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Biden to place environmental justice at center of sweeping climate plan

President Biden made tackling America’s persistent racial and economic disparities a central part of his plan to combat climate change Wednesday, prioritizing environmental justice for the first time in a generation.

As part of an unprecedented push to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs as the United States shifts toward cleaner energy, Biden directed agencies across the federal government to invest in low-income and minority communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of pollution.

“Lifting up these communities makes us all stronger as a nation and increases the health of everybody,” Biden said.

Biden signed an executive order establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, create an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and form a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department. The order also directs the government to spend 40 percent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities.

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Photo Credit: David J. Phillip/AP

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In Georgia, 16 Superfund Sites Are Threatened by Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change

From a distance, the inland marsh a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean in Brunswick, Georgia, looks like a broad, green mat broken by silvery threads of meandering rivers and creeks. There’s cordgrass four feet tall, and sea daisies that add a splash of starburst color.

The marsh is home to shrimp, blue crab and sea trout, and it’s the nesting site of Great Egrets. Bottlenose dolphins inhabit the nearby Turtle/Brunswick River Estuary in Glynn County.

But looks can be deceiving.

Beneath the bucolic green expanse, the water and sediment contain toxic mercury and PCBs from the now closed LCP Chemical plant, which produced chlorine gas, hydrogen gas, hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals from 1955 to 1994, at what has since been declared a Superfund hazardous waste site, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The shrimp, crab and sea trout are tainted by the contaminants, putting local residents who still fish in the waters at risk for cancer, liver and kidney damage, according to a federal health assessment of the site.
Back in 2010, a researcher found “extremely high concentrations” of persistent organochlorine contaminants (POCs) in the local bottlenose dolphin population, with LCP Chemical and other nearby Superfund sites considered potential sources of the contamination.
With climate change a leading issue in Georgia’s two closely watched Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, the effects of a warming planet directly threaten LCP Chemical and 15 other Superfund sites in the state. They could be potentially affected by intensified hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise or wildfires.
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Photo Credit: NOAA

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U.S. formally exits Paris climate change pact amid election uncertainty

BERLIN — The United States on Wednesday formally left the Paris Agreement, a global pact forged five years ago to avert the threat of catastrophic climate change.

The move, long threatened by President Donald Trump and triggered by his administration a year ago, further isolates the U.S in the world but has no immediate impact on international efforts to curb global warming.

Some 189 countries remain committed to the 2015 Paris accord, which aims to keep the increase in average temperatures worldwide “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), ideally no more than 1.5C (2.7 F), compared to pre-industrial levels. A further six countries have signed, but not ratified the pact.

Scientists say that any rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius could have a devastating impact on large parts of the world, raising sea levels, stoking tropical storms and worsening droughts and floods.

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Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowksi / AFP via Getty Images

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‘Crossroads of the climate crisis’: swing state Arizona grapples with deadly heat

Even now, Ivan Moore can’t think why his father didn’t didn’t tell anyone that the air conditioning in their house was busted. “I honestly don’t know what was going through his mind,” he said.

That week three years ago, temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona were forecasted to top 115F (46C). Moore, his wife and two children went to the mountains for a camping trip, and his dad Gene, stayed behind. A few days later, Gene died.

The air conditioning had been blowing hot air. “He’d opened a window but it was too hot,” Moore said. “My dad’s heart basically gave out on him.”

Phoenix – America’s hottest city – is getting hotter and hotter, and Moore’s father is one of the hundreds of Arizonans who have succumbed to the desert heat in recent years.

