By Derrick Z. Jackson
No punishment has yet fit the crime of the Flint water crisis, complete with its child poisoning and lethal outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. After a prior investigation fell apart in 2019, Michigan state prosecutors unveiled a slew of fresh charges against nine figures involved in the fateful penny-pinching move to switch Flint's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014. The river's waters, made corrosive from decades of industrial pollution, ate at Flint's old water pipes, releasing lead into drinking water and into the brains of thousands of children.
Lead is a neurotoxin with irreversible effects and is not safe to ingest at any level. The New York Times and Education Week reported in 2019 that the percentage of Flint's school children who qualified for individualized special education services more than doubled from 13 percent before the crisis to 28 percent after. Add to those victims, the one dozen people who did not survive their bouts with Legionnaire's disease, a type of pneumonia that scientists linked to the water supply switch. The PBS program Frontline determined in 2019 that a total of 115 Flint residents had died of pneumonia during the outbreak, suggesting deaths attributed to Legionnaire's had been undercounted, potentially by up to a factor of nearly 10.
Seven of the nine defendants — which include former state health and communications officials, former state-appointed emergency managers, and an ex-Flint public works manager — are staring down 5 to 15 years in prison for crimes including involuntary manslaughter and perjury. Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, however, only faces two relatively minor counts of willfully neglecting to intervene in his underlings' incompetence and failing to adequately protect the public against disaster.
In theory, Snyder could end up in prison for a year, and prosecutors say it is possible he could face more charges. Without them, he would be getting off easy for being asleep at the wheel during one of the greatest instances of environmental injustice in recent American memory.
Or was he truly "asleep"? Snyder's excuse during the crisis and ever since is that he never knew enough to stop the falling dominoes of decisions and cover-ups happening underneath him. Yet plenty of circumstantial documentation begs the contrary.
The City of Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River in April 2014. Snyder testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in March of 2016, saying it was not until October 2015 that he learned that Flint's drinking water had dangerous levels of lead and not until early 2016 that he became aware of the Legionnaire's disease epidemic. "As soon as I became aware of it," Snyder said, "we held a press conference the next day."
However, Tim Walberg, a congressman from Michigan and member of the House Oversight Committee confronted his fellow Republican with documents indicating that senior state environmental and communications officials were emailing about concerns regarding a Legionnaire's outbreak in Flint back in March 2015.
The Detroit Free Press, reporting on documents obtained by Progress Michigan, a watchdog group, cited a March 10, 2015, email from the environmental health supervisor of Genesee County, where Flint is the most populous city, saying that the dozens of Legionnaire's cases diagnosed at the time "closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to Flint River water." (The bacteria that causes Legionnaires is naturally occurring in many water systems across the country, and one water expert believes the switch over likely exacerbated an existing bacterial issue with the supply.) The supervisor characterized the epidemic as a "significant and urgent public health issue" and said the information was "explicitly explained" to Snyder's environmental quality officials.
This month, the online investigative news site The Intercept detailed a series of back-and-forth phone calls dating back even earlier, to October 2014, between Snyder and his chief of staff Dennis Muchmore. Those calls occurred at the same time Muchmore was in dialogue with top state health officials, which included a phone call with someone at the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. A special prosecutor characterized that call as "presumably about the outbreak." That call took place more than a year before Snyder told Congress he had found out about the deadly bacteria.
That same month that General Motors realized that the switch away from the Huron River was corroding new engine parts at its Flint plant. How much logic — or humanity — should it have taken to proactively wonder what the water was doing to residents, especially children, given what it was doing to car parts?
The Detroit Free Press reported that Valerie Brader, senior policy adviser and deputy legal counsel to Snyder, wrote other top aides in an October 14, 2014, email that Flint's water was "an urgent matter to fix," and that the supply should switch back to Lake Huron water delivered via Detroit's regional system. Michael Gadola, then Snyder's chief legal counsel, responded: "My Mom is a City resident. Nice to know she's drinking water with elevated chlorine levels and fecal coliform." Gadola, who today is a Michigan state appeals court judge, agreed Flint "should try to get back on the Detroit system as a stopgap ASAP before this thing gets too far out of control."
Yet somehow Snyder allegedly knew little or nothing of these discussions swirling about him. Two major reports have concluded the buck stopped with him. A Flint Water Task Force report, which Snyder himself commissioned, said in 2016 that while the state's environmental agency bore "primary responsibility" for causing the Flint water crisis, Snyder bore "ultimate accountability" for decisions coming out of his office.
Then a 2018 report by the University of Michigan's School of Public Health concluded Snyder bore "significant legal responsibility" for failing to heed citizen complaints at the outset of the crisis, issue a timely emergency declaration, and wrest control from negligent state environmental and health officials. "Flint residents' complaints were not hidden from the governor," the report's authors wrote. "He had a responsibility to listen and respond."
Snyder, however, has been so unscathed by what happened in Flint that Harvard's Kennedy School of Government awarded him a prestigious research fellowship in 2019. But howls from Flint, and an online protest petition started by a Kennedy School alum and signed by nearly 7,000 people forced Snyder to withdraw from the fellowship two days after it began.
