Health Impacts on Prep Plant Workers From Coal Cleaning Chemicals
Route 3 cuts through the heart of southern West Virginia coal country, but from the road, you might not even know it. Much of the surface mining is above your head, along the ridges of the Appalachian mountains that flank the road. You’re not likely to spot the entrance to an underground mine, either, though there’s one sure way to tell a mine is nearby: the towering metal structures of coal preparation plants punctuate the landscape. Stilted conveyer belts pass over the road, carrying coal from the mines. Once the coal arrives at these plants, it’s treated with chemicals to remove impurities and prepared for sale.
The dangers faced by coal miners have been well-documented—black lung disease, for example, was identified decades ago. But about 15.3 percent of workers in the mining industry—an estimated 10,500 people—are employed not in mines but in preparation plants, mill operations or breakers nationwide, and evidence suggests that these prep plants pose their own dangers for those working inside.
A variety of chemicals are used in these prep plants on a daily basis, many of them to purify coal. MCHM (4-methyl-cyclohexanemethanol), the chemical that left almost 300,000 West Virginians without safe drinking water after a spill in January, is one of these chemicals. Hundreds of people sought hospital treatment after MCHM exposure during that crisis, and at least 20 were admitted. But what are the dangers for coal preparation plant workers who are exposed to higher concentrations of these chemicals on a regular basis for the span of a career?
As with MCHM, the answer proves to be nebulous. For many of these chemicals, complete information on their potential health effects isn’t available, and long-term effects are even more difficult to establish. One workers’ rights organization, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), has been seeking updated regulations regarding chemical safety standards and reporting for years.
Alfred Ray Price is one of many former preparation plant workers who believe their health problems can be directly linked to their time spent around chemicals. Price worked in the coal industry for 28 years, including 19 at the Montcoal #7 Prep Plant in Raleigh County, WV. He remembers spraying coal cars with antifreeze in the wintertime to keep the coal from sticking—32 gallons per car—while standing on a catwalk above.
“Have you ever sprayed a water hose in a bucket, and get all the mist up from it?” Price asked. “By the time I would get through spraying the cars, I would be soaking wet with it. Actually, it would be running down my throat. It was a real sweet taste.”
Price had to stop working because of health problems at age 47. He said PET scans of his brain pointed to cognitive disorders, including short-term memory loss. He later became involved in one of two class-action lawsuits in Marshall County, WV, in which about two dozen plaintiffs claimed similar chemical exposure and health problems. Many of those plaintiffs also claimed they spent years working around chemicals without being warned they could be dangerous.
One suit was settled last year, and the other was dismissed. The settlement provides for a one-time health exam for prep plant workers—but specifies that these exams aren’t intended to determine whether any health problems may have been caused by the chemicals in question. Thomas F. Basile, attorney to several of the plaintiffs, is attempting to reinstate some of the claims in these cases, and says he’s considering an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Price and some other plaintiffs aren’t satisfied with the results, but the lawsuits did achieve one thing: they placed on public record a great deal of evidence, and some testimony, regarding chemicals at coal prep plants.
One plaintiff, Franklin Stump, told a judge that inhalation of and skin contact with chemicals was a regular occurrence at the Montcoal #7 plant, where he worked for 27 years. Much of this exposure happened during the “frothing” process, in which fuel oil and a variety of chemicals are mixed with water to create a bubbling liquid that separates fine coal particles from other materials.
“I’ve unloaded the trucks with the bags [of chemicals] in it over my shoulder, carried them up the steps, dumped them in the funnels, and it all come[s] back in your face,” Stump said, according to a court transcript. “And I’ve seen pipes bust and the stuff go all over the walls and all over your face, and I’ve waded, like I said, up to my knees.”
Price and other workers mostly spoke from their experiences in the 1990s and earlier. Phil Smith, director of communications at the UMWA, points out that at today’s newer prep plants, many processes are automated to prevent workers from mixing chemicals directly into vats of frother, thereby reducing their exposure. But workers are still exposed to these chemicals sometimes, Smith added.
So the question is, how dangerous are these chemicals, and do workers need better protection against them?
