Backyard Talk

Film Demonstrates How We Win

By Lois : April 21, 2014 12:37 pm

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet Premiers Earth Day on PBS – tomorrow evening. If you want to understand how change happen this is the film to watch.

It clearly demonstrates through historical film that so much of what has been accomplished was done through people joining together and raising their voices. Saving the Grand Canyon, rivers, whales and so much more was the result of organizing voices not a smart group of people in Washington, D.C. The documentary—which airs on Earth Day, nationwide—opens with a stirring montage of idyllic nature, followed by ecosystem despoliation and devastation, such as mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Scenes of global activism appear, including NASA scientist Jim Hansen getting busted at the White House for protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai declaring: “We will shed blood for land!” This riveting, rapidly cut sequence is set to the pulsating beat of the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.”

Coming together with other leaders from your group and watching the film with a discussion afterwards could help think through how you might proceed to win justice for your community.

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Huge Corporate Settlement – Cleanup Good for Business?

By Stephen Lester : April 16, 2014 12:07 pm

The largest pollution settlement in history was recently signed by Anadarko Petroleum and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Anadarko agreed to pay $5.15 billion to resolve fraudulent conveyance claims that will result in the cleanup of dozens of contaminated sites across the country and pay thousands of people who were exposed to toxic chemicals at these sites. That same day, the company’s stock went up by 14.5 percent.

Anadarko Petroleum is an American oil and gas exploration company and one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas exploration and production companies, with approximately 2.8 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) of proved reserves as of December 31, 2013, making it one of the world’s largest independent exploration and production companies. The settlement resolves claims against Kerr-McGee Corporation which Anadarko purchased in 2006.

For 85 years Kerr-McGee operated a wide range of chemical, energy and manufacturing businesses which included uranium mining, processing of radioactive thorium, creosote wood treating, and manufacture of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel. These operations left a legacy of contamination across the country including radioactive uranium waste throughout Navajo Nation; radioactive thorium in Chicago and West Chicago; creosote waste in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South; and perchlorate waste in Nevada.

The lawsuit filed by DOJ alleged that Kerr-McKee tried to evade its responsibility for cleaning up its pollution by transferring its environmental and tort liability to a shell company that declared bankruptcy shortly after the transfer. This left the cost of cleaning up its many toxic waste sites to US taxpayers.

Investors were happy with the settlement not only because it ends the uncertainty over the litigation, but also because it ended up costing Anadarko much less than it might have. Despite being the largest environmental cash settlement in history, those close to the matter were predicting the settlement would cost the company somewhere between $5.2 and $14.3 billion. The plaintiffs alone were seeking as much as $20 billion according to news reports.

Did the government let the company off the hook for too little money? Probably, but now it can move forward with quite a treasure chest to cleanup hundreds of sites across the country. For a complete list of the areas that will receive cleanup funds from the settlement, see the DOJ’s media release on the case.

Some see this is a major win for the public and the environment because it holds companies accountable for the pollution they generate. It also sends the message to companies and to investors that companies have to take their toxic legacy responsibilities seriously. Perhaps investors are also saying that they prefer that the companies they invest in take care of its pollution the right way, not by trying to side step its responsibility. Wishful thinking perhaps, but only time will tell. For more information about this situation, see the USEPA’s enforcement statement.

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Andrew Morris

Massive, $1.7 billion environmental cleanup of Passaic River proposed by EPA

By Andrew Morris : April 13, 2014 10:09 pm

NEWARK — In one of the largest Superfund cleanups ever proposed, federal officials yesterday called for a bank-to-bank dredging of the Passaic River that would remove more than 4 million cubic yards of toxic sediment from the river bottom — enough to fill up MetLife Stadium twice.

The $1.7 billion cleanup, under study for 25 years, would target the lower eight miles of the highly polluted waterway, from Belleville to Newark, which remains heavily contaminated with high concentrations of dioxin, PCBs and other contaminants left behind by more than a century of industrial activity.

