EPA Replaces Scientists With Industry; Embraces Cartoon Villainy

 

Image result for polluted river america

“Yeah, but those regulations were super onerous…”

 

The phrase “you can’t make this up” is overused, since these days, all you have to do is imagine the worst possible idea being enacted by the worst possible people, and you have a pretty close approximation of reality. Right, NY Times?

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed at least five members of a major scientific review board, the latest signal of what critics call a campaign by the Trump administration to shrink the agency’s regulatory reach by reducing the role of academic research.

A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” said the spokesman, J. P. Freire.

What’s interesting here is how they don’t even pretend to be talking about citizens anymore. Normally, they say things like “those egghead bureaucrat scientists in Washington DC don’t understand the kind of water that we enjoy here in Mudville. Our citizens are just fine with a little bit of cadmium in their soup.” But that’s not even what J.P. Freire is saying. He’s talking about the “regulated community”, i.e., the businesses themselves. It might be a different definition of “community” than you or I understand, but remember, my friend: corporations are people.

There’s not even anything to unpack here; there’s not even the tribute vice pays to virtue. They are straight-up saying that any regulations will be vetted by the people whose profits are impacted by regulations, and how that is the only concern.

It’s a pretty clear baseline. What matters is the impact regulations have on the bottom line of the company. The baseline isn’t what deregulated pollutions has on the humans who lives around the company. That is, at best, secondary. That’s not the impact that matters.

So it doesn’t matter, just to take a quick jaunt around recent headlines, that:

None of that matters (the attack on indigenous rights might actually be a bonus for these jackals). What we need are fewer regulations, and they should be vetted by the industries themselves.

It’s easy to see the counterarguments. More regulations are job-killing, and these plants and factories and industries are the lifeblood of the community, and if those science pinheads continue to ram their globalist climate-hysteric ideologies down our throats, we’ll be forced to close shop and go pollute Mexico. And why should the Mexicans get all our good pollution?

It’s a seductive argument, except it is also a completely phony one. The choice isn’t between “pollution and jobs”; it is between “pollution or slightly reduced profits.” It’s always been a lie that a company can’t follow simple environmental regulations. They made the same argument when smokestacks were regulated to reduce deadly smog, and industry didn’t collapse. It’s a choice made by companies to chase greater profits by moving to deregulated countries.

Reducing or eliminating regulations doesn’t actually help anyone. There will always be a place that cares even less about its citizens, that slashes regulations, that lets you dump paint right into the well. That the US is rushing to join these countries isn’t pro-worker; it is showing absolute contempt for the worker. It’s saying “you can keep your job, but only if we can lower wages, kill your collective bargaining rights, and poison you and your family, working you until you die young or are too broken to be of use.”

That’s Scott Pruitt’s vision of the future. It’s another reason why this administration has to be resisted at every step. Everything they do is carcinogenic. That’s unfortunately too often literal.

Yukon River Rerouting Shows Sudden Impact of Climate Change; Is Bonkers Crazy

 

This river is younger than, say, “Lemonade”

 

There are few things that can change the course of a river suddenly. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi by suddenly shoving millions of tons of water in northward, but that was temporary. Normally, (unless like in Chicago you do it intentionally) rivers change directions or reroute their course very slowly, through generations of erosion as it pokes and prods and tries to find the easiest way to flow, a grinding process that eventually levels everything in its path, though never on the mere scale of a human lifetime.

Thanks to climate change, that might not always be the case. Times?

In the blink of a geological eye, climate change has helped reverse the flow of water melting from a glacier in Canada’s Yukon, a hijacking that scientists call “river piracy.”

This engaging term refers to one river capturing and diverting the flow of another. It occurred last spring at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, one of Canada’s largest, with a suddenness that startled scientists.

A process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016.