The renewed spotlight on Snyder's role in the water crisis comes at a critical time for those who work for environmental justice. Newly inaugurated President Biden has, on paper, given it unprecedented prominence in his federal agenda. Many nominees for his Cabinet have scored significant victories for communities dealing with pollution, including his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland, who would oversee the creation of the first environmental and climate justice unit within the Department of Justice.
Snyder's blithe attitude about Flint symbolizes the urgency with which a Biden administration must make it clear to politicians and corporations that it is no longer business-as-usual to dump on poor people and communities made up predominately of people of color. At the federal level, Biden promises a Justice Department that will "hold corporate executives personally accountable — including jail time where merited." That is a heavy lift in a nation where corporate executives largely continue to live large no matter how many faulty planes drop out of the sky, how many defective cars kill people, how many predatory banking practices cause people to lose their homes and life savings, and how many particles of pollution causes cancer and brain damage. CEOs might get fired, they might get fined, but they rarely face bars.
A paper last year by legal scholars from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California noted "the near disappearance of individual liability, especially for top executives," in corporate crimes over the last decade. It concluded that "an enforcement regime that is limited in its ability to levy fines at an optimal level must rely on other forms of punishment — such as the imposition of liability on guilty individuals and the top executives who facilitate their crimes — to increase deterrence. Only then will corporate criminal punishment be seen as more than a cost of doing business."
Similarly, Cary Coglianese and Sierra Blazer of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, co-wrote a 2019 op-ed in The Hill during the height of the scandals surrounding Boeing, after two of its 737 Max planes crashed, killing 346 passengers and crew members. Donald Trump's Department of Justice had prosecuted lower-level technical pilots for fraud related to the federal approval process of the Max. "Prosecutions of lower-level employees would do nothing to assure the public that incentives at the very top of the organization align with passenger safety," the pair wrote.
This month, Trump's Justice Department announced a $2.5 billion settlement with Boeing over the fraud charges. No executive went to jail. Nadia Milleron, who lost her daughter, Samya Stumo, summed up the outcome for the Washington Post: "This is just a blip for Boeing."
To-date, the Flint water crisis has been a blip for Snyder. Environmental injustice nationally will also remain a blip, if governors and CEOs can keep throwing underlings under the bus while riding off in their limousines. As it now stands, the prosecution of lower-level employees will not assure Flint residents who live with the effects of being poisoned that the law is aligned with their safety.
Reposted with permission from the author and Grist.
By Yvette Cabrera
This story was originally published on Grist on July 30, 2020
Fifteen years ago, Kamala Harris — San Francisco's District Attorney at the time — created an environmental justice unit in her office. The goal was to go after the perpetrators of environmental crimes that were hurting some of the city's poorest residents.
The state attorney general's office had emphasized the need for state and local law enforcement to step up because of a void left by federal authorities in the Bush administration who were busy rolling back environmental protections. "One of the best tools out there to go after polluters is to go after them on a criminal basis," a spokesperson for then–State Attorney General Bill Lockyer told SFGate in 2005. Across the country, communities burdened by pollution and contamination have been calling for that type of accountability at the federal level for decades.
Now, even as the Trump administration continues to aggressively roll back environmental regulations, that dream has a better chance of materializing. Harris, as California's junior senator, is fighting for a comprehensive piece of legislation that will give vulnerable communities the tools they need to address environmental disparities. On Thursday, Harris plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate to the Environmental Justice for All Act introduced earlier this year in the House of Representatives by Democrats A. Donald McEachin of Virginia and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona.
"Environmental justice is interconnected with every aspect of our fight for justice. From racial justice and economic justice, to housing justice and educational justice, we cannot disentangle the environment people live in from the lives they live," Harris told Grist in an email. "These crises we are experiencing have exposed injustices in our nation that many of us have known and fought our entire lives."
The Senate bill, whose lead cosponsors are Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, acknowledges how factors such as segregation and racist zoning codes have rendered communities of color more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and left them with limited resources to address ongoing environmental health disparities. To address this, the act aims broadly to meaningfully engage impacted communities in government decision-making processes, such as federal permitting decisions for infrastructure projects, the creation of climate resiliency plans, and the transition to clean energy.
For more than two years, Grijalva and McEachin have worked alongside environmental justice advocates to address these inequities during the drafting of the act. That work was underway well before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and before the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of a police officer this spring, which unleashed massive protests calling for the country to reckon with systemic racism. While the health crisis and movement for racial justice has put vulnerable communities in the spotlight, Grijalva told Grist that their aim was always to deliver a comprehensive environmental justice bill that could help these communities.
"The premise was … that we were going to deal with the systemic root causes, with the systemic solutions, not just cover up the problem or change one little thing or create another task force," said Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. "There had to be codified into law a systemic response to that systemic racism that created the situation."
The Environmental Justice for All Act would amend the Civil Rights Act to allow private citizens and organizations that experience discrimination to seek legal remedies when a program, policy, or practice causes a disparate impact. It would also require federal agencies to consider health effects that might compound over time when making permitting decisions under the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts. In addition, it would fund research on and programs to reduce health disparities and improve public health in disadvantaged communities. Under the act, new fees on oil, gas, and coal companies would go toward a fund to support workers and communities transitioning away from fossil fuel jobs. Finally, the act also intends to codify and make enforceable a longstanding executive order on environmental justice that then–President Bill Clinton signed in 1994.
