Backyard Talk

World Wide Environmental Justice Map

A terrific new resource is available to identify environmental justice (EJ) communities worldwide. The Environmental Justice Organizations, Liability, and Trade (EJOLT) has developed a worldwide interactive EJ Atlas. In an article published recently in the Guardian of London, an interactive map was published that you can click on a button and read the story about the struggle of local grassroots community based groups to address toxics waste sites, oil refineries, deforestation and much, much more.

According to the Guardian, “the EJ Atlas aims to make ecological conflicts more visible and to highlight the structural impacts of economic activities on the most vulnerable populations. It serves as a reference for scientists, journalists, teachers and a virtual space for information, networking and knowledge sharing among activists, communities and concerned citizens.”

The article goes on to say that the atlas was inspired by the work of participating Environmental Justice organizations including the World Rainforest Movement, Oilwatch International, OCMAL, the Latin American Observatory of Mining Conflicts, whose work fighting and supporting impacted communities for over 20 years has helped articulate a global movement for environmental justice. The atlas is a project of Ejolt, a European supported research project that brings together 23 organizations to catalogue and analyze ecological conflicts. The stories were entered by collaborating activists and researchers and moderated by a team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“Beyond stories of disaster and degradation, the struggles documented in the atlas highlight how impacted communities are not helpless victims. These are not only defensive and reactionary battles but proactive struggles for common land, for energy and food sovereignty, for Buen Vivir, indigenous ways of life and for justice. The environment is increasingly a conduit for frustrations over the shape of capitalist development. Tracking these spaces of ecological resistance through the Environmental Justice Atlas highlights both the urgency and the potential of these movements to trigger broader transcendental movements that can confront asymmetrical power relations and move towards truly sustainable economic systems.”

Last year the U.S. portion of the Atlas went live and included the 40 most influential environmental justice cases in U.S. history as identified from a national survey of environmental justice activists, scholars, and other leaders. The survey and mapping effort were led by professors Paul Mohai and Rebecca Hardin and a group at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Below are links to the article and the Atlas, including a link that takes you directly to the U.S. portion.

Mapping the Global Battle to Protect Our Planet

Map of Environmental Justice Conflicts in the U.S.

Map of Environmental Justice Conflicts Worldwide

Backyard Talk

Fracking and Common Sense

Does fracking really have the potential to contaminate our country’s drinking water supply? Can a process that occurs thousands of feet below the surface really affect it? The gas and oil industry has spent millions and millions of dollars to convince regulators and the American public that fracking is safer than a Volvo. And although their millions have largely succeeded in raising debate on the issue, it only takes some common sense to see how drinking water can be contaminated by this process. Here are only a few (of the probably thousands) of the ways in which drinking water contamination may happen:

  1. 1. Fracking Fluid: Fracking fluid is a toxic soup of different chemicals that together act to prime and dissolve the shale, as well as force gas/oil towards the surface. Oil and gas companies have kept the exact contents of the fracking fluid they use a secret, claiming that it is confidential business information. However, a new ruling in the state of California has pushed companies to reveal over 200 distinct chemicals used in fracking fluids. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens and neurotoxins such as toluene and formaldehyde. Workers can easily be exposed to these chemicals and communities surrounding drilling sites are at risk from accidental spills.
  2. Drilling: Fracking pipelines dig down to depths of over 10,000 ft. belowground. All throughout, they are encased by rings of cement or other similar materials to prevent chemicals from seeping into the drill-hole’s surrounding. How the heck can you fully encase a 10,000-foot hole that is barely a foot in diameter in cement? It’s like inserting a 10-foot paper straw into beach sand and expecting it not to break along the way. The simple logistics of it mean that there are bound to be cracks and other imperfections that will inevitably allow fracking fluid and collected gases to leech out into the surroundings. In fact, a study published by experts from Duke, Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester found direct evidence that linked groundwater contamination to faulty casings in gas wells. Other reports estimate that between 5-7% of new gas wells leak due to structural deficiencies, and that number skyrockets to 30-50% as they age.
  3. Wastewater: Wastewater, or “produced water” as the industry calls it, is the byproduct of fracking. It contains the mix of chemicals found in fracking fluid as well as other naturally occurring contaminants from groundwater that are washed out of the fracked shale. This wastewater is then either re-injected into the ground to help force more oil to the surface, heated to make steam and injected to soften heavy oil deposits, stored in surface reservoirs, or most of it is injected underground. Here is where it does it’s damage. Trucks carrying wastewater oftentimes leak it out as they transport it, storage ponds are notoriously porous and injection wells suffer from the same structural problems as gas wells. In short, wastewater will likely find it’s way out and into our groundwater reserves.

