Tropical Storm Harvey: Another American Deluge

As we lend our immediate support to Gulf Coast communities, we must also protect people from such future disasters by addressing infrastructure, safety measures, flood policies, and climate change.

Tropical Storm Harvey
People in Houston are evacuated on rescue boats as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise, August 28, 2017.David J. Phillip/AP

In just three days, more rain fell on the Texas Gulf Coast than what flows out of the Mississippi River in three full weeks. Tiny Cedar Bayou got 51.9 inches, the most ever measured for a single storm in the continental United States. Hundreds of thousands of people were washed out of their homes, and more than 32,000 huddled in makeshift shelters. In the words of the National Weather Service, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

Harvey shelter
From left: Tammy Dominguez and her husband, Christopher Dominguez, at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, where nearly 10,000 people are taking shelter after Harvey; evacuees fill Max Bowl, in Port Arthur, Texas.From left: Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP; Kim Brent/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP

This is an American disaster. It demands an American response. We stand with the people of Houston and of the region – and with their need for national-level emergency aid and long-term recovery support. This support must be both effective and equitable and must reduce the prospect that this kind of suffering will be repeated, in Houston or anywhere else.

One thing we learned from Superstorm Sandy, five years ago this fall, and Hurricane Katrina before that, is that local communities are central to the success of any plan for emergency assistance, short-term aid, and long-range recovery. These groups with boots on the ground will need our support, and we encourage you to give it.

Because right now, they are the ones who remain in harm’s way. A small ocean of water engulfs the Houston region, creating unimaginable damage and loss. Much of the water is laden with a toxic mix of chemicals seeping from area refineries, chemical plants, and abandoned industrial and waste sites. Strange smells sweeping through the area underscore reports of air pollution emissions from the refineries that dominate the region and explosions at one chemical plant. We don’t know how much has been released because air monitors have shut down, but press and local reports estimate the number in the millions of pounds of volatile organic compounds, like benzene, and other nasty chemicals.

Flint Hills Resources oil refinery
Flint Hills Resources oil refinery near downtown Houston on Tuesday, August 29, 2017David J. Phillip/AP

Much of the water contains sewage from flooded municipal treatment plants. Public health officials are warning residents to stay out of the floodwaters. And there are drinking water concerns, too. Houston has been on a precautionary boil order, and there are fears that other drinking water systems could be compromised.

Even after the storm has passed, the danger is unabated.

And as people return to water-damaged homes, they face a high risk of living with mold, which can aggravate asthma, allergies, and other respiratory ills. After Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters, we saw communities blighted by these issues – along with contaminated sediments, debris left standing, and continued lack of services that threatened public health long after the floodwaters receded. Those are conditions that should not be repeated but will be hard to avoid after a disaster of this scale. Resources will have to be made available fast and without the rancorous debates that followed Superstorm Sandy.

As we’ve seen in past disasters, low-income communities and people of color tend to suffer disproportionate exposure to these dangers, often without receiving adequate care. Proximity to the sources of the contaminants, lack of information, and poor access to protective measures or the resources to just up and leave until the dangers are gone all conspire to make the impacts even more burdensome to these communities. That’s why, again, the needs of these communities must be front and center in the days and weeks to come.

Of the roughly 800,000 households in Houston, fewer than one in six has flood insurance. That means a lot of people won’t have money to repair or rebuild. Even those who do will find it extremely difficult to receive federal aid that might help them move to higher ground. Some 43,000 families were on the wait list for affordable housing in Houston. That list is likely to grow, as local housing costs rise in response to the lack of supply, and if communities don’t quickly move to replace lost housing for low-income residents, a recurring problem after a flood disaster.

Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent more than $278 billion on disaster rebuilding and recovery efforts – most commonly for floods, the nation’s most frequent and costly form of natural disaster.

