Why the Bees Are Dying, Part 2: EPA Ignored Its Own Scientists’ Warnings


In my last post, I looked into in the case of the mysterious bee disappearances: colony collapse disorder. I found that the latest research frames a popular class of pesticides–neonicotinoids–as prime suspects  And we know that these bee die-offs threaten our food security, as well, since we depend on bees to pollinate so many of our crops.

The next question is, how did neonics make it onto the market, and why are they still being sold? Pesticides in general are very common and very rarely a good thing, but not all have the distinction of threatening such a crucial natural service as pollination. Why didn’t the folks at EPA see this coming?

Well, actually, they did.

 The Story

Let’s focus on Bayer’s clothianidin, one of the most common neonics. When Bayer first applied for registration of the chemical in 2003, EPA refused, citing concerns about (guess what?) clothianidin’s impact on bees.

But just two months later, EPA granted clothianidin “conditional registration,” trusting Bayer to conduct its own “chronic life cycle study.” Even as they approved the pesticide for sale, EPA scientists noted clothianidin’s “persistent” and “toxic” effects on bees.

The culprit: clothianidin

Bayer, of course, started rolling out clothianidin that spring. And the life cycle study didn’t show up until 2007. By that time, billions of plants were producing pollen laced with clothianidin.

When the study finally arrived, it essentially claimed that clothianidin was harmless to bees. Experts outside of the government found serious problems with the methodology. Yet, EPA deemed the research “scientifically sound” and quietly gave clothianidin full registration in April 2010.

Now we get to the interesting part. In a leaked memo [PDF] sent on November 2, 2010, two EPA scientists repeated concerns about clothianidin’s “potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.” Here’s what they said about the Bayer study [emphasis mine]:

…after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental…. Another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.

So EPA scientists basically rejected the study that led to clothianidin’s registration. And independent research confirms that neonics are dangerous to bees. But so far, EPA has no plans to reconsider the use of neonics.

That may change soon, since beekeepers and environmental groups are petitioning the agency to ban neonics until a scientifically sound review is completed. If EPA does not respond, the petitioners could sue under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Takeaway 

Clearly, neonics should be taken off the market as soon as possible. Beyond the obvious, I  can make two more points based on this story.

First, it is absurd to say EPA should be more “industry-friendly.” The agency was too friendly toward Bayer, and our food security is now threatened as a result. (Granted, a lot of this happend under the Bush Administration. Whether the Obama EPA acts more responsibly remains to be seen.)

Second, the ecological threat of pesticides should be taken seriously, and enforcement  should be a priority. This isn’t about “conservation”; it’s about, quite literally, saving the humans.

What if the FBI had uncovered some terrorist plot targeting a third of our food supply? The defense budget would skyrocket. Congress would pass emergency laws and launch an investigation. John McCain would be calling for war.

Instead, we hear about the EPA bureaucrats strangling the economy. Republicans in Congress want to slash the agency’s budget, and many want to eliminate it altogether. Most recently, Tea Party Representative Stephen Fincher said “We must cut the EPA’s legs off.”

Pardon me for saying that this borders on lunacy.

If anything, EPA needs more resources, not less. In any case, we need much more thorough oversight of potentially devastating pesticides in the future.

What you can do: For more details on this story, I’d highly recommend Tom Philpott’s article for Grist. If you feel the urge to act, you might want to sign this petition asking EPA to prohibit neonics.


Image: Cygnus921


EPA Announces New Carbon Regulations: What You Need to Know

Coal power plant

Cross-posted from We Are Power Shift.

On Tuesday, the EPA officially announced its long-awaited rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — the first ever in U.S. history. According to the standards, new plants can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per magawatt of electricity produced. Natural gas plants fall within this limit; coal plants do not.

So what does this mean for coal? At the moment, not much. The key word is new — plants already running are exempt from the regulations. In a move that startled climate advocates, EPA Admin Lisa Jackson declared that there were “no plans to address existing plants,” which, of course, produce the vast majority of the power sector’s carbon emissions.

But here’s the catch: The EPA may be legally obligated to regulate existing coal plants. Grist‘s David Roberts explains,

Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act… then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act….

Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.

So a carbon rule for existing sources should appear sometime in the future, but, as far as the Administration is concerned, there’s no point in talking up more regulations until something’s actually on the table. Thus, “no plans,” at least until after the election. (Of course, under a Republican president, the EPA, if it even existed, would undoubtedly scrap all carbon limits.)

