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Biden moves to strengthen the EPA after agency suffered 'brain drain' under Trump

The Biden administration has asked Congress for more than $110 million to hire scientists and other staff at the Environmental Protection Agency, which was decimated during the Trump era.

The EPA lost almost 1,000 scientists and other employees under Team Trump administrators Andrew Wheeler and Scott Pruitt. The EPA budget, which has declined or been stagnant for decades. In inflation-adjusted dollars, EPA's budget was more than 50% higher under President Ronald Reagan than it is today.

"The 2022 budget proposal is an excellent first step in rebuilding EPA's funding and strengthening the agency," said Michelle Roos, executive director of the Environmental Protection Network of former EPA employees and appointees.

The proposed funding is part of $11.2 billion the Biden administration is asking to fund the EPA, a 21% increase from its 2021 budget. The Biden administration is also asking for $75 million to help designate perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, as hazardous substances and set enforceable limits for the chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The poisons, made since the 1940s, are sometimes called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the environment and can remain in our bodies for years. Designating the chemicals as hazardous substances would give the EPA more power to clean up contaminated sites.

The "announcement recognizes that science is at the core of all we do at the EPA," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

Betsy Southerland, who oversaw science and technology issues in the EPA Office of Water, told the House science committee's investigations and oversight panel the Biden administration should restore funding for the EPA to bring it to its average over the past four decades. The cost to rebuild the budget over four years would be $11.4 billion in 2019 dollars.

Southerland was one of the EPA employees who left. She resigned in 2017, saying "the administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission."

About $48 million of the $110 million to hire EPA staff would go to the EPA Office of Air and Radiation to implement climate change programs under the Clean Air Act. The office is currently headed by acting assistant administrator Joseph Goffman.

Bill Wehrum, who sued the agency at least 31 times as a corporate lawyer, headed that office for much of the Trump administration. Under Wehrum, who resigned in 2019 during a federal ethics investigation, the office worked to help coal-burning Martin Lake Power Plant in east Texas.

The plant spews out more sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, than any other power plant in America. Wehrum was a partner at a law firm that lobbied for the plant's owner.

Georgia Dems are trying to reverse a radical Republican health care policy

Democrats in Georgia's congressional delegation are asking the Biden administration to undo a Team Trump move to make it more difficult for Georgians to buy health insurance during the Covid pandemic.

Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and six of the state's 14 House members asked health Secretary Xavier Becerra to cancel the federal approval of a plan pushed by Radical Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to cut off access in 2023 to HealthCare.gov. The Georgia plan also imposes work or other requirements to get Medicaid coverage.

"Withdrawing approval for this demonstration is essential to ending the far-reaching efforts your predecessors made to block hundreds of thousands of low-income Georgians from accessing health insurance," the senators wrote in a letter also signed by Georgia's Democratic representatives.

About 60,000 people in the state are likely to lose health insurance.

Kemp wants to replace the easy-to-use online marketplace where citizens can buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act with a private enrollment system. About 60,000 people in the state are likely to lose health insurance.

The work requirement for Medicaid recipients would mean that people on Medicaid must work 80 hours a month, volunteer, or be in an education program or other qualifying activity. Federal courts have blocked work requirements in Arkansas, Kentucky and elsewhere.

The scheme, which will affect people shopping for insurance in the fall 2022 enrollment period, was approved by the Trump Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

In mid-February, Elizabeth Richter, the acting CMS administrator, told Frank Berry, Georgia's top health official, that work requirements were infeasible during a pandemic. She sent similar letters to Arkansas, Ohio and six other states.

Georgia has the third-highest rate of people without health insurance in our nation. People can only buy insurance through HealthCare.gov if they live in one of the states that use it. Thirteen other states have state-based marketplaces, but Georgia would be relying on private industry.

Georgia officials have said they will challenge any federal efforts to undo their plan.

Critics have said the Georgia plan is illegal because the Affordable Care Act requires state waivers to not result in people losing coverage. The Supreme Court heard arguments in November in a case brought by Republican state officials trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act.

Other states that changed how insurance was sold online for the Affordable Care Act had big drops. Kentucky's marketplace enrollment fell 13% when it changed to the federal marketplace in 2017 compared to a 4% decline nationally. Nevada's enrollment fell 7% for the 2020 plan year after it switched to a state-based marketplace, compared with flat enrollment nationally.

