By Tara Lohan
In the last few weeks of 2018, the Trump administration set the stage for a big battle over water in the new year. At stake is an important rule that defines which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration seeks to roll back important protections for wetlands and waterways, which are important to drinking water and wildlife.
This is just one of the upcoming water battles that could serve to define 2019. It's also poised to be a year of reckoning on the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. A long-anticipated multi-state agreement is close to completion after an ultimatum from the federal government. And it could also be a landmark year for water management in California, with several key issues coming to a head.
Big things may also happen on the water infrastructure front and in efforts to address clean-water concerns. Of course, underlying many of the water issues is the specter of climate change, which is bringing both severe droughts and floods and exacerbating water-supply problems.
Let's dive into some of the issues experts say we need to keep an eye on in the coming year.
Clean Water Rule Change
The biggest looming water issue this year has to do with a law passed nearly 50 years ago.
On Dec. 12 the Trump administration unveiled a proposal to redefine the Waters of the U.S. Rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, which was adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration to set clear guidelines on how certain waterways and wetlands are regulated under the 1972 Clean Water Act. The action came after two Supreme Court rulings in the early 2000s created some uncertainty about what the Clean Water Act protects.
Obama's rule slightly widened what was protected under the Clean Water Act (much to the chagrin of many industry groups and developers). For example, the 2015 rule included automatic protections for wetlands and ponds that are "within 100 feet or within the 100-year floodplain of a protected waterway," Vox reporters Brad Plumer and Umair Irfan explained. And they wrote last month, "In the past, tributaries of navigable rivers were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But under the new rule, they're automatically protected if they have a bed, a bank and a high-water mark." Overall the change amounted to clarifying protections for about 3 percent of waterways.
The newly proposed Trump administration rule, however, would swing widely in the other direction, limiting protections to only major waterways, tributaries and adjacent wetlands. As written now, the new rule would strip protections from 18 percent of streams and just over half of the country's wetlands, but there's concern the final rule could be even more restrictive.
Industry officials praised the Trump plan. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the Trump administration's proposal, "The Christmas present of a lifetime!"
Environmental groups had a very different opinion. The loss of protections, they said, threatens drinking water and wildlife, with the western U.S. poised to be affected most. In Nevada 85 percent of streams would lose protections, as would more than half in New Mexico and Arizona.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, NevadaCyndi Souza / USFWS)
"The rollbacks to the Clean Water Act the Trump administration is proposing are the greatest threat to this nation's waterways in 50 years," said Dan Estrin, Waterkeeper Alliance general counsel and advocacy director. This industry-supported proposal would "incentivize polluters to move pollution upstream, where they won't have to worry about federal or citizen enforcement," he said.
A 60-day public comment period on the proposed regulation is underway. Meanwhile Republicans in the legislature are already attempting to push through their own version of what kind of wetlands and waterways should be protected by the Clean Water Act—in this case, it would only cover permanently "navigable" waters.
It's not clear what will happen on this front, but however things move forward it will be critically important. "The Waters of the United States law will be tested, implemented, suspended or revoked," said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the global water think-tank the Pacific Institute. Expect the debate over the rule change to be contentious and the final product legally contested.
Colorado River Agreement
2019 will be a year of reckoning for the Colorado River. It has to be—both nature and the federal government have issued ultimatums.
First, nature's part: With the basin in a drought for nearly two decades, the river's flow has dropped almost 20 percent (human-caused warming is responsible for at about a third of this reduced flow). By 2020 Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the watershed, could fall low enough to trigger shortages to Arizona, Nevada and eventually California. In 2020 the water users must also begin a massive renegotiation of how the Colorado River is managed and how we prepare for a future with less water—an epic task that needs to be completed by 2026, when the current agreement expires.
The three states have been busy working on a drought contingency plan to slow the decline of Lake Mead, a process that will need to be completed before the larger negotiations begin in 2020. One major snag has come from Arizona, which is trying to resolve in-state disputes.
Things are about to get even more interesting, though. At a recent meeting of Colorado River water users, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman set a deadline of Jan. 31 for the three states to settle their plan or else the federal government will step in, which would be a widely unwelcome scenario.
"This could be very messy," John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program, wrote recently on his blog about Colorado River water issues. "It suggests that either voluntarily (through interstate agreement) or imposed by the feds, we'll have new shortage guidelines in place by 2020 to slow the decline of Lake Mead."
Even if a new shortage agreement is reached in the next month, Gleick said we're still likely to see political conflict among basin water users as water levels in Lake Mead continue to fall. It's not just California, Nevada and Arizona duking things out—the river is also shared with upstream states Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, as well as with Mexico downstream. What happens to the Colorado affects much of the West, including cities like Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
And the drought contingency plan is also only a stopgap measure to give all the water users time to pause the crisis until the elephant in the room needs to be officially addressed: The Colorado River simply doesn't have enough water for all the claims made to it.
"Now, whether through ignorance or malfeasance, we now have communities that have come to expect that fictionally large supply, and few rules to determine who gets less, and how much," wrote Fleck.
This year's work will be a crucial one for setting the stage for these future talks and better understanding the new climate reality.
2018 ended with some momentum on climate action. International climate talks in December at COP24 in Poland limped to a close with an agreement in hand, but one that fails to meet the urgency and scale of the problem.
And while the U.S. was conspicuously absent from international dealings, more movement to address climate challenges are afoot on the home front, with increasing calls for political action and a Green New Deal.
Significant climate legislation will likely be out of reach with a Republican Senate and White House, but climate change impacts will continue to make a mark, regardless, and could help to motivate more public action and pressure on elected officials and corporations.
"Somewhere in the U.S. we'll see unprecedented flooding and somewhere else, unprecedented drought, as climate change continues to worsen extreme hydrologic events," said Gleick. "Temperatures will continue to rise." And all of this will compound water woes like declining flows in the Colorado River, harmful algal blooms across the country, the vulnerability of our croplands and declining groundwater levels.
Drought-impacted forests in California's Sierra NevadaPhoto by USGS
"I think that the overall story is that catastrophic times are here," said Kimery Wiltshire, CEO and director of Carpe Diem West, a nonprofit that tackles water and climate issues. We need to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration to meet our ecological challenges, she said. "Fortunately, there are a number of communities taking smart, positive steps for water resiliency in the face of climate change."
California's Grand Bargain
In California several long-term and contentious decisions over future water management will be headline-generating in the coming year, and we could see either compromise or conflict between the state and the Trump administration.
California's Water Resources Control Board has been working on a plan that would increase the amount of water left in key rivers that drain to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the linchpin in California's vast water infrastructure network, to try to protect water quality and wildlife. It's a move that has made municipal and agricultural water users concerned.
