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Meet the beetle threatening Washington’s cherries, hops and other crops

High Country News - Tue, 08/15/2023 - 01:00
Invasive Japanese beetles are drawn to flowers and fruit. Washington officials are trying to eradicate them from the state.
Categories: H. Green News

Montana youth win a historic climate case

Grist - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 16:00

A state judge in Montana gave climate activists a decisive win on Monday when she ruled that the state’s support of fossil fuels violates their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley struck down as unconstitutional a state policy barring consideration of the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions in fossil fuel permitting. Her ruling establishes legal protection against broad harms caused by climate change and enshrines a state right to a world free from those harms, creating a potential foundation for future lawsuits across the country.

“We are heard!” Kian Tanner, one of the 16 youth plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement. He grew up near the Flathead River and testified to watching wildfires come ever closer to his home each year. “Frankly, the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way. We set the precedent not only for the United States, but for the world.” 

The case was the first of its kind to reach trial. Seeley’s decision adds to a growing number of rulings that say governments have a responsibility to protect citizens from climate change. The timing of her verdict — coinciding with major wildfires and heat waves that have taken lives worldwide — couldn’t be more poignant, said Julia Olson. She is the chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which has brought similar suits in all 50 states. 

“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” she said.

Climate change has profoundly shaped the lives of the 16 plaintiffs, both through psychological distress and the damage it has wrought to their homes and cultural heritage. Each has spoken eloquently about smelling wildfire smoke on the wind and feeling trapped by the increasingly oppressive heat of summer on the high plains. All of them have railed against state politicians for not only failing to mitigate the problem, but actively making it worse. 

In their lawsuit, they argued that the state’s enthusiastic support of fossil fuels violates their inalienable right, enshrined in Article II of Montana’s constitution, to a “clean and healthful environment.” They also accused the governor and other officials of neglecting their constitutional duty to preserve and protect the environment for future generations. “Although defendants know that the youth plaintiffs are living under dangerous climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm, they continue to act affirmatively to exacerbate the climate crisis,” the suit states.

For two weeks in June, 12 of the plaintiffs poured their hearts out in a courtroom in Missoula. Their testimony was corroborated by a panel of climate scientists, childhood psychologists, and other experts who spoke to the impacts of a warming world and how it impacts young people.

“I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part,” 22-year-old Rikki Held, the lead plaintiff, testified. “You can’t just blow it off and do nothing about it.”

Seeley agreed. “Every additional ton of greenhouse gas emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries,” she wrote in her 108-page ruling. “Plaintiffs’ injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.”

The road to the trial was rocky, with the state attempting to throw the case out multiple times. During the trial the state attempted what some termed a “nothing-to-see-here” approach, bringing free-market economists and climate deniers to the fore to convince the judge that permitting and fossil fuel regulation wasn’t really the state’s responsibility. The state also argued that even if it were to stop emitting CO2 entirely, it would have little impact. 

Seeley didn’t buy that. 

“Montana’s [greenhouse gas] emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the youth plaintiffs,” she wrote in her ruling. The judge also noted that the state did not offer a compelling argument for why it didn’t consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions when making permitting decisions. She also noted that renewable power is “technically feasible and economically beneficial.”

Emily Flower, spokesperson for state Attorney General Austin Knudsen, decried the ruling as “absurd” and called the trial a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.” She said the office plans to appeal.

“Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate,” Flower said, according to the Associated Press. “Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary.”

Attorneys who participated in the trial say that the verdict is notable because it puts the blame for inaction squarely on the shoulders of state officials, indicating they have the power to change their approach.

Seeley “recognized that the only obstacles to a transition to a clean energy economy in Montana are political,” said Melissa Hornbein, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “They’re not technological.”

Hornbein hopes the verdict shapes similar suits focusing on governmental responsibility for addressing climate change. Our Children’s Trust also represents 14 young plaintiffs in Hawaiʻi in a similar case, Nawahine v. the Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation, which is now slated to move forward next year.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Montana youth win a historic climate case on Aug 14, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

How Maui’s wildfires became the country’s deadliest in more than a century

Grist - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 14:32

The wind picked up on Maui the night before the fires broke out. By early morning on August 8, gusts were whipping fast enough to topple trees and rip roofs off buildings in the historic Hawaiian town of Lahaina, on Maui’s west coast. Then came the conflagrations. Fanned by the blistering winds, flames hurtled as fast as one mile per minute as they engulfed Lahaina and other towns in Maui, like Kula, killed at least 96 people, and incinerated homes, businesses, and churches.

As thousands of displaced people take refuge in makeshift shelters and hotels, cadaver dogs and search crews are still trying to determine the true scope of damage from the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century. Photos from Lahaina show harrowing scenes: rows of charred buildings behind the scorched shells of cars, consumed by fire as they sat in traffic; corpses of boats burnt on the water; a historic church reduced to rubble.

“Ultimately all the pictures that you will see will be easy to understand,” said Josh Green, Hawaiʻi’s governor, “because that level of destruction in a fire hurricane — something new to us in this age of global warming — was the ultimate reason so many people perished.”

Wildfires are not new to Hawaiʻi. According to the state’s wildfire management organization, roughly 0.5 percent of its total land catches fire every year, on par with other U.S. states. But conditions — many of them connected to climate change — have evolved to make parts of the state more likely to ignite. The blazes in Maui, for instance, were brought on by a “flash drought,” a major hurricane south of the archipelago, invasive weeds that acted like kindling, and winds that ran as high as 81 mph, according to the governor. There are allegations that Hawaiian Electric’s power lines played a role in the fire, too. The result: a wildfire even deadlier than the Camp Fire that incinerated the town of Paradise, California, killing 85 people, in 2018. 

Though it’s too early to say exactly how climate change contributed to Maui’s wildfires, scientists have long been saying that similar disasters, like wildfires in the Western United States, should be expected with more frequency and intensity on a warming planet. 

Climate change is “leading to these unpredictable or unforeseen combinations that we’re seeing right now and that are fueling this extreme fire weather,” Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, told the Associated Press. 

This summer, parts of Hawaiʻi experienced a “flash drought,” a rapid drying out of soil and plants that occurs when hot air sucks moisture out of the ground. The drought left parts of Maui especially dry and ready to combust. Such droughts are likely exacerbated by climate change — although a longer-term trend of declining precipitation, which also contributed to the fires, may not be directly connected to human-caused climate change, a scientist told the Washington Post.

Compounding the drought, a proliferation of grasslands on abandoned plantations made vast fields into fuel for the fires. “There’s all these huge, huge quantities of vegetation, and it’s all papery thin and ready to go,” Clay Trauernicht, a wildfire scientist at the University of Hawaiʻi, told Grist. As much as one-quarter of the state is covered by invasive grasses. 

Adding to the drought and fields of tinder were exceptionally high winds, running from 60 to 81 mph. Experts have said that the winds were fueled in part by Hurricane Dora, a Category 4 storm that barreled across the Pacific south of Hawaiʻi. Dora created a difference in air pressure across the archipelago that led to unusually fierce winds — the sort that plied roofs from buildings before driving flames across Maui. 

As climate change makes hurricanes more intense, not all will make landfall, but they still could help spur deadly disasters. On Maui, where the fires did an estimated $5.6 billion of damage, according to the governor, the death toll is likely to climb for at least 10 more days, Green said. “They will find 10 to 20 people per day probably, until they finish,” he told CBS News. Hundreds of people are still missing.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How Maui’s wildfires became the country’s deadliest in more than a century on Aug 14, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

NEPA: essential check on harmful development is under attack

EarthBlog - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 06:53

Last week, President Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed their “Bipartisan Permitting Reform Implementation Rule.” CEQ administers the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a more than half century old statute that requires our Federal Government to take a “hard look” at major decisions, analyze environmental impacts, review alternatives, and listen to community voices. 

NEPA has a “look before you leap” process that often serves as the primary way people learn, become involved, and help influence decisions impacting their communities and environment. That essential check on potential harmful development is under attack. 

Where it could, CEQ’s proposed rule largely restores the worst NEPA rollbacks from the previous administration. For instance, the 2020 NEPA rule dehumanized certain persons by specifically defining the “human environment” only for “Americans”, as if humans with differing immigration status no longer belonged to our environment. CEQ’s proposed rule now fixes this; and humans once again include all “present and future generations” (1508.1(p)). 

Unfortunately, last June, Congress passed and the President signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (debt-ceiling law), which codified other 2020 NEPA rollbacks. That’s why the President calls this proposed rule “bipartisan”. 

Climate Crisis and Environmental Justice Highlights

Starting with the positive, CEQ’s proposal would require agencies to consider climate change, cumulative effects (1508.1(g)(3)), and environmental justice (1508.1(k) “EJ”) in major decisions.  This represents a crucial victory for all communities, especially underserved communities disproportionately impacted by fossil fuels and mining. For instance, proponents of extraction projects often try to make their climate and EJ impacts seem less significant, by artificially dividing bigger projects into a series of smaller segments. CEQ’s proposed rule prevents this common industry practice.  

This proposed rule builds upon this Administration’s earlier Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Indigenous Knowledge Executive Orders, and CEQ’s “Phase 1” NEPA rule. Plus, tons of public comments, particularly from communities significantly impacted by our government’s fossil fuels and mining decisions. When final, these rules will result in more thoughtful and responsive environmental reviews with agencies more likely selecting preferred alternatives from those most impacted. 

Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 Weakened NEPA

Still, the debt ceiling law, passed in June, resulted in devastating cuts to vital human services and environmental programs, including nutrition assistance, the Indian Health Service, and NEPA. While CEQ’s proposed rule maintains that the government ultimately has final say, many NEPA documents will be written by fossil fuels and mining companies. The debt ceiling law also limited timelines for community input and specifically green-lit the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

The changes to NEPA now direct agencies to periodically consider excluding whole categories of projects (categorical exclusions “CEs”). Other projects may evade site-specific review, if agencies already analyzed a related group of actions (programmatic). The next President may use CEs and/or programmatics to potentially include some plans for mineral exploration, mineral processing, carbon sequestration, petrochemicals, or fossil fuels exports. 

An Extraordinary Time for Extraordinary Circumstances

CEQ should not allow NEPA exclusions for mineral exploration, processing, carbon sequestration, or fossil fuels exports projects, by listing them among examples where extraordinary circumstances may apply (1508.1(m)). 

Here, the extraordinary circumstances for extractive projects include their disproportionate impacts to underserved communities as well as substantial contribution to the climate crisis—precisely the “hard look” NEPA requires. 

The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IRA and IIJA) created a variety of new, and expanded existing, authorities for some environmentally risky projects like copper smelters, lithium processing, or so-called “blue” hydrogen carbon management infrastructure. CEQ should specially note that IRA and IIJA loan guarantees and other financial assistance are major federal actions (1508.1(u)) deserving full NEPA review. This is because provisions of the IRA and IIJA gave agencies (especially the Department of Energy) discretion to exert sufficient program control and responsibility to address environmental effects and financing decisions. 

The President touts the IRA and IIJA as his signature climate and EJ legislative accomplishments, even though he signed a debt-ceiling law that slashed through NEPA. CEQ’s proposed NEPA rule must still translate each law into tangible climate and EJ benefits. CEQ’s proposals attempt to fix some of the problems the debt ceiling bill created. But, as with their “Phase 1” NEPA rule, they will depend on public comments to ensure those fixes work. 

The Biden administration’s new NEPA rulemaking will have a significant impact on any major mining or fossil fuel project that moves forward. Broad  engagement is needed to ensure that frontline communities, environmental justice and the climate are prioritized.

The comment deadline is September 29. Register here for one of CEQ’s four virtual public hearings. 

The post NEPA: essential check on harmful development is under attack appeared first on Earthworks.

Categories: H. Green News

For Decades, Our Carbon Emissions Sped the Growth of Plants — Not Anymore

Yale Environment 360 - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 05:23

For the last century, rising levels of carbon dioxide helped plants grow faster, a rare silver lining in human-caused climate change. But now, as drier conditions set in across much of the globe, plant growth may be failing to keep up with emissions, a new study suggests.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

Time to Dance the Salmon Home

The Revelator - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 05:00

Late in the morning on July 12, a helicopter landed in a field near the entrance to AhDiNa, a campground on the McCloud River in Northern California. Children ran ahead to greet the craft, and soon the road was lined with spectators waiting to witness the delivery of precious cargo: an insulated bucket containing 25,000 fertilized winter-run Chinook salmon eggs.

These eggs would not only bring the Winnemem Wintu Tribe one step closer to bringing salmon, or Nur, back to their ancestral waters, but could also help save the species from extinction.

Winter-run Chinook spawn in summer, but the spring-fed McCloud River runs cold all year round, buffering eggs and young salmon from even the worst summer drought. For 80 years the formidable Shasta Dam has blocked Chinook from the McCloud. Now fish are stuck in California’s Central Valley, where sizzling temperatures and water withdrawals make the Sacramento River lethal.

An adult winter Chinook salmon at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. Photo: Laura Mahoney/USFWS

Winter-run Chinook eggs were first brought to the McCloud River last summer, as part of an emergency plan spearheaded by NOAA Fisheries, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Winnemem Wintu to help the fish survive a third straight year of drought.

“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Cathy Marcinkevage, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. “We had no idea what was going to happen last year. We had no idea if any of them would survive.”

The young salmon released into the McCloud River not only survived — they thrived, growing larger than those that reared in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam.