Thousands more Covid deaths expected as utilities resume water shutoffs

Thousands of people will likely die in the coming weeks because President Joe Biden's administration has failed to act on pleas by nonprofits and others to help keep water service on to help people avoid Covid infections.

Michigan, where Covid cases have increased about 77% since mid-February, is scheduled to end its moratorium on water shutoffs tomorrow (March 31). Other states where bans on water shutoffs enacted because of the pandemic are scheduled to end include Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

"Anybody who lives in this country has the right to clean water," said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.)

Groups are urging the Biden administration to halt water shutoffs during the pandemic and support a law that would forgive unpaid water bills that accumulated during the pandemic.

In January, a coalition of 636 groups led by Food & Water Watch sent the Biden White House a draft executive order that would prohibit utility shutoffs. They didn't get a response.

The nonprofit and other groups are urging the Biden administration to halt water shutoffs during the pandemic and support a law that would forgive unpaid water bills that accumulated during the pandemic.

Households with water have greater protection against Covid through handwashing and improved sanitation.

Cornell University Prof. Mildred Warner and post-doctoral associate Xue Zhang analyzed COVID cases and deaths in 2020 and found that states that prevented utilities from shutting water off during the pandemic had significantly lower growth rates of infections and deaths.

More than 9,000 Covid deaths in our nation last year might have been prevented if utilities hadn't shut off water because of unpaid bills.

"The pain and suffering caused by [the] Covid pandemic were exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, which helped produce the Cornell study.

Dingell and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) introduced a bill, H.R. 616, that would prohibit residential water shutoffs during the pandemic and create a $1.5 billion fund to help people pay water bills.

The Cornell researchers found that a nationwide ban on water shutoffs might have prevented nearly half a million people from being infected with Covid last year. Keeping the water on could have reduced Covid cases by almost 4% and Covid deaths by 5.5% in the 41 states without complete bans from April 17, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020.

The American Water Works Association, which represents more than 4,300 public water and wastewater utilities, recommended that utilities postpone water shutoffs during the pandemic.

Unaffordable water bills are a growing problem. A 2017 study found that water bills were unaffordable for about 12% of households. Federal funding for water and sewer systems fell by 77% in real dollars from 1977 to 2017.

Households have an estimated nearly $9 billion in water and sewer debt that has built up during the pandemic.

Biden-Buttigieg put the brakes on 'bomb trains'

President Joe Biden, known as "Amtrak Joe" for his train trips to Washington, D.C., from Delaware as a senator, could reverse the Team Trump approval of "bomb trains" carrying carrying liquefied natural gas.

The Trump rule financially benefits an energy company tied to a hedge fund that loaned millions to the Trump Organization and the Kushner Companies. New York prosecutors are examining those financial ties to Trump.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing that he planned to take a "hard look" at the rule.

Liquefied natural gas is even more volatile than Bakken crude oil carried on trains like the one that derailed and caught fire on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Most of the victims had to be identified with DNA samples and dental records. The bodies of five of the people were never recovered.

In April 2019, Trump called for federal rules to be rewritten so trains could carry liquefied natural gas. Drue Pearce, the political appointee who was the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, helped shepherd the regulation through the agency.

The Biden administration asked a federal judge in February to put lawsuits challenging the rule on hold to give Biden regulators time to review Trump's rules that affect climate disruption. Biden issued an executive order the day after he was sworn in to review rules that may worsen greenhouse gas emissions.

Earthjustice, one of the environmental organizations involved in the lawsuits, said the rule could bring LNG railroad cars through virtually all major U.S. cities and that a disaster could destroy an entire city.

Vapor clouds from liquified natural gas that ignite can burn as hot as 2,426 degrees. Liquefied natural gas is odorless because ethyl mercaptan, the foul-smelling compound added to natural gas for residential use freezes above the boiling point for liquefied natural gas.

On Oct. 20, 1944, liquefied natural gas leaked from a storage tank at East Ohio Gas Co. in Cleveland and got into the sewer lines, causing explosions over a square mile. The explosions and fires spread through 20 blocks, killing 130 people and destroying 79 homes and two factories in a neighborhood of Slovenian immigrants.

