Backyard Talk
Sharon H.

National Coalition fights Burning of Military Waste

By Sharon H. : February 4, 2016 10:04 am

Image from Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger

Community members in Colfax, Louisiana are dealing with an unconventional form of potential environmental contamination – outfall from the open air burning of hazardous explosive waste. The town of Colfax is the site of a commercial facility called Clean Harbors, which stores and treats energetic/reactive waste, whether it is solid, sludge or liquid. From fireworks to bulk high explosives to rocket motors, the facility is a storehouse for potentially explosive material.

This burning is, in fact, permitted by the US EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which governs disposal and treatment of hazardous waste. There is a permit modification pending, which would increase the current threshold for open-air burning of explosives-contaminated waste from 480,000 pounds to over 2 million pounds per year. The permit is for dealing with waste that cannot be handled in any other manner. reported last month on a similar issue at Camp Minden, Louisiana. The Camp Minden military facility, which was storing, in addition to other materials, 42,000 pounds of a propellant used for firing heavy artillery, experienced an explosion in 2012 that resulted in “a 7,000-foot mushroom cloud” and damage to nearby homes and buildings. In this scenario, burning is seen as an emergency plan to prevent future explosions, but the outdated burning process is raising concerns of environmental pollution from munitions burning.

A coalition of twenty-nine organizations has formed in response to the issue, ranging from coast to coast and including groups in thirteen states. The groups are objecting to both the current operations at the Clean Harbors facility, and to the expansion of the facility’s permit to allow greater amounts of waste to be burned.

According to the coalition, Colfax is only one of many communities – about 100 total – that are facing this issue. also reports that munitions burning is far from just a Louisiana issue. In the early 1990s, community activists halted a plan to burn military waste in Merrimac, Wisconsin. The breadth of the coalition behind the Cease Fire campaign speaks to the universality of this problem.

How can you help?

A petition to EPA is circulating at, and you can find more information about the Cease Fire Campaign at

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CHEJ Intern

Environmental Injustice in the Navajo Nation

By CHEJ Intern : January 29, 2016 9:04 am

By Dylan Lenzen

Experiencing the environmental injustice associated with the fossil fuel industry is not exclusive to minority and low-income neighborhoods within America’s largest cities. The same toxic living conditions can also be found on America’s remote and impoverished Native American reservations. Here, the health of individuals and communities that inhabit these regions subsidize the development of cheap electricity and water in surrounding cities that disconnected from their suffering.

An example of this remote environmental injustice can be found on the Navajo reservation in the Southwestern U.S. This sprawling reservation is home to the country’s largest Native American tribe, the Navajo Nation, with over 300,000 members.

The story of this region is defined by environmental injustice that stems from the vast coal resources found there and the large corporations working to exploit it. This wealth of coal resources has fostered a dependence on fossil fuel development with roots that go back nearly a century.

The region is currently exploited by two mines, both operated by Peabody Coal Company, the largest private-sector coal company. These mines create over 1,000 of jobs for local residents, but also contribute to high rates of cancer and lung disease in workers and surrounding communities. The coal extracted by these mines is then sent to the Navajo Generating Station, where the coal produces electricity for the surrounding region, much of it being utilized for transporting valuable water resources to Phoenix, Tucson, and other Southwest cities.

While it would be intuitive to think that this incredible amount of coal production and generation of valuable electricity would lead to a strong economy on the Navajo Reservation, but that is clearly not the case. While the mining and power plants provide a number of jobs, the community remains impoverished with a 45 percent unemployment rate and 77,000 people living below the poverty line. Many of the people living in the community cannot even afford access to the important services, such as electricity and running water, that their coal and power plants provide for the major cities that surround the reservation.

This widespread impoverishment is a result of the fact that, despite the health and environmental sacrifices associated with coal mining and coal-fired power plants, the Navajo Nation receives but a small fraction of the profits that Peabody and the Navajo Generating Station produce. The land that is leased to Peabody for mining, and transporting the coal is leased to them for a fraction of its true value. The Navajo Generating Station that burns the coal produced by Peabody is not even owned by the Navajo Nation.

While this is just one of many examples of the environmental, economic, and public health outcomes of fossil fuel generation in America, the results on Native American reservations like the Navajo Nation are particularly acute. Because of the remote nature of these reservations, it is especially easy to overlook the role they play in subsidizing the development of excess for the rest of society.

Examples like the Navajo Nation offer a great source of motivation for a transition of our energy system towards one that does not pollute and destroy the environment and health of minority and low-income communities. Whether these communities reside in some of America’s largest cities, or it’s most remote locales, they deserve better.

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Sharon H.

Super-Polluters Responsible for Most Environmental Health Risks

By Sharon H. : January 27, 2016 10:59 pm

Environmental justice is a familiar concept to the communities that CHEJ works with, who experience racial and socioeconomic disparities in health as a part of daily life. Among the general public, this concept is not always understood. If there is any positive associated with the tragic water contamination in Flint, MI, it is that environmental injustices may continue to gain more research attention and spotlight in the national media as a result.

Today, EJ research was front-page news. Just a few days ago, researchers with the Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland, released a study that combined computational science and sociology to investigate the impacts of a class of polluters known as ‘Super Polluters.’ These sources are responsible for disproportionate amounts of air pollution. The study was a huge undertaking, assessing the emissions of 600 chemicals from close to 16,000 facilities, and the results were unsurprising: the highest-polluting facilities were located in low income communities and communities of color.

