Overnight Energy: Military sees surge in sites contaminated by 'forever chemicals' | USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus | Watchdog raises concerns over Trump energy regulator

Overnight Energy: Military sees surge in sites contaminated by 'forever chemicals' | USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus | Watchdog raises concerns over Trump energy regulator
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QUITE AN INCREASE: The military now has at least 651 sites that have been contaminated with cancer-linked "forever chemicals," a more than 50 percent jump from its last tally.

The information was released Friday in a report from the Department of Defense (DOD), part of a task force designed to help the military remove a class of chemicals known as PFAS from the water supply near numerous military bases.

PFAS, used in a variety of household products as well as an "AFFF" fire fighting foam relied on by the military, has been deemed a forever chemical due to its persistence in both the environment and the human body. The military has been under increasing pressure to clean up its contaminated sites, previously estimated to be at 401 locations. 

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"This report also makes it clear that we are still learning the full extent of the impact on our communities. The identification of over 250 new sites where PFAS was potentially released is astonishing," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithBipartisan Senate panel leaders back fund to deter China Boosting military deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region House chairmen demand explanation on Trump's 'illegal' withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty MORE (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

"It is critical that the department provide communities with timely assessment of these sites, communicate transparently with impacted households, and quickly act to protect civilians and service members alike from these forever chemicals."

Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon orders active-duty police units on ready to deploy to Minneapolis: AP Overnight Defense: Trump extends deployment of National Guard troops to aid with coronavirus response | Pentagon considers reducing quarantine to 10 days | Lawmakers push for removal of Nazi headstones from VA cemeteries No time to be selling arms to the Philippines MORE started the PFAS task force on his first day in office in July. 

"We must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DOD-wide approach to the issue," Esper wrote in a memo establishing the task force.

The 651 figure is current as of October and includes only sites where DOD is known to be the source of PFAS contamination. 

The military has provided bottled water and filters to the affected areas and is prepared to ramp up blood testing for those that may be affected.

"No one -- on or off base -- is drinking water above EPA's [health advisory] level of 70 parts per trillion [ppt] where DoD is the known source of PFOS and PFOA," the agency wrote in the report, referring to guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Read more about the surge here.

 

IT'S MONDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

 

TELEWORKING HARD: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has closed a wing of its headquarters after one of its employees tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting concerns from some employees about the agency's telework policies.

A USDA employee tested positive for the virus after developing a fever late last week.

USDA closed the affected portion of its south building for cleaning, telling employees they should work remotely until the area was given the all-clear.

"All employees with an office on the second floor of the sixth wing should begin teleworking effectively immediately. This is to ensure the health and safety of our employees on the 6th wing while continuing the effectiveness of our Department's mission," an administrator for USDA's agricultural marketing service wrote to employees.

A USDA spokesperson confirmed the outbreak.

"On Sunday, March 15th, a USDA employee in the National Capital Region (NCR) informed USDA that they received a positive test result for coronavirus. That same day, USDA notified employees who work in close proximity to the employee that they should begin teleworking immediately to help ensure the safety and health of our employees," a spokesperson told The Hill by email. 

"USDA also announced on Sunday that maximized telework is available for NCR employees beginning on Tuesday, March 17," the email said.

But USDA employees say they've been given conflicting information about the agency's policy. In internal emails reviewed by The Hill, a USDA employee informs others that if more than three employees from any given team wish to telework, the plan must be approved by Secretary Sonny Purdue's office.

Read more about the situation here

 

REGULATING THE REGULATOR: A watchdog group is spotlighting concerns about James Danly, a new Republican commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), over his connections to projects the agency regulates. 

Progressive watchdog Accountable.US is focusing on Danly's ties to two energy companies with natural gas projects, which fall under the jurisdiction of the agency.

According to ethics forms obtained by the group and reviewed by The Hill, when Danly worked at a law firm from 2014 to 2017, his clients included Exelon Corp. and NextEra Energy. Both are energy companies with ongoing natural gas projects, which the agency has jurisdiction over from the Natural Gas Act.

Chris Saeger, Accountable.US's director of strategic initiatives, said that the connection to the companies is problematic.

"There is clearly a conflict of interest in these cases, he told The Hill Thursday. "And I think the fact that they've already been approved with little transparency as to his involvement in these projects is incredibly disturbing," he said about projects involving the two companies.

Danly was confirmed in a 52-40 Senate vote on Thursday, despite questions from Democrats and outside groups about his industry ties.

Danly had been serving as FERC's general counsel prior to his confirmation on the commission's board. The agency says he has followed ethics rules.

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"Since his appointment to the position of General Counsel in September 2017, James Danly has been following the Trump Administration's Ethics Pledge, which is signed by all Executive Branch officials," said FERC spokeswoman Mary O'Driscoll in a statement on Friday. 

Asked if Danly would recuse himself from matters involving former clients, O'Driscoll said, "Any decisions on recusals have been made and will continue to be made by Mr. Danly in consultation with the Designated Agency Ethics Official at FERC."

But Danly's confirmation highlights a central concern that critics have expressed with the Trump administration, that officials often have close ties to the industries they are supposed to regulate.

The two natural gas companies he had as clients are involved in projects that have been the subject of scrutiny and legal challenges from environmentalists.

NextEra US Gas Assets, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, is the part-owner of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) project in Virginia and West Virginia. 

MVP settled a lawsuit last year that accused it of violating environmental standards during construction, according to The Roanoke Times. 

Mountain Valley spokesperson Natalie Cox told The Hill in an email that the project submits weekly reports to FERC, as is standard practice during construction. Cox said at the time that the issues, which were fixed, were largely due to increased rainfall. 

