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(C-SPAN screenshot via ThinkProgress)

A Scientist And Clean Energy Advocate Is Gaining Ground in Chicago's 'Hottest Congressional Race'

It's too close to call.

CARLY CASSELLA
13 OCT 2018

Blending science with business is not always smooth. Throw politics into the mix and things get even more rocky.

But for Sean Casten, a scientist and clean energy entrepreneur, the challenge is well worth the effort.

 

Casten, who holds degrees in molecular biology and biochemical engineering, has been working to profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions for more than a decade.

During his time in the clean energy industry, he has come to realize just how often policy stands in the way of progress.

"Our political environment too often rewards people who make decisions and pass laws for short-term political gain, leaving citizens to deal with the factual fallout," he told Science AF in a recent interview.

Casten is determined to fix this problem. In 2018, he is running for Congress in Illinois' sixth congressional district against Republican incumbent Peter Roskam, a fierce competition that has been called "the Chicago area's hottest congressional race."

Gathering his skills as a scientist and entrepreneur, Casten hopes that he can bring a fact-based, collaborative and open-minded approach to politics.

He is one of several scientists running for Congress in 2018, and he has been endorsed by 314 Action, an organization committed to improving the representation of scientists in political office.

"Congress is ultimately nothing more than a large, rather powerful organization," Casten told us.

 

"There is no reason why the tools that drive success in other, non-political organizations can't also drive success in this one."

Running on an aggressive clean energy platform, Casten is offering voters a clear choice. The clean energy entrepreneur is making environmentalism a key issue of his campaign, calling global warming "the single biggest existential threat we face as a species."

In comparison, his opponent, Roskam, reportedly called climate science "junk science" in 2006, and last year he received a three percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters for his environmental voting record.

"I don't know what Roskam actually believes, but his voting record on environmental matters is informed by politics rather than facts," Casten said.

Amid a major public health crisis, the factual fallout of such "short-sighted" environmental policies are slowly coming to light in Roskam's district. And Casten thinks this may be, at least in part, why he's been gaining favor in the polls – in what he calls a highly educated "fact-positive" district.

In late August, a federal report was released that warned ethylene oxide gas (EtO), which has been used by the company Sterigenics International for three decades, is much more carcinogenic than originally thought.

 

Near one of the Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook, Illinois, the report found an estimated cancer risk that was significantly higher than the national average.

Casten's opponent, Roskam, is feeling the heat as the 19,000 residents who live near the plant demand action and accountability from their elected officials.

Casten and several environmental groups are condemning Roskam, who has held his seat since 2007, for putting industry before science and not doing more to protect the health of his constituents.

This election alone, Roskam has received over US$200,000 and several campaigns ads from the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying organisation that has protested the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and whose former senior official is now the EPA's deputy assistant director.

"The Sterigenics case is an important local story, but nationally is, unfortunately, a small example of what happens when a governing party systematically undermines a government agency," Casten told us.

The voting record of Casten's opponent speaks volumes. Recently, Roskam voted to gut the EPA Science Advisory Board, the board the provides scientific advice to the EPA. And the same board that found EtO increases the risk of cancer 30-fold.

 

He also voted for the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which would block real scientists from giving the EPA advice, while opening the doors for chemical industry insiders. The NRDC described the bill as a "gift to the chemical industry".

Roskam also stayed silent when the Trump administration threatened to close EPA offices in Chicago.

"Defunding the EPA, driving EPA staff away from public service and gutting the EPA Science Advisory board is not just politically short-sighted, it is morally bankrupt," argues Casten.

"It puts human health and safety at risk. It will kill people."

After weeks of public outrage about Sterigenics, the EPA has promised a more concerted response. According to the Chicago Tribune, Roskam has taken credit for the EPA's commitment to test surrounding neighborhoods.

But Casten thinks there's a stronger solution, one that he says is not only informed by science but is also reasonable. To ensure public safety, he argues that the Sterigenics plant should be immediately closed until thorough emission tests and a local impact analysis are done.

"We must commit to scientific inquiry and let those facts point us to the truth rather than cherry picking only those that fit into our preconceived worldview," Casten told us.

"And we must remove anyone from elected office who fails to understand the magnitude of their responsibility to all Americans today, and generations that will follow."

Casten's campaign message appears to be working. In September, a New York Times poll found Casten and Roskam were virtually tied.

A more recent poll commissioned by Casten's congressional campaign has placed the political newcomer just ahead of the Republican incumbent mere weeks before the November election.

The race remains too close to call.