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The world’s healthiest forests are on Indigenous land. Here’s why.

Fri, 10/28/2022 - 03:00

The world’s healthiest, most biodiverse, and most resilient forests are located on protected Indigenous lands. That’s according to a new study that suggests that protecting Indigenous and human rights is not only compatible with climate conservation goals, but key to future efforts.

“The combined positive effects of state legislation and Indigenous presence in protected-Indigenous areas may contribute to maintaining tropical forest integrity,” the authors write in Current Biology. “Understanding management and governance in protected-Indigenous areas can help states to appropriately support community-governed lands.”

Years of research has shown that Indigenous peoples are the world’s best land stewards and a crucial part of protecting biodiversity. Indigenous land contains 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity of which nearly a quarter is managed by Indigenous people. According to a 2020 paper, 47 percent of threatened mammals live on, and are protected by, Indigenous land and management. When Indigenous peoples are given legal and financial support for land management, the results benefit the world

There is also strong evidence contradicting popular international theories that the best way to protect land is by keeping people away from it. In Brazil, researchers found that granting Indigenous property rights significantly reduces deforestation while another study examined 12,000 years of population data and land use and found that around 75 percent of terrestrial nature was shaped by human involvement. “Current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies,” researchers wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Forests, which are home to more than 80 percent of terrestrial plants and animals, store carbon, and provide economic and social benefits, are a key defense against climate change. Indigenous lands cover about a quarter of the world’s surface and overlap with roughly a third of the world’s forests. Because of the crucial role that forests play globally, protecting them is a key part of international climate goals. But despite clear evidence that Indigenous peoples must play a central role in these efforts, they are often left out of conservation plans that restrict access to lands, allow extractive industry to move in, or face eviction or violence from state or eco-security guards to create wildlife reserves. 

“Pursuing global targets without due attention to power imbalances among local governance actors often results in social inequity and failed environmental objectives,” the Current Biology paper reads. Researchers assessed forest integrity, which is a metric that evaluates the overall health of a forest, including its ability to store carbon, sustain biodiversity, preserve ecosystems, and provide social benefits. 

The study in Current Biology found over two-thirds of high integrity forests have some human population and only 17.2 percent of the lands studied were wildlands: areas without any humans. Most of those high-integrity forests in Asia and Africa were landscapes shaped at least in part by humans. Despite these results and other research highlighting the efficacy of Indigenous land management, global conservation efforts still prioritize fortress conservation tactics, a conservation practice which holds that humans must be absent in order for biodiversity to thrive. 

These tactics, which include violent evictions, murder, and other human rights abuses, have taken place on Indigenous lands around the world by conservation organizations and governments. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is home to high-integrity forest mentioned in the study, Indigenous Batwa have faced years of brutal violence removing them from their forest lands. “Safeguards are needed to ensure that communities who have not contributed to damaging ecosystems, or who may be actively contributing to protecting ecosystem integrity, are not harmed in the process of securing conservation outcomes,” the study reads. 

One surprising finding is that In Asia and the Americas, Indigenous lands that were not protected had the lowest integrity of all territory studied. For example, in Indonesia, a Human Rights Watch report found that palm oil companies failed to properly consult with Indigenous peoples, destroyed the forest, and burned down villages. Indonesia legally recognizes Indigenous rights, but in practice those protections are not applied to individual Indigenous groups and communities. According to the Human Rights Watch report, Indigenous people still live within the palm oil plantation, meaning that even though most of their land has been stolen and deforested, the broader area could be considered non-protected Indigenous land. 

“In a lot of Asia, Indigenous lands and Indigenous rights are not recognized. So, while an area may be categorized as traditionally Indigenous, Indigenous people may not have control over the land,” said Jocelyne Sze, the report’s lead author. “Also, because lots of minerals, oil, and gas deposits are often found within Indigenous lands, it’s not surprising that those lands are often really exploited.”

In Africa, lack of legal recognition of their status and rights also prevents Indigenous peoples from accessing their land, practicing their traditions, and enjoying their human rights. In the United Republic of Tanzania, Indigenous Maasai have been violently evicted from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. But the Tanzanian government does not recognize Indigenous peoples, which limits the Maasai’s legal options for recourse. 

The report highlights the ways that Indigenous peoples can enhance forest integrity, including by resisting extractive industries and agribusiness, as well as planting trees that help create complex forest structures. A 2021 report revealed that Indigenous activism stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equal to a quarter of total U.S. and Canadian emissions. To amplify those efforts, Indigenous communities need more direct funding, legal support, and freedom to manage their land.

The authors suggest protected areas that allow for Indigenous land management, funding programs like a conservation basic income to incentivize conservation over extractive industry, and for states to work with Indigenous communities to establish protections for lands and territories.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world’s healthiest forests are on Indigenous land. Here’s why. on Oct 28, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: Global climate ambitions still fall short ahead of COP27

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 04:00

Last November, world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26, the United Nations’ annual climate conference, to negotiate a new pact to keep global warming at bay. Although many countries had scaled up their commitments to cut emissions prior to the meeting, officials at the conference determined that these plans were still not ambitious enough to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The final pact from COP26 called on United Nations members to “revisit and strengthen” their strategies.

But one year later, as officials gear up for another round of talks at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, next month, little has changed. On Thursday, the United Nations’ Environment Programme published its annual “Emissions Gap Report,” which found that nations’ current climate plans, if fully implemented, would not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, this century — the ambitious target set down in the Paris Agreement. 

“There’s been a bit of a plateau in the progress that we were seeing in the lead-up to Glasgow,” said Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow at the nonprofit World Resources Institute and a lead author of the report. “Globally, the state of progress has really slowed down in an alarming way.”

In order to have a chance at 1.5 degrees C, global emissions must drop 45 percent by 2030. But countries’ current plans — which are called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, in the parlance of international climate talks — will only cut emissions by 5 to 10 percent by that date, according to the report. It found that the updated NDCs submitted to the U.N. after COP26 shaved off less than 1 percent of projected emissions. If all plans were implemented, the world would still heat up by 2.4 to 2.6 degrees C (4.3 to 4.7 degrees F). Scientists estimate that at 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), more than a third of the global population could experience extreme heat waves at least once every five years, coral reefs could decline by 99 percent, and sea levels could rise nearly 3 feet.

Grist / Jessie Blaeser

The chasm between NDCs and the Paris Agreement’s goals is not the only “emissions gap” the report highlights. Many countries don’t even have policies in place to execute their commitments. Existing policies put the world on a path closer to 2.8 degrees C (5 degrees F) of warming.

“Every fraction of a degree matters,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, in a press release, “to vulnerable communities, to species and ecosystems, and to every one of us.”

Though many countries aren’t matching their words with actions, the United States is no longer one of the major culprits. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August, the U.S. now has a more credible path to achieving its NDC of cutting emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. This one piece of legislation will cut global 2030 emissions by about 1 gigaton — a billion metric tons — according to the report. “A gigaton is big. A gigaton is around a fifth of total annual U.S. emissions,” said Fransen. 

Before the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. was viewed with skepticism by the international community due to a history of abandoning international treaties like the Paris Agreement, which former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of, and an earlier climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. signed but never ratified. Fransen said the new law “says to the international community, ‘We’re serious about this, we’ve passed legislation,’ which we’ve never done before.”

The emissions gap report names three key actions the world must take to get on track: avoid building new fossil fuel infrastructure that will lock in emissions for decades to come, advance and implement zero-carbon technologies, and pursue behavioral changes like more sustainable diets and energy-saving habits.

While the report’s long-term forecast does not look much better than it did a year ago, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The report did not account for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has scrambled the international energy landscape. 

It’s unclear yet whether the result will be net good for the climate. In an attempt to cripple Russia’s economy, the European Union has reduced its imports of Russian oil and gas and announced intentions to turn off the tap altogether over the next several years. The transition to renewable energy, which can be produced locally, has become a matter of energy security. Europe has ramped up its climate ambitions with proposals to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency targets and install millions of electric heat pumps to replace gas heating systems in buildings.

At the same time, European countries are burning more coal and looking to import natural gas from Senegal, Algeria, and other African nations, financing fossil fuel development across the continent. The U.S. is also ramping up natural gas exports to Europe. The emissions gap report notes that early assessments estimate that investments in fossil fuel projects increased this year. 

If that’s the case, it’s evidence of a key inhibitor to climate action, according to the authors. Investment in climate mitigation needs to increase by a factor of three to five. The financial system — banks, institutional investors, and the public institutions that regulate them — remains focused on short-term profit and is not accounting for long-term climate risks. In order to change that, the report says financial institutions need better information about climate risks. It also calls for policymakers to step in, both by making polluters pay for their emissions and by incentivizing financial actors to invest in a low-carbon economy.

“We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” said Andersen.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: Global climate ambitions still fall short ahead of COP27 on Oct 27, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Tax the rich for climate action? Protect towns from floods? It’s on state ballots this November.

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 03:45

For years, with climate bills stalled in Congress, advocates, community groups, nonprofits, and even businesses have relied on ballot initiatives — where citizens vote on new laws alongside new candidates — to push forward environmental action at the state and local levels. In 2020, Michigan voters approved a proposal to use money from oil leases on public lands to fund parks. Two years earlier, Nevada passed the first step of a constitutional amendment requiring utilities to source 50 percent of energy from renewables by 2030, and Florida voted to ban offshore oil and gas drilling in state waters. 

There are fewer climate measures on ballots this time around, but the ones that are up for a vote these midterms are big, mainly New York’s Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022 and California Proposition 30, which aims to fund zero-emissions vehicles and wildfire prevention. A smaller $50 million environment and recreation bond measure in Rhode Island would fund municipal climate resiliency.

“It’s unusual for there not to be more [state-level] environmental ballot initiatives,” said Nick Abraham, state communications director at the League of Conservation Voters, “but hopefully it’s a sign of progress.”

If passed, the initiatives in New York and California would marshal billions of dollars for new climate action in two of the U.S.’s most populous states. They would also serve as models for other parts of the country looking to develop their own strategies. 

As voters prepare to head to the polls November 8, we’re breaking down these major ballot measures — and others — that have the potential to significantly advance climate progress in the U.S.:

Construction workers build a system of walls and flood gates to protect New York City from rising sea levels. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images New York: The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Bond Act of 2022

New York passed its first environmental bond act in 1910, borrowing money to establish a network of state parks. Since then, voters in the state have approved 10 ballot measures to fund environmental projects, from improving wastewater infrastructure to addressing the impacts of pollution on public health. The 2022 Bond Act would be the first one in over 25 years — and the largest in state history. 

The measure got its start in 2020, when former Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed the “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act,” which would have allowed the state comptroller to sell up to $3 billion in state bonds to revitalize fish and wildlife habitat, expand renewable energy, and protect the state from floods. Cuomo withdrew the act over economic concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s back for the 2022 midterms, this time with a new, more sober name and an amendment by Governor Kathy Hochul to increase the amount to $4.2 billion. 

The stakes: 

The Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Bond Act would fund environmental projects in four major areas: At least $1.1 billion would go to ecosystem restoration and reducing flood risk, including coastal rehabilitation and voluntary buyout programs, in a state where hurricane frequency and severity is only expected to increase. Up to $650 million would fund land conservation and recreation, including farmland preservation. Up to $1.5 billion would go to climate change mitigation, including funding for zero-emission school buses and strategies to reduce urban heat. And at least another $650 million would go to water quality improvements and climate resilient infrastructure.

The measure would also require that 35 percent of the funds be spent in “disadvantaged communities,” currently defined by a state Climate Justice Working Group using variables like high exposure to flooding, extreme heat, and pollution, and socio-economic factors like race, ethnicity, and income. An economic impact analysis of the act found that it could create or support 84,000 jobs statewide.

Its chances of passing: 

With such a wide span of initiatives supported by the proposition, and investments right in people’s backyards, campaigners say it’s likely that this bill will pass. A broad coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, farmers, land trusts, and government organizations have come together in favor of the ballot measure, raising over seven figures. The biggest donors are The Nature Conservancy and Scenic Hudson.

“New Yorkers will vote yes on this one,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “We just need to make sure they know it’s there.”  

While the New York State Conservative Party has opposed the measure, there’s no organized opposition, which bodes well for the future of climate funding in New York State.

An electric vehicle charging station in Los Angeles, California. Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images California: Proposition 30

California originally had two climate ballot initiatives this year, but a measure to reduce single-use plastics was withdrawn at the last minute after stakeholders negotiated a bill achieving many of the same goals. Now all that’s left is Proposition 30, which would raise taxes for California’s wealthiest residents to fund EV adoption and wildfire fighting. The measure has found unlikely bedfellows: some of the same labor unions that clashed with rideshare companies in 2020 over a proposition to classify drivers as contractors with limited benefits have now teamed up with Lyft in support of Prop 30. 

The stakes: 

The proposition would increase the income tax for people making over $2 million a year by 1.75 percent for a 20-year period (or until three years after statewide emissions drop to 80 percent of 1990 levels.) The money generated — an estimated $3.5 to $5 billion a year — would go to three areas: 

A zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure fund would receive 35 percent to build charging stations, and another 45 percent would go to rebates and other incentives for electric vehicle purchases, with at least half of all EV-related money being spent in low-income communities. The last 20 percent would go to a fund for wildfire prevention and suppression, with a priority on hiring and training new state wildland firefighters.

Its chances of passing: 

Proposition 30 is the standout contested measure on the California ballot, and while so far the majority of voters support it, it’s uncertain how the final tally will shake out. 

A string of environmental, labor, and public health organizations including the American Lung Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, firefighter groups, electrician unions, and even actress and environmentalist Jane Fonda have supported the proposition. They argue that it would help reduce air pollution from wildfires and gas-powered cars, and that the wealthiest individuals in the state should pay. The California Democratic Party endorsed the initiative, as did the controversial rideshare company Lyft.

In September, Governor Gavin Newsom paced around in a television ad telling Californians, “I gotta warn ya” about Proposition 30. He called it “[Lyft’s]’s sinister scheme to grab a huge taxpayer funded subsidy.” Rideshare companies, by law, will have to log 90 percent of their miles in electric vehicles by 2030 to meet California’s Clean Miles Standard. Lyft has spent over $45 million to support the proposition so far, although Prop 30 supporters point out that revenue from the tax would go to the same electric vehicle programs that Newsom funds with his own budget. Plus the EV incentives would go to Lyft drivers to buy cars, not directly to the company itself.

Newsom’s break with his own party to come out against the measure gave a boost to opponents, including the state Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce, three large timber companies that make money on wildfire salvage, and the California Teachers Association, which would like to see more money go to schools. Besides calling it a Lyft tax grab, opponents argue that with the state’s recent $10 billion investment in EV goals and a budget surplus of over $90 billion, California doesn’t need to raise taxes. Newsom has expressed concerns that the proposition would destabilize California’s tax revenue, which relies heavily on high-income earners. But a report released in early October shows the measure could help the state make major strides towards meeting its climate goals while supporting middle- and low-income residents.  

The No on Proposition 30 committee has raised around $15 million in contributions, mostly from wealthy individuals who would be most likely to pay the new tax. On the other side, the Yes on 30 coalition is a broad and powerful one; although support has been slowly slipping in the polls over the past few months, an early October poll from the University of California, Berkeley found 49 percent of voters support the measure, 37 percent oppose, and 14 percent are still undecided. 

Read Next Democrats and the endless pursuit of climate legislation Other ballot measures to watch:

In Rhode Island, voters will be deciding on Question 3, a $50 million environment and recreation bond measure that would fund small business energy loans, watershed and forest restoration, and land acquisition. The bulk of the money, $16 million, however, would go to municipal climate resilience, helping communities improve coastal habitats and floodplains and strengthen infrastructure.

In most states, bonds that create public debt have to be brought before voters. Rhode Islanders haven’t rejected a bond measure since 2006, and have approved 29 since then. With no formal opposition, and a supporting coalition that includes political leaders, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, and various conservation groups, this one is likely to pass.   

While there aren’t many state climate ballot initiatives to watch this year, local ballots are a different story. No organization tracks all environmental initiatives at the county and city level, but the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote Database lists 58 land conservation and park measures on local ballots across the U.S. That number does not include initiatives to reduce emissions or adapt to climate change without a land-based component. 

In Cochise and Graham counties in Arizona, Wilcox Basin residents will vote on new restrictions on large groundwater wells; a yes vote would mark a new precedent of a rural community restricting its own water use and successfully regulating large-scale farms. In Denver, voters will revisit a landmark 2020 initiative to increase sales taxes by .25 percent to fund climate action; they’ll also weigh in on a requirement for all buildings and food waste producers to provide recycling and composting. A local tax measure in Los Angeles would generate $227 million annually to prioritize the creation of parks and recreation spaces in areas lacking access to greenspace. In Illinois, a proposed county tax increase on the ballot would be used to establish forest preserves in Chicago’s southeastern suburbs.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. “This year we’re seeing a lot more equity initiatives,” said Andy Orellana, associate communications director at the Trust for Public Land. While there will still be a need to ensure funds are spent equitably and correctly, Orellana sees it as a hopeful sign of progress. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Tax the rich for climate action? Protect towns from floods? It’s on state ballots this November. on Oct 27, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The US is finally ready to discuss climate reparations. But is it ready to act?

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 03:30

At a New York Times event last month, Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry caused a stir when he appeared to dismiss the notion that the U.S. would compensate other countries for the loss and damage they’ve already suffered at the hands of climate change. He told the audience that it’s more important to focus on preventing future climate change and adapting to a warmer world than it is to provide restitution for the harm already done.

Loss and damage, which is the term international climate negotiators use for the detrimental effects of the 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming that has already taken place globally, is estimated to cost anywhere between $290 and $580 billion per year by 2030. Kerry essentially argued that the price tag was too high for even rich countries to shoulder, nevermind their outsized contributions to climate change so far. (The U.S. alone is responsible for 20 percent of historic carbon emissions.)

“You tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, ‘cause that’s what it costs,” he said. 

But just a month later, Kerry appears to be changing his tune — if only slightly. Earlier this week, he told reporters that the U.S. will not be “obstructing” talks on loss and damage at COP27, this year’s iteration of the annual United Nations climate change conference.

“How do you do this in a way that actually produces money, gets a system in place? We’re totally in favor of that,” he said of his country’s position on loss-and-damage-related funding.

For the first time ever, the U.S. appears to be willing to discuss financial arrangements that could compensate other countries for loss and damage. Kerry’s recent comments are in line with statements by other senior administration officials, who told reporters last week that the U.S. is ready to engage in negotiations related to loss and damage funding. These statements come at a time of mounting pressure from developing countries and civil society groups, increased media attention, and high-profile climate-change-fueled disasters, like recent floods that left a third of Pakistan’s land area underwater.

The statements mark a measurable shift in the U.S. position — but one that might not lead to tangible progress on the issue. While the rhetoric may sound conciliatory at a time when the clamor for loss and damage funding is louder than ever before, the statements by senior officials appear carefully calibrated to leave room for U.S. negotiators to slow-walk the issue at COP27, which will take place next month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Specifically, U.S. officials have expressed a preference for using existing United Nations channels designed to discuss loss and damage — even though those channels were carefully designed (largely at the behest of the U.S.) to guarantee discussion alone, rather than concrete measures. They also appear to want to discuss using established international funding streams that were built for a wide variety of climate-related issues, rather than acquiescing to developing nations’ demand to set up a new fund dedicated solely to loss and damage. Finally, the U.S. appears to be attempting to define loss and damage in a broad way that focuses largely on the future effects of climate change, rather than the damage that’s already been done and won’t be avoided in the future. That definition could sever the term from its widely-understood connection with climate reparations.

As a result, the seemingly new U.S. position on loss and damage may not be all that different from its past approaches. Worried that recognizing loss and damage might open up a Pandora’s box of unlimited liability for the country, the U.S. has historically used its bully pulpit to water down or completely shut down discussion of the loss and damage faced by developing countries. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of leading climate experts from around the world, was finalizing a report on the effects of climate change last year, the U.S. opposed any reference to “loss and damage,” arguing instead that the more generic term “impacts” be used. And at international talks in Bonn, Switzerland, this summer, the U.S. argued against a new financial mechanism to tackle loss and damage, insisting that existing financial structures could be used instead. 

“The U.S. has been dragging its feet and did not even want to acknowledge the issue,” said Harjeet Singh, the head of global political strategy at the Climate Action Network, an international coalition of more than 1,800 environmental groups. “Loss and damage is a report card of 30 years of inaction.”

On the call last week, senior administration officials made clear that they were still not ready to support a new funding stream for loss and damage. Over the years, several climate funds have been set up to channel money to developing countries for infrastructure projects that will help them lower emissions and adapt to climate change. The most prominent of these funds is the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which was established as a result of a 2010 promise by developed countries to provide $100 billion each year to developing countries. Other funds include the Adaptation Fund and the Global Environment Facility, which were established more than two decades ago to help developing countries adapt to climate change and tackle various environmental challenges, respectively.

But none of these funds specifically compensate countries for the loss and damage they are facing as a result of how much the world has already warmed. For years, developing nations have argued that the scale and complexity of the issue requires a separate targeted fund that can quickly deploy resources when climate-change-fueled disasters hit, while also being able to respond to slow-onset events such as sea-level rise. Developing countries want to  prevent new funding efforts from taking money away from pre-existing measures, and stop them from being delivered in the form of loans that would saddle the countries with unsustainable debt.

Senior administration officials told reporters directly that it’s premature to say the U.S. will support a separate fund. They said instead that the U.S. is interested in looking at a variety of financial solutions that could compensate countries for loss and damage, including existing funds such as the Adaptation Fund and GCF. Officials also said they wanted to spend the next two years identifying the gaps in loss and damage funding and figuring out how to bridge them. 

Ironically, previous efforts by other nations to repurpose existing funds for loss and damage have been met with U.S. opposition. At COP25 in 2019, Michai Robertson, a negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, led the charge to restructure the GCF to include funding for loss and damage. But that effort went nowhere as a result of opposition from the U.S. and other developed countries. 

“They completely rejected it,” Robertson said. “To say that we can’t have it in the GCF one time, and then to say, ‘Oh no, but we can’t have it outside of the GCF the next,’ it’s like, then where? What do you want us to do?”  

