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Why Are We Unprepared for Environmental Disasters?

Photo credit: Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Laila Waid.

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, shows that our country is unprepared to address environmental emergencies adequately. Environmental disasters of the past show that accidents, just like human error, are inevitable. But how our society responds to these events can make all the difference. It can mean the difference between a life lost, and a life saved.

The Norfolk and Southern train derailment carrying toxic materials, such as ethanol and propane,  was not the first environmental emergency facing our country. Other human-made ecological disasters that have impacted the health and safety of the communities include the Love Canal toxic waste site, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater oil spill, the California fires caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Ringwood Mines Landfill Site.

There is no certainty that such destructive environmental events, like East Palestine, will never happen again, especially since there are an average of three train derailments per day. Of note, the Norfolk and Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, refused to support the Railway Safety Act of 2023 during the March 9, 2023 Senate hearing on the derailment. Shaw’s lack of commitment to safety improvements is even more staggering in the context of another one of the company’s trains derailing the morning of the hearing. During the hearing, Shaw also refused to commit to covering the healthcare costs of the community members impacted by the toxic fumes released into the air.

So, if it is likely that these events will keep happening and communities will keep facing environmental injustice. What can be done? One solution is to create a national response team within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called the EPA National Response Center (EPANRC). Within this proposed EPANRC, a Rapid Response Team would be created that is tasked with monitoring potential environmental hazard scenarios and be equipped to respond quickly to various toxin-related emergencies. The proposed EPA Rapid Response Team (EPARRT) would consist of multiple experts with different skills, including toxicologists, epidemiologists, environmental health scientists, public health emergency planning officials, and communication experts.

A model like the one proposed already exists for other federal agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have protocols in place for when contaminations are found in the food supply, such as when E.coli was detected in lettuce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have various resources and teams in place to address infectious disease outbreaks. With the increasing number of actual train derailments and potential derailments, now is the time that environmental justice emergency issues are provided equal attention and the same amount of support at the national level, like the ones which already exist at the CDC and FDA.

How would an EPA National Response Center benefit the impacted communities? The guiding principle of the Center would be to protect the communities and empower them with timely and vital information. For example, if such a Center existed for East Palestine, it could have prevented the controlled burn of hazardous material in five train cars. In the Senate hearing, Eric Brewer, the fire chief who was one of the first responders on the scene of the accident, thought the decision to go from burning only one of the train cars to five as shocking and astounding. Scientists argue that the act of burning off the material in those trains released dangerous toxins into the air. Specifically, it could have caused the community to be exposed to dioxin, one of the most harmful toxins to human health.

One of the main themes expressed by the East Palestine residents is frustration with the lack of answers given to them by Norfolk and Southern, state, local and federal governments. The proposed EPA National Response Center (EPANRC) would have a framework for interacting with the community immediately and providing them with the most transparent information on a minute-to-minute basis. The EPANRC would not work in a bubble but instead organize and collaborate with the community leaders directly and immediately to provide them with necessary resources and information.

Another benefit of having the proposed EPANRC would be to address community issues directly and would not rely on the politics of the local, state or federal governments. Also, what is often overlooked, is that environmental disasters do not stay within the state or regional borders. The impact of these types of disasters affects communities that are miles away from the initial impacted community. For example, the train derailment in East Palestine happened right next to the Pennsylvania border. Now residents in Pennsylvania are just as harmed by the toxins, as those in East Palestine, Ohio.

Like the event in East Palestine, when an environmental disaster happens in a small town that does not have the resources to respond to it, that should not mean that the people in that location must suffer the consequences of having toxic air and water in their communities. This proposed EPANRC would make sure that all environmental disasters are handled with the safety of the people as the priority and would safeguard and allocate the resources to make that happen.

The bottom line: No matter where someone lives or what their zip code is everyone deserves access to a clean and safe non-toxic environment.

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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?

