Friday, March 31, 2017

Why a functioning EPA is important for birds

The EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, is a US government agency established in 1972 to protect human health and the environment. By the early 1970's, Americans were increasingly aware of the dangers posed by pollution, the indiscriminate dumping of sewage and industrial chemicals, and the widespread and unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic agents. Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and other birds were critically endangered and at risk of extinction, the Cuyahoga river had famously caught fire several times, Great Lake Erie had been declared dead, and smog regularly blanketed America's largest cities. People were organizing at local, state, and national levels to get ordinances and laws passed to reduce pollution and penalize polluters. In some cases, people were driven by concerns about the future, but in many others - like Los Angeles - they were concerned with immediately improving health and saving lives.

Prior to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the EPA, there were no legal or regulatory federal mechanisms to protect the environment. While communities could address local problems, water and air don't have a fixed address. A regulatory mechanism was needed that would allow enforcement across county and state lines, address pollution on land and waterways owned by the federal government, and provide funds for cleaning up large, extremely toxic messes like this one, which is still affecting the Channel Islands. Following the introduction and passage of several bills related to environmental concerns, President Nixon proposed a new agency on July 9, 1970, to consolidate the environmental responsibilities of the federal government. Congress approved the proposal and President Nixon signed an executive order establishing the EPA on December 2, 1970.

Why does this matter to human health and wildlife? The EPA is able to regulate and enforce environmental and human health laws as related to air (the Clean Air Act and Amendments), water (the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Amendments), land (the Wilderness Acts, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act), endangered species (the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Endangered Species Preservation Act), Hazardous Waste (the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the Resource Recovery Act, and the Hazardous and Solid Wastes Amendments Act) and human health (the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Nuclear Waste Repository Act, and the Food Quality Protection Act). In short, the EPA played a very important role in the cleaner air, the cleaner water, and the formerly endangered species we so enjoy today.

Perhaps most important to bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and many other birds, the EPA banned DDT in the United States in 1972 based on its adverse environmental effects. But that isn't the only banned chemical that affects birds. Remember DN2's death last year? He was poisoned by methomyl, a member of the carbomate chemical family. Carbofuran, a related chemical, killed millions of birds each year before the EPA canceled it for use on crops in 2009. In 1990, diazinon was classified as a restricted ingredient and banned for use on golf courses and turf farms, marking the first time regulatory action was taken specifically on behalf of birds. It was banned entirely on January 1st of 2005. Chlordane was banned for home, garden and agricultural uses in 1983. It is persistent in the environment and still poisons birds today, but not at the levels it once did. Monocrotophos was removed from use in the United States in 1991, although it was linked to huge die-offs of Swainson's Hawks on their wintering grounds in Argentina. You can read more about the American Bird Conservancy's successful intervention here.

So in short, a working EPA is important for birds because its actions have directly benefited many birds, including eagles and peregrine falcons, and its enforcement of environmental laws has resulted in cleaner air, cleaner water, and better health. Concerned only with the economy? The estimated economic benefit for banning lead ranges from $110 billion to $319 billion for each year's newborns. The yearly economic benefit of that alone is far bigger than the EPA's annual budget.

It is also worth noting that the EPA's national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information - one reason why it is concerning that the House voted Wednesday to restrict the kind of scientific studies and data that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can use to justify new regulations. It is hard to make decisions based on science when you can't use science. The 42% reduction proposed by the Trump administration for the EPA's budget ($8.1 billion in 2016, or less than .3% of the entire federal budget) will also make it much harder to conduct research and enforce existing laws. And the decision of EPA head Scott Pruitt to ignore his own agency's research and not ban the pesticide Chlorpyrifos (Lorsban) means that it will continue to poison birds, other wildlife, and human beings for at least the next five years, if not longer.

So what can we do? In the short term, you can contact your Senator and tell them to oppose the HONEST act, which is anything but. It was received in the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works on Thursday, March 30th. Here is a helpful place to track the bill and here is another helpful place to track this and other bills. In the long term, you can educate yourself and others about the substances most toxic to birds. You can support organizations that advocate and do research on behalf of birds. Of course I like it when people support the Raptor Resource Project, but you should also take a look at the American Bird Conservancy and the work they do. You can get involved in local projects: remember, our national concern for the environment grew in part out of local issues, whether it was choking smog, the loss of soil, the contamination of water, or the need for local parks and wild land. We can all keep reminding our congressional representatives and senators that conservation and the environment are important to us. And we should all take strength, determination, and resolve from our polluted past: strength, since we have made significant improvements; determination, so we can keep moving forward; and resolve that we won't go back to those days again.

Things that helped me learn and write about this topic:

Keep in mind - we've come a long way, baby!

1 comment:

Riverpeace said...

Thank you, Amy! As always, SUPER articles--well timed, researched and written. It was easier than I thought to write to my US senators in PA (a main one and a junior) to ask them to oppose the "HONEST" Act and to allow the EPA to continue to do its job in protecting our environment as common sense and the past history of our country would suggest. (Amy, please read my mind for other thoughts on this topic as they are not appropriate to post.) On a lighter note, so many eaglets, so little time!!! GO DN6!