Federal investigation could break cozy relationship between NC regulators and Duke Energy
Good news about the environment is depressingly rare. Just see, for example, the recent coal pollution disasters in the South. In addition to the third largest coal ash spill in US history that happened in North Carolina earlier this month, on January 9 we witnessed the spill of a coal-washing agent into West Virginia's Elk River, and on February 11 a Patriot Coal facility released some 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Kanawha Creek in West Virginia. Yet sometimes good news can shock you when you least expect it.
Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance/Rick Dove
Last Thursday, I was in the middle of an interview with Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. This is the organization that has been suing Duke Energy for the past year to clean up its vulnerable coal ash sites. The law center’s effort sought to prevent the very disaster in which 82,000 tons of coal ash and more 24 million gallons of polluted waterspilled into the Dan River on February 2 at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River Steam Station in North Carolina.
I had planned on writing a somber piece for Earth Island Journal about efforts to prevent similar spills from happening again. Additional spills are all-but-inevitable given that there are 13 other sites where Duke’s coal ash is stored in liquid form in unlined lagoons, where only an earthen barrier separates the toxic waste from entering groundwater and waterways. These and many other sites currently leak toxic substances into groundwater every day. Bigger, media-attracting spills are not a matter of if, but when.
The interview took a dramatic turn when, in mid-sentence, Holleman paused and said, “Oh wow. I have to go. I just saw the breaking news that the US Attorney’s Office has subpoenaed the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources for documents leading up to the spill. This is big. I’ll call you right back once I’ve wrapped my head around this.”
We hung up and I sat there, stunned. Finally, it seems, federal officials are going to examine the all-too-cozy relationship between North …more
Secretary of State compares climate change to WMDs, but seems unwilling to push for stringent action on the home front
In Indonesia on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry boldly called for international action on climate change. He did not mince words when he called climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”
Photo by Ralph Alswang
All of peer-reviewed science would say that Kerry’s language is accurate and hardly hyperbole. It is refreshing to see that some mainstream policy makers have elevated climate change to the same level of importance held by WMD’s. Perhaps the issue of climate change will get as much attention as have WMD’s in Syria and, under the previous administration, in Iraq.
However, given his hesitance to weigh in on the State Department’s anemic position on the Keystone XL pipeline, Kerry’s words come across as hollow. It is interesting that Kerry has rhetorically elevated the issue of climate change to be on par with WMDs, given that his State Department has not appreciated the implications of the pipeline from an environmental, diplomatic, and symbolic standpoint. The State Department’s recent report disappointed environmentalists due to the potential conflict of interest of those who worked on the report. The report also didn’t highlight the fact that the completed pipeline could add the equivalent emissions of 37.7 million automobiles or 51 new coal plants.
A troubling disconnect emerges: If climate change is a threat comparable to that posed by weapons of mass destruction, shouldn’t we put a halt to such a weapon on our own continent? Perhaps this inconsistency is not surprising given that both the current and preceding White House administrations have criticized weapons of mass destruction in the hands of others, but fail to provide leadership on landmines, white phosphorus, depleted uranium, cluster munitions, nuclear disarmament, and, of course, climate change. We are quite selective in what we label as a weapon of mass destruction.
While Kerry publicly calls for other countries to join the United States in taking a strong stance against climate change, he remains silent on the Keystone pipeline. He seems unwilling or unable to muster the bureaucratic resolve to take a stronger stance on climate change mitigation in the Western hemisphere. Kerry said to the crowd in Indonesia that South East Asia is “on the front lines of climate …more
Forced and child labor compound environmental problems
Palm oil is nearly everywhere. It’s in tortilla chips, a cheap way to add oil and maintain texture. It’s in shaving cream, helping it stay creamy. Palm oil is in soap, microwave meals, doughnuts, and cookies. The great panoply of processed goods that fill the center aisles in most American grocery stores are dominated by palm oil.
