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Scott Pruitt’s New Plan for the EPA Will Destroy Towns Like This One

Mother Jones

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator has found a slogan for his embattled agency’s new direction. Last week, Scott Pruitt announced a #Back2Basics campaign that proposes returning the EPA to its supposed roots: protecting the environment, spurring job growth, and not burdening industry with rules and regulations. Pruitt might see firsthand the problems with this vision on Wednesday when he visits East Chicago, Indiana, a mostly black and Latino city of 29,000 that is home to a Superfund site and a host of other environmental problems.

Local officials, including Indiana’s Republican governor, Eric Holcomb, urged Pruitt to visit the site and address the issues surrounding the cleanup process, which has been lagging for several years. The site is known as USS Lead, referring to the smelting facility that operated there between 1906 and 1985, turning refined copper and lead into batteries and other products and, in the process, contaminating the soil in the area with lead and arsenic. The site was added to the National Priorities list in 2009, which means it’s one of the most polluted sites in the country.

The EPA began conducting soil tests at the site in late 2009 and finally reached a consent decree with the liable companies in 2014. The White House has proposed a cut to funding for the Superfund program, but Pruitt told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in March that he believes it’s vital. But his #Back2Basics plans for the EPA, which includes rolling back regulations for companies, would lead to additional problems in East Chicago. Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice.org said the plan is simply getting rid of “the health and environmental protections we all rely on—protections only the government can provide.”

The pollution from the Superfund site is not the only issue facing the city. In March, the residents of East Chicago signed a petition, urging the agency to address an urgent crisis of lead in the water supply. The EPA sent officials to the city to test the water of the homes near the Superfund site and found that not only were there high levels of lead in the tested homes, but that the contamination was likely city-wide problem; lead pipes and water that had been improperly treated for decades were the culprits. The EPA expressed concern about corrosion control chemicals in the city’s drinking water. During the water tests, the agency asked city officials which chemicals they were using for water treatment and sent emails to city officials with links to a report about why the chemical the city was using was insufficient to protect the water.

“There are a lot of issues,” says Anjali Waikar, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “but we’re also hoping for clear affirmative action from the EPA with respect to the drinking water.”

Marc Edwards, one of the Virginia Tech scientists who researched the water system in Flint, Michigan, said the corrosion control chemical the city began using in 1992 was not effective for preventing lead leaching. He also said the chemical the city began using in 2015 could be worse than having no corrosion control at all. East Chicago Utilities Director Greg Crowley told the Times of Northwest Indiana that it would have been “helpful if the EPA had been more hands-on” in helping the city make the switch to different chemicals.

But federal oversight is not on the EPA’s new agenda. Pruitt criticized the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan as “federal overreach” during his Senate confirmation hearing. In his many lawsuits filed against the EPA when he served as attorney general of Oklahoma, he alleged that the EPA “had acted in excess of the authority granted to it by Congress.”

One of the specific priorities in #Back2Basics is “clearing the backlog of new chemicals” waiting approval from the agency so companies can “innovate and create jobs.” After the White House solicited policy advice from industry leaders on which regulations were impeding their businesses and which should get the ax, nearly half of the 168 submitted comments targeted the EPA. A typical example is from a chemical manufacturing company in Newark, New Jersey, which claims it is being hamstrung by the EPA’s Superfund program. Forty-eight of those comments related to the Clean Air Act and 29 to the Clean Water Act. Before environmental laws, no legal avenue existed to stop companies from polluting the land and water.

Then there are concerns about administration plans to shrink the agency. According to Politico, budget director Mick Mulvaney wanted the EPA to identify two regional offices for closure on June 15. This week, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that one of those could be EPA Region 5, which has been plagued with problems, but is the office responsible for flagging improper water treatment in East Chicago.

“Pruitt wants to take the EPA out of the mix and put power back into state and city regulators’ hands,” says Waikar. “But East Chicago is a clear example of how that’s not working.”

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Scott Pruitt’s New Plan for the EPA Will Destroy Towns Like This One

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Slaughter of the Osage, Betrayal of the Sioux

Mother Jones

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Jason Holley

One cold November day last year, Chris Turley, a 28-year-old member of the Osage Nation, set out from the tribe’s northeast Oklahoma reservation upon a quest. He had a wool hat pulled down over his crisply cut black hair and wore military fatigues, just as he had done when he served in Afghanistan as a Scout in the US Army. He carried a rucksack filled with MREs—Meals, Ready-to-Eat—and bottled water, a tent, and a sleeping bag. Tucked away was also an emergency medical kit.