Late last year the California Department of Fish and Wildlife captured and trucked 1,600 of the fry downstream so they could continue their journeys to the ocean. This year — with a new juvenile collection system, a novel streamside incubation system designed by the Tribe, and agreements in place that recognize the Winnemem Wintu as co-equal decision-makers — the partners hoped to build on their success.

Together Marcinkevage and Marine Sisk, fisheries supervisor for the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, carried the bucket to the ceremony grounds, a caravan of children and adults in their wake. Later in the afternoon, the partners would deliver the eggs to incubators on the riverbank.

First, it was time to dance the salmon home.

Warriors and Eggs

AhDiNa is at the end of a bone-juddering road south of the town of McCloud. On that July day, the campground was full of Winnemem Wintu, agency folk and their families, and people with Run4Salmon, a movement and prayer journey started by Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk in 2016 to call salmon home to the McCloud River.

The ceremony took place in a circular arbor made from wood poles and conifer boughs. A fire in the center burned throughout the day, and as the sun rose higher, the circle had to be sprayed with water before the barefoot dancers could enter.

Chief Sisk. Photo: Juliet Grable

Between dances Chief Sisk invited partners from the agencies and organizations to join her in the circle. While a tribal member blew sage on each person, Chief Sisk asked the partners to open their hearts and minds and pressed for her two most urgent goals: building a “fishway” around Shasta Dam and bringing salmon, or Nur, from New Zealand back to the McCloud River.

Chinook eggs from the McCloud River were exported to New Zealand in the early 1900s, where runs formed in streams on the South Island. In 2010 Māori tribal members invited the Winnemem Wintu to come to New Zealand and see the fish, who Chief Sisk believes are the true relatives of McCloud River Nur.

In their agreements NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have vowed to work with the Tribe to determine whether Nur can be safely imported from New Zealand to California and reintroduced in the McCloud River. Both the state wildlife department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have to sign off on the plan. Some of the questions they will need to answer: Would the fish bring new pathogens to the McCloud? Would they compete with the other reintroduced Chinook for the same resources?

“Bringing the fish back to the U.S. doesn’t necessarily fulfill the recovery objective that we have for winter-run because, to our understanding, [the New Zealand fish] are not genetically the same as the winter-run Chinook that we have now and are trying to recover,” says Marcinkevage. “But we understand they are culturally significant fish for the Tribe and there’s probably a feasible opportunity to have a dual reintroduction that would support both of these species.”

Chief Sisk says that if it weren’t for regulatory barriers, the Māori could deliver 20,000 fertilized eggs as early as next year.

“Some of the rules are wrong for salmon, and they need to be changed,” she says.

For now the eggs come from U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Livingstone Stone hatchery on the Sacramento River. To the people gathered at AhDiNa, they were still worth celebrating.

Gathering around the eggs. Photo: Juliet Grable

The Salmon Dance was the last dance of the ceremony. While the women sang and men drummed, two dancers entered the circle, stepping lightly, undulating like fish. Next came a pair of warriors, their steps more emphatic, underscored by the clatter of anklets. A fifth dancer weaved in and out of the others.

The fifth dancer was the Salmon Spirit, dance captain Rick Wilson explained. First he dances with the salmon and thanks them for presenting themselves. Then he dances with the warriors in the same style.

“He makes sure they’re doing it for the right reason,” says Wilson. “He’s saying, ‘It’s okay; you’re good to go.’ ”

Stronger, Faster, Larger

Down by the river after the ceremony, a small crowd of adults and children pressed around a shade structure, where two vertical stacks of trays were set up. A pipe trickled water continuously through the stack. Each tray can accommodate thousands of salmon eggs. Used in virtually all hatcheries, the system is an efficient if unnatural way to grow fish.

Adjacent the shade structure was a second incubator system designed by Chief Sisk and built with the help of scientists from UC Davis.

Chief Sisk doesn’t like how the fry in the hatchery trays are stacked on top of each other; she wants them to have access to gravel and more agency. Her system, called the Nur Nature Base, has a much larger footprint than the hatchery trays and resembles a backyard water feature. Two deep square basins, lined with gravel, connect to a central pool that is planted with rocks and willow shoots. A sloping chute leads from the pool to a shallow, cobble-lined basin alongside the river.

Chief Sisk demonstrates the Nur Nature Base. Photo: Juliet Grable

Once the eggs hatch, the fish can swim over the lip of the basin into the pool, Chief Sisk explained to the crowd. “And when they’re ready, they’ll swim into this side channel, which the Winnemem Wintu have always built.”

Children crowded around Chief Sisk and her daughter, Marine, waiting for their turn to scoop cups of the orange, BB-sized eggs into the hatchery trays, then into one of the basins of the Nur Nature Base. By the time they completed the task, there were 11,000 eggs in the hatchery trays and 14,000 in the Nature Base.

Chief Sisk is confident that the Nur Nature Base will give the young fish a jump-start. “They’ll be stronger, faster, and larger,” she says.

In a few years, the team will know if she’s correct. Because the fertilized eggs come from the hatchery, the scientists know the identities of their parents and have segregated eggs from unique families between the hatchery trays and the Nur Nature Base. This way any fish that survive and return to the Sacramento River as spawning adults can be genetically traced back to one of the two rearing systems.

Eggs were delivered again in late July and early August, for a total of up to 80,000. Using two different systems and three simulated spawning dates will help the partners learn which strategies work best.

“We’ll know and learn better ways of setting up rearing and incubation,” says Rachel Johnson, salmon life history program lead for NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “What I also love is we are braiding natural science with spiritual and culturally relevant practices.”

Later this summer, the state wildlife department and the Tribe will place a rotary screw sampling trap downstream so they can estimate the number of fry that make it downstream. The agency also hopes to test an experimental in-river fish-trapping station where the McCloud River fattens into an arm of Shasta Lake. Finally, the California Department of Water Resources will install its Juvenile Salmonid Collection System to catch any fish the other traps miss. The system, which the agency piloted last year, uses cold water to funnel young salmon to a collection point, where they can then be trapped and transported below the dam.

Though this is the first project to reintroduce salmon to historical habitat above a large dam in California. Marc Commandatore, environmental program manager at the Department of Water Resources, says the winter-run project is “just the beginning.”

NOAA Fisheries has identified reintroducing fish to high-elevation tributaries as a key climate resilience strategy, especially for salmon languishing in the Central Valley.

“Fish are in the frying pan in the valley,” says Commandatore. “They want to be this beautiful cold water.”

The partnership with the Winnemem Wintu is also a welcome sign of new respect and collaboration among Western scientists and the region’s original salmon stewards. “To bring tribal knowledge into decision-making…I’m humbled by it,” says Commandatore. “We wouldn’t be here if science and engineering and belief hadn’t all come together.”

Previously in The Revelator:

The post Time to Dance the Salmon Home appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Native mental health providers seek to heal boarding school scars with informed and appropriate treatment

High Country News - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 05:00
As more visibility is brought to the legacy of U.S. boarding schools, Indigenous mental health providers and social workers feel that therapy must address the unique trauma carried by survivors.
Categories: H. Green News

Odra Disaster, One Year On: Poland’s Rivers Still Need Saving

Green European Journal - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 03:48

In August 2022, a toxic algae bloom killed millions of fish in the Odra, exposing Poland’s inaction in protecting its rivers from the combined threats of pollution and climate change. One year later, river restoration efforts remain insufficient throughout the Baltic region. But the demands of civil society and citizens to democratise water management are becoming impossible to ignore. 

Jumping in headfirst can be risky, especially into unknown waters. This time, however, we know the waters. They are our waters. Across Europe and around the world, rivers are under serious stress from pollution, hydromorphological pressure, and climate change. By neglecting to manage and maintain the health of our river systems, we are jumping headfirst into the unknown.

Once free-flowing water bodies full of life, Europe’s rivers are dying. The facts are alarming and are the result of human activity. A majority of European river basins are not on track to meet the goals of the EU Water Framework Directive. Introduced in 2000, this crucial piece of legislation was designed to protect the integrity and health of river systems. To safeguard all aspects of their life, rivers must flow naturally and with continuity. Yet in Europe, there is an average of 0.74 barriers for every kilometre of watercourse. Even more strikingly, in Poland, there is a weir every 2.28 kilometres. Imagine how a river feels to be tangled, immobile, and unable to move freely.

The situation of Polish rivers is particularly dire for other reasons too. Over 90 per cent of rivers in the country are in bad condition and in urgent need of restoration. Poland was in the spotlight in 2022 due to the ecological catastrophe of the Odra, its second-largest river after the Vistula. Industrial discharges of salt waters on the Polish side of the Odra basin, in combination with high levels of nutrients and drought, enabled toxic algae to bloom, causing devastating environmental and economic damage that spilled from Poland into Germany. It was a sharp reminder of how rivers and the effects of their mistreatment know no borders. As a new report from Coalition Clean Baltic details, such challenges are always regional. In fact, 97 per cent of the Baltic Sea area suffers from eutrophication due to excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus via inland waters from the surrounding countries.

Across the border into Ukraine, water has even become a weapon of war. In June 2023, Russian aggression took on a new dimension with the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. The explosion caused an immediate, uncontrolled, and massive water discharge from the dam’s reservoir, the largest in Ukraine in terms of water volume. The result is a man-made disaster across the middle and lower Dnipro River catchment, the consequences of which will be felt for decades.

Though the health of our rivers is crucial for water security, the plans and actions necessary to preserve or restore it are not in place. Water policy, and especially its implementation, is becoming increasingly urgent. Are we jumping in headfirst?

The EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law is a potential game changer for Europe’s rivers. Put forward by the Commission in 2022, it aims to contribute to the long-term recovery of damaged nature across the EU’s land and sea areas, and to achieve EU climate and biodiversity objectives.

After the legislation narrowly survived a conservative attempt to sink it, its final details are now being negotiated by the EU Parliament, Council, and Commission. The agrifood lobby that spearheaded the push against the law is the same that holds significant responsibility for the pollution of Europe’s rivers. The proposed law has as its targets the restoration of almost all nature habitats in need (in particular riverine and alluvial habitats) and of 25,000 kilometres of free-flowing rivers, as well as the transition of agriculture towards more sustainable practices (including extensive wetlands rewetting, which would reduce the presence of agricultural pollutants in rivers).

Troubled waters in Poland

When it comes to rivers, the two restoration priorities are allowing them to flow freely and preventing pollution. In 36 European countries, there are at least 1.2 million transverse instream barriers to rivers. Of these, 45,000 are in Poland. Breaking river connectivity also harms economic activity and the flow of water to the sea. There are also barriers disturbing river connectivity with the floodplains. Such alterations cause structural changes to riverbeds and valley systems, affecting citizens in river basins.

Poland is the first country in Europe to have a systematic analysis of what needs to be done to restore and safeguard its rivers. The question is whether it will implement it. 

Pollution is the second major threat to Polish waterways. Rivers contain above-normal amounts of toxins and heavy metals from fossil fuel emissions, transport, and industrial discharges. Poland remains a “coal island”, relying on fossil fuel for transport, energy, and heating, despite the Europe-wide transition towards renewables. Besides being coal-intensive, Poland was also the perpetrator of the Odra ecological disaster. But it is also the first country in Europe to have a systematic analysis of what needs to be done to restore and safeguard its rivers. The question is whether it will implement it. 

In 2020, the Polish state water company developed a national programme for surface water restoration. The document states that 91 per cent of Polish rivers require restoration measures (in many cases consisting simply in changing watercourse maintenance practices, but in other cases requiring technical restoration measures).

The European Centre for River Restoration defines river restoration as “the process aiming at restoring the natural state and functioning of the river system in support of biodiversity, recreation, flood management and landscape development”. As the EU Water Framework Directive mandates that European freshwaters should be in good environmental condition by 2027, large-scale river restoration in Poland would have to start immediately. But this urgency has so far not been visible in the actions of water authorities.

While the restoration programme provides a strong basis for action, the government remains the key decision-maker. Analysis by the former head of the programme Ilona Biedroń found that the government’s draft river basin management plans are highly insufficient. Restoration efforts most often mean only the construction of fish ladders. In total, only around 30 per cent of rivers would see their restoration needs met, while 27 per cent are set to be affected by new developments transforming their hydromorphology. This is not the direction we and our rivers would like to flow.

Poland’s strategic documents talk of “repairing” rivers, but at the same time outline plans for further exploitation. The tacit assumption of government plans is that environmental measures will only be implemented in the future planning period, i.e. after 2027, which would mean deliberately failing to meet European objectives.

The Odra disaster, one year on

In August 2022, a massive fish kill was recorded on the Odra. Several millions of fish were found dead (360 tonnes were collected) and 500 kilometres of the river spanning Poland, Germany, and Czechia were affected. The fish kill was caused by toxic algae, which multiplied due to the high salinity of mining wastewater discharged into the river. The disaster also hit businesses related to the Odra, such as tourism and fishing. This buildup of human pressure on the river did not happen overnight, data says. But under the additional environmental stress of drought in 2022, it led to disaster.

As the main cause of the high salinity of Poland’s rivers, coal mining is a key challenge for water management. The citizens of the Odra basin, as well as social activists and organisations are well aware of the problem. In the aftermath of the disaster, they reacted much faster than state services, which initially denied the facts.

