EPA Children's Health Month October 2011 logo

Pediatricians’ Perspective: Ensuring Clean Air, Protecting Children’s Health


By Jerome Paulson, MD, FAAP, and Samantha Ahdoot, MD, FAAP

When we recognize October as Children’s Health Month, bringing awareness to children’s unique health needs, it can be easy to overlook one variable that impacts each one of us every day, especially the health of our children—changes in our environment.

The health effects of increasing pollution levels on child health may not be as easy to see as a sore throat or runny nose, but they can still cause damage, leading to adverse reactions like asthma and reduced lung function. As pediatricians whose number one job is to keep children healthy, we believe that our changing climate and its impact on children’s health warrants our full attention.

To help ring the alarm bell on this issue, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently hosted a Twitter chat with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, which reached more than 7 million people, emphasizing the need to keep our air clean for children.

Children are uniquely susceptible to changes in their environment. They breathe more air, eat more food and drink more water per unit of body weight, making them more vulnerable to pollutants. Children today are already experiencing climate associated health impacts, including worsening allergic and asthmatic disease, changes in patterns of climate-sensitive infectious diseases such as Lyme Disease and displacement from extreme events like Hurricane Katrina. In fact, more than 80% of the current health burden due to changing climate occurs in children younger than five years old.

Children also have a fundamental right to inherit a planet that is as safe, productive and beautiful as the one our generation has enjoyed. Given our knowledge of the grave and potentially irreversible impacts of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, to continue on our current emissions trajectory is an unprecedented injustice to future generations.

There is no one solution to this sweeping public health concern, but the EPA has taken a step in the right direction by proposing a rule that would help to limit carbon emissions. Pediatricians are committed to working with the agency to ensure the strongest possible standards are implemented to protect children’s health, and are calling on public health advocates across the country to join us. We have no time to waste– the health and security of our children depends on our success.

About the authors: Jerome Paulson, MD, FAAP, and Samantha Ahdoot, MD, FAAP, chair and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, respectively, are pediatricians based in the Washington, DC metro area.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog. 

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Eastern Ohio pipeline hauling toxic mix catches fire


A pipeline carrying condensate, a toxic substance produced during natural gas and oil processing, caught fire in eastern Ohio early this morning.

It burned several acres of Monroe County woodland before the pipeline pressure dropped low enough for the fire to burn itself out.

No one was injured, and no residents had to leave their homes, said Phillip Keevert, Monroe County’s Emergency Management Agency director.

Keevert said the fire started sometime after 2 a.m. near Cameron, in the eastern part of Monroe County and about 130 miles east of Columbus.

It burned for several hours. Firefighters left the scene around 7:30 a.m.

The line that caught fire was an 8-inch-diameter pipe that runs between eastern Ohio and a natural-gas processing plant in Natrium, W.Va., which is about 30 miles south of Wheeling along the Ohio River.

The plant, Dominion Transmission’s Natrium Processing and Fractionation Facility, started operating about a year ago and is part of a joint venture between Dominion and Caiman Energy II.

Dominion is headquartered in Richmond, Va.; Caiman is based in Texas. The two partnered in 2012 to create a company called Blue Racer. The pipeline that caught fire is run by that jointly held company, as is the Natrium processing facility.

The companies use hydraulic fracturing — commonly called “fracking” — to tap into shale and extract oil and natural gas. The industry is growing rapidly in Ohio.

Casey Nikoloric, a spokeswoman for Blue Racer, said the pipeline was blocked to contain the condensate.

“We are investigating the cause of the incident and have notified all of the proper authorities,” Nikoloric said in an e-mail. “There is no threat to the public and, at this time, we believe that there is minimal impact to the area immediately adjacent to the failure. Cleanup operations are underway.”

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing cleanup, said Heidi Griesmer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA. She said, “there has been no sign of petroleum contamination that has gotten into waterways.”

As drilling has increased, so have the number of pipeline accidents.

In 2010, Ohio oil and gas companies reported four accidents to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2011 and 2012, there were seven each year. In 2013, the number almost doubled, to 13. So far in 2014, companies have filed 11 accident reports.

Because the pipeline was carrying condensate, considered a hazardous material by the federal government, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio does not have oversight of the pipeline, said Matt Schilling, a PUCO spokesman.

Schilling said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is investigating. Spokesman Damon Hill said that organization has sent an inspector to Monroe County to investigate the fire, but said a cause for the fire hasn’t yet been determined.

