Phages: Bacterial Eaters From Georgia to Fight Antibiotic Resistance
By Tim Ruben Weimer
Tanja Diederen lives near Maastricht in the Netherlands. She has been suffering from Hidradenitis suppurativa for 30 years. Its a chronic skin disease in which the hair roots are inflamed under pain — often around the armpits and on the chest.
€3,900 ($4,302) for treatment in Georgia
In August 2019, the now 50-year-old made a radical decision: she discontinued the antibiotics, which were becoming less and less effective. And she traveled to Georgia for two weeks to undergo treatment with bacteriophages (or phages for short).
Such phage therapy is not yet approved in most Western European countries. She paid 3,900 euros out of her own pocket in the hope that the unconventional therapy would help her.
Bacteriophages are viruses that fight against the proliferation of their host bacteria. Therapy with bacteriophages involves the oral administration of a single, isolated type of phage. They attach themselves to their bacterial counterparts in the patient's body in order to survive.
The phages reverse the polarity of the bacterial cell in such a way that it produces further phages, filling up with more and more phages and finally bursts. Then, the released phages attach themselves to other bacteria until all of the bacteria has been destroyed.
Journey Into the Unknown
"It tastes a bit like mushrooms," Tanja Diederen remarked as she took her morning phage dose. "When I went to Georgia, I was at first very nervous and excited, but above all disappointed about the treatment here in Holland."
After antibiotics stopped working for her, her doctor suggested that she take biopharmaceuticals, i.e. genetically engineered drugs. He had never heard of bacteriophages.
Instead, Diederen decided to look for treatment options with bacteriophages on her own, which she had heard about in a television program.
The Doctor Never Heard of Phages
A phage model — phages are viruses, that multiply in bacteria and then destroy them.
She came across the Georgi-Eliava Institute in Georgia, which has been researching bacteriophages since 1923 — just a few years after their discovery. Georgia has since developed into the global center of phage therapy.
During the Cold War, antibiotics were difficult to get there or anywhere in the Soviet Union. Treatment with phages was the best way to cure infectious diseases. Today, the Eliava Institute has one of the largest therapeutic collections of bacteriophages in the world.
Tanja Diederen stayed in treatment for two weeks, after which she traveled back to the Netherlands with a large suitcase full of phage tins. Since she began taking two different phages a day and applying a cream, she feels better.
She has more energy again and the small inflammations on her chest and armpits have decreased. The large inflammations come and go, but not as severe as before.
"It Doesn't Feel Illegal to Me"
Communicating with the Georgian doctors was difficult for Tanja Diederen. She needed a translator.
Every three months Diederen travels to Belgium — 15 kilometers away — to pick up a new ration of bacteriophages sent from Georgia for 500 euros. Her health insurance doesn't pay for this. Belgium is the only Western European country where phages are allowed. In the Netherlands, as in all other countries, they can only be used in individual cases to save lives or relieve severe pain.
Her physician is solely responsible for the application.
"It doesn't feel illegal to me," said Diederen. "I am one hundred percent sure that this medicine will help many people."
Like antibiotics, bacteriophages can also lead to bacterial resistance. Their big advantage, however, is that they are always one step ahead of the bacteria and can overcome the resistance. In addition, they are always directed against a specific type of bacteria and thus leave useful bacteria undamaged, like in the intestine, for example.
Before phage treatment, it is always necessary to determine which bacteria actually trigger the disease. The phages are then produced individually for each patient — often in Georgia.
Bacteriophages Permitted in Belgium
Professor Jean-Paul Pirnay from the Queen-Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels works with bacteriophages.
Such an individual medication does not meet the applicable regulations for medicinal products in any Western European country. It would take too much effort to have each individual phage formulation approved by the authorities.
Not so in Belgium. Since last year, this process can be legally circumvented by the Scientific Health Institute, in cooperation with doctors, patients, manufacturers, pharmacists and the Belgian Federal Office for Medicinal Products, issuing a certificate for the required phage ingredients. Pharmacists will then be able to use them for the manufacture of bacteriophages, subject to certain guidelines.
"We have used the existing legal framework to insert the bacteriophages," said Dr Jean-Paul Pirnay, who works at the Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels on bacteriophages.
