Backyard Talk

NEJAC Joins Chorus on Chemical Security

The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging her to use EPA’s authority under the “General Duty Clause” of the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) – also known as the Bhopal clause – to require covered chemical facilities to prevent, where feasible, catastrophic chemical releases.

The letter goes on to say that “Implementing the Clean Air Act’s prevention authority will not only eliminate accidental hazards but also will address fatal flaws in the current chemical security law administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Presently, DHS is prohibited from requiring the use of safer chemical processes at facilities. These gaps are particularly threatening to low-income and tribal communities and communities of color because they frequently reside near waste water treatment plants, refineries, and port facilities which are exempted under a 2006 Congressional statute that allows thousands of potentially high-risk facilities such as these from being required to use safer chemicals.”

The NEJAC letter echoes efforts by Greenpeace and a broad coaliton to address chemical security issues at industrial sites across the country. Last June 104 labor, environmental, public health and civil rights groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use the CAA’s general duty clause to prevent chemical disasters.

There are 483 chemical plants in the U.S. that each put 100,000 or more Americans at risk of a Bhopal-like disaster and several thousand other plants that use and store poison gases such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia on their property, As stated in the NEJAC letter, these plants are often located near residential areas in low-income and tribal communities and communities of color. Some communities no longer face these risks because the plants have switched to safer chemical processes. For example, the waste water treatment plant in Washington, DC converted from deadly chlorine gas to harmless liquid bleach 90 days after the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly asked Congress to remove these risks by requiring the use of safer chemical processes where feasible. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have blocked these efforts and there is little hope that legislation will move forward in an election year. Alternatively, President Obama can use the general duty clause of the Clean Air Act to require companies to design and operate their facilities in a way that prevents the catastrophic release of poison gasses. Sign the Greenpeace petition urging President Obama to use his authority to prevent chemical disasters. For more information.

Backyard Talk

Mining Wars in Wisconsin

I am a Wisconsin native who is rather new to CHEJ, having joined as a member less than a year ago. My first exposure to the Center came in February 2011, when I attended a workshop facilitated by CHEJ staff in Marquette, MI to help citizens who were fighting an ill-advised mining proposal in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I just happened to be in town on the day of the workshop, and a friend suggested I stop by. Wow … am I glad that I did!

Not only did I learn a lot that day about community organizing, but CHEJ staff has been willing to help me, one-on-one, as I have struggled in my own small way to work on mining issues affecting my home state of Wisconsin. The most recent example involved a mining proposal advanced by a Florida-based company (the Cline Group, operating in Wisconsin as Gogebic Taconite, or G-Tac) that wanted to construct a 4-mile long open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin, close to the shores of Lake Superior and the reservation of the Bad River Ojibwe Nation.

Superior is the greatest of the Great Lakes and the largest reservoir of clean, fresh water on earth. Even though I am not Catholic, for me the G-Tac proposal gave new meaning to the phrase: “Don’t mess with Mother Superior.” And even though I am not Native, that’s where my heart is and I say: “Don’t mess with the waters flowing through the Bad River Reservation that form the life-blood of its Peoples.”

Early on G-Tac complained that Wisconsin’s mining laws were too cumbersome to allow for the development of a profitable mine. That’s when things turned political and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers moved to fast-track a new mining bill through the Wisconsin Legislature to facilitate construction of the mine. Word had it that the bill (2011 Assembly Bill 426) was actually authored by G-Tac itself.

In the name of job creation, the bill: (1) gutted environmental protections; (2) ignored Native American treaty rights; (3) silenced the voice of the public by failing to provide for citizen suits over illegal environmental damage caused by a mine; (4) denied citizens the right to a contested case hearing on any decision made by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources under the new law; (5) ripped off Wisconsin taxpayers by allowing the mining industry to dig up and ship out the state’s iron ore while paying a pittance in taxes; and (5) the list goes on and on.

Click here to read the actual wording of the bill (so you can read for yourself), as well as a summary of its major flaws as set forth by Wisconsin State Representative Terese Berceau (D-Madison).

