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California’s climate plan pits bioenergy against environmental justice goals

The Air Resources Board has launched a series of stakeholder engagement workshops to inform the next update of Californias Climate Change Scoping Plan, the regulatory framework guiding the states policy priorities. While the plan will not be finalized until the end of 2022, frustrations have already risen among dairy and bioenergy interests over an apparent shift away from dairy digesters and biomass plants for agricultural and forest waste.
I was really concerned with the presentation from the California Energy Commission, particularly the exclusion of any new biomass and no mention whatsoever of biogas,” said Julia Levin, executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California, during an overview webinar for the scoping plan last week.
In its presentation, the commission did not project an increase in bioenergy in California. She called that troubling, since the state is trying to develop a plan with critically needed but aggressive climate change goals.”
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Photo Credit: Dairy Cares

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Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ widespread in top makeup brands, study finds

Toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” are widely used in cosmetics produced by major brands in the US and Canada, a new study that tested for the chemicals in hundreds of products found.

The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, detected what the study’s authors characterized as “high” levels of organic fluorine, an indicator of PFAS, in over half of 231 makeup and personal care samples. That includes lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush, nail polish and more.

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Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

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Cancer Alley campaigner wins Goldman prize for environmental defenders

A retired special education teacher from Louisiana who led a successful grassroots campaign to stop construction of a toxic plastics plant in America’s Cancer Alley has won the 2021 Goldman prize for environmental defenders.

Sharon Lavigne, 68, organised marches, petitions, town hall meetings and media campaigns after elected officials gave the green light to the construction of another polluting factory in St James parish – a majority-Black community already blighted by heavy industry and exorbitant cancer rates.

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Photo Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize

Stories of Local Leaders

Mama Bear to Leading Activist: Living Room Leadership with Gillian Graber

By: Simone Lewis, Communications Intern
When Gillian Graber and her husband bought their home in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, she didn’t expect to become a full time activist fighting to keep her neighborhood safe from fracking. She was focused on being a stay-at-home mom, caring for her kids. This vision was quickly disrupted when smoke from their neighbor’s wood stove began permeating Gillian’s home and affecting her children’s health, causing her three and five year-old children to become sick with acute sinusitis. Gillian began to learn more about air pollution and the legal tools she could use to ensure environmental safety for her family. After a year and a half long court battle, the Graber family was assured the right to clean air in their home. The victory was big, but punctuated by bigger news: the same week in late 2014, they received a notice in the mail about two proposed fracking well pads within a half mile from her house. 
“That really got us to realize that our surroundings and things that happen in our environment will impact us negatively health wise and impact our quality of life. I’m a mama bear and I will fight for my kids”
Well pads used for industrial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can contain five to twenty individual drill sites at which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped at high pressure thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. This process fractures the shale rock formations, releasing fossil fuels as well as radioactive material and chemically contaminated water. 
Gillian was tired from her long court battle, but she got to work researching hydraulic fracturing and found it could expose her community to known carcinogens, heavy metals, and a slew of other toxic chemicals. She knew first-hand the impacts of their surrounding environment on her family’s health and quality of life, and she felt that she had to do something. She made flyers, followed the school bus up the hill to inform other parents, and organized a meeting in her living room. That’s how she started Protect PT, a citizen’s group working to protect the Penn-Trafford area and surrounding communities from the effects of unconventional gas development. With a background in communications and a refusal to give up, Gillian volunteered her time for two years before receiving the grant that allowed her to assume her current role of executive director. 
With the looming well pad proposal, Gillian worked to gather information and supporters. The citizen’s group participated at local hearings to question the gas company and persuade the municipality not to accept the well pads. In 2015 as the proposal was increased from two pads in their township to twelve, Protect PT secured three outright denials from the township – a big win.
The industry was shocked: “They weren’t expecting the resistance. They weren’t expecting us to know what we were doing. They weren’t expecting us to be prepared”
After the local government refused to accept the well pads proposal, the industry turned around and sued the township in federal court for 380 million dollars on the basis of violation of their constitutional rights. Although the municipality would have won such a case in court, the industry was able to pressure the government into approving the proposal without the thorough review it required through the threat of this massive cost. The residents knew that their constitutional rights to clean air and clean water were being violated by the fracking industry every day in Pennsylvania, and this series of events was undoubtedly discouraging and destructive to the community. Gillian, however, did not give up the fight. 
“You can’t bury your head in the sand. It’s not an option if you want to maintain the integrity of your community and you want to maintain your property rights. We all need to understand that we have power too.”
She continued to use her experience and her platform to fight against the oil and gas companies and to help others do the same. Protect PT created a home resource guide on everything from state and local laws to the science of pollution to help people understand what they might be facing and how to fight it. They hold online workshops, consistently produce educational and advocacy materials, and partner with other organizations on action items to stop fracking and protect communities. After six years, Gillian shares, the oil and gas industry is starting to recognize that residents will oppose them and hold them accountable for infringing on their rights. 
Gillian continues to lead her community in the fight to protect their economic, environmental, and legal rights and to advocate for people in extractive areas. Her advice to those getting involved: “Do your research first and listen to the people that have been through it because you can learn from their experiences.”
Learn more about Protect PT and how you can support their mission here
Photo Credit: Connor Mulvaney/PublicSource