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Photo Credit: Caitlin O’Hara/The Guardian

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Incarcerated Workers Among Hardest Hit By Wildfires

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
Massive wildfires fuelled by climate change have damaged millions of acres across California, Oregon, and Washington over the past few weeks. Some parts of California have an AQI of over 700. Air Quality Index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Any level above 200 is “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
As residents evacuate areas threatened by the fires, let’s consider those who stayed behind. You might be surprised to learn that California uses prison labor, disproportionately people of color, to battle their wildfires. In fact, incarcerated workers make up to 80% of California fire personnel, including juveniles. The state pays incarcerated workers only 1 dollar an hour (or less if they owe restitution) to fight wildfires. 
With this perspective, prison doesn’t appear to be about justice or rehabilitation, instead about exploiting labor for profit. As exemplified by a question asked by a former corrections officer at one California inmate fire camp: “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season?” 
Historically, once released from prison, California abandons their former inmate firefighters, preventing them from being hired as professionals. However, now that covid shutdowns have left no other option, California has passed a bill making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters. 
Inmate firefighters work up to 48 hour shifts with 50 pound backpacks. The state does not provide goggles or respirators. It’s no wonder then that incarcerated workers are more than 4 times as likely to sustain an injury than a professional firefighter working on the same fire.
The smoke from these wildfires contains air pollution particles called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 exposure leads to worse coronavirus outcomes. These particles are so small that they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and cannot be broken down by the immune system.
People residing in low income and minority communities are already disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5 from industry polluters, and are therefore more likely to have an underlying health condition. Underlying conditions exacerbate the dangerous health risks of smoke, specifically heart attacks
Immediate symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, and eye irritation. Years following wildfire smoke exposure, lung capacity among residents decreased.
Wildfire smoke is linked to an increased rate of emergency doctors visits for respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack or stroke– specifically for adults over 65. Black people who live in areas where the poverty rate is above 15% were particularly affected
As this latest challenge demonstrates, climate change imposes the heaviest burdens on people of color. The evil of capitalism and racism in the United States is intrinsically linked even to crises in nature, such as wildfires and coronavirus.
Photo credit: Newsweek

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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

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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

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Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most

Air pollution and increased temperatures are not only tied to climate change but have also been tied to the increased likelihood of having premature, underweight, and stillborn babies. Given that many low-income and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution and many can’t afford air conditioning in their homes, they are at a much higher risk for pregnancy risks. Black mothers have been specifically impacted by these risks. In addition to the risks of increasing temperatures and air pollution exposures, minority mothers tend to have less access to medical care and unequal levels of treatment when getting care. In order to address systemic racism, we need to also make sure that the environment in which people live is equitable. Read More
Photo by Tembinkosi Sikupela on Unsplash

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Superfund and Climate Change Events: A Personal Account of Flooding and the Risk of Toxin Release in Midland, Michigan

Climate change has resulted in devastating flooding and natural disasters that have overwhelmed and greatly impacted communities. The Edenville dam along the Tittabawassee River in mid-Michigan collapsed due to large amounts of rainfall on May 19th, resulting in the collapse of another nearby dam. The resulting impacts of these events led to extreme flooding and the evacuation of nearly 10,000 residents in the surrounding areas. Communities with Superfund sites are in specific danger due to the potential mass movement of toxins into communities during flooding. Mary McKSchmidt, an author, photographer, and community member in Midland County, Michigan reflects on extreme flooding events that have put surrounding communities at risk for exposure to toxic chemicals from a Dow chemical complex and a large Superfund site. The Government Accountability Office has recommended that Superfund sites should be actively protected by planning for possible climate change events. However, the EPA has yet to address this issue. Read More

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Flooding Creates Problems for Dow Superfund Cleanup

Flooding from two breached dams on Wednesday, May 20, has created problems for the Dow chemical plant in Michigan. Downriver from the plastics plant is a Superfund site located on the Tittabawassee River. Allen Burton, a professor at the University of Michigan explains that the flooding water creates concern for the site cleanup because it can stir contaminated sediments with the river water and carry the contamination further downstream. Further concern is raised at how climate change could impact Superfund site cleanup efforts with increases in flooding, severe storms and wildfires. Read More.

The following story is reprinted on the CHEJ website from the New York Times and written by Hiroko Tabuchi.

