Backyard Talk
Sharon H.

Three Stories of Environmental Progress to Celebrate This Thanksgiving

By Sharon H. : November 26, 2015 6:38 pm

With social crises escalating in the US and worldwide, it can be difficult to find news stories to give thanks for or to celebrate. This week, there are a few stories of environmental progress that shine a light in the darkness. These victories on the community, national and international levels prove that positive change, though sometimes slow in coming, is always on the horizon.

1) Community Victory in St. Louis: Just last week, Missouri delegates introduced legislation that would transfer the Bridgeton and West Lake Superfund Sites to the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the EPA. Community activists are hopeful that this change in authority will yield positive results for the communities near the site. As Lois Gibbs wrote in a statement last week, this move will take advantage of the Corps’ technical expertise, while shifting clean-up responsibility from Republic Services, which has managed the site under the EPA.  This is not the end of the road for St. Louis communities who are threatened by a burning landfill creeping slowly towards another site containing radioactive waste. “What really must be moved is not only the jurisdiction of this clean-up, but vulnerable families. This is the first step on a long road to recovery for the families involved and for the natural environment,” said Gibbs.

2) National Decision on Keystone XL: On November 6th, President Obama announced his decision reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which would have  transported crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The potential for spills endangered the crucially important freshwater Oglalla aquifer and threatened communities along the pipeline’s route. Additionally, the pipeline project would have perpetuated injustices against indigenous people in Alberta Canada whose homes have been destroyed by tar sands development, while increasing impacts from oil refineries in the Gulf. Though this is undoubtedly a moment to celebrate, recent NPR coverage makes the point that “thousands of miles of pipelines have been built in the same time that people have debated the 875-mile stretch that would have completed the Keystone XL. And more are being built right now.” Though we are far from transforming the energy economy, the Keystone decision is a symbolic victory and a sign of the power of grassroots organizing.

3) International Community Gearing Up for Climate Negotiations: Even as Paris is reeling from devastating terror attacks last week, the city is still preparing to host the COP21 UN Climate Summit, where over 150 world leaders will gather and attempt to hash out an international response to climate change. The meeting is expected to result in the first climate agreement since the failed Kyoto Protocol. Though rallies and marches associated with the conference have been canceled in the wake of the attacks, thus removing a powerful channel for citizen actions, the talks will proceed, and will hopefully culminate in a powerful act of international solidarity in a city at its most vulnerable moment.

In the midst of international crises, the needle continues to move on critically important environmental justice issues, from community pollution to climate change. It’s the perfect time to give thanks for the community members and advocates who are fighting for change on these and other issues – to express gratitude for grassroots action that continues to guide the way forward to a more just world.

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CHEJ Intern

Racism, Environmental Injustice, and the U.S. Farm Bill

By CHEJ Intern : November 20, 2015 7:59 pm

By Dylan Lenzen

A new report by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute indicates that the United States’ most important piece of farm legislation plays an enormous role in maintaining structural racism and environmental injustice. This important piece of legislation, that is the U.S. Farm Bill, is enormous, providing massive amounts of federal dollars for agricultural production, as well as over $700 billion for food stamps. According to the report, the Farm Bill has played an important role in corporate consolidation at all levels of food production. For example, large-scale farms control 49.7% of all production value, while only representing 4.7% of all U.S. farms. This mass consolidation, from the production to retail, has lead to incredible power for corporate power in our society.

The power of corporate interests involved in the creation of the U.S. Farm Bill has resulted in numerous negative consequences for minority and low-income communities around the country. One of these consequences has been the depression of minority food worker wages. This includes those working as migrant laborers in agricultural fields of California to those employed at fast food restaurants. Food workers of color make roughly $6000 less than the average white food worker and many migrant farmworkers make less than minimum wage for their strenuous efforts. These low wages for all food workers have lead to incredible rates of food insecurity. And, as has been discussed on the CHEJ blog before, the result of overwhelming minority makeup of low-wage farm labor has been that people of color experience much higher levels of toxic pesticides that they are exposed to while toiling in agricultural fields.

