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The next farm bill could be a historic climate law – if Congress can agree on it

Thu, 03/30/2023 - 03:45

When Congress renegotiates the farm bill every five years, it doesn’t exactly grab headlines. But this year, as the sweeping trillion-dollar legislative package that deals with everything from manure lagoons to food stamps comes up for renewal, climate advocates say it could be momentous. 

Typically passed with bipartisan support, the legislation, projected to cost $1.4 trillion over 10 years, encompasses relatively mundane things like crop insurance and money for rural broadband. Nutrition programs alone usually claim three-quarters of the bill’s funding. But environmental groups and some farmer advocacy organizations are lobbying Congress to turn this year’s bill — due for an update by October — into the next historic climate law. They say it could curb warming caused by agriculture, a key emitter of greenhouse gasses, in large part by converting the country’s vast farmlands into fields that suck carbon out of the air.

Climate activists march to the U.S. Capitol after the Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience in Freedom Plaza on March 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi / Getty Images

But as farm bill negotiations get under way on Capitol Hill, climate-specific policy ideas — like subsidizing farmers who plant cover crops that store carbon — are emerging as a point of contention in a divided Congress.

“It’s still in the early stages,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. “I’m feeling less discouraged than I could be,” she added, noting a history of broad support for farm bill programs that benefit both farmers and climate — say, by promoting soil health or making farms more resilient to drought — even if they don’t explicitly target emissions. 

As climate advocates prod lawmakers to tamp down on farm-related greenhouse gas emissions, new research shows food production alone is on track to warm the planet 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. In the United States, agriculture accounts for more than a 10th of the country’s emissions but could produce as much as a third by 2050, according to a recent Environmental Working Group analysis. But the soil beneath the country’s corn, soybeans, other crops, and pastures is capable of storing enough carbon to offset emissions by up to 10 percent.  

The farm bill could transform U.S. agriculture into a climate solution, said Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Her organization is pushing Congress to boost funds for already existing conservation programs that help farmers plant trees and cover crops, reduce use of fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and shift to grazing systems that keep soil intact, among other practices that cut emissions directly or lock carbon in the ground. Day also wants to see lawmakers invest in research and technology to help growers monitor how much carbon they sequester on their lands — a key metric for understanding how effective farms are at combating climate change.

Congress allocated $20 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs under the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark bill that President Joe Biden signed last year. According to Day and other climate advocates, that wasn’t enough. While the bill made slashing emissions an explicit part of a few USDA programs, the funding will last only 10 years, Day said. “If we want to see that kind of funding go forward, we need to make [similar] funding permanent rather than have it a one-off situation.” 

Key farm bill programs that the IRA promised to infuse with cash — the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program — are notoriously oversubscribed. About three-quarters of farmers who apply for those programs don’t get funded, according to a recent report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. That analysis, though, focused on data from before the IRA went into effect, and the billions of dollars authorized by the bill will help cover the backlog, said Michael Happ, program associate for climate and rural communities at the institute. 

Still, that money will do little more than make up for cuts — including those to the Conservation Stewardship Program — in the past two farm bills, according to Day. Groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and even the more conventional American Farm Bureau Federation want to see Congress spend more on the conservation programs and target emissions. In recent years, those programs have shied away from funding “climate-smart” agriculture, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis published last year. Currently, half of the farm bill-authorized funds for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which shares costs for conservation-minded farm projects, goes to farmers’ livestock needs. That includes bankrolling methane digesters — systems usually made up of sealed tanks or ponds — that some farms use to convert methane from manure into fuel, called biogas, and fertilizer. 

“On the surface, that absolutely reduces the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions,” Day said. “However, those methane digesters also support an existing agricultural system that is built around high fossil-fuel use.” Digesters are often, though not always, used at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, sometimes called CAFOs, industrial livestock pens that are a major source of methane emissions. Rather than propping those facilities up, Day said the farm bill should subsidize practices like perennial grazing and agroforestry, which involves diversifying farmland with trees and shrubs that limit soil erosion, create wildlife habitat, and store carbon. Day said she’s not sure yet if such proposals will see bipartisan support but that incentive-based policies stand a better chance than mandates. 

Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, wants to make sure the farm bill addresses climate change. Robert F. Bukaty / AP Photo

Even if the farm bill boosts “climate-smart” farming by the billions, that alone won’t solve a major problem: Most growers don’t have the tools to know how much carbon they’re storing in their soil, said Cristel Zoebisch, deputy director of policy at Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on carbon removal and storage. “We need to be fairly certain that the amount of CO2 we’re saying we’re offsetting is actually being sequestered in agricultural lands,” Zoebisch said. “We don’t really have a good sense of what the baseline, what the starting point of soil carbon stocks looks like across the country today.” 

Zoebisch wants to see the farm bill fix that by directing money toward research, local demonstration trials and the development of equipment farmers could use to measure the carbon they sequester. While Congress recently passed the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act to help farmers access carbon markets — where they could profit from the carbon stored on their land — the bill didn’t resolve uncertainty around how to measure soil carbon or if the markets are worth it financially for farmers. 

