By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.
The threat of a catastrophic failure unleashing a 20-foot wall of industrial wastewater over nearby homes and businesses in Piney Point, Florida, illustrates the danger of widespread reliance on industrial waste ponds across the U.S., The New York Times reports.
Many of these ponds, filled with toxic and sometimes radioactive, byproducts of climate-change causing activity like coal ash from power plants or manure from industrialized farms, are also at risk because of climate change. Open lagoons make up the extent of waste processing infrastructure for industrial hog farming operations and coal-fired power plants and both were overwhelmed by Hurricane Florence in 2018, when more than 100 hog lagoons were swamped throughout the Carolinas and coal ash poured out of containment ponds at Duke's Sutton Plant in Wilmington, N.C.
"They're just an irresponsible way to store very dangerous waste," Daniel Estrin, general counsel at the Waterkeeper Alliance, a clean water nonprofit group, told the Times. "And with climate change, we're going to see more frequent and stronger storms that are going to impact these sites."
For a deeper dive:
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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.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday after a leak at a wastewater pond posed a major flooding threat and prompted more than 300 homes to be evacuated.
Officials said that water pouring out too quickly posed the greatest risk. The latest projection shows that 340 million gallons of wastewater could rush out within minutes, potentially creating a wall of water 20 feet high.
"What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation," DeSantis said at a press conference, The AP reported on Sunday.
Officials first detected the leak on Friday in a Piney Point reservoir pond located in the Tampa Bay area. The pond is 33 hectares and 25 feet deep and contains millions of gallons of water contaminated with phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant, The AP reported on Saturday. This led the Manatee County Public Safety Department to send out two evacuation notices Friday evening warning of an "imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater," WFLA 8 reported.
A total of 316 homes were impacted by the evacuation orders, The AP reported. To prevent flooding, officials are now pumping water out of the reservoir at a rate of 22,000 gallons per minute and transferring it to Port Manatee. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said that they were hoping to increase that rate with more workers, and that the risk of collapse should decrease by Tuesday.
The water contained in the wastewater pond is not radioactive and "meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen," The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said, according to NPR. "It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern."
However, officials are worried that a collapse of the leaking pond could destabilize other nearby ponds that are more polluted.
"The pond is basically salt water. We saw ducks yesterday, there are snooks swimming in there. It's sustaining wildlife. That's not the case for the other two pools," Hopes told The AP on Saturday.
The ponds are located amidst a stack of phosphogypsum, the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid for fertilizer, and the incident calls attention to the problems of storing this waste.
"This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable," Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. "With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than one billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production."
Phosphogypsum contains radium-226, which has a half life of 1,600 years. The waste product can also contain toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Its storage is an ongoing problem for Florida and other states. In 2004, a breach at a stack in Riverview, Florida, sent millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. In 2016, a sinkhole opened beneath a different phosphogypsum site and contaminated an aquifer with 215 million gallons of waste. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, a stack began to shift in 2019, prompting emergency action. There are also phosphogypsum stacks in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
"Phosphogypsum stacks are getting bigger and more dangerous by the minute, and Piney Point's fate could befall them all," Environmental Attorney Rachael Curran said in the press release. "We need real solutions that start with halting the addition of any phosphogypsum and process water to active stacks so that we can deal with the problem we already have. Underground injection control wells or building radioactive roads out of phosphogypsum are dangerous, unacceptable distractions."
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By Andrew Blok
Researchers found that one type of algae, which has greatly expanded its range within the Great Lakes and is one of the most abundant algae by weight there, could catch up to one trillion pieces of microplastic in the Great Lakes.
"It's just a massive amount of these microscopic particle pollutants that are now part of our environment," Julie Peller, a professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University whose recent research revealed the microplastics-algae dynamic, told EHN.
Peller and colleagues say the study may offer insight into how we can stop the microplastic pollution — any plastic debris less than five millimeters long — from getting into the lakes. However, in the meantime, algae are often used as shelter for freshwater species at the bottom of the food chain, so the findings suggest that these microplastic hiding spots could be contaminating Great Lakes fish — and the people that eat them.
The Hiding Spots for Great Lakes Plastic
There are a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes, one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems and the drinking water source for 30 million people. While less well understood than ocean plastics, the tiny bits of plastic are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the five lakes. Research shows they're in tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes. Surface water samples show huge numbers of microplastics, but statistical models always predict more microplastics are in the lakes than are found by sampling.
Finding them in algae helps close some of that gap.
"I think that we found one of those reservoirs where some of the microplastics have been, for lack of a better word, hiding," said Peller, whose recently published study in Environmental Pollution documented the close interactions between algae and microplastics.
This study examined the most abundant group of algae in the Great Lakes: Cladophora. Cladophora, which looks a bit like green hair, readily tangles up with plastic microfibers, which are shed from synthetic clothing, carpets, and other cloth.
Nearly every penny-sized sample of Cladophora collected from the lakes contained at least one microfiber, Peller said. Even samples from apparently pristine locations, like near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, contained microplastics.
Peller's team also took clean, living Cladophora samples and added plastic microfibers to them. Plastic microfibers quickly adhered to the algae in a process called adsorption, in which two substances stick together because of a molecular attraction.
"The affinity between microplastics and Cladophora may offer insights for removing microplastic pollution," Peller and colleagues wrote in the study. In fact, adsorption already plays a major role in stopping microplastic pollution.
Attracted to Sludge
Synthetic fabrics shed microfibers when washed, so microfibers are often most abundant near populous areas where they enter the environment through treated wastewater.
Even without special plastic screening technology, removing 90 percent of plastics is not only possible, but probable, Heng Zhang, the assistant director of monitoring and research at Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, told EHN. Studies of wastewater treatment plants around the world put the removal rate as high as 98 percent.
A main goal of wastewater treatment is removing particles of organic waste by screening and settling out waste into a sludge. Because microplastics tend to attach to these particles, like they do to algae, a lot of it is captured by processes designed before microplastic pollution started gaining attention.
"I have to admit, it wasn't designed. It just happened by chance or by nature or the characteristics of the stuff," Zhang said.
Removal rates of 90 percent or higher still leave a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Some researchers estimate 10,000 metric tons (or about 11,000 tons) of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes each year.
But regulation will likely dictate when new microplastic removal technology is developed.