Snow geese take flight above a field on Twitchell Island in the California Delta. Kelly M. Grow/ California Department of Water Resources
But just before 2018 closed out a new "grand bargain" was beginning to emerge between state agencies, federal agencies, irrigation districts and urban water agencies.
If the deal comes to fruition, "it could be revolutionary" in terms of the region's water management, said Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and director of the PPIC Water Policy Center. The parties have committed to hammering out the agreement in 2019. "Federal, state and local parties are on the threshold of something really different and potentially much more impactful than what the regulatory situation can do on its own," said Hanak.
The plan would provide a funding stream for habitat restoration projects for ailing fish populations and also trim water exports from the watershed by urban and agricultural water users. Environmental groups, which were not part of the negotiations, think those water cuts are not nearly enough to protect fish, some of which are endangered.
"It appears that California's salmon, thousands of fishing jobs and the health of the Bay Delta estuary are the sacrificial lambs in these series of agreements between the Trump and the Brown administrations," Doug Obegi, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Sacramento Bee.
As the possible settlement is further negotiated this year, the Trump administration could throw another wrench into the plan as it attempts to roll back environment regulations for the delta in an effort to appease the agriculture industry.
"What's the state water board going to do if they enact stricter regulations just as Trump is undoing a bunch of environmental protections?" asked Chris Austin, publisher of Maven's Notebook, which chronicles California's water issues.
There are also two other major infrastructure issues where California may butt heads with the Trump administration (and others) in the new year. The first is an effort to raise the height of Shasta dam. Another is a $17 billion project to construct new water conveyance tunnels. Both will also be big decisions for the future of imperiled species.
Infrastructure and Clean Water
There's one more key issue that should dominate water discussions and policy in the next year: Many Americans still don't have access to safe drinking water. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given our nation's water infrastructure a D grade, and billions are needed to upgrade aging pipes, pumps and plants.
Hanak thinks that more progress will be made in efforts to address water inequities in California, where hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in low-income and communities of color, have chronically contaminated drinking water.
Issues abound elsewhere, too.
"The ongoing saga of Flint, Michigan, will go on, and the discussion about the country's failing water infrastructure will continue, with new urban water quality challenges," said Gleick.
Will there be any progress this year? "There is a chance for some bipartisan action on water infrastructure as part of the broader push to pass infrastructure funding in the U.S. Congress," said Gleick. Like all of these issues, though, that could evaporate quickly as the Trump administration continues its attacks against environmental regulation and protection.
New EPA Rule Would Sabotage Clean Water Act https://t.co/HpPkePSyYy— Enviro Voter Project (@Enviro Voter Project)1544465047.0
What water issues do you think will matter most in the coming year? Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #Water2019.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
As people in North and South Carolina continue to confront flooding and other massive damage from Hurricane Florence, it's heartbreaking to watch them have to deal with yet another hazard: the toxic coal ash leaked from coal ash ponds and landfills in the region. Even more infuriating is the denial coming from the company responsible for that pollution in the first place—Duke Energy in North Carolina.
On Sept. 19, Duke Energy activated a high-level emergency alert at the retired L.V. Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, as Hurricane Florence–related flood waters from the nearby Cape Fear River overtook an earthen dike and Sutton Lake. That same day, the Neuse River flooded all three of Duke's coal ash ponds at the retired H.F. Lee coal plant in Goldsboro.
On Sept. 21, Duke reported that dams at both the north and south end of Sutton Lake had been breached by floodwaters from Florence. In addition, floodwaters have overtopped a retaining wall between the lake and one of the unlined coal ash dumps at the site. Coal ash was observed in the lake, and Duke acknowledged it's possible that coal ash is flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Our friends at the Waterkeeper Alliance took photos and videos of coal ash in several waterways. Yet, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Duke Energy has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of its ash ponds, hiding behind the fact that coal ash which contains toxins including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum and chloride—is not designated as a hazardous waste.
Jo-Anne McArthur / Waterkeeper Alliance / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Duke Energy spokesperson Paige Sheehan claimed in a recent statement that, "It is a very common misconception that ash is toxic, but routine toxicity tests on our basin water continue to demonstrate it's not."
You have got to be kidding me. It's jaw dropping and infuriating to me that utility executives are still claiming coal ash is harmless after all the disasters of recent years—from massive coal ash spills, to the health problems plaguing workers who cleaned them up, to the hundreds of other communities home to coal ash sites where families living with polluted air and water are paying the ultimate price for this tired old lie. The public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping have been known for many years, including increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma and other illnesses.
The Sierra Club and our allies have worked for years to force cleanup of these sites, both by pushing for stronger federal and state safeguards, and through litigation and organizing at the local level. Represented by our friends at the Southern Environmental Law Center, we even secured a Clean Water Act settlement that required Duke to move its ash from unlined pits at the Sutton plant to a lined landfill. Unfortunately, that work wasn't completed fast enough to prevent some of the damage—and even the lined landfill was also breached by the hurricane, underscoring that while some methods of storing coal ash are better than others, the only true solution is to generate power with clean energy and stop creating coal ash altogether.
Carolina residents have long warned Duke Energy, state officials, and the public about these coal ash landfills being a disaster waiting to happen—and many of the ash sites had already leaked several times long before Florence came ashore. The coal ash sites are frequently near low-income communities and communities of color, as CityLab's Brentin Mock documents in these two powerful articles about Hurricane Florence and the long-time environmental justice fights in the Carolinas.
There is no completely safe way to store toxic coal waste, or to mine and burn coal, that doesn't threaten communities, our waterways, and our climate. Knowing all the problems that coal ash causes, Duke needs to stop burning coal and retire all of its coal plants soon. Duke Energy should also take greater advantage of the abundant and affordable clean, renewable energy sources and phase out its use of unnecessary fracked gas plants. And the EPA should strengthen our federal coal ash safeguards, rather than gutting them as the Trump administration is now doing.
Hurricane Florence should be Duke Energy's wakeup call to remove its ash from all of its unlined, leaking coal ash pits next to waterways and take the necessary steps to ensure that all of its landfills are secure as possible and won't contaminate communities—not only when there are massive storms but also from everyday leaching into our groundwater.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I've joined millions who've watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We've seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state's thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.
And while the state's pork industry was already under fire for its day-to-day impacts on the health and quality of life of nearby residents, Florence has laid bare the lie that millions of animals and their copious waste can be safely concentrated in flood-prone coastal areas like southeastern North Carolina.