U.S. officials also want the COP27 conversation on loss and damage to be contained within the parameters of the Glasgow Dialogue, a meager agreement between developing and wealthy nations “to discuss the arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize, and address loss and damage.” The Dialogue was a concession that developing nations agreed to at the end of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, after their demand for a separate funding stream was shot down by the U.S. and other wealthy nations. 

The Dialogue requires that countries meet once a year until June 2024 to discuss various approaches that could be taken to tackle loss and damage. It’s a one-off process that doesn’t require that the countries actually agree on any specific outcomes. Robertson attended the first of those meetings, which took place in June of this year, and said that it consisted of a three-day workshop that included breakout groups and presentations from experts.

“Dialogues are dialogues,” said Robertson. “They talk to one another, and they don’t have a mandate necessarily to come up with a solution. It’s a workshop. It’s a really hard modality to actually come to something that is concrete.”

Given the limitations of the annual Dialogue, Singh argued that it’s “shameful that the U.S. is saying that the Glasgow Dialogue is sufficient.”

“We will not be able to solve the climate crisis by just talking about it,” he said. “It’s really, really unfortunate that the U.S. is only interested in talking and not providing any actual support to people.”

Even beyond containing loss and damage discussions within the Glasgow Dialogue, administration officials appear to be trying to water down the definition of the term “loss and damage” itself. U.S. officials often emphasize that they want to “avert, minimize, and address” loss and damage, while representatives from developing nations primarily talk about how to “address” loss and damage. The distinction is a crucial one. In this context, “avert” and “minimize” are synonyms for climate mitigation and adaptation, respectively. The former refers to efforts taken to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions spewed into the atmosphere, and the latter refers to strategies aimed at managing the effects of climate change. 

To be sure, both mitigation and adaptation can help reduce loss and damage from climate change. But the deliberate use of the “averting and minimizing” language is an attempt to shift the focus away from funding for existing loss and damage and retrain it on mitigation and adaptation for the future, according to Singh and Robertson. 

At the recent New York Times event, Kerry said “the most important thing that we can do is stop, mitigate enough that we prevent loss and damage. And the next most important thing we can do is help people adapt to the damage that’s already there.” Senior administration officials reiterated that point on the call last week. 

“Every mitigation project and every adaptation project that you look at, you can potentially look at it through the lens of loss and damage,” said Robertson. While he acknowledged the interlinkages between adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage response, Robertson said the U.S. and other developed countries are muddying the waters by using language that emphasizes the need to “avert and minimize” loss and damage. “It’s been a lot of linguistic acrobatics,” he said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The US is finally ready to discuss climate reparations. But is it ready to act? on Oct 27, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

How sunken basketball courts could protect New Yorkers from the next Superstorm Sandy

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 03:30

Almost every time it rains in New York City, the grounds of the South Jamaica Houses start to flood. As the storm drain system overflows, water collects across the sprawling public housing development in southeast Queens. Before long, floodwater pools up on the basketball court and in the yard behind the senior center. If it rains for more than a few hours, the water starts to slosh over streets and courtyards. These aren’t the monumental floods that make national headlines, but they make basic mobility a challenge for the complex’s roughly 3,000 residents. Sometimes the water doesn’t drain for days or weeks.

“It happens all the time,” said William Biggs, 66, who has lived in the development for 35 years. He gestured at the basketball court, which is cracked and eroded in places. “It pools all the way through the court, all the way back toward the buildings, all along that wall there. And the reason is that we don’t have any drainage. The storm drains don’t work.”

“If you put some fish in there, you could go fishing,” added Biggs’ friend Tommy Foddrell, who has lived in the development for around two decades.

That decrepit basketball court will soon become a centerpiece of New York City’s efforts to adapt to the severe rainfall caused by climate change. In the years to come, construction crews will sink the court several feet lower into the ground and add tiers of benches on either side. During major rainstorms, the sunken stadium will act as an impromptu reservoir for water that would otherwise flood the development.

The project will be able to hold 200,000 gallons of water before it overflows, and it will release that water into the sewer system slowly through a series of underground pipes, preventing the system from backing up as it does today. Just down the block, work crews will carve out another seating area arranged around a central flower garden. That project will hold an additional 100,000 gallons of water.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which struck New York City 10 years ago this month, the city spent billions of dollars to strengthen its coastline against future hurricanes. Sandy had slammed into the city’s southern shoreline with 14 feet of storm surge, inundating coastal neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island. The city’s biggest climate adaptation goal in the years that followed was to make sure that these coastal neighborhoods were prepared for the next storm surge event. 

But the next Sandy turned out to be a very different kind of storm. In September of last year, the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped almost 10 inches of rain on New York City, including three inches in a single hour. Rather than indundating the city’s shoreline, the storm dumped heaps of rain on inland neighborhoods, overwhelming neighborhood sewer systems and filling up streets with water. The flooding killed 13 people, most of whom lived in below-ground apartments that didn’t typically see flooding.

Now the city is trying to retool its climate plans to be prepared for the intensified rainfall of the future. This time, the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, is at the heart of the effort. The South Jamaica Houses project is the first in a series of initiatives that will turn NYCHA developments into giant sponges, using the unique architecture of public housing to capture rainfall from so-called “cloudburst” events and prevent floods like those caused by Ida. Three of these projects are already in the works in three different boroughs, supported by a hodgepodge of federal money.

Adapting for cloudburst events is very different from adapting for storm surge. While the latter requires building large new infrastructure projects along the coastline, preparing for inland events like the former requires squeezing new water storage infrastructure into an already-crowded street grid. 

“There’s already a system to deal with stormwater in these neighborhoods — there’s a big stormwater sewer under the street,” said Marc Wouters, an architect whose firm helped design the South Jamaica Houses flood project. “But those are undersized for these bigger rain events that are coming.”

Even before Hurricane Ida, city officials had long been aware that cloudburst events could cause flooding even in landlocked neighborhoods. There just wasn’t much money to address that threat. The federal disaster relief system allocates most adaptation money to communities that have already suffered disasters, not communities trying to prepare for disasters that haven’t happened yet.

That meant that the vast majority of the money the city received after Superstorm Sandy went to protection against coastal storm surge: The city rebuilt massive sections of the Rockaway and Coney Island beaches, bought out whole neighborhoods on Staten Island, and charted an ambitious plan to surround Lower Manhattan with an artificial shoreline. That kind of money wasn’t available to protect against hypothetical cloudburst disasters.

But there was one city department that had already started to plan for stormwater flooding. A few years before Hurricane Ida, NYCHA had hired Wouters’s firm to hold a design workshop at South Jamaica Houses, interviewing residents about their flood problems. Those conversations led to the basketball court design, the city’s first major attempt to retrofit a public housing project for cloudburst flooding. It’s a strength of the project that it also promised to fix the dilapidated court: maintenance of the city’s public housing stock, which is home to well over 300,000 New Yorkers in all five boroughs, is notoriously behind schedule. Bundling long-desired repairs with climate adaptation promised to be a win-win.

“If you sink the basketball court into the ground and have it as a temporary collection pond, then it would justify rebuilding the basketball court,” said Wouters.

A rendering of the South Jamaica Houses cloudburst project in Queens. The development’s basketball court will catch and store rainwater. Courtesy Marc Wouters Studios

The South Jamaica project was cheap enough that it didn’t require a big federal grant, but NYCHA officials wanted to take the South Jamaica houses model to other housing projects. The authority’s climate adaptation study identified dozens of developments that were at high risk of stormwater flooding, but it didn’t have the money to replicate the South Jamaica project. Like most public housing authorities across the country, NYCHA often struggles to find the money for even basic capital repairs, thanks to a long decline in federal funding over several decades. Most of New York City’s climate adaptation money, meanwhile, was flowing toward coastal protection projects.

Luckily, the flooding from Hurricane Ida coincided with a rush of new federal spending on climate resilience. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, launched a new resilience grant program. The bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last year expanded that program as well as an existing disaster mitigation fund. The first tranche of this new funding became available just as New York City was reeling from Ida, and the city quickly grabbed two more grants to replicate the South Jamaica concept at a pair of public housing developments in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The two grants together total around $30 million. That won’t make a dent in the authority’s broader adaptation needs, but it’s a start.

During severe rainfall events, the city’s ordinary storm drain system fills up, and all the extra water starts to pool in the lowest-lying areas — a phenomenon known as “combined sewer overflow.” The task for designers like Wouters is to find a place to store excess water, whether above or below ground, before it filters into the storm drain system.

This looks a little different in every development. At Harlem’s Clinton Houses, one of two projects where NYCHA has secured a grant from FEMA, officials will have ample room to carve out a large “water square” like the one at the South Jamaica basketball court, as well as install underground basins where water can accumulate. These basins will be able to hold a combined 1.78 million gallons of water, slowly releasing it out into the East River so it doesn’t spill onto nearby streets. At Breukelen Houses in Brooklyn, underground storage isn’t an option: Because the housing complex is so close to the ocean, its water table sits just a few feet below street level, making it impossible to excavate new storage tanks. Designers will instead have to create natural water sinks above ground, perhaps by lining streets and walkways with thirsty grasses that trap water in their roots, making the whole development one big sponge.

These strategies are enabled by the fact that the average New York public housing project looks very different from a typical city neighborhood. Instead of mid-rise buildings on a grid of intersecting streets, a development like Clinton Houses consists of much taller towers arranged around central courtyards and walkways. There are no streets that allow cars to pass through, and the footprint of each building tends to be smaller.

This unique architecture is a blessing when it comes to flood resilience. Most NYCHA developments contain ample open space for water storage projects like the South Jamaica basketball court, allowing officials to look beyond the usual underground pipes and tanks. In addition to solving flood problems for NYCHA residents, these fixes can also help surrounding neighborhoods by catching water before it flows out onto other streets, reducing the total burden on a neighborhood’s storm drain system. In other neighborhoods, the city will have to settle for smaller-scale interventions like sidewalk rain gardens.

“NYCHA developments interrupt the street grid and create large amounts of green space within a dense urban environment, [and] are clustered in parts of the city where green space resources other than NYCHA developments are limited,” Nekoro Gomes, a spokesperson for the authority, told Grist. “For this reason, NYCHA’s campuses provide an opportunity for management of larger volumes of water than would be possible within the typical street grid configuration in the city.”

William Biggs stands on the basketball court at the South Jamaica Houses in New York City. The city plans to turn the court into a stormwater protection system. Jake Bittle / Grist

Still, there is a bitter irony in the post-Ida funding surge at NYCHA. The new federal money may help solve flooding issues at the developments that are lucky enough to get it, but it won’t solve the numerous other infrastructure issues that have plagued the developments. The authority has spent the past several years embroiled in a scandal over its attempts to conceal missed lead paint inspections, and the federal monitor assigned to supervise the authority has concluded that some 9,000 children are at risk of dangerous lead paint exposure. Dozens of boilers have also failed at agency projects in recent years, leaving thousands of residents to brave winter temperatures with no heating.

At South Jamaica Houses, stormwater flooding is far from the only issue. The development’s wastewater system is also prone to failure, and in 2015 it backed up and flooded the inside of buildings with fecal matter and sludge. Residents of the Clinton Houses, meanwhile, have suffered through outbreaks of toxic mold in recent years. Breukelen Houses residents have been pleading with the city to take action on gun violence that has claimed several lives in the development.

The authority’s extensive repair backlog is in part the result of a decrease in federal funding over the past several decades, but NYCHA officials have also made serious and wasteful mistakes, like working with shoddy contractors. The flood project in South Jamaica Houses might mitigate this shortfall by killing two birds with one stone, but it wouldn’t need to do so if NYCHA had been able to fix the basketball court in the first place.

“I don’t know if [grant money] is the only way to make those improvements, but it certainly is incredibly helpful,” said Wouters of the secondary benefits at a project like South Jamaica Houses. “And I think it becomes really an efficient use of federal dollars, because you’re spending each of those dollars to do multiple things.”

NYCHA’s new generation of flood projects will prepare some of its developments for an era of more intense rainfall, but they’ll only address one of many challenges that public housing residents face. In other words, there’s more than one kind of resilience, and NYCHA is far from equipped to tackle all of them.

Biggs, for his part, isn’t yet optimistic about the flood resilience project near his home at the South Jamaica Houses. He rattled off the a litany of the development’s other maintenance problems, like the doors that don’t lock and allow people who don’t live in the complex to wander in and out at will.

“Thirty-five years I’ve been here, and I’ve never heard of anything changing,” he said. He recalled the conversations around the basketball court plan, but he doesn’t think they will lead to anything tangible. “They always do a good dress-up, but they haven’t fixed shit yet.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How sunken basketball courts could protect New Yorkers from the next Superstorm Sandy on Oct 26, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Report: Human health is ‘at the mercy of fossil fuels’

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 03:15

Every year for the past seven years, the medical journal the Lancet has published a report summarizing the previous year’s research on how climate change is affecting human health around the globe. In 2020, the journal drew an exceedingly grim conclusion: that climate change threatens to unravel 50 years of public health gains. This year’s report, published Tuesday, is proof that the Lancet’s 2020 report wasn’t warning of a far-off threat — the health impacts of climate change are unfolding now, in real time. 

The 2022 report, titled “Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels,” says the worsening impacts of climate change “are increasingly affecting the foundations of human health and wellbeing.” 

Adults over the age of 65 and children younger than 1 year old experienced a cumulative 3.7 billion more heatwave days in 2021 than those vulnerable populations did on an average year between 1986 and 2005. Heat-related deaths spiked 68 percent between 2017 and 2021 compared to the period between 2000 and 2004. (The COVID-19 pandemic, which stressed hospitals and had a chilling effect on people seeking in-person treatment at emergency rooms and other healthcare facilities, is partially responsible for this massive increase.) Warming temperatures are fueling the rise of pathogens such as Vibrio, a deadly water-borne bacteria, and mosquito-driven illnesses like malaria and dengue. 

Health care facilities — hospitals, emergency rooms, and medical clinics — are the first line of defense for people afflicted by the health impacts of climate change, but that blockade has been stretched to a breaking point by the pandemic, leaving millions vulnerable. “Urgent action is therefore needed to strengthen health-system resilience and to prevent a rapidly escalating loss of lives and to prevent suffering in a changing climate,” the report said. 

The report’s assessment of the world’s progress on reducing the emissions that cause climate change is even more grim. The global economy is still powered by fossil fuels; renewables comprise just 8.2 percent of global electricity generation. Power demand has grown 59 percent, even though millions of people still don’t have access to reliable power, which adds to their overall health risk. (Case in point: Roughly 60 percent of health care facilities in developing nations don’t have access to the electricity they need in order to provide consistent care to sick people.)

And yet, oil and gas companies are posting record profits while governments continue to subsidize fossil fuels. 

“The world is at a critical juncture,” the report said. The lingering pandemic, rising inflation, and Russia’s war in Ukraine have created unstable global conditions that threaten to undo many nations’ climate commitments. If the world backslides now, the health-related costs of doing so will be astronomical. 

Though poor countries will bear the brunt of those costs, rich countries will not be immune to them. In the United States, the health impacts of rising temperatures and fossil fuel use, particularly air pollution and extreme heat, are already being felt. A policy brief written by experts from more than 80 U.S. institutions, published as an accompaniment to the Lancet report on Tuesday, illuminates the climate-related death toll in the U.S. The policy brief says that particulate matter air pollution — tiny airborne particles that can get trapped in the lungs and bloodstream — killed 32,000 people in the U.S. in 2020, and approximately 12,000 of those deaths, 37 percent, were directly linked to the burning of fossil fuels. 

Extreme heat is also on the rise in the U.S.; 2021 was the sixth-hottest year on record. It’s no surprise, then, that heat-related mortality has jumped 74 percent for people over the age of 65 in the U.S. since the period between 2000 and 2004. But the health impacts of rising temperatures are not distributed equally. The policy brief cites government data showing that the regions of the country that are projected to experience the highest increases in heat-related deaths are 40 percent more likely to be home to Black people. And the people most likely to be exposed to extreme heat are outdoor laborers, people experiencing homelessness, and incarcerated individuals. 

“When I’m treating a patient, if something I’m doing to help them isn’t working, I don’t keep doing the same thing,” Renee N. Salas, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and the lead author of the policy brief, told reporters. “I do something different. And the same is true for the climate shocks we’re experiencing.” 

Not all hope is lost, both the Lancet report and the U.S. policy brief say. Recent policy measures in the U.S. — namely the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which is predicted to reduce domestic emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade — will help reduce air pollution and its associated health impacts. 

And much more can be done to limit the damage caused by climate change, according to the U.S. policy brief. In addition to reaching net-zero emissions in its energy sector, the brief says the U.S. should decarbonize its transportation sector, stop approving new fossil fuel developments, phase out subsidies for oil and gas, invest in climate adaptation (particularly in vulnerable communities), and chip in more money to the global pot of green financing for developing countries

On the international front, the Lancet report said that the heartening news is that some 86 percent of countries’ current climate targets mention health as an important metric of success. And the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis have prompted many nations to think more carefully about their mix of fossil fuel and renewable energies. The media is doing a better job of connecting the dots between climate change and public health for its audiences — coverage of these interrelated issues increased 27 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the report. And hundreds of local governments around the world have begun conducting city-level climate change assessments that take public health into account. Many of those cities listed heat waves and bad air quality among their most prominent health threats last year. 

“At this critical juncture, an immediate, health-centered response can still secure a future in which world populations can not only survive, but thrive,” the report said. The missing ingredient, as always, is a healthy dose of political will.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Report: Human health is ‘at the mercy of fossil fuels’ on Oct 26, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

As drought chokes Mississippi River, barges carrying grain shipments have nowhere to go

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 03:15

Harvest time has come, but ongoing droughts have left farmers with nowhere to send their grain harvests.

The Mississippi River, which carries 60% of the country’s export of grain, has reached historically low water levels. This week, the Mississippi reached negative 10.75 feet in Memphis, Tennessee, a level never before seen.

“It’s never been this bad in my career,” Butler Miller of St. Louis-based barge company Robert B. Miller and Associates told St. Louis Public Radio. “The last time the river levels were this low was in the 1980s. Rain is really the only thing that will fix it.”

The low water levels are caused by the nation’s ongoing drought, which has left the region without rain for weeks. The lack of rain has dried up the Mississippi, and even revealed human remains and lost shipwrecks across the river. 

Barges have been stalled or slow-moving across the river for weeks, causing major disruption in the agricultural industry at a time when farmers generally expect to move harvested grains.

Before the Mississippi dried out, grain was booming in the U.S. While Ukraine typically exports tens of millions of pounds yearly, the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war has caused the global supply of grains to stagnate. Amidst this conflict, U.S. grain prices soared early in the year, but now the main way of transporting these commodities has stalled, causing supply to build up at ports and prices to drop. According to Bloomberg, corn shipments in the Mississippi are declining by the week, with more than 2,000 ships waiting to move down the river.

Soybeans and other commodities have been left to rot outside of grain storage elevators, according to industry reports. As more and more farmers try to offload harvest commodities, space is running out as the wait to move downriver is slow moving. 

“I’ve never been in a harvest where I was hoping for a hurricane. But this year, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings,” Southern Illinois farmer Adam Thomas told Farm Week Now, a division of the Illinois Farm Bureau. 

The Mississippi is a crucial waterway where droughts and floods have pinpointed monumental years along its 2,300 miles. A drought in 1988 dropped water levels in the Mississippi to their previous record low, which lasted nearly two years. Three years ago, the river flooded in the summer, causing $2 billion in damages, and was the longest-lasting flood the river has seen in recent history. 

According to the United States Geological Survey, climate change is causing more extreme weather events—such as regions oscillating between droughts and floods. 

Weather predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that ongoing droughts across the Corn Belt and the West will continue into January, with little to no rain in sight. These predictions are already hampering growers who normally plant winter crops, such as winter wheat in Kansas and Oklahoma

In addition to supply chain and agricultural woes, concerns over drinking water contamination have begun. The Gulf of Mexico is rising with sea levels, causing saltwater to make its way into the currently barren Mississippi. 

The US Army Corps of Engineers is constructing an underwater, 1,500-foot-wide levee to block salt water from contaminating water supplies, with communities in Louisiana already issuing drinking water notices. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 50 cities rely on The Mighty Mississippi for their drinking water. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As drought chokes Mississippi River, barges carrying grain shipments have nowhere to go on Oct 26, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The Cochise County Groundwater Wars

Tue, 10/25/2022 - 03:45

This story is part of the Grist series Parched, an in-depth look at how climate change-fueled drought is reshaping communities, economies, and ecosystems.

For Anje Duckels, Florida was home. Duckels, 41, was born in the Sunshine State; her family had lived there for generations. But housing prices in Fort Myers just kept rising, so she and her wife decided to find somewhere cheaper to raise their three children. Duckels volunteered to help restore a rural estate with a small farmhouse in the Willcox Basin of southeast Arizona, near the U.S.-Mexico border. After a few years in the area, they bought the property, which was located in a Cochise County neighborhood called Kansas Settlement.

Calling the Willcox Basin “remote” would be an understatement: 2,000 square miles of sand and scrub, strewn with crop fields and lined with dusty single-lane roads, it’s nothing like the subdivided coastal paradise that Duckels was used to. Most residents live at least 30 minutes from the closest store or gas station. Many live several miles from their nearest neighbor. In most of the county there are no public services or utilities. The most famous housing development in local history was a land-fraud scam that marketed empty desert tracts to gullible northerners — a sham version of snowbird refuges like the one where Duckels had grown up.

Anje Duckels’ home in Cochise County, Arizona. Grist / Eliseu Cavalcante and Roberto (Bear) Guerra

The day the family moved to Kansas Settlement, they lost their water. When Duckels turned on the faucet, she heard a spitting noise, but nothing came out. It didn’t take long to find the source of the issue: The aquifer beneath her house had dropped below the bottom of her well. The pump was pulling on dry dirt. Duckels soon learned that many of her neighbors had lost water as well, and they’d found themselves forced to haul in jugs of water on their pickup trucks or else pay thousands of dollars to drill their wells deeper.