There are many, many more ways in which groundwater may be contaminated by fracking. The vast amounts of money spent by industry have led some people to believe the lie that it is a safe and clean technology, but we only need to use our common sense to see just how it can take away one of our most prized resources.

Backyard Talk

Green Screen: D.C. Environmental Film Festival

Attendees of the 23rd Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital have traveled the world this past week, from the banks of the Anacostia to the harsh icescape of Antarctica, following pressing environmental issues and reveling in impressive cinematography. And the best part is, the adventure continues until March 29th.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Climate Connections,” but the screenings have covered a broad swathe of both local and global issues from sustainable agriculture to the pollution legacy of the fashion industry. Many of the films have highlighted environmental health issues, but several water-centric films told particularly poignant stories.  On Sunday, the festival held a “Women and Water” event in celebration of World Water Day, which featured films by women filmmakers. The first segment of the session featured stories of pollution and restoration that took place right in CHEJ’s backyard – in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers that run through Washington, D.C.

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Image from Stone Soup Films

‘The Anacostia River: Making Connections’ discussed the rampant discharge of industrial pollutants and trash into the Anacostia, which has threatened the river’s vitality and posed health risks to those who build community on its banks and eat fish from its waters. The film also documented heroic efforts to clean up the Anacostia, restoring it for generations to come. Watch the film here.

In ‘Potomac: The River Runs Through Us,’ researchers and advocates discussed the dependence of the nation’s capital on the waters of the Potomac River, where emerging contaminants like endocrine disruptors may be rearing their toxic heads. In its second half, ‘Women and Water’ expanded its scope from local to global. ‘Riverblue,’ a sobering work-in-progress film, shone light on the fashion industry’s pollution of rivers in India and Bangladesh, where workers must cope with both unsafe working conditions and an environment ravaged by the refuse of tanneries and garment factories.

The festival has curated over 160 films, many of which are showing for free at venues across the D.C. area for the rest of the week. The remaining schedule includes several films that highlight pollution and environmental health issues. Tomorrow (Tuesday), ‘Are Vah!’ tells the story of  of a French power company aspiring to build the largest nuclear plant in the world in a vital fishing and mango production zone of India. On Wednesday, ‘E-Waste Tragedy’ covers the environmental and health implications of toxic electronic waste, while ‘Landfill Harmonic’ discusses poverty and waste pollution in Paraguay. On Thursday, Our Canyon Lands will address pollution resulting from mining development in Utah.

For a full schedule of events, visit the film festival website.


Backyard Talk

Environmental Defense Fund and Chemical Companies: Fool Me Twice?

Guest Reprint   By Ken Cook, President

It was abundantly clear at the recent Senate hearing that Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee have grave doubts about legislation the chemical industry has written to regulate itself (S.697).

Senators openly doubted the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of toxic industrial chemicals in a timely, much less urgent, manner under the bill or to ensure that chemicals ultimately are safe under the untested and dubious safety standard concocted especially for S.697. Indeed, a feat of imagination is required to believe that the industry’s proposed system will crack down on thousands of chemicals already in commerce that have been shown to cause cancer or birth defects or to wreak neurological havoc, among other harms.

At a House hearing last year, Jim Jones, the EPA’s top toxics regulator, estimated 1,000 chemicals are in need of urgent review. At the March 18 hearing he told senators the list might even be longer. With the legislation’s languid stream of just 25 high priority chemicals targeted for review in the first seven years, and its numerous procedural eddies where reviews might slowly spin for years, it could easily take over a century before EPA completes its study of the 1,000 most worrisome chemicals the agency has initially identified. And of course, the bill sets no deadline for taking regulatory action to ban or phase out dangerous chemicals if the agency concludes that is the proper course of action.