"I don't see any EPA guidelines that says we need to start looking at the technology to remove that," Zhang said. "It looks like microplastics is down to the very end of the priority list."
Until then, wastewater treatment plants are likely to focus on other areas, Zhang said.
Pollutants like metals, nutrients and emerging contaminants like improperly disposed pharmaceuticals take precedence now.
If or when microplastics become a focus of wastewater treatment it makes sense to "start with what has worked," Zhang wrote in a follow-up email. There would still be questions to answer about efficacy, cost and consequences — such as safe disposal after microplastic is collected.
Plastics at the Base of the Food Web
Cladophora is a genus of freshwater algae that has increased in the Great Lakes with the arrival of invasive mussels. Filter-feeding zebra and quagga mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes basin, sucking light-blocking algae and plankton out of the water. As the water cleared and sunlight could reach greater depths, Cladophora expanded its range to deeper waters.
Cladophora is different from the toxic blue-green algae that has caused problems for some Great Lakes water supplies. But there's so much of it now it's become a nuisance, Meredith Nevers, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the new study, told EHN.
The sheer amount of long, stringy Cladophora in the lakes — up to 129,000 tons, according to one estimate — means it's likely playing a significant role in microplastic's fate in the Great Lakes.
"If there are microfibers and microplastics in the lake, there's no question they're going to get tangled up in filaments of algae," Nevers said.
Great Lakes fish don't eat Cladophora, but it provides shelter for zooplankton and other invertebrates, which are a major food source for some prey fish. The mingling of microplastics with natural fish food could be one entry point for microplastics into the food chain. Further, by catching microplastics, algae may be keeping them suspended in the water for longer where they're more likely to be eaten.
"It wouldn't surprise me to have microplastics enter food webs through the invertebrates that live in and graze on Cladophora," Eric Hellquist wrote in an email to EHN. Hellquist is a professor of biological sciences at State University of New York Oswego.
Once microplastics enter a food chain, they can make their way up to fish species that humans eat, research shows.
Hellquist and his students surveyed prey fish — such as alewife, sculpin, and invasive round gobies — in Lake Ontario and found that 97 percent of 330 fish had microfibers in their digestive tracts. The majority of microplastics found were microfibers, he said.
Higher up the food chain, microplastics were present in most animals, too. In 40 chinook salmon, Hellquist found that 92 percent had microplastics in their digestive tract. Of 33 coho salmon, 82 percent had ingested microplastics. Hellquist's students found, on average, 3.5 to 4 pieces of plastic in each salmon.
Research is beginning to show harmful effects on fish from microplastics. Microplastics are often found in their gills and digestive systems, but also within muscle tissue. When ingested they've been found to have harmful effects on fish digestion, metabolism, growth and brain function. They've also been associated with higher levels of toxic substances in fish.
Research suggests that fish consumption could be one way that microplastics get into people.
'It's Just So Huge'
The study of microplastics in the Great Lakes is still a relatively young field and a lot of questions need to be answered.
One thing is clear: the amount of microplastics in the Great Lakes is huge.
"It's hard to think about because it's so large," Peller said.
However, Peller thinks the stickiness of algae might inspire better removal technology.
"I think that a lot of times when we look for solutions to problems that we as humans have created, we often find a lot of insight into nature's natural mechanism for cleansing itself," she said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Karen Perry Stillerman
Tyson Foods is the nation's largest (and world's second largest) meat and poultry producer. It operates 110 processing plants with 121,000 employees in the United States and boasted $42 billion in revenue in 2019, putting the publicly traded, Arkansas-based company at #79 in the Fortune 500. As it seeks to maintain meat industry dominance, Tyson is counting on many of us to put its products — which include Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage and Hillshire Farm hams, as well as the ubiquitous Tyson chicken — on our holiday tables.
But as you celebrate the season (safely, please!), consider the source of the protein on your plate and its costs beyond the checkout stand. Because the handful of multinational conglomerates that produce and process industrial pork, beef, and chicken in this country are profiting at the expense of workers, farmers, consumers, and the planet. And in an industry full of terrible actors this terrible year, Tyson is perhaps the most terrible.
1. Tyson has been the worst of the worst during the meat industry's COVID-19 disaster.
In the early days of the pandemic, the meat industry was one of the first sectors to face economic consequences from the spread of the novel coronavirus. Their vast facilities dismember and pack staggering numbers of animals — Tyson's largest pork plant, for example, processes 19,500 hogs per day. It's a feat that relies on thousands of low-paid workers toiling shoulder to shoulder at physically demanding tasks, which is awful enough (as I'll discuss below), but it also creates an ideal environment for viral transmission.
That's exactly what happened. COVID-19 cases began appearing in meat and poultry plants in March; by late April, the CDC received reports of positive cases at 115 plants in 19 states, along with 20 COVID-19-related deaths. Tyson plants — including its largest pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and a beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska — saw some of the worst outbreaks during the spring, yet the company pressed its workers to keep reporting for duty, while failing to provide the personal protective equipment and appropriate distancing needed to keep them safe. In late April, Tyson sought cover from the Trump administration — the company's board chairman took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and its hometown paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, claiming that "the food supply chain is breaking." Just days later, President Trump famously issued an executive order aimed at keeping meat and poultry plants open despite the risks and lack of protections. In signaling the move, Trump specifically referenced Tyson and its "liability problems." In June, Tyson was among the recipients of corporate welfare as the Federal Reserve bought bonds from large companies to prop up the economy.
Throughout the crisis, Tyson has behaved badly in ways that endangered its workers. It has reportedly offered "incentives" to keep sick workers on the job, stonewalled local health departments over testing data, low-balled case reporting, and lied about the dangers of the virus to interpreters for its immigrant workers. In June, the company announced a major testing program but by July the company had stopped releasing the results.
In a particularly egregious incident, managers at Tyson's Waterloo pork plant organized a betting pool around how many of the plant's employees would contract the virus. Those managers have now been fired, but culpability for the company's brazen negligence goes much deeper — all the way to the top of Tyson's corporate structure. After all, in the words of one of my colleagues, the behavior of these managers, "while clearly sociopathic, is just a predictable outgrowth of their institutional context: absolute contempt for workers and criminal disregard for their safety."
