Court upholds EPA climate rules

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst  During a week of landmark (some might call “supreme”) judicial rulings at the federal level on issues concerning immigration and healthcare, another pivotal ruling was issued from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that gave legitimacy to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The three-judge panel unanimously denied industry and state petitions that sought to invalidate the federal agency’s position that greenhouse gases pose a health risk and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The court held that EPA’s endangerment finding and tailpipe rules on greenhouse gases are “neither arbitrary nor capricious and found the agency’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act to be “unambiguously correct.” Challengers to the EPA rules included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Mining Association, the National Association of Manufacturers as well as the states of Texas and Virginia. Judges on the panel consisted of two appointees from President Clinton and one (the Chief Justice) from President Reagan. The ruling will in no way slow continued attempts from the legislative branch to prevent EPA from implementing regulations that seek to curb greenhouse gas emmissions. A host of riders included in the House Interior Appropriations bill that would seek to prevent funding a host of EPA initiatives that seek to regulate everything from greenhouse gas emissions and asbestos to pesticide labeling and lead paint. The Republican-controlled House has already passed bills that seek to stifle EPA’s regulatory reach, including a bill from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), who was highly critical of the court ruling. To date, President Obama has not had to wield his veto pen for the bills his administration opposes because the Democratic-controlled Senate’s key leaders have supported EPA’s regulatory efforts.  However, because Senate Democrats lack a strong supermajority, it is difficult to get partisan legislation through the Senate, whose rules often require 60 votes to counter a filibuster whereas the House generally runs under a simple majority rule. For better or worse, the court system is not held by policymakers as the final arbiter over whether an existing law or statute is legal or constitutional. However, there is a consensus that once a court has ruled on a given issue, overturning such a ruling is difficult given the diverse interests (and individuals), which must all be in strong unison among the legislative and executive branch to do so. Photo Credit:...

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9/11 dust study, gypsy-moth caterpillar killer, and hummingbird courtship

Studying the 9/11 WTC dust: Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently published a blog highlighting the agency’s study of the environmental and potential health risks of the massive dust cloud that swept across New York City as a result of the collapse of the World Trade Center. The dust was particularly dense, coating outdoor surfaces in a layer of powdered material up to three inches thick. It also penetrated doors, windows and ventilation systems, contaminating apartments and office buildings alike.  The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Public Health Service requested that USGS examine the dust to identify components that might pose a human health threat to the thousands who inhaled it that day and subsequent days USGS found that the dust contained higher amounts of lead, zinc, antimony, copper, and other elements of building materials than found in natural soils. The team also found the less dangerous variety of asbestos–chrysotile asbestos–in most samples at higher levels than what is found in urban particulate matter. The materials found were deemed dangerous enough to indicate a potential health threat and USGS scientists consequently advised that clean-up be conducted with appropriate respiratory protection and dust control measures. USGS scientists also found that dust indoors was highlight caustic and could be chemically reactive with moisture, including eyes, nose, and lungs.  However, rain and other elements helped neutralize the alkalinity of dust outside. Clever caterpillar killer: Scientists have recently discovered how a virus manipulates an invasive species of caterpillar. The gypsy moth caterpillar larvae is renowned for damaging roughly a million acres of forest in the U.S. each year. However, the baculovirus has infiltrated the caterpillars, taking advantage of their insatiable appetites. The virus has become so effective that the U.S. Department of Agriculture sprays it on trees to help control gypsy moth outbreaks. According to the study’s lead author, Kelli Hoover, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, the virus works by altering the gypsy moth caterpillar’s behavior. Once infected with the virus, the caterpillars climb to elevated positions and die. Subsequently, the body cavity of the caterpillar is converted into millions of virus particles as well as an enzyme that causes the caterpillar’s exoskeleton to disintegrate. The “liquefied” caterpillar then “rains” onto the leaves below, which other caterpillars eat, further spreading the virus. The researchers claim that knowing precisely how baculovirus overwhelms the gypsy moth could help scientists develop more potent strains of the virus and determine when in the moth’s life cycle it is most vulnerable to infection. Read more at: “How a clear virus kills a hungry...

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