Innovation Ecosystem

Hot and cold running crud at the EPA

Raw sewage spewed out of bubblers at the national environmental regulatory agency, an apt karmic metaphor for efforts underway to gut the agency by the Trump administration

Photo courtesy of a source

One of the bubblers that spewed raw sewage at the national offices of the EPA in Washington, D.C.

Cartoon by Tom Chalkley, Real News Network, courtesy of Tom Chalkley

A satiric cartoon of the secure communications booth that EPA Administrator had installed in his office. [To see more work by Chalkley, go to]

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/2/18
The spewing of raw sewage from a bubbler at the national EPA offices provided an apt karmic metaphor for the strategic attempt to dismantle regulations protecting public health under the Trump administration. Reporting on the efforts by corporate divisions of America Rising to provide strategic support to Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator appointed by President Trump, reveals an apparent coordinated strategic effort by Republican political operatives. The placement of stories by the Need To Know Network, an arm of America Rising, in the Rhode Island marketplace, raise questions about who is the unidentified client behind those paid placements.
Who are the personal and corporate donors to America Rising? What, if any, are the connections to Steve Bannon and Breitbart News? What kinds of coordination are there between American Rising, the Trump White House, and the Republican National Committee? Will the policies of Scott Pruitt at the EPA prove to be an Achilles heel for the Trump administration? Will Trump’s environmental policies become an issue in the 2018 elections in Rhode Island? When will citizens rise up and “call bullshit” on Scott Pruitt? Who is the paying client for the placement of stories of the Need To Know Network in Rhode Island? Are political reporters in Rhode Island willing to look into the story?
After reading this story, would you be willing to drink a cup of coffee made with water from the tap at the national EPA offices? Would you drink a glass of water taken from the tap in Flint, Michigan? Would a candidate running for statewide office in Rhode Island be willing to drink a glass of water taken from the tap in Flint?
Call it a severe kind of cognitive dissonance when the public health and safety of children and families are at risk.
Despite the information conveyed to ConvergenceRI in August of 2017 by Larry Berman, spokesman for R.I. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, saying that the House legislative commission on lead in drinking water in Rhode Island would soon be meeting, no such meetings have apparently taken place. Nearly a thousand children a year are newly poisoned by lead in Rhode Island, with severe consequences down the road for educational achievement, economic attainment and incarceration.
Despite an award of $8 million by the National Institutes of Health to pediatric psychologists at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University to improve asthma outcomes among high-risk children in order to build a sustainable delivery model for evidence-based pediatric asthma interventions, it does not apparently include monitoring of airborne pollutants along Rhode Island highways, in particular the 6-10 connector, one of the root causes of asthma. The R.I. Department of Transportation recently signed a $410 million contract to rebuild the 6-10 Connector.
Despite an $8 million federal award to establish a new research center at URI to study chemical pollutants in drinking water as part of a national network of Superfund Research Program centers, the data documenting the national priorities established by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in a June 2017 task force report remain a mystery: the task force had no agenda for its meeting, kept no minutes, and used no reference materials other than Pruitt’s memo appointing them, according to the EPA, in response to a FOIA request. Further, there were no written standards for choosing the 107 EPA employees the agency says served on the task force.
One thing that the new rewrite of tax laws in the U.S. did not include were any penalties for “externalities” related to public health costs tied directly to corporate behavior and practices. With a declining birth rate and a declining life expectancy rate, with ever-increasing medical costs, children and families in Rhode Island and across the nation will continue to bear the heavy burden of such policies.

PROVIDENCE – Last month, on Dec. 14, 2017, there was literally raw sewage spewing out of water “bubblers” at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., an apt karmic metaphor for what is happening at the federal regulatory agency: as agency officials moved ahead with their attempts to gut regulations protecting public health, deny climate change and do the bidding of big chemical polluters, they found themselves mucking about in their own excrement.

The scene recalled the prescient lyrics from the Tom Lehrer 1965 song, “Pollution”: “Turn on your tap and get hot and cold running crud; pollution, pollution, you can use the latest toothpaste, then rinse your mouth with industrial waste.” [See link below to the YouTube video, “Pollution.”]

One such “bubbler” sewage leak reportedly occurred on the third floor, outside the offices of Samantha Dravis, a Trump political appointee who is senior counsel and associate administrator of the agency’s Office of Policy. The spewing sewage was located on the same floor but down a long hallway from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office, according to E&E News. [See photo above.] Which way does the karma flow?

A photo of the dark sewage sludge covering the floor in front of the water “bubbler” created a momentary blip in news coverage, both nationally and here in Rhode Island. If you blinked during the news cycle, you missed it. [What most likely caused the leaks were continuing plumbing problems linked to the age of the building, according to General Service Administration officials.]