Neglect, malfeasance, and efforts by Tyson and other companies to evade regulation and liability has had horrifying consequences for workers. According to tracking by the Food & Environment Reporting Network (as of Dec. 18, 2020), at least 51,519 workers across 565 meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19. To date, 262 of those workers have died, and Tyson is facing multiple gross negligence lawsuits from victims' families. Communities around these plants, many of them rural areas with inadequate access to healthcare, have also paid a price (just as my colleagues predicted back in July): a new study shows that as many as 8 percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases and up to 4 percent of deaths in the early stage of the pandemic can be connected to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and subsequent spread in nearby communities.
As this FERN graphic illustrates, Tyson has dwarfed its rivals in terms of total COVID-19 cases at its facilities:
The Food & Environment Reporting Network has closely tracked the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms. FERN data, updated Dec.18, shows that Tyson Foods is responsible for the highest number of cases among workers, by far.
And because Tyson's low-paid frontline workforce skews heavily toward immigrants and people of color, its actions have disproportionately harmed and put these populations at risk. The nonprofit Food Chain Workers Association and other allies in July filed an administrative civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging that Tyson and another meat processing corporation have engaged in racial discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act through their workplace policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oh, and that whole supply-chain-breaking thing? Right. The same month Tyson published its sky-is-falling ad, the company exported 1,289 tons of pork to China, the most since January 2017. And by November, the company was back to beating its profit estimates.
But its reckless management of the COVID-19 pandemic is just one way that Tyson made 2020 worse. There's more.
2. Tyson pushed rules that would harm poultry workers even after the pandemic.
Though Tyson is also in the pork and beef businesses, most consumers know it as a chicken company. It's the nation's largest producer of "broilers" (chickens raised for meat), slaughtering 38.3 million birds and producing 200.47 million pounds of ready-to-cook chicken every week. And that mind-boggling level of production comes at a high cost to the workers who kill, cut up, and package all those chickens.
Working in a Tyson plant is unimaginably difficult. It's physically debilitating: Workers who hang live chickens on the conveyors for slaughter are pecked and clawed, while others are at constant risk of injury from knives and other sharp tool used in close confines. Workers in these plants are susceptible to repetitive stress injuries, exposed to cold temperatures and noxious odors and chemicals in the air, and denied bathroom breaks. Women and immigrants, in particular, are harassed and threatened by supervisors. And the whole operation subjects workers to unrelenting psychological stress.
In recent years, Tyson has had one of the highest rates of severe injury among its workers — more than 68 workers per 100,000 sustained such an injury in 2015-16. One of the reasons for such injuries is the rapidity with which employees work, as birds whizz past on fast-moving automated conveyers. Workers report constant pressure to keep these automated lines moving. And still, Tyson and other poultry companies want those lines to move even faster.
Tyson is a member of a lobbying group called the National Chicken Council (NCC), which claims to represent companies that collectively produce 95 percent of U.S. chicken. Through the NCC, Tyson and other companies have lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) since 2017 to allow plants to increase their line speeds an already-fast 140 birds per minute (bpm) to a dizzying 175 bpm. Although the USDA denied the NCC's first petition to allow such an increase in all chicken processing plants, in 2018 the Trump administration began allowing individual plants to request waivers from existing line speed restrictions.
In April 2020, just as Tyson was setting off alarm bells about meat and poultry supply disruption due to the pandemic, Trump's USDA approved a record number of line-speed waivers at poultry plants, including six waivers for Tyson facilities. Three of those Tyson plants have had documented COVID-19 outbreaks. A recent study shows a disturbing relationship between waivers granting increased line speeds and COVID transmission: The researchers' analysis suggests that waivers predict increases in county-level case rates double those in counties with nonwaiver poultry plants.
Now, the Trump USDA is pushing to give Tyson and the NCC the ultimate gift: a new rule that would allow increased line speeds at chicken plants without the need for waivers. It's a race against the clock at this point, with a new administration set to take office Jan. 20, but they are trying.
Should that effort fail, public records show that Tyson and the NCC have also given Congress an earful about labor, line speed, food safety, and other issues this year. In the first three quarters of 2020, Tyson spent more than $900,000 lobbying Congress and the NCC spent an additional $360,000.
3. Tyson has colluded to cheat farmers and consumers.
U.S. meatpacking is a highly consolidated industry, and Tyson is one of the top players in every major industry segment: It's one of four companies that control more than 80 percent of beef processing, it's one of three that control nearly two-thirds of pork processing, and it's at the top of the list of five companies that control 60 percent of the chicken market. Such consolidation makes Tyson and its top competitors powerful — too powerful. Over the past year, we've learned that these companies have used their collective power to cheat both the farmers who raise the animals they slaughter and the customers who purchase their meat and poultry.
Early allegations of meat industry price fixing arose in 2016 with a class-action lawsuit accusing Tyson and other chicken producers of conspiring to raise broiler chicken prices. The suit alleged that the companies have used a data company to quietly share detailed financial information with each other for decades. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in that suit and launched a criminal investigation that, by October 2020, had led to indictments of 10 poultry industry executives, including a former Tyson exec. Since June, Tyson has been cooperating with the DOJ, which has granted the company immunity.
Even before the price-fixing story emerged, it was clear that Tyson and its competitors were exploiting their chicken farmers, more than 97 percent of whom operate through contracts with the conglomerates. It's a vertically integrated system in which Tyson and other companies own the birds and control (and frequently change) the terms under which they are raised. Contracts with chicken farmers are so lopsided that the Small Business Administration concluded in 2018 that chicken growers may not qualify for small business loans because they're not actually independent businesses at all.
In the chicken business, legal action against Tyson keeps coming. Boston Market and three other restaurant chains sued Tyson and other companies for price-fixing in July. And just this month, Target and other retailers joined the original class action lawsuit, while famed chicken sandwich purveyor Chick-fil-A brought a new suit against the companies.
But it's not just about chicken. In May, attorneys general for 11 states urged the Justice Department to pursue a federal investigation into market concentration and price fixing in the beef industry as well. DOJ launched such an investigation in June, issuing subpoenas to Tyson and three other companies.
