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Updated: 5 days 19 hours ago

Want to sequester carbon? Save wild animals

Mon, 03/27/2023 - 08:00

As the world increasingly turns toward natural climate solutions like reforestation and grassland restoration to sequester carbon, it may be overlooking a crucial ally: animals. 

Protecting existing populations and restoring others to their natural habitats often improves the natural capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide within ecosystems, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change. Robust populations of just nine species, such as sea otters or gray wolves, or genera, including whales, could lead to the capture of 6.41 gigatons of CO₂ annually, the researchers found. That’s about 95 percent of the amount needed to be removed annually to ensure global warming remains below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

In “Trophic rewilding can expand natural climate solutions,” led by the Yale School of the Environment and the Global Rewilding Alliance, 15 international experts compare the carbon content in savannas, forests, and other ecosystems when their wildlife populations were healthy and when they were below historical numbers. They found multiple cases in which thriving populations of certain species, particularly large vertebrates, through acts like foraging, burrowing, and trampling, increased an ecosystem’s carbon storage capacity by as much as 250 percent.

The researchers argue that these essential species disperse seeds, facilitating the growth of carbon-sequestering trees and plants. Others trample or eat the vegetation that would otherwise rob those trees of space and nutrients. Predators prey on herbivores that, without predation, might adversely impact that essential fauna.

“Ecological science has had a long history of overlooking the role of animals as an important driver of the biogeochemistry of ecosystems,” Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at the Yale School for the Environment and an author of the study, told Grist. “What we say is that we know animals can change the vegetation makeup of ecosystems, and a lot of ecosystem ecologists say vegetation is important for ecosystem function and carbon cycling, then surely the animals must be important, too.” 

According to the study, keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels not only requires reducing fossil fuel emissions but removing around 500 gigatons of atmospheric CO₂ by 2100. Natural solutions, like protecting and restoring forests, wetlands, and grassland ecosystems can help, but such measures, implemented at their current pace, will not do the job in time. Restoring animal populations, or “trophic rewilding,” can accelerate the rates of sequestration and storage in a process called “animating the carbon cycle.”

“Instead of taking 77 years to get that 500 gigatons out, we could actually have that in 35 years,” Schmitz said. “We could do it if we really made a concerted effort to rebuild these populations.”

In Africa, every increase of 100,000 animals in the Serengeti raises the amount of carbon sequestered by 15 percent. Wildebeest are particularly effective allies in the climate fight. More than 1 million of the ungulates migrate across almost 10,000 square miles of savanna. They consume carbon contained in the grasses they eat, then excrete it in their dung. That carbon is then integrated into the soil by insects. They also manage the grasses, mitigating the risk of wildfires. When disease wiped the wildebeest population in the early 1900s, fires grew more frequent and intense, releasing more carbon, transforming the Serengeti from a carbon sink to a carbon source. When the wildebeest population recovered beginning in the 1960s, the Serengeti became a carbon sink again. 

Similar examples exist across a wide range of ecosystems. In the Arctic, herds of caribou and other large animals compact snow, preventing permafrost melt. Whales feed in deep waters and release nutrients in their waste at shallower depths, stimulating the production of phytoplankton, which are essential to fixing carbon in the ocean. The animals also are enormous carbon sinks in their own right.

Yet many of these populations face increasing threats from overfishing, habitat loss, impediments to their migratory patterns, and other risks. Losing these species, or even seeing their historic range or numbers decrease, risks transforming the ecosystems they inhabit from carbon sinks into carbon sources.

While animating the carbon cycle has the potential to be a powerful accelerant of carbon removal, the study’s authors warn that trophic rewilding cannot be done without considering unintended consequences. Gray wolves can help carbon removal in boreal forests because they prey on the moose that browse on carbon-storing trees, but they can hurt carbon stores in grasslands, where they eat the elk that stimulate plant production through their grazing. Increases in populations of large animals can increase methane release, an issue that can be offset by reducing domestic livestock populations, according to the study. 

Balancing livestock and wildlife populations also raises another central consideration of trophic rewilding: its impact on local human populations. Schmitz said the key to successful trophic rewilding programs is to cater them to local conditions and needs.

Bison, which once roamed North America by the millions, could help store huge amounts of CO₂ in grasslands, but cattle ranchers often resist restoration efforts because of the health threats they can pose for cattle. 

“It’s about having people think about themselves as stewards of the land, and we ought to also compensate them for that stewardship,” said Schmitz. “If we would come up with a carbon market that paid the ranchers for the amount of carbon that these bison sequester, they could maybe make more money by being carbon ranchers than they could by cattle ranching.”

What must come first, Schmitz said, is a change in how the global climate community approaches natural carbon solutions. “One of the big frustrations in the conservation game is you’ve got the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, and then you also have the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, and they don’t talk to each other,” he said. “One is trying to save biodiversity, and the other is trying to save the climate. And what we’re saying is you can do both, with the same thing, in the same space.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Want to sequester carbon? Save wild animals on Mar 27, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

How the natural gas industry cozies up to utility regulators

Mon, 03/27/2023 - 03:45

Last November, in a vast conference hall at a Marriott hotel in New Orleans, utility executive Kim Greene took the stage. Greene, the CEO of Southern Company, a Georgia-based conglomerate that owns gas and electric utilities across six states, was the first to speak on a panel titled “The Role for Natural Gas in America’s Clean Energy Future.” 

“Natural gas is foundational to America’s clean energy future,” she started, before proceeding to tell the audience about the nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipelines that deliver gas to 187 million Americans and 5.5 million businesses. “These customers are depending on our energy every day,” she said. “So as we look to the clean energy future, the most practical, realistic way to achieve a sustainable future where energy is clean, safe, reliable, resilient, and affordable, is to ensure that includes natural gas.” 

The statement, with its head-scratching, circular logic, may sound aimed at an audience of oil and gas industry executives, or perhaps an earnings call. But the seats were filled with utility commissioners — the state-level public servants who regulate gas, electric, water, and telecommunications companies. The panel was the centerpiece event for the annual meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, or NARUC. And Greene was hardly the only industry representative there to lecture on the bright future for natural gas.

The conference provided a glimpse into the collegial relationship utility regulators have with the companies they are charged with regulating on behalf of the public, and the way the natural gas industry is working that relationship to shape how the country moves toward its climate goals. Public utility commissioners hold significant sway over the storied clean energy future. They help decide what energy infrastructure gets built, and when. If a utility wants to raise rates to invest in new power plants, transmission lines, or pipelines, it’s up to these powerful panels to determine whether such multimillion-dollar, long-lived projects are necessary, and how much a company can profit off of them. That means commissioners are not only shaping the energy transition, but determining what it means for utilities and their bottom lines. 

At the time of the conference, the industry was scrambling to adapt to new circumstances. President Biden had signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law in August, making hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies available for clean energy over the coming decade and threatening some utility business models that rely on fossil fuels. Electric companies were staring down the prospect of having to reevaluate the cost assumptions underpinning their capital spending plans, which in many cases include building new natural gas power plants. Natural gas companies faced an existential crisis. The growing push to electrify buildings, and new federal and state incentives that support the shift, could lead to greatly reduced demand for their product. In 2022, U.S. shipments of electric heating systems called heat pumps outnumbered those of gas furnaces for the first time.

In 2022, U.S. shipments of electric heating systems called heat pumps outnumbered those of gas furnaces for the first time. Tristan Spinski for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Some commissions that once approved natural gas projects without hesitation were now bringing more scrutiny to proposals following new state policies requiring rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A handful had even launched investigations into the future of natural gas, tribunals where gas companies were being put on the stand to show how they could evolve to comply with state climate goals. Plus, soaring natural gas prices related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were highlighting the risks of continuing to rely on the fuel. 

All of that was surely on utility executives’ minds when they sent a small army of missionaries to the NARUC meeting. The annual conference is hosted by and for utility commissioners, and the sessions in November covered a range of topics, from how to make sure funding from the Inflation Reduction Act benefits low-income customers to planning for the expansion of electric vehicle charging and clean energy storage systems. Those were in addition to at least half a dozen sessions about natural gas. On the conference attendee list, commissioners were outnumbered by people from the gas and electric companies they regulate. 

The lobbying effort began almost immediately upon arrival; the conference Wi-Fi password was “committed2clean,” a marketing slogan used by the Edison Electric Institute, the largest trade organization for electric utilities. (Regina Davis, the assistant executive director for NARUC, said the group had the opportunity to set the password as a top sponsor of the conference, and that the organization “did not hear of any complaints concerning the password.”) The American Gas Association, Edison’s counterpart for gas utilities, also sponsored the conference, though they shared the bill with a number of other trade groups that represent renewable energy and nuclear companies. 

Industry executives sat on panels and threw parties. The four-day event’s theme was “Connecting the Dots: Innovative/Disruptive Technology and Regulation,” and company representatives worked to convince regulators that they are innovating and disrupting — but that ultimately, the energy systems of the future should look a lot like the energy systems of today.

The Edison Electric Institute and the American Gas Association, the largest trade organizations for electric utilities and gas utilities, respectively, were among the sponsors of the conference. Emily Pontecorvo / Grist

“One hundred and eighty seven million Americans use natural gas in their homes today, that’s more people than voted in Tuesday’s election,” Karen Harbert, the executive director of the American Gas Association, said during a discussion about investor expectations and natural gas. “We’re growing one customer every minute of every day.”

Industry representatives like Harbert often linked the idea that natural gas is essential to a clean energy future with another, seemingly conflicting point — that companies plan to replace natural gas with lower-carbon fuels down the line. The industry is investing in reducing methane emissions from leaking infrastructure in the near term, Harbert said, but “also innovating and delivering new technologies and new fuels through our existing 2.7 million miles of pipeline.”

Harbert and other speakers described using those pipelines to deliver increasing amounts of “renewable natural gas,” a label for methane diverted from landfills and animal feedlots, as well as hydrogen, a gaseous fuel that does not produce CO2 when burned. But she noted that such efforts to cut emissions are “not cheap” and told commissioners utilities “need to be able to get rate recovery on some of the innovation that we are investing in.” In other words, customers should help pay for this experimentation.

The gas industry claims to be “innovating and delivering new technologies and new fuels through our existing 2.7 million miles of pipeline.”

Left: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images Right: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

During most of the sessions focused on natural gas, none of the panelists chimed in to acknowledge that continuing to burn natural gas will worsen climate change, whether or not methane leaks are reduced. Left unsaid were the reasons many environmental justice and clean energy groups remain skeptical of plans to pursue renewable natural gas and hydrogen, including concerns that they could cost more than other options and perpetuate pollution without meaningfully reducing emissions. 

“We respectfully and vehemently disagree with the characterization that our meetings are not open to varied perspectives,” Davis, the NARUC spokesperson, told Grist. “We make a concerted effort to invite diverse perspectives and include representation from consumer/environmental and other constituencies relevant to NARUC’s membership.”

Davis highlighted, among other events, one unique panel that brought critical questions about the future of natural gas to the fore. It featured participants in a series of workshops held in 2021 by the clean energy research nonprofit RMI, which is known for its building electrification advocacy, and National Grid, a gas and electric utility that operates in Massachusetts and New York. They brought together staff from other energy companies and environmental groups — those typically pitted against each other in utility commission proceedings — in an attempt to build trust and find common ground. 

The goal was to discuss some of the many potential challenges to cutting emissions from the natural gas system. For example, as homeowners who can afford to switch to electric appliances do so, the shrinking pool of remaining natural gas customers could be left footing the bill for maintaining 2.7 million miles of pipelines, as well as any experiments with lower-carbon fuels that gas companies pump through them.

“There are so many questions and challenges that are unclear, and even controversies and conflicts about what the vision is for the path forward,” Mike Henchen, a principal at RMI, said during his opening remarks about the project. “We wanted to work across that difference in a collaborative, constructive way to see what we have in common and where we can find guiding principles.”

But the panel’s optimistic title, “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work,” did not exactly bear out. Henchen spoke candidly about tensions during the workshops, noting that even words like “transition” had been unexpectedly loaded. He said the participants decided not to examine data together because each interpreted it differently, and it only served to highlight divisions. Ultimately, many points of agreement came down to boilerplate principles like “affordability” and “comprehensive system planning.”

Still, Henchen was proud of the work as a starting place. He contrasted it with the discussions about natural gas that pervaded the conference. “I see words like, ‘natural gas is an unstoppable workhorse,’ and that ‘the industry has reduced its carbon footprints,’” he said. “These kinds of talking points, I feel like we need to get past them.” He looked out at the commissioners in the audience and asked for their help. “This transition is underway, the path is not yet written, and I look forward to your leadership in helping us move it forward.”

But while commissioners will undoubtedly be key players in this transition, another session — a commissioner-led discussion about soaring winter energy costs for consumers — indicated that many of these officials don’t exactly see themselves as being in a position of power. 

The conversation began with a bit of recent history from Eric Blank, the chair of the Colorado Public Service Commission. First, he said, the price of natural gas shot up when the pandemic began to wind down, driving up gas and electricity bills. It spiked again after Russia invaded Ukraine. And costs incurred during a brutal 2021 ice storm were piling on top of high gas prices, while people in Colorado were also still paying for system upgrades their utilities had made over the last decade.

“People are hurting, and we’re struggling to figure out what to do. I’m looking forward to seeing if anyone has any solutions,” Blank said, letting out a laugh that suggested he didn’t have high expectations.

Utility commissioners generally have a mandate to secure reliable services for residents and businesses at “just and reasonable” rates. What counts as “just and reasonable,” a standard phrase written into many state laws, is often debated. But it was clear the commissioners felt that between inflation and the war, forces out of their control were putting it out of reach. 

Few offered Blank solutions. Instead, the session began to resemble group therapy. Abigail Anthony, a commissioner in Rhode Island, said her state had some programs to help low-income residents, but most customers there were going to see a 45 percent increase this winter. “Nothing prepares people for seeing that.”

“It’s gonna be an ugly time for ratepayers in Georgia,” said Georgia Public Service commissioner Tim Echols, who worried aloud about his reelection in 2023. “We just approved another six natural gas plants. We haven’t hedged as much as you guys have,” he said. “I wish we had.” 

If a utility wants to raise rates to invest in new infrastructure, it’s up to commissioners to determine how much it can profit. Here, Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack answers questions before the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2022. AP Photo/Jeff Amy

Michael Richard, a commissioner in Maryland, nodded toward his state’s renewable energy goals as a potential future lifeline. “That may not have a lot of impact or benefits for this coming year,” he said, “But as we look to increasing electrification and renewable energy in the state, that hopefully will begin to have some positive impact on prices.”

As the commissioners in the room resigned themselves, however reluctantly, to the price volatility of an energy system that’s hooked on natural gas, just outside the room, powerful forces were working to keep it that way. According to David Pomerantz, the executive director of the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, these two stories were related.

“I think they’re wrong that there’s not that much they can do,” he told Grist. “It sort of reflects what I would call a failure of imagination in the regulatory community. That’s a hallmark of regulatory capture.”

The Energy and Policy Institute acts as a watchdog of utilities, and has documented the many scandalous ways they try to maintain a grip on regulators and policymakers, such as by offering them bribes or supporting advocacy organizations that appear independent but are backed by corporate interests. But here he was alluding to a more subtle form of influence: the way utilities control the information environment that commissions operate in, creating an atmosphere where it feels like they are the only ones with the answers. 

For example, rate cases, in which utilities lay out their capital spending plans and request rate increases, are hard to engage in, let alone follow, without expertise. Many states have a consumer advocate’s office that weighs in; in many cases, nonprofit advocacy groups attend hearings, submit comments, and hire experts to help them analyze utility proposals. But utilities hold tightly onto the system data that underlie those proposals, limiting the ability of commissioners or outside parties to question them or offer credible alternatives. When utilities claim a proposal is good or bad for safety or reliability, it’s hard for anyone else to claim otherwise.

In many cases, nonprofit advocacy groups attend hearings, submit comments, and hire experts to help them analyze utility proposals. But utilities hold tightly onto the system data that underlie those proposals. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pomerantz also said too many commissions are reactive, rather than proactive. “They don’t see themselves as setting policy. Their job is to take the cases that are handed to them by the utilities and adjudicate them, right?” he said. “But then the utility’s leading the dance on everything and the commission is just following. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Davis, the NARUC spokesperson, stressed that commissioners are always looking for ways to increase affordability. “Passing through the commodity cost of natural gas to ratepayers is basically required by U.S. and state constitutional principles and is anything but a symptom of regulatory capture,” she told Grist. “State regulators do not have the luxury or freedom to simply be imaginative at will.” 

But Pomerantz offered one possible solution, noting that commissions could require utilities’ shareholders to pay some of the cost of fuel for electricity generation, rather than passing 100 percent of it onto customers, which would not only improve affordability but create an incentive to transition away from fossil fuels. One commission in Hawaii has already implemented a program like this.

To be fair, commissioners occupy an awkward position in the energy transition. They are not technically policymakers, though some commissioners are democratically elected. “In a nutshell, commissions must implement the policies of their states,” said Davis. “Any overreach in their authority will likely result in an action by the courts.” That means they must maintain the appearance of being nonpartisan implementers of the law. But within that implementation lie all kinds of decisions that resemble policy, with major implications for how swiftly, and justly, the transition plays out. 

At NARUC’s annual meeting, the utilities were, in one very real sense, leading the dance. The American Gas Association regularly throws a party for the commissioners during the conference. The invitation for the “Big Easy Bash” stated, in three places, that the event was not sponsored by NARUC, nor was it “part of the 2022 NARUC Annual Meeting and Education Conference agenda” — though it did advise attendees to bring their NARUC meeting badge to gain entry.

The party was held at the House of Blues, a concert venue around the corner from the conference building. Bartenders passed out free drinks while a cover band roused the crowd with decade-hopping hits like “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, and “Ride Wit Me” by Nelly. As everyone on the dance floor threw their hands in the air shouting, “Hey, must be the money!” TV screens around the venue cycled through an American Gas Association presentation. The slides contained statements like, “Somewhere in the U.S. a home or business is signing up for natural gas service at this moment,” and “America’s natural gas utilities are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through smart innovation” under headings like “Natural Gas is Essential for Improving our Environment.” 

Once upon a time, there may have been a stronger case for the deference commissions show utilities, said Pomerantz. A decade or two ago, the utilities had technical tools and expertise that no one else did. That’s no longer the case.

“Utilities might have a monopoly on the distribution grid, but they don’t have a monopoly on ideas and information,” he said. “So it’s great for them to have a healthy relationship with regulators, but regulators should also have healthy relationships with a host of other parties who also have good ideas, and who frankly aren’t motivated by, you know, profits.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How the natural gas industry cozies up to utility regulators on Mar 27, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: Texas fracking is exacerbating the PFAS crisis

Mon, 03/27/2023 - 03:15

This story is produced by Floodlight, a nonprofit news site that investigates climate issues. Sign up for Floodlight’s newsletter here.

At first, they were considered a miracle chemical: polyfluoroalkyl substances, developed by 3M in the 1930s, could keep scrambled eggs from sticking to a frying pan. They could make rainwater roll right off a jacket, and when added to fire fighting foams, put out major fires quickly. 

But as their use grew, researchers started to link PFAS to a range of health problems, including birth defects, cancer, and other serious diseases. The chemical doesn’t break down, and can persist in water and soil, and even human blood, and has acquired the nickname “forever chemical.” 

Despite scientific concern, PFAS are still used in everything from waterproof camping gear to fast food containers. And according to a new study, they are used even more in Texas.

A new report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility documents the wide use of PFAS in oil and gas drilling and calls on Texas to follow the lead of some other states in restricting use of the chemicals. The group criticized state regulations that allow energy companies to withhold information on the use of chemicals they deem to be proprietary. 

Texas state Representative Penny Shaw Morales (D-Houston) filed a bill March 9 calling for an official, state-sponsored study on the use of PFAS in fracking and the potential public exposure through air and water, to determine whether the chemical should be restricted. 

“PSR’s report highlighted shortcomings in disclosure standards and accountability, particularly up the chain regarding the manufacturing of chemical products that are used in fracking fluids,” Morales Shaw said in a written statement. 

PFAS are used to reduce friction for drill bits as they move through the ground, said  Barb Gottlieb, an author on the study. 

Over the last decade in Texas, oil and gas companies have pumped at least 43,000 pounds of the toxic chemical into more than a thousand fracked oil and gas wells across the state, according to the study.

“What was distinctive about Texas was the staggering volume of PFAS reported in use,” Dusty Horwitt, another study author, says. “It’s far and above what we’ve found in other states.” That’s likely because of the scale of fracking in Texas compared to other states, he explained. 

The report on Texas’ use of PFAS in wells follows similar analyses that Physicians for Social Responsibility has conducted on the use of the forever chemical in states like Ohio and Colorado, as well as nationally.   

The studies analyzed publicly available data from FracFocus, a national registry that tracks the chemicals used in fracking. The database is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit made up of state regulatory agencies. The data that PSR was able to analyze might not reveal the full extent of PFAS contamination in Texas, the authors say. FracFocus is composed of industry-reported data, and there are major exemptions in state and federal law that allow companies to withhold certain information by labeling it a trade secret.

The study found that 6.1 billion pounds of chemicals injected into Texas wells were listed as trade secrets, meaning that no one – public health researchers, local environmental regulators, and landowners who might be drinking contaminated water – knows what they’re being exposed to. 

Industry trade groups, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association, and the Texas Chemistry Council, did not respond to requests seeking comment on the study’s findings.  

Using PFAS in fracking presents several pathways to environmental contamination and human exposure, the study’s authors say. Fracking fluids are often injected into wastewater wells or stored in pits, which have a history of leaking and contaminating nearby ground and surface water which people rely on.  