[“Oh man. Spewing sewage at the EPA We wouldn’t believe it in a movie,” tweeted WPRI’s Ted Nesi, in response to a tweet of the photo. “Eee. Pee, eh?” tweeted Eli Sherman, reporter at Providence Business News. “I’ve seen nasty bubblers before but this one is wicked bad,” tweeted Tim Faulkner, reporter with ecoRI News.]

For sure, the veritable shitstorm created an opportunity for a bigly load of funny one-liners and cynical questions. Was this swamping the drain? Did EPA issue a boil water health alert? Did the agency distribute bottled water to workers? Or recommend typhoid shots or cholera vaccines? Was the new secure telephone booth installed in Pruitt’s office impervious to seeping sewage?

But, beyond the sewage snafu, there appeared to be something much, much darker occurring behind closed doors [and secure telephone booths] at the EPA, with potential political relevance to Rhode Island.

The darker side
What happens at the national EPA often appears to be something occurring on a distant galaxy far away from Rhode Island, save for when the agency intervened last fall to prevent its own scientists from speaking about climate changes and its impacts on Narragansett Bay at a conference held at Save The Bay on Oct. 23, 2017, creating a brief scientific and journalistic uproar, much like a rogue wave.

As with health care, concern for the environment is local, up front and personal – particularly when it is your drinking water and watershed, and your Bay.

But some surprising connections to the darker side of Rhode Island politics appeared to have come to light as a result of recent reporting by The New York Times about the EPA’s decision to hire the firm, Definers Public Affairs, in a no-bid contract. The firm is part of the corporate family octopus of America Rising, an aggressive Republican opposition research corporation and political action committee.

As ConvergenceRI reported in its Nov. 4, 2017, edition: On its website, America Rising Corporation described itself as: “An opposition research and communications firm whose mission is to help its clients defeat Democrats. We do this by providing top-notch opposition research, video tracking, rapid response consulting, and earned media communications through on-demand and subscription-based plans and platforms. Our blueprint to winning elections involves the relentless pursuit of original and effective hits against Democrats.”

Another division of America Rising, the Need To Know Network, an alleged news aggregator, has been active in buying ads and positioning stories on Twitter in the Rhode Island market related to the closing of Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island. The identity of the client paying for the Need To Know insertions still remains unknown. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Muddying the waters around Memorial.”]

What’s wrong with this picture?
The most recent Need To Know Network story targeting the Rhode Island market, dated Dec. 12, 2017, with a twitter placement the week of Dec. 18, regurgitated a three-week-old story about a rumored but unconfirmed potential bid by Brown University and Prospect Health, the California for-profit equity firm that owns CharterCARE, to consider purchasing Care New England if the proposed merger with Partners Healthcare were to fall through.

[A number of Brown medical school officials told ConvergenceRI that this was not yet a serious conversation. Both Care New England and Partners recently agreed on Dec. 27, 2017, to extend the exclusivity of their negotiations until the end of January of 2018, in order to get the deal done, rendering speculation about any other potential realignments moot for the immediate future. In turn, the R.I. Department of Health issued its Reverse Certificate of Need on Dec. 29, 2017, closing down Memorial's emergency department..

Further, ConvergenceRI reached out on Dec. 27 to Brian Clark, director of news and editorial at Brown, to clarify Brown’s intentions in response to the Need To Know Network story.

Clark said that it would be “premature” to publicly share any ideas and concepts. “Brown University has had a long and productive relationship with the Care New England health system,” Clark said. “CNE has been an important partner, so, of course, we are concerned about its future. We certainly are considering what the options would be if the Partners Healthcare deal were not to succeed, but we are not a point where we feel it’s appropriate to publicly share ideas and concepts. It simply would be premature.”]

The most recent Need To Know Network story ran with the byline, NTK staff. It featured a large photo of an unsmiling Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is running for re-election in 2018, without any attribution of when and where the photo was taken – and who had taken it. The story repeated news that was five months old, first reported by ConvergenceRI in its July 31, 2017, edition, regarding Whitehouse’s worry about what a merger between Care New England and Partners might mean for local ancillary businesses. The story also contained outdated and incorrect information about the status of Memorial Hospital. [Surprisingly, among the sponsoring advertisers on the NTK site were the Yale School of Management. Are they fans of America Rising?]

America Rising and the Need To Know Network share a common workspace in Arlington, Virginia, according to reporting by Politico. But, on its Facebook page, NTK Network described itself as a “news aggregator website focused on featuring and connecting all the different stories that are driving the daily news cycle,” with no mention of its relationship to America Rising.

