Homepage News Archive

Environmental Justice Grassroots Groups Fight Back Against Pollution

Pollution is disproportionately killing Black Americans. Hazardous waste facilities are 75% more likely to be in close proximity to the homes of African-Americans than other racial groups. Grassroots environmental justice groups are taking a stand against these issues of pollution and environmental racism and are making a huge impact. Read More
Photo by: Matt Rourke—AP

Backyard Talk

Studies Suggest Air Pollution Increases Threat of Coronavirus Airborne Transmission

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
The reality of environmental inequality is that industry polluters target low-wealth and minority communities disproportionately. A 2018 study found that Black and Latino people are typically exposed to 56% and 63% more air pollution than is caused by their consumption, but that white people are exposed to 17% less than they cause.
This exposure weakens the immune system over time, and people with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular diseases are more likely to have a severe case of coronavirus.
A recent Harvard study found that higher levels of pollution particles known as PM 2.5 are linked to higher coronavirus death rates. An increase of just one microgram per cubic meter results in a 10% increase in coronavirus cases, and 15% increases in death.  A separate study of air quality found overlap between areas of high coronavirus mortality rate with high levels of air pollution. The EPA standard for PM 2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meter annual average, and the WHO standard is 10. However, some places in New York have annual PM levels above either standard, which may have contributed to the coronavirus hotspot earlier in the year. 
A preliminary study in Italy detected Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) on PM 10, which is the same thing as PM 2.5, but slightly larger. This means that air pollution is not only a direct pathway to transmission of coronavirus, but can even travel further in the air, increasing the risk for anyone living in areas of high contamination. 
CDC data shows Black and Latino people are three times as likely to become infected with coronavirus than white people, and twice as likely to die.
These communities on the frontlines of pollution were already facing a health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic makes it more deadly.
To control a second wave the government needs to seriously consider the findings of these recent studies and impose harsher penalties and regulations on industrial polluters. In doing so this means taking on the root cause of why Black and Brown people suffer the most from this pandemic: systemic racism embedded in environmental, economic, and political aspects of life. 
Photo by: Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

News Archive

Toxic Tuesday: Dioxin

By Julie Silverman, CHEJ Communications Intern
Dioxins are a group of toxic compounds that share similar and distinct chemical structures. They are mainly byproducts of industrial processes, such as waste incineration. In 1979, the EPA banned products containing Polychlorinated Bihphenyls (PCBs), which is a chemical included under the term dioxin. However, dioxins were a major issue before the US began implementing regulations. Since dioxins break down extremely slowly, toxins that were released long ago are still being released into the environment.
Today, most people are exposed to dioxins through consuming animal products that have accumulated dioxins over time. Exposure to these toxins in humans can cause cancer, type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, infertility in adults, impairment of the immune system, and skin lesions. The following measures can help decrease your risk to dioxin exposure: removing skin from chicken and fish, trimming visible fat from meats, and checking local fishing advisories when catching your own seafood. Learn more about the health risks and safety measures regarding dioxin here.
The San Jacinto Waste Pits is a Superfund site in Harris County, Texas that is packed with dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Hurricane Harvey hit Harris County in 2017 and led to large damages and erosion throughout the region, causing the San Jacinto Waste Pits site to begin leaking toxic chemicals, such as dioxins into the surrounding communities.
CHEJ has worked with the Texas Health and Environment Alliance (THEA) and the San Jacinto River Coalition in order to help bring awareness to their nearby Superfund sites and the damages that hurricanes have caused. In 2017, THEA and the San Jacinto River Coalition succeeded in bringing attention to the waste pits and the EPA announced plans that they would remove the toxic contents from the pits entirely through a $115 million site remediation by late 2021.
In addition to THEA, residents in Wausau, WI living immediately adjacent to former Wauleco window manufacturing sites who were concerned about dioxin contamination formed Citizens for a Clean Wausau. Recent testing in a park found high levels of dioxin but the state dismissed the results. However, the state had to correct itself when CHEJ’s science director wrote a letter to the group pointing out that the state’s risk assessment failed to include dioxin’s cancer risk. Given dioxin’s high potency as a carcinogen, this was a major oversight. The group continues to fight for more testing. Earlier this year, the leader of the group ran for and won a seat on the city council, giving the group a great inside/outside approach to getting what they want. CHEJ continues to provide technical and organizing support to Wausau’s residents.

