Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is so awful that he drove 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System advisory board to resign. The federally chartered board that designates national historic and natural landmarks threw up the deuces after they grew tired of Zinke's shenanigans. At no point since Zinke has taken office did he meet with the board. The terms for most of the members were set to expire in May, but things had gotten so bad they just bounced.
(Remember, this is the second time we've seen an entire council resign during this administration. The
President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned in August last year after Trump's "controversial" (read: racist) comments about protests in Charlottesville.)
In December 2016, President Obama issued Director's Order No. 100 before he left office - a directive calling for climate change to be a focus in the management of natural resources in our park system. Its purpose states:
The National Park System and related areas face environmental and social changes that are increasingly widespread, complex, accelerating, and uncertain. Addressing these challenges requires updates of National Park Service (NPS) policy to reflect the complexity of decisions needed for resource stewardship. This Director’s Order (Order) is intended to guide the Service in taking the necessary actions to support resource stewardship to fulfill its mission in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, the order was rescinded on August 16, 2017 by Zinke. The NPS advisory board had played a role in the creation of D.O. 100 in an effort to further the scientific literacy needed for leadership making resource management decisions surrounding key issues like biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. The Department's current leadership has shown no interest in learning about or continuing to advance an agenda that address the effects of climate change, protections needed for our ecosystems or allocated resources for education.
Last month, Trump signed a proclamation to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by half. The move was the largest rollback of federally protected land in history. It sets a precedent for more ecological and culturally significant lands to lose its protected status for industrial development.
Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company, lobbied hard for these reductions. In a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke, company CEO Mark Chalmers complained that the monument protections could "affect existing and future mill operations." The newly drawn boundaries of Bears Ears now have the uranium deposits outside the protected area.
Conservationists and Tribal Nations have pointed out the health risks associated with uranium mining, but many politicians chalk it up to scare tactics. Clearly, they don't care about the impact uranium's toxicity already has on Navajo families.
Since 2008, the EPA and other federal agencies have worked together to address the uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation as part of a historic $600 million settlement agreement. From 1944 to 1986 hundreds of mining operations were opened because of the high demand for atomic weapons at the end of World War II. Across Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, Navajo people worked in or near the mines, raising their families within close proximity of radioactive substances. As the Cold War waned, mining companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines across 27,000 square miles of land.
Many died of cancer and kidney failure, and others still have a high rate of uranium contamination from drinking water, land and the houses they live in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Navajo families in this area have higher uranium levels than the rest of the U.S. population. It's another case of environmental racism.
Zinke has raised prices to national parks, overturned a ban on coal mining on public lands and eliminated climate sciences from programs. He has yet to fill many executive level positions at Interior, such as a director for NPS, and ended many environmental safeguards. Most recently, a plan was announced to allow offshore drilling in previously protected waters. And let’s not forget his efforts to lift the ban on importing trophies from elephants and lions hunted overseas.
It's clear this administration is needlessly putting our monuments, parks, ecosystems and natural resources at risk. Just because there's a way to make money off the lands, doesn't mean that we should. Zinke is rivalling to be worse for the environment than EPA chief Scott Pruitt.
I know that you’re not operating with the budget you deserve, and that many programs like pre-disaster mitigation grants and the National Flood Insurance Program are facing serious budget cuts. I even understand that the Disaster Relief Fund is barely being held afloat by relief bills passed by Congress.
And I can sympathize with all the career emergency managers that truly mean well and want to help citizens because their work is repeatedly negated by agency leadership that refuses to listen and learn from past failures.
But Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria nearly three weeks ago, and yet people still have not received any food or water from your agency. Why is that? Because you said it’s not your job to distribute food and water to hurricane victims.
According to your website, your mission is to “support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.” That includes:
Additionally, as part of the National Response Framework (NRF), you are one of several agencies responsible for meeting basic human needs, saving lives, restoring basic services and establishing a secure environment moving toward transition to recovery. The NRF specifies you are responsible for:
Currently, more than one-third of Puerto Ricans have no access to clean drinking water, while many are resorting to toxic drinking sources. And only 200,000 meals are being passed out each day when there are more than two million people in need of food. Aid workers have reported they cannot distribute supplies and equipment because the agency won’t release them. Without critical life-saving supplies, we’re looking at the potential of an epidemic outbreak.
If this sounds familiar it’s because the same failures happened during Hurricane Katrina. There was a breakdown in communications, ultimately paralyzing response from several agencies. Key officials were not proactive, leading to mass confusion over assignments and deployments. There were supply failures, where you not only took weeks to deliver much-needed supplies, you wasted resources. The 25,000 mobile homes you supplied went virtually unused because according to your own rules, they can’t be used on flood plains.