Photo courtesy RAN
And yet, to consumers, it’s all but invisible. Part of this invisibility may be due to the fact that there are no fewer than 200 different names for palm oil, from the esoteric sounding “palmolein” to the generic “vegetable oil.”
But palm oil has deeper secrets than misleading nomenclature. By now many people have heard about the environmental impacts of this ubiquitous food and cosmetic additive. “Palm Oil Is Killing the Sumatran Tiger,” TIME magazine trumpeted in a headline last year. “A Grim Portrait of Palm Oil Emissions,” The New York Times warned. Here’s how David Gilbert explained it in a 2012 story in Earth Island Journal: “Borneo’s lowland rainforests and peat swamp forests are nature’s densest stores of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down and burned or left to rot, or peat swamps drained and dried, the CO2 stored in them is released into the atmosphere. Even though Indonesia has relatively few factories, all of the forest clearing has pushed the country to the top of the list of the world’s contributors to climate change.”
Yet even as the environmental impacts of palm oil production gain attention, the social costs of the palm plantations remain largely hidden. The human rights abuses endemic to palm oil production are the industry’s best-kept secret.
Just two countries are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s palm oil production: Malaysia and Indonesia. In those places, children as young as 8 and 9 sometimes work seven days a week in treacherous conditions. Undocumented immigrants are lured to faraway plantations with promises of safe working conditions and fair wages, only to find a kind of indentured servitude. Weak government oversight — together with glaring deficiencies in the main independent body tasked with regulating the industry — contribute to an atmosphere of violence, fear, and exploitation.
Effort seeks to recognize intrinsic value of ecosystems
Most of us who live in modern, industrialized societies have been conditioned to think of other living creatures as beings that exist solely for human uses. Non-human nature is here to serve us, or so we’ve been taught. We give little thought as to what this mindset might mean for the environment, or for the ability of future human generations to thrive.
Photo by Juri Peepre
Yet people are a part of nature, not separate, and we ignore this at our peril.
Last month, 60 activists from around the world gathered in Ecuador for a five-day conference designed to highlight the very fact that humans’ well-being depends on the health of the other beings around us. The gathering, hosted by the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, was a space for advocates to strategize a holistic approach to protecting both people and the planet.
The rights of nature idea acknowledges that nature, in all its life forms, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. The concept recognizes that other beings — plants, animals, fungi, entire ecosystems — have inalienable rights, just like people. These other life forms don’t just have instrumental value to humans as things to be used. They also have intrinsic value; they have worth in-and-of themselves.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in its national constitution, which made it an obvious location for the January gathering.“ We are making Earth unlivable for both humans and nature” said Alberto Acosta, an economist and president of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly that wrote the country’s constitution that included rights of nature. He went on to say that the world “needs to take steps on the decommodification of nature.”
According to Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now executive director of Focus on the Global South, we need to build a global movement based on a new relationship with Earth, and that includes a new economy that supports life. “If we don’t change the relationships of global forces, nothing will change,” Solon said.
Exit Interview: Phil Radford
Last month Phil Radford announced that, after five years on the job, he was stepping down as executive director of Greenpeace USA. Before serving as ED, Radford was Greenpeace’s organizing director, during which time he more than doubled the group’s membership. In the 10 years since he joined the Greenpeace staff, the landscape of social change activism in general, and environmental campaigning in particular, has changed dramatically. Just think: 10 years ago there was no Facebook, no Twitter. No one outside the oil and gas industry had heard of fracking and few people had seen Al Gore’s climate change power point.
I recently spoke to Radford about what lessons he learned while on the job. Our conversation mostly focused on the art of social change and the craft of environmental activism. Radford told me: “A really good conflict forces people to take a side. … That’s the root of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.”
Jason Mark: In your five years heading Greenpeace USA, what was the toughest part of the job?
Phil Radford: That’s a good question. Um … the toughest part of the job … Man, that’s a good question. I think that one of the scariest moments on the job was on my first day, when the major economies were all meeting at the Major Economy Forum [on Climate and Energy] at the State Department to discuss what, if anything, they would do on technology transfer to address climate change. And I got over my fear of heights, or tried to, and with a small team we scaled a crane across the street and hung a banner with a huge picture of Earth saying, “Too Big to Fail.” And so the first day was terrifying, because I’m terrified of heights, but I thought, “I just have to do this.”
