Backyard Talk

Flint: Tainted Choice, Tainted Water

By Laura Barrett : February 29, 2016 1:48 pm

Originally published in Shelterforce.

Like the water itself, the situation in Flint, Mich.should be crystal clear: elected and appointed officials, at the state and federal levels, have done harm, some even irreparable, to the brains and futures of thousands of kids.

A disastrous choice by Gov. Rick Snyder’s hand-picked city overseer to switch water sources brought lead, copper, fecal coliform bacteria, trihalomethanes (THMs) into the faucets of the homes of many already-struggling Flint families.

The health of the children and adults of Flint has been irremediably compromised and can never be calculated, while the bills for this short-sighted bureaucratic bungle will pile up and burden taxpayers for years to come. But the more staggering and unforgivable cost is the health of the children and adults of Flint. Residents report skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss and depression. Over the years, long term health concerns issues such as cancer and liver, kidney malfunctions from exposure to coliform bacteria and trihalomethanes will likely emerge. And the worst pollutant, lead–which has been the focus of local and federal lead paint remediation efforts for years–undeniably results in permanent brain damage. Flint’s lead poisoned girls will do more poorly in school and its lead poisoned boys will be more apt to enter the pipeline to prison.

And we cannot ignore the issue of race. Is anyone surprised that 56 percent of Flint’s population is African-American, and that 41 percent live under the poverty line? The obvious and heart-rending question from many is: Would officials have acted so callously and recklessly in Ann Arbor, Grosse Point, or another majority white suburb?

Unfortunately, officials have a history of ignoring the very people they have a hand in poisoning. Residents began organizing immediately after public officials decided to use the Flint River for drinking water. Several small groups were initially formed that later banded together as the Coalition for Clean Water. They have one clear goal: To return to Detroit water, at least until a new pipeline is installed. National groups like the Center for Health, Environment and Justice worked with these fledgling activists, providing coaching and scientific technical assistance. Very early on, Flint’s residents knew their water was a problem and proved it through their own technical experts, like Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards.

It will cost more than a billion dollars to solve the problem that Governor Snyder’s team created. In a move to reportedly save $12 million, they switched from the more expensive but wholesome Detroit-supplied drinking water to water from the Flint River, and in the end, this choice will cost more than $1 billion–with a B. All of Flint’s water pipes must be replaced because of damage from the corrosive water and mismanagement by public officials. In the name of efficiency, the state has directly hurt 99,000 people in Flint for years to come while federal officials passively sat back and responded slowly and ineptly.

As an aside–why is our country’s response to food poisoning so much quicker and more effective than the response to Flint water and the growing number of toxic waste dumps? You could argue that far fewer people are affected: Chipotle’s E. coli outbreak has affected about 500 people total nationwide. Meanwhile, more than 11,000 people live near a burning radioactive landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. About 400 properties in Birmingham, Ala., have toxic soil that prevents kids from playing outside. When a major corporation’s (Chipotle) livelihood is on the line, a situation that affected significantly fewer people was dealt with swiftly and effectively. In the meantime, families across the country affected by unhealthy water, dirty air and toxic waste dumps are waiting years, even decades, for solutions to dangers in their neighborhoods. Every health threat deserves a swift, equitable response to keep people safe; it’s our responsibility to hold corporations and the government accountable for more than just our fast food.

We need to reorder our priorities. Keeping all children, no matter their wealth, race, or zip code, safe from polluted water, air, and soil must be the first order of the day. Whether the health threat is chronic and permanent or acute and temporary, our goal needs to be ensuring that the next generation is protected from environmental threats.

Meanwhile, let’s send in the Army Corps of Engineers as soon as possible to install new water pipes in Flint, MI to make their water crystal clear and the Department of Justice into Lansing, the state’s capitol, to make the governor answer for this crime.

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Holding Polluters Accountable

By Stephen Lester : February 24, 2016 7:00 pm

CHEJ founder Lois Gibbs, considered the mother of the federal Superfund program, said it was “about time polluters were held accountable” when she heard that the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop letting polluters off the financial hook for the contamination they cause. At the end of January, the court directed EPA to finalize its “financial assurance” regulations that have been more than 30 years in the making. The Superfund law has teeth to hold corporate polluters accountable and this is an important step towards making that happen.

The financial assurance provision of the Superfund law – officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) – ensures that responsible parties, and not the public, bear the financial burden of completing Superfund cleanups. This provision requires corporate polluters to demonstrate that adequate financial resources are available to complete required cleanup work. One of the main tenets of this law is to prevent companies who created toxic sites from declaring bankruptcy and walking away, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanup, often causing long delays before these dangerous sites are cleaned up.

The court recognized that “Although CERCLA requires operators to pay to clean up hazardous releases, many avoid payment by restructuring their operations so they never have to pay. It is a common practice for operators to avoid paying environmental liabilities by declaring bankruptcy or otherwise sheltering assets.”