As of last week, your agency had yet to authorize all disaster response tools. It only took 10 days for the agency to authorize that level of aid in Texas after Harvey. After initial emergency help (i.e. food, water, shelter, medical care and critical infrastructure) you’re supposed to move on to reconstruction (e.g. sewage, stormwater, schools and local utilities). However, we’re still at the earliest stages of relief on many parts of the island.
Just because Puerto Rico doesn’t have voting representation in Congress, nor electoral votes for president, does not mean they should be ignored. Unlike political leaders that rely on thoughts and prayers, you actually have to do work.
People are dying from abject neglect. People are missing and go days without a proper meal. Thousands are without medicine and don’t know if they will live or die.
You are willfully killing Puerto Ricans. Shame on you for not doing your job.
For once, do better.
There are many lessons to learn from Harvey. I'll be discussing in a series of posts current disaster policies in the U.S., what it means to build resilient communities and the impact of disasters on environmental justice populations.
The American West is on fire. Tens of thousands of acres of forested and residential land is engulfed in flames in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The blazes of these fires have destroyed numerous structures and continue to threaten homes, buildings and the air quality of residents.
In addition to the damage from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, we’re also watching cleanup efforts in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean caused by Hurricane Irma.
Now, we’re praying for Puerto Rico and Dominica because of Hurricane Maria.
And as is often the case, there are regions of the country that have not received news coverage. Last month, counties in Michigan and West Virginia were declared federal disaster areas by President Trump due to severe flooding, landslides and mudslides.
What we’re seeing is not normal. These are no longer naturally occurring disasters. The wildfire seasons are growing longer and we’re continuously experiencing record-breaking rainfall. Entire communities haven’t even had a chance to catch their breath before the next storm rolls through. How are citizens and local officials supposed to handle this year after year?
While Congress was arguing over how they would vote on an aid package for Harvey, three more hurricanes were on their way. President Trump praised the federal government’s emergency response in Texas, completely ignoring the policies he dismantled that are needed to help with recovery and mitigation.
We cannot forget there are four stages to emergency management:
The United States places the emphasis of disaster recovery on FEMA and national insurance schemes, instead of prevention. Year after year, cities continue to rebuild in the same way and in an unsustainable manner, forgetting the last storm that happened. And we expect residents to make those decisions on how to rebuild, instead of local and state governments investing in building resilient cities. Cities across the U.S. aren’t even preparing the same way for extreme weather events. It's as if we don't realize these disasters happen annually.
Currently, residents who don’t have insurance in federally declared disaster areas can apply for FEMA’s Disaster Assistance or a low interest loan through the Small Business Administration. These applications require having a current mailing address, insurance information, statements to show total household income, banking information, and a working telephone number; not the easiest items to pull together if your home has been demolished.
But this is only the first step in a long road to recovery. When roads are cleared and businesses reopen, residents are still expected to show up for work, take their kids to school, and take care of relatives, even if they don’t have electricity, food or running water. People with no place to live are still expected to pay rent and make mortgage payments, and file inordinate amounts of paperwork to ask for lenience. There’s a sense of urgency to return to normalcy even though normalcy involves pollution, poor public health, inequitable housing and hazardous risks for vulnerable populations.
The gap in income equality widens as under-resourced communities struggle to move forward with basic necessities, and our nation’s political leaders ignore the needs of constituents on the ground.
The management of resources after a storm is directed by federal agencies, and may not reflect the needs of local residents. In fact, coordinators on the ground may be excluded from the conversation altogether. Even though Congress created a mandate to establish the National Disaster Recovery Framework after Hurricane Katrina, most of the attention remains on post-disaster funding and not pre-event investments. And there’s still a lot of debate amongst city officials when they receive federal grants because they don’t have an adequate recovery plan.
Disaster recovery is a complex process that encompasses restoring and rebuilding the physical, economic, social and natural environment through planning and action. Not only is it shaped by what happens after an event, it’s also shaped by the investment, policies and capacity building that takes place before an event happens. The U.S. continues to be unprepared because there’s no national plan, or coordinated funding, to guide cities on addressing these risks. In the end, we’re left with disproportionate outcomes for different communities.
Elected officials must assess what recovery means for Americans, especially our vulnerable populations, during an era of climate change. Our governments need to invest in capacity building and planning, and improve the distribution of funding before and after events. We cannot continue to keep rebuilding the same way. The financial and emotional burden of those impacted by the disasters cannot continue to be overlooked.
