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Environmental Justice Activists in Alabama Fight $30 Million Defamation Lawsuit

ACLU cites First Amendment, files for dismissal of suit that has ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

Free speech is enshrined in the American ethos. It is a core principle of the Constitution, protected by the First Amendment, and has been defended for centuries in the courts. In Uniontown, Alabama, however, a group of concerned citizens-turned-environmental justice activists are facing a challenge to their basic right to speech, for the simple act of speaking out against the disposal of millions of tons of coal ash in a local landfill.  

photo of Esther CalhounPhoto courtesy of ACLUEsther Calhoun is one of four Uniontown residents being sued for expressing concerns about a local landfill.

In April, Green Group Holdings and Howling Coyote, owners of the Arrowhead Landfill, sued four Uniontown residents for defamation. The residents — Esther Calhoun, Benjamin Eaton, Mary Schaeffer, and Ellis Long — are members of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Social Justice, an environmental justice citizens’ group that has organized against the waste disposal facility. The group is concerned about health and environmental impacts associated with the coal ash disposal at the site, including arsenic contamination. (Following a massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee landfill in 2008, some 4 million tons of spilled ash were transported across state lines to the Uniontown dump site.)

The $30 million suit alleges libel against the four activists for their role in running the Black Belt Citizens Facebook page. Facebook comments cited in Green Groups’ complaint include statements like “[The landfill has] affected our everyday life,” “It’s another impact of slavery,” and “We should all have the right to clean air and clean water.” Calhoun and Eaton were also sued for slander for public statements made on radio and television.

“I was blown away,” says Eaton, vice president of Black Belt Citizens and one of the activists named in the lawsuit, referring to when he first learned of the case. “How can you be [sued for defamation] when all of these things are going on in your community, and you are speaking out against the problems? That is beyond the things that make sense to me.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that it is meritless and a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP suit. As the ACLU put it in their brief: “None of the …more

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Down to 60: Scientists Contemplate Risky Captive Breeding for Endangered Vaquita

As the panda porpoise plunges toward extinction, scientists have a tough decision to make

Today, there are approximately 7.3 billion people on the planet — and only 60 vaquitas. The vaquita has seen its population drop by 92 percent in less than 20 years in Mexico’s Gulf of California as the tiny porpoises suffocate to death one-by-one in gillnets. Now, scientists with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) are cautiously moving forward on a once unthinkable option: captive breeding.

photo of VaquitaPhoto by SEMARNATScientists are considering a once unthinkable option: captive breeding of vaquitas.

“We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said Barbara Taylor, one of the world’s foremost experts on the vaquita with NOAA. “The uncertainties are large.”

Captive breeding of vaquita, if it ever happens, would be a last-ditch and incredibly risky action, according to scientists. The world’s smallest porpoise and cetacean, vaquita (Phocoena sinus) are shy and retiring with eye patches that have led them to be described fondly as the ‘pandas of the sea.’ These rarely-seen porpoises also have the smallest range of any cetacean, only inhabiting about 2,300 square kilometers of marine waters in Mexico.

Until now scientists have been more than willing to leave them in their home waters, even as they watched the population plummet over two decades. This is because it’s quite possible that any captured vaquitas would perish quickly outside of their habitat. And even if they don’t, trying to get a pair of vaquita to mate and produce a healthy calf under captive conditions would likely require lots of trial and error — and there aren’t many vaquita left to bargain with.

But after a survey in December, scientists realized that the situation had become “so dire that all conservation options need to be considered,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the chair of CIRVA and a vaquita expert.

In addition, porpoise husbandry and capture rates have improved to a point where vaquitas just might stand a chance in captivity, according to Taylor. Such facts helped push a number of members of CIRVA to recommend beginning research on what a captive program might look like.

One idea is that captive breeding wouldn’t have to occur in an aquarium facility.
Christopher J. Gervais, who currently heads the …more

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London’s Batwomen and Batmen Offer Lessons in Urban Coexistence

Bat ecologists seek to minimize the impact of development on one of our key and imperiled pollinators

Alison Fure became drawn to bats while gardening in her southwest London home. Noticing bats flying around during the day as she worked outside. It’s unusual, but bats do come out on warm days during winter months, so  she had to ask herself: “Did I really just see a bat in the daytime?” This led to a master’s degree in ecological management and monitoring, followed by four years of training to obtain a bat license.

photo of bat survey Photo by Jasja DekkerA bat surveyor examines hibernating bats in an old brick kiln in the Netherlands.

This license, which she obtained in 2005, qualifies Fure to survey old homes and proposed developments for roosting bats and to suggest measures to protect them. (Incidentally, it's the search for food in the lean winter months that sometimes drives bats out during the day.) 

