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Nurses Call for Stepped Up Federal Effort on Fires

By Kari Jones - Common Dreams, October 12, 2017

WASHINGTON - With the death toll now topping at least 21 people, and fire officials saying the disastrous North Bay wildfires remaining far from contained, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United yesterday called on the federal government for a far greater urgent response with additional equipment and firefighting personnel.

“The Trump Administration has been distressingly slow in taking the urgent steps needed to protect the people and communities affected,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of both CNA and NNU.

CNA RNs have been directly affected by at least six major wildfires that have raged in Northern California counties, as first responders, evacuating patients in two Santa Rosa, CA hospitals, and also dealing with their own losses. At least 15 RNs have also lost their homes.

Kaiser San Rafael RN Tara Williams described 100 patients being brought to her hospital by bus who “were all pretty overwhelmed and concerned about their homes, but we were giving them food and support and helping them get into a safe space where they could be cared for.”

Now in its third full day of battling the destructive fires, “we’re not going to be out of the woods for a great many days to come,” California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection head Ken Pimlott told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.  In addition to the deaths, some 560 people are reported missing, a number partly due to loss of communication facilities, many people under evacuation order, and a total of 22 fires ripping through the state.

“With California officials fully engaged, and the fires still posing a major threat to lives and homes. But this is a national responsibility as well. We need to see immediate action from the federal government – as well as a robust commitment to rebuilding shattered infrastructure in the path of all of these horrific disasters,” said DeMoro.  

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget shows disturbing priorities at a time when wildfires are increasing, in part due to the effects of the climate crisis, DeMoro noted.

Under the proposed budget, the Huffington Post reported in July, the U.S. Forest Service would face a $300 million reduction to its wildfire fighting programs, another $50 million in cuts to its wildfire prevention efforts and a 23 percent reduction to funding for volunteer fire departments.

How We Beat Trump’s Dirty Power Play

By Ben Ishibashi - Common Dreams, October 11, 2017

Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, think undoing all that has gone before them is something to celebrate. With no real accomplishments of their own, they revel in their power to destroy, rather than defend.

This is what Pruitt wants out of his bid to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s signature effort to cut carbon emissions from electric power generation by 32 percent by 2030.

“The war on coal is over,” Pruitt crowed at a press conference on Monday in Hazard, Kentucky, beaming. as if easing restrictions on dirty generators will magically bring back jobs to the state’s ravaged coalfields. It will not.

Allowing power companies to pump more carbon into the atmosphere won’t create jobs, nor will it revitalize the economy, even if Pruitt and Trump claim it as a big win.

But their bid to repeal the Clean Power Plan may have one silver lining: It gives all of us who care about climate justice a new opportunity to make our voices heard, and to fight for our planet’s future.

Appetite for Destruction: Trump’s War on the Environment

By Joshua Frank - CounterPunch, October 6, 2017

From the senseless slaughter in Las Vegas to the horrific impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, to Trump’s boisterous threats against North Korea and unfolding strife within the White House — it’s easy to get lost in the world’s madness and the nefarious mind of Prez Trump. It’s a dangerous vortex, no doubt, but Trump’s twitter storm and paper towel tossing photo ops are little more than a distraction from his administration’s unfettered assault on the environment.

This past week, Team Trump quietly denied protection for 25 species that are on the verge of extinction, including the Pacific walrus and black-backed woodpecker. The reason, of course, is that science doesn’t mean jack shit to the corporate barons ruling our government.

“Denying protection for these 25 species despite the imminent threat of climate change and ongoing habitat destruction is typical of the Trump administration’s head-in-the-sand approach,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

This is only Trump’s latest violation of our country’s endangered species. In June, Trump stripped protections for Yellowstone’s imperiled grizzly bear.

Under the noses of the environmental community, as Steve Horn and I recently reported, the Trump admin is also moving forward with new regulations that would allow certain liquid natural gas (LNG) exports in the US to skirt environmental reviews, a literal wet dream of America’s fracking empire. In many cases, Trump’s war on the environment and appetite for fossil fuels is shared by the so-called opposition in the Washington. The push for expediting LNG exports, for example, is largely spearheaded by former Clinton campaign employees.

Then there’s Trump’s overt destruction of the EPA, typically the last stopgap against environmental plunder. Indeed, Trump’s defanging the EPA is one campaign promise he’s managed to uphold. The EPA employs a mere 14,000 people, but Trump is doing his best to shrink that number substantially. Not only is there a current hiring freeze in place, it was reported last June that the EPA was planning to offer buyouts to more than 1,200 employees. Buyout is short for forced retirement. In September a wave of these forced retirements swept the EPA and at least 362 employees accepted Trump’s buyout last month.  The EPA hasn’t been this small and impotent since the Reagan era.