The third leg of a Republican propaganda stool?
When The New York Times reported on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, about the Environmental Protection Agency hiring a private contractor who had been investigating agency employees that had been critical of the new top administrator, Scott Pruitt, it appeared to be business as usual under the Trump administration. [See link below, “EPA Contractor Has Spent the Past Year Scouring the Agency for Anti-Trump Officials.”]

A $120,000 no-bid contract, first reported earlier that day by Mother Jones, had gone to Definers Public Affairs. [See link to Mother Jones story below, “The EPA hired a major Republican research firm to track press activity.”]

The contract, which had been awarded in early December, is part of an unconventional news media operation that Pruitt had set up at the agency as he tried to get a handle on the coverage of him by newspapers, including The New York Times, and criticism by Democrats in Congress and environmental groups, according to the reporting.

The vice president of the Definers Public Affairs, Allan Blutstein, who is also a vice president of FOIA operations at American Rising, had submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA since President Trump was sworn in a year ago, previous to the new contact being assigned, according to the Times.

Blutstein had explained that he was taking aim at “resistance” figures in the federal government, saying he hoped to discover whether they had done anything that might embarrass them or hurt their cause, according to the Times.

Three days later, the no-bid contract apparently wilted under the hot spotlight of news coverage: on Monday, Dec. 18, Definers Public Affairs and EPA announced that they had decided “to forgo” the contract.

“It’s become clear this will become a distraction,” explained Joe Pounder, the co-founder and CEO of America Rising, to The New York Times.

America Rising’s corporate octopus
Definers Public Affairs is one of many corporate tentacles of an aggressive Republican opposition research firm, America Rising.

In the Dec. 15 story, Pounder had explained to New York Times reporters that the EPA would use the company’s news-tracking tool called Definers Console, which Pounder claimed had an improved way of collecting and analyzing clips. Further, Pounder said, America Rising and Definers Public Affairs were distinct entities, saying that America Rising “doesn’t and will never do work for the federal government.”

But, as the Dec. 15 Mother Jones story revealed, the EPA’s work with groups affiliated with America Rising and Pounder apparently predated the no-bid contract.

“On a handful of occasions, the EPA has promoted positive coverage of Pruitt’s actions from the news-aggregation website Need To Know Network,” Mother Jones reported. Earlier this year, the story in Mother Jones continued, Need to Know Network published “a series of stories designed to shed positive light on the controversial administrator. In one story, the site describes Pruitt as “busy racking up accomplishments that both protect Americans and save millions in taxpayer dollars.”

The Mother Jones report continued: Another NTK Network story congratulated Pruitt for moving ahead with plans to open Alaska’s Bristol Bay to mining, writing that it was “a move that will prove to be a massive job creator for President Trump and Pruitt.”

The news not covered
Here in Rhode Island, if you did not hear or read about the sewage spewing out of bubblers at EPA headquarters on Dec. 14, or the revelations on Dec. 15 about the no-bid contract from EPA being awarded to Definers Public Affairs, an arm of America Rising, chances are you may have also missed the Dec. 13 New York Times story about Michael Dourson, the Trump administration’s candidate to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, withdrawing his nomination.

Dourson’s nomination, ironically, had been withdrawn following the release of a trove of some 400 emails obtained by Greenpeace through an FOIA request to the University of Cincinnati, where Dourson had previously worked.

As documented in a Dec. 21, 2017, blog by Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, although Dourson’s nomination had been publicly announced by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on July 17, two months earlier, on May 23, Dourson had written to Kimberly White, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, about plans for his nomination as well as his hiring as an advisor before being confirmed:

“Based on the recommendation of EPA Administrator Pruitt, President Trump has appointed me as the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Safety Assessment and Pollution Prevention,” Dourson wrote.

Dourson continued: “EPA wants to get my Senate confirmation scheduled before the August recess. They may also want to hire me into the Agency in July, which apparently they can do as soon as the announcement is made. The announcement is made after background checks are completed [40 days is typical]. At this point, please keep news of this appointment under wraps.”

Dourson’s record as a mouthpiece for the chemical industry had been documented by a number of reports: he had been hired by industry to consult on at least 30 of the chemicals he might have been responsible for reviewing if his nomination had been approved.

Dourson’s consulting company, Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, was paid by Dow Chemical, CropLife America, the American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, and other companies and industry groups to study dozens of chemicals, according to a story by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept.

Lerner also reported that in a 2002 paper paid for by the American Chemistry Council and the pesticide industry group, CropLife American, “Dourson suggested that after six months, most children are no more sensitive to chemical toxicity than adults and that in some cases, they are even less sensitive.”