PFAS can also go airborne if the substance is pumped into a well and then that well is flared or vented, which is common in Texas. In some parts of Texas, like the Fort Worth region, homes, daycares, and businesses are located within a few hundred feet of flaring gas wells. Potentially, people could absorb PFAS through their lungs, and some small molecules could then pass on to the bloodstream, Gottlieb says. Little research has been done on the effects of airborne PFAS, she said. 

Other states have started to ban the use of PFAS in oil wells altogether: Last summer, the Colorado legislature passed a law that will ban PFAS in a variety of uses, including in fracking, starting in 2024. The federal government is also looking to rein in and clean up PFAS in multiple uses. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: Texas fracking is exacerbating the PFAS crisis on Mar 27, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The shift to a green energy future is renewing plantation-era water wars in Hawaii

Sun, 03/26/2023 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat and is republished with permission.

Wesley Yadao, 71, farms five acres of taro in a region of Kauai where generations of families have tended the starchy root vegetable in wet paddies fed by the Waimea River.

His tough-knuckled hands betray the necessity of a strong work ethic, an indelible link to his great-grandparents who planted the first seeds of the family’s taro-farming legacy.  

“There’s a lot of memories in this valley,” said Yadao, who produces 900 pounds of taro a week with his wife and occasional help from charter school children. 

Demand for the staple crop of the traditional Native Hawaiian diet is growing, farmers say, and about a dozen farms in Waimea struggle to keep up — optimistic circumstances for any food producer. 

Yet today’s generation of taro farmers in arid West Kauai worry about the future of a cherished way of life. 

A proposed renewable energy project promises to supply up to a quarter of the island’s total power usage by diverting 4 billion gallons of water a year from the Waimea River and its tributaries. Residents who rely on the watershed for fish, to grow much of the food they eat, or for commercial crop production fret about the effects of these diversions on the river’s health. 

And while the project envisions promoting agriculture, farmers like Yadao worry that it will be at the expense of traditional practices like his that rely on the natural flow of the river.

The proposed West Kauai Energy Project is expected to provide up to a quarter of Kauai’s power supply and gradually lower KIUC’s 34,000 members’ electric bills. KIUC

Conceived in 2012, the West Kauai Energy Project is an integrated pumped storage hydropower, solar, and battery project — the first of its kind in the world. Water diverted from the watershed using plantation-era ditch systems would move between preexisting reservoirs to produce power on cloudy days and at night, reducing the island’s reliance on fossil fuels when the sun doesn’t shine.

The project would give aging infrastructure new life as pillars of the island’s green energy future. Part of the project generates energy by moving water in a closed-loop system and is not in dispute. The subject of controversy is the portion of the system that would divert water outside of the watershed — a hotly contested plantation-era practice that for over a century dried up streams across the state in order to feed monocrop agriculture.

The Kekaha Sugar plantation used to extract water from the Waimea River to feed its lucrative export crop while undermining the viability of small family farms along the watershed. Even after the plantation’s closure in 2000, water continued to be piped and dumped into gulches, storm drains and ditches. 

A watershed agreement forged in 2017 now sets an 11 million gallon daily limit for Waimea river water diversions, requiring that any diversion “must be justified with no more water taken than is needed for other beneficial uses.” 

Kauai’s electric utility has proposed to supply over 6 million gallons of its water allotment to open up food production on dormant agricultural land where the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands plans to build 250 homestead farms and pastures as part of the envisioned Puu Opae Homestead Settlement. The energy project would also support these future farms by bringing in electrical access and road upgrades.

The rest of the diverted water would be made available for agriculture on the Mana Plains in fields managed by the Kekaha Agriculture Association and owned by the state Agribusiness Development Corp.

Farming would need to increase significantly in this region to make use of the water that the energy project would provide. But there is no comprehensive farm plan for the use of so much water on these lands. Critics worry that if there is insufficient agriculture to use the water at the end of the diversion, then a precious resource would be dumped and wasted.

A 3,600-page environmental assessment approved by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in late December found that the project would have “no significant impact” on one of Hawaii’s largest rivers. The agency’s approval precludes the project from performing a more rigorous environmental impact statement that community members say could help address their concerns.

West Kauai taro farmers and subsistence fishermen brought the project to a halt last month by filing a lawsuit against DLNR and its Board of Land and Natural Resources for failing to mandate the more tedious examination of the project’s environmental effects. The complaint says former DLNR Chair Suzanne Case improperly “rushed a rubberstamp approval” of the project’s environmental assessment three days before Christmas as one of her last acts as the department head.

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Image on left: Subsistence fisherman and fire captain Kawai Warren said he worries that a long history of water waste is on the verge of repeating itself. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat Image on right: Kawai Warren and Wesley Yadao, a taro farmer, stand near the top of the plantation-era Kokee ditch system. Earthjustice

Represented by Earthjustice, the West Kauai farmers and fishermen who filed the lawsuit through the community groups Poai Wai Ola and Na Kiai Kai question how there could be no harm in diverting roughly 11 million gallons of water a day and then discharging some of that water onto the Mana Plain if there isn’t enough farming underway to make use of it.

The legal complaint argues that water dumped outside the watershed would collect sediment and pesticides left on the landscape from the plantation days on its way out to the ocean — a problem for the health of the nearshore marine environment.

“What we’re looking for is that commitment of one to one: For every gallon of water that they take from the watershed for hydroelectricity there needs to be one gallon of water made available for agriculture, ideally for taro farming,” said Marti Townsend, engagement specialist for Earthjustice, citing a term of a 2022 follow-up watershed agreement. “KIUC agreed to that, and our concern is that they are not going to be able to make good on that commitment.”

The addition of millions of gallons of daily water access could open up vast opportunities for the Kekaha Agriculture Association to expand farming on its thousands of acres, according to Mike Faye, who manages the farmers cooperative. Roughly 3,500 acres of active KAA farmland — mainly research seed corn but also vegetables and mango — utilize between 2 million and 3 million gallons of water a day, Faye said.

“We’re optimistically looking at this side of the island on Kauai with its great growing conditions — a lot of sun, for the most part good soil — and the missing part is this imported water,” said Faye, adding that KAA does not yet have a written farm plan for the water.

The utility has agreed to work with Poai Wai Ola to develop protocols to ensure that every drop of water diverted for hydroelectricity is, in fact, matched with water used for agriculture, according to KIUC spokeswoman Beth Amaro.

The farmers and fishermen say they aren’t against renewable energy. But they want full disclosure of the project’s environmental and cultural impacts.

“It’s not for us,” Yadao said of the fight for closer scrutiny of the project. “It’s for our great-grandchildren. For them, hopefully we can make the right decision.”

Aging taro farmers like Wesley Yadao, 71, don’t have clear successors. Neither his daughter, a nurse, nor his son, who works in car rentals, has interest in carrying the family’s taro farming tradition into a fifth generation. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat

In the fight against climate change, Hawaii was the first state to commit to shift away from the fossil fuels heating the planet and create a purely renewable power supply by 2045. With roughly 60 percent of its grid now untethered from oil, Kauai’s electric utility is powered by the largest share of renewables in the state. 

It’s also one of only a few utilities in the U.S. that’s capable of running on 100 percent renewable energy most of the day.

But when the sun disappears at night the utility’s battery storage kicks in, covering a portion of the evening peak when many families cook dinner, shower, and watch TV. Then the oil-fired generators rev up to meet the bulk of the island’s energy demand until morning.

The West Kauai Energy Project is poised to increase the utility’s renewable energy capacity to 80 percent, according to KIUC. It would achieve this in part by creating 12-hour energy storage capability that would stabilize the grid by bolstering electricity production from renewable sources when the sun’s not shining. 

The project is estimated to save roughly 8 million gallons of oil annually, moving the utility closer to its goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy production by 2033 — more than a decade before the state mandate.

Kauai’s energy portfolio currently includes 45 percent solar, 14 percent hydro, and 11 percent biomass. Finding new alternative energy sources or improving energy storage capacity through projects like the WKEP could be crucial to the effort to continue to phase out fossil fuels.

It’s not just about saving the planet, KIUC says.

There’s a financial incentive to embrace renewables. Hawaii’s electricity prices are higher than nearly anywhere else in the nation. For KIUC’s 34,000 members, the WKEP promises to reduce the cost of power by an estimated $157 million to $200 million. 

The average ratepayer would save about $20 on their monthly electric bill, according to KIUC President and CEO David Bissell.

The advantage of transforming a mostly abandoned water diversion system into a renewable energy source is twofold: It saves time and money.

Constructing the WKEP would take up to three years at a cost of roughly $200 million, a tab that would be paid by the utility’s partner developer AES Corp, Bissell said. 

“The ditches, water diversions and reservoirs are all relics of the plantation days and just need some rehabilitating,” Bissell said.

David Bissell, who heads KIUC, says the utility’s co-op model has made it easier to take risks on long-term projects. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Eventually, KIUC will likely turn to biofuels to close the final 5 percent to 10 percent gap in its renewable energy portfolio, Bissell said. The WKEP stands to minimize the utility’s need for biofuels, helping to keep expenses in check. That’s because biofuels are an expensive renewable energy source that could impose a heavier hit on ratepayers.

“Finding ways to economically reach 100 percent is essential for our ratepayer members to be able to control their electric bill,” Bissell said. “This is great because it allows us to do that.”

The utility touts dozens more benefits, including temporary construction jobs and the use of the project’s rehabbed reservoirs for fire suppression and improved public trout fishing.

Kauai holds a prominent role in the production of taro, or kalo, a sacred crop tied to Hawaiian beliefs about creation.

Hanalei on the island’s north shore is the taro capital of Hawaii, home to farms that produce more than two-thirds of all the taro in the state. 

Taro farming also has a storied heritage in Waimea, although many river-fed farms that once dotted the watershed were lost during the plantation era when water diversions left some agricultural regions dry. 

Farming for taro across the islands has been declining year after year even as farmers say there is a growing demand.

The dozen farms that remain in Waimea are up against several threats, including aging farmers who find difficulty attracting a new generation to replace them and barriers to accessing land, water, and infrastructure.

Another concern: More frequent and severe drought. Farmers worry this expected consequence of climate change could reduce the volume of water in the Waimea watershed, jeopardizing a crop and a way of life that depends on the river.

Kawai Warren, a Kauai fire captain and subsistence fisherman who has lived on the west side for 40 years, said he worries that a long history of water waste in Waimea is on the verge of repeating itself. 

“It’s not just the taro, but the life in the river that supports the nearshore fisheries that has been depleted by the plantation,” he said. “I thought it was time to let the river heal. But now they want to continue doing what the plantation did for 100 years.”

The project has been brought to a halt by the dispute, which has created frustration for residents who consider themselves protectors of the river as well as utility executives eager to achieve ambitious green energy goals. Until the lawsuit is resolved and the environmental assessment is cleared, KIUC can not move forward with securing permits and finalizing land agreements — precursors to starting construction.

For now, plans that constitute a giant leap forward for the island’s renewable energy future are stuck in limbo.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The shift to a green energy future is renewing plantation-era water wars in Hawaii on Mar 26, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Itochu quietly assembled a gigantic home battery network in Japan

Sat, 03/25/2023 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Canary Media and is reproduced with permission.

Small-scale renewables and batteries could team up to replace large fossil-fueled plants — it just takes a whole lot of little devices to match what big, old power plants can do.

For now, truly massive fleets of decentralized clean-energy devices, also known as virtual power plants, remain a rarity. The clean energy industry needs to deliver more proof that decentralized energy can provide reliable, clean energy on a large scale.

One company is on its way to achieving this — not an electric utility or a Silicon Valley startup, but the decades-old Japanese trading house Itochu. The company manufactures a home-battery product through subsidiary NF, then sells it with the Gridshare software developed by British startup Moixa (which was acquired by Lunar Energy last year — see Canary Media’s recent deep dive on what makes that software special). Since 2017, Itochu has quietly built up a fleet across Japan of 36,000 home batteries under its control, and that’s just the beginning.

“We want to expand to 100,000 units,” said Maiko Mori, team leader at Itochu’s Energy Storage Business Section, when Canary Media met with her on a recent visit to Tokyo.

The current contingent totals 352 megawatt-hours of storage. That aggregated storage capacity rivals some of the largest grid-scale battery plants in existence, suggesting that thousands of tiny batteries really can add up to the scale of big central power plants. At the same time, the home-battery collection runs up against the limits of the decentralized format, at least as it currently exists in Japan.

The regulations aren’t yet in place to enable all those little batteries to participate in the broader workings of the grid. So the virtual power plant is doing what it can, helping each household until the pieces fall into place for the batteries to take on a more robust role in Japan’s energy system.

The challenges Itochu has overcome offer lessons for anyone trying to build up localized clean energy portfolios. In Japan, just like any other region trudging toward a cleaner, more decentralized energy system, the progress thus far only illustrates how much more is possible.

The limits of the virtual power plant today

Itochu’s world-class virtual power plant remains limited in scope because, as Isshu Kikuma, Japan analyst at energy research firm BloombergNEF explained, ​“the government doesn’t allow power sources connecting at a low-voltage grid to export power to the grid under the current regulation.”

That leaves Itochu’s battery fleet caught at an intermediate stage of evolution.

“It’s a massive fleet of batteries,” said Chris Wright, who co-founded Moixa and now serves as SVP of software tech at Lunar Energy. But, he added, ​“We’re not dispatching them in aggregate as a virtual power plant right now. […] This is all behind-the-meter optimization.”

That means that Itochu’s fleet can’t deliver some of the most lucrative and valuable services for the broader power grid, such as maintaining the right frequency for the wires to operate properly or delivering electricity at moments of high demand. Granted, not many places around the world have figured out how to incorporate small, local batteries into macro-level grid operations. But Germany and parts of the U.S., for instance, have shown it can be done effectively.

In place of paying customers for their services to the grid, Itochu has made do with saving them money by smartly managing their solar production and arbitraging power by storing it at times when it costs less and dispatching it at times when it costs more.

“Right now, Gridshare is working for the customer’s economical benefits, but it could work for the power company as well,” Mori said.

Lunar Energy’s Head of Software Product Sam Wevers put a number on those benefits: ​“We add 14 percent additional savings beyond the battery’s default mode,” he said. Batteries come from the factory with settings to maximize consumption of a household’s solar production or optimize around time-varying rates, which apply to most battery customers in Japan. But Gridshare internalizes each home’s consumption patterns and anticipates 48 hours into the future; the AI calculations figure out strategies that a default setting isn’t capable of, Wevers said.

That’s enough savings for Itochu to market a competitive edge in the battery-vendor landscape. But more roles for the fleet could be forthcoming. The latest word from the government is that rules for distributed-energy participation in large-scale grid services will go live in 2024, Wright said. ​“It’ll come online soon enough,” he said; once that happens, Itochu’s fleet can play a ​“nationally important” role in Japan’s grid-decarbonization efforts.

Why does Japan need a virtual power plant?

For a virtual power plant to amount to more than confusingly worded grid jargon, it needs to solve a tangible problem for someone. In Japan, like elsewhere, the looming challenge is how to decarbonize the grid without sacrificing reliability, and virtual power plants can help.

Japan’s isolated island grid relies on imported fossil fuels for all the electricity it can’t generate with nuclear or renewables. But Japan cut back on nuclear production after the Fukushima disaster. And renewables are more expensive to build there than in many other countries because of limited available land and rugged, mountainous terrain, said Kikuma, the BNEF energy analyst.

“Rooftop solar has a huge potential due to Japan’s land constraint,” Kikuma noted.

Starting in 2009, households in Japan that installed rooftop solar could get paid for the power the system exported to the grid via a generous feed-in tariff. But that payment scheme only lasts for 10 years from the date of enrollment, so the first wave of adopters began rolling off the program in 2019, after which they started earning much less for sending power to the grid.

Annual residential solar installations have declined slightly since the 2019 peak of 1,165 megawatts, but the sector still added 1,000 megawatts or more in both 2021 and 2022, according to BNEF data. That’s a robust market, but every year, more households with rooftop solar find themselves losing the feed-in tariff and needing a new plan to make the most of their power production.

Japanese customers had already been interested in batteries as a backup power source in case of outages from the various disasters that periodically strike the country — most acutely, earthquakes and typhoons. But the loss of the feed-in tariff makes batteries attractive for economic reasons too, to enable using more rooftop solar generation outside of the sunny hours.

Residential battery installations have risen steadily over the last five years, according to BNEF data. In 2022, Japanese households added 313 megawatts and 877 megawatt-hours, making this one of the most active home-battery markets in the world. In fact, BNEF’s numbers show that Japan installed far more home-battery capacity annually than all of the U.S. from 2017 through 2020; the U.S. market finally overtook Japan in 2021.

Itochu has capitalized on this trend. Its subsidiary NF manufactures models of the Smart Star battery pack with 9.8 kilowatt-hours or 13.1 kilowatt-hours of storage capacity. It comes AC-coupled, which makes it easier to attach to Japan’s many existing rooftop solar installations. Smart Star has sold 55,000 units in Japan, mostly going to Itochu’s fleet.

A virtual power plant, then, provides economic justification for the small-scale clean energy that Japan desperately needs, given how tricky it is to build large-scale clean energy there. If batteries eventually start taking over roles currently served by fossil-fueled plants, they will further reduce the need for carbon-emitting imported fuels. That looks all the more attractive given the global scramble for fossil gas imports in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The energy-security argument in Japan is very powerful, for various geopolitical reasons,” Wevers noted.

Lessons from Itochu’s massive virtual power plant

Still, it takes thousands of houses with batteries to add up to the capacity delivered by a typical gas-fired power plant. For virtual power plants to live up to their name and their promise, they need to operate on a massive scale.

Few initiatives have come close to that. One of the longest-running American VPPs, controlled by Vermont utility Green Mountain Power, had more than 4,000 home batteries participating as of last summer. The unexpectedly prolific, utility-led Wattsmart program in Utah enlisted 3,000 homes in just a couple of years. A new virtual power plant pilot program in Texas could end up with far more than that across the state, but it’s still getting started.

German home storage company sonnen has gotten further, with 120,000 battery units installed around the world; the bulk of that is in Germany, where the company operates its fleet like a decentralized utility, performing grid services and supplying customers with power at cheaper rates.

Virtual power plants, then, are still in a nascent stage globally, and the constitutionally conservative utility industry tends to resist new concepts and technologies until there’s no way to ignore them any longer. What Itochu learned early on is that it couldn’t wait for other power industry players to sign on; it had to go build the thing on its own.

“At first, nobody was interested in this,” Mori said. ​“But we scaled to 36,000 [units]. We have deployed these batteries — [power companies] can use them at their convenience.”

In other words, now that Itochu has the capability built and ready to use, more traditional providers are taking notice. Itochu is working with electricity retailers, including Tepco, Chubu, Kyushu, and Tohoku, to prove that its battery fleet can respond predictably and reliably enough to save those companies money.

It’s those companies’ job to source enough power for their customers at all times. But at some times of day, it’s simply more expensive to buy or produce power. Using batteries to arbitrage between expensive and cheap hours reduces the cost of keeping customers’ lights on, and that’s attracting attention from Japan’s power providers, especially as electricity costs have risen.

These power companies could eventually buy the batteries themselves and lease them to households; this would give customers the benefits they want without the big upfront expense, while giving the companies more direct control of the equipment for their own uses.

“We want to change the energy business,” Mori said. ​“The virtual power plant could make the Japanese energy business more resilient and bring benefits to all the parties.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Itochu quietly assembled a gigantic home battery network in Japan on Mar 25, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

What is ESG, the investment strategy under attack by Republicans?

Fri, 03/24/2023 - 03:45

A once-obscure financial term is now at the center of a Republican “anti-woke” crusade. 

On Monday, President Biden issued the first veto of his presidency on a measure that would have overturned a Labor Department rule allowing retirement fund managers to consider environmental and social impacts when making investment decisions. The strategy is more widely known as ESG: a shorthand for environmental, social, and governance criteria investors can use to evaluate which companies to buy shares in. 

The vetoed resolution, led by congressional Republicans, is the latest in a series of attacks against what GOP lawmakers call “woke capitalism.” Since 2021, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and several other red states have pulled billions in state funds out of BlackRock and other investment firms that support ESG. At least seven Republican-controlled states have enacted policies and 13 others have introduced bills to prohibit applying ESG principles in state investments like public pensions. 

The rancor will likely continue through the 2024 presidential election. Republican hopefuls Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and “anti-woke” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have all taken prominent anti-ESG stances. 

ESG has come under fire by progressives as well, who accuse firms self-reporting ESG data of greenwashing. But despite all the political controversy, ESG is quite mainstream among the people who actually use the strategy: investors. 

A 2021 survey by the fund manager Natixis found that 72 percent of institutional investors implement ESG. Companies are responding to investors’ interest, with close to 90 percent reporting some ESG data to shareholders, according to a recent survey of executives of large U.S. publicly traded businesses. And as of early 2022, $8.4 trillion in U.S. assets were held by financial firms that employ ESG decision-making. 

Perhaps most tellingly, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has promoted the importance of ESG standards in his annual letter to CEOs since 2017 — a particular point of grievance for Republicans. The yearly note from the world’s largest asset manager is highly influential among corporate executives and investors.

Kirsten Snow Spalding, vice president of the investor network at the nonprofit Ceres, leads a network of more than 220 financial institutions managing over $60 trillion in assets. She says that the vast majority of investors she works with see ESG integration as just plain common sense. 

“You meet these analysts, right? These are not, you know, crazy progressive. These are really major folks who are good at their jobs,” she said. 

In fact, ESG has been relatively uncontroversial among investors from the very beginning — in part because the term was co-created by investors. The abbreviation first appeared in a 2004 report jointly developed by the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary corporate sustainability initiative, and a group of 23 major financial institutions. The participants — Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Credit Suisse, and Morgan Stanley, to name a few — are not exactly what come to mind when you think of radical liberals. 