McEachin told Grist that the House and Senate bills acknowledge the racist roots of environmental burdens in low-income communities and communities of color. "This is a moment in time that does not just focus on police brutality, does not just focus on confederate memorabilia. The focus is on 401 years of racial injustice in this nation, and part of that has to be environmental justice," said McEachin. "If we're going to achieve a clean energy future, climate justice, and relief for those communities, the frontline community has to be the very centerpiece of that plan."
The Black Lives Matter movement has helped the act gain momentum toward passage in the House — Grijalva is optimistic that he'll be able to bring the bill to the floor of the House for a vote by September. Some of the act has also been incorporated into other Democratic proposals, like the 538-page climate plan recently released by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Some of the act's proposals are also reflected in the environmental justice plan released by presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, said Grijalva.
For example, Biden plans to revise and reinvigorate Clinton's executive order that directs federal agencies to review programs that may have disproportionately high or adverse health and environmental effects. Historically, the agencies have been inconsistent in addressing environmental justice within their strategic plans.
Environmental advocates who were involved in the creation of the House bill expressed enthusiasm for Harris' sponsorship of the bill in the Senate and said that the legislation could be a game-changer for frontline communities. Kerene Nicole Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs for the New York City–based nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said that the consideration of cumulative health impacts during permitting processes would be particularly important, especially in states like Louisiana that don't have meaningful environmental legislation on the books.
"Having something like the EJ for All bill, to consider cumulative effects in Cancer Alley and all of those kinds of places that have long been a dumping ground for companies and industry, I think would start to give communities the legal protections they need and put the tools in place," said Tayloe.
Angelo Logan, who is the campaign director of the Los-Angeles-based Moving Forward Network and who was also involved in crafting the House bill, told Grist that he hopes the act sets the stage for more community involvement in creating legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. "I think there'll be a dramatic change, a complete positive impact on communities that are the most impacted by environmental racism," said Logan. "And the multiplying effects that it would have on communities is tremendous."
As a presidential candidate, Harris made acting on climate change a top priority. Last year, while running for president, she unveiled a climate equity plan with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and created a climate agenda that would address the climate crisis and environmental injustices while building a clean economy with well-paying jobs. As California's attorney general, she defended the state's landmark climate laws in court and sued Chevron U.S.A. Inc. for damaging the environment. Holding polluters accountable will be critical moving forward, and the Environmental Justice for All Act will help communities do just that, Harris told Grist via email.
Race, she noted, is the No. 1 predictor of where polluting facilities in America are located. And 70 percent of Americans who live in the highest air pollution areas of our country are people of color. "These disparities were in part intentionally created and so we must intentionally address them," said Harris. "That's what this bill does."
Reposted with permission from Grist.
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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 Maddie Stone
One of the starkest inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic is the difference between the digital haves and have-nots. Those with a fast internet connection are more able to work and learn remotely, stay in touch with loved ones, and access critical services like telemedicine. For the millions of Americans who live in an internet dead zone, fully participating in society in the age of social distancing has become difficult if not impossible.
But if the pandemic has laid bare America's so-called "digital divide," climate change will only worsen the inequality that stems from it. As the weather grows more extreme and unpredictable, wealthy urban communities with faster, more reliable internet access will have an easier time responding to and recovering from disasters, while rural and low-income Americans — already especially vulnerable to the impacts of a warming climate — could be left in the dark.
Unless, that is, we can bring everyone's internet up to speed, which is what Democratic lawmakers on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis are now hoping to do.
Buried in a sweeping, 538-page climate change plan the committee released last month is a call to expand and modernize the nation's telecommunications infrastructure in order to prepare it, and vulnerable communities around the country, for future extreme weather events and climate disruptions. The plan calls for increasing broadband internet access nationwide with the goal of getting everyone connected, updating the country's 911 emergency call systems, and ensuring cellular communications providers are able to keep their networks up and running amid hurricane force winds and raging wildfires. This plan isn't the first to point out that America's internet infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade, but it is unusual to see lawmakers frame better internet access as an important step toward building climate resilience.
To Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the moderate public policy think tank Third Way, this framing makes perfect sense. "You've got to build resilience into communities but also people," Kessler said. "And you can't do this without people having broadband and being connected digitally."
While the internet is often described as a great equalizer, access to the web has never been equal. High-income people have faster internet access than low-income people, urban residents are more connected than rural ones, and whiter counties are more likely to have broadband than counties with more Black and brown residents. And we're not just talking about a few digital stragglers being left behind: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that more than 18 million Americans lack access to fast broadband, which the agency defines as a 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed. Monica Anderson, who studies the digital divide at Pew Research Center, says that many more Americans do have broadband access in their area but don't subscribe because it's too expensive. "What we see time and again is the cost is prohibitive," Anderson said.
A lack of broadband reduces opportunities for people in the best of times, but it can be crippling in wake of a disaster, making it difficult or impossible to apply for aid or access recovery resources. Puerto Ricans experienced this in the aftermath of 2017's Hurricane Maria, which battered the island's telecommunications infrastructure and left many residents with terminally slow broadband more than a year after the storm had passed. Three years later, with a global pandemic moving vast swaths of the economy online for the foreseeable future, internet-impoverished communities around the country are feeling a similar strain.