CAFO "Lagoons" are Releasing a Toxic Soup
The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. As rivers crested on Wednesday, state officials believed that at least 110 hog manure lagoons—open, earthen pools where pig waste is liquified and broken down by anaerobic bacteria (causing their bubblegum-pink color) before being sprayed on fields—had been breached or inundated by flood waters across the state:
The tally by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is rising rapidly (it was just 34 on Monday). Perhaps not surprisingly, the state's pork industry lobby group is reporting much smaller numbers: by Wednesday afternoon, the North Carolina Pork Council's website listed only 43 lagoons affected by the storm and flood.
In any case, the true extent of the spills may not be known for many days, as extensive road closures in the state continue to make travel and assessment difficult or impossible.
The Scale of North Carolina's CAFO Industry is Shocking
In 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used federal and state geographical data and analyzed high-resolution aerial photography to create a series of interactive maps showing the locations and scale of CAFOs concentration in the state. The map below shows the location of hog CAFOs (pink dots), poultry CAFOs (yellow dots) and cattle feedlots (purple dots) throughout the state.
Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used public data to create maps of CAFO locations in North Carolina in 2016.
Note the two counties in the southeastern part of the state, Duplin and Sampson, where the most hog CAFOs are concentrated—nearly as pink as a hog lagoon, these counties are Ground Zero for the state's pork industry. In Duplin County alone, where hogs outnumber humans 40-to-1, the Waterkeeper/EWG data show there were, as of 2016, more than 2.3 million head of swine producing 2 billion gallons of liquid waste per year, stored in 865 waste lagoons. (Duplin County was also home to 1,049 poultry houses containing some 16 million birds that year.)
The State's CAFOs Harm Communities of Color Most
"Lagoon" is a curious euphemism for a cesspool. Even without hurricanes, these gruesome ponds pose a hazard to nearby communities. In addition to the obvious problem of odor, they emit a variety of gases—ammonia and methane, both of which can irritate eyes and respiratory systems, and hydrogen sulfide, which is an irritant at very low exposure levels but can be extremely toxic at higher exposures.
These everyday health hazards hurt North Carolinians of color most of all. To pick on Duplin County again, U.S. Census figures show that one-quarter of its residents are black and 22 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, compared to white people, black people are 54 percent more likely to reside near these hog operations, Hispanics are 39 percent more likely, and Native Americans are more than twice as likely.
What does all that mean for health and environmental justice? Residents near the state's hog CAFOs have complained for years of sickening odors, headaches, respiratory distress and other illnesses, and have filed (and begun winning) a series of class-action lawsuits against the companies responsible for them.
Just this month, researchers at Duke University published new findings on health outcomes in communities close to hog CAFOs in the state. They found that, compared with a control group, such residents have higher rates of infant death, death from anemia, and death from all causes, along with higher rates of kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for low-birthweight infants. (Read the full study or this review.)
CAFO damage from Florence was predictable … and will get worse
Releases of bacteria-laden manure sludge from CAFO lagoons in flooding like we're seeing this week compound the day-to-day problem, and they're inevitable in a hurricane- and flood-prone state like North Carolina. Between 1851 and 2017, 372 hurricanes have affected the state, with 83 making direct landfall in North Carolina. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wreaked havoc similar to what we're seeing this week.
As you can see on the map below, Florence dumped between 18 and 30+ inches on every part of Duplin County.
It's not surprising that flooding from such an event would be severe. And while the North Carolina Pork Council called Florence "a once-in-lifetime storm," anyone who's paying attention knows it's just a matter of time before the next one.
Millions of Animals are Likely Drowned, Starved or Asphyxiated
In addition to the effects on communities near North Carolina's CAFOs, it's clear that Hurricane Florence has caused tremendous suffering and death to animals housed in those facilities. Earlier this week, poultry company Sanderson Farms reported at least 1.7 million chickens dead, drowned by floodwaters that swamped their warehouse-like "houses." Some 6 million more of the company's chickens cannot yet be accounted for. Overall, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Tuesday put the death toll at 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs, but those numbers may very well rise.
A major reason we don't yet know the full extent of animal deaths in North Carolina's CAFOs is that road closures due to flooding has cut off many of the facilities, preventing feed deliveries and inspections. Many animals likely also died in areas that experienced power failures due to the storm. According to this poultry industry document, a power outage that interrupts the ventilation system in a totally enclosed poultry CAFO can kill large numbers of birds by asphyxiation "within minutes."
North Carolina Farmers Face Staggering Financial Losses and Likely Bankruptcies
And what about the farmers? Many of the nation's hog and poultry producers are in already in a predicament. Corporate concentration has squeezed out many independent farmers, meaning more operate as contractors to food industry giants like Smithfield and Tyson. In the U.S. pork industry, contract growers accounted for 44 percent of all hogs and pigs sold in 2012. The farmers have little power in those contracts, and an early action of the Trump administration's USDA served to remove newly-gained protections against exploitation by those companies. The administration's trade war isn't helping either.
As one expert in North Carolina put it as Hurricane Florence approached:
A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that's on the farmer. That's their responsibility.
I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there's only so much they control. They can't control the weather. They can't control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities.
Post-Florence, these contract farmers are likely to receive inadequate compensation for the losses of animals in their care. A series of tweets this week by journalist Maryn McKenna, who has studied the poultry industry, illuminates the issues:
So, as the waters recede, many hog and poultry farmers are about to find themselves responsible for a ghastly cleanup job. Imagine returning home to find thousands of bloated animal corpses rotting in the September sun. They they were your livelihood, and now they're not only lost, but an actual liability you must pay to have hauled away.
Public Policies Should Encourage Sustainable Livestock Production, not CAFOs
And so it goes for farmers in today's vertically-integrated, corporate-dominated, CAFO model. But it doesn't have to be this way. Public policies can give more power to livestock farmers in the marketplace, protect animals and nearby communities from hazards associated with CAFOs, and facilitate a shift to more environmentally and economically sustainable livestock production practices.
If Hurricane Florence teaches us anything, it's that flood-prone coastal states like North Carolina are no place for CAFOs. At a minimum, the state must tighten regulations on these facilities to protect public health and safety. A 2016 WaterKeeper Alliance analysis found that just a dozen of North Carolina's 2,246 hog CAFOs had been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act, with the rest operating under lax state regulation. The state and federal government should also more aggressively seek to close down hog lagoons and help farmers transition to more sustainable livestock practices or even switch from hogs to crops. A buyout program already exists but needs much more funding.