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 23, 2023. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

One reason for ESG’s acceptance among investors is its explicit alignment with the traditional investing goal of maximizing returns. While the original 2004 report paid lip service to the societal case for sustainable development, the report authors put a greater emphasis on the business case for considering ESG risks, argues Elizabeth Pollman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

In theory, investors apply ESG criteria because they recognize that environmental and social impacts like climate change will materially affect a company’s profits in the long run. As Spalding puts it, screening for ESG-related data and risks is how “we ensure investors are able to, working through capital markets, produce long-term wealth for people.” But in practice, the data is mixed on whether using ESG criteria actually maximizes returns. 

The difficulty in evaluating ESG lies in the lack of a standardized definition for the term. One of the biggest misconceptions about ESG, according to sustainable finance expert and Yale professor Cary Krosinsky, is that it’s a singular idea — a ready-to-use adjective we can plunk in front of any financial term we see fit, like ESG investing or ESG firms. But ESG is not a fixed, technical concept. It’s more like an umbrella that combines three separate but related sets of issues. 

The expansiveness of ESG is part of the reason for its success. Different actors, from asset managers to companies to insurance firms, mold ESG’s definition, methodology, and application to best fit their individual needs. Gabriel Thoumi, CEO of the ESG integration consulting firm Responsible Alpha, compares ESG to a bakery, with “various breads, donuts and pastries that come out of that bakery.” 

For instance, there are more than 600 ESG rating firms, which score companies based on their environmental, labor, and governance practices. Each uses its own methodology and, as a result, they tend to come up with different ratings. Investors can also buy products called ESG funds, which pool together stocks from dozens to thousands of companies according to ESG ratings and other environmental and social metrics. 

Critics say that ESG funds — and the ratings that underlie them — make misleading claims about their social and environmental impact, and distract from the more urgent work of climate regulation. A Bloomberg analysis of the world’s largest ESG rating company, MSCI, found that the firm only measured risks to companies, rather than environmental and social risks to society. “Fighting climate risks in financial portfolios is not the same thing as fighting climate change itself,” wrote Tariq Fancy, a prominent ESG critic and former CIO for sustainable investing at BlackRock.

“Green investing is actively harmful because it’s influencing public opinion and lowering the likelihood of regulation,” he told The New Republic. 

On the right end of the spectrum, lawmakers in red states from Florida to Texas argue that incorporating ESG limits returns for retirees. But so far, evidence points to the opposite. A fiscal analysis by the Kansas state budget office found that pending anti-ESG legislation would cut pension returns by $3.6 billion over the next decade. In Indiana, losses would amount to $6.7 billion over the same timeframe. And in Texas, researchers found a recently enacted anti-ESG law cost taxpayers an estimated $302 million to $532 million in interest over eight months. 

“If you limit the pool of asset managers who are available, it is very costly to taxpayers and pensioners,” said Spalding. As far as whose interests are being served by such policies, “It’s certainly not the pension participants or the taxpayers in these states,” said Spalding. 

A pulling unit or workover rig on an oil well in Utah against the backdrop of the Monitor and Merrimac Buttes and Book Cliffs. Jon G. Fuller / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Some political analysts claim the anti-ESG push is simply a highly orchestrated attempt to please Republican donors. At the heart of the issue is the perceived threat ESG poses to the oil and gas industries. It seems that the more companies and investors recognize the need to transition away from fossil fuels, the more ESG opponents have ramped up efforts to protect the oil and gas sector — a huge source of lobbying money for the Republican party.

Millions in funding for the anti-ESG movement have been traced back to deep-pocketed conservative sponsors. The Wall Street Journal reports that a right-wing nonprofit overseen by Leonard Leo, a leader at the conservative Federalist Society, has spent more than $10 million on anti-ESG action. And major right-wing groups including the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, have played a leading role in pushing model anti-ESG legislation. 

Yet even while efforts to topple ESG pile up, the strategy is becoming increasingly codified in domestic and international regulations. Last March, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency that regulates publicly traded companies, released a draft climate disclosure rule that would require companies to report on greenhouse gas emissions and other climate-related impacts and risks. At the global level, the International Sustainability Standards Board, an independent standard-setting body, is on track to finalize similar guidelines for financial reporting on climate and other ESG-related issues by this June. 

Supporters say that new requirements will hopefully lead to improved data and greater credibility for ESG metrics. “When we see an asset manager saying, ‘I’ve got an ESG fund or a net-zero fund or a green fund,’ there have been a lot of criticisms about, well, wait a minute, what does that really mean?’” said Spalding. “I do think that we will, over time, see stricter definitions and greater transparency.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline What is ESG, the investment strategy under attack by Republicans? on Mar 24, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The IPCC says we need to phase down fossil fuels, fast. Here’s how the US could do it.

Fri, 03/24/2023 - 03:30

On Monday, a panel of the world’s top climate scientists released a grave warning: Current policies are not enough to stave off the most devastating consequences of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, climate pollution from the world’s existing coal, oil, and gas projects is already enough to launch the planet past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, and world leaders must abandon up to $4 trillion in fossil fuels and related infrastructure by midcentury if they want to keep within safe temperature limits.

Instead, rich countries like the United States are going in the opposite direction. Just last week, President Joe Biden approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, a so-called “carbon bomb” that could add some 239 million metric tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, about as much as the annual emissions from 64 coal-fired power plants.

A new report released this week, “An Economist’s Case for Restrictive Supply-Side Policies,” argues that bans, moratoria, and similar measures are sorely needed to keep the United States from extracting more fossil fuels. It highlights 10 policies that can complement clean energy investments to help the country achieve the goals of the IPCC while also prioritizing the health and economic security of America’s most vulnerable communities.

“The IPCC shows that restrictive supply-side measures have to be part of the policy mix,”  said Mark Paul, a Rutgers University professor and a coauthor of the report. “We actually need to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels, there’s just no way around it.”

Until quite recently, most American economists and policymakers have focused on demand-side solutions to climate change — primarily a carbon price that would leave curbing greenhouse gas emissions up to market forces. Supply-side policies, on the other hand, are concerned with suppressing the amount of fossil fuels available for purchase. They come in two flavors: supportive and restrictive. Supportive supply-side policies include some of the tax credits and subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate spending law that Biden signed last year, which support renewable energy to displace fossil fuels. Restrictive policies more actively seek to constrain fossil fuel development.

Some of the most aggressive policies recommended in the new report would use congressional authority to stop new fossil fuel projects, whether by banning new leases for extraction on federal lands and in federal waters or by outlawing all new pipelines, export terminals, gas stations, and other infrastructure nationwide. Other measures would use economic levers to restrict fossil fuel development. For example, taxing the fossil fuel industry’s windfall profits could curtail supply by making oil and gas production less profitable. Requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their climate-related financial risks could also accelerate decarbonization by making polluters without credible transition plans unattractive to investors.

The benefit of these policies, Paul said, is that they can directly constrain carbon-intensive activities and therefore more certainly guarantee a reduction in climate pollution. That’s not the case with demand-side policies, where lawmakers have to hope that consumers’ behavior will lead to less fossil fuel being produced and burned. (The Inflation Reduction Act included some of these policies, like consumer subsidies for electric vehicles and other low-emissions technologies.)

Restrictive supply-side policies in the U.S. can also support international decarbonization. If the U.S. were to only reduce domestic demand for fossil fuels while keeping supply high, it could reduce the price of oil, gas, and coal abroad — incentivizing other countries to use more of those fuels.

That said, not all restrictive supply-side policies are an easy sell. Some, like nationalizing the fossil fuel industry — which would effectively neutralize the sector’s outsize political influence and allow it to be dismantled in an orderly fashion — have not yet entered the political mainstream. Others, however, are closer to reality, and five have previously been introduced in congressional bills. The Keep It in the Ground Act, for example, introduced in 2021 by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, from Oregon, sought to prevent public lands and waters from being leased for fossil fuel extraction. The 2021 Block All New Oil Exports Act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ed Markey, from Massachusetts, proposed reinstating a ban on exporting U.S. crude oil and natural gas, which was in place for 40 years before Congress lifted it in 2015.

Philipe Le Billon, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia who runs a database on restrictive supply-side policies to curtail fossil fuels around the world, said ending federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry is the policy most likely to garner bipartisan political support. “It would be so easy to say, ‘Come on, you made $200 billion last year, so no more subsidies,’” he told Grist. The End Polluter Welfare Act, introduced in 2021 by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, from Vermont, and Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, from Minnesota, sought to do just that, in addition to stopping public funds from being used for fossil fuel research and development.

The fossil fuel industry gets somewhere between $10 and $50 billion in U.S. subsidies every year. 

Paul said it’s hard to imagine any of the policies being enacted while the House of Representatives is under Republican leadership, but he highlighted the climate-related financial risk disclosure policy as a candidate for bipartisan support, since it seeks to inform action from investors. “Even the staunchest capitalist should be on board with this,” he said. Outside of Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, an independent federal agency that protects investors from financial fraud and manipulation, has proposed such a policy.

Subnational “fossil-free zones” — areas that are off-limits to some or all types of fossil fuel development, like oil and gas drilling, gas stations, or export terminals — could be promising too; they’ve already been declared in many communities, and they demonstrate how combined demand- and supply-side interventions could play a role in a more comprehensive fossil fuel phaseout.

To gain momentum for restrictive supply-side policies, Paul said it’s crucial to educate policymakers about “the actual math” behind U.S. and international climate goals. Investments in clean energy are a good start, Paul said, but they’re just “the first bite out of the apple. We need many more bites to limit emissions and preserve some semblance of a habitable planet.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The IPCC says we need to phase down fossil fuels, fast. Here’s how the US could do it. on Mar 24, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Indigenous leaders demand a seat at international water negotiations

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 12:13

World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the United Nations Water Conference to negotiate a Water Action Agenda, the first in almost 50 years, as countries struggle with drought and water pollution. The conference serves as a midway check-in point for the International Decade for Action “Water Sustainable Development”. Since 1977, when the first UN Water Conference was held in Argentina, the Earth’s population has nearly doubled, and access to clean water is one of the top risks facing the planet.

During the conference, nations will be discussing items like the Sustainable Development Goal on Water and Sanitation, international water cooperation, and resilience and disaster risk reduction. The hope is leaders will create a workable water action agenda that can then be implemented and kept in check.

But Indigenous leaders have demanded a seat at the table, citing historic exclusion of Indigenous voices in international decision making. In a declaration sent to the UN this week, representatives from Indigenous nations, communities and organizations have requested attendees address additional points of discussion to their agendas, including violence against water protectors and protesters, the monetization and capitalization of water, and the inclusion of Indigenous leaders in water-based decisions that affect their lands and communities.

“I want governments to understand and be open to negotiations with Indigenous peoples and including Indigenous peoples through the framework of the UN declaration of Indigenous People’s Rights and all of the UN applicable declarations,” said Juan Leon Alvarado, who is Maya K’iche from Guatemala, and a human rights and biodiversity consultant for the International Indian Treaty Council. “We want Guatemala and other governments to respect Indigenous people’s rights instead of killing and criminalizing them.”

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, and between 2007 and 2014, UN human rights treaty bodies addressed mining, oil and gas extraction, and logging projects with adverse effects on Indigenous communities in 34 countries, with almost half of those cases having serious impacts on water.

More than a fifth of the world’s basins have recently undergone rapid fluctuations in surface area. Additionally, over the past 300 years, over 85% of the planet’s wetlands have been lost. Wetlands are critical pieces of the world’s delicate ecosystems, are considered to be the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems, and are breeding grounds for 40% of the world’s plant and animal species. The UN reports these changes in basins and wetlands are due to population growth, changes to land cover and land use, and climate change. Leon Alvarado said Indigenous peoples worldwide should be in the conversation to address these issues.

“Most Indigenous peoples guard water and other resources, like mountains, biodiversity and other knowledge,” Leon Alvarado said. “The government doesn’t respect the knowledge, practice, organization and the old ways that Indigenous peoples use and other measures they take to have clean water.”

Leaders at the UN Water Conference will discuss how to substantially increase water-use efficiency, how to ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater, and how to strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.

In North America, more than 900 water protectors and rights defenders in the U.S. and Canada still face legal action for protesting oil and gas pipeline developments.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Indigenous leaders demand a seat at international water negotiations on Mar 23, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

In East Kentucky, timely weather forecasts are a matter of life and death

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 03:45

This story is a collaboration between The Daily Yonder and Grist. For more, watch the Daily Yonder’s video “How Broadband and Weather Forecasting Failed East Kentucky.” 

Terry Thies wasn’t worried about the rain that pounded on her roof last July. 

She had received no flood warnings before going to sleep that night. Besides, her part of rural Perry County in Eastern Kentucky often gets heavy rain.

So early the next morning when her foot hit the water lapping the bottom of her wooden bed frame, Thies’ first thought was that the toilet had overflowed. But as she scanned her bedroom for the water’s source, she realized this was something else entirely. 

“I came into the kitchen and opened the door and water was flowing down the lane,” Thies said. “Water was in my yard and rushing down. And I was like, well, I guess I’ve been flooded.” 

Thies adjusts the post of the bed that belonged to her mother. It’s the same bed she woke up in to find that her home had flooded overnight last July. Xandr Brown / Daily Yonder

In the days leading up to the storm, the National Weather Service predicted heavy rain and a moderate risk of flooding across a wide swath of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. What happened instead was a record-breaking four-day flood event in eastern Kentucky that killed a confirmed 43 people and destroyed thousands of homes. 

And though the National Weather Service issued repeated alerts, many people received no warning.

“Not a soul, not one emergency outlet texted me or alerted me via phone,” Thies said. 

“Nobody woke me up.” 

Thies’ experience in the July floods reveals troubling truths about Kentucky’s severe weather emergency alert systems. Imprecise weather forecasting and spotty emergency alerts due to limited cellular and internet access in rural Kentucky meant that Thies and many others were wholly unprepared for the historic flood. 

Efforts to improve these systems are underway, but state officials say expansions to broadband infrastructure will take at least four years to be completed in Kentucky’s most rural counties. In a state where flooding is common, these improvements could be the difference between life and death for rural Kentuckians. 

But there’s no guarantee they’ll come before the next climate change-fueled disaster. 

Before the flood, Terry Thies’ home in Bulan, Kentucky, housed her family for two generations. It rests near a creek which flooded last July. Thies is still in transition and plans to sell her home to FEMA. Xandr Brown / Daily Yonder

The first system that failed eastern Kentuckians in July was the weather forecasting system, which did not accurately predict the severity of the storm. A built-in urban bias in weather forecasting is partially to blame. 

“Did we forecast [the storm] being that extreme? No, we didn’t,” said Pete Gogerian, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Jackson, Kentucky, which serves the 13 eastern Kentucky counties affected by the July floods. 

For the days preceding the storm, the Jackson station warned of a ‘moderate risk’ of flooding across much of their service area. Observers with the benefit of hindsight might argue that a designation of ‘high risk’ would have been more appropriate. But Jane Marie Wix, a meteorologist at the Jackson station, wrote in an email to the Daily Yonder that the high-risk label is rarely issued, and simply didn’t match what the model was predicting for the July storms. 

Weather Prediction Center / NOAA

“When we have an event of this magnitude, we’ll go back and look at, are there any indicators? Did we miss something? Was there really any model predicting this kind of event?” Gogerian said. “But when you looked at [the flooding in] eastern Kentucky, it just wasn’t there.”

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how bad it was going to end up being,” Wix wrote.  

Wix says the moderate risk warning was enough to warn people that the storm could have severe impacts in many locations. But the model’s inaccuracy demonstrates a flaw in the National Weather Service forecasting model system that was used at the time of the flood. 

Extreme weather is hard to predict in any setting, but rural regions like eastern Kentucky are at an additional disadvantage due to an urban bias baked into national weather forecasting systems, according to Vijay Tallapragada, the senior scientist at the National Weather Service’s Environmental Modeling Center. 

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Forecasting models depend on observational data — information about past and present weather conditions —to predict what will come next. But there’s more data available for urban areas than for rural areas, according to Tallapragada. 

“Urban areas are observed more than rural areas … and that can have some, I would say, unintended influence on how the models perceive a situation,” he said.

Although spaceborn satellites and remote sensing systems provide a steady supply of rural data, other methods of observation, like aircraft and weather balloons, are usually concentrated in more densely populated areas.

“Historically, many weather observations were developed around aviation, so a lot of weather radars are located at major airports in highly populated cities,” said Jerry Brotzge, Kentucky state climatologist and director of the Kentucky Climate Center. “That leaves a lot of rural areas with less data.” 

Flooding in Kentucky reached treetops along Troublesome Creek in July 2022. Months later, household debris floated by floodwaters remained. Xandr Brown / Daily Yonder

Weather prediction models are based on past events, so the lack of historical weather data in rural areas poses a serious challenge for future predictions, according to Brotzge. “For large areas of Appalachia, we just don’t know the climatology there as well as, say, Louisville or some of the major cities,” he said.

This lack of current and historical weather observation can leave rural areas vulnerable to poor weather forecasting, which can have catastrophic results in the case of extreme weather events. 

A new forecasting model, however, could close the gap in rural severe weather prediction. 

The new Unified Forecast System is being developed by the National Weather Service and a group of academic and community partners. The modeling system is set to launch in 2024, but the results so far are promising, according to Tallapragada.

“In the next couple years, we will see a revolutionary change in how we are going to predict short-range weather and the extremes associated with it,” he said.

The problem with the current system, said Tallapragada, is that it depends on one model to do all the work.

A new application called the Rapid Refresh Forecast System is set to replace that single model with an ensemble of 10 models. Using multiple models allows meteorologists to introduce more statistical uncertainty into their calculations, which produces a broader, and more accurate, range of results, according to Tallapragada. He said that although the new system is not yet finished, it has already proven to be on par with, or better than, the current model. 

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The Rapid Refresh Forecasting System will mitigate the disparity between urban and rural forecasting because it depends more on statistical probabilities and less on current and historical observational data, which is where the biggest gap in rural data currently lies, according to Tallapragada.

The system could also mean improved accuracy when it comes to predicting severe weather, like Kentucky’s July flood event.

“The range of solutions provided by the new system will capture the extremes much better, independent of whether you are observing better or poorly,” Tallapragada said. “That’s the future of all weather prediction.”

As extreme weather events become more common due to climate change, this advancement in weather forecasting has the potential to transform local and regional responses to severe weather. But without massive investments in broadband, life-saving severe weather alerts could remain out of reach for rural communities.

Over a year before the July 2022 floods devastated eastern Kentucky, some counties in the same region were hit by floods that, while not as deadly, still upended lives.

“There were no warnings for that flood,” said Tiffany Clair, an Owsley County resident, in a Daily Yonder interview. “It was fast.” 

Clair received no warning when extreme rains hit her home in March of 2021, which severely damaged nearby towns like Booneville and Beattyville. “I did not think that those [towns] would recover,” Clair said. 

Tiffany Clair’s family home in Owsley county was irreparably damaged last July. She managed to save herself, two kids, and mother — who has early onset dementia — by canoe. Xandr Brown / Daily Yonder

Businesses and homes were impaired for months after the flood, affecting not only the people in those communities but those from neighboring communities as well.

“We live in a region where we travel from township to township for different things, and [the March 2021 floods] were a blow to the region and to the communities, because we’re kind of interlocked around here,” Clair said. “It’s part of being an eastern Kentuckian.”

A little over a year later, Clair faced more flooding, this time enough to displace her and her children. They now live with Clair’s mother. 

This time around, Clair did receive an emergency warning, but questioned the method through which these warnings were sent. “[The warnings] did go all night, the last time, in July,” Clair said. “But if you don’t have a signal or if your phone’s dead, how are you getting those?”

During severe weather events, people are alerted of risk through a handful of ways. Weather information reported from regional National Weather Service offices is disseminated through local TV and radio stations, specialized weather radios, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s wireless emergency alert system, which requires cell service to deliver. 

Read Next How 5G could send weather forecasting back to the 1970s

But in rural eastern Kentucky in July, the most common way people learned about the flooding was by seeing the water rise firsthand, according to a report from the Kentucky Department of Public Health. 

The agency surveyed people from over 400 households in Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Knott, Letcher, Owsley and Perry counties, as well as displaced residents living in three shelter sites. The goal of the study was to understand how the floods affected Kentuckians and determine ways to better prepare for the next emergency. 

Nearly 14 percent of households in Letcher, Knott, Owsley and Perry counties and 28 percent of households in Breathitt, Clay, Floyd and Pike counties reported difficulty accessing internet, television, radio, and cell service for emergency communications during the floods. Cell phone service and internet access were the top two communication methods residents reported the most difficulty accessing.  

The floods killed a confirmed 43 people: 19 from Knott County, 10 from Breathitt, seven from Perry, four from Letcher, two from Clay, and one from Pike County. Several more people died after the floods due to related health complications. 

In Knott and Breathitt County, where death counts were the highest, approximately 32 percent of residents do not have broadband access, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And in 10 of the 13 counties flooded in July, more than a quarter of residents lack broadband access. 

Rural areas across the country are underserved when it comes to broadband, but eastern Kentucky is a special trouble spot, where high costs to serve rural customers have stopped internet companies from setting up broadband in rural areas. In 2017, Kentucky ranked 47th in the nation for broadband access, according to the Kentucky Communications Network Authority

“There’s a lot of frustration because a lot of these internet service providers are profit-based companies,” said Meghan Sandfoss, executive director of the state’s newly created Office of Broadband Development. “So it’s hard for them sometimes to make a business case for the more remote and low density locations.”

The state’s effort to expand broadband has sputtered for years due to missteps by government officials, according to Propublica reporting. An internet connectivity project, KentuckyWired, was launched in 2013 with the goal to construct 3,000 miles of high-speed fiber optic cable in every Kentucky county by 2018. The project didn’t reach its final steps until fall of 2022, according to a KentuckyWired construction map.

Getting the cable laid down is only one part of the process: for individual households and businesses to actually access the internet, third-party providers need to connect their own fiber systems to the network, according to the Kentucky Communications Network Authority. This “last-mile” infrastructure is critical to broadband expansion, but progress has been slow. 

