By Derrick Z. Jackson
As much as hurricanes Katrina and Maria upended African American and Latinx families, the landfall of the coronavirus brings a gale of another order. This Category 5 of infectious disease packs the power to level communities already battered from environmental, economic, and health injustice. If response and relief efforts fail to adequately factor in existing disparities, the current pandemic threatens a knockout punch to the American Dream.
"There's a whole segment of society that's invisible to policy framers, and everything I'm hearing so far about how we're supposed to deal with the coronavirus assumes we all have the same level of affluence," said Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University, and considered the father of environmental justice. "They're doing policy from a privileged position. If the invisible stay invisible to our policymakers, it will create a second disaster."
A major question of the hour is whether this nation can avoid the second disaster. The coronavirus gives us the opportunity to declare in our political and medical decisions that we will not drape the cloak of invisibility over historically neglected victims of disaster, as it was in the hollowing out of the black middle class in New Orleans after Katrina and the inhuman abandonment of Puerto Ricans after Maria.
The early signs are not good. There are stark examples of how the privileged can get tested for the virus, stock up for landfall, and be assured of financial relief well before we hit our likely peak period of infection. But early harbingers do not have to dictate the outcome if we treat the disadvantaged equally in this crisis, medically and economically, rather than triage them away.
Them That Have Get the Test
While most Americans have been left hanging in collective anxiety over the Trump administration's abominable botching of the preparations needed to make COVID-19 tests widely available, actors, athletes, college presidents such as Harvard's Lawrence Bacow, and politicians such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have gotten tested.
In terms of math, perhaps the most telling case was the Utah Jazz.
When it was suspected that one Jazz player had coronavirus while in Oklahoma City for a National Basketball Association road game, the state of Oklahoma conducted 58 tests on the team's entire traveling party. At the time, the United States was so short of test kits that state labs were averaging just 55 tests per state according to the Daily Beast.
While that testing thankfully helped trigger a national shutdown of spectator sports, music festivals, and business conventions, it also symbolized the divide between the haves and have nots. Many other NBA teams were quickly tested through official relationships with top medical centers and private services. An NBA official told the Washington Post, "We had, and still have, tests at the ready for our players." The official said that testing was, "One phone call away."
That level of access rightly angered New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. As he tweeted, "An entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick."
Or consider the cleaning out of grocery stores in panic buying, a phenomenon that clearly advantages those with disposable income while leaving empty shelves to the disadvantaged. Ironically, some of those left empty handed are the very farmworkers who picked the vegetables for the cleaned-out shelves.
In upstate New York, Luis Jimenez, head of the immigrant farmworker group Alianza Agricola, told The American Prospect magazine and Capital & Main, a California non-profit news organization, "We can't buy food until we get off work, and by then the store shelves are empty — no rice or eggs or meat."
Selfishness is already on full display in the corporate clamor for bailouts, led by the airline industry's request for $50 billion. This is despite the industry being notorious for throwing free cash on stock buybacks to increase shareholder earnings instead of improving consumer service, worker pay or creating rainy day funds. So far, President Trump has said, "We're going to back the airlines 100 percent."
Who Has Workers’ Backs?
There is no such pledge of 100-percent backing for workers who keep America humming with honest, humble labor, from cashiers to cleaners in hotels and from farm workers to restaurant servers. Far more needs to be done to take care of these workers who are the backbone of Fortune 500 profits yet are the first to have their backs broken financially in economic crisis.
The proposed one-time check of up to $3,400 for a family of four does not come close to the average monthly living wage of $5,734 in the United States, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator. Undocumented workers do not get a check at all. The 60-day foreclosure moratorium for homeowners does not cover America's 40 million renters. That is a huge consideration as close to three quarters of white families own homes, while less than half of African American and Latinx families do.
In another arena where the working poor are barely backed at all, only about 20 percent of private-sector workers are covered in the new coronavirus paid sick leave legislation. According to the New York Times, a combined 2 million people work at McDonald's, Walmart, Kroger, Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Target, Marriott, Wendy's, and Taco Bell alone and all of them normally lack any paid sick time. In recent days, President Trump has praised many such companies for pledging to offer pick-up meals and parking lot space for drive-through virus testing.
Many of those companies have temporarily covered their public relations flanks by offering two weeks of COVID-19 sick pay. But if coronavirus is anything like the 1918 flu that killed 675,000 Americans in three waves, we need permanent paid sick pay to account for future illness. While 75 percent of Americans receive some paid sick days, only 25 percent of fast food workers do, according to the Washington Post. The United States is also the only nation in the developed world with no form of paid family leave. In a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, 60 percent of food workers said they have worked while ill and 43 percent said they came to work because there was no sick leave policy.
Congressional Republicans steadfastly refuse to consider making paid leaves permanent, even though science says we would all be better off if low-wage workers had these safety nets. Paid family leave is particularly beneficial to low-income mothers, reducing the incidence of early birth, low birthweight, infant mortality and maternal health. It also results in better long-term health for disadvantaged children, with less obesity and attention deficit. One study bluntly said, "Paid maternity leave has particularly large impacts on the children of unmarried and black mothers."
Disparities the Coronavirus Exploits
The risk of unequal treatment is embedded in even the seemingly universal "we're-all-in-this-together" advice we are getting to protect ourselves and stop the spread of the coronavirus. One person who sees this clearly is Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. He served on the 2016 Michigan task force which determined that the Flint Water Crisis in that 54-percent African American city was "a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice."
Reynolds retired a year ago but was asked by Flint's mayor to be an advisor for COVID-19 care.
He said he already sees where daily life for disadvantaged people is not being factored into public health advisories. "Take social distancing," he said. "That is much easier to do for a family that owns a single-family home where they can spread out inside the home and have a backyard to get some fresh air in private. That is much harder for people who live in small apartments in buildings where people are always passing each other in the hallways. No one has come up with a strategy as to how those folks are supposed to 'social distance.'"
Ana Baptista, chair of the Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management Program at the New School's Tishman Environment and Design Center, worries about higher rates of COVID-19 among people of color as they are more likely to have jobs that cannot be telecommuted. While 37 percent of Asian Americans and 30 percent of white Americans told the Census they can work at home, only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Latinx respondents say they can work at home. Only 9 percent of low-wage workers in the lowest quartile of wage earners say they can telecommute, compared 62 percent of those in the highest quartile.
One of those job categories requiring workers on site, of course is hospital and nursing home care. One-third of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides and a quarter of vocational nurses who work under the supervision of registered nurses and physicians are black, and a quarter of medical assistants are Latinx — well above their share of the general population. Both Baptista and Reynolds rightly point out that current shortages of protective gear for our health care and other frontline workers mark not only an unconscionable failure by the federal government in its preparations but also one that will disproportionately affect workers of color.
Social distancing also has created other ironies for the working poor and communities disproportionately breathing in the particulates of pollution. With retail stores closed, Amazon says it will hire 100,000 people to fill the explosion of online shopping. Reports are widespread that the frantic pace of teams moving around each other at warehouses makes it impossible for this army of the working poor to observe the dictum of staying six feet apart.
Workers at more than a dozen Amazon facilities in the U.S. have tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 1,500 workers have signed a petition demanding stepped-up safety measures. In the world of immigrant farmworkers, Jimenez said living conditions also make social distancing irrelevant. "We live 8 to 10 people in a house, so how would we isolate? Some have their own room, but I know one farm where everyone sleeps in bunk beds in a big room. At work we have to help each other all the time, like when we have to move a cow. You can't do this alone."
The ramp-up in online commerce also means increased truck traffic. Environmental justice advocates fear that the increased exhaust around Amazon facilities will drive up air pollution in abutting neighborhoods, increasing illness and vulnerability to COVID-19. A landmark study last year found that while white households generate the majority of lung- and heart-damaging fine particulate pollution in the consumption of goods and services in the U.S., African American and Latinx neighborhoods disproportionately breathe it in. That study found that 83,000 premature deaths occur from such commerce.
"Essentially, all the things we do and all the things we buy are those 80,000 deaths," said study co-author Jason Hill, a biosystems engineering researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Drive – Through Testing – If You Have Wheels
Another response that policymakers seem to assume is applicable to everyone is drive-through virus testing. While such drive-through locations seem to have proven effective in South Korea and elsewhere, this diagnostic measure of course requires you to have a car.
Vehicle ownership is nearly ubiquitous in white America, with 93.5 percent of white households having wheels. But according to the National Equity Atlas, Latinx and Native American households are twice as likely as white households to be without a car and African American households are three times as likely to be carless. The percentage of African Americans without a car ranges from around 30 percent to 50 percent in many cities, including Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Miami, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Compounding the problem, many of these drive-through testing facilities are planned for locations such as Walmart and Target parking lots. But big-box stores are often located outside of urban centers, hard to walk to, and not easily accessible by public transit. Such is the case in Southeast Chicago, said Peggy Salazar, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. Salazar's group has pushed back against coal ash, manganese dust and lead contamination in neighborhoods squeezed between toxic industries on the Calumet River in Chicago and refineries just over the border in Indiana.
