Congressional Republicans Condemn Small-Town America To Fiscal Ruin

Congressional Republicans Condemn Small-Town America To Fiscal Ruin

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Kevin Smith, the mayor of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, feels abandoned by the federal government. On Easter Sunday, a storm hit his city of 10,000, one of the poorest in the state. It knocked out power for most residents; those who'd used SNAP benefits to stock their refrigerators saw their groceries spoil. Streets flooded. Sewers overflowed. In the thick of a pandemic, debris blocked roads to the hospital.

His city faces a loss of up to 30 percent in revenue because of the coronavirus, but doesn't qualify for direct federal stimulus funding, which is reserved for those with populations of 500,000 or more. So at a time when his city needs infrastructure the most, he is weighing cuts and layoffs.

Read NowShow less
medical supplies, price gouging

Desperate States Pay Huge Markups In Competition For Medical Supplies

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

With the coronavirus outbreak creating an unprecedented demand for medical supplies and equipment, New York state has paid 20 cents for gloves that normally cost less than a nickel and as much as $7.50 each for masks, about 15 times the usual price. It's paid up to $2,795 for infusion pumps, more than twice the regular rate. And $248,841 for a portable X-ray machine that typically sells for $30,000 to $80,000.

This payment data, provided by state officials, shows just how much the shortage of key medical equipment is driving up prices. Forced to venture outside their usual vendors and contracts, states and cities are paying exorbitant sums on a spot market ruled by supply and demand. Although New York's attorney general has denounced excessive prices, and ordered merchants to stop overcharging people for hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays, state laws against price gouging generally don't apply to government purchases.

With little guidance from the Trump administration, competition among states, cities, hospitals and federal agencies is contributing to the staggering bill for fighting the pandemic, which New York has estimated will cost it $15 billion in spending and lost revenue. The bidding wars are also raising concerns that facilities with shallow pockets, like rural health clinics, won't be able to obtain vital supplies.

As the epicenter of the pandemic, with about 40 percent of the nation's coronavirus cases, New York state is especially desperate for medical equipment, no matter what the tab. "We know that New York and other states are in the market at the same time, along with the rest of the world, bidding on these same items, which is clearly driving the fluctuation in costs," budget office spokesman Freeman Klopott said in an email.

The Office of General Services, New York's main procurement agency, declined to say which sellers were inflating prices for essential medical gear. "At this moment in time the New York State team is focused on procuring goods and services based on current market conditions," OGS spokeswoman Heather Groll wrote in an email. "There will be time to look back and pull together info on all this, that time will be when the pandemic is over."

New York isn't the only government paying whatever it takes — and keeping quiet about who's overcharging. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told reporters last week that he authorized paying $4 per N95 mask and still lost the bid. Turner's spokeswoman Mary Benton said that price was commonplace but declined to provide further details.

"What Mayor Turner mentioned was not an isolated incident but rather the norm for today's extreme demand on masks," Benton told ProPublica. "Given the urgency of the city's COVID-19 response and the focus on doing the work, the need for masks and other supplies, at this time we see no value in publicly calling out other cities or companies by name."

That same price was apparently too much for the U.S. Coast Guard. It ordered 1 million N95 face masks for $5 apiece on March 17, then downgraded the order to 200,000 masks, before canceling altogether, according to federal procurement databases and interviews with the contractor, Clean Harbors.

Chuck Geer, the company's senior vice president of field services, said Clean Harbors doesn't manufacture masks. It simply offered to pass along the supplies from a vendor with access to 200,000 masks, Geer said. The Coast Guard didn't return requests for comment.

In his daily press conferences, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has often complained about having to compete with states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for personal protective equipment, and ventilators for patients in respiratory failure. "It's like being on eBay with 50 other states bidding on a ventilator," Cuomo told reporters on Tuesday. "And then, FEMA gets involved and FEMA starts bidding! And now FEMA is bidding on top of the 50! So FEMA is driving up the price. What sense does this make?"

A FEMA spokesperson said that "if a bidding conflict does arise, we will work closely with the state to resolve it in a way that best serves the needs of their citizens." FEMA has not disclosed the prices it has paid for supplies and equipment during the pandemic.

Typically, New York state buys a wide range of medical supplies from a list of approved distributors, which agree to provide those goods at a set price. Contracts are negotiated in bulk and over the long term, with public solicitations that generate multiple competitive bids.

That changed with the coronavirus outbreak. New York state invited anyone with needed supplies to sell them to the state, which means that prospective vendors can ask whatever prices the market will bear. Now, after running through their inventory, vendors are passing on higher costs from their own suppliers.

Hackensack, New Jersey-based Shield Line LLC, a recently approved New York state vendor, has a price list that includes 3.5 cents per glove and 3 cents for a simple surgical mask. But its CEO, Joe Kastner, says he has mostly sold out. If New York, which hasn't bought from him yet, was to order medical gear now, he might have to raise his prices, he said. He gets some of his products from Chinese companies, which reduced exports at the height of the epidemic there and are now resuming sending supplies to the U.S. — but at a higher price. "In some cases the cost is 15 to 20 times higher," Kastner said.

