Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
Post-9/11 G.I. Bill eligibility gets a reprieve
A restriction in Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits for family dependents of service members, scheduled to start Friday, has been delayed at least until January. That’s welcome news for families of military personnel with more than 16 years of service.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, who represents the Second District and thus many families attached to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, as well as veterans from all branches, led the charge to delay implementation of the rules. His successful argument, in a bipartisan letter to Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper that was signed by 29 members of the House Armed Service Committee, has delayed the restrictions from going into effect before House passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Courtney and others are seeking to derail the change permanently with an amendment to the NDAA. As written, the rules would require at least six years of service before a request to transfer benefits to a dependent family member, followed by a mandatory four additional years. The stated goal has been to increase retention by eliminating eligibility after 10 years with no further service required. The logic of cutting off the benefit after 16 years has perturbed Courtney and others because it the longer one serves, the greater the eligibility should be.
A benefit that can be earned in 14 years but is cut off at 16 seems like bureaucracy at the expense of people who serve their country as a career. Let’s hope that the proposed rules fade out, and if changes are needed, they would make better sense.
The wildfire haze has made one thing apparent: national air quality protections are important
The Bangor Daily News
Sunny skies in parts of Maine on Wednesday weren’t as clear as they should have been, thanks to a smoke-fueled haze that traveled here from western Canada.
As reported by the Portland Press Herald, wildfires currently raging on the other side of the continent, coupled with a particular air flow, brought smoke into Maine’s air.
“Sometimes that haze can be pretty thick. The sun is actually blocked out quite a bit,” James Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, told the Press Herald. “As long as the flow remains the same, we’ll continue to get it.”
This airflow, and the smoke it brought with it, is a reminder of why Maine is sometimes referred to as “America’s tailpipe.” Prevailing winds from the west mean Maine is often the recipient of air pollutants from away.
“Environmental pollutants carried by the gulf stream and air patterns lead to high levels of airborne particulate, smog, smoke, and soot,” reads the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention website as part of an explanation of why Maine has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. The Maine CDC also references high summertime ozone levels, Maine’s dense forest and the resulting high amount of pollen, and the prevalence of wood-burning heat sources as other factors for Maine’s high asthma rates.
Both Brown and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection website downplayed any potential health impacts from this week’s smoke from Canada, noting that it had been remaining aloft in the air.
The DEP, however, ended up downgrading the air quality particle forecast for Wednesday from “good” to “moderate” in the western part of the state. That equates to a “limited health notice” under which “sensitive people should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion,” according to the agency.
The smoke and this accompanying “limited health notice” aren’t necessarily cause for alarm. But this week’s haze does emphasize that many environmental impacts are not localized or contained to the area where they originate, and why local and state action like we saw in Maine this past legislative session — while encouraging — cannot replace national leadership on issues such as clean air where state lines can be rendered essentially meaningless by the wind.
A recent report from the Associated Press gives us reason to worry about the status of clean air in America. The AP found that there were 15 percent more days in 2018 and 2017 with unhealthy air than the average between 2013 and 2016.
Despite President Donald Trump’s recent overtures about protecting the environment, his administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era emissions standards and other air quality-related rules are anything but a breath of fresh air from an environmental policy perspective.
Because of the way air pollution moves across our country, America’s clean air victories and challenges are also Maine’s. No matter the action we take here in Maine, outside forces will continue to impact our air quality. That doesn’t mean state action is meaningless or ill-advised — quite the contrary. But it does highlight the need for collective regional, national and even international work on this and other environmental issues.
Citizens should be told how data is being used
The Newburyport Daily News
The ACLU of Massachusetts made two public records requests to the state Department of Transportation, seeking information about how the agency uses facial recognition technology. After the state failed to respond both times, the ACLU filed a lawsuit.
The suit seeks details about how the state uses and shares its driver’s license database for “face surveillance” purposes.
“When you go to get a driver’s license, no one tells you that you’re also entering your face into a surveillance dragnet,” said ACLU Director Carol Rose in announcing the lawsuit. The technology “gives the government unprecedented power to track who we are, where we go, what we do and who we know.”
The ACLU wants the state to make sure the government’s use of this technology “doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.”
With news that ICE and the FBI have routinely tapped into the RMV databases of certain states to troll for information about immigrants, this lawsuit is especially timely. The Legislature has broached the issue of surveillance - whether data from law enforcement license plate scanning systems can be saved or must be deleted in a specific time frame, for example - but the rapid spread of facial recognition and biometric technology surveillance must be addressed at every level of government.
Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. David Rogers sponsored legislation that’s pending in the Statehouse that would place a temporary hold on the government’s use of facial recognition while regulations are established.
This legislation needs to be discussed and acted on by lawmakers. State officials need to be clear about how these broad databases of citizen information are stored, accessed and used, by whom and under what regulations. Then, that information needs to be shared with all citizens without the need to file public records requests or lawsuits.
NH acts to protect public health from PFAS
Foster’s Daily Democrat
The state of New Hampshire recently took a huge step toward cleaning up the prevalence of PFAS chemicals in ground, surface and drinking water, setting the stage to prevent further contamination.
However, the lower maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) will remain proposed until the New Hampshire Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules adopts them at its July 18 meeting. If approved by JLCAR, as they should be, the new rules will take effect Oct. 1.
The state Department of Environmental Services late last month set water quality standards for PFAS chemicals that are substantially lower than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Doing so will allow the state to compel polluters to clean up contaminated sites, which locally includes the Coakley landfill in North Hampton and Greenland. However, there are many other contaminated sites around the state and the lower maximum contaminant levels for the PFAS chemicals will help get them cleaned up as well.
Furthermore, as New Hampshire joins a growing number of states suing the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, a lower standard, meaning heightened protection, can only help in the legal effort to force those manufacturers to pay to undo the damage they have done to the environment. PFAS litigation is potentially going to go the way of New Hampshire’s successful suit against Exxon Mobile over its use of the gasoline additive MTBE, which resulted in a $236 million settlement for the state.
But, most importantly, lower MCLs for chemicals listed as likely carcinogens are needed to protect human health. Many companies and other polluters need strict and legal guidelines to prevent them from contaminating the environment and to clean up what they have polluted.
The Coakley Landfill Group has repeatedly rejected calls to remediate PFAS and 1,4-dioxane, detected after its original remediation plan, citing detection levels for both below the current standard. However, after the state lowered its standard for 1,4-dioxane the CLG was mandated to install private water treatment systems at a home and the Breakfast Hill Golf Course due to the presence of the chemical in their drinking water supplies. 1,4-dioxane is considered “a likely human carcinogen.”
DES said it used “the most recent and best science available” to set drinking water standards that are “protective for the most sensitive populations over a lifetime of exposure.” The proposed standards are 12 parts per trillion for PFOA, 15 ppt for PFOS, 18 ppt for PFHxs and 11 ppt for PFNA. DES stated it established the levels to “ensure greater protection of public health related to the consumption of drinking water.”
The proposed standards are less than the EPA’s 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA. New Hampshire joins New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont as states that have enacted protections more stringent than the federal environmental agency.
The protection of human health and the environment is paramount, and if the EPA is not going to establish the standards necessary to do so then the states are right to act for themselves. It would be best to have a nationwide standard, and it’s likely there will be in the relatively near future, but the states lowering their standards are leading the way toward that eventuality.
And that eventuality should include even greater protections as the standards are not set for a combination of PFAS chemicals as they should and need to be.
State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, said the new levels get “us to a place that is consistent with the science and are much more protective of human health, and, most importantly, he added, “This underscores the need to hold the manufacturers accountable.”
Visiting a mysterious ocean world
The Providence Journal
Even beyond its ambitious plans to send human beings to other worlds, NASA can still inspire.
The space agency sparked imaginations again the other day when it announced the next of its unmanned missions to other worlds. This time it will send a car-sized helicopter called Dragonfly to explore the frigid surface and atmosphere of Titan, an intriguing moon that orbits Saturn.
Everything about the adventure is appealing. For a man-made machine to touch down on Titan, to imagine its cameras looking overhead at the belt of rubble that rings Saturn, to be able to probe greater distances than a wheeled rover — this is dazzling stuff.
For scientists, the real draw of Titan is the promising stew of compounds that make up the moon’s environment.
“We have all these ingredients necessary for life as we know it, and they’re just sitting there doing chemistry experiments on the surface of Titan. That’s why we want to send a lander there,” Dr. Elizabeth Turtle told The New York Times this spring. She will be the principal investigator for the mission, which will be led by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.
There are reservoirs of liquid methane. There is methane in the atmosphere too, suggesting that the ingredients for life exist on Titan, or that life once existed there.
Said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine: “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe.”
