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Environmentalists take petrochemical giant Formosa to court over plastics pollution

For years, Diane Wilson has tried to get Formosa Plastics Corp. to stop discharging plastic pellets from its sprawling petrochemical complex on the Central Texas coast. This week, she’s getting her day in court. Read more ...

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News Archive

Done begging govt to do its job

According to a review by the Center for Health and Environmental Justice, ATSDR found that ten of twenty dioxin samples in soil exceeded its Cancer Risk Evaluation Guide levels.
Read More.

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This Town Is So Toxic, They Want It Wiped off the Map

The story of Minden, WV is yet another example of how toxic pollution harms the poorest and vulnerable communities the most. Read about the horrifying story here.

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Homepage News Archive

Toxic Wastes Are Everywhere – From Harvey

Bobby Griffin found the clusters of shiny silver mercury globules scattered across his San Jacinto riverfront property on Tuesday, a few hundred yards from the San Jacinto Waste Pits, a Superfund site that was inundated during last week’s storm.
Public health officials are investigating a case of dangerous liquid mercury that appears to have washed or blown ashore here, east of Houston, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Read more.

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Backyard Talk

EPA to Remove Dioxin-Laced Contamination from River in Houston

san-jacinto-picture
 Congratulations to the San Jacinto River Coalition of Houston,  Texas and residents who live near the San Jacinto Waste Pits  Superfund Site for convincing the US Environmental Protection  Agency (EPA)that the only acceptable solution to address the  dioxin contaminated paper mill sludge waste in the pits was to dig  it up and take it out! At the end of September, the EPA agreed after  more than 6 years of controversy and analysis, to remove about 202,000 cubic yards of toxic waste from the site at a cost of approximately $97 million. The decision is not yet final as the agency is holding a 60 day comment period.
This site is located on 20 acres of abandoned land along the San Jacinto River that runs just east of the city of Houston. Sludge waste from pulp and paper mill production at nearby International Paper and before them Champion Paper was dumped at this site during the 1960s and has been leaching from the waste pits into the river ever since. A large portion of this property is continually underwater from the San Jacinto River causing dioxin contaminated sediment to come into direct to contact with the river water. Dioxin levels as high as 46,000 parts per trillion (ppt) have been found in the waste pit area. An action level of 1,000 ppt of dioxin in soil was used by the EPA to evacuate the entire town of Times Beach, MO in 1983. Dioxin is one of the most potent carcinogens ever tested and has been associated with a wide range of adverse health problems including reproductive, developmental, immunological, and endocrine effects in both animals and humans.    
The San Jacinto River Coalition formed in 2010 to address the contamination coming from the Waste Pits and to push EPA for complete removal of the contamination. EPA was inclined to leave the waste in place which made absolutely no sense to anyone who lived in the area as local residents watched the river routinely submerse the waste completely. A major concern has been dioxin leaching into the river because so many people fish the river and continue to do so even though the state has issued a fish advisory warning people not to eat the fish. For many local residents, fishing in the river is a main source of food.  
Jackie Young, director of the San Jacinto River Coalition was elated at the agency’s decision and was quoted in the Houston Press saying: “Leaving the waste in the river is unacceptable…This decision shows that the EPA is taking a firm stand based on the science and engineering and what the community has called for.” Sometimes the little guy does win. For more information, http://www.sanjacintorverwastepits.com/ and https://www.epa.gov/tx/sjrwp 

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Backyard Talk

What We Don’t Know about Toxic Chemicals

So often people believe that the solution to their problem lies in science and technical information. How often have you heard some company spokesperson speak to the need for sound science. At CHEJ, we have have learned many lessons about science and how it is used. Science and technical information is important and has a role in helping to achieve your community goals. Identifying this role and learning how to use scientific and technical information is critical to the success of your group.
The most important lesson is that science and technical information alone will not solve your problem(s). It’s reasonable to think that if you hire the best scientists and engineers and make solid technical arguments, the government will do the right thing. Those of you who have been there know it doesn’t work that way.
When the government discovers a problem, it’s reluctant to determine the full extent of the problem. This is because if the government documents contamination that threatens people’s health, it then has to do something about it—like evacuate people or clean up the contamination. This costs money that government doesn’t have or want to spend. Such action might also set a precedent by establishing cleanup standards or unsafe exposures levels that would mean spending more money at other sites
Deciding what action to take is complicated by the fact that there are few answers to the many scientific questions raised by exposures to toxic chemicals. Scientists actually know little about the adverse health effects that result from exposure to combinations of chemicals at low levels. As a result, when politicians and bureaucrats look for answers, the scientists don’t have them. They have their opinions but no clear answers.
Most scientists however, are reluctant to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Instead they introduce the concept of “risk” and begin a debate over what’s “acceptable.” This process hides the fact that scientists don’t know what happens to people who are exposed to low levels of a mixture of toxic chemicals. This uncertainty gets lost in the search for what’s “acceptable.”
Because of the lack of scientific clarity, bureaucrats and politicians use science cloaked in uncertainty, not facts, to justify their decisions which at best are based scientific opinion, but more likely driven by the political and economic pressures they face. Whether this is right or not is not a scientific question but an ethical and moral question. It is foolish to think that in this setting, science can be anything but a tool used by politicians and corporations to get what they want.
While science and scientific information have failed to provide clear answers and solutions to the hard questions about the health and environmental impact of the chemicals we use, we cannot abandon science. Science and scientific information can be a powerful tool for community groups, but only if you recognize what it can tell you and what it can’t, and only if you learn how to use the information and not just collect it. The right information used in the right way at the right time can be very powerful. Learning how to use scientific and technical information strategically is an organizing skill. Contact CHEJ to continue this conversation.
 
