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Brian Willis, 202.675.2386, Brian.Willis@sierraclub.org
The New York Times reported late yesterday that former coal lobbyist and acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, has finalized his proposal to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which will increase the profits of his former coal clients and threaten the health of pregnant women and young children. MATS protects the public from mercury, arsenic, hydrochloric acid, and a variety of other toxic air pollutants, which are especially harmful to vulnerable populations like infants and mothers.
The proposal is expected to benefit both Mr. Wheeler's former clients -- notably, the coal company Murray Energy, who are challenging the MATS in court -- and those of EPA's Assistant Administrator William Wehrum, who worked for years as a lawyer for coal companies. MATS requires coal- and oil-fired power plants to significantly reduce their emissions of toxic pollutants and, by doing so, safeguards American communities from the largest single source of mercury, arsenic, and a host of other dangerous substances.
The EPA estimates that the MATS protections prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks and heart attacks each year. EPA's proposal, according to the Times, attempts to adjust EPA's analysis of the standards' benefits so as to ignore all of those public health benefits, and thereby tilt the EPA's accounting decisively in favor of the coal industry. That maneuver -- which would permit EPA to ignore a wide swath of public health benefits, even while providing much more favorable treatment to health protections' effects on polluters -- could undermine both MATS as well as many other public health protections.
Virtually every plant subject to MATS has already met the standard that Trump is now proposing to reconsider. For that reason, numerous utilities and manufacturers have pleaded with Wheeler to keep MATS in place.
In response, Mary Anne Hitt, Senior Director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, released the following statement:
"If finalized, this shameful plan would undermine standards that have already been widely implemented, exposing our kids to more toxic mercury and arsenic just so Andrew Wheeler and Bill Wehrum can appease a handful of their former clients in the coal industry. If anyone needed further proof that Wheeler and Wehrum are still working for coal millionaires, this is it. Any sensible, rational person would recognize these basic protections for pregnant women and young children are already working, and throwing them out is a direct attack on their health and development. But Wheeler and Wehrum are putting the interests of their former employers before logic and before the health of our kids. To make matters worse, Wheeler and Wehrum's plan can also weaken the Clean Air Act and its enforcement. This disgraceful move by Wheeler and Wehrum directly endangers the health of our kids and we will do everything we can to stop it."
The Sierra Club is the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. We amplify the power of our 3.8 million members and supporters to defend everyone's right to a healthy world.(415) 977-5500
"What should be off the table are children in America, where we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country."
Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, toldCNN's Anderson Cooper that Republicans have engaged in "an outrageous display of extremist politics" by "holding hostage the entire world economy unless they get what they want."
"Right now in America, you got a middle class which is shrinking, you got 60% of our people living paycheck-to-paycheck, childcare system in disarray, healthcare system collapsing, housing—all over the country people can't afford housing," Sanders said. "You don't cut programs that working people desperately need."
The senator appeared on the network shortly after The New York Timesreported that top White House officials and GOP lawmakers were nearing an agreement that would cut non-military discretionary spending or keep it roughly at this year's levels—a real-term cut when accounting for inflation.
Under the emerging deal, the debt ceiling would be raised for two years, temporarily preventing an economy-wrecking default.
According to the Times, the deal would "roll back $10 billion of the $80 billion Congress approved last year for an IRS crackdown on high earners and corporations that evade taxes, though that provision was still under discussion."
"As the deal stood on Thursday, the IRS money would essentially shift to nondefense discretionary spending, allowing Democrats to avoid further cuts in programs like education and environmental protection, according to people familiar with the pending agreement," the Times reported. "The plan had yet to be finalized, and the bargainers continued to haggle over crucial details that could make or break any deal."
\u201cCutting $ for the IRS is, simply, enabling tax cheating by the super rich and corporations.\n\nThat\u2019s the Republicans\u2019 top priority. https://t.co/fADMVIk1My\u201d— Robert Weissman (@Robert Weissman) 1685058621
Sanders told Cooper on Thursday that all he knows of the possible deal is what he read in the Times, and that "it may be right, it may be wrong."
The senator stressed that "there are ways that you can cut government spending without doing it on the backs of the most vulnerable people in this country" and slammed Republicans for stonewalling efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy, rein in out-of-control military spending, and slash prescription drug costs.
"It's not good enough for them to say, 'Oh, we get huge campaign contributions from billionaires, we don't want to tax them. Oh, we love the military-industrial complex, we don't want to cut military spending. Off the table,'" Sanders said. "Well, it's not off the table. What should be off the table are children in America, where we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country. That should be off the table. The needs of elderly people who are struggling to pay for their prescription drugs—that should be off the table."
