Backyard Talk

The Wait for Cleanup Continues … Government Keeps Family Waiting

By: Sharon Franklin, Chief of Operations
The danger arrived for Kim and Richard Rankin and their family in 2004, in the form of a hidden pile of soil, at their home in Kenton, Missouri, as reported by P.J. Randhawa and Erin Richey for KSDK-TV.   The Rankins learned years later that the soil was contaminated with lead, which is presently across most of Southwest Missouri.  In 2008, it became a toxic burden, and that was also the year they found out that their yard was a Superfund site.  Richard Rankin learned that “The lead levels weren’t high enough to be a danger to us and the older children in the home; “but we adopted a son in 2013, when he was 8 months old.  So, he called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was told they would immediately be put at the top of the list for remediation as a cleanup project.
Sadly, it’s seven years later, and the Rankins are still on the top of that list, and their son Nathan has complex medical needs and the Superfund site is still there.  Kim and Richard Rankin say “Our little guy that we adopted has never really explored his full yard”; and “He never will get to play in the tree house”. “In 2008, the EPA sent us a letter stating that they had found our name on the list from a particular provider of soil and that it was very likely that we’d had contaminated soil brought into this site”.
According to the EPA, heavy metals in mine waste from operations as far back as the 1700s have made their way into the soil and water all over Jefferson County.   The resulting contamination brought heavy metals like lead, arsenic and chromium to the doorsteps of Jefferson County homeowners.  Julie Weber, Director of the Missouri Poison Center, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital says “It’s these repetitive exposures, especially in younger children that can lead to affect their development,”  The contamination can have lasting effects, she added, “on the blood system, how they develop and can affect their IQ.”
Kim Rankin says “They just wanted to cap the land and put 12 inches of dirt on top of it, instead of removing it,” “Once they thought they had the job done, it turned out that it failed.”
“It really has felt like us as a private citizen against these bigger power government and corporations, that you just can’t motivate much change. “They just had total disregard to the consequences that they had left us with for so long,” And it has just become a tremendous amount of work for us to advocate.  Hours spent writing e-mails, hours in meetings.  It’s kind of like they came in with the idea that they were helping. And it has been anything but helpful.”
Currently, on the EPA Website, the Southwest Jefferson County Mining Site is categorized as “Current Human Exposure Not Under Control.”  The agency provides bottled water to 55 homes and expects that there are thousands more properties to test and at least 600 more properties to remediate. Health officials recommend that Jefferson County residents, especially children, get their blood lead levels checked at least once a year.
Photo credit: Rankins

Homepage News Archive

U.S. EPA Announces $200,000 Environmental Justice Grant to California Office of Planning & Research

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the selection of the California Office of Planning and Research’s Strategic Growth Council to receive $200,000 for trainings to communities to address air quality and COVID-19 – the respiratory disease shown to disproportionately impact individuals exposed to higher levels of air pollution.
“EPA is working to improve the environment and public health conditions of low-income and minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVD-19 pandemic,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator John Busterud. This grant assistance will provide meaningful tools for those Californians in the greatest of need.”
Read more…

Homepage News Archive

The 2020 Hurricane Season in Rewind

The 2020 hurricane season, which brought destructive storms from Central America to the Gulf Coast of the United States and beyond, has proved to be one for the record books.

The storms began before the hurricane season officially kicked off, with the formation of Tropical Storm Albert in mid-May, two weeks before the official start of the Atlantic season on June 1.

In August, midway through the six-month season, scientists upgraded their outlook to say 2020 would be “one of the most active seasons,” and said they expected up to 25 named storms by the time it was over. By November, even that upgraded expectation was exceeded: There have now been 30 named storms — 13 of them hurricanes — breaking a record set in 2005, when 28 storms grew strong enough to be named. Fifteen that year became hurricanes.

Read more…
Photo credit: Marco Bello/Reuters

Homepage News Archive

Trump Administration, in Late Push, Moves to Sell Oil Rights in Arctic Refuge

The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would begin the formal process of selling leases to oil companies in a last-minute push to achieve its long-sought goal of allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

That sets up a potential sale of leases just before Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, leaving the new administration of Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has opposed drilling in the refuge, to try to reverse them after the fact.