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In Florida, a water-pollution warning that glows at night


“COCOA, Fla. — Karen McLaughlin normally carries a flashlight for her nighttime kayak trips along Florida’s Banana River to spot any alligators resting on the banks. But these days, it’s the river itself that glows in the dark.

Image Credit: Florida Today Communications/PR Newswire

“It’s beautiful!” McLaughlin, an eco-tour guide, said as her boat’s wake set off an eerie light show on a moonless October night. Each dip of her paddle stirred up bioluminescent plankton that have invaded this eastern Florida waterway in record numbers since late summer. Like millions of tiny fireflies, they lit a jumping fish in a geyser of emerald light. A manatee out for the evening glowed like an alien spaceship as it passed underneath.

It was striking, but also strange: In a region where explosive “blooms” of toxic or nuisance algae have battered fisheries and killed dolphins and sea turtles in recent years, the glowing microorganisms represent another mysterious shift in an ecosystem that scientists say is out of kilter.”

Read more from Joby Warrick and Darryl Fears at the Washington Post


Petition: Tell Bill Gates to Protect St. Louis Families from Pollution


Center for Health, Environment & Justice has been working with the group Just Mom’s STL and needs your help to get Bill Gates to take action. In fact, Lois Gibbs was in St. Louis just a few weeks ago to work with the grassroots group. Please sign the petition and join us in increasing the public pressure on Bill Gates. Thank you!

To: Bill & Melinda Gates, majority shareholders of Republic Services

Bill Gates is the dominant shareholder of Republic Services. He has the power of the vote and financial holdings to convince Republic Services to evacuate families living next to a burning landfill.

Families in this community cannot open their windows – not Gates’ software program – but their actual windows because of the odors and toxic air pollution.

Why is this important?

Why are we asking for Bill and Melinda Gates to act?

Because they have the power to make Republic take action and protect the children. No other child should be made sick and die.

A fire is moving toward from one Republic Services dumpsite to an adjacent dumpsite which contains radioactive wastes. No one knows what will happen when the fire reaches the radioactive wastes and no one knows how to put the fire out.

12 years old child died of brain cancer and now her sisters are sick. Republic Services earned $8.4 billion in revenues and $589 million in profits and is the second largest trash collection and disposal company in North America.  They can afford to move families and fully clean up the burning, polluting dumpsites. But they refuse.

Bill and Melinda Gates can use their influence to protect the children who live in surrounding communities, like Spanish Village which is closest to the burning dump. Gates’ owns 27% of the company’s share through his investment company, Cascade Investment (worth about $3.7 billion). Additionally, Michael Larson, chief investment officer at Cascade Investment, sits on Republic Services Board of Directors since 2009.

Bill and Melinda have the power, we are asking them to use it. Yes, the stock value may temporarily go down but Gates’ doesn’t live from pay check to pay check, his net worth is about $72 billion, he can take the loss.

Not far from the burning dumpsite and radioactive wastes is a family with four little girls. The youngest is in first grade today and the oldest is no longer with us. She was her mama’s little angel, her first born child and they so many dreams about her future, dancing at  her wedding holding their first grandchild someday.  But that was not meant to be. She was not feeling well and behaving strangely. Her mother took her to the doctors to see what was wrong. She was eight years old and cute as a button. After a series of test her parents were told that their little girl had a rare type of brain cancer—a tumor. Horrified that they were likely to lose their daughter, they search for answers. Why our baby? It’s not fair . . .  we did everything right.  What could possibly have cause this tumor to grow?  Angel’s parents did everything medically possible to save their child but in the end, four years after she was diagnosed, she died.

Her parents never stopped looking for the cause of the cancer and realized one day when mom opened the window to let in the fresh air that the air reeked with odors so offensive that she immediately slammed the window closed. It was Republic Services’ burning dumpsite that cause the nasty smelling air. As she investigated what was in the air, she believed she found reason for her daughter’s cancer and death. Not only was the air smelly but it contain cancer causing chemicals like benzene and likely radioactive dust.

Today, she’s very frightened for the health of her other three girls. Not only from living in the area but the grade school the girls attend is even closer to the burning landfill than their home.  How can she protect her other children?   Her three girls frequently suffer unexplained nose bleeds, sore throats, nausea, and other symptoms.  She’s trapped in the home she can’t sell and the girls trapped in a school that is likely not safe.

