The Energy 202: Lowe's moves before EPA to pull deadly paint strippers from shelves

0
9

THE LIGHTBULB

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency signaled that it will follow through with an Obama-era proposal to ban the use of a deadly chemical in paint strippers sold at hardware stores nationwide.

Weeks later, the agency has yet to formally follow through on the proposal. But one of the largest of those hardware stores just beat the EPA to the punch. 

Lowe's announced Tuesday it will take certain paint strippers linked to dozens of deaths off its shelves.

Both Lowe's and the EPA were spurred by a months-long campaign from public health groups and the families of those killed while using the paint strippers. But the nationwide hardware chain acted first, illustrating how the private sector can often more nimbly respond to public pressure than the government.

“We hope it signals some momentum,” said Joanna Slaney, legislative director for health programs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “But it’s time for EPA to act.”

Lowe's said Tuesday it will phase out paint removal products containing the chemicals methylene chloride and NMP by the end of the year. “We care deeply about the health and safety of our customers, and great progress is being made in the development of safer and more effective alternatives,” Mike McDermott, Lowe’s chief customer officer, said in a statement.

The company said that it is still “actively working” with the EPA “to quickly market new alternatives and lead change in the industry.”

In January 2017, the EPA proposed banning the use of methylene chloride in paint and coating removal products during the last days of Barack Obama's presidency, acting on authority Congress a year earlier had granted the agency to restrict the use of it and other chemicals. But later that year, Scott Pruitt, Trump's EPA chief, postponed the bans.

That is when consumer advocacy and public health organizations such as Safer Chemicals Healthy Families kicked into action, putting pressure on stores to drop the products if the federal government would not intervene.

In February, the group sent letters to Lowe's and Home Depot demanding the stores stop stocking the paint strippers now “rather than waiting for federal regulations to take effect.” They ratcheted up pressure by holding news conferences in front of stores, handing out material to store managers and calling into their customer-service lines, according to Liz Hitchcock, acting director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families.

“We really think it will save lives,” Hitchcock said.

Activists were planning to show up at Lowe's annual shareholder meeting on June 1. But the company acted before then.

“At first, Lowe’s was thinking of just increasing the alternatives on the market,” said Sujatha Bergen, a policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But before the meeting, Lowe’s engaged and announced they were going to pull the chemical.”

Public health groups pressured the EPA, too. Last month, the Environmental Defense Fund contacted Pruitt’s office on behalf of the families of Drew Wynne and Kevin Hartley, who both died from methylene chloride exposure. 

The families got their meeting with the administrator. A few days later, the EPA said it would not redo a 2014 risk assessment that determined inhaling the paint-stripping fumes is dangerous and would submit its rulemaking to the White House's Office of Management and Budget for approval “shortly.”

But such lobbying goes only so far. Lowe's biggest rival, Home Depot, said when reached for comment that it will stick with the EPA rules until they change.

“For us, we're continuing to follow what the EPA does and EPA regulations,” Home Depot spokeswoman Margaret Smith said, noting that the “primary demand for those products are professional contractors.”

The EPA, meanwhile, said it is still working to address methylene chloride in everyday consumer products.

The agency is “moving quickly to immediately address immediate risks from methylene-chloride,” EPA spokeswoman Molly Block wrote in an email.

She added that the EPA will send the rule to the White House "shortly.”

POWER PLAYS

— Pruitt watch: The EPA’s inspector general said it plans to complete the review of Scott Pruitt’s travel and security decisions by Sept. 30, CNN reports. This particular probe from the internal watchdog is one of a dozen federal investigations and reviews of Pruitt’s tenure so far at the EPA.

— The EPA vs. Rep. Kildee: The agency is defending a decision to limit attendance at its summit on hazardous chemicals last week, pushing back on the claim from Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, Mich. in Congress, that his staff was barred from the meeting.

“In our email communications with your office, EPA made it clear that the summit continued into May 23, but would be limited to federal agency and state representatives,” EPA Associate Administrator Troy Lyons wrote in a letter to Kildee, obtained by The Post. “Regardless of these details, a representative from your office arrived on May 23 with less than two hours before the entire event concluded. Your office subsequently proceeded to tell members of the media that the agency barred your staff from the summit, which mischaracterized the events that took place.”

Rep. Kildee's office has asked for the EPA's inspector general to investigate the agency's decision to limit public access to the water-contamination summit focused on polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances. Critics charge the event organizers with running afoul of a federal law called the Federal Advisory Committee Act requiring such meetings be open to the public. The Michigan representative took to Twitter last week to say his staff was not allowed into the event.

— EPA advisory board to question agency’s actions: Some members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board are calling for a review of the agency’s decision to roll back an Obama-era regulation on vehicle emissions, according to a memo from one of the board's working groups. The independent group of researchers and experts says the EPA is ignoring its own research in its move to weaken auto emissions rules. “The group wants the full, 44-member board to scrutinize the science behind the decision to reassess the standards,” per Bloomberg News reports. The board will decide whether to take up the issue on Thursday.

