Fossil Fuel Industry Files Motion to Intervene in Landmark Climate Lawsuit
They can't even vote yet, but a significant climate change lawsuit filed against the Federal Government by young people from around the country just got the attention of the powerful fossil fuel industry.
Yesterday, nearly every oil and gas company in the world asked for permission to oppose the landmark climate lawsuit brought against President Obama and the federal government by America’s youth and Dr. James E. Hansen—as guardian for future generations. In an unusual step, the immense fossil fuel industry trade groups all filed pleadings in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon seeking to join the lawsuit side by side with President Obama to protect their companies’ interests.
The proposed interveners constitute a veritable who’s who of major corporate polluters, including the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (representing members ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Koch Industries, and virtually all other U.S. refiners and petrochemical manufacturers), American Petroleum Institute (representing 625 oil and natural gas companies) and National Association of Manufacturers.
“The largest, best funded fossil fuel heavyweights want the court to protect their wallets over ensuring a habitable country for these young plaintiffs and future generations,” commented Philip Gregory of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, counsel to the plaintiffs. “As the recent disclosures by Exxon reveal, our government and the fossil fuel industry have known for decades that fossil fuel extraction, production and consumption would destroy our climate in the upcoming decades. That is why this case is significant: a court needs to order our government to protect our kids and future generations.”
The lawsuit asserts the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. It also claims the government failed to protect essential public trust resources by facilitating the exploitation of fossil fuels. The youth have asked the courts to order the federal government to prepare and implement a science-based national climate recovery plan.
The fossil fuel powerhouses call the youth’s case “extraordinary” and “a direct threat to [their] businesses.” They claim “significant reduction in [greenhouse gas] emissions would cause a significant negative effect on [their] members by constraining the sale of the product they have specialized in developing and selling.”
“The biggest fossil fuel polluters on the planet, including Exxon and Koch Industries, just asked the court for permission to argue that young people don’t have a constitutional right to life if it means reducing fossil fuel use,” said Julia Olson, executive director for Our Children’s Trust and lead counsel on the litigation. “With the president on his way to the UN Climate Talks in Paris later this month, a renewed alignment between our government and the fossil fuel industry could not be less welcome. This case asks the court to order what the industry fears most: a national plan using the best science we’ve got to try to leave clean air and a healthy climate to our kids.”
In seeking to join the case, the fossil fuel Industry argues that the court should focus on short-term economic benefits over a stable climate. The industry claims that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels down to 350 parts per million would abate some of the future risks of climate change, those reductions would nevertheless not be ‘appropriate’ if the future potential benefits would be outweighed by, for instance, enormous losses in productivity and economic development.”
The groups claim the fossil fuel companies “possess legally protectable interests in their members’ economic interests and legal rights in current and future contracts and transactions.” The trade groups assert the youth’s constitutional rights to breathe clean air do not trump the industry’s “concrete interests in the production, refining, and use of conventional fuels in the United States, as well as in stable and competitive energy prices.”
These young plaintiffs are challenging the federal government’s national fossil fuel programs, as well as the 1992 Energy Policy Act and the export permit for the proposed Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. Plaintiffs seek to hold President Obama and various federal agencies responsible for continued fossil fuel exploitation. Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the president to immediately implement a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to a safe level: 350 ppm by the year 2100. This case places indisputable climate science squarely in front of the federal judiciary, requesting an order that our government cease jeopardizing the climate system to the detriment of present and future generations.
7 Kids Demand Judge Uphold Their Rights to a Healthy Environment in Landmark Case https://t.co/xwjYgR5ygR @OCTorg https://t.co/AYfRC5VCj9— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1446650586.0
“Big Oil is starting to lose control of our political system,” declared Alex Loznak, a youth plaintiff in the case from Oregon. “Last week, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, and New York State began to investigate Exxon's cover-up of climate science. The intervention of fossil fuel companies in our lawsuit against the federal government makes it clear that the industry is scared. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.' The fight has begun, and we will win.”
“Seeing giant fossil fuel corporations inject themselves into this case, which is about our future, really demonstrates the problem we are trying to fix,” stated Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez of Earth Guardians, a youth plaintiff in the case from Colorado. “The Federal government has been making decisions in the best interest of multinational corporations and their profits, but not in the best interest of my generation and those to come. Instead of changing their business model to meet the scientific reality of climate change, these companies are demanding we adapt to an uninhabitable world that supports their profits. When you compare the two, I think it’s clear that our right to clean air and a healthy atmosphere, is more important than their “need” to make money off destroying our future.”
Nonetheless, the fossil fuel groups do not address in their pleadings the plaintiffs' constitutional claims, and though challenging the youth's standing to raise their claims, ignores the youth’s detailed description in their complaint of how each youth plaintiff is and will be harmed by the government’s actions and inactions.
“The science is clear,” said Dr. James Hansen. “To preserve a climate system conducive to humanity and nature alike, the burning of fossil fuel must be phased out without further delay, and completed within decades. It is the fundamental duty of our government to ensure that this is done in time to avert catastrophic sea level rise and other intolerable climate damage. I am not surprised that fossil fuel corporations seek to derail this case, but the fundamental rights of my granddaughter and future generations to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness must prevail.”
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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