Bill and Melinda can help protect this family and others living in the community by getting Republic to evacuate the families that need to move and clean up the dumpsites. The death of a little girl should not have been for nothing – she was the canary in the mine—she made the ultimate sacrifice, sounded the warning to move the other neighborhood children. The hope is that Bill and Melinda Gates, parents themselves, can hear the warning from one brave little girl and help move Republic Services to move families and fully clean up the dumps. The Gates’ Foundation website says:

To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, find a solution and deliver impact.

The problem is clear, the solution simply move the families and clean up the dumps, so families are asking the Gates’ family to deliver – impact Republic Services to act today. Protect the children.

Running for Office

This man wants to stop America’s salad bowl from being fracked


A black 1957 convertible Jaguar cruises up the California coast on Highway 1, hugging the sea. Ocean lathers the rocks. The car heads north between Big Sur and Carmel with the top down and the radio on. The handsome driver, wind in his hair, is Clint Eastwood.

Ed Mitchell still remembers this opening scene from the 1971 film Play it Again Misty. He first saw it when he was a 14-year-old kid living in a foster home in rural Washington. He wanted to be there, on that coast, in beautiful Monterey County. Mitchell is nothing if not determined.

I met Mitchell, now 67, this summer as he was in the midst of a campaign for a seat on Monterey County’s Board of Supervisors. In a June primary election for his district, he garnered just over 39 percent of the vote — not enough to beat John Phillips (who got 49 percent), but enough to force a runoff in November.

Mitchell’s a firm handshake, big smile kind of guy with slicked back graying hair, a neatly trimmed dark mustache, cowboy hat, and button-down shirt. He’s a little bit country and a little bit business.

I had seen his photo numerous times on his campaign website and other publications. When he invited me to his home, and to meet his horses, I expected a pickup truck in the driveway — something to match the hat and the ranch. Instead, there was a Mini Cooper, with his mug plastered to the side. Mitchell, I realized, is also full of surprises.

His latest crusade is something of a surprise, even to himself. Not the running for office part, but the one where he became outspoken about the risks of fracking — the oil and gas industry’s controversial practice of blasting water, sand, and chemicals underground at high pressure to release oil and gas. He got “suckered into the dark world of giving a crap,” he tells me, tongue-in-cheek. At first Mitchell, a career military guy and aerospace engineer, might seem an unlikely person to become an anti-fracking activist — but that’s only if you have a limited view of fracking’s impacts, and Mitchell doesn’t.

Jumping into the fracking fray

Three years ago, as Mitchell attended a Board of Supervisors meeting, one of the agenda items that came up was for an oil-drilling permit in the southern part of the county on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). South County is also home to the San Ardo Oil Field where, as far as Mitchell was concerned, drilling had been going on without incident since the 1940s.

He lives in North County, so was barely paying attention to the discussion of the drilling permits. “Then they said ‘fracking’ and I just about fell out of my seat,” Mitchell said. “Being an engineer and caring about the technology I happened to know about it.”

Monterey County is home to the Salinas Valley, known as the “salad bowl of the world.” Monterey County is home to the Salinas Valley, known as the “salad bowl of the world.” Sarah Craig

So, Mitchell got up to speak — impromptu. It was the beginning of his public fight over fracking. What Mitchell didn’t know at the time, was the battle over those drilling permits was going to be years long and the outcome incredibly significant for all of California.

But that day he stood up and told the Board of Supervisors that this was the worst place to frack; it was close to the headwaters of the Salinas River. “This is the salad bowl of the world,” he said. “We have one source of water that comes down to us and if that gets polluted by highly toxic fracking wastes then the very profitable agriculture industry in the Salinas Valley is going to take a huge hit.”

Many people may know of Monterey County not for it’s vegetables, but for it’s beaches, bays, and tiny towns. But it also contains the lesser visited but no less vital Salinas Valley. It’s the muse for numerous John Steinbeck novels and the likely source of most of your salad. Agriculture here yields more than $4 billion annually and 45,000 jobs.

Running through the valley is the Salinas River, which does a disappearing act during the dry summers, dipping and diving northwest for 170 miles before being swallowed by the gaping mouth of Monterey Bay.