Around 30 patients have already been treated there. Currently, the military hospital is the only place in Belgium where bacteriophages are produced.
Useful Supplement to Antibiotics
"We need pharmaceutical companies to make the phage," says Pirnay. "A hospital can't produce all phages for a growing number of patients."
But industrial production of phages would require a clearer legal framework, and research is not yet ready.
"I believe that phages will not replace antibiotics," he said. "Both will be used together to make antibiotics more effective."
Tanja Diederen wants to continue her treatment in Brussels in the future. Communication with the Georgian doctors was difficult for her, she always needed a translator.
"I really hope that phages will soon be allowed in Europe," she said. "Going to Georgia is quite difficult and expensive."
Germany and the Netherlands are currently conducting pilot studies to see whether an individual prescription of bacteriophages would be possible. France has already imported Belgian phages and agreed to their use.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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One of the world's best restaurants is giving up meat.
Eleven Madison Park (EMP), a New York City fine dining establishment that was named the first of the world's 50 best restaurants in 2017, announced Monday that it would reopen June 10 with an entirely plant-based menu.
"In the midst of last year, when we began to imagine what EMP would be like after the pandemic – when we started to think about food in creative ways again – we realized that not only has the world changed, but that we have changed as well," chef Daniel Humm wrote in an announcement posted on the restaurant's website. "We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways."
Eleven Madison Park, a New York City fine dining establishment that was named the first of the world's 50 best restaurants in 2017. Eleven Madison Park
EMP first opened its doors in 1998, and Humm joined it as executive chef in 2006, according to The New York Times. Since then, the restaurant has earned many accolades, including three stars from Michelin and four from The New York Times.
The move reflects a growing shift away from meat in fine dining as concerns about the climate crisis mount. Studies have shown that raising meat emits more greenhouse gas emissions than growing vegetables or legumes, and also requires more land and water while polluting more overall. In recent signs of this growing awareness, a vegan restaurant in France earned a Michelin star for the first time this January, and, just last week, the website Epicurious said it was no longer publishing or promoting new beef recipes.
Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park Restaurant on Feb. 27, 2013 in New York City. Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Blancpain
EMP is one of the most famous restaurants to move away from meat, according to CNN, but its high-end status may limit the reach of its decision.
"[T]here are limits to what you can do through the medium of a Michelin-starred restaurant," Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner told The New York Times. "Chefs should obviously continue sourcing their ingredients responsibly, in light of the climate emergency, but at the end of the day, you're still cooking for rich people, and you might question their commitment to these things."
Meals at EMP will still cost $335, and, even at this price-point, it is not easy to obtain a reservation, so a very small percentage of people will experience the shift from dishes like lavender honey glazed duck or butter poached lobster to the new, plant-based meals Humm and his team are now working to perfect.
However, Yale University history professor Paul Freedman said that Humm's influence as a chef meant the decision could have a larger impact on dining culture.
It could, he told The New York Times, "have an influence on the best restaurants in places like Midland, Texas — affluent places that are not Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York."
Humm is also working to expand EMP's offerings to the less affluent. During the pandemic, the shuttered restaurant prepared nearly one million meals to New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity with help from the nonprofit Rethink Food. Once the restaurant reopens, Humm said that he would continue that work, and that every meal at the restaurant would fund food for hungry New Yorkers.
"It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community," Humm said in the announcement. "A restaurant experience is about more than what's on the plate. We are thrilled to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine while deepening our connection to our homes: both our city and our planet."
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Coffee has enormous cultural significance. It's a staple of culture, cuisine, and everyday life for people all over the planet. Americans alone consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, and the crop is a highly traded commodity of huge importance to global economies.
These millions of cups aren't without consequence, however. The growing, processing, and transportation of coffee – everything that happens before it's poured into our mugs – have large-scale environmental and social repercussions.
Grown in tropical regions around the equator – called the "Bean Belt" – coffee beans travel far before ending up in our cabinets. Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia are the top producers of coffee – so, for those living in the continental United States, "local" coffee isn't an option, and its impact will always be substantial.