Intensive research is now underway on both sides of the Odra to stop the “golden algae” bloom and manage the ecological effects of massive fish kill. The International Commission for the Protection of the Oder River against Pollution, an inter-government body set up by Czechia, Germany, and Poland has been following the steps taken closely. According to its official proceedings, unpublished but released for this article:

“In Poland, a number of actions have been taken at the central and local level. Many inspections of sewage discharges into waters were carried out and water-legal permits issued in this regard were revised. A pilot 24-hour monitoring of the physical and chemical parameters of the Odra water was introduced using automatic measuring probes in 9 representative places on the river. ”

“Intervention monitoring is also carried out at 30 points (twice a week) located on the Oder and its tributaries (including the Gliwice Canal), as well as reservoirs and oxbow lakes connected to the Odra. As part of this monitoring, the following are controlled: salinity, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH, the amount of nutrients, or even algae. An instruction manual on the occurrence of Prymnesium parvum in the waters of the Odra River has been developed.”

“The Polish government has developed an act on the revitalization of the Odra [the Odra Special Act], which streamlines procedures for key investments on the river, appoints the Water Inspection, and increases the amount of fines for water management offences. An early warning system is also being developed for mines operating close to flowing waters, which will inform in electronic form about low water levels, salinity levels or, in the event of a threat, about the need to suspend discharges of sewage into waters, even in quantities provided for in water-legal permits.”[1]

The Polish government’s Odra Special Act is viewed negatively by independent experts and socio-environmental organisations in Poland. The legislation was proposed with a lack of public consultations and relies on a long list of hard hydro-technical investments, which experts argue will bring further destruction to the Odra. In June and July 2023, again, fish kills at specific points of the river were observed, saline discharges are still a threat, and toxic algae are still present.

Nevertheless, something is slowly changing. The industries responsible for introducing salinity and other pollutants into the waters of the Odra have undertaken to reduce their impacts. KGHM, a Polish multinational metal mining corporation, recently announced a huge investment in a plant for the production of evaporated salt from saline mine water. The goal is to reduce the salt deposited with mine drainage waters by around 50 per cent. Meanwhile, some coal mining companies declared their intention to invest in saltwater storage to decrease discharge in critical hydrological conditions and enable better diluting. Communities on the Odra expect these plans and promises to be fulfilled, which would improve the condition of the river. 

A transboundary river running through three countries, the Odra demands coordination between countries and stakeholders to make sure that the river is healthy from source to sea. If the environmental and economic impact of the disaster is the result of poor transboundary cooperation, it is now time to set a different example.

The Baltic, a shared sea

As rivers know no boundaries, integrated planning and economic development compatible with environmental sustainability should be agreed upon among all nine countries that have their shorelines along the Baltic Sea: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden. 

An excess of agricultural and industrial pollution currently runs into the Baltic Sea. Throughout the region, wastewater treatment and management is still in need of modernisation. As a result of eutrophication, algae blooms can at times prevent bathing in the sea. But most importantly, there are several dead zones where there is no oxygen for marine wildlife. 

Seven major rivers, including five transboundary ones, flow into the Baltic Sea: Daugava, Gota, Nemunas, Neva, Odra, Tornio, and Vistula. Together, they cover 50 per cent of the Baltic Sea catchment area, and nearly 55 million people inhabit these rivers’ catchment areas. The southern ones are the most densely populated and have the most intensive agriculture.

HELCOM, the Baltic Marine Environmental Commission, found that 40 per cent of the total nitrogen and phosphorus load in the Baltic Sea is deposited by these seven rivers; among them, the Vistula is the most polluting. The load of nutrient deposits is decreasing, but not at the speed needed to restore the good condition of the rivers and the Baltic.

Two decades after the adoption of landmark EU water legislation, member states continue to channel enormous amounts of public funds into environmentally harmful activities.

The problems seen in Poland are felt across the Baltic Sea region. There is an urgent need for the restoration of water ecosystems, the immediate cessation of land drainage in the catchment areas, and wetland restoration. In addition, more land must be made available for the protection of the water bodies, including buffer zones along the river banks to prevent the flow of polluting nutrients. The modernisation and reconstruction of wastewater treatment systems can also play an important role in reducing nitrogen inputs.

Protecting water, restoring nature

The EU Water Framework Directive outlined how to achieve environmental objectives for each river basin. Over 20 years later, it is sufficiently robust in terms of the measures it calls for. The stumbling block has consistently been implementation. 

The deadline for EU countries to meet the directive’s legislative objectives was 2015, with the possibility of extension in exceptional circumstances, but no later than 2027. As of today, it appears that not only will the targets not be met, but many necessary measures will likely not be implemented by 2027. This shows that the failure depends on the lack of action by member states, not on the time that restoration naturally requires.

Across the EU, governments are responsible for preparing river basin management plans. Updated every six years, these crucial documents must also undergo public consultation, allowing citizens and civil society groups to help shape the future of their rivers. The current plans (2022-2027) are the last ones before the EU directive’s official deadline.

The Final Sprint for Europe’s Rivers analysis, released in 2021, looks at how 21 draft projects in 11 EU member states are dealing with the main pressures on water. Its overall findings show that EU countries are failing to integrate water protection and environmental objectives with energy, agriculture, and infrastructure policies. That is, major economic sectors outsource their environmental and resource costs to river and water systems. Two decades after the adoption of landmark EU water legislation, member states continue to channel enormous amounts of public funds into environmentally harmful activities, which hinder the achievement of a good ecological, chemical, and quantitative status for our waters.

The analysis concludes that most water bodies “will not reach good status by 2027”. For citizens, this means prolonged exposure to the health impacts of a polluted environment.

They are our rivers too

On 5 June 2021, we entered the United Nations Decade of Restoration. The initiative is a global response to the ecological emergency and an expression of governments’ commitment to “build back better” after the pandemic. The EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law fits into that picture too. And the situation of Poland’s rivers is one of many examples showing that an ambitious restoration strategy is long overdue.

Article 68.4 and Article 74 of the Polish constitution guarantee ecological safety and the prevention of environmental degradation. These provisions are too often forgotten. Policy and government exist to serve the people, not privileged sectors, and what the people need are healthy rivers. All stakeholders should be represented at water roundtables. At least in Poland, too often the most important decisions about the future of our rivers are made between government and economic interests. The lack of engagement of water authorities within the roundtables draws attention.

Society has also become more active in shaping the future of rivers. Coalitions for river protection are increasingly important, from national groups such as the Save the Rivers Coalition in Poland and Aktionsbündnis Lebendige Oder in Germany, to international ones such as the Coalition Clean Baltic and Living Rivers Europe.

Public awareness about the need for healthy rivers is growing, also thanks to initiatives that popularise the life and needs of rivers with accessible language, such as the podcast Zdrowa Rzeka (Healthy River) and the River University, an annual gathering of river stakeholders.

Despite the advances in scientific understanding, an outdated approach to water management is still pursued, favouring technical investments that can do more harm than good over restoration and nature-based solutions. Policies should connect regulatory authorities and practitioners to enable a shared vision for Europe’s waters. Coordinating sectoral policies across areas such as agriculture, environment, economy, and energy is key. The challenges of water management in Poland, in the Baltic Sea region, and across Europe need to be faced bravely and budgeted properly. If the old approach was dominated by lobbying, today we need to think about environmental assets and the citizens’ future.

We now know much about our rivers and how to take care of them. We shouldn’t be scared to swim in them.

¨[1] Translation from Polish of the minutes of the 47th meeting of the International Commission for the Protection of the Oder River against Pollution, G1 Working Group, on May 15-16, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

What one school’s fight to eliminate PFAS says about Indian Country’s forever chemical problem

Grist - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 01:45

Laurie Harper, director of education for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, a K-12 tribal school on the Leech Lake Band Indian Reservation in north-central Minnesota, never thought that a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, would be an issue for her community. That’s partly because, up until a few months ago, she didn’t even know what PFAS were. “We’re in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest,” she said. “It’s definitely not something I had really clearly considered dealing with out here.” 

Late last year, tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that her school’s drinking water wells were contaminated with PFAS. Some of the wells had PFAS levels as high as 160 parts per trillion — 40 times higher than the 4 part-per-trillion threshold the federal government recently proposed as a maximum safe limit. 

PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, are a global problem. The chemicals are in millions of products people use on a regular basis, including pizza boxes, seltzer cans, and contact lenses. They’re also a key ingredient in firefighting foams that have been sprayed into the environment at fire stations and military bases for decades. Over time, these persistent chemicals have migrated into drinking water supplies around the globe and, consequently, into people, where they have been shown to weaken immune systems and contribute to long-term illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. 

After the EPA’s tests came back, Harper, who oversees education for the whole Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, realized that some 300 students and faculty members at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School had been consuming PFAS-tainted water for an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps since the school’s founding in 1975. Now, the chemicals are all Harper thinks about, and their presence in the school’s water supply is a constant reminder of a problem with no obvious solution. 

“We can’t not provide education,” Harper said. “So how do we deal with this?” Months after discovering the contamination, she’s still looking for answers. 

Beyond immediate concerns about how to get students clean water, the situation at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School raises larger questions for Indigenous nations across the United States: Is Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig the only tribal school with PFAS contamination in its water? And how pervasive are PFAS on tribal lands in general? But data on PFAS contamination on tribal lands is patchy at best. In many parts of the country, there’s no data at all. 

“There is very little testing going on in Indian Country to determine the extent of contamination from PFAS to drinking water systems, or even surface waters,” said Elaine Hale Wilson, project manager for the National Tribal Water Council, a tribal advocacy group housed at Northern Arizona University. “At this point, it’s still difficult to gauge the extent of the problem.” 

PFAS have been around since the middle of the 20th century, but they’ve only been recognized as a serious health problem in the past decade or so after a lawyer sued DuPont, one of the top U.S. manufacturers of PFAS, for poisoning rural communities in West Virginia. Since then, a growing body of research has shed light on the scope of the PFAS contamination problem in the United States — nearly half the nation’s water supply is laced with the chemicals — and water utilities are finally taking stock of what it will take to remediate the contamination. But for the 547 tribal nations in the U.S., there is nothing resembling a comprehensive assessment of PFAS contamination. Tribal water systems have gone largely untested because many of them are too small to meet the EPA’s PFAS testing parameters. 

Read Next Is PFAS pollution a human rights violation? These activists say yes.

“We can certainly say that PFAS is an issue for every single person in the United States and its territories, that includes tribal areas,” Kimberly Garrett, a PFAS researcher at Northeastern University whose work has highlighted the lack of PFAS testing on tribes.

The federal government has a responsibility to protect the welfare of all Americans, but it has a legal obligation to tribes. In the 18th century, the government entered into some 400 treaties with Indigenous nations. Tribes reserved specific homelands, or were forcibly moved to places designated by the government, and guaranteed rights like fishing and hunting, as well as peace and protection. Experts say that responsibility to tribes includes protection from contaminants. 

“Every treaty that assigns land to tribes impliedly guarantees that land as a homeland for the tribes,” said Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “Contaminated land is a breach of that treaty land guarantee.”

If PFAS are as widespread on tribal lands as they are in the rest of the U.S., many reservations likely have a public health emergency on their hands. They just don’t know it yet.

An aerial view of of Tract 33 in Cass Lake, Minnesota, home to several of Leech Lake’s Indigenous families. Jerry Holt / Star Tribune via Getty Images

In some ways, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, known as the Bug School, got lucky. In December last year, the Environmental Protection Agency, armed with funding supplied by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in 2021, approached Leech Lake leaders to ask if the tribe would like to have its water tested for PFAS. The agency had $2 billion to help small or disadvantaged communities test their water supplies for emerging contaminants. The Bug School qualified as both. 

When the tests came back positive, the school immediately started shipping in 5-gallon jugs of drinking water and the cafeteria started using bottled water to prepare meals. The school even paused a community gardening program meant to teach students about the value of fresh foods out of fear that the soil was contaminated. 

The school knew that it had a contamination problem on its hands, but believed that the problem would be temporary — the measures it put in place were Band-Aids until a long-term solution was found. Months into the crisis, however, school administrators have yet to figure out a permanent fix. The school still doesn’t know where the contamination is coming from, and the cost of cleaning the chemicals out of its water supply threatens to be prohibitively expensive. 

A map of well and septic location sites provided as part of the water quality evaluation of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School. Courtesy of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

PFAS remediation requires equipment, frequent testing, and dedicated personnel who have the capacity to monitor forever chemicals for years. Paying for PFAS cleanup is a tall order in large, affluent communities with the resources to address toxic contaminants. The mid-sized city of Stuar, Florida, discovered PFAS in its water supply in 2016 and, to date, has spent more than $20 million fixing the problem. The PFAS in their water still aren’t entirely gone. 

On reservations, figuring out who’s responsible for testing for PFAS and paying for remediation is an impossible puzzle to crack, mainly because no one seems to know where the buck stops. 

Federal PFAS testing has largely bypassed tribal public water systems. That’s because tribal systems are smaller, on average, than non-tribal public water systems. Every five years, the EPA tests the nation’s drinking water for “unregulated contaminants” — chemicals and viruses that are not regulated by the agency but pose a potential health threat to the public. The EPA finally included PFAS in its testing for unregulated contaminants in 2012, alongside a list of metals, hormones, and viruses. But it mainly tested systems that serve more than 10,000 people

A study conducted by Northeastern University found that just 28 percent of the population served by tribal public water systems was covered by that round of PFAS testing, compared to 79 percent of the population served by non-tribal water systems. There were also no PFAS results for approximately 18 percent of the tribal water systems tested by the EPA “due to missing data or lack of sampling for PFAS,” the study said. To make matters more complicated, many Indigenous communities get their water from private wells, which are not monitored by the EPA. A recent study suggests a quarter of rural drinking water, much of which comes from private wells, is contaminated by PFAS. 

Data on PFAS in tribal areas, experts emphasized over and over again, is extremely scarce. “We don’t know if PFAS is disproportionately affecting tribal areas,” Garrett said. “We won’t know that until we get more data.” 