Neither federal nor state law accounts for a situation in which government agencies at all levels are vying with each other for the same goods. "The government has in normal times a lot of things to protect it, including lengthy contracts and oversight," said Justin Oberman, a former Transportation Security Administration official who now consults with businesses trying to navigate the federal procurement process. "In this case, raised voices may end up carrying the day."

Normally, there's no such crime as price gouging. In most states, it's only illegal during a declared state of emergency. During the current crisis, New York and other states have activated their price gouging statutes. However, most of these laws only apply to the sale of consumer goods and services, not to purchases by states or by private or nonprofit businesses, said Gretchen Jankowski, a commercial litigation attorney with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. In order to go after a company for price gouging the state in Michigan, for instance, prosecutors would have to prove price fixing or fraud — a much higher bar.

Price gouging laws in New York state and New York City do not apply to state and city purchases, such as the $248,881 X-ray machine. While X-rays aren't recommended to diagnose COVID-19 patients, they are often used to assess how much damage the disease has done to a patient's lungs. Portable machines are more desirable than fixed machines because they help reduce the spread of infection. Caregivers don't have to bring patients to an X-ray room; the machine comes to them.

New York is paying bloated prices for another reason: Large national distributors are reluctant to steer more equipment to states with the most coronavirus cases. For fear of being accused of favoritism or even collusion, and in order to prevent stockpiling, they've put all of their customers on the same "allocation," or what a customer purchased in the past. Distributors say the federal government should step in to help them adjust those allocations based on need.

"Only the federal government has the data and the authority to provide this strategic direction to the supply chain and the healthcare system," Health Industry Distributors Association President Matthew Rowan wrote to FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor last weekend.

Dozens of cities have signed on to a letter coordinated by the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group asking the federal government to designate a "medical equipment czar" who would buy all the supply and fulfill requests from local jurisdictions. A bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, would do the same.

WIthout federal intervention, states and hospitals may only become more vulnerable to the demands of brokers and speculators outside the normal supply chain, said Chaun Powell, vice president for strategic supplier engagement at the national health care consultant Premier Inc., which helps negotiate contracts for hospitals and health systems.

"The more COVID patients they get, the more masks they're going to burn," Powell said. "They're getting desperate because they're running out faster, so they're willing to pay."


Check The Label! Some Hand Sanitizer Won’t Protect Against COVID-19

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

It's tempting, especially now, to buy one of the many hand sanitizers whose label says it "kills 99.99 percent of illness causing germs." But that does not mean the product will protect you against the novel coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends rubbing on hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol when you aren't able to wash your hands. Huge pumps and multipacks of bottles are flying off store shelves. But "alcohol-free" products — which are not recommended by the CDC — are also getting snatched up in the consumer frenzy.

Some of the hand sanitizers made by the brands Purell and Germ-X rely on benzalkonium chloride instead of alcohol as the active ingredient. Such non-alcohol antiseptic products may not work as well for many types of germs, the CDC says, or may merely reduce the growth of germs rather than killing them. They may be better than nothing, experts say. But people are buying them without knowing the difference.

Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers Are Selling Out, Despite Not Being Recommended by the CDC

These alcohol-free products are selling out, with internet price-gouging in full swing. At times, it can be hard to tell, by looking at the listings, that they're different from the kind the CDC recommends.

Purell Hand Sanitizing Wipes have jumped in price on Amazon.com from $11.88 in January to $79.99 on Wednesday afternoon before jumping to $199.99 on Wednesday night, according to the price tracker Keepa.com. They are currently sold out.

The front of the package doesn't mention that it's alcohol-free; the back includes small print that lists benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient and the label "alcohol-free formula." Nowhere on the Amazon product listing does it say it's alcohol-free.

Germ-X Alcohol-Free Foaming Hand Sanitizer is also sold out on Amazon, with prices surging from $10 in mid-January to $49.95 last Friday, according to Keepa.com.

On eBay, 6 fluid ounces of Purell's alcohol-free sanitizer — the equivalent of three-quarters of a cup — had a $55 price tag on Thursday night.

Amazon officials have said they are monitoring listings for price gouging, blocking or removing those they suspect of it. Ebay announced Friday that it was banning listings for hand sanitizers, masks and disinfecting wipes, and that it will "quickly remove" listings other than books that mention coronavirus or COVID-19, the disease it causes.

If you type in "coronavirus hand sanitizer" on Amazon, the results include hand sanitizers made by different companies that don't contain alcohol. Amazon had not responded to questions about alcohol-free hand sanitizers by the time of publication.

Customers seem to be confused. One gave Purell's alcohol-free, benzalkonium chloride-based hand wipes five stars, writing: "Honestly these wipes were a life saver. Due to the corona virus and me traveling to Vietnam, I bought a pack… I used these on flights, utensils before eating and seats before sitting. It gave me [a feeling] of safety…"

Alcohol-Free Hand Sanitizers Are Better Than Nothing. None Are as Good as Washing Your Hands.

