Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/ Sustainability — The gentler side of Shark Week


Today is Thursday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

With humans killing 20 million times as many sharks every year as sharks kill humans, two Australian states will now refer to shark “bites” or “negative encounters” rather than using the more inflammatory word “attacks,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported Wednesday. 

The change in communication signals a shift away from the idea of sharks as “ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters,” a shark researcher told the Herald. Demonizing sharks helps justify killing them, and it is also inaccurate. Most encounters, another researcher told the Herald, don’t result in a bite. He also said many bites are small and accidental, as with people stepping on small sharks such as a wobbegong.

In terms of actual risks: With much of the West in flames, a bipartisan group of representatives says the U.S. is far behind the curve on wildfire preparedness. Meanwhile, officials are taking a look at how to make the use of a real killer in the water — toxic “forever chemicals” — more transparent, with hopes of pushing federal regulations forward. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

The West is ‘falling further behind’ on wildfire preparedness, bipartisan group says


The enormous fires burning Western forests demand an accounting of America’s lands management, payroll and exposure to climate change, a bipartisan group of House members said in a press conference today.

“Wildfires don’t distinguish between Republican and Democratic communities,” said Rep. Joseph Neguse (D-Colo.), leaving legislators with “an incredible urgency to get something done.”

Step one: Along with Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah), Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.), Neguse laid out varied policy needs and potential solutions. 

“Half my district is on fire,” said LaMalfa, a haunting strain evident in his voice. LaMalfa questioned why federal agencies were buying gear only in June for fires foreseeable since December. 

Across the Rocky Mountains, Curtis described how he and his constituents “wake up every morning and we see the haze [from fires across the country], and it’s a reminder of what looms ahead for Utah.” 

He recounted a recent helicopter trip above his district, seeing “scar after scar on the mountains,” marking the loss of trees that hold down the hillsides, which means Utah is getting “floods that cause great devastation as well.”

Climate change, complicated jurisdiction and conflicts over resources and pay: A complicating factor, Curtis explained, is the West’s confusion of overlapping private, municipal, state and federal lands, which create a jurisdictional headache for disaster response.

The Utah Republican also linked the fires to climate change, saying that “it’s a vicious cycle,” with carbon released by the flames warming the planet further, driving further fires. 

With the fire season now dominated by enormous, simultaneous blazes, jurisdictions are also competing for aircraft to attack them — and are short on fuel to run those aircraft, as Keith Ridler reported for The Associated Press.

Finally, firefighting has traditionally been treated as a summer event. But with fires now burning year-round, and the need for manpower to prepare landscapes when they aren’t, a seasonal approach is no longer sufficient, Neguse said. The Colorado congressman elaborated on these concerns in an interview with Equilibrium last month.


Partial solutions. On the Senate side, Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) have proposed the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act, which would establish a study to advise Congress about short- and long-term fire prevention and land management strategies. There is also Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021, which funds controlled burns before fire seasons. Wyden and Neguse are also collaborating on the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, which would establish a vast workforce for forest fire management.

More immediately, representatives are trying to supply federal assets to beleaguered communities, including sending military-grade satellite data to fire and National Guard units so they can track fires and providing C-130 transport planes — modified with special water bladders — to attack flame fronts. On June 30, the Biden administration announced it was raising firefighter pay to $15 an hour — which, Neguse said, “is still woefully low.”

Also, key reforms have been made separating the U.S. Forest Service’s fire suppression and forest management budgets. That’s a longtime request of wildland fire scientists, who complain that worsening fires suck up the resources needed to prevent the next year’s — or next decade’s — crises. 

While ongoing “thinnings” are underway to remove potential fuel, LaMalfa said, “We’re falling further behind. We have too many trees per acre in too many areas.”

“Be prepared”: It is impossible now to get ahead of a fire season likely to rival, or surpass, that of 2020, representatives say, which leaves much of the burden of the fire season to individuals.

For Western residents, Garamendi said, that means clearing 100 feet around their houses, having proper fire insurance, and above all, being “prepared to go.”

“Get your go-bag, make sure you have the family albums,” he said, and if ordered to evacuate, “don’t put the firefighters and police at risk. Because they’ll try to save you, and their lives will be lost along with yours.”

Former health official: Make use of ‘forever chemical’ more transparent

The government should treat toxic chemicals used by fracking companies like name brand pharmaceuticals, rather than designating them as untouchable trade secrets, a former national environmental health official told Equilibrium this week.

“So for a certain number of years, the company gets to keep their formulation secret, but at some point it becomes common knowledge,” said Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 

Birnbaum spoke with Equilibrium after The New York Times reported Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had in 2011 approved fracking fluid that used chemicals that can break down into toxic PFAS.

But internal EPA documents, obtained by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), were heavily redacted and did not reveal chemical names, due to confidential business information (CBI) rules through which companies maintain trade secrets. And while PSR may have uncovered this latest PFAS source, there are likely a whole lot more of these toxic compounds lurking in places we have never expected.