“Not only was our well dry, but pretty much everybody in this area has a well that was dry, or going dry, or had been dry and had to be re-drilled,” Duckels told Grist.

Anje Duckels checks on plants at her home in Pearce, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

In times of crisis, people tend to look for a villain. It didn’t take long for Duckels to find one: Surrounding her property on all sides are farms owned by a massive dairy operation called Riverview. Over the previous decade, the Minnesota-based company had gobbled up more than 50,000 acres in Cochise County to build an expansive network of farms and feedlots, according to High Country News, which has covered Riverview and the local opposition it has engendered extensively. The dairy’s wells were far deeper than the one on Duckels’ property, and she assumed the firm was sucking all the water out from beneath her.

Riverview is hardly the only reason for the area’s water crisis — the desert aquifers had never been very robust, and a climate-change-fueled drought had made the area drier than ever — but Riverview and other large farms growing nuts and alfalfa are by far the area’s largest water users. Duckels started to look at the irrigated fields around her with fear and resentment.

“That Riverview man is literally going to try to starve us out of water,” Duckels told me, referring to the Riverview board member who runs the company’s operations in the area. “I hope every single property he owns is set on fire by someone. I hope that someone salts his ground so that nothing grows.” 

Cows at the Riverview Dairy, LLC-owned Coronado Dairy farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Cows look out from the Riverview-owned Coronado Dairy farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Irrigation equipment stands over Riverview Dairy. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

A cloud of dust floats behind a hay truck passing between two Riverview-owned crops, left. Irrigation equipment, right, sprays water over the dairy’s crops. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

A cloud of dust floats behind a hay truck passing between two Riverview Dairy-owned crops. Cows look out from the Riverview-owned Coronado Dairy farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Duckels’ neighbors all feel the same way. The mounting water crisis has created a groundswell of anger in the Willcox Basin. Libertarian-minded locals who might once have kept to themselves have banded together against the dairy and other large nearby farms, channeling their frustration over dry wells into a political battle against big agriculture. Interviews with almost two dozen residents in the area paint a picture of a once-sleepy community that has erupted into turmoil: Residents have shown up at public meetings to shout at Riverview representatives, sparred in comment wars in local Facebook groups, and flown rogue reconnaissance flights over dairy facilities.

The growing water shortage is driving freedom-loving denizens of the Willcox Basin to a radical solution: state regulation. In two weeks, basin residents will vote on whether to establish new restrictions on large groundwater wells, the first such referendum in state history. If voters approve the new rules, it would constitute a sea change in Arizona water politics. Not only would it be one of the first times a rural community has voted to restrict its own water usage, but it would also be a rare example of rural voters succeeding in limiting the power of large-scale agriculture.

The backlash may portend a broader political shift in the arid U.S. West. Farms are by far the largest water users in the region, and rural communities from California to Texas are watching these operations suck the water from beneath their homes. Places like Cochise County have relied on agriculture as an economic anchor, but the water crisis is drawing battle lines between rural populations and the large agricultural firms that sustain them.

“Back in the day, we used to get a lot more rain, and the theme with water was: If it’s not affecting you personally, nobody’s really gonna care,” said Esteban Vasquez, a lifelong Cochise County resident who has managed local water systems. “Now that people actually see it happening, the conversation has opened. It’s something that has hit close to home.”

Unlike the sprawling Phoenix suburbs 200 miles away, Cochise County remains mostly an undeveloped desert, almost as rural today as it was when the first prospectors and miners arrived to dig for copper more than a century ago. Most residents who spoke with Grist said they moved to the area because they wanted solitude and privacy, even if that meant roughing it. In a county where the population density is a quarter of the national average, they often see more rattlesnakes than people.

“People have to be a little bit courageous or at least ambitious,” said Christian Sawyer, who moved out to the area a few years ago in search of a quiet place where he could pursue various creative projects. “It’s people who want to do their own thing, build their own house, farm their own crops. It’s this kind of back-to-the-land libertarianism, with a bit of a hippie-type of mentality as well.”

Christian Sawyer stands inside a greenhouse at the former mineralogist’s compound where he lives outside of Douglas, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Cochise County has a unique “opt-out” permitting system, which allows people who own more than four acres of land to build structures without having to submit to a county building inspection. This has enabled some unorthodox abodes: Some residents have built houses with composting toilets, walls made out of volcanic rock, and frames made out of straw bale.

If the absence of local regulations made Cochise County an attractive retreat for loners and libertarians, it also made it an ideal target for large farms. There have long been small cotton and alfalfa operations in the county, but over the past ten years a number of large conglomerates have moved in to grow nuts and alfalfa; several vineyards have opened as well. The growers needed a place where they could pump water with no restrictions whatsoever, and the Willcox Basin fit the bill.

These conglomerates could afford to dig groundwater wells that are much deeper than standard residential wells, giving them a de facto monopoly on the region’s aquifers. Producers have also snapped up land in unregulated localities elsewhere in the state — like the town of Kingman, where a Saudi-backed company grows alfalfa for export back to the Middle East, and Hyder, where a conglomerate called Integrated Ag has invested $90 million to grow Bermuda grass.

Riverview-owned crops fan out near Kansas Settlement Road near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Eliseu Cavalcante and Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Riverview made the biggest splash in the Willcox Basin. Starting around 2014, the company built or bought out several separate dairy operations in the area to the tune of $180 million, beginning in Kansas Settlement and spreading out from there. With operations in five states and hundreds of thousands of cows, Riverview is one of the largest dairy firms in the country. In other states the company has been accused of muscling out family farmers by flooding local milk markets and then underpaying desperate farmers to buy them out and swallow up their acreage.

Much of the land Riverview bought had already been used for farming, but the firm dug dozens of new wells at depths of more than 1,000 feet and pumped millions of gallons of water to grow food for its large herd of heifers. State records show that Riverview owns more than 600 wells in Cochise County. The majority were drilled before the company arrived, but the wells that Riverview drilled in recent years are by far the deepest, with some of them reaching more than 2,000 feet into the earth — so deep that the water is hot from proximity to the earth’s crust. This year alone, the company has bought or drilled at least a dozen thousand-plus-foot wells.

A groundwater well stands along Kansas Settlement Road near Riverview’s base of operations. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Unlike other aquifers that are fed by rivers and streams, the aquifers in the Willcox Basin depend on rainfall alone for replenishment, so they have always been vulnerable to depletion during drought. But it wasn’t until large operations like Riverview moved in that residents started to notice their water disappearing. Groundwater accretes underground in basins, so if one user pumps a lot of water from a deep well, they can cause water to drop for other wells even several miles away. The best way to visualize this is to imagine two or three straws stuck in the same milkshake; the straw that plunges down deepest will get the last of the milkshake, even as the ones positioned higher end up coming up dry.

“The amount of groundwater pumping has increased exponentially because of what’s been happening with this dairy. And as that has happened, people’s wells have gone dry,” said Kathy Ferris, a research fellow at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. Ferris was one of the architects of Arizona’s landmark 1980 groundwater law, which limited underwater pumping in the state’s main population centers.

“I think we know what the problem is,” she added. “It’s not rocket science.”

Materials used by the Arizona Water Defenders to support regulation of groundwater in both the Willcox and Douglas Basins. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

A 2018 report from the state water department found that groundwater levels declined by at least 200 feet between 1940 and 2015 in the parts of the Willcox Basin with the most agricultural pumping — and that was before Riverview moved in. An Arizona water official who spoke to High Country News last year said the rate of decline has increased since the dairy arrived.

Other farming-heavy regions across the West are seeing similar stress on their aquifers from unrestricted agricultural pumping and an ongoing megadrought. California has recorded 1,287 dry well reports across the state this year, a 50 percent increase since 2021. One town in the Golden State’s Central Valley may run out of water altogether by the end of the year. The massive Ogallala Aquifer that runs from Nebraska to Texas has also shown signs of severe stress in recent years.

In the Willcox Basin, the groundwater crisis began in the immediate vicinity of Kansas Settlement, but it’s since spread out across the county as Riverview and other large farms expand farther out and draw from new sections of the aquifers that run through the county. The crisis has even started to affect the town of Willcox itself, one of the only incorporated settlements in the area, which is ten miles from Riverview’s operations. Esteban Vasquez spent five years helping manage the town’s water system, and he told Grist that even the town’s deep municipal wells were seeing stress as a result of agricultural pumping.

Esteban Vasquez stands by a road in Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

“There’s seriously something going on down there,” he said. “We were dropping about nine feet a year. People used to think that since we were miles away [from the dairy], that wasn’t really going to affect us and our aquifers, but it was only a matter of time.”

When Vasquez left his job with the town of Willcox and started working for a company that manages small water systems across the county, he encountered the same dry well crisis everywhere he went. According to High Country News, at least 100 wells in the basin went dry between 2014 and 2019.

The proliferation of water issues has cast a pall over the area, making life darker and more difficult for all those who live there. Everyone knows someone whose well has gone dry, or who’s had to deepen their well, or who’s taken to hauling water rather than try to find it on their own property. Many of the haulers are elderly people who live on fixed incomes and can’t afford to invest in wells, so they haul water instead, filling up jugs at a water facility in Willcox and driving them back home multiple times a week. In a county where the median household income is just 70 percent of the national figure, options for those who suddenly find themselves without water are limited.

Even for those who still have water, the effects of the crisis are all too visible. In some parts of the basin, the overpumping of underground aquifers has led to the emergence of fissures in the ground that are dozens of feet deep, some of which have split apart roadways and forced local officials to close them for weeks. Dozens of people have left areas like Kansas Settlement over the past few years after losing water and finding themselves saddled with worthless properties. Vasquez said he knows at least 20 people who’ve left the county due to the recent water issues; Duckels gave a similar estimate.

Overpumping water can increase the risk of land fissures, right, a hazard noted by a sign, left, near the intersection of Dragoon and Cochise Stronghold roads near Cochise, Arizona. Grist / Eliseu Cavalcante and Roberto (Bear) Guerra

“A lot of people have abandoned their houses,” said Duckels. “You drive up and down our streets over here. You can see houses that are just decrepit, because the people have literally just had to leave their investments to rot.”

Even as the water crisis grew for years, many locals didn’t understand the scale of the problem. Because the population of the basin is so spread out, many people were not totally aware of the growth of agribusiness in the area. Opposition to megafarms was initially limited to just a few committed locals.

Julia Hamel, who lives about six miles north of the town of Willcox, was one of those people. She refers to dairy owners as “crooked bastards” and sees their expansion as part of a campaign to force out longtime residents like herself.

“These folks at the dairy have forced out families that have been there five generations,” she said of Riverview. “They can’t sell their land because no one wants it without water. Meanwhile [the dairy has] bought miles and miles of land. We’re the ones who get tromped on.”

About ten years ago, as a dairy company called Feria was expanding its operations in the Willcox Basin, Hamel and two of her friends decided to go on offense. They piloted a small plane from a nearby hangar to conduct aerial reconnaissance on Feria’s feedlots, looking out for potential health code violations. Hamel’s friends photographed large ponds she said were full of urine, as well as burning piles of manure, both of which she could smell from miles away. They tried to show the photos to local representatives, but nothing came of it. A few years later, Riverview acquired Feria. (Riverview representatives did not respond to Grist’s multiple requests for comment.)

Stunts like these were rare, but in recent years more people have come over to Hamel’s side. The local “Willcox chit chat” Facebook group has exploded with debates over how much of the responsibility for dry wells can be pinned on agriculture, with many residents blaming Riverview. Vandals have defaced some of the dairy’s signage, and residents have shown up at county meetings to berate public officials for supporting the dairy.

Anje Duckels said she’s concerned that violence will erupt in the area if water supplies continue to drop.

“You get people who see their moms cry because they’re too old to mortgage their house to pay for another well,” said Duckels. “These people are gonna get desperate and crazy. These people are frightening, they’re poor, and they’ve got weapons.”

Ironically, one major demonstration of this outrage was a pressure campaign against a proposal to actually increase local water access. In the years after Riverview arrived, a group of county politicians started to push for the creation of a municipal water district that could ease the burden on individual wells. Rather than having everyone pump water on their own property, the new district would pump water from a deep communal well and pipe it out to households.

A new billboard opposing the AMA was recently placed along I-10 just outside of Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

But many residents view the proposed district with suspicion or outright hostility — not because they think it wouldn’t deliver water, but because it is supported by Riverview. Gary Fehr, a member of Riverview’s board of directors and grandson of the dairy’s founder, is one of the lead organizers behind the effort.

The water district doesn’t advertise its association with Riverview, and vice versa. But Peggy Judd, a member of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors and a supporter of the water district, told Grist the district wouldn’t have been possible without Fehr and Riverview, which she said has helped finance outreach efforts and donated office space for the endeavor.

“The power and the brainpower behind the district is the dairy, and they’re keeping it quiet. But if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have that gift,” she said.

As a result, many locals consider the water district part of a ploy to make the entire Willcox Basin dependent on Riverview for water access. Rumors have swirled that Fehr is laying the groundwork to build a massive new suburban development in the area: First he’ll dry out everyone’s wells, the logic goes, and then he’ll create a new water district to support the residents of his planned community.

A sign marks property for sale along Kansas Settlement Road. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

At a series of public meetings about the water district earlier this year, numerous residents cast blame for the crisis on Riverview, suggesting the dairy couldn’t be trusted to solve a problem it had allegedly created.

“The only reason we’re here today is because our water table is going down, and the biggest single reason that water table is going down is because of agricultural pumping,” said one.

“Neighborliness is one of our values in this valley, and good neighbors don’t suck their neighbors’ wells dry,” he added to laughter and applause. 

For the moment, the water district project appears to have stalled amid local opposition; the volunteer committee hasn’t held a meeting since June. Fehr did not respond to Grist’s requests for comment.

Even as residents of the Willcox Basin have spurned the dairy’s proposed water district, many have embraced a far more radical solution: strict regulations on groundwater usage. Decades of anti-regulation sentiment have given way to an unprecedented grassroots campaign for restrictions on new groundwater wells. These restrictions could jeopardize the future growth of industrial farming operations like Riverview.

When Arizona lawmakers drafted the state’s landmark 1980 groundwater law, they were trying to solve an over-pumping problem that had begun to threaten development around the major cities of Phoenix and Tucson. Because most of the state’s population lived in these metropolitan areas, lawmakers focused on slowing new well drilling in urban rather than rural areas. The 1980 bill established so-called “active management areas,” or AMAs, in those two cities, as well as in the agriculture-heavy county that lay between them.

For four decades now, farms and large subdivisions in these areas have been subject to stringent limits on how much groundwater they can pump. Outside these three counties, however, unlimited pumping remained fair game. People in areas like Cochise County didn’t want restrictions on their water, and the potential for overdraft in many of Arizona’s more remote regions was less immediate.

Many families in Wilcox say the supply for their wells, like this pivot well on a small alfalfa farm, have been threatened by Riverview’s water usage. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

“We knew that there are areas of the state where problems are worse than other areas,” said Ferris, the water expert who helped craft the law. However, “in many rural areas, they just said, ‘go away.’ They didn’t want regulation. They didn’t want us to be managing their groundwater.”

But buried within the 1980 law was a provision that allowed for the possibility that rural communities might change their mind: If residents of a groundwater basin gather enough signatures, the law allows them to propose a ballot question about whether to establish an AMA. If the ballot question wins a majority vote, the state then appoints a committee to supervise groundwater in the basin. The committee can impose restrictions on new irrigation activity, capping the amount of land in the basin that is fed by groundwater.

The proviso has never been used — until now.

In Cochise County, a local librarian and textile artist named Bekah Wilce learned about the clause a few years ago. She had started to worry about the impact of agricultural pumping on her town, Elfrida, which sits in the water basin adjacent to the Willcox Basin. Wilce’s husband, an independent journalist, started to talk with Arizona’s state water department about how large water users could be regulated. Those conversations led him to the 1980 statute, and to the clause allowing communities to form their own AMAs.

Wilce soon got involved with a group of local groundwater activists known as the Arizona Water Defenders. The group had been looking for a solution to the dry-well problem for a few years, and Wilce pitched them on gathering signatures for an AMA ballot question, something that had never been tried in Arizona before. 

The Arizona Water Defenders want to create new Active Management Areas that will regulate groundwater in both the Willcox and Douglas Basins. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

When Wilce first started working on the AMA campaign, her neighbors warned her that it would be a long shot. Cochise County residents tend to be quite conservative — Donald Trump carried the county by 20 points in the 2020 election — and many are averse to the very idea of regulation. So Wilce was surprised that she and her fellow volunteers had no trouble getting enough signatures. In fact, they submitted 250 more signatures than they needed to get an AMA vote on the ballot — not just in the Willcox Basin but also in the neighboring Douglas Basin, where Wilce lives. Wilce told Grist that the massive growth of big agricultural interests in the area has woken up people who might not have engaged in the past.

“It’s true that it’s a fairly conservative area — and even those on the left side of the spectrum don’t really want a lot of government interference — but I do think we see the need for common-sense limits,” she said. “The dairy has been in place now for a number of years, and people have become increasingly concerned. It’s just been this snowballing tragedy, so there’s this fear.” 

The scale of support for the AMA has also surprised Vasquez, the former water systems manager, who said he’s been trying to warn locals about groundwater for years without success.

Irrigation infrastructure sprays water at a family farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Eliseu Cavalcante and Roberto (Bear) Guerra

“I feel like nobody really cared about water before,” he told Grist. “Water conservation was the last thing I felt in people’s minds when it came to this community. So when the AMA got a lot of positive backing behind it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s crazy, because everybody that I’ve talked to beforehand didn’t give two shits about water.’”

The campaign has deepened the fault lines between farmers — including many small-scale growers unaffiliated with larger newcomers like Riverview — and the rest of the county’s residents. Now that the AMA question is on the ballot, the state has paused all new irrigation in the area until the election, freezing the growth of local agriculture. It isn’t clear how strict the AMA’s ultimate restrictions would be: Should the ballot question pass, the state will appoint a committee that will study the aquifers in the basin and decide what kinds of pumping need to be curbed. Individual households wouldn’t be subject to restrictions, since their wells are too small to meet the legal threshold for regulation, but family farmers might face limits on future growth, and they would need to go through a permitting process to drill new wells. The largest operations would likely be unable to expand at all.

Jacob Collins, a fourth-generation alfalfa farmer who lives just southeast of the town of Willcox, said that the region’s farming community is very worried about new limitations on water usage. Collins farms about 360 acres in total, and there’s a chance an AMA might place a ceiling on the amount of land he can irrigate.

“There’s a lot of fear surrounding a loss of water in the valley, and there’s a lot of fear [about] having our water controlled by an outside entity that isn’t here,” he told Grist. “If we want the valley to continue to be farmable, we do have to do our best to make sure that we’re not using more water than we need, [but] there’s not really anything farmers can do to make a drought not happen.”

Jacob Collins at work on the family farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Fourth-generation alfalfa farmer Jacob Collins stands in front of a tractor on his family’s land in Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Irrigation infrastructure at the Collins family’s farm near Willcox, Arizona. Cows look out from the Riverview-owned Coronado Dairy farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Jacob Collins, right, drives a piece of equipment on his family’s farm, left, near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Jacob Collins work on his family’s farm near Willcox, Arizona. Grist / Roberto (Bear) Guerra

These sentiments in the local farming community have led to a backlash against the pro-AMA campaign. A group called Rural Water Assurance, which was co-founded by the president of the county farm bureau, has put up billboards by the Interstate urging a ‘no’ vote on the ballot question. The Willcox Facebook group has seen a proliferation of posts warning of draconian water restrictions. Rural Water Assurance even filed a lawsuit against the Douglas Basin AMA effort in June, alleging that the signatures the group had collected were invalid. A court dismissed the lawsuit in August, finding that the plaintiffs had “wholly failed to demonstrate any legal basis” for the challenge.

Wilce feels confident the AMA vote will pass in the Willcox Basin, and a large chunk of the county’s most engaged voters seem to be on her side. If the outlook for the AMA campaign is bright, though, the outlook for the county’s groundwater is far darker, regardless of which way the vote goes next month.

Even the most stringent regulations might not save people like Duckels from having to leave the valley. At its strongest, the AMA can restrict almost all new pumping, but it can’t order current users to stop drawing water, which means Riverview would get grandfathered in. The dairy wouldn’t be able to expand its operations any further, but it could keep withdrawing water at its current rates. And the groundwater levels in the basin will likely keep dropping.

“You’re just trying to stop the hemorrhaging,” said Ferris. 

The depletion of area aquifers will make life harder and harder for people like Duckels. More residents will have to haul water, or spend tens of thousands of dollars to dig new wells, or walk away from their homes and move somewhere else. In the absence of a water district like the one proposed by Riverview, there will be more new dry wells every year, and more people leaving the area. Plus, new limitations on large groundwater pumping will deter new farms and businesses from moving to the county, further sapping its already sluggish economy.

The irony, according to Ferris, is that the dairy can always move somewhere else if it loses water access. There’s a lot of land in the United States, and it’s a lot easier to move cows around than people. The absence of water regulations in the Willcox Basin has allowed Riverview to run down the clock on the area’s future, and the new political backlash against these companies is arriving too late to change that trajectory. Even if residents manage to stymie Riverview, there’s no guarantee the community will survive.

“Industrial ag moved into that basin, and industrial ag can move out of that basin. But everybody else is kind of stuck,” Ferris told Grist. “They’re living there, they invested their livelihood there, and I think the potential outlook is really grim. I think, unless something changes, it becomes a ghost town.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The Cochise County Groundwater Wars on Oct 25, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Rishi Sunak is ‘better news than Truss’ on climate change, but by how much?

Tue, 10/25/2022 - 03:30

Over the past several months, Britain has seen the death of a monarch, the proclamation of a new one, the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the election of his replacement, Liz Truss, who almost immediately sent the British economy into freefall.

Now, Britain is getting its third prime minister in just as many months. Truss resigned on Thursday after a six-week run; Rishi Sunak, the country’s chief financial minister, was selected as the new leader of the Conservative Party and will take her place in 10 Downing Street. 

