Modernizing Our Country’s Drinking Water Monitoring Data

By Joel Beauvais

We live in a society that allows us to get information through our phones, TVs, and computers from across the world in a matter of seconds. Although we’ve come a long way in the information age, some of our country’s most important public health information is still collected and shared using antiquated methods like manual data entry and even paper reporting.

That’s why I’m excited to announce of the launch of EPA’s  new Compliance Monitoring Data Portal (CMDP), which allows water laboratories and public drinking water systems to electronically share drinking water data with their states and tribal agencies. The portal will allow us to replace the paper-based system, leading to more timely and higher-quality monitoring data. By reducing the hours previously spent manually entering data, identifying data-entry errors, and issuing data resubmittal requests, states and tribes will now be able to free up more time to focus on preventing and responding  to public health issues in their communities. Once fully implemented by all states nationwide, we expect the new portal could reduce state data entry and data management work by work by hundreds of thousands of hours per year.

CMDP’s launch marks the completion of the first phase of our agency’s multi-year Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) modernization project. We are also making improvements in the development of a system called SDWIS Prime.  Prime will improve state decision making by using the sample data received from CMDP to develop new reports and provide automated notifications.  Prime is currently scheduled to be released in 2018.

Together, CMDP and Prime will help increase the timeliness and accuracy of drinking water data transferred between drinking water systems, primacy agencies, and EPA.  Systems like these can help move our country closer to a future where all Americans will have faster and better access to information about the quality of the water that is piped into their homes.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Citizen Science in the Arctic

By Stan Meiburg

Yesterday, science ministers and other government leaders from around the world, along with representatives from indigenous groups, gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial (WHASM). This important event was held in response to the urgent need for increased scientific collaborations to address the dramatic environmental changes that have occurred in the Arctic in recent decades.

I have the privilege of representing EPA on the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which was instrumental in the planning of the WHASM. The event focused on four key themes: understanding Arctic science challenges, strengthening and integrating Arctic observations and data sharing, building regional resilience, and promoting STEM education and citizen empowerment. We are playing an important role in supporting these themes through several ongoing or proposed projects.

Among our projects identified for closer cooperation and expansion are those supporting the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network. This network of local environmental observers and topic experts, located in both Arctic and sub-Arctic areas, applies traditional and local knowledge, science and technology to document and understand significant, unusual events in Alaska. Through a cooperative partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), we helped deliver the LEO Mobile App, which puts the observation tools of the LEO Network into the hands of citizens in the field. This allows users to upload photos, audio, and text to make observations, thereby helping communities understand and document a range of environmental concerns. We also assisted with the launch of new LEO regional hubs in Northern California, Northwest Indian College, and in Canada (Northwest Territories and British Columbia). The WHASM aims to further facilitate LEO’s circumpolar expansion, helping remote communities across the Arctic to understand their environmental challenges and be part of the solution.

On the day prior to the WHASM, I had the honor of participating in a pre-Ministerial briefing with Arctic Indigenous Peoples. We had the opportunity to highlight our commitment to supporting indigenous communities in the Arctic, our support for the integration of traditional and local knowledge into decision making, and our WHASM projects that involve the LEO Network.

Although the environmental challenges facing the Arctic are serious and sobering, I was heartened by the extraordinary commitment of the global community to finding solutions through enhanced scientific collaboration and the empowerment of local citizens.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Air Pollution at Our Nation’s Ports Can be Reduced Now

By Chris Grundler

Ports are the main gateway for global trade and are critical to the U.S. economy. Thousands of diesel-powered vessels, trucks, cranes, and other equipment help transport goods to market. But as they do, they also emit greenhouse gases, smog- and soot-causing nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, and other harmful pollutants. These emissions contribute to climate change and can cause asthma attacks, emergency room visits, heart attacks, and premature death.  People living near ports bear the brunt of this pollution, and they often live in minority or low income communities.

In 2014, I was privileged to stand beside Bob Perciasepe, then Deputy Administrator of EPA and other key port stakeholders to launch our Ports Initiative, which aims to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases from ports to improve the quality of life for all Americans working in and living near them.

