled to appear before the committee in an open hearing next week.

      Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, said on Thursday that he and the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, also expected both the inspector general and acting director to brief them early next week and “clear this issue up.”

      Mr. Maguire and Mr. Atkinson are at odds over how the complaint should be handled. Mr. Atkinson has indicated the matter should be investigated, and alerted the House and Senate Intelligence committees, while Mr. Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, says the complaint does not fall within the agencies’ purview because it does not involve a member of the intelligence community — a network of 17 agencies that does not include the White House.

      [Read a pair of letters from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence about the complaint.]

      The inspector general of the intelligence community “determined that this complaint is both credible and urgent, and that it should be transmitted to Congress under the clear letter of the law,” Mr. Schiff, Democrat of California, said in a statement on Wednesday evening.

      Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said the law is “very clear” that the whistle-blower complaint must be handed over to Congress.

      “The Inspector General determines what level of concern it is,” said Mr. King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Once the determination is made,” he added, the director of national intelligence “has a ministerial responsibility to share that with Congress. It is not discretionary.”

      “This is based upon the principle of separation of powers and Congress’s oversight responsibility,” Mr. King said.

      Mr. Maguire was named the acting director in August, after the president had announced that the previous director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, would be stepping down. Mr. Trump had planned to nominate Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, a Trump loyalist without an extensive background in intelligence. But the president dropped the plan after lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about Mr. Ratcliffe’s qualifications and possible exaggerations on his resume.

      The reports about the whistle-blower complaint touched off speculation about what Mr. Trump said and to whom.

      In the weeks before the complaint was filed, Mr. Trump spoke with President Vladimir V. Putin of RussiaPrime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte.

      And current and former intelligence officials have expressed surprise that during his first few months as president, Mr. Trump shared classified information provided by an ally, Israel, with the Russian foreign minister.

      Such disclosures are not illegal, but Mr. Trump flouted intelligence-sharing decorum by sharing an ally’s intelligence without express permission.

      Mr. King expressed some doubt about how serious the underlying complaint might be.

      “I am a little concerned it is being overblown,” Mr. King said. “On the other hand, it may be significant. But we won’t know that for a few days.”


      Charlie Savage contributed reporting.  Matthew Rosenberg, a Washington-based correspondent, was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on Donald Trump and Russia. He previously spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Nicholas Fandos is a reporter in the Washington bureau covering Congress.  Eileen Sullivan is the morning breaking news correspondent in Washington. She previously worked for The Associated Press for a decade, covering national security and criminal justice.  Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for the Wall Street Journal.
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        Trump wants to trash California emission standards – Newsom and Becerra stand strong

        [Editor: First hear our California officials on the Youtube video of today’s press conference.  The LA Times story follows.  – RS]


        Newsom, Becerra lash out at Trump plan on California emissions standards

        Traffic in downtown Los Angeles seen from the 110 Freeway.
        Traffic in downtown Los Angeles seen from the 110 Freeway.  (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
        Los Angeles Times, by Phil Willon, Anna M. Phillips, Sep. 18, 2019

        Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday criticized the Trump administration’s plan to rescind California’s nearly half-century-old authority to impose tough car emissions standards, vowing to take legal action to block the move.

        “California will prevail because we’re leaders in this space,” Newsom said.

        Newsom’s comments came during a morning news conference with state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, and California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld.

        The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce plans Thursday morning to overturn a special federal waiver that permits California to set its own strict pollution controls to improve air quality, the foundation of the state’s aggressive efforts to combat climate change.

        The EPA originally planned to announce that it would do away with the waiver at an event on Wednesday, while President Trump was visiting Los Angeles. But the announcement was delayed, handing the president an opportunity to deliver the news himself.

        In a series of tweets early Wednesday, Trump said that revoking California’s authority to impose emissions standards will help make cars safer and more affordable, an assertion that Newsom has consistently refuted.

        “This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars,” Trump tweeted. “There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be far safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

        In fact, automakers have repeatedly warned the administration that forcing a legal battle with California over car pollution standards could significantly damage their bottom line. If the nation’s auto industry is split in two — with some states following California’s standards and others following weaker federal rules — car makers could find themselves caught in a regulatory nightmare, required to comply with both.

        Experts have also raised serious doubts about the administration’s argument that the new policy will make new cars safer. In a study published last year in the journal Science, researchers wrote that the administration’s analysis of its own policy proposal “has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies, [and] is misleading.”

        Ahead of Wednesday’s news conference, Newsom responded to the president’s claims on Twitter, calling them “simply inaccurate.”

        “Your standards will cost consumers $400 billion,” Newsom said in a tweet. “Result in 320 billion more gallons of oil burned and spewed into our air. And hurt car companies’ ability to compete in a global market. It’s bad for our air. Bad for our health. Bad for our economy.”

        The Trump administration’s action threatens to derail California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade to a level 40% below those recorded in 1990: The primary driver behind that effort is the state’s goal to help ensure more than 1 million zero-emission vehicles and plug-in hybrids are on the road by 2025.

        “Our message to those who claim to support states’ rights: Don’t trample on ours,” Becerra said Wednesday.

        California’s clash with the Republican president, who is in California to fundraise for his 2020 reelection campaign, comes just over a month after state officials worked to circumvent the Trump administration’s efforts to relax tailpipe pollution regulations by reaching a deal with four major automakers, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, to gradually strengthen fuel-efficiency standards. Other automakers have expressed interest in joining the pact.

        In a tweet, Trump called California’s agreement with automakers “crazy” and the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into whether it violated federal competition law.

        The voluntary deal between the California Air Resources Board and automakers covers about a third of the new cars and SUVs sold in the U.S. Under the agreement, the four automakers agreed to produce cars that must reach a minimum of about 50 mpg by 2026.

        Since Trump’s election in 2016, California’s state officials have filed more than 50 lawsuits over the administration‘s actions on a variety of issues, including more than two dozen challenges to policies proposed by the EPA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for setting energy and fuel-efficiency standards. In August, California joined a coalition of 21 other states suing to block the Trump administration’s attempt to gut restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

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