And then two weeks later, the draft climate bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, came out, and we had 26 staff working across the country to push Congress members to basically endorse really good principles for what a bill should look like, based on science, based on really promoting clean energy. Then we saw the draft, and the draft had left in the energy status quo. It had “clean coal” in it, ultimately it would have oil drilling in it, and …more
The movement has had some big victories, but environmental racism continues to plague frontline communities
In 1982, protestors lay down in the streets, using their bodies to block the delivery of 6,000 truckloads of toxic PCB-laced soil headed for a landfill in the poor, African-American community of Afton, North Carolina. This act of civil disobedience is widely credited with sparking the environmental justice movement and drawing national attention to the disproportionate impact that frontline communities of color and low-income communities face from toxic pollution.
Photo by Daniel Parks
Twelve years after the Afton protests — and after several studies documenting how the majority of toxic waste sites were located near either poor or non-white communities, as well as multiple failed attempts to pass an environmental justice bill through congress — President Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 12898. The order required federal agencies to consider and address the ways in which their policies affect the health and environment of low-income communities and communities of color. This week, President Clinton’s environmental justice order turned 20, offering an opportunity to reflect on how far the movement has come during the past two decades.
EO 12898 lent the environmental justice movement both symbolic and practical support by placing it on the federal stage. “It was the first executive order to deal with environmental justice,” says Robert Bullard, who is broadly referred to as the father of environmental justice. “The fact that Clinton elevated environmental justice as something that was worthy of an Executive Order was something that was symbolic and was historic.”
The order, accompanied by the tireless efforts of advocates, also provoked action at the state level. “A lot has been achieved over the last 20 years and there is still a lot of work that is needed,” says Bullard, who is now dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. “For example, when the executive order was signed in 1994, there were just a couple of states that had environmental justice laws, or Executive Orders, or policies to deal with environmental justice. And today, every state in the country has some kind of environmental justice law, or Executive Order, or policy – [though] …more
Jewelry buyers are in a powerful position to influence mining industry behavior
Valentine’s Day is almost here. Whatever your stance on consumerism or manufactured holidays, it’s one of the biggest gift giving days of the year. Millions of people in the United States and around the world will be expressing their love with gifts.
Photo by Ian Harley
According to National Jeweler, 20 percent of these gift-givers will be giving jewelry, and they’ll spend $4 billion doing so. Unfortunately, much of this Valentine’s Day jewelry is tarnished with dirty gold that's tarnished by human rights abuses and pollution.
What’s dirty gold?
Gold mining around the world too often occurs over the express opposition of locally impacted communities. That’s understandable because mining sometimes requires the wholesale destruction and resettlement of communities. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Colombia, gold mining has been linked to human rights violations, child labor, and the financing of violent conflict.
Metal mining, and gold mining in particular, is the most environmentally destructive industry on earth, is the most environmentally destructive industry on earth. Producing a single gold ring creates at least 20 tons of mine waste. The Environmental Protection Agency’s data show that metal mining is the largest toxic polluter in the United States. It is, by far, the largest releaser of toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead and many other toxic chemicals. The average gold mine uses 1,900 tons of cyanide per year. Even after a mine is closed, it often will pollute water forever, costing billions of dollars to treat, assuming it’s required to treat the water at all.
Here are just a few examples of gold mining’s destructive impacts around the world:
- Bristol Bay, Alaska: If developed, the proposed Pebble Mine would destroy miles of streams that are home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon population. This gold mine would devastate a great piece of American wilderness.
- Cajamarca, Peru: Newmont’s proposed Conga mine has provoked immense social unrest and protests. Residents oppose the enormous threat the mine poses to their limited water supply.
- Papua New Guinea: The Ok Tedi gold and copper mine, dumps on average, 20 million tons of …more