Chemicals You Can Find at a Coal Prep Plant
Most chemicals used in coal preparation don’t appear too dangerous to human health, according to the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) provided in the Marshall County cases. In case you’ve never heard of MSDSs, these information sheets list chemical product contents, potential hazards, and potential health risks. They are prepared by chemical producers and are supposed to accompany any chemicals used in a workplace. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that MSDSs be made “readily accessible” to employees.
But companies often withhold the exact contents or proportions of chemical mixtures as trade secrets. And that’s not the only information that’s missing; in the case of the MCHM spill, public health specialists have had a hard time proving just how dangerous (or safe) MCHM is, since not enough testing has been done to know for sure.
The Elk River spill makes the evidence presented in the two Marshall County lawsuits all the more immediate. Documents presented as evidence in the cases reveal that exposure to these chemicals—especially without the proper safety gear—can cause serious health problems ranging from pulmonary edema to central nervous system problems, birth defects and heart problems.
In a response to a request for evidence in one of the lawsuits—Denver and Debra Pettry, et al. v. Peabody Holding Company, et al.—chemical company Cytec Industries Inc. provided MSDSs for the chemicals it had sold since Dec. 1993 to defendants Massey Coal Services Inc., Goals Coal Company, Performance Coal Company, Bandytown Coal Company, and Elk Run Coal Company Inc.
While these documents do not constitute a complete list of the chemicals used in coal prep plants, they do offer a snapshot of the potential health hazards that prep plant workers like Price faced and still face.
The UMWA believes updates to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration standards regarding these chemicals are long overdue.
“We continue to see cases of cancer and other health issues due to chemical exposures,” said Dennis O’Dell, director of the UMWA’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety. “The PELs or Personal Exposure Limits have not been adjusted since the 1980s. We believe that MSHA (and OSHA) should reexamine PELs and further a study to see what occurs when workers become exposed to multiple chemical[s] at once. Right now we have MSDS material on each individual chemical, but what happens when those are all used at the same time?”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration acknowledged this point. “There are no permissible exposure limits for many of the chemicals used in coal processing,” MSHA’s Technical Support division said in response to inquiries for this article. "However, these chemicals are considered hazardous and are covered by MSHA’s Hazard Communication standards.”
On April 9, MSHA issued a health hazard alert in response to the coal processing chemical spills earlier this year. The alert reminded operators that miners and plant employees must be provided information on the chemicals they’re using.
Alpha Natural Resources (which acquired defendant Massey Coal Services Inc.) and the American Chemistry Council did not respond to interview requests. Representatives of Peabody Holding Company, BASF Corporation (which acquired defendant Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corporation), and the American Chemistry Council had no comment. OSHA did not comment on the record.
Safety Precautions Were Ignored, Workers Say
During Jackie Browning’s 14 years working in coal mines, he always wore a respirator. But when the Naoma, WV, resident started operating a bulldozer at a coal prep plant in 1991, he didn’t think he needed one any more.
Browning worked outside around the coal piles, not indoors with the frother, and he says that for the first seven years, the job didn’t seem to affect his health.
While it’s difficult to assess exactly how dangerous many prep plant chemicals are, that’s especially true of a substance called polyacrylamide.
But things changed in late 1998, when by Browning’s account, the prep plant where he worked started making more frother—and consequently, using more chemicals. He’d be bulldozing the piles of treated coal, and the fumes would come in through the heater. Browning contends that these fumes started affecting his health almost immediately; his mouth would hurt and he got the shakes. Three weeks in, Browning said he complained to his supervisor, but nothing changed.
Finally, about six weeks after his symptoms started, Browning and a coworker were rushed to the emergency room. That was his last day of work, after 29 years in the coal industry.
“The last day I worked, at noon, they brought me a respirator. It was too late for me,” he said.
Browning isn’t the only worker who claims he wasn’t told the whole story about how to be safe around chemicals in the workplace. Price and other plaintiffs in the Marshall County lawsuits say they weren’t provided with appropriate protective gear, and didn’t know for years what chemicals they were using.