Several Democrats on the Senate panel were quick to point out that the ongoing assault on the EPA in the Republican budget makes the $18 million chemical companies will pony up to share the cost of chemical assessments reviews look even more inadequate. Meanwhile, the sweeping preemption of state authority proposed by the bill will ensure that legislators and regulators will be hamstrung from protecting their citizens.

Our colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund, alone in the environmental movement, think otherwise. They have joined forces with the chemical industry to strongly support the legislation.

It’s worth noting that the last time EDF joined forces with chemical companies, it was played for a fool—and played for well over a decade. In 1998, EDF and the chemical industry joined forces to launch the HPV [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][High Production Volume] Challenge Program, a voluntary program for which the chemical industry would supposedly provide basic toxicity testing data on the most widely used chemicals in the nation. A high production volume chemical is defined as one that is produced or imported in amounts greater than 1 million pounds per year.

This program was launched after a 1984 review by the National Academies of Sciences and the National Research Council estimated that only 11 percent of high production volume chemicals had disclosed enough safety data to complete even a partial hazard assessment. Years later the EPA issued a detailed report confirming the lack of data and concluding that a striking 43 percent of “high production volume chemicals” had undergone zero testing data on basic toxicity. That’s right, 43 percent of the chemicals produced or imported in quantities greater than 1 million pounds a year were basically untested.

The HPV Challenge Program was a resounding failure. It turned out to be a win-win-win for chemical manufacturers: they managed to get away with minimal testing information, faced essentially no threat of chemical restriction and staved off reform of the broken Toxic Substances Control Act for nearly 20 years and counting. Dow Chemical Co. has a webpage declaring the HPV program “a tremendous success,” and the American Chemistry Council also champions the HPV program and its accomplishments.

But the EDF wrote a report in 2007 entitled “High Hopes, Low Marks” acknowledging that the HPV program was “still well away from delivering on the promises it made.” The organization has not issued a follow-up report or statement since 2007, other than noting how EDF had “impelled the chemical industry” to participate in the program. The Governmental Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, documented huge problems in the program, including its voluntary nature and the lack of sufficient information to support decisions on risk assessments of chemicals.

Today the program is in shambles and no longer seems to be active, and the public is no better protected from chemicals of concern. The HPV program boils down to decades of voluntary information collection without any action. What could be better in the eyes of the chemical industry?

Fast forward to 2015 and we have just watched EDF – alongside the chemical industry – come out in strong support of what is being billed as a chemical safety bill that “creates strong protections against hidden health threats.” Yet in reality, this legislation, S.697, introduced by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and David Vitter (R-La.), is actually worse than current law.

This new industry-supported bill would fail to ensure that chemicals are safe, fail to set meaningful deadlines for safety reviews, fail to set deadlines for bans or restrictions when needed, fail to provide EPA with adequate resources and deny states the ability to protect public health and the environment.

While the industry bill would grant the EPA some new authorities and generate some new safety data, the overall package would not enable the agency to take the necessary actions required to protect public health effectively. This bill was written from the ground up NOT to protect public health but to protect chemical industry profit margins. The American public needs a chemical bill that shifts the burden onto industry for proving that chemicals are safe and that ensures EPA has the necessary authority to take action! My children and your children deserve better—and we must demand it on their behalf.

Environmental Working Group 1436 U Street, NW Suite 100 Washington, DC 20009


Backyard Talk

Did Chemical Company Author New Chemical Bill

In recent days, a draft of the bill — considered the product of more than two years of negotiation and collaboration between Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and both chemical industry and environmental groups — was circulated by Udall’s office ahead of the hearing. The draft bill, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, is in the form of a Microsoft Worddocument. Rudimentary digital forensics — going to “advanced properties” in Word — shows the “company” of origin to be the American Chemistry Council.   Read full story here.

Backyard Talk

Chemical Exposures and Health Care Costs

A new economic analysis has concluded that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely costs the European Union €157 billion ($209 billion U.S.) a year in actual health care expenses and lost earning potential, according to a new series of studies published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

A total of four papers were published (overview, neurobehavioralmale reproduction and obesity & diabetes) that focused on specific health conditions that can partly be attributed to endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) exposure. These included infertility and male reproductive dysfunction, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurobehavioural and learning disorders. A team of eighteen researchers from eight countries led by Leonardo Trasande, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine & Population Health at NYU Medical Center, were involved in this landmark initiative.