4. Despite its commitments, Tyson has continued to trash our environment.
The business models and practices Big Meat use to crank out ever-increasing volumes of their products also pose a threat to our environment, and again Tyson is an industry "leader." In 2016, an environmental organization named Tyson the #1 water polluter among agribusinesses, and another group has documented its supersized climate footprint. To feed the machine, Tyson and its livestock growers buy enormous quantities of industrially produced feed grains such as corn and soybean, which UCS and other groups have shown to have devastating environmental consequences.
There's also an issue of wastewater pollution from Tyson processing plants. Earlier this year, for example, the state of Alabama sued Tyson for damages caused by a pair of 2019 releases from one of its facilities, which killed an estimated 175,000 fish.
And while Tyson made new sustainability commitments in 2018, watchdog group Mighty Earth alleges they haven't followed through. In February, citizens in Tyson's northwest Arkansas back yard rallied outside the company's annual shareholder meeting for greater action, and investor groups are becoming more vocal about the industry's environmental impact.
Leaving Tyson off the table?
So we've established that Tyson Foods is a terrible, awful, no-good company. But if you want to spend your food dollars in ways that are better for workers, farmers, and the planet, what to do? The vast majority of the industry is rotten — after all, Tyson couldn't fix prices without co-conspirators — and a case could be made that any of those companies is also villainous. Juries have repeatedly found, for example, that Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods' hog CAFOs have made life unbearable for neighbors in North Carolina (and a federal appeals court agreed last month). And there's JBS, a Brazilian company you've probably never heard of that has nonetheless become the world's largest meat producer, while taking U.S. taxpayer bailouts and destroying the Amazon rainforest.
So simply saying no to Tyson in favor of their also-awful rivals probably isn't a solution. Eating less — and better — meat is probably the best thing the average consumer can do. This excellent article explores the extent to which it's possible to be a "conscious carnivore." There are promising signs that the COVID-19 pandemic — which has led many consumers to look for better meat and poultry options from smaller-scale local farmers — may actually revive the system of small slaughterhouses those farmers rely on.
But changing consumer choices is just the tip of the iceberg. It will take public policies on a large scale to break the power of Tyson and Big Meat once and for all. That includes serious antitrust policies that would level the playing field for smaller producers and processors. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced legislation that would begin to do that. And while the Obama administration's USDA was widely criticized for failing to enforce anticompetitive rules and promote deconsolidation in our food system, presumptive agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack has another chance at that in his second act at the USDA.
So while we may choose to leave Tyson off the table this holiday, here's hoping that in 2021, policymakers find the resolve to take on the company and the industry, for the good of workers, farmers, and our environment.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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The Trump administration announced that it would roll back a rule from 2015 that was put in place to limit the amount of toxic chemicals that are in the wastewater of coal plants, according to The Washington Post.
The rule insisted that coal plants invest in newer technologies to treat their wastewater so toxic heavy metals like lead, selenium and arsenic are not leached into nearby rivers and streams where they can damage fragile ecosystems and also seep into drinking water, as The Washington Post reported.
The new regulations put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is run by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, allows coal plants to dial back their investment in new technologies; the regulations delay the date that plants needed to be in compliance, and they exempt some coal-fired plants from taking any corrective or pollution-limiting action, according to The New York Times.
The compliance date is pushed back to 2025 for some plants. The ones exempted from the rule are done so with the expectation that they will be retired by 2028.
The "effluent limitations" regulations that the EPA rolled out Monday will save the coal industry $140 million, according to Reuters.
"Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation's phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time," said Wheeler, as Reuters reports.
The Obama administration had said that the 2015 rule would limit 1.4 billion pounds of toxic pollutants from entering U.S. waterways each year. Coal plants use scrubbers to capture mercury, sulfur dioxide and heavy metals that would be emitted through smoke stacks. That rule has been in place since the 1980s, but what to do with those trapped pollutants is a thorny issue. Coal plants had been allowed to dump them into nearby waterways until the 2015 rule took effect, according to The New York Times.
And yet, without evidence, the current EPA said it expects the same or even greater pollution reductions because coal plants will supposedly adopt the newer technologies voluntarily. The EPA's math is based on the assumption that 30 percent of coal plants will implement technologies that are beyond the regulations required by the EPA, according to The Guardian.
"It's clear from this rule that a relatively inexpensive treatment technology is available – the one that they made voluntary – that would eliminate the toxic contamination of drinking water supplies and is very affordable. And yet they did not require it," said Betsy Southerland, an Obama EPA water official, to The Guardian. "People should be very concerned."
Environmental activists quickly criticized the rule as a gift to the coal industry and a shortsighted measure that ignored the health of the wildlife and people that live near coal plants, according to The Washington Post.
Thomas Cmar, an attorney with Earthjustice, told The New York Times that the EPA's actions will allow older, dirtier coal plants to stay alive longer since they do not have to invest in upgrades.
"There are dozens of water bodies around the country where the local water is significantly impacted by this type of direct dumping of toxic metals from power plants," said Cmar to The Times.
Cmar said Earthjustice will attempt to stop the rollback in court.
"Giving coal companies a free pass to dump more toxic heavy metals like mercury and arsenic into our waters is a travesty," Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email, to The Washington Post. "This shameless handout will allow greater amounts of these dangerous pollutants to be spewed directly into our waterways, threatening public health and pushing hundreds of aquatic endangered species, including salmon, sturgeon and hellbender salamanders, closer to extinction."
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Fast fashion has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to big oil, and how we color our clothes is a large part of the problem. Now, Colorifix, a UK biotech company founded by Cambridge University scientists, has developed a new way to dye clothes that doesn't harm the planet.
Historically, natural dyes extracted from plants and flowers were used to color fabrics. The production of modern chemical dyes uses more than 8,000 chemicals, solvents and additives to create different colors and effects on fabrics, reported Pure Earth and CNN. Many, like sulfur, arsenic and formaldehyde, are harmful to wildlife and humans, and end up in industrial wastewater from the dye production process, reported CNN.
In less developed Asian countries, where a large share of today's clothes is produced, weak regulations and/or enforcement allow textile manufacturers to dump toxic substances directly into local waterways, reported CNN. This has caused the dyeing industry to become one of the most environmentally harmful in the world. In fact, according to the UN Environment Program, around 20% of global wastewater is generated during textile dyeing and processing.
"When we realized that so much of the pollution comes from something as simple as putting color into our clothes, we thought 'there has to be a better way,'" Colorifix's CEO Orr Yarkoni told CNN.
