Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Real Liquidity Crisis

Back in early February, as one of their first steps and using a little-known law allowing recently enacted regulations to be reviewed and reversed quickly by a simple majority vote, Congress and the Trump administration changed the laws on coal mines’ rights to dump their effluents onto public lands and public waterways. The regulations, based on a statute passed 40 years ago, were viewed by Trump and the mining industry as President Obama’s purported “war on coal.” Huh? Was Obama president 40 years ago? Am I missing something? Coal mines have had a well-documented history ofs devastating impact on deteriorating water quality in most of the mainstream coal communities where they are located.
On February 16, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed H.J. Res. 38, which disapproved the rule known as the Stream Protection Rule, published at 81 FR 93066-93445 (Dec. 20, 2016). The Congressional Review Act, 5 U.S.C. 801 et seq., states that ‘[a]ny rule that takes effect and later is made of no force or effect by enactment of a joint resolution under section 802 shall be treated as though such rule had never taken effect.’ 5 U.S.C. 801(f). Therefore, the regulations that are now in effect are the same as those that were in effect on January 18, 2017, which is the day before the Stream Protection Rule originally became effective.” Website from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“Coal mining is a messy business. In parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia, mining companies often get at underground coal seams by blowing up the tops of mountains — a process known as mountaintop removal mining. Once that’s done, they’ll dump the debris into the valleys below, which can contaminate streams and waterways with toxic heavy metals.
“Appalachian Voices, an environmental group, estimates that coal companies have buried over 2,000 miles of streams in the region through mountaintop removal mining since the 1990s. And there’s growing evidence that when mining debris and waste gets into water supplies, the toxic metals can have dire health impacts for the people and mostly rural communities living nearby.
“In theory, there’s a law to mitigate this. The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act says that mining companies should not cause "material damage to the environment to the extent that it is technologically and economically feasible." But that language is vague. And the agency responsible for enforcing this law, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), hasn’t clarified what this all entails since publishing the “stream buffer zone rule” in 1983…
 “In 2008, the George W. Bush administration published an update to the stream buffer zone rule, but those efforts later got struck down in court for running afoul of the Endangered Species Act… So enter the Obama administration. Ever since 2009, OSMRE has been trying to update its guidance here. That process involved poring through reams of research on the effects of coal mining on ecosystems, holding endless hearings, talking to various stakeholders, and so on.
“The final rule got published on December 19, 2016 — just before Obama left office. And while it’s almost ludicrously complex, updating hundreds of older regulations, it basically puts a couple of key restrictions in place for coal companies seeking permits to expand or start new mines in the future [including] a much stricter limit on dumping waste and debris in surrounding ecosystems [and each mining company] has to develop a plan for restoring damaged waterways.”, February 16th. Bye bye this regulation, say the Trumpists.
While coal is one of the biggest contributors to toxic water quality, there are lots of other factors, from our aging water-distribution infrastructure to other manufacturing or mineral/fossil fuel extraction toxic effluents. We have pollution associated with the chemicals used in fracking (which are exempted under environmental laws) and more than a few sites where toxicity exists in long-ignored dump-sites. Throw in a few massive oil leaks, and… Then there’s this little side story:
Under pressure to impose severe austerity measures, the debacle in Flint, Michigan “started in April 2014 when Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Flint River. Officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water. As a result there was a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger.” Wikipedia.  The resulting lead toxicity inflicted serious medical problems on local residents. I’m sure you know the rest of this massive scandal.
Between official policies that deny global climate change and assert that environmental regulations are “job killers,” the Trump administration has seriously downgraded the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to enforce anti-pollution laws and regulations and issued executive orders and implemented Congressional repeal of other governmental efforts to make our air breathable and our water potable. “The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed at least five members of a major scientific review board, the latest signal of what critics call a campaign by the Trump administration to shrink the agency’s regulatory reach by reducing the role of academic research…
“President Trump has directed [agency head, Scott] Pruitt to radically remake the E.P.A., pushing for deep cuts in its budget — including a 40 percent reduction for its main scientific branch — and instructing him to roll back major Obama-era regulations on climate change and clean water protection. In recent weeks, the agency has removed some scientific data on climate change from its websites, and Mr. Pruitt has publicly questioned the established science of human-caused climate change.” New York Times, May 7th. And whether we like it or not, too many Americans face serious health issues simply by drinking their local tap water, a situation that is going to get a lot worse under the Trump administration.
“America's crumbling water infrastructure and insufficient implementation of environmental laws have left millions of people drinking unsafe water, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to Threats on Tap, there were more than 12,000 health-based violations in 5,000 water systems that served over 27 million people across the United States.
“The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted by Congress in 1974, is supposed to keep drinking water clean by regulating 100 different contaminants, such as lead and arsenic. But lack of enforcement from the Environmental Protection Agency and state-level agencies, coupled with the deterioration of water infrastructure, has resulted in the standards of the SDWA not being met. ‘Flint was a wake-up call for Americans,’ said Erik Olson, who directs the NRDC's health program, ‘but it's not the only place in the United States with tap water problems.’
“The NRDC documented health-based SDWA violations in every state and some territories. The five water systems with the most health violations were Texas, Puerto Rico, Ohio, Maryland, and Kentucky. Those violations included contamination from disinfectants that react adversely when added to water and nitrites from animal or human waste.
“According to the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention, more than 19 million Americans get sick every year from drinking contaminated water. The problem is more pronounced in smaller and rural communities: Water systems that serve 500 people or less made up more than 50 percent of all health-based violations in 2015.”, May 3rd.
The lovely net result of all of this anti-environmental government policy is some truly irreversible long-term damage to our land, our air, our water and, ultimately our bodies and our livelihoods. We will see millions – make that billions – of people suffer long-term declines in their health and life expectancies, industries that will wither away as climate change alters the access to natural resources and hacks away at coastal land values. It’s time for Millennials and younger to raise their voices and redouble their political activism; it is their world that will suffer the most from this idiocy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes I feel as if I were shouting in an empty room.

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