Yesterday, in support of the Ports Initiative, we released a report titled the National Port Strategy Assessment: Reducing Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases at U.S. Ports.  This report assessed a wide variety of strategies and technologies available to ports and port operators to reduce emissions.  The assessment shows that there are many effective, proven opportunities available right now to reduce harmful pollution at ports.  This is great news for the roughly 39 million Americans who live and breathe near these centers of commerce.  Port stakeholders including state and local governments, ports and port operators, tribes, and neighboring communities can use this information to help inform priorities and decisions about investments being planned now for their port area.

This information comes at a critical time. With the Panama Canal expansion, U.S. seaports, private-sector partners, and the federal government are primed to spend billions of dollars on port freight and passenger infrastructure over the next five years. Decisions about port investments will have a lasting impact on the health of our citizens and our planet.  It is more important than ever to make sure that port planning includes projects to reduce emissions and protect the environment.

Every type and size of port, whether they are seaports or Great Lakes and river ports, can use the information in the assessment to better understand how to reduce emissions now and into the future.  The assessment found that replacing and repowering older, dirtier vehicles and engines with ones that meet our cleaner diesel standards achieves large emission reductions in NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants that affect air quality.  For example, replacing older drayage trucks could reduce NOx emissions by almost half, and particulate matter emissions by up to 62 percent in 2020 as compared to continuing with no changes.  With regard to greenhouse gases, the report highlights that electrification of port vehicles and equipment can effectively reduce the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions growth below what would happen in the absence of this replacement.

Certainly, there are things that are already having a positive impact on pollution from ports.  For one, our emissions standards for new trucks, locomotives, cargo handling equipment, and ships are reducing diesel emissions from the vehicles and engines that are so critical to many port operations.   In addition, our Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant program has accelerated turnover of older diesel equipment at ports and goods movement hubs resulting in additional reductions.  And finally, some port areas are taking proactive steps to reduce emissions.

Despite these gains, more work is needed to fully address the ongoing public health and climate impacts of the projected growth at U.S. ports.   I look forward to continuing our efforts to provide data and information to inform decisions that effectively reduce pollution and result in more sustainable ports for the 21st century.  This report is another important step in that direction.

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Retail Strategy: A New Focus on Hazardous Waste Regulations

By Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus

America’s hazardous waste management program ensures the safe management of hazardous waste from the “cradle to the grave”. Many of these regulations were developed more than three decades ago, so it is important we ensure they continue to effectively protect human health and environment into the future.

These regulations were developed primarily for industrial and manufacturing settings, but apply to any non-household facility generating and managing hazardous waste—including some facilities that may surprise people. For example, hospitals, schools, and retail stores all generate hazardous waste and are subject to our regulations. However, because these types of facilities aren’t industrial in nature, sometimes the design of the hazardous waste regulations can pose compliance challenges. In recent years, we began to explore how we can update these important safeguards for a retail setting and address the potential challenges these regulations present for retail.

An orange prescription bottle lies on its side with its white cap next to it. Small pills spill out from the bottle.You might not think of consumer goods at retail stores as especially hazardous, but some household cleaners, automotive products, batteries and other items meet the definition of hazardous waste when disposed. These goods are important parts of our everyday lives and may require special disposal when they are no longer able to be sold. We want to ensure that these items, if they are not sold and must be disposed, are managed safely and properly.

Recently, EPA and other regulators focused increased attention on the retail sector. Instances of hazardous waste mismanagement and non-compliance by major retailers led us to seek information and solicit feedback by issuing a Retail Notice of Data Availability (NODA) in 2014. Feedback on the NODA, as well as information gathered from our continued engagement with the retail sector and regulatory community, not only increased our understanding of how retailers handle consumer goods that cannot be sold but also shed light on the challenges retailers face when managing goods that are hazardous wastes when disposed.

I’m excited to announce that we are unveiling a cohesive strategy to address these unique issues and to ensure that retail stores comply with hazardous waste regulations. This strategy takes into account the feedback we received in 2014, as well as our knowledge of how unsalable items are managed in the retail sector. It builds upon regulatory efforts underway, including proposed updates and improvements to existing hazardous waste generator regulations and a proposed set of regulations designed to allow flexibility in the management and disposal of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals.