“That might be another 10 years or 20 years while all that last-mile stuff gets built,” said Doug Dawson, a telecommunications consultant, in a ProPublica interview from 2020. 

To speed up this process, both the state and federal governments have recently directed funds toward improved internet connectivity and last-mile infrastructure. 

In June of 2022, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced a $203 million investment in last-mile infrastructure funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. Another $20 million of grants was opened in September for broadband providers to replace utility poles that provide connectivity in underserved areas. And early this year, another $182 million in federal funding was awarded to fund Kentucky’s “Better Internet” grant program. 

This grant program is focused on making it more commercially feasible for private internet providers to reach rural areas, said Sandfoss from the Office of Broadband Development. The priority is to build broadband infrastructure in unserved locations where there is no internet, versus under-served locations with limited internet access.

“A frustration we hear frequently is that all these new locations are being connected and everybody else has to wait,” Sandfoss said. “But that’s just the federal funding priority, and that’s the way we’ve got to do it.” 

Construction on the state’s broadband infrastructure expansions is expected to occur over the next four years.

As extreme weather continues to batter rural Kentucky – floods in February killed one person in rural Marion County – some locals aren’t waiting for governmental changes to better protect themselves in the face of disaster. 

Terry Thies, whose childhood home was flooded in July, has decided to sell her house.

Read Next Kentucky floodwaters are rising again and activists blame strip mines

“Now that it has flooded, it will probably flood again,” Thies said. She plans to move up the mountain, away from the creek that damaged her home. “I just don’t wanna go through it again.”

But for Kentuckians who don’t have the financial means to move away from higher-risk flood areas, they may be stuck in place. Eastern Kentucky is in the middle of a major housing crisis: affordable housing is sparse, buildable land outside flood zones is limited, and construction costs for new homes can be prohibitively expensive. 

“[The flood] was horrible, but we were very, very lucky,” said Tiffany Clair, whose home was destroyed in the July flood. Clair and her children were able to move in with her mother when they lost housing. “But the next time I don’t think we’ll be that lucky.”

Clair believes that rural Kentucky’s ability to withstand the next natural disaster hinges on the actions taken by local and state leaders. 

“We can’t do anything to prepare for it. It is going to take our leaders, it is going to take our politicians,” she said. 

“They’re the ones that have to prepare for it because we can’t.”

Additional reporting by Caroline Carlson and Xandr Brown.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In East Kentucky, timely weather forecasts are a matter of life and death on Mar 23, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

How the FBI used ‘Cop City’ protests to snoop on activists in Chicago

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 03:30

This article was produced in partnership with the nonprofit newsroom Type Investigations, where Adam Federman is a reporting fellow. Subscribe to their newsletters here.

Last summer, a “Chicago Against Cop City” Twitter account was created and began sharing information about a campaign unfolding some 700 miles away. Its first tweet, posted on July 18, promoted a talk at a community bookstore on Chicago’s west side featuring activists involved in the ongoing effort to protect a public park and forest in Atlanta. The speaking event — one of several the activists conducted across the country that year — was designed to raise awareness about the planned conversion of 85 acres of urban forest into a police training center that activists have dubbed Cop City.

It took less than two weeks for the FBI to flag the account, which was the focal point of a sprawling federal inquiry that collected information on several Chicago-based activist and community groups. Those groups appear to have done little more than promote or attend events affiliated with the Atlanta-area activists. According to 28 pages of FBI records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Chicago case file is part of a larger federal law enforcement assessment related to “Anarchist extremism” and domestic terrorism.

The documents describe members of the Atlanta group as “Anarchist Violent Extremists” and “Environmental Violent Extremists” who are “opposed to removal of trees and park land.” These activists traveled to Chicago, the FBI states, to meet with “like minded individuals” and “provide training.” There is little evidence in the unredacted portion of the files or the public record to support the latter claim.

Promotional material for one of the events says it featured “action steps” to help participants find their “role in the struggle.” But one of the activists who traveled to Chicago — and who asked that their name not be used given the possibility of an ongoing FBI investigation — said the events were “informational slideshow presentations” that did not involve any kind of training.

“At no point in the presentations did we advocate for illegal activity,” they said. “And we certainly are not advocating violence.”

Grist and Type Investigations are publishing the full documents, which were redacted by the FBI before release, here and here. The contents of the files were first reported by Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit media organization.

Assessments are a relatively new category of FBI investigation, established under guidelines issued by the agency in 2008, that can be opened with little cause and allow for physical surveillance, database searches, and the use of informants to gather intelligence.

Since the FBI opened its file on Chicago Against Cop City, more than three dozen activists involved in the Atlanta protests and forest defense have been arrested and charged with felonies under Georgia’s 2017 domestic terrorism law. On January 18, a law enforcement officer shot and killed 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, a community medic who had been an active member of the campaign, during a raid on an encampment in the forest. Autopsy results recently released by the family revealed that Tortuigita, as Terán was known, was likely sitting on the ground with both arms raised when they were shot at least 13 times. In public statements, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation maintains that Teran shot a state trooper first. However, the bureau has released only limited information, citing the ongoing investigation. Another autopsy carried out by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office has not been made public. 

A Grist analysis of 20 of the early arrest warrants found that none of those charged with domestic terrorism were accused of seriously injuring anyone. Nine of the activists had simply been cited for misdemeanor trespassing, though the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said that criminal inquiries are ongoing. The terrorism charges, according to the DeKalb County prosecutor, were based on a Department of Homeland Security designation of the Atlanta forest defenders as “Domestic Violent Extremists.” But Homeland Security, like the FBI, denies that it classifies specific groups in this way.

Mike German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said that while there’s nothing in the newly released FBI files to indicate that they’ve been shared with Georgia state authorities, the labeling of an entire group as violent extremists can shape the way law enforcement approaches social movements. 

“This exact kind of loose language may lead to the mistaken assumption that that categorization has some legal effect,” German said.

The FBI, which has a long history of targeting environmental activists, has been actively involved in the law enforcement response to the Atlanta forest defenders. According to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation press release, the FBI has been part of a joint task force intended to “eliminate the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center of criminal activity.” In an April 2022 email, the Homeland Security Officer for the Atlanta Fire Department referred to FBI involvement in an “ongoing investigation” and described the activists as a group of “eco terrorists.”

The heavily redacted records on Chicago Against Cop City include social media posts by a broad range of social justice and environmental organizations. Rising Tide Chicago, a group called Save Jackson Park, the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, and Pilsen Community Books, a popular gathering place for local activists and the host of one of the events, are all named in the files. In one instance, the FBI refers to the use of a source with “direct and indirect access” to activists using the bookstore as a meeting place.

The records also highlight opposition to the construction of the Obama presidential library and the proposed expansion of a nearby golf course that would potentially require the removal of more than 2,000 trees. Save Jackson Park and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary have both campaigned to block the new golf course, which they say would destroy some of the only green space left on Chicago’s south side. The FBI concluded that the development projects in Chicago, along with the building of a police training center on the west side, were “similar” to the Atlanta construction project and could lead to “potential criminal activity.”  

The FBI’s Chicago office declined to comment for this story.

A spokesperson for Rising Tide Chicago said that the bookstore event and a teach-in at Hyde Park three days later were intended simply to educate people about what was happening in Atlanta. “It was a speaking tour,” they said. “It wasn’t a direct-action training. The focus was about their struggle with Cop City.”

The spokesperson said that they don’t know who is behind the Chicago Against Cop City Twitter account, and that it doesn’t appear to be a formal group with an on-the-ground presence. It’s mostly served as a platform for sharing information about how people can support the movement in Atlanta from afar, they said. (Chicago Against Cop City did not respond to a direct message requesting comment.)

Jeanette Hoyt, a 65-year-old teacher at City Colleges of Chicago, is the founder of Save Jackson Park. She launched the group in 2020 to oppose the cutting down of nearly 400 trees and the destruction of parkland, including a beloved women’s garden, to make way for the Obama Presidential Center, which is still under construction. (According to the center’s website, the women’s garden will be “restored.”) One of Save Jackson Park’s social media posts was retweeted by Chicago Against Cop City — and that was enough to land the group in the FBI file.

“The only connection between this group and Cop City is them liking me on Twitter,” said Hoyt.

Read Next Documents show how 19 ‘Cop City’ activists got charged with terrorism

The Rising Tide spokesperson is not surprised the FBI is keeping tabs on the group — it was formed in 2011 and has been named in other FBI investigations — but said it’s troubling that the agency would put together a dossier on organizations engaging in what are clearly constitutionally protected activities, such as attending public events and campaigning to stop controversial development projects.

“They are building evidence,” the Rising Tide spokesperson said. “And compiling social media posts for a narrative that they want to attach to the movement in Atlanta, and attach to people who are concerned about green spaces being taken away in Chicago and I’m sure other cities, too.”

German, who reviewed the documents, said the agency made several misleading connections between the various activist groups without providing evidence to back up serious claims of potential criminal activity and violent extremism among the Chicago groups. While participants in some of the Atlanta-area protests have thrown rocks, broken windows, and burned a police car, nobody connected with any of the Chicago groups or campaigns appears to have engaged in similar tactics. In addition, the police training academy in Chicago did not require the clearing of forested land and, despite local opposition, has already opened.  

“Making this casual reference to an unrelated group a thousand miles away is how the FBI gets itself in trouble,” said German, referring to a pattern of FBI overreach in targeting environmental groups. “I think the animus against the ideology is what’s most problematic.”

The law enforcement response to the campaign in Atlanta has, at least for now, galvanized interest in the protest movement. Following the shooting of Terán, there were marches and vigils across the country and around the world. Affinity groups have sprung up in Tucson, Arizona; Minneapolis; and Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, a growing number of environmental and human rights organizations have called on Georgia prosecutors to drop the domestic terrorism charges.

An Atlanta resident and active participant in the campaign who has been involved in other speaking tours — but requested anonymity due to ongoing police activity — said that the crackdown on the forest defenders has only served to broaden the movement’s public appeal.

“The characterization of people as domestic terrorists — it’s really outraged a lot of people,” they said. “Lots of people are scared by that, but also more and more people are moved by the struggle and called to participate in it.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How the FBI used ‘Cop City’ protests to snoop on activists in Chicago on Mar 23, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

El plomo sigue envenenando a los niños. No tiene que ser así.  

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 03:00

Este reportaje, realizado por el Center for Public Integrity en alianza con Grist y Univision Noticias, es el tercero de una serie sobre contaminación de los suelos con plomo publicada inicialmente por Grist. La reportera Yvette Cabrera ha investigado el impacto del plomo por ocho años. 

La noticia fue un shock: el plomo, escondido en la casa de Nalleli Garrido, estaba envenenando a su hijo de un año.

Su pediatra le dijo que limpiara todos los juguetes del pequeño Rubén, mantuviera la casa libre de polvo y evitara que jugara en el suelo descubierto del exterior de su cabaña, la cual habían alquilado en el barrio de Logan, en Santa Ana, California. Ella hizo todo lo que pudo. Pero el polvo seguía colándose dentro de la casa.

Nadie le ofrecía una alternativa. La única solución que encontraron ella y su marido fue irse. En 2019, después de dos años de preocupación constante, se mudaron a la ciudad de Buena Park, en el norte, y compraron una casa con un jardín con césped, no una parcela de tierra expuesta como su patio delantero de Santa Ana, donde el metal tóxico podía encontrarse en concentraciones de hasta 148 partes de plomo por millón de tierra. La Oficina de Evaluación de Peligros para la Salud Ambiental de California considera que 80 partes por millón o más son peligrosas para los niños.

“Me aterraba sacar a mi hijo”, dijo Garrido, enfermera psiquiátrica. “Incluso paseando por el patio, les decía a mis hijos que contuvieran la respiración. ‘No respiren eso, no respiren el polvo'”.

A través del país, el principal consejo que se da a las familias amenazadas por la exposición a suelos con plomo — mantener la casa limpia — no funciona, según demuestran los estudios. Y las guías federales sobre la exposición tienen umbrales demasiado altos para proteger a los niños de daños irreversibles. Pero de costa a costa, líderes comunitarios, defensores de la salud y académicos están presionando para que se busquen soluciones reales y se ponga fin al envenenamiento de los niños con plomo, generación tras generación tras generación.

Una reja con alambre de púas cae sobre una pared que separa un negocio industrial y el patio residencial de la casa en la que Nalleli Garrido y su familia vivió en el vecindario Logan, en Santa Ana. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

Los científicos están colaborando con los residentes para recoger muestras de plomo del suelo y elaborar un mapa nacional que muestre los puntos peligrosos. Algunas ciudades ofrecen tierra limpia para cubrir el suelo de los patios contaminados con plomo, protegiendo a niños y adultos de una mayor exposición. Y, en Santa Ana, una coalición convenció a los funcionarios municipales para que empezaran a tratar el peligro medioambiental como una prioridad.

“Creo que deberíamos reconocer estos legados violentos, peligrosos y tóxicos que heredamos, y tomar acciones que realmente tengan sentido para mantenernos a salvo”, afirmó Sara Perl Egendorf, quien ayudó a crear una coalición llamada Legacy Lead para abordar la contaminación allí.

Décadas de investigación han demostrado los daños a largo plazo que sufren los niños expuestos al plomo, desde repercusiones en el desarrollo cerebral — la capacidad de aprender, concentrarse y controlar los impulsos — hasta riesgos posteriores para la salud, como las cardiopatías coronarias. Ninguna cantidad, dicen los científicos, es segura. Sin embargo, padres como Garrido, muchos viviendo en zonas urbanas de todo el país, están atrapados en una batalla aparentemente imposible de ganar para proteger a sus hijos de esta neurotoxina invisible.

La intoxicación por plomo suele considerarse un problema del pasado. Pero su legado perdura actualmente como resultado de decisiones empresariales y de las acciones tardías de los gobiernos. El plomo expulsado por los tubos de escape de los autos y las chimeneas industriales hace décadas aún puede encontrarse en el suelo, y la pintura con plomo utilizada ampliamente durante la primera mitad del siglo XX permanece en las paredes de muchos hogares, degradándose hasta convertirse en virutas y polvo. Estados Unidos empezó a eliminar el plomo de la gasolina de los automóviles y de la pintura para el consumo particular en los años 70, pero se sigue vertiendo plomo en las comunidades desde los emplazamientos industriales y la gasolina de aviación que utilizan las avionetas.

Uno de cada dos niños estadounidenses menores de 6 años que fueron examinados entre finales de 2018 y principios de 2020 tenía niveles detectables de plomo en la sangre, y los estudios muestran que la exposición al suelo contaminado es una de las principales razones. Dado que la contaminación por plomo es más común en los barrios de bajo nivel socioeconómico, las personas que viven allí, desproporcionadamente negras y latinas, enfrentan mayores riesgos de sufrir las consecuencias.

“Se trata de un grillete químico para las generaciones de niños que nacerán en estas comunidades si no se limpia el plomo”.

— Jane Williams, directora ejecutiva de California Communities Against Toxics

Eso es lo que motiva a la gente a pedir y tomar acciones. No hay tiempo que perder.

“Se trata de un grillete químico para las generaciones de niños que nacerán en estas comunidades si no se limpia el plomo”, afirmó Jane Williams, directora ejecutiva de la asociación sin fines de lucro California Communities Against Toxics.

La solución que desea ver es que las autoridades se adelanten al problema y utilicen la información que ya tienen para identificar y limpiar los puntos peligrosos del suelo, en lugar de reaccionar ante los casos individuales de niños envenenados.

“Sabes dónde está el problema”, dijo Williams. “Sabes lo que está haciendo el problema. Sabes cuál es su impacto. Sabes cuál es el costo social. Sabes todas estas cosas, y no haces nada ni como gobierno estatal, ni como gobierno local, ni como gobierno federal”.

Trenes, incluyendo la línea Pacific Electric Santa Ana, alguna vez cruzaron este puente de armadura que cruza el río Santa Ana e ingresaban al centro cívico (al fondo) de Santa Ana, en el siglo 20. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity Parque de juegos envenenado

El plomo no se descompone en algo más seguro cuando se asienta en el suelo, por eso es tan importante retirarlo o cubrirlo con tierra limpia para detener la exposición. Los científicos han descubierto que, cuando el plomo se deposita en la capa superior de la tierra, puede permanecer allí durante décadas, o más.

Como se adhiere a las partículas del suelo, el viento que levanta la tierra y el polvo puede reintroducir el plomo en la atmósfera y propagar la contaminación, escribió el experto en plomo Howard Mielke de la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Tulane, en un artículo publicado en 2021 en la revista científica Elementa.

Su investigación en Nueva Orleans ha demostrado que los niveles de plomo en la sangre de las personas expuestas aumentan rápidamente cuando los niveles de plomo en el suelo oscilan entre casi cero y 100 partes por millón, muy por debajo del umbral de 400 partes por millón establecido por la Agencia de Protección del Medio Ambiente de Estados Unidos. Los niveles de plomo en la sangre se estabilizan a mayor exposición.

El jardín de Garrido en Santa Ana, donde los niveles de plomo oscilaban entre 33 partes por millón y 148, fue una fuente continua de problemas después de que el pediatra le dijera que había plomo en la sangre de su hijo. Los niveles no eran lo suficientemente altos como para que el niño tuviera derecho a los servicios de intervención de la agencia local de salud pública, pero seguían siendo preocupantes. Más tarde le diagnosticaron retrasos en el habla y comenzó terapia de lenguaje.

Cuando la familia Garrido se mudó por primera vez a la casa alquilada, el jardín delantero tenía algo de pasto, pero la sequía posterior lo dejó estéril: un patio envenenado al que no dejaban salir a Rubén.

“No lo dejo salir para nada, pero no importa lo que haga, incluso cuando mantenemos la puerta cerrada todo el tiempo, entra mucha tierra. Está justo ahí. Está como a medio metro de mi puerta”, dijo Garrido antes de irse.

Limpiaba a diario las encimeras de la cocina, pero una gruesa capa de polvo pronto volvía a aparecer.

Aspiraba la pequeña alfombra de su casa tres veces al día, y aun así no era suficiente.

Entre el suelo estéril del patio, y el polvo y la contaminación levantados por las industrias constructoras a lo largo del bulevar principal, situado detrás de su casa, se enfrentó a una batalla perdida. Las llamadas a las autoridades competentes, e incluso a la policía, para denunciar a los comercios que operaban fuera del horario habitual de trabajo, no resolvieron el problema.

Tampoco el informar a los propietarios de su casa rentada sobre los niveles de plomo en el suelo. Garrido dijo que no se ofreció a arreglar el suelo y parecía molesto porque ella había permitido que esta reportera lo analizara en 2018 como parte de una investigación de Grist. Public Integrity solicitó una entrevista a través de la empresa de gestión de la propiedad; el propietario no respondió.

“Creo que todo el mundo tiene derecho a la salud”, dijo Garrido, “pero no todo el mundo piensa eso”.

De la falta de acción al activismo en una comunidad envenenada por plomo

En la antigua comunidad de Garrido, los residentes organizados se han propuesto eliminar el plomo.

Padres, defensores de la justicia medioambiental y académicos han pasado los últimos cinco años trabajando juntos para concientizar sobre los peligros de la exposición al plomo en Santa Ana. Su coalición, ¡Plo-NO! ¡Santa Ana! ¡Santa Ana sin plomo!, también ha realizado pruebas de plomo en el suelo a lo largo de la ciudad y ha presionado a las autoridades municipales y a la Agencia de Salud del Condado de Orange para que aborden el problema de forma más agresiva.

Las pruebas de plomo en el suelo de la coalición, organizadas tras una investigación de ThinkProgress en 2017, confirmaron que los niños de las zonas más pobres de Santa Ana corren un mayor riesgo de exposición. El estudio de 2020, dirigido por un equipo de investigadores de la Universidad de California en Irvine, analizó más de 1,500 muestras de suelo recogidas en toda la ciudad.

El trabajo de la coalición dio sus frutos: En abril de 2022, el ayuntamiento aprobó una actualización del plan general de Santa Ana que se compromete por primera vez a abordar de forma integral los peligros de la contaminación por plomo. El otoño anterior, el ayuntamiento dio el inusual paso de adoptar una resolución vanguardista declarando una emergencia climática y, al mismo tiempo, comprometiéndose a limitar o prevenir la exposición al plomo y a otras toxinas medioambientales.

Incluso el mero hecho de reconocer la contaminación generalizada por plomo en los suelos de la ciudad es un nuevo paso para el ayuntamiento, dijo la integrante del ayuntamiento y alcaldesa provisional Jessie López, que presentó la resolución.

Se enteró del problema por primera vez a través de su trabajo con la organización de defensa pública Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ), que forma parte de la coalición ¡Plo-NO! López, elegida al ayuntamiento de la ciudad en 2020, dijo que inicialmente se sorprendió al enterarse de que los suelos de Santa Ana estaban contaminados. Siguió mucha frustración porque la ciudad se tardó en actuar.

Ahora, como funcionaria electa, su objetivo es garantizar que la ciudad aborde las desigualdades en el uso de los suelos que generan una exposición desigual a la contaminación.

“Somos muy conscientes de las malas decisiones que se han tomado en el pasado”, dijo López. “Estamos trabajando muy duro para cambiarlas, para asegurarnos de que en el futuro no volveremos a hacer esas cosas”.

Los miembros de la coalición llevan varios años debatiendo políticas sobre el plomo con funcionarios del departamento de planificación local y de la Agencia de Salud del Condado de Orange, y han presionado para que se incluya a los residentes en esa labor. La OCEJ, por ejemplo, abogó por políticas que protegieran a los inquilinos de ser desalojados mientras se lleva a cabo el saneamiento del plomo o de que se les aumente el alquiler como consecuencia de ello.

