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CHEJ Intern

Hurricane Joaquin: Learning from Sandy’s Mistakes?

By CHEJ Intern : October 5, 2015 12:03 pm

By Kaley Beins

As Hurricane Joaquin moves up the East Coast , governors have declared states of emergency. While meteorologists say the storm’s path is difficult to predict, many states fear infrastructural damage, especially as they continue to address the destruction from Hurricane Sandy three years later.

Hurricane Sandy caused $50 billion worth of economic damage in New York and New Jersey and damaged or completely destroyed at least 650,000 homes. However, as much damage as Sandy wreaked, its effects on low income and otherwise marginalized communities were even more severe.

In November 2012 New Jersey Governor and current Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie reported that the total damages in New Jersey added up to $36.8 billion. The state received $6.9 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist in recovery.  Yet a January 2014 report by the Fair Share Housing Center found that the funds were distributed in ways that discriminated against Latinos and African Americans. The report asserted that documents they accessed during their legal dispute with the New Jersey government show that claims filed by Latino and African American applicants were rejected at higher rates than claims filed by whites. Governor Christie has disputed this allegation, calling the Fair Share Housing center a “hack group” making “outrageously false” statements.

In addition to criticizing the rejection rates, organizations have also claimed the Christie administration has failed to allocate sufficient funds for renters and has unfairly prioritized counties without enough consideration of damages. The Fair Share Housing Center report found that Latinos and African Americans affected by Sandy were more likely to be renters than owners.  Linda Steele, president of the Atlantic City NAACP, further highlighted the problem, explaining that renters were dependent on the property owners’ participation in order to get funds to rebuild. This means that if owners did not pursue claims, renters lost their homes. However, according to an analysis by New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, $2 million, almost half of the money that had been allotted at that time, was distributed to landlords in Essex County. Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, stated, “Not only are we allocating considerable funds to rental housing, we are doing so at a greater ratio than the damage assessment indicates.”

This contention over inequity of fund allotment in combination with a lack of timeliness in governmental response prompted New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney to introduce a “Sandy Bill of Rights” in February 2014. It sought to address issues from governmental opacity to a lack of accurate information for Spanish-speakers filing claims. Although the bill passed 34-0 in the Senate and 72-0 in the Assembly, Christie offered a conditional veto of the bill in May 2014. Despite previous bi-partisan support for the bill, Republicans were loath to challenge the veto.

As of March 2015, FEMA has decided to reopen over 140,000 homeowner claims, and in April a FEMA and congressional task force met to address issues with the administration of Hurricane Sandy relief. As we approach the 3-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, we hope that FEMA and the congressional committee will maintain their focus on ensuring equitable distribution of funds.

Over the past few days Hurricane Joaquin has caused some of the worst flooding in South Carolina’s history. As the state begins to address the damage, they will hopefully look at the situation in New Jersey and work to eliminate aid disparities.

Hurricane Joaquin flooding in Columbia, North Carolina photo credit: Sean Rayford for NY Daily News

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CHEJ Intern

NRC Trying to Turn Sacred Yucca Mountain Into a Nuclear Waste Site

By CHEJ Intern : October 4, 2015 12:53 pm

By: Katie O’Brien

Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a sacred, tribal mountain where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is trying to bury 77,000 tons of nuclear waste. While the mountain lies in the desert, 100 miles north of Las Vegas, it is covered in waterways that lead into streams and rivers used for tribal traditions and rituals that eventually lead to traditional American Indian springs in Death Valley.

So far Americans have spent over thirty years and $15 billion in tax dollars on determining whether a waste site at Yucca Mountain would be safe. Problems arose as the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency responsible for studies, learned more about how surface water on the mountain flowed downwards feeding other waterways. Titanium drip shields were engineered to help with the problem of corrosion. Those shields along with over 220 other technical challenges, is why many Nevada communities, scientists, and lawyers believe the license application should be disqualified.

This area of Nevada is no stranger to the threat of nuclear waste. The DOEs Nevada Test Site has been detonating nuclear (and non) bombs in Nevada for over sixty years.  In 2006, plans were announced to conduct Divine Strake, a test of a bomb made with 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel. The government claimed that there would be no adverse health effects for the low-income, native communities that were nearby to the test site. Even though according to the agency’s director, the test would send a “mushroom cloud over Las Vegas”. Local tribes sued claiming that the test would “inject fallout-tainted dust into the air”. In 2007, the DOE cancelled the detonation. Once again, these communities are at risk to losing their health with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.