To some extent, mobile networks have helped bridge the broadband gap in recent years. More than 80 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, with similar rates of ownership among Black, white, and Hispanic Americans. Nearly 40 percent of Americans access the internet primarily from a phone. As far as disaster resilience goes, this surge in mobile adoption is good news: Our phones allow us to receive emergency alerts and evacuation orders quickly, and first responders rely on them to coordinate on the fly. Of the 240 million 911 calls made every year, more than 80 percent come from a wireless device, per the FCC.
But in the age of climate change, mobile networks are becoming more vulnerable. The cell towers, cables, and antennas underpinning them weren't always built to withstand worsening fires and storms, a vulnerability that Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T have all acknowledged in recent climate change disclosures filed with the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project). And when these networks go down — as nearly 500 cell towers did during California's Camp and Woolsey fires in 2018, according to the new House climate change plan — it can create huge challenges for emergency response.
"Everything from search-and-rescue efforts to sending out warnings to getting people directions to shelters is facilitated through various telecommunications and internet," said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "We're pretty reliant on them."
Democrats' new climate plan seeks to address many of the problems created by unequal and unreliable internet access in order to build a more climate-hardy web and society.
To help bring about universal broadband access, the plan recommends boosting investment in FCC programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20 billion fund earmarked for broadband infrastructure deployments across rural America. It also calls for increased investment in programs like the FCC's Lifeline, which offers government-subsidized broadband to low-income Americans, and it recommends mandating that internet service providers suspend service shutoffs for 60 days in wake of declared emergencies. Broadband improvements should be prioritized in underserved communities that are "experiencing or are likely to experience disproportionate environmental and climate change impacts," per the plan.
As far as mobile networks go, House Democrats recommend that Congress authorize states to set disaster resilience requirements for wireless providers as part of their terms of service. They also recommend boosting federal investments in Next Generation 911, a long-running effort to modernize America's 911 emergency call systems and connect thousands of individually operating systems. Finally, the plan calls for the FCC to work with wireless providers to ensure their networks don't go offline during disasters for reasons unrelated to equipment failure, citing Verizon's infamous throttling of data to California firefighters as they were fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018.
Kessler of Third Way said that Democrats' climate plan lays out "the right ideas" for bridging the digital divide. "You want to be able to get the technology out there, the infrastructure out there, and you need to make sure people can pay for it," he said.
The call for hardening our internet infrastructure is especially salient to Paul Barford, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 2018, Barford and two colleagues published a study highlighting the vulnerability of America's fiber cables to sea level rise, and he's currently investigating how wildfires threaten mobile networks. In both cases, he says, it's clear that the telecommunications infrastructure deployed today was designed with historical extreme conditions in mind — and that has to change.
"We're living in a world of climate change," he said. "And if the intention is to make this new infrastructure that will serve the population for many years to come, then it is simply not feasible to deploy it without considering the potential effects of climate change, which include, of course, rising seas, severe weather, floods, and wildfires."
Whether the House climate plan's recommendations become law remains to be seen. Many of the specific ideas in the plan have already been introduced to Congress in various bills, including the LIFT America Act, which would infuse Next Generation 911 with an extra $12 billion in funding, and the WIRED Act, which would authorize states to regulate wireless companies' infrastructure.
Perhaps most significantly, House Democrats recently passed an infrastructure bill that would invest $80 billion in broadband deployment around the country overseen by a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth. The bill would mandate a minimum speed standard of 100/100 megabits per second for federally funded internet projects, a speed stipulation that can only be met with high-speed fiber optics, says Ernesto Omar Falcon, a senior legal counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties nonprofit. Currently, Falcon estimates that about a third of Americans have access to this advanced internet infrastructure, with a larger swath of the country accessing the web via older, slower, DSL copper or cable lines. "It would connect anyone who doesn't have internet to a 21st century line," Falcon said. "That's a huge deal."
The infrastructure bill seems unlikely to move forward in a Republican-controlled Senate. But the urgency of getting everyone a fast, resilient internet connection isn't going anywhere. In fact, the idea that internet access is a basic right seems to be gaining traction every day, even making an appearance last week in presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's new infrastructure plan. With the pandemic continuing to transform how we work, live, and interact with one another, and with climate change necessitating even larger transformations in the future, our need to be connected digitally is only becoming greater.
"I think every day the pressure mounts, because the problem is not going away," Falcon said. "It's really going to come down to what we want the recovery to look like. And which of the problems COVID-19 has presented us with do we want to solve."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Rachel Ramirez
"I can't breathe." These were among the final words that George Floyd and Eric Garner gasped before their deaths at the hands of white police officers. That plea has become part of the current rallying cry for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the U.S. But for black people living near industrial facilities, the phrase has an additional layer of meaning: a reminder of their disproportionate pollution burden.
"While many in power seemed surprised that COVID-19 is killing twice as many black Americans, those of us in the environmental justice movement know that the health impacts of cumulative and disproportionate levels of pollution in our communities have created underlying health conditions that contribute to our higher COVID-19 mortality rates," said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said at a virtual press conference on Monday.
Shepard is part of the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), a national coalition of black environmental justice groups and grassroots activists founded in 1991. Although the network took a hiatus in 2006 after executive director Damu Smith passed away, the network just announced that it's making a comeback against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls to fight racial injustice.