As laid out in the strategy, we’ve taken these actions to ease the burden of managing hazardous wastes in a retail setting while maintaining important protections to human health and the environment, and furthering the President’s goal of reducing regulatory burden across the government (EO 13610). The strategy outlines our next steps, which include:

  • issuing the final generator rule in fall 2016;
  • working on finalizing the pharmaceuticals rule;
  • issuing a guide on recycling aerosol cans;
  • proposing a universal waste rule for aerosol cans; and
  • issuing a policy on reverse distribution and RCRA.

This retail strategy is an important next step in our journey to explore options for reducing management burdens, ensuring compliance with hazardous waste regulations and protecting human health and the environment. Our strategy is available at http://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/hazardous-waste-management-and-retail-sector. Take a look. We’re interested in your thoughts as we move forward in partnership with all stakeholders to implement this strategy.

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Superfund Investigates Land Pollution from the Past…and Present

By Mathy Stanislaus

On September 7, 2016, we took steps to respond to states, tribes and citizens who asked for our help addressing contaminated sites. In response, we are adding 10 hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List (NPL). The NPL is our list of more than 1,300 of the most contaminated sites in the country that we are addressing under the Superfund program. Superfund is one of the most important federal programs to improve the health, environment and economy of America’s communities.

As I’ve traveled across the country during my tenure as Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, I’ve seen firsthand how the mismanagement of contamination and hazardous waste can threaten entire communities. According to census data, approximately 53 million people live within three miles of a Superfund site – roughly 17% of the U.S. population, including 18% of all children in the U.S. under the age of five. Some groups, such as children, pregnant women and the elderly, may be at particular risk. During environmental emergencies, health threats — poisoning, injuries from fires and explosions — are often urgent and immediate. At other sites, health effects of contamination — cancer, birth defects — may be more long term. Under the most difficult circumstances, communities reach out to us to use the Superfund program to protect them from these risks.

We continue to find sites where recent operations have resulted in the mismanagement of contamination that warrant our investigation. In addition to adding 10 sites to the NPL, we are proposing the addition of eight more. Nine of these 18 sites were in operation within the last two decades, including several as recently as the late 2000s. Pollution at these 18 sites came from a variety of sources, including manufacturing, mining, battery recycling and dry cleaning.

One area we are listing on the NPL is the Bonita Peak Mining District in San Juan County, Colorado. Mining began there in the 1870s and continued into the 1990s. The Bonita Peak Superfund site includes 48 sources, comprised of 35 mines (including Gold King Mine) and 13 other mining-related areas. We have drainage data on 32 of these sources and we estimate that they collectively contribute an average of 5.4 million gallons of mine-influenced water per day to the Upper Animas River watershed. This water includes metals such as cadmium, copper, manganese and zinc that threaten the health of the watershed and downstream communities.

More broadly, the addition of the sites to the NPL continues a 35-year history of EPA improving the lives of those who reside on or near Superfund sites. Academic research has shown the cleanup of Superfund sites reduces birth defects of those close to a site by as much as 25 percent. Cleanups involving lead-contaminated soil have contributed to documented reductions in children’s blood-lead levels.

In addition, Superfund cleanups have a positive impact on local economies by enabling the reuse of previously unusable land. More than 850 Superfund sites nationwide have some type of actual or planned reuse underway. Last year, we reviewed 454 Superfund sites supporting use or reuse activities and found they had approximately 3,900 businesses with 108,000 employees and annual sales of more than $29 billion.

As our recent listing demonstrates, land pollution continues to occur from a variety of sources. It is not only an issue at abandoned industrial sites riddled with buried hazardous material, or at waste sites that operated before our nation’s environmental laws were enacted. Land pollution is still an issue — often due to the mismanagement of contaminants from more recent operations. Unfortunately, the Superfund program is needed as much today as in the past to clean up communities from such mismanagement.