"It can take me an hour and a half to take public transportation to downtown Chicago," Salazar said. "We're so isolated down here, if you don't have a car, it's tough."
And, with social distancing, it's not like you can ask a neighbor to give you a lift. In a 2016 column for the Boston Globe, Clayborn Benson, an old friend and founding director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, told me he knows of countless African Americans in Milwaukee who "can't get jobs in the suburbs because they can't drive. Even if they can drive, they lose jobs because they can't afford good cars and they break down."
The COVID-19 crisis gives America an opportunity to avoid another response that breaks down once more along color and class lines to treat the least privileged as expendable. For instance, if the exploding levels of online shopping remain a permanent part of our economy, local and state governments must no longer place warehouses in, and run diesel-spewing trucking routes through, so-called "fenceline communities" already stewing in pollution. In those communities, respiratory diseases such as asthma are often already off the charts for African Americans and Latinx, putting them at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Policymakers must find ways to assure that neighborhoods suffering from food insecurity get security. The lack of quality grocery stores and the oversaturation of fast food chains that heavily target children with advertising and free toys has already fueled levels of diabetes and obesity higher than those for the white population. Diabetes is another disease COVID-19 can exploit. Dennis Derryck, founder of the Corbin Hill Food Project, which delivers fresh produce to low-income residents in New York City, said the multitude of health issues makes a broader range of people more vulnerable to coronavirus. "We define the elderly in Harlem as easily being 55 because of health disparities," he said.
Reynolds said we should also change the way we view water. With everyone being told they must constantly wash their hands, many cash-strapped cities that imposed impossible water bills on low-income residents have said they will not shut off anyone's water for the time being. Reynolds thinks this should mark the end of cutoffs, period, saying, "Water is a human right."
Perhaps most urgently, as medical centers tell patients that they are postponing "non-urgent" care in preparation for skyrocketing COVID-19 emergency treatment, where does that leave African Americans and Latinx, who are twice as likely than white Americans to choose emergency rooms for non-emergency care? Will they be disproportionately displaced?
The NAACP recently issued a resource guide pointing out pitfalls for policymakers to avoid so that the nation's response to coronavirus does not exacerbate inequity. Besides access to testing, worker pay, and protecting frontline healthcare workers and those in essential transportation and service industries, the list includes:
- Ensuring access to quality online education even in less-resourced public-school districts during long closures;
- preventing the crisis from becoming an excuse for increased incidence of racist attacks (already true for Asian Americans as President Trump deliberately calls coronavirus the "Chinese virus");
- halting the militarization of immigration policies that have already targeted Latinx populations;
- addressing virus exposure risk to inmates who are housed and herded in tight proximity to each other;
- protecting our democracy from being upended by disruptions in Census canvassing, delays in primaries, or relocating voting away from senior citizen centers and their reliable, but vulnerable voters.
The Center for American Progress and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University also called upon the nation to attend to the multiple layers of inequities, urging a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, penalties on late car payments and credit card debt, and covering all workers with paid sick and family leave. In making the call, the center said, "It's important to note that these communities lack wealth not because of individual choices but instead due to 400 years of collective harms by federal, state, and local governments compounding over time."
Assuring Access to Care
Finally, it is crucial that our response to the pandemic does not reverse the gains in health care access won under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed during the Obama administration.
Under the act, the uninsured rate for nonelderly Latinx people dropped from 33 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It dropped for African Americans from 20 percent to 11 percent, for American Indians and Alaskan Natives from 32 percent to 22 percent and for Asian Americans from 17 percent to 7 percent. But uninsured rates have either plateaued or crept up under the ongoing attacks on the ACA by the Republicans and the Trump White House.
This is the last thing that should be happening as African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans are two to three times more likely to be in the working poor, and are still significantly more likely to be uninsured. It is the last thing needed in communities where poor health outcomes are baked into local environments.
It is also the last thing needed for hard working, but poorly paid Americans who are forced to live in affordable housing, or who must live in three-generation households, with grandparents caring significantly for grandchildren while the mother in the middle goes off to work. This happens more frequent in families of color and is especially visible in many black neighborhoods badly wounded by mass incarceration and the flight of jobs in the last century. Five times more African American women than white women make it into their 40s having never married.
"Everybody is each other's lifeline," Bullard said. "The daughter may be working two jobs, but if she gets laid off, there's no paid leave, no health insurance. The grandmother may be 62 and not yet on Medicare. We know that children can be carriers without getting sick, and if the kid comes home and infects grandma . . . you kill grandma you kill childcare. The coronavirus shows what a house of cards these communities are."
The Trump administration's early complacency and confusion in its response to the pandemic led to a mixture of decisiveness and hesitance by churches, schools, concert halls and museums to close down. Who knows how much that chaos helped spread the virus? We may be all be separated by social distancing far longer than might have been necessary because of this president's distance from science.
That makes it all the more critical that the people who live the farthest from privilege and the closest to pollution not be lost in the effort to stem the pandemic and return to some sense of normalcy. An ominous sign that the White House could care less about this came in late March when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was suspending enforcement of environmental standards during the coronavirus crisis.
The EPA said it was trying to "protect workers." But with the EPA being run by a former coal lobbyist who wants to slash staff down to 12,610 (the agency had as many as 17,000 employees during the Obama administration), it is likely very bad news for communities living next to industry.
A cliché among African Americans is that when white folks catch a cold, black people get pneumonia. Now that all of America faces down the pneumonia of COVID-19, America should not make the same mistakes it did in Katrina and Maria. Coronavirus is going to batter us far longer than the worst of hurricanes. We must not let environmental justice communities be flattened in the process.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. He is an award-winning journalist and co-author and photographer of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, published by Yale University Press (2015).
By Derrick Z. Jackson
The Trump administration is trying mightily to gut the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that mandates rigorous, science-based environmental impact reviews for major infrastructure and construction projects prior to federal permitting. NEPA also reserves significant time for the public to weigh in on the impact of projects to their communities.
The loss of public input in the administration's proposed changes to NEPA has environmental justice leaders up in arms. For them, the silencing amounts to regulatory racism.
At a Feb. 25 public hearing on the proposal in Washington, DC, Hilton Kelley, a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for his work in reducing emissions from petrochemical facilities and incinerators in Port Arthur, Texas, told the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that, with at least six explosions and plant accidents in his city over the last year, the events had become so common that children play basketball right through the noise and plumes.
"When you're talking about weakening NEPA and expediting a process, this is what happens," Kelley said, as reported by The Associated Press. "Don't lessen the regulation. Don't silence our voices."
That is precisely what the Trump administration is trying to do in rewriting the implementation guidelines for this bipartisan act signed by President Nixon and designed to allow the public input needed to ensure that "man and nature can exist in productive harmony."
Cheered on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the nation's leading fossil fuel, chemical, construction, manufacturing, airline, trucking and farming interests, the Trump administration is trying to cut the average time for environmental reviews by more than half.
The Trump NEPA rewrite would undermine the act by allowing companies and contractors to write up their own environmental reviews. It would free builders of chemical and petrochemical factories, oil and gas pipelines, highways, port terminals and other infrastructure from accounting for the cumulative effects over time of pollution, land and wetland loss and erosion.
More Harm to Communities Already Under Siege
For communities long polluted by industry, which are disproportionately poor and of color, the Trump administration's changes promise particular devastation. Such communities already suffer higher rates of illnesses from asthma to cancer, life-altering effects such as low birth weight and cognitive child development, and daily insults to quality of life in diesel exhaust, soot penetrating into homes and contaminated yards and playgrounds.
If the administration has its way, NEPA implementation guidelines would be rewritten so that even in neighborhoods already densely packed with toxic industries, a proposed facility need only assess its own pollutants, not how much they combine and compound those of nearby facilities to worsen the overall quality of air, water and land.
To make sure residents cannot complain about such compounded damage, the Trump administration is trying to severely limit the opportunity for mothers, fathers, seniors, teens and community leaders to speak directly to the government.
The rollout of the proposed changes is a case in point. Despite the sweeping environmental risks Americans currently face, with air pollution that kills 100,000 people per year and 77 million Americans drinking tap water in violation of health regulations, the White House Council on Environmental Quality allowed only two hearings on the proposed changes to NEPA before the close of public comment period March 10, in Washington, DC, and in Denver. By way of comparison, The Washington Post reported that major issues involving NEPA usually get around nine hearings.