In the meantime, the federal farm bill now being negotiated by Congress also has a role to play. At least one farm bill program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, has been used in ways that underwrite CAFOs. In a 2017 analysis of FY16 EQIP spending, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that 11 percent ($113 million) of EQIP funds were allocated toward CAFO operations, funding improvements to waste storage facilities and subsidizing manure transfer costs. And the House version of the 2018 farm bill could potentially increase support for CAFOs by eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program—which incentivizes more sustainable livestock practices and offers a 4-to-1 return on taxpayer investment overall—and shifting much of its funding to EQIP.
The post-Florence mess in North Carolina illustrates precisely why that's a bad idea. Particularly in a warmer and wetter world, public policies and taxpayer investments should seek to reduce reliance on CAFOs, not prop them up.
"This was an unprecedented storm with flooding expected to exceed that from any other storms in recent memory. We know agricultural losses will be significant because the flooding has affected the top six agricultural counties in our state," said agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler in a press release.
The footprint of flooding from this storm covers much of the same area hit by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which only worsens the burden on these farmers.
When Matthew hit the state, it flooded more than 140 hog and poultry barns, more than a dozen open hog waste pits and thousands of acres of manure-saturated fields, the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance reported.
Poultry is the number one agricultural industry in North Carolina, with a statewide economic impact of $36.6 billion a year, according to the North Carolina Poultry Federation.
Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the country, issued a statement on Monday that 1.7 million of its broiler chickens "were destroyed as a result of flooding." Sixty of its 880 broiler houses in North Carolina flooded and another six broiler houses experienced damage. Four breeder houses out of a total of 92 in the state flooded.
Additionally, Sanderson said about 30 Lumberton-area farms, housing approximately 211,000 chickens in each, have been isolated by flood waters. More chickens could die if the company is unable to reach those farms with feed trucks.
"Losses of live inventory could escalate if the company does not regain access to those farms," the statement read.
The state is also the nation's second leading producer of hogs, with more than 2,100 farms that raise about 9 million hogs each year, according to the North Carolina Pork Council.
The 5,500 hog deaths from Hurricane Florence have already exceeded the 2,800 killed during Hurricane Matthew, the industry trade group wrote in a statement Tuesday.
"Our farmers took extraordinary measures in advance of this storm, including moving thousands of animals out of harm's way as the hurricane approached," the statement read. "We do not expect the losses to increase significantly, though floodwaters continue to rise in some locations and circumstances may change."
Animal rights group PETA called the animal deaths a "tragedy."
"These millions of deaths were preventable, but as long as a market exists for animal flesh, some people will turn a profit at the expense of animals," a spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. "PETA urges everyone to take personal responsibility, not shrug this tragedy off, and actually help stop future suffering by going vegan so that animals are no longer forced to endure the many types of cruelty inherent in the meat industry."
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was similarly "heartbroken" over the deaths.
"HSUS is heartbroken by the reports of the catastrophic numbers of farmed animal deaths resulting from the flooding related to Hurricane Florence," the organization told EcoWatch via email, adding that the animals "needlessly lost their lives."
"Having an emergency plan, regardless of the numbers of animals at your home, facility, or farm, is the responsibility of the humane steward caring for their welfare," HSUS added. "If the sheer number of animals makes evacuation extremely difficult or impossible, then a hard look needs to be taken at the number of animals being cared for and the opportunity for them to be considered in an emergency plan. The cost of not doing so, as we can see here, has a devastating impact on the community, the environment and the animals, and are further examples of why we need to reduce the reliance on these massive factory farms."
Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, at least 77 pig waste lagoons have either breached or are at risk of breaching, the New York Times reported, citing data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
North Carolina's hog and other concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste a year, according to the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance. Flooded CAFOs could release a potent mix of pollutants that can potentially harm human health and the environment.
Waterkeeper Alliance has conducted overflights at some of the industrial sites and agricultural operations impacted by Florence and is investigating the possible hazards left in the storm's wake.
"We've been working to address environmental hazards caused by industrial waste mismanagement in North Carolina for over two decades," said Will Hendrick, Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney and manager of the Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign in a statement received by EcoWatch. "As defenders of the state's rivers, lakes and streams, we're committed to documenting conditions and alerting the public to threats to public health and environmental quality stemming from Hurricane Florence."
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Duke University Study: N.C. Residents Living Near Large Hog Farms Have Elevated Disease, Death Risks
By Olga Naidenko and Sydney Evans
Residents of communities near industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina face an increased risk of potentially deadly diseases, Duke University scientists reported in a study released this week.
Researchers found that compared to communities without big hog farms, in the communities with the highest hog farm density, there were 30 percent more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with a blood bacterial infection, called sepsis. The communities near the heaviest concentration of large hog farms also had a greater risk of infant mortality and lower birth weight.
Duke scientists analyzed 2007-2013 data for disease-specific hospital admissions, emergency room visits and deaths across North Carolina. They compared the incidence of those health indicators among North Carolinians who live one to three miles from a hog farm to residents who live six to 12 miles away. An estimated 650,000 North Carolinians live within three miles of a large hog farm, according to an EWG geospatial analysis of state data, which was not part of the Duke study.
*Elevated risk of deaths, hospital admissions and emergency room visits from health problems such as anemia, kidney disease, and sepsis, increase for residents living at approximately 1, 3, and 6-mile distances from a hog farm.
Source: EWG, from 'Mortality and Health Outcomes in North Carolina Communities Located in Close Proximity to Hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,' NCMedicalJournal.com, September 2018.The study adds a striking level of detail to prior reports of higher frequency of asthma, bacterial infections, high blood pressure and various respiratory and neurological disorders for workers and residents in the vicinity of large concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
Studies like this do not prove that contaminants from hog farms are responsible for these illnesses. Other factors, such as availability of local health care facilities and residents' lifestyles, also play a role. However, the overall evidence shows a strong correlation between the proximity and density of hog CAFOs and nearby residents' health—a strong argument for added public health protections, such as limits on the number, size and locations of factory swine farms.
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeeper Alliance reported in 2016, every year North Carolina's CAFOs produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste, enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Much of this waste is stored in open-air pits, then sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer. Manure pits foul the air and water with bacteria, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.
EWG analyzed the latest data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality on animal facilities permitted as of January 2018 and residential parcel information available on the NC OneMap GeoSpatial Portal.
We determined that 252,070 homes fall within a three-mile zone from an animal farm or a wet manure storage pit. Based on U.S. Census data showing a statewide average of 2.6 residents per household, an estimated 650,000 or more North Carolinians live within three miles of a hog CAFO.
Click on the map below to see EWG's interactive map of hog CAFOs within three miles of homes in North Carolina.
The most impacted counties are in southeastern North Carolina, where the concentration of pig farms is heaviest. In 2014, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that African-American, Hispanic and American Indian residents in those counties are disproportionately affected by the air and water pollution from animal farming.