And while that act showed bipartisan interest in voluntary farm programs that could curb emissions, a Republican-led House and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate could stand in the way of more stringent regulations, like Senator Cory Booker’s proposal to ban CAFOs. Representative Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, said last year he wants to “make sure the farm bill doesn’t become the next climate bill.” And Senator John Boozman, a senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, raised concerns at a committee hearing earlier this month about the climate-specific agriculture funding earmarked in the IRA, which Republicans unanimously opposed. But Republican leaders, including Thompson and Boozman, also have intimated they could be open to climate-beneficial programs with limitations. 

Success in getting Republicans on board might hinge on how programs are framed. For example, lawmakers from both parties have signaled support for voluntary programs that assist farmers in planting cover crops, while some Republicans have pushed back against requiring growers to engage in climate-friendly practices to get subsidies for crop insurance. “There is a lot of potential for climate targeting — without calling it climate,”  Day said.

On Tuesday, Pingree and Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, reintroduced the Agriculture Resilience Act, an ambitious marker bill that aims to make agricultural emissions net-zero by 2040. Pingree told Grist it could be hard to get a Republican cosponsor on her bill, but she expects the farm bill alone to help lower emissions, even if implicitly, through established programs that strengthen local food systems and improve soil health. That includes the USDA conservation programs and, among others, the Local Agriculture Market Program, which funds farmers markets. 

“Unless it was gutted and destroyed, the farm bill will be a climate package,” Pingree said. “Optimism might be a little too strong of a word, but I’m keeping an open mind that this process could work.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The next farm bill could be a historic climate law – if Congress can agree on it on Mar 30, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

It’s been a place of worship for centuries. Now a copper mine threatens its future.

Thu, 03/30/2023 - 03:15

For nearly a decade, tribal leaders in Arizona have fought to save Oak Flat – a sacred site central to the religious practices of the San Carlos Apache and other Indigenous nations connected to the area. Now, the site’s fate rests with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who is weighing whether mining copper in the area, and effectively destroying the site, violates the religious rights of local Indigenous peoples. 

Religious groups including: Seventh-day Adventists, the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Christian Legal Society, Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and the Sikh Coalition, have banded together to support the Apache and filed briefs as part of their advocacy.

Located about 40 miles from Phoenix, Oak Flat sits atop the third-largest deposit of copper ore in the world. In 2014, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake authored legislation to transfer Oak Flat from Tonto National Forest to Resolution Copper, a British-Australian company owned by Rio Tinto and BHP. For nearly a decade, tribal leaders have fought to keep the ceremonial grounds free from mining projects and other disturbances.

The company, which is known to mine iron ore, copper, lithium, aluminum and other materials, has previously been accused of desecrating Indigenous lands. In 2020, the mining company destroyed Juukan Gorge, a 46,000 year-old Aboriginal heritage site in Australia. Rio Tinto’s mining of copper and gold in the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia have also raised concerns with local herdsmen. The company says the copper at Oak Flat will be used for electric vehicles, smartphones and MRI scanners.

Oak Flat has been used as a religious site to connect Indigenous peoples to their Creator, faith, families and natural world since before colonization and European contact, said Wendsler Nosie, the former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the head of Apache Stronghold to the Arizona Republic.

“While we cherish different religious convictions, we are united in our commitment to defend religious freedom. This case holds implications beyond its effect on Native American Worship,” one brief contained.

According to the Arizona Republic, Rio Tinto says mining at Oak Flat would bring 3,700 jobs and $1 billion annually to Arizona’s economy.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s been a place of worship for centuries. Now a copper mine threatens its future. on Mar 30, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

California regulator fines manufacturer for knowingly exposing workers to toxic chemical

Thu, 03/30/2023 - 03:00

The chemical compound ethylene oxide is manufactured and used in hundreds of facilities across the United States. Linked to lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer, the carcinogen is used to sterilize about half of all medical devices in the country. Over the last few years, as evidence of its toxicity has become more clear, regulators have attempted to step up enforcement against ethylene oxide emitters. Still, penalties for allowing workers — who have some of the highest exposure risks — to breathe dangerous levels of the chemical have been few and far between.

That may be changing. In the Southern California city of Carson, Parter Medical Products uses ethylene oxide in the process of manufacturing single-use petri dishes and vials. Last week, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, fined the facility more than $800,000 for exposing its employees to dangerous levels of the toxic substance.

Between 2019 and 2023, the agency found that employees were repeatedly exposed to as much as five times the state’s standard for acceptable exposure. For endangering employees’ health, the agency issued 18 citations, which included what it calls “willful-serious” cases in which the agency found that Parter knowingly exposed employees to the toxic chemical.   

“Our inspection showed this was not an isolated incident of chemical overexposure to workers,” Cal/OSHA chief Jeff Killip said in a press release. “The employer failed to take action to protect employees even after it knew that some of them were exposed to dangerous levels of ethylene oxide.”

The enforcement action comes as federal regulation of ethylene oxide is evolving. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, found that ethylene oxide was 30 times more toxic for adults than previously thought. The agency set a new upper limit for lifetime cancer risk at 11 parts per trillion, or ppt. That means if 10,000 people are exposed to ethylene oxide at an 11-ppt concentration for 70 years, one of them will develop cancer. That such a low concentration of ethylene oxide can result in cancer is a sign of its extraordinary toxicity. 