As one of my friends commented, the whole thing felt like  Gov. Walker and his cronies were holding the people, the air, the water, and the lands of Wisconsin hostage, telling us “Drink this poison and then you can have a job.”

Some say that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has “gone to the dogs” but even they don’t want him (March 10, 2012).

Governor Walker was already in trouble with Wisconsin families because of how he stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011. In fact, over a million signatures were collected last year to force him to a recall election that will be held in June. The assault on Wisconsin’s mining laws was just the latest example of Walker’s propensity to walk over and try to crush little guys like me. It is no wonder a broad coalition of Wisconsin citizens and tribal members stepped forward to say, “Enough! No more!”

That’s when I contacted CHEJ to let them know what was happening in Wisconsin with the new mining legislation. I told them what I wanted to do as “my part” to help defeat the bill and asked if they might have some advice for me, based on their experience in fighting other battles.  

First off, I mentioned that I wanted to offer testimony against the new mining bill at an upcoming public hearing, but the committee chair was limiting each citizen to 3 minutes. What to do? The next thing I knew, CHEJ’s Peter Sessa was helping me hone my original comments (that were way too long) so that I could deliver the biggest blow with the smallest number of words. It worked!

And several weeks later, when demonstrations against the bill were scheduled to take place at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, I got an email from CHEJ’s Makia Burns, offering to provide advice on how I, as an individual, could best fit into the bigger picture evolving in Madison. I certainly didn’t expect to get that kind of personal attention from a national organization like CHEJ.

I must say that my experience in Madison was rather traumatic. Perhaps I am naïve, but I had never witnessed, first hand, such corruption in government. There were cops all over the place, as if we, the citizens, were the criminals. I even got kicked out of the gallery in the Assembly Chambers during the debate on the mining bill, even though I was just sitting there quietly. You see, several people “broke the rules” by holding up signs in the gallery and, all of a sudden, a decree was handed down that ALL of us had to leave. Wow! That’s when people got angry. Many assembled outside the Chambers’ doors and started chanting and stomping their feet in an effort to make sure the lawmakers could hear their discontent.  Still, the Assembly proceeded to pass the mining bill on a 59-36 party line vote.

But I do have some good news to report! The company that authored the terrible mining legislation that was the subject of so much controversy has decided to pick up its blocks and go home. Even though the bill passed the Assembly, it failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate in early March by one vote (that of a Republican who crossed party lines). Within hours of the senate vote, the company announced it was pulling out of Wisconsin. G-Tac President Bill Williams issued the following terse statement, much to our delight:

“Senate rejection of the mining reforms in Assembly Bill 426 sends a clear message that Wisconsin will not welcome iron mining. We get the message. G-Tac is ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine. We thank the many people who have supported our efforts. For Further Information Call: Bob Seitz, Arrowhead Strategies, LLC at 608-310-5323”

So is G-Tac gone for good, or is this just a company ploy to “up the ante” and force the Wisconsin Legislature to cave in to the company’s demands? No one knows for sure, but we are savoring the victory for the moment!

I am just one person, and there is no way I can take credit for the defeat of the mining bill or the exodus of G-Tac from Wisconsin. But CHEJ didn’t look at me as “just one person” and instead helped me to make the most of what I had to offer to the collective movement. I am convinced that, by helping one person at a time, CHEJ is truly helping to turn the tide.

Pictured here, left to right, are Sherrole Benton (Green Bay, WI), Bill Krupinski (Jefferson, WI) and Laura Gauger (Duluth, MN) who joined forces with tribal members and citizens throughout Wisconsin to demonstrate against fast-track mining legislation that would have gutted environmental protections and ignored Native American treaty rights. Recognition of tribes as sovereign nations was written into our (USA) constitution in 1787, so that is why the logo on the sign refers to that date (January 25, 2012).

Backyard Talk

MI Nuclear Reactor Hurts Everyone

Michigan is pushing – not just supporting – another nuclear reactor, Fermi 3, on the banks of the Great Lakes. And the state and Detroit Edison are picking the pockets of tax payers and utility rate payers to pay for it. This makes no sense, especially if you look at the history and the need for such a reactor. Fermi 1 was shut down because of a partial meltdown; Fermi 2 is operating with serious problems including an accidental turbine missile mechanical explosion that resulted in millions of gallons of radioactive water being discharged into Lake Erie.