Cities present bats with a number of challenges. Among other things, reductions of green space and shifts to modern building materials limit the areas where these furry, winged mammals can forage and roost. Light pollution is also a major concern, as it disrupts bats’ nocturnal rhythms and thus behaviors such as feeding and commuting.

Effects of urbanization vary by species. Overall, however, the impact of urban development on bats has been harmful — and dramatic. According to Jo Ferguson, built environment officer for the Bat Conservation Trust, some of the United Kingdom’s bat populations declined by more than 90 percent over the twentieth century. This was largely due to such factors as the loss of natural roosting, commuting, and foraging habitat. (Climate change and weather variability also played a part.) 

Given the many benefits cities bring to humans, it’s counterproductive to propose a return to a romanticized rural past where humans and wildlife lived in close, if uneasy, coexistence. What we can do, however, is shape the urban fabric in ways that benefit humans as well as other species. Bats are a good case in point. 

Across Europe, targeted conservation measures and widespread awareness‑raising, particularly under the 1994 EUROBATS agreement that aims to protect all 53 European bat species, have been helping bat populations rebound. In countries studied by the European Environment Agency, the bat population increased by 43 percentmore

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In the Pipeline

In Oregon, a volatile climate for liquefied natural gas pipeline and terminal projects

In 2012, an energy company offered Deb Evans and Ron Schaaf $2,000 for an easement across their property in Klamath County, Oregon. The easement was for a portion of the Pacific Connector pipeline, which was to carry natural gas from the Western Rockies across Southwest Oregon to a new export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon, called Jordan Cove. The terminal would include facilities for super cooling the natural gas into liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

photo of Jordan Cove and Pacific Connector Pipeline protestPhoto courtesy of Francis Eatherington An orange banner the same width as the proposed Pacific Connector pipeline, which would bring natural gas to the Jordan Cove LNG Export facility proposed in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Evans and Shaaf refused. As they learned more about the pipeline, their alarm grew. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project, Pacific Connector could use eminent domain to acquire a 95-foot construction easement and a permanent 50-foot right-of-way easement, despite their refusal to sell the rights to their land.

Approval seemed likely. The pipeline and terminal project was one of a flurry of projects proposed by various energy companies to capitalize on the Oil Sands and fracking booms; so far, none of the applications had been denied.

In December 2014, the couple attended a public meeting, where they met dozens of concerned citizens. “We had missed the big picture of why people were against the project,” says Evans. This bigger picture included not only devalued property values and the threat of eminent domain, but increased erosion, habitat fragmentation, degraded water quality and compromised salmon habitat, and the threat of catastrophic wildfire should an explosion occur somewhere along the mostly forested 232-mile pipeline route.

Then there was the Jordan Cove export terminal. The proposed site for the terminal was a sandy spit located in a tsunami inundation zone in southern Oregon, near the towns of Coos Bay and North Bend. Its construction and operation, which would require extensive dredging, would impact fisheries, including commercial clam and oyster operations. The facility would become a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, and it would require a 420-megawatt power station to liquefy the natural gas in preparation for export across the Pacific to Asia. Should an earthquake or tsunami damage the facility, volatile leaked LNG could …more

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Works of Gritty Art

Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes is one of coastal California’s best-kept secrets

An interesting thing happened to me while driving along the Central California coast a few months ago. I decided to get off the beaten path and took Highway 135 north through Los Alamos, following it past its scenic, rural countryside until I reached old Highway 1, the coastal route to the small beachside town of Guadalupe in northern Santa Barbara County that’s home to the second largest intact dune ecosystem in California.

photo of Guadalupe Nipomo Sand Dunes Photo by Chuck GrahamThe Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes is the second largest intact dune ecosystem in California.

The 18-mile long costal dunes complex begins in Pismo Beach, about 5 miles northwest of the town, and gradually grows more spectacular as it stretches south to Guadalupe. Once across the Santa Maria Rivermouth, waves of sand rise dramatically for 2.5 miles from the car park south to craggy Mussel Rock. Some of the dunes tower 500-feet-tall, as they immediately ascend from the shoreline. Hidden within the dunes are several freshwater lakes offering safe wetland havens to numerous bird species.

This dramatic landscape hasn’t been missed by Hollywood. The first 10 Commandments movie, a silent but early Technicolor epic by Cecil B. De Mille, was filmed here in 1923. De Mille built what was then the largest set in movie history, called “The City of the Pharaoh,” for the film and later had it dismantled and secretly buried in the dunes. The remains of the set, called the “Lost City of Cecil B DeMille,” still lie under in the sand, though the burial site was eventually located in 1983 by a group of film aficionados.

photo of Guadalupe Nipomo Sand Dunes Photo by Chuck GrahamThe National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2000.