Departing on foot, he headed north through the tall prairie grass. He went past scattering herds of cattle and grinding oil pumps. Thirty miles later, around midnight, he stopped near the Kansas border and made camp in the darkness. He slept in his tent, curled in the cold. In the abruptness of dawn he woke, poured water into a container with premade eggs and quickly ate, and then set out again. The rucksack weighed 80 pounds and his right leg especially burned. In Afghanistan, shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade had shivved through his knee. (He received a Purple Heart and a Commendation with Valor, which said his “actions under intense enemy fire when wounded, and courage when facing the enemy in close proximity, not only eliminated and disrupted the enemy but saved the lives of his fellow Scouts.”) Doctors had predicted he’d never walk again without help, but after months of rehabilitation, he did.

Now he marched forward, day after day. He entered Kansas, passing through Greenwood County and Brown County—where members of the Kickapoo Tribe invited him to attend a round dance—and continued into Nebraska, until, after hiking for nearly three weeks, he hitched a ride to his final destination: the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. There, on the North Dakota plains, he joined forces with the Sioux who’d been protesting the proposed construction of an oil pipeline near the border of their reservation, fearing it would destroy their sacred burial sites and contaminate their water supply. “Anyone who knows me knows I am a warrior of this country, I love it with all my heart,” Turley wrote on his Facebook page. “I am also a Native of this country and I’m showing my support for Standing Rock.”

For Turley and many other Osage, the fight had a deep resonance, evoking memories of the tribe’s own struggle over oil and land rights during the early 20th century—a struggle that culminated in one of the most sinister crimes in American history. In 2012, when I first visited the Osage Nation Museum, its then-director, Kathryn Red Corn, told me about this mysterious and deadly plot. I was shocked that I had never learned about it in school or read about it in books, and over the next several years I began to try to uncover the depths of the wrongdoing.

Turley told me that when he was young he had heard about the killings from elder members of the tribe. “Every Osage knows about the murders,” he said. He learned that the Osage once laid claim to much of the Midwest (Thomas Jefferson described them as a “great nation”), but like so many American Indians, they were gradually forced off their ancestral lands. They were driven into Kansas in 1825 and were relocated during the 1870s to the reservation in northeast Oklahoma. By then, their population had dwindled to a few thousand because of massacres and disease and starvation. Although the new reservation was bigger than the state of Delaware, the land was rocky and presumed worthless.

Several years later, an Osage Indian pointed out to a white trader a rainbow sheen on the surface of a creek. It was oil. The reservation, it turned out, was sitting above some of the largest deposits of petroleum then known in America, and to extract that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage for leases and royalties. In 1906, the tribe granted each of its 2,000 or so registered members a headright, essentially a share in the mineral trust. In 1923 alone, the tribe collected what would today amount to more than $400 million—the New York Times deemed them the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Belying long-standing stereotypes, they lived in mansions and had white servants and rode in chauffeured cars. “Lo and behold!” exclaimed the Outlook, a New York City magazine. “The Indian, instead of starving to death…enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.”

Then, one by one, the Osage with headrights began to be murdered off. During what became known as the Osage Reign of Terror, there were poisonings, shootings, and even a bombing. Several of those who tried to catch the killers were themselves killed, including one attorney who was thrown from a speeding train. As the death toll reached more than two dozen, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation—later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation—took up the case. It became one of the FBI’s first major homicide investigations. But for two years, the bureau bungled the case, failing to make any arrests.

Fearing a scandal, the bureau’s new director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to an old frontier lawman named Tom White, who assembled a team of undercover operatives, including an American Indian agent. In 1926, they captured one of the criminal masterminds—a prominent white settler who had orchestrated an intricate plot to steal the Osage’s headrights and fortune. But, as I discovered from my research, the extent of the killings was far greater than the bureau ever exposed, and there were scores, perhaps hundreds, of murders that went unsolved. The perpetrators absconded with much of the Osage’s fortune, which was further diminished by the Great Depression and the depletion of oil reserves.