Truss set a low bar on environmental issues during her short tenure, carrying out what was dubbed by her opponents as a “war on nature.” While Sunak’s record on climate policy has been arguably poor, environmental advocates are hopeful that he will at least deliver on some of his party’s 2019 environmental manifesto, which contains a moratorium on fracking and a strong commitment to decarbonizing the economy by 2050. 

“He’s obviously better news than Truss, that goes without saying,” said Chris Venables, head of politics at the Green Alliance, an independent cross-party environmental think tank based in the United Kingdom.

Sunak, a former investment banker and one of the wealthiest people in England, was elected to British parliament in 2015 and selected by Johnson as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020, overseeing the state’s economic and financial matters. After Johnson resigned in July, Sunak campaigned for prime minister, but lost to Truss. Her platform of tax cuts and free market economics, however, quickly led to massive inflation, the pound depreciating in value, and runaway government borrowing.

“Her environmental policies were also very much a factor in her demise,” said Venables, adding that Truss was very close to people aligned with the fossil fuels agenda. In the last month under Truss, the U.K. saw a concerted attack on the basics of environmental protection: Truss and right-wing members of Parliament sought to wipe over 570 rules on environmental protection inherited from the European Union off the slate. Her new “investment zones” policy stoked fears among conservation groups that development would harm wildlife. She scrapped a popular new payment scheme in the works for farmers to implement conservation practices. And she also planned to restart fracking.

Sunak, on the other hand, has declared his support for conservation, for reforming farm payments, and for meeting Britain’s net-zero goals, though much of his climate agenda remains to be seen. 

Sunak has historically aligned with his Conservative Party colleagues to vote against efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While chancellor, he implemented cuts that ended a nationwide home insulation subsidy program, though he has since talked about prioritizing home insulation across Britain by launching a new, improved program. Under pressure from the Labor Party, he instituted a windfall tax – levied when unexpected circumstances, like war or natural disaster, result in larger-than-usual profits for an industry – on oil and gas companies, but it included a tax break for corporations that re-invested in new fossil fuel production. Campaigning over the summer, he reaffirmed his opposition to both onshore wind and farmland solar development, two of the cheapest ways to generate electricity in the U.K. He wants to increase offshore wind capacity and also supports increased drilling for gas in the North Sea. 

“He has been elected on no ticket, so he didn’t have to say what he was going to do,” said Venables. “Britain needs state intervention and investment in areas that are hard to decarbonize and there haven’t been many signs that he is willing to do that.” As chancellor, he shepherded England through the pandemic by increasing spending for social support, which he has since tried to reign in. Over the summer, Sunak ran on a fiscally conservative agenda. Still, said Venables, there are some things he’s done for the climate. 

At the last United Nations’ climate meeting, COP26 in Glasgow, Sunak articulated a center-right approach to tackling the climate crisis and committed to making Britain the “world’s first net zero aligned financial center,” pledging $120 million to the Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance. He oversaw the creation of the U.K. infrastructure bank to unleash climate capital and, even if enforcement and timescales leave much to be desired, he mandated that every company in the U.K. have a climate plan. At the same time, he was criticized for cutting overseas aid to developing countries, failing to pay the U.K’.s fair share toward the $100 billion global climate target, and cutting taxes on domestic flights in the runup to COP26.

While Truss asked King Charles III not to go COP27 in Egypt, environmentalists expect Sunak to go, and hope that he will support Charles’ attendance as well. The new monarch has been hailed as “the climate king” for his history of speaking out on biodiversity loss and global warming, although many have been quick to point out the role of the monarchy in creating the climate crisis through colonial rule.

Some hope Britain’s current economic and energy crises may spur Sunak, often characterized as sensible and pragmatic, to rethink his past policies. Fuel bills are 2.5 times what they were a year ago, and would be five times more were it not for government support. “We’re going into a winter where we’re expecting millions of households to fall into fuel poverty,” said Venables. “Literally the only way through is to insulate homes and build out renewables.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Rishi Sunak is ‘better news than Truss’ on climate change, but by how much? on Oct 25, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

380 million tons of plastic are made every year. None of it is truly recyclable.

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 03:45

No plastic is truly recyclable — not even the water bottles and milk jugs that people usually toss into their blue bins.

According to a new report released on Monday by Greenpeace USA, no plastic product meets a common industry standard for recyclability, even though they bear the familiar “chasing arrows” recycling symbol. The report says industry-backed recycling labels on yogurt cups, ketchup bottles, food trays, and other products perpetuate a “fiction” that recycling will ever scale up to handle the 380 million tons of plastic that companies churn out every year. The U.S. plastic recycling rate has never topped 10 percent, and a report from earlier this year revealed that it has now fallen to just 5 percent.

“Corporations are hiding behind plastics recycling and hoping that it will completely solve the plastic waste crisis that they have helped create,” said Lisa Ramsden, a senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace USA. She called on companies to scale down plastic production and replace single-use products and packaging with reusable alternatives, like bottles that can be refilled.

Greenpeace’s report, titled Circular Claims Fall Flat Again, builds on a previous report the organization published in 2020. Back then, the group found that only certain kinds of bottles and jugs met the federal government’s definition for “recyclable” and could legally bear the chasing arrows symbol: Those bearing the numbers 1 and 2 to indicate the kind of material they’re made of, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), respectively.

Read Next Inside the industry push to label your yogurt cup ‘recyclable’

The same is still true today: Most recycling facilities don’t accept or recycle plastics numbered from 3 to 7, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene, and polystyrene because they are difficult to sort and often contaminated with toxic chemicals. But Greenpeace’s most recent report also highlighted an abysmal recycling rate for those that meet the government’s definition of recyclable, which only considers whether people have access to recycling facilities for a given kind of plastic. According to the organization’s analysis, the actual reprocessing rate for bottles and jugs made of PET (number 1) is only 21 percent, and about 10 percent for HDPE (number 2).

These numbers fall far short of an industry-backed standard from the nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, or EMF, which defines a product as recyclable only if it is recycled 30 percent of the time. Hundreds of major companies — from Clorox to the food giant Mondelez — have signed a commitment agreeing to this definition, yet their products continue to feature the chasing arrows symbol.

Recycling labels on packages of Oreos, made by Mondelez. According to the Last Beach Cleanup, only 3 percent of Americans have access to recycling facilities that accept these trays. Credit: The Last Beach Cleanup.

Although industry groups insist that plastic recycling can be improved with better collection infrastructure, Greenpeace says this is a fallacy. All plastics share similar problems: They’re extremely difficult to collect and sort, they release hazardous chemicals during the recycling process, and they are often so contaminated with toxic chemicals that they must be “down-cycled” into lower-value products, sent to a landfill, or incinerated. These challenges make plastic recycling too costly for corporations. “It’s just cheaper to buy new plastic,” Ramsden said.

Instead of doubling down on recycling, Greenpeace calls on companies to reduce their plastic packaging by at least 50 percent by 2030, either by eliminating it altogether or by replacing it with reusable materials. For example, a soft drink company could move toward the “milkman concept,” as Ramsden put it — a refillable system in which consumers return glass bottles once they’re done using them. The report also says companies should eliminate single-use plastics altogether, release annual data on their plastic packaging use and reduction rates, and push governments to adopt policies to slash plastic production, including the global plastic treaty that U.N. member states are planning to negotiate by 2024.

“Plastics recycling is absolutely not the solution” to the plastic pollution crisis, Ramsden said. As a first step, she encouraged companies to remove the recycling symbol from plastic products, since most of them are never recycled. The chasing arrows are “deceptive to consumers,” she said, “who assume that the plastic packaging they’re buying can be recycled, but it cannot be.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 380 million tons of plastic are made every year. None of it is truly recyclable. on Oct 24, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Idaho cobalt mine is a harbinger of what’s to come

Mon, 10/24/2022 - 03:00

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

Idaho’s Cobalt Belt is a 34-mile-long desirable stretch of ore tucked under the Salmon River Mountains that’s considered “globally significant” by mining companies. And miners are interested in that cobalt: a hard, brittle metal used in electric vehicle batteries. On Oct. 7, Australia-based Jervois Global opened the only cobalt mine in the U.S. there to much fanfare.  

The new mine, which will be at full operating capacity in 2023, is part of a burgeoning Western mineral rush. These modern prospectors are focused on so-called green metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and rare earth elements that are used in clean energy applications. Projects in the works range from copper and manganese mines in Arizona to a proposed lithium mine in Nevada. Jervois’ Idaho Cobalt Operations is unique in its focus: cobalt is usually a byproduct of nickel or copper and not a mine’s primary objective. 

Demand for these minerals has ballooned in the last several decades. “We’re producing more metal than we ever have done at any other point in human history,” said Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Modern life uses more metals and minerals than ever before.” And Idaho’s cobalt development comes amid a surge of interest in minerals used for electric vehicles, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, in addition to everyday technologies like cellphones and laptops. 

A World Bank report estimates the production of green metals could increase by 500 percent to meet demand for clean energy. That amounts to about 3 billion tons of minerals and metals needed to deploy technologies necessary to keep the planet under 2 degrees Celsius of warming. The nascent U.S. boom is further fueled by the Inflation Reduction Act: Its electric vehicle credit only applies for cars with domestically mined battery materials, like cobalt from the new Idaho facility. 

As a result, mines sprouting up across the West are being billed by politicians as essential to decarbonize the energy grid. “I think it’s very critical that we mine not only cobalt in Idaho, and in America, but the other precious and critical minerals,” Republican U.S. Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman in a recent interview. Cobalt is a necessary component in many EV battery packs, which can contain up to 40 pounds of the element. It is considered a material supply-chain risk by the Department of Energy — the world’s top producers are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia. The new mine and processing facility is expected to produce enough cobalt concentrate for 400,000 vehicles, according to Jervois’ general manager Matt Lengerich.  

Supply chain security, however, is far from complete: The cobalt concentrate pulled from the ground at the Jervois mine, complicated by the presence of arsenic, will be processed in Brazil due to a lack of U.S. facilities. Cobalt is often then shipped to China, where it is put into lithium-ion batteries. In order to be a truly secure supply chain, processing, refining, and manufacturing would all have to happen in the U.S. “The fact that we don’t truly produce the metals we need is a problem,” said Corby Anderson, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who specializes in extractive metallurgy. Anderson worked on the Idaho project’s early feasibility studies for a different company in the 1990s. Mining companies are targeting the West especially because of its wide swaths of public land and history of mining.

President Joe Biden greets the crowd at the Detroit Auto show, in 2022. Katie McTiernan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But some believe this framing warrants caution. Should mining projects be lauded just because they’re mining for components used in electric vehicles or other environmentally friendly technologies? “I think it’s important not to get too caught up in that,” said Josh Johnson, a senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group. “I think we also need to realize that in a warming climate, what else is critical? Clean water.” 

All hardrock mining risks exposing sulfides to air and water, creating acid mine drainage, which then can mobilize naturally occurring heavy metals that can make their way to streams and harm aquatic ecosystems. The Idaho Cobalt Belt is no stranger to mining gone wrong: Blackbird Mine, a now inactive, once open-pit and underground mine for cobalt, silver, and copper ore, released contaminated soil, sediments and tailings during high flows. Operations ultimately fouled a major tributary of the Salmon River and is now a Superfund site.

Jervois has pledged to treat water in perpetuity before discharging it into a nearby stream and will dispose of waste rock and tailings in lined cells, making the Idaho Conservation League more confident that the mine’s impact will be less than other mines they’ve opposed in the past. “It’s always a little bit of a leap of faith when it comes to mining,” Johnson said. “You can do everything on paper, but now they have to prove that they can actually do it.”

The nonprofit announced a partnership with the company in March 2021 to protect and restore fish, water quality, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity within the Upper Salmon River Basin. “I think a lot of groups, not just ICL, are looking at these kinds of projects in a new light,” Johnson said. “Not necessarily in a supporting-all-mining kind of light, but in supporting the green energy transition … while most importantly, still not compromising anything in the environment or clean water.” The Upper Salmon Conservation Action Program is funded by a voluntary, annual $150,000 contribution from Jervois. That funding goes to projects that enhance nearby riparian areas, increase vegetation and fund strategic land acquisitions for fish habitat improvement. 

More cobalt mining could occur in the area in the future. According to reporting by the Idaho Statesman, two other companies are exploring cobalt deposits on U.S. Forest Service land nearby. One of those companies, Koba Resources Limited, has four projects in the Idaho Cobalt Belt and calls the region “highly endowed” yet “underexplored.” And the law that established the Frank Church Wilderness, which is only three miles from Jervois’ project, enables a “Special Mining Management Zone” in the northeast corner of the wilderness for cobalt, although there are no known proposals yet. 

With looming land use change on the horizon, Jowitt thinks communities will need to grapple with how green metal mining can coexist with environmental concerns and bolster rural economic development in a meaningful way. “What we’ve seen is because everybody wants laptops, everybody wants mobile phones, everybody wants Teslas, there’s a corresponding increase in demand for cobalt,” Jowitt said. “That increase is not going to go away.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Idaho cobalt mine is a harbinger of what’s to come on Oct 24, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Los escombros de los desastres están empujando los vertederos de Puerto Rico al límite.

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 16:25

Este artículo fue apoyado por la organización sin fines de lucro de periodismo Economic Hardship Reporting Project y se produjo en colaboración con 9 Millones

Click here to read this story in English.

Con su hijo de seis meses balanceado sobre su cadera, Ana Arache camina por un bosque de árboles frutales en sus etapas iniciales en la isla de Vieques, frente a la costa este de la isla principal de Puerto Rico. Es julio. El sol calienta, y una brisa constante hace crujir las ramas de guayabos, tamarindos y mangós en crecimiento. Mientras se abre paso entre el paisaje tropical seco, Arache señala las flores rosadas del acerolo con una sonrisa formándose en su rostro. Los árboles ya han dado frutos, y las flores anuncian que vendrán más.

Arache entonces apunta al piso, gesticulando hacia el suelo marrón ceniciento lleno de aserrín. El material es producto de un programa que recogía escombros vegetales tras el huracán María y los compostaba. “Sembramos este arbolito con composta producida gracias al éxito [de nuestro programa]”, explicó Arache, la fundadora de Isla Nena Composta, una organización sin fines de lucro que gestiona el programa de compostaje de la comunidad de Vieques. 

Como el resto de Puerto Rico y su archipiélago, la isla de Vieques quedó devastada dos veces en septiembre de 2017; primero, por los fuertes vientos y la lluvia del huracán Irma, seguido dos semanas más tarde por el huracán María, que tocó tierra con categoría 4. El vistoso follaje verde que caracteriza a Puerto Rico desapareció. Los vientos de 155 millas por hora de María esparcieron ramas, hojas y troncos de árboles a lo largo de las calles, las aceras y las carreteras. 

En total, los huracanes Irma y María produjeron 2.5 millones de toneladas de escombros, según la Sociedad Estadounidense de Ingenieros Civiles (ASCE, por sus siglas en inglés), el equivalente de 2,5 a 3 años de uso del espacio disponible en los vertederos. 

El Gobierno necesitaba actuar con rapidez para despejar caminos entre los escombros, de modo que los primeros intervinientes y los seres queridos de las personas damnificadas pudieran llevar ayuda y artículos de primera necesidad. Por la prisa de mover los escombros, las agencias tomaron decisiones que acortaron la vida útil de los vertederos de Puerto Rico, los cuales ya estaban saturados. Movieron los escombros a las orillas de las carreteras y los dejaron allí sin separar sus materiales o desviarlos a lugares donde pudieran ser procesados o reciclados. Al final, la mayoría terminó en los vertederos. 

La ecologista Ana Arache camina a través del bosque de frutas tropicales en la isla de Vieques, cultivado con la composta de los escombros del Huracán María.  Camille Padilla Dalmau

En los años subsiguientes, la crisis solo ha empeorado. A causa del cambio climático, los huracanes se están volviendo más intensos y frecuentes en el Caribe. El huracán Fiona, de categoría 1, que tocó tierra en el sur de Puerto Rico el 17 de septiembre, derribó árboles, casas y el tendido eléctrico y demostró cómo incluso tormentas menos potentes pueden saturar el espacio limitado de los vertederos del archipiélago. El Gobierno no tiene un plan de acción que abarque el archipiélago para solucionar el problema. Un estudio de la Agencia Federal de Manejo de Emergencias (FEMA, por sus siglas en inglés) estima que muchos de los vertederos de Puerto Rico alcanzarán su capacidad máxima de almacenamiento  en 2023.

Ahora, un grupo de organizaciones, incluidas algunas sin fines de lucro como Isla Nena Composta y Puerto Rico Composta Inc. y compañías como TAIS, se apuran para retrasar el abarrotamiento de los vertederos de la Isla.

Puerto Rico nunca ha sido muy bueno reciclando. La Ley para la Reducción y el Reciclaje de Desperdicios Sólidos en Puerto Rico de 1992 fijó como meta que se reciclara el 35 % de los desperdicios que se generan; en realidad, esa cantidad solo ha alcanzado de un 10 a un 15 %. En todo el territorio, el 44 % del material que termina en los vertederos es compostable; de esa cantidad, el 22 % es material vegetal, como árboles, grama cortada y arbustos.

“Con la crisis, las necesidades, llegó la oportunidad”, dijo Arache. “María fue el empuje para empezar a tomarnos en serio el compostaje”.

El Gobierno de Puerto Rico reconoció por primera vez su crisis de vertederos en la década de 1970. Dos agencias gubernamentales, la Junta de Calidad Ambiental (JCA) y la Autoridad de Desperdicios Sólidos (ADS), se crearon para hacerse cargo del problema. Sin embargo, desde su fundación, han sido obstaculizadas por presupuestos inadecuados, la escasez de personal y poderes limitados para implementar de lleno sus propuestas. La JCA y la ADS fueron absorbidas por el Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA) en 2018 debido a las medidas de austeridad. Esto ha reducido el manejo de residuos sólidos de todo el archipiélago a una sola oficina del DRNA.

Dos terceras partes de los vertederos de Puerto Rico incumplen las regulaciones de la Agencia de Protección Ambiental de Estados Unidos (EPA, por sus siglas en inglés). 

Un vertedero de la isla-municipio de Vieques.  Camille Padilla Dalmau

Cuando se construyeron muchos de los vertederos de Puerto Rico en las décadas de los 1950 y 1960, se diseñaron sin sistemas efectivos para reducir las emisiones de gas y las percolaciones de lixiviados (líquidos que se crean cuando los restos de comida y los escombros vegetales se descomponen). Las emisiones de gas contribuyen al cambio climático, mientras que las percolaciones de lixiviados pueden liberar metales pesados, amoniaco y otros componentes, que pueden ser tóxicos, radioactivos o mutagénicos en los cuerpos de agua o comunidades cercanas.

El vertedero de Vieques no es la excepción. Básicamente, cualquiera puede ir a botar sus desechos en diferentes secciones, tales como bolsas de basura residencial, chatarra, dispositivos electrónicos y muebles –incluso hay una parte para animales muertos–. La falta de un revestimiento del suelo apropiado que cubra la basura ha causado incendios en el vertedero, lo que afecta la calidad del aire en toda la comunidad.

Según la última evaluación de la EPA, el vertedero de Vieques no tiene revestimiento sintético (liner), una red que protege el suelo y las aguas subterráneas de la contaminación por lixiviados. Tampoco tiene un sistema de recolección de lixiviados o un programa de monitoreo de aguas subterráneas. La falta de monitoreo es significativa, dado que el vertedero queda adyacente al mar Caribe y a 8 km (5 millas) del sistema de aguas subterráneas más importante de Vieques. La casa más cercana se ubica solo a 54 metros (0,03 millas) de distancia y la escuela más cercana a 2 km (1,3 millas).

“Hay días en los que las moscas son insoportables”, dijo Melisa Molina, una empleada municipal que vive cerca del vertedero de Vieques. Pero lo que ha afectado su salud más aún ha sido los incendios en el vertedero. El humo “invade toda el área” y tiene un fuerte olor acre. Una vez, se volvió tan “insoportable” que tuvo que mudarse con sus padres al otro lado de la isla. “He tenido asma por 16 años y, obviamente, no ha habido ninguna mejoría”, añadió. Los puertorriqueños tienen índices de asma superiores a los de cualquier otro grupo étnico en Estados Unidos. 

Como archipiélago, Puerto Rico necesita con urgencia nuevas ideas para manejar sus estrategias de consumo y desperdicios. El terreno disponible es limitado, y es cuestión de tiempo que las comunidades se queden sin espacio para su basura. 

Ciertas prácticas como la incineración son altamente combatidas tanto por las comunidades como por las agencias gubernamentales. Esto significa que, según se van llenando los vertederos, el archipiélago debe o empezar a enviar basura al extranjero o renovar radicalmente su industria de reciclaje.

Basura en una calle concurrida de San Juan, Puerto Rico en el año 2021. En Puerto Rico solo se recicla de un 10 a 15 % de los desechos generados. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

“La política pública que tenemos – y que hemos tenido – ha sido inestable e ineficiente”, dijo Francisco V. Aquino, abogado y miembro de Generación Circular, una coalición de organizaciones que abogan por políticas públicas que fomenten una economía circular en Puerto Rico, en un esfuerzo por reusar y reciclar productos de manera local lo más posible.

Generación Circular abogó recientemente por una ley (Ley 51-2022) que prohíbe algunos plásticos de un solo uso. La ley se aprobó en junio y entrará en vigor en 2024. El grupo también aboga por una legislación para establecer un fideicomiso de economía circular para la recopilación de datos, la fiscalización del desembolso de fondos públicos y la defensa de políticas públicas que prioricen la salud y el bienestar de Puerto Rico en vez de las ganancias económicas del sector privado.

Una parte del fracaso de la planificación, según Aquino, tiene que ver con la falta de integración comunitaria. “Hay parámetros establecidos de manera jerárquica que no toman en consideración lo que las comunidades pueden hacer, lo que están dispuestas a hacer, cómo fortalecer las comunidades para que puedan participar en esta economía, porque un aspecto importante de la economía circular es que los recursos no siempre terminarán en las mismas manos”.

Una de las soluciones más importantes es el desvío y reciclaje de material orgánico.