Our Superfund program will continue to respond to requests from states, tribes and citizens to investigate all eras of pollution — past and present — to protect communities and hold polluters accountable. I am proud of the work our Superfund program has completed to date, and I encourage you to read more about its 35-year history and its highlights.

More information about the September 2016 NPL listing can be found here. http://go.usa.gov/xZ9nP.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA Offers up to $80,000 to Communities to Develop Air Sensor Data Best Practices

By Ann Dunkin, Chief Information Officer

SMART CITIES AIR CHALLENGE INFORMATION

Application Deadline: October 28, 2016
Announcement of Winners: Around December 1, 2016
Initial award: Up to $40,000 each to two communities to deploy air sensors, share data with the public, and develop data management best practices from sensors
Additional funding: Up to $10,000 each to the winning communities in 2017 based on  their accomplishments and collaboration.

To learn more, visit the Smart City Air Challenge website.

I came to the EPA with a firm belief that data can make a difference in environmental protection. Since I’ve been here I’ve found that communities are leading the way by using data to understand local conditions and operate efficiently. That’s why I’m excited to announce EPA’s Smart City Air Challenge.

This new challenge encourages communities to install hundreds of air quality sensors and manage the resulting data. EPA is offering two communities up to $40,000 each to work with their residents to crowdsource air quality data and share it with the public online. The projects will give individuals a role in collecting the data and understanding how environmental conditions affect their health and their community.

Air quality sensors are becoming less expensive and people are beginning to use them to measure pollution levels in their neighborhoods and homes. They’re developing rapidly, but most sensors aren’t ready for regulatory use. However, by networking these devices, communities can better understand what is happening at the local level. Communities will figure out where to place the sensors and how to maintain the devices. It’s up to each community to decide what pollutants they want to measure.

The prize funds serve as seed money, so communities will need to partner with other parties, such as sensor manufacturers, data management companies and universities. These partners can provide resources and expertise in topics where communities lack experience. In doing so, communities will learn how to use data analytics, which can be applied to other aspects of community life.

What does EPA get out of this? We’ll learn how communities collect, store and manage large amounts of data. We’ll also get a better understanding of the quality of data communities collect using sensors for non-regulatory purposes. We’ll see how communities transfer data from sensors to databases and visualize the results. Finally, the sensors will produce as much as 150 gigabytes of open data a year —data anyone can use.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy often says communities are “incubators for innovation.” We’re hoping the challenge will inspire communities to come up with innovative approaches for managing data so their residents and other communities can benefit. Show us how it’s done.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Addressing climate change and unleashing innovation with cleaner trucks

By Gina McCarthy and Secretary Anthony Foxx, Department of Transportation

In 2013, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan, a bold plan that is now on track to reduce emissions from nearly every sector of our economy.  Today, we are fulfilling one of the central promises in this plan — finalizing the second phase of greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles for model years 2018 and beyond.

The trucking sector is an engine of the U.S. economy. It hauls about 70 percent of all freight in this country, and is also our nation’s second largest segment of U.S. transportation in terms of emissions and energy use.

Today’s final standards will promote a new generation of cleaner and more fuel efficient trucks. That means 1.1 billion fewer tons of CO2 will be emitted into the atmosphere, and operators will save 2 billion barrels of oil and $170 billion in fuel costs. The additional cost of a new truck will be recouped within 2-4 years, saving truck owners more over the long haul.

These standards will not only benefit our climate, but also modernize America’s trucking fleet, cut costs for truckers, and help ensure the U.S trucking industry is a global leader in fuel efficient heavy duty vehicle technology. We developed the standards to allow multiple technological pathways to compliance, so that manufacturers can choose the technologies they believe are right for their products, their customers, and the market.

As with every rule, we relied on the input from the public, industry and many other stakeholders to build something that is both ambitious and achievable. More than 400 stakeholder meetings helped improve this program from the proposal: reducing more tons of pollution, strengthening compliance to ensure that the standards get real emissions reductions and improved fuel efficiency, and increasing flexibility for small businesses and manufacturers throughout the industry.  We also continued our close collaboration with our partners in California throughout the process to ensure we finalized standards that will result in a truly national program.