Leer siguiente 8 medidas que puedes tomar cuando el plomo contamina los suelos de tu comunidad

Como podría suponer cualquier activista que trabaje en un problema difícil, los resultados de Santa Ana siguen siendo un trabajo en curso. Pero muchos de los cambios por los que abogó la coalición en la actualización del plan general son concretos: la ciudad exige ahora a los desarrolladores inmobiliarios que faciliten información sobre el uso anterior de una propiedad y su historial de materiales peligrosos, de modo que la contaminación del suelo pueda ser resuelta. También obliga a mediar entre la industria pesada y las zonas residenciales. La ciudad se ha comprometido a determinar los niveles de referencia del suelo y el aire, conseguir subvenciones para analizarlos y crear un plan de salud pública para hacer frente a los riesgos medioambientales en los barrios más afectados.

“Estamos muy contentos con el resultado”, dijo Patricia J. Flores Yrarrázaval, directora de proyectos de la OCEJ. “Hemos presionado mucho durante el último año. Fue una ardua batalla, y en algunos momentos nos dijeron que nuestras peticiones no eran razonables. Que se hayan cumplido todas es una gran victoria”.

La clave de su éxito, según ella, fue crear un movimiento comunitario que combinara pruebas científicas con poderosos testimonios de los residentes. Con apasionadas llamadas de atención durante las reuniones del ayuntamiento, los residentes presionaron a la ciudad para que actuara. No hacerlo habría permitido que los niños siguieran siendo envenenados, le dijo Flores Yrarrázaval a los miembros del ayuntamiento durante una reunión.

Ahora, dijo, “como comunidad estamos en una posición mucho mejor que antes”.

Patricia J. Flores Yrarrázaval, directora de proyectos de Orange County Environmental Justice, discute planes para atender la contaminación debido al plomo en el lote de tierra a su espalda, que pertenece a Santa Ana. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

Además de su labor de defensa de políticas, la OCEJ tiene en marcha varios proyectos para recopilar datos que pongan de manifiesto lo extendida que está la exposición al plomo en Santa Ana, especialmente entre los jóvenes. La organización espera llevar a cabo pruebas de plomo en la sangre y realizar un estudio para medir los niveles de plomo en los dientes a fin de entender la exposición acumulativa a lo largo de la vida de un residente de Santa Ana.

Los miembros de la coalición siguen preocupados de que los funcionarios de salud del condado se hayan basado casi exclusivamente en los datos existentes sobre el nivel de plomo en la sangre para orientar la respuesta de la Agencia de Salud del Condado de Orange a la exposición infantil al plomo, dijo Alana M. W. LeBrón, profesora adjunta de salud pública y estudios Chicanos/Latinos en la Universidad de California, Irvine, quien ha supervisado la investigación sobre el plomo en el suelo en Santa Ana. Los estudios han demostrado que muchos estados no realizan análisis de sangre adecuados a los niños para detectar la exposición al plomo, dejando a un gran número sin diagnosticar.

“Si sólo se analizan los casos en los que hay un diagnóstico de ‘envenenamiento por plomo’, entonces se está pasando por alto a todo este grupo de personas”, afirma LeBrón, refiriéndose a las personas a las que no se les hacen pruebas y a los casos que no desencadenan una intervención de salud pública, porque las exposiciones repetidas a niveles más bajos de plomo no son tratadas como el peligro que son. 

En todo momento, han sido los residentes de Santa Ana quienes han liderado la lucha por la salud de la comunidad, dijo Flores Yrarrázaval, y la batalla aún no ha terminado.

“Queremos emprender esta lucha en múltiples frentes”, afirmó.

El poder de la comunidad en la lucha contra el plomo

El enfoque comunitario general para eliminar la intoxicación por plomo que desean los defensores de Santa Ana es la forma más eficaz de proteger a los niños, afirman expertos en suelos afectados por el plomo. Significa localizar con precisión los focos peligrosos de plomo y centrar las medidas correctoras barrio por barrio, en lugar de aplicar un enfoque disperso después de que se ha encontrado plomo en la sangre de los niños.

En el ámbito local, los municipios pueden hacer esfuerzos enérgicos para hacer frente a la contaminación por plomo o adoptar un enfoque laxo, y las diferencias se traducen en repercusiones irreversibles para la salud.

Idalia Ríos, una madre y vecina activista, camina a la escuela con su hijo Andrew, de 10 años, a través del vecindario Lacy de Santa Ana, en 2018. El lote baldío a sus espaldas, un área preocupante en una zona con contaminación por plomo, fue luego convertido por la ciudad en un parque, luego que activistas presionaran por más espacios al aire libre. Yvette Cabrera / Center for Public Integrity)

El sociólogo Robert Sampson, de la Universidad de Harvard, investigó a fondo la exposición al plomo en los barrios de Chicago y las desigualdades creadas por la exposición desigual a entornos contaminados. Sampson señala que el Departamento de Salud Pública de Chicago es un ejemplo a seguir porque no esperó a que intervinieran el gobierno federal o estatal.

“Considero que el departamento de salud es una especie de héroe importante en la historia del plomo, porque a partir de los años 90 se dedicó enérgicamente a analizar e intentar regular las fuentes de exposición al plomo en la ciudad”, dijo Sampson.

La agencia recogió decenas de miles de análisis de sangre, monitoreó esta información para enfocarse en los barrios más afectados por el envenenamiento por plomo, ofreció gestión de casos a los niños expuestos, realizó inspecciones de viviendas y abordó los peligros del metal.

Mientras que la agencia de salud pública se ha centrado en la pintura con plomo, sus socios de las agencias estatales y locales se centran en la contaminación por plomo del suelo. Por ejemplo, Chicago exige a quienes compran propiedades de la ciudad que detecten peligros en el suelo y remedien los niveles elevados de plomo. Este es el tipo de acción conjunta que debe aplicarse en todo el país, con la colaboración de múltiples organismos, dijo Sampson.

Ha significado una gran diferencia en Chicago.

Las tasas de exposición al plomo, que eran muy altas y se concentraban en los barrios pobres, negros y latinos de la ciudad, han disminuido drásticamente. Uno de cada cuatro niños analizados en 1997 tenía niveles de plomo en la sangre de al menos 10 microgramos por decilitro, señal de una exposición elevada. Para 2021, la tasa había bajado a uno de cada 200 niños.

“Las tasas siguen siendo más altas en los barrios pobres y negros, pero un barrio pobre y negro tiene ahora mucho menos riesgo que un barrio pobre y negro en 1995”, dijo Sampson. “Es una victoria importante”.

Un plan nacional para reducir la exposición al plomo

En la actualidad, en todo el país, la mayoría de los organismos de salud pública de los condados abordan la exposición al plomo analizando los niveles del metal en la sangre de los niños, no el entorno, afirma Mielke, experto en suelos contaminados con plomo de la Universidad de Tulane. Centrarse en los casos individuales de intoxicación puede parecer más manejable. Pero este planteamiento, que evita invertir en medidas correctoras a gran escala, utiliza a los niños como canarios en la mina de carbón. Permite que miles de ellos estén expuestas diariamente a suelos contaminados en sus patios traseros. Y a muchos ni siquiera se les diagnostica.

Los municipios disponen ahora de herramientas científicas para medir la presencia de plomo en el medio ambiente y cartografiar los puntos peligrosos, de modo que los organismos de salud pública puedan centrarse en prevenir la exposición antes de que se produzca. Exigir pruebas de envenenamiento por plomo de un niño antes de investigar y abordar la contaminación es una estrategia fallida, dijo Mielke.

“Intentamos curar la enfermedad en lugar de prevenirla”, dijo Mielke. Y en el caso del envenenamiento por plomo, no hay cura.

El experto utiliza Noruega como ejemplo de lo que puede lograrse en la lucha contra el plomo cuando la voluntad política y el conocimiento científico están en sintonía. Noruega decidió prohibir el plomo en la pintura medio siglo antes que Estados Unidos, en la década de 1920, el mismo periodo en que las autoridades sanitarias estadounidenses debatían si permitir a General Motors utilizar tetraetilo de plomo en la gasolina como aditivo. Las autoridades sanitarias estadounidenses de la época conocían los riesgos potenciales para la salud y comprendían que el aditivo tóxico era una “grave amenaza para la salud pública”, pero aún así tomaron la decisión de apoyar su uso en la gasolina.

Noruega utilizaba menos gasolina con plomo, tenía menos tráfico y construyó menos autopistas. Cuando, a pesar de todo, se enfrentaron con el envenenamiento por plomo, el país decidió centrar sus esfuerzos en analizar el medio ambiente, no la sangre de los niños.

Hace casi 15 años, la agencia noruega de protección del medio ambiente decidió analizar y cartografiar sistemáticamente los suelos superficiales de las zonas donde los niños tenían más probabilidades de estar expuestos a tierra contaminada: guarderías, patios de colegio y zonas de recreo de las 10 ciudades más grandes del país, basándose en la investigación de Mielke en Nueva Orleans.

Una vez que los análisis del suelo confirman la presencia de plomo, Noruega lo limpia. Noruega tampoco exige pruebas de que un niño haya sido envenenado con plomo para que el gobierno ofrezca ayuda, dice Mielke. Basta con que el entorno esté contaminado para que el gobierno intervenga y actúe para resolver el problema.

Estados Unidos también podría hacerlo, dijo Mielke.

Simplemente no lo han hecho.

En teoría, la agencia mejor posicionada para detener una epidemia nacional de envenenamiento por plomo en este país es la EPA.

En 1992, el Congreso ordenó a sus funcionarios que establecieran normas para los niveles de plomo en el suelo. La agencia no cumplió la orden hasta 2001. Y las normas no se han actualizado desde su publicación hace 22 años.

Repetidas pruebas han demostrado que ningún nivel de exposición al plomo es seguro y que, como mínimo, debería ser muy inferior al umbral establecido por la EPA de 400 partes de plomo por millón de partes de suelo. Sin embargo, las agencias de salud pública de todo el país utilizan las normas de la EPA para decidir si se debe limpiar un patio contaminado con plomo después de que un niño estuvo expuesto.

El administrador adjunto de la EPA, Carlton Waterhouse, supervisa el trabajo de la agencia en materia de residuos sólidos y descontaminación. En su opinión, es difícil abordar un problema que se origina a nivel local pero está muy extendido por todo el país. La respuesta a la contaminación por plomo de los organismos locales y estatales varía sustancialmente, dijo, y la falta de una ley federal de suelos limpios — algo así como las leyes de Aire Limpio y Agua Limpia — significa que la EPA no tiene autoridad para tomar muestras y limpiar todos los suelos del país.

No tenemos ninguna legislación, dirección o financiación que nos ofrezca un enfoque global para decir: ‘Vamos a abordar el problema del plomo'”, dijo Waterhouse.

Ahora, la EPA dice que finalmente planea “revisar” sus anticuadas normas sobre el peligro del plomo en el suelo. Esta reconsideración forma parte de una nueva estrategia que la agencia anunció en octubre para reducir la exposición al plomo en todo el país y las disparidades raciales y de ingresos en las personas expuestas.

La agencia pretende abordar el problema de una forma que los defensores llevan mucho tiempo pidiendo: utilizando datos para predecir las zonas peligrosas debido a la contaminación con plomo, incluyendo los lugares donde los niños podrían estar expuestos, para luego analizar esos suelos. Si la contaminación alcanza el umbral de un sitio de Superfondo -como se conoce un área afectada por materiales peligrosos que el gobierno federal determina debe ser descontaminada-, la EPA procederá a su remediación, dijo Waterhouse.

La agencia está intentando hacer lo que puede con la autoridad que tiene, dijo, “reconociendo que no tenemos el tipo de presencia que nos permite hacer pruebas a todos los niños en el momento en que empiezan a ir a la escuela o ir a cada casa y buscar pintura a base de plomo”.

Esto significa que la agencia está centrando su trabajo en lugares donde la EPA sabe que hay exposición al plomo a través del aire, el agua o el suelo. En la Ley Bipartidista de Infraestructuras de 2022 se incluyeron fondos para sustituir las tuberías de servicio de plomo, es decir, las tuberías que conectan una vivienda con la red de suministro de agua. Pero el nuevo sistema no toma en cuenta el incalculable número de lugares que se pasan por alto debido a datos incompletos.

Los críticos también señalan que los objetivos no comprometen a la EPA a actualizar estándares obsoletos sobre el peligro del plomo, a pesar de una orden judicial federal de 2021 que así lo exige. La agencia aún no ha dado a conocer una fecha específica.

“Comunidades de todo el país están sufriendo la exposición al plomo del suelo porque la EPA ha fallado en atender el problema durante décadas”, dijo Eve Gartner, abogada gerente del Programa de Exposición Tóxica y Salud de Earthjustice, cuya demanda motivó la decisión de 2021.

El ruido constante y la contaminación provenientes de negocios como este, visto desde la ventana del segundo piso de la residente de Logan, Frances Orozco, han sido por décadas una carga para los habitantes de este vecindario de Santa Ana. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

En marzo de 2022, los grupos, decepcionados por el entonces proyecto de estrategia de la EPA, pidieron a la agencia que asumiera un compromiso más amplio para eliminar la exposición al plomo en todas las comunidades y para las personas de todas las edades, porque los peligros no se limitan a los niños. La coalición también presionó a la EPA para que abordara la exposición al plomo procedente de fuentes de contaminación continuas.

La EPA no impedirá la exposición al plomo si sigue considerando que se trata de un problema de naturaleza puramente ‘heredada'”, escribió la coalición en los comentarios públicos presentados a la agencia.

En la Universidad Simon Fraser de Canadá, el profesor Bruce Lanphear, epidemiólogo y experto en la exposición al plomo en la primera infancia y sus efectos a largo plazo en los adultos, se muestra cautelosamente optimista sobre el plan. Pero su esperanza se ve atenuada por el historial de la agencia de retrasar las acciones.

“Hace tiempo que debería haberse hecho, y no podemos culpar a un partido [político] u otro. Ambos fracasaron miserablemente durante mucho tiempo”, dijo Lanphear. “Y sin embargo, al mismo tiempo, ¿estamos en un punto de inflexión en el que realmente abordaremos no sólo el legado del envenenamiento por plomo, sino quizá también las disparidades?”.

Lanphear ha descubierto que una crisis debido al plomo que acapara titulares, como la contaminación del agua en Flint (Michigan), atrae la atención y el financiamiento. Pero la atención se disipa pronto. Los fondos nunca llegan a un nivel que permita abordar de forma integral la naturaleza generalizada del problema. Y los estándares insuficientes sobre el peligro del plomo no ayudan.

Esto le preocupa a Lanphear, quien lleva casi dos décadas investigando y haciendo un seguimiento de su impacto sobre la salud. Pocas sustancias químicas tóxicas han demostrado ser tan nocivas para los niños como el plomo, y sus efectos son de gran alcance.

Las investigaciones de Lanphear han demostrado que el plomo podría causar al menos un cuarto de millón de muertes prematuras al año por enfermedades cardiovasculares tan solo en Estados Unidos.

Ruth Ann Norton, presidenta y directora ejecutiva de la organización sin ánimo de lucro Green & Healthy Homes en Baltimore, ha encabezado esfuerzos para reducir drásticamente la intoxicación infantil por plomo en todo Estados Unidos. Lo que el país necesita — y le falta a la estrategia de la EPA — son oportunidades para atacar varios problemas a la vez, dijo.

Por ejemplo, el programa federal de ayuda a la climatización podría combinarse con un programa de remediación del plomo en la pintura y el suelo, problemas que suelen aplazarse por su costo. Pero el coste de inacción es alto.

“Todas las comunidades pueden hacer esto. Se trata simplemente de tomar la decisión de hacer algo que saben que es tan fundamental para su futuro”.

— Ruth Ann Norton, presidenta y directora ejecutiva de Green & Healthy Homes

Las comunidades pueden tomar medidas creativas ahora, añadió Norton. Su organización sin ánimo de lucro gestiona un programa en Pennsylvania con el Hospital General de Lancaster, que está pagando 50 millones de dólares para intervenciones para el control del plomo en 2,800 hogares.

“Todas las comunidades pueden hacer esto”, dijo. “Se trata simplemente de tomar la decisión de hacer algo que saben que es tan fundamental para su futuro”.

Combatir el plomo en el suelo con más suelo

Los científicos también intentan llenar las brechas creadas por la falta de acción gubernamental. Gabriel Filippelli, biogeoquímico que lleva más de dos décadas estudiando la contaminación por plomo, sabe que la mayoría de las ciudades y pueblos de EE.UU. carecen de una base de datos centralizada para las pruebas de plomo en el suelo, por ello ha ayudado a crear una plataforma en línea en la que todo el mundo, desde científicos a residentes, pueden compartir muestras y los resultados de las pruebas.

Lanzado en 2018, el portal en línea Map My Environment visualiza estos datos, incluye los niveles de plomo de contaminación del suelo, el polvo y el agua en ciudades de todo el mundo, y ofrece recomendaciones sobre cómo remediar el plomo. “Solo queríamos una manera de sacar esto de una revista de ciencia especializada y llevarlo a las comunidades”, dijo Filippelli, profesor de Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, quien funge como director ejecutivo del Instituto de Resiliencia Medioambiental.

Las personas que recojan muestras de polvo pueden analizarlas gratuitamente gracias a esta iniciativa. Map My Environment también puso en marcha el programa escolar Bookworm, en la que los alumnos recogen lombrices y tierra para analizar la contaminación por plomo, y reciben a cambio un vale para libros.

En un momento en que los estadounidenses son más conscientes de los peligros del plomo a raíz de la crisis del agua en Flint, la mayoría ignora que el plomo contamina con demasiada frecuencia el suelo de los centros urbanos, dijo Filippelli.

“En realidad, es muy raro que el agua afecte a las personas”, dijo. “Es realmente el suelo y el polvo que están siempre presentes lo que es lo más importante. Ese es el mensaje que intentamos transmitir todo el tiempo, junto con el hecho de que es muy fácil de solucionar”.

Las investigaciones de Mielke y otros demuestran que cambiando la superficie del suelo en comunidades con altos niveles de plomo se protege la salud de las personas. En Nueva Orleans, el departamento de salud de la ciudad colaboró con Mielke para sanear el suelo de guarderías, parques y patios de recreo recubriendo la tierra contaminada con tierra limpia. Los suelos de los parques infantiles de la ciudad mejoraron notablemente, dijo Mielke.

Pero como no se incluyeron los patios de las casas, “siguen siendo muy peligrosos”, dijo, y ahí es donde “es probable que estén los niños cuando son muy, muy pequeños”.

El profesor Howard Mielke, de la Universidad de Medicina de Tulane, es uno de los principales expertos del país en contaminación de suelos debido al plomo y ha trabajado por décadas para proteger a los niños de la exposición a este. En la imagen aparece junto a su investigador asociado, Eric Powell (izq.) en Nueva Orleans. Mielke se detiene un momento luego de visitar un centro infantil local en 2015. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

Para proteger realmente la salud de los niños, los estudios han demostrado que las concentraciones de plomo en el suelo en toda una comunidad tendrían que reducirse a menos de 80 partes por millón, tal vez la mitad de ese nivel, dijo Mielke. Un estudio de 2017 realizado por el geólogo y científico ambiental Mark Laidlaw, Filippelli, Mielke y sus colegas examinó los enfoques para abordar la contaminación por plomo del suelo urbano y concluyó que la recolección de los niveles de plomo del suelo no sería necesaria si el suelo con poco o ningún plomo se diseminara en vecindarios completos.

En otras palabras: cubre lo que hay con un suelo mejor.

En Nueva Orleans, Mielke ha utilizado el vertedero de Bonnet Carré para obtener tierra aluvial con niveles mínimos de plomo, procedente de los sedimentos del río Mississippi, para recubrir zonas peligrosas. La mayoría de las ciudades pueden acceder a suelo como ése en las afueras de los centros urbanos, encontró el estudio. Para pagarlo, los investigadores sugieren imponer impuestos a los productos de gasolina y pintura, dado que una gran parte del plomo presente en el suelo y en las paredes de las viviendas procede de estas industrias.

En la ciudad de Nueva York, donde estudios recientes han confirmado la contaminación local por plomo en el suelo, el NYC Clean Soil Bank (Banco de Suelo Limpio de Nueva York) ofrece gratuitamente a los residentes suelo limpio que ha sido analizado tras su excavación en obras de construcción de la ciudad. La creación de este sistema “ha sido sorprendentemente más factible que intentar exigir la realización de pruebas o la remediación”, afirma Egendorf, investigadora del NYC Compost Project. “Me encantaría que más gente lo conociera y que siguiera expandiéndose porque otras ciudades también pueden hacerlo”.

Lo que demuestran todas estas soluciones es que el envenenamiento por plomo se puede prevenir. Las dificultades derivadas de sus impactos a la salud no tienen por qué afectar a más generaciones.

Sólo hace falta actuar.

En Santa Ana, los defensores de la justicia medioambiental que abogan exactamente por eso afirman que se han comprometido a modificar el modo en que se aborda la contaminación por plomo del suelo en todo el país. LeBrón, profesor de salud pública de la Universidad de California en Irvine, dijo que la coalición espera crear un intercambio para que las personas de todo el país puedan aprender unas de otras.

Para Garrido, las soluciones no llegaron lo bastante pronto. Habría criado con gusto a su hijo en Santa Ana si hubieran menos riesgos para su salud y seguridad.

Rubén, que ahora tiene 7 años y está en primer año de primaria, sigue teniendo retrasos significativos en el habla y está siendo evaluado porque podría tener problemas de aprendizaje, dijo Garrido, pero en general es bastante saludable.

Y puede correr libremente por su propiedad de Buena Park sin riesgo de respirar o ingerir tierra contaminada con plomo.

“El barrio es bastante seguro. Las aceras son decentes y podemos pasear, así que sacamos a los perros a caminar y llevo a mi hijo conmigo”, dijo Garrido.  “Es como un mundo completamente nuevo para él”.