Mitchell believes that fracking poses a risk to the county’s agricultural lands by threatening the watershed, including the Salinas River, its tributaries and reservoirs, and the underground aquifers on which most people depend on for water. A spill of fracking fluid or wastewater from the process could pollute surface water, or seep underground. And there is also the threat of groundwater being contaminated if fracking fluid, which can contain numerous toxic chemicals, seeps through cracks in the cement barrier at the well bore or move through fissures in underground layers of rock.

The prospect of having too little water or having the remaining resources polluted is serious business in Monterey County, as it is in most of parched California. The well on Mitchell’s ranch first went dry in 1995 and he’s had to plumb even deeper twice already. The aquifer, which holds the area’s groundwater, is overdrafted — meaning that more water is taken out then replenished. It’s a bank account in the red.

Without water, farmers and vintners will be in big trouble. While it was Clint Eastwood’s fast car and the windy coastal roads of Monterey County that first caught Mitchell’s attention, it was the agricultural feel of the area that made he and his wife Jan decide to buy a house in Prunedale 23 years ago at the north end of the Salinas Valley. His decision to run for office and to take a stand against fracking stems from his desire to protect the rural integrity of the county — its ranches, farms, and open spaces.

To get to Mitchell’s house you have to snake your way into a treed canyon, past neighboring goats and ducks and alpaca. A sign at the gate marks your entrance and it’s a fitting name — Ranch Forgotten. The place was in bad shape when Mitchell and Jan bought it — but they fixed it up, felled trees, cleared land for pasture, and now it houses rescue horses for the nonprofit Redwings Horse Sanctuary. The horses that come to Ranch Forgotten are often only there temporarily, fostered for a time before being sent to more permanent homes.

Ranch ForgottenSarah Craig

It resonates with Mitchell’s own story.

At 14 he ended up on a dairy farm, taken in by a Finnish foster family in Western Washington who were, as Mitchell says, laughing, “the whitest people on earth.” Compared to the abusive home he had come from, Mitchell felt lucky. But it wasn’t an easy life. Mostly he remembers freezing. “You wake up early in the morning, no heat upstairs, it’s cold,” he recalls. “You get dressed quick, go outside, work for a couple of hours. Growing up on a dairy farm you learn a lot of responsibility.”

He also learned that he wanted to get out of there. Being a foster kid meant being different and he was sick of it. So, it’s not surprising that he ended up clawing his way into West Point (his other option was heading to Vietnam) after a year in a military prep school and desperate attempts to win scholarships. “I was one of those driven poor kids that was going to get out of where I was and go some place better,” he says.

Looking back, Mitchell’s story is something of the quintessential bootstraps American story. From West Point, he served 25 years in the Army, going from infantry to advanced training in engineering and management, working with the Joint Space Command. He went to the Naval Post Graduate School and earned a fellowship with the RAND Corporation. He left the military and worked as an aerospace systems engineer at Lockheed-Martin and then as a consultant for high-tech companies.

It’s that training which taught him a thing or two about evaluating risk.

“I’m from high tech and we have a definition for risk, which is the probability something will occur times the consequence equals the value of your risk,” he explains.

Remember that Gulf of Mexico disaster a few years ago with the Deepwater Horizon? “With safeguards, government watching, and some of the best oil people in the world, a low probability event happened and devastated the economy of five states,” said Mitchell.

He believes there is a low probability that fracking could damage Monterey County’s water, but if it does it would be calamitous, especially to the agriculture industry. That could mean more jobs lost in farming, than one could gain from drilling.

One of the biggest risks may be California’s shaky ground.

“We are the most seismically active oilfield there is,” he said. “We have the San Andreas fault floating through here. One of the claims from the frackers is that they can deep bury their waste and it won’t get up to the water.”

But an earthquake could jeopardize this. “Fine, we can make money, we can frack out the valley,” he says. “We can maybe not harm one little plant, one little head of lettuce that we’re growing and make lots of money. And we can keep farms alive that have marginal profit. But how about two generations from now? And you have a large enough earthquake that you get a crack and this stuff gets up? So it’s not just a now issue.”

It’s a generational issue, he contends.

Ever since he first heard about plans to frack south Monterey county, he has been focused on figuring out how to minimize damage.

And this is where Mitchell differs from a lot of other anti-fracking activists. He co-founded a group called Protect Salinas Valley and has taken the position — with his group and in his campaign for the Board of Supervisors — that has earned him flak from some environmental groups.