Increased demand and the undercutting of smallholders in coffee production have led to more destructive growing practices, including monocropping and replacing shade-grown coffee with sun-grown. Extreme exploitation of labor is also tied to coffee production, and farmers typically earn only between 7-10% of the retail price of their product – and less than 2% in Brazil – according to the Food Empowerment Project.
Beyond its production, the way we choose to prepare and consume coffee can also create avoidable waste: from filters to mugs, to spent coffee grounds. Luckily, there are ways to choose and consume your coffee more consciously, from choosing the product to how it's prepared.
Here are a few tips for a more sustainable and responsible coffee routine if you can't kick the habit.
1. Choose Consciously
Doi Chaang coffee on display for sale inside a coffee shop in Chiang Rai. Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty Images
When perusing the coffee aisle, look at the packaging for legitimate labels and third-party certifications. Real certifications will let you know that the coffee's production processes followed specific environmental and/or humanitarian regulations.
Be very wary of greenwashing as well: many companies will stamp illegitimate certifications on their packaging – like "100% All Natural," or "Certified Sustainable" – which don't represent any real standards and mislead consumers, giving the appearance of sustainability and responsibility without any basis.
The "local" label is another one to avoid; no coffee is "local" if you live in the continental U.S., regardless of what the packaging might tell you (locally roasted, maybe, but not grown).
There are a few legitimate certifications that consumers can look for when purchasing coffee:
Shade-grown coffee employs natural processes in coffee-growing, as overhead trees drop leaves and bark that suppress weeds and deliver nutrients to the soil, while also providing a habitat for wildlife and preventing soil erosion. Because of its higher yield, sun-grown coffee – that is, coffee grown in wide-open spaces – became popularized in the 1970s, but has reduced biodiversity and necessitated greater use of pesticides and fertilizers by farmers. Deforestation is already linked to coffee production and has only accelerated with the rise of sun-grown coffee and increasing global demand.
Many of the following certifications mandate that a certain percentage of coffee produced by a farm is shade-grown.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee includes environmental, social, and economic criteria. Growers certified under this label must follow a list of standards set by the Sustainable Agricultural Network, which addresses deforestation, bans the alteration of waterways and dumping of wastewater, restricts the use of pesticides, and requires farms to pay workers at least the federal minimum wage. The Rainforest Alliance certification is being upgraded this summer to address more issue areas and employ newer technologies to verify compliance on farms.
The seal has faced criticism, however, for requiring only 30% of the coffee in a package to have followed these standards, and for not including a fixed price for growers or a provision for organic cultivation.
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly Coffee
The requirements for Bird Friendly Coffee are often considered more stringent than those of the Rainforest Alliance, mandating coffee be 100% organic and 100% shade-grown. The seal aims to protect the habitats of migratory birds and requires that a farm be certified organic, maintain a healthy soil base, and employ zero use of pesticides.
The checklist requires, among other qualifications, at least 40% of a coffee farm to be covered in shade and grow 10 different tree species at a minimum to discourage monocropping.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair trade standards primarily focus on supporting farmers and workers. The major labels indicating that a product is fair trade certified are Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade America – the U.S. member of Fairtrade International. Both protect farmers against price fluctuations by setting a price floor that requires a minimum price per pound of coffee, plus additional funds for community development.
These labels have their own complications, as there are many other political and economic complications for farmers, including debts from previous price fluctuations; but, they are a step in the right direction.
The word "fair trade" is also ripe for greenwashing, stamped onto packages with no standards behind it. Be sure to verify whether a product is actually fair trade certified by one of these organizations when purchasing coffee.
USDA OrganicLike other certified-organic products, this label verifies that a farm has followed strict environmental standards, which prohibit synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Products labeled "100% organic" follow these guidelines completely, "organic" products must contain at least 95% organically-produced material, and anything indicating it was "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70%.
2. Replace Disposable With Reusable
Hiraman / E+ / Getty Images
Given all of the complex, energy-intensive processes that go into producing coffee, the environmental footprint of your morning cup goes far beyond plastic waste – but, with 64% of Americans drinking at least one cup a day, that resulting waste is nothing to scoff at.
When brewing coffee at home or grabbing one on-the-go, consider replacing the following:
Coffee filters are like any disposable product: they require energy and resources to produce and then end up in landfills when disposed of. Many of these filters are also chemically bleached with oxygen or chlorine, which has further environmental consequences.