At a time when all hand sanitizers are in short supply, the benzalkonium chloride products are better than nothing, said Emily Landon, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. She said the CDC recommendation for hand sanitizers is based on the fact that 60 percent alcohol kills "all of the coronaviruses we know about." A sanitizer with benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient is "not as good," because we don't know as much about it, she said. As a physician, mother and infection-control expert, she called alcohol-based products her "first choice" for hand sanitizers.

Labels for the Purell and Germ-X alcohol-free hand sanitizing products that contain benzalkonium chloride are vague about which germs they work against.

ProPublica asked Kelly Ward-Smith, the spokeswoman for Gojo Industries, the company that invented Purell, what the product labels mean when they say they kill "99 percent of most illness causing germs." She declined to answer, saying in an email that because this article is about coronavirus, the FDA could interpret any answer to violate its rules. The company, which also sells hand sanitizers that contain alcohol, does not appear to be marketing any of them for protection against COVID-19.

ProPublica reached out for comment to Vi-Jon, the company that makes Germ-X, but did not get a response. They also sell alcohol-based products and also don't appear to be marketing any of their hand sanitizers for use against the novel coronavirus.

Don't Waste Your Vodka

The shortage of hand sanitizers has led consumers to take extreme measures, brewing their own elixirs of alcohol and aloe vera gel. Landon said the "homemade Pinterest recipes" she's seen are no good, as people are using whiskey or vodka that doesn't contain enough alcohol to be effective. The World Health Organization's guidelines for making hand sanitizers require 96 percent ethyl alcohol.

Taking its consumer mission to heart, Tito's Handmade Vodka tweeted a warning to its customers on Thursday that its product didn't contain enough alcohol to sanitize effectively: "Per the CDC, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Tito's Handmade Vodka is 40 percent alcohol."

Amazon Blaze Raises Doubt On Carbon Offsets

Amazon Blaze Raises Doubt On Carbon Offsets

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Next month, California regulators will decide whether to support a plan for tropical forest carbon offsets, a controversial measure that could allow companies like Chevron, which is headquartered there, to write off some of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying people in countries like Brazil to preserve trees. The Amazon rainforest has long been viewed as a natural testing ground for this proposed Tropical Forest Standard, which, if approved, would likely expand to countries throughout the world.

Now that record fires are engulfing the Amazon, started by humans seeking to log, mine and farm on the land, supporters are using the international emergency to double down on their case for offsets. The Environmental Defense Fund posted a petition urging that state officials endorse the standard: “The people — and wildlife — who call the Amazon home are running for their lives,” it said. “The entire world is counting on [the board] taking action.” Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, who helped manage a Brazilian offset project that was derailed by illegal logging, said, “People who are against carbon credits are not suffering and don’t want to keep the forest standing.”

But the devastating blaze encapsulates a key weakness of offsets that scientists have been warning about for the past decade: that they are too vulnerable to political whims and disasters like wildfires. As a recent ProPublica investigation noted, if you give corporations a pass to pollute by saying their emissions are being canceled out somewhere else, you need a way to guarantee that continues to be the case.

Because carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for about 100 years, protected forests must remain intact for a century to offset the pollution; this requirement is written into the Tropical Forest Standard. That plan can go up in smoke the moment a country elects a president like Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in Brazil in January and de-funded environmental agencies, cut back on enforcement and encouraged the clearing of the Amazon for beef and soy production. Indigenous communities who live in the Amazon report a surge of intruders mining and logging on their land.

People have always exploited the forest illegally, “but in the last few months, it has increased significantly,” said Camões Boaventura, a federal prosecutor in the Brazilian state of Pará. Meanwhile, he said, environmental officials are struggling to pay for the gas they need to drive around enforcing regulations. Gisele Bleggi, a federal prosecutor in Rondônia, said Bolsonaro didn’t have to change a single environmental law to encourage deforestation. “Once you stop giving money for surveillance … the system it protects will collapse.”

One of the biggest sources of funding for the rainforest, the Amazon Fund, was suspended after Norway and Germany withdrew support worth $72 million. The fund has provided more than $1 billion over the past decade and is contingent on minimizing deforestation, but it doesn’t provide offsets that allow others to pollute. The countries suspended their payments amid a recent spike in deforestation and after Bolsonaro interfered with how the money would be used. In early August, Bolsonaro fired the head of the space agency after it released data showing rising deforestation.

The Amazon fires also showcase a second hurdle in making offsets work: For them to be a valid reflection of how much pollution is being canceled out, the math needs to be accurate. This accounting is especially hard to do after wildfires, because they stifle a forest’s regrowth far more than previously estimated. Scientists are just starting to understand this impact, which is hard to quantify and has led the Amazon’s carbon content to be overestimated, creating the potential to give offsets more credit than they’re worth.