This August, the NRC released an environmental impact report saying that groundwater can be contaminated by small amounts of radioactive particles. They claim that the contamination is a “small fraction” of increase from normal background radiation. Richard Miller, who was an expert witness in the Divine Strake lawsuit, says, “The first thing they’re doing is trying to tie particulate exposure with background radiation. They’re apples and oranges, actually apples and toxic oranges. These can wind up inside you, and that’s a (cancer) risk increase”. The report claims there will only be “negligible increase” in health risks.

Surrounding the waterways fed by Yucca Mountain, are Native Tribes, most of which are low-income communities. The people of Newe Sogobia, say that the DOE cannot prove ownership of Yucca Mountain and that under established United States Treaties, the waste site should be disqualified because it is not owned Bureau of Land Management. The Tribe says the site will result in “destruction of their property, and impair their treaty reserved rights to use their land and life giving water. They believe that lifestyle differences, including “longstanding religious practices, tribal laws, customs, and traditions” make the Tribe more susceptible to increased exposure. The Native Tribes and communities that surround Yucca Mountain have already been exposed to enough risk from radioactive testing throughout the last 60 years. Completion of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site will increase that exposure at the cost of people and the environment.

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CHEJ Intern

EPA Should Make Environmental Justice Job One

By CHEJ Intern : September 28, 2015 1:49 pm

By Laura Barrett

Re-posted from ROOFLINES–the Shelterforce blog

The EPA is making news lately.  Unfortunately, it’s not for protecting the environment or victims of pollution. Activist groups, low income residents of communities plagued by toxins, and journalists are all taking the EPA to task because they charge that through inaction, it is aiding environmental racism.

In July, Earthjustice and five other groups sued the EPA for its failure to investigate civil rights complaints. These non-profits say that the EPA is letting states “off the hook” when they grant permits to companies that pollute in communities of color. “It is unacceptable that the racial composition of a community continues to be a critical factor in predicting exposure to toxic contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado said. “Justice has been delayed for too long. While EPA sits on these complaints, facilities continue to pollute and communities living in proximity to these facilities are deprived of their rights.”

In August, six other organizations filed an “intent to sue” against the EPA for failing to update its regulations on mining waste. (They are the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.)

The groups are calling on the EPA to update its mining waste disposal rules, which they say should have been revised more than a quarter century ago. The activists believe that an influx of mining wastes from fracking has greatly exacerbated environmental problems.

“These are not your mom and pop wells of the 1980s, and their waste can no longer be ignored and listed as being non-hazardous,” said Teresa Mills of CHEJ’s Ohio field office. “For the agency to keep calling millions of gallons/tons of hazardous material as non-toxic is mind-boggling. The free ride for the oil and gas industry must end now.”

Over the last few months the Center for Public Integrity has released an investigative series on the EPA’s record on civil rights complaints. The Center found that EPA officials rejected 95 percent of the hundreds of civil rights complaints it has received. Keep in mind this is the EPA office specifically charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that get EPA funds and, when seeing evidence of injustice, making things right. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty. And it’s one that leaves low income communities of color, rural people and indigenous people–often the victim of the most egregious polluters–increasingly vulnerable.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it will more aggressively evaluate recipients of EPA funding to ensure their compliance with federal civil-rights laws. A draft Strategic Plan was released recently. The five-year plan commits the agency for the first time to conduct targeted compliance reviews. The plan seems to be a response to the Center for Public Integrity’s investigative series.

What can ordinary people do to recall the Office of Civil Rights to its mission? The Center for Health, Environment and Justice is circulating an online petition targeting EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. More than one thousand people have already signed. It’s one way to express some outrage and insist that Black Lives that are downwind of pollution Matter.

(Photo credit: Sheila, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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CHEJ Intern

The Clean Air Act has Potential for at Risk Populations

By CHEJ Intern : September 28, 2015 7:06 am

On August 3rd , 2015, president Obama and the EPA announced the finalization of the Clean Power Plan, which sets a first ever national limit on carbon pollution emitted by the electric power sector. Before then, electric plants, which contribute 31 percent total carbon emissions in the U.S., had the freedom to emit as much pollution as they pleased. Not only does the plan aim to help the United States step down from being one of the largest contributors to climate change, it allows at risk communities to step up and interact with the state government to change polluted air conditions.

