When it comes to the people he chooses to protect the nation's environment, President Donald Trump sure knows how to pick'em. In his brief stint at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt wracked up an impressive amount of truly bizarre scandals, including blowing thousands of taxpayer dollars on "tactical pants." Ryan Zinke, the man he put in charge of public lands,, might also be on his way out over shady dealings. Now, it emerges that the man he put in charge of the EPA's Southeastern regional office has been indicted on ethics charges in Alabama.
A grand jury in Alabama's Jefferson County indicted the regional administrator Trey Glenn, along with his business partner Scott Phillips, for ethics violations related to their attempt to prevent the EPA from cleaning up polluted sites in North Birmingham, Al.com reported Tuesday. Specifically, they worked to stop the EPA from listing the city's 35th Avenue site on its Superfund National Priorities List, Al.com further explained.
BREAKING: Alabama Ethics Commission confirms Trey Glenn, southeastern region administrator for the EPA, has been in… https://t.co/qLM8pJEba3— Lauren Walsh (@Lauren Walsh)1542130146.0
Glenn and Phillips worked with the law firm Balch & Bingham and its client Drummond Company, which the EPA had eyed as a responsible party that might have to pay for cleanup, to stop the listing. This happened while Phillips was serving as Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner. At the same time, the pair co-owned and worked together at a company called Southeast Engineering & Consulting. Alabama ethics law prohibits a lobbyist or a lobbyist's client from giving gifts to a public official, including a job. So the two are rightly in big trouble.
More on the indictments for EPA Region Administrator Trey Glenn and W Scott Phillips: https://t.co/DH8kFrTIZL— Lauren Walsh (@Lauren Walsh)1542131297.0
But the mess extends beyond these two individuals to indicate a culture of corruption at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Alabama clean air advocacy group Gasp laid out the whole sordid history in a press release:
The indictments today arise out of efforts by Drummond Co., which owns ABC Coke in Tarrrant, Ala., to stop EPA's cleanup of contaminated soils and to avoid financial responsibility for that cleanup in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in northern Birmingham. Drummond VP David Roberson and Balch & Bingham lawyer Joel Gilbert were recently convicted and sentenced to 60 months and 30 months in prison, respectively, on federal charges of bribing former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson to oppose the EPA environmental cleanup program. Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.
Gasp hoped the indictments would spark much needed changes.
"These indictments today reinforce what we already know: We need reform and we need it now," Gasp Executive Director Michael Hansen said in the press release. "For far too long, leaders in Alabama have put corporate profits ahead of people. We demand that corruption be rooted out and reforms enacted to protect our health and our environment and to ensure environmental justice is a reality for every single Alabamian."
Glenn has been a part of that corruption for quite some time. He served almost five years as the director of the ADEM and was investigated for ethics violations there too, The Associated Press reported.
The Alabama Ethics Commission found in 2007 that there was "probable cause" he had violated ethics law to get his job in the first place and then to take trips while he had it. A criminal investigation also looked into whether a public relations firm that represented a client with business with ADEM had paid for him to take his family to Disney World. He was cleared in the criminal case, but resigned in 2009.
As if it couldn't get any worse, Glenn is also linked to one of Birmingham's stinkiest scandals: the "poop train."
After Glenn left his position at ADEM, he went to work right away as a consultant for Green Mountain landfill.
John Archibald explained what that meant in a column reprinted by Al.com:
Green Mountain later became Big Sky landfill in north Jefferson County, which quite literally raised a stink from nearby residents in recent weeks who complained that swarms of flies and the smell of death accompanied loads of treated human sewage shipped to the landfill from New York and New Jersey.
And Glenn's relationship with the stinker stretched up until the recent past. When Glenn had to disclose all his income sources in November 2017 upon joining the EPA, it turned out he had gotten more than $5,000 from Big Sky.
As Archibald wrote, "Ain't enough scrubbing bubbles in the world to clean the stain."
The EPA had until August 2017 to complete plans for states that failed to adapt to new ozone air-quality standards set by the agency in 2008, but the plans never materialized, a Bloomberg News article published by The Boston Globe reported.
New York and Connecticut therefore sued the EPA in January to try and force it to create ozone plans for Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia and West Virginia, since their emissions impact New York and Connecticut's air.
"The court's decision is a major win for New Yorkers and our public health, forcing the Trump EPA to follow the law and act to address smog pollution blowing into New York from upwind states," New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood told Bloomberg News.
U.S. District Judge John Koeltl of Manhattan, who decided the case, said that New York and Connecticut had successfully proved they would be harmed by ozone coming from the five states in question. The two states, he said, were trying to "protect their citizens from the harmful effects of the high level of dangerous pollutants in their states caused by the pollutants coming from the defaulting states."
Up to two-thirds of New Yorkers breathe unhealthy levels of smog, Underwood said in a statement reported by Reuters.
The judge gave the EPA until December 6 to complete the smog-reduction plans.
"Given the prior violations of the statutory deadline by the EPA, it is a reasonable exercise of the court's equitable powers to require the EPA to do the minimal tasks it has agreed it can do to remedy its past violation of the statute," Koeltl wrote, according to Reuters.
