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Aerial Video of Alabama Oil Spill Exposes Inadequate Cleanup

Energy

By Melissa Troutman

Every year, we hear about the latest oil spills, pipeline explosions and pollution…but we rarely see how people and environment are impacted over time. Public Herald is embarking on a new series “American Albatross” to investigate the environmental legacy of fossil fuel in America and solutions for cleaning it up. We begin in Aliceville, Alabama.

Efforts to clean up an Alabama oil spill are under scrutiny after a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude oil exploded last month, spilling into wetlands just outside the town of Aliceville. Photojournalist John Wathen captured video of cleanup efforts one week after the Nov. 7 derailment, and the footage prompts questions about the efficacy of methods being used.

Wathen wasn’t the only citizen responder in Aliceville, AL. He was joined by Scott Smith, who’s visited major oil spills across the globe to deploy his biodegradable technology, OPFLEX, that can absorb oil and other toxins from polluted water. Wathen and Smith tried to reach the wetland to assess the damage and help stop the oil from moving downstream. But they were turned away by railroad personnel and threatened with the FBI. Genesee & Wyoming railroad spokesperson Michael Williams wouldn’t confirm or deny the FBI’s involvement and redirected Public Herald to the Bureau.

The footage captured by Wathen shows clean up workers spraying what appears to be water into the oil spill.

Aerial view of cleanup after a Genesee & Wyoming train exploded its crude oil contents into wetlands. Photo credit: John Wathen

After seeing Wathen’s footage, Smith wrote to the railroad company, Genesee & Wyoming, to express his concerns about the methods being used to clean up the spill:

It appears from the photos sent to me that water is being used to spray down the oil in the wetlands surrounding Aliceville, AL. There are much better options to remove the oil and help prevent further damage to the wetlands. If it rains anytime soon, there is little doubt that the oil in the water will spread downstream and things can be done now to prevent this.

Smith believes his own technology may be a better way. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Smith sold BP more than 2 million square feet of OPFLEX for cleanup. OPFLEX is an open-celled, sponge-like material modeled after the human lung and sometimes takes the shape of eelgrass to absorb oil and other toxins from polluted water, both on and below the surface.

According to Williams, the spray method revealed in Wathen’s footage is “a process used to corral the oil within the containment booms prior to skimming.” However, workers appear to be spraying away from booms in some instances and towards unprotected shorelines. Smith believes the workers are actually using an outdated, defunct “dilution is the solution to pollution” method.

Workers spraying oil at the train wreck and crude spill near Aliceville, AL. Photo credit: John Wathen

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region IV, who responded to the spill, was not available for initial comment about the spraying.

According to Smith, when water is sprayed onto a shale oil spill, some toxins mixed with the oil dissolve below the surface of the water. Some of these toxins are naturally-occurring and some are byproducts of the drilling process used to extract Bakken crude, called fracking, which involves hundreds of chemicals that return to the surface with recovered oil.

How Are Oil Spills Cleaned Up?

In nearly all oil spills, containment booms are used as floating buffers to try and corral oil resting on the surface of water for skimming. Preventing oil from reaching shore is a major concern, given that oil is virtually impossible to remove from soil. The EPA and industry alike also use absorbent padding at waters edge in order to try and keep the oil off the shore.

When asked about the railroad’s cleanup efforts, Williams wrote to Public Herald that “air and water monitoring began on the morning of the derailment, and the site will be remediated.”

The railroad has a top oil-cleanup contractor on site who is experienced with crude oil responses for pipelines, exploration companies, railroads and shipping companies and has an established working relationship with EPA Region IV and the State of Alabama. The railroad is working closely with the EPA who are on site daily.

Williams later added their “top oil-cleanup contractor” is U.S. Environmental Services (USES), the same company involved in cleanup efforts of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and others.

Of course, part of remediation involves knowing precisely how and what’s been spilled. Though the cleanup and investigation of how the train derailed and exploded in Alabama is ongoing, Williams informed Public Herald that the railway was up and running ten days after the incident and trains carrying Bakken crude are being diverted around Aliceville.

Scott Smith, inventor of OPFLEX, deploys his “eel grass” boom into an oily creek. Photo credti: Joshua Pribanic

Series of Spills Reveals Crude Trend

Four months before the Alabama spill, Smith visited another oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where railcars—also carrying Bakken crude oil—derailed and exploded killing more than 40 people and decimating half the town.

CBC News Montreal reported in August that the “U.S. Department of Transportation…authorities were worried prior to the Lac-Mégantic disaster about the transport of oil from North Dakota on trains.” Another CBC News report states that Lac-Megantic investigators found it “unusual for crude oil to burn so fiercely.”

Smith has sampled and tested Bakken crude. According to him, not only is Bakken crude lighter and more volatile than other oils, but no one is testing or “fingerprinting” each shipment before placing it in railcars or pipelines for transport. “The objective is to pump it and load it,” Smith told CBC News Montreal.