One community leader who did get into the Washington hearing called out the cynicism of the Trump administration for its scant public scheduling. Belinda Joyner of Northampton County, North Carolina, who has spoken out against dumping in her lower-income African American community by a wood pellet facility, industrial-scale hog farms and a part of the proposed Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, told the CEQ panel, "You act like you're listening, and I'm not going to say you're not. But we see the results of these hearings."
In Denver, indigenous Americans spoke out strongly against the destruction of NEPA. Seventeen-year-old Navajo Najhozhoni Rain Ben drove seven and a half hours to say to the CEQ panel, "We shouldn't be talking about this. We should be implementing plans for the future. This is not for the future. This is for profit." Musician and spoken word artist Lyla June Johnston, also Navajo, drove six hours from Santa Fe to tell the panel that the proposed changes were "a slap in the face to our democracy — a slap in the face to the integrity of our mother earth."
The Modern Need for NEPA
NEPA originally was conceived amid growing public awareness and outrage in the 1960s over river and lake pollution, pesticide poisoning of birds, highway proposals that would blast communities apart, and tanker oil spills that fouled beaches and wiped out wildlife. There is no less need for it today as climate change is already slapping America and the world in the face with more devastating storms, chronic coastal flooding, deadly heat waves, western and Alaskan wildfires and acceleration of species extinction.
There is arguably even more of an immediate need for NEPA in communities that were dumping grounds long before the concept of climate change, even before the signing of the act itself. It has been proven beyond coincidence that — similar to the tobacco industry marketing to vulnerable populations — toxic industries and builders of massive infrastructure projects target locales where they assume residents will offer the least political resistance.
That significantly explains the shameless shoehorning of petrochemical plants into Louisiana's Cancer Alley in predominantly African American areas. That explains the routing of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline through lands and over waters indigenous Americans consider sacred, and the Atlantic Bridge pipeline protested by Joyner. It explains the concentration of industry in heavily Latino and African American Southeast Chicago, which is dealing with an endless siege of dust and neurotoxic contamination from coal ash, lead, and manganese dust.
That explains the ramrodding of roads through redlined communities and why people of color drove or flew hundreds and thousands of miles for the only two hearings offered by this administration. They said the NEPA, especially in a White House that is also hollowing out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the last tools standing between them and a wholesale hostile invasion by industry.
Hope in the Courts
There is a glimmer of hope that the U.S. courts will determine that President Trump and his industrial partners are reaching too far in the rewrite of NEPA, as it relates to environmental racism. Take the Atlantic Bridge Pipeline, which is in the public eye for its upcoming Supreme Court case on whether it can transect the hallowed federal Appalachian Trail.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia recently vacated a Virginia state permit for a compressor station along the pipeline because developer Dominion Energy did not adequately assess its environmental impact on the historic African American host town of Union Hill. The town was founded by free African Americans and formerly enslaved people. The federal courts have also sent other fossil fuel projects and Trump administration oil and gas leases back to the drawing board for their inadequate consideration of environmental and climate impacts.
"Five years ago, Dominion told us that there was going to be a compressor station in Union Hill and there was nothing we could do about it," Chad Oba, president of a Union Hill coalition protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor, said in The Hill. "That's not fair, and it's not American. This is a win for a group of citizens who were committed to protecting their community and never ever gave up."
Such victories give hope that this is one rollback the Trump administration may not ultimately get away with. The assault on NEPA is so sweeping and blatant in its turning control of the environment over to industry, it is sure to receive a massive court challenge from environmental groups and environmental justice advocates. If communities like Union Hill refused to give up, there is no reason for anyone opposed to the rewriting of NEPA to throw in the towel, either. There is still time before the March 10 deadline for public comment.
Recently, Union of Concerned Scientists colleague Adrienne Hollis interviewed Mildred McClain, an environmental justice leader in Savannah, Georgia, about the importance of NEPA. McClain recalled how the act gave her community a voice against the dumping of nuclear waste and unchecked widening of the Savannah River for container ships.
"If it had not been for NEPA," McClain said, "the community would not have been a part of the process."
It's important to recognize that taking communities of color out of the process is a major goal in the administration's efforts to gut NEPA. When President Trump announced the rewrite, he was — by no small coincidence — flanked by a nearly all-white phalanx of supporters as he claimed with a straight face, "We're maintaining America's world-class standards of environmental protection. We have some of the cleanest air and cleanest water on Earth. And for our country, the air is, right now, cleaner than it's been in 40 years."
For the past two generations, NEPA has offered a powerful tool for the protection of the nation's environment. If the Trump administration succeeds in ripping it apart and turning environmental reviews over to industry, we will risk the dirtiest air and water of any developed nation on Earth, cementing this nation as a hotbed of environmental racism.
The deadline for public comments on the proposed changes to NEPA closes this Tuesday. Submit your comment today.
Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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For nearly as long as solar panels have been gracing rooftops and barren land, creative people have been searching out additional surfaces that can be tiled with energy-generating photovoltaic (PV) panels. The idea has been pretty straightforward: if solar panels generate energy simply by facing the sun, then humans could collectively reduce our reliance on coal, oil, gas and other polluting fuels by maximizing our aggregate solar surface area.
So, what kind of unobstructed surfaces are built in every community and in between every major city across the globe? Highways and streets. With this in mind, the futuristic vision of laying thousands, or even millions, of solar panels on top of the asphalt of interstates and main streets was born.
While the concept art looked like a still from a sci-fi film, many inventors, businesses and investors saw these panels as a golden path toward clean energy and profit. Ultimately, though, the technology and economics ended up letting down those working behind each solar roadway project — from initial concepts in the early 2000s to the first solar roadway actually opened in France in 2016, they all flopped.
In the years since the concept of solar roadways went viral, solar PV has continued to improve in technology and drop in price. So, with a 2021 lens, is it time to re-run the numbers and see if a solar roadway could potentially deliver on that early promise? We dig in to find out.
Solar Roadways: The Original Concept
Solar roadways are complex in execution, but in concept, they're as simple as they sound. They're roads "paved" with extremely strong solar panels that are covered in glass that can withstand environmental stressors and the weight of vehicles driving over them on a consistent basis.
The idea was something that got people really excited when the initial Solar Roadways, Inc. project (which is still seeking funding) burst onto the scene in 2014:
More advanced designs included solar roadways outfitted with LED lights that could be used to illuminate lane lines, communicate to drivers and more. Other iterations included weight sensors that would detect when obstructions were on the road or could alert homeowners if unexpected vehicles were approaching their driveway. Embedding these kinds of technology into the solar roadways renderings only added to their appeal and the initial hype around the concept.
Key Selling Points of Solar Roadways
Early innovators of solar roadways touted the numerous benefits of their ideas. These included:
- Sunlight shines down on roads at no cost, making the energy not only readily available, but also free (aside from installation and maintenance).
- The ability to power street lights with solar roadways eliminated the need to pull extra energy from the grid.
- Having electronics embedded into the roadway opened up a world of possibilities for communicating with drivers in ways that didn't require painting and repainting of roads.
- The ingenuity to attach weight sensors on the solar panels could be used to alert drivers about potential obstructions, such as animals, disabled vehicles or rocks on the road.
- In a future of electric vehicles, the possibilities were seen as even more beneficial, as solar roadways could be used to power electric vehicle charging stations or to charge the cars while they're driving.
While some early thinkers may also have envisioned these roadways sending solar energy to the local power grid, the most impactful way solar roadways could utilize the energy they generated is right around the road itself: lighting street lights, heating mechanisms to melt snow on the roadway, or powering small emergency equipment on road shoulders.
Using the energy for on-road applications would mean that the power didn't have to be sent long distances before being used, which results in energy loss. However, in more rural or remote locations, having the solar roadway energy available for nearby homes and businesses could be a huge benefit, especially if there's an outage in the overall grid.
Why Solar Roadway Tests Have Failed
To much of the general public — and especially to people who weren't well versed in the intricacies of solar panels or road structures — solar roadways seemed like a slam-dunk solution that both looked futuristic and had benefits that went far beyond electricity generation. It was the kind of innovation that had people exclaiming: "How has no one done this yet?!" But in reality, the execution of solar roadways was much more complex than the idea.
Here are a few reasons solar roadway tests have failed:
Cost of Manufacturing and Maintenance
The cost of the energy from the sun may be free, but the investment to install and maintain the solar roadways was undeniably prohibitive. The reason asphalt is used by default to pave roadways is because it is immensely affordable and low-maintenance, which is especially critical on vast, expansive roadways and interstates.