Officials said those responsible for polluting the river would pay the cost of cleanup. But likely court challenges could further delay and complicate the project, they said, with at least 100 companies potentially liable under the federal Superfund law.

Judith Enck, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who made the cleanup announcement at a riverfront park in Newark, said the Passaic has been plagued by pollution for far too long.

“We’ve studied this for years. The river communities have suffered for long enough,” she said.

The EPA said the sediment removal — one of the largest volumes ever to be dredged under the Superfund program — would be accompanied by a capping of the river bottom. The contaminated sediment would be pressed, dried, then shipped out of state for disposal.

The project is similar to the ongoing effort in the Hudson River intended to remove PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, discharged by two now-shuttered General Electric plants over a 30-year period.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin called the EPA proposal for the Passaic the most “workable and realistic remedy” for a river he said was misused for decades and used as a dumping ground for industrial toxins and pollutants.

“We’d like to start the cleanup process as soon as possible,” Martin said. “This river is going to be cleaned up.”

The Passaic, stretching 90 miles through 45 municipalities in seven counties, has a long history of abuse, with fish and shellfish in the lower part of the river highly contaminated with mercury and cancer-causing chemicals that can be found deep in the bottom sediment. Catching crabs is prohibited, and those who fish are advised not to eat what they catch.

According to the EPA, much of the dioxin in the river was generated from the Diamond Alkali Co. plant in Newark, which produced Agent Orange and other deadly pesticides during the 1960s, leaving behind a toxic legacy in the sediment.

The empty tract where the plant was located is now entombed in concrete to prevent leaching of contaminants in the river, but the sediment of the riverbed remains full of dioxin, according to environmental studies. The site was added to the federal Superfund list in 1984.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker 
(D-N.J.), the former mayor of Newark who attended yesterday’s EPA announcement with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and other members of the state’s congressional delegation, just upriver from the Diamond Alkali plant, called it “New Jersey’s biggest crime scene.”

Federal officials said about 100 other companies are also potentially responsible for generating and releasing pollutants into the Passaic. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th Dist.) raised concerns that legal battles could delay any cleanup “by another 10 years.”

The state had been in court for a decade, seeking damages against many of the companies blamed for the river contamination, before reaching a partial settlement with some only last year.

Debbie Mans, the NY/NJ Baykeeper, said those responsible for the pollution are to blame for the continuing delay.

“They have been paying lobbyists and lawyers instead of paying for the cleanup,” she said.

But an industry group representing some of the companies affected by the proposed cleanup order labeled the EPA plan “a massive, impractical and disruptive bank-to-bank remedy.”

Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesman for the Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group, which represents 67 companies, said the EPA plan will take decades to implement, potentially disrupting economic growth and limiting recreational activity on the river for a generation. He said, “EPA’s recovery prediction show that the proposed bank-to-bank dredge may not even be protective of human health.”

Jaffe said the three companies that inherited Diamond Alkali’s liability — Occidental Chemical Corp., Maxus Energy Corp. and Tierra Solutions Inc. — were largely at fault for the pollution in the river and “have unnecessarily delayed any meaningful action on the river for decades.”

A spokesman for the successor companies had no comment.

There has already been some dredging in the river in the past two years. In 2012, the EPA ordered dredging in the Passaic near the Diamond Alkali facility, where 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were removed. Last year, another 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a half-mile stretch of the river in Lyndhurst was also removed after high levels of contamination were detected.

A group of some of the companies affected by the proposed cleanup order, meanwhile, today called the EPA plan “a massive, impractical, and disruptive bank-to-bank remedy.”

Jonathan Jaffe, a spokesman for the Lower Passaic River Study Area Cooperating Parties Group, which represents 67 companies, said the EPA plan will take decades to implement in one of the most congested regions in the country, potentially disrupting economic growth and limiting recreational activity on the river for a generation, and may not even be protective of human health.

He said Tierra Solutions and other successor companies to Diamond Alkali were responsible for what is driving the clean-up of contamination, but “have unnecessarily delayed any meaningful action on the river for decades.”

A spokesman for the Tierra had no immediate comment.