Fermi 3 is a new proposed reactor that Detroit Edison and the state are supporting. At stake, the tax payers and rate payers will pre-pay for the nuclear reactor. That’s right — pre pay for a reactor that is not needed nor is there any guarantee that it will even be built! The median income of households in the city of Detroit is $28,000 and the percentage of people below the poverty level is 26.1%. Unemployment is at 13%.

This is criminal. The city is near bankrupt, the population is barely hanging on, while Detroit Edison is forcing people to pay for the construction of a new nuclear reactor that may never be built to generate energy that is not needed and to place at risk Lake Erie which provides a solid economic base for jobs and businesses in the region.

This past weekend CHEJ facilitated a workshop in Detroit, on media training, framing the group’s messages, speaking to the media and finding other ways to reach the public about their issue. Twenty six community and group leaders, from across the region came together to fight this insane proposal. CHEJ worked with the leaders to help them come up with winning strategies to right the wrong and give the honest hard working citizens back their taxes and funds paid to the utility.

Leaders were very clear that Michigan does not need another nuclear reactor but does need economic opportunities and alternative energy. Recently a solar and wind turbine plants open in Michigan providing long term jobs, economic benefits and safe energy. The leaders strategies included encouraging subsidies be given to the alternative technologies like those that have already begun to build plants in the state and stop supporting dangerous technologies that place people and the environment at risk. Stay tuned as the efforts build.

Backyard Talk

Low Doses Matter

You were right.

How often have you been told that the levels of a particular chemical found in the air, soil or water are very low and thus not significant, or that the risks are so low that there is no cause for alarm?  This is what EPA said about dioxin just about a month ago when they released its non-cancer report.   Now a new scientific report is helping make the case that most people living in a contaminated community have known for years – low dose effects matter.   A group of scientists led by Laura Vandenberg at Tufts University reviewed literally hundreds of published scientific papers, many on endocrine disruptors, and found dozens of examples of low dose effects.  These papers included a wide range of chemicals including many found in the environment, our food, and many consumer products such as plastics, pesticides, and cosmetics.  The researchers found “overwhelming evidence that these hormones altering chemicals have effects at low doses and that these effects are often completely different than effects at high levels.”  Low doses are defined as levels occurring in the range of typical human exposure.

This is a remarkable paper.  It says and supports what community leaders having been saying for years –  low dose exposures are damaging people’s health and the way scientists evaluate health risks using risk assessment no longer works.  One of the key conclusions in this paper is that “the effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses.”   This paper needs to be read by every regulating agency at the state and federal level because it opens the door to a new way of thinking about heath risks.  No longer is it enough or even good science to evaluate health risks using traditional dose response thinking that accepts effects at high doses, but not at low doses.

As noted in an earlier blog, Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, described this traditional approach to evaluating health risks as “antiquated” and that it needs to be replaced by a “better understanding of the actual characteristics of modern environmental chemicals.”  In a recent editorial Birnbaum says “It is time to start the conversation between environmental health scientists, toxicologists, and risk assessors to determine how our understanding of low doses effects and non-monotonic dose responses influence the way risk assessments a re performed for chemicals with endocrine disrupting activities.“

Birnbaum is right.  We need to begin rethinking how we evaluate health risks from low dose exposures to toxic chemicals.  For a copy of the Vandenberg paper see:

Backyard Talk

Fracking Waste is Too Toxic For Niagara Falls

We’re not selling out future generations of our children for corporate greed.

This was a statement made by a Niagara Falls Council Chairman who at one time attended school in the Love Canal contaminated neighborhood.  It is refreshing to hear someone who has learned from our society’s past mistakes and takes steps to avoid the same problems in the future.

Niagara Falls has recently gone on record against treating wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, with elected officials saying they don’t want the city that endured the Love Canal toxic waste crisis to be a test case for the technology used in gas drilling operations.