“Redefinition” of confidentiality: To ensure greater transparency in the drilling world, Birnbaum proposed “a redefinition” of CBI — by thinking of the chemicals like “a patent on a drug, which after a certain number of years expires,” allowing for the arrival of generics.


What are PFAS again? PFAS, as we reported on Monday, is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a mouthful that everyone who works around them just calls “forever chemicals.” They’re most infamous for polluting waterways via firefighting foam — and now fracking fluid — but are also in household products such as nonstick pans, makeup, fast-food containers and waterproof apparel. While experts link PFAS exposure to severe illnesses, the EPA has thus far only established “health advisory levels” for the two most well-known of 5,000 PFAS compounds.  

With forever chemicals increasingly in the spotlight, the Environmental Working Group held its Inaugural PFAS Conference on Wednesday, with the participation of officials from the Biden administration and Congress. Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that Biden is prioritizing PFAS monitoring and remediation as part of his American Jobs Plan.

There are 2,337 nationwide sites contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Many of them are near drinking water systems that serve thousands of people and some of them in schools. (There’s an interactive map here.) In communities with PFAS contamination there are often clusters of kidney cancers and reproductive, immunological and developmental issues. 

Communities impacted by PFAS, Mallory added, are looking for “decisive action,” as well as “transparency, standards and accountability.”


“Total transparency”: With regard to fracking — a process in which millions of gallons of fluid  are pumped at high pressure into the ground — Birnbaum likewise advocated for “total transparency” about every step of the process, including well water transport and storage, and site location.

Studies have shown “adverse health impacts on people who live near a frack site,” she added.

What if all fracking and drilling activity suddenly ceased? The impacts of PFAS would persist, according to Birnbaum. Compounds in the PFAS family, she explained, bond easily to soil, creating problems that don’t really “go away.” 

Today, companies can remove PFAS from water to an acceptable level through “adsorption to activated carbon, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis,” according to Colorado State University researchers. But because these methods don’t result in the complete destruction of PFAS compounds, scientists are pursuing other avenues.

And while most research has focused on water, Birnbaum stressed that exposure can also come from food — or even from food packaging materials. 

Local traction: Birnbaum praised individual states that have set regulatory levels for PFAS in drinking water, as well as those that have groundwater and food packaging regulations. She noted, however, that problems remain for those who live on the borders of states with varying standards.

And elsewhere? The European Union, Birnbaum said, has called for restricting the compounds to essential use only. And last year, Denmark banned all PFAS in food packaging.

Room for hope: In the U.S., the bipartisan PFAS Action Act would set deadlines for PFAS regulation. It will come to a House vote next week, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said at Wednesday’s EWG conference. She also stressed the “need to clean up the legacy pollution that is threatening our communities.”

Birnbaum told Equilibrium that she remains hopeful that the Biden administration will regulate the compounds — in large part due to community awareness and calls for action. 

“The public concern, it does impact how regulations can be set and are set,” she said.

Click here to read Equilibrium’s full interview with former health official Linda Birnbaum.


Transcendental Thursday

In which we take a look at the sustainability of Earthly civilization from the vantage point of the cosmos.

Sustainability of space tourism comes into question

  • A teenager will become the first paying passenger on Jeff Bezos’s New Shepard space flight next week, his aerospace company Blue Origin announced Thursday.
  • But Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson was the first billionaire to successfully launch into space, landing back on Earth following a 90-minute trip on Sunday, Celine Castronuovo reported for The Hill. Another billionaire involved with commercial space ventures, Elon Musk, attended the Branson launch event.
  • In what E&E News described (paywall) as a “billionaire space race,” climate questions also abound, about both “the rapidly warming planet they would briefly leave behind” and the emissions generated by the missions.
  • “While it would take thousands of launches for the emerging industry to have a significant climate impact, some detractors say they are worried about what might happen if space tourism truly takes off,” the E&E report said. 

The view from space isn’t necessarily pretty

  • Looking down at the Earth from space, tourists won’t necessarily see a pristine, cloud-covered blue-and-green marble.
  • As wildfires continue to scorch the Western U.S., the GOES-17 satellite has been showing “gigantic fire clouds,” with visible and infrared image data used in animation to show active burning and smoke, Tom Yulsman reported for Discover.
  • “Enormous amounts of smoke and moisture boil up into towering clouds that can punch through the lower atmosphere into the stratosphere, all the way up to heights exceeding 30,000 feet,” Yulsman wrote.

{mosads}Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you Friday.

Tags Brenda Mallory Climate change Debbie Dingell Doug LaMalfa Elon Musk forever chemicals Jeff Bezos John Garamendi Mark Kelly Mitt Romney Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances Ron Wyden Shark attack Sustainability Wildfire
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