EDCs interfere with numerous hormone functions and are commonly found in thousands of household products including plastics made with vinyl, electronics, pesticides, and cosmetics.

The overview paper concluded that “EDC exposures in the EU are likely to contribute substantially to disease and dysfunction across the life course with costs in the hundreds of billions per year. These estimates represent only those EDCs with the highest probability of causation; a broader analysis would have produced greater estimates of burden of disease and costs.”

The papers were prepared in conjunction with an evaluation being done by the EU Commission of the economic impact to industry of regulating EDCs in Europe. According to the authors, “Our goal here is to estimate the health and economic benefit of regulating EDCs in Europe, based on current evidence.”

The expert panels put together for this analysis “achieved consensus for probable (20%) EDC causation for IQ loss and associated intellectual disability, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood obesity, adult obesity, adult diabetes, cryptorchidism, male infertility, and mortality associated with reduced T.”

“The analysis demonstrates just how staggering the cost of widespread endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure is to society,” said Leonardo Trasande, the lead author in a press statement released by the Endocrine Society. “This research crystalizes more than three decades of lab and population-based studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the EU.”

The press release goes on to say:

In the EU, researchers found the biggest cost driver was loss of IQ and intellectual disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to pesticides containing organophosphates. The study estimated the harm done to unborn children costs society between €46.8 billion and €195 billion a year. About 13 million lost IQ points and 59,300 additional cases of intellectual disability per year can be attributed to organophosphate exposure.

“Adult obesity linked to phthalate exposure generated the second-highest total, with estimated costs of €15.6 billion a year.

“Our findings show that limiting exposure to the most common and hazardous endocrine-disrupting chemicals is likely to yield significant economic benefits,” said one of the study’s authors, Philippe Grandjean, MD, PhD, Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and Adjunct Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This approach has the potential to inform decision-making in the environmental health arena. We are hoping to bring the latest endocrine science to the attention of policymakers as they weigh how to regulate these toxic chemicals.”

The impact of this paper is staggering. It should be a “wake up call” said Linda Birnbaum, Director of the U.S. National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences when asked about the results. It also provides more evidence that low level exposure to chemicals found in everyday household products is affecting the health of many people not just in the Europe, but worldwide.

Backyard Talk

Putting the ‘Teeth’ into TSCA: A Tale of Two Bills

TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is meant to do as its name suggests – control the introduction of potentially toxic chemicals into personal care products and the environment. The law, introduced in 1976, has been left untouched for decades. The chemical market now contains over 85,000 chemicals, with about 1,000 new chemicals introduced every year – and TSCA’s rules have only resulted in bans on five of these substances. ‘TSCA has no teeth’ is a common refrain among environmentalists, and speaks to the Act’s general incompetence in protecting human and environmental health.

How does TSCA work, and what makes it so ineffective? Essentially, TSCA requires that the EPA maintain a list – the TSCA Inventory – of all chemical substances that are manufactured or processed in the U.S.  Though companies must let the EPA know they are starting to manufacture a chemical, they have no responsibility to provide safety data along with this notice. The EPA can only require testing once they have proven the chemical presents a “potential risk,” creating a massive loophole for untested but potentially hazardous chemicals to enter the market. Not only are new chemicals subject to no scrutiny, but in-use chemicals are given the benefit of the doubt. When TSCA was first introduced, it “grandfathered in” all existing chemicals with the assumption they were safe for use. It’s readily apparent that there are more loopholes than law in TSCA.

Luckily, TSCA reform is back on the table, with the introduction of two new chemical regulation bills to Congress just last week. On March 10, Senators David Vitter and Tom Udall introduced a new bill that builds incrementally on a previous reform attempt, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Though the Udall-Vitter bill gives the EPA more power to regulate and requires safety testing of current and new chemicals, it has drawn criticism from environmental groups. The coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families released a letter critiquing the bill’s classification system for chemicals, which groups them as “High Priority” or “Low Priority” after an initial review. Chemicals deemed High Priority will be subject to further testing to determine their safety, while Low Priority chemicals will not, a distinction that may open a so-called ‘Low Priority Loophole’ with the potential for abuse by industry. Additionally, the bill curtails the ability of states to set their own more stringent regulations, a fact many environmental groups have criticized.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Ed Markey introduced their own bill, the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, on Thursday. Named after two cancer survivors, the bill employs stricter standards for chemical safety evaluation, sets deadlines for determining safety, and also allows states to continue to employ stricter regulations than those at the federal level. The Environmental Working Group has praised the bill, including its changes to safety-standard language. Instead of requiring EPA to prove a chemical has “no unreasonable risk of harm,” the bill sets the standard as “reasonable certainty of no harm” – the same standard that is applied to food additives and pesticides. The bill requires that the EPA consider risks that might result from unintended chemical spills, not just intended exposure levels. It also fast-tracks the safety analysis of asbestos, a proven cancer-causing agent that TSCA has thus far failed to regulate.

