Scientists and environmental advocates have long known that microfibers rub off clothing in the washing machine. Wachiwit / iStock / Getty Images Plus
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By Kathleen Schuster
In the weeks since Beirut's deadly chemical blast, residents have been sweeping up the broken glass and wiping down surfaces caked in dust. And it's this dust that some say poses a major threat to the city.
Side Effects of Ammonium Nitrate<p>What is known is that when heated, ammonium nitrate — commonly used in fertilizers and, due to its ability to speed up combustion, also in explosives — melts, releasing toxic gases like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia gas (NH3).</p><p>These gases, both harmful to the human respiratory system and the environment, in turn break down and react with other chemicals. Nitrogen oxides, for example, when combined with other pollutants and sunlight form "bad ozone," that is to say, <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-level-ozone-pollution/ground-level-ozone-basics" target="_blank">ozone at ground level</a>.</p><p>Not only would these gases mix with Beirut's already dangerous air pollution levels — a combination of fossil fuel combustion, <a href="https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/20/9281/2020/" target="_blank">sea salt, and mineral dust</a> — which were estimated at least 150% over the World Health Organization's (WHO) standards before the disaster, but also with demolition dust.</p><p>There's no up-to-date information on the level of air pollution at the moment: Beirut shut down its monitoring system to cut costs in 2019. In previous years, though, Lebanon has averaged roughly 30 micrograms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter, far above the WHO recommendation of <a href="https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/69477/WHO_SDE_PHE_OEH_06.02_eng.pdf?sequence=1" target="_blank">10 micrograms per cubic meter</a>.</p>
Political Instability Holds Up Testing<p>One person familiar with those tests is Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, where she also directs the Nature Conservation Center.</p><p>Her team has been taking air samples with their own sensors and expects results in about a month — double the wait of the usual procedure, she says, due to the economic collapse.</p><p>"We are really running very low on resources like quality standards and equipment to do the tests," Saliba says.</p>
Beirut's Epic Trash Problem<p>That message doesn't bode well for Beirut, which has been dealing with a <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trash-crisis-forces-lebanons-environmental-awakening/a-36765579" target="_blank">recurring trash crisis</a> for several years, and is now facing a cleanup to the tune of up to $15 million (€12.6 million). In 2015, the government failed to react quickly enough after a major trash dump was closed, leaving streets and beaches covered in mounds of solid waste.</p><p>In fact, one of the city's main landfills reached capacity in late April, prompting the government to approve a vertical expansion that would hold for roughly three months – or until around the time of the blast.</p><p>The question of what to do with the solid waste has been on the mind of some, like Salam Kabboul, a local freelance journalist and co-founder of "The Tent," a volunteer initiative launched the day after the blast. The name refers to their first project of offering victims snacks and a place to rest with the only thing they had on hand: a tent.</p><p>Now, they repair buildings and homes so life can return to normal. They take precautions for the dust, but when it comes to dealing with trash, they're also in the dark about what to do.</p><p>"It's not clear what happens to the waste," says Kabboul, who, like everyone else is aware of another imminent trash crisis.</p><p>A new aspect of this problem is the type of debris in the cleanup. According to Seoud from UNDP, there's a lot of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-e-waste/a-47210118" target="_blank">hard-to-dispose-of items</a> like air conditioners, compressors, electronics.</p><p>There's also medical waste from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fear of chemical waste – both of which could cause problems for the city's water. As things stand, Beirut is waiting to find out if all of its pipes are still intact post-explosion, and researchers still aren't allowed to test the already contaminated coastal waters, which are roped off as the search for the missing continues.</p><p>Beirut is facing one pollution problem on top of another. Now, with the magnitude of dust and debris putting the city under even more strain, civilians and NGOs alike hope that this disaster could mark a turning point as it moves forward.</p>
The full extent of the damage wrought by the storm formerly known as Hurricane Laura will only continue to grow as the weakened storm continues inland and pollution from petrochemical plants and other industrial sites is discovered.
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Environmental regulators across the country granted more than 3,000 requests from polluting oil and gas operations, government facilities, chemical plants, and other facilities to stop pollution monitoring and other procedures intended to protect human health and the environment, an expansive two-month AP investigation revealed.
By Max G. Levy
In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.