We’ve still taken a step forward. The new EPA carbon rules help the clean energy effort by effectively outlawing new coal-fired plants. In order to meet the requirements, coal plants would have to capture and store their CO2 emissions, and carbon sequestration isn’t available yet on a large scale.

[youtube http://youtu.be/uFJVbdiMgfM]

Interestingly, the coal industry built an entire lobbying campaign around this technology, dubbed “clean coal,” and politicians, including Obama, picked up the term becase they like alliteration. But when faced with actually implementing it, the industry people balk. Apparently, we should keep using coal because coal is clean, but we can’t require coal to be clean because clean coal, in the words of a Peabody Energy spokesman, “doesn’t exist as a commercial technology.” Thanks for clearning that up!

The bottom line: As long as the rule holds, the climate movement doesn’t have to worry about stopping new coal plants. Instead, activists can focus on transitioning old coal energy to renewable sources. We are nearer than ever to a coal-free America.

[Image: Dmitri Klimenko]

Pro-MTR Dirty Water Act is Moving Through Congress

A picture of a mountaintop removal siteWork co...

Image via Wikipedia

[RYSE cross-post.]

Right now, one of the best hopes for ending mountaintop removal mining lies in the EPA’s power to regulate water pollution. As it stands, Lisa Jackson (or another EPA executive) could, with a few strokes of her pen, take dramatic steps toward ending the cultural and environmental attack on Appalachia.

But a bill moving through the House (it just passed out of committee) is set to change that. Sponsored by John Mica (R-FL), the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act would give states, rather than the EPA, the final authority in water quality standards and Clean Water Act permits.

Here’s why that is important: There is a good chance that mountaintop removal mining is actually illegal because the process requires dumping mining waste in streams. The Bush Administration made these valley fills easier by revising the Clean Water Act back in 2002, but as Legal Planet explains,

Even with that change, large-scale valley fills would seem to violate the Clean Water Act’s prohibition on the issuance of federal permits that would lead to a violation of state water quality standards, and the Guidelines for section 404 permits developed by the Corps and EPA, which require that impacts on aquatic ecosystems be avoided and minimized to the maximum extent practicable.

Whether or not the practice is technically legal, mountaintop mining cannot be done without a permit to literally bury streams, and the EPA has the authority to veto those permits. The agency used this power in January when it blocked the Spruce Mine project in West Virginia.

The Dirty Water Act of 2011, as it’s been called, would transfer that authority to the states. This might seem like a good idea, since most Americans–including most West Virginians–oppose mountaintop removal. But the coal industry has essentially suspended democracy in Appalachia, flexing its monetary muscle to keep officials on its side. So turning clean water regulation over to states is almost the same as eliminating it altogether.

What you can do: Contact your Representative and ask him to vote no on HR 2018. iLoveMountains.org has a web form and sample letter to help you out.

Congress set to muzzle EPA and defund clean energy, while protecting oil subsidies

Amendments to the budget bill could block regulations for air pollution, mountaintop removal, and offshore drilling.

Cross-posted from RYSE.

If you keep track of politics, you’re probably aware that the budget debate in the House of Representatives is in full swing. The reinvigorated Republican Party is eager to push its agenda, while the Administration, concerned about re-election, seems willing to make some serious concessions.

Curious what’s on the table? You might not want to know, unless you’re an oil executive. When it comes to program-axing, clean energy and environmental spending is at the top of the GOP’s list. Among the proposals are a $1.6 billion slash in the EPA’s budget, a cancellation of the high-speed rail project, and a massive cut in the Energy Department’s efficiency and renewable energy programs.

Notably absent is any mention of reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. Apparently, taxpayers will keep donating $4 billion a year to oil and gas companies, in the form of deductions and tax loopholes. Last year, the New York Times reported that tax breaks are available “at virtually every stage” of the exploration and extraction process. For example, BP wrote off 70 percent of the Deepwater Horizon’s rent– more than $225,000 a day.

According to the Tea Party congressmen, clean energy and EPA funding must be cut to preserve the free market (never mind protecting people). In the words of Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, “You don’t subsidize different forms of power — you let the market run on its own.” Okay, so let’s stop subsidizing oil and coal. But no, it seems that funding fossil fuels is actuallygood for the economy because it safeguards American jobs. Meanwhile, the EPA’s greenhouse gas registry, which collects data on industrial emissions, is part of a “radical anti-jobs agenda.