 

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Backyard Talk

Holding Polluters Accountable

CHEJ founder Lois Gibbs, considered the mother of the federal Superfund program, said it was “about time polluters were held accountable” when she heard that the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop letting polluters off the financial hook for the contamination they cause. At the end of January, the court directed EPA to finalize its “financial assurance” regulations that have been more than 30 years in the making. The Superfund law has teeth to hold corporate polluters accountable and this is an important step towards making that happen.

The financial assurance provision of the Superfund law – officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) – ensures that responsible parties, and not the public, bear the financial burden of completing Superfund cleanups. This provision requires corporate polluters to demonstrate that adequate financial resources are available to complete required cleanup work. One of the main tenets of this law is to prevent companies who created toxic sites from declaring bankruptcy and walking away, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanup, often causing long delays before these dangerous sites are cleaned up.

The court recognized that “Although CERCLA requires operators to pay to clean up hazardous releases, many avoid payment by restructuring their operations so they never have to pay. It is a common practice for operators to avoid paying environmental liabilities by declaring bankruptcy or otherwise sheltering assets.”

For 35 years since the law was passed in 1980, EPA has failed to issue regulations that describe how it would implement and enforce this provision of the Superfund law. As a result, company after company found ways to pass the cost of environmental disasters on to taxpayers. With this new ruling EPA has no choice but to finally issue these financial assurance regulations which will require polluting companies to pay up front, or place funds aside to cover the costs of cleaning up contaminated sites. It will also provide an incentive for polluters to reduce their pollution and thus reduce their liability.

As the nation’s leading source of toxic pollution (nearly 2 billion pounds per year), the mining industry was targeted to be the first in line for the new regulations. The court has ordered the EPA to complete the draft regulations by December 1, 2016, and finalize the regulations by Dec. 1, 2017. EPA must also establish regulations for three other industries, including coal ash ponds, chemical manufacturing facilities and petroleum and oil refineries by Dec. 1, 2016.

The lawsuit was filed Earth Justice on behalf of Earthworks and several coalition partners. For more information, see https://www.earthworksaction.org/media/detail/court_orders_environmental_protection_agency_to_finalize_rules_so_polluters/04270#.Vs4bj-btiwZ

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Backyard Talk

ATSDR Fails Community Once Again

In July of 2013, an explosion occurred at the WTI/Heritage Thermal Services (HTS) hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, OH. Incinerator ash that had built up on the inside of the incinerator stack suddenly fell off causing a huge cloud of dust contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances to be released from the stack. An estimated 800 to 900 pounds of ash were released into the surrounding community. The plant manager advised residents to wash fruits and vegetables from their gardens and to replace food and water for pets and farm animals. Save Our County, a local group that has been fighting to shut down the incinerator for more than 20 years and other local residents were quite alarmed by what happened and asked whether this latest accident further put their health at risk.

The state regulating agency’s response was to invite the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to evaluate what risks the residents might have suffered. More than a year later, ATSDR released its report which concluded that the “trace amount of toxic metals in the surface and subsurface soils of the residential area west of the HTS facility affected by the July 2013 ash release are not expected to harm people’s health. The reason for this is that the concentration of these metals found in the soils are below levels of health concern.”

It’s not clear how ATSDR came to this conclusion when some of the data included in the report clearly show contaminant levels that exceeded levels of health concern. Two (of 13) soil samples, one on-site and one off-site, both downwind, had the highest levels of contaminants of concern (though they never disclosed what these levels were). The arsenic levels found in the surface soil of the surrounding community generally exceeded public health levels of concern, ranging from 14 to 57 parts per million (ppm), averaging 20 ppm. The public health level of concern is 15 ppm.

There is also data on two wipe samples (of 8) collected by HTS immediately after the accident that were found to contain 3,600 ppm arsenic; 13,000 ppm lead and 8,000 ppm nickel. These samples were collected from areas on-site where trucks at the facility were staged. These are all extraordinarily high and well above public health levels of concern.

Similarly, two wipe samples collected from the community had arsenic levels at 277 ppm and lead at 819 ppm, both levels well in excess of levels of public health concern. The report refers to a third sample collected from the surface of a black S10 pick-up truck with arsenic at 296 ppm and lead at 1,046 ppm also well above public health levels of concern.

