Bruce Murphy
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EPA Scientists Opposed Foxconn Ruling

Emails show senior EPA scientists complained smog exemption for company wasn’t supported by data.

By - May 28th, 2019 03:36 pm
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Design for Foxconn's campus. Photo from the WEDC.

Design for Foxconn’s campus. Photo from the WEDC.

Newly released emails reported by bloomberg.com show that “Environmental Protection Agency scientists raised strong objections to a 2018 decision by Scott Pruitt, who was head of the agency at the time, to exempt most of southeastern Wisconsin from federal limits on smog,” the story notes.

The decision was made in May 2018, at a time when Gov. Scott Walker was running for reelection and hoping to bring thousands of Foxconn manufacturing jobs to Racine County, in an area of the state where the pollution levels already exceeded federal limits. The decision by Pruitt was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a political victory” for Walker that “will save Foxconn from having to make expensive improvements” in its planned manufacturing plant in order to meet federal standards for air pollution, as Urban Milwaukee reported at the time. Pruitt resigned from office just two months later after 14 different federal investigations of him were launched and Walker ended up losing to Democrat Tony Evers. 

The decision by Pruitt “dramatically” reduced “the size of the areas required to crack down on smog” in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana,” the Tribune reported. “The areas removed from the list were suggested by Republican elected officials,” including Walker.

“Hundreds of emails and internal documents” were released Friday to the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin, as part of a federal public records request, Bloomberg reported, which “show senior E.P.A. scientists complaining that conclusions in support of the decision, which could not be supported by data, were being demanded by top Trump administration officials.”

“I do not see a sound technical basis for the areas we are being directed to finalize in Wisconsin,” Jennifer Liljegren, an E.P.A. physical scientist wrote to colleagues in an email, the story noted. “I will need the wordsmithing of the legal and policy experts if we are really going to do this — I am still in disbelief.”

“One of those colleagues, Lars Perlmutt, an E.P.A. health scientist, replied, ‘I have a background in air pollution health effects and more specifically on acute exposures, so for me personally, this is hard to digest and support.’”

The emails show E.P.A. scientists “expressed concern about ‘intentional omissions’ in the new analyses, which had the effect of reducing the number of Wisconsin counties in violation of federal smog standards,” story reported. 

“Taking snippets of information out of context and not telling the whole story is inappropriate, misleading to the public and dilutes the clarity of the technical information,”Liljegren wrote.

But Michael Abboud, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said in a statement to Bloomberg that the agency’s actions were proper. “In each holistic analysis, E.P.A. considered the relevant factors,” the statement asserted.

“Janet McCabe, who served as the E.P.A. air quality chief under former President Barack Obama, accused the Trump administration of putting politics above public health, the story reported. “These are supposed to be science-based decisions under the Clean Air Act, and yet you see career staff struggling to explain unexplainable decisions,” McCabe said.

A Tribune story following up on the emails release noted that then-Wisconsin  Congressman Paul Ryan joined Trump officials in pushing for the Pruitt ruling.

The story suggests the ruling is likely to be thrown out by federal courts, given that the data clearly shows a violation of EPA standards. During Trump’s first two years in office, the story notes, “his administration prevailed only 6 percent of the time when its anti-regulatory decisions were challenged in the courts, according to a Brookings Institution study.”

“I’ve never seen an administration with a record this atrocious,” John Walke, an attorney at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, told the newspaper. 

At time of the decision, Foxconn was still pledging to build a huge Gen 10.5 plant, which would involve a $10 billion investment and employ 13,000 workers. Since then it was scaled back to a Gen 6 plant, which experts say would require an investment of $3 billion or less and employ far fewer workers. It would also cause less pollution, though no estimates of this have been made. There is also evidence that Foxconn isn’t building a manufacturing plant at all, but simply an an assembly plant where workers will repackage LCD products build in China, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. In that case, the plant may not cause any air pollution.

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One thought on “Back in the News: EPA Scientists Opposed Foxconn Ruling”

  1. frank a schneiger says:

    If you parse Bruce Murphy’s piece, there are three important stories here. The first is the corruption of government at every level by reactionary Republicans like Trump, Walker and their facilitators and sponsors. Honest people with high order skills and a commitment to serving the public are being driven out of government and replaced by hacks, criminals and opportunists. Pruitt may not even be the most egregious example, possibly the stupidest in a cast of stupid, venal people whose indifference to the public good is staggering.

    Second, there is the undermining of science, reason and truth at a speed that is hard to absorb. A woefully ignorant, mentally unbalanced president, served by an army of sycophants and supported by a “base” of no-nothings (see the JS Online comments section for daily evidence) are doing incalculable damage to this nation and to the lives of future generations. Willing to spend trillions of dollars to prevent a handful of lunatics from blowing things up, they are unwilling to do the same for an enormous threat to the planet, a threat whose magnitude grows by the year, despite lies and distortions to obscure this reality.

    Third, we may be witnessing the final triumph of reaction, the wiping out of all of the social gains made in our country since the Great Depression. An overstatement? Look at what is happening: the environment, civil rights, social safety net, inequality and plutocracy, political corruption, the destruction of our institutions, e.g., just today, members of the military wearing Trump shoulder patches. In describing reactionary movements and their impact, the sociologist Alfred North Whitehead said,”It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize the the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

    Overstatement, look around, and try to imagine what things will look like when the next recession comes, there are federal deficits of enormous proportions because the money was given away to the wealthiest people and corporations during good times, and there are enough Republicans in power to block any meaningful response, along with a willingness to blame the usual scapegoats for what they have done.. Another useful quote: “We should always beware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.”

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