Read more…
Photo credit: Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Homepage News Archive

Biden to Emphasize Chemicals Concerns of ‘Frontline’ Communities

President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will pay more attention than the Trump administration to the concerns of people with higher-than-average chemical exposures as it decides whether those chemicals should be regulated, attorneys said.
In last month’s final presidential debate, Biden described the health fears faced by “frontline” communities—generally those in poor areas with a predominantly minority population that live near oil refineries and chemical manufacturers.
“It matters how you keep them safe,” he said. “You impose restrictions on the pollution.”
Read more…
Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Homepage News Archive

Biden suspects toxic exposure in Iraq killed Beau. He has a plan for ill veterans

Joe Biden, like many other families of service members diagnosed with illnesses from overseas deployments, suspects toxic exposure may have been behind his son Beau’s brain cancer.
Beau Biden boarded a military aircraft for Iraq on Nov. 19, 2008, just days after his father became vice president-elect. He deployed with the Delaware Army National Guard to Balad Air Base, where the U.S. military burned an estimated 140 tons of waste a day in open air burn pits.

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Backyard Talk

The Rachel Carson Amendment

Our colleague and friend Lou Zeller at the Blue Ridge Environmental League (BREDL) shared an article he wrote a few years back about the great pioneer Rachel Carson who wrote in her epic 1962 classic Silent Spring that “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
Lou continued. “The public outcry created by Silent Spring led to a ban on DDT from agricultural use in 1972. However, today the industrial use of poisonous substances continues almost unabated, based on regulatory risk assessments and legally acceptable death rates. For example, retail shops are still permitted to dry-clean cloths with perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, even though non-toxic alternatives are available. Household hand cleaners laced with toxic Triclosan contaminate wastewater and sewage sludge deposited on farm fields as fertilizer. Nuclear power plants routinely spew radioactive Tritium into the air and water. And chemical giant Monsanto sells the weed-killer Roundup to farmers and homeowners—components of which are carcinogenic and known to damage the liver, kidney, brain and lungs. The list goes on.
“How can it be that after the passage of two generations we have let this continue?  Worse, a new natural gas extraction industry—cracking underground rock with high-pressure chemicals and water—exempts itself from the few environmental, public health and safety laws still on the books. It is indeed a strange blight creeping over the land.
“The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution states, ‘No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’  The Fourteenth Amendment adds that the States may not, ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Rachel Carson’s Fable for Tomorrow painted a grim picture, but it was meant to prompt action.  In part, she succeeded.  But it remains to us to ensure that the next forty years complete the changes necessary so our legacy to future generations is not a silent spring.  Either the fundamental principles established under the Constitution mean what they say, or Rachel Carson’s admonition should become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.”
I think Lou is onto something. What do you think?

Stories of Local Leaders

Fighting for the People: Living Room Leadership with Roxanne Groff

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Roxanne Groff, a formidable activist with 20 years of experience as an elected official in Athens County, Ohio, shared her experience for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. 
Originally from Toledo, Groff made her way to Athens, Ohio for college in 1967 where her activism began. There, she began protesting the Vietnam War and recognized many things needed to change. From that moment on, Groff states, she “couldn’t stop” because there was always something new to fight.
“Anger pushes people to do a lot of pretty effective things.”
After protesting a coal mine that would threaten local water and air, Groff thought of how much she could do as a politician. Humorously, what motivated Groff to go to board meetings was the need for her road to be fixed. Eventually, a trustee asked Groff why she did not run for a seat on the board. In a turn of events, she ran and defeated the trustee in 1979, beginning her political career at 29 years old.
“If you really care how things work you’re going to find out, and I did.”
Her active involvement in the political arena, including the State Trustee Association, led to her position on the Board of County Commissioners. This was a means into state legislative work. She served 3 terms and then ran for Township Trustee which led to almost 20 years in office. As a result of her work in politics she, to this day, can get in contact with members of the government. She stresses the importance of not adapting yourself or the issues you are fighting for. Because of her refusal to conform, many current members of the government remember her as someone who always stood up and was passionate about what she believed in. 
“You fight for everything that comes up that is going to protect the people.”
Groff stresses the importance of direct action. Putting decision makers into uncomfortable situations forces them to think. Although, sitting face-to-face with anyone is difficult during COVID-19. That being said, Groff will keep fighting.
“There’s too much to do…I don’t have any reason to stop.”

