Backyard Talk

Infrared Image - Environmental Defense Fund

“The worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill”


Today, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency over a methane leak that has been flooding the Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch for the past several months. The leak, which began in October, stems from a damaged pipeline operated by Southern California Gas Co. The company is still unsure of how to stop the leak, which is likely to continue sickening nearby residents and contributing immensely to greenhouse gas outputs for at least the next two months. Many commentators, including famed advocate and researcher Erin Brokovich, have called it “the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill of 2010.”

Infrared Image - Environmental Defense Fund

The public health impacts of the leak have been tremendous so far. Methane is not only highly flammable, but can have serious health impacts. The NIH explains that methane exposure at high concentrations can cause headache, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, and loss of coordination. Though methane itself poses risks, the L.A. County Department of Public Health determined that mercaptans – nontoxic odorants added to natural gas – are to blame for current health effects. Residents have reported headaches and nosebleeds, which has forced the evacuation of over 2000 residents from their homes.

CBS reported that these relocated residents are part of a larger group of more than 6500 residents who have filed for help in the wake of the crisis. Though many are still in need of assistance and criticism of the company and the government is running high, activists in Porter Ranch have evaluated the incident from an environmental justice perspective and determined that they have been luckier than many. According to the LA Times, activists from the group Save Porter Ranch have noted that the wealth of their neighborhood has probably played into the relatively swift response and highly public discussion surrounding the leak, while poorer communities and communities of color are ignored. “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer, that don’t get relocated,” activist Matt Palucko told the LA Times.

Getty Images

In addition to public health impacts effects, this disaster may have serious climate-related implications. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas; according to the EPA, methane’s impact on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. The leak is estimated to be releasing nearly 70,000 pounds of methane on an hourly basis, and may end up accounting for about a quarter of California’s methane emissions for the year.

Though the source of the leak has been identified, Southern California Gas Co. has struggled to find a solution that would stem the flow of the methane. As soon as the leak was discovered, the company tried to plug the well, but several attempts were unsuccessful. They are opting to drill two ‘relief wells’ to divert the flow of gas, but this will be a lengthy and difficult process that may not be completed until March. In addition to the state of emergency, Gov. Brown also called for enhanced safety measure and inspections at gas storage facilities to prevent future incidents within the widespread and still-expanding natural gas industry.

To watch video footage of the leaking methane, visit the Environmental Defense Fund’s YouTube Channel.

Styrofoam Ban in our Nation’s Capital


On January 1, 2016 a ban on the use of Styrofoam containers went into effect in the city of Washington, DC.  This new law will prohibit restaurants and local business from using single use Styrofoam (technically speaking, expanded polystyrene foam products) containers to package food and drinks, typically used for take-out orders or to take home leftovers. According to one estimate in a private blog, there are similar bans in effect in more than 70 cities including New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.  In New York City alone, 28,500 tons of expanded Styrofoam was collected in 2012. About 90% of this material was from food and drink related containers.

I couldn’t help but smile when I read this story as a remembered back in the late 1980s when CHEJ (then CCHW) kicked off a national campaign against McDonald’s to get the mega food giant to stop using Styrofoam clam shells for all its food packaging. We called this the “McToxics Campaign” and groups all over the country participated including grassroots environmental health activists, students, churches, annual rights activists and advocates of healthy food. These groups, individually and in coalition, picketed local restaurants, fought for local ordinances banning Styrofoam, launched boycotts and engaged in send-it-back campaigns to send the message to McDonalds that they wanted the company to be a corporate leader for positive change, rather than a symbol of our throw-away society.  And it worked!  After a little over 3 years, McDonalds caved in, marking one of the biggest victories of the grassroots environmental health movement. On November 1, 1990, McDonalds’ announced it would end nearly all Styrofoam packaging use in U.S. restaurants within 60 days.

As anticipated, when McDonalds made its announcement, other companies would follow its lead. Jack-In-the-Box followed suit almost immediately, and soon most other fast food restaurants also stopped using Styrofoam.  Although many small restaurants and local businesses continued to use Styrofoam, the message continues to grow that this toxic plastic has no place in our society. The many toxic substances generated and released during production, the formation of toxic chemicals when it is burned and the difficulties in recycling and disposal of this material is what drove this campaign and continue to be an issue today as restaurants and businesses search for options to deliver food and drinks.

