Noah M Sachs on CPRBlog {Bio}

Greening the Idol Industry in India

I’ve been in Bangalore, India for about two months on a Fulbright fellowship to study Indian environmental law.  While I knew India has major problems with air pollution and sanitation, I didn’t expect that one of the major environmental controversies here would be about greening the idol industry.  Apparently, the gods in India can wreak havoc on the environment.

Each year, Indians sink millions of idols in rivers and lakes to celebrate various festivals.   The biggest festival for idol sinking is Ganesh Chaturthi, held each August or September in honor of the elephant god Ganesh.  Hindus sink Ganesh idols for a variety of reasons, including purifying the home, casting away misfortune, and returning the God to the earth.  

The problem is that most of the idols are made of plaster of Paris and are decorated with brightly colored paints that contain dyes and heavy metals such as mercury and lead.   The plaster of Paris gradually dissolves into the water bodies, making the water cloudy and alkaline and depleting oxygen for aquatic life.   The paints and dyes make the water toxic.

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Fixing Virginia’s toxic chemical problem

In the wake of the toxic chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia that contaminated the city’s water supply, citizens across the country are wondering if it could happen to them.

Given gaps in our environmental and chemical regulation regime, the answer is a resounding yes.   For the past year, I’ve been investigating problems of chemical storage and contamination in Virginia, and this week, the University of Richmond School of Law released a new report authored by me and law student Ryan Murphy, “A Strategy to Protect Virginians from Toxic Chemicals.”  

This report is the first comprehensive study of chemical dangers in the Commonwealth and calls for major reforms.

Virginia has a self-image as a pristine, primarily agricultural state but we found that Virginians are subjected to a wide variety of risks from industrial chemicals.  The reality is that Virginia ranks worryingly high in the amount of toxic chemical releases into our water and air compared to other states.  Two million Virginians live in communities that fail at least one federal health standard for air pollution. Fish consumption advisories have been issued for nearly all major Virginia waterways due to toxic contamination. 

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake-up call for the Commonwealth to address the toxic threats in our own backyard.

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TSCA Reform and the Presidential Election

When Barack Obama took office, reform of U.S. chemical regulation appeared to be an area of some bipartisan agreement, especially when compared to climate change, where it was clear a contentious fight would loom on Capitol Hill.  Prominent Members of Congress had called for reform of the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson soon laid out the Administration’s key principles for TSCA reform, and the largest chemical industry trade association acknowledged that TSCA needed to be “modernized” and “updated.”

Four years later, though, progress on TSCA reform has been frustratingly slow.  The 2010 Republican victory in the House dashed hopes for quick action on the Hill, and the chemical industry is once again defending the status quo.

The stakes are enormous.  Under TSCA, more than 90% of all chemicals in use have never been tested for their health and environmental effects.  TSCA requires the EPA to demonstrate that chemicals pose “unreasonable risk” prior to restricting their manufacture or use, and it erects elaborate procedural hurdles before EPA can make that finding.  Since TSCA was enacted, EPA has attempted to restrict only six chemicals under those provisions of the Act, and the last attempt was in 1989. 

We are “flying blind” by allowing massive public exposure to untested chemicals.  As a result of flaws in TSCA, we also lack solid comparative information about the toxicity of chemicals. For example, while many companies have stopped using Bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby products and food containers, we have little information about substitutes for BPA, and companies are not required to disclose what substitutes they are using.  From hydraulic fracturing fluids to flame retardants in furniture to construction materials in our homes, we simply do not know the health and environmental effects of tens of thousands of chemicals to which we are exposed.

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Trash Overboard! Why the U.S. Should Ratify the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention

a(broad) perspective

Today’s post is the fifth in a series on a recent CPR white paper, Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties.  Each month, this series will discuss one of these ten treaties.  Previous posts are here.

1996 Protocol to the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter
Adopted by the Parties to the London Convention (including the United States) and Opened for Signature on November 7, 1996

Entered into Force on March 24, 2006
Number of Parties: 42

Signed by the United States on March 31, 1998
Sent to the Senate on September 4, 2007
Reported favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 29, 2008

The world’s oceans have long served as the world’s toilet. For decades, nations allowed ships bearing their flags to dump into the oceans ever-mounting volumes of chemicals and radioactive wastes, incinerated debris, sewage sludge, municipal wastes, and other wastes from ships. Ocean dumping threatens coral reefs and other marine life, and can harm humans through contamination of seafood.

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Ratifying the Basel Convention on Transboundary Waste

a(broad) perspective

Today’s post is third in a series on a recent CPR white paper, Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties.  Each month, this series will discuss one of these ten treaties.  Previous posts are here.

Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal
Adopted and Opened for Signature on March 22, 1989
Entered into Force on May 5, 1992
Signed by the United States on March 22, 1990
Sent to the Senate, May 17, 1991, and approved by the Senate on August 11, 1992

Loaded with toxic ash from Philadelphia waste incinerators, the Khian Sea, a cargo ship, left port in 1986 – and spent two years wandering at sea attempting to dispose the ash.  Some of the ash was dumped in Haiti as so-called “topsoil,” and the remaining ash disappeared somewhere between Singapore and Sri Lanka.  Years later, at trial, the crew admitted dumping the nearly 10,000 tons of toxic ash in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  It was one of the most outrageous incidents of toxic waste dumping – but sadly, this was hardly an isolated incident.

Today, international trade in hazardous waste is a multi-billion dollar industry that moves highly toxic materials, such as pesticide residues, used solvents, and process wastes from manufacturing.  The fastest growing part of the trade is electronic waste (such as laptops, cellphones, and televisions), which contain lead, mercury, and other toxic components.   And just like the Khian Sea incident, there is still an enormous incentive to ship waste to poor countries with lax or nonexistent environmental regulation.

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Big Win for Children's Health in Second Circuit Risk Assessment Decision

In toxics regulation, environmental lawyers face an uphill battle when they challenge a risk assessment performed by a protector agency.  Courts review the agency’s risk assessment under a deferential “arbitrary and capricious” standard, and courts are reluctant to second-guess an agency’s calculation of the risks of a pesticide or other chemicals.

So it was a victory for both children’s health and sound science earlier this month when the Natural Resources Defense Council prevailed in its challenge of EPA’s flawed risk assessment for a commonly-used pesticide called dichlorvos. (NRDC v. EPA, 08-3771-ag, 2nd Cir. September 16, 2011).  The unanimous decision by the 3-judge panel is here.

The Second Circuit vacated a 2006 EPA order denying NRDC’s request to pull dichlorvos off the market.  The court held that EPA acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying the request and that EPA had failed to carry out Congress’s clear mandate, in the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), to protect children’s health.  Now EPA must reconsider NRDC’s petition using better science and the correct statutory standard. 

Dichlorvos is an organophosphate pesticide that has been in use since 1948 in homes, restaurants, and commercial buildings.  It is a vapor-based pesticide, commonly used in pet collars and also sold on strips to attract aphids, mites, and other insects.  Vapor-based pesticides pose particular risks to children through inhalation exposure.  In the 1980s, EPA had considered pulling dichlorvos off the market because there was evidence that it was a carcinogen, but in 2000, the agency approved continued use.  That decision was based primarily on a single study involving only nine adult volunteers – and the study was paid for by the pesticide’s manufacturer.

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