En los meses tras el paso de los huracanes Irma y María, el grupo de Arache, Isla Nena Composta, recibió aproximadamente 30 400 yardas cúbicas de escombros vegetales. Después de separarlos de los escombros de construcción y triturarlos, terminaron con alrededor de 17 000 yardas cúbicas de material vegetal limpio y descascarado. Finalmente, esa cantidad se redujo a 4 000 yardas cúbicas de composta, más o menos el tamaño de una piscina olímpica.

“Sin composta no hay paraíso”, dijo Arache entre risas, haciendo un juego de palabras con la famosa canción de salsa de El Gran Combo.

Describe la composta como “la piedra angular del ciclo de la vida” y cree que es necesaria para la supervivencia de la humanidad. Convertir materia orgánica –vegetación, restos de alimentos o desechos de origen animal –en suelo no solo aporta nutrientes a la tierra para producir comida, sino que también ayuda al crecimiento de los árboles y otras plantas cuyas raíces son esenciales para la retención de agua y la mitigación de inundaciones y otros desastres relacionados con el cambio climático.

Isla Nena Composta ha vendido su composta a jardineros locales y a proyectos agrícolas comunitarios, lo que le ha ayudado a sostener sus operaciones a esta organización sin fines de lucro por casi cinco años. Además, han donado composta a las escuelas para el desarrollo de sus huertos comunitarios. 

Isla Nena Composta es una alianza público-privada poco común. Las instalaciones de compostaje y el bosque de árboles frutales en ciernes están situados en el Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Vieques. De 1941 a 2001, este fue usado como campo de entrenamiento –de tiro y bombardeo– y almacenamiento de municiones por la Marina de Estados Unidos. Arache, que además es ingeniera y científica ambiental, explicó que antes de la intervención militar esta área consistía principalmente en bosques tropicales y humedales. La Marina cubrió el terreno donde se sitúa Isla Nena Composta con asfalto para construir una pista de aterrizaje. El asfalto se quitó después de que la Marina finalizó sus operaciones y se recicló para construir la carretera que ahora se conecta con el refugio de vida silvestre. Según Arache, el proceso transformó esta sección del parque en un bosque semiseco.

Actualmente, el Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Vieques es gestionado por el Servicio de Pesca y Vida Silvestre de Estados Unidos (FWS, por sus siglas en inglés). La oficina local de la agencia federal le ofreció a la organización de Arache cinco cuerdas para el procesamiento de material vegetal y un acre adicional para el bosque de árboles frutales. El sitio de compostaje está lleno de pilas masivas de material vegetal –hojas, ramas, troncos de árboles–, cartones y tablas de madera. Desde el huracán Fiona, han recibido mucho más material. “Bello”, describió Arache vía correo electrónico.

La composta de los escombros vegetativos del Huracán María procesada por Isla Nena Composta. Camille Padilla Dalmau La composta ayuda al crecimiento de árboles frutales como el acerolo. Camille Padilla Dalmau

Entre los materiales, una pequeña pila color marrón oscuro sobresale: lo que queda de la composta producida por los escombros vegetales del huracán María.

“Mi meta siempre ha sido lograr que Vieques recicle todo lo que es compostable para que no llegue al vertedero y lo podamos transformar en tierra fértil”, explicó Arache. “No solo en Vieques, mi sueño es lograrlo en Puerto Rico y el mundo entero,  pero tenemos que empezar por una comunidad a la vez”.

A menos de una milla de la pila de composta se hallan las oficinas locales del Servicio de Pesca y Vida Silvestre de EE. UU., dirigido por el biólogo Mike Barandiaran, quien gestiona el refugio. Es de Nueva York, de ascendencia chilena y nativoamericana, pero menciona con orgullo que Vieques ha sido su hogar por más de 20 años. Nos guía a través del refugio: millas y millas de follaje verde rodeado por el azul cristalino del mar Caribe. Donde quiera que vamos, hay caballos vagando alrededor. Barandiaran lleva plumas en su sombrero, que tomó de pájaros muertos tras el huracán María. Ha prometido vestir con ellas hasta que Vieques se recupere completamente del huracán.

Barandiaran rememora que conoció a Arache en 2012, cuando la administración de Obama formó el Grupo de Trabajo para la Sostenibilidad de Vieques (Vieques Sustainability Taskforce). Mientras que la mayoría de los esfuerzos de reciclaje se centraron en el manejo de papel, plástico y aluminio, Barandiaran recuerda que Arache preguntaba repetidamente: “¿Y qué hay de la composta?”

“Al final del día, se discutieron muchas cosas, se tomaron muchas decisiones y nada se llevó a cabo… pero ella nunca se fue”, dijo Barandiaran. “Siguió persistiendo, y ahora la conocemos como ‘Ana Composta’”.

Al principio, la intención de Arache era establecer un sitio de compostaje en tierras municipales, pero, en aquel momento, en la Alcaldía no reconocían su valor. “Se mostraron escépticos [y me preguntaron:] ‘¿Para qué? Eso no hace falta”, recuerda. Sin embargo, como biólogo que trabaja en conservación, Barandiaran entendió la visión de Arache y decidió colaborar.

Arache y Barandiaran fueron juntos a pedirle ayuda al alcalde de Vieques. A pesar de que no recibieron todo el apoyo, siguieron adelante con sus planes y, para el 2016, construyeron un sitio de compostaje en el Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Vieques con cuencas de retención e infraestructura. Pero cuando el huracán María tocó tierra tan solo unos meses más tarde, lo destruyó por completo.

La organización sin fines de lucro Isla Nena Composta recibió aproximadamente 30 400 yardas cúbicas de escombros vegetales de los huracanes Irma y María.  Camille Padilla Dalmau

Poco después del huracán, se reunieron de nuevo con el alcalde y le explicaron que podían usar el material vegetal derribado por el huracán; si no, este estaba destinado a parar en el vertedero municipal. Sin embargo, el alcalde no accedía. Arache y Barandiaran se reunieron después con FEMA y el Cuerpo de Ingenieros del Ejército de Estados Unidos (USACE, por sus siglas en inglés) para explicarles que tenían el espacio para recibir los materiales. Pese a que les tomó meses, finalmente el Cuerpo de Ingenieros del Ejército de Estados Unidos empezó a transferirle los materiales vegetales a Isla Nena Composta.

Una vez las agencias federales se pusieron de acuerdo, el alcalde también decidió apoyar el programa. “Cuando tienes una agencia gubernamental trabajando con una organización comunitaria, se complementan muy bien entre sí porque la agencia gubernamental puede reconocerla y darle legitimidad”, añadió Barandiaran.

En 2021, hubo un cambio en el gobierno local –y en su mentalidad respecto al compostaje–. José ‘Junito’ Corcino Acevedo, el actual alcalde, es un expescador comercial que anteriormente le ha comprado composta a Isla Nena Composta y entiende el valor del proyecto.

Por lo tanto, la Asamblea Legislativa de Vieques firmó una ordenanza que decreta que todo el material vegetal en Vieques debe ser procesado por Isla Nena Composta. El municipio, el Servicio de Pesca y Vida Silvestre de EE. UU. e Isla Nena Composta también firmaron un acuerdo colaborativo que le otorgó a la organización sin fines de lucro los servicios de un contratista municipal que recibe el material vegetal de lunes a viernes. Esto le permite a Isla Nena Composta contar con horas fijas y le da más tiempo a Arache para dedicar sus esfuerzos a la educación crítica y la recaudación de fondos.

El alcalde Corcino comenta que quería trabajar con Isla Nena Composta porque tiene el potencial de extender la vida útil del vertedero y de controlar los incendios en el basurero y porque reduce ciertos portadores de enfermedades, como las ratas, los mosquitos, las garrapatas y las cucarachas.

Huracanes como Fiona (en imagen), que azotó a Puerto Rico en Septiembre, crean pilas masivas de material vegetativo que usualmente terminan en los vertederos.  Erika Santelices/AFP via Getty Images

Después de que el huracán Fiona azotó la Isla el mes pasado, el municipio contrató a dos compañías para llevar escombros vegetales a Isla Nena Composta. “Ha sido nuestra salvación”, explicó Corcino Acevedo en una entrevista telefónica unas semanas tras el huracán. “Casi todo el material vegetal se ha llevado a Isla Nena Composta en vez de al vertedero”. 

“Esa es una gran cantidad [de material] que se está llevando a un lugar que no afecta la vida útil del vertedero”, dijo Corcino Acevedo. 

Entre el equipo requerido, la transportación y el costo de la mano de obra, el manejo de desperdicios sólidos es una industria cara. A medida que las organizaciones sin fines de lucro, los grupos comunitarios y los pequeños negocios locales intervienen para abordar la crisis de vertederos en Puerto Rico, se están encontrando con barreras financieras importantes.

Entre 2017 y 2021, los huracanes Irma y María, los terremotos y la pandemia empeoraron la crisis de vertederos en Puerto Rico, lo que llevó al gobernador Pedro Pierluisi a declarar una emergencia de vertederos a principios de 2021 y, con ello, a hacer disponibles los fondos para que los vertederos cumplieran con las regulaciones. Pero ha pasado casi un año, y no se ha distribuido ningún dinero. Las organizaciones comunitarias dicen que están teniendo problemas para acceder a esos fondos por la burocracia y la falta de comprensión sobre las condiciones locales por parte del gobierno federal. 

Según María V. Rodríguez Muñoz, directora del área de control de contaminación del terreno para el Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales de Puerto Rico, actualmente la agencia planifica una vista pública para atender a organizaciones comunitarias y sin fines de lucro que trabajan con el manejo de desperdicios sólidos. 

Isla Nena Composta ha tenido que depender del equipo del Servicio de Pesca y Vida Silvestre de EE. UU. para mantener sus instalaciones de compostaje y árboles frutales, pero carece del equipo para procesar la nueva materia prima que ha recolectado. El Cuerpo de Ingenieros del Ejército de Estados Unidos contrató a una compañía para la trituración de los desperdicios vegetales causados por María, pero el contrato terminó poco después de que concluyeron las actividades de limpieza tras el huracán. Las trituradores industriales pueden costar cientos de miles de dólares, una cantidad de dinero que la organización no posee. Igualmente, la organización necesita fondos para entrenar y emplear a un personal capacitado. 

“El mayor reto es seguir operando con recursos limitados. Necesitamos el equipo básico para mover los materiales, triturarlos y poder vender [la composta], y de este modo sostener la operación”, señala Arache, que ha solicitado fondos públicos sin resultado alguno. Su meta es hacer que Isla Nena Composta sea viable financieramente. “Sí, lo estamos logrando, pero podríamos acelerar el proceso si el Gobierno nos apoyara con los subsidios que están disponibles que no llegan”, dijo. “El Gobierno federal tiene dinero. No sé qué pasa que no llega a donde tiene que llegar”. 

Una mujer parada en su propiedad dos semanas después que el Huracán María devastara a Puerto Rico en 2017.  Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mientras Puerto Rico sigue siendo azotado por tormentas intensas debido al cambio climático, y aumentan los apagones que causan desperdicios de comida y dañan electrodomésticos, invertir en soluciones resulta una necesidad imperiosa.

“El objetivo es que una ONG local pueda crear trabajos dignos para los locales”, dijo Barandiaran. “Cuando Isla Nena Composta opere como visualizamos, podrá generar 20 empleos [recurrentes]; esas son 20 familias beneficiadas”. Puesto que Vieques tiene 2405 familias, ayudar a 20 de ellas es esencial para contribuir a la retención de ciudadanos en una isla que ha sido afectada de manera severa por la recesión económica y la emigración y donde más de la mitad de su población vive en la pobreza.

Más allá de los contratiempos, Arache está comprometida con su misión porque cree que reciclar y compostar es esencial para la supervivencia de la humanidad.

“Si la Tierra recicla, si el universo recicla, entonces nosotros tenemos que reciclar para continuar con el ciclo de la vida”.

Anthony Rivera Cessé y Marian Pichs de Film Translation Board tradujeron y editaron este artículo del inglés al español.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Los escombros de los desastres están empujando los vertederos de Puerto Rico al límite. on Oct 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Disaster debris is pushing Puerto Rico’s landfills to the brink

Fri, 10/21/2022 - 03:45

This story was produced in collaboration with 9 Millones, a digital media outlet based in Puerto Rico. It was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

With her six-month-old son balanced on her hip, Ana Arache walks through the beginning stages of a fruit tree forest on the island of Vieques, off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico’s mainland. It is July; the sun beats down and a constant breeze rustles the branches of growing guayabo, tamarindo, and mango trees. As she makes her way across the tropical-dry landscape, Arache points to the pink flowers of the acerola tree, or Caribbean cherry, a smile forming on her face. The trees have already given fruit, and the flowers mean they will bear more.

Arache then points to the ground, gesturing at the ashy brown soil filled with wood shavings. The material is the product of a program that took vegetative debris from Hurricane María and turned it into compost. “We planted this small tree with compost produced thanks to the success [of our program],” explained Arache, the founder of Isla Nena Composta, a nonprofit organization that manages Vieques’ community composting program. 

Like the rest of Puerto Rico and its archipelago, Vieques was devastated twice in September 2017: first by the strong winds and rain of Hurricane Irma, followed two weeks later by Hurricane María, which made landfall as a Category 4. The luscious green foliage that defines Puerto Rico disappeared. María’s 155-mile-per-hour winds scattered branches, leaves, and tree trunks across streets, sidewalks, and roads. 

In total, hurricanes Irma and María produced 2.5 million tons of debris in Puerto Rico, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers – equal to 2.5 to 3 years’ worth of landfill space. 

The government needed to act quickly to clear paths in the debris so first responders and loved ones could bring assistance and essential items to people in need. In the rush to move the rubble, agencies made decisions that shortened the life of Puerto Rico’s already-strained landfills. They moved the debris to the roadside and left it there without separating the materials or diverting it to places where it could be processed or recycled. Eventually, most of it ended up in landfills. 

Environmentalist Ana Arache walks through a fruit tree forest on the island of Vieques, grown using compost from Hurricane Maria debris. Camille Padilla Dalmau

In the years since, the crisis has only worsened. Because of climate change, hurricanes are becoming more intense and frequent in the Caribbean. Category 1 Hurricane Fiona, which made landfall in southern Puerto Rico on September 17, downed trees, homes, and power lines, demonstrating how even less potent storms can strain Puerto Rico’s limited landfill space. The government doesn’t have an archipelago-wide action plan to solve the problem. One study from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, estimates many of Puerto Rico’s landfills will reach capacity as soon as 2023.

Now, a group of organizations including nonprofits like Isla Nena Composta and Puerto Rico Composta Inc. and companies such as TAIS are racing to delay the islands’ landfills from filling up.

Puerto Rico has never been great at recycling. The Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling Act of 1992 set a goal that Puerto Rico recycle 35 percent of the waste it generates; in reality, that number has reached just 10 to 15 percent. Territory-wide, 44 percent of the material that ends up in landfills is compostable; of that number, 22 percent is vegetative material like trees, grass clippings, and bushes.

“With the crisis, the need, we got an opportunity,” said Arache. “María was the push to start taking composting seriously.”

The government of Puerto Rico first recognized its landfill crisis in the 1970’s. Two government agencies, the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, or JCA for its Spanish acronym, and the Solid Waste Management Authority, or ADS, were formed to take care of the issue. But since their conception, they’ve been hindered by inadequate budgets, a lack of personnel, and limited powers to fully implement its proposals. JCA and ADS were absorbed by the Department of Environment & Natural Resources, or DRNA, in 2018 due to austerity measures. This has reduced the solid waste management of the entire archipelago to a single office within the DRNA.

Two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s landfills fail to follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. 

A landfill on the island of Vieques. Camille Padilla Dalmau

When many of Puerto Rico’s landfills were built in the 1950s and 1960s, they were designed without effective systems to limit gas emissions and leachate spills (liquids created when food scraps and vegetative debris decompose). The gas emissions contribute to climate change, while leachate spills can release heavy metals, ammonia, and other components that may be toxic, radioactive, and mutagenic to water bodies and nearby communities.

The Vieques landfill is no exception. Essentially, anyone can go to the landfill to dump their trash in sections such as residential garbage bags, scrap metal, electronics, and furniture – there’s even a space for dead animals. A lack of proper soil cover over the garbage has caused fires in the landfill, which affect air quality community-wide.

According to the EPA’s latest assessment, the Vieques landfill has no liner, a net that protects the soil and groundwater from leachate contamination. It also has no leachate collection system or groundwater monitoring program. The lack of monitoring is significant since the landfill is located adjacent to the Caribbean Sea and 8km (5 miles) from Vieques’ most important groundwater system. The nearest house is just 54 meters (0.03 miles) away and the closest school is 2 km (1.3 mi).

“There are days where the flies are unbearable,” said Melisa Molina, a municipal worker who lives near the Vieques landfill. But what has affected her health even more has been landfill fires. The smoke “invades the whole area” and has a strong, pungent smell. It was so “unbearable” at one point that she had to live with her parents on the other side of the island. “I’ve had asthma for 16 years and obviously it doesn’t get any better,” she added. Puerto Ricans have higher asthma rates than any other ethnic group in the United States. 

As a collection of islands, Puerto Rico is in desperate need of new ideas to manage its consumption and waste strategies. There is only so much land available before communities run out of space for their garbage. 

Practices like incineration are highly contested by communities and governmental agencies alike. That means that as landfills fill up, the archipelago must either start shipping garbage overseas or drastically revamp its recycling industry.

Trash along a busy street in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2021. Just 10 to 15 percent of the waste generated in Puerto Rico is recycled. Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images

“The public policy that we have – and have had – has been unstable and inefficient,” said Francisco V. Aquino, a lawyer and member of Generación Circular, a coalition of organizations pushing for public policy that promotes a circular economy in Puerto Rico – an effort to reuse and recycle products locally as long as possible. 

Generación Circular recently pushed for a bill (Ley 51-2022) to ban some single-use plastics. The law was approved in June and will go into effect in 2024.  The group is also pushing for legislation to create a Circular Economy Trust that would gather data, provide oversight on the disbursement of public funding, and advocate for public policies that prioritize the health and well-being of Puerto Rico rather than private economic gains.

Part of the failure of the planning, according to Aquino, has to do with the lack of community integration. “There are parameters established top-down without taking into consideration what communities can do, what they’re willing to do, how you strengthen communities so they can participate in this economy, because an important part of the circular economy is that resources are not always going to the same hands.”

One of the most essential solutions is diverting and recycling organic materials.

In the months following hurricanes Irma and María, Arache’s group, Isla Nena Composta, received roughly 30,400 cubic yards of vegetative debris. After sorting out construction debris and crushing the vegetative materials, they ended up with approximately 17,000 cubic yards of clean and chipped vegetative materials. Eventually, that became 4,000 cubic yards of compost, about the size of an olympic pool.

Sin composta no hay paraíso,” Arache said, laughing. It means that without compost, there’s no paradise, a play on a popular salsa song by El Gran Combo.

Arache describes compost as “the cornerstone of the circle of life” and believes that it is necessary for humanity to survive. Turning organic matter – vegetation, food scraps, or animal waste – into soil not only creates nutrients for the ground to produce food, but it also helps to grow trees and other plants whose roots are essential for retaining water and mitigating floods and other disasters related to climate change.

Isla Nena Composta has sold its compost to local gardeners and community agricultural projects which has helped sustain the nonprofit’s operations for almost five years. They have also donated compost to schools so they develop their community gardens.  

Isla Nena Composta is a rare public-private partnership. The composting facility and the budding fruit tree forest is located in Vieques National Wildlife Refuge which, from 1941 to 2001, was used as a bombing and live-fire training range and ammunition storage by the U.S. Navy. Arache, who is also an environmental scientist and engineer, explained that before military intervention this area consisted mostly of tropical forest and wetlands. The Navy covered the land where Isla Nena Composta is located with asphalt to build a tarmac. That asphalt was removed after the Navy ceased its operations and recycled to make the road that now connects the wildlife refuge. According to Arache, the process transformed this section of the park into a semi-dry forest.

Today, the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The local office of the federal agency offered Arache’s organization five acres to process vegetative materials and an additional acre for the fruit forest. The composting site is filled with massive piles of vegetative materials (leaves, branches, tree trunks), cardboard, and wooden palettes. Since Hurricane Fiona, they have received a lot more material. “It’s beautiful,” Arache described via email.

Compost made from vegetative debris from Hurricane Maria at Isla Nena Composta. Camille Padilla Dalmau The compost helps fruit trees like Acerola grow.

Among the materials, one small dark brown pile stands out – this is what’s left of the compost produced by the vegetative debris from Hurricane María.

“My goal has always been that everything compostable in Vieques be recycled so it doesn’t get to the landfill and we can transform it into fertile soil,” Arache explained. “Not only Vieques, my dream is to accomplish this in Puerto Rico and the whole world, but we have to start one community at a time.”

Less than a mile away from the compost pile are the offices of the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, led by biologist Mike Barandiaran, who manages the refuge. He’s from New York, with Chilean and Native American descendancy, but proudly notes that Vieques has been his home for over 20 years. He shows us around the reserve, miles and miles of green foliage surrounded by the pristine blue Caribbean sea. Everywhere we go, horses are roaming around. Barandiaran wears feathers in his hat, gathered from diseased birds after Hurricane María. He pledges to wear them until Vieques fully recovers from the hurricane.

Barandiaran recalls that he first met Arache around 2012, when the Obama administration formed the Vieques Sustainability Taskforce. While many of the recycling efforts focused on managing paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum, Barandiaran remembers Arache repeatedly asking: “What about compost?”

“At the end of the day, a lot was discussed, a lot of decisions were made, nothing was implemented – but she never left,” Barandiaran said. “She kept persisting, and we know her as ‘Ana Composta.’”

At the beginning of her efforts, Arache’s intention was to establish the composting site on municipal lands, but the mayor’s office at the time did not see its value. “They were skeptical and asked, ‘For what? That’s not needed,’” she recalled. Yet as a biologist that works in conservation, Barandiaran understood Arache’s vision and decided to collaborate.

Arache and Barandiaran went together to ask the mayor of Vieques for help. Even though they didn’t get full support, they went forward with their plans and by 2016 they built the composting site in the Vieques Wildlife Refuge with retention ponds and infrastructure. But when Hurricane María made landfall just a few months later, it completely destroyed the site.

