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‘Cruel and Unusual’: Texas Prisoners Face Deadly Heat and Contaminated Water

Lawsuit alleges that prisoners must drink comious amounts of lead- and copper-tained water to cope with high temperatures

graphic depicting a prison

As a federal judge ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to cool down one of its prison units for the sake of its elderly and sick residents' health, plaintiffs at another Texas prison are hoping to see a similar victory in their own challenges to deadly heat and toxic water at their unit.

Judge Keith Ellison ordered TDCJ to come up with a plan to keep heat-sensitive prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota, Texas, at a maximum temperature of 88 degrees, and provide ready access to respite areas for the unit's other prisoners. It's a landmark case that could have implications for other Texas prisons — and prisons around the country — without air-conditioning in cellblocks.

According to TDCJ Director of Public Information Jason Clark, only 29 of 108 TDCJ units have air-conditioning in their cellblocks, with all units having at least some areas that are air-conditioned. The Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas, is among the state's many prisons lacking air-conditioning in the areas where prisoners spend most of their time.

People incarcerated in the Eastham Unit have filed a federal complaint in the Eastern District of Texas arguing that they must drink copious amounts of water tainted with lead and copper to cope with the deadly summer heat. The water, they say, has caused a chronic, untreatable stomach disease among some of them. Their complaints are closely modeled after the Wallace Pack Unit case, and could become some of the first tests of the new precedent set by Judge Ellison's July ruling.

image of prisonimage by Jared Rodriguez / Truthout Deadly heat, unsafe water, black mold, and cockroaches plague prisoners at many Texas prisons. Keith Washington, a prisoner Eastam unit, has described the conditions "cruel and unusual."  

But even with the recent victory in the Wallace Pack case, the Eastham lawsuits face significant challenges. A federal judge ordered the original 10 plaintiffs to proceed as individuals and declined the main plaintiff a lawyer to represent the case, calling their claims "rather routine."

The prisoners allege that the prison's aging service lines have become so corroded that significant levels of lead and copper have leeched into the water supply. Eastham, which opened in 1917, is the oldest prison in the state — and looks like it. As I drove up to the 100-year-old unit, I noticed the chipping paint and …more

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Colombia Faces Soaring Deforestation Following FARC Guerrilla Demobilization

Rebels imposed environmental rules remote rainforest regions, government struggling to fill power vacuum

Colombia is currently in the midst of a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group. Praised as the end of the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict — which began in 1964 and has cost the lives of more than 265,000 Colombians and left over 7 million displaced — 7,000 members of the FARC have since left the jungle and turned over their weapons as part of the peace deal. The Colombian government began negotiations to end the conflict with the FARC in 2012, and by June 2016, both the government and the rebels reached a bilateral ceasefire, officially ending the violence between the two parties. The FARC officially demobilized in February 2017, though the process began in 2016.

According to the independent conflict monitor group Cerac, the ceasefire between the government and the guerrillas has already prevented an estimated 2,800 deaths, but environmental advocates worry that it may have an unintended consequence: that the power vacuum left by the demobilized FARC guerrillas will lead to further destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

photo of deforestation in Colombiaphoto courtesy of Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the North and the East Amazon Deforestation has increased significantly in the Colombian Amazon since FARC rebels began moving towards demobilization.

In July, Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) announced that deforestation shot up 44 percent in Colombia in 2016 compared to 2015, with the heaviest deforestation taking place in territories formerly controlled by the guerrillas.

Over the course of the 2016, IDEAM says that 178,597 hectares — 690 square miles — of forests around the country were destroyed, primarily by large-scale agriculture, logging, coca cultivation, road infrastructure projects, illegal mining, and human-caused forest fires. Authorities are particularly concerned for the country’s Amazon region, where 34 percent of all deforestation took place last year.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest. It covers more than 2 million square miles and houses at least 10 percent of the planet’s known species. Furthermore, the Amazon rainforest absorbs approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, making it one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and an invaluable buffer against human-caused climate change. Roughly 6 percent of the Amazon rainforest is found in Colombia.

The Colombian government, boosted by $300 million in aid from Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom, promised to …more

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Fifth Anniversary of Chevron Richmond Refinery Fire a Reminder of Work Still to Be Done

Protecting people and planet from Big Oil the will require citizen action on a much greater scale

A version of this article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

photo of chevron refinery firePhoto by Daniel ParksThe August 2012 fire at Chevron's Richmond, CA refinery sent some 15,000 local residents in search of medical attention.

