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US ends year on environmental high with increased pollution inspections and protection for forests

Underlining the urgency of the issue are wildfires that have killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years.
Underlining the urgency of the issue are wildfires that have killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years. Copyright Marcus Kauffman
Copyright Marcus Kauffman
By Rebecca Ann Hughes with AP
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Old-growth forests store large amounts of carbon that can be released during wildfires adding to climate change.

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The US is ending 2023 on a high note for environmental protection.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted more on-site inspections of polluting industrial sites this year than at any time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency said on Monday that it is seeking to reinvigorate its enforcement program after more than a decade of budget cuts.

At the same time, the Biden administration has announced a move to protect old-growth forests from the dangers of climate change.

Environmental enforcement in the US is on the rise

The EPA opened nearly 200 criminal investigations this year, a 70 per cent increase over 2022, the agency said in a report this week.

It also completed nearly 1,800 civil settlements, a nine per cent increase over 2022.

Some of the EPA’s actions included suing Norfolk Southern railway over a train derailment in eastern Ohio that spilled hazardous chemicals and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

Federal officials want to ensure the company pays for the cleanup.

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed the night before in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023.
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed the night before in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023.AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

The agency also sued Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, arguing that its petrochemical operations in southern Louisiana posed an unacceptable cancer risk to the mostly-Black community nearby.

The EPA has demanded that the company reduce toxic emissions from its plant that makes synthetic rubber.

More than half the inspections and settlements involved poor and disadvantaged communities long scarred by pollution, the agency said, reflecting the Biden administration's emphasis on environmental justice issues.

The EPA said its enforcement and compliance work has required violators to pay over $704 million (€643 million) in penalties, fines, and restitution - a 57 per cent increase over 2022.

However, the increase comes as the EPA’s enforcement staff remains far below its peak of more than a decade ago, even as officials move to add about 300 positions.

The EPA has eliminated approximately 950 enforcement positions following budget cuts imposed since 2011.

The 2011 budget and debt deal, which included automatic spending cuts, "hit all agencies hard, but hit EPA especially hard,'' said David Uhlmann, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement.

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Enforcement efforts were further hampered by an inability to complete many on-site inspections during the pandemic, which began nearly four years ago, and a series of actions by former President Donald Trump to roll back environmental regulations.

“While our work is not complete, EPA’s revitalized enforcement program is making a positive difference in communities across America, particularly for people living in underserved and overburdened communities that for too long have borne the brunt of pollution,'' Uhlmann said in a statement.

US to protect old-growth forests from climate change

In another push to protect the environment, the Biden administration moved on Tuesday to conserve groves of old-growth trees on national forests across the US.

It is also seeking to limit logging as climate change amplifies the threats these forests face from wildfires, insects and disease.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency was adopting an “ecologically-driven” approach to older forests - an arena where timber industry interests have historically predominated.

This will include the first nationwide amendment to US Forest Service management plans in the agency’s 118-year history, he said.

Timber companies have fought against logging restrictions on government-owned lands.

But the Biden administration’s proposal follows longstanding calls from environmentalists to preserve older forests that offer crucial wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits.

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Aiming for a middle ground, it would sharply limit commercial timber harvests in old-growth forests while allowing logging to continue in “mature forests” that have not yet reached old-growth stage.

“This creates a commitment to resiliency, a commitment to restore and protect the existing old growth that we have from the threats that we see,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Why are old-growth forests important for the environment?

Old-growth forests, such as the storied giant sequoia stands of northern California, have layer upon layer of undisturbed trees and vegetation.

There’s wide consensus on the importance of preserving them both symbolically as marvels of nature, and more practically because their trunks and branches store large amounts of carbon that can be released when forests burn, adding to climate change.

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Underlining the urgency of the issue are wildfires that have killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years.

Logging volumes dropped sharply over the past several decades, but the demise of older trees due to fire, insects and disease accelerated.

More than 13,300 square kilometres of old-growth and mature forests burned since 2000.

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