There are many lessons to learn from Harvey. I'll be discussing in a series of posts current disaster policies in the U.S., what it means to build resilient communities and the impact of disasters on environmental justice populations.
Communities that are better prepared for natural disasters have a greater opportunity to rebound quickly. This includes reducing the negative impacts on our economic, environmental and health systems post-storm. Most importantly, it’s about reducing death.
As we’re seeing now with Hurricane Harvey, citizens from around the country have mobilized to help rescue, clothe, feed and medically treat Texans. However, there is always a great outpouring of support from Americans after disasters. What measures were taken for hurricane preparedness by the state and cities along the Gulf Coast?
This was not the first time Texas was hit with a hurricane. Many residents in Houston were still living under tarps after Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Rita in 2005. The devastation wrought by Harvey was not unexpected, nor was the damage done unpreventable. But we’re witnessing many systemic failures that has led to human catastrophe.
The history of federal disaster policy and legislative directives in the United States is largely reactive to large-scale disasters. (One example being the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 which among many things established a registry for separated family members, provided transportation assistance for displaced residents and developed guidelines to accommodate families with disabilities.) Although there are relief, emergency and mitigation acts that provide an orderly means for the federal government to assist state and local governments, we often fall short in the context of long-term preparedness.
How the U.S. Government Budgets for Disasters
The federal government is a key driver in the cleanup and recovery effort after major storms, but Congress chooses to see disaster relief as emergency spending instead of proactive investments. It is more cost effective to prevent damage than to clean up damage, but that would require for national leaders to include protection measures in the federal budget. Therefore many of the programs President Trump praised in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s relief efforts are on the chopping block. Why rack up the federal deficit when you can just pass an emergency spending bill?
The President of the United States has the authority to make a disaster declaration for small-scale and large-scale disasters under the Robert T. Stafford Emergency Relief and Disaster Assistance Act. Most of these disaster declarations are funded through the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars in discretionary funding for disaster relief and emergencies primarily through Budget Control Act (BCA) cap adjustments. This means that Congress will increase discretionary spending for larger expenses with supplemental appropriations bills to provide additional funding that’s not subject to budgetary controls. There are three classifications of disaster and emergency spending:
We’re currently seeing the politics of what happens when we must rely on a relief package after a natural disaster. President Trump wants to tie Harvey aid to raising the debt ceiling, making it difficult for Congress to oppose the debt-limit bill. In the end, the House and Senate will pass a bill to provide much-needed aid for Texas, but is this the best way to go?
House Republicans were slated to cut more than $870 million from the DRF to build the border wall. It stems from the idea that much of the work from FEMA and NOAA and the EPA aren't vital services, thereby making staff, outreach programs and grants expendable.
But, natural disasters will always happen. Why not include money in the budget for state and local governments to develop comprehensive disaster planning?
The Case for Citizen Corps
FEMA’s Non-Disaster Grants primarily focuses on hazards, transit and counterterrorism. The agency’s Disaster Assistance provides funding for families and businesses whose property has been damaged and the losses aren’t covered by insurance. Neither of those focuses on community preparedness programs for natural disasters.
As we’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, there is minimal citizen engagement during emergency response. There aren’t mandatory drills for residents or appointed neighborhood leaders to act as liaisons with emergency management agencies. Many cities don’t always have an accounting for transportation needs of vulnerable populations, nor do they delegate responsibilities for medical personnel and veterinarians to report to specific locations. And businesses, schools and churches often take it upon themselves to open their doors.
We need to invest in programs such as Citizen Corps – a coalition of local organizations, businesses, city officials and professional first responders that receive training to assist in disaster recovery. This eliminates volunteers who are unprepared, increases safety and integrates an entire community to ensure disaster preparedness. The populace is better prepared to handle threats because of education, training and volunteerism.
Families shouldn’t be sitting ducks waiting to be rescued by the government. If we can enroll volunteers to work at the polls on election day, we can enroll citizens to lead communities to safety. We need to reevaluate how we prepare for storms to prevent damage and death, and not just look to funding for recovery after the storm.
Most of the discussion surrounding environmental budget cuts in Virginia have centered on the elimination of funding for the Chesapeake Bay, and the subsequent fallout on our streams, fishing economy and recreational activities. But, I want to note that the Bay has activists to fight for funding restoration. Senators Tim Kaine (D - VA) and Mark Warner (D - VA) are on record calling on the rejection of these budget cuts. What about the other federal budget cuts that will impact Virginia’s environmental and energy programs?