It’s not uncommon to hear of low-income minorities living in higher polluted conditions compared to more affluent white neighborhoods. It is a problem long known where a 20 yearlong study from 1987 to 2007 by the United Church of Christ found that 56 percent and 30 percent of people of color and low socioeconomic live in commercially hazardous host neighborhoods (i.e. where these facilities and neighborhoods are very close, overlapping one another within a 3 kilometer area) and non-host neighborhoods, respectively. To show how high the disparages are, a study published by the University of Minnesota found that nationally, minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of NO2, a contributor to asthma and heart attacks, than white communities. With increased exposure to harmful chemicals chances of developing health problems, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease increases as well.

The Clean Power Plan has the potential to significantly reduce these harmful emissions across the nation and possibly give communities who are at most risk of facing air pollution the much needed attention they deserve. The CPP requires States to demonstrate how they involved communities in decisions while creating a plan to meet CO2 emission standards, which can make it easier for some people to provide input on what strategies may benefit or harm their neighborhoods. With the CPP in full effect, the plan claims asthma in children is expected to be slashed by as much as 70 percent or 90,000 less attacks, prevent 3,600 premature deaths, and eliminate CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

The CPP prioritizes early investment in energy efficient projects in low income communities. The plan hopes this will speed up the process in switching to greener energy sources, thereby cutting carbon emissions quicker. When states submit their plans, they are required to show how they are engaged with the vulnerable communities. States are given flexibility when choosing a plan; one such option would be to increase efficiency at power plants, generating more power with less pollution. Adopting natural gas generation over coal could be another route to cleaner air, where carbon emissions are as half as much versus coal. The cleanest choice, however, is increasing electricity that originated from greener sources such as wind or solar power, in which there are virtually no carbon emissions.

The Clean Power Plan was drafted with ideas and comments from 4 million people concerned about the air. The plan has the potential to progress further by incorporating involvement from communities nationwide and could provide Americans with clean energy and clean air for the future. To learn more about the exciting changes taking place, click on this link for a fact sheet published by the White House.

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Women Make The Difference In Action on Climate Change

By Lois : September 26, 2015 11:29 am

Greenbelt Movement in Africa

I just spent the last three days in St. Louis, Missouri with the group, Just Moms STL to help them develop a plan to put pressure on the elected representatives with the power and ability to help move families away from a horrible situation and clean up the burning radioactive dumpsite. This Superfund site and emergency situation has been ignored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for decades. In brief the recent study done by the State Attorney General’s office said they community could experience in 3 to 6 months a Chernobyl like event exploding and releasing radioactive wastes throughout the area.

The leaders are women with children, jobs, homes to care for that are leading this fight. But then most of the groups CHEJ works with are led by women 80% at our last count. Yet there is so little recognition of the women in the environmental moment, a frustration that I’ve felt for decades. Yes, my friend and fellow Goldman Prize winner rightfully received recognition but she’s the exception and her work, which continues today is critical to addressing climate change.

Returning home from my work with Just Moms STL, checking my e-mails I came across the article that was written by Tracy Mann from Earth Island. It’s worth a read because it says everything I would have said. Strange it came when it did, fate maybe. Below is an excerpt but the entire article is worth the read.

“In fact, women organizing to protect natural resources and develop community resilience is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s a group of peasant women in the India threw their arms around trees to prevent the destruction of forests in Northern India in an action that came to be known as the Chipko, or Treehugger Movement. Led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, the Kenya-based Green Belt Movement mobilized rural women to plant trees to restore plundered forests, generate income and serve as an engine of empowerment. In the 1980s, American Lois Gibbs led the famous Love Canal protest in upstate New York to expose and rectify the toxic waste dump over which her town had been constructed. Her years-long struggle inspired her to organize women and people of color around the common interest of climate justice. Canada’s Tzeporah Berman has been on the frontlines of community-based movements against environmental threats since the 1990s when she was in the forefront of the Clayoquot Sound protests against the unconscionable clearcutting of temperate rainforest in Western Canada. More recently she has led acts of civil disobedience against the transnational pipeline and tar sands expansion.

The women mobilizing for September 29 may not yet be known as leaders or heroes, but the Global Women’s Climate Justice Day of Action is one more potent opportunity to tell their stories. It’s an opportunity for global women to join hands, just as my mother and sister and I did 45 years ago, and take their rightful place at the front of the parade, as essential catalysts to solutions to our greatest of all challenges.”

To read the full article click here:

There Can Be No Meaningful Action on Climate Change Without Women

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