“We took the position of, what happens if you can’t stop it,” Mitchell explains. “A lot of activist organizations are ‘just stop it, kill it.’ We are, ‘if you have to live with the gorilla, how do you wrestle him into a position that doesn’t hurt you?’ How do you live if you bring an exploration industry into an existing agricultural industry — how do you do that and not screw things up? So we started asking questions.”

15396272255_4aa88ef326_k-960x550Sarah Craig

Earlier this spring, Monterey County’s Planning Commission put forth an ordinance that would ban fracking in residential areas in the county. While it sounded like a good proposal on its surface, Mitchell says, it meant that you could still frack in unincorporated areas, which actually works out to be 95 percent of the county. “It was well intended,” he says, but it left too much unprotected.

Instead, Mitchell and other activists asked for a two-year moratorium to accompany the ordinance so they could figure out how to protect the other 95 percent of the county. The Planning Commission accepted their recommendation, but for the last several months the plan has been in limbo, waiting for approval by the county’s Board of Supervisors. Mitchell thinks the organized activists in his county got out ahead of the oil industry, but now industry is putting on pressure – trying to buy some time.

Statewide significance

For the last few years there has been a push by a coalition of organizations (most falling under the umbrella of Californians Against Fracking) and political allies to pass a statewide moratorium against fracking in California. So far, the efforts have come up short. The state is working on drafting regulations for fracking that may help increase some transparency around the process and enact some safeguards, but these won’t be in place until the summer of 2015. And even then, it’s not clear how effective they will be.

Many concerned residents and activists have taken the fight to the county level instead and this November both nearby Santa Barbara County and San Benito County will have ballot initiatives before voters to ban fracking (and other “high intensity” production techniques). Santa Cruz County passed a ban earlier this year.

While Mitchell is pushing for a two-year moratorium, he isn’t advocating for a ban in Monterey County. The ordinance written by his group would protect the Salinas Valley watershed, which works out to be about 69 percent of the county. He calls the ordinance a “risk mitigation document.”

“We said let’s talk about some of the negative impacts that we see that are coming down that can affect farming and vintners and people in the valley and see how we can work around or limit those impacts,” said Mitchell. “And it’s allowed us to get into the debate and be listened to by some people.” Although not everyone has taken to his position and even friends have told him he’s sold out to the oil companies, but his group has added something important to the larger conversation about fracking – a middle ground.

I’ve been following the impacts of fracking in communities across the country for years and the people who have risen up to fight back. Some are career activists, but many more are accidental activists – regular folks who step up because the issue suddenly impacts their lives. Taken together, it’s a diverse group of people, ranging from left-leaning hybrid drivers to NRA member Republicans. You don’t have to be a liberal to want clean water and air. But that’s not always clear in some media reports.

“Activists get painted into the ‘well, they’re extremists, they’re treehugging, anti-American, they don’t want to balance the budget,’” says Mitchell. But he sees the activists in his county as the mainstream – even the ones who take a stronger position than he does. “They are not extreme in any shape or form. These are valid issues and they need to be discussed,” he says.

Decision day coming

While not much fracking has been done in the county yet, companies are interested. Mitchell found that out at the Board of Supervisors meeting three years ago. Those drilling permits that he heard about that day were part of a much bigger story.

In September of 2011, the BLM auctioned off 2,500 acres of South County land to oil companies. The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity sued, charging that the agency failed to consider the impacts of fracking. In April 2013 a federal judge ruled that the BLM did in fact violate the National Environmental Policy Act for not adequately examining how fracking could impact the leased land.

On Nov. 4, Mitchell will find out if he gets elected to the county’s Board of Supervisors. He hopes to be an advocate for preventing fracking from harming the valley. On Nov. 4, Mitchell will find out if he gets elected to the county’s Board of Supervisors. He hopes to be an advocate for preventing fracking from harming the valley. Sarah Craig

Following the decision the BLM commissioned a technical study to look at well stimulation technology (WST), which includes fracking. Their study came out in September, just days after I met Mitchell.

From the get-go though, the study had problems. For starters, it was based on a known lack of information. It relied primarily on peer-reviewed scientific studies, but also said that those studies are in fact “very limited.” It also analyzed voluntary data from industry, which the study admits, “are not required to be either complete or accurate.”

Then it chose a narrow scope, mainly looking at direct impacts and largely ignoring the indirect, though often substantial impacts, which include things like increased truck traffic and managing millions of gallons of toxic wastewater.