Turley thought about the Osage murders during the demonstrations at Standing Rock. The Sioux weren’t looking to make money; they were just trying to protect the environment. And yet the struggles came down to the same fundamental issue: the right of American Indians to control their lands and resources. Which is why the Standing Rock demonstrations seemed to galvanize so many nations of American Indians, each with its own bloodstained history, its own saga of incursions upon its sovereignty. Native Americans made pilgrimages to Standing Rock from across the country—from the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California and the Blackfeet Nation in Montana to the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska and the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico. Jim Gray, a former Osage chief, wrote on Facebook, “The principle of any tribe’s sovereign right to protect what’s important to them is why hundreds of tribes have sent food, supplies and money to their aid.”

Turley helped provide security for the protesters—or “water protectors”—including by guarding convoys headed off the reservation to resupply them. “It was kind of like a covert op,” he said. When the word came down, on December 4, that the Department of the Army had refused to allow the oil company to build the pipeline, “we all sang and danced,” Turley recalled.

Yet President Donald Trump—who until recently had an investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline—reversed the decision upon taking office. The Sioux are contesting Trump’s action in court, but their legal options are quickly dwindling, and it may become harder for demonstrators to gather in the future: A state legislator introduced a bill making it legal for a person to “unintentionally” run over protesters.

Many American Indian leaders fear that the pipeline is only the beginning of the Trump administration’s attempt to erode tribal sovereignty. Reuters reported that some of the president’s advisers even hope to “privatize” American Indian reservations, fulfilling the old dream of white settlers to open these lands to unfettered development.

Jim Gray says the Trump administration will confront an American Indian movement galvanized and united by Standing Rock. “In the old days, our people didn’t have much of a voice,” he told a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last fall. “Now we do…The world is watching.” As for Chris Turley, he’s back at his home in Osage territory. But if summoned by the leaders of any tribe in need, he says he’s prepared to pack up his rucksack: “I can walk across America.”

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Slaughter of the Osage, Betrayal of the Sioux

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A Lot of Trump Voters Only Heard One Thing: Build the Wall

Mother Jones

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The Washington Post has a story on the front page today that’s already become so common it’s almost a cliche. It’s about the small-town folks who voted for Donald Trump but somehow didn’t realize he was going to do things that might harm them. Today’s example features on-the-ground reporting from Durant, Oklahoma, and Exhibit A is Betty Harris:

She likes the president’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration, which she thinks has hurt the job market, and to bully manufacturers into staying in the country. She said both of her daughters were out of work for months because they worked for companies that moved overseas.

But Harris is upset by the president’s proposed budget, which would dramatically cut funding for the Robert T. Davis Senior Center, managed by the Bryan County Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

There seem to be an awful lot of people who heard only one thing from Trump during the campaign: He was going to build a wall and keep out all the Mexicans. Now, as best I can tell, the unauthorized population of Durant is at most 1 percent. But no matter. Illegal immigration still seemed like a scary thing, and Harris was all in favor of stopping it cold.

Over and over, I read stories where I hear this. Trump got the votes of people who liked his promise to stop illegal immigration. And that was about it. They didn’t really hear the part about repealing Obamacare. They didn’t hear the part about cutting the budget. They didn’t hear the part about climate change being a hoax. They didn’t hear the part about 86ing regulations that protect workers but are disliked by big corporations. They didn’t hear the part about big tariffs, which would make the stuff they buy more expensive. They didn’t hear the part—or didn’t care—about gigantic tax cuts for the rich.

Over and over, it’s illegal immigration. And now they’re shocked that Trump wants to take away their health care and their senior center and their workplace safety rules and all the financial regulations that protect consumers. They didn’t notice him talking about all of that. Or else they didn’t think he was serious. Or they didn’t realize that when they voted for Trump, they were voting for a White House full of true-believing conservatives who have never cared about the working class and still don’t.

The saddest part, from their point of view, is that they’re probably not even going to get their wall. They’re just going to get all the stuff they didn’t want.

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A Lot of Trump Voters Only Heard One Thing: Build the Wall

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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump rose to power amid solid support from the agricultural heartland—he gained endorsements from dozens of farm-state pols and agribiz execs and polled well among farmers. Since the inauguration, however, things have been rocky. Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee machinations amount to an attack on Big Ag’s labor pool, and his moves to kill trade pacts endanger much-needed export markets. But with the stroke of a pen on Tuesday, the new president delivered a gift that delighted his ag supporters.

But did Trump serve a real policy triumph, or an empty gesture?