New York and Connecticut sued the EPA specifically for shirking its obligations under the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act's "Good Neighbor" provision mandates that the EPA and states act to mitigate the spread of air pollution across state lines when it could impact the air quality standards of downwind states.
"Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has a duty to take action when upwind states do not meet certain air quality standards and, in this case, the EPA clearly failed to do so," Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said in a statement reported by the Daily Courier-Observer. "We are gratified by the district court's ruling in this matter, and we will continue to work with our partners in New York to hold EPA accountable on this and other matters where it has not met its legal obligations."
An EPA spokesperson told Reuters that the agency would act this month to draft "an action that will address any remaining good neighbor obligations related to the 2008 ozone standard for these and other states," and finalize it by December.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The American Lung Association's 2016 State of the Air report found continued improvement in air quality, but more than half (52.1 percent) of the people in the U.S. live in counties that have unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution. The annual, national air quality "report card" found that 166 million Americans live with unhealthful levels of air pollution, putting them at risk for premature death and other serious health effects like lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.
"Thanks to cleaner power plants and cleaner vehicles, we see a continued reduction of ozone and year-round particle pollution in the 2016 State of the Air report. However, climate change has increased the challenges to protecting public health," Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said. "There are still nearly 20 million people in the United States that live with unhealthful levels of all three measures of air pollution the report tracks: ozone, short-term and year-round particle pollution."
"Everyone has the right to breathe healthy air, yet only four cities—Burlington-South Burlington, Vermont.; Elmira-Corning, New York.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Salinas, Calif0rnia—qualified for the 'cleanest cities' list in the State of the Air report," Wimmer said. "We simply must do more to protect the health of Americans."
Each year the State of the Air reports on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution. The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can be lethal. But the trends reported in this year's report, which covers data collected in 2012-2014, are strikingly different for these pollutants.
According to this year's 17th annual report, short-term spikes in particle pollution have gotten worse since the 2015 report, including in the city with the worst particle pollution problem, Bakersfield, California. For multiple cities that suffered spikes in particle pollution during this period, many of these spikes were directly linked to weather patterns like drought or to events like wildfires, which are likely to increase because of climate change.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5):
1. Bakersfield, California
2. Fresno-Madera, California
3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
4. Modesto-Merced, California
5. Fairbanks, Alaska
6. Salt lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
7. Logan, Utah-Idaho
8. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
9. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
10. Missoula, Montana
The rise in short-term particle pollution provides current examples of how major changes in drought and rainfall are already affecting public health. According to the 2016 report, seven of the 25 most polluted cities had their highest number of unhealthy short-term particle pollution days on average ever reported.
Increased heat, changes in climate patterns, drought and wildfires are all related to climate change, which has contributed to the extraordinarily high numbers of days with unhealthy particulate matter. The particles—emanating from wildfires, wood-burning devices, coal-fired power plants and diesel emissions—are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and can even be lethal.
By contrast, the best progress came in reducing year-round levels of particle pollution, with 16 cities reaching their lowest levels ever and one other improving over the period covered by the 2015 report (2011-2013). Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM2.5):
1. Bakersfield, California
2. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
3. Fresno-Madera, California
4. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
5. El Centro, California
6. (tied) Modesto-Merced, California
7. (tied) San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
8. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
9. Harrisburg-York-Lebanon, Pennsylvania
10. Louisville-Jefferson, Kentucky
11. County-Elizabethtown-Madison, Kentucky-Indiana
According to the 2016 report, six cities reported their fewest unhealthy ozone days ever, including #1 Los Angeles and 15 others improved over the previous report's data. Ozone pollution has decreased because the nation has cleaned up major sources of the emissions that create ozone, especially coal-fired power plants and vehicles. However, climate change causes greater heat, which makes ozone form. When a person inhales ozone pollution, it can cause coughing, trigger asthma attacks and even shorten life.
Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:
1. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
2. Bakersfield, California
3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
4. Fresno-Madera, California
5. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, Arizona
6. Sacramento-Roseville, California
7. Modesto-Merced, California
8. Denver-Aurora, Colorado
9. Las Vegas-Henderson, Nevada-Arizona
10. Fort Collins, Colorado
"We can and must do more to save lives and fight climate change," Wimmer said. "The lung association calls on every state to adopt strong Clean Power Plans to reduce emissions from power plants that worsen climate change and immediately harm health. The Supreme Court has put a temporary hold on EPA's [Environmental Protection Agency] enforcement of the federal Clean Power Plan, but states should not wait to clean up carbon pollution from their power plants."
"In addition, we call on EPA to adopt strong, health protective standards to limit emissions of methane and toxic pollutants that contribute to ozone pollution and climate change from oil and gas production," he said.
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These two areas highlight the abysmal failure of utilities and lawmakers as thousands of local residents continue to suffer. What's important to remember, however, is that these travesties aren't just isolated incidents—they might be much closer to home than you think.
Porter Ranch residents express their feelings with signs during hearings at the AQMD #PorterRanchGasLeak https://t.co/K0Ab5CMh2N— Mark Boster (@Mark Boster)1453317495.0
1. Both areas were in dire emergency long before official declarations
Flint: Local and state-level declarations of emergency were made by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2015 and January, respectively. However, the problem started way back in April 2014, when an unelected state official switched the city’s main water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. Such a declaration allocates up to $5 million in federal funds to the city. It also authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to galvanize supplies and distribute water bottles, filters and other supplies.