Journeying Across the Globe<p>Coastal environments seem especially vulnerable to PFAS seeping from the <a href="https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article235963052.html" target="_blank">chemical plants</a> and military bases <a href="https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2020/04/updated-map-suspected-and-confirmed-pfas-pollution-us-military-bases" target="_blank">responsible for heavy contamination</a>. <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/ccwagner" target="_blank">Charlotte Wagner</a>, a researcher at Harvard University studying the global transport of pollutants, says it's still unclear what fraction of PFAS pollutants remain contained at their source, and what fraction has already leached into other environments.</p><p>But the fact that they do spread — and far — is clear. They generally wind up in oceans, according to Wagner. And not just the ones nearby. <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15913661/" target="_blank">Studies</a> in the early 2000s showed that PFAS survived decades-long journeys from manufacturers to remote ocean basins without breaking down.</p><p>"The ocean is not this static pool or bathtub," she says. Large-scale ocean circulation moves pollutants huge distances across the globe. Some varieties of PFAS may degrade slightly over the course of years, until they convert into one of the more stable "terminal PFAS" subgroups, including PFAAs.</p>
Measuring Harm to Ocean Life<p>In North Carolina's Cape Fear River, striped bass carrying <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019334762" target="_blank">high levels of PFAS </a>showed distinct signs of impaired immune and liver function. But in the vastness of ocean water, can PFAS levels be high enough to cause harm?</p><p>"In recent years there have been increases in immune-based diseases in turtles and dolphins," says DeWitt. One of the most <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22109712/" target="_blank">well-studied</a> health effects of PFAS is immune dysfunction. Most experiments are limited to humans, rodents and chickens, but researchers are piecing together the role of PFAS in marine immune issues.</p><p>One study concluded that PFOS, a phased-out PFAS that still circulates today, triggers <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5831401/" target="_blank">"chronic immune activation</a>" in bottlenose dolphins. A similar link between PFOS and susceptibility to disease appeared in <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16955890/" target="_blank">sea otters</a>. Other research links multiple PFAS to hormonal changes in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2016.07.015" target="_blank">polar bear brains</a>. But these aquatic wildlife health studies are few and far between.</p><p>"PFAS in wildlife is kind of the <em>wild west</em>," says Robuck. "Wildlife are inherently difficult to study in a lot of ways."</p><p>Zeroing on the health effects for individual species is tricky because scientists lack baseline data about stress responses and pollutant levels. They have no choice but to presume consequences in wildlife based on hormonal, immune and reproductive effects in lab animals. For Robuck, that means judging how a pelican will respond to its measured PFAS levels according to health data collected from a chicken. "That's a really crappy comparison," she says.</p><p>In one sense, the method is conservative: Lab animals are well cared for, so their health effects may be a best-case scenario compared to the stressful baseline of wild animals' experience. But it also means we don't have an accurate sense of what dangerous thresholds are for most aquatic life — despite a parade of red flags.</p>
Endless Stream of Pollutants<p>Part of the problem is the sheer number of different compounds. Of the thousands of known PFAS, studies have only deduced health thresholds for a handful. Scientists screening their effects simply can't keep up with the pace.</p><p>The chemical compounds that fall under the PFAS umbrella are also not all the same. Some are long, bulky molecules; others are smaller and more agile. Some forms tend to naturally convert into others; others don't degrade whatsoever. Each molecule has the potential to be more toxic or bioaccumulative than the next. But for a lot of PFAS, Wagner says, scientists don't even have standardized methods of <em>detecting </em>them.</p><p>To make matters worse, even as some of the most dangerous chemicals are being phased out, companies are making alternatives. But they <a href="https://www.ewg.org/release/epa-genx-nearly-toxic-notorious-non-stick-chemicals-it-replaced" target="_blank">may not be any safer</a> than what they're replacing. And scientists have found these alternatives are also accumulating in the bodies of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214158819300145?casa_token=6t17JUQM74gAAAAA:igHTxRV6z9RPhf1UNqwvbgD9iARSODj4WJtavRsmTbF6UUvn2P1YXirvBya2VC094wm8HMxb3A" target="_blank">fish and polar bears</a>.</p><p>"It seems that we haven't learned anything from the past," says Belén González-Gaya, an analytical chemist at the University of Basque Country in Spain. "We keep on substituting compounds [for] others without any knowledge of biological effects."</p><p><a href="https://www.ewg.org/experts/sydney-evans.php" target="_blank">Sydney Evans</a>, a research scientist for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, suggests that researchers shouldn't have to prove the health risks for thousands of similar compounds in order to warrant regulatory action. "The burden needs to be on these companies and manufacturers to prove their compounds are safe," she says.</p><p>And while there is much we don't know about the majority of PFAS, experts argue that we do know enough to assume they all share fundamental features: persistence, bioaccumulation and health risks. For this reason a group of scientists recently <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00255" target="_blank">published a call</a> for governments and companies to treat all PFAS, old and new, as a single hazardous group.</p><p>"It's really the only way that we can be ahead of the curve," says Wagner, who cowrote the article. "Rather than always realizing that a compound is toxic once it's already everywhere and we measure it on a remote ice-site somewhere in Greenland."</p><p>To shut off the flow of PFAS into the ocean, scientists say that manufacturers should phase out the chemicals and focus on proving safer alternatives.</p><p>With so many open questions, Robuck hopes to see research that more closely predicts threats to marine life — and by extension people, too.</p><p>"As humans, we rely on every natural resource under the sun," she says. "When we undercut a healthy environment, we undercut our own health."</p>
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By Luke Montrose
If I dare to give the coronavirus credit for anything, I would say it has made people more conscious of the air they breathe.