To answer that question, you’ll need a bit of background. What the president did was sign an executive order commanding the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Waters of the United States Rule, a policy put into place by the Obama administration. WOTUS, as it is known, is a kind of addendum to the Clean Water Act of 1972, designed to define the kinds of waterways that are under EPA regulation. It was triggered by a split 2006 Supreme Court decision called Rapanos v. United States over whether a developer could fill in a wetland to build a shopping center.

WOTUS has emerged as a major bête noire in some ag circles. Agribiz lobbyist Larry Combest, a former US rep from Texas, declared it “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents the interests of Big Ag, has vilified WOTUS since its inception, charging that it gives the EPA massive power to regulate farms.

At his signing ceremony, Trump gave voice to these complaints. Deeming WOTUS “one the worst examples of federal regulation,” Trump insisted that “it has truly run amok” and is “prohibiting farmers from being allowed to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” Echoing the Farm Bureau, he said WOTUS meant that the EPA can regulate “nearly every puddle and every ditch on a farmer’s land,” and vowed that his executive order would “pave the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

Just one problem with that rhetoric: WOTUS has very little to do with farming. The original Clean Water Act exempted agriculture, and WOTUS maintains that status, notes Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. “What’s so bizarre about the fight over WOTUS is that the only sector of commerce that’s clearly exempt from the rule has kicked up the most dirt about it,” Faber said. Granted, defining what constitutes a waterway worthy of regulation is a complex process, and even WOTUS’s supplementary introduction is 299 pages. But concerns about ag are dispensed with on page 8:

This rule not only maintains current statutory exemptions, it expands regulatory exclusions from the definition of “waters of the United States” to make it clear that this rule does not add any additional permitting requirements on agriculture.

In a January 2017 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service analyzed the WOTUS and came to the same conclusion as the EPA: The final rule “makes no change to and does not affect existing statutory and regulatory exclusions: exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities such as plowing, seeding, and cultivation.” The report notes that the Obama administration at one point proposed an interpretive rule that triggered confusion in the ag world about whether farm ditches might fall under regulation. But the EPA withdrew that particular proposal way back in January 2015, the CRS report states.

What’s more, says Faber, replacing WOTUS will be a long slog, requiring a lengthy rulemaking process. And once that process is done, he adds, the new rule will itself be subject to lawsuits from environmental groups that it’s deemed too weak.

So why did Big Ag fight so hard to kill WOTUS, and cheer so much when Trump moved against it? Faber declined to speculate.

I put the question to William Rodger, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. He declined to talk but pointed me to brief the group filed in 2016 urging a federal court to overturn the rule. The document lists examples of farmers who, it insists, would run afoul of WOTUS.

One, in Oklahoma, had planned to clear a 50-acre plot next to his property for cattle grazing and farming. “But because the property contains a small creek bed—which is usually about 5-6 inches deep but ‘will often go dry’—the creek is likely to be deemed a ‘tributary’ under the Rule,” the doc states. As a result of the rule, the farmer “has therefore been forced to halt all plans for improving his property because the new regulation, if allowed to go into effect, will require him to obtain a costly jurisdictional determination from the Army Corps of Engineers and, depending on the outcome, a permit from EPA.” But an EPA fact sheet on WOTUS makes clear that such intermittent streams aren’t in fact regulated.

The Farm Bureau document also notes a farmer whose land has drainage ditches “that would also likely count as ‘tributaries’ under the Rule if it were allowed to come into effect.” But the EPA fact sheet states that “farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to receive exemptions from Clean Water Act Section…when they construct and maintain irrigation ditches and maintain drainage ditches.”

Even so, at an event after Trump signed the executive order, the Farm Bureau treated EPA Director Scott Pruitt to a “hero’s welcome” for his role in Trump’s WOTUS move, Bloomberg reports. In a statement, the group’s executive director, Zippy Duvall, insisted that the “flawed WOTUS rule has proven to be nothing more than a federal land grab, aimed at telling farmers and ranchers how to run their businesses,” and praised Trump for delivering a “welcome relief to farmers and ranchers across the country.”

Seems to me that by celebrating Trump’s attempt to dismantle a rule that so little affects agriculture, Big Ag is being a pretty cheap date—especially given what’s going on with trade and immigration.