The network's mission sends a clear message: Environmental injustice is not a single issue. Rather, it's a constellation of issues including discrimination in housing, jobs, and healthcare.
It's impossible to untangle black communities' current risks from America's long history of racist policies and practices. Discriminatory policies such as banks' government-sanctioned refusal to approve home loans and insurance for people in communities of color, also known as redlining, forced black families into neighborhoods more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution and extreme heat. Now these same communities face a surge in unemployment and poverty rates as a result of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, and they are also disproportionately dying from the novel coronavirus as a result of a lack of health insurance, unequal access to test sites, and higher workplace exposure via employment in essential services. As if that wasn't enough, a recent Harvard study also found a link between air pollution and death from COVID-19.
Given the systemic conditions that disproportionately expose black people to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other worsening crises, NBEJN members — including the network's co-chairs, environmental justice pioneers Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright — say they are now looking to bring in black lawyers, engineers, leaders, and other experts to join forces to help create an equitable green stimulus package, take on the fossil fuel industry, and fight the Trump administration's seemingly endless orders to weaken environmental protections.
"We see these environmental rollbacks as not just fast-tracking project permits, but as a fast-track to the emergency room and cemeteries," said Bullard, an author and professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. "The NBEJN is about dismantling systemic racism, and we're talking about turning the dominant paradigm on its head."
Network leaders say COVID-19 recovery legislation could be an opportunity for lawmakers to pass a robust green stimulus package that would focus on environmental justice. Such a green stimulus package, the coalition said, needs to address core issues of systemic racism by, for example, providing green jobs to communities of color.
"Green stimulus packages often only look at protecting the world, but not protecting people like us," said Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. "Any stimulus package dealing with transportation to housing or whatever they're talking about doing will have to include us and need to be viewed with equity and justice lenses."
Even if an equitable green stimulus package makes it through Congress and the White House, there will still be a lot more work to be done. Bullard said that even if the Democratic party wins the presidential election or takes control of the Senate, it will take time to reverse Trump-era environmental policy damages, including the country's withdrawal from the 2016 Paris Agreement. Even then, he added, policymakers will need to take additional steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and center frontline communities. And NBEJN leaders say the network will stick around to make sure those steps are taken.
"Racism is baked into America's DNA," Bullard said. "NBEJN is needed today to fight these conversing threats and underlying conditions that are denying black people the right to breathe and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by white America."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Rachel Ramirez
Adán Vez Lira, a prominent defender of an ecological reserve in Mexico, was shot while riding his motorcycle in April. Four years earlier, the renowned activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home in Honduras by assailants taking direction from executives responsible for a dam she had opposed. Four years before that, Cambodian forest and land activist Chut Wutty was killed during a brawl with the country's military police while investigating illegal logging.
These are some of the most prominent examples of violence faced by environmental activists in recent years — but, according to a new report, they are not unusual. As police crack down on protests demanding justice and equity in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S., it's clear that activism in general comes at a heavy price. Environmental activists specifically — particularly indigenous activists and activists of color — have for years faced high rates of criminalization, physical violence, and even murder for their efforts to protect the planet, according to a comprehensive analysis by researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which was released last Tuesday.
The researchers analyzed nearly 2,800 social conflicts related to the environment using the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) database, which they created in 2011 to monitor environmental conflicts around the world. The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, found that 20 percent of environmental defenders faced criminal charges or were imprisoned, 18 percent were victims of physical violence, and 13 percent were killed between 2011 and 2019. The likelihood of these consequences increased significantly for indigenous environmental defenders: 27 percent faced criminalization, 25 percent were victims of physical violence, and 19 percent were murdered.
"We can think of this as compounded injustice, highlighting the extreme risks vulnerable communities opposing social and environmental violence against them face when they stand up for their rights," one of the study's researchers, Leah Temper, told Grist.
Environmental defenders, as the researchers defined them, are individuals or collectives that mobilize and protest against unsustainable or harmful uses of the environment. Examples of the sort of conflict covered by the study are the construction of pipelines on tribal lands, illegal mining in the Amazon rainforest, oil extraction in the Arctic, and the construction of fossil fuel refineries.
The analysis draws on last year's report from the human rights and environmental watchdog organization Global Witness, which found that at least 164 environmental activists were killed in 2018 alone. The Philippines was named the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders, who have been called terrorists by President Rodrigo Duterte.
In fact, not long after these findings, 37-year-old Brandon Lee, an American environmental activist who was in the Philippines on a volunteer mission, was shot four times in Ifugao province by unknown assailants after his group, the Ifugao Peasant Movement — a farmers group opposing a hydropower project — had been labeled an "enemy of the state" across social media by propagandists. As of April, Lee was recovering in his hometown of San Francisco, but he remains paralyzed from the chest down.
The lead author of last week's study, Arnim Scheidel, said he hopes that the analysis gives lawmakers and the public a better understanding of the causes of the violence that protesters still face around the world.
"Globally, indigenous peoples suffer significantly higher rates of violence in environmental conflicts," Scheidel said. "Being aware of these connections may help to connect struggles against various forms of racism worldwide. Protest is key for the success of such struggles, particularly when using diverse channels and building on broad alliances."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Emily Pontecorvo and Naveena Sadasivam
On a spring weekend morning a few weeks ago, Judy Kelly stepped outside of her house in Broomfield, Colorado, to grab the newspaper when her nose perked up. It smelled like something was burning.
