Backyard Talk

Environmental Injustice in the Navajo Nation

By Dylan Lenzen

Experiencing the environmental injustice associated with the fossil fuel industry is not exclusive to minority and low-income neighborhoods within America’s largest cities. The same toxic living conditions can also be found on America’s remote and impoverished Native American reservations. Here, the health of individuals and communities that inhabit these regions subsidize the development of cheap electricity and water in surrounding cities that disconnected from their suffering.

An example of this remote environmental injustice can be found on the Navajo reservation in the Southwestern U.S. This sprawling reservation is home to the country’s largest Native American tribe, the Navajo Nation, with over 300,000 members.

The story of this region is defined by environmental injustice that stems from the vast coal resources found there and the large corporations working to exploit it. This wealth of coal resources has fostered a dependence on fossil fuel development with roots that go back nearly a century.

The region is currently exploited by two mines, both operated by Peabody Coal Company, the largest private-sector coal company. These mines create over 1,000 of jobs for local residents, but also contribute to high rates of cancer and lung disease in workers and surrounding communities. The coal extracted by these mines is then sent to the Navajo Generating Station, where the coal produces electricity for the surrounding region, much of it being utilized for transporting valuable water resources to Phoenix, Tucson, and other Southwest cities.

While it would be intuitive to think that this incredible amount of coal production and generation of valuable electricity would lead to a strong economy on the Navajo Reservation, but that is clearly not the case. While the mining and power plants provide a number of jobs, the community remains impoverished with a 45 percent unemployment rate and 77,000 people living below the poverty line. Many of the people living in the community cannot even afford access to the important services, such as electricity and running water, that their coal and power plants provide for the major cities that surround the reservation.

This widespread impoverishment is a result of the fact that, despite the health and environmental sacrifices associated with coal mining and coal-fired power plants, the Navajo Nation receives but a small fraction of the profits that Peabody and the Navajo Generating Station produce. The land that is leased to Peabody for mining, and transporting the coal is leased to them for a fraction of its true value. The Navajo Generating Station that burns the coal produced by Peabody is not even owned by the Navajo Nation.

While this is just one of many examples of the environmental, economic, and public health outcomes of fossil fuel generation in America, the results on Native American reservations like the Navajo Nation are particularly acute. Because of the remote nature of these reservations, it is especially easy to overlook the role they play in subsidizing the development of excess for the rest of society.

Examples like the Navajo Nation offer a great source of motivation for a transition of our energy system towards one that does not pollute and destroy the environment and health of minority and low-income communities. Whether these communities reside in some of America’s largest cities, or it’s most remote locales, they deserve better.

Backyard Talk

Super-Polluters Responsible for Most Environmental Health Risks

Environmental justice is a familiar concept to the communities that CHEJ works with, who experience racial and socioeconomic disparities in health as a part of daily life. Among the general public, this concept is not always understood. If there is any positive associated with the tragic water contamination in Flint, MI, it is that environmental injustices may continue to gain more research attention and spotlight in the national media as a result.

Today, EJ research was front-page news. Just a few days ago, researchers with the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, released a study that combined computational science and sociology to investigate the impacts of a class of polluters known as ‘Super Polluters.’ These sources are responsible for disproportionate amounts of air pollution. The study was a huge undertaking, assessing the emissions of 600 chemicals from close to 16,000 facilities, and the results were unsurprising: the highest-polluting facilities were located in low income communities and communities of color.

Though the study demonstrates a known concept within the environmental justice community, it supports past findings with a massive body of data, and demonstrates that the effects of super-polluters on low-income and minority communities are worse than previously thought. As one of the researchers shared on SESYNC’s blog, “If you’re non-white or poor, your community is more likely to be polluted by arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other dangerous toxins from industrial production…What’s new and surprising is that industry’s worst offenders seem to impact these communities to a greater extent than might already be expected.”