Compostable filters are a partial solution, as they do reduce the overall volume of waste, but still must be created and transported before ending up in your coffee machine.
Luckily, many reusable alternatives can easily replace a disposable filter in traditional coffee machines or pour-over appliances: often made of plastic, metal, or a washable fabric (usually linen or cotton), they should be emptied and rinsed between each use.
Twenty-five percent of Americans have reported using single-cup coffee brewers, although it's no secret that single-use coffee capsules are an incredible source of waste, given that many aren't designed to be recycled or composted. If every K-cup thrown into landfills were lined up, it would wrap around the globe more than ten times.
If you can't quit the coffee-capsule method, stainless steel capsules can be purchased for most single-serve coffee machines. Some compostable capsules have been developed, but, like coffee filters, these too had to be produced and transported, expanding their environmental impact far beyond that of a reusable alternative.
What about coffee on-the-go?
Fifty-eight billion paper cups are thrown away every year in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and their inner polyethylene coating is expensive to recycle, so most of those 58 billion are sent directly to landfills.
A durable, reusable mug for to-go coffee can cut out this waste – around 23 pounds of trash each year, for a daily coffee drinker – and last for years, or even decades. Collapsible coffee mugs can be easily stored in a bag for when you're in a pinch.
Buy in Bulk
Skip the single-use packaging if you can. Many grocery stores will sell coffee beans in bulk, poured into your own reusable bag, and paid for by weight.
3. Consider Your Vessel
Besides choosing reusable alternatives to single-use items, you can also brew your coffee by methods that inherently require less energy.
Think of the energy used by a typical drip-coffee machine: the hotplate left on for hours, the digital display, and the phantom energy sucked up whenever it's plugged in. Appliances like these are usually cheaply made, and planned obsolescence will guarantee the need to purchase a newer model within a few years. Large coffee pots also produce much more than a single cup, often leading to wasted coffee down the drain.
Manual brewing methods require far less energy, such as French presses and Moka pots, which skip the disposable filters and require only the energy needed to boil the water. Pour-over coffee carafes can produce enough for multiple people and are very compatible with a linen coffee filter.
For those with an affinity for iced coffee, cold brew is perhaps the least energy-intensive of all, with time being the main component.
4. Don't Waste It
Natalia Rüdisüli / EyeEm / Getty Images
The average mature coffee tree will produce only about two pounds of beans per year – so, given the environmental and social impacts of its production along with that low yield, it's important to make sure that no coffee is poured down the drain.
When you find yourself with leftover brew, save it in the fridge for tomorrow's iced coffee, or freeze it in an ice cube tray to add to cold brew or smoothies.
5. Compost the Grounds
MonthiraYodtiwong / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen and can be given a second life through composting. Some gardeners even sprinkle spent coffee grounds around their plants to repel slugs and snails without the use of insecticides.
Explore options for composting at home or in your neighborhood, and keep those nutrient-rich grounds out of landfills.
While making our morning coffee might seem as simple as pulling the grounds out of the cabinet and boiling the water, we should be aware of the complex processes that brought these beans to our kitchens, especially as climate change begins to impact our coffee consumption.
Some argue that the only truly responsible action would be cutting coffee out of our lives altogether – but, incorporating more realistic methods by which to reduce the impact of our morning cup will help ensure that both the environment and workers are being protected.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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By Christina Choi
When my five-year-old notices her dad running the water for any reason at all, she yells (at the top of her lungs and in a robot voice, of course), "ALERT. ALERT. WASTING WATER ALERT. ALERT, ALERT!" It makes me laugh but also warms my heart every time, knowing the importance of saving water—and the planet in general—is already ingrained in her mind.
Her behavior is not particularly surprising: Like many of my fellow Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, as well as Indigenous Pacific Islanders, the values of protecting and conserving resources are values I grew up with myself.
From when I was a young child, my parents—especially my mom—were constantly reminding me to turn off the faucet while I brushed my teeth, shampooed my hair, soaped the dishes, and any other time I wasn't actively using the water. My mom reused glass and plastic containers and utensils until they were practically disintegrating (BPA alert!). "Turn off the lights," she would say. "Don't waste electricity." "Eat every grain of rice in your bowl," she'd chide. "We don't waste food."