Much of the meltwater from the glacier normally flows to the north into the Bering Sea via the Slims and Yukon Rivers. A rapidly retreating and thinning glacier — accelerated by global warming — caused the water to redirect to the south, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Last year’s unusually warm spring produced melting waters that cut a canyon through the ice, diverting more water into the Alsek River, which flows to the south and on into Pacific, robbing the headwaters to the north.

Think about that. If you lived there (or, I guess, if you are a tremendous liar), you could say “I remember the days when these waters flowed north, onward to the Bering Sea”, and you’d be talking about last summer.

Now, to be fair, this was a perfect confluence of conditions: the way the land was shaped there didn’t have to be too much melt and erosion for the higher ground to make its way to the lower; the channels cut my newly melted water didn’t have far to go. We’re not going to wake up one day and see that the Ohio is charging back toward Pittsburgh. But it is still a stark and terrifying reminder that climate change isn’t something happening in the distant future. It is happening now, and it is really unpredictable.

In essence, we’ve decided as a species to enter a vast generational experiment where we see what happens when we accelerate natural processes and introduce unnatural ones. The earth heats and cools, glaciers advance and melt, rivers change their courses. These things happen on unimaginable time spans. They don’t happen over the course of a century, or the life of a summer. But, thanks to our desire to turn nature into capital, that’s what’s happening.

We don’t know how it will turn out. Things will happen that we can barely even guess. But it seems short-sighted to say it won’t be enormous.

I’ll leave this with an example of what retreating glaciers mean. We all know that the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and completely wiped out the landscape that came before them. And we know it was cold as hell. But I don’t think it is generally understood how much their immensity impacted geology, and not just topography.

They pressed down on the earth’s surface, slowly impacting it under their enormity. And as they retreated, the surface slowly started to rebound. This is a process that, tens of thousands of years later, is still happening. The impact of this can be felt right around here, in Chicago. When the glaciers first retreated, and the lakes took their present form, the ground was low enough that Michigan (and Lake Chicago before it) flowed southwards, toward the Mississippi Basin. But as the land rebounded, and glaciers cut more channels, eventually the whole Lakes basin made its way to the ocean.

Until, of course, the city of Chicago, disgusted with and sickened by the filth of its residents, reversed the course of the Chicago, turning southern Lake Michigan into an extension of the Mississippi Basin. That happened in a geologic instant. The reversal of the Yukon rivers was even quicker. It was instant.

Our impact on the planet might mimic the planet’s own cycles, as somewhat more sophisticated climate deniers claim, but that’s wildly misleading. It’s a gruesome imitation, at high-speed, a janky cassette player that suddenly turns your music into a screeching cacophony, with little regard for the consequences. It’s like jumping off the Empire State Building and saying you’re imitating the gentle swaying of a leaf on the wind. Same general direction maybe, and with the same end point, but brother, you’re fucked.

A Couple of Rainy Day Thoughts on How We’ve Altered the Landscape

Image result for chicago rain

It’s been a gloomy rainy sort of day here in Chicago. The White Sox opener has been postponed, which is fine. I don’t mind delaying this 95-loss season another day. It’s not spring yet, anyway.  It’s the sort of April rain that feels like the lingering of March, the whole month of which felt gray and wet, a Smarchian sort of slog.

You look out the windows and see the dull and lumpy sky wrinkle itself in a thousand plinging puddles, and watch the puddles grow and slink off toward the sewer, and its hard to remember that it’s only been a few hundred years that rain has been allowed to land that way. It used to fall on the ground, and slowly make its way across whatever basin it found itself in, if it weren’t used up or simply evaporated, reimagining its particles into invisibility so it could fall again.

But that’s not the way it is, anymore. It’s a profound change, and the short-term effects have been, in some ways, disastrous. To build our cities, we’ve altered to way water has distributed itself around the world. We’ve paved over floodplains and changed rivers. We’ve manipulated drainage.

Look at a very minor example, the North Branch of the Chicago River. Patti Welti of DNA Info has the story.

A total of 1.67 inches fell, a record for March 30.

It wasn’t enough to push the North Branch of the Chicago River to flood, but the water did rise more than two feet during the morning and early afternoon.