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Is it up to consumers, businesses, or politicians to tackle toxics? All of the above.

I have fond childhood memories of going to dollar stores with my mom. It was what we could afford.
We’d pick-up the few items we needed and sometimes I’d get to pick out a toy, make-up, or a food item as a treat. Little did we know that some of those low-cost products may have contained toxic chemicals.
This was my norm growing up, as is it the norm of many children today.
Over the years I became more aware of the systematic environmental injustices that people of color and low-income families face every day. I grew up more likely to be exposed to poor air quality because of my zip code. My family was often only able to afford highly processed foods or lower quality products that may have contained harmful chemicals.
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Photo Credit: Dollar Tree, Inc.

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The Drought In The Western U.S. Is Getting Bad. Climate Change Is Making It Worse

By almost every measure, the drought in the Western U.S. is already one for the record books.
Almost half the country’s population is facing dry conditions. Soils are parched. Mountain snowpacks produce less water. Wildfire risk is already extreme. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is headed to its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s.
The past year has been the driest or second driest in most Southwestern states since record keeping began in 1895. Farms and cities have begun imposing water restrictions, but Western states are facing a threat that goes deeper than a single bad year. The hotter climate is shrinking water supplies, no matter what the weather brings.
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Photo Credit: Noah Berger/AP Photo[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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State Trends in Environmental Justice Legislation

There are many definitions of environmental justice; however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) definition is the most used by state legislatures:
The EPA defines environmental justice “as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Stories of Local Leaders