The Farm Bill also fails to adequately address the structural inequality found in our society. According the U.C. Berkeley study, “as of 2013, 14.3% of US households—17.5 million households, roughly 50 million persons—were food insecure.” In addition, Black, Latino/a, low-income, single women/men households represent an overwhelming proportion of those who are food insecure. Despite rising food insecurity, the amount of money allocated for food stamps (under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has decreased in recent editions of the Farm Bill.

As if these negative consequences do not already demonstrate the environmental injustice of the Farm Bill, we must consider the contribution of the current industrialized, fossil fuel-intense form of agriculture promoted by the Farm Bill to global climate change. This is important, as we know that communities of color, considering broader social inequity, are much more vulnerable to the effect of climate change. The high levels of economic and food insecurity, in these communities, among other factors, will mean that they will likely suffer the most as our atmosphere continues to warm. Given that agricultural production contributes 9% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, climate concerns must factor into the type of food production that we promote with the billions of dollars that the farm bill offers.

While there are certainly many factors that contribute to environmental injustice and social inequality in our society, altering monolithic and impactful pieces of legislation, such as the U.S. Farm Bill, appear to be great starting points if we are to address these issues in the future.

Find out more from the Haas Institute

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CHEJ Intern

Environmental Racism Prevalent in Brandywine, Maryland

By CHEJ Intern : November 18, 2015 1:54 pm

By: Katie O’Brien

Brandywine is  a town of less than 7,000 people located in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  The population in the county is 60% African American and they are all victims of environmental racism. Brandywine is a 21 square mile town is already home to one large gas-fired power plant. A few months ago, not one, but TWO additional gas fired power plants were  approved to be built in the town. The neighboring towns already have a gas-fired  power plant with another under construction. The area will have FIVE gas-fired power plants in the future,  making the Brandywine area have more fossil fuel power plant capacity than 99.9% of the country according to the Energy Justice Network.

The area already has unacceptable air quality and was declared by the EPA to be in “non-attainment” for ground level ozone pollution. According to the EPAs ozone health page, breathing ozone can cause a decrease in lung function, inflammation of the airways, and induction of respiratory symptoms such as coughing, throat irritation, pain and burning while breathing, and chest tightness, among others. It even states that ozone is associated with increased mortality. In some studies on lab animals, long-term exposure to ozone could cause “morphological changes that could be a market of chronic respiratory disease”. It is crazy to think that in an area where there are already non-attainable levels of ozone, that two more ozone producing power plants were approved to be built, especially with the clear information from the EPA about the dangers of ozone exposure.

Residents of the area are just learning of the power plants approval. Many of the local newspapers in the area shut down in recent years. When residents of the area found out about the proposed sites, they requested an extension on public comment to alert more people; they were given “tiny legal notice in a newspaper, which was inadequate to notify people of public hearings”. Since the sites have already been approved residents are having a hard time trying to fight back against the power plants. The surrounding communities in the Brandywine area are all victims of environmental racism and their rights are being violated with the construction of these gas-fired plants.

To learn more:

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CHEJ Intern

The 2016 Presidential Candidates Stance on Climate Change

By CHEJ Intern : November 13, 2015 11:42 am

Climate change is a growing concern; almost 75 percent of Americans today favor a government action for a safer, greener future. President Obama showed initiative against climate change when he introduced the historic Clean Power Plan this year, which set the first ever national carbon emission limit on the electric power sector. Climate change is the result of an increased average global temperature, where one of the major factors causing this warming is from emissions from non-renewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels and coal. Recently, Met Office data showed that the global annual average temperature has officially increased by 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and will continue increasing if no action is taken against climate change. This is alarming as todays average global temperature is now halfway to the internationally agreed critical point of 2 degree Celsius that is deemed the limit where climate change effects are intolerably high. With climate change a very real threat, the upcoming presidential campaign candidates’ stance on global warming could shape who wins office.

Presidential Candidates

All democrat candidates have acknowledged the existence of man-made climate change; however, each take different responses when it comes to environmental policies. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders seek to resolve climate change with already released proposals. As part of her first acts in office, Clinton would involve generating 33 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable source, installing a half- billion solar panels, and to power every home with carbon-free sources all by 2020. Bernie Sanders stated he would tax emissions on oil and coal burning to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Sanders was also just endorsed by the national environmental group, Friends of the Earth, as a reward for Sanders’ pledge for climate change action, where 2 million activists claim to promote the nominee for president. Martin O’Malley said that clean energy would be his number one priority as president, pledging to create the Clean Energy Jobs Crops to reduce emissions and restore forests. As for the 15 Republican candidates, only Bobby Jindal has made specific proposals to reduce emissions but through small scale changes and not by building on the Obama administration’s environmental policies.