In 2010, Scott Brusaw, co-founder of Solar Roadways, Inc., estimated a square foot of solar roadway would cost about $70. However, when the first solar roadway was built in France by a company called Colas, it measured 1 kilometer and cost $5.2 million to build — or about $1,585 per foot of roadway. Of course, this was a small iteration and bulk manufacturing would cost less, but either way, it's hard to believe the cost of a solar roadway would ever be competitive with the price of asphalt, which is about $3 to $15 per square foot.
Further, the cost and complexity to send a crew to repair individual panels that fail would far outweigh those to maintain asphalt. So, while one of the presumed benefits of solar roadways is the cost savings associated with self-generated energy, even back-of-the-envelope math highlights how the numbers would simply not add up to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Energy Required to Produce the Panels
Another limiting factor appears when considering the energy it takes to make asphalt versus high-durability glass and solar panels. Most asphalt used on roads today is a byproduct of distilling petroleum crude oil for products such as gasoline, which means it makes use of a substance that would otherwise be discarded as waste.
The solar roadway panels, although intended to save energy in the long run, take much more to produce. Typical rooftop solar panels can easily make up for the extra energy used in production because the glass doesn't need to withstand the weight of vehicles driving over them, but solar roadways have that added complexity.
Power Output of the Panels
When estimating power output, early optimists seemed to perform calculations based on the raw surface area they could cover — and not much else. However, beyond the stunted energy generation that any solar panels face on cloudy days or at night, solar roadways presented unique new performance challenges.
For example, vehicles constantly driving over solar roadways would interrupt sun exposure. Plus, they'd leave behind trails of fluid, dirt and dust that can dramatically reduce the efficiency of solar panels. Being installed on the ground is a challenge in itself because of how readily shade would find the roads; that's the reason you find most solar panels on rooftops or elevated off the ground and angled toward the sun.
Issues With Glass Roadways
Lastly, driving on glass surfaces is simply not what modern cars are designed to do. Asphalt and tires grip each other well, being particularly resilient in wet conditions. If the asphalt is replaced with glass — even the textured glass that's used for solar roadways — tire traction could be reduced dramatically. Wet or icy conditions could lead to catastrophic situations on solar roadways.
Could Recent Advances in Solar Technology Bring Solar Roadways Closer to Reality?
For all of these challenges and even more roadblocks that early solar roadway projects have run into in the past, the reality is that solar technology continues to improve. In the seven years since the first Solar Roadways, Inc. video went viral, solar panels have developed to be more durable, more cost-effective and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. To put some numbers behind these trends:
- The average solar PV panel cost has dropped about 70% since 2014.
- In 2015, FirstSolar made news with panels that were 18.2% efficient. Today, the most advanced prototypes are able to exceed 45% efficiency.
- Total solar energy capacity in 2021 is nearly six times greater than in 2014, and with that explosion has come advances to flatten the learning curve and increase the general public's acceptance of the benefits of solar.
- Solar jobs have increased 167% in the last decade, giving the industry more capable workers able to take the reins of a solar roadway project and more professionals who know how to affordably install solar.
The question to ask is whether these advances are enough to bring solar roadways from failure to success.
Despite the improvements, many of the original challenges with solar roadways remain, and the scale of execution is immense. Even with decreasing solar PV costs, outfitting long stretches of roadway with such complex technologies will require tremendous capital.
Rather than a future where solar roadways cover the country from coast to coast, a more likely outcome is that these advances will bring solar roadways to viability in narrow, niche applications.
Just like tidal energy is a great opportunity for small coastal communities but can't be scaled to solve the energy crisis across the world, it's conceivable that limited-scope solar roadways could be constructed around the world. However, large-scale solar roadways may never be more than a pipe dream.
An examination of monitoring data available for the first time concludes that 91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.
The study by the Environmental Integrity Project, with assistance from Earthjustice, used industry data that became available to the public for the first time in 2018 because of requirements in federal coal ash regulations issued in 2015.
The report found that found that the groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, among other pollutants.
"At a time when the Trump EPA — now being run by a former coal lobbyist — is trying to roll back federal regulations on coal ash, these new data provide convincing evidence that we should be moving in the opposite direction: toward stronger protections for human health and the environment," said Abel Russ, the lead author of the report and attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
"This is a wake-up call for the nation," said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with Earthjustice. "Using industry's own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate. The Trump Administration insists on hurting communities across the U.S. by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse."
The data came from more than 4,600 groundwater monitoring wells located around the ash dumps of 265 coal-fired power plants, which is roughly three quarters of the coal power plants across the U.S. The rest of the plants did not have to comply with the federal Coal Ash Rule's groundwater monitoring requirements last year, either because they closed their ash dumps before the rule went into effect in 2015, or because they were eligible for an extension.
EIP's analysis of the data found that a majority of the 265 coal plants have unsafe levels of at least four toxic constituents of coal ash in the underlying groundwater. Fifty-two percent had unsafe levels of arsenic, which can impair the brains of developing children and is known to cause cancer. Sixty percent of the plants have unsafe levels of lithium, a chemical associated with multiple health risks, including neurological damage.
Many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.
The report lists and ranks the sites across the U.S. with the worst groundwater contamination from coal ash. Below are the "Top 10" most contaminated sites, according to the monitoring data reported by power companies in 2018:
- Texas: An hour south of San Antonio, beside the San Miguel Power Plant, the groundwater beneath a family ranch is contaminated with at least 12 pollutants leaking from coal ash dumps, including cadmium (a probable carcinogen according to EPA) and lithium (which can cause nerve damage) at concentrations more than 100 times above safe levels.
- North Carolina: 12 miles west of Charlotte, at Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station in Belmont, the coal ash dumps were built beneath the water table and are leaking cobalt (which causes thyroid damage) into groundwater at concentrations more than 500 times above safe levels, along with unsafe levels of eight other pollutants.
- Wyoming: 180 miles west of Laramie, at PacifiCorp's Jim Bridger power plant in Point of Rocks, the groundwater has levels of lithium and selenium (which can be toxic to humans and lethal at low concentrations to fish) that exceed safe levels by more than 100 fold.
- Wyoming: At the Naughton power plant in southwest Wyoming, the groundwater has not only levels of lithium and selenium exceeding safe levels by more than 100 fold, but also arsenic at five times safe levels.
- Pennsylvania: An hour northwest of Pittsburgh, at the New Castle Generating Station, levels of arsenic in the groundwater near the plant's coal ash dump are at 372 times safe levels for drinking.
- Tennessee: Just southwest of Memphis near the Mississippi River, at the TVA Allen Fossil Plant, arsenic has leaked into the groundwater at 350 times safe levels and lead at four times safe levels. Recent studies show a direct connection between the contaminated shallow aquifer and the deeper Memphis aquifer, creating a threat to drinking water for thousands of people.
- Maryland: 19 miles southeast of Washington, DC, at the Brandywine landfill in Prince George's County, ash from three NRG coal plants has contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of at least eight pollutants, including lithium at more than 200 times above safe levels, and molybdenum (which can damage the kidney and liver) at more than 100 times higher than safe levels. The contaminated groundwater at this site is now feeding into and polluting local streams.
- Utah: South of Salt Lake City, at the Hunter Power plant, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at concentrations 228 times safe levels and cobalt at 26 times safe levels.
- Mississippi: North of Biloxi, at the R.D. Morrow Sr. Generating Station, the groundwater is contaminated with lithium at 193 times safe levels, molybdenum at 171 times safe levels, and arsenic at three times safe levels.
- Kentucky: At the Ghent Generating Station northeast of Louisville, lithium is in the groundwater at 154 times safe levels and radium at 31 times safe levels.
The researchers of this report could not determine the safety of drinking water near the coal ash dumps analyzed in this study because power companies are not required to test private drinking water wells.
However, the report contains examples of several well-documented instances of residential tap water contaminated by coal ash. For example:
- At the Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Montana, unsafe levels of boron, sulfate and possibly other pollutants migrated into a residential neighborhood. The owners of the plant had to provide clean water, and settled a lawsuit with 57 local residents for $25 million in damages.
- At the Oak Creek Power Plant in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, contamination with elevated levels of molybdenum seeped from ash landfills into at least 33 nearby drinking water wells. Wisconsin Energy purchased at least 25 homes around the site and demolished several of them.
- At the Yorktown Power Station in Yorktown, Virginia, gravel pits were filled with fly ash, contaminating the water supply for 55 homes with arsenic, beryllium, chromium, manganese, selenium and other pollutants.
- At Battlefield Golf Course in Chesapeake, Virginia, about 25 drinking water wells had elevated levels of boron, manganese or thallium that may have leaked from coal ash used as a construction material beneath a golf course.
- At a coal ash landfill in Gambrills, Maryland, ash dumped in an old sand and gravel quarry caused unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium, lithium and other pollutants in multiple residential wells. Constellation Energy settled a lawsuit with impacted residents for $54 million.