The study also sheds light on who to blame for the situation. According to the study, fewer than 10% of the facilities they assessed were responsible for more than 90% of human health risks from excess pollution. These findings are relevant for policy-making; if a subset of facilities are causing the majority of the harm, it’s possible that targeted emissions-limiting efforts could be more impactful for promoting environmental justice than large-scale regulatory efforts. Placing more emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable communities, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with reducing the most extreme of environmental pollution in the U.S.

The Washington Post reported on the study today, while placing the Flint tragedy in the context of the larger problem of environmental injustice. This study contributes to our growing understanding of environmental injustice, and will hopefully continue to shed a spotlight on vulnerable communities like Flint, MI. As Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland commented to the Post that the Flint situation “is really going to raise attention around environmental justice issues around the country, and also how you have these other environmental justice disasters that are looming out there.”

Backyard Talk

People or Pollution – Which Came First?

Researchers at the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment published a paper last month that examines an important question about environmental disparities: Which came first – The people or the pollution? More specifically, are present-day disparities around hazardous sites the result of a pattern of placing hazardous waste sites, polluting industrial facilities, and other locally unwanted land uses disproportionately where poor people and people of color live? Or are they the result of demographic changes that occur after the facilities have been sited? Their answer published in the December issue of the journal Environment Research Letters points to a clear pattern of disproportionately placing hazardous waste facilities in people of color communities at the time of siting.

The authors used a national database of commercial hazardous waste facilities sited from 1966 to 1995 and examined the demographic composition of host neighborhoods at the time of siting and demographic changes that occurred after siting. They found strong evidence of disparate siting for facilities sited in all time periods, though they did find some evidence of post-siting demographic changes. According to the authors, these changes “were mostly a continuation of changes that occurred in the decade or two prior to siting, suggesting that neighborhood transition serves to attract noxious facilities rather than the facilities themselves attracting people of color and low income populations. Our findings help resolve inconsistencies among the longitudinal studies and builds on the evidence from other subnational studies that used distance-based methods. We conclude that racial discrimination and sociopolitical explanations (i.e., the proposition that siting decisions follow the ‘path of least resistance’) best explain present-day inequities.”

This study examined the processes by which racial and socioeconomic disparities in the location of polluting industrial facilities can occur. According to the authors, “prior studies have had mixed results … principally because of methodological differences, that is, the use of the unit-hazard coincidence method as compared to distance-based methods.” This is the first national-level environmental justice study to conduct longitudinal analyses using distance-based methods.

The authors came to conclude that “Our findings show that rather than hazardous waste TSDFs ‘attracting’ people of color, neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color appear to ‘attract’ new facility siting. The body of distance-based research suggests that government policies, industry practices and community empowerment measures are needed to ensure fairness in the siting process and to address disparities in risks associated with existing facilities. In addition, more studies that use reliable methods to assess such racial and socioeconomic disparities in the location of other types of environmental hazards could also improve our understanding of the processes and factors that contribute to environmentally unjust conditions in the United States and around the world.”

The authors also published a review paper in the same issue of this journal that summarized previous environmental justice studies that demonstrated the existence of racial and socioeconomic disparities in relation to a wide range of environmental hazards.

Backyard Talk

Snowmageddon 2016 Brought to You by Climate Change

By: Katie O’Brien

Mega winter storm Jonas, also referred to as Snowzilla or Snowmageddon, is just starting to hit the Eastern U.S. The D.C. metro area (where CHEJ is located!) is the bull’s-eye of the storm, expecting up to a whopping 30 inches. It is expected to snow for about 36 hours and will affect over 60 million people. Many of these people are under a blizzard warning, meaning the storm will have long hours of strong wind gusts and extreme reduced visibility. In some areas it will snow at a rate of 2-3 inches per hour. The DC area has not seen this much snow in the forecast since 1922.

But why have storms such as Jonas, and others like Superstorm Sandy become so severe? Many scientists believe that human induced climate change is to blame.  The Director of Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center, Michael Mann, says that “unusually warm Atlantic ocean surface temperatures” can cause high amounts of moisture in the air and are contributing to these severe storms.