Kelly, who's 73, lives in an upscale, 55-and-up retirement community called Anthem Ranch, which sits below the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The 1,300-home development is manicured and quiet, with green lawns and landscaped roads that flower out into smaller cul-de-sacs. Its active residents enjoy their own private fitness center, pool, movie theater, and more than 90 clubs that meet in a central community center. But about a quarter of a mile away from the southern border of this retirement dreamland sits a circle of fortress-like walls that enclose the Livingston fracking site, which contains 18 wells owned by Extraction Oil and Gas.
Kelly is among more than 200 Broomfield residents who have submitted complaints to the city since November, reporting chemical smells and symptoms like headaches, burning eyes, and nosebleeds that they believe are caused by oil and gas activity in the area.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
When she notified the city about the smell that morning, she was told that a city inspector had been on the site already and nothing was wrong. But Kelly was on high alert. Just a few days earlier, Extraction had begun "flowback," a part of the fracking process that is associated with some of the highest emission rates of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene. Even under normal circumstances, flowback scared Kelly, who had followed the devastation in neighboring Weld County when one of Extraction's wells exploded during the process in 2017, causing a major fire and injuring a worker. Kelly and her husband, who has pulmonary interstitial fibrosis, a lung disease, had planned on leaving town to stay with their son when flowback at Livingston began.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. On March 25, when Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the coronavirus's spread, Kelly and her neighbors were suddenly trapped, trying to avoid one health hazard while worrying about being exposed to another. After all, fracking remained a "critical" business, according to the state.
"Where am I going to go?" Kelly asked. "I can't go to a hotel. I can't risk that with my husband. I have nowhere to go now."
Kelly's dilemma is not unique. Across the country, millions of people live within half a mile of fracking sites and other oil and gas activity and are exposed to a slew of toxic chemicals in their day-to-day lives. Researchers have found that those living close to fracking are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses — the very underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the most severe outcomes from COVID-19. While many residents may have found ways to seek respite from these toxic emissions during normal times — whether it was working or going to school elsewhere, or simply moving in with friends and family during the most intense periods of activity — those options went out the window when state governors began announcing stay-at-home orders.
For its part, Extraction says that Anthem Ranch residents have nothing to worry about. The company did not respond to Grist's detailed list of questions, but in legal filings and public testimony it has stated that the new technology it uses for flowback has been shown to keep emissions far below the levels associated with traditional techniques. In a complaint filed in a Colorado court, the company's lawyers said that the "anxiety and stress" experienced by Broomfield residents was "self-induced."
Broomfield vs. Extraction
The unsettling bind that the stay-at-home order put many residents in was not lost on Laurie Anderson, a Broomfield city councilwoman who lives just half a mile from the fracking site in another neighborhood called Anthem Highlands. The night Governor Polis' order came down, a special meeting of the city council was scheduled to discuss the potential dangers of work continuing at the Livingston site during the pandemic. The council decided to draft a proposal ordering Extraction to postpone flowback — a process where the chemical-laden water used to fracture open the shale flows back to the surface and must be collected, treated, and disposed of — until the stay-at-home order was lifted.
"The thought was to protect these residents, to delay flowback, understanding that it has to happen because they've already fracked these wells," said Anderson, who is also an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national advocacy group that fights polluters. "It was only going to delay them for a couple weeks."
Of particular concern was Anthem Ranch, where the median age is 70 years old. The city's public health staff drafted up an order and included data showing that people over 65 are more susceptible to COVID-19 complications, that the top symptom reported by older Broomfield residents in the city's oil and gas complaint system was "anxiety/stress," and that stress and anxiety are linked to poor health outcomes in general.
But two days later, before the council could discuss the draft proposal, Extraction headed them off at the pass. The company secured a temporary restraining order from the Seventeenth Judicial District Court in Colorado, which prohibited the city from halting or delaying its operations. According to court documents, Extraction alleged that the city was acting in bad faith, trying to "shut down Extraction's operations not because they pose any real health risk, but because they are unpopular." Then, on March 30, the company filed an official complaint with the district court against the city, seeking damages for a breach of contract.
It's true that this was far from the first time Broomfield had tried to interfere with Extraction's … extraction. The city has battled the company at every stage of the drilling process in response to complaints from residents about odors, health symptoms, and noise.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
Several times the city has contacted the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a state regulatory body, to address those complaints. According to Megan Castle, a COGCC spokesperson, the agency intervened once in response to a noise issue and a second time to request the company swap drilling fluids which were causing odor complaints. Castle said the agency has conducted additional noise monitoring and did not find that the site was out of compliance with state regulations.
Andrew Bare, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that the nature of some of the complaints — such as odors that would likely have dissipated by the time inspectors reached the site — made taking action against Extraction "difficult." Bare said that the agency sent a mobile air monitoring lab to the site in response to residents' concerns and that the lab will remain near the Livingston site for at least another two weeks.