“This is a highly toxic compound,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Besides dioxin, it’s now the most toxic compound that we regulate in our regulatory infrastructures, and you have workers that are at the highest exposures.”

The EPA and other federal and state agencies that oversee air quality and worker safety have slowly moved to tighten exposure standards and emission rules. In California, the legal threshold at which regulatory agencies intervene to protect workers’ health is 1 part per million, or ppm, over 8 hours of exposure. At Parter, Cal/OSHA found one employee was exposed to levels on average five times larger than that limit. 

Parter first ran into trouble last year. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local regulatory agency, collected air samples within the facility and conducted air monitoring outside the facility in July. When it found ethylene oxide levels that were higher than permitted, it issued Parter a notice of violation for releasing air contaminants that endanger health and safety of the public and also referred the case to Cal/OSHA. In response, Parter shut down operations in August and installed air pollution control equipment to better capture ethylene oxide emissions.

However, after the facility reopened, Cal/OSHA reinspected it in December and found that workers were still being exposed to unacceptably high levels of ethylene oxide. As a result, six of the 18 citations Cal/OSHA issued are “willful-serious,” a category reserved for situations when the employer was “aware that an unsafe or hazardous condition existed and made no reasonable effort to eliminate the condition.”

Parter representatives did not respond to Grist’s requests for comment. 

Cal/OSHA’s fine may be a sign of more significant enforcement action forthcoming against other companies in the state. There are 14 other commercial sterilizer facilities in California. In the cities of Vernon and Ontario, two facilities owned by Sterigenics were similarly investigated last year by the South Coast air district and found to be in violation of air quality rules. 

Cal/OSHA’s findings raise a number of questions about what the Parter facility’s emissions mean not just for its workers, but also for those who live nearby. The plant is located just 700 feet from a residential community and about 2,000 feet from an elementary school. The local air district has set up monitors in the community and recent readings show that levels are below the state’s standard for residential cancer risk of 260 ppt — but they are three to 20 times higher than the level the EPA considers safe. 

“You have parts-per-million levels inside [the facility],” said Williams. “There’s no way you can have parts-per-million levels inside that building and protect people at the fenceline.”

The South Coast Air Quality Management District did not respond to Grist’s questions in time for publication.

The local air quality district is working on new rules to tighten standards for ethylene oxide emissions from sterilizer facilities like Parter’s. The EPA is also working on a series of rules addressing the chemical’s emissions from the manufacturing sector as well as sterilizer facilities. On Friday, the agency is expected to announce a draft rule requiring additional pollution controls for facilities that manufacture ethylene oxide. Separately, the agency is also working on rules to reduce emissions from sterilizer facilities. However, in 2014 and 2022 the agency missed previous deadlines to propose new rules that better protect communities from ethylene oxide exposure. The environmental group Earthjustice sued the agency late last year over the delay.

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

Lylla Younes contributed reporting to this story.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California regulator fines manufacturer for knowingly exposing workers to toxic chemical on Mar 30, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

How climate change made the Mississippi tornadoes more likely

Thu, 03/30/2023 - 03:00

A recent study is disrupting the conventional wisdom that there is no connection between climate change and deadly tornadoes, such as the ones that tore through Mississippi over the weekend. 

Researchers at Northern Illinois University looked at data from the past 15 years, which compared different types of supercell storms. They concluded that these storms, which are precursors to tornadoes, will increase in frequency and intensity as the planet warms.  

The scientists also concluded that tornadoes will shift eastward, from Tornado Alley in the Great Plains, where the storms have been the most active for decades.This comes after a series of lethal twisters made their way through Mississippi, leveling towns like Rolling Fork and Silver City, and severely affecting people in the capital city of Jackson. 

The study showed an overall increase in supercell storms across the United States, but a greater increase in storms across the South, particularly around the mid-South region which encompasses Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Missouri. 

An association between tornadoes and climate change was previously difficult to establish, unlike the connection between climate change and hurricanes. Tornadoes are smaller and harder to measure than hurricanes, but the main impediment to linking tornadoes to climate change is that the latter weakens winds in the atmosphere while tornadoes require stronger winds.

The latest research, however, demonstrates that even with weaker winds, other factors resulting from climate change can make tornadoes more intense. 

 “That added ingredient of more heat and moisture is going to be the big thing that will influence what happens and we can expect potentially worse tornado outbreaks,” said William Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University.  

Gallus said that despite the fact that there could be fewer days of tornadoes, those days could feature stronger or multiple tornadoes. 

Additionally, a geographic shift eastward could spell ongoing trouble for residents of the region, where housing stock is seen as less secure and the area is more densely populated.

“It’s not just the simple idea that the bullseye of most tornadoes is moving east,” said Gallus. “What’s bad is it’s moving into a part of the country where people tend to [be] more vulnerable to tornadoes. So the risk of injury and death is higher in those areas.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How climate change made the Mississippi tornadoes more likely on Mar 30, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Rising groundwater levels are threatening clean air and water across the country

Wed, 03/29/2023 - 03:45

Beneath our feet there is an invisible ocean. Within the cracks of rock slabs, sand, and soil, this water sinks, swells, and flows — sometimes just a few feet under the surface, sometimes 30,000 feet below. This system of groundwater provides a vital supply for drinking water and irrigation, and feeds into rivers, lakes, and wetlands. Across the globe, it contains 100 times as much fresh water than all of the world’s rivers and lakes combined.