Dam Failure Threatens a Dow Chemical Complex and Superfund Cleanup

By 

Floodwaters from two breached dams in Michigan on Wednesday flowed into a sprawling Dow chemical complex and threatened a vast Superfund toxic-cleanup site downriver, raising concerns of wider environmental fallout from the dam disaster and historic flooding.

The compound, which also houses the chemical giant’s world headquarters, lies on the banks of the Tittabawassee River in Midland, where by late Wednesday rising water had encroached on some parts of downtown. Kyle Bandlow, a Dow spokesman, said that floodwaters had reached the Dow site’s outer boundaries and had flowed into retaining ponds designed to hold what he described as brine water used on the site.

The Superfund cleanup sites are downriver from the century-old plant, which for decades had released chemicals into the nearby waterways. The concern downriver, according to Allen Burton, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, is that contaminated sediments on the river floor could be stirred up by the floodwaters, spreading pollution downstream and over the riverbanks.

“You worry about the speed of the current, this wall of water coming down the river,” he said. “It just has a huge amount of power.”

Mr. Bandlow did not provide information on the status of the cleanup sites.

 Over the years the Dow complex has manufactured a range of products including Saran Wrap, Styrofoam, Agent Orange and mustard gas. Over time, Dow released chemicals into the water, leading to dioxin contamination stretching more than 50 miles along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and into Lake Huron. Research has shown that dioxins can damage the immune system, cause reproductive or developmental problems, and cause cancer.

There is also a tiny nuclear research reactor on the site, used to create material that can be used in product experiments. Overnight, Dow filed an “unusual event” report with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission warning of potential flooding at the site. But the reactor had already been shut down because of the coronavirus crisis, and there were no indications of flood damage on Wednesday.

A federally funded Superfund cleanup of the Tittabawassee River began in 2007, and was slated for completion next year. Cleanup of other contaminated waterways is set to take longer.

“I would hate to see 13 years of work literally go down the drain if this flood wipes away the effort,” said Terry Miller, chairman of the local environmental group, Lone Tree Council, which has for years campaigned for a cleanup. “We were almost nearing the end.”

A former lawyer for Dow who oversaw the cleanup for more than a decade, Peter C. Wright, now runs the federal government’s Superfund cleanup program within the Environmental Protection Agency. A 2018 New York Times investigation found that while Mr. Wright led Dow’s legal strategy relating to the cleanup, the chemical giant was accused by regulators, and in one case a Dow whistle-blower, of submitting disputed data, misrepresenting scientific evidence and delaying cleanup.

Mr. Wright has pledged to recuse himself from cleanups related to his former employer, and was not involved in the government’s response to the flooding, said Francisco Arcaute, a Chicago-based spokesman for the E.P.A.

The agency was prepared to assist Michigan “in assessing and responding to any public health and environmental impacts from the Tittabawassee River Superfund Site and Dow’s Midland facility due to the ongoing flooding,” Mr. Arcaute said, including dispatching emergency personnel to the area.

Dow has not reported chemical releases into the river, Mr. Arcaute added. He said that the company’s Superfund agreement with the agency would require the company to survey for recontamination or any other effect on cleanup efforts after the flooding.

Dow agreed last year to pay another $77 million to fund projects that would attempt to restore nearby fish and wildlife habitats to compensate for decades of pollution from its plant. Signs along the river warn locals not to eat fish caught there, and to avoid contact with soil and river sediment.

The threat to the Dow complex highlights the risks to Superfund and other toxic cleanup sites posed by the effects of climate change, which include more frequent and severe flooding. A federal report published last year found that 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by the E.P.A., or more than 900 toxic sites countrywide, are in areas that may be affected by flooding or wildfires, both hazards that may be exacerbated by climate change.

The Trump administration rejected the report’s recommendation that the federal government provide more clarity on how it intends to incorporate climate research into readying these sites to withstand a changing climate.

Hiroko Tabuchi is an investigative reporter on the climate desk. She was part of the Times team that received the 2013 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.