This month, California state Sen. Bob Wieckowski urged the state’s Air Resources Board to reject the Tropical Forest Standard because it “risks producing a landslide of false credits.” His letter referenced ProPublica’s reporting and academic research that cited the challenges of ensuring credits are real. His letter followed an earlier one from California lawmakers who cautiously supported the standard but told the board to exercise “vigorous and proactive monitoring” to ensure offsets are valid.

Jeff Conant, who directs the international forests program at the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said Brazil absolutely “should receive some money from the global north,” but not as offsets that give companies a “loophole” to continue emitting carbon. Conant said the offsets debate has been “a distraction” from what he considers the real solution: strong regulations and keeping fossil fuels in the ground. “We’ve been saying for over a decade that we need regulation, we need demand-side measures, we need to take responsibility for our own consumption up here in the north,” he said.

Both the Environmental Defense Fund and Conant support a California assembly bill designed to ensure the state government doesn’t buy paper, furniture or other forest products made from deforestation in the tropics. Companies with state contracts would need to certify that their products didn’t destroy sensitive ecosystems like the Amazon.

In Brazil, experts widely credit regulations as the driving force that brought deforestation to a record low in 2012; then, the federal government relaxed its stringent rules and enforcement, and it began to creep up, years before Bolsonaro took office. Brazil is “going backwards in the bigger picture,” said Matthew Hansen, a satellite and mapping expert at the University of Maryland. “I think that’s the bigger story.”

The wildfires have worsened fears that the Amazon is being pushed toward a tipping point where it will turn into a savanna, with devastating consequences for climate change and ecosystems. Luiz Aragão, who heads the remote sensing division at Brazil’s space agency, said 2019 has seen the highest number of fires since 2010, and it’s just the start of the fire season, which ends in November. He said the human-set fires — which were almost all started on agricultural or newly cleared land — will spread into healthy, intact areas of the rainforest, and it will take time to figure out how much of the forest is burned. There are no reports yet that any of the offset projects located in the Amazon are on fire.

Many supporters of offsets, including Cardozo, who runs an indigenous rights organization in Rondônia, also support more traditional conservation aid like the Amazon Fund, but they say offsets are necessary because rich countries aren’t willing to provide enough funding to preserve forests without getting something in return.

As global leaders discussed the Amazon over the weekend at the G7 meeting and pledged $22 million to help fight the fires, prosecutors in Brazil are eyeing measures they can take even in the face of a hostile presidential administration. Boaventura, who works for the Public Ministry, a powerful independent federal agency, said his team is investigating the role that Bolsonaro and national environmental agencies have had on increasing deforestation and fires.

“Once this link is proven, we want to hold the agencies and authorities that justified this destructive action against society accountable,” Boaventura said.

UN Environmental Agency Sharply Criticizes Carbon Offsets

UN Environmental Agency Sharply Criticizes Carbon Offsets


The United Nations drew attention this week for an article published by its environment program that criticized carbon offsets, a strategy the UN has supported for two decades. The headline: “Carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail free card.”

It came three weeks after ProPublica published a widely discussed investigation into how offsets related to forest preservation have not provided the promised carbon savings and instead have given polluters a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂.

“Scientists, activists and concerned citizens have started to voice their concerns over how carbon offsets have been used by polluters as a free pass for inaction,” the UN article said.

Niklas Hagelberg, a senior program officer at the Nairobi, Kenya-based UN Environment Programme, said ProPublica’s investigation contributed to the questions raised over offsets, capturing key challenges such as how to accurately monitor trees in protected areas and how to fund livelihoods for forest communities that don’t involve cutting down trees.

The UN article addressed all types of offsets, including renewable energy, tree planting and energy efficiency. Hagelberg told ProPublica the main message is that offsets shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to act. Industries use offsets because they are usually cheaper than reducing emissions on site. However, companies should exhaust their own low-cost reductions before buying offsets from another sector, he said. For instance, it costs oil and gas companies very little to cut certain types of methane leaks, he said. “It’s almost like, fix your own house, clean your own room first.”

The UN Environment Programme, billed on its website as the “leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda,” says it has been “carbon neutral” since 2008 through a mix of net reductions and offsets such as wind and hydropower projects. The offsets come from the Clean Development Mechanism, implemented under a separate UN office that handles global climate talks.

Clean Development Mechanism credits have come under fire for environmental and human rights scandals. The ProPublica investigation noted a 2016 study that found 85% of the offsets had a “low likelihood” of creating real reductions.

In an emailed statement, the program’s communications office said it has reduced its reliance on these offsets over time, and these credits are “rigorously managed and controlled.” When selecting offsets, they “take into consideration those which may also have additional social and environmental benefits.”

Hagelberg said his agency has no plans to change the types of offsets it uses. “My main concern is that we actually reduce our emissions, our real emissions, instead of having to go to the offsets side,” he said. Offsets remain part of the climate solution for now, he said, though they will need to be reevaluated in the future.