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Homepage News Archive

EPA Grants Oklahoma Control Over Tribal Lands

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted the state of Oklahoma regulatory control over environmental issues on nearly all tribal lands there, TYT has learned. This strips from 38 tribes in Oklahoma their sovereignty over environmental issues. It also establishes a legal and administrative pathway to potential environmental abuses on tribal land, including dumping hazardous chemicals like carcinogenic PCBs and petroleum spills, with no legal recourse by the tribes, according to a former high-level official of the EPA.
Read more…
Photo credit: Pool photo by Al Drago via Getty Images

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Homepage News Archive

Environmental agencies are violating civil rights laws — and the EPA is letting them

In the early 1990s, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality held a series of public hearings to consider whether or not to grant a permit to the Genesee Power Station, a wood-burning facility that was to be built in a low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood in Flint. The hearings were supposed to be an opportunity for the community to weigh in on the effects that the resulting pollution would have on their neighborhood, but the agency held the hearings 65 miles away, had armed guards present when speakers testified, and prioritized white attendees over Black attendees. The permit was approved, and pollution from the facility later led to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifying it as a “significant violator” of environmental rules.
Read more…
Photo credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

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Stories of Local Leaders

Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman: Just Moms STL

By: Jenna Clark, Communications Intern
Karen and Dawn will tell you that they are “just moms,” but you shouldn’t believe them. Just Moms STLIn their
community
 of West Lake, Missouri, these two moms have led the battle against nearby nuclear waste. For 8 years, they have diligently organized community members, educated
local officials, spearheaded investigations into toxic waste mere miles from their homes, called EPA administrators day in and day out, and ultimately achieved their goal: federal recognition of its responsibility for the nuclear waste that threatens their community’s health, and its impending removal. 
Rather than “just moms” it might be better to say that they are “moms, and…” Moms firstunequivocally and with pride, but just moms, never.
For Karen and Dawn, their kids are inextricable from their stories of the fights, challenges, and victories of their mission. Karen potty trained her youngest while calling the EPA: “When I first got involved in this, 2012, 2013, that was right when my youngest was potty training. And we’d be on a conference call with the EPA, and he’d be hollering for me from the bathroom. And I’d be quietly slipping him Cheerios and books and saying ‘you can’t get up until you go!’” Her kids are now 10, 12, and 14, and the oldest has an autoimmune disorder, likely caused by the toxic waste practically in their backyard.   
Karen not only raised her own children near to tons of nuclear waste, she grew up there herself. After learning in 2012 that the Army Corps of Engineers was cleaning up a site adjacent to her home in West Lake, she realized that both she and her children had been exposed: “After attending that meeting I learned that I was raising my own four kids now, miles from a burning radioactive landfill. The fire had been burning since 2010, and I had been raising my own kids here for the past 20+ years. So, I have 4 kids, 3 of them are grown, one just graduated from high school, and I have grandchildren. We’ve been working on educating, promoting, raising awareness about the West Lake Landfill.” 
The problems with the West Lake Landfill begin with the Manhattan Project in 1942. As the U.S. military sought to build the world’s first nuclear bomb, barrels of toxic waste from the uranium purification process were left outside of St. Louis. In the 1970s, efforts were made to clean up the site, without much success. Some was sent to be stored in Colorado, but much of the radioactive soil was dumped illegally into the West Lake Landfill.  
For decades the presence of nuclear waste wasn’t acknowledged. However, in 2010 a fire began in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, which is adjacent to the West Lake Landfill. With the fire came an intense stench. Karen and Dawn started to notice. 
Dawn explained how she and Karen began working together: “Karen and I were neighbors and we didn’t even know. We had been living right around the corner from each other for years. I found out because I could smell the toxins from the fire that were coming out. And I put a call in to the local municipality, and they didn’t want to answer any questions. And I thought, oh God. And they sent me to the state regulator, which was the Department of Natural Resources…He was just pouring information out, and was really panicked. And I thought, this is a big deal.”  
Once Karen and Dawn learned about the waste, they began a long term effort for its removal, and founded their organization, Just Moms STL. Karen credits team-work and connectivity as a major reason for their success: “Most importantly we used the connections that we had, both Dawn and I being involved with PTA’s in school and what not. We literally started one family at a time, sitting down and showing them documents that we had read about the fire. We spent really the first 2.5 years just educating, 24 hours a day, sitting with documents, just learning what we could learn. And then taking that out into the community and building relationships with other community leaders…You have to make those connections because you have to start building your army. Because this is a fight, and we need an army.”  
Their best advice for activists just getting started? Find a team you trustAnd if you can’t find one, create one: “Find a Karen. Find a Karen Nickel. Don’t isolate yourself within this fight, find a group, find somebody that you can really trust and count on,” says Dawn.  
She adds, “Have a goal. What do you want to see happen at the end of this? And be prepared that should you achieve it, validation doesn’t feel like you think it is going to feel...Forget everything you knew about how change happens.”  
For Karen and Dawn, this means that even now, after they “won” their battle, they still have work to do. Many of the problems caused by the nuclear waste and other toxic materials in their community still exist. Many people in the area, including Karen, will be dealing with negative health effects from the pollution for their entire lives.  
 Acknowledging this, Karen and Dawn’s story illustrates the power of team-work and community activism. With enough determination and drive, it is possible to create change. The groups responsible for large scale pollution can be held accountable for their actions, and you don’t need professional training or to be a policy or legal expert to do it. Yes, you can even be “just” a mom. As a part of our new series, Living Room Leadership, we recently spoke with Dawn and Karen. Watch our conversation here.