Porter Ranch: Compared to poverty-stricken Flint, government action has been noticeably faster for the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Following months of pressure from activists and residents, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency on Jan. 6 over the gas leak—the biggest in U.S. history—that has spewed 86,000 metric tons of methane and counting into the atmosphere since Oct. 23, when the leak was first reported. The order means “all necessary and viable actions” will be taken to stop the leak and ensure that the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the leaking natural gas injection well, is held accountable for the damage. A federal state of emergency has yet to be declared.
Porter Ranch has been going longer than BP's Deepwater Horizon spill. https://t.co/S0TsBdQgcG #ShutItAllDown https://t.co/b8qC6IiaFx— Food & Water Watch (@Food & Water Watch)1453305914.0
2. Environmental contamination and noxious greenhouse gases spell trouble for the planet
Flint: Research has found that the water in the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water, causing the city's aging pipes to degrade and leach lead into the water. Water samples indicated an average lead concentration level of 2,000 ppb (parts per billion) with the the highest level recorded at 13,200 ppb, The Guardian reported, putting lead levels 200-1,300 times higher than the World Health Organization standards of 10ppb. When used for irrigation, lead-contaminated water can cause toxicity levels in garden and urban soil and cause poisoning if it enters the food chain through fruits and vegetables.
People in Lead-Poisoned Flint Still without clean Water - https://t.co/hM9MuUTQhR https://t.co/VcdoB2H1cD— Juan Cole (@Juan Cole)1452352684.0
Porter Ranch: The leak, deemed the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill, has since spread across the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley, according to new research from Cambridge-based nonprofit, Home Energy Efficiency Team. The Los Angeles Times reported that "the leak is so large it will measurably set back not just the city’s but the entire state’s greenhouse gas emission targets, effectively erasing nearly a decade’s worth of statewide emission reductions." Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.
3. Many people, especially children, have suffered from health problems
Flint: Lead, which has no safe blood level, has been entering the city's drinking water through corroded pipes and plumbing materials. Exposure to this toxic metal is considered most harmful to children and fetuses because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead can damage people's kidneys, blood, and nervous system and progress to coma, convulsions or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 27,000 Flint children have been exposed to lead in the city’s water, according to The Detroit News. Additionally, 87 people have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease. Ten of those who were sickened have died.
Porter Ranch: More than 2,500 families have fled their homes and more than 1,000 children have been relocated to other schools. Residents reported symptoms related to the exposure of natural gas such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and respiratory problems. Not only that, a Los Angeles city councilman called on SoCal Gas last week to extend residential relocation assistance to residents in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge who live near the Aliso Canyon gas leak above Porter Ranch. Even pets are suffering from ailments similar to their owners, such as nose bleeds, nausea and rashes, ABC 7 reported. As residents flee, businesses in the neighborhood are also struggling to stay open.
Pets suffering from ailments amid Porter Ranch gas leak https://t.co/Umj5AnjSf5 https://t.co/U9V5vAYbAO— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7 Eyewitness News)1453243578.0
4. A disaster in the making. Lawmakers and utilities, now facing mounting lawsuits, ignored aging infrastructure
Flint: "The fact is," as LA Progressive wrote, "that the pipes conducting water from the Flint River are and have long been highly corrosive and have been leaching lead into the city’s potable water system. Pipes to each home and business, including sink and shower faucets, have been directly affected through both negligence and lack of regular maintenance by the city authorities." On Tuesday, amid calls for resignation and a growing number of lawsuits, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized and admitted that he failed Flint residents. According to emails released to the public on Wednesday, Snyder was informed of Flint's water quality issues in as early as February 2015 but his administration said the problems would eventually “fade in the rearview.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also acknowledged on Tuesday it did not respond fast enough to the water crisis.
Porter Ranch: Similarly, California's aging pipeline infrastructure and poorly managed storage facilities have been put under the microscope. "The gas leak comes from a broken well that was last inspected in 1976," as Earthworks observed. "The LA Weekly reports that the well’s safety valve was inexplicably removed in 1979." SoCal Gas now faces a class-action lawsuit alleging that the gas company removed safety valves on Aliso Canyon gas storage wells that lead to the massive methane leak.
Michigan governor apologies for lead-contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint https://t.co/AzveCdBnkm https://t.co/ZXgN6yqCtd— Los Angeles Times (@Los Angeles Times)1453315512.0
5. The disasters in Flint and Porter Ranch could easily happen to your city
Beyond Flint: Think your water is safe to drink? A Vox report stated that "children in essentially every city in America are being exposed to hazardous levels of toxic lead, and very little is being done about it." And if lead contamination isn't bad enough, "a 2009 New York Times investigation found that more than 62 million Americans had been exposed to drinking water that did not meet some government health guidelines," as PRI observed. "A 2011 analysis by Environmental Working Group found that more than 100 million people in 43 states were drinking water contaminated with trihalomethanes—a dangerous chemical that’s the byproduct of a chlorine reaction."