The EPA will hold public meetings on the proposal in May and June in Newark, Kearny and Belleville. The first one will be May 7 at the Portuguese Sports Club in Newark, with locations and dates for the other two still to be determined.

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CHEJ present at the 2014 National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program

By Jose Aguayo : April 9, 2014 11:57 am

I was able to attend the annual National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program held at the end of March. Stephen and I were able to set up a table in the lobby outside the main conference room where we made some of CHEJ’s publications, such as EBY and books like Dying from Dioxin, available for anyone interested in taking them. By the end of the Thursday in which we took them, most of the books and booklets we took were gone, which is exactly what we wanted.

The conference itself was very interesting. Despite only attending one of the three days, I was able to learn about several pressing EJ issues around the country, as well as connect with some of the local leaders of EJ communities fighting for their right to a clean environment. As for the actual conference, some of the issues presented in the conference were shocking.  In Arkansas the Pegasus Pipeline ruptured and subsequent testing of the affected area revealed no contamination to the environment and human health. This was due, however, to the use of extremely high reporting limits in the tests that masked the presence of contaminants at levels higher than federal standards. Another shocking case was the existence of a direct correlation between the income and ethnicity of neighborhoods within Los Angeles, and the quality of their water. The poorer and mainly minority neighborhoods had the greater concentration of arsenic and other contaminants in their tap water. What’s more shocking still is that local legislators have yet to acknowledge, let alone do something about this.

All in all, I believe that the conference was useful to remind us all that now as much as ever, the struggle for environmental justice continues. Twenty years have gone by since president Clinton issues his executive order on environmental justice, and though we have achieved massive things since then, our struggle is ever present. But we all know now that we are not alone in this fight.

P.S. The conference’s presentations can be found here

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My Kitchen Table

By Lois : April 2, 2014 5:33 pm

I thought I’d tell you the story about My Kitchen Table. It’s been 35 years since Love Canal days when my kitchen was full of papers and I operated my volunteer work with neighbors from the kitchen table. Today, I’m back at the kitchen table, phone in one hand, piles of paper all around me and managing staff and volunteers through my e-mails and front door. Yes I do have e-mail today which has made some of this less difficult than 35 years ago. But also a little crazy given every question everyone has about office related work, decisions, projects, meeting and so on fill my in box in about one hour no matter how hard I try to keep it manageable.

I don’t have small children needing care as I did back then, but I do have staff needing things. The difference is when my children were . . . well complaining . . . wanting something that I could not give them, I could send them to their room or outdoors, not possible with staff.

Then there is the issue of sharing the house printer and telephone. I’ve decided that I’m not as good at sharing as I use to be. Go buy your own is what you’ll hear me yell when someone is standing over me waiting to use my printer, scanner or copier. Turn it down is the other shout, often coming from me. No music or TV while I’m working, I need quiet.

Working from home has changed since back in the day, but we are safe and we are continuing to keep our programs moving forward as best we can. Maybe if we had planned to work from our homes it would be different . . . but there was a fire making it difficult for CHEJ, and me, right now.

In the case that people don’t know let me go backwards for a minute. Our office building caught fire a little over a week ago. It was scary but no one was hurt and for the most part our offices were damaged by smoke and soot – too dangerous to enter. That said it has been difficult to keep up with our on-going work. I apologize to the groups who asked for CHEJ to send out alerts about comment periods, protest actions and other activities. Our database is safe, backed up off site but our ability to respond with that data base is limited.

The conversation with the landlord today about when we might be able to get back into the space was not reassuring. It was clear that getting back in before the end of the month is not likely. Fortunately, CHEJ does have insurance to cover many of the losses but we all know how that works . . . another struggle for sure. We’ll need new computers and printers given the thick soot laying on top of everything and likely in the guts of those electronics.

So if you are looking for me I’m at my kitchen table. My e-mail box is full but I get through it each day. Please have a little patience if we are not as responsive as we usually are. By all means don’t ask me to share, play loud music or request things I just can’t give you. It will only be a few more weeks and we’ll be fully back. Thanks.

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