Persisting In the Face of Division: Living Room Leadership with Lee Ann Smith

By: Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern
Lee Ann Smith’s son was only 11 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer. In fact, finding the cancer in the first place had been almost a mistake: Gabe had gone to get an MRI so that the doctors could check for scoliosis. When the scans came back, he was scoliosis-free, but a different mass had been discovered. 
As a devoted mother, Smith’s first priority became helping her son to heal. They lived in Asheville, TN and the closest location for his treatment was a 4-5 hour drive away. Over the next two years, she put her energy into helping her son to get better, until he was luckily declared cancer-free at the age of 13. 
“When I first got that call from the doctor who gave the results from the biopsy, it felt surreal. This was something that happened to other people, not to me or my family.”
Only after Gabe had recovered from the illness did Lee Ann start thinking more about why he might have gotten sick. The family had no medical history or genetic predispositions that indicated he could have been vulnerable to this form of cancer. They ate a healthy diet, and no one in their family smoked. Yet, Smith’s first thoughts were always questions of the concerned mother: “What could I have done better to prevent this?”
“There’s this tendency, I think, to say, ‘What could I have done to have prevented this?’…Short of choosing not to live where I lived…I don’t know that there was actually anything that we could have done.”
This cancer was no ordinary case, however. When Smith asked the doctors about what could have caused the cancer, their pediatric oncologist asked her if their family had ever been to Chernobyl. One of the known causes of thyroid cancer in children is high levels of radiation. This prompted Smith to think that the doctor was indicating an environmental issue could be the cause behind Gabe’s illness. 
With this new knowledge, Smith began to do more research. She discovered that the house her family was living in was only one mile away from a toxic site. At the site, high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) were being pumped into the ground, evaporated into the air, and contaminating many people’s drinking water. The company, Chicago Telegraph Service (CTS), had abandoned the site in 1986. They had manufactured car and airplane parts in Asheville and used TCE as a degreaser in the process. 
When Smith made this discovery, she assumed that there were people who already knew and were taking action on it. Although CTS wasn’t functioning at that site specifically, they are still in operation even to today in other parts of the country. Surely someone was making sure they were paying for the mess they had left in the community? 
“When I found out about this, I thought that somebody was probably working to take care of it; that somebody was watching out for my health and the health of my children, the health of my family, the health of my neighbors…And as I found out more about it I discovered that not much at all was being done.”
But as Smith looked more and more into the situation, she realized that no clear action was being taken. What needed to be done was obvious to her: these chemicals were in their environment, threatening the health of the community around her and they needed to be removed. As an elementary school librarian, Smith would go to school in the county where she worked and teach kids in grades K-4. Who was protecting the health and safety of the children she worked with everyday?
“I kept thinking about these itty bitties I teach and I couldn’t give up, not just for my family, but also for them. Because it has got to get better.”
Smith began going to community meetings and found that there were other community members who knew about this situation because they had also gotten sick; many people had suffered from the same rare thyroid cancer as Gabe. However, on a federal level, the amount of people who were suffering was not being recognized. When the North Carolina Health Department in partnership with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) did a study, they found that there was no statistically significant number of people who were sick in the area. This is not unique to Asheville: ATSDR has conducted many health studies that depend on population density as a key factor to determining a location as having a “cancer cluster.” Because their town was not densely populated, the government entities around them were not declaring their suffering to be significant. 
Through these community meetings, Smith also learned that there was a history of the EPA working on the site. However, many of the people in these community organizations were angry at the EPA. The agency had not been effective at achieving a cleaner environment or protecting people’s health, and they had made many mistakes already. This ineffective action made people distrust the EPA and eager to find alternative solutions for approaching this site clean-up. 
While community organizers held anger towards the EPA for their inadequate response, Smith remained focused on accomplishing what she felt was most important: removing the toxic chemicals from the ground. She continued to recognize the EPA as the only entity with federal power to take them through this process. With the help of some community members that she recruited, and local non-profits such as Clean Water for North Carolina, she began to reach out to the EPA and seek partners within the agency that could help her achieve justice. 
Others in the community remained divided about the methods Smith was using. With their bad track record, people were unwilling to continue to pursue a clean-up through the EPA. Some community members felt so strongly that they would harass or even threaten Smith for the work that she was doing. One woman on the phone told her that she was “poisoning and killing” community members for working with the EPA. As though fighting CTS to take responsibility for their actions and spurring the EPA into meaningful action was not enough of a challenge, Smith was also faced with division in her community. 
“I had people actually come up and say to me ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that? You’re never going to see clean up in your lifetime. You need to just give up now.’ …and I said ‘No, watch. We’re gonna get it.’”
Despite the conflicts with other community members, Smith’s work led to the area being declared a Superfund site in 2011. They were also able to write a technical assistance grant and hire a technical advisor who could help create more clear communication between the EPA and community by putting the more dense information from the EPA into digestible form. 
In the decade that followed the declaration of the Superfund site, the community was successful in developing and implementing two phases of removing the TCE from the ground. One strategy has been to put probes into the ground that heat up the soil and burn off the TCE. Secondly, they have been able to inject combative chemicals into the ground through a form of fracking that, when they come into contact with TCE, renders it inert. 
“I would love to be able to tell budding environmental activists, ‘oh my god, do it, its gonna be so easy and you’re gonna be so successful.” Unfortunately, that would be a lie. I can tell you that it’s gonna be hard. Find your support structure and lean on it.”
Although this site is on track to continue being cleaned up, Smith is still fighting today for justice. Most of the money that pays for clean-ups of sites like hers come from taxpayers dollars. In other words, Smith not only had to pay for all the treatment of her son Gabe, and her other son who later developed a bone tumor, but her money is also going into cleaning up a mess that she did not create. This is why she is a part of collaborating with CHEJ on our mission to reinstate the Polluter’s Pay Tax. To read more about this campaign and to support people like Lee Ann in their fight against corporations like CTS, check out this link: 
Photo Credit: POWER Action Group

Homepage News Archive

The same polluters destroying our climate are profiting off single-use plastics

Corporate plastic polluters love talking about recycling. That goes for both the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries, as well as the consumer goods and retail sectors. As long as the public views recycling as the primary solution to the plastic pollution crisis, these companies can continue producing endless quantities of single-use plastics.
For decades, we have all been told that if we toss our plastic packaging into the blue bin a truck will come take it away and turn it into a new product. This story was created by corporations so they could continue churning out cheap single-use plastics. The reality is that less than 10 percent of the plastic ever created has actually been recycled, and that which is recycled gets downcycled, losing its value over time. For the rare plastic item that does get recycled, it is just a brief stopover between its fracking origins and its inevitable end in a landfill, incinerator or sea turtle’s stomach.
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Photo Credit: Getty Images
Stories of Local Leaders