Such teachings probably play into the stereotype that Asians are overly frugal (read: cheap), but what many people may not realize is that these principles, at least in my personal experience, are deeply intertwined in our ancestral history.
Choi's maternal grandmother in Gunsan, South Korea, in the early 1960s. Christina Choi
All four of my grandparents survived the harshest decades of Japan's colonization of Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. But their trauma didn't stop there. After World War II ended Japan's occupation, the United States and Russia didn't allow the Korean people to determine the future of their own country. To satisfy their own foreign policy interests, they instead split the peninsula in half—literally tearing families apart. Just five years later, in 1950, the Korean War broke out when North Korea invaded the South. Three catastrophic years followed, ending with the tragic deaths, injuries, or disappearances of an estimated 5.5 million people—many of them civilians. While the fighting stopped in 1953, there was no formal peace treaty between the two Koreas. Nearly 70 years later, the conflict is technically still not over.
From left: Choi's maternal grandparents in Gunsan, South Korea, in the early 1960s; Choi's parents in Seattle in the early 1980s. Christina Choi
My dad and mom, born near the end of Japanese colonization and in the middle of the Korean War, respectively, learned from their parents to never take anything for granted; everything could be taken away in an instant—including their own homeland. They were taught to appreciate the beauty of Korea's mountainous lands and free-flowing waters, for they could be stolen or destroyed at any moment. Before emigrating as adults to the United States in the 1970s, my parents witnessed decades of frenetic postwar economic recovery combined with extreme political corruption, as well as occupation by American troops—who still remain.
Colonization, imperialism, war, instability, corruption…it's no wonder that the importance of protecting our resources has been passed down through generations. My mom's "nagging" makes perfect sense. Add to this the fact that Korea—like many Asian cultures—is a collectivist society: Korean culture emphasizes the interconnectedness between people, and therefore we should all act so that we do not burden or harm others; it is the idea that the we transcends the I, be it in the context of family, the workplace, community, country, or, in this case, the planet. Simply put, we all do our part for the greater good. (Recent studies have also linked collectivist values to better, more effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.) And it's this heritage, reinforced with the knowledge I've gained from working at NRDC, that has nurtured my daughter's early embrace of protecting the planet and every living being on it. In some ways, the essence of environmentalism exists within us.
And yet, the environmental movement in the United States didn't ever reach out to me—I had to go to it. Despite Asian Americans' 250-plus years in this country, with the first recorded arrival of Filipinos in Louisiana in 1763, we have been constantly erased, and continue to be, from the nation's history, identity, and conversations, as well as from key statistics on public health and well-being, such as how the pandemic affects our communities.
Even now, after almost six years at NRDC, I see how Asian Americans—a faulty categorization that lumps together more than 20 different ethnicities and cultures originating from 48 countries—are left out of the narrative at environmental organizations, despite the fact that research shows that we care…quite a lot. In fact, according to a 2012 National Asian American Survey, 70 percent of Asian Americans consider themselves environmentalists, compared to the national average of 41 percent.
In California, where 15 percent of the population is Asian American, the data is even more impressive. An extensive study by the California League of Conservation Voters titled Asian American Environmentalists: An Untapped Power for Change in California found that a great majority of Asian American voters in the state—83 percent—describe themselves as environmentalists; 71 percent support environmental laws; and 61 percent believe we can protect the air, land, and water while creating jobs. In that state, 85 percent of Asian American voters said they are likely to vote for environment-focused ballot measures.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the trend continues: According to the nationwide 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, 77 percent of Asian Americans support stronger federal policies to combat climate change, while a study last year by the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America showed that 86 percent of Asian Americans agree that acting now on climate change would provide a better life for their children and grandchildren, compared to 74 percent of the general U.S. population.