Additional examples of contamination of residential drinking water outlined in the report are in Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin and North Carolina.
"This report is yet another example of why we must require full cleanup of these unlined and leaking coal ash pits," said Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, North Carolina, who lives near coal ash waste sites of the Duke Energy Allen Steam Station.
"The findings of this report are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising," said Jennifer Peters, National Water Programs Director for Clean Water Action. "For decades, coal utilities have been dumping their toxic waste in primitive pits — often unlined, unstable and near groundwater — while state and federal regulators have mostly looked the other way. These dangerous coal ash ponds should have been closed and cleaned up years ago."
The report details steps that EPA should take to more effectively protect public health and the environment from coal ash pollution. A more successful regulatory program would: regulate all coal ash dumps, including those that are inactive; require the excavation of dumps within five feet of the water table; require more monitoring, especially of nearby residential wells and surface water; and mandate more transparency and public reporting.
New Report Reveals Severe #Groundwater Contamination at Illinois #CoalAsh Dumps https://t.co/kAM9ixJyRk @BeyondCoal @Coal_Ash— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1543788038.0
- All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into ... ›
- Groundwater Sustainability Is Needed More Than Ever ›
By Elliott Negin
On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.
The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.
My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA's time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.
1. Sidelined Scientists
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency's policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency's Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA's Office of Children's Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.
2. Proposed to Restrict the Use of Scientific Data
Claiming his intent is to increase "transparency," Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency's ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.
3. Gutted the Coal Ash Rule
The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump's directive to "clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief" at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler's most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.
Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler's EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.
4. Recommended Unsafe Levels of Drinking Water Contaminants
Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.
In February, Wheeler announced the "first-ever nationwide action plan" to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency's voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is "a safe level for drinking water," despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.
While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA's response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.
5. Rolled Back Clean Water Act Protections
Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect "the integrity of downstream waters." Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.
Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, "We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country." Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.
6. Suppressed an Inconvenient Formaldehyde Report
Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. "I am sure we will release it," he said, "but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate."
In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
The EPA's review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. chemical industry's premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.
7. Ignored EPA Scientists’ Advice to Ban Asbestos
Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.
Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.
8. Weakened the Mercury Emissions Rule
In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the "co-benefits" of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.
Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule's benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.
9. Slammed Vehicle Emission Rules Into Reverse
Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled "Make Cars Great Again" published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and "raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles."
Parroting the Trump administration's line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.
In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans' wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 billion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.
10. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan
Perhaps Wheeler's most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler's so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA's own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.
Reversing Decades of Bipartisan Protections
If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to "Every Polluter's Ally." In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries' profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency's own accounting.
Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation's agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science."There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards," former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress's oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA."
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Brett Walton
Defying a vote of the County Council, Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said on Oct.18 that he will not settle a Clean Water Act lawsuit that holds national implications for water pollution permitting.
Instead of the settlement that the council authorized last month, Victorino prefers to have the nation's highest court decide whether a wastewater treatment facility on the island requires a federal pollution permit for disposing its effluent. Currently injected underground, the nutrient-rich effluent eventually seeps into coastal waters where it has contributed to algal blooms around coral reefs.
The case is closely watched because it could determine whether pollution of groundwater that is connected to rivers, lakes and oceans is covered by the nation's primary water-protection law.
"There are strong opinions on both sides of this important issue," Victorino wrote in a statement that was posted online. "But leadership is not about making easy, popular decisions. I believe the best interests of our residents, our visitors, and the environment will be best served by having this case settled by the Supreme Court."
The politics within Maui County, however, are far from settled.
The council, believing that it has the power to authorize the settlement with the four conservation groups that brought the lawsuit, is preparing to vote on a resolution to ask a Hawaii state court to intervene. That vote will be taken on Oct. 29. If the resolution is approved, the state court will be asked to interpret the county charter to determine which branch — the mayor or the council — has authority to approve the settlement, David Raatz of the Maui County Office of Council Services told Circle of Blue.
Victorino's announcement and the council's potential counter move are the latest twists in a seven-year legal confrontation. The case centers around the Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility, a wastewater treatment plant on the west side of Maui. The legal concept being tested is known as the conduit theory — whether a facility that discharges pollutants into groundwater that then flows to streams, lakes, or oceans requires a Clean Water Act permit.
If the concept is applied broadly to groundwater that is hydrologically linked to surface waters, it would expand the number of facilities that need federal pollution permits. Because of that, business and industry organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders, Chamber of Commerce, National Mining Association and American Petroleum Institute and municipal government groups like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, City of New York, and National League of Cities filed briefs supporting Maui County.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sided with the conservation groups. But the agency recently changed course under President Trump. In a non-binding guidance document released in April, agency officials interpreted the Clean Water Act to "exclude all releases of pollutants to groundwater" from water pollution permitting.
Federal appeals courts are split. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Lahaina facility does need a permit, supporting the conduit theory. A similar case in the Fourth Circuit has also been appealed to the Supreme Court. But the Sixth Circuit, in a case involving disposal of coal waste, came to the opposite conclusion. It determined that a permit for a coal ash pond in Kentucky was not necessary.
The Maui County Council voted 5 to 4 in September to settle the lawsuit brought by Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Surfrider, and West Maui Preservation Association. The upcoming vote presents a higher bar for approval. A two-thirds vote of the council is required to forward the complaint to the state court, Raatz said. Accordingly, a council member who voted against the settlement would have to flip their vote next week for the measure to pass.
If the settlement is not approved, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled is hear oral arguments in the case on November 6.
In his statement, Victorino suggested that he made his decision based on economics and legal clarity.
"This issue must be clarified once and for all, not re-litigated endlessly at county taxpayers' expense," Victorino wrote.
When asked for additional information, Brian Perry, the mayor's spokesperson, referred to the statement.
The settlement addresses legal clarity, as well as other issues. The county agreed to seek a federal pollution permit for the facility, invest at least $2.5 million in projects that recycle wastewater in order to reduce reliance on injection wells, and pay a $100,000 fine. The plaintiffs agreed not to pursue additional penalties or legal action as long as the country is making a "good faith effort" to fulfill its obligations.
David Henkin is the Earthjustice attorney representing the plaintiffs. He said that the groups are prepared to make their case to the Supreme Court.
"It's unfortunate that the Mayor has chosen to side with the Trump Administration and the nation's worst polluters, rather than listen to the will of the people of Maui, who spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of settling the case and focusing on addressing the harm the Lahaina injection wells are inflicting on Maui's priceless coral reef every day," Henkin wrote in an email to Circle of Blue.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue's weekly digest of U.S. government water news.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.
A new report written by Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club, revealed widespread pollution of the groundwater surrounding 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash dumpsites.
The report is based on industry data made publicly available for the first time this year because of a requirement in federal coal ash regulations. It concludes that 22 of Illinois 24 coal ash dumpsites with available data have released toxic pollutants including arsenic, cobalt and lithium, into groundwater.
Millions of tons of coal ash, generated by the State's coal-fired power plants, has been stored in primarily unlined ponds and landfills near the plants for decades. This toxic byproduct of burning coal continues to flow into groundwater, rivers, and lakes all over the State, including the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois' only National Scenic River. Illinois started the process of regulating coal ash in 2013, but those plans were abandoned, and multiple administrations have allowed the coal ash ponds to operate for years with little or no state or federal oversight.
In 2015, federal coal ash regulations required utilities to start collecting groundwater data near coal ash dumps. In March of 2018, this data became public for the first time. The report analyzes the groundwater monitoring data reported by utilities.
Coal ash contains a hazardous brew of toxic pollutants including arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, radium, selenium and more. The toxics in coal ash can cause cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure and stroke, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children.
This pollution is not limited to groundwater contamination. According to the most recent Clean Water Act permit applications on file with Illinois EPA, Illinois coal plants dump millions of pounds of pollution into lakes, rivers and streams each year. These pollutants include over 300,000 pounds of aluminum, 600 pounds of arsenic, nearly 300,000 pounds of boron, over 200 pounds of cadmium, over 15,000 pounds of manganese, roughly 1,500 pounds of selenium, roughly 500,000 pounds of nitrogen, and nearly 40 million pounds of sulfate.
Local groups from all over the state are calling for action from State officials to put protections in place to stop the pollution from coal ash permanently, prevent further dumping or storage of coal ash in the state, and hold polluters accountable for the toxic messes they have created.
Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer from Prairie Rivers Network, an advocacy group fighting for healthy rivers and clean water in Illinois said, "Illinois needs to act now to strengthen rules that protect the public from coal ash. We're reaching a turning point as Energy companies are proposing to leave coal ash in floodplains of rivers and exposed to groundwater. We need stronger rules that provide permanent protection with a financial guarantee, and give the public a voice in these decisions"
"Because utilities were forced to report groundwater monitoring data in the 2015 coal ash rule, we now know the scope and severity of groundwater contamination from coal ash in Illinois," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Cassel. "Now that communities can see the evidence of toxic pollution leaking into their precious groundwater resources from these ponds for themselves, they can hold utilities and the State accountable."
"The contamination from coal ash is going to get worse, and will be a part of the Illinois environment for generations unless the state takes a few simple steps," said Abel Russ, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. "We now have a baseline – almost all of the coal plants are polluted. Let's hope that we can come back in ten years and see that most of these sites are clean."
"Illinois cannot afford to stand by while companies dump toxic waste that will threaten our state's valuable water resources indefinitely. There is a moral obligation to ensure that companies clean up the mess they create and lift that burden from impacted communities. Coal ash creates one more barrier to economic development while cleaning it up can create jobs and open the door to future development." Joe Laszlo, Sierra Club Member and Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance Chairperson
The report, Cap and Run: Toxic Coal Ash Left Behind by Big Polluters Threatens Illinois Water, features data released by power companies on their websites earlier this year in response to requirements in a 2015 EPA regulation known as the "coal ash rule." Some of the local examples highlighted in the report include:
- At NRG-subsidiary Midwest Generation's Waukegan Plant, on the shore of Lake Michigan, boron–which can cause developmental problems in children and is toxic to aquatic life – exceeds the Illinois groundwater standard by up to 16 times.
- At Dynegy's retired Vermilion coal plant on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River–Illinois' only National Scenic River–upstream of the City of Danville, ash-polluted groundwater is visibly seeping through the riverbank into the river and groundwater testing revealed boron at levels more than thirteen times EPA's health threshold.
- At the Lincoln Stone Quarry on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Joliet–into which Midwest Generation dumped coal ash from its now-gas-fueled Joliet coal plants for decades–arsenic exceeds safe levels in groundwater monitoring wells by over twenty-three times and boron is seven times higher than EPA health thresholds.
- At Vistra subsidiary Dynegy's Hennepin coal plant, in the floodplain of the Illinois River downstream of Starved Rock State Park, arsenic and boron are more than three times higher than safe levels, and lithium reaches levels up to twelve times higher than what is safe.
- At Dynegy's E.D. Edwards coal plant, located on the Illinois River just south of Peoria, lead concentrations are eighteen times US EPA's drinking water standard.
By C.J. Polychroniou
Climate change is by far the most serious crisis facing the world today. At stake is the future of civilization as we know it. Yet, both public awareness and government action lag way behind what's needed to avert a climate change catastrophe. In the interview below, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin discuss the challenges ahead and what needs to be done.
Noam Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT and Laureate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Robert Pollin is Distinguished University Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chomsky, Pollin and Polychroniou are co-authors of a book on climate change and the Green New Deal, forthcoming with Verso in Spring 2020.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, let me start with you and ask you to share your thoughts about the uniqueness of the climate change crisis.
Noam Chomsky: History is all too rich in records of horrendous wars, indescribable torture, massacres and every imaginable abuse of fundamental rights. But the threat of destruction of organized human life in any recognizable or tolerable form — that is entirely new. The environmental crisis under way is indeed unique in human history, and is a true existential crisis. Those alive today will decide the fate of humanity — and the fate of the other species that we are now destroying at a rate not seen for 65 million years, when a huge asteroid hit the earth, ending the age of the dinosaurs and opening the way for some small mammals to evolve to pose a similar threat to life on earth as that earlier asteroid, though differing from it in that we can make a choice.
Meanwhile the world watches as we proceed toward a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. We are approaching perilously close to the global temperatures of 120,000 years ago, when sea levels were 6-9 meters higher than today. Glaciers are sliding into the sea five times faster than in the 1990s, with more than 100 meters of ice thickness lost in some areas due to ocean warming, and current losses doubling every decade. Complete loss of the ice sheets would raise sea levels by about five meters, drowning coastal cities, and with utterly devastating effects elsewhere — the low-lying plains of Bangladesh for example. This is only one of the many concerns of those who are paying attention to what is happening before our eyes.
Climate scientists are certainly paying close attention, and issuing dire warnings. Israeli climatologist Baruch Rinkevich captures the general mood succinctly:
After us, the deluge, as the saying goes. People don't fully understand what we're talking about here…. They don't understand that everything is expected to change: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the landscapes we see, the oceans, the seasons, the daily routine, the quality of life. Our children will have to adapt or become extinct…. That's not for me. I'm happy I won't be here.
Yet, just at the time when all must act together, with dedication, to confront humanity's "ultimate challenge," the leaders of the most powerful state in human history, in full awareness of what they are doing, are dedicating themselves with passion to destroying the prospects for organized human life.
With rare exceptions, the mainstream political establishment in the United States continues to look the other way when it comes to climate change. Why is that?
Chomsky: Both political parties have drifted right during the neoliberal years, much as in Europe. The Democratic establishment is now more or less what would have been called "moderate Republicans" some years ago. The Republicans have gone off the spectrum. Comparative studies show that they rank alongside of fringe rightwing parties in Europe in their general positions. They are, furthermore, the only major conservative party to reject anthropogenic climate change, as already mentioned: a global anomaly. Two respected political analysts of the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, describe the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich's takeover in the '90s as not a normal political party but a "radical insurgency" that has largely abandoned parliamentary politics. Under McConnell's leadership, that has only become more evident — but he has ample company in Republican Party circles.
The positions of the leadership on climate surely influence the attitudes of Republican Party loyalists. Only about 25 percent of Republicans (36 percent of the more savvy millennials) recognize that humans are responsible for global warming. Shocking figures.
And in the ranking of urgent issues among Republicans, global warming (if it is even assumed to be taking place), is almost undetectable.
It is considered outrageous to assert that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Perhaps so, but in the light of the stakes, what else can one rationally conclude?
Bob, the Green New Deal is seen as perhaps the only viable solution to avert a climate change catastrophe of the sort described by Noam above, yet many continue to regard it as unrealistic, not only from a purely economic perspective (the claim is that it is simply unaffordable), but also in the sense that modern economies and societies cannot function without fossil fuel energy. First, is the Green New Deal a detailed policy proposal to move us away from a climate change catastrophe, and, second, is it realistic?
Robert Pollin: The Green New Deal has gained tremendous traction as an organizing framework over the past year. This alone is a major achievement. But it is still imperative that we transform this big idea into a viable program. In my view, putting meat on the bones of the Green New Deal starts with a single simple idea: We have to absolutely stop burning oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy within the next 30 years at most; and we have to do this in a way that also supports rising living standards and expanding opportunities for working people and the poor throughout the world.
This version of a Green New Deal program is, in fact, entirely realistic in terms of its purely economic and technical features. Clean renewable energy sources — including solar, wind, geothermal and to a lesser extent small-scale hydro and low emissions bioenergy — are already either at cost parity with fossil fuels and nuclear or they are cheaper. In addition, the single easiest and cheapest way to lower emissions is to raise energy efficiency standards, through, among other measures, retrofitting existing buildings; making new buildings operate as net zero energy consumers; and replacing gas-guzzler cars with expanding public transportation and electric cars. Energy efficiency measures, by definition, will save people money — for example, your home electricity bills could realistically be cut in half without having to reduce the amount that you light, heat or cool your house. So, the Green New Deal will not cost consumers anything over time, as long as we solve the actually quite simple problem of funding Green New Deal investments through the cost savings we gain by raising efficiency standards and producing cheap renewable energy. My coworkers and I have estimated that building a 100 percent clean energy system will require about 2.5 percent of global GDP per year for roughly the next 30 years. Yes, that's a lot of money in dollar terms, like about $2 trillion in 2021 and rising thereafter. But it does still mean that 97.5 percent of global economic activity can be devoted to things other than investments in clean energy.
So, absolutely, the Green New Deal can be a realistic global climate stabilization project. More specifically, the Green New Deal is capable of hitting the necessary emissions reduction targets for stabilization at a global average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, as set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October. However, the real question, of course, is not whether the Green New Deal is economically or technically feasible, but rather whether it is politically feasible. On this question, Noam is of course exactly on point in asking: Are we, the human race, going to allow ourselves to become the 21st-century asteroid clone or not?
What about the claim that a transition to 100 percent renewable energy will result in the permanent loss of millions of good-paying jobs?