The Trump regulation financially benefits New Fortress Energy, a publicly traded company founded by billionaire Wes Edens. Fortress Investment Group, a New York City hedge fund co-founded by Edens, was part of a deal to loan the Trump organization $130 million to help build the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago in 2005.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. has subpoenaed documents from Fortress about the deal.

Trump couldn't pay the loan which ultimately grew to about $150 million, according to documents filed in the New York Supreme Court by New York Attorney General Letitia James. She is investigating possible fraud by the Trump Organization.

James said that Fortress forgave more than $100 million of the loan, money that may have been taxable.

Fortress also loaned $57 million in October 2017 to a Jersey City, N.J., real estate project owned by Kushner Companies. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, transferred his stake in the project to a family trust.

SoftBank Group, a Japanese firm, bought Fortress Investment Group in 2017.

Biden-Buttigieg put the brakes on 'Bomb Trains'

President Joe Biden, known as "Amtrak Joe" for his train trips to Washington, D.C., as a Delaware senator, could reverse the Team Trump approval of "bomb trains" carrying liquefied natural gas.

The Trump rule financially benefits an energy company tied to a hedge fund that loaned millions to the Trump Organization and the Kushner Companies. New York prosecutors are examining those financial ties to Trump.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during his confirmation hearing that he planned to take a "hard look" at the rule.

Liquefied natural gas is even more volatile than Bakken crude oil carried on trains like the one that derailed and caught fire on July 6, 2013, in Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, killing 47 people. Most of the victims had to be identified with DNA samples and dental records. The bodies of five of the people were never recovered.

In April 2019, Trump called for federal rules to be rewritten so trains could carry liquefied natural gas. Drue Pearce, the political appointee who was the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, helped shepherd the regulation through the agency.

The Biden administration asked a federal judge in February to put lawsuits challenging the rule on hold to give Biden regulators time to review Trump's rules that affect climate disruption. Biden issued an executive order the day after he was sworn in to review rules that may worsen greenhouse gas emissions.

Earthjustice, one of the environmental organizations involved in the lawsuits, said the rule could bring LNG railroad cars through virtually all major U.S. cities and that a disaster could destroy an entire city.

Vapor clouds from liquified natural gas that ignite can burn as hot as 2,426 degrees. Liquefied natural gas is odorless because ethyl mercaptan, the foul-smelling compound added to natural gas for residential use freezes above the boiling point for liquefied natural gas.

On Oct. 20, 1944, liquefied natural gas leaked from a storage tank at East Ohio Gas Co. in Cleveland and got into the sewer lines, causing explosions over a square mile. The explosions and fires spread through 20 blocks, killing 130 people and destroying 79 homes and two factories in a neighborhood of Slovenian immigrants.

The Trump regulation financially benefits New Fortress Energy, a publicly-traded company founded by billionaire Wes Edens. Fortress Investment Group, a New York City hedge fund co-founded by Edens, was part of a deal to loan the Trump organization $130 million to help build the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago in 2005.

Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance Jr. has subpoenaed documents from Fortress about the deal.

Trump couldn't pay the loan which ultimately grew to about $150 million, according to documents filed in the New York Supreme Court by New York Attorney General Letitia James. She is investigating possible fraud by the Trump Organization.

James said that Fortress forgave more than $100 million of the loan, money that may have been taxable.

Fortress also loaned$57 million in October 2017 to a Jersey City, N.J., real estate project owned by Kushner Companies. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, transferred his stake in the project to a family trust.

SoftBank Group, a Japanese firm, bought Fortress Investment Group in 2017.

Revealed: The vast reach of Trump's failed effort to gut the federal civil service

For the first time, we have a reliable measure of just how deeply Donald Trump's plan to strip federal executives of civil service protection and make them personally accountable to him would have reached.

Trump would have made more than 84,000 federal executives subject to firing on his whim. That's about 4% of the civilian government workforce and most of its top leadership.

Gutting the civil service system would have been a vast expansion of presidential patronage from the roughly 4,000 appointments each president is entitled to make to 21 times that many appointees. About 1,000 of those political appointees hold positions with significant authority.

In 2017, in full dictatorial mode, Trump announced that he had "instructed Congress" on what it was to do.