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Homepage News Archive

Trump Administration Narrows Water Protections: Increases Risks of Drinking Water Contamination

The EPA redefined protections of water through its new navigable waters rule on June 22, one that largely cuts out storm water runoff from being regulated by the EPA. This change could have a large detrimental impact on drinking water quality in areas and could therefore result in greater human health risks. Thus far, the new rule went into effect in all states except Colorado, where a federal judge in Colorado was able to block the Trump administration’s narrowing definition of water protections. Read More
Photo by Suhel Nadaf on Unsplash

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Homepage News Archive

Polluting Companies Turn to State Environmental Regulatory Agencies to Lower Regulations During Covid-19

While the EPA continues to cut environmental regulations, the country’s most polluting industries are now turning their focus to state environmental regulatory agencies. Many companies have recently asked state regulators to relax or delay pollution monitoring requirements, claiming that Covid-19 has made them unable to comply with laws that protect the public from the health hazards of pollution. The majority of states do not publish any information about companies that say they are struggling to comply with environmental laws, meaning that most Americans that live near large polluting factories, refineries, and farms are unaware whether the pandemic has led to more pollution in their areas or not. Read More

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Homepage News Archive

Trump Cuts Environmental Reviews Through Executive Order, Citing an ‘Economic Emergency’

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have allowed the Trump administration to continuously cut US environmental regulations. This week, Trump continued to derail our current environmental regulations by cutting environmental reviews for infrastructure projects. These cuts will not only result in increased rates of pollution and contamination with great public health risks but will likely have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities. It is extremely concerning that the Trump administration aims to rollback so many environmental regulations that will have negative health impacts on our communities, especially while we are currently experiencing a global health crisis. Read More

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Homepage News Archive Superfund News

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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Backyard Talk News Archive

Trump must do three simple things NOW!

Racial and class division has long been one of the tactics used by the rich and powerful to keep working people from organizing. Today it’s so blatant; as we move tragically through the devastating impacts of COVID-19 there’s not even an attempt to hide or disguise the behavior. I’m frustrated, angry and ready to figure out how to move forward, stand together and speak with one voice. We need to demand immediately that the federal government takes the following first three steps.

  • Immediately reduce air pollution by 50% until the pandemic is over. 

EPA announced in March that they will no longer monitor air or enforce environmental regulations. Families who live around polluting facility are forced to shelter in place — with their “place” so polluted that they cannot go outdoors and cannot open windows. The chemicals are respiratory irritants.

  • First test people in the vulnerable areas which are low income, black and brown communities and senior centers.

Black and brown people make up the majority of “essential front-line workers.”  These essential workers drive trucks, process food, run public transportation, clean hospitals and so much more. Today if you have money not you are an essential worker you can get tested.

  • Expand health care access through mobile clinic or other means to vulnerable communities (usually health care deserts).

You just need to listen to the news to see that athletes, famous TV people, rich families have no problems getting a test if they want one. Patrick Ewing tested positive, went to the hospital and is now healing at home. Patrick’s a great basketball coach/player we wish him well. But Mr. Hernandez and Thomas were unable to receive a test. After driving a long distances to seek help, there is no medical facilities in their communities, they were turned away (even with COVID symptoms) told to go home and quarantine themselves. This is just not right.