Beyond Porter Ranch: While Porter Ranch has everyone's attention, natural gas leaks are persistent and widespread across the country. A team from Environmental Defense Fund found an average of about one natural gas leak for every mile driven in New York City’s Staten Island, one leak for every 200 miles in Indianapolis and one leak for every three miles in Chicago. “Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not,” Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s California Oil & Gas program Tim O’Connor said in a statement. “There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem—not just in California, but across the country.”
It's not just Flint — every major American city has hazardous amounts of lead hurting kids https://t.co/mdurPn6Elx https://t.co/OnTTFBZanF— Vox (@Vox)1453226411.0
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Following months of pressure from activists and residents, California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday issued a state of emergency over the Porter Ranch gas leak that has been pouring tens of thousands of kilograms of methane into the air surrounding the community since October 2015.
The order means "all necessary and viable actions" will be taken to stop the leak and ensure that the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the leaking natural gas injection well, is held accountable for the damage.
"It's about time," Alexandra Nagy, Southern California organizer at Food & Water Watch, told Common Dreams. "It's incredible. Now residents can actually get the assistance that they need."
Brown issued the state of emergency after making a quiet visit to the area earlier this week to tour the facility and meet with the Porter Ranch neighborhood council. Wednesday's order also directs action to protect public health, according to a press release issued from the governor's office.
"It is really going to ... amplify the urgency of this issue and really expose how bad the problem is," Nagy said.
The leak, which has been ongoing since October 2015, gained limited media attention after environmental and public health advocate Erin Brockovich declared it "a catastrophe the scale of which has not been seen since the 2010 BP oil spill." Residents living in proximity to the well, which is situated in Aliso Canyon, roughly 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, reported having symptoms of methane exposure, including headaches, nausea and in some cases, bleeding eyes and gums.
Brown's hesitance to issue an emergency order in the face of a growing public health crisis raised questions over a possible conflict of interest between the governor and SoCal Gas. Brown's sister, Kathleen Brown, is a paid member of the company's board.
On Monday, a constituent affairs representative with Brown's office told Common Dreams that he was unaware of any plans to declare a state of emergency, stating, "I think maybe he wants to wait until the situation develops a little bit more ... state of emergencies are a pretty big deal."
Nagy credited the swift turnaround to pressure from the community. She stated Wednesday, "We've just been mounting pressure from all sides ... This is a hard fought win for the residents of Porter Ranch and beyond affected by this noxious blowout."
"It was interesting that he wanted to do it in the quiet and in the dark, because he doesn't want to be held accountable publicly and this is his opportunity to look like a hero and a leader on this," Nagy continued. "He's moving with it because that's where it's going."
While the order was welcome, activists have a broader objective—to shut down the Aliso Canyon facility and, ultimately, end the state's reliance on fossil fuels, Nagy said, declaring, "Addiction to natural gas is a problem."
To that end, activists in the area are organizing a hearing with city officials on Saturday to discuss an order for abatement, which requires companies acting out of compliance to shut down their operations. The order, issued by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, "has the potential to shut down the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility temporarily or permanently," organizers explained in a Facebook post. "We need to rally and testify at the hearing this Saturday to demand AQMD uses their authority to #ShutItALLDown."
Activists plan to gather at Granada Hills Charter High School on Saturday for an 8 a.m. rally ahead of the 9 a.m. hearing.
"We are on a path to transitioning to clean energy," Nagy said. "[The leak has] been a wake-up call for this community ... We're all on the front lines of climate change."
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In the nation's biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill, a runaway natural gas leak above Los Angeles has emitted more than 150 million pounds of methane. Thousands of residents in the community of Porter Ranch, California, have been evacuated and put in temporary housing. The fumes have caused headaches and nosebleeds. The company responsible, Southern California Gas Company, says it could take 3 to 4 months to stop the breach.
We are joined by two guests: renowned consumer advocate and legal researcher Erin Brockovich, who helped win the biggest class action lawsuit in American history and is now working to seek justice for victims of the Porter Ranch gas leak, and David Balen, president of Renaissance Homeowners Association, which is located just outside of the breached well site.
Here's the transcript of the interview:
Juan González: We turn now to what's being called the nation's biggest environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill. A runaway natural gas leak above Los Angeles has emitted more than 150 million pounds of methane since late October . Thousands of residents in the community of Porter Ranch have been evacuated. Two schools have been closed and more than 2,000 families forced into temporary housing. The leak is coming from a natural gas storage facility owned by the Southern California Gas Company, or SoCalGas. The exact cause is unknown, but it's believed that well casing was breached deep below the ground. Adding to the confusion, the methane is invisible to the eye, so residents can't see the fumes causing them headaches and nosebleeds.
Amy Goodman: Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The leak is so severe, it will account for one-quarter of all California's methane emissions in just one month. SoCalGas says it could take 3 to 4 months to stop it.
The company declined our request to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying, quote, 'SoCalGas is working as quickly and safely as possible to stop the natural gas leak at its Aliso Canyon Storage Facility and we are redoubling our efforts to aggressively address its impact on the community and the environment.'
Well, for more, we go to Los Angeles. We're joined by Erin Brockovich, the renowned consumer advocate. While a single mother of three working as a legal assistant, she helped win the biggest class action lawsuit in American history. Her story was told in the Oscar-winning film starring Julia Roberts called, well, Erin Brockovich. She's now working to seek justice for victims of the Porter Ranch gas leak. And we're joined by David Balen, president of the Renaissance Homeowners Association, located just outside the breached well site.