Trump's beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency crunched the numbers for its top staff and concluded it could strip civil service protections for 579, or almost 4% of the agency's 14,915 employees. If that share of employees applied to the nearly 2.2 million federal civilian employees, it would have made more than 84,000 workers would have been vulnerable to being fired if they refused Trump's demands.

At the General Services Administration, the independent agency that supports the basic functions of other federal agencies, 449 of its 11,569 employees could have been subject to being fired on a whim if the GSA put the same percentage of its employees at risk that the EPA did. As with EPA, that's about 4% of the agency workforce.

DCReport obtained the EPA document as part of a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records about compliance with Trump's executive order 13957. EPA sought to narrow the request and also suggested looking at an FOIA request filed by E&E News reporter Kevin Bogardus.

No Evidence

Without citing any evidence, Trump asserted that sloth was widespread among top civil service managers. Removing federal executives who "cannot or will not meet required performance standards is important, and it is particularly important with regard to employees in confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating positions" is difficult.

Trump said that unnamed "senior agency officials report that poor performance by career employees in policy-relevant positions has resulted in long delays and substandard-quality work for important agency projects, such as drafting and issuing regulations."

Trump was slow to recognize the problem, if there was one, He didn't sign the executive order until October. President Joe Biden rescinded that order just days after being sworn in.

Trump adviser Steve Bannon called for "deconstruction of the administrative state" -- in plain language, wrecking our government -- shortly after Trump was sworn in.

Amazing Remark

Once Trump assumed office four years ago, he began acting as if he was the sole source of government power. On Fox News in 2017, in full dictatorial mode, Trump announced that he had "instructed Congress" on what it was to do. It was an amazing remark since Congress is an equal branch of government, the one that makes the laws that the president is supposed to carry out. His comment was almost universally ignored by other news organizations so only Fox viewers knew about it.

Trump's order would have created a Schedule F job classification for employees in "confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating" positions. The civil service system has existed in our country since 1883 when the Pendleton Act, signed by President Chester Arthur, made it unlawful to fire or demote employees for political reasons who were covered by the law.

Trump's Office of Management and Budget recommended that 88% of its staff, or 425 positions, be converted to Schedule F. Trump also could have used this order to hire political appointees who could stay on and then seek to disrupt the Biden administration.

Undoing Trump's threat to endangered North American right whales

Trump's National Marine Fisheries Service was regulating right whales toward extinction as the whales literally starved to death while entangled in fishing gear.

An estimated 356 North Atlantic right whales, including about 70 breeding females, migrate between Florida and Canada. The population has been declining for 11 years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) "has powerful tools to protect the North American right whale, but it is choosing not to use them," said biologist Kyla Bennett, science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "In this case, NOAA is choosing extinction."

At the height of the lobster season, right whales have to navigate through more than 900,000 ropes that connect surface buoys to traps on the seafloor.

In Trump's last days in office, NOAA published a draft opinion that said there would no jeopardy to the continued existence of right whales under the Endangered Species Act. The agency oversees catching lobsters off the north Atlantic coast which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Trump regulators arrived at this conclusion based on the estimated impact of new regulations that are still being written. Trump regulators claimed the proposed rule will reduce the risk of entanglement that kills or severely injures right whales by 60%.

Paul Doremus is the acting head of NOAA Fisheries. Chris Oliver, the Trump appointee, resigned.

The right whale got its name because it was the "right" whale to hunt. Right whales swim close to shore, produce lots of whale oil and typically float after they are killed because they have so much blubber. Right whales were nearly extinct in 1935 when the League of Nations banned hunting them.

Today, right whales face extinction because they are being hit by boats and tangled in fishing gear, mostly from lobster traps. At the height of the lobster season, right whales have to navigate through more than 900,000 ropes that connect surface buoys to traps on the seafloor.

Right whales were one of the first animals to be protected under the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, to try to prevent the extinction of animals and plants, whatever the cost.

The Supreme Court prevented the Tennessee Valley Authority from operating a dam that had already been built because the endangered snail darter fish was discovered in the Little Tennessee River.

Lobstermen say proposed changes to try to prevent killing whales such as making ropes that break if a whale becomes entangled will hurt them financially. Maine Gov. Janet Mills directed her state in 2019 to come up with an alternate plan to protect right whales.

"I will do everything I can as your governor to protect your rights and your livelihoods and defend Maine's lobster industry in the face of absurd federal overreach," Mills wrote in July 2019.

