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Fighting for Green Solutions to Pittsburgh’s “Sewage in the Rivers Problem”

By Thomas Hoffman - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 4, 2018

Almost 7 years ago, six Pittsburgh based organizations realized that our region was going to spend $2-4 billion dollars of area residents’ money to stop 9+ billion gallons of untreated sewage from flowing into our iconic three rivers. The overflows occur when stormwater runs off roads roofs and parking lots into the storm sewers which are the same as the waste sewers.

Pittsburgh is not unusual – many older industrial cities have the same problem. If you combine all the money that will be spent by these cities fixing this problem it totals to roughly half a trillion dollars.

The groups formed the Clean Rivers Campaign to win a “maximum green first followed by right sized gray” solution to cleaning our rivers. They felt that in addition to cleaning our rivers such a solution would bring maximum community benefits back to area residents. These benefits include long term local family sustaining Union jobs, cleaner air and water, and revitalized communities.

The six organizations are Pittsburgh United, a PWF affiliate composed of labor, faith and community groups, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, a faith based organization, three enviro groups -Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and Action United, a low income neighborhood organizing group. The Unions in Pittsburgh United (SEIU, UFCW and USWA) have been very supportive of the campaign because the neighborhoods where much of the green investments would happen are where their members live.

The alternative solution being promoted by our regional sewer authority, ALCOSAN, is the construction of miles of massive tunnels to collect all the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow. The sewage would then be pumped out of the tunnels using pumps powered by fossil fuels and then treated  before being released into the river again. While this would solve the sewage in the rivers problems it would have none of the community benefits listed above. It would also do nothing to reduce the flooding that may low income and minority communities are experiencing.

How to Achieve Zero Emissions, Even if the Federal Government Won't Help

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, January 17, 2018

With Donald Trump in the White House, the prospects for fighting climate change have never been any bleaker in the US. Yet there are options available to state governments to move forward with the greening of the economy even without federal support. This point is made crystal clear in two studies produced recently by economist Robert Pollin and some of his colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for the states of Washington and New York. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Pollin explains the significance of Green New Deal programs.

C.J. Polychroniou: Bob, two new studies on fighting climate change have been produced by you and two PERI researchers for the states of New York and Washington. How did these studies come about?

Robert Pollin: These were both commissioned studies. For the New York study, the commissioning group was New York Renews, which is a coalition of over 130 organizations in New York State, including labor unions, environmental groups and social justice organizations. For the Washington State study, three important groups within the US labor movement commissioned the study -- the United Steelworkers, Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO and the Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education (TMC). Tony Mazzocchi was a great visionary labor leader with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW -- [which] has since merged into the United Steelworkers), who fought to link the aims of working people with those of environmentalists.

It is not an accident that my co-workers and I were asked to do these similar studies at basically the same time. In both cases, the groups supporting the studies are advancing ambitious green economy programs within their respective states. It is obvious that nothing good on climate change is going to be coming out of the federal government under Trump. It is equally obvious that we can't wait around on climate issues (and many other matters) until somebody less awful gets into the White House. We therefore have to take the most forceful possible actions at the level of state politics. This is what the coalitions are doing in both New York and Washington States.

It is also significant that, with both studies, our priority was to show how a viable climate change project can be completely compatible with -- indeed, supportive of -- a pro-labor agenda. Trump and others on the right have feasted on the divides between labor and environmentalists, claiming that if you are for the environment, then you have to be against working people and their communities. These studies show in great detail (some might even say excruciating detail) that these Trump claims are flat-out wrong.

Unions + Environmentalists = A Movement

By Vanessa Warheit - Medium, March 13, 2017

Last week I had the enormous privilege of participating in a two-day pilot workshop designed to help organized labor and environmental groups build a movement together. The free workshop was co-sponsored by The Sierra Club, Blue-Green Alliance, Communication Workers of America, and the United Steel Workers, and hosted by USW Local 5 in the quaint oil-refinery town of Martinez, CA. I attended as the Science/Environment partnerships liaison for Indivisible Berkeley.

One thing that immediately struck me was the genuine goodwill in the room, and the sense that all of us — from refinery workers to climate activists to union managers to cable repair guys — just want a more equitable, safe planet for our families and our communities. I also confess to being somewhat surprised that the union folks were so open, and so friendly. (I think they were equally surprised to find us so open and friendly!) It was exciting, too, to see how well organized and committed they were (yes, I know, it’s called “organized labor” for a reason), as these are essential requirements for building our nascent resistance movement. I’m really looking forward to working more with them in the future, and I feel lucky to have these guys on our side.

But OK —friendly or not, how do you get oil workers and climate activists on the same page? Easy: show them their common enemy.

The Chevron Way: Big Oil’s Vacation From East Bay Politics Won’t Last Long

By Steve Early - CounterPunch, November 22, 2016

In the two election cycles prior to 2016, the global energy giant Chevron spent more than $4 million on city council or mayoral races in Richmond, CA. Big Oil’s independent expenditures were so large two years ago that they drew widespread condemnation as a particularly egregious example of the unrestricted corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.