We don't have that much time. Erin Brockovich, explain why you've gotten involved with this case. Explain it to a global audience.
Erin Brockovich: Well, this is something, unfortunately, that I've been doing in my career for 22 years and that's working in big environmental disasters. And when this happens, oftentimes the community will reach out to me. And this one is very close to me because I'm actually their neighbor. I don't live too far from there. And the minute I saw what was going on and hearing from them and what's happening to them, that's just my call to action, was to get out and see what I could do to help the community.
González: And, David Balen, could you tell us about when you first became aware of the problem and what the gas company originally told the residents of your community?
David Balen: Absolutely. You know, I can remember like it was yesterday. Going back to October 23, the afternoon, we were—the community was overtaken by noxious gases. The neighbors were reporting—they thought there might be a home that had a major leak. We did have the gas company come out. They were completely denying that there was ever a gas leak. They went from home to home to home, giving everybody the A-OK. And, you know, the gas company didn't admit to having a gas leak until the following Wednesday—that would put it probably about around October 28, notified the LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] the following Monday, which was October 26, that there was an issue and that our children needed to be protected. They had inquired to the LAUSD, as well as SoCalGas and they were told that there wasn't a leak, as well, until that Wednesday, when everybody was notified that we did have a major leak.
Goodman: A time-lapsed infrared image makes visible the leak of the methane gas. According to California's air quality regulators, the leak accounts for 25 percent of daily greenhouse gas emissions in the state—about the same amount of emissions as driving 160,000 cars for a year or consuming 90 million gallons of gas. Erin Brockovich, you have called this the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill of 2010. Talk about the scope of this.
Brockovich: The scope of it is enormous. And there is another videotape out there that really helps us see pollution, because I think we can't see it, so therefore we don't always think that it's real. And it's amazing. It looks like a volcano that's just erupting, that won't stop. And when you fly over and you have the right lenses and you can—because methane, you know, the gases, you can't see. But as they use the right screen, you can actually see that it's like a black plume of smoke through there that just continues to billow out. And the magnitude of it is enormous.
You know, BP was something that they couldn't stop, that was way deep in the Earth, which is exactly what's happening out here. And as we begin to peel back the layers of the onion, if you will and find out what happened and why we're in this type of situation, the idea that they have safety valves in place at 8,000 feet down, that Southern Cal Gas removed and never replaced, which would have prevented this type of catastrophic disaster, is mind-blowing. And so, you're talking billions of cubic feet of gas under there and all of this methane, day in and day out, is just billowing out of this site, that's infecting a very large landmass, is an ongoing, constant assault to the community and a huge square mileage. We're working with experts now to take all of the information so we can actually see an air plume and the magnitude of how far this has gone.
But this is going to continue. It's been going on for months. It's going to continue to go on for more months. As you said, it's going to contribute to what? One-quarter of all of those emissions for the state of California. It's outrageous. It's frightening, at its best. It's horribly concerning to this community. They are sick. And the impacts keep going on. And that's what makes it so catastrophic. And it's frightening for us to have a company like this, where you can't get down there and you've removed a valve, you didn't replace that valve and you now don't have the ability to stop this for half a year or longer—is a bad scenario.
González: And, Erin Brockovich, how transparent has the company been about exactly where the leak is and what it's going to have to do now to get to it?
Brockovich: Well, I don't know that they've been that transparent as at all. And I think David can certainly tell you, as a homeowner and a family there, where their delays are. I'll tell you, as we back this up and start looking at what they didn't do, how that's going to change regulation, how it's going to help us look at—we need better enforcement around these facilities before we have a disaster that's even bigger than this one. They are not that informative to the community about where their monitoring sites are.
When you do look at it, it's certainly not that reasonable, because they're really not telling you what they're doing or where they're monitoring—by way of example, that they are continually finding persistently high levels, at their different monitoring locations, of sulfur, which is very important. I have a sulfur allergy. Many people do. Long term, that can cause health impacts. They're also finding hydrocarbons, but they're not very forthwith about what it is they're finding, but they're finding it in high concentrations.
And this community needs to know the truth. And if we don't have it, nobody can protect them. So I do not feel that Southern Cal Gas has been that transparent at all about what they've done in the past and what they're doing today.
Goodman: So, David Balen—
Balen: Absolutely. Yes.
Goodman:—how are you living there? We're seeing signs, you know, kids holding up signs, putting on masks. Are you being offered full relocation for the moment?
Balen: Well, yes. We've been in the process now since early December . We were away for the Thanksgiving holiday. There was no point to start the relocation process, because we were out of town. But we have been subjected to just a lack of [respect] as a community. The gas company is taking their time on relocating people. We've had roughly about 2,200 families relocated. We've got more than 7,000 people waiting to be relocated. I mean, it's terrible. The lines are getting bigger and bigger by the day. And the gas doesn't stop. And fortunately, where we live, we have the Santa Ana, [California,] winds. Sometimes they go to the east, sometimes they go to the west. So some days it's good, some days it's terrible. You know, the community is subjected to the smell of the methane, which has the mercaptans in it and it's the mercaptans that are making the community sick. We have numerous counts of people with nosebleeds, nausea, animals getting—vomiting, having lesions on their faces. It's nonstop. And the gas company needs to put a stop to this. They really need to get on the ball and stop this issue.