Pollin: In fact, clean energy investments will be a major source of new job creation, in all regions of the globe. The critical factor is that clean energy investments will create a lot more jobs than maintaining the existing dirty energy infrastructure — in the range of two to four times more jobs per dollar of spending in all countries that we have studied, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Spain and the United States. Of course, jobs that are tied to the fossil fuel industry will be eliminated. The affected workers and their communities must be supported through generous Just Transition measures, including guaranteeing workers' pensions, moving people into new jobs without losing incomes, and investing in impacted communities, in a range of projects. Land reclamation is just one such investment opportunity, including cleaning up abandoned coal mines and converting the residual coal ash into useful products, like paper. I can't emphasize enough that, throughout the world, "just transition" programs must be understood as absolutely central to the Green New Deal.
Noam, how do we increase public awareness about the need for government action vis-à-vis climate change?
Chomsky: The simple answer is: work harder. There are no new special tricks. We know what the message is. We know the barriers that have to be overcome. We have to find ways to shape the message, in words and actions, so as to overcome the barriers.
The message is two-fold: First, we're facing an existential crisis that must be dealt with quickly; and second, there are ways to overcome it.
The first part is expressed simply enough in current articles in the most prestigious and reliable journals. Oxford professor of physics Raymond Pierrehumbert, a lead author of the recent IPCC report, opens his review of existing circumstances and options by writing: "Let's get this on the table right away, without mincing words. With regard to the climate crisis, yes, it's time to panic…. We are in deep trouble." He then lays out the details carefully and scrupulously, reviewing the possible technical fixes and their very serious problems, concluding, "There's no plan B." We must move to zero net carbon emissions, and fast.
The second part is spelled out in convincing detail in Bob's work, briefly reviewed here.
The message must be conveyed in ways that do not induce despair and resignation among those inclined to accept it, and do not evoke resentment, anger and even greater rejection among those who do not accept what is in fact becoming overwhelmingly clear.
In the latter case, it is necessary to understand the reasons — perhaps rejection of science altogether, or adopting economists' preference for market-based solutions which, whatever one thinks of them, are completely on the wrong time-scale, or the great many who expect the Second Coming, or those who think we will be rescued by some unknown technology or great figure, perhaps the colossus perceived by scholars at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, whose "spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost" (Ronald Reagan).
The task will not be easy. It must be undertaken, urgently. By words and by actions, such as those being undertaken in the climate strikes of September 2019.
Bob, what will it take for the labor movement as a whole to come around and embrace the Green New Deal vision?
Pollin: The Green New Deal has been gaining major support in the labor movement for several years now. There is still a long way to go, but progress is evident. For example, the coalition in Washington State that advanced a Green New Deal proposition in the 2018 election cycle was led by the visionary then president of the state AFL-CIO, Jeff Johnson. In the end, the initiative was defeated when oil companies flooded the airwaves with $30 million of virulent propaganda in the weeks before the November election. Similar initiatives are now being advanced in Colorado, again led by the state's mainstream labor leaders.
Of course, we need to very quickly advance beyond just these few shining examples. What is critical here is that the climate movement must be firmly committed to a just transition as one component of the Green New Deal that is of equal significance with all the others. The climate movement needs to also be clear on the point that building the clean energy economy will be supportive of increasing job opportunities and rising living standards, as I am convinced it can be.
There is no reason that the Green New Deal needs to be associated with austerity economic policies in any way. To the contrary, clean energy investments will create new opportunities for a wide range of small-scale public, cooperative, and private ownership forms. You don't need massive mining projects, pipelines or exploration platforms to deliver clean energy. Solar panels on roofs and in parking lots and wind turbines on farms can, by themselves, get us reasonably far along in meeting the energy needs of a growing egalitarian economy. From this perspective, the Green New Deal should rightfully be seen as offering a fully viable alternative to austerity economics along with the only realistic path for keeping us from becoming the 21st-century asteroid clone.
This story originally appeared in Truthout. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
As people in North and South Carolina continue to confront flooding and other massive damage from Hurricane Florence, it's heartbreaking to watch them have to deal with yet another hazard: the toxic coal ash leaked from coal ash ponds and landfills in the region. Even more infuriating is the denial coming from the company responsible for that pollution in the first place—Duke Energy in North Carolina.
On Sept. 19, Duke Energy activated a high-level emergency alert at the retired L.V. Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, as Hurricane Florence–related flood waters from the nearby Cape Fear River overtook an earthen dike and Sutton Lake. That same day, the Neuse River flooded all three of Duke's coal ash ponds at the retired H.F. Lee coal plant in Goldsboro.
On Sept. 21, Duke reported that dams at both the north and south end of Sutton Lake had been breached by floodwaters from Florence. In addition, floodwaters have overtopped a retaining wall between the lake and one of the unlined coal ash dumps at the site. Coal ash was observed in the lake, and Duke acknowledged it's possible that coal ash is flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Our friends at the Waterkeeper Alliance took photos and videos of coal ash in several waterways. Yet, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of its ash ponds, hiding behind the fact that coal ash which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum and chloride—is not designated as a hazardous waste.
Jo-Anne McArthur / Waterkeeper Alliance / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan claimed in a recent statement that, "It is a very common misconception that ash is toxic, but routine toxicity tests on our basin water continue to demonstrate it's not."
You have got to be kidding me. It's jaw dropping and infuriating to me that utility executives are still claiming coal ash is harmless after all the disasters of recent years—from massive coal ash spills, to the health problems plaguing workers who cleaned them up, to the hundreds of other communities home to coal ash sites where families living with polluted air and water are paying the ultimate price for this tired old lie. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other illnesses.
The Sierra Club and our allies have worked for years to force cleanup of these sites, both by pushing for stronger federal and state safeguards, and through litigation and organizing at the local level. Represented by our friends at the Southern Environmental Law Center, we even secured a Clean Water Act settlement that required Duke to move its ash from unlined pits at the Sutton plant to a lined landfill. Unfortunately, that work wasn't completed fast enough to prevent some of the damage—and even the lined landfill was also breached by the hurricane, underscoring that while some methods of storing coal ash are better than others, the only true solution is to generate power with clean energy and stop creating coal ash altogether.
Carolina residents have long warned Duke Energy, state officials, and the public about these coal ash landfills being a disaster waiting to happen—and many of the ash sites had already leaked several times long before Florence came ashore. The coal ash sites are frequently near low-income communities and communities of color, as CityLab's Brentin Mock documents in these two powerful articles about Hurricane Florence and the long-time environmental justice fights in the Carolinas.
There is no completely safe way to store toxic coal waste, or to mine and burn coal, that doesn't threaten communities, our waterways, and our climate. Knowing all the problems that coal ash causes, Duke needs to stop burning coal and retire all of its coal plants soon. Duke Energy should also take greater advantage of the abundant and affordable clean, renewable energy sources and phase out its use of unnecessary fracked gas plants. And the EPA should strengthen our federal coal ash safeguards, rather than gutting them as the Trump administration is now doing.
Hurricane Florence should be Duke Energy's wakeup call to remove its ash from all of its unlined, leaking coal ash pits next to waterways and take the necessary steps to ensure that all of its landfills are secure as possible and won't contaminate communities—not only when there are massive storms but also from everyday leaching into our groundwater.
By John R. Platt
Well folks, we did it. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded human history, with record-breaking temperatures in many parts of Europe, wildfires raging over tens of thousands of square miles of Arctic Alaska and Russia, and a staggering ice melt in Greenland that dumped 197 billion gallons of water into the ocean — 12.5 billion tons of which melted over a single day.
Europe's July 2019 heatwave.
European Space Agency (CC BY-SA 2.0)
All the while, the Trump administration has been actively suppressing climate science while pushing scientists and other officials out of their jobs. It also proposed weakening coal-burning power plant emissions rules, relaxed sage-grouse protection in land coveted by energy developers, continued to weaken protections for Bears Ears National Monument, and greenlit a controversial plan to allow drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet that could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals.
The administration also appointed William Perry Pendley, a staunch foe of America's public lands, as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 250 million acres. The appointment could set the stage for the liquidation of public lands and unfettered fossil-fuel development around the country, further driving greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis.
Oh yeah, and Trump's reelection campaign also started selling plastic straws to "own the libs."
And internationally, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — often referred to as the "Trump of the South" — fired the head of the agency responsible for tracking deforestation in the Amazon, which has increased sharply under that administration. Again, this will have a devastating effect on the climate, not to mention the wildlife and Indigenous peoples who live in these forests.
All of these threats and regressive actions are terrifying and all too real.
But at the same time, there are growing cracks in the anti-environmental shell game.
The number of lawsuits against the Trump administration is on the rise, as are ethical complaints against its appointees and potential investigations into their anti-environmental agenda. Meanwhile some states are also standing up to the administration and pushing back against regulatory rollbacks, and certain judges continue to stand up for environmental issues, most recently and most notably by halting the long-planned Rosemont mega-mine in Arizona.