Mitchell says that the most troubling finding from the report was that it showed fracking in California often happens at shallow depths, which poses an even greater risk to groundwater compared to other states where fracking occurs much deeper. Also of concern was that some of the chemicals used in the process were found to have “acute toxicity.” But the report was again limited by only voluntary data from industry, which means some of the worst chemicals may be undisclosed.

When it comes to water demand, it was found that well-stimulation technology operations could contribute to local constraints on water availability, especially during droughts (which, is right now).

The air impacts, the study found, are not too bad. But that’s only if you compare them to the worst part of the state – the San Joaquin Valley – where three quarters of all onshore oil production occurs and, as the report admits, is “often out of compliance with respect to air quality standards.”

Based on all of that and an acknowledgement of limited and poor data, the report authors somehow determined that, “the direct impacts of WST appear to be relatively limited for industry practices of today and will likely be limited in the future if proper management practices are followed.”

The result is essentially a green light for the BLM to begin offering leases again to oil and gas companies interested in fracking or other well stimulation. I suppose it’s a fitting conclusion for having taken a limited scope, with limited information. And it’s totally in accord with our approach to oil and gas production across the country – what we don’t know may hurt us, but why try and find out for sure. Drill now, deal with the consequences later.

This is precisely what Mitchell is hoping to avoid in Monterey County but it speaks volumes about what he and other activists are up against. And it makes his potential election to the county’s Board of Supervisors all that more important for those concerned about fracking.

On election night he will be with his team at the back room bar of the local restaurant, the Country Kitchen. “On Nov. 4, my life changes significantly one way or the other. Either an advocate for preventing fracking from harming the valley will be elected or not,” he says.

What it comes down to he says, is “How do you do real stewardship? Not how do I make the next $100,000, but actually have an economy that lasts over the next couple of generations and will still have farming, especially from this area that feeds a lot of this world.”

Donna Young, a midwife, became worried about air pollution from the oil and gas industry causing child deaths after attending a memorial at a Vernal cemetery and seeing a row of graves for babies. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Dead babies near oil drilling sites raise questions for researchers


Donna Young, a midwife, became worried about air pollution from the oil and gas industry causing child deaths after attending a memorial at a Vernal cemetery and seeing a row of graves for babies. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

“VERNAL, Utah — The smartphone-sized grave marker is nearly hidden in the grass at Rock Point Cemetery. The name printed on plastic-coated paper — Beau Murphy — has been worn away. Only the span of his life remains.

“June 18, 2013 – June 18, 2013″

For some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau and a dozen other infants died in this oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country?

Some scientists whose research focuses on the effect of certain drilling-related chemicals on fetal development believe there could be a link.”

Read more from Nancy Lofholm at The Denver Post

Photo shared via Twitter by @350Pacific

Pacific Islanders Blockade World’s Largest Coal Port To Protest Rising Seas


The Huffington Post  | By 

Photo shared via Twitter by @350Pacific

Last week a group of Pacific islanders and Australians worked together to form a flotilla of kayaks and traditional canoes to blockade the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle, Australia. The action was led by a group of Pacific Climate Warriors, who traveled from their home countries to protest coal’s contribution to climate change and the threat of sea level rise to their low-lying islands.

The group targeted Australia in particular because it is the second-largest coal exporter in the world and plans to expand production. Just this summer, the government approved a project that will lead to the creation of the country’s largest ever coal mine. According to 350.org, hundreds of people participated in the blockade, including representatives from 12 Pacific island nations. They were successful at keeping at least two coal ships from passing through the port.

Mikaele Maiava from Tokelau told 350.org, “It is very important for us to take direct actions against climate change because it is threatening our lives and our islands. Our land is the most valuable treasure in our lives and the impacts of climate change will destroy it. We don’t want this to happen and we will not allow it to happen.”

Milañ Loeak of the Marshall Islands highlighted the inequities between those consuming fossil fuels and those at greatest risk from climate change. “None of us who have felt the impacts of climate change should continue to suffer through them just to fulfill others’ interests,” Loeak told 350. “We don’t deserve to lose our Islands and we will do what we must to ensure we won’t.”

View more photos from the protest at The Huffington Post.


‘Bomb trains’: A crude awakening for Richmond, Calif.


RICHMOND, Calif. — The streets are quiet in Lipo Chanthanasak’s neighborhood on the outer edge of this city’s downtown core. Each of the small houses is painted a variation of beige and separated from the road by a neatly kept lawn, as if to highlight the scene’s utter normalcy. But half a mile west are the BNSF Railway tracks and the Kinder Morgan rail facility, which quietly began receiving trains of Bakken crude last year.