Trump’s proposed budget will significantly reduce funding for the EPA by 31 percent, the Department of Interior by 12 percent and the Department of Energy’s nonnuclear programs by 18 percent. For many Americans, these budget cuts may sound like banal numbers on paper, but it means that we will have fewer people and fewer grants to safeguard our environment.
The reality is that the majority of EPA programs are run by state government agencies, and are partially funded by the federal government. Federal environmental laws set the national standards for environmental protection, and the EPA develops enforcement programs and policies to ensure the law is being followed. States work with the EPA through specific programs to achieve compliance. Bottom line: they need federal dollars to do their job.
Here in Virginia, the Office of Natural Resources depends on federal funding for 19 percent of its budget. The Department of Environmental Quality has cumulatively received more than $550 million in EPA grants for compliance programs. Those resources helps the state safeguard the environment.
Each year the EPA awards more than $4 billion in grants. Several of Virginia’s state agencies such as the Department of Health, Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have received funding for enforcement activities like indoor radon testing, beach monitoring, pesticide performance, hazardous waste management and air pollution control.
This funding also goes towards small nonprofit organizations and provides average citizens with an opportunity for meaningful involvement – an opportunity to be part of the decision-making process with the responsible state and federal government agencies.
In 2015, the Greater Southeast Development Corporation of Newport News, Va. was awarded $30,000 through the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program to address lung health in the community. Residents created a coalition to improve the health of residents by raising awareness about air pollutants and developing self-care strategies for respiratory health.
So while the Chesapeake Bay receives several headlines in this budget cut discussion, remember the day-to-day environmental protections that also need funding.
It’s important that we lobby our elected officials to fight for federal dollars that support local cleanup projects, raise awareness about air pollution, and save energy efficiency programs that helps low-income families save money on their utility bills. Heavy cuts force us to prioritize which families will have clean air and water, and which families will suffer from asthma and lead in their drinking water.
Last week, I talked about President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the EPA, FEMA and NOAA, and the irresponsibility of this administration to defund agencies needed for environmental protection.
Well, Trump released his 2018 budget yesterday and it’s just absurd.
In order to increase defense spending by $54 billion, Trump decided to take money from 18 other agencies, decimating dozens of federal programs that fund scientific research, assist the poor and protect public health. The proposed budget targets climate change investments, clean energy programs and restoration initiatives.
The 2018 Budget requests $5.7 billion for the EPA, a $2.6 billion reduction, or 31 percent loss, from the 2017 annualized continuing resolution (CR) level. The EPA will lose 50 programs and 3,200 staffing positions.
Congress must approve the budget by the end of April, or we’ll face another partial government shutdown on April 29 when the current temporary funding bill expires. The official budget won’t take effect until the new fiscal year on October 1.
The federal government sets the priorities of the country through its budget, and the general theme of the 2018 Budget is if the Trump administration deems a program low priority or poorly performing, it’s not going to be funded. The environment and climate change has taken the biggest hit.
Functions that can be absorbed into other programs, including on the state and local level, will be made redundant. This is part of an effort to eliminate or severely reduce federal investment in state environmental activities – or ‘government overreach’ according to the GOP.
Here are environmental and energy programs that will be eliminated under Trump’s proposal:
Environmental Protection Agency
More than $100 million of funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts will be discontinued. The focus is to reorient the clean air program “without unduly burdening the American economy.”
Severe budget cuts are in store for the Office of Research and Development, the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Superfund sites and categorical grants which allows states to receive funds to implement water, air, waste and toxic substances programs
Department of Energy
The Office of Science will experience a $900 million reduction. Funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability will focus on applied energy research and development activities where the federal role is stronger.
Department of Interior
The Interior Department will increase funding and relax permitting processes to allow industry to drill on public lands to access energy resources. Even though the 2018 Budget mentions support for land management operations from the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management, a 12 percent budget will make it difficult for maintenance of national parks, historic sites and public lands.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The 2018 Budget slashes research for climate, ocean and earth science programs. The development of polar orbiting and geostationary weather satellites will be maintained so forecasters can continue to have critical weather data.
Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development
Trump seeks to eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI) and cease payments to the United Nations’ climate change programs, such as the Green Climate Fund – a key component of the Paris climate agreement. The U.S. provides foreign assistance through the GCCI to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, foster low-carbon economic growth and promote climate-resilient societies.
At least 24 tornadoes touched down in the South and Midwest over the last two days. Last week, more than 20 tornadoes ripped through the Midwest, with an EF4 touching down in Perryville, Missouri. Massachusetts experienced its first-ever tornado in February, and Minnesota set a record yesterday for the earliest reported tornado in a calendar year.