An earlier study, based on the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service's health surveillance data, found that children attending schools within three miles of a hog farm had more asthma-related symptoms, doctor-diagnosed asthma and asthma-related medical visits than students who attended schools farther away.
The senior author of the new study was Dr. H. Kim Lyerly, the George Barth Geller Professor of Cancer Research; professor of surgery, immunology and pathology; and director of the Environmental Health Scholars Program at Duke University. He emphasized that communities living near hog farms had significantly worse health outcomes, including higher rates of infants with low birth weight.
"Interventions, such as screening and/or early detection, could be employed in these communities to reduce the burden of these diseases," Lyerly said. "The overall benefit to the communities and to the state would be significant."
"The average number of hogs per farm in North Carolina is much higher than in two other states with extensive pig farming, Iowa and Minnesota. Yet, North Carolina's population is greater, which means the number of people affected is substantial," said Dr. Julia Kravchenko, assistant professor in the Duke University Department of Surgery and the primary researcher for the study.
Air and water quality affects communities near CAFOs nationwide. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Inspector General issued a report faulting the agency for dragging its feet for 11 years and failing to assure that CAFOs comply with the requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.
When Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina in 2016, it flooded more than 140 feces-strewn industrial-scale swine and poultry barns, more than a dozen open pits brimming with liquid hog waste and thousands of acres of manure-saturated fields. As Hurricane Florence—far bigger than Matthew—bears down on the state, Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeeper Alliance are prepared to again assess the impact on North Carolina's concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.
Florence is poised to be the strongest hurricane to hit the Carolinas in 30 years. Its torrential rains are likely to drench the swine and poultry barns and manure pits that are scattered statewide, but heavily concentrated in the lowlands of southeastern North Carolina.
When floodwaters reach CAFO barns, manure pits or fields where liquid waste is sprayed as fertilizer, nearby lakes, rivers and streams may become contaminated with a devil's brew of pollutants that can be extremely hazardous to human health and the environment. The contaminated water may contain deadly pathogens, such as E. coli or salmonella, which could make drinking water and recreational waters dangerous.
North Carolina's hog and other CAFOs produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste a year—enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Within the 100-year floodplain of 47 coastal counties, 62 CAFOs house more than 235,000 hogs and 30 other operations house more than 1.8 million chickens. There are 166 open-air waste pits directly within the 100-year floodplain, and another 366 within 100 feet of the floodplain.
In November 2016, EWG and Waterkeeper used aerial photos, satellite imagery and geospatial mapping to provide the first publicly available, detailed analysis of Hurricane Matthew's impact on CAFOs along the Neuse, Black and Cape Fear rivers. The organizations will conduct a similar assessment in the days after Florence passes.
"Obviously, our first concern is for people directly threatened by the storm," said Soren Rundquist, EWG's director of spatial analysis. "But by mapping the impact on CAFOs, we want to drive home the recklessness of placing densely concentrated industrial-scale livestock operations in a low-lying area regularly deluged by tropical storms."
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A pipeline exploded in Beaver County, Pennsylvania at approximately 5 a.m. Monday morning, causing a large fire and prompting the evacuation of dozens of homes in the area.
The valves to the pipeline were shut off and the fire extinguished itself by 7 a.m., the company said in a statement via WPXI's Mike Holden:
Statement from Energy Transfer of Texas. https://t.co/iJ4zZnV5Kk— Mike Holden (@Mike Holden)1536589054.0
"All of the appropriate regulatory notifications have been made. An initial site assessment reveals evidence of a landslide in the vicinity of the pipeline. The line has been safely isolated and depressurized until a thorough investigation can be completed." Sunoco spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger said Monday in a statement to the Daily Local.
No injuries were reported, but one home, two garages and several vehicles were destroyed by fires, according to the Associated Press. Interstate 376 was closed and the Central Valley school district also canceled classes.
"I saw the ball of flames above the trees and it was easily 150 to 200 feet up in the air. It was serious," resident Chuck Belczyk told KDKA.
An investigation into the incident is now underway. A landslide that happened near the pipeline could be a possible trigger. Nearly 5 inches of rain fell between Friday night and Monday morning, Trib Live noted, citing National Weather Service data.
More incredible video of the gas line explosion in Beaver County this morning in Center Township. https://t.co/DYC11CM435— Rick Dayton (@Rick Dayton)1536581171.0
The explosion has prompted calls from environmentalists and lawmakers to halt the Sunoco's Mariner East pipeline, which is currently under construction in Pennsylvania.
"I am calling for an immediate halt to all pipeline construction activities," State Rep. Chris Quinn (R-168) said in an online statement. "This pipeline should not be built until the real and legitimate safety and environmental concerns raised by myself and local residents have been fully addressed."
State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19) tweeted that these kinds of pipelines should not be so close to schools, residential neighborhoods and community centers.
"With every week we have more and more evidence why highly volatile natural gas liquid pipelines should not be in high-consequence areas and how Sunoco and Energy Transfer Partners have an abysmal track record when it comes to public safety," Dinniman continued. "The explosion in Beaver County is a chilling reminder of just how powerful and dangerous these pipelines can be."
Energy Transfer Partners, which owns more than 83,000 miles of natural gas, crude oil, natural gas liquids and refined products pipelines, is the parent company behind the controversial Dakota Access and Bayou Bridge pipelines.
Waterkeeper Alliance noted that the energy firm has had a history of pipeline accidents.
"Waterkeeper Alliance and Greenpeace meticulously documented more than 500 spills and millions of dollars in fines and property damage by Energy Transfer Partners in a report released earlier this year," Waterkeeper Alliance staff attorney Larissa Liebmann said in a statement received by EcoWatch.
Their April report found that Energy Transfer Partners, its subsidiaries including Sunoco, and joint ventures reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents to federal regulators from 2002 to 2017, or once every 11 days on average for 16 years.
Monday's explosion, Liebmann continued, "proves that ETP is still putting lives at risk and cannot be trusted to operate pipelines safely, and is a grim reminder of our nation's need to quickly transition to clean and safe forms of energy like solar and wind."
Sam Rubin of Food & Water Watch commented to the Daily Local that the explosion "is a terrifying reminder that pipelines fail."
"Communities across the state face similar risks if the Mariner East 2 pipeline becomes operational," Rubin added. "Governor Tom Wolf has utterly failed to protect public safety so far, but there is still time to avoid catastrophe by stopping Sunoco's Mariner pipeline right now."