In our Chevron refinery town of 110,000, rent control was on the ballot this year. That’s not an issue that Chevron cares anything about. So, as company spokesman Leah Casey explained to the Richmond Confidential last month, her employer “decided not to participate in the 2016 local Richmond election,” preferring to remain “focused on keeping the refinery running safely and partnering with the city and the community on our modernization project.” (As a nearby neighbor, I found Chevron’s new “focus” particularly reassuring.)

This fall, the California Apartment Association replaced the oil company as our biggest local spender. According to Kathleen Pender in the SF Chronicle, the CAA and its allies raised $2.5 million to defeat rent control in multiple Bay Area communities on Nov. 8. In Richmond, the CAA pumped nearly $200,000 into its losing effort here (three times more than rent control advocates raised). By a 65 to 35 percent margin, Richmond voters approved a new system of rent regulation, a rent rollback to July, 2015 levels, and the legal requirement that landlords have “just cause” for evicting tenants.

Once again, Richmond progressives were celebrating a singular local triumph over “big money in politics” on election night. The strongest pro-rent control candidates in the 2016 council race, both RPA members, finished first and second in a field of nine. In similar fashion two years ago, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance running for re-election to the city council won an upset victory–despite Chevron’s record-breaking spending against them.

Among that year’s winners was a persistent nemesis of Big Oil, former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the California Green who sought to increase Chevron’s local taxes and county property tax bill to raise more revenue for cash-starved city services.

Crude Awakening: A new air district rule might prevent increased Canadian tar sands production at Bay Area refineries

By Will Parrish - North Bay Bohemian, June 8, 2016

In recent years, oil corporations have intensified their push to make the San Francisco Bay Area and other areas of the West Coast into international hubs for refining and shipping of one of the world's most carbon-intensive and polluting fuel sources: the Canadian tar sands.

In April, that long-standing effort spilled into Santa Rosa mailboxes. Constituents of 3rd District supervisor Shirlee Zane received a letter, addressed to Zane herself, from a group called Bay Area Refinery Workers.

"As a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District," the letter read, "you'll soon vote on a proposal that will impact our jobs, our refineries and the important work we do refining the cleanest gasoline in the world."

It asked that Zane "please remember that the Bay Area refineries provide more good-paying union jobs than any private sector employer in the region."

Twelve refinery employees provided signatures, but the letter was produced and mailed by an organization called the Committee for Industrial Safety, which is bankrolled by the oil giants Chevron, Shell, Tesoro and Phillips 66. According to state and federal records, each corporation annually provides the group between $100,000 and $200,000 to advocate on their behalf.

The letter's apparent aim was to influence Zane's upcoming vote on a little-known but potentially far-reaching Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) regulation called Refinery Rule 12-16 that's aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emmissions. If enacted, the measure would make the BAAQMD the nation's first regional air district to go beyond state and federal mandates in regulating refinery GHG emissions, the pollutants that fuel global climate change.

Zane is one of the BAAQMD's 24 directors, along with elected officials from nine Bay Area counties extending from Santa Clara in the South Bay to Sonoma and Napa. They will determine the measure's fate at a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting later this year.

Staff members at BAAQMD have proposed four alternative forms of Refinery Rule 12-16. But only one has the support of a coalition of environmental groups and the unions that represent refinery employees: a quantitative limit, or cap, on GHGs.

Processing the tar sands would dramatically increase greenhouse gas pollution at the refineries under the BAAQMD's jurisdiction, and advocates from groups like Oakland's Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental justice organization, say an emissions cap would turn back what they call the "tar sands invasion" from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Critics warn that without the cap, the oil industry will continue pursuing new tar sands infrastructure on the West Coast at a frenetic pace. "We've seen them come at us at a 10 times faster rate in the last few years," says CBE senior scientist and refinery expert Greg Karras. "Up and down the refinery belt, refineries are retooling for the tar sands and creating infrastructure for export of refined tar sands products overseas."

Experts have warned of the effects of a significantly expanded production of the tar sands—a sticky mixture of sand, clay and bitumen trapped deep beneath Canada's boreal forest. It would lock in dramatic increases in global temperatures and result in devastating impacts to ecosystems and human societies throughout the globe. A 2015 report in the journal Nature found that trillions of dollars' worth of known and extractable coal, oil and gas reserves (including nearly all remaining tar sands and all Arctic oil and gas) should remain in the ground if global temperatures are to be kept under the safety threshold of 2 degrees centigrade that's been agreed to by the world's nations at the Paris climate summit last year.

In an ecologically minded region like the Bay Area, an emissions cap to stop a dramatic increase in regional tar sands production (and tar sands exports from local ports) might seem like a political no-brainer. But staff and some members of BAAQMD say they are concerned that GHG emissions averted in the Bay Area would simply occur somewhere else, since the oil industry would increase production elsewhere. Doing so would render Refinery Rule 12-16 ineffectual in curbing climate pollution because other regions might not be so attentive.

Karras and other advocates believe the opposite is true. The cap offers local elected officials a rare opportunity, they say, to make a significant contribution to heading off the catastrophic impacts of global warming.