The nonprofit Isla Nena Composta received roughly 30,400 cubic yards of vegetative debris from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Camille Padilla Dalmau

Shortly after the hurricane, Arache and Barandiaran met with the mayor again and explained that they could take the vegetative materials blown down by the storm; it was otherwise slated to go to the town’s landfill. But the mayor still didn’t budge. Arache and Barandiaran next met with FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to explain that they had the space to receive the materials. Although it took months, eventually the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began transferring the vegetative materials to Isla Nena Composta.

Once the federal agencies were on board, the mayor decided to support the program as well. “When you have a government agency working with a community organization, they complement each other very well because the government agency can recognize and give them legitimacy,” Barandiaran added.

In 2021, there was a change in the local government – and its mindset toward composting. José ‘Junito’ Corcino Acevedo, the current mayor, is a former commercial fisherman who had previously purchased compost from Isla Nena Composta and understood the project’s value.

The legislative assembly of Vieques has since signed an ordinance that decrees that any vegetative material on Vieques should be processed by Isla Nena Composta. The municipality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Isla Nena Composta also signed a collaborative agreement that gave the nonprofit a municipal contractor that receives the vegetative material from Monday to Friday. This allows Isla Nena Composta to have steady hours and gives Arache time to work on critical education and fundraising efforts.

Mayor Corcino says that he wanted to work with Isla Nena Composta because it has the potential of extending the life of the landfill, to control brush fires at the garbage dump, and because it reduces disease carriers such as rats, mosquitoes, ticks, and cockroaches.

After Hurricane Fiona hit the island last month, the municipality hired two companies to take vegetative debris to Isla Nena Composta. “It has been our salvation,” explained Corcino Acevedo in a phone interview a few weeks after the storm. “Almost all the vegetative material has been taken to Isla Nena Composta instead of the landfill.” 

Hurricanes like Fiona, which struck Puerto Rico in September, seen here, create massive piles of vegetative debris that usually end up in landfills. Erika Santelices/AFP via Getty Images

“That’s a large amount [of material] being taken to a place that doesn’t affect the life of the landfill,” said Corcino Acevedo. 

Between the required equipment, transportation, and labor costs, solid waste management is an expensive industry. As nonprofits, community groups, and local small businesses step in to address Puerto Rico’s landfill crisis, they’re running into major financial hurdles.

Between 2017 and 2021, hurricanes Irma and María, earthquakes, and the pandemic all worsened Puerto Rico’s landfill crisis, which moved Governor Pedro Pierluisi to declare a landfill emergency in early 2021, and with it making funds available to bring landfills into compliance. But almost a year has passed and no money has been distributed. Community organizations say they are having a hard time accessing that money because of bureaucracy and a lack of federal understanding of local conditions. 

According to María V. Rodríguez Muñoz, director of the land contamination control area for the Department of Natural Resources in Puerto Rico, the agency is currently planning a public hearing to listen to nonprofits and community organizations working with solid waste management. 

Isla Nena Compost has had to rely on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife equipment to maintain its composting and fruit tree facility, but it lacks the equipment to process the new raw material it has collected. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired a company to grind the vegetative debris from Hurricane María, but their contract ended after the hurricane clean up concluded. Industrial shredders can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – money the organization does not have. It also needs funds to train and employ knowledgeable staff. 

“The biggest challenge is to keep operating with limited resources. We need basic equipment to move the materials, grind them, and be able to market [the resulting compost], and in this way sustain the operation,” said Arache, who has applied for public funding with no avail. Her goal is to make Isla Nena Composta financially viable. “We are having some success but we could accelerate the process if the government would support us with subsidies that are available but never arrive,” she said. “The federal government has money, I don’t know what happens if they don’t get it where they need to.” 

A woman stands on her property two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico in 2017. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As more intense storms hit Puerto Rico due to climate change, and more power outages cause food waste and damaged appliances, there is a critical need to invest in solutions.

“The goal is that a local NGO can create dignified jobs for local people,” Barandiaran of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. “When Isla Nena Composta is operating as we envision, it can generate 20 [recurring] jobs, that’s 20 families impacted.” Because Vieques has 2,405 households, impacting 20 of those households is essential to help retain citizens in an island that has been severely impacted by the economic recession and emigration and where more than half of its population lives below the poverty line.

Aside from the setbacks, Arache is committed to her mission because she believes that recycling and composting are essential for humanity’s survival.

“If the Earth recycles, the universe recycles, then we need to recycle to continue the circle of life,” she said.

Anthony Rivera and Marian Pichs of Film Translation Board translated and edited this story from English to Spanish.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Disaster debris is pushing Puerto Rico’s landfills to the brink on Oct 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Congress is spending millions on new air monitors. Will it make a difference?

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 03:45

In the late summer of 2018, hundreds of residents packed into the community center of an affluent Chicago suburb to call for the closure of a nearby industrial facility. For decades, the international company Sterigenics had been using the compound ethylene oxide to fumigate medical devices such as catheters and surgical trays at its plant in Willowbrook, Illinois. But in 2016, the EPA published an updated risk assessment for the chemical, finding it to be 30 times more toxic for adults and 60 times more toxic for children than previously estimated.

In response to these findings, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 office, which covers the Midwest, began collecting air samples around the Sterigenics plant. The results of their investigation found that the 19,000 people living within a one-mile radius of the facility were exposed to a significantly elevated risk of cancer from ethylene oxide. News of the study spread rapidly in the community, and Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla organized a public forum in August 2018.

“Two years ago I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” one man told the Sterigenics spokesperson at the meeting. (Studies have linked the cancer to ethylene oxide exposure.) “They’ve taken my bladder, my prostate, and 26 lymph nodes. And I’ll see you in court,” he finished to a room full of applause. 

Sterigenics assured the public that they would slash emissions, but months later, the EPA’s monitors were still picking up high levels of ethylene oxide. In February 2019, the state of Illinois ordered the company to cease its operations in Willowbrook while state and federal authorities continued their investigation of its public health risks. Then in September, the company announced that it would be shutting down its Willowbrook operation for good. 

The Sterigenics story offers an example of the power of air monitoring to identify and resolve problems caused by air pollution. But the way it played out is an exception. Other communities around the country exposed to ethylene oxide haven’t even seen government regulators collect air samples to gauge their exposure.

State and federal environmental regulators rarely test around the country’s largest industrial facilities for “toxic air pollutants,” a group of 188 chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects. The EPA’s “network” of air monitors that collects information about these chemicals is sparse: There are only 34; none of them in the heavily industrialized corridors of Texas or Louisiana. And with the exception of petroleum refineries, most companies aren’t required to monitor the air along the outskirts of their facilities. As a result, many people living near industrial sites have no idea what they’re breathing every day. 

A young woman walks around the track of a park across the street from the Valero refinery in Houston, Texas. Pat Sullivan / AP Photo

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden in August, has a potential fix: allocating millions of dollars to support air monitoring by the EPA, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations. These provisions have been hailed as major wins for areas of the country that have been kept in the dark for decades about the quality of the air they breathe. 

But funds for more air monitoring on their own don’t fix the biggest problem standing in the way of communities demanding cleaner air, former EPA staffers and environmental advocates told Grist. Even when air monitors pick up concerning levels of toxic pollutants in neighborhoods near industrial facilities, no law requires state environmental agencies or the EPA to do anything about it. It’s often only after people organize and file lawsuits that regulators swing into action, experts said, and that process can take years. 

“Information is power, but it requires action. It requires next steps,” said Scott Throwe, a former senior staffer in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Ultimately, [air monitoring data] is only as valuable as the actions that are taken to address the emissions that are being released.” 

State and federal agencies that monitor for air pollution most frequently direct their efforts toward six “criteria pollutants”: carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. These substances originate from a number of different sources including vehicles, industrial operations, and wildfires. The Clean Air Act says that if the concentration of one of these pollutants reaches a certain threshold, regulators must ensure that no new sources are added to the area.

But the 188 toxic air pollutants don’t receive the same treatment. Instead, companies that emit them are required to add special technologies like scrubbers to minimize the amount of pollution that can escape. When these technologies malfunction or become less efficient as they age, people who live nearby may have no idea that the quality of their air is deteriorating. This is especially true for colorless and odorless chemicals like ethylene oxide, which can only be detected using special equipment. 

That’s why some community groups and advocacy organizations have stepped up their demands for air monitors in recent years. 

Read Next Low-cost sensors are helping communities find gaps in air quality data

“We need the data so we can figure out next steps and so we can apply that pressure,” said Sheila Sherna, a policy director at the Rio Grande International Study Center and former air quality investigator at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Her organization has been petitioning the EPA for air monitoring around a medical sterilization facility in Laredo, Texas that releases thousands of pounds of ethylene oxide a year. 

The EPA has acknowledged the need for more air monitoring. Last year, the agency’s administrator, Michael Reagan, visited a number of southern towns facing high levels of industrial air pollution. In Reserve, Louisiana, a town perched on the bank of the Mississippi River in the state’s industrial corridor, residents took him by Fifth Ward Elementary, a school that sits in the shadow of Denka’s sprawling chemical complex that emits chloroprene, a substance linked to skin and liver cancer. In response to the concerns of those he met in Louisiana and Texas, Reagan announced a multi-pronged strategy for addressing the pollution, including more air monitoring. 

But using air samples to identify a toxic hotspot is just a “first step” to decreasing toxic emissions, said Throwe. Inspectors must next develop a targeting strategy, conduct inspections, and analyze the data to determine whether a facility is out of compliance. The speed with which this process occurs (and whether it occurs at all) depends on a number of factors, including community pressure and the willingness of state regulators and the regional EPA office to take action. 

In some parts of south Louisiana, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, has permitted new ethylene oxide operations near existing facilities that release even greater volumes of the chemical than the Willowbrook plant did. Kim Terrell, a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told Grist that she is skeptical that the money from the Inflation Reduction Act will substantially benefit these areas of the state. 

“It’s good that this funding is being targeted towards the communities that need it but a big part of EJ [environmental justice] involves decision making at the state level,” Terrell said. “All the funding in the world can’t help a community if the state DEQ is permitting more and more industrialization.”

Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, told Grist that it is “committed to pursuing lower emissions levels from all facilities and to further improving air quality in Louisiana,” and added that the Department regularly “assesses impacts to nearby communities to assure permit limits are protective of public health.”

Emma Cheuse, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, welcomed the new federal money for air monitoring efforts but said that the disparate nature of state air pollution programs means that the EPA should pass stronger federal regulations. In particular, she argued that the rules outlining what pollution-reduction technologies companies must install should require “fenceline monitors.” Unlike the community air monitors that the IRA is funding, these would be installed on company property, and workers would be required to regularly check them to ensure that chemical concentrations don’t exceed “action levels” made by regulators. The EPA has already set a precedent for this type of rule when it revised the requirements for petroleum refineries in 2015. And in February, EPA scientist Ned Shappley told the agency’s Clean Air Advisory Committee that similar provisions could work for many other types of facilities in the future. 

But Scott Throwe, the former agency staffer, told Grist that he is “extremely skeptical” that a revamp of the agency’s rules to require fenceline monitors will happen anytime soon due to technical complexities and industry pushback.  

“They’re going to challenge the hell out of it,” he said. “Any of this information makes the industry vulnerable. It’s information that is used directly for enforcement purposes.”

Throwe emphasized that improvements to air quality are typically driven not by regulators, but by ordinary people who rally for stronger protections. That’s how air monitors work best – by alerting people to potential problems.

“Making noise and getting press results in movement,” he said. “When they [create] these community associations and these community action groups, when they rattle cages at the political level, and the phone starts ringing at EPA – that’s what makes things happen.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Congress is spending millions on new air monitors. Will it make a difference? on Oct 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The selective accounting behind the plastic industry’s climate-friendly claims

Thu, 10/20/2022 - 03:30

As the plastics industry ramps up production, plastic pollution continues to accumulate in the environment at an alarming pace. Up to 199 million metric tons of plastic is already swirling in the oceans — strangling marine life and leaching toxic chemicals into the food chain — and a study published earlier this year predicts this number could quadruple by midcentury. Meanwhile, plastic — most of which is made out of oil and gas — is also taking a toll on human communities. Production facilities located in majority-Black and low-income communities emit hazardous air pollution, contributing to wildly elevated rates of cancer and respiratory disease.

Much of the problem is driven by unnecessary single-use plastics — products like plastic bags and utensils that are designed to be thrown away after only a few minutes of use. One estimate from 2018 found that single-use plastics accounted for between 60 and 95 percent of the planet’s marine plastic pollution.

Given the scale of the problem and its increasing urgency, it seems only natural that the U.S. government is considering a straightforward step toward a solution: Stop buying single-use plastics. 

Between July and late September, the General Services Administration, a federal agency that provides administrative support to other government agencies, sought public comment on a proposal to restrict federal procurement of single-use plastic items. “With single-use plastics being a significant contributor to the global plastic pollution concern,” the General Services Administration, or GSA, explained, “it is a logical step for the agency to examine this.”

But petrochemical industry trade groups have vociferously opposed the proposal. The Plastics Industry Association launched a whole new “awareness campaign” in response to what it said would be a costly and environmentally damaging regulation. Another plastic industry group, the American Chemistry Council, inveighed against the proposal with a 23-page public comment. 

Both groups made similar arguments, trotting out talking points they frequently use in the face of proposed legislation to cut back on single-use plastics. Contrary to popular belief, they said, plastic is actually the most environmentally friendly option compared to alternative packaging materials such as aluminum and glass. Banning federal procurement of single-use plastics would only lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, more landfilled materials, and higher costs to taxpayers. 

Experts dispute these claims, however, saying they are either outright false or that they rely on selective data interpretations that are meant to make single-use plastics look good while downplaying the full spectrum of their environmental impacts. The industry’s arguments are based on so-called “life cycle analyses,” or LCAs — a method used to determine all of the environmental impacts associated with something’s production, use, and disposal. While these assessments can be useful, they have frequently been “misused” by the industry to place disproportionate weight on factors like transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions — which make plastic look good because it’s lightweight — and less emphasis on considerations like chemical pollution, an area where chemicals perform poorly. Other factors may be too difficult to quantify and so are omitted altogether, like the number of marine animals that are strangled by plastic litter every year.

Elizabeth Balkan, North America director for the international nonprofit Reloop, said that life cycle analyses can allow interest groups to simply craft the story they want to tell — by “picking and choosing data and assumptions and crafting a methodology based on specific, target outcomes.”

A plastic bag floats in the ocean off Cebu Island in the Philippines. Getty Images

At the heart of the American Chemistry Council and Plastics Industry Association’s claims to sustainability are LCAs suggesting that single-use plastics are less carbon-intensive than items made from alternative materials. To take the example of a beverage container, the analyses they cite find that a single plastic water bottle causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime than an aluminum can or glass bottle. This is because it generally takes more energy to melt, mold, and transport thicker and heavier glass and aluminum.

Although the plastics industry commissioned several of these LCAs, and although they contain notable omissions — they neglect, for example, to acknowledge the 36 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions caused by fracking for the plastics industry every year — Balkan said they at least have “some merit”; their findings have been replicated in numerous other independent studies. However, an LCA’s outputs are only as useful as the questions they attempt to answer. Why not compare single-use plastics to reusable alternatives, Balkan asked? Why assume that all plastics must be replaced, rather than modeling a scenario with dramatically scaled-down demand for packaging and disposable foodware? 

John Hocevar, oceans campaign manager for the nonprofit Greenpeace USA, also said it was inappropriate to highlight greenhouse gas emissions to the exclusion of plastic’s many other devastating consequences to public health and the environment — from marine litter and toxic chemicals that leach out of plastics to hazardous air pollution from waste incineration. 

“If something makes sense from a climate perspective but is going to disrupt entire ecosystems, cause extinctions, and cause death or serious health problems for large numbers of people,” he said, “it would be ridiculous to claim it is an environmentally friendly choice.”

Some of the plastic industry’s other claims fall flat as well. For example, the trade groups lean heavily on the promise of recycling — one of the LCAs they cite says we can “recycle our way out of this problem” — even though the U.S. plastic recycling rate has never risen above 10 percent and advocates say it is unlikely to ever work on a meaningful scale. And to back up the ACC’s assertion that single-use plastics prevent more material from heading to the landfill, the group cites a 2016 LCA saying that it takes four tons of “alternative materials” to replace one ton of plastic. But this number is misleading; it represents the amount of alternative materials that would be needed to replace not only single-use plastics, but also plastic in things like cars, furniture, medical products, and “durable household goods” — a scope far broader than what the GSA covers in its proposal.

Furthermore, more waste does not automatically mean more environmental damage, since some types of waste are less damaging than others. Yet the plastics industry implies the opposite by pairing the findings of the 2016 LCA with those of a separate analysis, this one looking at a single-use plastic reduction policy in Canada. That analysis, written by a conservative-libertarian think tank called the Fraser Institute, says that a Canadian single-use plastics ban will cause a spike in other kinds of waste and lead to “increased environmental damage.”

A plastic water bottle on a wall in Spring Township, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

This is in direct opposition to what the Canadian government’s own reports say. In a regulatory impact statement published at the end of last year, the country’s health and environment departments estimated that its ban on the manufacturing and sale of six kinds of single-use plastics, which was announced this summer and will be fully implemented by the end of 2023, would create roughly 298,000 metric tons of additional waste from replacement materials within the first year of implementation. But this increase waste “would represent inherently less risk to the environment” than single-use plastics, as it would be comprised almost entirely of paper substitutes — which, unlike plastic, are widely recycled and compostable — as well as smaller quantities of biodegradable wood and molded fiber, a paper-based packaging material. While the policy is set to create some new plastic waste from non-single-use items — about 21,500 metric tons — this will be more than offset by the elimination of some 132,000 metric tons of single-use plastic waste. 

To Madhavi Venkatesan, an economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston, this is just another example of the plastics industry handpicking arguments that align with its interests, even if those arguments are not backed by robust evidence. “It borders on unethical,” she told Grist. Yet another example is the claim that restricting single-use plastics would cause a jump in food waste, which the ACC supports in its comment to the GSA by citing brochures from U.S. and U.K. packaging industry associations. One of these documents says that cucumbers wrapped in plastic last longer than those that are bare, and another says plastic wrapping can extend meat’s shelf life by two to 21 days. 

Balkan objected to this argument: Just because plastic can extend a cucumber’s shelf life doesn’t mean that it’s needed to address food waste, a problem that is largely driven by consumer behavior — how much food people buy, cook, and serve — as well as agricultural practices. She called it an “inaccurate and deceitful attempt” to coopt an urgent environmental issue.

Again, Balkan and Venkatesan highlighted the need for a full reckoning with plastic’s impacts: If it solves one environmental problem by creating another — like reducing food waste but exacerbating plastic pollution and all the harms that come with it — then “that’s not a real solution,” Venkatesan said. The same goes for many of the plastic industry’s arguments in defense of plastic: Even if they are true — and several appear not to be — they should only be evaluated within the full context of plastic’s burden to people and the planet, from its production to its use and disposal.

Neither the American Chemistry Council nor the Plastics Industry Association responded to Grist’s request for comment.

In their own public comments to the GSA, environmental advocates say that such a holistic analysis will only support one conclusion: that single-use plastics must be eliminated. “Single use plastic is impacting our health, is creating serious environmental justice concerns, and is a significant contributor to the global plastic pollution crisis,” said one comment written by Safer States, a national alliance of environmental health organizations.

“We urge the GSA to move quickly to develop and enact bold rules that will drastically reduce and ultimately eliminate federal procurement of single use plastics and prompt movement toward truly safe and sustainable products and systems.”

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

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The selective accounting behind the plastic industry’s climate-friendly claims on Oct 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

How a Utah utility is helping an Estonian oil company hoard Colorado River water

Wed, 10/19/2022 - 03:45

Millions of years before dinosaurs went extinct, what is now Utah was submerged by a broad, shallow sea. Over millennia, as the water receded and tectonic plates shifted, rich organic marine material accumulated, forming thick layers of sediment that eventually became the fossil fuel deposits of the Uinta Basin in the northeastern part of the state. The formation is estimated to hold as many as 300 billion barrels of oil — more than the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

The basin’s immense oil-producing potential remains largely untapped. Drillers in the Uinta Basin extract about 65,000 barrels of oil per day, or just over 1 percent of the more than 5 million barrels daily drilled in the Permian Basin, which straddles West Texas and New Mexico and is the country’s most productive fossil fuel reserve. One of the biggest hurdles is the waxy and viscous quality of Uinta oil, which is so thick that it needs to be constantly heated to keep it liquid. The deposits are also trapped in tiny pores between rocks and more widely dispersed than other shale formations in the country. As a result, oil drillers have been tepid in exploring the basin, despite high gas prices and calls to boost American oil production. 

A pumpjack draws oil out of the Uinta Basin. RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

A state-owned company from the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia wants to change that. The company, Enefit American Oil, has proposed strip-mining 28 million tons of rock, heating them up to temperatures around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and extracting a type of synthetic crude oil. Enefit plans to operate on about 7,000 acres of desert land just south of Dinosaur National Monument and produce 50,000 barrels of oil per day, almost doubling the entire basin’s production. Its novel oil extraction method is also reportedly up to 75 percent more carbon-intensive than traditional fossil fuel extraction. No operation of its kind currently exists in the United States.

But Enefit’s grand plans hinge on one crucial resource that’s in short supply all over the American West: water. The operation needs millions of gallons a day to break up the petroleum-carrying rock and extract oil. In 2011, the company purchased a water right for approximately 10,000 acre-feet — or 3.2 billion gallons — of water from the White River, a tributary of the Green River which flows into the beleaguered Colorado River.

Utah and six other Western states are overwhelmingly dependent on the Colorado for their needs, from urban drinking water to agriculture. But a yearslong megadrought fueled by climate change has left the river in dire straits, and states hold more water rights on paper than physically exist in the river. As a result, water users are making painful cuts to prevent the river’s reservoirs from reaching dangerously low levels. Historically, Utah has not used its full allotment from the river and has restricted large new appropriations for decades in order to fulfill its obligations to Native tribes and downstream states. 