It’s all by design. Trump, with help from Congress, is hoping to slash the agency’s budget by 31% next year. EPA administrator Scott Pruit, who infamously denied the existence of climate change, is carrying out Trump’s mission to scrub all science from the EPA’s toolbox. But what’s better than banning science research at the agency? How about getting rid of the EPA altogether, one employee at a time. Sadly, Trump is carrying on with a trend President Obama set into motion. During his second term, the Obama admin paid more than $11 million to buyout 436 EPA employees. Shrinking the government is a bipartisan affair.

However, if Trump and Pruitt have their way, they’ll take Obama’s move a step further and scrap Superfund cleanup funds along with eliminating 50 other EPA programs. Also on the chopping block is the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which works to protect our most environmentally impacted poor, minority communities.

Of course, we also have Trump signing an executive order to expand offshore drilling, wanting to back out of the Paris climate deal, as well as a push to open up oil exploration in ANWAR. He also hopes to scrap Obama’s climate regulations. And Trump, along with Secretary of the Interior Zinke, are working to reduce the size of nearly half of our National Monuments. To top it off they are also seeking to open these wild lands to oil and gas development. Nothing is sacred.

No doubt President Trump is a daily, almost hourly, train wreck — but his antics are coming at a very real cost to the environment and those species and people most impacted by its destruction.

This Former Coal Miner’s Perspective on Climate Change

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, September 19, 2017

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who seek a profit from extracting coal, oil, or natural gas, tell us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers.

When it comes to climate change, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects them. For those of us in Appalachia, the way climate change is affecting us is almost always perceived through the “War on Coal.” Surprisingly, no one seems keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework with any amount of credibility.

Fritz Edler on Green Unionism

Report Back from Hurricane Harvey Relief Efforts

By Redneck Revolt - It's Going Down, September 12, 2017

Houston’s political economy and geography needs to be understood if we are to understand the social impact of Hurricane Harvey. Houston is a “boomtown”, leading in petrochemical, technology, medicine and shipping; in the abstract, certain economic trends such as recession have sometimes not affected Houston as greatly, multinational capital continues to pour into the city, while it’s being pulled out of older Midwestern states, all as a part of a slow but very noticeable process. However, this doesn’t prevent Houston’s prosperity from being concentrated in one class; with some of the cheapest housing and lowest wages, calls for Houston to be emptied as “uninhabitable” leaves locals wondering where else even those who are making decent wages could afford to go. In a lot of places, the water has nowhere to go, and neither does the poverty.

Houston is also a city with a long history of white supremacy since its inception. It is one of America’s most segregated cities. There are well over a hundred languages spoken in Houston homes. Houston is the home to the first private prison, meant to house immigrant detainees, a model which replicated across Texas, the nation, and whole prison industry. It is a vast, sprawling metropolis (the area size as cities twice its population size) and is a driving city with poor public transportation, which despite expansions in recent years, routinely fails the black and brown poor that use them the most. This means that in these neighborhoods, the poorest grow up sometimes never leaving their neighborhood, maybe sometimes for work if they are lucky, or jail if they are not. These are often “food deserts” in these areas, and also as a city known for it’s great “job creation” track record, these jobs don’t reach out to these places.

We were all safe as the storm passed, and although there were scares and close calls, the storm managed to mostly spare the local from impact. We were in constant contact as the storm came, making sure each other were safe. We had decided as a local upon our recent founding that we would be growing BASH (Bayou Action Street Health, a local street medic collective) alongside Houston Redneck Revolt as somewhat of a sister organization, therefore working through BASH made a lot of sense for us. We are a little over a month old, however we have quickly grown on each other. We knew we could count on being able to support BASH, while we figured out what role Redneck Revolt would be able to play in this.

We began our efforts before Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi. Before we were able to leave our houses, we had begun gathering contacts from inside and outside of town, and consolidating local efforts between groups on social media. Members of Redneck Revolt made a Facebook group that is sympathetic to our politics and contained most of Houston’s heavy lifters in terms of organizers, and that continues to be pretty effective as a center for information with quality control. We tried our best to network rescue efforts early on as well, sometimes with people we did not know, in order to circulate information, as all emergency lines were busy. Some also began doing very careful navigation of the streets in order to try to provide care on the ground in places that had not experienced flooding but might have some people walking around. Overall, Houston Redneck Revolt did not participate directly in a rescue experience, however we did our best to support others in this.