“They never mentioned toxins down there, chemicals. That was never, never, never mentioned. Never had a safety meeting on that,” Browning said.
Price agrees. “We never did have no idea what [it] was,” he said, referring to many of the frothing chemicals. “We was never told or never shown any safety data sheets on it, so we could look ourselves and see what it contained.”
Failing to provide this information would be illegal. But industry representatives dispute these claims.
Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, countered that prep plant employees are properly informed about the chemicals they’re using, and that MSDSs “are posted both for reading at any time and available in the event of an emergency.” She added that employees “are trained on the substances brought onto property” at these plants.
However, Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers said he’s not surprised that workers may not have had access to the data sheets.
“We keep our members informed about all the chemicals that are used in coal preparation plants, and if worked with properly, they’re safe,” Smith said. But, he said, he believes nonunion operations are less likely to inform their employees regarding chemicals and their safety hazards. (Employees are never required to wear safety equipment, Smith pointed out.)
Employee access to data sheets isn’t the only point of contention between workers and the industry. Another question that’s difficult to answer is just how high workers’ chemical exposure really is. Gravatt said that MCHM is used at safe concentrations.
“Typical dosage rates for frothers like MCHM are less than 12 parts per million. In other words, a few hundred cubic centimeters per minute enter into 8 to 10 thousand gallons per minute of coal slurry,” Gravatt wrote in an email. This is higher than the CDC’s recommendation of no more than 1 part per million of MCHM in drinking water. But Gravatt said there’s a difference.
“Coal prep plant employees clearly are not drinking the frothing agent. These are two very different standards. It is inaccurate to mix the two,” Gravatt wrote.
Yet workers like Price claim they did inhale and ingest the chemicals they used in the frothing process.
“We ingested it, inhaled it, got it on our skin, even digested it,” Price said. “You’d be inside of a closed area and you’d stay wet with it, and we didn’t think much about it at the time until we started getting sick one by one.”
Today, Browning suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity and burning mouth syndrome. But relatively speaking, he’s doing better. For two months after his hospitalization, Browning said, his lungs burned. (He’s not a smoker.) It took almost two years for his bloodshot eyes to clear. In a stress test not long after the emergency, Browning said, “I couldn’t even stand up on a treadmill.”
Detoxification treatments (not covered by insurance) have cost Browning thousands of dollars, and his worker’s compensation claim was denied.
More Information for Better Solutions
Given how little we know about the toxicity and health impacts of chemicals, mapping out a clear alternative is difficult.
Dr. Alan M. Ducatman of the West Virginia University School of Public Health has been fielding health questions from prep plant workers for more than two decades. He said it’s hard to determine the cause of an ailment when you don’t know what chemicals workers are exposed to in the first place.
As a result, few symptoms explicitly point to prep plant chemicals as their cause, Ducatman explained—and there’s no single test that can determine whether these chemicals are at the root of workers’ health problems.
The solution, Ducatman believes, is more toxicity testing for the chemicals workers are using: “People talk about how much it costs [but] the industry is making a tremendous amount of money.”
Yet the challenge of this testing isn’t just financial—it’s also a problem of logistics.
“It’s a simple case that there are millions of chemicals available … It takes time to do these toxicity studies,” explained Dr. Timothy C. Eisele, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Tech. So the focus has been on chemicals that have already proven themselves dangerous.
But until these logistical problems have been solved, transparency and caution are essential, insisted Vernon Haltom, executive director of the nonprofit anti-mining organization Coal River Mountain Watch.
“We should be assuming it's deadly toxic until shown otherwise, and even then not rely on one or two tests on rats 20 years ago,” Haltom said.
Dr. James G. Speight, who has worked as a chemist and consultant in the coal and oil industries for more than 45 years, agrees that caution is key.
In referencing one coal prep chemical, polyacrylamide, Speight said: “I tend to err on the side of caution and say that chemicals of that type are dangerous. They can be poisonous.”
Today, Browning has to be cautious about every chemical he uses, down to his detergent, but it’s not by choice. He’s highly sensitive to a lot of household chemicals, which can irritate his burning mouth and other symptoms.