The program stirred controversy this week after it took down a more pointed version of the article published Monday, which said: “The era of carbon offsets is drawing to a close. Buying carbon credits in exchange for a clean conscience while you carry on flying, buying diesel cars and powering your home with fossil fuels is no longer acceptable or widely accepted.”

Climate Home News, a London-based news site, reached out to the program with questions after the “unusually stark critique,” with a headline announcing, “UN Environment official attacks agency’s own carbon offsetting policy.” The next day, the language that offsets were “no longer acceptable or widely accepted” was edited to say they are “being challenged by people concerned about climate change.”

When asked why he’d revised the article, Hagelberg said it went through an editing process that “added a little more spice,” resulting in a version posted online that “went perhaps too far.” It was later revised “so there’s no ambiguity in the message,” he said.

Even the revised article is “further than I’ve seen any UN body go” in discussing offsets and their growing opposition, said Taylor Billings, media director for Corporate Accountability, an advocacy group that monitors the fossil fuel industry’s influence on global climate talks. Since the criticism is coming from a UN agency publication, it makes it harder for UN Climate Change — the office that created the Clean Development Mechanism — to ignore those flaws, Billings said. “It’s an indication that the tide is turning on this blind faith in offset programs to get us out” of the climate crisis, Billings said.

The UN has publicly struggled to reconcile its support for offsets with evidence that they are problematic. As Climate Home News reported, UN Climate Change released a video in August titled “keep calm and offset,” which “appeared to suggest that viewers could lead a carbon-heavy lifestyle as long as they offset their emissions. It was taken down after a backlash.”

Rules governing global carbon offsets remain contentious and are consistently debated at UN climate talks. They will be discussed at coming talks in Bonn, Germany, starting next week.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.




IMAGE: The Amazon rainforest via Flickr.

As Seas Around Mar-a-Lago Rise, Trump’s Cuts Could Damage Local Climate Work

As Seas Around Mar-a-Lago Rise, Trump’s Cuts Could Damage Local Climate Work

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Climate change isn’t a nebulous threat for Palm Beach County, Florida, where sea creatures swim through driveways during seasonal king tides that flood low-lying streets. For years, the county has worked to address the problem by mapping flood risk, upgrading coastal storm protections and creating a regional climate action plan with three other counties. Later this year, local officials hope to host a sea level workshop by Thomas Ruppert, an attorney with the National Sea Grant College Program.

But if the most prominent resident of Palm Beach County has his way, Sea Grant would cease to exist. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget seeks to eliminate the $73 million program, along with more than $177 million worth of other initiatives within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, many aimed at protecting communities from climate impacts.

Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where he has spent about half of his weekends since taking office, is among the most vulnerable properties in the county. Most of the resort could be underwater by 2100, and the lowest areas already flood during certain tides.

And it turns out, the president isn’t the only member of the current administration with a personal connection to Sea Grant. The same program supports work along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, fortifying homes against coastal storms in and around the city of Mobile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hometown. Back in 2002, Sessions even supported a Sea Grant initiative on seafood safety.

Around Detroit, Michigan, where Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson comes from, Sea Grant does educational outreach and studies toxic algal blooms, a threat to drinking water that’s exacerbated by climate change.

Both Sessions and Carson, like Trump, reject the scientific consensus of global warming. But Sea Grant enjoys bipartisan support, and its reach in red states such as Alabama highlights the gulf between the administration’s views on climate science and the reality on the ground, where climate considerations are embedded into communities nationwide.

The White House, Department of Justice and HUD did not address questions about the administration’s connections to Sea Grant.

Trump’s proposed budget does not specifically criticize the work done through the Sea Grant programs. But the budget states that while the programs support “coastal and marine management, research, and education … which primarily benefit industry and State and local stakeholders,” they are a “lower priority” than the “core” work of “surveys, charting, and fisheries management” that the Trump budget preserves.

The conservative Heritage Foundation’s budget blueprint, from which the Trump administration seems to have drawn heavily, does not mention the Sea Grant program. ProPublica left a message with the foundation to see if it supported the proposed cuts but did not get a response.

Scientists are hopeful Congress will restore Sea Grant’s funding during the monthslong appropriations process.

“We urge you to reconsider these dangerous cuts and instead submit a budget that requests adequate funding to allow NOAA to continue to provide the information and services needed to promote our national security and coastal economies,” six senators wrote in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget on March 10, after news broke of likely cuts to Sea Grant and other NOAA programs. The letter was written a week before Trump released his budget and was signed by three Republicans, two Democrats and an Independent.

Sea Grant operates through a network of state-based offices that provide research, education and outreach to coastal communities, with an emphasis on using applied research to solve real-world problems such as flood protection, fisheries management and seafood safety. In essence, they act as scientific consultants for residents and local governments.

Jim Diana, director of Michigan Sea Grant, said his program is “largely focused on helping coastal communities become more economically vibrant,” by supporting tourism and other industries. “It seems to me that’s also a desire of the Trump administration,” he said.