As Earth warms, groundwater — long seen as an immutable resource — is in flux. Most often, climate change is associated with a decrease in groundwater, fueled by worsening drought and evaporative demand. But in some areas, this water is actually creeping higher, thanks to rising sea levels and more intense rainfall, bringing a surge of problems for which few communities are prepared.

Places in the United States where the water table is inching higher — along the coasts, yes, but also inland, in parts of the Midwest — are already beginning to experience problems with infrastructure. Cracks in aging and poorly maintained pipes are being inundated, leaving plumbing unable to carry away stormwater and waste. Pavement is degrading faster. Trees are drowning as the soil becomes soupier, starving their roots of oxygen. During high tides and when it rains, groundwater is even reaching the surface and forming temporary ponds where there never used to be flooding.

This phenomenon — groundwater rise — could also have dire effects on people’s health, exposing them to new or unearthed pollutants. In the San Francisco Bay Area, rising groundwater threatens to spread contamination that can evaporate and rise into the air inside homes, schools, and workplaces. In Beaufort County, South Carolina, it is flooding septic systems, leaching raw sewage into nearby waterways. Along the Vermilion River in Illinois, it is seeping into unlined pits containing coal ash — a hazardous waste — and carrying heavy metals into drinking-water aquifers.

These three communities, profiled below, demonstrate the risks that other parts of the country may soon face as climate change alters a system long taken for granted.

West Oakland, California Grist / Getty Images

Oceans do not stop where the sea meets the shore. Along the coasts, saltwater creeps through porous soil and rock, creating an underground saltwater table that can extend miles inland.

Many Americans are familiar with sea-level rise. As we crank up the planet’s thermostat, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets and the thermal expansion of seawater mean the oceans are rising and intruding farther and farther inland — both on top of the land and underneath it.

Few regions expect an inundation from below, explained Kristina Hill, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies rising groundwater in urban coastal areas. “They think that building a levee is going to protect them from rising seawater. But, of course, a levee doesn’t affect much about the way that groundwater rises behind it.”

One of many concerning possibilities is that rising groundwater will mobilize contaminants that have been lurking in the soil for years, left behind by industrial and military sites, and allow them to spread, unnoticed, beneath our feet. 


Phoenix Armenta has been working to educate communities around the San Francisco Bay Area about this threat for years. In February 2020, McClymonds High School, which is not far from where Armenta lives in West Oakland, was forced to close for several weeks after a cancer-causing chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE, was found in the groundwater below the school. 

West Oakland — a once-thriving Black community decimated by racist urban-planning practices — has been the site of shipyards, car manufacturers, metal smelters, and a former Army base, and is close to a major port and several highways. It’s unclear where the TCE in the groundwater below McClymonds High School migrated from, but NBC Bay Area reported that the industrial solvent could have come from any or all of five polluting sites within a half-mile of the school, including a metal-finishing shop and a former dry cleaner. 

Armenta, who was working for a local environmental justice organization at the time, was deeply concerned, but not surprised, by the news. “That entire school is surrounded by toxic sites and toxic contaminants,” they said. 

Hill said that rising groundwater could have played a role in transporting the TCE from a contaminated site to below McClymonds High School. U.S. Geological Survey modeling shows that groundwater levels in West Oakland are already climbing, meaning more contamination is likely on the move in parts of the city. But it’s difficult to link specific instances, like what happened at McClymonds High School, to changes induced by rising seas — that would require more monitoring wells to track groundwater levels at a granular level and to map the flow of contamination. 

Contaminants that have a gas component, like petroleum products and solvents, are particularly dangerous because they can wind up in the air people breathe. These substances can enter sewage systems through cracked pipes, evaporate, travel up into buildings, and then seep into homes, schools, and workplaces. They can also enter directly through cracks in building foundations.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control conducted testing and found that TCE was not present in the air inside McClymonds High School. Eventually, the agency allowed the school to reopen, but that doesn’t mean the risk has gone away. As groundwater in West Oakland continues to rise, scientists and activists warn that more contamination will spread, and the risk of hazardous substances seeping into homes, schools, and businesses will grow. “It’s likely to be a hot spot where these things will happen early,” Hill said.

The communities most at risk are disproportionately people of color and people with low incomes. Racist housing policies, including redlining, have pushed Black Americans, in particular, into low-lying areas that flood frequently and neighborhoods surrounded by refineries, factories, and other sources of pollution. “Now those areas have both polluted soil from military or industrial activities, [and] they also have rising groundwater,” Hill said.

Armenta wants to see better monitoring, and they also want to see the toxic sites remediated. “The businesses that have been polluting in this community should be cleaning it up,” they said. If the sites are left unaddressed, rising groundwater will continue to spread contamination and people will get sick.