We’ve put in place strong engine standards, which are critical because they help ensure that manufacturers implement engine technologies that continue to improve. Our detailed technical analysis based on the most recent data shows that the required five percent efficiency improvement in diesel engines by 2027 is feasible, cost effective, and will lead to the continued carbon emissions reductions we need—millions of tons of reductions. We heard concerns about the stringency of engine standards, and we took that into account. To ensure a smooth transition, the engine standards are designed with substantial lead times, a gradual phase-in over the course of nine years, and expanded emissions credit flexibilities that allow manufacturers to tailor their own phase-in schedule. All this will enable manufacturers to develop and implement technologies that ensure reliability, and that are sound investments for the trucking industry.  And for the first time, the rules will cover trailers as well as tractors—ensuring that innovation will continue into aerodynamic features, next generation tires and other features so that trailers can contribute to fuel and emissions savings.

The rules don’t just cover line-haul trucks.  They will ensure that buses that carry school children and commuters, vehicles like snowplows, garbage trucks and delivery vans that travel our city streets, and even heavy-duty pickup trucks and large passenger vans will all be cleaner and more fuel efficient over the next decade.

Medium and heavy duty trucks help drive the American economy. Today we are ensuring that we drive down carbon pollution and save on petroleum costs from freight transport as the trucking industry continues to innovate, and to play their part in protecting the climate for future generations.

To learn more about the final heavy duty standards visit: https://www3.epa.gov/otaq/climate/regs-heavy-duty.htm

http://www.nhtsa.gov/fuel-economy

 

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One Year Later: Climate Action and the Clean Power Plan

By Administrator Gina McCarthy

2016 is on pace to be the hottest year ever recorded – by a significant margin – while 2015 currently holds the title, and 2014 before that. The facts and the trends are clear, and the threat is real.

Just yesterday, the latest climate indicators report confirmed that the impacts of climate change are getting stronger and stronger—average temperatures and sea levels keep rising, coastal flooding is getting worse, and Arctic sea ice is melting at alarming rates.

As President Obama has made very clear, we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we may be the last generation who can do something about it.

That’s why in 2013, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan, a bold and achievable plan that does everything in our power to combat climate change – from reducing emissions in nearly every sector of our economy, to increasing energy efficiency, to investing in renewable energy. And taking action here at home has allowed the United States to lead the world in getting a historic international agreement in Paris last year an agreement that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and limits global warming to two degrees Celsius.

One of the centerpieces in U.S. efforts to limit the effects of climate change and lead the world on this issue was reducing dangerous carbon pollution from power plants. One year ago today, I signed the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national standards on reducing carbon pollution from existing power plants. EPA’s charge from the President was clear: to exercise our statutory authority to lay out steady, responsible steps to cut carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. And that’s what we did – by setting limits that reflected the growing momentum in the power sector to provide the American public with cleaner sources of energy.

The trend toward investment in renewables and energy efficiency is unfolding all around us:

  • Electricity generated from renewables is expected to grow by 9% in 2016 alone;
  • Utilities are investing $8 billion a year in energy efficiency, a four-fold increase from just eight years ago, and more companies than ever are leveraging EPA’s ENERGY STAR platform;
  • States are leading the way—29 states have adopted mandatory renewable portfolio standards, and an additional eight states have voluntary renewable goals.  Twenty-three states have mandatory energy efficiency provisions and 10 states have implemented market-based trading programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • The private sector is also stepping up.  Google, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, and Unilever – and other large U.S. companies are choosing to cut emissions and committing hundreds of billions of dollars to finance clean energy innovation.

It’s not an accident that the Clean Power Plan mirrors this trend. It is by design and it’s the result of our unprecedented outreach and engagement with states, utilities, energy regulators, environmental groups, communities, tribes and the public. Through this process we committed to listen and learn. We did. We committed to put the states in the driver’s seat. We did. We committed to cutting carbon pollution in a way that is in line with where the power sector is headed. We did. We committed to lead on climate action. And that’s exactly what we did.

