Week 119: Trump’s Swamp Monsters Are Coming for Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Plus, Sonny Perdue doesn’t understand cancer science, and offshore drillers are writing their own rules.

May 03, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo Illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth. Photos: Design Pics/Alamy (Bristol Bay) and PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy (Monster).

Swamping Salmon

Donald Trump promised to create jobs, and he is delivering them . . . to his former campaign officials. News emerged this week that Brian Ballard, who managed Trump’s campaign in Florida and raised him huge amounts of money, will lobby for the approval of Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine that would threaten the world’s greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery.

Two miles wide and thousands of feet deep, Pebble Mine would produce 10 billion tons of waste, which would threaten the local environment forever. The only way to contain that much mining goop is with a 740-foot-high earthen dam, a technology that is extremely prone to failure. Releasing billions of tons of waste into Alaska’s Bristol Bay could destroy a fishery that produces 30 million to 60 million fish annually, worth an estimated $1.5 billion. It also employs 14,000 people, dwarfing the tiny number of construction and mining jobs that the mine would generate.

But here comes Trump’s old pal to tell everyone that this is a good idea. Trump’s election has given an incredible lift to Ballard’s lobbying firm. Before 2017, Ballard had barely any presence in Washington, his practice limited to the state of Florida. Today his client list includes some of the biggest companies in America, like Amazon and Uber. Last year Politico called the once little-known Ballard “the most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” Trump hasn’t so much drained the swamp as created a new, Trump-centric swamp, where the most successful denizens are in personal thrall to the president.

Pebble Mine should be dead in the water. Almost 80 percent of local residents oppose the mine, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once concluded that moving forward with the project could be environmentally catastrophic. Former EPA leaders from nearly every past presidential administration oppose the mine, and all major investors have withdrawn from the project.

Unfortunately, these days, having a connection to one of Trump’s sycophants seems to be what matters most.

Safety Last!

Do you trust the offshore drilling industry—the people who brought you disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 and the massive Ixtoc 1 spill in the 1970s—to make its own safety rules? Well, who cares what you think! The Trump administration trusts those oil companies, which is why the White House this week approved the rollback of safety rules put in place after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe to prevent similar spills.

The rules were common sense. For example, drillers were no longer given carte blanche to choose and hire their own inspectors without government approval or oversight. But that was too much for the industry, which lobbied the Trump administration hard for looser standards.

This week’s rubber stamp from the White House won’t make an immediate impact—the Trump administration wasn’t really making drillers follow the rules anyway. In recent years, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has granted some 1,700 waivers to individual drillers that didn’t feel like complying.

Not So Fast, Sonny

The EPA this week proposed new rules to limit the unintentional spread of the pesticide glyphosate beyond its targeted crops. But the agency based the rules on glyphosate’s tendency to harm plants and animals, not on the chemical’s suspected carcinogenicity to humans. On that question, the agency continues to demur.

One person who doesn’t demur is U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. He declared this week that the EPA’s new rule is “consistent with the findings of other regulatory authorities that glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”

Wait a minute, Sonny. No one has said that. Perdue’s conclusive statement about the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate is irresponsible and a deliberate misstatement of the state of the science. Here’s the truth:

The EPA has waffled on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate for more than 30 years. In various agency reports, conclusions range from “possible human carcinogen” to “not classifiable as to human carcinogenicity” to “evidence of non-carcinogenicity” to “not likely to be carcinogenic.” Agency scientists have never said that glyphosate does not cause cancer.

The EPA’s uncertainty reflects a wider scientific debate. In 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) deemed glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The same year, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a long-awaited report documenting several worrying links between glyphosate and cancer.

Notice something about all of these statements: Scientists speak carefully about carcinogenicity, because it’s incredibly difficult to prove whether a substance causes cancer in humans. It’s impossible to isolate a single cause for anyone’s cancer, so researchers have to conduct complicated tasks of statistical analysis. There are almost always studies on both sides of the question. That’s why serious researchers choose words like “probable,” “possible,” “likely,” and “unlikely.”

The carcinogenicity of glyphosate is a live scientific controversy, but it’s worth noting that pure health agencies, like IARC, which don’t have to answer to industry lobbyists, tend to emphasize evidence of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity, while regulatory agencies like the EPA, which are susceptible to industry influence, have played down those links.

This scientific discussion will continue to play out in academic journals, at scientific conferences, and among expert panels. But don’t listen to hacks like Sonny Perdue. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Stop the Pebble Mine and protect Alaska's wilderness

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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