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Colorado

Letter Carrier: Air Quality Is a Union Issue

By Malachi Dray - Labor Notes, August 24, 2021

On August 7, Denver, Colorado—suffocated with smoke from the massive California wildfires—topped the chart of the world’s most polluted major cities.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) reading that day reached 179, in the unhealthy red zone of the Environmental Protection Agency's rating system. The concentration of fine particulate matter was 11 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure level for pollutants. Not just wildfire smoke but also everyday consumer pollutants like shampoo residue, sunscreen particles, and auto emissions combined into a toxic brew of irritants that left many in the city feeling ill with headaches, or wheezy.

Delivering mail under these conditions was sickening, and certainly threatened long-term respiratory health consequences. Yet at our station, postal management made no mention of air quality during safety talks throughout the week. And when I looked for the basis for a grievance or some other action, there were almost no resources to speak of from either the national union or from management.

Postal management has an environmental policy which only specifies indoor air quality as part of its purview. This is a major omission for hundreds of thousands of letter carriers who work outside all day—but it’s part of a longstanding pattern of neglect for basic climate conditions on the part of management. It took decades for postal management to provide bottled water to the carrier workforce on a regular basis, and only since the 2010s has management faced citations from OSHA for indoor heat-related safety violations.

A Just Transition Now or Climate Disaster is Inevitable

Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, July 15, 2021

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

How to Protect Workers While Protecting the Climate

Clock ticking on benefits deadline for uranium workers

By Kathy Helms - Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, July 10, 2021

CHURCHROCK – Larry King, president of Churchrock Chapter and a former uranium worker, doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in the melting Arctic of receiving federal benefits afforded sick Navajos who worked in the uranium industry before 1971. King isn’t the only one.

Linda Evers of Milan, co-founder of the Post-’71 Uranium Workers Committee, and the group’s members also can forget about help with their medical bills unless Congress changes qualifications for the 1990 program.

This weekend, the first day dawned in the countdown to July 10, 2022, when, according to statute, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Trust Fund “terminates,” along with the authority of the U.S. Attorney General to administer the law, according to the Department of Justice.

When the sun sets on this program, former uranium workers and downwinders will be unable to apply for benefits.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, “RECA,” provides compassionate payments to workers for certain cancers and diseases resulting from exposure to radiation during the build-up to the Cold War. It also compensates individuals who became ill following exposure to radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada.

Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, we must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

As coal dies, the US has no plan to help the communities left behind

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, March 3, 2021

Here are two tales of the energy transition unfolding in coal country, USA.

In late 2019, Pacificorp, an electric utility that operates in six Western states, told Wyoming regulators it wanted to shut down several of its coal-fired power plants early and replace them with wind and solar power and battery storage. It said this plan would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills and promised to work with local leaders on transition plans for workers and communities affected by the closures.

Wyoming, a state whose economy relies significantly on coal mining and coal power, went on the defensive. State lawmakers had already passed a law requiring coal plant owners to search for a buyer before being allowed to close a plant. Now, with support from the governor, regulators ordered an unprecedented investigation to scrutinize Pacificorp’s analysis and conclusions. Ultimately they determined the plan was deficient — that the company had not adequately considered allowing the coal plants to stay open or installing technology to capture the plants’ carbon emissions.

Colorado Office of Just Transition defers actions for worker protection in new Final Action Plan

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 7, 2021

In 2019, the State of Colorado established the first state-level Office of Just Transition (OJT) through House Bill 19-1314 . As required by that legislation, the OJT submitted its final Just Transition Action Plan on December 31, 2020, based largely on the Draft Plan submitted by its Just Transition Advisory Committee (JTAC) in August 2020. (The structure, mandate, and documentation from the consultation process are accessible here; an excellent summary is provided by the State press release here .

The December Just Transition Action Plan offers discussion and strategy recommendations organized in three sections: communities; workers; and financing. The estimated cost is $100 million, and the time frame calls for actual closures to finish in 2030. (Perhaps the leisurely schedule will be reviewed in light of events: the Denver Post reported on January 4 that Xcel- Energy announced it will close its Hayden coal plant significantly earlier than planned – beginning in 2027). The December Action Plan strategies are dominated by concerns for communities, with six detailed strategies outlined. Recognizing that some communities are more dependent on coal than others, and that average wages are also different across communities, the plan designates four communities as priority Tier One communities, and others as Tier Two communities, as defined in an Appendix. The Hayden plant is located in a Tier One community.