Sometimes our efforts to protect public health and environment face opposition and/or litigation. The Clean Power Plan is no different and was stayed by the Supreme Court until the litigation is resolved. However, it will see its day in court and EPA remains fully confident in its legal merits. The Plan rests on a strong legal and technical foundation and is consistent with Supreme Court decisions, EPA’s statutory authority, and air pollution standards that have been put in place to tackle other pollution problems.  While the courts review the plan, and during the stay, no state is required to comply with it. However, many states and tribes have indicated they plan to move forward voluntarily to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. They have asked the agency to continue to develop tools to support them in their voluntary efforts. We are doing just that.

As we look to the future, let’s take stock of what we’ve done—we ’ve taken action to cut carbon pollution from power plants,extended tax credits for renewable energy, enabled the production of a new generation of clean cars and trucks, reduced methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, fostered a global climate change agreement, and so much more. These actions are rooted in science, codified in our laws, and broadly supported by our citizens. And they will make a difference! I’m excited for what the future holds. At EPA we remain ready to take advantage of smart and effective opportunities to safeguard public health and the environment for this generation and those that follow.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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A Reflection on the Gold King Mine Incident

By Mathy Stanislaus

Today, we are releasing a new publication, One Year After the Gold King Mine Incident: A Retrospective of EPA’s Efforts to Restore and Protect Communities. The report details our efforts — including the projects and groups we have funded — to protect the areas around the Gold King Mine (GKM) and prevent another spill like this from happening at other EPA work sites at mines across the country.

We continue to be accountable for the release, which occurred as a result of our work to investigate the mine. Since the accident, we have dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the release and to provide for continued monitoring in the area. Over the past year, we have remained committed to distilling important lessons from the incident, and are working on a more permanent solution to acid mine drainage in the Upper Animas Watershed. We have improved and tested stakeholder notification lists, instituted a headquarters review and state consultation process for all mine work plans prior to starting work at a site, provided grant assistance to foster collaboration and help support state and tribal water quality management programs,  and are developing a national report on best practices for hardrock mine remediation. We have worked with communities within the Bonita Peak Mining District area for many years on long-term solutions to address the estimated discharge of more than 5 million gallons per day of acidic mine influenced water to the Upper Animas River watershed. In April, we proposed a Superfund National Priorities Listing for the Bonita Peak Mining District (which includes Gold King Mine) and are working to finalize the listing this fall.

As Assistant Administrator for our Office of Land and Emergency Management, I can say that tackling the national environmental issue of abandoned mines is one of the toughest challenges we face. There are no overarching federal statutes or regulations for addressing the environmental contamination from abandoned hardrock mines. When requested by state or tribal partners, our Superfund program has been used to investigate and remediate abandoned mines that present a high risk to human and environmental health.  A 2015 Government Accountability Office report estimates that we spend anywhere from 7 to 52 times more at mining sites than at other types of Superfund sites.

Overall, the scale of this problem is striking. There are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the western U.S. states and Alaska. Water draining from these types of mines and mine tailings are often highly acidic and release heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum into the groundwater and surface waters the public relies on for drinking, agricultural irrigation and recreation.

The legacy of abandoned hardrock mines continues to be a source of complex challenges for our and the other federal and state agencies working to address this impact over the long-term. We thank all of our federal, tribal, state and local partners for their contributions to this first year of work following the GKM incident. We are strongly committed to working together to achieve long-term solutions to prevent future releases and protect our vital water resources. For more information, please visit: https://www.epa.gov/goldkingmine.

 

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A “Cool” Way to Combat Climate Change under the Montreal Protocol

By Administrator Gina McCarthy and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

World climate leaders are meeting this week in Vienna for the next stage of international discussions about a global phase-down of climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

This meeting should lay the foundation for a 2016 amendment to the Montreal Protocol – a hugely successful global agreement that has put Earth’s fragile ozone layer on track to full restoration. A 2016 amendment would leverage the same proven mechanisms that helped fix the “ozone hole” to address another serious risk to the planet – HFCs.