Though the study demonstrates a known concept within the environmental justice community, it supports past findings with a massive body of data, and demonstrates that the effects of super-polluters on low-income and minority communities are worse than previously thought. As one of the researchers shared on SESYNC’s blog, “If you’re non-white or poor, your community is more likely to be polluted by arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other dangerous toxins from industrial production…What’s new and surprising is that industry’s worst offenders seem to impact these communities to a greater extent than might already be expected.”

The study also sheds light on who to blame for the situation. According to the study, fewer than 10% of the facilities they assessed were responsible for more than 90% of human health risks from excess pollution. These findings are relevant for policy-making; if a subset of facilities are causing the majority of the harm, it’s possible that targeted emissions-limiting efforts could be more impactful for promoting environmental justice than large-scale regulatory efforts. Placing more emphasis on protecting the most vulnerable communities, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with reducing the most extreme of environmental pollution in the U.S.

The Washington Post reported on the study today, while placing the Flint tragedy in the context of the larger problem of environmental injustice. This study contributes to our growing understanding of environmental injustice, and will hopefully continue to shed a spotlight on vulnerable communities like Flint, MI. As Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the University of Maryland commented to the Post that the Flint situation “is really going to raise attention around environmental justice issues around the country, and also how you have these other environmental justice disasters that are looming out there.”

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People or Pollution – Which Came First?

By Stephen Lester : January 25, 2016 8:44 pm

Researchers at the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment published a paper last month that examines an important question about environmental disparities: Which came first – The people or the pollution? More specifically, are present-day disparities around hazardous sites the result of a pattern of placing hazardous waste sites, polluting industrial facilities, and other locally unwanted land uses disproportionately where poor people and people of color live? Or are they the result of demographic changes that occur after the facilities have been sited? Their answer published in the December issue of the journal Environment Research Letters points to a clear pattern of disproportionately placing hazardous waste facilities in people of color communities at the time of siting.

The authors used a national database of commercial hazardous waste facilities sited from 1966 to 1995 and examined the demographic composition of host neighborhoods at the time of siting and demographic changes that occurred after siting. They found strong evidence of disparate siting for facilities sited in all time periods, though they did find some evidence of post-siting demographic changes. According to the authors, these changes “were mostly a continuation of changes that occurred in the decade or two prior to siting, suggesting that neighborhood transition serves to attract noxious facilities rather than the facilities themselves attracting people of color and low income populations. Our findings help resolve inconsistencies among the longitudinal studies and builds on the evidence from other subnational studies that used distance-based methods. We conclude that racial discrimination and sociopolitical explanations (i.e., the proposition that siting decisions follow the ‘path of least resistance’) best explain present-day inequities.”

This study examined the processes by which racial and socioeconomic disparities in the location of polluting industrial facilities can occur. According to the authors, “prior studies have had mixed results … principally because of methodological differences, that is, the use of the unit-hazard coincidence method as compared to distance-based methods.” This is the first national-level environmental justice study to conduct longitudinal analyses using distance-based methods.

The authors came to conclude that “Our findings show that rather than hazardous waste TSDFs ‘attracting’ people of color, neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color appear to ‘attract’ new facility siting. The body of distance-based research suggests that government policies, industry practices and community empowerment measures are needed to ensure fairness in the siting process and to address disparities in risks associated with existing facilities. In addition, more studies that use reliable methods to assess such racial and socioeconomic disparities in the location of other types of environmental hazards could also improve our understanding of the processes and factors that contribute to environmentally unjust conditions in the United States and around the world.”

The authors also published a review paper in the same issue of this journal that summarized previous environmental justice studies that demonstrated the existence of racial and socioeconomic disparities in relation to a wide range of environmental hazards.

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CHEJ Intern

Snowmageddon 2016 Brought to You by Climate Change

By CHEJ Intern : January 22, 2016 4:52 pm

By: Katie O’Brien

Mega winter storm Jonas, also referred to as Snowzilla or Snowmageddon, is just starting to hit the Eastern U.S. The D.C. metro area (where CHEJ is located!) is the bull’s-eye of the storm, expecting up to a whopping 30 inches. It is expected to snow for about 36 hours and will affect over 60 million people. Many of these people are under a blizzard warning, meaning the storm will have long hours of strong wind gusts and extreme reduced visibility. In some areas it will snow at a rate of 2-3 inches per hour. The DC area has not seen this much snow in the forecast since 1922.

But why have storms such as Jonas, and others like Superstorm Sandy become so severe? Many scientists believe that human induced climate change is to blame.  The Director of Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center, Michael Mann, says that “unusually warm Atlantic ocean surface temperatures” can cause high amounts of moisture in the air and are contributing to these severe storms.

“When you mix extra moisture with “a cold Arctic outbreak (something we’ll continue to get even as global warming proceeds) you get huge amounts of energy and moisture, and monster snowfalls, like we’re about to see here”, says Mann.

Scientists are in the process of completing additional studies showing that climate change is causing the increased length and severity of these life-threatening storms. Many of them believe that climate change is altering the patterns of weather by affecting the jet streams in which they travel. This slows down storms immensely, causing heavy precipitation to essentially “dump” on certain areas at increased rates. Climate change is changing our world in big ways.

While some may use huge snowstorms like Jonas to deny climate change, this storm actually supports climate change science.

It’s time to fight back against the affects of climate change. Click here to learn more about how you can personally reduce your carbon footprint.

Click here to learn more about climate change and Blizzard Jonas.

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