Judge in North Carolina Says No to Coal Ash Permits

Administrative Law Judge reversed earlier decision in a coal ash case, ruling that state environmental officials exceeded their authority when they allowed the ash to be disposed in unexcavated areas of the Brickhaven and Colon mines. Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League organizer Therese Vick praised the decision and admonished the agency for issuing the permits. “DEQ knew what they did was wrong, yet they kept trying to defend the indefensible,” Vick wrote in a press statement. “No community should ever have to go through this again.”  Read more.


National One Health Awareness Month

The Senate has passed a resolution claiming January of 2020 as “National One Health Awareness Month.” By passing the resolution, Congress is hoping that it will bring awareness to public, animal, and environmental health. Read More.

Backyard Talk News Archive

No One Should Have to Breathe These Chemicals

Opinion NYT   In Texas and across the country, the E.P.A.’s gutting of the Chemical Disaster Rule is a matter of life or death.

By While families across the country celebrated Thanksgiving with their loved ones, more than 50,000 people in Port Neches, Tex., were forced to evacuate from their homes and spend the holiday in makeshift shelters. The reason? Two explosions at the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant sent flames into the sky, injured eight people, and released plumes of butadiene, a carcinogen, into the air.

The disaster erupted six days after the Trump administration gutted Obama-era regulations meant to improve safety at 12,000 chemical plants around the country.

It’s too soon to say whether these now abandoned rules would have made a difference in Port Neches. But there is no question that the communities that surround these thousands of plants are less safe now.

This regulatory rollback gives chemical plants across the country a free pass, in pursuit of greater profits, to operate in a way that endangers families and workers.

There are over 2,500 chemical facilities in the Houston area. Manchester, the neighborhood where Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services works, is among those most affected by this negligence. There are 30 chemical plants and waste sites in the Manchester area that report to the Environmental Protection Agency. When an explosion happens, nearby neighborhoods, mostly Latinx and people of color, are exposed to this toxicity.

And these toxic blasts are not infrequent. The last chemical explosion in Houston to garner national attention was in March at the Intercontinental Terminals Co., a few miles east of Manchester. This explosion led to high benzene levels in the air, school closures and community shelter-in-place orders for days: stay where you are, turn off air conditioning. Some advisories told people to put a plastic tarp over their windows, sealed with duct tape, to prevent air from coming in.

Federal regulations were supposed to protect us. For years, organizations like United Steelworkers, Greenpeace and dozens of other community and environmental organizations pressured the E.P.A. to make chemical disaster prevention a priority.

The turning point happened in 2013 when an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Tex., 200 miles northwest of Houston, killed 15 people and injured over 260.

Later that year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling on federal agencies to create a task force. What emerged was the Chemical Disaster Rule, a proposal to improve plant safety and protect surrounding communities, which the former E.P.A. administrator Gina McCarthy approved one month before President Trump took office.

Two months later, the Trump administration blocked the regulations from taking effect, and now the E.P.A. has released a final rule that eviscerates the Obama-era requirements. The agency rescinded major accident prevention provisions, including requirements to consider safer technology, audits of accidents by outside parties and “root cause” analyses of accidents.

While Texas has the largest number of chemical facilities in the country, Illinois, California, Iowa and Louisiana are riddled with them, too. As The Houston Chronicle has documented, no state is spared from having at least one facility that could have toxic or flammable chemical accidents with consequences that extend beyond the site.

The E.P.A. calls these communities — areas that could be affected by a release from a chemical accident — “vulnerable zones.” One in three children in America attends a school in a vulnerable zone. This means that over 19 million children are at risk of exposure to the harmful chemicals that these plants use, store and can emit when they produce plastics, pesticides, adhesives and other products.

Our neighborhoods in Houston are a case in point. The oil and gas facilities and chemical plants along the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel have turned the air in Harris County into a public health hazard, significantly increasing the likelihood of residents’ developing cancer and respiratory problems — and shortening the lives of children. Children living near the Houston Ship Channel are 56 percent more likely to develop leukemia than those who live more than 10 miles away.

To me this issue is personal. Yes, explosions from chemical facilities can be deadly. But the long-term impact of exposure to toxic chemicals also kills. In 2016, I was found to have hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a rare autoimmune system disorder that arises from breathing in dust or toxins repeatedly. The doctors blamed indoor air, but I am convinced that exposure to chemicals in Houston led to my condition. In this town, there’s little distinction between the air indoors and what’s outside.

When traveling — I am now at the U.N. Climate talks in Madrid — I bring a portable oxygen machine in case I need it. I am unable to walk long distances, and I move slowly because of my shortness of breath. Public speaking is difficult, as is any exertion. My life expectancy is not long (10 years, one doctor told me). I hope it is more.

In my family, lung diseases are the norm. My diagnosis came the same year that my father, Gregorio V. García, died of lung cancer at 79. He worked in the Asarco Refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex., and was a member of United Steelworkers for 30 years. Workers in these refineries are the first exposed to toxic substances. Many, like him, have died of cancer.

Plants like the nearby Valero facility emit a slew of poisonous chemicals like benzene and hydrogen cyanide into our neighborhoods. Far too often, they fail to meet Clean Air Act requirements.

During Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, I felt what it was like to breathe in a concentrated amount of toxic air. On the day of the worst flooding, my husband and I drove his pickup truck into Manchester to document what was happening at the Valero refinery. We saw water running from Valero into Hartman Park, where children gather to play baseball and soccer, and down the streets we knew well. As we drove, we had to cover our nose and mouth with our hands. My lips turned numb. The odor was so strong that it made me nauseated.