There have been at least 250 confirmed tornadoes in 2017 that have claimed the lives of 24 people, wreaking havoc on communities that will have to find a way to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
As we’re witnessing now, tornadoes can happen throughout the year, even during the winter. But sadly, we haven’t even reached peak tornado season which occurs from April through June.
Natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes are increasingly putting a strain on the federal budget. And with an increase in temperature due to climate change, there will be more extreme weather the federal government will have to pay for.
Which is why it’s so odd that the Trump administration has proposed a 17 percent budget cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of our leading climate science agencies, and an 11 percent budget cut to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency which provides disaster relief. It’s all part of the president’s effort to find money to build a multi-billion dollar border wall.
NOAA would experience cuts in research funding, education, coastal management and resilience, and most importantly its satellite programs, which provides 90 percent of information for weather forecasts. The same satellites that alerts us when extreme weather is on the way, guides commercial ships and monitors crop health.
FEMA helps local, state and tribal governments prepare for emergencies through training and response strategies. Imagine the strain that would be put on community preparedness and recovery efforts if there is a significant cut to its federal budget. It would mean that states that experience big, costly natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy may not have the ability to tap into federal dollars to coordinate a response or rebuild.
According to NOAA, the number of severe weather events that cause at least $1 billion in damage is on the rise. In 2016, there were 15 weather and climate disaster events that exceeded $1 billion in damage from drought, wildfire, flooding, a tropical cyclone and multiple severe storms.
FEMA spends billions of dollars on general relief and flood insurance. The Department of Agriculture spends billions on crop insurance. The Army Corps of Engineers spends billions on flood control. Why are we cutting budgets for catastrophic events we know are on the rise?
Our government should be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to emergency preparedness. Investing in resilience programs through green infrastructure projects will allow communities, especially coastal communities, to be better prepared and withstand damage from natural disasters.
It’s shortsighted and irresponsible for this administration to significantly defund agencies that are crucial to a number of industries and the livelihood of Americans. Unfortunately, history tells us that everybody starts caring until it's too late.
Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senator Shelley Moore (R-WV) and House Republicans from Ohio and West Virginia introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to overturn President Obama’s Stream Protection Rule.
The new rule is an update to the Stream Buffer Zone Rule and imposes new restrictions on surface coal mining near waterways. It was issued by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in late December, weeks before President Obama left office.
The regulation was immediately challenged in court by North Dakota and the Murray Energy Corporation, and nearly a dozen more states in a separate lawsuit, because it requires additional data gathering and monitoring around mine sites, and imposes new financial reclamation requirements for states.
Congressional Republicans argue that the Stream Protection Rule is a drastic overreach of the federal government that unfairly targets America’s coal industry and jobs. The introduction of the resolution is the formal kickoff campaign for conservation lawmakers to remove “burdensome” environmental regulations using the Congressional Review Act (CRA).
The CRA is a law that allows Congress to block executive action within the first 60 days of a new legislative session. It takes a simple majority in both the House and Senate to undo any last-minute regulations signed by the previous administration. With a majority in both chambers, Republicans can pass a joint resolution of disapproval and send it to President Trump to sign, thereby nullifying the rule.
The 60 day countdown begins this week, so Republicans and environmental groups are taking swift action. Once the joint resolution is introduced, it can move quickly to the President’s office because the law only allows up to 10 hours of debate in the House. The Senate cannot filibuster.
The Stream Protection Rule provides several protections to the water supply of local communities surrounded by coal mining operations. Mountaintop removal mining is one of the most damaging forms of coal mining and is responsible for destroying nearly 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia. Studies show that this form of mining leads to cancer, birth defects, asthma and poor health; in addition to threatening scarce water resources in arid regions of the country.
This new protection rule is needed to ensure that our communities have the information and tools needed to hold polluters accountable for damage done to its people, wildlife and livelihood.
A coalition of conservation and environmental justice groups have come together to defend the Stream Protection Rule and uphold its new safeguards.
What is the Stream Protection Rule?
The Stream Protection Rule was developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) to “to avoid or minimize impacts on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources” from coal mining.
The rule requires companies to:
The regulation is controversial because it opens up on how to define “hydrologic balance” and how monitoring practices should be done.
Environmental advocates believe the rule wasn’t stringent enough because it didn’t fully restrict the dumping of debris or address the most destructive mining practices, but applauded the rule for making it more difficult for companies to pollute streams.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.