Jeffrey Reutter, who directed Ohio Sea Grant from 1987 to 2015, said the Reagan administration tried several times to get rid of Sea Grant, but Congress always reinstated the funds.

Sea Grant has remained largely out of the political spotlight. At times, that has meant being strategic about charged topics like climate change.

LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, said they are “a neutral broker of science information.” Sea Grant helps communities build resilience to coastal hazards, including hurricanes, oil spills and flooding. When relevant climate science comes up, they simply present the data without comment, and it’s up to the community to decide whether to incorporate that information into their decisions, he said. “We’re not there to persuade [them] one way or another.”

Swann’s program recently partnered with Smart Home America, a nonprofit based in Mobile, to promote better building codes and encourage residents to get flood and wind insurance to protect their homes from storms.

Julie Shiyou-Woodard, the president and CEO of Smart Home America, said her organization has always been “extremely careful” about not mentioning climate change, even before the Trump administration.

“You can get very little done when you enter into some of these conversations here,” Shiyou-Woodard said. And while global warming can exacerbate coastal hazards, the communities she works with have always been at risk from flooding and high winds, she said, so it’s not necessary to mention climate when advising homeowners.

Given the work Sea Grant sponsors in Sessions’ hometown, and the attorney general’s attitude on climate science, Shiyou-Woodard said it’s unclear whether he would stand up for the program. “A significant portion of his voting constituency totally rely on the coastline” for their livelihoods, she said.

Swann said he hasn’t heard anything from Sessions’ office, but the attorney general is certainly aware of Sea Grant. In 2002, when concentrations of the toxicant methylmercury spiked in seafood, affecting sales in the Gulf of Mexico, Sea Grant held a scientific forum in Mobile. Swann said the meeting inspired then-Senator Sessions to help launch a federal task force on methylmercury, which published a report on the state of the science in 2004.

Like Swann, Diana, the Michigan Sea Grant director, is equally cautious about bringing up global warming. “When we deal with coastal communities, a lot of the time we’re dealing with the impacts of climate change like increased storms, increased runoff, hazardous conditions along the beaches. … But a lot of the time we don’t try to tie those to climate change just because of the baggage,” he said.

Diana said the topic is more likely to come up when they interact with kids. His program regularly takes students from inner-city schools on to the Great Lakes to teach them about the region’s ecology and history. He estimates they’ve reached more than 125,000 students over the past 25 years. “It’s had a huge impact on students. … It may be the only time they’ve been on a boat,” he said.

In contrast to Alabama and Michigan, officials in Palm Beach County openly talk about global warming.

Natalie Schneider, the climate change and sustainability coordinator for Palm Beach County, said the county was moving ahead with adaptation projects before Trump’s election and will continue to do so.

Removing Sea Grant is just one of the many cuts the administration has proposed, Schneider said. “These cuts are very detrimental to the state of science in the United States … [and] to the amount of progress we’ve made as a country” on climate change.

Schneider has offered to help Ruppert, the Sea Grant attorney, set up a workshop on sea level rise for local officials. Ruppert has presented his daylong workshop in neighboring counties but never in Palm Beach County. “We are constantly helping to set up workshops that further the cause of climate change sustainability in this county,” Schneider said.

Ruppert said his workshop informs municipalities about the liability risk associated with more frequent flooding. He’s one of the few Sea Grant employees whose salary is funded by the federal government, he said, so if Trump’s budget is enacted, Ruppert will lose his job.

Penni Redford, another local official helping coordinate the workshop, called Sea Grant “a great resource” for local governments that don’t have the means for complex research. Redford, who is sustainability manager at the city of West Palm Beach, said she hopes the event draws officials from Fort Lauderdale to Port St. Lucie, along a 100-mile stretch of the coast.

Florida is “ground zero” for understanding how climate change is already happening, Redford said. “When you live in a place where the sea never came up through the storm drains or never topped a seawall, and you see that happening on a periodic or more regular basis,” the impacts are obvious, she said.

‘Saltwater’ From Fracking Spill Much Different From Ocean Water

‘Saltwater’ From Fracking Spill Much Different From Ocean Water

By Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

In early July, a million gallons of salty drilling waste spilled from a pipeline onto a steep hillside in western North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation. The waste — a byproduct of oil and gas production — has now reached a tributary of Lake Sakakawea, which provides drinking water to the reservation.

The oil industry called the accident a “saltwater” spill. But the liquid that entered the lake bears little resemblance to what’s found in the ocean.

The industry’s wastewater is five to eight times saltier than seawater, said Bill Kappel, a hydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s salty enough to sting the human tongue, and contains heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards. The briny mix can also include radioactive material. Heavy metals and radioactive materials are toxic at certain concentrations.

“You don’t want to be drinking this stuff,” Kappel said.

The North Dakota spill has killed vegetation and contaminated the soil, and cleanup crews are working on remediation and monitoring. In an email, spokeswoman Debbie Hagen of Crestwood Midstream Partners — the parent company of Arrow Pipelines, the company responsible for the spill — said there is “no evidence of an impact to the local water supply.”