As relief volunteers began coming in from out of town in the middle of the week, we immediately got into food and supply distribution as well as housing members of other organizations. Members of Redneck Revolt from outside the city in outlying rural areas came into town, and committed to staying for a long period. We attended conference calls and had to have a lot of conversations very quickly on political questions, and which alliances we would build. We jumped right into prepping hot meals for hundreds of people, and directed supplies to shelters that were being neglected by the cross and tried to stay as knowledgeable as possible. Groups we did this alongside of, and with the help of, were Black Women’s Defense League, Phoenix John Brown Gun Club, Red Guards Austin, Revolutionary Association of Houston, and the Serve the Peoplenetwork, and several others.

The lessons of Katrina that haven't been learned

By Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky - Socialist Worker, September 12, 2017

MANY IMAGES coming out of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey conjure up images of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans--in particular, the rooftop rescues of people stranded in floodwaters and a Convention Center turned into a shelter packed with thousands of people displaced from their homes.

But in fact, the similarities between Houston in 2017 and New Orleans in 2005 run far deeper than mere images--though thankfully it appears that the death toll from Harvey will be far lower than the 1833 people who died during and after Katrina.

One critical parallel between Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina is that, at their root, both were human-made disasters. Of course, each calamity was triggered by weather event, but human actions and societal decisions are the reason for everything from climate change to infrastructure deficiencies that made people were more likely to be left behind to face their possible deaths.

In this sense, both Katrina and Harvey can be called "unnatural disasters." As Tulane history professor Andy Horowitz reminds us, "There is no such thing as a "natural" disaster, because who is in harm's way and the kind of harm they face is a product of human choices."

Greed Has Poisoned Their Souls

By Demand Climate Justice - The World at 1°C, September 9, 2017

Unless you are an environmental geographer or a regular reader of The World at 1°C, chances are you apply the term “natural disaster” to events such as Hurricane Harvey, the landslides in Sierra Leone which claimed 1000 lives, or any of the other countless climatic shocks felt over the last month.

The fact is that nothing could be more unnatural:

In every phase and aspect of a disaster […] the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”

This is true enough of events which occur irrespective of human activity, such as volcanic eruptions, but when it comes to the droughts, storms, floods, and famines (and, actually, even some earthquakes) caused by climate change or extractive industries, the term natural disaster hides not only a truth about differentiated impacts — it also masks a truth about where responsibility lies.

ExxonMobil, for example, has known that its continued existence causes climate change for decades. And ExxonMobil lied about having this knowledge with such abandon that now even their ex-employees are suing them (in addition to Californian communities affected by climate change). A journal article published this month was the first to analyse all of Exxon’s communications about climate change. It concluded that the corporation knew the facts thanks to its own scientists, yet continued to peddle doubt and foster confusion (including through paid editorials in liberal papers like the New York Times).

The very same ExxonMobil, which now has a major ‘in’ at the White House via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has been repeatedly let off the hook by authorities. One emblematic story recently published in The Intercept explains how the company has been poisoning a black community in Beaumont, Texas, for decades, by pumping millions of tonnes of toxic chemicals into the air while refining “sour crude.” The community, where people suffer from high rates of hair loss, birth defects, asthma, and cancer, tried to get the EPA to do something (the Exxon refinery regularly broke the law), but were ignored for 17 years. Those who could afford to moved away. Those who could not still live in the shadow of Exxon’s stacks, which stand as monuments to greed and indifference to human suffering.

The market-based “logic” of greenwashed capitalism is that if corporations must pay for doing things like ruining people’s lives or even ruining the planet, then they won’t do it, or at least not as much. But that is demonstrably untrue. Last year, Exxon’s Beaumont refinery illegally released 2,125 pounds of carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. They were fined $7001. Even when companies are fined much more — as Exxon was when one of its decrepit pipelines burst in 2013, flooding an Arkansas community with 200,000 gallons of Tar Sands oil — they are often able to appeal, as Exxon did.

If a conviction somehow sticks, corporations are sometimes able to ignore the ruling altogether, as these 3 companies appear to be doing in Indonesia. Following successful convictions with penalties in billions of dollars, the Indonesian government has been unable to collect. While the corporations make billions exploiting Indonesia’s vast mineral reserves and precious forests, the communities in the way are left destitute and savaged by both corporate mercenaries and state military forces.

Cognizant of (negative) publicity, corporations are careful to cover themselves with the fig leaf of “corporate social responsibility” and other such meaningless phrases which sound good but don’t mean much in practice. In a case that has echoes of ExxonMobil’s climate change cover-up, Monsanto was recently exposed in The Poison Papers as having made and sold a toxic industrial chemical known as PCB almost a decade after being told by their scientists that:

The evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence in the environment is beyond questioning.”