According to President Obama, climate change denial threatens national security as it “undermines the readiness of our forces”. The EPA already knows the damages expected nationwide by climate change. Americans in the Southwest and Great Plains can expect severe droughts. The Southeast can face more intense hurricanes and increased floods from rising sea levels. The Midwest and Northeast face economic damage from reduced agriculture yields and intense heat waves. The Northwest and Tropics can experience a blow to the delicate ecosystem with increased pests and reduced biodiversity.

The Natural Resource Defense Council released a survey that showed fifty-five percent of Latinos were “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about climate change. This high level of concern is due to the Latino overrepresentation in locations that are already experiencing effects caused by climate change. Latinos in California are seeing more wild fires and extreme droughts and those in Florida are seeing an increase in sea-levels and frequency of hurricanes. Another survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 84 percent of African-Americans in Atlanta, Cleveland, and Philadelphia want to see action by the federal government to address climate change as exposures from pollutants from non-renewable energy sources are leading to a high rate of asthma. Increase competition on already stressed water sources, threats to infrastructures from rising sea levels and erosions, and devastating heat waves can threaten human health and wellbeing, making climate change and important issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.

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By Lois : November 11, 2015 6:29 pm

Bill Gates’ net worth is estimated to be $79.7 billion and his worth just seems to grow every year. Known as the world’s richest man, Gates is also listed as the sixth most powerful person in the world. He and his wife Melinda run the Gates Foundation their goal is to reduce inequity and improve the lives of people in poorer countries.

But what about America? What about the innocent people in which his investment company, Cascade Investments, is making him even more money, at the expense of innocent children who are made sick and dying from chemical/radioactive materials?

My mother often told me that it is wonderful, honorable to support others who need help, but always remember charity begins at home.

Bill and Melinda are doing extraordinary work in poor countries, but their money to do that work is coming from their investments like, Republic Services where they have personally invested 2.9 Billion dollars. Gates Foundation has divested from Republic Services but Bill and Melinda have not.

Families with children in St. Louis have watched helplessly as their children developed cancer and some have died. Parents believe their children health problems are due to Republic Services burning and radioactive Superfund site. The Missouri health authorities found an over 300% increase in children’s brain cancer near the Republic site. This cancer is preventable.. .avoidable… by helping people move away. Today they are trapped. Families can’t live in their homes, sell their homes or afford to pay rent or mortgages somewhere else. These are working people, many not earning a living wage.

Bill could direct his investment company to use their power as shareholders to purchase the homes of innocent families that surround the burning landfill. Once the fire is put out and the radioactive materials cleaned up Republic can resell the homes and reduce their costs. It is anticipated that the fire will burn for another four years and the plan to clean up the radioactive wastes is also far into the future.

I thought at one time, that maybe Bill and Melinda just didn’t know. As parents of three children Jennifer, Phoebe, and Rory I thought they could relate to the fears the parents in St. Louis face every day to protect their most precious asset their children. Unfortunately they do know and I guess don’t care. Recently, they sold all of their Foundation’s stock in Republic Services. A good first step but far from what’s needed. Their personal stock of almost three billion is still earning dividends off the back of little children and hard working parents. We believe it was the petition drive that CHEJ did with the local group Just Moms STL in St. Louis, Missouri that brought the problem to their attention. Maybe it did, we’ll never know.

Today, it’s clear that Bill and Melinda know there is a problem in St. Louis, and they don’t want the public face of the Gates Foundation to be associated with that Superfund site. With this knowledge, they continue to profit from Republic Services, which in turn continues to place children in harm’s way. Bill and Melinda have made a decision to not take action with their personal wealth.

I can only ask, and hope others who read this ask, won’t you please reconsider your decision? Please, give a little charity at home. You are the richest man and one of the most powerful in the world and have said you want to improve the lives of people in poor countries, how about America? You can use your power in the Republic Services Board room to vote to move the innocent families or buy the properties yourself. The child, with brain cancer in the photo, is worth helping.

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