Asked about his call for President Joe Biden to consider invoking the 14th Amendment to avert a catastrophic default, Sanders said such a move would easily be preferable to "the Republican approach" of "massive cuts for the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor."
"If the Republicans are prepared to hold the entire world economy hostage and say, 'Hey Mr. President, you've got no alternative but to make massive cuts to programs for vulnerable people—you have no alternative.' Well, the president does have an alternative."
Sanders added that allowing Republicans to "get away with holding the economy hostage" would set "a precedent for years to come."
"GOP wants to add bureaucratic red tape to make it even harder for people who are hungry to get food assistance."
It's still far from clear that Republicans and the White House will strike a debt ceiling agreement before June 1, the day the Treasury Department says the government could run out of money to pay its obligations. A number of key disputes remain, including the GOP push for work requirements for aid programs—an effort that has drawn strong pushback from progressives.
"GOP wants to add bureaucratic red tape to make it even harder for people who are hungry to get food assistance that averages only about $6/day. Really?" Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted Thursday. "None of this saves any money. It's just cruel. POTUS must reject these demands in any negotiation."
It's also not certain that any eventual deal can gain enough support to get through Congress, with far-right Republicans threatening to tank an agreement that doesn't enact sufficiently steep federal spending cuts.
House Democrats, too, are reportedly unhappy with the emerging outlines of the deal.
According toPunchbowl, the top three House Democrats—Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.)—warned the White House on Thursday that "it can't just assume 80 to 100 Democrats will back any Biden-McCarthy deal."
One unnamed Democratic aide told the outlet that the deal currently in the works is "'shitty enough' that Democrats don't feel compelled to back it and it's not good enough for the GOP to bring 200 Republicans on board."
"The recent catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the crash of two Boeing 737 Max jets demonstrate the real-world consequences of inadequate or capriciously enforced safety regulation and oversight. We can't add radiological releases from U.S. nuclear plants to this list."
In the wake of another nerve-wracking outage at a Russian-held Ukrainian nuclear energy facility this week, 90 groups and dozens of individuals wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden expressing "grave concerns regarding security at U.S. nuclear power plants."
"We commend and wholeheartedly support your administration's much-needed efforts to make nuclear plants in the Ukraine war zone more secure in the face of daunting political and military challenges," states the letter, spearheaded by Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) and sent to the White House Wednesday. "This work protects not only Ukraine but the entire planet."
"Our concern is that the security of U.S. nuclear power plants does not seem to be receiving a commensurate amount of attention, neither from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), nor the administration," the coalition explained. "Worse, your administration is also seeking to expand the nuclear industry in dangerous ways that compound nuclear plant security threats."
"Attacks on nuclear facilities and other external dangers they face are credible threats and could happen here."
While the letter argues that given the associated security threats, "federal funding should prioritize scaling up renewables, storage, efficiency, and transmission upgrades, so as to phase out nuclear power as quickly as possible," it also calls for immediate action.
"Nuclear plant security MUST begin at home," the groups declared, urging the U.S. government to "learn the lesson" from Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) since Russian forces invaded Ukraine early last year—that "attacks on nuclear facilities and other external dangers they face are credible threats and could happen here."
"The recent catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the crash of two Boeing 737 Max jets demonstrate the real-world consequences of inadequate or capriciously enforced safety regulation and oversight," the organizations asserted. "We can't add radiological releases from U.S. nuclear plants to this list."
The coalition also sent the president a separate document detailing security concerns and recommendations for U.S. facilities, but the letter highlights the top takeaways:
The coalition is calling on the Biden administration to enforce "enhanced, mandatory security measures for existing nuclear facilities and spent nuclear fuel to make them less vulnerable to attack," at the cost of licensees, not U.S. taxpayers.
The groups' recommendations include changes to storage policies. The letter says that "instead of transporting it to proposed CISFs, most spent nuclear fuel should be stored at reactor sites using hardened onsite storage (HOSS)."
\u201cHoltec International, a private company that builds casks to store nuclear waste, was given a license to store the nation's entire high-level nuclear waste in NM. We spoke with Director of the Rio Grande Chapter of Sierra Club, Camilla Feibelman about it.\nhttps://t.co/vB4TEm4tAe\u201d— KRWG Public Media (@KRWG Public Media) 1684767759
In a statement, Kevin Kamps—a radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear, which signed the letter to Biden—took aim at Holtec International, a U.S.-based company that owns a proposed New Mexico CISF, has handled spent fuel in Ukraine, and recently signed a contract to deploy small modular nuclear reactors in the war-torn country.
"Holtec's performance in handling spent fuel has been abysmal in Ukraine and similarly abysmal in the United States," said Kamps. "That's one illustration among others that the problem is not limited to Ukraine, and that U.S. nuclear plants are subject to security threats we need to start addressing."