As NASA missions go, this one is a relative bargain. It’s part of the agency’s New Frontiers program, which sends probes to new destinations at a program cost of less than $1 billion each. Previous missions in the program included sending a solar-powered spacecraft to Jupiter, sending a spacecraft and instrument bundle to skim past Pluto and, remarkably, launching the Osiris probe that is expected to return an asteroid sample to Earth after touching down on the rocky Bennu.
Of course, even at $1 billion, this won’t be an easy crosstown hop. The plan for Dragonfly is to launch in 2026 and land on Titan in 2034, then prowl around for more than 2½ years before winking out. It will travel about 108 miles around Titan — more than twice the distance covered by the Mars rovers combined. Its communications with Earth will lag by 43 minutes — the time it will take a light signal to cover the vast distance between here and there. Titan is about 10 times farther from the sun than Earth.
While the spacecraft’s eight rotors may cause it to resemble drones you can buy on Amazon, this one will be able to cover miles per hop, flying as high as two miles above the surface. On Titan, gravity is lighter and the atmosphere is thicker, and each local day takes 16 Earth days. The good thing, according to Dr. Turtle, is that “it’s actually easier to fly on Titan.”
Imagine that — “It’s actually easier to fly on Titan.” It’s like a driver saying it’s easier to drive on the highway than through town, or a pilot saying it’s actually easier to fly a jet than a propeller-driven aircraft.
This is what humans can do, given the time, resources and spirit of adventure. Americans remain a remarkable people in many ways, including in their capacity to explore the frontiers of the imagination.
Wrong side of the debate
The Rutland Herald
Unsurprisingly, groups committed to the environment were aptly unimpressed with President Donald Trump’s speech this week designed to make him look like an environmental champion.
No one is drinking that particular water, especially here in Vermont.
According to Brian Shupe, head of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, “From our standpoint Trump’s speech was a continuation of lies and deception about his administration’s record on the environment. He is systematically dismantling basic protections for clean water, gutting regulations that protect Americans from toxic chemical pollution.”
Shupe said Trump and his administration are not only failing to address climate change, “his policies (abandoning the Clean Power Plan, rolling back CAFE standards, easing regulations for oil and gas drilling) are actually exacerbating the problem and — literally — putting the future of humanity (not to mention all of the other species) at risk.”
The administration is also locking citizens out of the process. Shupe points to a telling example here in Vermont.
“For example, the administration just released a plan that would exclude public input on potentially 90% of the decisions affecting our national forest lands, and this is now playing out here in Vermont, where the Green Mountain National Forest recently moved forward with a large-scale road building and clearcutting proposal without allowing the public to comment on the environmental analysis,” Shupe noted.
Shupe and other environmental leaders were completely dismissive of the 45-minute speech. Their indignation spilled over in quotes and sound bites, commentaries and interviews.
What is surprising is one response — that of former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman. She is a Republican who served under President George W. Bush.
In a rebuke of Trump this week, Whitman said Trump’s effort was doomed to fail amid an ongoing assault on air and water protections.
In an interview with HuffPost, Whitman said the speech showed Trump “knows he’s on shaky ground” going into the 2020 election in which, for the first time, global warming and ecological collapse may emerge as core issues.
Whitman said Trump’s attempt to put a positive spin on his administration’s environmental record is unlikely to impress anyone beyond his loyal base of supporters.
“He’s living in his own reality,” said Whitman, a former New Jersey governor. “He’s definitely in another world.”
In the speech, Trump scraped the barrel for environmental achievements that didn’t require an asterisk, pointing to his signing a bipartisan bill to reduce garbage in the ocean. Other items he highlighted were more problematic in terms of making his case.
He bragged about progress in delisting Superfund sites, but that’s largely a procedural step based on clean-up work that began, in some cases, decades ago. He stressed how much he values public lands, noting the 1.3 million acres he designated for protection ? but glossed over the more than 2 million acres he shaved off other national monuments, according to media reports.
He was joined at the podium by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and together they spotlighted a 74% reduction in air pollution since 1970, skirting the latest federal data that show a 15% increase in days with unhealthy air in 2017 and 2018, compared to 2013 through 2016.
The Huffington Post noted: “Adding policy weight to the president’s routine taunting of climate scientists ? he delights in pointing to temporary cold snaps as evidence disproving irrefutable long-term warming trends ? the administration appointed climate-change skeptics to key White House positions and gutted science advisory boards.”
Joining the chorus of detractors, Whitman said: “I don’t think the American people are going to buy that we are somehow going to do better with the environment when we are rolling back every regulation and eviscerating the Science Advisory Board. Right now, Republicans and the president are on the wrong side of the issue.”