The City Council also approved an ordinance Monday that prohibits natural gas extraction in Niagara Falls, as well as the “storage, transfer, treatment or disposal of natural gas exploration and production wastes.”

This does not mean that the Niagara Falls Water Board, who owns the treatment facility can’t agree to take the fracking waste, despite the city council decisions.  However, they would have to air lift the wastes in which would be costly, because the City will not allow it to be transferred or stored.

After celebrating this proactive and protective decision by the city council I realized that years ago a similar policy was passed in the city of New Bedford, MA.  In that situation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) wanted to place a portable incinerator near the shoreline and burn the PCB wastes that were going to be dredged from the harbor.

When the city said no and passed a similar policy, the USEPA said we can air lift the incinerator on to the site.  The city countered by saying they would refused to give them permits for water and electricity. The USEPA came back with, we’ll air lift the incinerator, a generator and water tanks.  This became a big scandal and EPA backed down.

The lesson here is — believe the unbelievable when it comes to greed at any costs.  The city of Niagara Falls needs to watch carefully to make sure that their proactive intentions of protecting public health and the environment are in fact accomplished.

As a former resident I have to say that I am proud of the recent decision and foresight the city has demonstrated. If only Ohio could see the problem in the same light. They’ve had earthquakes and other related problems with waste disposal already. When will they ever learn?

Backyard Talk

No Nuclear Nirvana

As we approach the one year anniversary of Fukushima on March 11th, Robert Alvarez reports that there is “No Nuclear Nirvana” and nuclear power remains expensive, dangerous and too radioactive for Wall Street. ( Huffington Post, 3/5/12)

“Is the nuclear drought over? When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently approved
two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, Ga., the first such decision in 32 years, there was plenty of hoopla.It marked a “clarion call to the world,” declared Marvin S. Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear energy is a critical part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” declared Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who traveled in February to the Vogtle site where Westinghouse plans to build two new reactors.

But it’s too soon for nuclear boosters to pop their champagne corks. Japan’s Fukushima disaster continues to unfold nearly a year after the deadly earthquake and tsunami unleashed what’s shaping up to
be the worst nuclear disaster ever. Meanwhile, a raft of worldwide reactor closures, cancellations, and postponements is still playing out. The global investment bank UBS estimates that some 30 reactors in several countries are at risk of closure, including at least two in highly pro-nuclear France. And Siemens AG, one of the world’s largest builders of nuclear power  plants, has already dumped its nuclear business…”

To view the rest of the article, go to

Backyard Talk

New Dioxin Report: What it means

Several weeks ago EPA released the non-cancer portion of the EPA’s health assessment for the chemical known as dioxin. The event passed without industry collapsing, without the public going into panic as was anticipated by the food industry, and basically without the world coming to an end. The myriad forecasts of doom that industry and its apologists predicted did not come to pass. In fact, the media barely took notice. Why? – Because the reassessment did not set any new standards or introduce any new regulations.  It simply provided the scientific basis for determining the risks that dioxin poses, though in this case, just the non-cancer risks (EPA is still working on the cancer report).

The non-cancer effects of dioxin as described in the report are quite serious. In a recent review paper, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS, summarized the adverse health effects of dioxin exposure in humans as including “cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, porphyria, endometriosis, early menopause, reduced testosterone and thyroid hormones, altered immune responses, skin, tooth, and nail abnormalities, altered growth factor signaling, and altered metabolism.”

Most notably, the non-cancer assessment included for the first time a value called the reference dose.  This is a number used to evaluate non-cancer risks and is generally defined as “a level below which exposures are generally considered to be safe.” The EPA’s Reference Dose for dioxin is 0.7 picograms TEQ per kilogram per day (pg/kg/d) which was derived by evaluating developmental and reproductive effects in a community in Italy (Seveso) exposed to dioxin caused by an accident at a pesticide manufacturing plant.