August 6 is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and 15,000 refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints. While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

***

Hunkering down at home and hoping for the best — or going to see the doctor — is no substitute for addressing a problem of this scale at its source. The Chevron fire became a wake up call for citizen action to make California refineries safer for their own workers and less harmful to air quality, community health, and the environment in general.

Since August 2012, labor and community organizers have used lobbying, litigation, regulatory intervention, electoral politics, and strike activity to pursue these goals. There has been some safety enforcement progress, modest financial concessions by Big Oil, and related promises to behave better in the future. Yet, thanks to Big Oil’s legal and political clout in our nation’s second largest oil refining state, the wheels of environmental justice turn much too slowly.

On the plus side, after the 2012 fire, Chevron quickly pleaded “no contest” to six criminal charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. It was also …more

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Endangered Right Whales Keep Dying Off the Coast of Canada

Researchers are racing for answers following 10th confirmed death this summer

Researchers are scrambling to figure out why one of the world’s most endangered whale species is dying in “unprecedented” numbers, after at least 10 north Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly off the coast of Canada.

The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving researchers reeling. This week, after several carcasses washed up on the shores of western Newfoundland, Canadian officials confirmed that the number of whale deaths had risen to at least 10, making 2017 the deadliest year for the whales since researchers began tracking them in the 1980s.

photo of right whalePhoto courtesy of NOAA Photo LibraryA north Atlantic right whale entangeled in fishing gear. Researchers are scrambling to figure out why so many of the endangered whales are dying off the Canadian coast.

“This is a huge blow to the recovery of the north Atlantic right whale,” said Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “This is an animal that maybe numbers 500 animals.”

The north Atlantic right whale — which lives along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16m (50ft) in length — has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century.

Brown described the string of deaths as unprecedented. “We’re now looking at having lost about 2.5 percent of the known population. And it’s at least double — if not slightly more — than the number of calves born this year.”

Scientists are frantically carrying out tests on two other, rapidly decomposing whale carcasses to determine whether they are among the whale deaths that have been previously counted. If not, the tally could rise in the coming days.

With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Necropsies have been carried out on several of the whales — using a backhoe to enter the large animals — in hopes of finding clues before the carcasses decompose.

The preliminary findings suggest some of the whales might have collided with vessels. “We have three animals with evidence of blunt trauma and one was entangled in snow crab gear, so we know there are some human activities that are involved,” said Brown.

In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into …more

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Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Warming Arctic Pose Global Threats

Impact of the potent greenhouse gas is poorly understood, revealing an urgent need for further research

Despite the many gases in our atmosphere, studies of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have primarily focused on carbon dioxide and methane. Although carbon dioxide exists at much higher concentrations, the global-warming potential of other gases, molecule for molecule, is often staggeringly more potent. One of those gases is nitrous oxide, which is now being released from a warming Arctic and contributing to the earth’s warming.

photo of permafrostphoto by Christina Biasi Thawing permafrost in Eastern Siberia. Research indicates that nitrous oxide emissions from the Arctic have been underestimated, and that as permafrost thaws, releases of the potent greenhouse gas may be high.

Nitrous oxide as a driver of climate change is usually absent from mainstream discourse, yet it has been well-established that human activity is a major source of emissions of this greenhouse gas that has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a hundred year time span. Evidence is building that nitrous oxide emissions from natural sources may be increasing due to elevating global temperatures. For example, Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) recently investigated nitrous oxide emissions from Arctic peatlands following permafrost thaw. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that current nitrous oxide emissions from the Arctic have been underestimated, and that future release is potentially high as the permafrost thaws.

“Not only carbon dioxide and methane, but also nitrous oxide needs to be considered in research on climate feedbacks from Arctic ecosystems,” says Christina Biasi, research director at UEF. “We believe that nitrous oxide plays a bigger role than currently suggested, especially in a future warmer world.”

With Arctic lands expected to warm by 5.6 to 12.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, there’s reason for concern about melting permafrost. It’s estimated that more than 67 billion tons of nitrogen stocks are stored in the upper three meters of permafrost soil, a vast sum accumulated over thousands of years through the nitrogen cycle. Some of that nitrogen already exists in the form of “old” nitrous oxide, built up during the permafrost formation, while other mineralized nitrogen interacts with microbes to produce “new” nitrous oxide.