According to Yarkoni, Colorifix's new method uses biotechnology and bacteria to eliminate the need for toxic chemicals and claims its processes use 90% less water and up to 40% less energy than conventional dyeing, reported CNN.
Unlike with natural dyeing, Colorifix pigments are not derived straight or extracted from plants or animals. And, unlike with chemical dyeing, they don't use anything hazardous in the process, explained Yarkoni in a CNN video.
Instead, Colorifix "copies nature's processes in a lab setting, by replicating the 'DNA message' that codes for color in an organism," according to CNN. This tricks the genetically-modified bacteria to create and fill up with those exact same colors.
"So what we can do is take a feather off a parrot, scrape a few cells off ... and in those cells, look for the DNA message 'make red,'" Yarkoni told CNN. "We can then put that same message into our microorganism that will make that same red that the parrot makes the same way that the parrot makes it."
Yarkoni's team then duplicates the dyed bacterial cells in a fermenting machine, feeding them sugar molasses and nitrogen — byproducts from the agricultural industry, LA BioTech reported. The cells duplicate themselves every 25 minutes. The fermentation process which duplicates the bacteria is similar to beer, but instead of making alcohol, Colorifix makes pigments, CNN reported.
In an industry-first, the dyed bacteria are then applied onto the fabric directly and heated until they burst, releasing their dye onto the fabric, LA BioTech reported. The cell membranes then wash off but the color stays.
"What we're doing is not just providing a new pigment. We're providing a new way of getting the pigment into the fiber," Yarkoni told LA BioTech.
This new way of applying dyes to fabrics is more efficient and environmentally-beneficial because it removes the middle step of isolating dyes from microbes and applying them to textiles, which is water- and chemical-intensive, Colorifix told CNN.
Yarkoni also touted the additional benefit of reducing fashion's huge carbon footprint from shipping. Currently, the industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions per year than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.
Rather than shipping large amounts of dye, Colorifix can send five grams of color-packed bacteria to a dyehouse, and the microorganisms will multiply within 10 days to the point where the factory can produce 50 tonnes of dye solution a day, according to CNN.
Competitor PILI, a French startup creating ready-to-use dyes from plant sugars and microbes, critiqued Colorifix's "grow your own" approach to dyeing because dyehouses will need to buy fermenting equipment and receive training on the process, CNN reported. These hurdles could create resistance to making the switch to sustainable dyes, Pili claimed, CNN reported. Other industry experts worried about the regulatory issues surrounding the transport of live microbes safely.
Colorifix has been hugely successful and received backing from Swedish fashion giant H&M. Colorifix has more customers than it can handle, and launched its first industrial trial at a Portuguese dyehouse last month, CNN reported.
"I truly believe that in the future, a very large proportion of our industry — if not all of it — will be based on these biological principles," Yarkoni told CNN.
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Russia's Norilsk Nickel ran into trouble earlier this month when one of its subsidiaries accidentally spilled 21,000 tons of diesel that ended up polluting a pristine Arctic lake. Now the company admits that it has been dumping wastewater into the Arctic tundra, as Agence-France Press, (AFP) reported.
The metallurgical giant said on Sunday that it had taken steps to suspend the workers who dumped the wastewater, saying that their actions were in "flagrant violation of operating rules," according to AFP.
Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published videos from the scene showing large metal pipes carrying wastewater from the reservoir and dumping foaming liquid among nearby trees.
The company issued the statement just hours after the Novaya Gazeta video surfaced that showed water tainted with heavy metals from the tailings at a nickel-processing plant were being pumped into a river, according to The Associated Press.
As Deutsche-Welle reported, when investigators arrived at the scene, the pipes were "hastily" removed, and a car that had delivered officials to the scene was partly squashed by a heavy earthmoving machine. Nobody was injured in the accident that crushed part of the car.
Before the time when investigators arrived, 6,000 cubic meters of liquid had been dumped over "several hours," reported the Russian news agency Interfax, according to Deutsche-Welle. It was impossible to tell how far the wastewater had dispersed.
The incident occurred at the Talnakh enrichment plant near the Arctic city of Norilsk, the company said, as Al-Jazeera reported. This incident is just one month after the unprecedented fuel leak led President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency.
The journalists who investigated the area claimed the factory deliberately sent the wastewater into wildlife areas and then hastily removed their pipes when they caught wind of investigators and emergency services arrived on the scene. That hasty removal led to the accident that dropped machinery on an investigator's car, according to Al-Jazeera.
The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said it had received reports of "unauthorized dumping of liquid waste into the tundra" on the site of the facility, and had opened an inquiry.
According to the AFP, Russia's natural resources agency said the decision to remove water from the reservoir was taken to avoid an emergency after heavy rains and recent tests had caused water levels to increase dramatically. The local emergency services in a statement said the wastewater was unlikely to reach the nearby Kharayelakh River.
A similar statement was made by Norilsk Nickel spokeswoman Tatiana Egorova who said on Sunday that employees at the factory had pumped out "clarified water" and that an internal investigation was under way.
An estimated 14,000 tons of microfibers sloughed off of soiled laundry is believed to be released into European oceans every year, further contributing to microplastic pollution with a threat of becoming a "significant environmental issue."
That amounts to about two garbage trucks every day, new research suggests.
Many synthetic clothes, linens, and households textiles are made with petroleum-based products like plastic. When these are laundered in a washing machine, microscopic pieces fragment and break down before being flushed into wastewater systems that ultimately enter rivers, waterways and world oceans. A new forensic analysis published in PLOS ONE suggests that an average of 114 milligrams of microfibers — defined by a fine strand of synthetic fiber with a diameter fewer than ten micrometers — is released for every two pounds of fabric washed during a standard cycle.
However, researchers at Northumbria University say that microfiber contamination could be cut by nearly one-third if people choose to wash at cooler, faster cycles — an annual amount of over 4,000 tons.
"This is the first major study to examine real household wash loads and the reality of fiber release. We were surprised not only by the sheer quantity of fibers coming from these domestic wash loads but also to see that the composition of microfibers coming out of the washing machine does not match the composition of clothing going into the machine, due to the way fabrics are constructed," said John R. Dean, professor of analytical and environmental sciences at Northumbria University.