“I was a five- and six-day worker every week. … I was an everyday man, and I worked hard,” Browning said. “If people knew what I went through—they don’t have enough money to compensate you for this stuff.”
The Dangers of Polyacrylamide
While it’s difficult to assess exactly how dangerous many prep plant chemicals are, that’s especially true of a substance called polyacrylamide. At first glance, polyacrylamide doesn’t look that bad. It’s even used in cosmetics and water treatment. But polyacrylamide poses two greater dangers: first, commercial polyacrylamide often contains traces of acrylamide, the essential building block for polyacrylamide. And second, polyacrylamide also tends to break down into acrylamide.
What’s wrong with acrylamide? It may cause cancer and birth defects. One potential health impact, neurotoxicity, was first observed in laboratory animals more than 56 years ago.
A report prepared for the California Public Health Foundation in 1988 confirmed that traces of the more dangerous acrylamide are “usually present in the various bulk commercial formulations” of polyacrylamide. A representative of the American Cyanamid Company (of which Cytec is a spinoff) is on the distribution list of this report—meaning that by the time the company produced the MSDSs, all dated after 1989, it should have known that there was some acrylamide in its polyacrylamide products.
Data sheets for polyacrylamide provided in the Pettry case list minor health risks such as eye and skin irritation, but don’t mention acrylamide as a potential danger. Cytec did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article, and its attorney in the lawsuit offered no comment.
But should Cytec and other companies have to report whether acrylamide is part of its chemical mixtures? According to a the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s Technical Support division, “For mixtures, operators must list non-carcinogenic hazardous chemicals that make up 1 percent or more of the mixture by weight or volume and must list carcinogenic hazardous chemicals that make up 0.1 percent or more of the mixture by weight or volume.”
It’s unclear how high concentrations of acrylamide may have been in polyacrylamide products around the time of the Cytec MSDSs in question. But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), residual acrylamide concentrations have been as high as 5 percent in the past—although improvements in the treatment process through the years have reduced levels to around 0.3 percent. A 1994 EPA requirement helped spur that change.
Many more recent MSDSs for polyacrylamide, presented as evidence in the Pettry case, also do not list the presence of acrylamide. Yet at least one polyacrylamide product that Cytec sold to coal companies contained “(a) chemical(s) known in the State of California to cause cancer,” according to the MSDS. Polyacrylamide isn’t known as a carcinogen under California law, but acrylamide is. By the EPA’s standards, acrylamide remains a “probable human carcinogen,” and has been defined as such since at least 1994.
But the dangers of chemical exposure depend on how much of the chemical you’re exposed to, cautioned Dr. James G. Speight, who has worked as a chemist and consultant in the coal and oil industries for more than 45 years.
“Most people sprinkle a little salt on their food. If you eat a pound of salt, you’re going to die. It’s a question of degree,” Speight said.
Nancy Gravatt of the National Mining Association said she was not aware of the use of polyacrylamide or acrylamide at coal prep plants, and said she could not provide a list of chemicals used at such plants.
A Battle in the Courts Over Coal Chemical Transparency
Over the last decade, two class-action lawsuits in West Virginia have given a voice to coal preparation plant workers who attribute their health problems to chemical exposure in the workplace.
One case, Denver and Debra Pettry, et al. v. Peabody Holding Company, et al., was filed in 2002 and sought medical monitoring for prep plant and water plant workers, along with punitive damages. A similar case, William K. Stern, et al. v. Chemtall Inc., et al., was filed in 2003 and sought medical monitoring only. Both cases zeroed in on a particular chemical, polyacrylamide, whose monomer form, acrylamide, may cause cancer. The Pettry case also sought more information on other chemicals used in the prep plants.
The Pettry case claimed that the defendant chemical companies intentionally failed to warn workers of the dangers of the chemicals they were using, and that the defendant coal companies created unsafe working conditions.
Polyacrylamide is used in the “frothing” process, in which coal is separated from other minerals in order to purify it for sale.