Smith offered his test results to help with Genesee & Wyoming’s ongoing investigation. “I have done baseline fingerprinting of Bakken crude oil in its ‘pure form’…This data might help Genesee & Wyoming assess exactly what was in the tankers that exploded.”

CBC News also reported tests of Bakken crude by one oil company which showed ten times the amount of benzene in Bakken oil as compared with others, as well as hydrogen sulfide, leading some experts to wonder about the crude’s propensity to easily ignite.

John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper of international Waterkeeper Alliance. Photo credit: Bobbie Deahl

Like Smith, John Wathen has responded to many environmental disasters. As Hurricane Creekkeeper of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, Wathen responded to the 2008 Kingston coal ash disaster in Tennessee and the BP Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, which won him the honor of being named 2012 River Hero. His documentation of these incidents gives a close-up look at how spills are handled.

Aliceville is just the latest in a series of spill disasters in North America, topping a growing list of incidents related to fossil fuel’s production, transport, distribution, and waste disposal. Setting aside natural gas facility explosions and coal ash spills, here’s a list of some of the oil spill disasters in the U.S., or involving U.S. companies, in just the last three years:

Jan. 11, 2010 – Aleutian Islands, AK – Adak Petroleum tank spill

Jan. 23, 2010 – Port Arthur, TX – ExxonMobil tanker ship hit by barge, spill

April 7, 2010 – Delta National Wildlife Refuge, LA – ExxonMobil pipeline contractor spill

April 20, 2010 – Gulf of Mexico, U.S. – BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, spill

May 1, 2010 – Niger Delta, Nigeria – ExxonMobil spill

May 25, 2010 – Anchorage, AK – BP Trans-Alaska pipeline spill

June 11, 2010 – Salt Lake City, UT – Chevron Red Butte Creek oil spill

July 26, 2010 – Kalamazoo, MI – Enbridge pipeline rupture into Kalamazoo River

July 27, 2010 – Barataria Bay, LA -Boat struck a Cedyco Corp. abandoned wellhead,  five day spill

Dec. 1, 2010 – Salt Lake City, UT – Chevron Red Butte Creek oil spill, part II

March 18, 2011 – Gulf coast, LA – Oil spill, unknown origin

July 1, 2011 – Billings, MT - ExxonMobil Yellowstone River oil spill

July 13, 2011 – Prudhoe Bay, AK – BP pipeline leak, spill

Nov. 8, 2011 – Campos Basin, Brazil – Chevron offshore rig oil spill

Dec. 21, 2011 – Niger Delta, Nigeria – Shell offshore oil spill

April 28, 2012 – Torbert, LA – Exxon Mobile pipeline spill

Oct. 29, 2012 – Sewaren, NJ – Arthur Kill oil spill after Hurricane Sandy

Dec. 21, 2012 – McKenzie County, ND – Newfield well blowout, spill

March 9, 2013 – Magnolia, AR – Lion Oil refinery leak

March 26, 2013 – Willard Bay, UT – Chevron pipeline rupture, spill, groundwater contamination

March 30, 2013 – Mayflower, AR – ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline rupture, spill

May 7, 2013 – Milner, ND – TransCanada pipeline leak, spill

May 9, 2013 – Indianapolis, IN – Marathon Oil pipeline leak, spill

May 18, 2013 – Cushing, OK – Enbridge storage terminal leak, spill

Sept. 25, 2013 – Tioga, ND – Tesaro Logistics pipeline rupture, spill

Nov. 7, 2013 – Aliceville, AL – Genesee & Wyoming crude train explosion, spill

This is not a comprehensive list. According to an analysis by EnergyWire, more than 17,000 spills were reported between 2010-2012 in the U.S.

"Best" Method of Transporting Oil

Due to a surge in American fossil fuel production in recent years, oil-by-rail has become an alternative for many companies at a time when pipelines are taboo, crowned in controversy by the Keystone XL. The L.A. Times reported in September that railroads are carrying 25 times more crude oil than they were five years ago.

Genesee & Wyoming’s Michael Williams wrote to Public Herald, “Rail is the safest means of ground-freight transportation…As a common carrier, the railroad has a legal obligation to transport these materials.”

Both railways and pipelines can be "common carriers" which are legally required to carry all freight, if space allows and fees are paid, and may not refuse unless reasonable grounds exist. Under international law, a common carrier is liable for damage to freight as well, with four exceptions:  “An act of nature, an act of the public enemies, fault or fraud by the shipper, [or] an inherent defect in the goods.”

Whether pipelines or railways are "safer" for transport of hazardous materials like crude oil is debatable, but writer Russ Blinch gives an interesting analogy:

Looking at pipelines versus rail tankers is really like asking, “Should I drive the car with bad brakes or the one with bad tires?

For those living along routes for transporting hazardous materials, whether by pipe or by rail, it’s unlikely anyone’s taken time to ask which methods or cleanup technology communities prefer industry use.

 Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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