Three days later we found out that we had driven into one of the largest benzene spills. Benzene is clear, colorless and flammable. To date, this spill has not been adequately addressed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In Houston, we struggle to get chemical facilities to follow the law. We ask our state to protect us from chemicals that no one should breathe. Now the federal government is ending safeguards that the E.P.A. only a few years ago said the industry needed to protect the lives of workers, emergency medical workers and communities like mine.

My life should not be a pawn for leveraging industry profits. Nor should those of my neighbors and their children. Families and workers in these neighborhoods deserve to be safe.

As disasters continue to happen, we — those most affected, those who breathe and live and play in toxicity — condemn the E.P.A.’s decision to repeal the Chemical Disaster Rule. We are denied basic health protections simply because the industry does not want to invest in our safety.

Families and workers across the country should not have to pay the ultimate cost of this administration’s refusal to do its job: our lives.

 Ana Parras is a co-executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (@tejasbarrios).


2020: A year for environmental action

The year 2020 is projected to be one of action and change for environmental policy, the climate and communities. The Grist has compiled a collection of some of the top environmental justice stories to follow in the upcoming year that have a focus on protecting communities that have been unfairly impacted by pollution. Environment developments are occurring on both the national and local levels in the form of new policies and regulations, crucial court cases and community projects. Read More. 


The House approved bill to regulate PFAS

On Friday, January 10, the House of Representatives passed HR 535: PFAS Action Act of 2019. The bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency to designate PFAS chemicals as a dangerous substance under the Superfund law within one year of the enactment of the bill. The bill is aimed at reducing the risk of water contamination from PFAS forever chemicals. Read More.


Michigan: Shovel ready sites with no funding for cleanup

Michigan has three Superfund sites that remain stagnant in their cleanup process because of a lack of funding for the Superfund program. At the end of December, the EPA released a list of 34 shovel ready Superfund sites with no responsible parties to aid cleanup that will remain idle because the program does not have enough funding. Michigan has three of the listed sites located in St. Clair Shores, St. Louis, and Mancelona that will not receive complete cleanup in the near future. Read More.


Super Pollution Events

During the week of Christmas, Pittsburg, PA experienced an unusual heavy set of particular matter created by a temperature inversion that resulted in the trapping of pollution closer to the Earth’s surface. A temperature inversion is created when a mass of warmer air sits on top of and trapping of a mass of colder air, therefore preventing polluted air from rising. The event continued for six consecutive days in Pittsburgh. Rising temperatures in the winter could mean that similar “Super Pollution Events” involving dangerous levels of particulate matter in the air might become more common. Read More.

Backyard Talk

No Funds to Clean Up 34 Toxic Superfund Sites

By Sharon Franklin
On January 2, 2020, Ellen Knickmeyer, Matthew Brow and Ed White of the Associated Press, reported that the Trump Administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund Sites. There are 34 sites that are “shovel ready” to be cleaned up, only the agency does not have the funds to do it. The 2019 figures were quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the winter holidays. CHEJ has been asking for this list since July of last year.
Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 after the Love Canal episode and other notorious pollution cases to provide funds to pay for cleanup of abandoned contaminated sites where no responsible party was identified. The intent was to hold polluters responsible for cleanup costs or provide taxpayer money when no responsible party can be identified. The trust fund was financed by fees, referred to as the “Polluter Pays Fees,” that were charged to companies that used hazardous chemicals. Unfortunately, EPA stopped collecting the fees in 1995 and the fund ran out in 2003. Since that time, the cleanup of Superfund sites has been paid for by the American taxpayers. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has prepared a bill to reinstate the fees, but he has not yet introduced the bill to Congress.
Meanwhile, communities like St. Clair Shores, Michigan are not getting their Superfund site cleaned up. Violet Donoghue, a resident of St. Clair Shores said, “There hasn’t been a sense of urgency.” She further said the-at the last word from EPA was that soil would be removed from the front of her house. “Now when they say they’re cleaning it, I say, ‘OK, give me the date’”. Meanwhile, toxic PCBs have poisoned some local soil, water and fish. St. Clair is one of the 34 Superfund sites where cleanup projects have languished for lack of funding in 2019.
In early 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told a Senate environment committee, “We are in the process of cleaning up some of the nation’s largest, most complex sites and returning them to productive use.” However, this does not include the 34 unfunded projects in 17 states and Puerto Rico as noted by two former EPA officials who worked on Superfund“They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland former Director of Science and Technology in the Water Office. Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Northeastern Administrator called the unfunded sites a “regulatory failure.”
When the EPA was asked how funds were spent, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more funding to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage stated that EPA’s Superfund program “will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment.” Sauerhage also stated in an email, “Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.” EPA did not directly respond to questions about the backlog of 34 unfunded Superfund cleanup projects which was posted on its website on December 26, 2019. The information about these sites can be found here.
The large number of unfunded sites makes clear the need to introduce Pallone’s bill to Congress and to reinstate the polluter pays fees.
Photo Credit: 2015 The Macomb Daily File Photo Clinton Township, MI

Homepage Water News

Atlantic Coast Pipeline – Stopped Again in Virginia

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today vacated a permit to build a compressor station for the proposed Atlantic Coast gas pipeline, citing a Virginia state board for inadequately assessing its environmental justice impacts on the largely African American community of Union Hill. Read more.

Homepage Water News

NC Taxpayer Pay for School’s Water – Not Polluters

Cumberland County is the latest to approve spending millions to provide public drinking water to two schools and an area with well contamination caused by the Chemours chemical company. Read more.