In 2013, the Pettry case was dismissed because in most cases, plaintiffs hadn’t filed their case within the two-year statute of limitations, and because the plaintiffs’ attorney, Thomas F. Basile, had reportedly missed court dates and didn’t provide requested evidence on time. Basile, who represents some plaintiffs in both of the cases, has been fighting the decision ever since, but in January, his appeals to overturn the settlement in the Stern case and the Pettry case dismissal were turned down by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Basile argues this dismissal ignored the arguments and issues raised in the appeals, including a request to unseal 230 pages of documents related to ethical hearings in the Pettry case.
“It’s been a long, hard, drawn-out fight and we lost,” said Alfred Ray Price, one of the plaintiffs in the Pettry suit, in response to January's ruling.
The Stern lawsuit appeared to have a happier ending, but many of the plaintiffs, including Price, walked away unsatisfied.
Stern reached a settlement of almost $14 million in 2013, with about half of this money allocated toward one-time medical examinations for prep plant workers, and the other half going toward attorneys’ fees and costs. Any money not used for medical testing will be donated to two West Virginia universities.
“The only ‘benefit’ provided to class members by the proposed settlement is a one-time medical examination that resembles little more than an annual medical examination that most of the class members have likely already had on more than one occasion,” Basile wrote in an email. “[And] there is no follow-up testing provided in the settlement should a medical examiner diagnose any disorder that needs further examination or consultation.”
The Stern suit sought funds for medical monitoring—but Basile, Price, and other plaintiffs insist that a one-time exam does not constitute “monitoring.” The settlement also specifies that these exams are not designed “as a research vehicle.” In other words, they’re not intended to determine whether any health conditions discovered during these exams were caused by polyacrylamide or acrylamide.
In objecting to the settlement, Basile wrote that it “assur[es] that nothing will be learned about the types of ailments or occupational diseases suffered by those in the class who have been exposed to toxic chemicals in their work environment.”
Today, Basile is fighting to reinstate claims in the Pettry case against Patriot Coal Corporation; those claims were dismissed despite the fact that those claims were stayed while Patriot underwent bankruptcy proceedings. Basile said he is also considering an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
By Alexandria Villaseñor
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.
After experiencing California's wildfires, I researched the connection between wildfires and climate change. Even though I was only 13 at the time, I realized I needed to do everything in my power to advocate for our planet and ensure that we have a safe and habitable Earth for not only my generation's future, but for future generations. Every day, our planet is increasing its calls for our help. Our ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; heatwaves and droughts are increasing. We're seeing more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events. Climate change is happening right now, and people all over the world are losing their livelihoods — and even their lives — as a result of the growing number of climate-fueled disasters.
My activism started with the youth climate strike movement, which began when Greta Thunberg started striking in front of the Swedish Parliament in 2018. However, I want to acknowledge that young people, especially youth of color, have been protesting and demanding action for the planet for decades. I'm honored to follow in the footsteps of all the youth activists who paved the way for my activism and for the phenomenal growth of the youth climate movement that we have seen since 2018.
My experiences in the youth climate movement have allowed me to see that one of the greatest barriers we have to urgent climate action is education. Because of the lack of climate education around the world, I founded Earth Uprising International to help young people educate one another on the climate crisis, which ultimately has the effect of empowering young people to take direct action for their futures.
The primary mission of Earth Uprising International is increased climate and civics education for youth. Climate literacy and environmental education are the first steps to mobilizing our generations. By adding climate literacy to curricula worldwide, governments can ensure young people leave school with the skills and environmental knowledge needed to be engaged citizens in their communities. A climate-educated and environmentally literate global public is more likely to take part in the green jobs revolution, make more sustainable consumer choices, and hold world leaders accountable for their climate action commitments. Youth who have been educated about the climate crisis will lead the way in adaptation, mitigation, and solution making. Youth will be the ones who will protect democracy and freedom, advocate for climate and environmental migrants, and create the political will necessary to address climate change at the scale of the crisis.