Beyond the connection to our cultural values, we also care about the environment because we have to: Pollution and climate change are harming us directly. But as a result of the pervasive "model minority" stereotype, we receive little support from environmental justice work as well. The assumption is that all 20 million of us (and growing) are successful doctors, lawyers, or engineers living the "American dream"—surely no Asian American lives on the frontlines. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, incomes vary the greatest among Asian Americans in comparison to other racial groups. In New York City, Boston, and California, one in four Asian Americans lives in poverty—many of them restaurant and hotel workers, employees in salons and laundries, and e-bike delivery workers. The highest poverty rates across the United States are found in Bhutanese and Burmese communities—33.3 percent and 35 percent, respectively; the overall U.S. poverty rate is 15.1 percent.
Just one example of a group of Asian Americans facing environmental injustice is the Laotian community in Richmond, California, where a Chevron refinery spews toxic pollution throughout their neighborhoods. For all these reasons, it is crucial that the larger white-dominant environmental movement wakes up and recognizes Asian Americans.
The origins of my strong foundation in conserving the earth's resources are my own, an unbroken thread stretching for generations, but I suspect that the values of many of those 70 percent of Asian Americans who self-identify as environmentalists have been similarly shaped by their ancestry. And maybe one day, their kids and mine, with her "water alerts," will become a powerful Asian American voice—one that the future environmental movement won't want to waste.
Reposted with permission from NRDC.
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By Jessica Corbett
As scientific studies continue to show the necessity of sweeping societal reforms to reduce planet-heating emissions, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined with Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Chair Sherrod Brown on Tuesday to unveil a plan — backed by green groups and union leaders — that would invest $73 billion in electrifying public transit.
"Today, there are approximately 70,000 mass transit buses and 85,000 cutaway vehicles and transit vans in America. Approximately 2% of those buses are zero-emission vehicles," according to a summary document from the senators. "The federal government can and should be in the business of aiding transit agencies in shifting their bus fleets to zero emissions."
The Clean Transit for America Plan from Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Brown (D-Ohio) is intended to not only combat the climate emergency and improve air quality with zero-emission fleets, but also establish a workforce training program that will create well-paying union jobs. Schumer said he intends to ensure it is included in the American Jobs Plan, part of President Joe Biden's recently introduced infrastructure proposal.
"To reduce the carbon in our atmosphere and address the climate crisis, we must transform our transit system," declared the Senate majority leader. "The Clean Transit for America proposal will replace dirty, diesel-spewing buses, create new American jobs, help save the planet, and protect public health, particularly in our country's most vulnerable communities."
Brown asserted that "Americans deserve world-class public transportation that is delivered with modern, zero-emission buses built by American workers," and their plan "is the kind of transformative investment we need in public transit that will put Americans to work, connects people with opportunity, and invests in the communities that have been left on their own by Washington and Wall Street for too long."
Today @SenSherrodBrown and I are introducing our Clean Transit for America plan to replace dirty diesel buses with… https://t.co/hVfD0AgqQw— Chuck Schumer (@Chuck Schumer)1620147821.0
"Transit is the very fabric of our communities: It's what keeps us connected, brings us to and from school and work every day, allows us to buy groceries, receive medical care, and enjoy parks," said Lauren Maunus, advocacy director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement — also a key supporter of the Green New Deal Resolution that calls for a 10-year mobilization ensuring "a fair and just transition for all communities and workers."
"If we're going to beat the climate clock and stop polluting toxic fumes into our neighborhoods, we must swiftly transform every aspect of our current transportation system to reach zero emissions," Maunus said Tuesday, welcoming the plan to electrify the nation's bus fleet as "a key step towards fully transitioning our transit systems, while strengthening services vital to the health of our communities."
Katherine Garcia, acting director of Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All Campaign, said the plan "means healthier communities and a healthier economy," while Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins, a director for policy and partnerships at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the proposal "big and bold" and urged Congress to enact it "as soon as possible."
Advocates at the Environmental Defense Fund, GreenLatinos, the League of Conservation Voters, Moms Clean Air Force, and the Union of Concerned Scientists also applauded the proposal. Several campaigners noted that the plan will, as Garcia put it, "prioritize communities with the worst air quality to address decades of inequitable transportation policy."
The Clean Transit for America plan to shift to 100% electric buses means healthier communities and a healthier econ… https://t.co/niSO91co3H— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1620169616.0
"Transitioning to 100% zero-emission buses is an essential infrastructure and environmental justice priority," said Marcela Mulholland, political director at Data for Progress. "By moving our public transit systems to zero-emission fleets, the Clean Transit for America bill sets us on a path toward a world free from climate chaos and a country where there is clean air and quality public transit in every neighborhood."