How does less than two inches translate into more than two feet?

Before the Chicago area was extensively settled, the river meandered across a marsh-like geography, dispersing water over a greater space. Precipitation was absorbed by vegetation and stored in the ground, wetlands and flood plains, according to the report.

As the area became more urban, green space was paved over, wetlands were drained and the river was straightened to better collect runoff that would have previously seeped into the ground. The result is a watershed with very little stormwater capacity, the report explains.

 So much of urban history has been about how to drain marshes and swamps. There were enormous struggles in England in draining The Fens, which led to political upheaval, revolutions, and other intrigues. These were enormous marshes, the “sink of thriteen counties”, as Daniel Defoe described them. But the English managed to straighten the rivers and turn the Fens into farmland.
Or one could look at the Great Black Swamp that used to cover much of Northeast Ohio, a terrible oozy wasteland that slowed down water flowing into Lake Erie. This was a swamp that was nearly impassable by anyone who didn’t know exactly how to transverse its deep sludgy waters, and was frequently a refuge for natives, who could get through it faster than European-Americans could get around it. Draining it was an enormous accomplishment that led to the creation of cities like Toldeo, not to mention millions of acres of farmland.
Funny thing, though. It turns out the swamp helped keep Lake Erie clean, serving as a natural filter for whatever came through the basin’s rivers. The enormous runoff that resulted, combined with chemicals from the regions farms (which the swamp would have filtered) is one of the main reasons why Lake Erie has died several times. The swamp helped keep away the algae blooms that have decimated the lake.
So we don’t know. We don’t know how these experiments will end. The Chicago River was slow and windy, often more marsh than river. It wasn’t meant to be a straight channel. Maybe straightening it was the price of the city. Maybe paving over its wetlands is how we were built. And maybe it will be fine.
But a rapidly rising and fast moving Chicago River, devoid of any drainage, is, in a very literal sense, unnatural. The short-term effects of how completely we’ve altered our landscape are only beginning to show. The long-term effects are unknown. But, with the rushing clarity of a springtime flood, we know one thing: water always wins.

Trump’s Great Lakes Policies Are Terrible For His Rust Belt Voters

Republic Steel - Now known as Riverbend (BEFORE)

The people who this hurts aren’t latte-sipping coastal elites

There’s been no doubt that all of Donald Trump’s plans (at least the ones that aren’t designed to hurt Muslims and Mexicans) stick it especially hard to his voting base. Gutting the ACA will throw millions more into uncertainty and poverty. He’s destroying programs that reduce misery in Appalachia (while obviously not doing anything to “restore coal”, because that’s impossible).  He’s gutting Meals on Wheels, which I don’t remember being the province of smug liberals.

He’s doing this because he’s a Republican, of course, and a tremendous liar, both of which facts eluded (and in a way were hidden from) the people that voted for him. But regardless.

One area where this is especially true is in the Great Lakes, home of the Rust Belt, and the symbolic heart of Trump’s victory. On the surface, it is easy to see why. For decades, after the labor/environmental split, which was more a product of a few mistakes and deliberate divide-and-conquer strategies of management rather than an inevitable corporate outcome, “green” policies have been perceived as harmful, and even antithetical, to the white working class.

It’s a buncha eggheads at the EPA and college professors and long-hairs who are stopping us from working, with their regulations. The culture wars mixed with the regulatory battles (and are really part of the same phenomenon), to the point where anything that smacked of environmentalism was seen as un-American. That’s why Trump (like every other Republican) gets applause when he talks about destroying the EPA: he’s attacking BIG GOVERNMENT and he’s ANNOYING LIBERALS.

But the funny thing is that people who are opposed to all this green stuff in the main tend to like it when it is by their homes. That’s why Trump’s Great Lakes policies, in which he is going to gut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, have proven to be so controversial.

