Stories of Local Leaders

In a Tea-Party Texas Town, She Wins Against Fossil Fuels: Living Room Leadership with Ranjana Bhandari of Livable Arlington

By: Leija Helling, Communications Intern
When landmen first arrived in Arlington, Texas, offering royalties and signing bonuses, everyone was talking about the money. But Ranjana Bhandari saw through the propaganda and refused to sign her mineral rights away. Since this first act of resistance, Ranjana’s fight against fracking has grown into an organized effort across her city through the group Livable Arlington, where she brings residents together to oppose fracking expansion. “Fighting fossil fuels in Texas is a pretty hard job,” she says. But her persistence is paying off. In a Living Room Leadership interview with CHEJ, Ranjana shared stories about urban fracking, corrupted local politics, how she started a community organization, and how her group has found success in an area largely controlled by Republicans to whom fossil fuels hold an almost mythical importance.
“Fighting fossil fuels in Texas is a pretty hard job,” Ranjana says, yet she has proven it’s possible.
Since 2005 when the fossil fuel industry set its sights on the Barnett shale, a reservoir of natural gas that sits below the city of Arlington, local officials have supported the industry in siting urban fracking wells near neighborhoods, parks, hospitals, and schools throughout the city. Urban drilling has become a popular method since the discovery of horizontal drilling, which allows drillers to access reservoirs of gas under built-up areas. Today the 100-square-mile city of Arlington is home to nearly 400 wells, many as close as 300 feet from homes and schools.
Drilling companies sold fracking to Ranjana’s community as a safe way to achieve energy independence back before much was written about the health risks of fracking. But the truth is that fracking uses a slew of toxic chemicals, many of which can have serious health impacts. The process involves pumping 4 million gallons of water, sand, and a mixture of chemicals underground at high pressures. A salty toxic waste called brine comes back out, often along with radioactive materials from deep underground. The risk of emissions of toxic volatiles like benzene and methane is high. Accidents are not uncommon either.
“When you breathe this stuff, it’s not diluted. It’s not occasional. It’s a continuous onslaught.”
Further, the companies did not deliver on the mailbox money they promised. Residents were told they would get royalty checks of a few hundred dollars every quarter for the next 40 years if they signed off on urban fracking, but according to Ranjana, most barely got $10 per quarter. Not only that, but the costs were never counted or even acknowledged. “The accounting was incomplete by design,” Ranjana, whose background is in economics, explains. Losses in property value, property damage, and health care costs were not accounted for. Asthma, for example, costs around $3300 per year to treat. And that’s not to mention the impending climate crisis, which is expected to wipe out at least 5% of the global economy in the coming decades.
Ranjana was the mother of a five-year-old at the time drilling arrived in Arlington, and knew someone needed to speak up for the community’s children, whose health is especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals. She started going to city council meetings along with a few others in an effort to oppose well permits, but their lone voices were easily ignored by officials. Ranjana had no background in community organizing, but knowing that an organization with a structure and a body of supporters would amplify their voice, she decided she should take a stab at it. “Individuals, however heroic, cannot carry the same weight as an organization,” she says. In 2015, she brought together a group of Arlington residents in her kitchen, mostly mothers and grandmothers, united in their conviction to be a voice for the children whose interests they felt were going unrepresented.
Amazingly, under Ranjana’s leadership, Livable Arlington has found ways reach across the aisle and unite the community around human concerns despite Texan commitment to the fossil fuel industry. Reflecting on a huge 2017 win against an injection well that would have threatened the drinking water of half a million Arlinton residents, Ranjana shared the key to her success: messaging. “We never mentioned drilling,” she says. “We talked about water: what our children are drinking, a universal value.”
“You can love fossil fuels, you can buy all the propaganda, but you still don’t want to poison your children.” 
By keeping their focus immediate and local, on children and not the climate, the group was able to find common ground within an increasingly polarized political climate. Optics helped too. “It’s hard for people to demonize you or argue with you when you get 80 women worried about their children lined up at a public hearing.” To be clear, though, concern for children was more than just an organizing strategy for Ranjana. “I did this as a parent,” she says.
Ranjana also told the story of a recent win against the permitting of wells by a preschool in a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood of Arlington. The area had the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in Arlington at the time. Livable Arlington was able to convince the city council to oppose the permits by highlighting the link between pollution and higher COVID-19 mortality. Where environmental racism issues intersect with a racialized pandemic, the disproportionate impact of barriers to health on poor minority communities becomes far too clear to ignore, she explains.”I hope we remember the things we’ve learned about how inequitable our country is,” Ranjana says. “Who bears the burden of keeping us going, who has the least protection, and who pollution impacts the most.” How can we do so?
“Hold grown-ups’ feet to the fire, speak truth to power, pin the blame where it lies.”