When scientists discovered the “ozone hole” in the 1980s, they uncovered a tangible health risk to people and the environment. The ozone layer of our upper atmosphere is a natural sunscreen that protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays. A massive and growing “hole” in the ozone layer threatened to drive up skin cancer rates, harm marine life, ruin crops and even degrade wood, plastic and other construction materials.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol mandated that countries phase out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and similar chemicals used widely at the time for air conditioning and refrigeration. With 197 countries signing on, it was the first UN treaty to achieve universal ratification in the United Nations.

The results have been remarkable. The peak ozone hole has shrunk dramatically by more than four million square kilometers (about the size of India), with a full recovery expected by mid-century. And despite fears of economic disruption, the private sector adjusted cost-effectively.

However, to phase out CFCs, countries needed viable alternatives. Back in the 80s and 90s, more and more sectors began moving toward hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – chemicals that performed well as refrigerants and were significantly healthier for the ozone layer. But like the chemicals they replaced, HFCs are still damaging to our climate system. In fact, they are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful in warming the planet than carbon dioxide. Rapid growth in the use of HFCs threatens to undo much of our progress in reducing other carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement.

It is time to amend the Montreal Protocol and phase down the use of HFCs in air conditioning and refrigeration – an urgent priority given the explosive actual and projected growth of air conditioning and refrigeration worldwide.

If we succeed, we could avoid up to 0.5 degree centigrade of warming by the end of the century by shifting towards other, less harmful alternatives. Avoiding that half-degree is crucial for limiting global temperature rise to below 2 degrees centigrade and avoiding the most severe impacts of climate change.

Last November in Dubai, negotiators agreed on a path forward to phase down HFCs by amending the Montreal Protocol in 2016. The amendment would mandate countries to replace HFCs, in stages, with climate-friendly alternatives such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and hydrocarbons.

We have the technologies and chemicals to get this done, and are confident we can produce an HFC amendment that works.

U.S. leaders will take the results of a newly-published Department of Energy report, The Future of Air Conditioning for Buildings, to Vienna. It documents air conditioning’s explosive growth worldwide, especially in developing nations, which could lead to huge increases in the use of HFCs and emissions of greenhouse gases. The report finds that air conditioning energy consumption in countries not part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) could rise 4-1/2 times 2010 levels by 2050 – emitting more HFC greenhouse gases and undercutting the Paris Agreement. Substitute chemicals are available to avoid the use of HFCs and their global warming impacts.

Here are some key findings:

  • For air conditioning equipment categories that account for 95 percent of global residential sales and 35 percent of global commercial sales, climate-friendly refrigerants on the market have demonstrated comparable or superior performance and energy efficiency.
  • Also, climate-friendly refrigerants are already being developed and commercialized in all other major air conditioning equipment categories.
  • The air conditioning industry has steadily improved the energy efficiency of air conditioning units over time, including during the transition out of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances into HFCs.
  • Given that energy costs account for the majority of lifecycle air conditioning costs, energy efficiency improvements can more than offset increases in upfront purchase costs to consumers that could result from switching to HFC alternatives.

In short, the report demonstrates that the world is making rapid progress innovating toward a world without HFCs. In the near-term we can expect a wide array of air conditioning options that are climate-friendly, energy-efficient and affordable.

And also today, California is announcing that it will contribute half a million dollars toward a nearly $6 million effort launched last June to conduct critical research regarding the safe use of mildly flammable and flammable alternatives to HFCs. The U.S. made this announcement as part of the launch of the Clean Energy Ministerial’s Advanced Cooling Challenge, in order to accelerate updated safety standards to allow widespread use of these climate-friendly refrigerants in the United States and internationally.

As a part of the Challenge, DOE is working with the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) to support the acceleration of updated safety standards to allow widespread use of climate-friendly refrigerants in the United States and internationally. In support of the Advanced Cooling Challenge, the DOE is contributing $3 million in funding, AHRI is contributing $1 million, and ASHRAE is contributing $1.2 million.

It’s time for the world to come together to address HFCs. And this week’s negotiations are an important step down that path.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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