What’s in Wildfire Smoke?<p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-018-0064-7" target="_blank">What exactly is in a wildfire's smoke</a> depends on a few key things: what's burning – grass, brush or trees; the temperature – is it flaming or just smoldering; and the distance between the person breathing the smoke and the fire producing it.</p><p>The distance affects the ability of smoke to "age," meaning to be acted upon by the sun and other chemicals in the air as it travels. <a href="http://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b01034" target="_blank">Aging can make it more toxic</a>. Importantly, large particles like what most people think of as ash do not typically travel that far from the fire, but small particles, or aerosols, can travel <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2018.06.006" target="_blank">across continents</a>.</p>
Smoke from wildfires obscures the California sky on Aug. 19, 2020. Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory<p>Smoke from wildfires contains <a href="https://www3.epa.gov/airnow/wildfire-smoke/wildfire-smoke-guide-revised-2019.pdf" target="_blank">thousands of individual compounds</a>, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The most prevalent pollutant by mass is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand. Its prevalence is one reason health authorities issue air quality warnings using PM2.5 as the metric.</p>
What Does That Smoke Do to Human Bodies?<p>There is another reason <a href="https://www.calhospital.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/wildfire_smoke_considerations_for_californias_public_health_officials_august_2019.pdf" target="_blank">PM2.5 is used to make health recommendations</a>: It defines the cutoff for particles that can travel deep into the lungs and cause the most damage.</p><p>The human body is equipped with natural defense mechanisms against particles bigger than PM2.5. As I tell my students, if you have ever <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/mucociliary-clearance" target="_blank">coughed up phlegm</a> or blown your nose after being around a campfire and discovered black or brown mucus in the tissue, you have witnessed these mechanisms firsthand.</p><p>The really small particles bypass these defenses and disturb the air sacks where oxygen crosses over into the blood. Fortunately, we have specialized immune cells present in the air sacks called macrophages. It's their job to seek out foreign material and remove or destroy it. However, <a href="http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305744" target="_blank">studies</a> have shown that repeated exposure to elevated levels of wood smoke can suppress macrophages, leading to increases in lung inflammation.</p>
What Does That Mean for COVID-19 Symptoms?<p>Dose, frequency and duration are important when it comes to smoke exposure. Short-term exposure can irritate the eyes and throat. Long-term exposure to wildfire smoke over days or weeks, or breathing in heavy smoke, can raise the risk of <a href="https://www.calhospital.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/wildfire_smoke_considerations_for_californias_public_health_officials_august_2019.pdf" target="_blank">lung damage</a> and may also contribute to <a href="https://health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/air/smoke_from_fire.htm" target="_blank">cardiovascular problems</a>. Considering that it is the macrophage's job to remove foreign material – including smoke particles and pathogens – it is reasonable to make a <a href="http://doi.org/10.3109/08958378.2012.756086" target="_blank">connection</a> between smoke exposure and risk of viral infection.</p><p>Recent evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 may make the coronavirus more deadly. A nationwide study found that even a small increase in PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502" target="_blank">large increase in the death rate</a> from COVID-19.</p>
What Can You Do to Stay Healthy?<p>The advice I gave my friend who had been running while smoke was in the air applies to just about anyone downwind from a wildfire.</p><p>Stay informed about air quality by identifying local resources for air quality alerts, information about active fires, and recommendations for better health practices.</p><p>If possible, avoid being outside or doing strenuous activity, like running or cycling, when there is an air quality warning for your area.</p><p>Be aware that not all face masks protect against smoke particles. In the context of COVID-19, the best data currently suggests that a cloth mask benefits public health, especially for those around the mask wearer, but also to some extent <a href="https://theconversation.com/cloth-masks-do-protect-the-wearer-breathing-in-less-coronavirus-means-you-get-less-sick-143726" target="_blank">for the person wearing the mask</a>. However, most cloth masks will not capture small wood smoke particles. That requires an N95 mask in conjunction with fit testing for the mask and training in how to wear it. Without a proper fit, N95s do not work as well.</p><p>Establish a clean space. Some communities in western states have offered "clean spaces" programs that help people take refuge in buildings with clean air and air conditioning. However, during the pandemic, being in an enclosed space with others can create other health risks. At home, a person can create clean and cool spaces using a window air conditioner and a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kH5APw_SLUU" target="_blank">portable air purifier</a>.</p><p><span></span><a href="https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/how-smoke-fires-can-affect-your-health" target="_blank">The EPA also advises</a> people to avoid anything that contributes to indoor air pollutants. That includes vacuuming that can stir up pollutants, as well as burning candles, firing up gas stoves and smoking.</p>
