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Fired EPA scientists to release air pollution report they say agency unqualified to issue



Nearly one year ago, the Trump administration fired a panel of more than two dozen scientific experts who assisted the Environmental Protection Agency in its review of air quality standards for particulate matter.

Now, as the EPA prepares its report on those standards later this month, 20 of those scientists met independently to prepare the release of their own assessment of current air pollution levels, with a focus on the particles from fossil fuels that can make people sick.

These scientists and researchers, former members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) on particulate matter, said the EPA has stripped the panel down to its core seven members, who are ill-equipped to set air quality standards and don’t have the time to do it.

“They fired the particulate matter review panel and they said the chartered CASAC would do the review,” Chris Zarba, who served as the staff director of the Scientific Advisory Board at the EPA until 2018, said. “In the history of the agency this has never happened. The new panel is unqualified and the new panel has said they were unqualified.”

In response, the group of former panel members reconvened at a meeting in Washington on Thursday and Friday that was open to the public — exactly one year after they were told that their expertise was no longer needed. This group of scientists, engineers and researchers have formed a nongovernmental committee called the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel.

The new panel feels their work is necessary for the very reasons that particle pollution is regulated by the EPA: because extended exposure can cause premature death, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and respiratory issues, according to the agency.

EPA said it is confident in its own panel and experts and said it “is committed to scientific integrity and transparency.”

“EPA has the utmost confidence in its career scientist and the members on its science advisory boards and panels,” an agency spokesperson said. “EPA routinely takes comments from the public and outside organizations, including those not employed or associated with EPA, and will continue to take into consideration those comments that meet our scientific standards.”

Under previous administrations, because of health risks from particle pollution and the science’s complexity, the EPA has enlisted the aid of outside experts to help them come to the strongest scientific consensus on air quality standards, said John Bachmann, the former associate director for science and policy in the EPA’s Air Office. That work with outside help remained consistent for almost 40 years.

Those experts were helpful because the Clean Air Act requires that the standards of particle matter be re-examined every five years with the latest scientific evidence, which is challenging, explained Bachman. Oftentimes, the five-year deadline is not met to ensure the latest science is thoroughly reviewed and related to the new standard.

“Being only seven people, CASAC doesn’t have enough people to cover the scientific issues that come up with the reviews,” said Bachman, who explained that the panels would typically be filled with experts on epidemiology, toxicology, medicine and more.

The fear is that the EPA under the Trump administration is not willing or able to approach these new standards earnestly, which could lead to major health issues, but the other goal, these scientists say, is to broadcast that they believe this administration isn’t taking science seriously or even trying to block it.

“It’s pretty clear in the context of this EPA there’s a strong agenda to roll back regulations, and the science does not always lead to a conclusion that a rollback is the right thing to do,” said Christopher Frey, the chair of this new panel and the former CASAC chair. “Rather than listen to the science and making an appropriate decision, science is being sidelined.”

This new panel hopes to counter that by providing the scientific expertise they believe is lacking in the EPA’s own consideration of these new standards and release a report by Oct. 21.

“It’s really heartening to see the comments that are already coming in to the (questions) we wrote and how people are taking them seriously,” Bachman said. “They’re providing advice like we did in the past. Not all of these folks are going to agree with each other or the EPA, but this is something the EPA should really want to continue.”

While many said it is inspiring that this group of scientists came together to release this report, it also highlights a troubling development in which the federal government is not participating in scientific dialogue, Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is underwriting the meeting of scientists.

“There are other efforts like this where people outside of the government are picking up the slack,” Goldman said. “There are opportunities to do that. But it’s ultimately not our job, and we can’t expect outside actors to pick up the slack. This is important work, but it’s not a sustainable model.”

That’s not the only concern that some have in this arena.

Current and former EPA officials point out that enforcement and inspection of pollution standards have fallen under the current administration.

Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents hundreds of Midwest EPA employees, said that enforcement under the Trump administration has deteriorated because of a declining workforce and a recent agency reorganization.

An EPA spokesperson said enforcement numbers have fallen because they have pursued partnerships with some states, are “leveraging the efforts of the private sector by encouraging self-audits and self-disclosure” and has “focused its resources on areas important to the protection of public health and the environment.”

The Obama administration averaged more than 18,000 EPA inspections related to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and a handful of other environmental regulations, according to the agency’s own numbers.

That inspection figure has fallen to about 10,500 over three years under the Trump administration. Enforcement of administrative compliance, penalties and civil judicial reviews fell by nearly 1,000 cases from the almost 2,850 under the Obama administration from 2009 to 2016.

“Even if you get a new administration, (the level of enforcement) is going to kill anything that administration is able to do because there’s no cases that you would have from the previous three or four years,” Cantello said.

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Democratic Rep. Van Drew opposes impeachment. He’ll tell you he’s on the ‘right side of history’.



ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — On the second floor of a used car dealer in this struggling casino city, Democratic poobahs gathered to address a very local scandal: The mayor had just resigned after pleading guilty to embezzling $87,000 from a youth basketball program.

But a far bigger national story — the impeachment inquiry brewing in Washington — wasn’t far from their minds either, since the Democratic congressman they helped elect last year, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, has become perhaps the most vocal opponent in his party to removing President Donald Trump.

Van Drew, a dentist and longtime local pol known on Capitol Hill for his snappy suits and pocket squares, is one of just seven House Democrats holding back support for the impeachment inquiry, earning him praise from the president on Twitter and protests from progressives.

Unlike the others, Van Drew hasn’t been shy about explaining his position, and in an interview with NBC News, he made it clear that he’s not budging anytime soon: “Everybody says, ‘Be on the right side of history’ — I think the right side of history is not to impeach.”

His district covering the southern tip of New Jersey sided for Trump over Hillary Clinton 51-46 percent in 2016, and interviews last week with some three dozen constituents, activists and officials reveal that Van Drew has plenty of support back home — just not always from fellow Democrats.

Over bánh mì and egg roles provided by a local Vietnamese group that also meets above the auto dealership, members of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee expressed disagreement with Van Drew’s stance, but were mostly willing to give him the space he feels he needs.

“Sometimes you gotta stand alone,” said Torres Mayfield, a former police officer running for City Council. “The more we rebel against (Van Drew), the worse it’s gonna work out for us. As long as it’s in his mind and in his heart that he’s doing the right thing for the constituents and the residents of this area, we have to support him.”

Anuu Zia, who is also running for City Council, said that while “of course our community would be happier if he went against Trump,” the party would continue to support the freshman lawmaker.

But another committeeman, Pablo Lora, insisted Van Drew “has an obligation to support the impeachment because all the people who voted for him are expecting him to.”

As Van Drew sees it, impeachment is a pointless, divisive exercise that will poison the well of bipartisanship and prevent Congress from taking up more important issues, like prescription drug prices and infrastructure.

He says he hasn’t yet seen convincing evidence that a crime was committed — “It would have to be in the transcript” — and believes it’s better to let the voters pass judgment on Trump on Election Day in November 2020.

“For God’s sake, it’s a year!” he told NBC News.

“Impeachment, first of all, will fail because it’s not going to go through the Senate,” he said, referring to the unlikely prospect of 67 senators voting to remove Trump, the threshold for a conviction. “So, at the end of the day, President Trump will still be the president…and he’ll still be the Republican candidate.”

Van Kemp has been back in his district for the congressional recess taking the pulse of voters and he said that while his stance on impeachment is unpopular with people for whom being a Democrat is “part of their lifestyle,” most others have reacted positively. “Republicans actually very much like my point of view,” he said.

Meanwhile, support for the impeachment inquiry has grown dramatically in the House in recent weeks.

Of the 235 Democrats, 228 — or 97 percent — are now on board with the inquiry, according to an NBC News tally, leaving a small rump of opposition that seems to dwindle by the day as holdouts defect to the majority one by one.

The seven remaining holdouts all represent districts that Trump won in 2016, in some cases by much wider margins than in Van Drew’s district, in deep red states like South Carolina and Oklahoma.

And most are freshmen lawmakers elected in last year’s midterm Democratic wave, making them acutely aware of how tenuous their standing is. They got elected on promises to bridge the partisan divide, but are now feeling as though there’s no good choice.

In Maine, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, whose district went for Trump by 10 percentage points in 2016, caught an earful from donors at a recent house party because he’s not backing the impeachment inquiry.

“Everyone I talk to is angry that Jared Golden isn’t taking a stand,” said Marie Follaytar, co-director of the progressive group Mainers for Accountable Leadership.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are showing no signs of abandoning Trump and think they can turn impeachment into a campaign issue by portraying Democrats as obsessed with removing the president at the expense of bread-and-butter issues.

“Voters clearly believe impeachment is sidetracking the country and Congress,” read the guidance from a polling memo leaders sent to House Republicans last week. “Congressional Democrats who represent Trump districts appear to be in a precarious position here, as their voters clearly side against impeachment and are much more willing to vote for a GOP candidate opposing impeachment than a Democrat supporting it.”

House Democrats’ campaigns chief, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, told lawmakers on a conference call on Friday to keep talking about kitchen table issues, but also to say no one is above the law.

Ezra Levin, who co-founded the progressive group Indivisible, said he thinks Democratic holdouts have the politics backward on impeachment.

“If they hold out for much longer, they’re going to look like cowards, trying to have a foot on either side of this — and that’s a good way to end up underwater,” he said. “The fact of the matter is they will be running for re-election with a ‘D’ next to their name and the Democrats are going to be pushing for impeachment.”

Indeed, despite Van Drew’s vocal opposition to impeachment, the Republican National Committee still lumped him in with other New Jersey Democrats to accuse them of “cav(ing) to the far left” and doing “everything they possibly can to reverse all that President Trump has delivered to the people of the Garden State.”

