Energy & Environment — Drying lakes exacerbate air quality problems 

Water use and drought are shrinking the Great Salt Lake, worsening air pollution. Meanwhile, inflation is rising despite a drop in gasoline prices, and the EPA’s internal watchdog is looking into the water crisis in Jackson, Miss.  

This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe here. 

Drying Great Salt Lake, Salton Sea worsen pollution 

Air pollution in Salt Lake City was so bad last year it set off the fire alarms in Elizabeth Joy’s clinic.    

Joy, a family and sports medicine doctor, said that her patients had to be evacuated as part of the emergency response.    

Yet in sending the patients outside, the alarms actually put people in an even more dangerous position given the city’s air quality at the time — which was judged to be the worst in the world on that particular day.  

“They moved people outside where they stood for 45 minutes,” said Joy, a former chairwoman of the Utah Clean Air Partnership. “They evacuated the clinic, not knowing, initially, that it was actually the outdoor air pollution that set off the fire alarms in our building.”    

Cars and wildfires contribute to Utah’s air pollution, but the Great Salt Lake is a less obvious but important contributor. Sitting just northwest of Salt Lake City, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere is drying up because of water use and drought amid a changing climate, sending dust with toxic metals — including arsenic — in the air of a metro area with approximately 1.2 million people.

Particle pollution in the air has been linked to asthma, heart attacks, worsened lung function and premature death.    

  • Carly Ferro, the director of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, said that on a particularly dusty day, the mountains typically visible near her home disappear, and “you can almost taste” the dust.   
  • “It really does impact all of the senses,” she said. “Your eyes — not only visibly see it, but it also can burn.”   

And it’s not just Utah: Similar issues are playing out near California’s Salton Sea, where the drying sea is also kicking up dust. 

In the Salton Sea area, Mariela Loera, a policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said that respiratory problems plague many families.  

“Everybody, at least, I would say, from the people that I’m aware of, at least two people in each family have some sort of respiratory illness. A lot of people have asthma, there’s bloody noses,” she said.    

In the Salt Lake City area, heavy metals including arsenic are also being found in the dust from the lake. The Environmental Protection Agency has said that inhaling arsenic may cause lung cancer, as well as skin, cardiovascular and neurological effects.    

So how worried should we be? Kevin Perry, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah who has studied the dust coming from the lake, said that he views the general dust issue as a more immediate problem, describing the toxic metals as more of a “long-term” concern.    

  • For the toxic dust, “it takes decades … of exposure in order to manifest itself in health issues and so it’s a long term concern,” Perry said. “If the lake remains low for decades and the surface continues to pump dust into the communities, then we’ll eventually start to see impacts.“ 
  • “What I’m more concerned about are these short duration plumes that come off the lake that impact people’s health immediately,” he added.    

Read about why this is happening here.  

Inflation rises, even as gas prices fall 

Consumer prices rose slightly in August despite a steep decline in the cost of gasoline, according to inflation data released Tuesday by the Labor Department. 

The consumer price index (CPI), a closely watched gauge of inflation, rose
0.1 percent in August after staying flat in July. 

Economists expected the steady decline in gas prices throughout last month to lead to a 0.1 percent decline in monthly inflation, according to consensus estimates. But prices for food, electricity and a broad range of other products kept rising, leading to a slight increase in the monthly inflation rate. 

While the annual inflation rate still fell to 8.3 percent in August from 8.5 percent in July, sharp increases in prices for food and household staples will likely be a cause of concern for the Federal Reserve and other policymakers. 

  • “Today’s higher-than-expected CPI reading shows that we still have a long way to go before inflation returns to more normal levels,” said Scott Brave, lead consumer spending economist at Morning Consult, in a Tuesday analysis. 
  • “While the recent decline in gas prices has provided a welcome reprieve for consumers, it represents just one part of the larger consumer basket, and prices for much of that basket continue to increase at rates that far exceed incomes.” 

So what got more expensive? Food prices on the whole rose 0.8 percent in August, with prices for groceries and other store-bought food items up 0.7 percent. Prices for food have risen 11.4 percent over the past 12 months, the largest annual increase since May 1979. 

Prices for goods and services other than food and energy, which economists call “core inflation,” rose 0.6 percent on the month after rising just 0.3 percent in July. The Fed sees rising core inflation as a better gauge of overall price growth in the U.S., because it removes volatile swings in food and energy price 

Read more about the inflation numbers here, from The Hill’s Sylvan Lane.  