What’s remarkable about the EPA reference dose is when you compare this number to the average daily exposure of the American public to dioxin (defined as the daily intake from all sources, 90% of which comes from food).  Using the most recent data from EPA (see Lorber et al. 2009) the average daily exposure is 0.54 pg TEQ/kg/d compared to EPA’s reference dose of 0.7 pg TEQ/kg/d.  So the average person gets a daily dose of dioxin that’s 77% of EPA’s new reference dose. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the average is so very close to the EPA reference dose and that some groups, especially children, are exposed to higher levels that exceed the new EPA reference dose. This is because children have different eating habits than adults. They tend to eat more diary products that are high in dioxin. Dioxin is prevalent in foods that are high in saturated fat, primarily meat and dairy.

A 2003 study conducted by a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Dioxin in Food bears this out. The committee found that children ages 1 to 5 were exposed to 1.09 pg TEQ/kg/day and children ages 6-11 years old were exposed to 0.69 pg TEQ/kg/day. This analysis shows that dioxin exposure in children 1 to 5 years old exceeds EPA’s reference or safe dose and that children 6 to 11 years old have dioxin exposure that is virtually identical to the EPA reference dose.

As a practical matter, this means that the best risk estimate we have on dioxin shows that the public, especially children are being exposed to unacceptable levels of dioxin that may be causing subtle adverse effects. These subtle effects likely include developmental effects that Dr. Birnbaum described in her review paper as posing the greatest concern “in part because the effects occur at the high end of the background range for the general population.”  These exposures may exceed the EPA’s reference does and even approach the levels observed in the study of Seveso, Italy.    The developmental effects may include altered thyroid and immune status, altered neurobehavior at the level of hearing, psychomotor function, and gender-related behaviors, altered cognition, dentition, and development of reproductive organs, and delays in breast development, in addition to altered sex ratios among exposed offspring.

While no exposure to dioxin is the ideal, we are not there yet.  In the meantime, exposure to dioxin in food, especially for children remains too high and needs to be addressed by EPA, FDA, and USDA. CHEJ strongly urges the EPA to finish and release their review on dioxin and cancer, and to develop a comprehensive action plan to further reduce dioxin emissions and exposures.

For a copy of EPA’s new dioxin health report, visit

To see CHEJ’s press release about this report, visit

Backyard Talk

Grassroots Environmental Groups Are The 98%

The environmental movement has spent the last five years trying to protect laws and regulation we have and stop the roll back efforts, while also moving new regulations and policies. However, we are failing. For example, millions of dollars were invested in Climate Change legislation and we failed to move any agenda forward. One reason, according to surveys and polling, is that the American people didn’t know what to do to make a difference (beyond changing their light bulbs) or didn’t see how the issues they cared about connected to climate change. A recent report, published by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, provides some insights of why the average person might have had problems connecting the dots.

The report says, “The movement hasn’t won any “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s” because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change.” Without resources to hold meeting that bring leaders together at the local level, provide training for media opportunities, learn how to develop a strategic plan or provide resources to join other organizations efforts, local organizations cannot sustain themselves nor move beyond the issue that brought them together.

Interestingly, according to the IRS filings, while less and less money is being provided to grassroots effort, grassroots environmental groups are emerging at more than twice the rate of other non profits sector.

More than half of all environmental grants and donations are given to 2% of all environmental groups all with budgets over $5 million. This 2% of really large groups receives more than 50% of all grants! This leaves 98% of environmental groups with less than half the available funds.

This is a serious problem. In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

Clearly, CHEJ is not a funder but is an essential part of the infrastructure. In the report NCRP strongly supports infrastructure using CHEJ as one example. “CHEJ provides everything from technical assistance on local advocacy campaigns to small capacity building grants. By nurturing emerging groups and providing ongoing feedback and coaching for more seasoned organizations, while convening meetings and alliances for all groups to connect and work together, CHEJ helps till the soil and spread the nutrients in which grassroots organizing and movement building thrive.”

To create real systemic change somehow we need to figure out how to communicate with those distributing funds that there needs to be a balance. Yes the large groups are very important but in they are only as powerful as the base they represent and can advocate at the local level. All politics, all change are local. It’s not an issue of supporting  either the large groups or the grassroots groups. It is critical to support both with balanced or none of us succeed. My question to the network is how do we communicate this message? Ideas anyone?