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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

Mother Jones

Scott Pruitt will almost certainly be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Oklahoma attorney general’s nomination is expected to sail through Senate—possibly as soon as Friday—despite Democrats’ protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued. The administration has already imposed a freeze on the EPA’s social media, halted its rulemaking, and reportedly mandated that all agency research be reviewed by a political appointee before being released to the public. But next week, once Pruitt is sworn in, the real frenzy will begin.

According to Reuters, President Donald Trump plans to sign between two and five environmental executive orders aimed at the EPA and possibly the State Department. The White House is reportedly planning to hold an event at the EPA headquarters, similar the administration’s roll-out of its widely condemn travel ban after Defense Secretary James Mattis took office. While we don’t know what, exactly, next week’s orders will say, Trump is expected to restrict the agency’s regulatory oversight. Based on one administration official’s bluster, the actions could “suck the air” out of the room.

Trump may have hinted at the forthcoming orders in his unwieldy press conference on Thursday. “Some very big things are going to be announced next week,” he said. (He didn’t make clear whether or not he was referring to the EPA.)

Former President Barack Obama’s array of climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan limiting power plant emissions, are certainly high on conservative activists’ hit list. So too is the landmark Paris climate deal, in which Obama agreed to dramatically cut domestic carbon emissions and provide aide to other countries for clean energy projects and climate adaptation. The EPA’s rule that defines its jurisdiction over wetlands and streams is also a prime target. As attorney general, Pruitt launched lawsuits against a number of these regulations.

“What I would like to see are executive orders on implementing all of President Trump’s main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty,” said Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition and recently returned to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an email to Mother Jones.

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow the Heartland Institute, which rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, says Trump could start by revisiting the Obama administration’s efforts to calculate a “social cost of carbon“—and by forbidding its use to determine costs and benefits of government regulations. He also wants to see broader restrictions on how the EPA calculates costs and benefits. In particular, Burnett hopes Trump will prohibit the agency from the considering public health co-benefits of regulations—for example, attempts by the EPA to argue that limits on CO2 emissions from power plants also reduce emissions of other dangerous pollutants.

Or Trump could take a cue from Republican Attorneys General Patrick Morrisey (W.V.) and Ken Paxton (Texas), who recommended in December that Trump issue a memorandum directing the EPA to “take no further action to enforce or implement” the Clean Power Plan. (The Supreme Court halted implementation of the rule a year ago while both sides fight it out in federal court).

The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the agency’s so-called “endangerment finding,” which states that greenhouse gas emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The endangerment finding is the legal underpinning for the bulk of Obama’s climate policies, including the restrictions on vehicle and power plant emissions. Undoing the finding wouldn’t be an easy feat and can’t be accomplished by executive order alone. The endangerment finding isn’t an Obama invention; in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gasses if it found they harmed public health. Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing that the administration wouldn’t revisit the finding, but he also launched an unsuccessful lawsuit against it in 2010. Neither Ebell nor Burnett expects to see Trump to tackle the endangerment finding just yet.

Environmentalists are already planning their response. Litigation is certainly an option, but it would of course depend on the details of Trump’s executive actions. Several groups, including EarthJustice and Natural Resources Defense Council, have already sued to block Trump’s earlier executive order requiring that every new regulation be offset by scrapping two existing regulations. Their case: The administration can’t arbitrarily ditch regulations just because the president wants fewer of them on the books.

They could be making a similar case soon enough. “A new president has to deal with the record and evidence and findings,” EarthJustice’s lead attorney, Patti Goldman, said. “If you take climate and the endangerment finding, that is a scientific finding that is upheld by the court. That finding has legal impacts. If there’s a directive along those lines, there will have to be a process.”

Of course, anti-EPA Republicans disagree about what is constitutional, which is one reason the agency is in for a tumultuous ride over the next four years. For many conservatives, no EPA at all—or at least one that has no regulatory powers—is the best option. “I read the constitution of the United States, and the word environmental protection does not appear there,” said Heartland’s Burnett. “I don’t see where it’s sanctioned. I think it should go away.” A freshman House Republican recently introduced a bill to do just that, but there’s no sign that it’s going to pass anytime soon.

And while Burnett acknowledges that the EPA probably won’t be vanishing in the near future, he’s been happy with the direction Trump has taken so far. He’s pleased with the president’s moves to restart the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, and he’s hopeful that the administration will move toward an EPA with “smaller budgets and a smaller mission, justified by the fact that you’ll have fewer regulations.”

Depending on what Trump does next week, that could be just the beginning.

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Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

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