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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

Friday Morning Link Roundup: Pebble Mine 404(c) Restrictions; Survey Shows Majority of Washingtonians Support Coal Exports and Oil by Rail; Sierra Club Petitions to Ban DOT-111 Rail Cars; Science Communication in the Media and Risk Assessment Explained

Posted in Emerging Policy, Energy Policy, Environmental Risk, Geeky Science Stuff, Public Health Policy

Here is the roundup of what has caught my eye over the past week:

EPA’s Pebble Mine 404(c) Restrictions
First, EPA released its Proposed Determination under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act (CWA) for the Pebble Deposit Area in Southwest Alaska this morning. The executive summary of the proposed determination is here. In brief, EPA is basing its determination on the smallest proposed size of the mine (one that will produce about 250 million tons of ore over 20 years), and is proposing to restrict the discharge of dredged or fill material related to mining the Pebble deposit into waters of the United States that would, “individually or collectively” result in any of these impacts:

1) Loss of five (5) or more linear miles of streams with documented anadromous (salmon) fish occurrence, or loss of 19 or more linear miles of tributaries to streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence;

2) Loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds contiguous with streams that support salmon; or

3) Alteration of greater than 20% of the daily flow in nine (9) or more miles of streams with documented salmon occurrence.

These limitations are equal to the projected impacts that would occur under the smallest mine development proposal, so EPA is, pursuant to its CWA Section 404(c) authority, withdrawing from use the minimum amount of impacts to Waters of the United States needed to develop the Pebble deposit. Region 10 has also purposely “underestimated potential adverse effects” in making this determination–so this looks to be a clear signal to the project proponents from EPA Region 10 that any development of the Pebble deposit would be unacceptable under Section 404(c) of the CWA.

EarthFix’s Fourth Annual Survey
Second, EarthFix released its fourth annual survey of public opinion on environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) earlier this week. Some interesting points were made with respect to Washington (where EarthFix surveyed 400 residents) and the rest of the Pacific Northwest (Idaho and Oregon), and include:

1)  Two-thirds of PNW residents agree that addressing global warming should be an “urgent” priority for their state. The strongest support for this statement is in Washington, the weakest support is in Idaho.

2) A slim majority of respondents “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the shipping of oil by rail to reach PNW refineries (all of which are located in Washington). The highest percentage of respondents “strongly” supporting oil by rail was in Idaho. There was strong support for elected officials and the railroads preventing accidents or spills from rail cars.

3) For those that have formed an opinion, a majority of respondents “strongly support” or “somewhat support” transporting coal through the PNW and exporting it to other countries. For instance, in Washington (the epicenter of opposition to these projects) 46% strongly or somewhat support coal exports, while 35% somewhat or strongly oppose those exports. Nineteen percent (19%) of respondents in Washington did not have an opinion, which is a bit surprising given all of the media coverage on the subject. The numbers in Idaho were remarkably similar, with maybe a bit more support for coal exports, and maybe a bit more respondents with no opinion.

4) Finally, in what represents a bit of a curveball in terms of a survey on environmental issues, EarthFix asked respondents about the push towards universal background checks for gun buyers. Support for this was, not surprisingly, strongest in Washington and weakest in Idaho. And, just over 50% of Idaho respondents have a gun in their homes, where only a third of Washingtonians do.

Overall, it is an interesting survey and worth reviewing.

Sierra Club Petitions to Ban DOT-111 Rail Cars
Third, and continuing on the theme of oil transport, on Tuesday, the Sierra Club petitioned the Secretary of Transportation to issue an emergency order banning the transport of Bakken Crude in the older-style, DOT-111 rail cars. This is the latest in the ongoing oil-by-rail controversy and is something that could certainly impact the Pacific Northwest given the increasing proportion of crude delivered to our refineries by rail.

Grant LaFeche’s Article on the Challenges of Communicating Science as Journalist
Fourth, Chris Hadfield tweeted this article by Grant LaFeche on the challenges of being a journalist and reporting on science. I thought his perspective as a journalist on seeking the “opposition party” on an issue was an interesting one–particularly when dealing with scientific issues where the “opposition” maybe grounded in, as he puts it, “quackery” rather than fundamental science.

Risk Assessment Explained
Finally, Kacee Deener, EPA’s Communications Director at its National Center for Environmental Assessment has been doing a series of blog posts explaining the human health risk assessment process. Given the importance of risk assessment in setting environmental policy and regulation, this is something that anyone with an interest in policy and science should be conversant in, and Kacee’s posts do a nice job of distilling and explaining a complex topic.