What limited data exists is outdated. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that tracks PFAS contamination across the U.S., conducted a rough, preliminary PFAS estimate on tribal lands in 2021 using what data there was available at the time. It showed that there are nearly 3,000 PFAS contamination sites, like garbage dumps, within five-miles of tribal lands. The analysis is almost certainly an underestimate.  

An interactive Environmental Working Group map tracks PFAS contamination near tribal lands. Screenshot captured here on August 11, 2023. Copyright © Environmental Working Group

The lack of PFAS testing on tribal lands is compounded by the fact that there is no one entity responsible for testing and treating tribal water systems for PFAS. That’s partly due to the fact that PFAS are a relatively new issue, but it also has a lot to do with the lack of centralized monitoring of tribal health in general. For example, American Indian and Alaska Native communities experienced some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States in 2020. But the siloed nature of tribal, local, state, and federal data collection systems means that no one has a real sense of just how many Indigenous people died in the pandemic, even years after the crisis began. 

If history is any indication, Fletcher, the law professor, said, remediating these contaminants will be a game of push and pull between the federal government and tribes. In previous efforts to rid reservations of arsenic and lead contamination, he said, “usually the fights are the tribe insisting that the government do something and the government doing everything it can to avoid any kind of liability or obligation.” 

In the 1990s, Rebecca Jim, a Cherokee activist and former teacher who was instrumental in raising awareness about lead poisoning among children in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, had to navigate a complicated patchwork of tribal governments, federal bureaus, and treaties to finally get the government to clean up the Tar Creek Superfund site on the Quapaw Nation — one of the agencies largest Superfunds. It took a decade for Jim and other activists to pressure the EPA into cleaning lead — the legacy of mining for materials used in bullets — out of Ottawa County, and she maintains that the EPA only started paying attention to what was happening in Tar Creek after a local masters student discovered that approximately one-third of children in a town in the county called Picher had lead poisoning. 

“There’s always a fight,” Jim said. “It’s all about money and where you’re going to get the money to do the work.” 

Read Next 3M reaches historic settlement over PFAS contamination

Jim said that testing for contaminants on tribal lands is generally the responsibility of the Indian Health Service, an agency housed within the National Institutes of Health, or falls to a given tribes’ own environmental protection office. But it becomes the EPA’s problem once the agency designates an area as a Superfund site, like Tar Creek was. Then, the EPA tries to go after the polluters responsible for the mess in the first place. If the agency is successful, Jim explained, there is generally ample funding for cleanup efforts. If a polluter can’t be pinned, it falls on the EPA to fund the cleanup, which is a more laborious and less thorough process because there’s fewer dollars to go around. And if the contamination occurs at a federally-controlled tribal school, like the Bug School, the Bureau of Indian Education is responsible. It’s a veritable maze of jurisdiction — even finding where you are in the maze is a tall order. 

Laurie Harper’s efforts to untangle the bureaucratic knot that governs decision-making and testing for contaminants at the Bug School may serve as a lesson to other tribal schools that discover PFAS contamination in their water supplies. In February, two months after the EPA approached the school to offer PFAS testing, the results came back. The agency called the school immediately and said it needed to shut down its water system, an urgent request that caught administrators off guard. “We were still like, what? OK, how long is this going to last? Do we open the water? What do we do with it?” Harper said. 

In March, desperate for answers, Harper traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with the director of the Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, Tony Dearman, who heard her concerns about finding a long-term solution for the school.

What she didn’t find out until later, however, was that the BIE had already conducted its own testing at the Bug School in November 2022, during what Harper and other school administrators had assumed was just the agency’s annual compliance check. “They were already aware that the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school had tested high for PFAS,” Harper said. “They didn’t tell the school administration nor did they tell the tribe. They didn’t even tell the EPA.” 

A USGS watershed report for the Leech Lake Reservation. Courtesy of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

Unbeknownst to her, the BIE had sent a very short email to the school months earlier, in February, telling them that the bureau had found levels of two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — in the school’s water. When Harper finally tracked down that letter and read it, she was appalled by how vague the language was. 

“We have received the PFAS (specifically, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)) results from the November 2, 2022 sampling event,” it read. “There were several exceedances of PFOA at Wells 1, 2, 3 and 4 and PFOS detection at Well 3 all were above the State limit for and EPA Health Advisory for PFOA and PFOS, please see attached spreadsheet.” The letter did not define what PFAS were or how dangerous they can be to human health. And it certainly did not make it clear to Bug School administrators that the school was in the midst of a public health crisis. “I’m an educator, not a hydrologist,” Dan McKeon, the school’s superintendent and the primary recipient of the letter. “There was notice of results that exceeded some standards, but no guidance about what that meant or what we should do.” 

The BIE concluded the letter by telling the school that it would be conducting a second round of PFAS testing within 30 days to “confirm the analytical results” of its initial tests and then determine next steps, but the bureau didn’t return for testing until April 2023 — more than five months after the initial test, and weeks after Harper’s meeting with director Dearman. BIE, she was told by the bureau’s own leadership, was putting out fires on multiple fronts. “You’re not the only school that’s testing high for PFAS,” she recalls BIE’s supervisory environmental specialist telling her. 

Read Next Study: Black and Hispanic communities more likely to have drinking water with PFAS

In a written response to questions from Grist, a spokesperson for the BIE said the bureau is “committed to providing schools with safe drinking water” that meets federal standards and that it is in the process of collecting water samples from BIE-owned public water systems at 69 schools. The bureau did not respond to questions from Grist about how many tribal schools exceed the EPA’s newly proposed 4-part-per-trillion PFAS limit. 

In the past few years, Harper told Grist that two people who worked at the Bug School have died from cancer. Multiple female employees have thyroid issues. Harper knows that these diagnoses could be linked to hereditary, behavioral, or environmental exposures. But the deaths — the most recent, a man who died from testicular cancer just a year ago — have made solving the school’s PFAS situation feel even more urgent. Harper has been meeting with EPA, BIE, BIA, and state agencies to get the problem solved. “I’m so frustrated with how bureaucracy works,” she said. But she’s in the fight for the long haul, whatever it takes. “It’s the long-term solutions we’re interested in, not just the quick fix.”  

Read Next A tribe in Maine is using hemp to remove ‘forever chemicals’ from the soil

Harper isn’t working in a vacuum; 2023 has been a breakthrough year for PFAS awareness and remediation nationwide. Earlier this summer, major manufacturers of PFAS, including Dupont and 3M, agreed to multi-billion-dollar settlements with cities and states across the country — the largest PFAS settlements thus far. At the end of July, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a tribe located about 115 miles southeast of the Bug School, filed a companion lawsuit, tied to those earlier settlements, against 3M for the cost of gathering data on PFAS, treating its drinking water supplies, fisheries, and soil for contamination, and monitoring the health of the tribe. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, a state agency that monitors environmental quality, has conducted a preliminary investigation into the PFAS contamination at the Bug School after school administrators alerted the agency to the problem, but that probe didn’t reveal what the source was. The agency said it will conduct another, “in-depth investigation involving soil and groundwater sampling” at the Bug school in the fall. 

Also at the state level in Minnesota, a bill introduced in the legislature this year would permit Minnesotans who are exposed to toxic chemicals to sue the companies responsible for producing the chemicals and force those companies to pay for the cost of screening for conditions that are caused by exposure. 3M has fought these kinds of laws as they’ve cropped up in state legislatures because a legal right to seek medical monitoring will likely lead to a situation in which the company will have to pay billions of dollars’ worth of medical bills. But Harper is sure she can drum up support for the legislation. “I know I can convince other tribes to get behind a law that would allow medical monitoring in the state of Minnesota,” she said. “This is our land. These are our children. These are our families.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline What one school’s fight to eliminate PFAS says about Indian Country’s forever chemical problem on Aug 14, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

What it might look like if President Biden really declared a climate emergency

Grist - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 01:30

This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

President Joe Biden was unequivocal when asked, during an interview with the Weather Channel last week, if he was “prepared to declare a national emergency with respect to climate change.”

“I’ve already done that,” he answered without hesitation. 

But the president has not, in fact, declared a national emergency for climate change, despite claiming that he’s “practically” done so. Activists, several Democratic lawmakers, and climate scientists have in recent weeks renewed calls for Biden to take that very step, an act that would unlock sweeping executive authorities to halt fossil fuel production and ramp up manufacturing of clean energy technologies.

Though such calls have been made since the day Biden took office, the hottest June and July in history has prompted frustration bordering on outrage with his administration’s response to deadly heat and the climate change driving it. Environmental advocates say that although the president acknowledges the climate crisis in his rhetoric, his administration continues to expand fossil fuel production.

“As long as we are producing and exporting these fossil fuels, the planet will continue to cook,” Jean Su, a senior attorney and energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Grist. 

Su and other environmental lawyers say declaring a climate emergency would be fairly straightforward. Under the National Emergencies Act, Biden could issue a declaration that would activate provisions in existing laws to take drastic measures to address climate change. The president could, for example, halt crude oil exports by reinstating a ban that Congress lifted in 2015. He also could suspend offshore oil and gas drilling in over 11 million acres of federal waters, owing to a clause in those leases that allows the president to suspend operation during a national emergency. 

Some energy analysts warn that a sudden curtailing of fossil fuel exports and production could raise gasoline prices and deepen a European energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Environmental advocates counter that despite record-high domestic oil production, gas prices remain stubbornly high. They point to other reasons for volatile oil markets, including oil-producing countries choosing to cut supplies to raise oil prices, and say a climate emergency declaration could help fulfill energy needs by accelerating development of renewable power generation. 

For example, once a climate emergency is declared, Biden could divert billions of dollars from the military toward constructing renewable energy projects. Under the Defense Production Act, a law invoked by the Trump administration to boost the supply of Covid-19 medical supplies, Biden could order businesses to manufacture more clean energy and transportation technologies. He also could extend loan guarantees to industries crucial to decarbonizing the electrical grid and transportation sector, further boosting the supply of renewable power. 

Biden would, of course, face considerable blowback. Dan Farber, an environmental law professor at UC Berkeley, told Grist that a climate emergency declaration could prompt legal challenges that might land before a conservative Supreme Court. He noted that in the last few years, the court has struck down broad measures taken by the Biden administration to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a vaccination mandate for large employers and a moratorium on evictions

“I think that makes it iffy whether the Supreme Court really would allow sweeping use of any of these emergency powers in a climate emergency,” Farber said.

Su noted that while litigation always is a potential response to any policy, the powers invoked by an emergency declaration would be easily defended in court. “We’re not looking at somersaults and breathing creative definitions into words. These are really straightforward statutory language questions,” Su said. 

The Supreme Court has never overturned a presidential emergency declaration, but there are hurdles beyond that arena, including backlash from Congress, which might threaten the chances of passing future climate legislation. Voters might balk as well, making any declaration a potentially risky move as Biden seeks re-election next year.

But the biggest obstacle to a climate emergency declaration may be the Biden administration itself. Declaring an emergency — and invoking all its potential authorities — sits in direct opposition to its stance on fossil fuels, which so far has fostered the industry’s growth. It has in just the past year approved new oil drilling in Alaska, supported a booming liquified natural gas export industry along the Gulf Coast, and fast-tracked completion of the Mountain Valley methane pipeline in West Virginia. 

“This administration claims to be climate champions, and yet they have constantly approved things like the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said Roishetta Sibley Ozane, founder and director of the Vessel Project, a mutual aid and environmental justice organization in Louisiana. “If you’re going to be a climate champion, you can no longer be approving new fossil fuel infrastructure.” 

Given these challenges, Biden might have an easier time — and provide more immediate relief for communities — by declaring an emergency for heat rather than climate change. He could do so under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. The law authorizes the federal government to provide financial and other forms of assistance to states, tribes, territories, and cities when the president declares a natural disaster or emergency

While the Stafford Act doesn’t explicitly name heat as a disaster covered under the law, Farber and Su say there’s nothing in the statute that prevents extreme heat from qualifying. Much like declaring a disaster for, say, a hurricane, doing so for heat could enable the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to provide relief funding for supplies like power generators and emergency responses like medical care or repairing heat-stressed power grids.  

But the challenges with declaring heat as a disaster might be more administrative than legal. To receive assistance, cities, tribes, and states need to prove that an emergency exceeds their current funding and resource capacity. It can be difficult to tally up the costs of extreme heat, which is less likely to destroy property and more likely to take a toll on public health and productivity. As heat continues to strain electrical systems and send people to hospitals, however, those costs are only becoming more tangible.

Environmental activists say it’s a reminder that the crisis of extreme heat will only get worse until President Biden takes decisive action. 

“We absolutely need emergency funding to deal with people dying on the streets right now,” Su said. “But we also need to deal with the root of the crisis, which is fossil fuels.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline What it might look like if President Biden really declared a climate emergency on Aug 14, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Gulf Coast carbon capture gets $1 billion boost from Biden administration

Grist - Mon, 08/14/2023 - 01:15

The Biden administration announced its biggest effort yet last week to scrub carbon dioxide out of the air, with more than $1 billion going to two facilities on the Gulf Coast that will use  “direct air” carbon capture technology.

Direct air capture, or DAC, is a process which separates carbon from oxygen, and reduces CO2 in the atmosphere. The trapped CO2 can then be safely stored underground, deep in the ocean or converted into useful carbon products like concrete, which would prevent its release back into the air.

Project Cypress will be built in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana and the South Texas DAC is planned for Kleberg County, Texas. Both sites are designed to capture up to 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year initially. Officials said the projects will create over 4,500 jobs for local workers and people formerly employed in the fossil fuel industry.