The GLRI is a $3 billion dollar fund started in 2010 by the noted hater of the working man, Barack Obama, to improve water quality, clean up and manage pollution, fight invasive species, and promote responsible waterfront development in the Great Lakes, especially the heavily industrialized areas.

These are Rust Belt areas in which the land was poisoned and the water destroyed. These are areas like Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Detroit, and others. But they aren’t just big blue cities: they are the innumerable small towns that have their own shuttered factories whose legacies are pollution and waste. And, even in those “blue” cities, there are the fabled white working class, whose lives are destroyed, are whose lakes are algal disasters.

The GLRI has been working not just to undo that legacy, but to bring the lakefronts back to life. One of the most remarkable things about Chicago is that, as ruthlessly and dirtily capitalistic as this city was, we never built to the lake, keeping it public and beautiful. As such, the waterfront is the heart of the city, and helps bring in millions of tourists.

Other cities can get in on that. The GLRI has not just been great for the Lakes environmentally, but it has had the effect of letting cities use their waterfronts for recreation, commercial fishing, and gatherings. Look at this image from the Niagara River (which is part of the Great Lakes system).

I mean, yeah, you can see the rot around it. But that’s the same area from the top  picture! Now it’s an area where people hang out and can have jobs. It’s a tax base. It’s a place where life can be better.

For another great example of this, look at Erie, PA. It’s a town that was dying (and in parts, still is). But the GLRI helped clean the waterfront, bringing it back to life, a process Ohio had started but couldn’t afford on its own. Now there are big hotels, and a happening downtown with good restaurants and bars and stores. That’s economic progress. That’s turnaround.

And now that’s going to be thrown away. How nuts is this? It’s so nuts that even Scott Pruitt promised to keep funding the GLRI. Trump’s budget, the dream of Republicans, is so cruel and insane that even people who truly hate environmentalism are being wrong-footed by it. It’s pure nightmarish ideology.

What’s interesting (and predictable in a cheering, if also cynical way), is that Great Lakes Republican are angry. Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Rob Portman and others, who always talk about federal waste, think the GLRI should stay. (And remember, Scott Walker is generally fine selling off most of his state to the highest bidder.) And they’re right!

What we see here, of course, is that wasteful overreach is only wasteful overreach when it doesn’t impact you. These GOP governors and Senators know that they need the Lakes, both for drinking water and for their state’s economies. They’d be fine cutting the EPA budget for other areas. But not for the Lakes.

This, finally, is the ultimate in GOP cynicism, and I think paves a way forward for liberal environmentalism to reconnect with labor. After all, the Trump budget was made from his priorities and from those of Washington think tanks who have been wanting to destroy the EPA for decades. They’ve managed to make that seem like a good thing for the working class, but now that they have total power, the truth is known.

They think the working class should live with dead rivers and unusable lakes. They think the ground should be ruined and salted with chemicals. They think that the government has no need to help make up for the wastes of industrialization, in which the white working class gave their lives, only to be left with poverty and poison. Someone else made money off of it. Now you have to live there.

Remember, the people making these decisions don’t live in Detroit. They don’t live in Erie. They sure as shit don’t live in Buffalo. They’re rich people in think tanks who think that the poor and economically anxious should stay that way, and if cancer is the price, well, it’s your choice if you can’t afford health care. Trump, and the people making his budget, aren’t just cruel. They’re snobs. 

America’s Infrastructure Report Card Another Sign of Being Ungovernable

I know this is going to sound weird in light of Wednesday’s post on how the entirety of the American experiment has been about transforming land into capital, but the 2017 Infrastructure Report, in which the fruits of that experiment are shown again to be falling apart, is just as depressing. If you’re going to transform a continent with epochal repercussions, at least do it right.

The report, in which we got an overall D+, is filled with depressing little nuggets of sadutainment. Dams, obviously, got a D. Drinking water got a D. Levees got a D, which means no place to stay. Rails, bless them, received a B.