To fix the problem, we put in place the Federal Flood Protection Standard in 2015, which requires better planning and protections for flood-prone infrastructure built with federal funds. Unfortunately, just as Harvey was beginning to stir in the Gulf of Mexico, President Trump rescinded those standards, part of what he called a “disgraceful” permitting process. It didn’t take long for Harvey to show the folly in that. Now it’s time for Congress to demand a more responsible approach.

There are a bevy of additional very big issues laid bare by this disaster. They will all need to be addressed once we have begun to get communities along the Gulf back on their feet.

We have to make our cities more sustainable to avoid some of the infrastructure issues that further complicated Harvey’s impacts on Houston. We have to address the safety risks associated with private facilities, like refineries and chemical plants, and their health impacts on neighboring communities. We have to fix this country’s flawed flood policies, and fast, to stop putting Americans in harm’s way. And most fundamentally, we have an obligation to protect current and future generations from the growing dangers of such disasters made worse by climate change. That’s what we’re committed to at NRDC, for the people of the Gulf and for us all.

Rhea Suh is president of NRDC and the NRDC Action Fund.


Deadly Water and Dashed Coverage: GOP’s Two-sided Attack on Americans’ Health

By Lauren Karpinski

The disastrous Senate “health care” bill, crafted behind closed doors, would result in tens of millions of Americans losing their health insurance. While Trumpcare would limit coverage for those who become sick, the GOP is simultaneously pursuing another bill aimed at making it more likely Americans will get sick in the first place.

We’re calling it the “Risk to America Act” (RAA) because it would dramatically weaken the enforcement of safeguards that give us the peace of mind we expect in America to live free from the danger of contaminated food, polluted waterways and foul air. This NRDC video shows some of the consequences of eliminating these common-sense protections.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan captures the danger communities, often low-income, face from this two-pronged cynical attack on our health and safety by the RAA and Trumpcare. When Michigan state failed to follow federal guidelines meant to prevent lead pipes from leaching into the drinking water, thousands of Flint residents were exposed to highly toxic levels of lead.

Ten years from now, a Flint toddler who ingested harmful levels of lead could be struggling with a developmental disorder. Under the proposed Trumpcare, in some states this child’s condition could limit their coverage, preclude them from getting Medicaid benefits or hike up their premiums. Barred from the best treatment, a child in this situation — and there could be many — could have trouble finishing school, difficulty finding a job and even have a higher propensity toward crime.

Twice failed by her government, this Flint child is far from alone. There are countless examples of preventable health problems brought on by shamefully weak standards and lax regulations that benefit big corporations.

Trumpcare’s approach to pre-existing conditions could lead to unfathomable obstacles for those who need healthcare the most. The woman who’s had six surgeries to combat her asbestos-induced mesothelioma might not be eligible for quality, affordable health insurance. A mother whose children developed asthma from nearby power plant emissions might not be able to afford lifesaving medications. The construction worker injured on an unsafe job site may never get the physical therapy he needs.

Americans expect tough, fair enforcement of laws meant to protect their families from harm. The only support for weakening enforcement comes from corporate lobbyists. Are members of Congress prepared to sacrifice American families’ way of life in exchange for political support from large and powerful corporations?

The RAA derails the enforcement necessary to ensure the safety of products and conditions in everyday life. Trumpcare undercuts healthcare coverage for millions of vulnerable people. Together, these two assaults by the GOP on Americans’ health and quality of life is shortsighted and immoral, and for many they would create a perfect storm resulting in a lifetime of hardship. That is not “making America great.”

Tell your senators: Fight this two-pronged attack on our health, safety, and way of life. Oppose the RAA and Trumpcare.

Lauren Karpinski is the NRDC Action Fund’s communications intern.

Scott Pruitt Defends the Indefensible

The budget testimony from the EPA Administrator leaves us wondering who exactly is protecting our environment and health.

On the basis of congressional testimony Thursday from our nation’s top environmental steward, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, I can’t help but wonder: Who’s protecting our environment and health?

It certainly isn’t Scott Pruitt.