Economic Development Policies to Enable Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition

By Daniel Raimi, Wesley Look, Molly Robertson, and Jake Higdon - Resources for the Future, August 11, 2020

Communities that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel–related economic activity—including the production of coal, oil, and natural gas and the transformation and consumption of these fuels—would experience substantial effects of a societal shift away from such fuels. This report reviews a range of federal economic development policies and programs that may help affected workers and communities thrive in a low-emissions future. Future reports in this series will examine other tools (e.g., workforce development policy, energy and environmental policy, infrastructure policy) that can play a role in supporting affected workers and communities.

Here, we focus on programs and policies that explicitly seek to support local economic development. In particular, we examine programs led by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, the Department of Interior’s Secure Rural Schools, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment, and the Small Business Administration, plus emerging efforts in Colorado and New Mexico.

For ease of analysis, we group economic development programs into two broad categories: those that target local or regional economies historically driven by natural resource development (e.g., coal, agriculture, timber) and programs with a broader geographic and/or economic scope.

We identify three major mechanisms through which the federal government delivers support:

  • Capacity building involves programs that provide technical assistance, planning, or research to support local economic development efforts. Such programs can be effective tools to reduce knowledge gaps and increase human capital and productivity. In a concise summary, Wharton (1958) describes this approach as “helping people help themselves.”
  • Financial support to public and community organizations helps public or quasi-public organizations deliver local economic development programming. This support may be direct (e.g., grants or loans) or indirect (e.g., loan guarantees) and can enhance the human and physical capital stock (including infrastructure) in a community.
  • Financial support to private, for-profit firms may similarly be direct or indirect; the federal government may also offer tax credits, which are not applicable to public entities because they do not pay taxes. These programs are often intended to support small businesses that may struggle to access affordable borrowing, or to jump-start local businesses in sectors that policymakers believe hold promise for future prosperity.

Read the text (PDF).

Coal Plant Communities Seek a Just Economic Transition

By Lilli Ambort - Institute for Local Self-Reliance, August 7, 2020

Xcel Energy’s announcement that the Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco) in Becker, Minn. will close by 2030 did not come as a surprise, but for local residents, the uncertainty of the city’s economic future has become a pervasive issue. Sherco is one of the largest coal-powered generating stations in the state, with three boilers and a total capacity of 2,238 megawatts. The Sherco power plant provides 301 jobs and a huge portion of the small city’s tax base. Sherburne County Commissioner Tim Dolan remarks “At 77% [of the City’s tax base], it’s probably easier to point to stuff [Sherco] didn’t pay for. It’s a much shorter list.”

Xcel Energy plans to replace two of the coal boilers with a 786 megawatt gas plant that will provide roughly 30 permanent jobs. Environmentally, the closure of coal plants drastically reduces carbon emissions and air pollution (but the addition of a gas plant at Sherco is questionable). Economically, Becker and many cities like it are left scrambling, looking for alternative forms of employment and tax revenue.

As gas dethrones coal generation as the ruler of the U.S. power sector, the cost of running coal power plants becomes economically uncompetitive. Eventually, gas may be surpassed by renewable energy, with solar and wind expected to be the fastest growing source of electricity generation for the next two years. For communities that rely on coal plants for tax revenue and jobs, the early closure of these plants spells trouble even as it reduces pollution and saves electric customers money. The transition away from fossil fuels provides new economic opportunities, but the question becomes whether these clean energy opportunities can replace lost income and tax revenue from coal generation plants.

Despite the news about the Sherco plant, Becker city officials remain hopeful for new economic opportunities that may come from the plant closure. Becker has attracted the attention of Google, which is looking to build a $600 million data center next to Sherco, potentially generating 2,000 short-term construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs. The data center would be powered by two wind power projects. While the Google project is still up in the air, Northern Metal Recycling is already moving to build a metal recycling plant next to Sherco, with the potential to create about 150 jobs in Becker. The possibility of new jobs, new people, and new tax revenue excites residents, and for now, these new developments do not completely replace all the jobs and tax revenue lost from the closure of Sherco, but they provide some economic hope. Unfortunately, other communities across the U.S. have not been as lucky, left with little to no other options for economic revitalization after coal plant closures.

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