Myriam Vidal tradujo este artículo al español.Esta pieza se produjo en alianza con el McGraw Center for Business Journalism de la Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Esta nota también fue posible con ayuda del Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists, y las becas Kozik Challenge Grants financiadas por la National Press Foundation y el National Press Club Journalism Institute.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline El plomo sigue envenenando a los niños. No tiene que ser así.   on Mar 23, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

8 medidas que puedes tomar cuando el plomo contamina los suelos de tu comunidad

Thu, 03/23/2023 - 02:45

Esta pieza del Center for Public Integrity fue publicada en alianza con Grist y Univision.

¿Hay plomo acechando en los suelos que te rodean?

La peligrosa contaminación con plomo sigue plagando el suelo de centros urbanos, particularmente en vecindarios antiguos y de alto tráfico, donde durante el siglo XX se acumularon partículas y polvo transportado por el aire proveniente de gasolina y pintura con plomo. Áreas industriales, donde emisiones históricas y recientes de plomo se han asentado en el suelo, también son de alto riesgo.

Décadas de investigación han demostrado el daño persistente para los niños expuestos al plomo, que desencadena toda una serie de problemas para el desarrollo del cerebro, lo que afecta la capacidad de aprender, prestar atención y controlar los impulsos y otros comportamientos críticos para navegar la vida. Evidencia creciente muestra que también aumenta el riesgo de enfermedad coronaria, accidente cerebrovascular y enfermedad renal crónica.

Pero hay pasos que puedes tomar para que tu comunidad esté más segura ante el plomo.

Averigüa si tienes un problema 

Expertos locales pueden saber dónde se ubican los puntos peligrosos de suelos contaminados con plomo en tu región. Si no puedes conseguir esa información, prueba con el portal Map My Environment. Se trata de una base de datos que muestra áreas importantes de contaminación del agua, el suelo o el polvo debido al plomo en Estados Unidos y otras partes del globo. La iniciativa fue inicialmente lanzada en el Centro de Salud Urbana de Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, y ahora universidades de todo el mundo participan.

Puedes explorar los niveles de plomo en el mapa interactivo y enviar muestras para que sean analizadas gratuitamente. También encontrarás recomendaciones de estrategias para enfrentar la situación. 

Este mapa muestra qué tan elevados son los niveles de plomo en la sangre en niños por tramo del Censo (census tract) en 34 estados. Los estados no examinan adecuadamente la sangre de los niños para detectar la exposición al plomo, de acuerdo con estudios, pero los datos existentes pueden indicar áreas potencialmente problemáticas debido a una exposición a través del suelo, pintura o el agua.

Presiona para que el gobierno federal actúe

La Agencia de Protección Ambiental de EE. UU. ha dicho que planea evaluar sus viejos estándares de riesgo de plomo en el suelo, que no protegen a las personas de daños porque los umbrales son demasiado altos. Esa decisión es parte de una nueva estrategia anunciada en octubre para reducir la exposición al plomo en todo el país, así como diminuir el riesgo más elevado que corren personas de color y residentes de bajos ingresos.

Sin embargo, la agencia no ha anunciado un cronograma para sus planes de revisitar los estándares. Los actuales fueron establecidos hace más de 20 años. 

Center for Public Integrity

El jefe de la EPA, Michael S. Regan, se comprometió a que la agencia se responsabilizará por su progreso reportando los avances en el sitio web de la EPA. Mientras tanto, puedes ponerte en contacto con la agencia y aprovechar las oportunidades que se abran para enviar un comentario público. (Está atento a

Además, Estados Unidos carece de un enfoque sistemático para mapear la contaminación del suelo urbano, lo que a menudo se deja en manos de investigadores académicos. Sin embargo, estos dicen que es difícil obtener fondos para realizar pruebas exhaustivas para identificar y monitorear puntos peligrosos. La presión pública sobre las agencias para que respalden más análisis de suelos urbanos podría producir datos que no solo prevengan la exposición infantil al plomo antes de que ocurra, sino que también conduzcan a normas ambientales más estrictas.

Suma esfuerzos con otros

Estudios muestran que abordar la contaminación generalizada y persistente del suelo debido al plomo requiere enfoques colaborativos que empoderen a los afectados. Esto implica reclutar líderes de vecindarios con riesgos de exposición al plomo, crear conciencia sobre los peligros para la salud, compartir formas en las que los miembros de la comunidad pueden proteger a sus familias y encontrar soluciones que funcionen para sus circunstancias.

En Santa Ana, California, la gente hizo precisamente eso. Defensores de la justicia ambiental, padres preocupados y científicos formaron una coalición, ¡Plo-NO! ¡Santa Ana! ¡Santa Ana sin plomo!, que realizó pruebas de plomo en los suelos de toda la ciudad y presionó a funcionarios locales para que actuaran. El año pasado, el Ayuntamiento de Santa Ana actualizó el plan general de la ciudad para comprometerse a abordar de manera integral los peligros de contaminación por plomo.

Al otro lado del país, investigadores de la Universidad de Illinois se asociaron con residentes de Chicago para producir lo que aseguran es el primer mapa de la contaminación con plomo en el suelo de toda la ciudad. Encontraron un problema generalizado. Con los comentarios de esos mismos residentes, los científicos diseñaron estudios de seguimiento y estrategias para tratar el suelo y proteger a las personas.

Lucha contra el plomo en el suelo con más tierra

El experto en suelos contaminados con plomo Howard Mielke, de la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Tulane, descubrió que si se cambia la superficie del suelo en comunidades con altos niveles de plomo, se protege la salud de las personas.

En Nueva Orleans, el departamento de salud de la ciudad trabajó con Mielke para remediar los suelos de centros de cuidado infantil, parques y áreas de juego al cubrir el área contaminada con tierra limpia. Los suelos de los parques infantiles de la ciudad mejoraron notablemente, dijo Mielke. La mayoría de las ciudades pueden acceder a terrenos libres de plomo en las afueras de los centros urbanos, según ha descubierto su investigación.

Entretanto, en la ciudad de Nueva York, la experta en suelos Sara Perl Egendorf observó que los residentes no estaban seguros de cuál era la mejor manera de protegerse contra la contaminación por plomo en los jardines urbanos. Ante esto, Egendorf ayudó a crear una red llamada Legacy Lead para abordar la contaminación del suelo en toda la ciudad. Un resultado: el Banco de Suelos Limpios de la Ciudad de Nueva York. Ofrece a los residentes tierra limpia y gratuita para cubrir áreas potencialmente riesgosas.

Read Next El plomo sigue envenenando a los niños. No tiene que ser así.   Mantente atento a nuevas soluciones

Sabemos más de lo que sabíamos hace una generación sobre cómo abordar la contaminación por plomo. Y las investigaciones continúan. 

Científicos de la Universidad de Illinois, por ejemplo, planean estudiar más la ralentización de la propagación de partículas de plomo y la protección de la gente que inhala o ingesta el suelo o el polvo contaminado.

Andrew Margenot, un experto en suelos de la Universidad de Illinois Urbana-Champaign, señala que no hay una solución mágica cuando se trata de remediar el suelo contaminado con plomo. Visualiza soluciones que involucren a la propia naturaleza. Agregar árboles como rompevientos podría atrapar partículas de plomo arrastradas por el aire. Plantar árboles frutales puede ser una buena idea porque estos transfieren solo una mínima cantidad de plomo a sus frutos. Cubrir los suelos aledaños con mantillo (mulch) agrega una capa de protección.

Busca aliados en materia de salud

La organización sin fines de lucro Green & Healthy Homes Initiative en Baltimore está manejando un programa en Pennsylvania con el hospital Lancaster General, que paga para ofrecer intervenciones para controlar el riesgo del plomo en 2,800 hogares. Entienden el valor de atender una amenaza para la salud; y hospitales en tu zona podrían también. 

“Cada comunidad puede hacer esto”, dijo Ruth Ann Norton, presidenta y directora ejecutiva de Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. “Es simplemente tomar la decisión de hacer algo que saben que es fundamental para su futuro”.

Involucra a los jóvenes en la lucha 

Los niños son los más afectados por el plomo, pero probablemente no saben mucho al respecto, especialmente la conexión con los suelos. Puedes trabajar con escuelas locales para diseminar esta información.

Algunos científicos están llevando los resultados de sus estudios sobre suelos contaminados con plomo a los salones de clase, en alianza con activistas que abogan por la justicia ambiental, como describieron académicos de tres universidades en un estudio de 2021. Entre sus actividades incluyen la enseñanza de los peligros de los suelos contaminados con plomo, la participación de estudiantes en programas que toman muestras de los suelos para detectar la presencia de plomo y esfuerzos para conectar lo que aprenden los alumnos en la escuela, como química, con ejemplos de cómo se desarrollan los procesos científicos en sus vidas. 

Lánzate a un cargo público

Es mucho lo que puedes hacer movilizándote en tu comunidad; pero hay acciones que solo los funcionarios públicos pueden tomar. 

Jessie López se enteró del problema de la contaminación por plomo en Santa Ana a través de su trabajo con la organización Orange County Environmental Justice, que forma parte de la coalición ¡Plo-NO! Luego, se lanzó para un cargo público elegido a través de los votos. 

Ahora, como integrante del Concejo de la ciudad y alcalde pro tem, puede ayudar a trazar el camino de Santa Ana para atender la situación con el plomo. Entre sus acciones: en 2021 presentó una resolución de vanguardia adoptada por el Concejo Municipal que declaró una emergencia climática y, al mismo tiempo, se comprometió a limitar o prevenir la exposición al plomo y otras toxinas ambientales en Santa Ana.

Univision tradujo la versión en español de este artículo.

Esta pieza se produjo en alianza con el McGraw Center for Business Journalism de la Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Esta nota también fue posible con ayuda del Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists, y las becas Kozik Challenge Grants financiadas por la National Press Foundation y el National Press Club Journalism Institute.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 8 medidas que puedes tomar cuando el plomo contamina los suelos de tu comunidad on Mar 23, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

In a first, EPA seeks emergency action to curb a plant’s cancer risk

Wed, 03/22/2023 - 13:41

It’s rare for the Environmental Protection Agency to try to force a chemical plant to immediately reduce or halt its toxic airborne emissions. Such actions typically occur in extreme circumstances when a facility presents an acute risk of bodily injury to the public — for example when an explosion is imminent.

But this week, the Department of Justice filed a legal motion on the EPA’s behalf, asking a judge to order a Louisiana plant to substantially decrease releases of a cancer-causing chemical it’s been emitting for half a century. The motion for preliminary injunction, as the legal request is known, is still awaiting the district court judge’s ruling.

Denka Performance Elastomer, a synthetic rubber manufacturing plant owned by a Japanese company of the same name, sits on a bank of the lower Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana’s industrial corridor, a region commonly known as “Cancer Alley.” Originally built by Dupont, which still owns the land beneath the plant and a separate operation on the same site, Denka releases thousands of pounds of the toxic chemical chloroprene annually into the air of St. John the Baptist Parish, where more than 60 percent of residents are Black. This week, residents in the neighboring parish of St. James sued their local officials for repeatedly greenlighting new chemical development in the parish’s predominantly Black areas. 

The government filed the motion under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act, which gives EPA officials the authority to take emergency action when there is proof that a pollution source is “presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment.” The move comes after the government sued Denka in late February, alleging that it had failed to curb its cancer-causing pollution. If approved by the judge, the motion could provide nearby communities with immediate but temporary relief while the larger case is pending. The motion asks Denka to install pollution controls on certain emission points within its facility and to provide the government with daily access to the plant grounds to ensure compliance. 

Denka representatives did not respond to an immediate request for comment. In a statement issued in March, executive officer and plant manager Jorge Lavastida said that the EPA was acting on “outdated and erroneous science” regarding the danger of chloroprene exposure and that Denka’s plant was in compliance with all of its air permits. (The company sued the EPA in January, disputing its 2010 chloroprene assessment, which found that the chemical can likely cause cancer). 

This is just the third time that the Biden EPA has used the Clean Air Act’s emergency powers to discipline an industrial facility. In May 2021, the agency forced a refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands to close after it was found to be raining drops of crude oil on residents nearby. Some fled the scene on foot, afraid to turn on their cars for fear of an explosion. That same month, the agency issued an emergency order to require a pulp mill in South Carolina to reduce its emissions after it released thousands of pounds of hydrogen sulfide into the air, causing a nearby town to smell like rotten eggs

But the government has never used Section 303 to address industrial cancer risk, the harm of which is more difficult to identify since it accumulates over the course of a lifetime.

The EPA has known about the danger of Denka’s carcinogenic emissions since at least 2015, when an agency model found that the census tract where the plant operates had one of the highest levels of cancer risk from toxic air pollution in the country. Deena Tumeh, a lawyer at the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice who has been working with residents in a nearby town, told Grist that with this motion the EPA is acknowledging that cancer risk, though accumulated over many years, can present the kind of imminent danger that allows Section 303 to be invoked.

“It doesn’t have to be that a bunch of people died over the weekend and now the EPA has to shut down the plant,” she said. The Clean Air Act’s emergency powers are “about prevention of harm, which is why the danger has to be imminent but not necessarily already happening,” she added.

The EPA’s February suit against Denka suggests just how imminent the cancer risk in the area could be. 

“Infants born today in the communities surrounding the Facility who are exposed to the highest measured levels of chloroprene from Denka’s neoprene manufacturing operations will exceed an estimated lifetime of acceptable excess cancer risk within approximately their first two years of life,” the complaint reads.

Tumeh said the case could set an important precedent for future situations in which a chemical plant is generating substantial cancer risk in a nearby community — a common occurrence across the nation’s industrial landscape.

The next step is for the Eastern District Court of Louisiana to hold a hearing on the case, after which Judge Carl J. Barbier will decide whether to grant the EPA the conditions of its motion. While there is no deadline for the judge to make a decision, Tumeh said that the nature of an emergency order typically means that such motions are adjudicated quickly.

 Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In a first, EPA seeks emergency action to curb a plant’s cancer risk on Mar 22, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Lead keeps poisoning children. It doesn't have to.

Wed, 03/22/2023 - 02:00

This story, a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and Grist, is the third in a soil lead-contamination series that began at Grist (read parts one and two). Reporter Yvette Cabrera has investigated lead’s impacts for eight years.

The news came as a shock: Lead, lurking somewhere in Nalleli Garrido’s home, was poisoning her 1-year-old son. 

His pediatrician instructed her to clean all the toys of her toddler, Ruben, keep the home dust-free, and prevent him from playing in the bare soil outside her rented bungalow in Santa Ana, California’s Logan neighborhood. She did all she could. But the dust kept sneaking in.

No one offered an alternative. The only solution she and her husband could find was to get out. In 2019, after two years of constant worry, they moved north to the city of Buena Park, buying a home with a grassy yard — not an exposed patch of soil like her Santa Ana front yard, where the toxic metal could be found in concentrations as high as 148 parts of lead per million parts of soil. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment considers 80 parts per million and above dangerous for children. 

“I was terrified to take my son out,” said Garrido, a psychiatric nurse. “Even walking through the yard, I would tell my kids to hold their breath. ‘Don’t breathe that in, don’t breathe in the dust.’”

Across the country, the main advice given to families threatened by lead exposure in soil — keep your home clean — doesn’t work, studies show. And federal guidelines about such exposure have thresholds too high to protect children from irreversible harm. But from coast to coast, community leaders, health advocates, and academics are pressing for true solutions — and an end to poisoning children with lead, generation after generation after generation.

A barbed-wire barrier hangs over a wall separating an industrial business and the residential yard of the home where Nalleli Garrido and her family lived in Santa Ana’s Logan neighborhood. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

Scientists are partnering with residents to gather soil lead samples for a national map showing hot spots. Some cities offer clean soil for covering lead-contaminated dirt in yards, protecting children and adults from further exposure. And in Santa Ana, a coalition convinced city officials to start treating the environmental hazard as a priority. 

“I think we should recognize these violent and dangerous and toxic legacies that we inherit, and then do things that really make sense to keep ourselves safe,” said New York City soil expert Sara Perl Egendorf, who helped create a network called Legacy Lead to tackle contamination there. 

Decades of research have shown the lasting harm for children exposed to lead, from brain development impacts — the capacity to learn, focus, and control impulses — to later health risks like coronary heart disease. No amount, scientists say, is safe. Yet parents such as Garrido, many living in urban areas across the country, are caught in a seemingly unwinnable battle to protect their children from this invisible neurotoxin.

Lead poisoning is often considered a problem of the past. But its legacy lingers today, the result of corporate decisions and lagging government action. The lead pumped out of exhaust pipes and industrial smokestacks decades ago can still be found in soil, and lead paint used extensively throughout the first half of the 20th century remains on the walls of many homes, degrading to chips and dust. The U.S. began phasing out lead in automobile gasoline and consumer paint in the 1970s, but new lead pollution continues to be dumped on communities every year from industrial sites and the aviation gas used by small aircraft

One in every two American children under the age of 6 who were tested between late 2018 and early 2020 had detectable levels of lead in their blood, and studies show soil exposure is a major reason. Because lead contamination is more common in low-income neighborhoods, the people living there, disproportionately Black and Latino, face higher risks of the consequences.

“This is a chemical shackle on generations of children that are going to be born into these communities if you don’t clean up this lead.”

— Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics

That’s what motivates the people calling for and taking action. There’s no time to waste.

“This is a chemical shackle on generations of children that are going to be born into these communities if you don’t clean up this lead,” said Jane Williams, executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit California Communities Against Toxics.

The solution she wants to see: officials getting ahead of the problem by using data they already have to identify and clean soil hot spots, instead of reacting after the fact to individual cases of poisoned children.

“You know where the problem is,” Williams said. “You know what the problem is doing. You know what it’s impacting. You know what the social cost is. You know all these things — and you do nothing as either state government, local government, or federal government.”

Trains, including the Pacific Electric Santa Ana line, once crossed this truss bridge over the Santa Ana River channel and entered Santa Ana’s downtown civic center, shown in the background, during the 20th century. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity Playground of poison

Lead doesn’t break down into something safer as it sits in soil, which is why it’s so critical to remove it or cover it with clean soil to stop exposure. When lead settles into the top layer of dirt, scientists have found, it can remain there for decades, if not longer. 

Because it binds to the soil particles, wind that kicks dirt and dust into the air can reintroduce the lead into the atmosphere and spread the contamination, soil lead expert Howard Mielke of Tulane University’s School of Medicine wrote in a 2021 article he co-authored in the scientific journal Elementa. 

His research in New Orleans has shown that lead levels in exposed people’s blood increase rapidly when the soil lead levels range between nearly zero and 100 parts per million, well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 400 parts-per-million threshold. Blood lead levels flatten out with higher exposure.

Garrido’s yard in Santa Ana, where lead levels ranged from 33 parts per million to as high as 148, was a source of continual struggle after her son’s pediatrician told Garrido that lead was in his blood. The levels weren’t high enough for him to qualify for intervention services from the local public health agency, but were still concerning. He was later diagnosed with speech delays and began speech therapy.

Nalleli Garrido’s son Ruben, 2, stands on the porch of his home gazing at the front yard where he rarely played in Santa Ana’s Logan Barrio in 2018. Yvette Cabrera / Center for Public Integrity

When Garrido’s family first moved into the rental, the front yard had some grass, but drought conditions that followed had left it barren: a playground of poison where she refused to let Ruben go. 

“I don’t let him out at all, but no matter what I do, even when we keep the door closed all the time, so much dirt gets in. It’s right there. It’s maybe two feet away from my doorstep,” Garrido said before she moved. 

She cleaned her kitchen counters daily. A thick layer of dust would soon reappear. 

She vacuumed the small rug in her home three times a day, and it still wasn’t enough.

Between the barren soil in the yard and the dust and pollution kicked up by construction industries along the major boulevard behind her home, she faced a losing battle. Calls to code enforcement, even the police, to report shops working past regular business operating hours didn’t resolve the problem. 

Neither did reporting the soil lead levels to the owner of her rental. Garrido said he didn’t offer to remediate the soil and seemed upset that she had allowed this reporter to test it in 2018 as part of a Grist investigation. When asked for comment through the property-management company, the landlord did not respond. 

“I think everybody has the right to health,” Garrido said, “but not everybody thinks that.”

From inaction to activism

In Garrido’s former community, organized residents are intent on getting the lead out.

Parents, environmental justice advocates, and academic scholars have spent the past five years working together to raise awareness about the dangers of exposure in Santa Ana. Their coalition — called ¡Plo-NO! Santa Ana! Lead-Free Santa Ana! — also conducted soil lead testing throughout the city and pressed city officials and the Orange County Health Care Agency to more aggressively address the problem.

The coalition’s soil lead testing, organized after a 2017 ThinkProgress investigation, confirmed that children in Santa Ana’s poorest areas are at higher risk of exposure. The 2020 study, led by a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine, analyzed more than 1,500 soil samples collected throughout the city. 

The coalition’s work paid off: In April 2022, the City Council approved an update to Santa Ana’s general plan that commits for the first time to comprehensively address lead-contamination hazards. The previous fall, the council took the unusual step of adopting a cutting-edge resolution declaring a climate emergency while simultaneously pledging to limit or prevent exposure to lead and other environmental toxins. 

Even just acknowledging the widespread lead contamination in the city’s soils is a new step for the council, said Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez, who introduced the resolution.

She first learned of the problem through her work with the public advocacy organization Orange County Environmental Justice, or OCEJ, part of the ¡Plo-NO! coalition. Lopez, elected to the City Council in 2020, said she was initially shocked to learn a few years earlier that Santa Ana’s soils were contaminated. Frustration followed as the city was slow to act.

Now, as an elected official herself, her goal is to ensure that the city addresses the land-use inequalities that create unequal exposure to pollution.

“We’re very much aware of bad decisions that have been made in the past,” Lopez said. “We are working really hard to change them, to make sure that moving forward we don’t do those things again.”