Beaufort County, South Carolina Grist / Getty Images

Everywhere you look in Beaufort County, South Carolina, there is water. The low-lying coastal county, which sits at the bottom of the state, is laced with streams and rivers, and flanked by marsh and barrier islands. Sea-level rise is obvious here, according to Larry Toomer, who owns an oyster market and restaurant in Bluffton, a fast-growing town in the southern part of the county. On sunny days, water pools in parking lots, and during the full moon, the high tide overtakes roads. 

But Toomer worries about the water he can’t see. 

Similar to San Francisco Bay, sea-level rise in this part of South Carolina is pushing water not only up, but inland, raising groundwater levels miles away from the coast. For the rural communities that dot Beaufort County and rely on residential septic systems, this creep spells trouble. As the water table climbs, it can infiltrate and impair septic systems, from the pipes to the leach fields, causing raw sewage — and the viruses, bacteria, and nitrogen it potentially contains — to spill into nearby waterways. It’s an existential problem for a town like Bluffton, where shellfish harvests fortify the economy and residents spend days on the water and nights roasting oysters over the fire. “Without good water quality, you won’t have good seafood,” said Toomer, who serves on the Bluffton town council as mayor pro tempore.

A working septic system depends on the distance between its underground tank and the groundwater below. Waste flows from homes into a tank, where solids sink to the bottom to be eaten by bacteria and liquids flow into a nearby field. There, the wastewater seeps through the earth, where it’s filtered by soil and digested by bacteria. Eventually, clean water trickles into the groundwater. 

When rising seas narrow the gap between a septic tank and groundwater, waste can’t be properly treated. Toilets back up, and raw sewage oozes into yards, where it can be washed into surrounding waterways. The fumes can cause respiratory problems, while nitrates may spur algal blooms.


Bluffton is bisected by the May River, which isn’t a river at all, but more like a river-shaped bay, fed by the tides of the Atlantic. In recent decades, extreme rainfall and booming development have eroded the river’s water quality. In 2009, high levels of fecal coliform, bacteria like E. coli associated with human and animal waste, led the state to halt shellfish harvests on the upper third of the river. While fecal coliform aren’t always dangerous, they’re considered an indicator for water quality. 

Kim Jones, Bluffton’s watershed resilience manager, said the city has surveyed septic systems, looking for failing tanks. As of last summer, they’ve only found five. “But we continue to get these positive hits,” Jones said, indicative of bacteria being swept into the river when tides below ground encounter groundwater.

Around one in five households in the U.S. rely on septic systems to treat wastewater, meaning they’re not connected to a central public sewer. Rising groundwater will challenge systems up and down coastal areas, particularly lower-elevation states like Florida and Virginia. Communities need to plan for this now, said Molly Mitchell, a coastal researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “Houses built today, in 30 years, will be in a very different environment,” she said. “Being aware of it could help reduce a lot of future impacts.”

Bluffton is in the process of phasing out septic systems and constructing a community sewer system — a major investment that requires building sewer lines and hook-ups to each home. But many communities can’t afford such projects, or residents may not be willing or able to pay new monthly bills on top of connection fees. Other alternatives — like community septics or above-ground systems — aren’t cheap, either.

Meanwhile, an effort is underway to assess how sea-level rise affects groundwater throughout Beaufort County. Scientists are measuring the height of the water table and how it changes with the tides. That can be used to model what will happen as oceans keep rising or rainfall intensifies. Already, residents complain of pumping out waterlogged leach fields. Alicia Wilson, a project scientist from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, expects that will only become more frequent. “The question is,” she said, “when do things fall apart?”

Such data collection isn’t widespread but will be crucial for helping towns prepare for the future. Rising groundwater is “out of sight, out of mind,” Jones said. But the tides underfoot shape the health, economy, environment, and very essence of her town. “It’s going to be an increasing issue for a lot of communities.”

Vermilion River, Illinois Grist / Getty Images

Inland, far from America’s coastlines, climate change is driving a rise in groundwater levels through an increase in rainfall. Heavy precipitation — particularly when it comes over a short period of time — can cause lakes and rivers to flood and saturate the ground directly. That excess water then percolates down through the soil, raising the groundwater below, explained Mark Hutson, a geologist who previously worked for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. 

In the Midwest, this change is already underway. As the climate has warmed, the frequency of extreme rainfall events in the region has doubled since the early 1900s. In some places, the resulting rise in groundwater levels from this extreme rainfall — known as “groundwater flooding” — is temporary, receding once the earth is able to absorb the extra moisture. Elsewhere, like in the Great Lakes, steadily rising water levels — which could be up to 17 inches higher on average by 2050 — can permanently change the depth of the water table. 

As groundwater levels have risen, so too have concerns about the fate of hundreds of coal ash impoundments — typically unlined pits containing waste from power plants that burn coal for electricity. 

Though these dump sites are scattered around the country, they’re concentrated in the Midwest and South. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which can leach into the groundwater supply that towns and private well owners rely on for their drinking water. It can also pollute nearby waterways, poisoning plants and wildlife. A 2019 investigation by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, which examined 265 coal-fired power plants that monitored the environment around their coal ash dump sites, found that more than 90 percent had already contaminated nearby groundwater with these heavy metals. 