González: And what's been the role of state officials, health officials, their pressure on the company?
Goodman: And of Jerry Brown, the governor?
Balen: You know what? You know, I hold them all accountable, from Jerry Brown to Eric Garcetti to my councilman, Mitchell Englander. All of them have taken their time. Now, Mitchell Englander has been outspoken lately, but all of them were MIA the first five weeks of this issue, I mean. And, you know, this issue is—when it comes out to the—when it comes out at the very end, this is going to be disastrous, at least. It's going to be a long, outstanding—it's not only going to affect the community, it's going to affect pretty much the world. This methane is going to be huge to our greenhouse effect.
Brockovich: That's a very good question. I want to jump in here, though, about the agencies. And it is their lack of involvement—and again, if this is something that we back up, whether the health department or state agencies, their lack of oversight as to what's been going—this is the second-largest natural gas reserve in the U.S.
Brockovich: And these agencies should have much stricter oversight and they don't. We—
Goodman: I mean, Governor Brown was in Paris, when we were, at the U.N. climate summit.
Balen: Sure. And so was Eric Garcetti.
Brockovich: Yes. And this was a topic of conversation there. And this community really needs a state of emergency. And, you know, people don't want to say evacuation. And I think that that's something that we need to look at, because this is a large area and maybe these people do need to be evacuated, until this situation is brought under control and you can absolutely assure their safety upon return. So there has been agency failures. It certainly feels that the state and the governor have been slow to respond. This is—
Goodman: We're going to have to leave it there, but, of course, we'll continue to follow this story. Renowned consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, Porter Ranch resident David Balen, thanks so much for joining us from Los Angeles.
Since October, residents of Porter Ranch, California, have been exposed to dangerous contaminants from a massive natural gas leak that continues to seep into the air, causing a catastrophe the scale of which has not been seen since the 2010 BP oil spill.
After only a week of visiting families in Porter Ranch, I am already experiencing the headaches, nausea and congestion that have plagued this community living at the center of one of the most significant environmental disasters in recent history.
Southern California Gas Co. or SoCalGas, has essentially ignored the impact to victims and its actions have instead added to their suffering. The company has refused to release air quality data that could be used to protect its residents, it has made relocation very difficult and it has forged ahead with plans to expand its facility before the leak has even been contained.
The enormity of the Aliso Canyon gas leak cannot be overstated. Gas is escaping through a ruptured pipe more than 8,000 feet underground and it shows no sign of stopping. As the pressure from weight on top of the pipe causes the gas to diffuse, it only continues to dissipate across a wider and wider area. According to tests conducted in November by the California Air Resources Board, the leak is spewing 50,000 kilograms of gas per hour—the equivalent to the strength of a volcanic eruption.
At this rate, in just one month, the leak will have accounted for one-quarter of the total estimated methane emissions in the state of California.
So it is no surprise that residents here feel sick. While I can escape to my home to recover from my symptoms, this community wakes up to conditions that cause vomiting, nosebleeds and serious respiratory issues daily. And no one really knows the potential long-term side effects of benzene and radon, the carcinogens that are commonly found in natural gas.
This dangerous environment is why the Los Angeles Unified School District unanimously voted last week to close two Porter Ranch schools and relocate their nearly 1,900 students and staff to protect their safety.
SoCalGas’ response to this disaster is almost as alarming as the impact on the community.
The company has offered some assistance in relocating residents in the affected area, but those efforts are woefully inadequate. People have been told they have to wait, they are 300th in line and that they will not be able to relocate before Christmas. Many residents simply cannot afford pay for a hotel or apartment while continuing to cover home costs. SoCalGas does not even know exactly how long it will take to fix the leak, but the company’s CEO has said it will be at least another three to four months. Curiously, despite this admission, SoCalGas is only offering three months of relocation to those fortunate enough to receive a return call.
The company has also refused to release the data from air quality monitoring it has conducted in the community, despite numerous requests from the public. The company is withholding vital information about the exact composition of the air—information that is critical for the thousands of residents who want to understand why they are so sick. That is why I have been out in the community distributing canisters that we hope will provide an independent verification of the toxicity in the air.
And while Porter Ranch continues to suffer, SoCalGas is moving ahead with a project to expand the Aliso Canyon facility, even though the company still has no idea how the gas leak there started and is unsure of how to fix it. The company hasn’t even established any risk management or emergency response plans in the event of another leak.
That is why I am working with the law firm Weitz and Luxenberg to seek justice for Porter Ranch and hold SoCalGas accountable for the physical and emotional damage they have caused and to ensure that something like this never happens again. This community should not have to wait any longer to receive the justice and fair treatment it deserves.
The situation Porter Ranch residents are facing today is unacceptable. It is time for SoCalGas to acknowledge this fact, gather whatever resources are necessary to help every resident now and provide answers about the health impacts to residents who have suffered for too long.
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Reminiscent of a scene out of Space Balls (Perri-Air anyone?), a Canadian startup, Vitality Air, is selling bottled air from the Rocky Mountains. It may have started out as a joke, but citizens of smog-choked cities in eastern China are buying it up.