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By Ray Levy-Uyeda
A farmer for most of his life, Sam Stewart bought farmland in Montana about 35 years ago. Since then, he's planted and harvested his wheat and other crops around 16 open oil wells on this land, which he estimates were dug in the 1920s.
Abandoned Wells<p>The first oil wells in Montana were drilled at the turn of the century, and the industry <a href="https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6881&context=etd" target="_blank">experienced its first boom</a> in the 1920s. <a href="https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6881&context=etd" target="_blank">Energy demands of World War II</a> spurred a second boom; between 1942 and 1945, <a href="https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6881&context=etd" target="_blank">oil production in the Elk Basin region</a> increased from 16,000 to 940,000 barrels annually. When those wells no longer produced oil, companies could just leave. The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of Montana, tasked with identifying and plugging abandoned wells, wasn't created until 1954, and by that time an untold number of wells had already been drilled, produced, and abandoned. </p><p>As more companies moved into Montana, oil and gas production grew into an increasingly important part of local and state economies; by 2015, it<a href="https://montanapetroleum.org/about-us/economic-impact/" target="_blank"> made up 5.6%</a> of the state's general fund. But the industry that once was a cornerstone of Montana's economy is now in a nosedive: a yearslong decline in global oil production and demand compounded by the <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063049965" target="_blank">pandemic-induced economic slowdown</a> has produced some of the worst oil <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-07/oil-companies-warn-kansas-city-fed-of-widespread-insolvencies" target="_blank">production conditions in recent years</a>.</p><p>In 2016, the most recent year for which he was able to provide data, 4,713 oil and gas wells were in operation in the state and 204 had been abandoned, according to Allen Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, a trade organization that works on behalf of the businesses. But that's a <a href="https://montanapetroleum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/MPA-Booklet.pdf" target="_blank">fraction of the tens of thousands</a> that have been drilled in Montana in the past century. </p><p>Data on abandoned wells remain incomplete, which further complicates cleanup efforts. Plus, state legislatures have drastically different policies on how to address abandoned wells. One thing remains certain: The issue is enormous and far-reaching. A 2018 report from the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/6.22.17_ghgi_stakeholder_workshop_2018_ghgi_revision_-_abandoned_wells.pdf" target="_blank">Environmental Protection Agency </a>estimated that the country has 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells. </p><p>Abandoned wells in Montana—left by companies that filed for bankruptcy, for example, default to the state. Theoretically, a state-run fund pays for well adoption and closure, but even under state control, the wells often lay unplugged, because plugging abandoned wells and restoring the surface land is expensive. Olson believes that the "state regulatory agency here is doing an excellent job staying on top" of plugging wells. But the <a href="http://www.mtrules.org/gateway/ruleno.asp?RN=36%2E22%2E1308" target="_blank">state's plugging plan</a> doesn't explicitly address the issue of abandoned oil wells, and also neglects to lay out a time-bound plan for plugging wells. </p><p>It's not just that states like Montana don't have a legislative apparatus to hold corporations accountable, says Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that pushes for corporate and government accountability. He says that the lack of governmental action is by design. When wells are abandoned, Jones says, "the costs of doing business are passed on to the public instead of being paid by the shareholders in the industry."</p>
