EPA official speaks on risk of climate change to toxic sites

The Free Press WV

A top manager who supervises the Environmental Protection Agency program responsible for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated properties and waterways told Congress on Thursday that the government needs to plan for the ongoing threat posed to Superfund sites from climate change.

The testimony by EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Barry Breen before a House oversight subcommittee conflicts with the agency’s policy positions under President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax. Breen’s boss, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, is an ardent fossil fuel promoter who questions the validity of mainstream climate science.

During a hearing Thursday, Rep. Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat, asked Breen whether extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires could damage the highly toxic sites and cause contamination to spread.

“We have to respond to climate change, that’s just part of our mission set,” replied Breen, who leads EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. “So we need to design remedies that account for that. We don’t get to pick where Superfund sites are. We deal with the waste where it is.”

There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites in the U.S.

Under the Obama administration, EPA issued a robust plan for prioritizing cleanup and protection of toxic sites located in flood zones and areas vulnerable to sea level rise. However, a Superfund Task Force appointed by Pruitt last year issued a 34-page list of recommendations that makes no mention of climate change, flooding risks from stronger storms or rising seas.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to questions Thursday about whether Pruitt agreed with Breen’s testimony or precisely what the agency is currently doing to address to risks posed to Superfund sites by climate change.

The Associated Press first reported in September that more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area were flooded by heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey. Spills of potentially hazardous waste were reported at two of those sites, including a release of cancer-causing dioxin into the San Jacinto River.

A subsequent AP review of EPA records and census data revealed that more than 2 million Americans live within a mile of 327 Superfund sites located in flood-prone areas or those at risk from rising sea levels.

The Government Accountability Office told Congress earlier this month it was assigning investigators to study the risks to human health and the environment posed to Superfund sites by natural disasters.

EPA’s 2014 Climate Adaptation Plan noted that prolonged flooding at low-lying Superfund sites could cause extensive erosion, carrying away contaminants as waters recede.

Pruitt says he has made faster Superfund site cleanups a high priority for the agency. Pruitt’s task force on the issue is led by Albert “Kell” Kelly, a former Oklahoma banker with no experience as an environmental regulator.

Kelly had been expected to testify at Thursday’s hearing, but was replaced by Breen due to what EPA told the House committee was a scheduling conflict.

AP reported in August that Pruitt hired Kelly as a senior adviser at EPA after federal financial regulators cited Kelly for unspecified violations while serving as the top executive at a community bank in Oklahoma. Kelly previously served as chairman of Tulsa-based SpiritBank, which provided a $6.8 million financing when Pruitt and his business partners purchased Oklahoma City’s minor league baseball team in 2003.

Asked by Democrats for details about why Kelly was barred by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from working for any U.S. financial institution, Breen said Thursday that Kelly had elected to settle the case against him and “is fully willing to discuss this matter.”

An email and voicemail to Kelly seeking comment on Thursday received no response. Wilcox also did not respond to a request seeking details about why the FDIC barred Kelly from the banking industry.

WV Sets Email for Reporting Asian longhorned beetle and the spotted lanternfly

The Free Press WV

West Virginia’s Department of Agriculture has established an email where the state’s residents can send pictures and descriptions of a suspected invasive pest, as well as their locations and any related damage to buildings or plants.

Department officials say landowners who email information to will be notified if their tip raises concerns and someone from the agency will visit the site.

Agriculture authorities note two destructive insects, the Asian longhorned beetle and the spotted lanternfly, are on the watch list for invasive species in West Virginia.

The beetle was first found in Brooklyn in 1996 and has since been detected in several locations including Clermont County, Ohio.

The lanternfly was first discovered in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014, and detected in Delaware in November.

Both are native to Asia.

The Free Press WV

West Virginia grants available for land protection

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Conservation Fund says it’s accepting grant applications for land-protection projects with up to $1.2 million that may be awarded.

According to the fund, projects can include wildlife habitats, working forests and farmlands, as well as hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation areas.