The process of direct air capture is a great way to mitigate the global warming crisis, said  Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University.

“This carbon capture and sequestration involves stripping CO2 out of the air and putting it somewhere,” Sigman said. “Carbon capture is something that people become interested in when it’s too late to prevent carbon dioxide emissions. “

However, some scientists think the initiative is a waste of money because DAC requires a significant amount of energy to purify CO2 and store it, making it one of the most expensive and inefficient ways to sequester carbon.

The initiative is being funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and is part of a Department of Energy initiative which aims to build a nationwide network of large-scale carbon removal sites to mitigate the climate crisis.

“Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won’t reverse the growing impacts of climate change; we also need to remove the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere—which nearly every climate model makes clear is essential to achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a statement.

The funding for the project was noted as the world’s largest-ever investment in engineered carbon removal, with each new hub expected to clear more than 250 times more carbon dioxide from the air than the largest direct air capturing facility currently operating.

Sigman said getting the technology right for something of this magnitude is tricky. With carbon dioxide making up around 420 parts per million of molecules it’s a challenge to come up with chemical means to strip those molecules out of the air, he said.

 “Carbon dioxide is throughout our whole atmosphere,” said Sigman. “So we have to think about how much our atmosphere is going to be passing through Texas and Louisiana, we have to think about how much of our atmosphere will be passing through these areas.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Gulf Coast carbon capture gets $1 billion boost from Biden administration on Aug 14, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

EPA approved a fuel ingredient even though it could cause cancer in virtually every person exposed over a lifetime

Grist - Sun, 08/13/2023 - 06:00

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved a component of boat fuel made from discarded plastic that the agency’s own risk formula determined was so hazardous, everyone exposed to the substance continually over a lifetime would be expected to develop cancer. Current and former EPA scientists said that threat level is unheard of. It is a million times higher than what the agency usually considers acceptable for new chemicals and six times worse than the risk of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking.

Federal law requires the EPA to conduct safety reviews before allowing new chemical products onto the market. If the agency finds that a substance causes unreasonable risk to health or the environment, the EPA is not allowed to approve it without first finding ways to reduce that risk.

But the agency did not do that in this case. Instead, the EPA decided its scientists were overstating the risks and gave Chevron the go-ahead to make the new boat fuel ingredient at its refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Though the substance can poison air and contaminate water, EPA officials mandated no remedies other than requiring workers to wear gloves, records show.

ProPublica and the Guardian in February reported on the risks of other new plastic-based Chevron fuels that were also approved under an EPA program that the agency had touted as a “climate-friendly” way to boost alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. That story was based on an EPA consent order, a legally binding document the agency issues to address risks to health or the environment. In the Chevron consent order, the highest noted risk came from a jet fuel that was expected to create air pollution so toxic that 1 out of 4 people exposed to it over a lifetime could get cancer.

In February, ProPublica and the Guardian asked the EPA for its scientists’ risk assessment, which underpinned the consent order. The agency declined to provide it, so ProPublica requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. The 203-page risk assessment revealed that, for the boat fuel ingredient, there was a far higher risk that was not in the consent order. EPA scientists included figures that made it possible for ProPublica to calculate the lifetime cancer risk from breathing air pollution that comes from a boat engine burning the fuel. That calculation, which was confirmed by the EPA, came out to 1.3 in 1, meaning every person exposed to it over the course of a full lifetime would be expected to get cancer.

Such risks are exceedingly unusual, according to Maria Doa, a scientist who worked at EPA for 30 years and once directed the division that managed the risks posed by chemicals. The EPA division that approves new chemicals usually limits lifetime cancer risk from an air pollutant to 1 additional case of cancer in a million people. That means that if a million people are continuously exposed over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one case of cancer on top of those from other risks people already face.

When Doa first saw the 1-in-4 cancer risk for the jet fuel, she thought it must have been a typo. The even higher cancer risk for the boat fuel component left her struggling for words. “I had never seen a 1-in-4 risk before this, let alone a 1.3-in-1,” said Doa. “This is ridiculously high.”

Another serious cancer risk associated with the boat fuel ingredient that was documented in the risk assessment was also missing from the consent order. For every 100 people who ate fish raised in water contaminated with that same product over a lifetime, seven would be expected to develop cancer — a risk that’s 70,000 times what the agency usually considers acceptable.

When asked why it didn’t include those sky-high risks in the consent order, the EPA acknowledged having made a mistake. This information “was inadvertently not included in the consent order,” an agency spokesperson said in an email.

Nevertheless, in response to questions, the agency wrote, “EPA considered the full range of values described in the risk assessment to develop its risk management approach for these” fuels. The statement said that the cancer risk estimates were “extremely unlikely and reported with high uncertainty.” Because it used conservative assumptions when modeling, the EPA said, it had significantly overestimated the cancer risks posed by both the jet fuel and the component of marine fuel. The agency assumed, for instance, that every plane at an airport would be idling on a runway burning an entire tank of fuel, that the cancer-causing components would be present in the exhaust and that residents nearby would breathe that exhaust every day over their lifetime.

In addition, the EPA also said that it determined the risks from the new chemicals were similar to those from fuels that have been made for years, so the agency relied on existing laws rather than calling for additional protections. But the Toxic Substances Control Act requires the EPA to review every new chemical — no matter how similar to existing ones. Most petroleum-based fuels were never assessed under the law because existing chemicals were exempted from review when it passed in 1976. Studies show people living near refineries have elevated cancer rates.

“EPA recognizes that the model it used in its risk assessments was not designed in a way that led to realistic risk estimates for some of the transportation fuel uses,” an agency spokesperson wrote. For weeks, ProPublica asked what a realistic cancer risk estimate for the fuels would be, but the agency did not provide one by the time of publication.

New chemicals are treated differently under federal law than ones that are already being sold. If the agency is unsure of the dangers posed by a new chemical, the law allows the EPA to order tests to clarify the potential health and environmental harms. The agency can also require that companies monitor the air for emissions or reduce the release of pollutants. It can also restrict the use of new products or bar their production altogether. But in this case, the agency didn’t do any of those things.

Six environmental organizations concerned about the risks from the fuels — the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Moms Clean Air Force, Toxic-Free Future, Environmental Defense Fund and Beyond Plastics — are challenging the agency’s characterization of the cancer risks. “EPA’s assertion that the assumptions in the risk assessment are overly conservative is not supported,” the groups wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to EPA administrator Michael Regan. The groups accused the agency of failing to protect people from dangers posed by the fuels and urged the EPA to withdraw the consent order approving them.

Chevron has not started making the new fuels, the EPA said.

Separately, the EPA acknowledged that it had mislabeled critical information about the harmful emissions. The consent order said the 1-in-4 lifetime cancer risk referred to “stack air” — a term for pollution released through a smokestack. The cancer burden from smokestack pollution would fall on residents who live near the refinery. And indeed a community group in Pascagoula sued the EPA, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to invalidate the agency’s approval of the chemicals.

But the agency now says that those numbers in the consent order do not reflect the cancer risk posed by air from refinery smokestacks. When the consent order said stack emissions, the EPA says, it really meant pollution released from the exhaust of the jets and boats powered by these fuels.

“We understand that this may have caused a misunderstanding,” the EPA wrote in its response to ProPublica.

Based on that explanation, the extraordinary cancer burden would fall on people near boats or idling airplanes that use the fuels — not those living near the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula.

Each of the two cancer-causing products is expected to be used at 100 sites, the EPA confirmed. ProPublica asked for the exact locations where the public might encounter them, but Chevron declined to say. The EPA said it didn’t know the locations and didn’t even know whether the marine fuel would be used for a Navy vessel, a cruise ship or a motorboat.

In an email, a Chevron spokesperson referred questions to the EPA and added: “The safety of our employees, contractors and communities are our first priority. We place the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce and protection of our assets, communities and the environment.”

Doa, the former EPA scientist who worked at the agency for three decades, said she had never known the EPA to misidentify a source of pollution in a consent order. “When I was there, if we said something was stack emissions, we meant that they were stack emissions,” she said.

During multiple email exchanges with ProPublica and the Guardian leading up to the February story, the EPA never said that cancer risks listed as coming from stack emissions were actually from boat and airplane exhaust. The agency did not explain why it initially chose not to tell ProPublica and the Guardian that the EPA had mislabeled the emissions.

The agency faced scrutiny after the February story in ProPublica and the Guardian. In an April letter to EPA administrator Michael Regan, Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on environmental justice and chemical safety, said he was troubled by the high cancer risks and the fact that the EPA approved the new chemicals using a program meant to address the climate crisis.

EPA assistant administrator Michal Freedhoff told Merkley in a letter earlier this year that the 1-in-4 cancer risk stemmed from exposure to the exhaust of idling airplanes and the real risk to the residents who live near the Pascagoula refinery was “on the order of one in a hundred thousand,” meaning it would cause one case of cancer in 100,000 people exposed over a lifetime.

Told about the even higher cancer risk from the boat fuel ingredient, Merkley said in an email, “It remains deeply concerning that fossil fuel companies are spinning what is a complicated method of burning plastics, that is actually poisoning communities, as beneficial to the climate. We don’t understand the cancer risks associated with creating or using fuels derived from plastics.”

Merkley said he is “leaving no stone unturned while digging into the full scope of the problem, including looking into EPA’s program.”

He added, “Thanks to the dogged reporting from ProPublica we are getting a better sense of the scale and magnitude of this program that has raised so many concerns.”

The risk assessment makes it clear that cancer is not the only problem. Some of the new fuels pose additional risks to infants, the document said, but the EPA didn’t quantify the effects or do anything to limit those harms, and the agency wouldn’t answer questions about them.

Some of these newly approved toxic chemicals are expected to persist in nature and accumulate in living things, the risk assessment said. That combination is supposed to trigger additional restrictions under EPA policy, including prohibitions on releasing the chemicals into water. Yet the agency lists the risk from eating fish contaminated with several of the compounds, suggesting they are expected to get into water. When asked about this, an EPA spokesperson wrote that the agency’s testing protocols for persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity are “unsuitable for complex mixtures” and contended that these substances are similar to existing petroleum-based fuels.

The EPA has taken one major step in response to concerns about the plastic-based chemicals. In June, it proposed a rule that would require companies to contact the agency before making any of 18 fuels and related compounds listed in the Chevron consent order. The EPA would then have the option of requiring tests to ensure that the oil used to create the new fuels doesn’t contain unsafe contaminants often found in plastic, including certain flame retardants, heavy metals, dioxins and PFAS. If approved, the rule will require Chevron to undergo such a review before producing the fuels, according to the EPA.

But environmental advocates say that the new information about the plastic-based chemicals has left them convinced that, even without additional contamination, the fuels will pose a grave risk.

“This new information just raises more questions about why they didn’t do this the right way,” said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at NRDC. “The more that comes out about this, the worse it looks.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EPA approved a fuel ingredient even though it could cause cancer in virtually every person exposed over a lifetime on Aug 13, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The one-mile rule: Texas’ unwritten and arbitrary policy protects big polluters from citizen complaints

Grist - Sat, 08/12/2023 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

On a rugged stretch of the Gulf Coast in Texas, environmental groups called foul in 2020 when an oil company sought pollution permits to expand its export terminal beside Lavaca Bay. 

Led by a coalition of local shrimpers and oystermen, the groups produced an analysis alleging that the company, Max Midstream, underrepresented expected emissions in order to avoid a more rigorous permitting process and stricter pollution control requirements. 

In its response, Max Midstream did not respond to those allegations. Instead, it cited what it characterized as the “quintessential one-mile test” by Texas’ environmental regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to claim that the groups and citizens involved had no right to bring forth a challenge because they lived more than one mile from the Seahawk Oil Terminal. 

“The well-established Commission precedent has been repeated again and again,” the lawyers wrote. “Based on the quintessential one-mile test relied upon by the Commission for decades, none of the Hearing Requests can be granted.”

The TCEQ agreed, rejecting all hearing requests and issuing the permit as initially proposed. 

But the agency says the one-mile test cited by the company’s lawyers doesn’t exist.

“The Commission has never adopted a one-mile policy,” said TCEQ spokesperson Laura Lopez. “Instead, the Commission applies all factors set out in statute and rules.”

A Citgo refinery fumes behind a home in Hillcrest, Corpus Christi. Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

Indeed, the test is not codified in Texas law or TCEQ rules. Yet it appears consistently in TCEQ opinions going back at least 13 years as a means to restrict public challenges to air pollution permits. It has been cited repeatedly by industry lawyers and denounced by environmental advocates.

“This practice is arbitrary and unlawful,” said Erin Gaines, an Austin-based senior attorney with the nonprofit Earthjustice. “TCEQ’s practices prevent people from having a meaningful voice in the permitting process for polluting facilities in their community.” 

U.S. law requires that states provide citizens with the opportunity to challenge pollution permits in federal court. The rules regarding who may bring forth challenges are laid out in Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which doesn’t say anything about a distance limit. 

Dozens of Texas environmental groups have argued in petitions, now before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that TCEQ unlawfully restricts access to judicial review, including through the one-mile rule, and litigants in the Max Midstream case have now challenged the use of the one-mile rule in federal court and are awaiting a hearing set for this fall. 

The TCEQ, which is responsible for implementing federal pollution laws in Texas, issued its blanket denial that the rule exists despite a list of more than 15 cases compiled by Inside Climate News that centered on the one-mile standard. In some, it was explicitly cited by TCEQ itself, or by industry lawyers. In others, the one-mile standard is depicted on maps produced by the TCEQ. In each case, the distance standard is the main or the only justification offered for granting or denying citizens’ hearing requests.