In nearly two hours of testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee, Pruitt offered not a single idea for protecting our air, water, and lands from pollution; defending the health of our children; or fighting the growing dangers of climate change.

He focused, instead, on plans to gut the budget and slash the staff of the EPA, roll back protections for clean air and water, and renege on our global commitments to reduce the carbon pollution that imperils the planet.

He never directly discussed climate change, beyond defending President Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and vowing to dismantle the single-most important measure we’ve taken at home to address the problem: the plan to clean up the dirty power plantsthat account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint.

Pruitt spent so much time talking about coal, gas, and oil, you might have thought he was the secretary of energy. But he pointedly refused to so much as acknowledge the clean, renewable wind and solar power that accounts for two-thirds of all the new electric generating capacity our country has installed over the past two years.

This is an agency head completely disconnected from the environmental threats of our time, the opportunities we have to address these ills, and the agency’s congressional mandate: to protect our environment and health.

On several occasions, Pruitt outright misled the public. Pruitt claimed, for example, that a Supreme Court stay on the Clean Power Plan suggests the plan is unlawful on its merits. The court has indicated no such thing. He also claimed the EPA lacks legal authority to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, factories, and oil refineries. The Supreme Court has ruled otherwise three times?in 2007, 2011, and 2014.

Pruitt repeatedly asserted his respect for the rule of law and process. The truth is, he respects those laws he supports?and challenges the rest. On Thursday, Pruitt directly attacked consent decrees, court-ordered directives that have the full force of law. And his purported fealty to process has not prevented him, in practice, from racing to withdraw or amend without meaningful public comment duly established rules and regulations that were years in the making.

Pruitt, in fairness, was sent to Capitol Hill to defend the indefensible.Subcommittee chairman Ken Calvert, a California Republican representative, was joined by several of his GOP colleagues in telling Pruitt they wouldn’t support the draconian cuts Trump has proposed for the EPA. In essence, they said, the budget threatens our environment, our health, and our economy.

Trump called for cutting the agency’s budget by about one-third, reducing funding to 1990 levels while slashing agency staff by nearly 3,800. That’s a 25 percent reduction in the scientists and experts we depend on to protect us from toxic pollution, contamination, and environmental harm that threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

A bipartisan consensus made clear that those cuts are a nonstarter in Congress, which holds the power of the purse. “We have a moral obligation to safeguard our planet and ensure that our children and grandchildren have a healthy future,” said New York representative Nita Lowey. “This budget would fall short of that obligation.”

As Ohio representative Marcy Kaptur, put it, “America really can’t afford to shortcut our environment and human health.” White House plans to end an EPA program to clean up industrial pollution, chemical contamination, and invasive species from the Great Lakes drew fire from Kaptur and her fellow Buckeye, Representative David Joyce. Great Lakes restoration is “creating new opportunities and a brighter future for our shoreline communities,” said Joyce. “I view it as a national treasure.”

There was similar criticism for the administration’s proposal to end EPA funding to clean up iconic waterways from the Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound. “We can’t afford the EPA to check out on Puget Sound recovery,” said Washington representative Derek Kilmer, whose district includes the storied waterway, which he said supports more than 60,000 direct jobs and returns $24 in economic activity for every $1 invested in cleanup.

Calvert said he would work to restore agency funding for the EPA’s popular Energy Star program. Trump has proposed killing the program, which in 2015 cost taxpayers $50 million and saved consumers and businesses some $34 billion in energy costs by helping to identify energy-efficient appliances and equipment.

And on it went.

It’s reassuring, I suppose, that neither party supports Trump’s dark vision of gutting the EPA. After all, as Nevada representative Mark Amodei, put it, “Nobody’s standing on the rooftops begging for dirty air and dirty water and dirty soil.”

The larger question is, what’s the plan for protecting those resources, defending public health, and going after the central environmental challenge of our time? We didn’t get an answer Thursday from the man who’s supposed to be the nation’s top environmental steward. Even when Congress restores much of the EPA funding Trump seeks to end, the administration has told us what its priorities are: protecting big polluters, not our environment and health.