The proposal was also praised by the president of the American Public Transportation Association as well as organized labor leaders including John Costa of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Lonnie R. Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and John Samuelsen of Transport Workers Union.
"By ensuring that frontline transit workers gain the skills and training necessary to run the public transportation systems of the future, paired with a guarantee that no workers will be displaced by their proposal," said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, " Sens. Schumer and Brown send a strong message that, when policy is shaped correctly, workers and the communities they live in can both benefit from technological change."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
By Tara Lohan
A familiar scene has returned to California: drought. Two counties are currently under emergency declarations, and the rest of the state could follow.
It was only four years ago when a winter of torrential rain finally wrestled the state out of its last major drought, which had dragged on for five years and left thousands of domestic wells coughing up dust.
That drinking-water crisis made national headlines and helped shine a light on another long-simmering water crisis in California: More than 300 communities have chronically unsafe drinking water containing contaminants that can come with serious health consequences, including cancer. The areas hardest hit are mostly small, agricultural communities in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, which are predominantly Latino and are often also places classified by the state as "disadvantaged." Unsafe water in these communities adds to a list of health and economic burdens made worse by the ongoing pandemic.
California took a step toward addressing the problem back in 2012 when it passed the country's first state law declaring the human right to water. That was followed by a 2019 bill to help meet that mandate by establishing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
But just how much cash is needed to address the problem?
The answer, we now know, is about $10 billion, according to a new "needs assessment" from state agencies and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation that provides a detailed look at the scope of the problem and cost of solutions.
"The study is unique in that it's the first — certainly for California, but I think also for any state — that looks across every source for drinking water purposes that can be quantified," says Gregory Pierce, the study's principal investigator and an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA. This includes all public water systems regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as domestic wells and "state smalls" with fewer than 15 connections.
"I think this takes us many steps forward to better understanding where we need additional funding and what areas we should be focusing on in terms of proactively addressing at-risk systems," says Michael Clairborne, directing attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works on water-equity issues in the state. "It also demonstrates that there's still a real need for additional infrastructure funding for drinking water."
Understanding the Problem
So how bad is it?
The causes of the state's drinking water woes are varied — and worrisome. Nitrate, mostly from farms and dairies, is the costliest water contaminant, the study found. Nitrates are especially dangerous for infants, and can cause lethargy, dizziness and even death. Other groundwater contaminants include bacteria from leaking septic systems and uranium, which can cause kidney damage. Several other contaminants have been linked to cancers, including the industrial pollutant chromium-6, the pesticide 1,2,3-trichloropropane, and human-made and naturally-occurring sources of arsenic.
Nitrate pollution from agricultural operations poses a health threat in Calif. Tara Lohan
Contamination is also widespread.
The study looked at 2,779 public water systems across the state and evaluated their water quality, affordability, accessibility, and technical and financial capacity. It found that 326 public water systems qualified as "human right to water communities" — the ones where water systems are consistently failing to provide affordable, safe drinking water.
For anyone tracking this issue (or living in these communities), that part wasn't news.
But the report also found that another 617 public water systems are at risk of failing. Virtually every county in the state had at least one system on this list, but those with the highest numbers were in rural areas with large numbers of smaller water systems, including Tulare, Fresno, Monterey and Kern counties.
"What's really novel is that it also tries to comprehensively assess where our water quality is likely to fail next if nothing is done to prevent it," says Pierce.
And that should be a big wake-up call.
"This is the next logical step to try to get a handle on the drinking-water crisis in the state," says Clairborne. "We really have to proactively address these high-risk systems before they fail, provide them the support they need, and potentially consolidate high-risk systems with nearby systems to improve sustainability."
The research also found that almost one third of domestic wells (78,000) are at high risk of failure, as are half of California's 1,236 state small systems.
And it highlighted another critical issue, too: money.
"The report reinforced what we unfortunately already know too well — that California is facing a major water affordability crisis," says Jonathan Nelson, policy director of the Community Water Center. "Nearly 1 in 3 water systems were identified either as having water rates that were higher than what is deemed affordable for families or high levels of water shutoffs."