@vitalityair sells fresh Banff air to smog sufferers. No, this isn't Spaceballs. https://t.co/SF9PMki1sw https://t.co/HeIVYqkLeB— CBC-The Current (@CBC-The Current)1449794102.0
"A gag gift, that's how it started off, but you know what? There's actually a lot of demand for this in … highly polluted countries," co-founder Moses Lam told the Canadian National Post. The company was founded by Lam and Troy Paquette more than a year ago, but only began selling in China less than two months ago.
The idea came when Lam sold a bag of fresh Canadian air on eBay for 99 cents. That's steep enough for something that most people have always considered free. But when a second bag bidded up to $168 “we thought ‘hey, we might have a market for this,'” Lam said.
And people can't get enough of it. “Our first shipment of 500 bottles of fresh air were sold in four days,” Lam told The Telegraph. Flash forward to earlier this week: the company shipped 4,000 more bottles to China, most of which has been bought.
The company claims that its products can help with "hangovers, alertness and working out" while also being "your solution to pollution." The startup is struggling to keep up with demand. Each bottle is filled by hand in the Rockies. They "fill massive cans through clean compression," the company explains on its website, then they bottle it individually at their facility in Edmonton. And they even perform a "comprehensive check" after each can is filled for safety before shipping it out.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Just how much does a bottle of Rocky Mountain air cost you? A 7.7 liter bottle of Lake Louise or Banff air will run you about $32 Canadian dollars ($23 U.S. dollars). The bottle contains "fresh clean air," which contains 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and a small amount of other gases. If you're in search of "pure premium oxygen," Vitality Air has you covered, as well. Their "pure oxygen" bottle contains 97 percent oxygen and a small amount of other gases. The startup claims it "provides upwards of 200 inhalations" for $28.99 Canadian dollars ($21 U.S. dollars).
For China’s “upper middle class who crave a better quality of life,” Vitality Air gives them the opportunity to “inject a bit of fresh air into their lives,” Harrison Wang with TAK International, Vitality’s Edmonton-based Chinese distributor, told the National Post.
This is not the first time a company has tried selling bottled air, believe it or not, nor is it the first time that Chinese citizens were eager to buy bottled air. In 2013, one Chinese businessman, Chen Guangbiao, sold cans of air reportedly taken from less industrialized regions of China for five yuan ($0.77 U.S. dollars).
4,000 People a day are dying from Smog in China https://t.co/NluZpMJUAj.. https://t.co/7hkGcSRyOl|nN— Naomi Nichols (@Naomi Nichols)1449678324.0
China's air pollution problem is nothing new. The country has been grappling with how to clean up its air for years. A documentary highlighting China's deadly air pollution went viral earlier this year with more than 200 million views in the first five days. And a study published in August found that the air in Beijing is so polluted that breathing it does as much damage to the lungs as smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and 4,000 people are dying every day from smog in China citing coal-burning as the likely principal cause.
China declared red alert for #smog. Need a breath of fresh air? Check out our products! #ChinaSmog https://t.co/9wPWH090Ol— Vitality Air (@Vitality Air)1449552006.0
The issue has received widespread attention again as Beijing issued its first "red alert" for smog last week amid criticism that the government is not doing enough to address the problem. Pollution levels topped off at 634 micrograms per cubic meter in some areas. That's more than 25 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing just issued its second warning Friday as the pollution index is forecasted to exceed 500 micrograms in Beijing and parts of Hebei province over the weekend.
Anyone need a last minute Christmas gift?
Looking for that unique #stockingstuffer ? We have what you need! https://t.co/LINQ26kle2— Vitality Air (@Vitality Air)1449849651.0
To see the devastating effect pollution has on our bodies, check out this startling video from DNews:
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Consider what would happen if all Americans went car-free for just one day.
Paris decided to go car-free for one day in September after a rise in air pollution in March briefly made the city the most polluted in the world, "with smog so bad it almost completely obscured the city’s landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower," said The Guardian.
The result of the car-free day? People loved it, saying it was “like a headache lifting.” They took to the streets en masse on bikes, skateboards and just their plain old two feet.
Smart woman, that @Anne_Hildago ...Paris cut its smog by nearly half on the city’s first “car-free” day - Quartz https://t.co/Z30wvcK4bF— Andrea Learned (@Andrea Learned)1443975848.0
Watch this segment from Discovery News to find out:
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The Sierra Club and RYOT launched their second joint virtual reality video experience yesterday, viewable on the RYOT-VR mobile app, Facebook 360 and YouTube 360. The immersive experience, narrated by legendary singer/actress Cher, highlights the dirty, dangerous effects of coal pollution from power plants and the industries that buy their power China.
The video focuses particular attention on a small group of 21 individuals who are responsible for more than 10 percent of China's CO2 emissions. Just one day before the start of the Paris conference, Beijing was shrouded by smog again forcing the authorities to issue their highest smog warning so far this year, underscoring the need for China to act immediately.
“Spending one day in Beijing is now the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes," Cher says during the video. “Poisonous air causes the premature deaths of more than 4,000 people each day and two birth defects a minute. The Chinese people suffer in heartbreaking ways at the hands of these 21 polluters. The Chinese people are bound to lives in masks, beneath apocalyptic, smog-filled skies."