Chanthanasak, who moved to Richmond from Laos 24 years ago, lives within the potential blast zone should an oil train derail, according to an online map created by the environmental-advocacy group ForestEthics. The 70-year-old retiree says he only learned that crude was being transported through his community because of his involvement with the nonprofit Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN. Many of his neighbors, he says, are unaware.

Since July 2013, when a train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 42 people and flattening the town, major crude-by-rail accidents have occurred in Alabama, North Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado. ForestEthics says that 25 million Americans live within an oil-train-evacuation zone. An elementary school, a public-housing project and an affluent, elderly community fall within Richmond’s zone, according to the advocacy group.

train bombs Richmond California

Bakken crude has been arriving since last year at the Richmond, California, train depot, pictured here. Google

The transport of crude by rail is not a new phenomenon, but it has increased significantly over the past few years. In the first half of this year, 229,798 carloads of crude were transported by rail, up from 9,500 carloads in all of 2008. The increase is largely connected to the development of the Bakken shale, oil-rich rock formation that lies beneath parts of the northern United States and Canada.

Compared with traditional forms of crude oil, Bakken crude has been shown to be much more volatile and more likely to explode in the event of derailment. Hence the rail cars’ nickname among activists: “bomb trains.” But apart from a code on the side of the cars, nothing about their appearance indicates their origins. Smooth and cylindrical, the black cars would be adorable, if only their contents weren’t so dangerous. Richmond’s Kinder Morgan facility, a rail yard containing very little except several tracks, is just as unassuming. The trains (100 to 120 cars hitched together, all carrying the same product) arrive here, where they are lined up in several rows, each waiting for their content to be pumped into tanker trucks (three tankers are required to hold the contents of a single railcar). The tankers are then thought to travel another 25 miles northeast to a Tesoro Corporation refinery in Martinez.

Previously, the Kinder Morgan facility receiving ethanol by rail. But in September 2013, after securing the necessary air-quality permit granted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (without the knowledge of its board), the facility quietly switched over to handling crude. By the time the community found out, in March 2014, through aninvestigative story by the local CBS station, KPIX, it was already too late. The lawsuit that the nonprofit group Earthjustice filed (on behalf of APEN and others) to halt operations at the terminal was dismissed by the Superior Court of San Francisco in September, because it had been filed after the 180-day deadline.

“It’s a catch-22,” says Andres Soto, an organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, one of the co-plaintiffs in the suit. “How can you even comment unless you knew that something had been done? We would’ve had to be going through public records on a regular basis to discover when they’re making these kinds of decisions.”

Richmond’s case is not unique: In June, a NuStar terminal in Vancouver, Washington, also received an air-quality permit to begin storing crude without public notification. Community resistance has, however, encouraged the Vancouver City Council to adopt an emergency six-month moratorium on new or expanded crude-by-rail facilities.

“It’s very rarely been the case that local representatives or city councils have questioned these things without being encouraged to by local citizens or by being forced to by local action groups,” said Lorne Stockman, research director at Oil Change International and author of two recent reports on the rise of crude-by-rail in North America. “The only way [the projects] have been challenged are because vigilant citizens have questioned them.”

The secrecy that has characterized the projects has been aided by the fact that, in many cases, their introduction requires very little new construction — none at all in the case of Kinder Morgan. That makes the projects virtually invisible. This is also why crude by rail has been economically viable, despite being slightly more costly than transport via pipelines. In addition, pipeline projects normally require 20- to 30-year contracts to recoup their capital investments. Therefore, because the Bakken oil boom is not expected to last, constructing new pipelines to service it often doesn’t make economic sense. Meanwhile, the Bakken region is already connected to the West Coast by existing rail infrastructure. With crude prices higher in the West Coast than elsewhere in the country, and a growing Asian market for North American crude, the transportation of crude by rail to the West Coast is likely to increase unless community resistance proves successful.

Lipo Chanthanasak was inspired to join APEN because of previous experiences with Richmond’s oil industry. The city is dominated by petrochemical plants, most of them clustered near the Kinder Morgan terminal. In July 1993, an explosion at a General Chemical refinery occurred while his wife was driving in the neighborhood with the windows rolled down. By the time she returned home, she was experiencing chest pains and had trouble breathing; she could barely climb the stairs to the top floor of their two-story home, nearly fainting in the process.