Right whale deaths outpace births 3:2. From 2017 to 2020, only 22 right whale calves were born. Many dead right whales aren't found so the numbers scientists are using for deaths are an undercount.

In mid-February, a dead right whale calf was reported stranded along the Florida coast, the first observed right whale death in our nation's waters in 2021. The calf's mother was found three days later with injuries that suggested she had been struck by a boat.

Black farmers raise concerns over Biden's pick to head Agriculture Department

Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden's pick to head our nation's Agriculture Department, sailed through his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee, but Black farmers are troubled by his record under Obama overseeing the agency known as the "last plantation" for its racist policies.

Black farmers got less in USDA loans under Vilsack when Obama was president than it did under President George W. Bush. In 2015, less than 0.2% of the agency's $5.7 billion in small loans, or about $11 million, went to Black farmers. The agency was more than six times as likely to foreclose on a Black farmer than a white one from 2006 to 2016.

USDA policies contributed to Black farmers losing about 90% of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997.

"Your campaign was pulled out of the ashes by Black people and you seek to confirm a man who has a track record of assassinating the hopes and dreams of Black farmers," Tennessee rancher Corey Lea told Biden.

USDA policies contributed to Black farmers losing about 90% of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997 while white farmers lost only about 2% during the same period. The number of black farmers declined by 98% between 1920 and 1997.

"The USDA is one of the most racist and sexist organizations in the federal government," said Lawrence Lucas, the president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

Farmers like Charles McDonald of Manning, S.C. suffered. McDonald, who inherited land from his father in 1973, was assigned a low crop yield for the corn he raised despite consistently winning awards from farm organizations for his productivity.

USDA calculations when McDonald applied for loans didn't include his actual crop yields, and he was turned down.A creditor brought foreclosure proceedings against him. McDonald turned over his land to a credit association, sold his farm equipment, and filed for bankruptcy in 1986.

Black farmers like McDonald in Clarendon County where Harry Briggs filed one of the lawsuits consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education were assigned crop yields about half that of white farmers. Merchants refused to sell seed to Briggs.

"They destroy a lot of Black families," McDonald testified during his discrimination case.

Questions about discrimination against minority farmers barely came up during Vilsack's confirmation hearing. The former Iowa governor is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

"I don't think anyone has enough votes to stop him," said Webster Davis, the son of a Missouri hog farmer and the secretary of the Missouri NAACP.

About 14,000 discrimination cases, many brought by farmers, were pending against the USDA when Vilsack took over, Lucas said. Most of those weren't resolved.

The Counter, a journalism nonprofit that covers agriculture and food in the U.S., investigated Vilsack's record under Obama and found out that the agency cherry-picked data to falsely show a renaissance for black farmers.

A class-action lawsuit that was supposed to help Black farmers, Pigford v. Glickman, led to $50,000 payments for 13,000 Black farmers, not enough to buy a tractor.

Trump's Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, paid commodity farmers and ranchers $28 billion for losses during Trump's trade wars, but the vast majority of farmers that he helped were white. An additional $14 billion went to farmers under the second Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

In November, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act to address decades of discrimination by the USDA. The act would fund at least 20,000 land grants a year to Black farmers and establish an independent civil rights oversight board at the USDA.

"He has an opportunity," Davis said. "He needs to help us compete against large corporations."

Trump's Energy Department's granted a last-minute approval to a controversial transmission line

In Trump's last days of office, his minions at the Dept. of Energy approved a presidential permit for a $1 billion project that benefits the world's third-largest utility in what has been erroneously portrayed as a clean energy project to bring electricity from Canada to Massachusetts.

Environmental opponents, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Council of Maine, say it's actually "greenwashing," a term coined to describe projects and products that are marketed as being environmentally friendly when they aren't.

"There is zero reliable evidence that the project would result in an actual, verifiable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions," said Sue Ely, an attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "That's right. Zero."

Iberdrola, a Spanish company that is the third-largest utility in the world, is behind the project. It owns most of the stock in AVANGRID Inc., the parent company of Central Maine Power Co., which applied for the permit in 2017.