What is Right in Cancer Alley: A Conversation with Darryl Malek-Wiley

By: Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern
When Darryl Malek-Wiley moved to New Orleans in 1983, the environmental justice movement was just beginning in the U.S. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had been passed in 1972, and pollution was not yet at the forefront of the mainstream environmental movement. Wiley had joined the Sierra Club in 1972, which at the time was a mainly grassroots operation focused on the protection of wildlands and the conservation of America’s beauty. From this, he was familiar with environmental work. By the time Wiley had moved to Louisiana, however, he wasn’t focused on conservation and the maintenance of coastal wetlands; instead, he wanted to know what was happening on the Mississippi River.
Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Wiley first investigated what was along the river, expecting to find it bordered by plantations. Instead, he was surprised to discover petrochemical plants strung along in what seemed to be a never-ending line, creating an environmental and health crisis in their trail. Wiley, along with other activists in his area, would soon coin this stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where he was located “Cancer Alley,” and later on “Death Alley.”
“We can’t put no trespassing signs on our lungs. We can’t put no trespassing signs when we drink water. These companies are trespassing on our bodies and that’s not right and we need to stop it.”
His first project with these petrochemical plants came when Wiley discovered that one of them, Freeport McMoran, was planning to dump millions of gallons of radioactive waste into the Mississippi River every year. Wiley recognized quickly that this was an alarming and unsafe action for all of those affected by the water supply and surrounding environment. When he began to do more research into it, he found that just a 10% concentration of the pollution they were planning to dump would result in a 100% mortality rate of the fish in the river. 
The fight to hold Freeport McMoran responsible for this method of waste management lasted for two years. During this campaign, Wiley was appointed to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel. When began working with the other appointees, he noticed that he was one of many older white men, an identity that did not reflect those diverse individuals of the communities for which they were advocating. Wiley made it a point to quickly find an African American community leader who could serve as a representative alongside him. This was only the beginning of his parallel fight to that of environmental justice: giving voice to those in the communities truly affected by these issues.
Wiley had always been a part of change in his community, so this initial fight was not too unfamiliar to him. Before arriving in New Orleans, he had helped to organize workers demanding fair wages at his jobs in North Carolina, co-created an anti-nuclear group named the Catfish Alliance, and been a part of the KKK Ally Response in Alabama. This prepared him by the time he made it to New Orleans to work with diverse people and connect within and across communities desiring change.
“Once you put yourself out, people call you” 
After they had succeeded in the fight against Freeport McMoran, the work Wiley was doing in the community continued to grow. Soon after, he received a call from Richard Leonard, who was an organizer with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. A BASF chemical plant along the Mississippi River was in the middle of a lockout, which functions like a reverse strike: the company was actively denying hours to the workers. Workers at the plant were looking for ways to put pressure on BASF to get their jobs and fair wages back, and they wanted Wiley’s help in this fight. 
In order to strike back, the workers found that their leverage was in their knowledge of pollution. Given a map of the chemical plant, they could point to places on the property where they had been instructed by their managers to bury waste rather than dispose of it properly. The union had one of the workers print out the evidence—for BASF, and 16 other chemical plants in the surrounding area—and together they did some addition. These 17 chemical plants, out of the 140 that lined the Mississippi River, were emitting an astonishing total of 19,347,000 lb. of pollution every year. Using this information, the group of workers and organizers was able to expose and pressure BASF to do what was right. To spread the word even more, they collectively bought a billboard and put on it “Welcome to Cancer Alley: Brought to you by BASF.” If you want to learn more about the BASF fight, Wiley recommends reading the book Forcing a Common Bond.
“I’ve always been driven by, you know, what is right? What is right for people? How do we make sure everybody gets to breath clean air and water and land? And that’s sort of what has driven my activism”
Wiley has been in many environmental battles since these initial ones in the 80s and continues to work with the communities in Death Alley today. This past year, many people have been hit harder from Covid-19, as the history of air pollution in the region has made residents more susceptible to death when they contract the virus, either directly or by causing pre-existing conditions. Besides this national crisis, Wiley is also working on multiple campaigns today still against the petrochemical plants that line the Mississippi River. Most notably, he is campaigning to stop a new Formosa Plastics plant from being built along the river, which is the largest single-use plastic manufacturing company in the world. The plant itself would emit more greenhouse gases than 3 coal-fired plants combined. To read more about these urgent campaigns and find out how you can help, check out the links below:
To learn more about what residents in Cancer Alley are fighting against, click here.
To read more about the campaign against Formosa Plastics Plant, click here. You can also click here and here.
To read about the City of New Orleans opposing Formosa Plastics Unanimously, click here