David Bernhardt

Ethics Probes Launched at Department of the Interior and EPA

Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visits oil rig manufacturer Watson Hopper Inc. in Hobbs, New Mexico. Visual: Tami A. Heilemann/U.S. Department of the Interior

Two new ethics probes were opened this week — one at the U.S. Department of the Interior and one at the Environmental Protection Agency — following contentions that the two agencies most influential in setting the country’s environmental agenda may be working to limit public access to policy documents, and that a member of EPA leadership may have acted in the interest of private sector lobbyists.

The Interior Department probe, carried out by the agency’s internal audit unit, seeks to determine if a new policy mandating that staff reviewing requests for documents via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) notify politically appointed officials if they are mentioned in documents slated for release is indeed in violation of the public’s legal right to request government records and merits a formal investigation. A separate bill, aimed at challenging similar FOIA policies at the EPA, was announced in the Senate on the same day with bipartisan support.

The FOIA policy changes come on the heels of the ousting of both agency heads — EPA chief Scott Pruitt in July of last year and the Interior’s Ryan Zinke this January — after records released to the public revealed misconduct on the part of both leaders. Watchdog groups contend that the new FOIA policies are an attempt to shield officials from such scrutiny by allowing them to delay or deny the release of internal documents.

Communicating with New York Times reporters, representatives for both agencies denied this motivation for the policy changes. In an email to The Times, EPA Press Secretary Michael Abboud wrote: “Allegations made that the rule is changing the political appointees role in FOIA are false and irresponsible.”

In the EPA probe, announced on Monday, the agency’s inspector general is looking into the actions of former air quality chief William L. Wehrum, a key legal architect of the Trump administration’s policies easing federal limits on air, water, and coal ash pollution. It’s the third investigation to examine whether Wehrum violated federal rules during his time in office through interactions with his former law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth, and one of the firm’s clients, the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a now-defunct coal plant lobbying coalition.

In a report sent Sunday to the EPA inspector general and obtained by The Washington Post, Democratic Senators Tom Carper and Sheldon Whitehouse documented allegedly undisclosed meetings between Wehrum and private sector clients. The pair urged EPA officials not to “abandon or decline to pursue work on this matter in the wake of Mr. Wehrum’s departure from the agency.”

Also in the news:

• An unprecedented and lethal heatwave swept across Europe this week, breaking records in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. As of Friday morning, French authorities reported at least five deaths linked to the rising temperatures. There, temperatures topped 108 degrees Fahrenheit; in Germany, 106.7 degrees; Belgium 105 degrees; and in the Netherlands, 104 degrees. The temperature spike is the second major heatwave to hit the continent this summer and scientists warn that this particular weather system will be moving north, where it is expected to further break records in countries from Norway to Finland on its way into the Arctic region. Scientists have also noted that Arctic sea ice is already at record lows for this time of year and that the super-charged temperatures are likely to accelerate that loss. And climate scientists have noted that with this heat wave, July is on track to be hottest month on record around the world. (The New York Times)

• The Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft successfully launched from the edge of the Bay of Bengal on Monday, marking the start of the Indian Space Research Organization’s ambitious second mission to the moon. Chandrayaan-2 is composed of a lander, a rover, and a lunar orbiter, and will be the country’s first attempt to make a “soft” landing on the surface of the Moon (a controlled descent in which the craft lands without sustaining damages). If all goes to plan, the lunar lander — named Vikram — will touch down in early September, and India will join Russia, the U.S., and China as countries to have complete a soft landing on the moon’s surface. The majority of Chandrayaan-2’s scientific instruments were designed in India, and include: X-ray, infrared, and mass spectrometers; stereoscopic and high-resolution cameras; and radar. NASA designed one instrument for the lander: an array of mirrors to reflect laser beams from Earth, used to help to calculate the distance to the Moon. Vikram’s planned landing site is the Moon’s south pole, a previously uncharted region, where it will study soil samples, rocks, and minerals. (Nature)

• Pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. announced a new, longer-lasting drug for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) prevention at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City this week. Currently, the main preventative strategy for uninfected individuals with a high risk of contracting the virus is to consume a daily pill — a strategy known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). However, adherence to an oral HIV PrEP regimen can be challenging for some and the pill’s effectiveness is diminished with intermittent use. At the conference, Merck unveiled a slow-release implant of an experimental antiretroviral (ARV) drug, that the company’s tests suggest could safely provide protection against HIV far longer than any ARV currently on the market. The implant is placed under the skin and slowly delivers the drug in a mechanism similar to some implantable contraceptive devices. Merck’s study included only 12 participants, but the researchers reported that there were no safety issues, and the results showed that individuals receiving a high enough dose could be protected against HIV infection for 12 to 16 months. (Science)

• The fungus Candida auris, already a deadly and resilient pathogen, may be growing better suited to infecting human bodies, according to a study published this week in the journal mBio. When researchers examined close relatives of C. auris, they found most similar fungi are incapable of tolerating the human body’s typical internal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This led them to suspect that C. auris had somehow adapted to thriving in hotter environments, perhaps thanks to temperatures climbing worldwide as a result of a changing climate, though they could not definitively rule out other factors contributing to C. auris’ unusual resilience. While cases of infection are still rare, C. auris is a worrisome threat as it is difficult to detect, crops up among already ill patients in hospitals, and strains of the fungus have proven resistant to one or more classes of the most common antifungal medications. (TIME)

• As synthetic opioid overdoses continue to rise in the U.S., West Africa is facing its own crisis due to the abuse of tramadol — a widely available painkiller known at high doses to produce a euphoric effect similar to that of heroin. Reportedly taken by refugees in Nigeria to help cope with post-traumatic stress, along with wage workers, and even schoolchildren looking to gain an edge, many tramadol pills are illicitly manufactured in India and China, making it impossible for users to know what they really contain. According to the United Nations (U.N.), seizures of the drug have increased in recent years. Last year, Nigeria alone seized 6.4 billion pills. In nearby Togo, in contrast, smaller raids have led vendors to become even more secretive. Despite its risks, the U.N. in March declined to make tramadol an internationally controlled substance, saying it could make it more difficult to obtain for those who truly need it. (Mosaic)

• And finally: On Tuesday, a diminutive satellite — or CubeSat — operated by the Planetary Society, a nonprofit, unfurled four large mylar sails in an attempt to demonstrate solar sailing as a viable means of space travel. Over the next month, the toaster-sized satellite, named LightSail 2, will harness the momentum of light from the Sun to propel itself into increasingly higher orbits before eventually falling back to Earth’s atmosphere. LightSail 2 isn’t the first spacecraft to attempt to set sail on the solar wind. In 2010, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched IKAROS, a solar sail that made it past Venus, but that lacked a steering mechanism and was last heard from in 2015. Four years ago, the Planetary Society launched LightSail 2’s predecessor, LightSail 1, but that craft’s orbit was too low to demonstrate solar sailing. If successful, LightSail 2 will be the first steerable solar sail to orbit Earth. With silvery sails roughly the size of a boxing ring, it may, at times, be visible from Earth with the naked eye, according to the Planetary Society. (Gizmodo)