Last year the nonprofit Earthjustice reviewed 460 requests for air permit hearings between 2016 and 2021. It found that while requests from citizens living within one mile of a facility comprised 12 percent of the requests, they comprised 83 percent of the requests the agency granted; almost all of the remaining 17 percent of granted requests came from people who lived only slightly farther than one mile away.  

“TCEQ’s actions speak for themselves,” Gaines said. “TCEQ routinely denies hearing requests from members of the public unless they own property within one mile of a facility.”

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality central headquarters in Austin, pictured on July 26, 2023 Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News The one-mile standard 

Texans who wish to challenge TCEQ permit decisions must file a request with the agency. Its executive director reviews those requests and recommends whether or not the agency’s three commissioners, all appointed by the Republican governor of Texas, should grant them. 

To do that, the executive director assesses whether the challengers qualify as “affected persons” with legal standing to bring forth complaints. Texas’ administrative code considers an “affected person” anyone who will be “affected by the application” in a way that is not “common to members of the general public.”

When formulating recommendations, the TCEQ’s Lopez said, the executive director “considers many factors, only one of which relates to the location of the facility.”

However, a review of the agency’s recommendations shows that the distance standard is regularly the only factor used to recommend rejection of hearing requests.

It appears in writing as far back as 2010, when 36 people challenged a permit renewal for a gas processing plant in northeast Texas, mostly complaining about odorous hydrogen sulfide gas coming from the facility’s flares. 

“The Executive Director has generally determined that hearing requestors who reside greater than one mile from the facility are not likely to be impacted differently than any other member of the general public,” wrote the executive director at the time, Mark Vickery, who is now a lobbyist for the Texas Association of Manufacturers. “For this permit application, the Executive Director’s staff has determined that no requestors are located within one mile of the proposed facility.”

(The permit renewal in question was not eligible for a hearing anyway, Vikery wrote, because it posed no changes from its original form.)

His recommendation: none of the requestors should be recognized as affected persons. The TCEQ commissioners agreed.

“All requests for a contested case hearing are hereby DENIED,” wrote then-TCEQ Chair Bryan Shaw, who is now a lobbyist for the Texas Oil and Gas Association.  

“Rule of thumb

By 2014, the rule was well known among lawyers for industrial developers. That year, 16 members of the Danevang Lutheran Church in rural Wharton County requested a hearing over plans to build a gas-fired power plant in their tiny town. 

In written arguments to the TCEQ, lawyers for the plant developer, Indeck Wharton, wrote, “A key factor the Commission frequently uses as guidance on the distance issue is the one-mile ‘rule of thumb.’”

“While it is not an immutable rule, the Commission frequently uses it as a guide,” the lawyers wrote. “It is not found in any statute, regulation or guidance document. Instead, it is founded in common sense and experience.”

TCEQ’s executive director at the time, Zak Covar, then invoked the one-mile limit.

“Although the church is within one mile of the proposed facility, the request does not claim that any person resides at the church,” Covar wrote before the commissioners denied the church members’ request for a hearing and issued the permit as proposed. 

In 2017, the TCEQ received 16 hearing requests — including from local residents, a Texas A&M University chemist and the Bryan Independent School District — over plans by Saint-Gobain Ceramics and Plastic Inc., to build a facility in Bryan.

A 2017 map produced by the TCEQ executive director showing distances of hearing requestors relative to a proposed industrial facility in Bryan, Texas. Via Inside Climate News

“Because distance from the facility is key to the issue of whether there is a likely impact … the ED has identified an area of approximately one mile from the plant on the provided map,” wrote the executive director at the time, Richard Hyde. 

Only Jane Long Intermediate School sat within the one-mile radius. So TCEQ denied 15 hearing requests and granted the school district’s. Later, the school district withdrew its hearing request, citing a settlement agreement with Saint-Gobain, and TCEQ approved the permit application.

Two years later, when Annova LNG applied for permits to build a gas compressor and terminal on the Rio Grande delta, the nearby city of South Padre Island requested a hearing

“The City stated that it is located more than one mile from the proposed terminal,” wrote the executive director at the time, Toby Baker. “Given the distance of the City from the proposed terminal, the ED recommends that the Commission find that the City is not an affected person.”

The commission agreed. Hearings were denied and a permit was issued.

Also in 2019, 36 residents requested hearings over permits for a concrete plant in Midlothian. The nearest of them, Sarah Ingram, lived 1.2 miles away and expressed concern about the health of her children when protesting the pollution permit. 

“As none of the requestors reside within one mile of the plant’s emission point, they are not expected to experience any impacts different than those experienced by the general public,” Baker wrote

Commissioners denied all requests and granted the permit as proposed. 

In 2020, the nonprofit Lone Star Legal Aid filed a hearing request on behalf of Port Arthur resident John Beard over a developer’s plans to build an LNG export terminal. 

According to the request, Beard regularly spends time on Pleasure Island, an 18-mile long recreational area in Port Arthur that runs as close as 900 feet from the proposed terminal site, in his capacity as the chair of the Pleasure Island Advisory Board.

John Beard pictured in Port Arthur on on July 2, 2018. Pu Ying Huang/Texas Tribune

In evaluating the request, the TCEQ only considered Beard’s home address, four miles away. 

“Beard is not an affected person in his own right because he is located almost 4 miles from the facility,” wrote Baker, the executive director

Lone Star Legal Aid filed an 11-page response, claiming “sites like Port Arthur LNG require the commission to consider a larger impact area than merely a mile,” and that “there are no distance restrictions imposed by law on who may be considered an affected person.” 

TCEQ referred the question to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, where an administrative law judge agreed with Lone Star Legal Aid, writing, “the Applicant’s own data indicated that operation of the Proposed Facility will result in increased levels of [nitrogen oxides] and [fine particulate matter] at Mr. Beard’s residence.”

The administrative judge declared Beard an “affected person” and ordered a hearing over the pollution permit, which was held in February 2022. A second administrative judge also agreed with some of Lone Star Legal Aid’s complaints and recommended that the TCEQ require Port Arthur LNG to use better pollution control technology that would lower emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide from the facility’s eight gas compressor turbines.

But the commissioners rejected most of the judges’ recommendations, calling them “economically unreasonable,” and approved the permit.  

Meanwhile, TCEQ has granted hearing requests for requestors who live within a mile. In 2015, a group called Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress in Corpus Christi requested a hearing over air pollution permits for a planned modification at a Citgo Refinery, and identified group members living a few blocks from the refinery. 

Five years later, the executive director recommended granting the request “because the Alliance identifies as members residents (sic) that reside within one mile of the proposed facility.” Citgo withdrew its application before a hearing was held. 

Legal complaints 

The country’s landmark environmental laws, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, require states to provide opportunities for citizens to challenge pollution permits in court, a process known as judicial review, so a judge may evaluate if permits are consistent with federal standards. 

Texas law provides such opportunities in its health and safety code, which says: “A person affected by a ruling, order, decision, or other act of the [TCEQ]… may appeal the action by filing a petition in a district court.” 

But multiple petitions to the EPA have alleged that Texas courts will only take up pollution permit complaints if the plaintiff has already been through a “contested case hearing” in administrative courts run by the state. Thus, by denying complainants’ requests for contested case hearings, often citing the one-mile standard, the TCEQ controls their access to the courts. 

“Participation in the contested case hearing process is a prerequisite to seeking judicial review of a TCEQ permitting decision,” reads one 38-page petition filed with the EPA in 2021 by 22 Texas environmental groups, focused on TCEQ’s water pollution management. “This empowers the TCEQ full discretion to deny any person the right of judicial review.”

Where federal law is concerned, requirements for access to judicial review are laid out in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. When states are charged with enforcing federal law, they may not impose limits beyond what the Constitution says, according to Gaines, the environmental attorney with Earthjustice in Texas.

In another 61-page petition filed last year with the EPA over TCEQ’s air pollution management, 11 Texas environmental groups said the contested case hearing process is absent from the sweeping pollution management plans that Texas, like all states, must submit to the EPA for approval. 

That process, the petition says, includes “an arbitrary presumption that only those who own property or live within one mile of a proposed new or modified source are affected persons entitled to participate in a contested case hearing.”

“While not codified anywhere, this ‘rule of thumb’ is used regardless (of) how large the source is, the character of the emissions, the size of a facility’s stacks, or local meteorological conditions,” the petition said. 

Max Midstream’s Seahawk oil terminal at the Port of Calhoun County seen on June 7, 2023. Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

For that petition, an EarthJustice analysis showed that TCEQ granted only 12 percent of hearing requests between 2016 and 2021 — virtually all of them from people who lived within a mile or just slightly further from the applicant’s location. 

Early this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded to the 2021 petition and said it was “informally investigating the allegations.” 

“If proven to be true, the allegations outlined in the Petition are concerning,” Charles Maguire, the EPA deputy regional administrator, wrote in January.  

The EPA can revoke a state’s authority to implement federal environmental law if the state regulator does not meet program requirements, Maguire wrote, including “failure to comply with the public participation requirements.”

A spokesperson for EPA Region 6, Jennah Durant, told Inside Climate News, “Because both petitions are still under review, EPA cannot provide further details at this time.”

Durant declined requests for interviews with Region 6 administrator Earthea Nance and did not respond to questions about why only informal investigations were launched. 

“If states start to deviate too much from national expectations about good implementation enforcement, which includes access to judicial review, the EPA can disapprove of the state’s plan,” said Cary Coglianese, director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not a threat that’s used often and it can’t be used lightly.”

Diane Wilson stands in Port Lavaca, across Lavaca Bay from the Formosa Plastics Corp. Plant, pictured on July 23, 2023. Christopher Baddour/Inside Climate News The case of Max Midstream

Diane Wilson filed her first hearing request with the TCEQ in 1989. Since then she’s filed over a hundred more, she guesses. Only twice has she been recognized as an affected person, in 1998 and 2015. 

“You ask any activist out there, any grassroots person, and they will tell you the same thing about TCEQ,” she said. “They’re in a big love affair with industry.”

Wilson, who leads an organization called San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, filed a challenge with the TCEQ when Max Midstream sought its permit to discharge airborne toxins including “hazardous air pollutants” such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and fine particulate matter, all known by the EPA to cause cancer and other serious health impacts.

Her organization, together with the Environmental Integrity Project and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, obtained data from Max Midstream’s permit application for the Seahawk Oil Terminal, analyzed it and concluded that the company underrepresented expected emissions in order to avoid a more rigorous review process for larger pollution sources. 

That was when lawyers for Max Midstream cited the one-mile rule.

“Based on consistent Commission precedent,” the lawyers wrote. “Only a property owner with an interest within one mile or slightly farther could possibly qualify for a contested case hearing.”

“It’s crazy they say that,” said Wilson, 75, as she sat in a bayside park in Port Lavaca. She pointed across the water to the sprawling Formosa Plastics Corp. plant that stood prominently on the horizon, some seven miles away (farther than Max Midstream). “I have been here and watched releases from that plant come clear across the bay. It’s like a fog come in.”

She submitted to the TCEQ analysis from Ranajit Sahu, a private environmental consultant in California who previously managed air quality programs and has a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. He testified that harmful health impacts from the terminal could extend up to five miles away. 

She also pointed to a 2009 study, led by a researcher at Texas A&M University and published in the journal Ecotoxicology, which linked clusters of genetic damage among cows in Calhoun County to industrial emissions up to 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away. The largest cluster identified was seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the industrial facilities.

Nevertheless, in a 2022 opinion, Baker, the TCEQ executive director, sided with Max Midstream. Although Wilson had stated that she regularly spent time near the site of the proposed facility, her home was 16 miles away in the town of Seadrift. 

Baker wrote: “Given the distance of Ms. Wilson’s residence relative to the location of the terminal, her health and safety would not be impacted in a manner different from the general public. Therefore, the ED recommends that the commission find that Diane Wilson is not an affected person.”

A map produced by the TCEQ executive director in 2022 showing locations of hearing requesters relative to Max Midstream’s Seahawk oil terminal on Lavaca Bay. Via Inside Climate News

The director used the same reasoning to recommend rejection of hearing requests from five residents in Port Lavaca, about 4 miles across the water from the Seahawk terminal — a complex of huge storage tanks, marine loading docks and a pump station to move oil through a 100-mile pipeline. 

They included Mauricio Blanco, a 51-year-old shrimper who said he spends nine hours per day on the water close to the proposed facility, even though he lives six miles away. 

Also included: Curtis Miller, 61, owner of Miller’s Seafood, a national wholesaler of shrimp, fish and oysters started by his uncle in the 1960s, with its headquarters on the bayside in Port Lavaca. 

In official comments, he told the TCEQ he would be harmed economically by increased air emissions because carbon dioxide from the terminal will contribute to acidification of bay waters, harming the oyster population he depends on. 

Baker acknowledged Miller’s economic concerns, but concluded that “based on his location relative to the terminal, Mr. Miller’s health and safety would not be impacted in a manner different from the general public.”

Miller, a stout seaman covered in sunspots, said, “I don’t know what they base that on. I think we could be strongly affected here 4 or 5 miles away.”

From the docks at Port Lavaca, he pointed across the water at the Seahawk Terminal, the tallest feature on the horizon, looming large to the northeast. 

Curtis Miller, president of Miller’s Seafood, stands beside his fleet of shrimping boats in Port Lavaca, Texas, on June 7, 2023. Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

“Does that look far away to you?” he said.

Then he pointed at a U.S. flag that was flapping to the southwest, directly from the plant to where he stood. 