In legal documents, Extraction claims it has gone above and beyond the best management practices required by its operating agreement with the city, including investing more than $250 million on a "Next Generation Flowback" system to reduce emissions during the two to three months flowback is expected to last. At the public meeting last month, representatives from the company explained to the council that instead of storing and processing the flowback fluid on site, the company would ship it via pipeline to a facility in Weld County. They asserted that the design eliminates "99.9 percent of emissions" and significantly reduces the duration of the flowback phase. Later at the meeting, Barbara Ganong, a petroleum engineer who was hired by the city as a consultant, asserted that Extraction's decision to pipe fracking fluids offsite represented a "paradigm shift."
Air quality experts hired by the city gave a presentation showing that without this new closed system, emissions during flowback could have been 31 times higher than during fracking. Still, when they measured emissions during flowback at another Extraction well in a less populated part of town, they said emissions were still double those during fracking, even with the new system.
Broomfield residents interviewed by Grist were not reassured by Extraction's new technology. Kelly said the company told Broomfield that it was using the latest technology in every step of the process so far, but that the city has nevertheless had to step in multiple times after residents complained of noise and health symptoms.
"They've done nothing to make me feel like I can trust them and trust what they say," said Elizabeth Lario, who lives with her husband and daughter in the Wildgrass neighborhood a little less than a mile south of the Livingston site. Lario said she and her family have experienced migraines, nose bleeds, stress and anxiety, and throat irritation since drilling began last summer.
Broomfield fought the company's restraining order, and on April 6, the same judge who originally issued the temporary order agreed to dissolve it. He found that it was granted too soon, considering the city had not even officially taken action to delay or halt Extraction's operations yet. But the judge also issued a warning: If Broomfield exercised its regulatory powers in a way that was "arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to combating the spread of COVID-19," it would be back where it started, facing more legal action from Extraction.
The judge's warning created a new problem for Broomfield: The city's order was designed to protect public health, but it had nothing to do with preventing the spread of the virus.
Two days after the judge dissolved the restraining order, the city council finally put its public health order to a vote, but by that point, it had become harder to justify. Anderson and other city council members tried to rewrite the order in a way that didn't flout the judge's ruling. If they did, they thought Extraction was likely to take them to court again and the restraining order might be reinstated.
"I kept thinking we'll find a way forward," said Anderson. "But sometime between that Tuesday and Wednesday it became clear that there just wasn't a way forward that wouldn't result in a legal battle."
Ultimately, Anderson and the majority of the council voted the public health order down 9 to 1.
It was a devastating blow for Kelly and some other residents. As a member of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a nonprofit representing community groups and residents affected by fracking, Kelly has been at the forefront of the battle with Extraction, and in the past, the city has taken bold action to protect residents. While her home is about a mile from the Livingston site, she said she's most worried about some of her neighbors who are as close as a quarter-mile from the site.
"People that I've gotten to know over the last … almost seven years, who I really care about, are very close to it," she said. "And it scares me to death."
‘Why Didn’t You Protect Us?’
Leading up to that final vote, the city council was flooded with emails begging them to forge ahead with the public health order. After it decided to drop the issue, community members were on edge. Kelly said she understands why the city did what it did. But others are incredibly frustrated with the outcome. "I get so many calls from people that say, 'why didn't you protect us?'" she said. "They're so concerned about their health that they would have rather seen us in court."
One concern is what residents will do in case there is an emergency, like a major emissions release or an explosion like the one in Weld County. The Broomfield police department has told families that live within a half-mile of the site to keep a bag packed in case an evacuation is necessary. But Elizabeth Lario is not sure where her family would go. Under normal circumstances, the city's emergency shelter is its recreation center, but as long as social distancing is necessary, that no longer feels like a safe option. "The evacuation plan is to wait and hear what the evacuation plan is," Lario said.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
On April 13, the Broomfield Office of Emergency Management held a telephone town hall to present evacuation instructions. Residents told Grist that instructions on where they should go were not very clear, and that the evacuation plan was fluid depending on the scale of emergency and the status of the pandemic. "It was a plan left in chaos, in my opinion, that fortunately hasn't had to be used," said Anderson.
The Broomfield police department told Grist that it uses a cell phone alert system for emergency notification. An "Emergency Management Update" powerpoint created by the department instructs residents to "follow the instructions you receive" and monitor the situation on the city's social media accounts. In the case of an evacuation, it says to go to the home of a family member or friend — and to go to the recreation center only if needed. The department advises that residents who do elect to evacuate to the recreation center remain in their cars "if quarantined/isolated."
Not all of Broomfield's citizens are worried about the fracking site. In fact, some actively opposed the city's idea to delay Extraction's work. Anderson said there had been pressure from residents who felt that the city was already wasting too many public dollars on its clashes with the company, and worried that another lawsuit could bankrupt the city. A former council member accused the city of conducting a witch hunt.
Broomfield has indeed spent a significant amount of money on oil and gas oversight, including hiring additional personnel, outside counsel, and consultants. It has also deployed systems to monitor air quality and noise. The Broomfield Enterprise, a local newspaper, reported that the city spent $1.8 million in 2018, $1.5 million in 2019, and is expected to spend $3.1 million this year just on oil and gas-related personnel and programs. The city has approved approximately $1.5 million for air quality monitoring contracts in 2020 alone.