Coalition members have spent several years discussing lead policies with officials from the local planning department and the Orange County Health Care Agency, and have pressed to ensure that residents are included in that work. OCEJ, for instance, advocated for policies to protect renters from eviction while lead remediation occurs or from having their rent increased as a result.

Read next Does your community have lead lurking in its soil? Here’s what to do.

As any activist working on a difficult problem could guess, the Santa Ana results are still a work in progress. But many of the changes that the coalition advocated for in the general plan update are concrete: The city now requires developers to provide information about a property’s prior use and history of hazardous materials so soil contamination can be remediated. It mandates buffers between heavy industry and residential areas. The city has also pledged to identify baseline soil and air contamination levels, secure grant funding to test soil and air, and create a public health plan to address environmental hazards in disproportionately affected neighborhoods.

“We’re really happy with the result,” said OCEJ Project Director Patricia J. Flores Yrarrázaval. “We pushed really hard over the last year. It was an uphill battle, and we were told at some points that our demands were unreasonable. To have them all met is a huge victory.”

The key to their success, she said, was creating a community movement that combined scientific evidence with powerful testimonials from residents. With impassioned call-ins during City Council meetings, residents pressed the city to act. Failing to do so would have allowed children to continue to be poisoned, Flores Yrarrázaval told councilmembers during one meeting. 
Now, she said, “We’re in a lot better position as a community than we were before.”

Patricia J. Flores Yrarrázaval, project director of Orange County Environmental Justice, discusses plans to address lead contamination on the Santa Ana city-owned dirt lot behind her. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

In addition to its policy advocacy work, OCEJ has multiple projects underway to collect data that illuminates how widespread lead exposure is in Santa Ana, particularly among youth. The organization hopes to carry out blood lead testing and to conduct a study to measure tooth lead levels to understand cumulative exposure over a Santa Ana resident’s lifetime. 

It still concerns coalition members that county health officials have been relying almost exclusively on existing blood lead level data to guide the Orange County Health Care Agency’s response to childhood lead exposure, said Alana M. W. LeBrón, an assistant professor of public health and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine, who has overseen the school’s soil lead research in Santa Ana. Studies have shown that many states fail to adequately test children’s blood for lead exposure, leaving vast numbers of children undiagnosed. 

“If you’re only exploring cases where there is a diagnosis of ‘lead poisoning,’ then you’re missing this whole swath of people,” said LeBrón, referring to people who aren’t tested and cases that don’t trigger public health intervention because repeated exposures to lower levels of lead aren’t treated as the dangers they are. 

Throughout, it’s been Santa Ana residents leading the charge for the community’s health, said Flores Yrarrázaval, and the battle isn’t over.

“We want to engage this fight on multiple fronts,” she said.  

The power of community

The community-wide approach to eliminating lead poisoning that Santa Ana advocates want is the most effective way to protect children, soil lead experts say. It means pinpointing lead hot spots and focusing remediation neighborhood by neighborhood, instead of a scattershot approach after kids test positive for lead in their blood. 

At the local level, municipalities can either make aggressive efforts to address lead contamination or take a lax approach, and the differences emerge in irreversible health impacts.

Santa Ana parent and neighborhood activist Idalia Rios walks her son, Andrew, 10, to school through Santa Ana’s Lacy neighborhood in 2018. The vacant dirt lot behind them, a worrisome sight in an area with lead contamination, was later converted by the city into a park after activists pushed for more open space. Yvette Cabrera / Center for Public Integrity

Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson extensively researched lead exposure in Chicago neighborhoods and the inequalities created by unequal exposure to polluted environments. He points to the Chicago Department of Public Health as a role model because the agency didn’t wait for the federal or state governments to intervene. 

“I consider the health department there to be kind of a hero in an important way in the lead story, because starting roughly in the ’90s, they vigorously tested and attempted to regulate the sources of lead exposure in the city,” Sampson said. 

The agency collected tens of thousands of blood tests, monitored this data to focus on neighborhoods most impacted by lead poisoning, offered case management to lead-exposed children, conducted home inspections, and addressed lead hazards.

While Chicago’s public health agency has focused on lead paint, its partners at state and local agencies zero in on soil lead contamination. For example, Chicago requires those who buy city-owned property to look for soil hazards and remediate high levels of lead. That’s the type of all-hands-on-deck approach that needs to happen across the country, with multiple agencies collaborating, Sampson said.

It’s made a big difference in Chicago.

Lead exposure rates, which were extremely high and concentrated in the city’s poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, declined dramatically. One of every four children tested in 1997 had levels of lead in their blood of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter — a sign of high exposure. By 2021, that had dropped to one in 200 children.

“The rates are still higher in poor Black neighborhoods, but a poor Black neighborhood now is much less at risk than a poor Black neighborhood in 1995,” Sampson said. “That is an important victory.”

A national plan takes shape

Today, across the country, most county public health agencies approach lead exposure by testing children’s blood lead levels, not the environment, said Mielke, the Tulane University soil lead expert. Focusing on individual lead poisoning cases may appear to be more manageable. But this approach — which avoids investing in wide-scale remediation — uses children as canaries in the coal mine. It allows thousands to be exposed daily to contaminated soil in their backyards. And many are never even diagnosed.

Municipalities now have the scientific tools to measure lead in the environment and map hot spots so public health agencies can focus on preventing exposure before it occurs. Requiring proof of a lead-poisoned child before action can be taken to investigate and address the contamination is a flawed approach, Mielke said.

“We’re trying to cure the disease instead of preventing the disease,” said Mielke. And in the case of lead poisoning, there is no cure.

Read more on lead contamination Ghosts of Polluters Past

He uses Norway as an example of what can be accomplished in the war against lead when political will and scientific knowledge come together. Norway decided to ban lead from paint half a century before the U.S., in the 1920s, the same period when U.S. public health officials were debating whether to allow General Motors to use tetraethyl lead in gasoline as an additive. U.S. public health officials at the time knew the potential health hazards and understood that the toxic additive was a “serious menace to the public health” but still made the consequential decision to support its use in gasoline. 

Norway used lower amounts of leaded gasoline, had less traffic, and built fewer highways. Faced with lead poisoning regardless, the country decided to focus its testing efforts on the environment, not children’s blood. 

Almost 15 years ago, Norway’s environmental protection agency decided to systematically sample, analyze, and map surface soils in areas where children were most likely to be exposed to contaminated soil: childcare centers, school yards, and playgrounds in the country’s 10 largest cities, using Mielke’s research in New Orleans as the basis for this work. 

Once soil tests confirm lead, Norway cleans it up. Norway also doesn’t require proof that a child has been lead-poisoned for the government to offer assistance, Mielke said. Having a lead-contaminated environment is enough to trigger government intervention and action to address the problem.

The U.S. could do this, too, Mielke said.

It simply hasn’t.

In theory, the agency best positioned to stop a nationwide epidemic of lead poisoning in this country is the EPA.

In 1992, Congress directed officials there to set standards for soil lead levels. It wasn’t until 2001 that the agency carried out the order. And the rules have not been updated since their release 22 years ago.

Repeated studies have shown that no amount of lead exposure is safe — and at the very least should be dramatically lower than the EPA’s threshold of 400 parts of lead per million parts of soil. But public health agencies around the country use the EPA’s standards to decide whether to remediate a lead-contaminated yard after a child is exposed. 

EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Carlton Waterhouse oversees the agency’s work on solid waste and remediation. He said it’s challenging to tackle a problem that originates at a local level but is pervasive across the country. The response to lead contamination by local and state agencies varies substantially, he said, and the lack of a federal clean-soil law — something like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts — means the EPA has no authority to sample and clean up all soils in the country. 

“We don’t have any legislation or direction or funding that gives us a kind of comprehensive approach to say, ‘Let’s deal with the problem of lead,’” Waterhouse said.

Now, the EPA says it plans to finally “revisit” its outdated soil lead hazard standards. That reconsideration is part of a new strategy the agency announced in October to reduce lead exposures across the country and the racial and income disparities in who gets exposed. 

The agency intends to tackle the problem in a way advocates have long called for: by using data to predict lead hot spots, including locations where children might get exposed, and then testing those soils. If that pollution meets the threshold of a Superfund site, then the EPA will remediate, Waterhouse said. 

The agency is attempting to do what it can with the authority it has, he said, “recognizing that we don’t have the kind of footprint that allows us to do the testing of all the children by the time they start school, or to go into every home and test for lead-based paint.” 

This means the agency is focusing its work in places where the EPA knows there are lead exposures through air, water, or soil. Funds to replace lead service lines, the pipes connecting a home to a water main, for example, were included in the $1 trillion infrastructure legislation that passed last year. But the new system doesn’t account for the untold number of sites overlooked by spotty data.

[Read: How the legacy of former industrial sites pollutes American cities today]

Critics also note the goals don’t commit the EPA to updating the outdated lead hazard standards, despite a federal court order in 2021 that requires it. The agency has not yet disclosed a timeline.

“Communities around the country are suffering lead exposure from soil because EPA has dropped the ball for decades,” said Eve Gartner, managing attorney for the Toxic Exposure and Health Program at Earthjustice, which represented more than half a dozen organizations whose lawsuit prompted the 2021 decision.

In March 2022, groups underwhelmed by the EPA’s then-draft strategy called on the agency to make a broader commitment to eliminate lead exposure in all communities and for people of all ages, because the dangers of lead are not limited to children. The coalition also pressed the EPA to address lead exposure from continuing pollution sources.

Ongoing noise and pollution from industrial businesses like this one, seen from Logan resident Frances Orozco’s second-floor window, have burdened residents for decades in this Santa Ana neighborhood. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

“EPA will not prevent exposure to lead if it continues to view lead as a problem of a purely ‘legacy’ nature,” the coalition wrote in public comments submitted to the agency.

At Simon Fraser University in Canada, Professor Bruce Lanphear, an epidemiologist and leading expert on early childhood exposure to lead as well as the long-term effects on adults, is cautiously optimistic about the plan. But his hope is tempered by the agency’s history of lagging action. 

“It’s long overdue, and we can’t blame one [political] party or another. They both failed miserably for so long,” Lanphear said. “And yet at the same time, are we at a turning point where we’ll really address not only the legacy of lead poisoning, but maybe the disparities as well?” 

Lanphear has found that a headline-grabbing lead crisis, such as the water contamination in Flint, Michigan, prompts attention and funding. But the attention soon dissipates. The funding never reaches a level that would comprehensively address the widespread nature of the problem. And the insufficient lead hazard standards don’t help.

That concerns Lanphear, who has spent the better part of two decades researching and tracking the resulting health impacts. Very few toxic chemicals have been as consistently shown to harm children as lead, he said, and its effects are far-reaching. 

Lanphear’s research has shown that lead might cause at least a quarter of a million early deaths a year from cardiovascular disease in the United States alone. 

Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore, has spearheaded efforts to aggressively reduce childhood lead poisoning across the nation. What the country needs — and the EPA strategy is missing — are opportunities to tackle multiple problems at once, she said. 

For example, the federal weatherization-assistance program could be coupled with a program to remediate lead in paint and soil, problems that typically get deferred because of cost. But the cost of inaction is high. 

“Every community can do this. It is just simply making the decision to do something that they know is so fundamental to their future.”

— Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative

Communities can take creative actions now, Norton added. Her nonprofit manages a program in Pennsylvania with Lancaster General Hospital, which is paying $50 million to provide lead-hazard-control intervention in 2,800 homes. 

“Every community can do this,” she said. “It is just simply making the decision to do something that they know is so fundamental to their future.”

Fighting soil with soil

Scientists are also trying to fill gaps created by insufficient government action. Knowing that most U.S. cities and towns lack a centralized database for soil lead tests, Gabriel Filippelli, a biogeochemist who has studied lead contamination for more than two decades, helped create an online platform where everyone, from scientists to residents, can share lead samples and test results. 

Launched in 2018, the online portal Map My Environment visualizes this data, includes lead levels for soil, dust, and water pollution in cities around the world, and offers recommendations on how to remediate lead. “We just wanted a way to get this out of a static journal and into communities,” said Filippelli, an Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis professor who serves as executive director of the Environmental Resilience Institute

Someone collecting dust samples can have them tested free by the initiative. Map My Environment also launched a school Bookworm Initiative, where students collect earthworms and soil for lead-contamination analysis, receiving a book voucher in return. 

At a time when Americans are more aware of the dangers of lead due to Flint’s water crisis, most are unaware that lead too often contaminates soil in urban centers, Filippelli said. 

“Water is actually a really rare thing to get affected by,” he said. “It’s really that soil and dust which is ever-present, which I think is the biggest thing. That’s the message we try to put out all the time, along with the fact that it’s really easy to solve.” 

Change the soil surface in communities with high levels of lead, research by Mielke and others show, and you protect people’s health. In New Orleans, the city health department worked with Mielke to focus soil remediation in childcare centers, parks, and playgrounds by capping contaminated soil with clean soil. The city’s playground soils improved remarkably, Mielke said. 

But because backyards weren’t included, they “remain very hazardous,” he said, and that is where “kids are likely to be when they are very, very young.”

Professor Howard Mielke of Tulane University’s School of Medicine (foreground) is one of the nation’s top experts on soil lead contamination and has worked for decades to protect children from lead exposure. Here, Mielke pauses after visiting a local childcare center in New Orleans with his research associate, Eric Powell, in 2015. Daniel A. Anderson / Center for Public Integrity

To truly protect children’s health, studies have shown, soil lead concentrations across a community would need to fall below 80 parts per million, perhaps half that level, Mielke said. A 2017 study by geologist and environmental scientist Mark Laidlaw, Filippelli, Mielke, and their colleagues examined approaches to address urban soil lead contamination and concluded that collecting soil lead levels would not be necessary if soil with little or no lead were spread across entire neighborhoods. 

In other words: Cover what’s there with better soil.

In New Orleans, Mielke has tapped the Bonnet Carré Spillway for lead-safe alluvial soil, sourced from the sediments of the Mississippi River, to cover hazardous areas. Most cities can access soil like that on the outskirts of urban centers, the study found. To pay for it, the researchers suggest levying taxes on gas and paint products, given that a large portion of lead in soils and home interior paints originated from these industries.

In New York City, where recent studies have confirmed local soil lead contamination, the NYC Clean Soil Bank offers residents free clean soil that’s been tested after excavation from New York City construction sites. Creating that system “has surprisingly been more feasible than trying to mandate testing or remediation,” said Egendorf, a researcher with the NYC Compost Project. “I would love for more people to know about it and for this to keep expanding because other cities can do it, too.” 

What all these solutions show is that lead poisoning is preventable. The hardships from its health impacts don’t need to touch yet more generations.

It just takes action.

In Santa Ana, the environmental justice advocates pushing for exactly that say they are committed to reforming how soil lead contamination is addressed nationwide. LeBrón, the public health professor from the University of California, Irvine, said the coalition hopes to form an exchange so people across the country can learn from each other. 

For Garrido, the solutions didn’t come soon enough. She would have gladly raised her son in Santa Ana if there were fewer risks to his health and safety. 

Now 7 and in first grade, Ruben still has significant speech delays and is being assessed because he may have a learning disability, Garrido said, but he’s otherwise healthy. 

And he can run freely on her Buena Park property without the risk of breathing or ingesting lead-contaminated soil. 

“The neighborhood is safe enough. The sidewalks are decent where we can walk, so we take the dogs out for a walk and I take my son with me,” Garrido said. “It’s like a whole new world for him.” 

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. This report was also made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and by the Kozik Challenge Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Lead keeps poisoning children. It doesn't have to. on Mar 22, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Does your community have lead lurking in its soil? Here’s what to do.

Wed, 03/22/2023 - 01:45

This story by the Center for Public Integrity was published in partnership with Grist and is part of a series on soil lead contamination

Is lead lurking in the soil around you?

Dangerous lead contamination continues to plague the soil of urban centers, particularly in high-traffic, older neighborhoods where particles and airborne dust from leaded gasoline and lead paint accumulated during the 20th century. Industrial areas where both historic and current lead emissions have settled in the soil are also high-risk.     

Decades of research have shown the lasting harm for children exposed to lead, which triggers a cascade of problems for brain development, impacting the capacity to learn, focus, and control impulses and other behaviors critical to navigating life. A growing body of evidence shows it also increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease. 

But there are actions you can take to make your community safer.

1. Find out if you have a problem 

Local experts might know where soil lead hotspots are located in your region. But if you can’t find information, try the online portal Map My Environment, a database showing lead pollution in soil, dust, and water across the U.S. and the world. The initiative originally launched at the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and now university scientists from around the globe participate. 

You can explore lead levels on the interactive map and send in test samples to be analyzed for free. You’ll also see recommendations on lead interventions.

This map shows how common elevated blood lead levels are in children by census tract or ZIP code in 34 states. States fail to adequately test children’s blood for lead exposure, research shows, but existing data can point to potential trouble areas for soil, paint or water exposure.   

2. Press for federal action 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it plans to address its outdated soil-lead hazard standards, which don’t protect people from harm because the thresholds are set too high. This reconsideration is part of a new strategy the agency announced in October to reduce lead exposures across the country, along with the higher risks borne by people of color and lower-income residents. 

But the agency has not disclosed a timeline for revisiting the standards. And the current rules were set more than 20 years ago.

Center for Public Integrity

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan has pledged that the agency will hold itself accountable by reporting its progress on the EPA website. In the meantime, you can get in touch with the agency and watch for opportunities to weigh in with a public comment. (Keep an eye out at

In addition, the U.S. lacks a systematic approach to mapping urban soil contamination. That’s often left to academic researchers, but they say that funding for comprehensive testing to identify and monitor hotspots is difficult to get. Public pressure on agencies to support more urban soil testing could produce data that not only prevents childhood lead exposure before it occurs, but also leads to stronger environmental rules. 

3. Team up

Research has shown that addressing pervasive, widespread soil lead contamination requires collaborative approaches that empower the people it’s hurting. This means recruiting leaders from neighborhoods with lead exposure risks, raising awareness about the health hazards, sharing ways that community members can protect their families, and finding solutions that work for their circumstances. 

In Santa Ana, California, people did just that. Environmental justice advocates, concerned parents and scientists formed a coalition — ¡Plo-NO! Santa Ana! Lead-Free Santa Ana! — that conducted soil lead testing throughout the city and pressed local officials to act. Last year, the Santa Ana City Council updated the city general plan to commit to comprehensively addressing lead contamination hazards. 

Halfway across the country, University of Illinois researchers partnered with Chicago residents to produce what they say is the first citywide map of soil lead contamination in that city. They found widespread pollution. With feedback from those same residents, the scientists designed follow-up studies and approaches to treat the soil to protect people.  

4. Fight lead in soil with more soil

Soil lead expert Howard Mielke of Tulane University’s School of Medicine has found that if you change the surface of the soil in communities with high levels of lead, you protect people’s health. 

In New Orleans, the city health department worked with Mielke to focus soil remediation in childcare centers, parks, and playgrounds by covering contaminated soil with clean soil. The city’s playground soils improved remarkably, Mielke said. Most cities can access lead-safe soil on the outskirts of urban centers, his research has found. 

In New York City, meanwhile, soil expert Sara Perl Egendorf saw that residents weren’t sure how best to protect against soil lead contamination in urban gardens. So Egendorf helped create a network called Legacy Lead to tackle soil contamination throughout the city. One result: the NYC Clean Soil Bank. It offers residents free clean soil to cover potentially unsafe areas. 

Read Next Lead keeps poisoning children. It doesn’t have to. 5. Keep an eye on research for new solutions 

We know more now than we did a generation ago about how to contain lead. And new research keeps coming. 

University of Illinois scientists, for instance, plan to do more research into slowing the spread of lead particles and protecting people from inhaling or ingesting the contaminated soil and dust. 

Andrew Margenot, a soil expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said there’s no silver bullet when it comes to remediating lead in soil. He envisions solutions that put nature to work. Adding trees as windbreaks could help trap wind-blown lead particles. Planting fruit trees can be a good idea because they transfer only minimal lead to their fruits. Covering the surrounding soil with mulch adds a protective layer. 

6. Look for healthcare partners

The nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore is managing a program in Pennsylvania with Lancaster General Hospital, which is paying to provide lead-hazard-control intervention in 2,800 homes. They see the value in addressing a health threat — and hospitals in your area might, too.

“Every community can do this,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. “It is just simply making the decision to do something that they know is so fundamental to their future.”   

7. Engage younger generations 

Kids are most affected by lead, but they probably don’t know much about it, especially the soil connection. You can work with local schools to get the word out.

Some scientists are taking their soil lead findings into the classroom in partnership with environmental justice activists, academics at three universities wrote in a 2021 study. Actions include teaching about the dangers of lead in soil; having students participate in soil-testing programs; and working to connect what they learn in school, such as chemistry, with examples of how scientific processes play out in their lives. 

8. Run for office 

You can get a lot done as an advocate for your community. But some actions, only elected officials can take.

Jessie Lopez first learned about Santa Ana’s lead-contamination problem through her work with the public advocacy organization Orange County Environmental Justice, which is part of the ¡Plo-NO! coalition. Then she ran for office.

Now, as a city councilmember and mayor pro tem, she can help chart Santa Ana’s path on lead. Among her actions: In 2021, she introduced a cutting-edge resolution adopted by the city council that declared a climate emergency while simultaneously pledging to limit or prevent exposure to lead and other environmental toxins in Santa Ana. 

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. This report was also made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and by the Kozik Challenge Grants funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Does your community have lead lurking in its soil? Here’s what to do. on Mar 22, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Climate change could spur severe economic losses, Biden administration says

Wed, 03/22/2023 - 01:30

Climate change is generating major economic problems in the United States, the Biden administration said in an annual report published this week. The assumptions that higher-income countries like the U.S. would safely weather the risks associated with global warming, and that those risks would be clear cut, have proven to be false, administration economists wrote. A “wide array of risks” are currently impacting the “well-being of American communities,” the White House Council of Economic Advisers wrote in its report, particularly low-income and minority neighborhoods. 