Connecting the dots
The no-bid contract awarded by EPA to Definers Public Affairs, an arm of America Rising, only to be withdrawn after negative news coverage, revealed an apparent strategic coordination between the Trump White House, the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt, and America Rising, in an attempt to manage news content.

Further, the work done by the Need To Know Network, another arm of America Rising, to promote the work of Pruitt and the EPA, has also raised questions about the relationship, which the Environmental Defense Fund has asked the EPA Office of the Inspector General to investigate, in a letter dated Dec. 19, 2017.

The efforts by Allan Blutstein, vice president of Definers Public Affairs and also vice president of FOIA Operations at America Rising, who had filed at least 40 FOIA requests about EPA employees in an apparent attempt to identify if they may have been part of the “resistance” to the Trump administration policies under Pruitt, again raises questions about strategic coordination between American Rising, the Trump administration, and Pruitt.

Finally, and ironically, the FOIA request by Greenpeace to the University of Cincinnati where Michael Dourson, a Trump nominee for the position of Office of Chemical Safety at the EPA, appeared to have torpedoed his nomination, revealing the extensive communications he had carried on with industry representatives. The content of the emails provided a clear modus operandi for the Trump administration policies under Pruitt to subvert regulations protecting public health to the benefit of large chemical corporations. [For those who want to dig deeper, check out the link below to two blogs written by Denison.]

What is the Rhode Island political connection?
The fluid financial and regulatory situation regarding the closing of Memorial Hospital and the planned merger between Care New England and Partners Healthcare in Boston has provided a fecund environment for the Need To Know Network to exploit, apparently for its own political agenda, in order to sow confusion and muddy the waters.

The question is: who is the yet unidentified client that is paying for the continued placement of stories by the Need To Know Network in the Rhode Island market? Is it Republican candidate Bob Flanders, who is running as a Republican candidate opposing Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse? Is it Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, with his strong ties to the Republican National Committee, who is running for the Republican nomination for Governor? Is it the Republican National Committee itself, which has been actively involved in monitoring the Rhode Island political scene? Wouldn’t this be a great story for Jim Hummel and The Hummel Report to jump on and to investigate?

Waiting for ProJo
One of the problems identified by ConvergenceRI in its reporting on the Need To Know Network’s purchase of advertising in the Nov. 4 online edition of The Providence Journal is that its ad placement, which was designed to look just like a news story, had not been identified by The Providence Journal that it was an advertisement or that it had been placed by an alleged news aggregator with ties to a political action committee.

ConvergenceRI first wrote to Ed Achorn at The Providence Journal on Nov. 6, 2017, asking the following questions:

I wanted to ask you about advertising policy regarding what appears to be “editorial” content of a recent placement of NTK Network on the Saturday, Nov. 4, digital platform of The Providence Journal.

It may not be a question that falls under your bailiwick, but the ad, which might be easily misread to be actual content produced by The Providence Journal, was produced by a news aggregator apparently closely related to America Rising, a Republican opposition research firm and its PAC; it has been reported by Politico that they share the same office space in Arlington, Va.

So, here are my questions:

1. Is there any standing newspaper policy to include a disclaimer that such a placement is a paid advertisement, to distinguish it from editorial content? From my past publishing experience, that has often been the case for political advertisements.

2. Were the ad placements on the digital platform of The Providence Journal a transaction involving sales folks from The Providence Journal, or were they transactions managed by GateHouse Media?

3. Is there any obligation to identify to readers that the paid ad placement may have been purchased by an out-of-state political action committee?

Thanks! I realize that you may not be the right person to which direct my questions. If not, could you please direct my questions to the appropriate person(s)?

No answer was received.

Still waiting for ProJo
On Dec. 21, ConvergenceRI wrote again to Achorn, as well as to Alan Rosenberg, the executive editor at The Providence Journal, seeking answers to the questions.

Rosenberg replied on Dec. 22: Thanks for writing, Mr. Asinof. We do have policies regarding political advertising. The person who can best respond to this will return after the holiday and provide some specifics.

With the 2018 political season now in full swing, and with all the revelations about the manipulations of social media platforms on Facebook and Twitter to purvey “fake” news, it would seem to be important for The Providence Journal, as the only statewide newspaper, to review and, if necessary, sharpen its policies around political advertising.

ConvergenceRI will be happy to share any responses from The Providence Journal when they are received.

In the meantime, political, health care and environmental reporting keep converging in Rhode Island. Besides ConvergenceRI, who else is willing to talk about it?


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