Broomfield's air monitoring system is impressive, given that it's a city of only about 70,000 people. The city currently has 11 new sensors set up to monitor emissions, as well as two mobile air quality laboratories and a mobile "plume tracker" — a Chevy Tahoe equipped to measure real-time methane concentrations in the air — from Colorado State University that will be deployed periodically. The city's sensors do not measure the specific amount of benzene and other harmful compounds in the air, but they set off "triggers" to take an air sample any time they register a spike in emissions.
Anderson hopes that collecting this data will give the town a clearer picture of the public health risks fracking poses to residential communities. She said that part of the reason the town's order was abandoned was due to a lack of data showing that flowback would put residents at greater risk. Now they are collecting that data — but by the time any potential harms come into focus, it will be too late. Residents will have been exposed.
"This community feels like guinea pigs, and I'm right there with them," she said. "We're doing things that we don't have the data to show that it's safe."
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It was early in the morning last Thursday, and Jonathan Butler was standing on the Fred Hartman Bridge, helping 11 fellow Greenpeace activists rappel down and suspend themselves over the Houston Ship Channel. The protesters dangled in the air most of the day, shutting down a part of one of the country's largest ports for oil.
More than 700,000 barrels of oil passed through the Houston Ship Channel last year, accounting for a third of U.S. crude oil exports. From the bridge, Butler could see the labyrinth of refineries on both sides of the channel — the type of facilities which Texas had recently passed a law to protect. The law was one of a wave of so-called critical infrastructure bills that state lawmakers have enacted across the country to punish protesters who interfere with oil and gas operations.
Butler and roughly two dozen other activists planned to end their protest 24 hours after it started. But before they could, the Harris County Sheriff's Office arrested the Greenpeace activists and charged them with a felony — obstructing critical infrastructure — making them the first people to be charged under the new law. It makes knowingly damaging so-called critical infrastructure a third-degree felony, on par with indecent exposure to a child. If convicted, they could spend two years in prison.
Nicole Debord, a Greenpeace attorney, called the charges "an unusual test case" and said she looks forward to challenging the law. "This arrest didn't have to happen," she said. "The protest was scheduled to end at a certain time, and if law enforcement had just let the protesters be, they would have ultimately just ended the protest and everyone would have walked away."
The Harris County District Attorney's office also charged the protesters with obstructing a highway and trespassing, a misdemeanor that carries up to 180 days in prison and a $2,000 fine. Of the 26 protesters, 22 have been charged with a federal misdemeanor for obstructing navigable waters, which could mean as much as one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. They were all released over the weekend after spending two nights in custody.
In the years after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline captured national attention, states have rushed to pass laws that levy hefty jail terms and fines for protesting near pipelines, compressor stations, refineries and other infrastructure deemed "critical." So far Texas and seven other states across the Midwest and South have put these laws on the books. Similar legislation has been introduced in at least a dozen others, according to the International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking legislation criminalizing protest around the country.
Proponents of such laws — many with ties to the fossil fuel industry — have argued that they're necessary to deter rogue activists who might damage oil and gas facilities and put lives at risk. Their opponents point out that laws already exist to punish such activities and that the new wave of laws criminalizes free speech.
The laws are modeled after legislation circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch brothers. The group has been pushing such laws in state legislatures, touting its successes in newsletters. The Texas lawmakers behind the state's critical infrastructure bill attended ALEC conferences in the last few years.
After Louisiana passed one such measure last year, at least 16 protesters have been arrested and charged under the state's "critical infrastructure" law. Three of them, who were trying to block construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, are now fighting the charges and challenging the law in a U.S. district court, claiming it violates their free speech rights.
Brianna Gibson, a Greenpeace activist arrested and charged last week alongside Butler, said the group had picked the Fred Hartman Bridge in part to highlight the disproportionate burden the fossil fuel industry places on black and brown communities in East Houston. Residents in those neighborhoods deal with poorer air quality and a higher risk of cancer than on average in the city.
Gibson, who lives in Chicago and was one of the 11 who rappelled down the side of the bridge, said she felt a responsibility to act because "my family, my community, and the people I love are deeply impacted by issues like environmental racism."
Dane Schiller, a spokesperson for the Harris County district attorney's office, said that the case will be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether there's sufficient evidence for a felony indictment. "Prosecutors could be personally sympathetic to their message and their cause, but these individuals knowingly and deliberately broke the law," he said.
Although parts of the Houston Ship Channel were shut down for 22 hours, the economic impact appears minimal. Petty Officer Kelly Parker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, told Grist that sections of the ship channel are routinely shut down when fog makes it hard to see. As a result, long lines to pass under the bridge are common, and most operators factor in delays.
Parker estimated that about 300 vessels pass under the Fred Hartman Bridge every day, the vast majority of which are smaller towing and pilot vessels. "Obviously we don't want to shut down any part of the ship channel, but it does happen fairly frequently due to weather," he said.
Both Gibson and Butler worry about what happens if they get a felony conviction. Gibson, a first generation college graduate, is helping support her mother and brother's children. Butler said that life was "difficult enough" as a black and queer person and a conviction would make life "a lot more difficult."
Still, Butler believes the protest was worth it. "The impact of climate change is happening now, and it's going to continue to happen if we don't take bold action. That's what it really comes down to."
This story originally appeared in Grist. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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