"Finding an ultimate solution to the pollution of marine ecosystems by microfibers released during laundering will likely require significant interventions in both textiles manufacturing processes and washing machine appliance design."
The team, led by university researchers joined with laundry detergent companies, turned to forensics expert Dr. Kelly Sheridan whose work has been employed on murder investigations analyzing small, microscopic fibers left behind at crime scenes. Scientists employed similar technologies and ensured that cross contamination from other sources didn't occur. Using a spectroscope and microscope, the team was able to examine the structure and composition of microfibers released from clothing to then weigh and characterize those released in each load.
Larger wash loads were shown to decrease the release of microfibers because of the ratio of water to the fabric. As such, people should fill — not overfill — their washing machines to around three-quarters. A 30 percent reduction of microfiber release was observed when launderers used a half-hour wash cycle at 86 degrees Fahrenheit compared to the standard 85-minute cycle with a water temperature at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Newer clothes were shown to release more microfibers than older clothes, particularly during the first eight weeks. Additionally, fibers made from plant and animal fibers degraded more quickly than those from synthetic fabrics.
Consumer choice can have a "significant impact" on decreasing pollution caused by microfibers when making informed decisions in how they do laundry and the products that they purchase, the researchers conclude. Though such choices will not eliminate the issue, they may "achieve a meaningful short-term reduction" in harmful environmental pollution.
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Bottled water manufacturers looking to capture cool, mountain water from Washington's Cascade Mountains may have to look elsewhere after the state senate passed a bill banning new water permits, as The Guardian reported.
The state, with its glacier-fed springs and rainforests, will become the first state in the country to put a total ban on new bottling operations looking to plunder the state's natural resources. The proposal is one of several in the works in Washington to protect local groundwater and to fend off the growing bottled-water industry, as the Tribune News Service reported.
The bill, once signed into law, will go into effect retroactively and apply to all new permits filed after Jan. 1, 2019, according to The Guardian.
"Washington State is carving the path towards a groundbreaking solution," said Mary Grant, the director of Food & Water Action's public water for all campaign, in a statement, as The Guardian reported. "This legislation … would ban one of the worst corporate water abuses – the extraction of local water supplies in plastic bottles shipped out of watersheds and around the country."
Across the country, local activists have warned that bottling companies are taking their water almost for free and then shipping it elsewhere, leaving local aquifers depleted.
"I was jolted to the core to realize the depth and breadth and magnitude of how they have lawyered up in these small towns to take advantage of water rights," said Washington state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who sponsored the bill to ban bottling companies from extracting groundwater, as the Tribune News Service reported. "The fact that we have incredibly loose, if virtually nonexistent, policy guidelines around this is shocking and a categorical failure."
One of the jolting actions was revealed in leaked emails after Crystal Geyser planned to open a bottling plant near Mount Rainier. Locals feared that the company's plan to pump 400 gallons a minute from the site would lead to dry wells. In emails, Crystal Geyser mounted a legal campaign to sue the local subdivision opposing the plant and then it intended to conduct an underground public relations campaign to garner support for their proposal, as the Tribune News Service reported.
"Pumping water out of the ground, putting it in plastic bottles and exporting it out of the state of Washington is not in the public interest," said Craig Jasmer, a leader of the Lewis County Water Alliance, the group that sprung up to oppose the Randle plant and has pushed for the statewide ban, as the Tribune News Service reported.
Crystal Geyser has recently proven its disdain for public safety. Last month, the company pleaded guilty to storing toxin-laden wastewater in arsenic in eastern California, and then delivering the water to treatment plants without disclosing its hazard, as The Guardian reported.
The Environmental Priorities Coalition, a network of groups including Americans Rivers, Audubon, and Sierra Club Washington State, advanced the legislation on its highest priorities list, saying it would stop "new water bottling plants from proliferating in Washington state, effecting small rural community water supplies necessary for both agriculture and threatened salmon species," as Common Dreams reported.
"Washington's waters belong to the people of Washington," said the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, according to Common Dreams. "There has been an increasing number of proposals to locate commercial water bottling plants in Washington. These plants would allow Washington's water to be taken for the benefit of corporations and users outside of the local area, perhaps out-of-state."
The Guardian noted that the tide is turning against bottle-water manufacturers, with bills also introduced in Michigan and Maine, and local measures introduced in Oregon and Montana.
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Bulgaria's minister for the environment abruptly resigned after he was arrested and charged for mismanagement of a water crisis in a western Bulgaria city, as the AP reported.
The city of Pernik and its surrounding areas, which is home to about 100,000 people, was the epicenter of antigovernment protests after the city faced severe water restrictions for about two months, according to Reuters. Pernik is 20 miles west of the country's capital, Sofia.
Citizens of the town of Pernik on a procession and public prayer for rain. They have been protesting against the city's water regime and have asked those responsible for the water crisis to bear responsibility. Hristo Vladev / NurPhoto / Getty Images
The former minister of the environment, Neno Dimov, said dry weather and poor management by local authorities caused the water crisis in Pernik. However, prosecutors contend that Dimov allowed water to go to industrial facilities despite knowing that diverting the water would lead to shortages in drinking water for Pernik and its surrounding villages, as the AP reported.
Dimov was arrested late last week and stayed in custody for 72 hours while he denied wrongdoing, according to the AP.
Pernik and the nearby villages source all their water from a single dam, which had drastically decreased when Dimov allowed industrial facilities to use the water.
"Some 97,000 people will not have normal access to drinking water in the next five months --- which they would have had if the minister had exercised his authority," Prosecutor Angel Kanev told reporters, as Reuters reported.
"This is the biggest damage," he said.
An investigation by Bivol News showed that mismanagement of the water supply led to the city being left without potable water. It published documents signed by Dimov to allow for the industrial use of water as the reservoir reached a critically low level.
Furthermore, the investigative report identified an illegal canal that diverted a significant amount of water from the Studena dam.
On Thursday, prosecutors raided the offices of the company managing Pernik's water supply utility and Pernik's municipal council. Irena Sokolova, a former district governor of Pernik and Ivan Vitanov, the suspended head of the water and sanitation company were also questioned, according to The Sofia Globe.
"Evidence is being collected of crimes committed by officials that led to water supply problems in Pernik," the prosecutor's office said in a statement, as The Sofia Globe reported.