For 35 years since the law was passed in 1980, EPA has failed to issue regulations that describe how it would implement and enforce this provision of the Superfund law. As a result, company after company found ways to pass the cost of environmental disasters on to taxpayers. With this new ruling EPA has no choice but to finally issue these financial assurance regulations which will require polluting companies to pay up front, or place funds aside to cover the costs of cleaning up contaminated sites. It will also provide an incentive for polluters to reduce their pollution and thus reduce their liability.

As the nation’s leading source of toxic pollution (nearly 2 billion pounds per year), the mining industry was targeted to be the first in line for the new regulations. The court has ordered the EPA to complete the draft regulations by December 1, 2016, and finalize the regulations by Dec. 1, 2017. EPA must also establish regulations for three other industries, including coal ash ponds, chemical manufacturing facilities and petroleum and oil refineries by Dec. 1, 2016.

The lawsuit was filed Earth Justice on behalf of Earthworks and several coalition partners. For more information, see

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CHEJ Intern

What Does Justice Scalia’s Death Mean for Environmental Justice?

By CHEJ Intern : February 22, 2016 9:43 am

By Dylan Lenzen

Nobody can deny that Justice Antonin Scalia was an immensely important figure asd most certainly left his mark on law in America. With his sudden death over a week ago now, I feel great sympathy for his family, friends, and colleagues mourning his loss. With that said, Scalia’s passing and the decision over his replacement will likely have enormous implications for the environment and, perhaps most immediately, climate justice.

While Scalia has offered positive opinions in regards to some cases with environmental justice implications in the past, his legacy towards the environment is most definitely a negative one. The justice regularly offered opinions in favor of property rights over the protection of human lives and the environment.

In multiple cases, he has voted against the EPA’s ability to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants. Just this summer, he wrote the majority opinion in a case that prevented the EPA from enacting important protections against mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

But perhaps most significant, just days before his passing, Scalia was a part of a 5-4 majority that issued a stay, preventing the implementation of the new Clean Power Plan for the time being. Under the plan states would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030. This plan also played an important role in helping the U.S. achieve an agreement at the Paris climate talks. Without such a plan ensuring U.S. emission reductions, there is little reason to believe that other countries will achieve their own commitments.

With Scalia on the Supreme Court, it appeared highly doubtful the Clean Power Plan would ever be implemented. With his passing, this projection changes instantly, providing hope for achieving climate justice.

In the short-term, the decision on the future of this important plan will rest in the hands of the D.C. Circuit court, which is likely to uphold the plan. Next, it would require a majority vote from the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling of the D.C. Circuit court, but with the court now tied at 4-4, this appears unlikely. So, until a new justice is appointed, either by Obama or the next President, should Congressional Republicans get their way, the future of the Clean Power Plan appears secure.

Ultimately, the newest Supreme Court justice is will have serious implications for climate justice in the long-term. Given the recent Republicans in the Senate over Obama’s intention to appoint a new justice, the process could be a long one, and may rest in the hands of the next president.

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CHEJ Intern

Zika Virus, Environmental Justice, and Unforced Errors

By CHEJ Intern : February 19, 2016 12:29 pm

By Kaley Beins

Over the past few months the mosquito-borne Zika virus has been dominating global health headlines, especially as researchers began linking it to microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads and potential brain damage. Though Zika virus itself has fairly mild symptoms and is sometimes even asymptomatic, its connection to microcephaly created pandemonium. As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began issuing travel warnings and El Salvador recommended that women not get pregnant until the virus is controlled (estimated to take 2+ years), panic began to set in. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” scientists began developing a Zika vaccine and the world prepared for the next Ebola crisis.

Yet this past week some news outlets summarized a new Argentine report claiming that an insecticide, not Zika virus, is to blame for the increase in cases of microcephaly in Brazil. This report, written by doctors from the Argentine group Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages, claims widespread exposure to the insecticide pyriproxyfen is the cause of these birth defects. Beginning in 2014, Brazil added pyriproxyfen to its water supply to prevent mosquito development. The report states that this insecticide is dangerous and is distributed by “a subsidiary of Monsanto.” (Note: the company that produces pyriproxyfen is Sumitomo Chemical, a Japanese company that is actually not a subsidiary of Monsanto, but has partnered with them in the past.)

The story told by Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages has the makings of the next Erin Brockovich case, fueling the ongoing fights against Monsanto and validating the outrage leveled at chemical companies. There’s just one problem: it doesn’t appear to be true.

Unlike WHO and that majority of the scientific community that are continuing to do research on the potential link between Zika virus and microcephaly before saying anything definitive, Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages published their report based on a correlation and only 12 sources (many of which were articles about dengue).

Although a definitive link between Zika virus and microcephaly still has not been found, a growing body of research appears to support the connection. Most significantly, a Brazilian study released this week found Zika virus in the amniotic fluid of babies with microcephaly, while previous studies have detected the virus in newborn saliva and urine. The CDC reported on a study that found the presence of Zika virus in the brains and placenta of babies that had died of microcephaly. Even when Zika virus was first explained in 1952 by G.W.A. Dick, he described how it affected the brain and the nervous system. The research has provided a mechanism, or process of causation, for Zika inducing microcephaly.