The Boxer-Markey bill shifts the burden of proof for chemical safety determination in a significant way. Rather than requiring proof of a chemical’s ‘unreasonable’ harm before regulation, it requires ‘reasonable’ certainty of its safety. Of course, there are still nuances and uncertainties in the determination of what constitutes “reasonable” safety, just as “unreasonable” harm is a flexible concept. All things considered, the Boxer-Markey bill takes the furthest step toward precaution that we have yet seen in Congress.

May the best bill win!

Backyard Talk

Ted Glick: It’s Time to Seize the Moment and Ratchet Up the Pressure

For the third time in less than two years, I met yesterday with the chair of FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. I was not alone. With me from the “good guys” side were Tracey Eno, leader of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community in Cove Point, Maryland; Jocelyn D’Ambrosio of Earthjustice and; via phone because her plane arrived late due to weather, Sandra Steingraber from href=”” target=”_blank”>We Are Seneca Lake.

On the “power” side were FERC chair Cheryl LaFleur and literally eight other FERC staff from various parts of their bureaucracy.

More than 2,000 climate justice activists assembled for a rally and march—in Washington, DC at The National Mall on July 13, 2014—to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in opposition to the expansion of a natural gas transfer and storage facility at Cove Point on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Flicr

My first time meeting with the then-FERC Chair Jon Wellinghoff was in May of 2013. The second time was last June with Cheryl LaFleur. In both cases, as was true of this one, the meetings happened after I and others had gone to one of FERC’s monthly commissioners’ meetings and made our presence felt.

A month ago, after going to FERC with representatives of Green America for a meeting they had set up with Commissioner Phillip Moeller, I was “banned,” the security guard’s word, from the FERC building, escorted out of the meeting room on the 11th floor we had been taken to just as the meeting was about to start. However, several hours later, after contacting someone I knew in the press, I got a call from the executive director of FERC apologizing and telling me I was not banned.

The meeting yesterday was requested just before my temporary banishment. It was requested on behalf of Beyond Extreme Energy, which has been ratcheting up the pressure and putting a public spotlight on the many serious problems with the way FERC works. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has called it “a rogue agency.”

What was our hope in requesting the meeting? Our hope, slim as we knew it to be, was that perhaps in the context of a “civilized” sit-down in this way, we could see some signs that the campaign that has been building over the last couple of years to make FERC work for the people and not the fossil fuel industry has had some impact.

There was little sign of that yesterday. After we raised our well-reasoned criticisms of FERC, their rubber-stamping of proposed gas infrastructure expansion projects, their minimal efforts to prioritize wind and solar technologies, they didn’t have much to say. After we pushed it, LaFleur did reference some rule changes they had made to make it easier for those technologies to become part of the electrical grid, and another person did want to know more of our thinking about what they should be doing in the area of renewables. But as Steingraber said afterwards, LaFleur’s main response was to say, in effect, “We’re trying to take it in, we are listening,” little more.

The one exception to this was in the area of FERC’s processes—their website, the meetings they set up and how they deal with administrative appeals after granting a permit for gas infrastructure expansion. There was a bit more, not much, back and forth with FERC staff in these areas. Perhaps, over time, we will see some modifications. Time will tell.

The meeting made crystal clear that we need to sieze the time and ratchet up the pressure. Fortunately, Beyond Extreme Energy is doing so, moving forward with its week-plus of action at FERC from May 21-29. That’s when our growing movement can show our power and speak the truth in powerful ways to those using theirs wrongly. Our children and grandchildren are calling upon us to step it up right now!