Stories of Local Leaders

Warehouse Development Is Trouble for Jurupa Valley: Living Room Leadership with Esther Portillo of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Esther Portillo, Interim Executive Director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) in Jurupa Valley, CA, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Portillo has organized and empowered communities of color across the nation and now is leading CCAEJ’s grassroots efforts to bring environmental justice to the Inland Empire.
CCAEJ works to improve the social and natural environment by expanding indigenous leadership, organizing communities through the use of campaigns, and creating a framework of community power for safer, healthier, toxic free places to live, work, learn and play.
Portillo began organizing in the early 2000s after graduating college. The history of racism and the demographic shift of where she grew up influenced her interest. Because affordable housing was no longer viable in places like Los Angeles, there was a displacement of people of color who moved to the Inland Empire, a region in Southern California.
“It’s definitely an environmental racism issue as well.”
Currently, CCAEJ is fighting against land use and warehouse development. The warehouse industry has been effective in rezoning previous residential areas and making them industrial zones. The industrial warehouse complex in the Inland Empire spans 500 million square feet and 20 million square feet are added every year, making it the largest warehouse district in the world. Additionally, air quality has worsened as a result of the use of warehouse diesel trucks. Diesel releases harmful particulate matter into the air, reducing air quality. Because of the growth of the industrial complex in the Inland Empire, Portillo stated the area is becoming like an “inland port.”
The effects of pollution in the Inland Empire can be seen through slow lung growth in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Portillo said, “Community members have literally passed away from the impacts of all this pollution.” She called it a sort of state of emergency.
“It is like a life and death situation for folks.”
Portillo explains that the way to be most effective is to “organize the folks that are directly affected by these policies.” These people are usually women of color, and it is necessary for community members to develop the policies they want. Litigation, change of land use strategy and planning, and community organizing are essential for enacting change in the Inland Empire.

Stories of Local Leaders

Raising Hope: Living Room Leadership with Rebecca Jim of Local Environmental Action Demanded

By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Rebecca Jim, Founder and Executive Director of Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency, Inc, shared her experience as an activist for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series. Jim shared about her community’s fight for environmental justice of the Tar Creek area, one of the largest and most polluted Superfund sites in the United States.
LEAD works to raise environmental concerns in Northeast Oklahoma, take action against environmental hazards that harm the community, conduct workshops and seminars, and strengthen efforts by partnerships in Oklahoma and the nation.
Jim is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Many native tribes were forced to move into land located in Northeastern Oklahoma in Ottawa County. The land was then discovered to be rich in lead and zinc, consequently, leading to the mining and extraction of the area beginning around the early 1900’s. Her environmental work began when, as a school counselor, she became aware of her students’ concerns for their environment. Although the area is no longer in production, what remains has dangerous consequences for the community. Debris and rubble is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and zinc. 
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is in charge of issuing mining leases and suggested that tribal land owners use the waste as a resource and form of income. In effect, poisonous residue was transported throughout the county and used for gravel, asphalt, foundations, driveways, roads, etc. In 1994, it was discovered that 35 percent of children living on the site had high concentrations of lead in their blood. This led the EPA to sample soil in high-access areas (HAA) and discover high concentrations of heavy metals. The EPA began excavations to clean up HAAs and even residential properties. The cleanup continues to this day.
 “It is a legacy that I really wouldn’t have wished on anyone.”
The site has struggled with funding. With the help of CHEJ, LEAD has been fighting for the reauthorization of the Superfund. Jim stated that they are a “broke Superfund” and are “at the will of Congress” for any financing. Jim believes money and science can solve the site’s problems.
Funding is not the only financial issue. The BIA allowed mining leases for individuals to mine on tribal lands, but later dealt those individuals incompetent to deal with their wealth, therefore, many never received their earnings.
“The more you look at our site, the deeper the environmental injustice is.”
Still, Jim has hope for justice. If the creek is able to get cleaned up, they can clean the rest of the site.
“What we’re hoping to do is give hope…we can make this place a safer place to live.”