Unsafe drinking water comes with an additional economic burden: Many families are also forced to spend more money on bottled water, with some spending as much as 10% of their monthly income on water, according to the Community Water Center.
One of the main reasons for persistently unsafe water has to do with scale: Larger water systems have more resources to fund treatment technologies, while small systems often lack the resources to meet water-quality challenges.
A new chromium-6 treatment plant in Willow, Calif. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Getting those struggling water systems more funding to upgrade their water-treatment systems can help. But those technologies need ongoing maintenance, and often the most cost-effective measure is consolidation. Small water systems or homes on domestic wells can be connected to larger systems that can better treat contaminated water sources.
Historically the state hasn't been that good at consolidation because many larger water providers didn't want to take on small, failing systems. But in 2015, Senate Bill 88 granted the California State Water Resources Control Board authority to mandate consolidation for failing water systems. Now another bill, Senate Bill 403, would expand that to include systems at risk of failure.
"That would help to address the needs of those nearly 620 at-risk water systems, as well as state small systems and domestic wells," says Clairborne. "The state has made some progress in the last few years, with several hundred consolidations since 2015, compared to fewer than 200 for the 40 years prior."
When it comes to addressing the affordability crisis, Nelson says the state legislature can take action to establish a water rate assistance fund, which is especially important now because "California families are carrying $1 billion in pandemic-caused water debt," he says.
The report also found that a broader, more regional look at potential solutions could cut costs. In one example outlined in the study, if 85 small water systems in Monterey County are incorporated into a nearby larger system, the cost for each new connection falls from $39,000 to $7,000.
"If we can prioritize those [regional solutions], the cost could come down considerably, and our infrastructure would be much more integrated," says Pierce.
Finding the Money
Bringing costs down will be key, as the price tag for implementing interim and long-term solutions for water systems and domestic wells that need assistance over the next five years is upwards of $10 billion. Some efforts are already underway to address paying for that, with allocations from the state and contributions from local governments, but that still leaves an estimated $4.6 billion shortfall, according to the report.
"Unless addressed, this funding gap will perpetuate the divide between those who have safe water in California and those who don't," says Nelson.
More money is needed from either the federal or state government, says Pierce. And even though the price tag seems steep, he says, the costs of not fixing the problems will be higher in the long run and bring a lot more suffering to communities.
Some California residents rely on expensive bottled water because their tap water is unsafe. Tara Lohan
"Unsafe water can not only cause physical health impacts, it can also cause a lot of direct affordability impacts and mental health stressors on people," says Pierce. "One way or the other society pays for this and it's better to invest up front — from a human right and equity standpoint, and also from an economic one."
One recent bright spot is the potential for more spending at the national level, with the Biden administration's current discussions around a major infrastructure bill in Congress.
That could represent a paradigm change. "The federal government's role in funding drinking water infrastructure has dropped dramatically since the 1970s compared to other types of infrastructure," says Pierce.
Even if such investments do come from Washington, though, they won't solve all of California's water problems.
"I hope it can be a substantial amount of what we need, but I would be very surprised to see it meet the whole need," he says. "I think that much of what would be allotted to California would likely go to larger systems for broader infrastructure investments and drought-related resilience."
Additionally, a lot of the bill's equity focus is on lead. "Which I don't disagree with, but California doesn't have nearly as big of a lead problem in drinking water as many other states," he adds.
The fact that California has already done the work to understand its drinking-water problems, identify solutions and tally the costs can make the process of getting federal dollars easier — and that could also help inspire other states to better quantify their water needs.
"I do think you'll see more states do this, but it was a considerable effort: The water board basically created a new unit with multiple staff to do this work," says Pierce. "But most of the data was the water board's own, so I think a lot of this could be done by other states without too much effort, if they can learn from what was done here and maybe even enhance that."
Money to shore up water systems, improve affordability and ensure clean water for all residents also comes with a ripple effect of benefits.
"Investments in water projects can help create drought and climate resiliency," says Nelson. "And water investments can be an engine of equitable economic growth, creating good jobs in communities that need them. We have a tremendous opportunity to both address this public health crisis and help our economy recover at the same time."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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