Homepage News Archive

Polluters Are Winning Big on COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

Polluting industries, such as coal power plants, mining, and oil and gas corporations are receiving financial and regulatory relief across the globe, but specifically in the US, as governments aim to provide relief during the pandemic. These moves threaten progress that has made to combat polluters over the years and puts the globe at risk for rapid deterioration caused by climate change. Read More
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

Homepage News Archive

VA Power Plant Delayed Due to Environmental Justice Concerns

A $350 million gas project in Virginia has been delayed due to rising concerns that environmental justice groups have presented from the surrounding communities. Virginia’s State Corporation Commission recently deferred action on Southern Co.’s Virginia Natural Gas project due to the lack of details regarding environmental justice issues and financing. Read More.
Photo: NOVI Energy

Stories of Local Leaders

Lou Zeller and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League: Six Years of Hard Work and A Massive Victory over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

By: Julie Silverman, Communications Intern
Since 2014, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) began campaigning to counteract the planning and construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After six long years of dedicated work, BREDL and its partner organizations succeeded on July 5th, 2020 in cancelling the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline: a major victory that likely would not have been accomplished without the work of Lou Zeller, the executive director of BREDL as well as key BREDL leaders and supporting partners and coalition groups.BREDL
The Atlantic Coast Natural Gas Pipeline was a multi-billion project led by Duke and Dominion Energy companies and was planned to go through rural and low-income parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The construction of the pipeline would have not only damaged local ecosystems but jeopardize the health of many nearby residents through emissions from compressor stations and pollution in both waterways and drinking water systems. The pipeline targeted poor communities and would have had a tremendously detrimental impact on community members’ health and agricultural success. For example, a sweet potato farmer in Johnston County, North Carolina allowed an earlier branch pipeline to come through his farm and said that the land never produced again despite it being 20 years after the pipeline’s construction. Therefore, the opposition to the pipeline was centered around risks of public health and environmental degradation as well as economic and agricultural concerns.
The victory that we saw over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is “relatively rare. We don’t normally get the satisfaction of knowing that [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”][the fight] is really over,” said Lou Zeller.
One of the key tactics in leading to BREDL’s massive success was uniting community members against the pipeline from all across the political spectrum. By reaching out to people who are both conservative and liberal and everywhere in between, BREDL was able to create a cohesive and extremely powerful bipartisan movement, one that you don’t see often in today’s political climate. Regardless whether people cared about the environment, public health, or land rights and eminent domain issues, there was a welcoming spot at BREDL for people to get involved and fight against the pipeline. This strong base allowed BREDL to cast out to a larger audience and gain a diverse following that appealed to people who would not have normally joined an environmental organization. By allowing different groups of people to focus on what issues impassion them, BREDL was able to create an extremely strong movement that even the most powerful companies, such as Duke and Dominion Energy corporations could not face.
Another tactic that was used to create a successful movement and opposition to the pipeline was organizing in communities and creating coalitions with organizations that were directly in the path of the pipeline’s planned construction zones in both Virginia and North Carolina. Lou Zeller described this process as stringing beads on a necklace. By engaging those closest to the pipeline, BREDL was able to create opposition along its entire route. This was an extremely tough task since the pipeline’s planned construction spanned across 12,000 acres of land that would have been disturbed from West Virginia all the way down to Southern North Carolina.
The success of BREDL in defeating the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one that should be greatly celebrated. The idea of never giving up fighting for what you believe in and working together despite differences are important themes that led to BREDL’s victory. In the words of Janet Marsh, BREDL’s founder, “one person speaking alone may not be heard, but many people speaking with one voice cannot be ignored.”
Please visit if you are interested in BREDL’s work or would like to learn more or get involved with their campaigns.
If you are interested in hearing more about BREDL’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, click here to watch a Zoom recording of CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Event from July 15, 2020: a conversation with Lou Zeller and other key leaders in the organization.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk News Archive