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The other former client, Exelon, partially owns the proposed Annova LNG export facility in Texas. 

A FERC environmental impact statement from last year found that the Annova project would "result in adverse environmental impacts" although it said that these impacts could be reduced to "less than significant" levels if certain steps were taken. 

Saeger said he thinks that Danly's commissionership will have a negative impact on the environment. 

"We will see more dangerous pipeline projects approved... and ultimately the American people will pay the price," he said. "It will mean more carbon in the atmosphere, it will mean more pipelines in communities that don't want them."

Read more about Danly here

 

SOME PERSONNEL NEWS:  A former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official who worked on some controversial administration actions is returning to the agency Monday. 

Mandy Gunasekara, who previously led the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, tweeted a picture of herself being sworn in as Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: States, green groups sue Trump over rollback of Obama fuel efficiency regulations | Oil lobby says low prices still hurting industry | Conservative group wants Trump to go further in rolling back key environmental law States, green groups sue Trump over rollback of Obama fuel efficiency regulations OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Coal company sues EPA over power plant pollution regulation | Automakers fight effort to freeze fuel efficiency standards | EPA watchdog may probe agency's response to California water issues MORE's chief of staff. 

In her previous role at the agency, Gunesakara helped write regulations to ease pollution controls for coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions. She was also involved in the Trump administration's effort to leave the Paris climate accord.

Read more about Gunasekara's return here.

 

JUST MAKING CHANGES:The Department of Justice (DOJ) will no longer allow polluting companies to reduce their fines by footing the bill for environmental projects, putting an end to a tool that's been popular with both industry and government agencies.

Special Environmental Projects (SEPs), which have been used for roughly 30 years, let businesses reduce their civil penalties by taking steps such as cleaning streams or replacing old gas-guzzling school busses.

But a DOJ memo on Friday said the program violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act, which requires that money acquired by the government go to the U.S. Treasury. DOJ argued that SEPs could only legally be allowed with express authorization from Congress.

The agency said the special projects have been "controversial for decades" and suspended their use "both in light of their inconsistency with law and their departure from sound enforcement practices."

That characterization has drawn criticism from former officials at both DOJ and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees most enforcement cases against polluting businesses.

"Everybody likes these for a reason," said Cynthia Giles, who served as the assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, adding that industry often asked her to do offer more SEPs.

"Communities like them because they are the people who have been harmed -- this is their way to get redress. Companies like them -- yes, because it helps them improve their public image but because it gives them a chance to give something back," she said. "And government likes them because they help to resolve these cases in a way that benefits everyone."

DOJ announced in August that it would limit certain types of SEPs while reviewing the program overall.

SEPs credit 80 percent of what companies spend on a project as a discount on whatever civil fines have been imposed by the government. Companies typically agree to projects that correspond with parts of the environment they polluted, such as air or water.

Read more about the DOJ's decision here

 

CORONACANCELED (AND POSTPONED): 

The HFC hearing: Next week's planned Senate hearing on a bill that would phase down the use of heat-trapping chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) has been canceled due to coronavirus concerns. 

An Environment and Public Works Committee spokesman told The Hill in an email that "The committee will not be holding the planned hearing for next week and instead will take written testimonies and submissions for the record. These submissions will help the committee review, evaluate, and/or improve the HFC legislation. Committee members will also be given a chance to ask written questions for the record from those submitting material to the committee."

The legislation from Sens. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperMail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump threatens coronavirus funds for states easing voting MORE (D-Del.) mirrors a proposed amendment from the same senators that has become a major point of contention in a Senate energy package. 

The climate action plan:  Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities Bright says his warnings on supply shortages were ignored Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said in a statement on Monday that the committee's anticipated climate policy recommendations will be postponed. 

"As Congress focuses on the important mission of protecting Americans from the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided today to postpone the release of our climate action plan."

The recommendations were previously expected to be released at the end of this month. The statement didn't say how long they would be delayed. 

House Natural Resources activities: The House Natural Resources Committee released a statement Monday saying its hearings and other business for the rest of the month would be canceled or postponed due to the virus. 

"We will offer updates as soon as possible on rescheduled events and on the Committee schedule for April," the statement said. 

 

FROM THE DEBATE: Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersExpanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support The battle of two Cubas Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Ro Khanna MORE (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points Biden: 'We are a nation in pain, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us' MORE debated whether Biden's environmental plan is sufficient to tackle climate change.  

Biden argued that it would, citing his support for policies such as reinstituting Obama-era fuel economy standards and rejoining the Paris agreement. 

Sanders responded that this was "all well and good" but nowhere near enough."

Biden also appeared to say at one point that he supported "no new fracking," which he had not said before, although his campaign later clarified that the former vice president was simply restating his policy which calls for a ban on new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, as opposed to a ban on new fracking anywhere. 

Sanders's plan calls for a total ban on fracking and the senator said Sunday that "it is insane that we continue to have fracking in America." 

"This has got to end and end now if we love our kids and future generations," he added. 

 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Colorado counties sue state over new oil, gas air rules, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reports

Climate change forces cognac makers to consider other grape varieties, The Guardian reports

For environmentalists, a 'monumental' legislative session in Virginia, The Associated Press reports 

 

ICYMI: Stories from Monday and the weekend...

DOJ ends practice of allowing polluters to pay for environmental projects, 

USDA closes office wing due to coronavirus but faces concerns on telework

Adviser behind controversial EPA policies returns as agency chief of staff

Military sees surge in sites with 'forever chemical' contamination

Watchdog raises concerns over Trump energy regulator

 

FROM THE OPINION PAGES:

Banning fracking is a bad idea, opines energy and environmental consultant J. Winston Porter, who served as an EPA assistant administrator in the Reagan administration