Because nitrous oxide is such a potent greenhouse gas, a little goes a long way in terms of its warming effect in the atmosphere. This is worrisome in the context of rising global temperatures and increasing emissions. While it’s currently held that our …more

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New ‘Monsanto Papers’ Fuel Debate Over Possible Chemical Cover Up

Documents shed light on corporate influence over regulatory bodies, says lawfirm that released them

Four months after the publication of a batch of internal Monsanto Co. documents stirred international controversy, a new trove of company records was released early Tuesday, providing fresh fuel for a heated global debate over whether or not the agricultural chemical giant suppressed information about the potential dangers of its Roundup herbicide and relied on US regulators for help.

photo of Roundup Photo by Mike MozartAttorneys suing Monsanto on behalf of people alleging that Roundup caused them to become ill posted more than 75 documents for public viewing.

More than 75 documents, including intriguing text messages and discussions about payments to scientists, were posted for public viewing early Tuesday morning by attorneys who are suing Monsanto on behalf of people alleging Roundup caused them or their family members to become ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The attorneys posted the documents, which total more than 700 pages, on the website for the law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, one of many firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who are pursuing claims against Monsanto. More than 100 of those lawsuits have been consolidated in multidistrict litigation in federal court in San Francisco, while other similar lawsuits are pending in state courts in Missouri, Delaware, Arizona and elsewhere. The documents, which were obtained through court-ordered discovery in the litigation, are also available as part of a long list of Roundup court case documents compiled by the consumer group I work for, US Right to Know.

It was important to release the documents now because they not only pertain to the ongoing litigation, but also to larger issues of public health and safety, while shedding light on corporate influence over regulatory bodies, according to Baum Hedlund attorneys Brent Wisner and Pedram Esfandiary.

"This is a look behind the curtain," said Wisner. "These show that Monsanto has deliberately been stopping studies that look bad for them, ghostwriting literature and engaging in a whole host of corporate malfeasance. They [Monsanto] have been telling everybody that these products are safe because regulators have said they are safe, but it turns out that Monsanto has been in bed with US regulators while misleading European regulators."

Esfandiary said public dissemination of the documents is important because regulatory agencies cannot properly protect public and environmental health without having accurate, comprehensive, and impartial scientific data, and the documents show that has not been …more

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US Is Locking Immigrants in Toxic Detention Centers

From Washington to Texas, climate refugees detained in contaminated jails are victims of environmental injustice

graphic depicting a prison

In April, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, again made headlines after more than 100 immigrant detainees launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions inside the for-profit immigration jail.

The demands reflected many of the concerns originally raised by detainees when they went on strike in 2014: abuse from guards, maggoty food, inadequate access to medical care and exorbitant commissary prices, to name a few. The detainees were also protesting the fact that they were running the prison's basic services for wages of just $1 a day, some reportedly receiving only a bag of chips in exchange for waxing the prison's floors.

Conditions at the immigration jail have drawn in local climate activists and other allies, who, in 2015, blockaded three exits where buses and vans usually carry out detainees for deportation. The activists' interest in the jail is not only grounded in concerns about basic human rights — it's also about environmental justice.

The 1,500-bed immigration jail, operated by the private prison giant GEO Group, sits adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for over three decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site in the early 1990s as part of its Superfund cleanup of the tar pits, which included monitoring groundwater wells, and stockpiling and capping contaminated soils, according to the News Tribune, Tacoma's main newspaper. Today, the site is still dotted with drainage ditches, retention ponds and a capped waste pile.

photo of Tacoma Immigrant Detention Center Photo by Seattle GlobalistTacoma’s Northwest Detention Center is adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for more than three decades. The detention center is just one of several immigrant jails located in contaminated areas in the US.

The site is just one of several distinct Superfund cleanup sites in the industrial district known as the "Tideflats," encompassing the city's port and multiple railroad facilities. Another cleanup site in the Tideflats is located around the former ASARCO copper smelter, which, according to the News Tribune, emitted lead and arsenic from its nearly 600-foot-tall smokestack for decades, contaminating the area's water, sediments, and upland areas in the process.

The area is so polluted that the city designated it unfit for residents — except, that is, for Northwest's immigrant detainees. Eager …more

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