Scenes from Hidalgo and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, were also filmed here.

In 2000, 2,553 acres in the heart of the dunes complex — which contains some of the most remote and least disturbed habitats in the complex — was declared a US National Wildlife Refuge.

Every time I hike the dunes I see something I didn’t spot the time before. That could be because of the ever-shifting sands that are constantly groomed by steady northwesterly winds. These winds sometimes sculpt the sand into peaks hundreds of …more

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Plastic Loom Fuses Tradition and Modernity

How two young Egyptians are reinventing plastic bags

The old adage “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could be the motto for the project Reform Studio.

Mariam Hazem, one of the project founders, explains why she collects plastic bags: “Statistics show that the number of plastic bags on the globe is growing by a million each minute. A June 2012 report by the GIZ Society for International Cooperation and SWEEP-Net states that 11 percent of solid waste in the Middle East and North Africa consists of plastic.

photo of plastic loomPhoto by Sabry Khaled Reform Studio helps to keep the traditional craft of weaving with the handloom alive.

Reform Studio is headquartered in El-Tagamo El-Khames, one of the more refined quarters of Cairo. Visitors are immediately struck by the unique, colorful seating arrangements. The “El-Qahwa” (‘the coffee’) chair collection has an authentically Egyptian flair as it mimics the chairs in traditional coffee shops; except that the seats are not made of wood, but of plaited plastic bags. The “Gramaz” set (derived from ‘grandmas’), on the other hand, is more modern, inspired by an old chair that used to belong to Mariam’s grandmother. It takes 50 plastic bags to manufacture one chair for the “Ahwa” collection, a piece from the “Gramaz” collection requires three times as many.

It all started with the revolution

Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, both 25 years old, are the masterminds of Reform Studio. They originally came up with the concept for their graduation project at the Faculty of Applied Arts at the German University in Cairo in 2014. Today, their idea has evolved into a brand. Their products are available at six stores in Cairo and one in London.

photo of plastic loomPhoto by Sabry Khaled Chairs from the Ahwa collection. Their upholstery is made from plastic bags.

“After the onset of the revolution on January 25, 2011, we were highly motivated, we wanted to be part of the change,” says Mariam. “We wanted to find a solution to one of Egypt’s most serious issues: the all-pervading trash,” Mariam adds. So the two researched the topic and talked to some trash men and scavengers around Cairo. They learned that people mostly get rid of plastic by burning it, because it does not decompose. Therefore, Mariam and Hend …more

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Amid Showdown, Thai Officials Begin Removing Big Cats from Infamous Tiger Temple

Day 3 of rescue operation leads to awful discovery: 40 dead tiger cubs and other animal parts

So it has come to pass — following several months of stand off, the infamous Tiger Temple has been closed down as Thai wildlife officials and veterinarians undertake a monumental operation to relocate the remaining 137 tigers from the temple in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province to wildlife sanctuaries across the country.

Wildlife officials with a tranquilized tigerPhoto by Edwin Wiek/Wildlife Friends Foundation ThailandAt least 40 tigers have been removed from the controversial temple since Monday.

According to the Bangkok Post, since Monday, when the rescue operations began, at least 40 tigers have been removed from the temple. Ten other tigers had been rescued from the temple in January and February following new, incriminating reports that the temple — which has long been dogged with controversy — had been speed-breeding and trafficking tigers since at least 2004.

As I write this, Day Three of the rescue operation is underway. Sadly, the day brought the gruesome discovery of 40 dead tiger cubs stacked in a freezer at the temple. Officials also found several other animal parts including deer horns, a bull’s skull and animal intestines in held containers. According to local Thai media reports, some of the cubs appear to have died recently. Photos posted on Twitter by reporters on the scene seem to indicate that some of the cubs were only a few days old.

Thai wildlife officials say they are looking into who’s responsible for the cubs death and might file separate criminal charges. Monks at the temple, who have denied all trafficking allegations in the past, have not commented on this latest finding yet. Officials also found six hornbills, a protected species, at a monk's residence.

The Buddhist temple, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, draws thousands of tourists from across the world every year to hang out with its large population of “pet” tigers that numbered 147 in January. This extremely lucrative operation — the temple makes some $3 million annually off of the tourists — is based around claims that the first tigers to arrive at the temple were rescued from poachers and all the big cats currently housed there live freely and peacefully with the temple’s monks, who are actively engaged in conservation and rescue work.

But wildlife activists have for years accused the Tiger Temple …more

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