“Look which way the wind is blowing,” he said. “That’s our prevailing summer wind.”

In April 2022, the TCEQ commissioners agreed with the executive director and denied all hearing requests

It issued Max Midstream a permit authorizing 61 different emissions points to release up to eight different air contaminants at a collective rate of hundreds of pounds per hour.

“Emissions from this facility must not cause or contribute to ‘air pollution’ as defined in Texas Health and Safety Code,” the permit said. 

In June 2022, Wilson sued the TCEQ in federal court, alleging that it “acted arbitrarily and unreasonably in determining that Plaintiffs did not qualify as affected persons” based solely on distance. 

“There are no distance restrictions imposed by law for this type of permit,” reads a legal brief Wilson filed for the case in July 2023.  

She claimed TCEQ issued a pollution permit that was not compliant with state and federal law and asked the court to overturn it. A first hearing in the case is set for November. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The one-mile rule: Texas’ unwritten and arbitrary policy protects big polluters from citizen complaints on Aug 12, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

It's Not Just Earthquakes — Fracking Also Linked to Small Tremors, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - Fri, 08/11/2023 - 04:13

While past studies have linked fracking to earthquakes, scientists now say the drilling method is also a source of even small seismic tremors.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

The ocean is shattering heat records. Here’s what that means for fisheries.

Grist - Fri, 08/11/2023 - 01:45

Scientists first spotted the Blob in late 2013. The sprawling patch of unusually tepid water in the Gulf of Alaska grew, and grew some more, until it covered an area about the size of the continental United States. Over the course of two years, 1 million seabirds died, kelp forests withered, and sea lion pups got stranded.

But you could have easily missed it. A heat wave in the ocean is not like one on land. What happens on the 70 percent of the planet covered by saltwater is mostly out of sight. There’s no melting asphalt, no straining electrical grids, no sweating through shirts. Just a deep-red splotch on a scientist’s map telling everyone it’s hot out there, and perhaps a photo of birds washed up on a faraway beach to prove it. 

Yet marine heat waves can “inject a lot of chaos,” said Chris Free, a fisheries scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not just gulls and sea snails that suffer. Some 100 million Pacific cod, commonly used in fish and chips, vanished in the Gulf of Alaska during the Blob. In British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, salmon runs – and the fishing industry that depends on them – floundered. The acute warming also triggered a toxic algal bloom that disrupted the West Coast’s lucrative Dungeness crab business. 

“It occurred in this place where we have some of the best-managed fisheries in the world, and it still created all these impacts,” Free said.

The Blob was the largest and longest-lasting marine heat wave on record. It might also have been an early glimpse of what’s to come. Fish farms in Chile, scallop operations in Australia, and snow crab pots in Alaska have already fallen victim to oceanic overheating. The economic toll from a single occurrence on fisheries and coastal economies can be as hefty as $3.1 billion. The northeastern Pacific Ocean has experienced several hot spells over the past decade — including the Blob 2.0 — and it’s still experiencing one. As a result, six of the last seven Dungeness crab seasons in California have been delayed. Scientists predict more fisheries will collapse in coming years as climate change — and the ongoing El Niño weather pattern warming the Pacific — spurs more marine heat waves 

“I’m really worried,” said William Cheung, director of the Institute of Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. “This year we already know the temperature is crazy high.” 

As the planet warms, marine heat waves have grown more frequent and more severe. The world’s oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses, and are as hot as humans have ever measured them. During a hotspot in late July, water off the southern tip of Florida reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit — toasty enough to fill a hot tub. 

“That’s the highest water temperature I’ve ever heard of in the ocean,” said Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist at the University of South Florida who has studied oceans for 50 years. “Fish species in particular are great canaries in our collective coal mine.”

Marine heat waves can form in a number of ways, but in general they’re caused by changes in how the air and ocean currents move. When the wind weakens, the sea temperature tends to rise because warm surface water doesn’t evaporate as easily, and colder water doesn’t get churned up from the deep. 

Shifts beneath the surface can trigger heat waves, too. One appeared off the west coast of Australia in 2011 when a streak of warm water, some 100 miles wide and 3,000 miles long, surged south. It brought so much warmth from the tropics that ocean temperatures in the region rose almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. The extreme conditions stuck around for about three months, killing shellfish and forcing scallop and crab fisheries to close. To this day, the kelp forests, which provide crucial habitat for marine creatures like lobsters, haven’t recovered, said Alex Sen Gupta, an ocean and climate scientist at the University of New South Wales.

Read Next The snow crab vanishes

As the sea grows warmer, marine heat waves are more likely to tip temperatures past the threshold at which coral, kelp, and other marine life can survive. In western Australia, heat waves as intense as the one in 2011 occur roughly once every 80 years. They could arrive as often as once a year by 2100 if countries continue pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the air at high levels. Researchers pegged the chances of the Blob having re-emerged as strongly as it did in the Pacific Ocean in 2019 at less than 1 percent if it weren’t for human-caused warming. 

How global warming alters the wind and ocean patterns that spawn marine heat waves remains an “open question,” said Mike Alexander, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Yet he and Sen Gupta don’t doubt that planetary warming and rising ocean temperatures are making marine heat waves worse. 

Fish that prefer cold water, like cod and salmon, are particularly vulnerable to heat waves. Warm water forces them to work harder, which means they need more food to sustain themselves. At the same time, it can make prey less accessible — say, by keeping the zooplankton salmon feast upon from rising to the surface for an easy supper. 

The heat also can restrict Pacific cod spawning habitat. Amid extreme heat in the Gulf of Alaska, their numbers tanked between 2013 and 2017. The population struggled to recover, so in 2020 the federal government closed the commercial season for the first time. The fish hauled out of the Gulf of Alaska have accounted for as much as 18 percent of the Pacific cod caught around the world. “It’s kind of devastating,” longtime cod fisherman Frank Miles, based in Kodiak, Alaska, told NPR at the time. 

The cod harvest has since reopened, but other fisheries haven’t been as resilient. In 2021, Canada closed 60 percent of its commercial Pacific salmon harvests, which support an industry that employs more than 6,000 people in British Columbia. 

As many as 30 million sockeye salmon migrated up British Columbia’s Fraser River in 2010. A decade later, only 291,000 salmon returned. The fish are declining for a number of reasons, but scientists say extreme ocean heat is a major culprit

“We’re really seeing substantial declines in salmon productivity,” said Catherine Michielsens, chief of fisheries management science at the Pacific Salmon Commission. She said there’s a “real concern” that British Columbia is witnessing the end of its commercial salmon fisheries.

A researcher holds a Pacific cod after putting a satellite tag on it. NOAA Fisheries

It’s easy to focus on the heat during a heat wave, but high temperatures aren’t the only threat to fisheries. These weather patterns can cause a cascade of ecosystem changes, from algal blooms to shifting whale feeding grounds, that can wreak havoc on the fishing industry. That’s what happened in late 2015, at the tail end of the Blob. California, Oregon, and Washington delayed their Dungeness crab seasons — one of the West Coast’s most valuable seafood harvests — because the warm water spurred the growth of toxic algae, which catapulted a neurotoxin called domoic acid up the food chain. The crabs were more or less fine, but anyone who ate one might have wound up in the emergency room vomiting, lost some short-term memories, or even died. 

When California finally opened its crab season after a four-month closure, West Coast fisherfolk had lost an estimated $97.5 million compared to the previous year. But the Blob added more trouble to the mix. The warm water pushed krill, humpback whales’ main grub, toward the coast and into crabbers’ territory. “There was this intense overlap between the Dungeness crab fishery and humpback whales that led to an enormous spike in humpback whale entanglements in crab-fishing gear,” Free said. 

California’s Dungeness harvest rebounded with a strong catch in late 2016 and 2017, but it continues to face closures and delays due to concerns about toxic algae and trapped whales — a stark contrast from the pre-Blob era, when there were very few closures, Free said. “It’s putting the fishery on sort of a precipice right now.”

Chris Swim and Nick White stack crab traps in the parking lot of the Pillar Point Harbor on November 5, 2015 in Half Moon Bay, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The northeastern Pacific is not the only place where fisheries are feeling the heat. One place of particular concern is the Gulf of Maine — in the northwest Atlantic Ocean — which has experienced a marine heat wave every year since 2012, according to Kathy Mills, a fisheries ecologist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. 

The Gulf of Maine is like a sink with two faucets: one has cold water moving south from the Labrador Sea, the other has warm water from the tropics moving north along the Gulf Stream. But in recent years the Gulf Stream, a strong current that travels from the Caribbean up the East Coast and across the North Atlantic to Europe, has shifted northward, and the Labrador Current has gotten warmer, Mills said. “Instead of turning them on in the balance they used to be on, now we’re turning on the hot water more, and the cold water is not as cold as it used to be.” 

The result is that Maine lobsters, a bounty worth $725 million last year, have been growing faster and shedding their shells earlier. In the short term, the heat has been a boon for those who pluck them from the water, as it spurs growth and boosts lobster numbers. Business has been “booming,” Mills said. But if the trend continues, the critters might be forced to expend so much energy that they won’t be able consume enough food to reproduce or survive. 

“Now we’re getting to a point where the temperatures have been so warm for so long, and they are continuing to increase,” Mills said. “We might already be seeing signs that the population is turning off its growth trajectory because of temperature.” One of those signs is that lobster babies are becoming less prevalent. The heat appears to be a reason, among others, that lobster fisheries have already collapsed farther south, where the ocean is warmer, in southern New England.

Frank Gotwals, a lobsterman and musican, plays guitar near the lobster traps he uses in the Gulf of Maine on July 9, 2019 in Stonington, Maine. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

There’s a silver lining, though: Lobsters that forage on cooler seabeds farther north, off the coast of Canada, might benefit from the heat; in fact, those populations have already been turning up in larger numbers. At the same time, “a whole suite” of species from warmer waters in the mid-Atlantic, such as longfin squid and black sea bass, both of which support multi-million-dollar commercial fisheries, have appeared a lot more frequently in the Gulf of Maine, where they used to be quite rare, said Mills. 

On the West Coast, a similar range shift is happening with California market squid — footlong, white-and-purple mollusks. (You may have tasted the mild meat of a market squid if you enjoy calamari.) Ever since the Blob, the squid have been seen as far north as Alaska, well beyond their usual habitat in the seas off Mexico and California. The heat wave has ended, but the squid are still hanging out up north. There is talk of opening a new fishery

“There are always going to be winners and losers,” Murawski said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The ocean is shattering heat records. Here’s what that means for fisheries. on Aug 11, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

After a Pittsburgh coal processing plant closed, ER visits plummeted

Grist - Fri, 08/11/2023 - 01:30

Pittsburgh, in its founding, was blessed and cursed with two abundant natural resources: free-flowing rivers and a nearby coal seam. Their presence made the city’s 20th-century status as a coal-fired, steel-making powerhouse possible. It also threw so much toxic smoke in the air that the town was once described as “hell with the lid off.”

Though air quality laws strengthened over the decades, pollution in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County has remained high, ranking among the 25 worst metro areas in the United States for fine, easy-to-inhale particles known as PM2.5. Carbon pollution can often feel so big — borne on the air, causing ice caps to go black and melt. But it also causes problems much closer to home. Allegheny County’s inhabitants are among the top 1 percent in the nation for cancer risk, and the area is notorious for its high rates of asthma and heart issues, both of which, like the biggest emitters, are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. These kinds of health problems can often seem both mysterious in origin and inescapable for the people who live with them. However, the January 2016 closure of the Shenango Coke Works coal-processing plant provided an astonishing example of how quickly those same communities can recover from the most dire impacts of pollution.

Shenango was a coke oven — a facility that heats coal to around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to produce coke, which is in turn used to make steel. Such operations are famously nasty particle polluters, emitting not only carbon dioxide but also contaminants like benzene, arsenic, lead, and mercury. 

The research, led by the New York University-Langone School of Medicine, used medical records from area hospitals to determine emergency room visits and hospitalizations for heart ailments in the three years preceding and following the closure of the plant. They found an astonishing 42 percent drop in  weekly emergency cardiovascular admissions after 2016. That immediate drop was followed by a downward trend that continued for three years. The study also found corresponding steep drops in sulfur dioxide — as high as 90 percent near the facility and 50 percent at a monitoring station six miles away. Arsenic levels plummeted by two-thirds.

Study co-author George Thurston compared the sudden improvement to the benefits of quitting smoking. “Over time the body recovers,” he said. “Instead of at an individual level, you’re really looking at a community healing after the removal of that exposure.”

To Thurston, and study lead author Wuyue Yu, this research shows that cutting carbon emissions offers more than an abstract, long-term, far-ranging result. It can actually save lives, almost immediately.

The study was prompted by years of local agitation about the plant. Shenango closed under intense community scrutiny and had paid the county millions of dollars in fines for multiple air quality violations. 

For years, an organization called Allegheny County Clean Air Now, or ACCAN, fought to rein in ongoing emissions at the plant, bringing in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Allegheny County health department, and Carnegie Mellon University to monitor the plant’s pattern of violations and the health consequences for its neighbors. ACCAN members served as community scientists, collecting data and taking the results to local officials, company shareholder meetings, and U.S. Steel. Even steelworkers from the plant occasionally attended meetings, expressing concern about the situation. Now, says ACCAN member Thaddeus Popovich (who was told that there’s a 40 to 50 percent likelihood that his own triple-bypass heart surgery was prompted by living half a mile from Shenango), he and his peers feel “vindicated.”

The Clairton Coke Works, seen in an archival photo. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

After plant’s closure, members of ACCAN gathered and set to paper their memories of life before Shenango shut down. In the resulting collection, called Living Downwind, people describe living with fiery and sulfurous smells and mysterious ailments. Angelo Taranto, an active ACCAN member, lost his wife to a host of respiratory problems he’s sure were caused by Shenango’s billowing smoke. “These personal situations really energize people to want to do something,” he said. 

After the closure, Taranto said, ACCAN encouraged the Allegheny County health department to pull together some retrospective health studies. In 2018, Dr. Deborah Gentile documented a 41.6 percent drop in uncontrolled pediatric asthma two years following Shenango’s shuttering.

“What we were hearing from county officials was that they didn’t think the closure would be a boon to county health,” Taranto said. “We heard similar things from the company itself and we knew that wasn’t true, and we knew that we couldn’t let those types of statements remain unchallenged.”

There’s still a long way to go for the greater Pittsburgh area, though. Matt Mehalik, the director of the Breathe Project — which used its resources to support ACCAN and connect them to researchers —  points to similar facilities, such as the Clairton coke oven and the Mon Valley steel works, as contributors to major public health problems. Clairton, 10 times as large as Shenango ever was, sits near a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood, and community organizations have worked for years to hold the facility accountable to the harm it has caused. Environmental advocates are currently urging the EPA to revoke Clairton’s permit. The EPA has also proposed a stricter standard for toxic coke oven emissions, which could increase pressure on plants like Clairton.

Mehalik is excited about a potential transition to less coal-reliant forms of steelmaking as a long-term solution for Allegheny County. “We know that an investment in the right type of green steelmaking is needed if there is a future of steelmaking in the Mon Valley,” he said. “Perpetuation of a polluting facility that comes at the expense of our county is highly problematic.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline After a Pittsburgh coal processing plant closed, ER visits plummeted on Aug 11, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Tribal nations celebrate new monument near the Grand Canyon

High Country News - Fri, 08/11/2023 - 01:00
How decades of Indigenous advocacy led to the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni-Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.
Categories: H. Green News

See inside the Grand Canyon region’s new monument

High Country News - Fri, 08/11/2023 - 01:00
A weeklong journey through the under-documented region, which now has new protections.
Categories: H. Green News

Louisiana breaks ground on experimental project to rebuild lost wetlands

Grist - Thu, 08/10/2023 - 16:01

Over thousands of years, the Mississippi River wended its way through the lush and dense wetlands of the Barataria Basin in what’s now south-central Louisiana. As it flowed south on its way to the sea, the river continually poured sediment into the basin, gifting it with fresh, nutrient-rich river mud that replenished the land and prevented coastal erosion. But 20th-century innovations like dams and levees stopped the river’s natural systems. This, in combination with recent sea-level rise and the constant battering of supercharged hurricane seasons, means the sea now gnaws steadily at the bottom of the state, causing gradual but catastrophic land loss. Since 1932, the Barataria has lost 17 percent of its land. It’s predicted to lose another 200-plus square miles in the next 20 years. 

To combat this, Louisiana officials broke ground Thursday on an ambitious, $2.92 billion project to divert sediment from the Mississippi River into the basin, mimicking the natural processes of the river’s flow in an attempt to save the state’s disappearing coast. The initiative is the first step in Louisiana’s $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, funded in part by a lawsuit settlement from the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Though many laud the project, some worry it will harm existing wildlife in the basin, while taking a very long time to do its work.

The main event for the mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project will be “punching a hole in the levee” that prevents the Mississippi River from regularly overflowing its banks and changing course, said Bren Haase, the chair of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The project involves installing a complex gate structure through the Mississippi River’s levee, allowing some water to flow into a channel, which will then empty out over the basin and wash into the sea, carrying mud, silt, and clay with it to create new land. It’ll take five years to build. Over 50 years, the diversion project should add 21 square miles of land to the basin, according to Haase. 

Supporters note the project will help restore a degraded ecosystem to some of its former glory. “There are large areas of open water where the marsh has just eroded and sunk away,” said Natalie Snider, associate vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Resilient Coasts and Watersheds program.

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Engineers factored sea-level rise projections of up to two and a half feet into the project’s design. But some scientists warn that sea-level rise is ultimately a wild card. There’s no knowing exactly how much, how or quickly, oceans will go up in the coming decades — and at some point, funding will likely run out for updates. For all the acres gained, they said, many will still be lost over time to the ravages of climate change. 

“It’s mitigation, not restoration,” said Rex Caffey, an associate professor of wetlands and coastal resources at Louisiana State University. “Slowing down the bleed.” 

The project has also been met with outcry from some of the people who make their living from the region’s fisheries. Louisiana has the most biorich fisheries  of any state, and some say the influx of freshwater from the project will decimate saltwater-loving stock in the basin, like oysters and shrimp.

“We struggle daily trying to find ways to help our shrimpers survive price impacts due to the influx of imported seafood,” said Kerri Callais, a councilmember-at-large in the parish of east St. Bernard and a board member of the Save Coastal Louisiana Coalition. “We are going to knowingly create a situation that will exacerbate all of those issues.”

Coastal authorities are working to dissuade these concerns and mitigate any potential negative consequences for local fisheries, with $360 million in the project’s construction funds to be used to aid wetland-adjacent communities, oyster farmers, and shrimpers.

The project is the largest and most expensive coastal restoration project ever attempted in the state of Louisiana, and among the largest in the United States. It’s also one that other states are watching closely. As Louisiana uses the proceeds from past disasters to shore up its future, it is a strategy and scale that other coastal communities in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and other states may look to use in the future.  

Haas also notes that while on a smaller scale, other, similar coastal projects have shown signs of success within a matter of years. Change, he said, is a matter of necessity.

“Absolutely it will change the basin,” said Haas. “It’s a dying basin. It’s been changing for a hundred years.”

This story has been updated.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Louisiana breaks ground on experimental project to rebuild lost wetlands on Aug 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Using ‘recycled plastic’ in construction materials may not be a great idea after all

Grist - Thu, 08/10/2023 - 01:45

Last month, the American Chemistry Council, a petrochemical industry trade group, sent out a newsletter highlighting a major new report on what it presented as a promising solution to the plastic pollution crisis: using “recycled” plastic in construction materials. At first blush, it might seem like a pretty good idea — shred discarded plastic into tiny pieces and you can reprocess it into everything from roads and bridges to railroad ties. Many test projects have been completed in recent years, with proponents touting them as a convenient way to divert plastic waste from landfills while also making infrastructure lighter, more rot-resistant, or, ostensibly, more durable.

“As our nation sets about rebuilding our infrastructure and restoring our resilience, plastic will play an outsized role,” the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a petrochemical industry trade group, says on one of its websites.

But independent experts tell a much more complicated story, suggesting that most applications involving plastic waste in infrastructure are not ready for prime time. In recent years, several reports and literature reviews have highlighted the unknown health and environmental impacts of repurposing plastic into construction materials. They’ve also warned that post-consumer plastic isn’t desirable for use in many types of infrastructure — and that diverting plastic into construction is unlikely to make much of a dent in the massive tide of plastic waste that the developed world produces. To the contrary, adding used plastic to construction materials could even incentivize more plastic production.  

Take a closer look at the 407-page National Academies of Sciences report the ACC highlighted in its newsletter, for example, and you’ll find that it said there has been virtually “no significant research” in the United States to back claims about the benefits of using plastic in roads. Other construction applications face “high material and installation costs,” as well as “uncertainties about long-term performance and environmental impact.”

“There is opportunity to expand reuse of plastics in infrastructure applications,” the report concludes, “but it is not clear that this reuse pathway offers the greatest benefit to society.” 

Several recent studies have raised environmental concerns about microplastics, tiny fragments of plastics that could potentially slough off of plastic-infused infrastructure. Others say plastic chemicals could leach from plastic-infused construction materials into nearby waterways. (This already happens with materials that don’t have plastics in them.)

In general, experts say there’s been a near-total lack of research on the human health and environmental impacts of incorporating waste plastic into construction materials. A literature review published last month in the journal Frontiers in Built Environment, for example, looked at 100 recent studies on the topic and found that not one of them evaluated potential health costs of putting used plastic into roads, buildings, and other construction applications. Several studies addressed environmental implications, but mostly to highlight the potential to divert plastic waste from landfills.

According to Erica Cirino, lead author of the review and the communications manager for the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition, it was these omissions that allowed the majority of the studies to portray putting discarded plastics into infrastructure as a “net positive.”

A view of houses built with bricks made from plastic waste in Costa Rica. Ezequiel Becerra / AFP via Getty Images

“There were a lot of aspects being overlooked,” Cirino told Grist, including the fact that several plastic-waste-in-infrastructure applications require the addition of new chemicals that could be harmful to human health. That’s on top of the 13,000 chemicals already found in plastics, one-fourth of which are known to have hazardous properties. 

Cirino also noted that a greater number of studies she reviewed were funded by chemical and plastic makers than by independent researchers, although this finding was not included in her final paper. 

The other major research gap, identified by Cirino’s team as well as other groups, is on the structural integrity of infrastructure incorporating plastic waste. Of the many uses for plastic waste that the National Academies looked at, including in asphalt, bike paths, lumber, marine pilings, railroad ties, utility poles, highway sound barriers, and bricks, only one — stormwater drainage pipes — has attracted significant demand from infrastructure owners. Other applications have deterred contractors because of the plastic-infused materials’ lower strength and stiffness, greater vulnerability to UV degradation, and propensity to crack. 

Most applications, though, have a very limited track record, having only been deployed in small-scale pilot projects or tested in the lab. “There’s just not a lot of information available and data that have been collected,” said David Dzombak, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee that wrote the National Academies report. “The studies have been short-term and have limited scope in the questions they’re trying to answer.”

Even in a scenario where it was proven viable to put plastic waste in infrastructure, Dzombak said it isn’t clear this would be a significant sink for the more than 30 million metric tons of plastic waste that the U.S. generates each year. First, project developers tend to be fussy with the plastic they use: If they’re going to incorporate it into infrastructure, it usually has to be clean and high-quality polyethylene, not just whatever scraps of mixed plastic waste can be scraped from the bottom of consumers’ recycling bins. 

Infrastructure “is not just a dumping ground for plastic waste,” Dzombak said. In fact, he said demand is greater for post-industrial plastic scraps than for post-consumer plastic waste, contrary to the notion promoted by industry groups that roads and other infrastructure are commonly being made from discarded diapers, plastic bags, and other low-quality plastic trash. Such projects exist but are considered anomalous, and their performance and environmental impacts are poorly understood.

Second, the limited research that’s out there suggests that plastic waste can only make up a small fraction of most infrastructure materials. Asphalt pavement, for example — perhaps the most hyped-up kind of plastic infrastructure — can only accommodate a maximum of 0.5 percent waste plastic by dry weight, according to the National Academies’ literature review. The group’s “best-case scenario,” in which discarded plastic completely replaces virgin plastic in all of the United States’ sales of plastics-modified asphalt binder, would consume only 2.4 percent of the country’s trashed polyethylene every year, and an even smaller percentage of its total plastic waste generation.

A recycling box with mixed plastic waste, among other materials. BuildPix / Construction Photography / Avalon / Getty Images

“That’s not negligible, but it’s not going to be a game-changer,” Dzombak said. Besides, he added, there’s actually considerable demand for the kind of high-quality waste plastics that can be used in infrastructure. Rather than diverting this plastic from landfills, putting it in construction materials might divert it from other second-use applications like carpeting and clothing.

The ACC did not respond to Grist’s request for comment in time for publication.

Looking at the bigger picture, many environmental advocates are concerned about the way proponents talk about waste plastics in infrastructure as a “recycling” solution that contributes to a “circular economy.” Even if infrastructure applications do divert plastic from landfills, Cirino said, they’re just a stopping-over point. Because most plastics are nonrecyclable by nature — especially those that are mixed with other materials, since it’s so difficult to separate and process them back into the same products —  plastics in infrastructure are likely to end up in a landfill at the end of their life, necessitating a continued supply of waste plastic. Paradoxically, for some construction materials that are normally recyclable, such as asphalt, putting discarded plastic into them may make it so they can no longer be recycled.

Putting discarded plastic into infrastructure “can create new markets for more plastic waste, which in turn means more plastic production,” Cirino said. The system “is not circular and cannot be circular.” Her review paper said upstream strategies for addressing plastic pollution — like limiting plastic production — are “clearly favorable” to approaches that merely manage waste.

To be sure, many experts agree there are legitimate uses for plastics in infrastructure — compared to other materials, plastics may be lighter, more resistant to corrosion, and more malleable. The nonprofit Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, based in the U.K., says that as long as construction involves plastic, it might as well be “recycled” plastic, although it notes that plastics are generally overused in the construction industry. 

Dzombak, with the National Academies, said there is still potential for “circularity” in some cases, like with stormwater drainage pipes made from discarded plastic that could be recycled into new pipes. He said the question of whether to reduce plastic production was beyond the scope of the National Academies’ recent report and instead urged federal agencies to work together on an improved recycling strategy, including better collection and processing of discarded plastic. 

Overall, however, Dzombak, Cirino, and others say more research is needed to substantiate the plastic industry’s enthusiastic claims about the supposed promise of putting waste plastic in infrastructure — especially research on the idea’s environmental and health implications. Such research should examine the full life-cycle impacts of plastic production and disposal, Cirino said, and draw from what we already know about plastics’ risks.

“There is already a huge existing amount of information about the ecological, health, and social costs of plastic,” she said. “To really consider the full impacts, we need to dive even deeper.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Using ‘recycled plastic’ in construction materials may not be a great idea after all on Aug 10, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News


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