A complex set of rules govern the ownership and use of water in the Colorado River basin. Key among them is the “use it or lose it” principle, which dictates that a water right once appropriated must be put to “beneficial use” — such as for farming or mining — within a specific amount of time. Utah law requires that this threshold be met within 50 years, which is where Enefit ran into trouble. The water right that the company purchased in 2011 dated back to 1965 — meaning it was due to lapse in 2015. If Enefit didn’t put it to use by then, the water right would return to the state. Given the number or regulatory hurdles it needed to overcome before it could even start drilling, there was no way it would start using its water in time to keep its right.

Read Next The Colorado River is drying up. Here’s how that affects Indigenous water rights

State laws allow one exception to the 50-year rule: Public water suppliers and electrical cooperatives may apply for a 10-year extension to prove the water has been put to use. The logic is that it’s OK to hoard water rights only if it means preserving reliable water and electricity access for Utah residents.

How Enefit could claim to be promoting either of these goals is unclear. Nevertheless, the company found a way to capitalize on the loophole. With the deadline looming, Enefit transferred its water right to Deseret Generation and Transmission Cooperative, a public utility serving about 45,000 customers in northeastern Utah. The price? Just $10 for all 3.2 billion gallons. Deseret then turned around and leased the water right back to Enefit, granting it the 10-year extension it needed. 

The extension application requires public entities to prove that the exception they’re requesting “is needed to meet the reasonable future requirements of the public.” An electric cooperative holding on to a water right at the behest of an oil mining company does not appear to be in line with the letter or spirit of the law, given that Deseret produces its electricity from coal shipped in from a mine in Colorado. 

Michael Toll, an attorney with the conservation nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust, called the move “completely unlawful” and said that it “undermines the legislature’s intent in carving out that narrow exception to the 50-year deadline.” The Grand Canyon Trust has been protesting the water right transfer with the state water rights agency and litigating Enefit’s project in federal court. The Trust and a coalition of environmental groups argue that the water right should’ve been forfeited and returned to the state.

Jeff Peterson, a representative for Deseret Power, did not respond to specific questions about the Trust’s allegations but referenced a legal filing submitted to the Utah Division of Water Resources, in which the cooperative questioned the Trust’s standing to file an administrative protest and stated that its “legal assertions are contrary to Utah law.” The cooperative plans to build additional electricity generation units, according to the filing, and the water right in question “will play an important role in Deseret Power’s continued operation of the Bonanza Plant and its ability to meet the reasonable future electricity needs of the public.”

The stakes are high: If Enefit’s project moves forward, it is likely to worsen air quality in a region that is already one of the most polluted in the country, thanks to its mountainous topography and intensive drilling that’s already happening there. The basin is routinely out of compliance with federal smog regulations, and the state public health department has documented spikes in stillbirths in the area.

A truck drives though Uinta Basin, which is home to around some 11,200 oil and gas wells. RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

Even beyond its local effects, Enefit’s plan would be a “climate disaster,” according to Brian Moench, president of the nonprofit Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Producing 50,000 new barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years would lock in the annual equivalent of carbon emissions from 63 coal plants at a time when the Biden administration is pushing to cut the nation’s carbon emissions in half by 2030. 

“It’s really not an overstatement to say that this project would be one of — if not the — most harmful single industrial project in the history of industrial development on the Colorado Plateau,” Toll concluded.

Enefit’s ambitious plans to mine oil in the desert highlands of Utah depend on the Bonanza power plant in northeastern Utah, which is one of just a handful of coal plants still clinging to life in the American West. The 500-megawatt plant is owned by Deseret Power, sits just a few dozen miles from Enefit’s proposed mining location, burns 2 million tons of coal a year, and is dependent on water from the Green River to generate power. The cooperative has a pipeline that moves water from the Green River to the Bonanza plant. (According to public comments and documents submitted by Enefit and Deseret, the mining company plans to make use of this pipeline and develop its own extensive infrastructure to ferry water to its mining location about 20 miles away.) 

Deseret is allowed to draw millions of gallons a day from the river, but for decades it only used a portion of its allocated water right. In particular, one 1959 water right was never put to “beneficial use.” Utah’s 50-year rule meant the right would expire in 2009 and return to the state’s public pool. Not wanting to lose its access, Deseret Power pushed legislation that would allow public water utilities and electric cooperatives a 10-year extension to the water use rule. According to the state legislator who sponsored the bill, the electric cooperative always had plans to construct a second coal unit and the water was needed for the expansion. The bill sailed through the legislature, and after it was signed into law, Deseret received the extension it was seeking. 

A canyon along the Green River cuts through the Uinta Mountains. VW Pics / Contributor via Getty Images

Deseret made use of the 10-year extension once again in 2013 — but this time to benefit Enefit. After Enefit transferred its 10,000 acre-feet water right to Deseret, the electric cooperative submitted an extension request, again citing its future plans for the Bonanza coal plant. The Uinta Basin was at the height of the fracking boom at the time, and a recent Utah Department of Transportation report projected significant growth in the region. The boom would mean increased demand for electricity both at the fracking sites and as a result of population growth. Deseret claimed that it planned to meet that need with a second coal generation unit in the next 5 to 15 years and a third unit in 15 to 25 years.

“It is anticipated that the operation of each of these generation units will require up to an additional 15 [cubic feet per second] of water, resulting in a total water demand at the Bonanza plant of approximately 45 [cubic feet per second],” the application noted. The state water division approved the request without any fuss. 

Almost a decade later, Deseret has not built even that second unit. In fact, in 2015 the company entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and green groups to limit its coal consumption to 20 million tons for the rest of its plant’s operational life after 2020. Given that it burns about 2 million tons a year, that would mean the plant is due to shut down around 2030.

Deseret appears to have since leased the water right back to the mining company. In 2016, Enefit responded to the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental review of a new water pipeline the company planned to build from the Bonanza plant to its proposed mining location. In the letter, Enefit revealed that it has “an exclusive contractual right” to use Deseret’s water right. This was the first public indication that Deseret had entered into a contractual agreement with Enefit to lease the oil company its former water right.  

The existence of the contract means that the electric cooperative is no longer using its 10-year extension to meet public demand for power, according to Toll, the Grand Canyon Trust attorney. 

Read Next The West’s biggest source of renewable energy depends on water. Will it survive the drought?

“Deseret power is not meeting its legal obligation to exercise diligence, because its contract seemingly all but forecloses Deseret Power from using the water itself,” he said. “If it really no longer needs this water to generate electricity to meet the public’s future power demand, then there is no reason that they would even hold on to it in the first place — and the water right would be forfeited if they don’t actually need it for the purpose that they said they were going to use it for.”

It’s unclear exactly how Deseret stands to benefit from the deal. The contract is not public, and both companies declined to comment on the details in the agreement. Attorneys Grist spoke to speculated that Enefit may be paying Deseret for its services, or that the Estonian company may have agreed to purchase power from Deseret when it sets up its mining operation.

In the legal filing filed with the Division of Water Resources, Deseret claims that it still has plans to build a second generation unit and possibly a third. Since the settlement with the EPA does not require it to close the Bonanza by 2030, Deseret noted that it may install additional emissions control technologies or run its existing unit on a seasonal basis, thereby extending the plant’s life beyond 2030.

“Deseret Power is currently evaluating alternative generation options at the Bonanza Plant,” the cooperative noted. “All the additional generation capacity will increase the water demand at the Bonanza Plant.”

An aerial view of the Uinta Mountains. UCG / Contributor via Getty Images

Jared Manning, the deputy state engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources, said that if Deseret lost its water right, the water would most likely not be reappropriated and would remain in the White River. That’s because the state has not been appropriating large new water rights in the Colorado River Basin since 1990.

“We’re not approving large applications in the Colorado River right now,” said Manning. “If this lapsed, we wouldn’t change our policy. We wouldn’t go out and approve some similar size application or anything like that.”

Manning added that, since only municipalities and public utilities can apply for the 10-year extension, his office doesn’t receive many applications requesting additional time to prove a water right has been put to beneficial use. Since the 2008 law allowing extensions was signed into law, Manning said the agency has processed nearly 450 such applications. Deseret has received three such extensions for two different water rights.

With its purchase of Enefit’s right, Deseret now has ownership of a precious and dwindling resource: Almost all waterways in the state have been fully appropriated and, since the state has not been granting large new water rights, the water that is available is typically purchased from another user. Emily Lewis, a former attorney in the Utah Division of Water Resources who is now a water rights attorney and a professor at the University of Utah, said that farmers and industrial water users — like coal plants — are some of the major water holders in the basin, and therefore hold the keys to new water-intensive projects in the area.

A 2014 map shows oil and gas wells in the Uintah Basin. RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post

“There’s not a lot of water out there these days,” she said. “One of the biggest sources of water that’s going to become available is from retiring coal plants. That’s already happening.”

When Deseret’s 10-year extension expires in 2025, the utility will either have to show the water is being used or apply for another extension. State law requires that Deseret show both that it has a need for the water to produce power and that it has constructed infrastructure to move the water from the river to the plant. It’s unclear how the cooperative will meet these requirements if the coal unit at the plant is expected to shutter in the coming years.

Enefit’s infrastructure plans, which the company has dubbed the “South Project,” have also run into legal trouble. The company plans to build a pipeline and transmission corridor on federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. In 2018, after conducting a years-long environmental assessment, the BLM approved the company’s request for seven rights of way.

The Grand Canyon Trust and a number of other environmental groups that had been following the agency’s deliberations sued in early 2019 to challenge the approvals. They alleged that the BLM had failed to adequately consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency in charge of protecting endangered species, among other shortcomings. The Service had not properly considered the effects of the project on four endangered fish species in the Green River, they argued, and thus BLM’s approval of the rights of way did not comply with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. A federal court is currently weighing the environmental groups’ arguments. 

If the federal court sides with the agencies’ decision and the project moves forward, Moench, the physician, said the effects could be devastating for both the natural landscape and those who live in Vernal, the closest town to the proposed mining location. He pointed to the environmental degradation in Estonia, where Enefit has already been mining . When Enefit finishes mining and processing shale oil, 45 percent of the shale is converted into fine ash, which is deposited in giant piles visible from space. The prospect of such externalities in the Uinta Basin, which already faces a plethora of environmental threats, has hardened Moench’s opposition to the project.

“We have wildfire pollution, dust pollution, particulate pollution, high volatile organic compounds, and high ozone,” Moench said. “Approving the Enefit project would be like pouring gasoline on the fire of an existing pollution nightmare.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How a Utah utility is helping an Estonian oil company hoard Colorado River water on Oct 19, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

EPA finally calls out environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley

Wed, 10/19/2022 - 03:30

This story was reported in collaboration with ProPublica.

Louisiana must examine how polluters imperil the health of Black residents, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a letter it sent last week to state regulators in response to civil rights complaints about air pollution in the region known as Cancer Alley. 

Black residents in southeastern Louisiana bear a disproportionate cancer risk from industrial air pollution, the agency found, with children at one predominantly Black elementary school having been exposed to a dangerous carcinogen at levels 11 times what the EPA considers acceptable.

ProPublica reported last year that the EPA does a poor job of regulating the combined risk from multiple sources of industrial air pollution. In parts of Cancer Alley, ProPublica estimated lifetime cancer risk is up to 47 times what the EPA deems acceptable. 

The EPA letter urged Louisiana’s environmental and health agencies to analyze cumulative impacts for residents near a synthetic rubber plant owned by Denka Performance Elastomer in St. John the Baptist Parish and a proposed Formosa plastics facility in St. James Parish.

The Fifth Ward Elementary School and residential neighborhoods sit near the Denka Performance Elastomer Plant, back, in Reserve, Louisiana. Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

Wilma Subra, an environmental health expert who advises communities in the area, said ProPublica’s reporting “confirmed the importance of cumulative risk and made it a focus that could not be ignored.”

“What’s remarkable is that EPA, for the first time in a long time, is speaking the truth around environmental racism and willing to put civil rights enforcement tools out there,” said Monique Harden, assistant director of law and public policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Federal civil rights protections predate the EPA, but they haven’t been enforced, she said: “There’s nothing new to any of this except that we have leadership at the EPA” that “wants to do something about it.”

The EPA urged state regulators to move students out of St. John the Baptist Parish’s Fifth Ward Elementary School, where air monitoring found high levels of chloroprene, a potent carcinogen. The letter, which summarizes the agency’s initial findings, cites years of data, studies and state policies to show how Black residents are disproportionately harmed by air pollution and how those disparities are baked into the region’s history. It explains how between the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health, state officials have dismissed residents’ concerns about air quality, underplayed the dangers of chloroprene, conducted flawed health studies, and mischaracterized air monitoring data

“We take these concerns very seriously and are committed to health equity — which is why we are fully cooperating with the EPA’s investigation into Denka,” the state health department said in a statement.

In an email, an LDEQ spokesperson said the agency is “committed to working with EPA” and remains “confident that we are implementing our air permitting program in a manner that is fully consistent with” federal and state laws.

Local activists have fought for environmental protections for decades. Robert Taylor, executive director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said he founded his organization after attending a 2016 EPA meeting that revealed chloroprene concentrations at the school. “I went from fear to anger to shock,” he said, that “the government was allowing people to do this.”

Robert Taylor poses in his home in Reserve, Louisiana. Emily Kask / AFP via Getty Images

Fifth Ward Elementary School is about 1,500 feet from the Denka facility, which produces neoprene, a form of synthetic rubber used to manufacture wetsuits. DuPont began making neoprene at the site in 1969 and sold the neoprene operation to Denka in 2015. It is the nation’s only industrial site that emits chloroprene. 

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan visited the nearby school last fall as part of his “Journey to Justice” trip that was announced two days after ProPublica’s investigation into pollution hot spots. He later sent a letter to Denka and DuPont that stated, “As a parent, I remain extremely concerned” about the “health and well-being of the students.” Three-quarters of Fifth Ward Elementary’s students are Black. 

A DuPont spokesperson declined to comment on EPA’s letter to Louisiana regulators but shared a response it sent to Regan in March in response to his letter about the school. In its response, DuPont said that Denka, not DuPont, operates the neoprene facility, and that tens of thousands of residents have worked at DuPont’s adjoining facility. The workers’ children have attended Fifth Ward Elementary, the company said, and “we care deeply about its success.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, left, arrives at the Fifth Ward Elementary School, near the Denka plant. AP Photo / Gerald Herbert

DuPont is “committed to continue to work with Denka,” regulators and the community “to maintain the strong ties and supporting efforts needed to keep St. John Parish a safe and great place to work and live,” the company added. 

In 2010, the EPA released a report classifying chloroprene as a “likely human carcinogen.” Chloroprene is a mutagen, meaning it causes cancer by attacking and mutating DNA. Mutagens are particularly dangerous for children and infants, whose cells divide much more rapidly than those of adults. 

Recent air monitoring data from Denka, collected about 1,000 feet from the school, showed average concentrations 11 times what EPA considers acceptable, according to the agency’s letter. At times over the past few years, air samples collected by the EPA on school grounds showed concentrations as high as 83 times the acceptable guideline.

Jim Harris, a spokesperson for Denka, said in a written statement that the EPA’s chloroprene limit is “based on a faulty and outdated exposure model.”

The company asked the EPA to revise its chloroprene guidelines last year, arguing that the model used was not “sufficiently rigorous.” The EPA refuted Denka’s conclusions this spring, stating that the company did not identify any errors with the agency’s analysis. 

The sun sets behind the Denka Performance Elastomer Plant in Reserve, Louisiana. Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

“There is simply no evidence of increased levels of health impacts near” the plant, Harris wrote. “Data compiled by the Louisiana Tumor registry (LTR) have repeatedly shown for decades there are no widespread elevated rates of cancer in the parish or in the census tracts neighboring the facility compared with state averages.”

Kim Terrell, a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, argued that the registry’s census-tract-level data obscures health effects in the communities closest to industrial facilities. The tumor registry, too, has said that its data should not be used to represent cancer rates in smaller populations, such as neighborhoods near industrial fence lines. 

“The cancer rates Denka cited are not specific to the people who have been most exposed to chloroprene,” Terrell said. 

Harris, the Denka spokesperson, said the company has “invested over $35 million to reduce its emissions by over 85 percent” since purchasing the facility in 2015 and conducted community air monitoring that showed similar reductions.

The EPA’s letter acknowledged the reduced concentrations, which resulted from an enforcement order from LDEQ. “There is no question, however,” the EPA wrote, “that elevated cancer risk for residents of all ages and school children still exists and has existed as a result of breathing air polluted with chloroprene and that this risk has impacted and currently impacts Black residents disproportionately.”

Angelo Bernard walks out of his home, located near the Louisiana Denka plant, with his grandchildren, who are visiting him for the weekend. Gerald Herbert/ AP Photo

Taylor, the community advocate, said the letter indicates the agency is “considering our humanity” and “doing what we consider is the right thing.” For too long, he said, residents have operated under the assumption that “our government has abandoned us — we are just sacrifice zones.” 

A lifelong resident of St. John the Baptist Parish, Taylor recalled how his children used to run into the house to escape fumes that made their chests hurt. He lives five blocks from the Denka plant, close enough to hear announcements from the company’s loudspeakers. He has grandkids and great-grandkids who attended local schools, including a Catholic school next door to Fifth Ward Elementary. 

The EPA letter is a response to civil rights complaints filed on behalf of Taylor’s organization, the Sierra Club and other groups. The complaints cite Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans the federal government from funding state agencies whose policies or actions discriminate based on race. 

Robert Taylor poses in his home in Reserve, Louisiana, on August 12, 2021. Emily Kask / AFP via Getty Images

The act prohibits both intentional discrimination and disparate impact regardless of intent, said Deena Tumeh, an associate attorney at Earthjustice who helped file the complaints for Taylor’s group. The EPA’s letter noted that 93% of the residents within a mile of the Denka plant are Black, and the Formosa plant is slated for a census tract where 90% of the population is Black, compared to 50% in the overall parish. These demographic patterns can be traced back to the Reconstruction era, the letter said, as freed Black families were able to purchase small parcels of land near plantations. Over time, the plantations were replaced by large petrochemical facilities, while the descendants of those families continued to live in rural, unincorporated towns that became “fence line” communities.

Last month, a judge blocked progress on the Formosa plant by withdrawing its air permits. The judge’s decision cited the fact that state regulators failed to assess cumulative impacts from multiple sources, even though the location suffers from significant existing toxic air pollution that would be exacerbated by the proposed facility’s emissions. LDEQ has appealed the decision. Formosa didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“For years, Title VI letters went to a closet and died,” but this EPA is talking to people and investigating seriously, said Darryl Malek-Wiley, a senior organizing representative at the Sierra Club. 

Malek-Wiley, who helped popularize the term “Cancer Alley” in the 1980s, said the real test of the EPA’s dedication to equity will come once it negotiates specific terms with the two Louisiana agencies. Tumeh said the agreement could include the recommendations from the EPA’s letter, as well as additional requirements. That process could take months. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EPA finally calls out environmental racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley on Oct 19, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Starved of new talent: Young people are steering clear of oil jobs

Tue, 10/18/2022 - 03:45

In late May, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, stood in blue graduation robes in front of a podium at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Looking out at the thousand-plus graduating seniors, Guterres told them that the world was facing a climate catastrophe — and it was up to them to stop it.

“As graduates, you hold the cards. Your talent is in demand from multinational companies and big financial institutions,” Guterres said in the commencement address. “But you will have plenty of opportunities to choose from, thanks to the excellence of your graduation. So my message to you is simple. Don’t work for climate wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”

If they hadn’t heard the advice from Guterres, they might have gotten the idea that digging up ancient oil deposits was not a promising career path from somewhere else. The billionaire Bill Gates recently predicted that oil companies “will be worth very little” in 30 years; CNBC’s loudest finance personality, Jim Cramer of Mad Money, has declared he’s “done” with fossil fuel stocks. 

It’s part of a larger social reckoning that threatens to make business harder for oil companies. Big Oil is becoming stigmatized as awareness grows that its environmentally-friendly messaging, full of beautiful landscapes and far-off promises to erase (some) of its emissions, doesn’t match its actions. Well over half of millennials say they would avoid working in an industry with a negative image, according to a survey in 2020, with oil and gas topping the list as the most unappealing. With floods, fires, and smoke growing noticeably worse, young people have plenty of reasons to avoid working for the brands that brought you climate change. 

This poses a hiring challenge for oil companies, with much of their current workforce getting closer to retirement. For years now, consulting firms have been warning the industry that it faces a “talent” gap and surveying young people to figure out how they might be convinced to take the open positions. 

Meanwhile, solar and wind power are booming and luring young people who want a job that fits with their values.  In 2021, according to the business group E2, 3.2 million Americans worked in clean energy industries like renewables, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency — 3.5 times the number that worked in fossil fuels. And this is likely just the beginning: Congress recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to cause an explosion of climate-related jobs.

“I do feel that there’s this big pincer movement coming for the fossil fuel industry — you know, they’re going to be pinched in lots of different directions,” said Caroline Dennett, a safety consultant who publicly quit working for Shell earlier this year because the company was expanding oil and gas extraction projects. “And that’s exactly what we need.”

‘Retention is a massive, massive problem’

If it weren’t for climate change, now might seem like the perfect time to drill for more oil. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring this year, driving them up as high as $120 a barrel in June — the “boom” of the boom and bust cycle. The price has since dropped to $85, but could climb higher since OPEC, the oil cartel that includes Russia and Saudi Arabia, recently agreed to cut production by 2 million barrels a day

With prices this high, oil companies would normally begin digging up more wells to increase production. But the calculus has changed. After years of losses, investors want their dividends. “Now we’re in a situation where the oil and gas companies are making a lot of cash flow … but the investors who stuck with those companies are basically saying, ‘Well, I stuck it out with you, give me my money back,’” said Peter Tertzakian, an energy and investing analyst, on the podcast Odd Lots this summer. Added to that is the growing pressure for financial institutions to divest from fossil fuels. All this, along with the “end of oil narrative,” has made investors hesitant to back new drilling projects, Tertzakian explained.

