Backyard Talk

Our White House Call In: An Empowering Success

I don’t know if you noticed, but over the past week and a half, we at CHEJ have been repeatedly asking you, and by extension, your friends, your family, your colleagues, and everyone else you know to call in to the White House and ask for the EPA to ‘Get Out of The Way!’ I’m sure if you’ve called, whether it was once, or every day like myself, you discovered that it was the easiest and most polite call exchange with a government agency that you’ve ever had in your entire life. From my perspective at least, the phone call went something like this:
“Hi, this is the White House Comment Line. All our lines are busy right now, but if you’d like to stay on the line, someone will accept your call and record a quick comment….”
…Music plays while I’m put on hold for less than ten seconds…
Which is kind of boring and bureaucratic-sounding, right? Until a sweet old lady answers your call and sincerely listens to whatever it is you’re trying to say!

“Hi! My name is Zoe Hall and I am a citizen of St. Louis calling on behalf of the citizens of Bridgeton, Missouri. I think the EPA needs to get out of the way and push for the FUSRAP to pass so the Army Corps of Engineers can clean up the West Lake Landfill. I would also like the president to see what he can do about relocation for the citizens within a mile of the landfill. This is a really pressing issue and I hope you see to it the president finds out how concerned I am.”
Eventually, by the last Tuesday of our push for calls, the conversation ended like this:
“Sure sweetie, are you referring to HR-4100?”  
Which is the House of Representatives bill 4100 pushing for FURSAP. The instant recognition of the exact issue we are pushing for indicates that the White House Comment Line has gotten such an influx of calls concerning West Lake that they have to have a code for it to easily identify and tally up all of our voices united in our outrage. This is a huge deal –– this list of codes and top concerns of the nation gets forwarded to the White House Staff in order to keep our president updated on the issues we as his constituents are focused on. That means our president has in his possession a lengthy list of people’s names and outcries for change. What he does next is out of our hands, but at least, now aware of our concern, he is accountable for whatever that may be! In itself, I consider this a victory.
Whether or not you participated in the call in, everyone can learn from the power this provided to the citizens at West Lake and anyone who wants to organize a simple, empowering action that is not only easy to do (it takes five minutes!) but is also one that gets results. Remain persistent and focused, keep your goals clear, and use the power given to we the people to raise your voice as loud as possible, so that one of the most powerful people in the world might hear.  

Backyard Talk

I’ve Got Your Back, Really?

I can’t believe that President Obama drank a sip of water from Flint. It was a slap in the face to so many people. His own agency was responsible for not raising the alarms when EPA received data that said the water was poisoned. Obama has done a number of extraordinary things while in office. Yes, I voted for him and yes, I’d likely do it again. I’m stunned. What in the world could Obama have been thinking when he drank that water? Of course there is no way his water was toxic from chemicals, viruses or bacteria let alone lead. Further dismissing the crisis, he said he likely eat lead paint chips as a child. Really? That dismissal brings no comfort to the parents of lead poisoned children who will never reach their birth potential and are sick. I can’t help but wonder if Gina McCarthy orchestrated that news event.
Obama’s person in charge, Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator has ignored literally all but one division of EPA’s programs and responsibility including drinking water. The one exception since she was confirmed in July 2013 is climate change. Remember the January 2014 West Virginia Elk River spill that poisoned the drinking water of 300,000 people. Drinking water in schools, hospitals, family homes with pregnant women and small children were exposed to toxic chemicals resulting in serious health impacts. The company responsible had not been inspected by EPA since 1991. You would think that McCarthy’s EPA would monitor the site after the spill but they didn’t. Seven months later, in June 2014, another spill from the same company occurred from a sump pump malfunction into the same Elk River.
Then in February 2014 there was the Dan River coal ash spill that poisoned the river from Virginia to North Carolina. For a week a pipe poured arsenic and other heavy metals 140,000 tons of toxic waste and wastewater directly into the river. Ash was found on the bottom of the river for 70 miles and as much as 5 feet deep in places.
Today, the question of what to do with coal ash wastes is still a problem especially for low income communities. EPA is behind the proposal to dump it in garbage landfills in mostly low wealth, rural, communities of color. Gina McCarthy supports this proposal but the US Commission on Civil Rights is investigating the fairness of the plan.
The Colorado Animas River spill was solely the fault of EPA’s lack of careful attention. It was EPA that accidentally released an estimate of three million gallons of waste water into the river in August 2015. This river supplies drinking water to area residents. EPA authorities knew about the risk through a June 2014 work order that read “Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals” and through a May 2015 action plan for the mine that also noted “the potential for a blowout.” People living along the Animas and San Juan rivers were advised to have their water tested before using it for cooking, drinking, or bathing. The spill also caused major problems for farmers and ranchers who rely on the rivers for their livelihoods.
The next crisis is likely in St Louis, MO. An underground fire from one old dump site is creeping towards the adjunct radioactive site. When the fire reaches the radioactive materials the state’s Attorney General’s experts say there could be a Chernobyl like event. This possible crisis can be taken care and avoided but McCarthy is not acting. Saying you are sorry and accepting the resignation of staff is not how to run an agency.
McCarthy has hurt so many innocent American people and the reputation of the agency is questionable. I don’t know if EPA can ever recover. Her advice to the President should have been, say you’re sorry, don’t act like me, an incompetent leader and declare the situation what it is a disaster. Then bring in the troops to change the pipes so everyone can be sure their water is safe.

