November 30, 2018

It Came From Outer Space

Constellation of Satellites

Dear PEER Members,

PEER may have helped avert an existential threat to the planet. This time the source was not Donald Trump but something possibly even worse – Silicon Valley greed.

Telecom companies are planning to launch a “mega-constellations” of thousands of satellites to provide global Internet broadband service starting in 2019. Under these plans, the approximately 1,500 satellites currently orbiting the planet will soon be increased nearly ten-fold

Each one of the satellites needs onboard propulsion to maintain altitude and adjust orbits.

A well-funded Silicon Valley start-up is marketing elemental mercury as a thruster propellant. Due to its high density, liquid mercury is an excellent propellant, and cheap. 

Here’s the problem: The mercury will be vaporized into a gas, ionized, and accelerated out of the thruster.  Those mercury atoms will then drift down through the stratosphere to the earth’s surface, mostly onto the world’s oceans.

This is a cosmically bad idea.

Titanic

We teamed up with Bloomberg (ironically enough) to document and publicize the mercury marketing plans and the telecoms seem to be stampeding away from the idea like it was, well, molten mercury.

The plan got as far as it did because of a regulatory blind spot.  While Trump wants a Space Force, there is no Space Agency, leaving piecemeal oversight. The FAA, for example, only reviews orbital paths. The FCC, on the other hand, issues permits for the satellites but allows operators to self-certify their technology will have no significant impact on human health or the environment, a practice contrary to federal law and treaty obligations.  

The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to consider the environmental consequences of its actions. A global treaty, The Minamata Convention, obligates its 128 signatories to take steps to reduce mercury releases. The U.S. was the first signatory.  However, large-scale orbital discharge of mercury would reverse planetary progress in reducing mercury emissions.

We have filed a complaint with the FCC taking it to task for limiting its focus to satellite payload and bandwidth. We will pursue closing this regulatory gap.  Please support our effort to prevent this madness from recurring. [LINK]

Sincerely,
Jeff Ruch
Executive Director

P.S. Botched Burial Attempt

In a move about as subtle as a Saudi prince ordering the assassination of a Washington Post journalist, the Trump administrationdecision to drop the latest National Climate Assessmentinto the news hole of the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend (and at 5PM, no less) backfired. The new report indicates that climate change is having greater impacts now and exacerbating future disasters in ways that threaten the U.S. economy. Trump’s ham-handed move put the report on the front page of every major outlet and is stimulating a climate debate the White House would prefer go away.In a move about as subtle as a Saudi prince ordering the assassination of a Washington Post journalist, the Trump administrationdecision to drop the latest National Climate Assessmentinto the news hole of the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend (and at 5PM, no less) backfired. The new report indicates that climate change is having greater impacts now and exacerbating future disasters in ways that threaten the U.S. economy. Trump’s ham-handed move put the report on the front page of every major outlet and is stimulating a climate debate the White House would prefer go away.

P.P.S. Stinky Zinke

It seems every time Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke opens his mouth something half-baked comes out, especially on the topic of Western wildfires. Once again, he is blaming the deadly California wildfires on unnamed “radical environmental groups.”

 It is one thing to ignore science but his attempts to restrict Interior’s more than billion-dollar scientific portfolio to research that “promotes” his priorities is beyond the pale. Since his office will not identify which studies have been halted, PEER is in federal court to find out precisely how much Zinke has reduced the sum total of human knowledge.

P.P.P.S. Chemical Emergency

The Chemical Safety Board is supposed to respond to major industrial disasters, such as explosions and poisonous gas plumes. This month, CSB approved its first expenditure under an “urgent” internal motion.  It wasn’t about chemical safety, however. It was a $300,000 payment to a law firm to which it has already paid more than $150,000 to represent it in its lengthy star-crossed effort to oust its own Managing Director, Dr. Daniel Horowitz (represented by PEER) in a legal challenge that will not even go to hearing until next year.

It is little wonder members of Congress are calling for new adult leadership at CSB. 

P.P.P.P.S. What do Federal Employees Think of Trump and His Appointees?

We don’t know but can only guess.  The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey no longer asks them. We were told that the White House had the survey revised but the Office of Personnel Management has sat for months on our request for documents explaining the move, so we sued them.

P.P.P.P.P.S. We're Number Three!

PEER has the third most active FOIA litigation docket in the country. We were overtaken this year by the ACLU.