Confusion persists over the wastewater’s environmental and health effects because little is known about the composition of the spilled waste. The compounds it contains vary widely depending on local geology and drilling practices. And there are inconsistencies even within the industry over the definition of “saltwater,” which may or may not contain hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluids.

The “terms are used very loosely, probably on purpose,” Kappel said.

Jim Ladlee, associate director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, said oilfield definitions vary by company, and the same operator may use different words for the same waste product in different parts of the country.

Both Ladlee and Kappel said it’s impossible to understand the potential impact in North Dakota without additional information about what, exactly, was in the pipeline.

Hagen, the Crestwood spokeswoman, did not answer questions about the saltwater composition. Because the spill occurred on tribal land, Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman at the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, directed all questions to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, which did not respond by deadline.

Here’s what is known:

The industry-coined term saltwater usually refers to three types of waste.

1.) The naturally occurring brines located in oil and gas formations hundreds or thousands of feet underground, known as produced water. The brines consist of water and dissolved chemicals leached from the surrounding rock. These include:

-Sodium and chloride (the compounds that make up table salt).

-Heavy metals such as chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, arsenic, selenium, silver, cadmium, antimony, mercury, thallium and lead.

-Radioactive material from buried rock.

-Other dissolved compounds such as barium, calcium and bromide.

Once a well begins operating, produced water flows out of the wellbore along with the oil and/or gas. The mixture is separated at the surface, and the produced water is trucked or piped away for disposal through “saltwater pipelines.”

2.) A mixture of produced water and fracking fluids, called flowback. Fracking fluids contain millions of gallons of water, millions of pounds of sand and thousands of gallons of chemical additives, some of which are toxic.

Flowback comes out of the well during the first two to three weeks after it’s fracked. Like produced water, the flowback is shipped via pipeline for disposal in injection wells or waste pits.

3.) Produced water, which has been treated to remove almost everything but salt and is reused in the fracking process. Ladlee, the Marcellus Outreach representative, said produced water is sent to treatment plants, which remove most of the dissolved material except for the salt. The treated salty mixture is diluted with fresh water, and fracking chemicals are added to create a new batch of fracking fluid, which is used to frack another well. If the North Dakota pipeline was carrying fluid from a treatment facility to a well site for recycling, Ladlee said, then the saltwater would contain very salty water, but with few heavy metals and radioactive material.

The North Dakota spill caught media attention because it was unusually large. But smaller “saltwater” spills occur more frequently. According to The Associated Press, there were 74 such spills in North Dakota last year, spilling a total of 924,000 gallons.

Photo: Maryland Sierra Club via Flickr

Texas Pulls Funding From Air-Quality Program Over Released Data

Texas Pulls Funding From Air-Quality Program Over Released Data

By Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

A few casual words and the early release of some scientific data have cost the San Antonio region much-needed state funds to battle its growing air pollution problem. The misstep, which appears to have been unintentional, highlights the sensitivity of studying oil and gas pollution in business-friendly Texas.

The dispute began after the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) — a coalition that oversees 13 counties in the San Antonio region — launched a two-part study to determine how oil and gas drilling was affecting the city’s air quality.

San Antonio’s air quality has been deteriorating since 2008, the same year drilling began in the nearby Eagle Ford Shale, site of one of the nation’s biggest energy booms. The air pollution is now so bad that metropolitan San Antonio could soon be declared in nonattainment with federal standards for ozone, the main component of smog. If that happens, it could be subject to sanctions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including increased EPA oversight for new development projects.

Local officials hope to avoid that fate by curbing pollution through voluntary measures, but first they need to understand where the emissions are coming from. Because San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, much of the ozone-forming chemicals are likely emitted by cars and trucks. But AACOG knew little about the contributions from oil and gas drilling.

AACOG released the first part of the study, an emission inventory of the Eagle Ford, on April 4. It projected a dramatic increase in air emissions by 2018 during peak ozone season, including a possible 281 percent increase in releases of volatile organic compounds, which react with nitrogen oxides to form ozone. More details are expected in the second part, a photochemical model that explains how the emissions affect San Antonio’s ozone levels.

About a week after the emission inventory was released, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which funded the study, had slashed AACOG’s air-quality planning budget by 25 percent because an AACOG employee had made some of the draft results public. AACOG’s contract with the TCEQ prohibited AACOG from releasing any results without TCEQ approval.

TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the contract was breached when AACOG posted a “summary presentation” on its website. He declined to identify the person responsible for the posting, and said AACOG management was notified of the consequences soon after TCEQ decided to cut the agency’s budget.

InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been reporting on air quality problems in the Eagle Ford for the past year. The initial group of stories stemming from the investigation, published in February, showed that state regulators and politicians are more focused on protecting the industry than protecting the public.