So this year, for Earth Week, I am thrilled to be organizing a global youth climate summit called "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," on April 20. Together, in collaboration with EARTHDAY.ORG and hundreds of youth climate activists around the world, the summit will address our main issues of concern, including climate literacy, biodiversity protection, sustainable agriculture, the creation of green jobs, civic skill training, environmental justice, environmental migration and borders, the protection of democracy and free speech, governmental policy making, and political will.
From this summit, youth climate activists from all over the world will be creating a concise list of demands that we want addressed at President Biden's World Leaders Summit, occurring on Earth Day, April 22. We believe that youth must inform and inspire these critical conversations about climate change that will impact all of us!
For more information about our global youth climate summit, "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," go to www.EarthUprising.org/YouthSpeaks2021. There, you will find information about how to participate in our summit as well as be kept up to date on the latest agenda, participants, and follow along as we develop our demands and platform.
The youth will continue to make noise and necessary trouble. There is so much left to be done.
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
By Jessica Corbett
As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.
"Today is a watershed moment in the history of the U.S. Department of the Interior," declared Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "With Secretary Haaland's actions today, it's clear the Interior Department is now working for communities, science, and justice. We are grateful for her leadership and bold action to put people over polluters."
"Today's orders make certain that the Interior Department is no longer going to serve as a rubber-stamp for the coal and oil and gas industries," said Nichols. "Secretary Haaland's actions set the stage for deep reforms within the Interior Department to ensure the federal government gets out of the business of fossil fuels and into the business of confronting the climate crisis."
BREAKING: Interior Secretary Deb Haalaned just repealed Trump-era policies that prioritized Big Oil execs above com… https://t.co/m1d2uolRWV— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@Friends of the Earth (Action))1618595500.0
Secretarial Order 3398 rescinds a dozen orders issued under the Trump administration which an Interior statement collectively described as "inconsistent with the department's commitment to protect public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science."
Specifically, she revoked: S.O. 3348; S.O. 3349; SO 3350; S.O. 3351; SO 3352; S.O. 3354; S.O. 3355; S.O. 3358; S.O. 3360; S.O. 3380; SO 3385; and SO 3389. Implemented throughout former President Donald Trump's term, they related to "American energy independence," the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and leasing and permitting for energy projects, among other topics. With the order, Haaland reinstated the federal moratorium on coal leasing.
Haaland's other measure, Secretarial Order 3399, establishes a departmental Climate Task Force that will identify policies needed to tackle the climate emergency, support the use of the best available science on greenhouse gas emissions, implement the review and reconsideration of federal gas and oil leasing and permitting practices, identify actions needed to "address current and historic environmental injustice" as well as "foster economic revitalization of, and investment in, energy communities," and work with state, tribe, and local governments.
The department also noted that "the solicitor's office issued a withdrawal of M-37062, an opinion that concluded that the Interior secretary must promulgate a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program consisting of a five-year lease schedule with at least two lease sales during the five-year plan," which allows DOI "to evaluate its obligations under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act."
Today, @SecHaaland revoked a dozen pro-Big Oil and anti-environment orders from the Trump administration. Little by… https://t.co/p0tHEciEct— Western Values Project (@Western Values Project)1618606421.0
Haaland — a former congresswoman and first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary whose confirmation was celebrated by climate campaigners, Indigenous leaders, and various progressive advocacy groups — said Friday that "from day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy, and address environmental justice."
"At the Department of the Interior, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy, Haaland continued. "These steps will align the Interior Department with the president's priorities and better position the team to be a part of the climate solution."
"I know that signing secretarial orders alone won't address the urgency of the climate crisis. But I'm hopeful that these steps will help make clear that we, as a department, have a mandate to act," she added. "With the vast experience, talent, and ingenuity of our public servants at the Department of the Interior, I'm optimistic about what we can accomplish together to care for our natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations."
Haaland's orders were welcomed by environmental and climate groups as well as other critics of fossil fuel development on public lands and in federal waters.
Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League, said the orders "are another important step toward restoring scientific integrity, meaningful public process, and the longstanding stewardship responsibilities for America's public lands and waters at the Department of Interior. This is the type of bold and visionary leadership we need if we're to effectively fight climate change, tackle the extinction crisis, and prioritize environmental justice and tribal consultation."