EPA WATCHDOG TO PROBE JACKSON CRISIS  

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General on Tuesday announced a probe into the recent water emergency in Jackson, Miss., that left tens of thousands of residents in the state capital without access to safe drinking water. 

  • “Given the magnitude of the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, it is critical that the EPA OIG act with a sense of urgency to understand what has happened in that community. I have directed a multi-disciplinary team of oversight professionals to look into Jackson’s drinking water system,” Inspector General Sean O’Donnell said in a statement.  
  • “We have begun the process of conducting interviews and collecting data related to the oversight of the water system and administration of the state’s water revolving funds,” O’Donnell added. “That information will provide a basis for decisions about additional work to follow.”  

In late August, torrential rain inundated the Pearl River and knocked the city’s primary water treatment facility out of service. Residents were without water for days, though water pressure was restored that weekend. A boil-water advisory has been in effect in the area since July after health officials found above-average “turbidity,” or cloudiness, levels in the water. 

The crisis last month was the second in as many years for the city, after extreme winter weather froze pipes in 2021 and left numerous residents without running water. In 2020, the city failed an EPA inspection of its drinking water, with the agency citing potential bacterial contamination.  

  • Jackson has been majority-Black for decades after an exodus of white residents following desegregation, and the dwindling tax base has led much of its water infrastructure to fall into disrepair.   
  • Activists have blamed the crisis in large part on environmental racism, defined by sociologist Robert Bullard as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.”   

Read more about the investigation here.  

LIBERALS SHOW MIGHT IN PERMITTING DISPUTE    

Progressive lawmakers opposed to Sen. Joe Manchin’s push for changes to the environmental review process are flexing their muscles, making a concerted effort to stop congressional leaders from fulfilling a deal with the West Virginia Democrat.  

The liberal House members are specifically pressing Democratic leaders to not include permitting reform to a stopgap funding measure Congress must pass by the end of the month to prevent an Oct. 1 government shutdown.  

  • The effort is just the latest battle progressive and moderate Democrats that has characterized President Biden’s first term in office so far.  
  • Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to pass “comprehensive permitting reform” by October when they announced a deal with Manchin on the massive climate, tax and health care bill that was signed into law by the president last month.   

But turning that deal between leaders and Manchin into reality is proving difficult. 

So, what’s the problem? While only a broad outline of the permitting reform has been released publicly, it has already come under fire from progressives and other Democratic lawmakers who argue it would contribute to climate change and hurt the environment. They’ve raised concerns that it will speed up polluting and planet-warming fossil fuel projects, and that it could limit local input in projects that have the potential to harm communities.   

  • In the upper chamber, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the main liberal opponent. He gave a speech on the Senate floor decrying the measure as “a huge giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.”  
  • In the House, a large coalition of Democrats have come out against the deal, asking Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) not to put it into government-funding legislation.   

Doing so would “force Members to choose between protecting [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government,” the lawmakers said in a letter signed by 77 House Democrats.   

Five new signatures were announced on Monday; most of the signatories are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but about 20 are not.   

What does this mean for leadership? The widespread opposition among Democrats poses a quandary for House leadership, as they won’t want to burn the bridge with Manchin, who they may need to pass legislation in the future. They also don’t want to anger a third of their members or risk shutting down the government ahead of the midterm elections.   

By coming out in large numbers, progressives showed they may be able to rally a big group of members to block the permitting reform push.  

  • In a new written statement on Monday, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) warned that if they put the permitting reform provisions in a government-funding measure known as a continuing resolution or “CR,” leadership could be risking a shutdown.   
  • “I don’t know how a CR vote will go if it includes the permitting rider, but the opposition is loud and only getting louder. I encourage leadership to listen to its caucus and keep us out of a shutdown standoff that nobody wants,” Grijalva, a former progressive caucus chairman, told The Hill.   

Read more about the latest battleground between moderates and progressives here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing examining the role of PR firms in preventing climate action (though the invited PR firms declined to appear, per a committee spokesperson).   
  • The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing titled “The Legal Assault on Environmental Activists and the First Amendment” 

HEADLINE TK

  • At 75, the Father of Environmental Justice Meets the Moment (The New York Times
  • Wildlife conservation tends to save charismatic species. That may be about to change (NPR
  • Why Toyota – the world’s largest automaker – isn’t all-in on electric vehicles (CNBC
  • Cool air from Gulf of Alaska blasts SF Bay Area, temperatures plummet (SFGate

🐻 Lighter click: It’s fashion week!

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you tomorrow.  

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