This type of logic is hardly surpising. Government is limited by the very thing that makes it work: compromise. Even with a Democratic Congress, Barack Obama can’t bring about the clean energy revolution; we have to do a lot of the work ourselves. But energy projects aren’t the only programs slated for execution. Just as dangerous (or even more so) are hundreds of amendments aimed at gutting the EPA’s authority.

According to the Appalachian advocacy group iLoveMountains,

  • Amendment 109 would remove the EPA’s ability to evaluate mountaintop removal permits and would reverse all of the actions taken by the administration over the past two years to safeguard Appalachian streams and communities.
  • Amendment 216 would remove EPA’s ability to veto “dredge and fill” permits that do not meet Clean Water Act standards. The Spruce No. 1 Mine permit was the first time the EPA used this authority in relation to a mountaintop removal site.

Mother Jones reported on eight other measures that spearhead the assault on environmental regulations. For example, one would prevent the EPA from tightening rules against air pollutants, while another would keep the Environmental Appeals Board from reviewing or rejecting offshore drilling permits. Meanwhile, Amendment 574 would ban any U.S. contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

These amendments will pass with the budget bill, even though they have a relatively small effect on the federal budget. The bill has to be passed to literally keep the government running, so the only thing we can do is ask our Representatives to oppose these add-ons. March 4 is the expected deadline for negotiations, and some amendments, such as one defunding the GHG registry, have already been approved.

The EPA itself is threatened by polluter-friendly politicians. Many Republicans and some Democrats want to revoke the agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions (a right it was granted by the Supreme Court in 2007), and Newt Gingrich, a favorite for the GOP presidential ticket, has plans to shut down the EPA altogether, replacing it with a business-friendly “environmental solutions agency.”

I’ll admit that the federal deficit is a problem Congress must address, and I know the task can’t be done without trimming some beneficial programs. But what’s happening this week is bigger than that. The entire Republican Party (and part of the Democratic) is poised to delete much of what the environmental movement has accomplished over four decades.

Trading away basic protections for clean air and clean water is not just an idiotic bargain. It’s irresponsible. We might not leave future generations with as heavy a debt. But if we leave them, instead, with poisoned water, polluted air, and an altered climate, will they thank us?

EPA Vetoes Permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine – A Historic Victory for Appalachia

Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia would have been one of the largest mountaintop removal projects in Appalachia, destroying over 2,000 acres of forest, burying miles of streams, and polluting watersheds. But, in a historic decision, the EPA has vetoed the mine’s Clean Water Act permit.

This is the first time the EPA has issued a veto on a project that has already been permitted. (The mine was approved during the Bush era and has been held up in courts since.)

Speaking of courts, I’m not a legal expert (someone who is may want to comment), but it’s hard for me see why it would even be possible to give a “Clean Water” permit for a project like this. According to the EPA, the Spruce mine would have buried more than 35,000 feet of streams under 110 cubic yards of mining waste. Obviously, this would eliminate all forms of life from the streams. It would also poison downstream ecosystems and communities.

If a Deepwater Horizon-style accident caused destruction like that, we’d call it an environmental disaster. Conservation volunteers would try to rescue wildlife. Nonprofits would raise money to help the impacted communities. The tragedy would be front-page news. Someone might even call Anderson Cooper.

But the fact is that mountains are being blown up, streams are being buried, and entire regions are being poisoned on purpose every day. In a way, that makes mountaintop removal mining worse than the Gulf oil spill–at least BP doesn’t dump crude oil in the Gulf intentionally.

The EPA’s veto came on the heels of a year-long campaign by Rainforest Action Network and smaller anti-MTR groups. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson received thousands of emails and hundreds of phone calls urging her to reject the Spruce mine. And in September 2010, activists dumped half a ton of Appalachian dirt on the steps of the EPA headquarters in order to highlight their message: “Don’t let King Coal dump on Appalachia.”

Of course, the decision wasn’t completely due to activist efforts. A number of EPA reports and independent studies agreed that the mining project would cause inexcusable environmental damage. But reports like that can easily be (and often are) swept under the rug, if no one draws public attention to them. At the very least, it seems that direct-action crusaders (and, ahem, green bloggers) aren’t wasting their time.

Keep an eye out for more stories like this in the coming months. The movement to protect Appalachia is, if you will excuse the coal-related metaphor, just picking up steam.