The fund has an 11-member board of trustees from the state divisions of forestry and natural resources, land trusts, outdoor recreation and sportsmen’s groups, and professionals in biology, ecology, forestry and public health.

Grant application forms are available online at

Seized ivory probed for clues that could help save elephants

The Free Press WV

Scientists are using information gleaned from both illegal ivory art and elephant dung to provide clues that could help save the lives of pachyderms that are being slaughtered for their tusks in Africa.

The wildlife detective work involves cutting up seized artifacts including bangle bracelets and statues of Chinese deities and subjecting them to carbon dating to determine when the elephants were killed. DNA from the ivory art is then compared to a DNA database derived from elephant dung to pinpoint where they lived.

What scientists learn may not put a particular poacher in jail, but will tell the story of where and when an elephant died on an African savannah so its tusk could be carved in Asia to make a goddess statue priced at $72,000 in a Manhattan antique shop.

“It’s going to be really helpful not only for scientific purposes, but also to be able to tell people about the individual lives of elephants that ended up as artwork on our streets,” said Wendy Hapgood, director of the Wild Tomorrow Fund, which supports African wildlife preserves, anti-poaching enforcement and efforts to shut down the ivory trade.

The group cut chips from 21 statues, bracelets and mounted tusks that were among $4.5 million in illegal ivory artifacts seized from a Manhattan antiques shop and dramatically destroyed in a rock crusher in Central Park last August. The chips will be analyzed by scientists at Columbia University and the University of Washington.

Previous work by the researchers has provided valuable information to focus poaching law enforcement in Africa and prosecute ivory traffickers elsewhere.

Once numbered at more than a million, the population of African elephants fell 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, to about 350,000, according to the Great Elephant Census funded by wildlife organizations. The decline, at a rate of 8 percent per year, is attributed mainly to poaching for ivory.

The sale of ivory across international boundaries has been banned since 1990. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instituted a near-total ban on the domestic commercial ivory trade and barred sales across state lines.

Hapgood and colleague John Steward were in Albany recently to saw samples from two massive tusks that were spared the Central Park crusher and locked in a state Department of Environmental Conservation warehouse. The chips will be sent to Columbia University geochemist Kevin Uno, whose radioisotope analysis measures carbon-14 deposited by atomic bomb tests to date the ivory and determine when the elephant died.

Samples were also sent to biologist Sam Wasser, of the University of Washington, who extracted DNA from elephant dung all over Africa in the 1990s to map elephant genetics across the continent. Now he compares DNA from seized ivory to the map to determine where it came from.

Uno and colleagues published a study in 2016 looking at 230 elephant tusks from 15 seizures of shipping containers being illegally transmitted out of Africa. The goal was to determine whether the ivory was from older stockpiles held by African national governments or from elephants recently poached.

“We found 90 percent of the ivory was coming from elephants that died within three years of the seizure date,” Uno said.

In a study published in 2015, Wasser’s DNA studies on large seizures of ivory found shipments tended to come from a few poaching hotspots. Identification of areas of Tanzania and Zambia as hotspots helped persuade a United Nations agency to deny requests from those countries to sell their ivory stockpiles.

The DNA and radioisotope analysis can also help prosecute traffickers. In 2013, Wasser’s lab helped convict an ivory trafficking kingpin in Togo by providing evidence that his ivory came from Cameroon and Gabon, two of the hardest hit countries in the elephant slaughter. Radioisotope analysis by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California showed the ivory came from elephants killed as recently as 2010, not before the 1989 ban as the trafficker claimed.

“The big study we did was on shipments leaving Africa,” Uno said. “Now we’re coming at it from the retail side, so if they seize pieces from a shop, how much of it is recent and how much is old.”

The ultimate goals are to help law enforcement and policy-makers shut down the ivory market and raise public awareness of the plight of pachyderms.

“The extension of that is to slow the killing of elephants and prevent their extinction,” Uno said.

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