And even if investors were interested in expanding drilling right away, many oil companies don’t have extra drilling equipment lying around ready to use, or extra people ready to operate it. Trained and knowledgeable workers are retiring or moving to other industries. The average oil and gas worker is 44 years old, a recent report from Deloitte found. The industry has mostly rehired the 15,000 workers it laid off during the 2020 crash, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics. But the workforce numbers have been on a long downward trend since 2015, when oil prices took a plunge after a supply glut. The volatility of the industry — the cycle of laying off and hiring people — is another factor that makes the jobs unappealing, the Deloitte report said.

Workers exit the Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, Texas, May 10, 2022. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

“Half of oil and gas professionals, I believe, would gladly leave the oil and gas industry tomorrow if they could get a renewable energy job,” said Dar-Lon Chang, who worked as an engineer at ExxonMobil for 16 years before resigning in 2019 over concerns about climate change. A recent global survey by AirSwift found that 82 percent of current oil and gas workers would consider switching to another energy sector in the next three years, up from 79 percent last year and 73 percent in 2020. Fifty-four percent of those thinking about leaving picked the renewable industry as a preferred destination.

“Retention is a massive, massive problem,” Dennett said. “They’re losing their most expert, skilled, and experienced technicians, engineers, designers, operators, mechanics … I think they will be starved of new talent.”

When Big Oil comes up in the news, it’s usually something bad — oil spills, climate lawsuits, or other dirty business. The industry has drawn comparisons to Big Tobacco, and this image has started to affect workers. “We don’t want to be the bad guys,” said one anonymous participant in a study surveying oil workers’ opinions about climate change as part of a recent paper in the journal Energy Research and Social Science. 

Krista Haltunnen, the author of that study and an energy researcher at Imperial College London, said that many workers believe they can drive change within their company. “A lot of them think that they’re doing the best they can for climate change or for a better society, whether they’re right or not,” Haltunnen said. Dennett, for example, worked with Shell to make oil operations safer; Chang joined ExxonMobil after assurances from recruiters that the company was “seriously considering transitioning away from oil” and researching cleaner alternatives, and that he’d be working with natural gas — sold as the “bridge fuel” to a renewable future.

Bernard Looney, the CEO of BP, has acknowledged that Big Oil’s reputation is causing problems for companies like his. In an interview with the Times of London in 2020, Looney said that oil was becoming increasingly “socially challenged.” Employees at BP were having doubts about their line of work, he said, and some job candidates were reluctant to join the company. “There’s a view that this is a bad industry, and I understand that,” Looney said at the time.

A ‘permanent black mark’

The generation that’s been striking from school to protest government inaction on climate change isn’t exactly itching to join the oil workforce. A poll by the consulting firm EY in 2017 found that 62 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States found a career in oil and gas unappealing. More than two out of every three teenagers surveyed said that the industry causes problems instead of solving them. Young people tend to view oil careers as “unstable, blue-collar, difficult, dangerous and harmful to society,” the report said, perceptions that posed a “significant obstacle” toward attracting and retaining a highly skilled workforce.

And they’re making their qualms known. Last week, dozens of students at Harvard, MIT, and Brown disrupted on-campus recruiting events for ExxonMobil, protesting that the company was undermining their future.

College students are also steering clear of petroleum engineering programs, creating a gap as oil companies look to replace retiring Baby Boomers. Over the last five years, the number of people graduating from petroleum engineering programs has dropped from 2,300 to around 400, an 83 percent plunge, according to statistics from Lloyd Heinze, a Texas Tech University professor. Schools in America’s oil patch, such as Louisiana State University and the University of Houston, are seeing drastic declines in enrollment in petroleum engineering, and others are beginning to shut down their programs: The University of Calgary in Canada and Imperial College London both pressed pause on their oil and gas engineering majors last year.

The trend extends from fieldwork to the front office. From 2006 until 2020, the number of business school graduates who went into a career in the oil and gas industry fell by 40 percent, according to a survey of 3.5 million MBA students conducted by LinkedIn, while the number of students recruited into renewables rose.

Workers use a cleaning robot on solar panels in Huntington Beach, California, July 14, 2022. Jeff Gritchen / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images

“The dilemma is happening in every company, because if you’re involved in projects that you know are detrimental for the environment,” what you do every single day may “test your moral values,” said Manuel Salazar, an activist in Ireland who is working to help employees push their companies to protect the environment.

Oil companies require other services to stay running — and advertisers and lawyers may get harder to come by as they turn their backs on the industry. About 400 advertising and PR agencies have signed a pledge by the group Clean Creatives to cut ties with fossil fuel clients. And as oil companies face a mounting pile of climate-related lawsuits, some young lawyers may be reluctant to defend them. Two years ago, 600 lawyers in training signed a letter to the firm Paul Weiss pledging that they would not work at the company unless it dropped ExxonMobil as a client. (It has not.) An anonymous law student graduating with student debt recently wrote in to the New York Times’ ethics column to ask whether it was OK to defend polluting companies they were “ethically opposed to” in order to pay off their loans, worrying it could create a “permanent black mark” on their record. 

Chang thinks that his decade-plus as an engineer at ExxonMobil has gotten in the way of working in clean energy. He has applied for hundreds of clean energy positions since 2015 but has only gotten a few interviews. Eventually, he ended up creating his own job, a startup that’s trying to get funding to renovate people’s homes to get to net-zero emissions. 

“I think that people who go into renewable energy, they tend to be suspicious of people who are trying to leave the oil and gas industry,” Chang said. While there may be some “bad apples,” he thinks the majority of oil and gas employees “are legitimately trying to do the right thing” — and would leave if they could.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Starved of new talent: Young people are steering clear of oil jobs on Oct 18, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Cities want more trees. Drought is complicating their efforts.

Tue, 10/18/2022 - 03:30

This story is part of the Grist series Parched, an in-depth look at how climate change-fueled drought is reshaping communities, economies, and ecosystems.

On an overcast Thursday morning in September, a team of five people slowly makes its way down Broadway Avenue, a residential street in the city of Huntington Park, California. Every couple hundred feet they park their pickup trucks, loaded with 275 gallon water tanks, hop out, and fan out along the street, dousing the roots of young trees lining the strip between the sidewalk and the road. 

The watering team, from the nonprofit TreePeople, is responsible for thousands of newly planted trees in seven low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, including Watts, South Gate, and Lynwood; each tree comes with a guarantee that the nonprofit will provide water and other maintenance for at least 3 years. 

“Last week we were out in the heat wave and it was brutal,” says Eileen Garcia, senior manager of community forestry with TreePeople. Around her, crew members in wide brim hats and long sleeved shirts haul 5-gallon buckets across lawns fading from green to brown. “We had to start at 5am to avoid the danger.” A few blocks over, Garcia points out a Brisbane box tree, planted by the team three years ago. The leaves look crinkled and crispy at their edges. “That one is struggling,” she says. But most of the young trees planted by TreePeople are doing well – “that’s because we’re here watering them.”

Huntington Park, a three-square-mile, 96-percent Latino city, has a ratio of just 0.7 park acres per 1,000 people; the recommended standard is 2 acres per 1,000. It’s one of the many cities across the country, in partnership with nonprofits and federal and state agencies, trying to increase its urban canopy as global temperatures rise and the risk from excessive heat worsens. Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada aim to double their forest canopies within the next decade; San Diego wants to go from 13 percent to 35 percent cover by 2035. Los Angeles has a goal to increase its canopy cover to 50 percent by 2028 in places where historic underinvestment and redlining has left communities of color and low-income communities without shade.

A member of the TreePeople maintenance crew waters a lemon bottlebrush tree in the residential parkway strip. Blanca Begert

But young trees require a lot of water – posing a challenge for planting programs in the U.S. Southwest, where historic megadrought conditions are drying up rivers and reservoirs.  

Water has always been a problem for tree planting in the region, where areas can go for nine months a year without rain. “When I first started, I told a reporter there were two main constraining issues for tree canopy growth in Los Angeles,” said Rachel Malarch, LA’s city forester appointed in 2019. “Water and space.” As drought becomes even more severe and evaporation increases, water has become even more of an issue. The same 5-gallon bucket won’t go as far. 

Newly planted trees require the most water during their establishment phase of 3 to 5 years. The TreePeople team, caring mostly for drought-tolerant species like gold medallion tree, Chitalpa, and lemon bottlebrush, recommends 15 gallons, poured slowly onto the base of the tree, every week for the first three years. The nonprofit asks residents to help with watering but ultimately, its staff members check every young tree; if it looks thirsty, they water it. 

“During a drought, the team increases the number of visits they make,” said Garcia. “When we know there’s a heat wave coming, it is especially important to water beforehand to increase the likelihood of survival.” But watering isn’t something that all organizations and municipalities have the resources to do, even during non-drought times.

Cities and partner organizations have long been able to drum up funding and energy for tree planting. But maintaining and watering new trees over the long run – an expensive and less glamorous, yet critical, activity – has garnered less support. Most cities have systems in place to water trees in parks and medians, but for watering residential parkway strips, where the majority of trees in the urban canopy are located, cities have largely relied on residents, with mixed results.

On Stafford Avenue, trees planted three years ago are already casting much-needed shade. Blanca Begert

“About 25 percent of the agencies we work with take on watering trees in the public right of way,” said Mike Palat, vice president of operations for Southern California and the Southwest at West Coast Arborists, a contractor that maintains trees for about 350 municipalities in California. 

In the past several years, nonprofits and governments have started to rethink how they get water to trees, and a movement towards investing more dollars in watering, especially during critical heat and drought times, is underway, even if progress is slow.

Palat said he’s worked on all sorts of programs to encourage residents to water: asking people to sign volunteer agreements, sending text reminders, and running educational programs in different languages about the importance of tree care. For a resident, the cost of watering a young tree is  less than $10 a year, but it can still be a struggle to get people to do it, especially in places occupied by mostly renters who move away over time. “I’ll be honest,” said Palat, “the best success we’ve had in the end is paying someone to water.”

“I got my start with an organization that did volunteer tree care and that’s a beautiful model for community building and connecting people with plants,” said Malarich. “But to really shift the landscape at the speed we need to, you have to have crews moving in tandem.” She added that tree planting used to be considered an amenity. “We made the shift to talking about trees as critical infrastructure in the ‘90s, but some of our structures still reflect the era of beautification in that trees are not treated as a ‘must have.’”

Part of the problem, Malarich says, is that hiring someone to water is expensive. And many organizations that apply for tree planting grants will opt to rely on residents in order to appear more competitive and get more trees in the ground at a lower cost. Local governments with wealthy tax bases are the ones that can allocate watering funds in their budgets. “You’re looking at $700 to $1000 a day to get 100 to 200 trees watered,” said Palat. “A lot of cities aren’t in a position to do that, which is why we have open areas on maps that aren’t being planted.” 

CAL FIRE, the main granting agency in California for urban forest projects, has started to address this issue by granting dedicated funds for maintenance and allowing grantees to apply for additional cycles of maintenance funding past the end of the typical four-year grant period. “We weren’t seeing the survival rate we wanted to see with grantees who relied on residents,” said Henry Herrera, CAL FIRE’s LA County grant administrator. The agency expects a 10 percent mortality rate for new projects, but based on Herrera’s observations, projects that relied only on residents to keep the trees alive saw rates of 20 to 25 percent. “Part of the solution was to provide the cities with the money to care for the trees,” he said. Still he recognizes that not every funding agency offers funds for tree maintenance. 

“We’re having conversations about how we should be providing water to trees in lower income areas,” said Aimee Esposito, who runs a tree planting non-profit in the Greater Phoenix area and collaborates with government agencies to grow the urban tree canopy. “But it’s a pipe dream, it’s not something in the works in Phoenix.”

Once trees develop a mature root system, they can access groundwater, which makes them more capable of living on their own. But when groundwater runs low during a drought, like the one raging in the Western U.S. right now, older trees also start to struggle. 

A TreePeople watering team fills up 5-gallon buckets. Young trees should receive 15 gallons of water each week for its first three to five years. Blanca Begert

“The old rules don’t apply,” said Esther Margulies, a research lead on the Urban Tree Initiative at the University of Southern California. “Mature trees can usually access groundwater but when things are this dry, the game changes.” She added that during the last major drought in 2015, tree die off continued to happen years after drought conditions improved, when trees that had become water stressed finally succumbed to pests.

Already, foresters are seeing signs of stress across the state. “A healthy pine tree has enough sap to eject a beetle, but without water, it doesn’t have the sap,” said Palat, noting how the goldspotted oak borer is devastating drought-stricken oak forests across the Southwest. “We’re seeing more fungus and pathogens get into trees.”

Because trees also calculate how much to grow based on the amount of water they receive, the same species of tree can become dependent on different amounts of water. A sharp cutback – like when a park shuts off lawn sprinklers – can have a shocking effect. That’s why it’s important to give trees the right amount of water from the get-go and avoid overwatering, says Malarich.  

Drought makes it harder for the urban canopy to grow, but once trees are established they can help ameliorate drought. Urban forests capture thousands of gallons of rainwater in their canopies and trickle it back into the ground. They shade soil, slow the evaporation of water, and improve soil quality, inviting fungi and bacteria that make the soil more porous so that it can store more water and carbon. A strategically placed tree means you don’t have to use as much air conditioning to cool a home. 

For all of these reasons, even as Southern California instituted unprecedented water conservation restrictions to deal with the drought in June, water agencies spread the message that trees were exempt and should be hand watered. 

Funding for urban forests is only increasing. The Inflation Reduction Act sets aside $1.5 billion to be spent over the next decade. With new bills in California for schoolyard greening and wildfire and climate resilience, CAL FIRE this year has an unprecedented $167 million for urban forestry projectst, over five times last year’s urban forestry budget. Phoenix and Tucson recently created city forester positions to coordinate across the various agencies that engage with trees. While urban foresters across the country stress the importance of maintenance, San Francisco is the only city that has established a dedicated fund for maintaining, including watering, all street trees in perpetuity.

As the climate changes, and 65 percent of urban trees experience drought conditions  dangerous for their survival, cities are rethinking the types of trees they plant. “A lot of popular California natives, like coastal live oak, are not actually the most drought-tolerant species,” said Natalie Love, a doctoral student studying urban forests at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The most drought-tolerant natives are small. They don’t cast a lot of shade. So her team is looking into other species that might be suitable for Southern California streets, like the Australian rusty gum. Then it’s a matter of encouraging the nursery trade to grow them. 

Garcia also emphasized the importance of tree diversity for forest resilience, which is being prioritized in Huntington Park. There the team has planted about 25 different species, including Hong Kong orchid trees, Marina strawberry trees, and crape myrtle alongside natives like ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde. 

A few blocks away, on Stafford Avenue, some of the first trees planted for the project are already casting shade. “I definitely have hope that we will grow the canopy here,” said Garcia. “Because we’re here, we’re watering. Just looking at this street I can see the fruit of this partnership.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Cities want more trees. Drought is complicating their efforts. on Oct 18, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The West’s biggest source of renewable energy depends on water. Will it survive the drought?

Tue, 10/18/2022 - 03:15

This story is part of the Grist series Parched, an in-depth look at how climate change-fueled drought is reshaping communities, economies, and ecosystems.

Reports of low water levels at a few big hydropower plants in the West over the last few years have made it seem like hydropower is becoming less reliable. Last summer, officials in California were forced to shut down the Edward Hyatt Powerplant when water levels in Lake Oroville, the reservoir that feeds the plant, dropped below the intake pipes that send water into its turbines. In March, water levels dropped to historic lows in Lake Powell, the reservoir that supplies the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, bringing warnings of a potential plant shutdown in the near future.  

These reports are alarming, because hydropower is a major source of carbon-free energy for the West — during a wet year, it can meet 30 percent of the region’s annual electricity demand in the West. 

But a recent study by scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory challenges the idea that hydropower’s role as a backbone for the electric grid is fading. The authors looked back at the historical record to see how the western hydropower fleet has been affected by periods of drought over the 20th and 21st centuries. What they found shows that the reality is more complex, and that even during a serious drought, hydropower is more reliable than people might think.

“I think the misconception about hydro is driven by these marquee cases like Glen Canyon and the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River,” said Sean Turner, a hydrologist and water resources engineer and one of the authors of the study. “Those are really big and significant plants, but they’re a very, very small part of the overall Western hydropower fleet, which consists of hundreds of plants across the entire western region, contributing to an interconnected power grid. You need to study the whole system.”

Sean Turner Andrea Starr / Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The Edward Hyatt Power Plant intake facility at Lake Oroville (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) and a photo of Sean Turner (Andrea Starr / Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Intake gates at the Edward Hyatt Power Plant intake facility at Lake Oroville Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

I spoke with Turner about his findings, and about whether hydropower’s past performance is a good predictor of how reliable it will be in the future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Q.What was the driving question behind your recent study on hydropower and drought?

A.The question was, what does drought actually mean for hydropower in the West? How does it affect different regions? We’re talking about 11 states, an enormous area, and diverse climates throughout the West. We’ve got the data to answer that question really rigorously.

Q.What did you find?

A.Even during the most severe droughts of the last 20 years, the Western hydropower fleet still maintained 80 percent of its average annual output — equal to the total output from all other renewables combined in the West. The reason you get this reliability is that despite the West’s notoriously volatile climate, there’s climate diversity. Drought in one region may be associated with wet conditions in another region, and so you’re unlikely to see the entire hydropower fleet affected by drought at the same time.

Q.Is the past a good predictor of the future in this case, because of climate change?

A.It depends. The reservoirs in the Southwest are totally unique. They store such huge volumes of water equal to multiple years of flow in the river. On balance, it looks like the impact of climate change in this area is going to be to slightly reduce the availability of water. And you have a system that’s already on a knife’s edge, where the amount of water allocated for cities, for agriculture, is already pretty much equal to the mean flow of the basin. So over a long period of time, if you don’t change how much water’s being taken out of the system, reservoirs are going to draw down. And you can kind of say that the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. 

There are other systems, most other systems in the West, where your reservoirs fill up and draw down over much shorter periods of time. And that can be on the order of days in some of the major plants in the Columbia River Basin. In those cases, the past is a much more reliable predictor of the future. Even minor changes to the flow regime in the Columbia River are not going to greatly impact how much power can be generated from those plants. 

Q.Even though the Southwest is a small part of the overall hydropower picture in the West, will states there need to compensate for that lost electricity in other ways, looking ahead?

A.At the moment, those dams are still producing power. If drought conditions continue and there are no extreme management actions to alleviate them, then those plants may have to shut down for a period of time until the reservoir levels recover. If that occurs, certainly other resources would need to be brought online. They’re part of an interconnected grid, so electricity can be imported from elsewhere. The impact is less likely to be power cuts and lights out, it’s more likely to be increased electricity costs and potentially increased carbon emissions, because there’s likely to be more reliance on gas and other resources.

Q.Is this something those states should be more proactively worried about in terms of achieving their clean energy goals?

A.It depends on how long the impact is. If drought conditions in the Southwest become a permanent feature, then those reservoir levels aren’t going to recover. And so you’ve got permanent loss of a significant source of carbon-free electricity. If that’s not replaced by some other carbon-free source, then there’s gonna be a long-term impact on the emissions of the electricity sector. 

That’s a huge if. A lot of people are confidently making projections about the demise of Western water resources, particularly in the Southwest, due to the recent conditions, due to the threat of climate change. But hydrology is notoriously difficult to predict. It wouldn’t surprise me if in five years’ time, those reservoir levels were raised back up after a significant wet period. You just don’t know. And if that occurs, then you’ve got another lengthy period of time where you can continue to rely on those resources to produce carbon-free electricity.

Q.The study warns about a repeat of the drought that occurred in 1976 and 1977. What happened then?

A.This was a really severe historical drought. Most of the hydropower fleet was built by this period, and unlike more recent droughts, it affected most of the West. The two powerhouses of hydro generation in the West are the Northwest and California. California is really sensitive to two-year droughts. 1976 was a dry year in California. Then you had ’77 which was a really dry year throughout the West. We don’t have data for all plants that were operating during that time, but from the plants that we do have, that appears to be the year with the largest number of shutdowns. 

Q.Is the idea that that’s sort of a worst-case scenario for the future?

A.It could be. The climate can produce things that you haven’t seen in 50 years. There’s potential for even worse cases. It may be 100 years before you see something like that again, or maybe it’ll be next year. But even in that case, the overall impact on hydro was still 25 percent or something below average total Western generation. So even in the most extreme drought, when we look back 100 years, there’s nothing that cripples hydro in a serious way. Hydro still supplies a lot of electricity during those periods.

Q.What are you looking at next?

A.Another study, which I think will be done relatively soon, will be on trying to understand more about the impacts of climate change on drought and whether or not that increases the risk of what we call Dead Pool events, so those cases where you get reservoir levels dropping below intakes. The historical record that we’ve got — 100 years — is a short period, and in hydrological terms, you don’t get a full view of variability of what the climate could possibly produce. What happens if you have some megadrought, multi-year, and it starts causing lots of plant shutdowns at the same time? How does that then affect the power grid? 

Q.So does this recent study not actually tell us much about the future for hydro under climate change? What should people take away from it? 

A.It’s not necessarily the case that the West is gonna be more and more dry. The hydropower powerhouse is the Northwest, and most general climate models predict wetter conditions in the Northwest. Even in the Southwest, there’s still a debate to be had about what’s likely to happen over the next 100 years as a result of climate change, because the system is extremely complex. Warming temperatures are likely to be associated with more precipitation. It’s really the balance between the impact on precipitation and the impact on evapotranspiration. So the climate change impacts remain very uncertain. 

We are really focusing on a retrospective analysis of the impact of drought. It does reveal a lot about the present and future because the hydrological system will continue to produce droughts, many of those droughts will be similar in nature to the droughts that have been experienced in the past. And those general conclusions about the importance of climate diversity throughout the West, and the resiliency of the hydropower fleet — those are going to apply for future droughts as well. I can understand why people care so much about Glen Canyon and Hoover because those are such iconic systems. It’s not the whole story. That would be the main thing I want people to grasp.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The West’s biggest source of renewable energy depends on water. Will it survive the drought? on Oct 18, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News


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