NEIS director Dave Kraft asked, "What sense does it make to send tens of millions of dollars to Ukraine to enhance security and safety, when our own 92 operating reactors and 90,000 tons of high-level radioactive wastes are not secure?"
"What sense does it make to sprinkle the next-generation micro- and mini-nuke reactors around the nation and the world, boasting they can be mobile on flatbed trucks or housed in factories or Walmarts, when it is daily demonstrated that silent drones are capable of turning heavily armored tanks and military vehicles into shredded heaps of burning metal?" he added. "This is the real world nuclear power now exists in, and this administration is not prepared to provide the safety and security necessary for it to survive."
\u201cThe United Nations\u2019 nuclear watchdog is pushing for a last-minute agreement to secure Ukraine\u2019s huge atomic power plant in Zaporizhzhia ahead of a counteroffensive that could see\u00a0Kyiv\u2019s forces drive directly through the potentially hazardous facility.\nhttps://t.co/hcErCVkWZ8\u201d— Nukes of Hazard (@Nukes of Hazard) 1684872110
On Monday, for the seventh time since the Russians took control of ZNPP last year, Europe's largest nuclear facility was fully disconnected from Ukraine's electricity grid and had to rely on backup diesel generators. The outage lasted over five hours.
Reutersreported that a "Russia-installed local official said Ukraine had disconnected a power line and Ukrainian state nuclear energy company Energoatom said the problem was caused by Russian shelling."
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Monday's incident "demonstrates the highly vulnerable nuclear safety and security situation" at the facility and reiterated that "this simply can't go on."
"We're playing with fire. We must act now to avoid the very real danger of a nuclear accident in Europe, with its associated consequences for the public and the environment," he added. "I'm continuing to engage in intense negotiations with all the involved parties to secure the protection of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. I will not stop until this has been achieved."
"Every time disaster strikes, our healthcare workers show up for us—even when it means putting their own lives at risk. It's time we show up for them with pay and protection, not just bells and whistles."
In her first piece of House legislation, Democratic Pennyslvania Congresswoman Summer Lee on Thursday introduced a bill that would provide hazard pay, protective gear, and transportation for essential U.S. healthcare workers.
The Hazard Pay for Healthcare Heroes Act—co-sponsored by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), with a companion bill introduced in the upper chamber by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—would empower the Department of Health and Human Services to authorize hazard pay of up to $13 per hour or $25,000 annually per worker.
The bill would also implement additional safety measures, including the provision of personal protective equipment and alternative transportation, for essential healthcare professionals and supporting services during emergencies and natural disasters.
"We need bold action starting with the Hazard Pay for Healthcare Heroes Act to protect our healthcare workers, patients, and communities they care for."
Lee's bill is endorsed by groups including SEIU Health Care Pennsylvania, American Federation of Teachers, American College of Nurse Midwives, and the National Hispanic Medical Association.
"I've been fighting for fair wages and safe conditions for our hospital workers from my time as an organizer and state legislator all the way to Congress," Lee said in a statement. "Every time disaster strikes, our healthcare workers show up for us—even when it means putting their own lives at risk. It's time we show up for them with pay and protection, not just bells and whistles."
\u201c\ud83d\udea8Today, I'm introducing my first bill!\ud83d\udea8\n\nEvery day, #HealthCareHeroes show up for us, even when it means putting their own lives at risk. \n\nI'm introducing the Hazard Pay for Health Care Heroes Act alongside @SenMarkey to ensure critical funding for hazard pay & safety!\u201d— Congresswoman Summer Lee (@Congresswoman Summer Lee) 1685028224
During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, masks and other protective equipment for healthcare workers was often in short supply.
In addition to an elevated risk of contracting Covid-19, healthcare workers often endured grueling work schedules,
post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and other physical and mental health challenges.
"With public health and environmental crises from pandemics and train derailments to climate-driven disasters becoming more frequent and more dangerous, we need bold action starting with the Hazard Pay for Healthcare Heroes Act to protect our healthcare workers, patients, and communities they care for by providing the hazard pay and safety tools they need to continue to keep our loved ones safe during emergencies," Lee said.
"Healthcare workers are on the frontlines of our nation's dual public health and climate crises."
Markey said that "healthcare workers are on the frontlines of our nation's dual public health and climate crises, treating and tending to communities hit hardest by extreme weather and environmental disasters."
"These heroes deserve more than our gratitude—they deserve better pay and stronger protections," he added. "I am proud to join Rep. Lee in introducing the Hazard Pay for Healthcare Heroes Act to ensure healthcare workers who are responding to these emergencies are provided hazard pay and given the safety tools necessary to protect patients and themselves."