A Boost or a Burden?<p>Kirk Panasuk, a lifelong Montanan, farmer, and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council's Oil and Gas Task Force, remembers growing up with oil wells on his grandparents' farm. Panasuk says "once you've leased the land you've lost control." An oil company would lease the mineral rights—not the surface land but the profitable oil below. That lease might expire, the company would leave, and another company would come in to start the process again.</p><p>Agriculture is a difficult industry, and Panasuk says what seems like "free money" at the outset can lead to problems down the road. Water systems are connected, which means that an oil leak in Montana has the potential to leach chemicals into bodies of water such as the Yellowstone River that flows into other states through the Missouri River, a <a href="https://www.nwd-mr.usace.army.mil/" target="_blank">river crucial</a> to municipal, industrial, and agricultural function. </p><p>Panasuk now volunteers with the NPRC to lobby state legislators on practices that would hold resource extraction companies accountable by mandating water testing and treatment. He admits that he's made money off of these companies by leasing mineral rights to oil producers who then sell the oil at market. Despite the environmental fallout, Panasuk believes that oil companies' leasing of land actually "saved a lot of small farms from failure [and] bankruptcy."</p><p>Olson of the Montana Petroleum Association says that in 2019, when oil was $60 per barrel, a company might produce 100 barrels per day and pay a royalty fee of 12.5%, which could garner a farmer $750 per day for leasing their land. Today, with prices and production down, the payoffs look different. In April, oil prices went into the <a href="https://billingsgazette.com/news/local/oil-price-collapse-hits-billings-area-businesses-hard/article_df10e954-3e0c-5b6c-9641-135208d4ad2c.html" target="_blank">negative</a>, and in August, they're <a href="https://www.oilmonster.com/crude-oil-prices/central-montana-price/159/228" target="_blank">hovering around $30 per barrel</a>. </p><p>While an oil lease might benefit a farmer initially, Jones says that oil companies are well-versed in this practice. "The oil and gas industry takes advantage of the inequities in our agriculture system to prey upon farmers and get them to sign leases for drilling on their land," Jones says, which can "undermine agricultural activity that's taking place."</p><p>In other farming communities around the country, where oil and gas companies produce natural gas through <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poor-communities-bear-greatest-burden-from-fracking/" target="_blank">hydraulic fracturing</a>, farmers and members of the local community often bear the brunt of water pollution. Not to mention that farming is dependent on a predictable and healthy climate, which is being threatened by resource extraction. </p>
A Foundation Is Formed<p>In early 2019, Curtis Shuck was in the northern town of Shelby, about 15 miles south of the Canadian border, meeting with farmers about agricultural transportation. More than three decades in the oil and gas industry hadn't prepared him for what he saw—abandoned, methane-leaking, unplugged oil wells.</p><p>He walked the area with the farmers and learned how they worked around the wells, most of which had stopped producing oil decades earlier. What was left were remnant pipes strewn across the fields and a sulfuric stench like rotten eggs. </p><p>On his journey home to Bozeman, Shuck couldn't stop thinking about what he had seen, knowing that each open well was responsible for tons of emissions. On that drive, the idea for the Well Done Foundation was born. </p><p>Just over a year after that first trip north, the Well Done Foundation plugged its first three wells and expanded beyond the Montana pilot program into dozens of other states. Shuck says that he hopes the foundation can also gather the concrete data that the government lacks, such as the number of orphaned wells and their emissions, which makes it difficult to develop solutions.</p><p>Shuck says he can acknowledge the state's shortcomings in their cleanup efforts while building relationships with those who make regulatory decisions. The "state fund is grossly underfunded," Shuck says, but "why should the public bear the burden of this orphaned well issue?"</p><p>The Well Done team identifies abandoned oil wells around the state, and then posts a financial bond to the state's Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, a way for the state to track and partially fund the plugging. In doing so, the state is holding up its end of the bargain, but without this push from Well Done, it might take the state years to accomplish what the Foundation does in months. </p><p>The foundation researches individual well emissions for about nine months as well as studying the construction of a well, how deep it goes, and the materials that are required to plug it. Shuck says it's important that the foundation does its due diligence to identify wells that have collapsed in on themselves or have an obstruction that needs to be addressed before plugging. </p><p>Then the foundation works with county commissions, private entities, and those who own the surface land to develop and execute a "plugging plan," which so far has been funded by private or anonymous donors. The actual plugging of the well takes only a few days, and then the Foundation works to restore the surface land to its "pre-drilling condition," which allows a farmer to seed the land and grow crops. </p>
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By Isabella Garcia
On Thanksgiving Day 2019, right after Caroline Laur had finished giving thanks for her home, a neighbor at church told her that a company had submitted permit requests to build an asphalt plant in their community. The plans indicated the plant would be 250 feet from Laur's backdoor.