Federal District Court Judge Shelly Dick on Friday halted the construction of the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline across the Atchafalaya Basin. The decision grants a preliminary injunction to prevent ongoing irreparable harm to this ecological treasure while a lawsuit, filed Jan. 11, is being heard.
Judge Dick found that the lawsuit filed by several groups—Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association (West), Gulf Restoration Network, Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, represented by lawyers with Earthjustice—raises serious concerns and that the 162-mile pipeline would irreparably harm the Atchafalaya Basin.
The Atchafalaya Basin is located in southern Louisiana. The proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline would connect the Dakota Access Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico.
The groups recently presented live testimony during a hearing showing that the ancient cypress and tupelo trees slated to be turned into mulch while the pipeline right-of-way is being cleared would never return, including evidence that these old-growth trees are the Noah's Ark of the swamp—providing habitat for migratory birds, bears, bats and numerous other wildlife.
In addition, the groups showed that pipeline construction would further degrade nearby fishing grounds that local commercial crawfishers rely on for their livelihood.
"The court's ruling recognizes the serious threat this pipeline poses to the Atchafalaya Basin, one of our country's ecological and cultural crown jewels," said Jan Hasselman, attorney from Earthjustice representing plaintiffs in this matter. "For now, at least, the Atchafalaya is safe from this company's incompetence and greed."
Jody Meche, a third-generation commercial crawfisher and president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, testified about how the Bayou Bridge pipeline would make existing problems worse—problems created by the irresponsible behavior of oil and gas companies during construction to previous pipelines in the basin.
These problems include hypoxic water conditions that kill crawfish, eliminating harvests in areas of the Basin, the safety of local communities and the survival of Cajun culture.
"We fight the fight for years, telling our story, raising public awareness about the issues we have in the Atchafalaya Basin," Meche said. "It felt great to finally be able to tell my story in a courtroom."
Crawfisherman Jody Meche drives through Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin on his way to check his traps. Read a Q&A with Meche.Emily Kasik
"After years of witnessing the systematic destruction of the Basin with impunity by these companies, while our government turns a blind eye, it felt good to finally tell our story to a person with the power to make a difference," said Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper.
The groups also raised concerns about the fact that construction of the pipeline would decrease natural flood protection in the basin, which acts as the major floodway project that protects millions of people in coastal Louisiana and the Mississippi River valley from Mississippi flood waters.
A community meeting in Napoleonville, Louisiana, on the Bayou Bridge pipeline on Feb. 8, 2017, where residents voiced opposition to the project.Emily Kasik
The Bayou Bridge pipeline project proposes to connect the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports volatile and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in St. James Parish and export terminals, forming the southern leg of the Bakken Pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), which owns the Dakota Access Pipeline and is a joint owner in the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline, has one of the worst safety and compliance records in the industry.
Oil and gas infrastructure in the basin, where hundreds of pipelines have been built.Emily Kasik
Federal data shows that Energy Transfer Partners and its subsidiary Sunoco Inc. have been responsible for hundreds of significant pipeline incidents across the country in the last decade.
Last week, Sunoco was fined a record $12.6 million by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for violations incurred during the construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline.
The court ordered BBP to halt construction, citing the need to prevent further irreparable harm until the matter can be tried on the merits. The judge said the court would provide a more detailed opinion at a later date.
"The Bayou Bridge pipeline would pose an unacceptable risk to the wetlands, water, and communities along its route, and should never be built. It is a relief that the court has granted this injunction so we can make our case against this dirty, dangerous pipeline, and we will continue to fight until it is stopped for good," said Julie Rosenzweig, Sierra Club Delta Chapter director.
By Susan Cosier
As Mark Mattson waited to speak to Canada's minister for the environment, Catherine McKenna, about the Great Lakes last December, he could feel the weight of the 184-page report he carried in his shoulder bag. At the Toronto meeting, McKenna asked Mattson, founder and president of the Lake Ontario arm of the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, what she could do to help protect the five massive basins. He handed her the contents of his bag, with the important parts underlined or highlighted.
"I told her, 'You need to look at this report and you need to take it very seriously," said Mattson.
The document, the First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, was published in November by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a group formed in 1909 to help prevent disputes over transboundary waters. It is the first such appraisal of the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world since 2012, when the U.S. and Canada updated the bilateral agreement on water quality in the lakes.
To compile the document, the six IJC commissioners drew on the latest science on the Great Lakes. They also reached out to communities across the region to come up with steps government bodies can take to ensure that the water becomes drinkable, fishable and swimmable—the highest standard for freshwater.
Sure, the Great Lakes are a lot cleaner than they were back in the 1960s, when a Cleveland newspaper pronounced Lake Erie dead due to the huge amount of industrial and agricultural pollution and sewage that had flowed into it. But as recently as 2014, pollution rendered Toledo's water unsafe to drink. And the dead zone that materializes in Lake Erie every summer serves as a reminder that the lakes still aren't clean enough to meet the drinking water, recreational and aquaculture needs of the surrounding communities.
"I think Lake Erie is the perfect example of how, if we aren't diligent and we don't keep constant pressure on governments and agencies to maintain the quality of the lakes, we see what happens," said IJC's public affairs officer, Sally Cole-Misch.
Many people are shocked to learn that communities along the Great Lakes' shores still dump untreated sewage into the water. In just one year, the authors note, 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada allowed 92 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater to course into the lakes.
Boats going through an algae bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.Aurora Photos / Alamy
Phosphorus, mostly in runoff from farm fields, continues to wash into the lakes and contribute to algae blooms. In Ohio, the agricultural community did adopt voluntary measures to reduce the amount of pollution from fertilizer in Lake Erie, but it isn't subject to mandatory limits. The IJC now recommends these. In Michigan, the state government recently designated its portion of Lake Erie "impaired," allowing the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality to limit the amount of agricultural nutrient that can wash into the waterway. That step marks the first time a Great Lakes state has taken such an action against a non-point source of pollution. Wisconsin has set nutrient pollution caps for waterways, but not specifically for Lake Michigan.
A warming climate only exacerbates the problems facing the Great Lakes, said Cole-Misch. Stronger storms that come with higher temperatures soak the region and can overwhelm infrastructure in places like Chicago, whose Deep Tunnel project is designed to prevent floodwater and sewage from surging into rivers and Lake Michigan. But even that massive public work may not be able to catch the amount of water that cascades into the system as storms intensify.
Deep Tunnel project at Thornton Quarry, Thornton, Illinois.Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy
Invasive species and pollutants like microplastics and flame retardants already threaten the lakes, and more should be done to address even bigger problems likely to occur down the line, the commissioners argue. "Preventing harm in the first place is a new imperative for all of us," said Cam Davis, a former EPA chief liaison to the U.S. Congress for the Great Lakes who now works as a consultant.