Despite all of these results that exceeded public health levels of concern, ATSDR concluded that there is no cause for alarm and that the toxic metals released into the community “is not expected” to harm people’s health. It’s like someone at ATSDR wrote the conclusion without ever reading the report or looking at the data.

The ATSDR report simply ignores the data that exceeds public health levels of concern and draws its conclusions as though these high levels did not exist. How can anyone trust a government agency that operates this way?

This is what communities across the country have grown to expect from ATSDR – conclusions that are unresponsive to community concerns about potential health risks but protective of industrial pollution. Some things never change.


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Backyard Talk

EPA Laws & Regulations Really Don’t Matter

How can ordinary people win justice from an agency that seems to care little about their own laws and regulations? Take for example the recent report that the hazardous waste incinerator (WTI) in East Liverpool, OH. It stands tall next to the Ohio River and has released toxic substances above allowable limits 195 times over 175 days. This is not new for this facility. In fact CHEJ years ago went all the way to the Supreme Court in the state of Ohio to have the incinerators permit revoked. At that time the incinerator was only within compliance (legal limits) two quarters over a number of years.

The area surrounding the incinerator was defined as an Environmental Justice community, by the Environmental Protection Agency. As such the community should have seen tighter enforcement, more access to information and new polluting industries proposed would be weighed against the already high pollution in the area before allowed to be built.

None of that happen. In fact, a freedom of information request was made on several occasion for information because no one would provide the information through a simple request. Those freedom of information requests were able to be fulfilled but not without the low wealth community paying about $1,500. EPA refused to waive the fee for compiling the information. Fracking and injections wells were welcome in the area and operating today with little regard to the existing community toxic burden.

When CHEJ fought in court for the renewal permit to be revoked the local group Save Our County, filled the court room with local people. Three judges sat in the front of the room and listened to arguments from both sides. The community argument was clear, the company is breaking the law and have been for years and no one will do anything about it except collecting on a small number of fines and penalties. To WTI those fines are predictable and just the cost of doing business. The community is suffering from a multitude of adverse health impacts.

Ohio has this regulatory system that allows innocent people to be poisoned. The court ruled against the community when CHEJ helped them to appeal the permit. The judge said he had nothing to hang his hat on and said he understands why his court room is full of unhappy people. The judge said that because according to Ohio regulations, if a company is out of compliance – but has a plan to come into compliance – than they are considered in compliance.

What if that was the rule for everyday people and laws. For example, if you were found to be driving while drunk (DUI), but have a plan to go to alcohol anonymous, then you are not considered in violation of the law – worst you can continue to drive while under the influence, possibly killing innocent people—just like WTI.

EPA and the state of Ohio among other states need to right this wrong. It is the innocent victims that suffer the diseases and taxpayers who are burdened with the cost of those diseases and destruction of the environment and all living things.

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Backyard Talk

EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft for public comment of its EJ 2020 Action Agenda (EJ 2020) Framework. This strategy document lays out its plan for continuing to address environmental justice in the context of the agency’s work. EPA is hoping to build on its EJ 2014 Action Agenda and expand that work through commitments that will continue over the next five years. EPA is seeking input on the draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda framework. The public comment period runs from April 15 to June 15. The agency is planning to conduct informational and dialogue sessions during this comment period and is encouraging the public to submit written comments. For more details, see: www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/plan-ej/.

As described in the draft framework document, “EPA’s environmental justice efforts seek to protect the health and environment of overburdened communities, support them to take action to improve their own health and environment, and build partnerships to achieve community health and sustainability.”

The agencies goal through 2020 is to make a visible difference in overburdened communities by:

  • Deepening  environmental justice practice within EPA programs to improve the health and environment of overburdened communities;
  • Collaborating with partners to expand our impact within overburdened communities; and
  • Demonstrating progress on outcomes that matter to overburdened communities

Key elements to the EJ 2020 plan include incorporating EJ in rulemaking; considering EJ in permitting; advancing EJ through compliance and enforcement; supporting community based programs; fostering administration-wide action; and developing science and legal tools for considering environmental justice in decision-making. The framework document also includes a chart that defines the agency’s status and progress in achieving these key elements. In addition, EPA has established a one-stop informational “Resource for Communities” web portal as well as a new EJSCREEN tool that quantitatively identifies areas with potential EJ concerns by using environmental, health, demographic and enforcement indicators.

Contacts on environmental justice are included for each of the 10 EPA regions and for each of 13 major divisions within the agency such as the Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Water, Office of Research and Development, etc.

EPA will make the draft document available on April 15th on its Environmental Justice website at: www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/ej2020/. Comments can be submitted electronically to: ejstrategy@epa.gov, or via hard copy to: Charles Lee at lee.charles@epa.gov. If you have any questions, please contact Charles Lee via email or at 202-564-2597.