“When you mix extra moisture with “a cold Arctic outbreak (something we’ll continue to get even as global warming proceeds) you get huge amounts of energy and moisture, and monster snowfalls, like we’re about to see here”, says Mann.

Scientists are in the process of completing additional studies showing that climate change is causing the increased length and severity of these life-threatening storms. Many of them believe that climate change is altering the patterns of weather by affecting the jet streams in which they travel. This slows down storms immensely, causing heavy precipitation to essentially “dump” on certain areas at increased rates. Climate change is changing our world in big ways.

While some may use huge snowstorms like Jonas to deny climate change, this storm actually supports climate change science.

It’s time to fight back against the affects of climate change. Click here to learn more about how you can personally reduce your carbon footprint.

Click here to learn more about climate change and Blizzard Jonas.

Backyard Talk

Obama takes action against coal extraction—but it’s not enough

by Vesta Davis

About 40% of coal in the United States is mined on public land. Last Friday, President Obama and his administration stopped all new leases for coal companies to mine on public lands. The goal is to verify the coal industries’ efficiency with taxpayer’s money and coal’s impacts on climate change.  This review could lead to higher costs for coal companies and thus an overall slowdown in extraction.

This means that coal companies can still mine active properties, but they can’t create new mines on public land until there has been an extensive overhaul of the coal program. The current reserves under lease are expected to last at least another 20 years, according to Luke Popovich—spokesperson for the National Mining Association.

Still, this is a big setback for the coal industry. Not only is it stopping production, but it will also push away long-term investors. It’s bad timing too since 2015 was the worst financial year in coal history due to the increasing popularity of natural gas.

Obama’s action to hold the leases will continue to fuel the fire Republicans have against the president and his regulations against coal—regulations that have been called the “war on coal.” It will also perpetuate the debate over control of public lands, and probably the never-ending debate about federal vs. state government authority in public issues.

In his final State of Union address, Obama proclaimed: “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

This is one of the many steps Obama has taken to use his executive order to combat climate change while he still can. Coal is the fossil fuel most responsible for climate change—and because of this, Obama’s administration has proposed a “production fee” for coal. Economists estimate that this cost would be around $40 per ton of carbon dioxide produced. That fee would completely shut down the industry on federal lands—according to Alan Krupnick, an environmental economist at Resources for the Future. But, even a charge of a few dollars would have an impact on the industries.

In 2014, the leasing rate for each acre of public land was $3. This brought the federal government’s total revenue to about $1.2 billion from leases, royalties, and other fees for coal mining on public land. However, in a 2013 report, the Government Accountability Office showed that the rates might not be accurately representing market values. Dan Bucks, a former director of Montana Department of Revenue, says that leases are “notoriously known for being paid below market value.”

The current system is not open, public, nor competitive. If it were a competitive process, then it would get up to market prices. And thus it would be fair to the taxpayer.

But who is really suffering here? Yes, taxpayers shouldn’t be cheated out of their hard-earned money and coal corporations and their CEOs mustn’t cut corners. They must be held accountable. That is absolute. But in the end, where is the representation of the frontline communities who work tirelessly in the mines every day, suffer from severe health issues, and have been economically tied to the coal industry for generations? The environmental justice component of this situation is undeniable—and yet so often overlooked.

Climate change disproportionally affects low-income communities of color, and when assessing pollution and public health, it often goes 1 of 2 ways:

1. Low-income families are forced into residential areas that are near toxic power plants or waste sites because the property values are significantly lower than average prices.

2. Governments and large corporations purposefully build these toxic sites within low-income residential communities because the land values are low and they don’t believe locals will be able to recognize their rights—and even if they do—have the resources to act on them.

Fossil fuels are the number one cause of global warming and climate change. And as stated above, the leading fossil fuel in that race is coal.

The extraction and burning of coal is detrimental to the physical environment, the sustainability of natural ecosystems, and most of all, to the health and well-being of the human communities that reside within extraction areas. More than a dozen independent researchers and universities have concluded that mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining leads to substantially higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among those living near the extraction sites. In 2014, researchers showed that toxic dust particles from MTR sites cause the growth of cancer cells in human lungs. This was the first established direct link, rather than just a correlation.

It has been reported that 68% of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant—a distance that is known as the “zone of maximum exposure” and causes the severe health issues of heart and birth defects. Further, people of color breathe in nearly 40% more polluted air than whites.

It has been 30 years since the last comprehensive review of the coal mining program, and according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the US government has an “obligation” to the American public to make sure the program is fair to taxpayers and “takes into account its impact on climate change.” But how about also making explicit efforts to represent and account for the frontline communities that experience the severe health impacts of coal extraction and burning every day?

If the federal government can’t do this, then hopefully CHEJ and other grassroots organizing organizations can strengthen and escalate efforts until each frontline community can have a voice of their own.

Backyard Talk

Climate Change – What In The World Are We Doing

Climate Change Actions are moving forward to reduce impacts across the globe. But at the same time, some of the most destructive practices of the gas and oil industry continue as fossil fuels are extracted, stored and transported. Creating as much or maybe even more damage than society is reducing. It is a living contradiction. What in the world are we (society) doing?

As I visit communities or take calls from leaders I’m told their water is poisoned from fracking. No one will take responsibility, no one will provide clean drinking water for families and  families can’t afford to pay for a new water supply themselves. Well heads leak methane and other chemicals on a daily basis. Leaders are still being told natural gas is the answer to coal. Always and either or situation instead of none of the above choices are acceptable.

I hear from community leaders that there was a train accident that destroyed their home, community and sense of safety. Pipelines have cause explosions, fires and contamination across the country in record numbers.

All of these problems significantly contributed to our climate crisis either in production, transport or accidents. Moreover, people are speaking out in record numbers about the need for change, not only in Paris but in communities that dot the world which no one even has heard of before. It’s confusing, infuriating, and just plain insane.

Let’s look at what’s happening in California. A massive amount of methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, at a startling rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. This has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. The gas involved in this leak is methane, the main component of natural gas, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change impact. About one-fourth of the anthropogenic global warming we’re experiencing today is due to methane emissions.

Leaks like the current one in California, are a major contributor. In Pasadena, for instance, just 35 miles from the leak in Aliso, investigators found one leak for every four miles.

So far, over 150 million pounds of methane have been released by the Aliso Canyon leak. The cause of the leak is still unknown however more than 38 percent of the pipes in Southern California Gas Company’s territory are more than 50 years old, and 16 percent are made from corrosion- and leak-prone materials.

The company said, their efforts to stop the flow of gas by pumping fluids directly down the well have not yet been successful, so we have shifted our focus to stopping the leak through a relief well. Alright how long will that take, the relief well process is on schedule to be completed by late February or late March.

Let me remind you that the gas is now leaving the facility at a rate of 110,000 + pounds per hour. Multiply that with 24 hours a day and several months it’s astonishing. And this is just one leak in California.

So how exactly is society worldwide going to directly impact/reduce climate changes when we have one thumb in the hole to plug up the releases while the other hand is digging through the earth to intentionally release greenhouse gases?

Backyard Talk

The Handling of the Chipotle Outbreaks Represents a Lack of Equitable Response

By Kaley Beins

By now people are joking about Chipotle’s E. coli, salmonella, and norovirus problem.  An article title in yesterday’s Washington Post claimed that fans of the franchise are “totally willing to throw up a little.” A food safety website known as barfblog dedicated an entire page to the issue complete with Zoolander references and some lighthearted photos. The risk Chipotle poses to public health has even become the subject of Internet memes.

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The "Bad Luck Brian" meme takes on Chipotle

Reportedly, people started linking their sicknesses to Chipotle with an E. coli outbreak in Seattle in July 2015. In August and September cases of norovirus in Simi Valley, California and salmonella in Minnesota caught the nation’s attention. Finally, from October 19 through December, Chipotle was linked to almost 200 more cases of E. coli in California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Boston.

Despite the jokes, the government has taken this widespread food contamination very seriously. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has posted an in-depth analysis of the E. coli outbreak as has the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The FDA subpoenaed Chipotle over the norovirus outbreak in one of their many California restaurants. Chipotle even posts updates on its website regarding the health risks and how they have handled them.

Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak has affected about 500 people total nationwide. Meanwhile, over 11,000 people live near the burning radioactive landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri,  400 properties in Birmingham, Alabama have toxic soil that prevents kids from playing outside, and the 99,000 people in Flint, Michigan just started receiving water recently, months after they realized their water had been polluted by lead. While a situation that affected significantly fewer people was dealt with swiftly and effectively, families across the country are waiting years, even decades for solutions to risks in their neighborhoods. Every health threat deserves a swift, equitable response to keep people safe; it’s our responsibility to hold corporations and the government accountable for more than just our fast food.


Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice Began For Me At Love Canal

As I was cleaning out my drawer I found an old photo from Love Canal that reminded me of an extraordinary relationship that kept all Love Canal families working together. It was a picture of Sarah, from the Love Canal Renters Association with me at the 20th Anniversary celebration of Love Canal. The Love Canal community was made up of 240 rental apartments (called Griffin Manor) and 800 individual homes.  The rental units were designed for families with four to five children and were subsidized by the government.

After the first evacuation in 1978 of the two rows of homes that encircle the canal, the rest of the neighborhood was declared safe. On one side were individual homes and on the other side was Griffon Manor. As we began to organize to expand the evacuation area one of the core leaders from Griffin Manor and I held a meeting with our neighbors at Griffon Manor to explore what to do. We agreed that the more families involved the more power we would have. The state recognized that potential power as well and the afternoon before our meeting a state representative working on relocation approached me with a warning. He said, “Those people are dangerous. Look at the rap sheet on just one of the residents. You will get attacked if you go there. Cancel the meeting.”

My experience was quite different as I knew a few of the families whose children attended school with mine. They seemed like nice families to me. So, despite the warning a friend and I went to the meeting and talked about what we knew of the actions taking place and encouraged residents to join together to fight for our health and children. It was a great meeting, not threatening at all.

As we moved forward together the state began an active campaign to keep us apart. For example, news releases would talk in detail about what they were doing for the homeowners and never would mention the Griffon Manor families.  Sarah the leader of the Griffon Manor residents would tell me stories about how the state was telling her neighbors to separate from the larger group because the homeowners don’t really care about them.

The friction was mounting and nourished weekly by the state personnel. Sarah and I decided we needed to do something to keep people together. We met and decided that we would continue to work together but with parallel groups. Sarah and I would meet often and coordinate the two group’s activities but would not let the state or even our own members know this was happening for fear they would continue to interfere with our collaborations. It wasn’t ideal, but we thought there weren’t many other options as you can only focus on so many fights at a time.  Sarah and I representing the Homeowners’ Association told the state that we demanded a seat at the table for the Griffin Manor families and recognition of the Concerned Renters as an individual entity. The state agreed.

Why am I telling this story now? Because as I listen to the political comments from presidential candidates it so reminds me of the unfair and untrue characteristics of families in Griffin Manor, by state representatives.   The state’s objective was to divide and conquer, in order to do as little as possible for ordinary people, victims of the man made disaster. This is the case today as well in some of this political rhetoric.

Because the Homeowners Association didn’t allow ourselves to be pitted against the Renters Association everyone won relocation with associated financial assistance. It’s a lesson that others can learn from. Don’t let the powers divide us base on color, class or religion. We are stronger together and working together we can obtain equal rights and benefits.

Backyard Talk

Childhood asthma rates are dropping, but for who?

By: Dylan Lenzen

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released some good news with a report that shows that rates of asthma among U.S. children began to plateau after 2010 and actually declined in 2013. This is welcomed news considering that asthma rates doubled in the 80s and 90s and continued to increase from 2001 to 2010. Considering this, we should all be rejoicing these somewhat surprising new results, right? Not quite, as it turns out, for racial minorities and more generally, the poor, asthma continues to pose a challenge with little hope for amelioration.