The commission's suggestions, however, are just that. States are not required to implement them. But following the panel's counsel would keep the lakes safer for the 34 million people who depend on their waters—as well as the 65 million pounds of fish pulled from their depths each year. More people would be drawn to the region, a sure way to create more environmental stewards, said Mattson.
Already, citizens help monitor the lakes for pollution. Every month, up to 75 members of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, for example, monitor water quality in the Niagara River watershed, which acts as a drain for Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The group also publishes annual water quality reports and maps. In the new report, IJC recommends establishing a new binational monitoring program that would make information about potential health hazards in all of the Great Lakes available to the public.
American Falls and the Niagara River.Jesse Davis / Flickr
Government officials would be wise to act on that suggestion and the report's other recommendations, said Mattson, or risk losing "the people who are connected to the lake, are using the lake, and are caring about it." At stake, he said, is "a generation of people who are going to help us restore it."
Canada's environment minister McKenna seems to be listening: After Mattson handed her the IJC report, her government informed the Waterkeeper Alliance that it will soon announce new initiatives, actions and funding for the Great Lakes. Mattson's confident they'll be in line with the report's recommendations.
OnEarth's Midwest correspondent, Susan Cosier previously worked at Audubon magazine and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program.
U.S. Bank Quietly Joins $4B Deal With Dakota Access Owner After Declaring End to Oil and Gas Pipeline Loans
By Sharon Kelly
At a shareholder meeting this past spring, U.S. Bank announced it would be the first large American bank to completely stop issuing loans for oil and gas pipeline construction projects.
Environmental groups, indigenous activists and divestment advocates hailed U.S. Bank's announcement as a triumph.
Yet that triumph—and the bank's commitment—seems less sure with the news that U.S. Bank has entered into a new $4 billion loan deal with the company behind the contentious Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).
For months, the bank had been under fire for financing the Dakota Access pipeline by providing over a quarter billion dollars worth of funding to its builder, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). Environmentalists famously dropped a banner calling on U.S. Bank to divest from DAPL at the New Years 2017 Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears football game.
The language of the bank's new policy seemed blunt.
"The company does not provide project financing for the construction of oil or natural gas pipelines," U.S. Bancorp, parent company of U.S. Bank, wrote in its April 2017 Environmental Responsibility Policy.
Some advocates remained skeptical, however, pointing out that the line of credit extended to Energy Transfer Partners wouldn't be covered by that language, because it could be considered a loan for the company as a whole, not the more specific "project financing." And U.S. Bank's CEO told shareholders that his bank wouldn't end its existing Energy Transfer Partners deal, saying that instead it would "fulfill that contract and commitment."
"We know there are always loopholes through which banks will try to pass off responsibility," Rachel Heaton of Mazaska Talks and a Muckleshoot Tribe member told Yes Magazine, "but we will continue to resist until these banks completely divest from all pipeline and fossil fuel corporations and incorporate the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples into their corporate lending structures."
Even if that specific contract wasn't going to be torn up, environmental groups hoped that in the future, the bank would limit its funding of fossil fuel projects.
CEO Andy Cecere "strongly implied that the bank would pull back from pipelines and ETP in particular—aside from its obligations under its 'contract with ETP' (i.e. its existing credit facility)," Brant Olson, Program Director at ClimateTruth.org, told DeSmog.
U.S. Bank's new environmental policy added that any new deals the bank did with companies in the oil and gas pipeline industry would have to undergo additional scrutiny, including a look at their environmental record.
"We want to confirm that a firm's policies and processes are sound and effective as they relate to the environment and the community in which it operates," the policy adds. "In accordance with our environmental responsibility commitment, we prohibit relationships with customers who participate in any illegal activities."
Transferring More Money to Energy Transfer Partners
That's why it was so striking when Energy Transfer Partners quietly announced in a Dec. 1 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that U.S. Bank was part of ETP's new $4 billion credit deal.
ETP's projects include numerous controversial fossil fuel pipelines nationwide, including not only Dakota Access, but also Mariner East 2, Rover, Bayou Bridge, and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline.
Asked whether Energy Transfer Partners had passed muster during the additional due diligence in U.S. Bank's much-lauded environmental review policy, U.S. Bank's spokesperson Cheryl Leamon declined to comment. "As a matter of policy, we do not discuss customer relationships," she told DeSmog in an email.
Environmentalists hoped that this was a chance for U.S. Bank to end its dealings with ETP. StopETP.org, a coalition of national and local environmental and indigenous rights groups, wrote a letter to the bank in November, urging it to use the chance to cut ties with ETP, which was seeking to renew its $4 billion credit line in a deal involving numerous major banks.
But U.S. Bank has apparently refused, said Food and Water Watch senior researcher Dr. Hugh MacMillan, "after having scored praise back in May for its new pipeline finance policy."
U.S. Bank did not respond when asked about the types of law-breaking that might cross the line and cause a borrower to fail the bank's new due diligence requirements.
The bank's professed wariness of fossil fuel companies had drawn an angry response from the Energy Equipment and Infrastructure Alliance, which had fired off a letter to U.S. Bank protesting the new policy. "This creates the presumption that firms and people involved in these areas, including those providing construction, equipment, materials, services or other support to these operations, are more likely than all others to be 'bad actors'," the trade group wrote, "thus requiring a higher level of scrutiny."
That additional environmental record review was widely expected to be particularly bad news for Energy Transfer Partners, which has an environmental record that includes more than 300 pipeline incidents in the past decade, causing over $67 million dollars in property damage, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
"From January 2010 through June 2017, ETP spilled hazardous liquids near water crossings more than twice as frequently as any other pipeline company in the United States this decade [and w]as responsible for almost 20 percent of all hazardous liquid spills near water crossings," a recently published report by the Waterkeeper Alliance noted.
In November, one of Energy Transfer Partners' pipeline projects was was sued by Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency over 13 violations of the state's environmental laws, including spewing millions of gallons of drilling fluid into the state's wetlands.
"Among other things, ETP has caused seven industrial spills during the construction of the $4.2 billion natural gas pipeline through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan," Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. and Maria Cantwell, ranking members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Energy and Natural Resources, respectively, wrote in a July 27, 2017 letter to federal regulators decrying ETP's track record on complying with environmental laws.
The company's spill record has even drawn concern from investors, with The Street reporting, "'Energy Transfer seems to have an approach where they stick to the minimum requirements instead of exceeding them,' Genscape natural gas analyst Colette Breshears said."