At the Vermilion Power Station in central Illinois, which was operated by the Texas-based Dynegy corporation until its closure in 2011, three unlined ponds contain over 3 million cubic yards of coal ash, which has already contaminated the groundwater with boron, arsenic, and sulfate, testing by the Illinois EPA found. And that groundwater has already begun leaching toxins into the nearby Middle Fork Vermilion River; according to a 2018 report by the Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network, “the riverbank nearest the coal ash is stained brightly orange and has an oily sheen.” The organization has pointed out that groundwater flooding after heavy rains in this region could carry even more pollution from the Vermilion site.

In 2015, hoping to address concerns about groundwater pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new regulations that required most of the country’s coal plants to stop sending waste to unlined pits and begin closing them entirely. (New coal ash waste has to be sent to lined sites that don’t cut into the aquifer). 

That usually meant capping them with a hard shell to prevent rainfall from getting in — but the rules said nothing about the threat from below, said Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer with the Prairie Rivers Network. 

“If you have an ash pond, and it’s got a cap on it, and it starts raining, that cap does prevent that rain from getting in the ash,” Rehn said. “And then you say, ‘Oh, look, it works.’ [But] you’ve ignored groundwater.” 

The rules also exempted hundreds of coal ash sites that weren’t actively receiving new waste, but which contain as much as half of the coal ash ever produced in the U.S. Groups like Earthjustice have sued the EPA to force the agency to regulate these so-called “legacy” impoundments. 

Under the Biden administration, the EPA has started to look more closely at how groundwater affects coal ash sites. Last year, the agency created a list of 163 coal ash sites with waste potentially located below the water table. Nearly half of these are located in just four states: Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana. 

Dealing with the problem would require moving coal ash to a landfill that’s “high and dry,” Rehn said. But sites like the coal plant in Waukegan, Illinois, plan to cap and monitor the coal ash instead, despite protests from local communities. 

“​​This is a very urgent issue, because the closure is required, the closure is happening,” said Jenny Cassel, an attorney with Earthjustice who worked on coal ash cases. “And in some places, it’s happening in ways that are not going to alleviate the problem.”

Across the United States

This slow-moving crisis is popping up in communities across the U.S., but there are some common steps that can be implemented anywhere to help stem the spread of contaminants through climate-driven groundwater rise. Hill said one of the most important for government agencies and municipalities to take is simply more monitoring — in particular, at “maximum groundwater moments,” such as a few days after a heavy rain or at a high tide. Currently, sampling tends to be so infrequent that it doesn’t catch the movement of the contamination. 

“There are ways that we could be sampling and trying to catch the maximum risk, instead of kind of smoothing it all over with sampling that isn’t related to rain events or tide events,” Hill said. “Ideally, we’d help local people be involved in that sampling so that they know what’s happening in their own neighborhoods.”

Understanding, though, has to be paired with action. Along with taking broader steps to address climate change and its impacts, agencies need to ensure polluters clean up toxic sites, rather than just capping them and hoping for the best. 

Mitchell, the coastal researcher in Virginia, hopes that officials will use such data sets to more proactively address groundwater rise. 

“I think sometimes when we talk about issues related to changing environments, it can seem overwhelming or depressing,” she said. “But I really think the important thing is that when we have good information about the future, we make better decisions.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Rising groundwater levels are threatening clean air and water across the country on Mar 29, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

US renewable power surged ahead of coal for the first time last year

Wed, 03/29/2023 - 03:30

Last year, U.S. renewable electricity generation surpassed coal for the first time, according to newly released federal data. The report marks a major milestone in the transition to clean energy, but experts say that much faster progress is needed to reach international climate targets.

According to the Energy Information Administration, a federal statistical agency, combined wind and solar generation increased from 12 percent of national power production in 2021 to 14 percent in 2022. Hydropower, biomass, and geothermal added another 7 percent — for a total share of 21 percent renewables last year. The figure narrowly exceeded coal’s 20 percent share of electricity generation, which fell from 23 percent in 2021. 

The growth in renewable electricity was largely driven by a surge in added wind and solar capacity, the agency said. Texas was the top wind-generating state last year, producing more than a quarter of all U.S. wind generation. It was also the leading state for natural gas and coal power. Iowa and Oklahoma landed at second and third in wind generation, accounting for 10 percent and 9 percent of national wind power respectively. 

California took the lead in solar, clocking in with 26 percent of the nation’s solar electricity. Texas came in second at 16 percent, followed by North Carolina at 8 percent. Renewable generation also exceeded nuclear for the second year in a row, after surging ahead for the first time in 2021. 

But the report found that fossil fuels still dominate the country’s energy mix. Natural gas remained the top source of electricity in the U.S. — its share rose from 37 percent of electricity generation in 2021 to 39 percent in 2022. 

For 2023, the Energy Information Administration forecasts additional growth in renewables. The agency predicts wind power will increase from 11 percent to 12 percent of total power generation this year. Solar is projected to rise from 4 percent to 5 percent. Coal is expected to further decline from 20 percent to 17 percent. Meanwhile, natural gas generation is expected to remain unchanged.

Despite the encouraging news, some energy experts say the uptick in renewables still isn’t fast enough. On Tuesday, the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization, announced that global annual investments in renewables need to more than quadruple to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The assessment echoes the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s top climate science body, which called for a rapid scale-down of greenhouse gas emissions largely produced from fossil fuels. 