In addition to covering up the horrendous health impacts of its PCB products, newly revealed documents show that Monsanto also conspired with a consultancy firm to “ghost write” a supposedly independent review of the health impacts of its flagship herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has since attempted to force the documents offline, out of sight.

What these examples make clear is that the ways in which people are made to suffer under the dominant social, political, and economic systems are not natural or innate. People suffer by design. And the designers have names like Exxon and Monsanto.

Climate chaos and the capitalist system

By Paul Fleckenstein - Socialist Worker, September 11, 2017

WE ALL witnessed two catastrophic storm events in the past two weeks, and a third, Hurricane Irma, is heading through the Caribbean toward southwestern Florida, where I used to live.

The weather catastrophe that got the least attention in the U.S. was the extreme rainfall in South Asia over the last several weeks as a result of the worst monsoons in decades. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are over 1,400 reported deaths in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. And this is just the beginning. Millions face a longer-term crisis of hunger and lack of access to drinkable water.

In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey produced record rainfall in Houston (50 inches), caused more than 60 deaths, flooded 100,000 homes and forced 100,000s of people to flee floodwaters.

As Houston resident and SW contributor Folko Mueller wrote, "It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes."

The Houston area is home to 30 percent of the oil refinery capacity in U.S., along with a heavy concentration of chemical plants. There were massive toxic releases from industrial plants into air and water--even by the standards of industry self-reporting, which means systematic underreporting.

Explosions rocked the Arkema plant in the Houston suburbs that produces stock chemicals for manufacturing. It will be many years before we know the full magnitude and effects of this and other releases that took place during the disaster.

We Must Protect the Workers Who Will Rebuild after Hurricane Harvey

By Kathleen Rest - Union of Concern Scientists, September 5, 2017

Storm waters in the greater Houston area are subsiding and the scale of devastation and destruction is staggering. The personal loss, pain, and suffering of families and impacted communities are immeasurable.

As the immediate crisis of saving lives and providing emergency aid and shelter to many thousands winds down, the daunting task of recovery, cleanup, and rebuilding of homes, businesses, and essential infrastructure begins. And, with my 25-plus years of work and experience in occupational health and safety, I am all too aware of the myriad hazards, exposures, and risks workers will be facing in this long-term effort.

Safeguarding workers’ health and safety must not be an afterthought.

The work: dirty, dangerous, and risky

Post-disaster recovery, cleanup, and reconstruction operations present a panoply of risks and dangers—with workers on the front lines.

Some workers will be tasked with the highly hazardous task of getting the area’s oil refineries and chemical plants back on-line. Start-up operations can result in uncontrolled releases and explosions that place the workers and surrounding communities at grave health and safety risk. The US Chemical Safety Board has issued a safety alert, urging caution and providing a checklist for evaluating systems, tanks, instrumentation, and equipment before start-up.

Other workers will be working in and around the 13 highly contaminated Superfund sites that have flooded and sustained storm damage. As of this writing, the EPA reports that 11 additional Superfund sites remain inaccessible to response personnel, so the extent of damage is unknown.

And many if not most workers in the greater Houston area will be doing jobs that, at least in the short term, only compound the well-recognized hazards, exposures, and risks they generally encounter.

Hurricanes and super storms like Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina just pile on additional hazards, including mold, mold, and more mold; water contaminated with chemicals and waste; working in and around unstable structures; and carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of generators in poorly ventilated areas—an all-too-common event in post-disaster work. These are all on top of the falls, cuts, burns, amputations, and machine and musculoskeletal injuries that are all to frequent in today’s workplaces.  And silica, asbestos, and lead just add to the mix of dangers involved in demolition operations that will be ongoing in Houston. (You can also read my prior commentary on workplace injury, illness, and fatality tolls.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established protective health and safety standards for many of these hazards, and they remain applicable even during disasters.  Employers remain responsible for complying with these protections.

In the early days of a disaster, OSHA rightly focuses on compliance assistance (outreach, information, and training for employers and workers). But it should shift to enforcement as the immediate crisis passes. We have seen, for example, the consequences of a lack of enforcement of required respiratory protection after 9/11, leading to the illness and death of workers exposed to toxic dust.  Federal agencies have resources and information about these general hazards, as well as disaster-focused resources and information for employers, workers, and the public (including here, here, and here).

While helpful, information on a website is not enough; workers, communities, and the impacted public will need resources and action on the ground. And this will surely strain the capacity and resources of agencies that must continue to meet their existing responsibilities at the same time.

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