Sunoco Logistics, which merged into ETP last year, had the worst oil spill record of any company in the industry, a 2016 Reuters investigative report found.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
By Marc Yaggi and Sandy Bihn
Before President Trump took office, a barrier designed to protect American jobs from a growing foreign threat had been researched by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. A month after President Trump took office, while promising that his strongman tactics would protect American jobs above all else, he quietly delayed the project.
This barrier along the Des Plaines River, also known as Brandon Lock, in Illinois was part of a plan by the federal government to defend the Great Lakes—the world's largest inland fishery—from an Asian Carp invasion. With its ability to crowd-out and outcompete American fish populations, this non-native fish species threatens thousands of American fishing and tourism businesses, the job markets of entire communities and more than $40 billion a year in revenue. The Asian Carp threat is powerful enough to unite republican and democratic leaders against it, but Trump has gone soft, choosing this invasive species over American livelihoods.
After escaping containment during floods in Louisiana in the 1990s, Asian Carp rapidly spread. Asian Carp breed like rabbits, eat like pigs and quickly grow so large natural predators can't kill them. When they enter a river, they consume all the available food, killing off the local market fish population and with it, our fishing businesses. They also have a dangerous habit of leaping out of the water when they hear a boat motor, earning them the nickname "bowling balls," as the 50+ pounders can hit boaters mid-air, cracking ribs and breaking jaws.
Asian Carp are barging through any nook and cranny they can find that leads to their promised land, Lake Erie. If we don't stop them, they will quickly make all 95,000 square miles of the Great Lakes their new permanent home, and then have unbridled access to the rest of America's major river systems. If they penetrate the Great Lakes, we lose jobs, billions in domestic revenue, generations-old businesses and our livelihoods.
Since 2010, the federal government has invested $300 million each year to successfully defend the Great Lakes with Asian Carp river barriers and underwater electric fences around the Great Lakes. Earlier this year, a federal report urged $275 million in both technological and structural improvements at an imperative Illinois lock to prevent these invasive fish from reaching the Great Lakes. According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Canadian counterparts on the state of the Great Lakes in 2017, so far, the barrier efforts defending the lakes from Asian Carp establishing itself in the lake have been successful—but the work isn't done.
We need to build more controls and continue to maintain existing barriers, yet Trump has chosen a much weaker plan, halting current barrier research and construction and proposing a complete elimination of funding in the future. Broad bipartisan support for a strong Great Lakes defense saved it from cuts in last week's congressional budget vote. Republicans stood arm in arm with Democrats and refused to sacrifice a dollar with thousands of jobs and businesses at stake.
Why has Trump gone so soft on defense of our Great Lakes economy? Some have speculated that a small special interest group of cargo shippers in Chicago may have an influence on Trump's decision. They worry a river barrier would slow the movement of goods through the area. In truth, the small industry makes up less than one percent of Chicago's local economy and businesses will only be inconvenienced while they make the transition to truck and rail transport. It's a grain of sand in comparison to the threat of Asian Carp to tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American businesses across multiple states.
The real reason is political. Trump is trapped in his own rhetoric. The Brandon Lock barrier study was released in August, but in order to build the recommended barriers, we need a federal budget that adequately funds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has spent has spent $56.6 million since 2010 on efforts to keep out Asian Carp, yet Trump's proposed budget would completely eliminate this program. Of course, if you ask any Great Lakes fishermen, they will tell you EPA is their homeland security, guarding their livelihood from this foreign threat. Now it is up to Congress to decide on EPA's budget, and we need a strong, well-funded EPA if we are to stop the spread of Asian Carp.
Congress: Don't go soft on Asian Carp when jobs and businesses, including those beyond Chicago, need your strength. Use EPA to build strong river barriers that stop the Asian Carp invasion and save American jobs. Please, do it before it's too late. If you're worried about looking like an environmentalist, tell the naysayers and the news media to talk to the people who depend on fishable water. Tell them to talk to the American fishermen of the Great Lakes after you've saved their livelihoods from an Asian Carp invasion. If you give EPA the ammunition they need to win this battle, the American families whose jobs you saved will thank you.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt appears in a video sponsored by the beef industry calling on farmers and ranchers to file official comments on a proposal to withdraw and rewrite the Obama-era "Waters of the United States" rule (or WOTUS) before the Aug. 28 deadline.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) video was produced by the beef lobbying organization's policy division, Beltway Beef and was released last week. Notably, NCBA spent $117,375 in lobbying last year.
"When comments are made a part of a record—as rule-making—we have an obligation to review them," Pruitt says. "It helps inform our decision-making process; it helps us make better decisions. And so we want farmers and ranchers across this country to provide comments."
The video, filmed in Colorado during Pruitt's cross-country State Action Tour, directs viewers to a BeefUSA.org link to submit comments on the proposed repeal. The site includes sample text to submit to the Federal Register.
"We're trying to fix the challenges from the 2015 rule," Pruitt says in the NCBA clip, "where the Obama Administration re-imagined their authority under the Clean Water Act and defined a Water of the United States as being a puddle, a dry creek bed, and ephemeral drainage ditches across this country, which created great uncertainty ... and we are fixing that, and then we're hearing from stakeholders about how to get it right as we go forward."
But law experts told E&E News that Pruitt's interpretation of the 2015 rule—which extends Clean Water Act protections to streams, wetlands and any water body that shares a "significant nexus" with clearly navigable waters—as "misleading" and "inappropriate."
For one, WOTUS specifically states that puddles are not considered waters of the U.S. E&E News also pointed out that the rule also excludes dry creek beds that do not have a bed, bank and high-water mark and ephemeral ditches that "flow only after precipitation."
Incidentally, as Oklahoma's former attorney general, Pruitt had sued the EPA over WOTUS, alleging that it amounted to executive overreach and a regulatory burden.
Environmental groups worry that nixing the Obama rule puts the country's waterways at risk. Waterkeeper Alliance warned in June: "Adopting a narrow definition of 'waters of the United States' (WOTUS) long sought by industry [will] allow uncontrolled pollution and destruction of our nation's rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands."
The EPA has since issued a response to its administrator's video appearance.
"As administrator Pruitt says in the video, receiving public comments from across the country helps EPA make informed decisions on proposed rules," an EPA spokeswoman said. "Just like the administrator's countless other interviews, there was no script and no cost to EPA to accommodate the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's request for a brief interview regarding EPA's State Action Tour and WOTUS."
When E&E News asked if the EPA's ethics office approved Pruitt's interview, the spokesperson responded: "It's absurd that E&E thinks we need their permission on what media outlets we can accept interview requests from."
NCBA spokesman Ed Frank told the publication that the video was an innocuous request for public comments.