Heat, flooding, wildfires, and diseases that spread from animals to humans threaten public health and health care systems, the report warns. Trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure like bridges, roads, and, crucially, homes, are susceptible to flooding, posing massive problems for America’s insurance industry and federal mortgage lenders. And the cost of responding to disasters such as hurricanes and drought, which have totalled hundreds of billions of dollars in some recent years, are putting a strain on local and state governments, as well as the federal government. 

Those economic risks, and their unequal toll, require the government to reassess how it spends public money, from the federal to the local level. 

The Economic Report of the President isn’t a binding plan, nor does it contain concrete policy proposals. Rather, it points at how the president and his cadre of economists are thinking about the biggest issues of the day. But the report is a significant document nonetheless — it offers clues about the flavor of legislation President Joe Biden is likely to try to push his party toward writing and passing over the course of 2023 and the executive actions the president may take. And it offers yet another stark warning about the dangerous direction in which climate change is taking the nation. The economic report was published on the same day as a major United Nations report that said the world is at risk of seriously overshooting its climate targets and condemning future generations to irreparable harm. 

The report “paints a clear-eyed picture of the challenges we face and the actions that the federal government can take if we are to grapple with the impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable,” Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Grist. 

Without intervention, some of the programs that make America’s economy tick run the risk of going bankrupt. For example, the report recommends that the government continue to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, the flood insurance system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that for far too long subsidized new development in flood zones and obscured the full risks to homeowners who chose to live in those areas. The program, the report said, is “at risk of financial insolvency.” Better flood disclosure laws would help discourage these risky investments, but many states allow sellers to keep buyers in the dark. The report recommends that the federal government push states to increase transparency and climate resilience more generally, particularly as it relates to flooding. Hundreds of billions of dollars have begun flowing to states via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress passed in 2021. The report suggests making some of that funding, and future federal funds, contingent on states adopting climate resiliency measures and passing flood risk disclosure laws. 

Moore, from NRDC, heralded this recommendation as a necessary step in adapting the nation to the worsening effects of climate change, but noted that actually setting the report’s suggestions in motion would require the government to work with a greater sense of urgency. “Now the problem is getting the Federal Emergency Management Administration — and the administration — to fast-track these changes,” he said. 

The report also takes aim at rampant inequity in the U.S., illuminated and exacerbated by climate change. Low-income, minority, and tribal populations live on some of the most vulnerable real estate in the country due to racism, redlining, and the forced migration of Native Americans. Changing state and federal laws to account for climate risks and the impacts of climate change on real estate, agriculture, and other sectors will necessarily lead to price hikes across the economy. “This could present challenges for low-income communities, for whom higher prices are particularly burdensome,” the authors write. The report suggests alleviating that burden by creating policies that boost income growth and “increase access to wealth-building opportunities” for those communities, and by sending America’s most vulnerable “lump sum transfers” — cash. 

Moore said the window of opportunity for Biden to make these changes is coming to a close. “We’re just past the halfway point of the President’s first term and there’s a real risk of the administration running out of time to complete the changes that everyone knows are needed,” he said. 

Editor’s note: Natural Resources Defense Council is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Climate change could spur severe economic losses, Biden administration says on Mar 22, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Oyster mushrooms expected to break down cigarette butts in new trial

Wed, 03/22/2023 - 01:15

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

Up to 1.2 million cigarette butts could be consumed by oyster mushrooms that break down toxins and microplastics as part of a trial funded by the Victorian government.

Up to 9 billion plastic cigarette butts are discarded in Australia each year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, seeping harmful microplastics and chemicals such as arsenic into waterways and soil.

Sustainability Victoria will fund a program that diverts butts from landfill to a laboratory, where fungi will consume the plastic and chemicals. Studies will then determine if the byproduct produced can be transformed into a polystyrene replacement.

The program will be run by Melbourne-based Fungi Solutions, which has spent years training mushrooms to consume cigarette butts, mimicking a process that occurs naturally in the wild.

“Mushrooms have an incredibly adaptive digestive system and they use a lot of different things for food sources,” said Amanda Morgan, the chief executive and head of research at Fungi Solutions.

“This particular material is quite toxic so it takes a while to encourage them in that direction, but we now have a strain of fungi that is going just exclusively on cigarette butts alone.”

Morgan said most of the butts were consumed within seven days and mushrooms can be quickly cultivated to consume large amounts of plastic if required. Cigarette butts would otherwise take 15 years to break down in landfill.

“[Cigarette butts] are a really challenging pollutant so anything we can do with them is good news for the environment,” Morgan said. “We think it’s the start of a really interesting conversation about how to recycle our materials responsibly and establish a circular economy.”

The program is also led by the environmental group No More Butts, which hopes to expand the scheme if successful. Its founder, Shannon Mead, said removing 1.2 million butts from landfills was a realistic target for the trial.

“We looked at what was feasible to collect from 80 businesses across Melbourne in just under one year as well as the funding available from Sustainability Victoria,” Mead said. “We’re aiming to go even higher if funds are available, and if that happens it could be the only commercially scalable recycling opportunity for cigarette butts in Australia.”

Wollongong city council launched a two-year trial with Fungi Solutions in 2021, which indicated mushrooms can remove most of the toxins.

But Morgan said more testing was required before the mushroom byproduct can be recycled.

“We still need to be doing a fair bit of lab testing to have a look at the toxicity breakdown before and after remediation, but we are hoping that we can develop a nice clean material byproduct from this process,” Morgan said.

About one-third of the nearly 100 chemicals inside cigarette butts are “acutely or chronically toxic” to sea life, according to Clean Up Australia. Butts have been found in the stomachs of birds, turtles, whales and fish.

Last month Guardian Australia revealed that a taskforce to reduce cigarette butt pollution promised by the former Coalition government two years ago was never established.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Oyster mushrooms expected to break down cigarette butts in new trial on Mar 22, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Consumers looking to reduce e-waste have new options

Tue, 03/21/2023 - 07:05

The international supply-chain scramble that began with the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to ease up. A global chip shortage has caused endless waits for new cars, and spiked prices for electronics like new iPhones and TVs. But even as brand-new items do start to become available again, many consumers hope to hold onto the technology they already have. 

In late 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the nation’s first Digital Fair Repair Act into law. This landmark legislation requires equipment manufacturers to make diagnostic and repair information available for digital electronic parts. Equipment must also be made available to repair providers and consumers. The law is part of increasing efforts to reduce the mounting e-waste crisis: More than 54 million metric tons of phones, computers, and other electronic waste are produced per year, according to the U.N. Environmental Program.

But legislation is just beginning to catch up to the public’s growing demand for sustainability. Over the last few years, CircleIT president Will Cohen has seen a surge of interest in the company’s recycling programs. In 2019, he was sitting in his doctor’s office when his doctor casually asked about Cohen’s work. When Cohen told him he repurposed electronics and personal devices, his doctor was thrilled, explaining he had computers he didn’t know how to recycle because of privacy laws. 

The chance conversation inspired Cohen to launch the company’s Digital Solution: a way for people to safely upcycle personal electronics with guaranteed data erasure, and the ability to track their products throughout the process. The certified B Corporation already handled computers and other devices by the thousands for large-scale clients. The Digital Solution added the ability for individuals to — with six clicks on the company’s website — pay a flat $12, get a QR code, and find their nearest FedEx Print & Ship Center to drop off their device for secure data handling and erasure, along with real-time updates.

The vast majority of electronics go on to serve a new user, regardless of their resale value. Cohen and his team knew people were often disappointed by the amounts they got back when they handed over devices to electronics resellers, and they believed sheer market value shouldn’t dictate whether an item got refurbished or just tossed. CircleIT is attempting to upcycle rather than recycle products that are useful because reusing is more sustainable. Producing a new laptop causes as much emissions as driving a car for a month.

CircleIT tries to repurpose devices that are still functional, even if their resale value means recycling would make better economic sense. Recently, for example, the company worked with Medic Mobile, a nonprofit that offers an open software to provide health services, to donate a batch of older phones, set up with new mobility software. Instead of the phones being recycled, they were given to health workers in Nairobi, Kenya, who travel regionally into remote and underserved areas to deliver health care.

On average, more than 80% of the computers and tablets CircleIT receives are refurbished, donated, or otherwise used again. The rest, including harder-to-reuse tech items like printers, are sent to certified recyclers with high standards. “Even after six years in this business, I still struggle with the right term — it’s not just e-waste, or even IT disposal,” Cohen says. “We look at how we can prevent waste from being generated in the first place by focusing on reuse, repair, refurbishment, and donations.”

More than 70% of the toxins in U.S.  landfills are attributed to e-waste. That’s a major motivator for Heather Loebner, CircleIT’s sustainability VP. “Generally speaking, across all industries, we’ve been trained as consumers to recycle. If you think about the last couple decades, the campaigns are focused on sorting your plastics, paper, aluminum, and glass,” she says. “So we have a large lift in front of us to help people understand it’s not [just] about recycling. It’s about reuse and extended life—recycling is actually the last option to consider.”

Recycling programs at big-box stores, while well-intentioned, often involved piling electronics on each other in bins, ultimately reducing the devices’ ability to be reused. That’s why CircleIT incorporates packing methods for both individual and business clients that protect the electronics, so that more items can be refurbished rather than scrapped. 

CircleIT’s push to reuse technology comes at a key moment. Consumers are feeling what Eric Goldstein, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s longtime New York City environmental director, calls “justified anger” about planned obsolescence, the idea that things are purposely not built to last. As a result, the national right-to-repair movement picked up momentum during the pandemic. A wide-ranging coalition of climate activists, do-it-yourselfers, farmers, and repair-shop owners found they shared certain ideals. They called for everything from smartphones to tractors to become more easily fixable, with the kind of open manuals that are standard for the auto industry.

At least 41 states have seen right-to-repair legislation introduced over the past decade, but the tech industry has lobbied hard against such measures, arguing that unauthorized repairs could be unsafe for consumers. In the final days of 2022, New York became the first U.S. state to pass an electronics-focused right-to-repair law. The final law exempted farm equipment, home appliances, and more, focusing on tech devices (and adopting many of the tech industry’s desired changes, such as applying only to products sold after July 2023). 

The Natural Resources Defense Council was among the countless environmental organizations that supported the legislation. Despite the softening of the bill’s final language, it may help begin to shift the expectations around technology, says Goldstein. “The toxicity [of e-waste] is high,” Goldstein says. “Troubling things can come in small packages.”

Lead, cadmium, and mercury are among the toxic materials that make the issue more serious than apparel or other categories of trash, Goldstein says. But over the past four decades, he’s led similar campaigns against plastic bags, styrofoam take-out containers, and other disposables—and seen how New York City’s efforts have encouraged others to follow suit.

The right-to-repair movement calls for more durable products. Refillable options, and the discounts that some businesses now offer for reusable containers are all part and parcel of shifting back from a throwaway consumer culture, Goldstein explains. “Younger people have been so inundated with the manufacturers’ pitch to use it and get rid of it that at this point, people have forgotten that our parents and grandparents would purchase things with the expectation that they would be long-term acquisitions, if not lifetime purchases,” Goldstein says. “That if something breaks, you’d find a way to repair it and reuse it.”

The process won’t happen overnight. Cohen concedes that changing expectations about how long tech devices can last may have to build slowly — but he believes given the perils of climate change, it will inevitably pick up momentum. “Shifting the mindset around waste and around used technology,” he says, “can have an impact not only on companies getting rid of devices, but on individuals, communities, and countries around the world.”

CircleIT is a digital ITAD provider and Certified B Corporation focused on secure data destruction and technology reuse to create beneficial customer, environmental and social outcomes. We make it easy for companies, including those with a growing remote workforce, to securely and sustainably dispose of and repurpose older laptops, desktops and other unused technology devices. We then quantify the positive environmental and social impacts of our services in a certified ESG report that our customers can apply towards their own ESG goals.

As part of Global Recycling Day this March, CircleIT is offering a special coupon code for the first 50 people that repurpose their data bearing device using their Digital Solution. Use the code CircleITGrist to receive 50% off when you repurpose your device by clicking the link below.


This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Consumers looking to reduce e-waste have new options on Mar 21, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Welcome to Utah, where pipeline protests could now get you at least five years in prison

Tue, 03/21/2023 - 03:30

In Utah, protests that hinder the functioning of fossil fuel infrastructure could now lead to at least five years in prison. The new rules make Utah the 19th state in the country to pass legislation with stiffer penalties for protesting at so-called critical infrastructure sites, which include oil and gas facilities, power plants, and railroads. The new laws proliferated in the aftermath of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017.

Utah’s legislature passed two separate bills containing stricter penalties for tampering with or damaging critical infrastructure earlier this month. House Bill 370 makes intentionally “inhibiting or impeding the operation of a critical infrastructure facility” a first degree felony, which is punishable by five years to life in prison. A separate bill allows law enforcement to charge a person who “interferes with or interrupts critical infrastructure” with a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Both bills were signed into law by the governor last week. 

Of the two bills, First Amendment and criminal justice advocates are particularly concerned about HB 370 due to its breadth, the severity of penalties, and its potential to curb environmental protests. The bill contains a long list of facilities that are considered critical infrastructure including grain mills, trucking terminals, and transmission facilities used by federally licensed radio or television stations. It applies both to facilities that are operational and those under construction. 

Since the bill doesn’t define activities that may be considered “inhibiting or impeding” operations at a facility, environmental protesters may inadvertently find themselves in the crosshairs of the legislation, according to environmental and civil liberties advocates. Protesters engaging in direct action often chain themselves to equipment, block roadways, or otherwise disrupt operations at fossil fuel construction sites. Under the new legislation, such activities could result in a first degree felony charge.

“This bill could be used to prohibit pipeline protests like we saw with the Dakota [Access] Pipeline project,” said Mark Moffat, an attorney with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, referring to the 2017 protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. “It elevates what would be basically a form of vandalism or criminal mischief under the laws of the state of Utah to a first-degree felony.”

A first-degree felony is typically reserved for violent crimes like murder and sexual assault. Moffat said that the state’s sentencing guidelines are indeterminate, which means the amount of time someone spends in prison is at the discretion of the Board of Pardons.

“When you increase these to first degree felonies, you increase the likelihood of incarceration,” said Moffat. “In my experience, those people are going to go to prison as opposed to receiving a term of probation,” he said.  

Similar bills are pending in at least five other states, including Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Idaho, and North Carolina. These bills include various misdemeanor and felony charges for trespassing, disrupting, or otherwise interfering with operations at critical infrastructure facilities. 

In the last five years, 19 states (including Utah) have passed legislation that criminalize protest activity. In many states, attention-grabbing protests at pipeline construction sites, such as those over the Dakota Access Pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, prompted lawmakers to pass tougher penalties for trespassing, damaging equipment, and interfering with operations. The penalties ranged from a few thousand dollars in fines to several years behind bars. Many of these bills also bore a striking resemblance to model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a membership organization for state lawmakers and industry representatives best known for drafting model legislation that’s later enacted by conservative states.

However, the stated justification for the Utah legislation does not seem to be past fossil fuel protests. Instead, proponents of the bill repeatedly referred to the recent spate of attacks on electrical substations in the U.S.

“Why is the bill needed? Because we’re seeing increased attempts by individuals across the country to damage critical infrastructure,” said Utah state Representative Carl Albrecht, a Republican and one of the sponsors of the bill.

In recent months, at least nine substations in North Carolina, Washington, and Oregon have been attacked, causing power outages for thousands. An analysis of federal records by the news organization Politico found that attacks on electrical equipment are at an all-time high since 2012, with more than 100 incidents in the first eight months of last year. Most recently, the FBI foiled plans by a neo-Nazi group to take down the electric grid in Baltimore, Maryland. 

The Utah bill received broad support from several utilities in the state, including Dominion Energy, Deseret Power, and Rocky Mountain Power, which own and operate pipelines, power plants, substations, and transmission lines that are considered “critical infrastructure” by the bill. Jonathan Whitesides, a spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, said that the company has dealt with copper theft and vandalism at its electrical substations in recent months. The resulting power outage affected more than 3,500 customers

“As an electric utility we have a commitment to provide safe and reliable power to customers, and having increased penalties for criminal activity is one piece of a comprehensive approach for electric reliability,” he said. 

Whatever the initial motivation, the bills in Utah and other states can still be used against peaceful protesters, said Elly Page, an attorney with International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking anti-protest legislation around the country.

“It’s still concerning because they’re fairly broadly drafted,” she said. “Many of these bills carry very severe penalties that are likely to make people think twice before engaging in protected First Amendment activities and raising their voice around infrastructure projects that affect our communities and that affect our planet.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Welcome to Utah, where pipeline protests could now get you at least five years in prison on Mar 21, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Why the longest coal strike in Alabama history ended with no new contract

Tue, 03/21/2023 - 03:15

Almost 1,000 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, are returning to work after nearly two years without an improved contract, marking an end to the longest strike in the state’s history. It’s a disappointing outcome for the union, illustrating how declining industry and the lack of other job opportunities in coal country leaves even exceptionally well organized workers with little leverage.

Miners at Warrior Met Coal had sought to reverse cuts they took in 2016 when their previous employer, Walter Energy, went bankrupt. Rather than see another mine closure devastate the local economy, they agreed to significant pay cuts, increased healthcare costs, and reduced retirement benefits, with the understanding that their previous terms would be reinstated once the company was no longer in the red. But once Warrior Met regained its financial footing, the company refused to reverse those concessions, and in April 2021, miners walked off the job.

During the first several months of the strike, the miners picketed their worksite in Alabama, held marches and rallies, filed lawsuits, and even demonstrated in front of the Manhattan offices of BlackRock, Warrior Met’s majority shareholder. But as time went on, they struggled to keep morale high and stay engaged in actions. Many miners had to find temporary work to support their families, and the union spent over $35 million dollars paying for health insurance and the strike fund.

Union leaders said they plan to continue negotiating with Warrior Met for improved benefits, and that this “unconditional return to work” is part of a strategy to regain momentum and stability.

“We have been locked into this struggle for 23 months now and nothing has materially changed,” said United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts.

Striking union coal miners attend a rally at the local union hall on August 31, 2022 in Brookwood, Alabama. The United Mine Workers of America has been on strike against the Warrior Met Coal company since April 2021, already making it one of the longest coal strikes in American history. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

While regular strikes throughout the 20th century helped make coal mining one of the few well-paying blue collar jobs in the region, worker militancy has lost some of its power given the decline of the coal industry. Over the past 15 years, coal power has dropped by over 50 percent, driven by the rise of cheaper alternatives such as natural gas, wind, and solar energy. This is reflected in the dwindling number of U.S. coal jobs: In 2011, nearly 92,000 people worked in the domestic coal industry. By 2021, that number was down to 40,000

During that same period, over 60 coal companies filed for bankruptcy. In each case, the contracts that workers negotiated with the new owners were worse than what they previously had, according to the United Mine Workers of America.

Most remaining coal mines in the U.S., including the Brookwood Warrior Met mine, produce metallurgical coal which is used to manufacture steel. Metallurgical coal has weathered the sharp price drops that thermal coal, which is used in power plants, has faced, but trends in steel demand and production suggest that its production will likely also decline in the coming decades, placing workers in even more precarious positions.

Warrior Met Coal Mine continues to stack coal piles in September 2022 despite the strike in Brookwood Alabama Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Many U.S. coal miners face similar threats, and the mine workers union has been calling for concrete energy transition policies for years. While United Mine Workers of America generally acknowledges the existence of climate change, they often don’t see eye-to-eye with environmental advocates. For example, union leaders have criticized ambitious climate plans such as the Green New Deal, saying a rapid shift toward renewables would come on the backs of coal workers. (The union also supports protecting existing mining jobs by investing heavily in carbon capture and storage, which many environmental organizations have called a false solution.) On the other hand, they did come out in support of President Joe Biden’s green energy policies in the hopes of helping its members transition toward new jobs.

The union’s other legislative priorities include creating new unionized renewable energy supply chain jobs in coalfield areas, having policy mechanisms to guarantee wages, health care coverage and pensions, creating training programs for dislocated miners and their families, fully funding mine reclamation projects, and passing the PRO Act — legislation that would make it easier for workers to freely organize. 

“There’s no such thing as a just transition, because right now there are no jobs available for miners when the coal mines shut down,” said Erin Bates, Communications Director of the United Mine Workers of America.

Cutting coal production, and closing coal mines, is key to reducing carbon emissions. Coal still ranks as the leading source of emissions globally, producing an estimated 15.1 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2022. Though coal production has rebounded slightly in some countries, driven by acute factors such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than 200 countries have committed to climate targets that include the eventual phasing out of coal power.

There are many coal miners who acknowledge that the industry’s presence in their communities comes with its consequences. Some of the miners who work at Warrior Met are members of Black River Waterkeeper, an organization which is currently suing the company for Clean Water Act violations. The group alleges the Brookwood mine, one of the largest in Alabama, regularly discharges wastewater containing proprietary mining chemicals into the watershed. It is also an acute source of air pollution. “At Warrior Met, all of the waste rock from deep underground is brought to the surface and forms a mountain,” said Nelson Brooke of the Black Warrior Riverkeepers. “When the wind blows, there’s coal dust blowing all over the place.”

Read Next Coal plant pollution can be deadly — even hundreds of miles downwind

As coal mines close or reduce worker pay, many coal communities will have to face those environmental threats without the industry’s former economic benefits. Retired and active miners also face the prospective insolvency of their pension funds, which are dependent upon coal taxes. 

“Many communities where mines have shut down are already ghost towns, ” Bates said. “These places don’t have anything for people to fall back on when they lose their jobs. What’s happening is that people are moving away, people are going on government assistance. It’s hurting the schools, hospitals, and businesses.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Why the longest coal strike in Alabama history ended with no new contract on Mar 21, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News


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