The water crisis peaked in November when residents were forced to ration water due to a lack of supplies from nearby Studena Dam, as the AP reported. Initially water was available 10 hours a day, but more recently it has been reduced to seven hours a day of water access.
The rationing is expected to last no more than five months, according to Radio Free Europe.
The water infrastructure in Pernik has not been renovated for more than 50 years. The antiquated structure means that more than 70 percent of the potable water that runs through it gets wasted, according to Reuters.
The rationing and mismanagement has led to protests and calls for the government to resign. The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party said it would file a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Boyko Borriso's government, though it is unlikely to pass, according to Radio Free Europe.
The Federation of Young European Greens had previously petitioned for Dimov to resign after he claimed global warming is a fraud, tried to amend legislation that would allow the expansion of a ski resort that would damage the ecology of Pirin National Park, and after he tried to amend the Natura 2000 network to allow construction in protected areas.The European Commission also filed a report that criticized Bulgaria for failing to tackle air pollution and treat urban wastewater properly.
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By Alejandro Pérez, translated by Romina Castagnino
Fifteen years ago, Martha Valencia relied on the nearby river for water and for food. But then oil palm crops arrived in the area and polluted the river, say Martha and her neighbors. The community took the oil palm grower to court, which ultimately resulted in a ruling in their favor.
"It is determined that there had been serious environmental effects in the territory of the communities … which should have been prevented by the Ecuadorian government," the ruling read, and a judge ordered compensation for those affected.
That was two years ago. And Martha and her neighbors say they are still waiting for things to change.
No Clean Water
The river and the community, both named La Chiquita, are located within the municipality of San Lorenzo in the Esmeraldas province of Ecuador. Logging and oil palm plantations, in addition to its proximity to the Colombian border where drug trafficking and armed conflict is rife, contribute to the area's dubious honor of having the highest levels of poverty and violence in the country.
Every eight to 15 days, the municipality sends a water truck to La Chiquita. The tank fills a 1,500-liter blue plastic tank "but not even that water is clean. We were told by the Municipality to put chlorine before drinking it," says Olga, another community member.
When a new truck does not arrive in town before their tank runs dry, residents say they can buy 20-liter water canisters in San Lorenzo, which last three or four days. However, this option often proves too expensive for community members who must subsist off meager profits from small farms. They say that in that case, they are forced to walk great distances to other rivers.
There's little in the way of alternatives for people living in the area. According to the National Statistical System and the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), 16% of San Lorenzo residents are illiterate, which is more than double the national rate of 6.8%. Almost half of its population is engaged in agriculture and fishing due to a lack of industrial development in the area.
Two years have passed since the Jan. 2017 ruling of Esmeraldas' Provincial Court of Justice, and those affected in La Chiquita are still waiting for the judge to order the provision of drinking water, among other compensations. The ruling also requires the construction of a health center and a school.
La Chiquita lies in the the Chocó-Darién, an ecosystem that extends from Panama to northwest Ecuador and is known for its unique forests and vast biological wealth – both of which are disappearing at a fast clip due to agribusiness and other human pressures.
Oil palm companies are required to have a buffer zone between planted fields and water sources. They must remove any crops that are located less than ten meters (33 feet) from community water sources and replace them with endemic species such as guadua bamboo. According to former environment ministers, a fine is applied "for obvious negligence in the performance of their duties."
"It is a historic ruling, although it has objections and inaccuracies that must be corrected in its execution," says Manolo Morales, a lawyer and representative of the Corporation of Management and Environmental Law (Ecolex) that sponsored the lawsuit.
Oil palm cultivation is one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the province of Esmeraldas. Eduardo Rebolledo
The ruling also calls for the Ministry of Environment, together with affected communities, to reforest 500 hectares of degraded land with native species. However, La Chiquita resident Isaha Ezequiel says this is absurd. "Companies are the ones that have polluted and killed the forest but they want us to reforest," he told Mongabay.
Violence is common in the region. The murder rate in San Lorenzo in 2018 was 96 per 100,000 inhabitants – almost ten times the national rate. The area gained further notoriety that year when a reporting team from the El Comercio newspaper was kidnapped and then killed by FARC dissident groups. The incident occurred in Mataje, a border town near Guadalito, Colombia.
Although four companies were referenced during the trial, two were included in the ruling: Palmera de los Andes and Palmar de los Esteros (Palesema). Only Palmera de los Andes agreed to comment for this story.
Oil palm plantations in Ecuador cover about 250,000 hectares (617,763 acres) and are distributed among several provinces. Due to its suitable growing conditions, Esmeraldas has the lion's share.
Palm oil companies arrived in San Lorenzo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, settling in an area of around 30,000 hectares (74,131 acres) that was later expanded to 50,000 (123,552 acres). The inhabitants of La Chiquita, who are mostly the descendants of enslaved people of African ancestry, say local children began to develop stomach diseases and that they noticed oil and pesticide residue in a river that was their primary water source.
When La Chiquita residents went into the forest to investigate the cause of this pollution, they discovered that one of the oil palm growers had installed a palm oil mill less than three kilometers upriver that was dumping liquid waste into the water. The same thing was reported by members of the Awá Guadalito indigenous community, who also joined the demand for change and reparations.
Aerial view of a young oil palm plantation in Esmeraldas. Eduardo Rebolledo
However, a representative of Palmera de los Andes contends claims of pollution.
"We have 11 processing pools with strict environmental controls," said Fabián Miño, a lawyer and director of the company's legal department. "It is false that we are the cause of any contamination." He explained that, after the palm oil refinement process, wastewater is treated in each pool until it is decontaminated. "To confirm that the liquid comes out clean from our building, in the last two pools we have fish and seaweed," he said.
Miño says communities have been manipulated by NGOs with ulterior motives. He claims Ecolex is an environmental organization that receives funds from abroad, and that the organization attacks oil palm growers to justify its activities and budget regardless of the employment and development opportunities plantations create.
Manolo Morales, of Ecolex, says Miño's accusations are absurd. He says the organization has worked in the area since 1998 helping local communities gain legal rights to their ancestral territories. He claims that in the intervening years the government promoted and encouraged the cultivation of oil palm and that many inhabitants were persuaded to sell their territories to agroindustry companies. He said he made the decision to advise La Chiquita and Guadalito when he learned of the problems they face.