"We applaud the secretary's actions to ensure meaningful consultation and elevate strong science, especially around climate change, into decision-making across the department," Miller added. "And we thank the secretary for reversing the Trump administration's energy dominance agenda in the Arctic Ocean and the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and look forward to working with her on a different management direction for the western Arctic that focuses on addressing the climate crisis and protecting its extraordinary wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and cultural values."
Environment America public lands campaign director Ellen Montgomery said that "Haaland is building on President Biden's strong start by restoring conservation as a priority for the Department of the Interior. Our public lands and waters should be protected for the sake of the wildlife and people who depend on them. They should not be mined and drilled to extract fossil fuels — an antiquated 20th-century pursuit that pollutes our air and makes climate change worse."
"The Interior Department is in a powerful position to drive bold action for the climate in the United States," said Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. "Haaland's actions today confirm that President Biden and his administration are seizing the opportunity to rein in fossil fuels and make climate action and climate justice a reality."
"We can't have fossil fuels and a safe climate and today's orders take a major step forward in acknowledging and acting upon this reality," he said. "If we truly have any chance of protecting peoples' health, advancing economic prosperity, and achieving environmental justice, we have to start keeping our fossil fuels in the ground."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
- The 10 Hottest Climate Change Books of Summer - EcoWatch ›
- 10 Best Books On Climate Change, According to Activists - EcoWatch ›
- 26 Children's Books to Nourish Growing Minds - EcoWatch ›
Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.
The report, from the People's Collective for Environmental Justice (PCEJ) and students from the University of Redlands, shared with The Guardian, is meant to serve as an "advocacy tool to help raise awareness related to the warehouse industry's impacts on Southern California's air pollution issues," Earthjustice noted.
California's Inland Empire, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the largest "warehousing hubs" in the world in just the past few decades, according to Grist. Since establishing its first warehouse in the region in 2012, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, where 40,000 people now work in Amazon warehouses, picking, packing, sorting and unloading, as well as driving trucks and operating aircrafts, The New York Times Magazine reported.
"The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant," The New York Times Magazine added.
In just the last year, Amazon has tripled its delivery hubs in the region due to the demand for online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis. But despite the economic boom, heavy air pollution mainly from trucks going in and out of the warehouses infects nearby communities, the new research showed, according to The Guardian.
The research found, for example, that the populations living within a half-mile of the warehouses are 85 percent people of color, while California's overall population is 64 percent people of color, The Guardian reported. The research also found that communities with the most Amazon warehouses nearby have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.
"Amazon has boomed in 2020 and tripled the amount of money it's making, and it is happening at a cost to the folks who live in these communities," Ivette Torres, a PCEJ environmental science researcher and analyst, who helped put the research together, told The Guardian.
The research also demonstrated that the top 10 communities with the most warehouses in the region also experience pollution from other facilities, like gas plants and oil refineries, Earthjustice wrote in a statement.
"The Inland Empire, probably more than any region in the United States, has disproportionately [borne] the brunt of the environmental and economic impact of goods movement, and Amazon is driving that now in the Inland Empire," Jake Wilson, a California State University, Long Beach, professor of sociology, told Grist.
Last year, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority ratified a decision to allow an air cargo facility development at the airport, allowing Amazon to operate more flights out of the region, Grist reported.
Among the local residents to oppose the decision was Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, a resident of San Bernadino in Southern California since 2005. "This whole region has been taken over by warehouses," Heredia told Grist, and commented on the "horrible" air quality in the city on most days. "It's really reaching that apex point where you can't avoid the warehouses, you can't avoid the trucks," he added.
Advocates who published the research are pushing on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local air pollution regulatory agency, to move forward with the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, which would require new and existing warehouses to take action to reduce emissions locally each year, The Guardian reported. Some solutions include moving towards zero-emissions trucks and mitigation fees.
"Last year, we saw some of the worst air quality, with wildfires adding to it, and the trucks were still in and out of our communities. So this is a huge change that we need right now, and that we actually needed yesterday," Torres concluded, according to The Guardian.