Pruitt affirmed those objectives, making clear that he’ll continue to try to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, move forward with efforts to revoke the Clean Water Rule?which protects the streams that feed drinking water sources for one in every three Americans, along with countless wetlands?and otherwise weaken or eviscerate the safeguards we all depend on to protect our environment and health.

The American people deserve better. Pruitt needs to stop trying to defend the indefensible and focus instead on defending our environment and health.

Rhea Suh is president of the NRDC Action Fund.

Paris Pullout: Fight Back at the Ballot Box

When the president and our elected representatives in Congress ignore reason, science and public opinion, the only way to get their attention is at the ballot box – our universal democratic right.

In pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump certainly ignored the science. He didn’t listen to the American people. He didn’t listen to the business community. He ignored the leaders of nearly 200 other countries. He didn’t even listen to his own daughter.

Instead, Trump sided with a handful of narrow nationalists and fossil fuel extremists like Steve Bannon and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and now he’s put their fevered dreams of a walled-off and polluting America over the worldwide need to slow the devastating warming of our planet.

The time is now to commit to a strong political response to this outrage. We’re going to fight to make Donald Trump a one-term president, but until then we’ll do everything we can to block his deadly agenda in Congress.

Your elected representatives may pretend they don’t understand climate science or the need for American leadership on this global issue, but they will soon understand the political consequences. It’s time to make them pay a political price for siding with corporate polluters and fossil fuel extremists over American families.

Only a pro-climate majority in Congress can stop this ongoing assault on our future.

Donald Trump’s allies in Congress deserve to pay a harsh political price for supporting his polluter-driven climate agenda, so the NRDC Action Fund is building a political war chest to fight them from now until the mid-term elections. We won’t let them win. We can’t.

The NRDC Action Fund will be working hard to make sure your voice is heard – from the halls of Congress today to the voting booths next fall. With your support, we’ll send an unmistakable message about this colossal mistake.

Politics matters. We are in this dire situation because a relative handful of votes in three battleground states last fall tipped the election to Trump.  We can’t let that happen again. It’s time to prepare now for the fight of our lives.

Kevin Curtis is executive director of the NRDC Action Fund.

A Budget That Scorches the Planet

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

President Trump opened a new front in his assault on our environment and health on Tuesday, releasing detailed budget proposals that amount to a scorched-earth campaign — literally and figuratively.

The budget calls for draconian cuts in programs that help clean up and protect our air, water, and lands from toxic pollution; support for energy efficient appliances that save families billions of dollars in energy costs each year; and the scientific research we depend on to grasp and confront emerging threats.

Generally, a president’s budget recommendations provide the starting point for debate in Congress, which has ultimate control over federal spending. This version falls short of that standard. Congress should ignore the president’s reckless recommendations and start from scratch with a budget that reflects our right to clean water and air and the long-standing American values around the need to leave our children a livable world.

Of every dollar the federal government spends, one-fifth of a penny goes to support the work of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — one-fifth of a penny to the agency charged with cleaning up our air and water and protecting us from dangerous pollution.

Trump wants to cut that by 31 percent, to reduce environmental protection resources next year by $2.6 billion — the same amount he wants taxpayers to spend to build a wall and otherwise buttress security along the U.S.-Mexico border. The cuts Trump has proposed would hobble the EPA so much that it would jeopardize the agency’s ability to do its job as required by law, exposing Americans to needless risk.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt calls this going “back to basics.” Going back — period — is more like it. The $5.7 billion Trump has proposed to fund the EPA next year would take the agency back to its lowest funding level since 1990. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the lowest level in 40 years, a period during which the U.S. economy has nearly tripled in size and the population has grown about 50 percent.

Our society has become larger and more complex, and so have the environmental hazards we face. We won’t build a more vibrant and prosperous nation by turning our back on those threats.

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