Chanthanasak recalls that the air smelled strange, like someone cooking hot, dry peppers. But without understanding English, they didn’t know what had happened until relatives, who had heard the news and advisories on TV, called to tell them to shut all their windows and doors. His wife has suffered from chronic headaches and chest pain since that day.

More recently, the Chevron refinery next door to the Kinder Morgan terminal caught fire in August 2012, after which more than 15,000 Bay Area residents sought medical treatment. Fires also broke out at the refinery in 1999 and 2007, and after the 2012 fire, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said that Chevron had neglected to act upon its recommendations to increase inspections and replace degraded pipelines over the course of a decade.

“This community has already suffered Chevron for over a hundred years, and now we have to be concerned about [Kinder Morgan] shipping and storing crude oil here,” said Chanthanasak. “If something happens, we are going to be in more danger.”

At a recent weeknight meeting at APEN’s Richmond office, Chanthanasak is joined by five other elderly Laotian members, all of them sitting around a table and listening to one another through headphones. (Half speak Khmu, half speak Mien, and the APEN organizer leading the meeting speaks English.) All but one of the other members live, like Chanthanasak, within half a mile of the BNSF tracks. The organizer explains that in early September several local activists chained themselves to the gate at the Kinder Morgan facility and stopped tankers from entering for three hours. (Andres Soto was among them). He then asks if anyone has ideas for future actions to resist crude-by-rail in their community.

“Can’t we just take off the railroad tracks so that they can’t use them?” jokes one of the women, Mey Chiam Saechao. Once the translations go through, everyone laughs.

In other Bay Area cities, including Pittsburg, Benicia and Martinez, resistance from communities in the close proximity to new crude-by-rail facilities has stalled their development. Railroad safety is governed at the federal level, and federal rail-safety laws pre-empt state laws, so activists and groups nationwide, including ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, have also called for a federal ban on outdated train cars currently being used to transport crude. But in the meantime, crude oil continues to arrive in Richmond, and crude-by-rail activism throughout the country has targeted local terminals and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Andres Soto also understands the resistance to the Kinder Morgan terminal as part of a broader project, one that seeks to end energy-intensive forms of extraction such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, which have fueled the Bakken boom.

“We’re against fracking and tar-sands extraction, and [crude by rail] is just one area where we have a direct impact,” he says. “This is really just one of the battle zones in the struggle against climate change.”


This isn’t a trick: Toxic chemicals in Halloween costumes


Parents across the country are stocking up on this year’s hottest costumes for their little ghouls, goblins, and princesses, but some costumes may contain hidden toxic chemicals harmful to our children’s health. I wish I were tricking you.

A new study released today by HealthyStuff.org found elevated levels of toxic chemicals in popular Halloween costumes, accessories and even “trick or treat” bags.  Dangerous chemicals like phthalates, flame retardants, vinyl (PVC) plastic, organotins, and even lead.  

TAKE ACTION: Tell big retailers – our children deserve a safe toxic-free Halloween.

They tested 105 types of Halloween gear for chemicals linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer.  The products were purchased from top national retailers including CVS, Kroger, Party City, Target, Walmart, and Walgreens.

These chemicals have no place in products for our little ones.  For instance they found high levels of flame retardants in “trick or treat” bags, and a toddler Batman costume that contained very high levels of phthalates, and even lead in the lining of the mask. 

We know that big retailers can do better.  In fact the new testing also shows that many Halloween products do not contain dangerous substances, proving that safer products can be made.  

Join us and send a message to retailers today. It’s time they “Mind the Store” and get these toxic chemicals out of products once and for all.

Little auks are the most abundant arctic seabird. They breed in colonies of several millions of individuals.  Credit: Pierre-Henri Fabre

Arctic Seabirds Expose Mercury’s Hiding Places


Little auks are the most abundant arctic seabird. They breed in colonies of several millions of individuals. Credit: Pierre-Henri Fabre

“Watch the skies and learn where the mercury lies.

Arctic seabirds called little auks (Alle alle) pick up mercury while on holiday in southern climes, a new study reveals, and then subsequently transport the toxin back into their main habitat. By tracking the pilgrims, scientists can pinpoint oceanic pools of the pollutant and possible sites of food chain contamination.”

Read more from Nsikan Akpan at Scientific American.