The video aims to not only highlight the devastating effects of coal use on the climate and air of China and the world, but also to urge Chinese leaders to take meaningful action. As part of the launch, the video will be launched by RYOT in Paris during the ongoing COP21 negotiations.
“China now produces more CO2 emissions than the U.S. and Europe combined, which is why it is more important than ever that we turn our shared commitments into action in Paris," said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director. “Together, the U.S. and China must leave coal and other dirty fuels behind and turn our commitments into even further climate and clean energy action, because no country is immune from climate change and no country can meet the challenge alone."
“Virtual reality is the perfect way to tell this important story," said Molly Swenson, COO of RYOT and an executive producer of the film. “It's one thing to hear about the dramatic levels of air pollution, but being transported into a place where people live with it every day makes you understand the headlines. Virtual reality can help make sure everyone is aware of how critical action on climate change is. If you woke up every day and had to breathe this air wouldn't you want leaders in Paris this week to step-up and help you?"
A recent AP investigation revealed that Rio de Janeiro's waterways in which Olympic athletes will compete next summer are so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games. Many athletes have already fallen ill who are training on or in the water, and many more are sure to become sick as athletes take part in qualifying events in the water beginning this weekend.
— CNN International (@cnni) July 31, 2015
The city's atrocious water quality persists despite the fact that Brazilian officials vowed to clean up the city's waterways ahead of the games. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters this week that "some cleaning measures have begun already and others will be applied just before and during the Games," according to Voice of America. So, there is still hope for water quality to improve for athletes. But addressing the waste management system of a city whose population has hit a staggering 12 million is no small feat and sanitation projects are behind schedule.
So, now that Beijing was chosen Friday as the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics, it begs the question, will Beijing succeed where Rio has failed? The Chinese capital city has been down this road before. It vowed to clean its dangerously polluted air ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics, which it did manage to accomplish while the games were going on, but only through temporary measures such as closing factories and banning cars from the roads. But a wildly viral film on China's massive air pollution problem, which aired earlier this year, shows that Beijing's toxic smog has not gone away. In fact, cancer has become one of the leading causes of death in the city and throughout the country due to its abysmal air quality, according to Dr. David Suzuki.
Of course, in vying to secure its bid to host the 2022 Olympics, Beijing officials again made promises to clean the air. Last month, Beijing mayor Wang Anshun said the city will take "effective measures" to tackle air pollution and vowed to be up to the World Health Organization's air quality standards by 2020. Wang said that clean air is not only important for the games, but also for public health.
But maybe things will be different this time around. "Beijing has invested $130 billion in more than 80 measures to reduce pollution from primary sources, including fuel oil, coal, industrial emissions and construction dust," reports China Daily. And the measures seem to be working. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection reported that air pollutants declined 17 percent in May from the same period last year. The city still has a long way to go, but city officials say they plan to do even more in the seven years leading up to the games, including further investment and more than 500 measures.
There's one other small issue with Beijing hosting the Olympics: not much snow. The areas outside of Beijing which will host alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and Nordic skiing "have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow," reports Business Insider. "There would be no opportunity to haul snow from higher elevations for contingency maintenance to the racecourses so a contingency plan would rely on stockpiled man-made snow."
— TrivWorks (@TrivWorks) July 31, 2015
— Manuel Veth (@homosovieticus) July 31, 2015
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The Chinese government banned the environmental documentary Under the Dome, which went viral upon release garnering 200 million views in the week after it was released on the Internet for free on Feb. 28. The film exposes the devastating impact China's polluting industries have wreaked on the environment, bringing home the issue for Chinese citizens by focusing on Chinese cities' appalling air quality.
CaptainImages / Shutterstock.com
On March 7, the documentary was pulled from public file-sharing sites, and references to the film in state-run media ceased (how Orwellian), according to Bloomberg. Clearly, government officials don't agree on the issue because the environmental ministry granted Chai Jing, director and producer of the film, rare interviews with agency officials. When the movie was released, China’s new environmental minister called to thank Chai Jing, who made the film, and China's state-owned media hailed the film as a wake up call.
Hao Wu, a Chinese filmmaker who’s a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation, told Bloomberg that “It’s a reflection of some kind of political infighting that they chose to shut it down.” Calvin Quek, head of sustainable finance for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing, speculated to Bloomberg that “The government censored the film because it got 200 million views, and they did not want it to dominate the twin conferences,” the annual gathering of top party officials and the National People’s Congress, which began in Beijing on March 5.
If anything, censoring the film just creates more buzz about it. Hundreds of millions of people in China have already seen the film and citizens can still find ways to watch it online if they try hard enough. “Many people have saved the file, and there are ways to watch it if someone tries to search for it,” said Wen Bo, a longtime environmental activist who’s now China adviser for the National Geographic Air and Water Conservation Fund. “In today’s world, information spreads really fast. Preventing the free flow of information can really backfire.”
“I think it’s already served the purpose the [environmental ministry] had intended,” Angel Hsu, an expert in environmental governance and policy at Yale University, told Bloomberg. That is, “to jockey for more power and positioning within the government, where its enforcement capabilities have been notoriously weak.”
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