The climate denial machine, although still quite active and dangerous, has begun to weaken. The Heartland Institute's annual climate-denial conference was sparsely attended, full of tired retreads of old arguments, and suffered from a dramatic drop in corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, desperate climate deniers are resorting to mocking 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg's autism, earning them well-deserved derision.
On the other side of the equation, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups continued to pick up steam.
Extinction Rebellion protestors in Brisbane on Aug. 6, 2019.
Larissa Waters (Public domain)
Even businesses are taking note. Utilities are closing coal plants, investment banks are pulling out of fossil-fuel projects, and a major credit ratings agency has started to pay attention to climate risks.
And with the 2020 election looming, more Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out climate change platforms, putting themselves in stark contrast to the Denier-in-Chief. Most of the plans so far don't go nearly far enough, but they exist, and candidates actually talked about climate issues at the last presidential debate, so that's a start.
These Democratic platforms, or what comes out of these initial discussions, are not just necessary for the planet — they're also wanted by a wide range of people. Republican political strategists recently warned that the party of denial could lose voters over issues related to climate change. That's a huge shift.
All of these positive changes and trends add up, although there's still so much further to go. And of course, the power of the Trump administration and other regressive officials around the world still have us all on track to possibly irreversible devastation, so we're kind of on a tight deadline here.
But every victory, no matter how small or personal, is a chance to save — and preserve — our planet's future. Those victories matter. They create momentum. They create change. They may seem too few and too far between in the face of the coming storm, but sometimes it pays to do just what I did in this editorial — list them, add them up, and then see the shape of a more positive future starting to emerge from the flames.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images News
In an in-depth interview with Reuters Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler repeated claims that climate change is not the biggest environmental threat facing the world and shed some light on the agency's plans to help the Trump administration boost fossil fuel development.
The interview came a day after President Donald Trump signed two executive orders designed to speed up pipeline approvals and other fossil fuel projects. Wheeler told Reuters that the EPA was working on proposals to speed state approvals, focusing on clarifying section 401 of the Clean Water Act that lets states block projects, Reuters reported.
Wheeler singled out Washington State, which has blocked coal terminals in recent years.
"I don't think section 401 was originally intended for states to make international environmental policy, I'm not just talking about U.S. policy. They're trying to dictate to the world how much coal is used," he said.
He also questioned the judgement of New York, which has used section 401 to stop a natural gas pipeline to New England.
"If the states that are blocking the pipelines were truly concerned about the environment they would look to where the natural gas would be coming from, and they are forcing the New England states to use Russian-produced natural gas which is not as clean as U.S. natural gas. I think it's very short-sighted," he said.
Wheeler did not give an exact time table for when the proposals would be ready.
When asked about climate change itself — the primary motive behind states' opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure — Wheeler said he accepted the science, but didn't think it was the biggest environmental priority.
"I said before I took this job that I believe in climate change and man has an impact on climate change. But I believe the number one issue facing our planet today is water," he said.
However, the EPA's record on clean water under Wheeler's watch is contested, as the Center for American Progress (CAP) pointed out in response to an earlier interview in which Wheeler had made a similar claim.
In a recent interview, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that access to clean drinking water across the globe i… https://t.co/lEPYyJywRT— American Progress (@American Progress)1554915124.0
CAP highlighted five policies that called Wheeler's commitment to clean water into question.
- The administration's 2020 budget would fund EPA clean water programs at 61 percent of current levels.
- Wheeler is continuing a rollback of the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule that would cut protection for 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of rivers and streams.
- Wheeler's first act as acting administrator was to sign a rule loosening regulations on ground-water contaminating coal ash.
- Under his watch, the EPA delayed producing a plan to deal with the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS in drinking water.
- Climate change will cause many water-related issues like flooding and drought, and by downplaying the threat it poses, Wheeler also downplays those concerns.
"In reality, Wheeler's countless actions show that the former coal lobbyist has actively dirtied our water," CAP Research Analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room Sally Hardin wrote.
Wheeler addressed some of these issues in the interview. When asked about the relationship between climate and water, Wheeler acknowledged there was a connection, but said that many water issues pre-dated climate.
"We've had problems on water infrastructure, on waste in the oceans, and in drinking water for a hundred years," he said.
He also said he was surprised by the backlash to the action plan on PFAS that his agency did release in early 2019, which was criticized in part for delaying a new safety standard for the chemicals until it drafted a regulation by the end of 2019. Wheeler said the action plan began that process.
"That was a career staff document and remains the most comprehensive action plan this agency has ever developed for an emerging chemical concern," he said.
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Coal ash contains toxic metals like arsenic, lead and mercury and is often left in ponds where it has been known to contaminate groundwater.
The rule change gives states greater authority over regulating one of the nation's biggest sources of industrial waste and allows companies to forgo annual groundwater tests if they can prove their coal ash is not polluting nearby aquifers.
"These rules will allow yet more tons of coal ash, containing toxics like arsenic and mercury, to be dumped into unlined leaking pits sitting in groundwater and next to rivers, lakes and drinking water reservoirs," Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Frank Holleman told CNN.
The new rule was signed July 18 and was the first rule signed by new acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler, Reuters reported.
"Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs," Wheeler said, according to Reuters.
Revisions to the Obama-era coal ash regulations put in place in 2015 were sought by coal CEO Bob Murray, who Wheeler used to lobby for.
In March 2017, Wheeler helped organize and was present at a meeting between Murray and Energy Sec. Rick Perry in which Murray presented a plan to "assist in the survival of our Country's coal industry" which included giving states more control over coal ash disposal, CNN reported.
"It is now apparently the goal of EPA to save industry money by allowing them to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking pits, which is exactly what the new rule accomplishes," Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told CNN.
The obama-era coal ash regulations were written following two coal ash spills.
In 2008, a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant broke and released a billion gallons of coal ash into the Clinch River, covering 300 acres with sludge and contaminating fish with arsenic and selenium for months afterword.
In 2014, a pipe at Duke Energy's Dan River steam station leaked 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina waterways, extending 70 miles and leading to mercury levels in fish so high that authorities still recommend against eating them.
But even in the absence of a single disaster, coal ash can have devastating effects on human health.
Tracey Brown Edwards, who grew up next to Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station in Walnut Cove, North Carolina which had a coal ash pond next to a neighborhood lake, told CNN that in the five homes on her block, four had experienced cancer in the family.
"There's been a lot of young people with cancer, certain kinds of cancers, brain cancer, stomach cancers, breast cancer," she said.
Doctors say they cannot confirm if the cancer is caused by coal ash, but they also cannot exclude it as a possibility, CNN reported.
The move displaces the federal government as the body responsible for coal ash disposal in EPA head Scott Pruitt's home state. Coal ash is the residue left over from burning coal for power that often contaminates groundwater. It is a change that industry has lobbied for and environmental groups have opposed.
States have demonstrated that "they don't care about the health and safety of communities near coal ash dumps," Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told The Associated Press.
About 100 million tons of coal ash is produced by U.S. plants every year, often left in disposal ponds that leak into groundwater, contaminating it with pollutants like arsenic and radium. Tests ordered by the EPA this spring of groundwater around plants in various states found elevated pollution levels, according to The Associated Press.
Despite this, "industry has asked for leniency, less stringency. That's the direction they're going," Evans said.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, switching coal ash oversight to states was part of an "action plan" proposed by coal industry executive Robert Murray this spring to Pruitt and other officials in the Trump administration.
Pruitt defended the decision, saying in a statement that the move empowered "those who are best positioned to oversee coal ash management—the officials who have intimate knowledge of the facilities and the environment in their state."
Pruitt also moved to weaken Obama-era coal ash disposal regulations in March, but the rule change allowing states to control coal ash disposal was actually passed by Congress and signed by former President Barack Obama in 2016, according to NPR. The law said that state rules had to be "as protective as" federal guidelines.
"I am pleased that Oklahoma is the first state in the nation to receive approval of its Coal Combustion Residuals permit program. We actually incorporated the federal rule into our state permitting rules program over a year ago," Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Executive Director Scott Thompson said in an EPA press release about the decision.
But at a hearing in February, Oklahoma environmental groups said the DEQ was not prepared to adequately regulate coal ash.
"The DEQ rules are weaker than the EPA rules," Oklahoma Grand Riverkeeper and activist Earl Hatley told NPR in February. "This is just a boon for industry to do what they want."
Waterkeeper Alliance senior attorney Kelly Foster further expressed concerns that the DEQ plan did not provide enough information on how companies would be made to comply with regulations and how the DEQ would take on new responsibilities with existing resources.
Georgia and Texas are following Oklahoma in taking steps to control coal ash disposal, The Associated Press reported.
EPA Moves to Overhaul Obama-Era Coal Ash Disposal Rule https://t.co/FnWY1fuRMj @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520071507.0