Backyard Talk

President Obama to Make Decision on Keystone XL

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April 2014 Keystone XL Protest in Washington, DC Source: Indigenous Environmental Network's November 3rd E-Blast

By Kaley Beins

Few environmental concerns have received more media attention than TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline, a project designed to transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada across 840 miles of the United States to Houston, Texas. Supporters of the project claim it will provide economic growth and domestic energy security, but critics have lambasted Keystone XL for its potential effects on climate change and the possibility of spills.

In addition to the environmental concerns connected to the pipeline, the proposed plan for Keystone XL disregards the sacred land of multiple indigenous groups. As Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) explained in IEN’s November 3rd E-Blast,  “This dirty tar sands pipeline has met immense organized resistance from the Dene, Cree and Metis first nations at its source, thru [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sic] the traditional lands of the Oceti Sakowin, also known as the Great Sioux Nation, and from the Ponca people of the southern great plains. This grassroots effort, coupled with alliances with non-native landowners helped the fight against Keystone XL become the marquee fight for the US Climate Movement.” Keystone XL is the very definition of an environmental justice issue.

After President Obama’s February 2015 veto of the Congressional bill that would have approved the pipeline, TransCanada and other supporters of Keystone XL have been trying to find other ways to pass the necessary legislation. This past Monday, November 2nd, TransCanada petitioned Secretary of State John Kerry to ask the U.S. State Department to pause its review of Keystone XL pending Nebraska’s approval of a portion of the route. Despite previously complaining of delays in the approval process,  TransCanada is now asking for further delays, leading to speculation that it is trying to push the Keystone XL decision to the next presidential administration. This political move is significant as support for the pipeline is split directly along party lines; the Democratic nominees have come out against the pipeline, while the Republican nominees are in favor of it. However, on Wednesday the State Department decided to continue with its evaluation of the Keystone XL application.

Additionally, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest announced that President Obama plans to make a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline before the end of his term. As December’s Paris Climate Summit approaches and Obama solidifies his legacy I hope that he upholds his commitment to addressing climate change, in this case by rejecting TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.


Backyard Talk

It’s The Ground Game That Matters In Politics & Policy

The election is over and the analysis is being done. What worked, what didn’t and how can we learn from this experience? One strategy that everyone agrees worked was President Obama’s ground game; it made a difference.

On election night Donna Brazile a democratic advisor/strategist said that when the Obama campaign staff said they were going to re-energize their base and expand it she didn’t think expanding was necessary. She went on to say that she was wrong. Expanding the base was the right move.

Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the environmental health and justice movement must do—energize and expand our base. The on-going top down strategy is not working we are not winning. For years the focus and majority of our resources have been placed in the Washington, D.C. environmental efforts rather than building the base . . . and it’s not working. The Climate Change legislation and energy issues, for example failed miserably.

Our movement needs a stronger ground game. We need to take the lessons learn from this past election and begin to build at the base in communities—not for a short term victory but to last over time with a continued effort toward growth. To accomplish this we need to shift resources to create a more balanced approach to change, investing in community groups as well as large D.C. environmental organizations.

Many believed that because of Citizen United that big money will dictate outcomes of issues and/or elections and community organizing is no longer critical to winning. They believe purchasing a full page ads, getting our messages right, investing in lawyers, scientists and so on is the way to win. Again Obama’s campaign demonstrated that all of that ads, message and so on is important but only when directly coupled to an organized, connected and strategic base of community organizations.

The Obama campaign is not the only example of where the ground game mattered. If you look at New York State and the issue around hydro fracturing you’ll see that the governor wanted to move fracking forward. However, due to a massive organizing at the base across the state fracking has been stopped at least temporarily. There were scientists, lawyers and lobbyists involved in that struggle as well, but it was the people at the streets that tipped the scale and forced the governor to rethink his position.

Today we have confirmation of what needs to happen for our issues to move forward—a strong ground game and shifting ample resources to sustain that effort. Large donors and foundations need to rethink their giving decisions and invest more dollars in the base. We need that base to work smarter not harder to energize and expand the reach, goals and breathe of people.

Hurricane Sandy was our most recent wake up call to the enormity of our problems. We can’t afford to move slowly. Today is the day, now is the time for everyone to think about how you can help to build, strengthen, and connect the grassroots efforts for change.