Biden Releases Environmental Plan in Bid for Progressive Vote

By Paolo Padova, Science Intern
Last week the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, released his climate and energy plan. Biden’s plan puts an emphasis on environmental justice and its intersection with racial inequality. The plan commits to creating a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice to hold contaminating corporations accountable. Building on the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, Biden will “create a data-driven Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify communities threatened by the cumulative impacts of the multiple stresses of climate change, economic and racial inequality, and multi-source environmental pollution.” The plan includes several aggressive targets such as achieving an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Biden also set a goal for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure benefits he was proposing.
The plan is clearly an attempt to appeal to younger and more progressive voters who have, thus far, been a challenge for Biden. Many progressives have been uneasy about a Biden presidency because of his refusal to adopt a range of progressive priorities such as medicare for all, defunding the police, and the legalization of marijuana. His record on issues like criminal justice has drawn significant criticism from the left. Some view a Biden presidency as “harm reduction” while others are even less optimistic. Nonetheless, the appeal seems to be working, at least with some. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, a prominent environmentalist called the plan “visionary.” In response to the plan Sunrise Movement executive director, Varshini Prakash said “It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms.” This progressive shift in Biden’s environmental policy is a direct result of the progressive voters who have conditioned their vote on policy concessions from the former vice-president.
Biden’s plan also makes several references to Native American communities. Elizabeth Kronk Warner, the dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said she was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Biden’s plan.
On the other hand, some have been critical of the fact that the plan does not include the use of a carbon tax, which many see as the most effective and socially equitable way to decrease carbon emissions. This may be a result of an effort to altogether avoid the word ‘tax’ out of fear of alienating moderate voters. Trump’s allies have been quick to attack the plan, depicting it as a threat to jobs in the energy sector and some have attempted to link the plan with the significantly more progressive Green New Deal. According to Trump, Biden’s “agenda is the most extreme platform of any major party nominee, by far, in American history.” While Biden’s plan is less progressive than the Green New Deal and Biden has not fully endorsed the Green New Deal, his plan does follow a similar strategy of emphasizing how aggressive climate action could create jobs. Specifically, the plan presents itself as a response to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. Biden foresees one million new jobs will be created making electric vehicles and charging stations and perhaps millions more union jobs could come from building greener infrastructure.
Photo Credit: Matt Slocum/AP

Homepage News Archive

Monsanto to Pay D.C. $52 million Toward Chemical Contamination Cleanup in Local Waterways

For over 50 years during the 20th century, Monsanto produced and sold products that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which have been known to cause severe health problems in humans such as cancer and liver damage and kill wildlife. After many decades of polluting into local waterways and communities, Monsanto will be held accountable by paying the city of D.C. $52 million in order to help clean up chemical contamination that they caused. The majority of the money will go towards cleaning up polluted waterways with high PCB concentrations, specifically in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Read More
Photo by Desmond Hester on Unsplash

Backyard Talk

A Call to Action: On the State of Our Nation & Covid-19

By Jenna Clark, Communications Intern
This week, Congress is in recess. Most Representatives and Senators will return home to districts in turmoil. After many states reopened, Covid-19 rates skyrocketed in much of the south, west, and Midwest. On Wednesday, the United States reported 67,300 new cases. On the same day, we accomplished a remarkable feat: 3.5 million confirmed cases. 
Despite the shattered records, in cases, in single day death statistics, and the growing number of hospitals facing- again, shortages in personal medical equipment and beds, Americans are today, somehow, still locked in a debate about masks. Perhaps its because our President until very recently refused to wear a mask in public, and because his administration is openly distancing itself from the CDC. Increasing research supports the airborne spread of Covid-19 particles. It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it: wear a mask.  Everybody In, Nobody Out
Many people in this country desperately need assistance. In tandem with an unprecedented health emergency: 138,000 deaths and rising, we face a once in a century economic disaster. As of this week, between 32 and 33 million people in the country are either receiving unemployment benefits or have applied to do so. While the national unemployment rate decreased from April to June, its hard to conceive that this upturn will continue as many states face massive waves of Covid-19. After re-opening, some states are re-enforcing shut down measures. 
President Trump and other leaders argued that we must open up the country to stave off economic disaster. Thousands of lives have been and will continue to be lost due to their ignorance, a tragedy unlike this country has seen. Their focus on re-opening against all scientific recommendations may also prove to be economically short sighted. By ignoring science and scientists, the Trump Administration is actually creating the economic disaster that they feared. Now we may face a much larger and much more longterm economic problem. As our country continues to be crippled by the virus, those short-term unemployed may become so permanently. It is our government’s responsibility to help.  
In March, Congress passed the CARES Act: a $2 trillion relief package. However, much of the funding allocated for local governments hasn’t reached them. Where local governments did receive aid, funds are running out, but the need isn’t. Increased unemployment benefits are set to end in most states on July 25, just over a week away. While Democrats passed a $3 trillion relief package through the House in June, it never reached the debate floor in the Senate. Senate Republicans are working on their own bill, which they expect to release “as early as next week.” However, the $1 trillion maximum that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell identified is below acceptable for House Leader Nancy Pelosi.  
Senators must pass another Covid-19 relief act, and soon. In todays’ era of politics, bipartisanship isn’t trendy. Unfortunately, our government no longer has the privilege to infight. They must work together and create an agreement that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind. Fighting this virus and its economic toll shouldn’t be a partisan issue. 
During this recess, constituencies across the country have an opportunity to hold their Senators accountable. Remember, our governmental officials are elected by us, for us. Our needs and our wills are their responsibility. They have power because we give it to them: we can just as easily take it away.  
So this week, call your representatives. Send emails. Hold them accountable for our well-being. Let them know that they have to take action, they have to pass a new Covid-19 relief act.   
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Stories of Local Leaders

Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman: Just Moms STL

By: Jenna Clark, Communications Intern
Karen and Dawn will tell you that they are “just moms,” but you shouldn’t believe them. Just Moms STLIn their
 of West Lake, Missouri, these two moms have led the battle against nearby nuclear waste. For 8 years, they have diligently organized community members, educated
local officials, spearheaded investigations into toxic waste mere miles from their homes, called EPA administrators day in and day out, and ultimately achieved their goal: federal recognition of its responsibility for the nuclear waste that threatens their community’s health, and its impending removal. 
Rather than “just moms” it might be better to say that they are “moms, and…” Moms firstunequivocally and with pride, but just moms, never.
For Karen and Dawn, their kids are inextricable from their stories of the fights, challenges, and victories of their mission. Karen potty trained her youngest while calling the EPA: “When I first got involved in this, 2012, 2013, that was right when my youngest was potty training. And we’d be on a conference call with the EPA, and he’d be hollering for me from the bathroom. And I’d be quietly slipping him Cheerios and books and saying ‘you can’t get up until you go!’” Her kids are now 10, 12, and 14, and the oldest has an autoimmune disorder, likely caused by the toxic waste practically in their backyard.   
Karen not only raised her own children near to tons of nuclear waste, she grew up there herself. After learning in 2012 that the Army Corps of Engineers was cleaning up a site adjacent to her home in West Lake, she realized that both she and her children had been exposed: “After attending that meeting I learned that I was raising my own four kids now, miles from a burning radioactive landfill. The fire had been burning since 2010, and I had been raising my own kids here for the past 20+ years. So, I have 4 kids, 3 of them are grown, one just graduated from high school, and I have grandchildren. We’ve been working on educating, promoting, raising awareness about the West Lake Landfill.” 
The problems with the West Lake Landfill begin with the Manhattan Project in 1942. As the U.S. military sought to build the world’s first nuclear bomb, barrels of toxic waste from the uranium purification process were left outside of St. Louis. In the 1970s, efforts were made to clean up the site, without much success. Some was sent to be stored in Colorado, but much of the radioactive soil was dumped illegally into the West Lake Landfill.  
For decades the presence of nuclear waste wasn’t acknowledged. However, in 2010 a fire began in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, which is adjacent to the West Lake Landfill. With the fire came an intense stench. Karen and Dawn started to notice. 
Dawn explained how she and Karen began working together: “Karen and I were neighbors and we didn’t even know. We had been living right around the corner from each other for years. I found out because I could smell the toxins from the fire that were coming out. And I put a call in to the local municipality, and they didn’t want to answer any questions. And I thought, oh God. And they sent me to the state regulator, which was the Department of Natural Resources…He was just pouring information out, and was really panicked. And I thought, this is a big deal.”  
Once Karen and Dawn learned about the waste, they began a long term effort for its removal, and founded their organization, Just Moms STL. Karen credits team-work and connectivity as a major reason for their success: “Most importantly we used the connections that we had, both Dawn and I being involved with PTA’s in school and what not. We literally started one family at a time, sitting down and showing them documents that we had read about the fire. We spent really the first 2.5 years just educating, 24 hours a day, sitting with documents, just learning what we could learn. And then taking that out into the community and building relationships with other community leaders…You have to make those connections because you have to start building your army. Because this is a fight, and we need an army.”  
Their best advice for activists just getting started? Find a team you trustAnd if you can’t find one, create one: “Find a Karen. Find a Karen Nickel. Don’t isolate yourself within this fight, find a group, find somebody that you can really trust and count on,” says Dawn.  
She adds, “Have a goal. What do you want to see happen at the end of this? And be prepared that should you achieve it, validation doesn’t feel like you think it is going to feel...Forget everything you knew about how change happens.”  
For Karen and Dawn, this means that even now, after they “won” their battle, they still have work to do. Many of the problems caused by the nuclear waste and other toxic materials in their community still exist. Many people in the area, including Karen, will be dealing with negative health effects from the pollution for their entire lives.  
 Acknowledging this, Karen and Dawn’s story illustrates the power of team-work and community activism. With enough determination and drive, it is possible to create change. The groups responsible for large scale pollution can be held accountable for their actions, and you don’t need professional training or to be a policy or legal expert to do it. Yes, you can even be “just” a mom. As a part of our new series, Living Room Leadership, we recently spoke with Dawn and Karen. Watch our conversation here.