Temporary Halt

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction on Jan. 15, the day after Team Trump granted the presidential permit. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club are in court appealing another permit that was issued for the project by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The presidential permit may be modified or revoked by the president, now Joe Biden, without notice or by the Dept. of Energy after notice. Steven Winberg, Trump's acting undersecretary of energy, signed the permit, which was awarded to NECEC Transmission LLC, a new company formed by AVANGRID.

Massachusetts utilities signed 20-year contracts in 2018 to buy 9.45 terawatt-hours a year from Hydro-Québec, Canada's largest utility. Eric Martel, then the CEO of Hydro-Québec, counted on electricity exports such as these to double company revenues by 2030 to about $27 billion.

"Without exports, our profits are in trouble," Martel said in 2018.

The contracts let Hydro-Québec maximize profits, according to an analysis by Energyzt Adviors LLC for environmental groups. Hydro-Québec could buy low from providers that could include coal from New Brunswick or natural gas from New York to be able to hoard the water behind its 27 reservoirs. The utility could use that water to produce the electricity it sells to Massachusetts as "clean" hydropower.

Higher Emissions

The net result could actually be higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Energyzt estimated that the project could raise total emissions by the equivalent of 80,000 cars a year.

NECEC Transmission LLC plans to build about 53 miles of the 171.4 miles in transmission lines from the Québec border to Lewiston, Maine, crossing 200 rivers, streams and brooks through wilderness in western Maine. Animals such as the American marten and the threatened Canada lynx live in forests on the route, and wild native brook trout are in area streams.

The Maine project illustrates how the Trump administration swung a regulatory axe with no regard for the environment instead of carefully pruning pathways through forested lands. Even the Trump EPA, which proved itself no reliable protector of the environment, raised questions about the project.

Beth Alafat, the EPA's acting chief of the wetlands protection unit, wrote that the Corps should consider putting the transmission lines underground along existing roads or railway corridors.

Twenty-five Maine towns along the corridor voted against the project or rescinded their previous support. New Hampshire blocked an attempt to route the project through that state.

The Army Corps of Engineers found the project would have no significant impact and issued a permit. The Corps, however, did not prepare a full environmental study for the proposed path through Maine and did not ask for public comment on most of the documents it did prepare.

Trump deadenders rush to give Apache sacred land to a mining company

Team Trump is racing to transfer federal land in Arizona that is sacred to the Apache to a mining company just days before the end of his term.

President-elect Joe Biden has not spoken publicly about the project, but he plans to nominate a Native American who participated in a hearing critical of the proposed mine, U.S. Rep.Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to lead the Interior Department.

"This place is going to be murdered," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., the former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe.

The environmental study needed to initiate the 2,422-acre transfer is expected to be released Friday. Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit, has sued in federal court to try to block the land swap to Resolution Copper LLC.

Chi'ChilBildagoteel, often called Oak Flat, in the Tonto National Forest about 40 miles east of Phoenix is a sacred site for the San Carlos Apache tribe and other tribal nations. Native Americans hold religious and cultural ceremonies and gather food and medicine. President Dwight Eisenhower protected the area from mining in 1955.

Consultant Steve Emerman told the House subcommittee in March that the proposed copper mine "is the worst mining project I have ever encountered."

Plans by Resolution Copper, a partnership of Rio Tinto and BHP, call for building a dam to contain mine waste. A similar dam, the Brumadinho Dam, which contained 1% of the waste that the Arizona dam would hold failed in Brazil in 2019, killing 270 people. Florence, Ariz., a town with more than 26,000 people, is about 10 miles away from one of the sites proposed for a dam.

"We are seriously discussing a mining project in Arizona that would be illegal even in China," Emerman said.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon put a loophole in the mining ban, allowing the land to be swapped to a private owner who wouldn't be subject to the ban. Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, a former lobbyist for a subsidiary of mining behemoth Rio Tino, snuck in a provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the swap.

"I am sorry I wasn't here when this bill was finagled into the NDAA," Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said during a hearing in March. "I am sorry that I didn't have a voice in Congress when it was important."

Resolution Copper plans to mine 1.4 billion tons of ore, creating a crater twice as deep as the Washington Monument.

The Rio Tinto Group spent $690,000 on federal lobbying in 2020. BHP spent $170,000.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross visited Phoenix in October and praised the proposed mine.

"The U.S. has a special appreciation for global enterprises like Rio Tinto that choose to engage in projects like this one on our shores," Ross said.

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