Helen Duda, who organized a 60-person pro-impeachment rally outside Van Drew’s district office, said he should at least support the inquiry to gather more facts, even if the lawmaker ultimately opposes impeachment.

“As much as I never expected him to really be progressive, I’m really shocked by how far he’s going to defend Trump,” said Duda, who worked for the progressive candidate who ran against Van Drew in last year’s primary.

Van Drew is, in fact, a reliable Democatic vote in Congress. But his appearances on Fox News, apparent eagerness for a photo opportunity with Trump during the State of the Union Address, and vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker struck a nerve with the left even before impeachment.

“Now, everybody is done with him,” said Shayla Woolfort, a flower farmer who co-founded Cape May County Indivisible. “I mean, honestly, I don’t know why he doesn’t just switch parties. I don’t think it would make a difference.”

Woolfort and other progressives say they’re looking to recruit someone to challenge Van Drew from his left in next year’s Democratic primary.

Van Drew said he would “respect” a primary challenger, but doesn’t sound worried and the prospect of a challenge is not making him any more likely to change his mind on impeachment.

“Where are we gonna be when it’s all done?” he asked. “Further divided, more hateful, more distrustful, with the same president and the same presidential candidate. What have we accomplished?”

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Trump loses appeal over House subpoena for financial records



A federal appeals court ruled Friday that President Donald Trump’s accounting firm must turn over financial records requested by a House committee, a legal blow to the administration’s efforts to block congressional investigations of his finances.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a subpoena to Mazars USA, in April asking for documents related to Trump’s accounts going back to January 2009. His lawyers sued to block the subpoena, arguing that Congress had no legitimate legislative purpose for getting the materials.

But in a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the committee “possesses authority under both the House rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply.”

The appeals court put a seven-day hold on the legal effect of its ruling, which will give Trump’s lawyers time to appeal. The president’s lawyers could fight the ruling before the full appeals court or by going directly to the Supreme Court.

“While we are reviewing the court’s lengthy decision, as well as Judge Rao’s dissent, we continue to believe that this subpoena is not a legitimate exercise of Congress’s legislative authority,” Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow told NBC News.

House Democrats said they needed the documents to investigate whether the president accurately filled out the required financial disclosure forms. Trump’s former longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, told Congress in February that Trump “inflated his assets when it served his purposes” and deflated his assets in others.

Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Cohen’s testimony and other documents “raise grave questions about whether the President has been accurate in his financial reporting.”

In a statement Friday, Cummings called the appeals court’s ruling “a fundamental and resounding victory for Congressional oversight, our Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the rule of law.”

“For far too long, the President has placed his personal interests over the interests of the American people,” Cummings said, adding that the committee must “fulfill our stated legislative and oversight objectives and permit the American people to obtain answers about some of the deeply troubling questions regarding the President’s adherence to Constitutional and statutory requirements to avoid conflicts of interest.”

Trump’s lawyers went to the appeals court after a federal judge in Washington ruled that the accounting firm must turn over the materials sought by subpoena.

“Having considered the weighty interests at stake in this case, we conclude that the subpoena issued by the Committee to Mazars is valid and enforceable,” the appeals court said Friday, adding, “Disputes between Congress and the president are a recurring plot in our national story.”

Judges David Tatel and Patricia Millett, who were appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, voted in favor of the committee. In her dissent, Judge Neomi Rao, who was appointed by Trump, said the House exceeded its authority in issuing the subpoena.

“The Constitution and our historical practice draw a consistent line between the legislative and judicial powers of Congress,” Rao wrote. “The majority crosses this boundary for the first time by upholding this subpoena investigating the illegal conduct of the President under the legislative power.”

“When the House chooses to investigate the President for alleged violations of the laws and the Constitution, it must proceed through impeachment, an exceptional and solemn exercise of judicial power established as a separate check on public officials,” she wrote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the court’s decision a “major victory” in a statement on Friday.

“The court rejected the administration’s defiance of Congress’s oversight authority,” she said, later adding, “The president’s actions threaten our national security, violate our constitution and undermine the integrity of our elections. No one is above the law. The President will be held accountable.”

New York case

Friday’s decision came in a case separate from other efforts by Congress and a prosecutor in New York to get access to the president’s tax returns. That legal battle is still working its way through the courts.

In the New York case, the president is seeking to block prosecutors from obtaining his financial records related to hush-money payments made ahead of the 2016 presidential election to two women who claim to have had extramarital affairs with Trump. Trump has denied the affairs.

Trump’s attorneys argued that he was immune from criminal investigations as president, but on Monday, Manhattan federal Judge Victor Marrero rejected that lawsuit, arguing that it was “unqualified and boundless.”

Trump swiftly appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a stay on the subpoena until it considers all of the arguments.

Kristen Welker contributed.

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