Most striking, maybe, or at least in its own way most telling, is that Inland Waterways also got a D. As the report says:

The United States’ 25,000 miles of inland waterways and 239 locks form the freight network’s “water highway.” This intricate system, operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supports more than half a million jobs and delivers more than 600 million tons of cargo each year, about 14% of all domestic freight. Most locks and dams on the system are well beyond their 50-year design life, and nearly half of vessels experience delays. Investment in the waterways system has increased in recent years, but upgrades on the system still take decades to complete.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that inland waterways built this country, or, at least, this country was built around inland waterways. As Peter Bernstein detailed in Wedding of the Waters, Washington knew that the fledgling nation needed a way to connect the eastern ports and cities with the settlers beyond the Cumberland Gap. This was when the country was still unformed, and the British and French held land on the continent, and there was no real reason for settlers to identify with America.

Washington wanted a canal that ran through Virginia, near Mt. Vernon (which was known back then as “our own old-timey Mar-A-Lago”), but the difficulties were insurmountable. Through the indefatigable workings of DeWitt Clinton, many-times governor of New York, the Erie Canal was built, linking the Great Lakes to the oceans via the Hudson, and unifying the nation.

It was a hell of a project, requiring monumental dams and incredible feats of engineering. The later Welland Canal surpassed even the Erie, and of course the St. Lawrence Seaway outdid them all. They weren’t the only canals, though, of course. Inland ports dotted the lakes and rivers of the new west, none more prominent than the ones in Chicago, that connected the small Chicago River to the slightly bigger Des Plaines, and thence to the Illinois, and the Mississippi. More canals were dug in the region, reversing the flow of the Chicago, and helping to open up the Lakes to the Gulf.

(There have been some very negative consequences of opening up the Lakes to the ocean, as Dan Egan details in his new book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. We’ll have a review coming next week.)

But the canals are too narrow, and the locks are rusty and old, and the inland waterway infrastructure is decaying. Infrastructure has long been a huge problem. Democrats can’t get Republicans to spend any money on it, because that is wasteful. Republicans promise to do so, but then, as Trump is doing, “punt” it in favor of tax cuts. It’s an argument, but it is more than that.

This isn’t just politics. This is fundamental. We let our roads and bridges crumble like some kind of metaphor, because we are, ultimately, ungovernable. We’re too big, and too unruly, and too atomized, to be governed correctly. We muddle through, but for all the hegemony of CVS and Applebees in every corner, for every same-seeming strip mall of auto part joints and check cashing places in every concrete roadway of the nation, there is no real unifier. Maybe there can’t be: maybe the anonymity of modernity and the retreat of the digital age combined in a swirl of late-stage capitalism that only guarantees isolation and addiction. Maybe, really, we’re just too big, and the idea of a huge continental nation is absurd.

That would be a pretty bitter irony, there. We carved out this continent, transformed nature, and exterminated nations wholesale in order to fulfill a manifest destiny. And, barely 100 years after reaching that shore and taming the natives, the very scope of the conquest is also our undoing. We size the perils of giganticism and empire in Russia, which is falling apart, eroding its eastern possessions to China while being unable to maintain internal coherence beyond Putinism. Is it a surprise that it is happening here, too?

Water Wednesday: Wisconsin’s Walker Woes and Things That Don’t Begin With W. Like Lake Erie

 

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I’m sure there’s a metaphor here somewhere, but my first thought is: whoa! A deer in Lake Erie? What the hell? Image (and explanation) from Cleveland Scene

A quick rundown of some top water stories, which remind us that while we can impact nature, we’re really not in charge. 

I realize that there is a weird-seeming contradiction in saying that we can bring great change to nature, but that we’re still at its mercy. But when we say “great change”, we don’t mean permanent. The earth will eventually repair itself, and time will smooth over our cataclysms. We just won’t be here. But you want the real image? Imagine a 7-yr-old jamming a hatpin into his mother’s ankle. He can do that, and cause great damage, but really, the storm will redound upon him.

So let’s start this week’s “hey, who cares about clean water?” news with Wisconsin.

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