Melissa Lott, director of research for the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told the Associated Press that the $369 billion in clean energy spending authorized by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act should have a “tremendous” impact on further accelerating domestic renewable energy growth. But to reach that potential, the U.S. may need new policies to remove hurdles that stand in the way of building new clean energy infrastructure. 

In the United States, rapid deployment of renewable energy has been hindered by practical barriers including delays in connecting projects to aging electric grids. At the end of 2021, thousands of wind, solar, and battery storage projects were waiting to connect to grids across the country. According to data from the Department of Energy, less than 20 percent of wind and solar projects waiting to be connected are successfully completed. And even when projects are approved, developers often discover they need to pay for new transmission lines to deliver power to residents and businesses. Those transmission lines often face further permitting delays.

“It doesn’t matter how cheap the clean energy is,” Spencer Nelson, the managing director of research at the nonprofit ClearPath Foundation, recently told the New York Times. “If developers can’t get through the interconnection process quickly enough and get enough steel in the ground, we won’t hit our climate change goals.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline US renewable power surged ahead of coal for the first time last year on Mar 29, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The ghost of Tulare Lake returns, flooding California’s Central Valley

Tue, 03/28/2023 - 03:45

When American settlers arrived in California 150 years ago, the sprawling Central Valley was home to the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. Tulare Lake expanded each spring as rain and melting snow filled the valley, growing so large that fisherfolk could sail across its surface to catch terrapin for San Francisco restaurants. But the land barons who took over the region soon drained the lake and covered it in crops, helping make it one of the nation’s most productive agricultural hubs.

Now, as California closes out a historically wet winter, Tulare Lake has reappeared for the first time since 1997. As runoff from several rivers drains into the valley, the homes and streets and fields that sit on the lake bed, which covers 1,000 square miles, are being inundated once again. The flooding will only increase over the next few months as the state’s record snowpack melts, dousing the area with the equivalent of 60 inches of rain.

Tulare Lake has always emerged during especially wet years, but the flooding will be worse this time: the region’s powerful agriculture industry has compounded flood risk around the lake by pumping enormous amounts of subterranean groundwater, turning the region into a giant bowl. Farmers overdraw the basin’s aquifer by around 820,000 acre-feet per year, far more water than Los Angeles consumes over the same period, and this pumping has caused the southern Central Valley to sink faster than almost any other place in the world.

Subsidence is occurring throughout California, but the problem is at its worst in the area around Tulare Lake, which is about 200 miles north of L.A. Some cities near the lake bed have sunk by as much as 11 feet over the past half-century. That rapid decline makes homes and crops in the basin much more vulnerable to flooding than when the lake last appeared 35 years ago. What’s more, the levees and channels that control flooding are getting less effective as the land around them subsides.

“Tulare Lake is playing Russian Roulette with flooding, and they just lost,” said Deirdre Des Jardins, an independent researcher and consultant who has studied flood risk in the Central Valley. “Water is flowing differently because of the subsidence, and they don’t have any kind of flood management.”

An 1873 map of California showing the former boundaries of Tulare Lake. Early American settlers drained the lake and planted crops on the dried lake bed. David Rumsey Map Collection

Even as flood risk has grown due to subsidence, local leaders have rejected the state’s attempts to finance new flood defenses. When California began to draft a statewide flood protection plan after Hurricane Katrina, many counties and flood control districts in the agriculture-dominated Tulare Lake basin declined to participate, denying themselves state funding for new levees and bypass systems.

“The local interests who were there at those meetings were pretty adamant that they did not want to be part of a state level plan,” said Julie Rentner, president of the California-based environmental organization River Partners, who participated in the drafting of the plan. “They felt like they had it under control. Especially in some of the more conservative parts of California, there’s a real concern and real suspicion that the state intervening in the way water is managed will have deleterious impacts on local communities or local economy.” 

In other cities, like Sacramento, the state spent billions to improve a network of levees and channels that helps manage runoff, but the Tulare Lake basin has no centralized flood infrastructure at all. Tulare County last updated its flood control master plan in 1972, when land in the area was several feet higher. The only levees in the lake bed are those owned and maintained by local flood control districts, which often lack the capital to make significant improvements. Those structure seem all but certain to fail as the lake reappears over the coming weeks, and some already have. 

The officials charged with managing groundwater around Tulare Lake have also resisted the state’s attempts to control the pace of subsidence. Earlier this month, state officials chastised a group of local groundwater control agencies for failing to set “minimum thresholds and measurable objectives” for countering subsidence as required by state law. The agencies had said they wanted to limit the region’s subsidence to between 1 and 2 feet over 20 years, a number so high state officials thought it was a typo.

(Groundwater agencies and flood control districts that represent the Tulare Lake area didn’t immediately respond to interview requests.)

A flood map produced by Kings County, California, shows the former outline of Tulare Lake. The lake has emerged after a series of atmospheric rivers struck California. Kings County Office of Emergency Management

Much of the land on the lake bed is owned by J.G. Boswell, an agricultural company founded by the famous land baron of the same name. Boswell is one of the titans of the Central Valley, and has long been among the largest private farming operations in the world — it grows cotton, tomatoes, wheat, and a variety of other staples on fertile land that used to be underwater. The company maintains pumps and flood cells to protect its crop from inundation, but many of its fields will likely flood later this spring.