— Puetro Rico's massive death toll: At least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria on the island, according to a new Harvard study, a toll that greatly exceeds the local government's official count of 64 deaths. The research, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “found that health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts across the U.S. territory, which was thrown into chaos after the September hurricane wiped out the electrical grid and had widespread impacts on infrastructure,” The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Laurie McGinley report.

The island’s slow recovery is dragging on into the 2018 storm season. “As the United States prepares for its next hurricane season, it will be critical to review how disaster-related deaths will be counted, in order to mobilize an appropriate response operation and account for the fate of those affected,” the authors of the new research wrote.

— “People just give up:” Meanwhile, in Houston, still recovering from the destruction brought by yet another hurricane, Harvey, there’s a disconnect in the recovery progress, Politico reports. While middle-class Houston has bounced back, the town of Kashmere Gardens, where two-thirds of residents are black and the median income is $23,000 a year, has not recovered: “A Politico investigation found that numerous low-income families were denied funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because much of Kashmere Gardens was in a flood zone, and homeowners were thus required to carry flood insurance — a law that many of them were unaware of. Other families, struggling with language issues and inexperienced with the federal bureaucracy, simply couldn’t cope with a system that even FEMA officials agree is too complicated. Still others fell victim to shoddy contractors who took their money and failed to make repairs.”

— Trump scraps electric sale: The Trump administration has abandoned a plan sell the Bonneville Power Administration’s transmission assets in Washington state, according to the Portland Business Journal. “The proposal in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget was opposed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the Northwest and elsewhere in the country where other federal power marketing administration assets were also targeted,” per the report. In a statement last week, Republican Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dave Reichert said they “applaud the administration for responding to our concerns over the potential sale of BPA’s transmission assets and making the formal decision to abandon such plans.”

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest: The Trump administration is scheduled this week to begin discussions to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty with Canada, which coordinates flood control and hydropower generation along the 1,200-mile Columbia River, which flows from British Columbia into the state of Washington. Lawmakers in the Northwest have been pushing to eliminate the “Canadian Entitlement,” the Associated Press reports, which provides Canada with $250 million to $350 million per year of electrical power for storing water in reservoirs used to boost hydropower generation in the United States.

THERMOMETER

— In the dark: Alabama Power Co., the state’s largest electrical utility, says there were about 20,000 homes and businesses without power after Alberto, the first storm of the 2018 hurricane season, surged through the state. Most of the outages, about 11,000, are in Birmingham and another 6,000 are around Montgomery, the Associated Press reports.

— Is your recycling actually getting recycled? Even if you meticulously separate your paper and plastic, some recyclables may end up in the landfill anyway. That’s in part because a rule change in China that it would stop importing “foreign garbage,” the New York Times reports. “While some waste managers already send their recyclable materials to be processed domestically, or are shipping more to other countries, others have been unable to find a substitute for the Chinese market,” per the report. “China’s stricter requirements also mean that loads of recycling are more likely to be considered contaminated if they contain materials that are not recyclable. That has compounded a problem that waste managers call wishful or aspirational recycling: people setting aside items for recycling because they believe or hope they are recyclable, even when they aren’t.”

OIL CHECK

— Canada buys a pipeline: The Canadian government said Tuesday it will buy Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline for 4.5 billion Canadian dollars (or $3.5 billion), ensuring the controversial oil sands conduit gets built. "The pipeline has become a flash point for a wider debate in Canada over the environmental impact of tapping Alberta’s oil sands, which critics view as a particularly polluting energy source,” the New York Times reports.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in an interview with Bloomberg News he decided to step in after the project became “too risky” for Kinder Morgan. Environmental groups chided the move. “Today we found out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lied when he declared to the world he was a leader on climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” Tzeporah Berman, deputy director of Stand.earth, said in a statement. A majority of oil sands production is exported to the United States.

— More coal for China: China is weighing a plan to buy more American coal in an effort to narrow the trade deficit with the United States, Bloomberg News reports. “Chinese officials are currently looking at boosting purchases from West Virginia in particular,” per the report, which cited people with knowledge of the matter. “They didn’t say whether Beijing is looking at buying more supplies from other states. A final decision hasn’t been made, they said."

DAYBOOK

Today

  • Congress is in recess all week.
  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a webinar on stage gate metrics for ocean energy technology.
  • The World Resources Institute holds an event on one year since President Trump’s announcement on the Paris climate accord.
  • The Wilson Center holds an event on sustainable water.
  • EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research program holds a webinar on lake and stream assessment.
  • The Atlantic Council holds an event on supply chain vulnerabilities in the software era.

Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space an Technology Committee holds a field hearing on earthquake mitigation on Thursday.
  • S&P Global Platts holds its 13th annual Northeast Power and Gas Markets Conference starting on Thursday.
  • The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on solar jobs and the economic impact on Thursday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds an eventon coal mine drainage on Thursday.
  • The Citizens' Climate Lobby's 9th annual international conference and lobby day June 10-12. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

— PSA: Don't roast marshmallows over volcanic vents. That's what the U.S. Geological Survey's volcano team is telling Hawaii residents not to do on Twitter: