Texas Doubles in Illegal Air Pollution

A report released Wednesday by Environment Texas revealed that Texas released 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2018. Among the 270 oil and gas contributors, is Texas Petroleum Chemicals (TPC) of Port Neches. The 2018 numbers are double those emitted in 2017 and Texas residents are putting up a fight. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Partnership Between University and Community finds Airborne Health Risks from PCBs in New Bedford Harbor Sediment

A unique collaboration between university and community led to an important study evaluating the human health risks posed by airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) coming from sediment in the New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. Researchers from Boston University found that the harbor, the home of one of the largest PCBs Superfund sites in the country, is the primary source of PCBs in the air around the harbor. They described the harbor as the “largest reported continuous source of airborne PCBs from natural waters in North America.”
The study found that PCB levels in the ambient air were highest closest to the harbor and that changes in thyroid levels are more likely to occur among people who live near the harbor compared to residents who live further away. These researchers focused on the non-cancer risks posed by exposure to PCBs rather than the cancer risks which EPA used to drive its decisions on the cleanup of the harbor which has been ongoing since the 1990s. So far, more than 425,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment has been removed from the harbor as of December 2017 according to the EPA. Much of this waste has been placed in a constructed landfill in the harbor. The local group, Hands Across the River, has been fighting to stop the agency from doing this for years.
In response to requests from residents to monitor the ambient outdoor air for PCBs in places where they live, researchers from Boston University partnered with the Toxic Action Center, the University of Iowa and local residents to identify locations and design a monitoring program to meet community needs. In contrast, EPA selected monitoring locations for convenience or where concentrations were expected to be the highest.
The researchers modeled the data they collected and for the first time were able to estimate residential exposures and health risks for residents living around the harbor. They chose the thyroid as a target of PCB toxicity based on strong evidence in human and animal studies in the scientific literature. They compared thyroid changes in residents and PCB levels in the ambient air near and distant from the harbor and were able to show potential health risks associated with proximity to the PCB contaminated Superfund site in the New Bedford Harbor.
EPA’s response to these findings in part was to say that “the measured levels of airborne PCBs have never exceeded EPA’s health-based criteria.” This of course misses the point that this study identified new health risks beyond what the agency had previously considered. EPA’s standard risk procedures do not capture all health risks. Their focus was on cancer risk. This study focused on non-cancer health risks.
It has long been suspected that PCBs in the sediment of rivers and waterways will evaporate to some degree and eventually become airborne, but industry and government have pushed back arguing that PCBs do not substantially volatilize and if they did, their impact would be insignificant. This study puts that argument to rest.
This study is a remarkable example of what scientists and researchers can do together to address community needs. Scientific information is a powerful tool when university expertise and resources are focused on responding to community concerns. In this collaboration, new risks were identified that EPA had not previously considered. More of these collaborations are needed.


Climate change making farm work a dangerous job

A report released the week of December 9, 2019 shows how climate change creates a great threat to farmworkers. The report focuses on two main threats to workers: pesticide exposure and heat stress conditions. Read More.

Homepage Water News

West Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans Regulate PFAS

A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals.  Del. Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Read more.


Colorado is declared a ‘serious’ violator of federal air quality laws

The EPA has classified Colorado as a ‘serious’ violator of federal air laws for ozone. Colorado has been failing ozone air pollution standards since 2004, creating a greater presence of asthma in the Denver and Front Range communities. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plans to issue 600 new permits that will set limits on air pollution. The state must reduce its ozone pollution to 70 parts per billion by August 2021 (current ozone levels are 79 parts per billion). Read More.

Stories of Local Leaders

Randy Cunningham: Extra! Extra! Making History! Write All About It!

Ohio is home to some of the nation’s most natural lands, with acres of beautiful forests, countless national parks and glistening water systems. It is a well sought after spot for a natural getaway. On the other hand, it is also a well sought after spot for industry that has placed the state as the 5th leading producer of natural gas.
Organizations and activist leaders for years have surrounded Ohio’s natural lands and vulnerable communities pushing back against industrial encroachment and expansion. Among these leaders is longtime Ohio resident, Randy Cunningham. Randy has dedicated his life to environmental activism to fight for and defend the public health rights of his community in Ohio, as well as, a handful of communities in varying locations around the country and even the world.
IMG_0233Cunningham got his start in environmental activism at a young age from a fight to defend his family’s land in Missouri from the expansion of the I-95 interstate. From that battle forward, Randy never looked back and dedicated his life to speaking out against environmental and human rights injustices. He has spent the majority of his life involved in a wide variety of campaigns, including landfill and incinerator use, the ban of plastic bags, and available housing. As a part of his lifelong achievements, Randy points to the publishing of his book, Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985. The book, released in 2007, is a compilation of nearly 15 years worth of interviews from local activists in Cleveland, Ohio. The motivation behind the book was to highlight the portions of activism that the public doesn’t normally get to see or pay attention to. 
“Everyone wants to be on camera and no one wants to give credit to the people doing the groundwork. They are the important people.”
Cunningham explains that his writing is a large part of his activism efforts. “E.P. Thompson (a British historian and writer) once said that you cannot make history and write about it at the same time. Well, I try to do both.”
In between writing and working with numerous organizations, Randy is currently participating in the movement to block Ohio Senate Bill 33, (Modify Criminal and Civil Law for Critical Infrastructure Damage) also known as, the anti-protest bill. The state legislature has introduced the bill as a means to protect “critical infrastructure” and individuals from damage and danger resulting from operational interference. The bill has defined  “critical infrastructure” as a facility that is enclosed with a fence or physical barrier and includes petroleum refineries, natural gas processing plants and interstate pipelines. In total, the proposed bill has listed 73 different types of industrial structures as “critical infrastructure.” 
Ohio SB 33 is not the first bill in the country to propose anti-protest legislation. In response to the Standing Rock protests that impeded the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, 18 states have to varying degrees introduced or passed a bill limiting the protest of pipeline construction or operation. Among the states that have passed a similar bill are Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee. In addition to Ohio, five other states (Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota and Missouri) have introduced an anti-protest bill and are still awaiting a final decision. States across the country are taking a stance to partner with and protect the development of the oil industry, while in effect, making most acts of protest against the energy industry illegal. 
The problem with SB 33 lies in the vagueness of its language that would make a simple act of protest against a pipeline a criminal offense. An individual can be charged with a third-degree felony for protesting or trespassing on any structure outlined in the bill, with fines up to $10,000. Further, organizations that participate in any protest activity could face fines as large as $100,000, or ten times the maximum fine imposed on an individual for a 1st degree misdemeanor ($1,000). The bill in all, protects the oil and gas industry from any interruption that might obstruct production.
Randy, along with many of his other community members have not taken to the introduction of the bill sitting down. In addition to community petitions and hearings, many individuals in opposition to SB 33 have documented their concerns through written testimony. In his testimony, Cunningham questions lawmakers’ intentions in the bill, explaining that most acts of protests within the state are done through nonviolent civil disobedience. Many individuals are trained to ensure that the demonstrations will be done in a structured way without the use of violence or damage to infrastructure. Randy questions why Ohio officials are concerned about such types of protests that peaceful exemplify Americans practicing their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Further, Randy likens the bill to some of the nation’s most historic transformative moments in which organizers have risen above industry and political control. Similar movements of the sort include the  the women’s suffrage movement and the achievement of labor rights. Randy explains that the bill will not quiet those in opposition to the threats the oil and gas industry place on the basic rights to human health.
The bill currently sits in committee on the House side of the Ohio State Legislature where it will then be taken to a vote. The bill passed within the Ohio Senate on May 1, 2019, with a majority vote of 28 to 8. Randy urges organizations and individuals to continue to comment on the bill expressing their concerns of opposition while it sits in committee. If the bill does pass, it will not signal the end of the fight. Community members, along with Randy, are prepared to take their fight to the highest level to combat the bill and its obstruction of basic civil rights. 
For more information on SB 33 please contact Teresa Mills at


Port Neches, Texas: TPC explosion cleanup and update

Two weeks after the TPC plant explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency has transferred the site cleanup oversight to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Response efforts have been focused on site equipment recovery. TPC will continue to monitor the air surrounding the facility; however, current reports conclude that there is no actionable levels of butadiene (a known carcinogen). Read More.


Saying goodbye to ToxNet and ToxMap

The National Library of Medicine is retiring access to helpful resources in toxics identification, including TOXNet and TOXMap. Both data resources were developed to make it easier for the public to view chemicals being released from plants located in their own neighborhoods. Access to these databases will end on Monday, December 16, 2019. Read More.

News Archive

Interactive Map Displays Military Bases with PFAS Contamination

The Environmental Working Group has created an interactive map displaying 305 U.S. military sites that are known to have discharged firefighting foam containing PFAS. Each site includes information about the base, key findings associated with PFAS contamination and additional resources. Read More.
View the interactive map here.

Backyard Talk Superfund News

Today’s A Reminder of Our Power

December 11, 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating a $1.6 billion environmental “Superfund” to pay for cleaning up chemical spills and toxic waste dumps.  This legislation came out of a grassroots fight in Niagara Falls, NY at Love Canal.
This is not just another anniversary date, it is a reminder of what can be accomplished when people come together, speak with one voice and demand change. Recently the divisions, among people who often want the same things, has been so orchestrated by those who want to keep the status quo. It’s become difficult for everyday people to figure out what’s what. But if you think about what you really want and ignore the other side’s game of what can be done, what’s possible we can win.  At Love Canal I was told you will never be evacuated so give it up. But 800 families were evacuated. We were told the Superfund legislation would never pass it was way too costly, but it did.
When you look back at least in our environmental health and justice movement you’ll see how labor and communities came together, even in the belly of the beast in Louisiana, to pass the Right-To-Know legislation.  Recycling is now a staple in our society where someone throwing away a can in the garbage is frowned upon. The public came together to use their power as consumers to stop many toxic products from being sold on the market. Young people today are speaking out and speaking loudly about Climate Change and using their power and their votes to move candidates.
Today marks the anniversary of what a grassroots movement can do. Let us celebrate that victory and work to achieve more. Let’s not be influenced by those who want to keep us apart, rather find the ways we can join together to win justice for all living things.