Homepage News Archive

Climate justice is at the center of the Biden-Harris plan for tribal nations

The abuse and neglect experienced by tribal nations throughout U.S. history has had far-reaching consequences. A wide range of health metrics for Indigenous people fall far short of those of other Americans, as does their access to preventative health care (and even, in some cases, their access to running water). Now, unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is having an outsized impact on Indigenous communities.
In hopes of combating these disparities, earlier this month the Biden presidential campaign released the “Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations,” which outlines how the Democratic nominee’s administration would support better health outcomes for Indigenous communities.
Read more…
Photo credit: Grist

Homepage News Archive

Another Reason We Can’t Breathe

Dr. Robert Bullard had trouble selling a book in the late Eighties about what he knew to be true. He had written about a subject on which he’d long sounded the alarm: racism involving a sort of discrimination that is much more silent, a violence that doesn’t come via a policeman’s gun or baton. It doesn’t carry the dramatics of a cross burning on the lawn, nor make as many headlines as the racial disparities in America’s economic or medical systems. Bullard was trying to tell the world about the kind of racism that could come through our water taps, or just be floating in the very air that we breathe.
Read more…
Photo credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Backyard Talk

Military Service Members and Their Families Exposed to Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Their Drinking Water

By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern
The Department of Defense (DOD) has found that more than 600 military installations and surrounding communities could be contaminated with PFAS – far more than have been previously disclosed by the Pentagon.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS are more commonly known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and can accumulate in the body over time. They have been linked to cancer, liver damage and harm to the reproductive and immune systems.
The DOD’s use of firefighting foam made with PFAS, also known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, is the primary source of PFAS pollution at military installations. PFAS have contaminated potable water sources on or near hundreds of military installations across the United States. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has confirmed PFAS contamination in the tap water or groundwater at 328 installations. At 14 of those installations, PFAS contamination exceeds 1 million parts per trillion (ppt), far above the 70 ppt advisory level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Service members and military families can click on this interactive map to find the levels of contamination in a particular area, based on EWG’s research using DoD and other data.
The EPA has known about the health hazards of PFAS contamination for decades but has failed to take action. “The EPA and the Department of Defense have utterly failed to treat PFAS contamination as a crisis demanding swift and decisive action,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG. More than 45 bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to monitor the scope of PFAS contamination, require reporting of PFAS releases, address ongoing PFAS contamination, and clean up legacy PFAS pollution, but heated negotiations are still taking place over the extent of PFAS related provisions. Last December, The House of Representatives passed H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act of 2019, which would  require the EPA to designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under the Superfund law within one year of the bill’s enactment, and require set drinking water standards. If approved by the Senate, President Donald Trump has vowed to veto the law.
Just last week, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin introduced a bipartisan bill, The PFAS Exposure Assessment and Documentation Act, to protect military servicemembers and their families from PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ contamination. “The bill takes bold steps to strengthen testing and tracking PFAS exposure in servicemembers, by mandating blood testing for PFAS chemicals for those who may have been exposed, and allowing military families to also get tested for PFAS exposure. The bill also opens up testing to former servicemembers and their families, allowing them to get tested at no cost.” This legislation could be life saving for service members and their families, like Retired Army Pilot, Jim Holmes, who also served in the Air Force.
Jim Holmes’ daughter, Kaela Holmes, died in March 2019, just days after her 17th birthday, from a rare brain cancer that her father now believes to be caused by PFAS contamination. Earlier this year, Holmes appeared before lawmakers to advocate for a stronger Pentagon response to its decadeslong use of PFAS containing firefighting foam. “Holmes told lawmakers in his years at Patrick AFB that he was never warned that water in the area had been contaminated with PFAS, even as the Air Force’s own water sampling showed groundwater contained drastically more PFAS in the drinking water than the Environmental Protection Agency had determined is safe”. The Pengaton will eliminate the use of the PFAS containing firefighting foam entirely by 2024, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2020, but some in Congress argue that this is not enough. “2024 is ridiculous,” U.S. Representative John Rutherford said, who compared the PFAS contamination with “another Agent Orange barreling down on us.” Holmes demands the Pentagon provide water treatment to communities around Patrick AFB and warn service members and their families about potential drinking water contamination. 
“I will have to live the rest of my life knowing that my decision to serve in the military and reside on a United States Air Force Base resulted in the death of my beautiful daughter,” Holmes said. “Let that sink in for a minute. … I pray that no other service member will ever have to unknowingly sacrifice the life of their child by serving their country.”
As a military dependent myself, I have to wonder … have I been exposed to PFAS contamination? Will my family members experience adverse health effects? We deserve answers and action now. The EPA and the DOD cannot wait any longer to protect the men and women who serve their country from PFAS contamination.
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Lauren Hunter/Air Force