Grassroots Resistance<p>The plant that would threaten Laur's health and home was awaiting the approval of an air permit by the North Carolina Department of Air Quality which, if approved, would basically greenlight the project. "This made me get out and go door to door," Laur says. One by one, she alerted her neighbors to the prospect of the asphalt plant. "I got to meet some of my neighbors I never knew before," she says. "There's no secret that there has always been a pretty strong line between the White community and the Black community here." In the end, three neighbors joined her efforts—the Rev. Bryon Shoffner, Anita Foust, and Bill Compton. Together, they formed the Anderson Community Group to advocate for environmental justice in their community.</p><p>"We are all the four corners of the community," Laur says with a laugh. "You've got a sick old White lady, Rev. Shoffner is a disabled vet, you've got Anita, who is a Black woman, and you've got a White, old country farmer. We all come from different faiths, but we've all come together as one."</p><p>Suddenly thrust into activism, the group contacted the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, a coalition that provides resources and connections with other groups. "We advocate, we organize, and we assist communities with whatever actions they are thinking of trying to protect themselves," says Naeema Muhammad, the network's co-director. Muhammad met with the activists from Anderson and recognized their need for legal advice, so she connected them with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The legal resources were key when the group determined that the data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality's environmental justice report wasn't adding up.</p><p>The report—a requirement for all DEQ permit requests—stated that the Anderson community was 33% minority. That seemed far too low to the residents, so the Anderson Community Group did a census of each house within a 1-mile radius of the proposed plant—the same radius considered in the DEQ's environmental justice report.</p><p>"Rev. Shoffner went out into the community and did his own survey and found out that it was more than 70% minority," Laur says. "That was huge, because that changed the situation to a Title VI matter." Title VI is a federal civil rights law that prevents people from being discriminated against on the grounds of race, color, or national origin. Title VI cases require a more rigorous and comprehensive environmental justice report, so recognizing the Anderson community as a Title VI matter increases the strength of their request for a more in-depth report.</p><p>The massive difference in race demographics comes down to census data, Laur says. The DEQ was using race data from the 2010 census, which was only <a href="https://www.censushardtocountmaps2020.us/?latlng=35.77385,-78.73807&z=7&query=coordinates::36.44038,-79.36343&promotedfeaturetype=states&arp=arpRaceEthnicity&baselayerstate=4&rtrYear=sR2010&infotab=info-rtrselfresponse&filterQuery=false" target="_blank">completed by about 64% of the population of Caswell County</a>—the county where Anderson is located. Laur says the Anderson population response rate could be even lower because the community is considered <a href="https://www.nccensus.org/about-the-census#hard-to-count-communities" target="_blank">"hard-to-count" by the U.S. Census Bureau</a>.</p><p>"The people who don't fill it out are rural people who want to keep their land and don't want zoning and minorities," Laur says, which creates skewed race demographics. The Anderson Community Group said that when they brought up this issue with the director of North Carolina DEQ, he said he was aware of the problem.</p><p>"So that tells me that all the EJ reports in North Carolina that have been done may not even be valid, just like ours," Laur says. "We were told that we are the first [community members] who have ever doubted it and checked it out."</p>
Elevating Voices<p>Determined to have new data collected, the Anderson Community Group rallied in early 2020. After learning from the state Department of Air Quality, the department responsible for approving or rejecting the asphalt air permit, that 100 statements of concern from community members would be sufficient to trigger a public hearing, the Anderson group gathered letters of concern from their community. They submitted more than 108.</p><p>"Then we were told there wasn't enough concern to have a public hearing," Laur says. "So, we started inundating the [Department of Air Quality director with emails and phone calls from the community."</p><p>Finally, in February 2020, the DEQ declared a public comment period for the issue, effectively placing the air permit for the asphalt plant on hold until a public hearing August 3. The public hearing will be held online because of COVID-19, but Laur says most people in Anderson don't own computers, and won't be able to attend. When the community group filed a complaint regarding accessibility, the DEQ then allowed public comments to be submitted via voicemail.</p><p>"Well, we don't have a cell tower out here," Laur says. She has personally never been able to use her cellphone in her home, and even her landline phone drops calls frequently. Even being able to afford a landline is a luxury in Anderson, Laur says.</p>
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