For some minority demographics, the same study showed that rates of asthma have actually started to plateau, which lead the authors of the study to conclude that the black-white disparity in the prevalence of asthma has stopped increasing. While this sounds positive, the reality that black children experience a far greater occurrence of asthma than white children still exists. Black children remain nearly twice as likely to have asthma than white children and are also more likely to suffer complications from the disease due to inadequate medical care. While minorities and low-income children need better access to healthcare to treat the disease, it is not enough.

We need to recognize that this racial disparity in the occurrence of asthma among children is just one of many more symptoms that result from much greater problems of environmental and racial injustice. It is hard to imagine adequately treating this problem of childhood asthma without improving the toxic neighborhoods where many of our nations poor and minority children live and that remain a factor in the prevalence of the disease.

It is undeniable that minorities and low-income populations reside in neighborhoods of far lesser environmental and economic quality. A number of factors in these communities could potentially contribute to a greater prevalence of asthma. For example, low-income communities, especially those in populated metropolitan areas, likely face higher levels of air pollution from the overabundance of toxic industry or more indoor allergens due to deteriorating housing. Beyond these dangerous environmental factors, low-income communities experience higher levels to stress (an important social factor linked to asthma) due to exposure of violence, financial strain, family separation, chronic illness, death and family turmoil. In addition, poor health behaviors that result from overabundance of tobacco, alcohol, and fast food outlets and a lack of grocery stores can also lead to a greater prevalence of asthma susceptibility in minority and low-income communities. These factors must be addressed in order to eliminate the racial disparity seen with diseases like childhood asthma.

In order to adequately solve the health issues of our society for all Americans, the social structures that lead to environmental and racial justice must also be challenged.

Backyard Talk

“The worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill”

Today, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency over a methane leak that has been flooding the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch for the past several months. The leak, which began in October, stems from a damaged pipeline operated by Southern California Gas Co. The company is still unsure of how to stop the leak, which is likely to continue sickening nearby residents and contributing immensely to greenhouse gas outputs for at least the next two months. Many commentators, including famed advocate and researcher Erin Brokovich, have called it “the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill of 2010.”

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Infrared Image - Environmental Defense Fund

The public health impacts of the leak have been tremendous so far. Methane is not only highly flammable, but can have serious health impacts. The NIH explains that methane exposure at high concentrations can cause headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, and loss of coordination. Though methane itself poses risks, the L.A. County Department of Public Health determined that mercaptans – nontoxic odorants added to natural gas – are to blame for current health effects. Residents have reported headaches and nosebleeds, which has forced the evacuation of over 2000 residents from their homes.

CBS reported that these relocated residents are part of a larger group of more than 6500 residents who have filed for help in the wake of the crisis. Though many are still in need of assistance and criticism of the company and the government is running high, activists in Porter Ranch have evaluated the incident from an environmental justice perspective and determined that they have been luckier than many. According to the LA Times, activists from the group Save Porter Ranch have noted that the wealth of their neighborhood has probably played into the relatively swift response and highly public discussion surrounding the leak, while poorer communities and communities of color are ignored. “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer, that don’t get relocated,” activist Matt Palucko told the LA Times.

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Getty Images

In addition to public health impacts effects, this disaster may have serious climate-related implications. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas; according to the EPA, methane’s impact on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. The leak is estimated to be releasing nearly 70,000 pounds of methane on an hourly basis, and may end up accounting for about a quarter of California’s methane emissions for the year.

Though the source of the leak has been identified, Southern California Gas Co. has struggled to find a solution that would stem the flow of the methane. As soon as the leak was discovered, the company tried to plug the well, but several attempts were unsuccessful. They are opting to drill two ‘relief wells’ to divert the flow of gas, but this will be a lengthy and difficult process that may not be completed until March. In addition to the state of emergency, Gov. Brown also called for enhanced safety measure and inspections at gas storage facilities to prevent future incidents within the widespread and still-expanding natural gas industry.

To watch video footage of the leaking methane, visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s YouTube Channel.