But it’s not just farmland that stands to flood. The Tulare Lake basin is home to half a dozen small towns, including Allensworth, the oldest town in California founded by Black people, and Corcoran, which houses a large state prison and a large population of agricultural laborers. Due to the pace of subsidence, these towns grow more vulnerable to flooding with every passing year, and some have already taken on several feet of water this year. Earlier in March, someone sliced a hole in a barrier along a local creek, flooding most of Allensworth.

A vehicle surrounded by flood waters and flooded farmland near Allensworth, California. Much of the surrounding area has flooded as Tulare Lake reappears. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Few people in these towns have flood insurance. Corcoran, one of the largest cities on the lake bed, has a population of around 22,000, but only five of its households participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. Furthermore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t updated federal flood maps to account for the past decade of subsidence, so many residents in flood zones may not even be aware of the risk they face. 

The worst is yet to come. Snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada is almost triple the size of an average year’s, and warming weather will send the equivalent of 60 inches of rain toward Tulare Lake. That water will stick around for months or even years; as the lake grows, flooding could expand north toward the city of Fresno more than 40 miles away, putting thousands of homes and farms at risk. The lake bed also contains facilities like a sewage sludge composting plant that could leak or rupture as the area fills with water.

The result is a brutal irony. Draining Tulare Lake made it possible for the agricultural industry to thrive in the southern Central Valley, but that same industry has made the region more vulnerable than ever as the lake returns.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The ghost of Tulare Lake returns, flooding California’s Central Valley on Mar 28, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

A spill outside Philadelphia adds to the growing list of chemical accidents this year

Mon, 03/27/2023 - 15:23

A spill at a factory outside Philadelphia that sent thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Delaware River has sparked worries among the area’s residents over a major source of drinking water. One of the chemicals in the spill — butyl acrylate — was also on the 50-car train that derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, which spewed toxic fumes into the air as it burned for days.

The company that owns the chemical plant, Trinseo, estimated that 8,100 gallons of a latex finishing solution, a white paint-like substance, flowed into Otter Creek, a Delaware River tributary about a dozen miles upstream of a treatment plant that provides drinking water for more than a million people in and around Philadelphia. 

Exposure to high levels of butyl acrylate can cause skin irritation, headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Philadelphia officials at first told residents they might want to drink and cook with bottled water as a precaution, then changed tune on Sunday saying that tests showed no signs of contamination in the water supply intake and that tap water would be safe to drink at least through Monday evening. Workers stopped taking in river water at the treatment plant for most of the weekend but said they would need to bump up the water supply periodically to keep the plant operating.  

The accident occurred not only in a watershed long affected by industrial pollution, but also on the heels of the disastrous spill in East Palestine, which has prompted heightened scrutiny of chemical makers and railroad companies like Norfolk Southern, owner of the train that derailed in Ohio last month. Only three months into the year, there have already been 50 incidents resulting in chemical spills or fires around the United States, according to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Such incidents occur roughly once every two days, the Guardian estimated in a recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data spanning several years. 

Across the country, there is a “significant risk” of spills getting into drinking water, according to an EPA report, but most such events receive little notice. “Because releases to the environment are under-reported, there is no definitive assessment of the number or impact of releases to water,” the report said. 

Despite assurances from local officials, people in Philadelphia flocked to buy bottled water on Sunday, forming long lines and clearing shelves at stores. “We cannot be 100 percent sure that there won’t be traces of these chemicals in the tap water throughout the afternoon,” Michael Carroll, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for transportation, infrastructure and sustainability, said in a statement Sunday morning. Several hours later, at a news briefing, officials said the spill hadn’t contaminated the city’s water supply and that rushing to buy bottled water wasn’t necessary. “If you want to store water, you should feel free to draw it from your tap, store it in a bottle, you can put in a pitcher, put it in your fridge,” Carroll said at the briefing.

Prior to the spill, some grocery store chains in the region had stopped selling water — including some gallon jugs from Giant Eagle and Acadia Spring Water — that had been bottled near East Palestine, citing an abundance of caution and ongoing tests for contamination following the train crash. Other supermarkets have continued to stock the water. (A scientist told Time it’s unlikely the bottled water is contaminated given its distance, 25 miles, from East Palestine.)  

According to Trinseo, an “equipment failure” caused the spill outside Philadelphia. The 2021 EPA report found equipment failure as the leading cause of chemical spills or unpermitted discharges nationwide — responsible for 49 percent of the total volume released into the environment between 2010 and 2019.

In addition to butyl acrylate, two other toxic chemicals — ethyl acrylate and methyl methacrylate — were in the solution that got into Otter Creek. Officials will continue testing the city water supply through the week, Carroll said at the briefing Sunday. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A spill outside Philadelphia adds to the growing list of chemical accidents this year on Mar 27, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

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. 

Read Next How disaster relief leaves Kentucky’s landslide victims behind &

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. 

Read Next As private weather forecasting takes off, who is left behind?

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


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