“This is among the more petulant, childish and vindictive things I’ve seen TCEQ do,” said Al Armendariz, a former EPA regional administrator who now works for the Beyond Coal campaign at the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s cheap, it’s schoolyard bullying … to go after a local government whose sole mission is to protect public health.”

In an interview last week on Texas Public Radio, AACOG chairman Kevin Wolff acknowledged that an AACOG employee had made a “fairly minor mistake,” but said he didn’t think the TCEQ’s reaction was very logical. Wolf told the radio show his agency would try to pool some city and county resources to replace the lost funds.

Peter Bella, AACOG’s natural resources director who has worked at the agency for 15 years, has concluded that he is the person the TCEQ is referring to. Bella said he summarized preliminary results from the study last July at a meeting attended by companies that operate in the Eagle Ford, who provided much of the data used in the emission inventory.

After the meeting, Bella posted the summary presentation on AACOG’s website. He said the agency routinely posts documents presented at its meetings, and he never thought it would be considered a breach of contract. Bella said the presentation was well-received by the industry representatives.

A scientist by training, Bella has an undergraduate degree in physics and a master’s in math. Emails between his team at AACOG and TCEQ’s technical staff, obtained through a Texas Public Records Act request, show polite, scientific discussions about the emission inventory over the past 18 months. There’s nothing to indicate animosity.

The draft results actually predicted fewer emissions than the report released this month. The draft projected that by 2018, Eagle Ford development would produce 198 tons per day of volatile organic compounds during San Antonio’s peak ozone season. The final report predicted almost three times as much, 544 tons per day.

Six days after the July meeting, Bella presented the same data to AACOG’s technical staff. The TCEQ was invited to attend the meeting, but no one from the agency showed up. Bella said he was never told — by either the TCEQ or AACOG upper management — that he had done anything wrong.

“I thought the state environmental agency would be happy I was making progress and bringing data forward,” he said. “Part of the difficulty is that I have yet to receive a true indication of the true nature of the breach.”

In September, when the TCEQ handed out state grants for air quality planning for fiscal years 2014-2015, Bella noticed that other local governments had received a sizable budget increase, while AACOG’s funding was frozen at around $570,000. The discovery prompted a series of letters between AACOG’s upper management and the TCEQ, but Bella said the reason for the cut was never clarified.

Bella said the pieces didn’t fall into place for him until last week, when the media picked up on the story.

Although Bella is the main point of contact for AACOG’s TCEQ air grants, he now finds himself relying on the media for clues about his apparent role in the funding freeze.

“It would be very fruitful if I knew what the issues were, with real specificity,” he said. “If we said something wrong, tell me. … Let’s talk about this.”

Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Texas Sierra Club, sees the TCEQ’s decision as a message to all the cities that receive state grants. ” ‘Don’t do anything unless you have the blessing from TCEQ’ — that’s really what it’s saying.”

Shortly after the July AACOG meetings, Bella spoke on a panel at the San Antonio Clean Energy Summit. When an audience member asked about AACOG’s ozone study, Bella said the preliminary results indicated Eagle Ford activity could increase ozone by up to 7 parts per billion in San Antonio’s Bexar County. The federal ozone standard is 75 parts per billion, and since 2012, San Antonio’s monitors have recorded levels above that, some as high as 87 parts per billion.

Bella’s comments at the conference were reported the following day in the San Antonio Express-News.

In an email to InsideClimate News, the TCEQ’s Clawson cited Bella’s comments at the Energy Summit as another breach of the contract. But Bella said the information he shared at the conference came from the photochemical model, which is not being funded by the TCEQ.

Elena Craft, a scientist who spoke on the panel with Bella, said “there was no sense that there was an ill intent” on Bella’s part. Craft is a toxicologist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a green group that often works with industry partners to reduce emissions from natural gas and other industries.

AACOG is “an agency that’s really there to help manage air quality in the region,” she said. “I don’t know what benefit there is to keeping information out of the hands of the public.”

The extra state money San Antonio lost would have funded other air-quality programs, including public education and cost-benefit analyses for voluntary reduction measures, Bella said.

Such programs have a successful track record in San Antonio. In 2007, for example, AACOG honored Capitol Cement for installing technology that reduced emissions of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides by four tons a day during peak ozone season. The voluntary measure was made possible by an AACOG analysis that showed the technology would have a real impact on air quality.

In January, Bella sent the results of the second study, the Eagle Ford photochemical model, to the TCEQ for review. Bella said he did it not because it was required, but because “TCEQ has a staff of excellent modelers … and their review on ozone modeling updates is always sought out.”

On April 14, Bella said TCEQ staff notified him verbally that they didn’t intend to review the report.

However, Clawson, the TCEQ spokesman, told InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity that the agency will review the model. Clawson didn’t provide a timeline.

Bella said he’s eager to move past the dispute and focus on San Antonio’s needs. “I am always prepared to discuss conflicts, problems, and just plain differences of opinion,” he said in an email. “What is not valuable is the delay in funding. … This is a very critical time. We need the state’s partnership. We need their support.”

Photo: Raw Processor via Flickr