Conversely, the only mechanism the Argentine report provides is claiming that the insecticide pyriproxyfen is an endocrine disruptor (affects hormones and development) and therefore would affect pregnancy. However, pyriproxyfen affects the development from hatching to pupation, stages humans (and all animals with backbones) do not go through. Therefore, pyriproxyfen is highly unlikely to affect people.

Furthermore, even if we disregard the lack of science in the Argentine report, we can address their allegations. The main claim in the report is that the increased instance of microcephaly is found only in Brazil, where pyriproxyfen was used. While it is strange that Colombia does not yet appear to have increased rates of microcephaly, George Dimech, director of Disease Control and Diseases of the Health Department in Pernambuco, Brazil, stated that Recife, Brazil has had many cases of microcephaly, despite the fact that pyriproxyfen is not used there. Additionally, the 2013-2014 outbreak of Zika virus in French Polynesia has also been associated with central nervous system problems including Guillain-Barré Syndrome and microcephaly.

Various prominent scientists worldwide have disputed the allegations raised by Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages. Dr. Ian Musgrave, a toxicologist at Australia’s University of Adelaide called their argument “not plausible,” while NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins, referred to the report as “sketchy.” Environmental activist Mark Lynas called it a “conspiracy theory.”

Science is difficult and public health risks add to the confusion that further compounds the difficulty of scientific testing. There are still unknowns regarding Zika virus and its connection to microcephaly, and looking for alternative explanations and environmental factors is necessary in order to address the risks. However, publishing claims with little scientific support does nothing for environmental health. Unsubstantiated research is not only academically unethical; it allows the crucial field of environmental health to descend into pseudo science and conspiracy theory.

The Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages report does make an important point that mosquito-borne viruses are much more prevalent in low-income communities because of fewer sanitation initiatives and less readily available potable water (a claim further substantiated by the Zika case in Texas). They connect the Zika outbreak to environmental justice. Environmental justice issues are significant and must be addressed, but jumping to conclusions without solid scientific backing hurts the movement. Without science to support our positions, industry and government can easily brush off our (very valid) concerns from pesticide use to landfill leaching. The Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages report is an unforced error; it makes us look like we have an agenda other than protecting human health.

Science is our strongest weapon. Why are we shooting ourselves in the foot with it?

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Knock Knock Is Anyone Home at EPA?

By Lois : February 15, 2016 12:06 pm

EPA has gone dark. McCarthy is awaiting the end of her term and no one is protecting the American citizens or our environment.

It is outrageous that Administrator Gina McCarthy refuses to acknowledge the citizens living near the Bridgeton/West Lake Superfund site. What is wrong with her? Just Moms STL wrote a letter requesting a meeting in May of 2015 and never even received an acknowledgement that they asked for a meeting. They traveled to Washington, DC anyway in hopes of seeing McCarthy after their federal delegation of senators and congress representatives sent a letter to encourage McCarthy to meet with them. The community received nothing from the office of the Administrator. Not a call, a letter or even an e-mail saying she had a prior commitment or was on travel.

A second letter was sent this past fall to say the community leaders are planning to travel to Washington, D.C. in February and would she please meet with them to discuss the Superfund site which has been mismanaged by her regional staff. Again there was silence. I personally called every day but one in the month of January and February leading up to the date that local people were traveling to D.C. On many occasions when I called, all I received was a voice mail message that asked me to leave a message and someone would get back to me. I left message after message and no one, not a single person from the agency returned my call.

On a few occasions I actually talked to a woman who answered the phone. She was courteous and respectful and always promised to deliver the message to scheduling department. “Someone will call you back soon.” But no one ever called. The citizens living around the site began a telephone campaign to McCarthy’s office. It was only a week until they travel to D.C. and no one provided an answer if McCarthy would meet or not. The community sold cupcakes, brownies, t-shirts, and worked hard to raise the funds to visit D.C. and meet with the Administrator to explain what was going on from their perspective.

With a slim chance of meeting with McCarthy, now two years since their first request for a meeting was made, they climbed on a plane and came to D.C. While there they met with their congressional delegation, allies in the field but never had a meeting with McCarthy. Also they were never denied a meeting; it was deafeningly silent. My goodness if the answer is “NO” then say so. To say nothing is irresponsible, inexcusable and further victomizing the victims.

I stood outside of McCarthy’s office at 9 a.m. the last day of the groups visit. From the sidewalk I called her office and explained that local leaders are downstairs and waiting for a response from McCarthy before they need to leave for the airport. The public relations office sent down a two young people to receive the letter the community had for McCarthy, outlining their concerns. They apologized that McCarthy wasn’t available to meet. She couldn’t have told the citizens before they left St. Louis that she couldn’t meet? It is not a big request to ask for a simple yes or no of availability.

My take away . . . fire McCarthy. My tax dollars should not be spent on someone who works in government and ignores the citizens of the United States. All she had to do on both occasions is say I’m sorry I’ve got a previous engagement. Common courtesy should be a requirement of feredal employment.

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