In 2005, a water quality study by the Al Tropic environmental foundation detected the presence of endosulfan and terbufos in the tributaries that provide water for these two communities. Commonly used as pesticides, these compounds can cause severe illness and death in humans, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies both as Category 1 toxins – a designation reserved for the most dangerous substances. This information was included in a report from the Ministry of Environment (MAE) in 2009 and served as the basis for initiating the trial. However, subsequent water studies were not decisive enough to directly hold oil palm companies accountable. Therefore, the judge only partially accepted the claim, ordering the government to fulfill some of the requested reparations to affected communities.
Ecolex reported that oil palm grower companies were alerted by government authorities before officials went to take water samples looking for the presence of toxins. Meanwhile, Fabián Miño, from Palmera de los Andes, claims that the organization was trying to obtain samples of stagnant water.
"They went out of their way to find pollution," Miño said. "We have all the environmental certifications, national and international."
Satellite image of oil palm plantations in San Lorenzo. Rodrigo Sierra
Isaha Ezequiel and his neighbors say two years have passed and they have seen no progress towards court-mandated reparations. According to Nathalia Bonilla, an environmental engineer and coordinator with the NGO Ecological Action in Ecuador, this is because the judge did not report the verdict to the ministries responsible for carrying them out.
Because there is a mountain between the towns of Guadalito and La Chiquita, the judge ordered the building of a school in each. However, Bonilla says the Ministry of Education was also not made aware of this ruling.
Palmera de los Andes reports that it has already begun fulfilling the reparations required by the ruling. However, company representatives say it is doing so because such activities are within its environmental responsibilities and protocols, not because it considers the ruling to be right.
"We are reforesting as required by the ruling," says lawyer Fabián Miño. He adds that the company has a 1200-hectare (2,965-acre) forest reserve, which was not requested in the reparations, and that the company has an environmental license and provides upwards of 700 jobs to local residents. "They should applaud us and not judge us," he said.
A Refuge for Many Species
Deforestation in northern Esmeraldas began well before oil palm moved in. In the 1960s, the government implemented its Northwest Forestry Development project that established 14 forest concessions. According to project data, more than 400,000 hectares (988,421 acres) of dense forest was cleared between 1966 and 1975. Five more concessions were subsequently created.
"This is how the primary forests of Esmeraldas were cut down," says Walter Palacios, a forest engineer and associate researcher at the National Institute of Biodiversity (Inabio). He explains that the primary forests of northwestern Ecuador are home to around 4,000 species of plants, and says many may have disappeared due to habitat loss without biologists ever knowing them.
Oil palm plantations in San Lorenzo, Ecuador. Eduardo Rebolledo
The region's protected areas preserve what has been lost to agriculture elsewhere: reserves, rich in orchids and giant ferns, extend to the paramos of the Ecuadorian highlands, providing vital habitat for a multitude of species including jaguars and ocelots. A microcosm of the biodiversity of the Chocó-Darién can be seen in just one of its massive trees. A Sande tree, for example, can be covered by as many as 60 species of ferns, orchids and other plants, its fruit important food for birds and insects.
According to Walter Palacios, when the palm plantations first appeared in the area, the secondary forests that had regenerated after the mass clearing of the 1960s were cleared once again.
"A secondary forest no longer has the same species density, it has less wildlife," Palacios said. "However, it is better to preserve them than to turn them into monocultures."
Of the region's remaining primary forest, Palacios says he hopes that the government spares these areas from the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Oil palm crops near the town of San Lorenzo. Eduardo Rebolledo
Residents say conversion of forest to plantations has affected their lives.
"I used to make with my mother wicker baskets out of Piquigua – an endemic plant," Martha Valencia said. "We used the baskets to transport fish, or the meat of guanta, deer and other animals that we hunted. The forest and the river gave us everything, now we have to go to San Lorenzo to buy the food that was taken from us."
Residents like Valencia say they know everything they had before will not return in their lifetimes, but that they should still be able to expect clean water. "That is why we need the reparations promised by the ruling," says Wilberto Valencia, another community member.
The current Minister of Environment in Ecuador is Raúl Ledesma, who assumed the position four months ago. In an appearance before the National Assembly, together with the affected community members, Ledesma offered to further investigate the situation in La Chiquita to verify the damage that Wilberto Valencia and others say is affecting their ability to live. At that same meeting, Ledesma said he was aware that Energy Palma is breaking environmental standards.
Inhabitants of La Chiquita are fighting against the pollution of their water sources. David Silva
What Does the Future Hold?
Large-scale plantations aren't the only places where oil palm is grown in Ecuador, and advocates of the crop say stricter regulations on its cultivation could hurt small farmers.
"If there are infractions, justice must act," says Wilfredo Acosta, executive director of the National Association of Palm Oil Growers (Ancupa). "But 89% are small producers and for us, it is an agricultural activity, like any other, that encourages the development of the country."
In recent years oil palm crops have been beset with "bud rot." As of October 2019, the fungal disease had wiped out 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) of plantations, according to Acosta. His proposed solution: support farmers with credits and provide, through the Ministry of Agriculture, new seeds that are resistant to this disease.
Assemblyman Lenin Plaza, a native of Esmeraldas and president of the Committee on Food Sovereignty, together with Ancupa, is promoting a bill in the National Assembly, which has already passed the first debate. One of its objectives is to double palm oil yields for biofuel production, but Plaza says that does not necessarily mean expanding the agricultural frontier with new plantations. "This will depend on the country's demand," Plasa said. "The important thing now is to help the producers."
Assemblyman Lenin Plaza has proposed a law to increase palm oil production. He says it is necessary to help small producers. Cecilia Puebla
Acosta says oil palm expansion could take advantage of underutilized land once used for agriculture but which has since been abandoned.
"It's not necessary to expand, it's about optimizing crops," Acosta said. "With that, we take the pressure off the forests."
However, even if the majority of producers may be small, environmental organizations say large companies control around 80% of land used for oil palm cultivation.
"The big companies are the ones that benefit," said Nathalia Bonilla of Ecological Action. "What they say about small producers is just a story. [Oil] palm is an activity that uses chemicals that seep into the earth [and] needs large areas, and working conditions are precarious."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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