Fortunately there are better options and better alternatives that don’t cause the public health and environmental risks that this plastic does. Cheers to the growing list of cities, towns and municipalities that are deciding one jurisdiction at a time, to move away from this toxic plastic.  May there be many more in the coming years.


Building a Kaleidoscope Movement


As we approach 2016, I am excited about the opportunities to engage in a broader pubic conversation about creating real social change. Elections provide us with opportunities to engage the public in conversations about serious deep changes that are needed, not only environmental and health but social justice issues across the board. Class, race, living wage, immigration policies, economic growth, climate change, environmental justice are all connected. We need to begin today to expand the movement and build bridges with other leaders, develop strategies and take advantage of the 2016 public conversation to move an agenda that is about people, protection, jobs, justice and so much more. Now is the time to plan and now is the time to build those bridges to work together for change.

Over the 35 years since the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) was founded, we have dedicated ourselves to broadening the base and strengthening the skills of the grassroots movement for environmental health.  Our goals are to raise popular consciousness about fundamental problems in the current system, provide a positive, unifying vision, and build a sense of empowerment by reinforcing the power of an organized group of people to create change.

The Kaleidoscope Movement is a formation of groups at local, state and national levels that are joined together around building and strengthening community.  The issues are varied as are the class, race and geographical locations.  What is common is the desire for justice, to prevent harm to human health, the economy, environment and the ability of our children to achieve the American promise.  It is not anchored in a single political party or class of people, but rather inclusive, dynamic and strategic.

This is a movement that takes people where they are, listens to their concerns and builds power around their issues and concerns.  It is not D.C. or policy focused, rather it’s focused on people, values and strategic place/practice based goals. For example our definition of “environmental health and justice issues” is where people live, work, learn, pray and play.  Systemic change has come from this approach by building power at the local level.

The results, historically have been very exciting.  By organizing one family at a time, one church at a time, one school at a time, and one neighborhood at a time, CHEJ and partners have been able to accomplish things that have been out of reach to groups taking a policy or regulatory approach to systemic change.  We have our supporters and grassroots activists to thank for this success. In fact, in most cases the policy has not kept up with the shifts in practices.  Our methodology for change is to bring people together, build power around issues people care about that are strategic and fit into a larger vision of change that is needed.

CHEJ does not bring people together to agree on a platform or policy agenda and then try to move groups into action.  Our approach, instead of top down, is to pick strategic issues that people care about and then move people directly into action.  Through this process the public conversations raises fundamental values and the work is based on solutions that are source based for a more permanent change in public opinion and in practice.

The victories of changing the “practice,” are unlike regulatory or policies based wins. These victories are not as likely to a slide backwards or are enforcement centered.  Consequently, they stay in place even when there is a change in elected representation or a decision maker.

Through these specific issue related efforts, CHEJ linked activists together to build a broad progressive movement.  While organizing, educating, and building the base, we actively teach people about the root cause of their problems and the need to become active participants in the governance of their communities and state.  Our work also helps activists experience the power of working collaboratively in local or statewide coalitions.

To continue to build a progressive movement, it is critical to find ways to remove the barriers between organized groups nationwide, identify common frames that can unite groups of groups, and take advantage of opportunities to flex this multi-faceted, multi-issued political muscle.

CHEJ works with diverse constituencies that focus on a single issue – such as nuclear disarmament activists, disease-related groups focusing on issues like birth defects or breast cancer, environmental justice leaders, firefighters, teachers, parents, faith-based leaders or toxic use reduction groups.  We are all learning to support each other, respect each others issues and underlying shared values, and appreciate the value of speaking with a unified voice.

2016 offers us all the opportunity to continue to not only learn about one another’s cultures, issues, and tightly held values but to advance them through public conversations this election year. We all win if we continue to break down barriers between diverse segments of the environmental health movement and building bridges to related social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, living wage campaigns, building a new economy and so many more.

I believe that investing in ground up activities across lines of issues, race, gender and geographic boundaries we can create the world we want. I’m looking forward to this challenge this year with the many opportunities that will present themselves during all presidential election years.


What’s the deal with the water in Flint, MI?


By Dylan Lenzen

There seems to be no relief for those who call Flint, MI home. Residents there have been victims of some extremely shortsighted management decisions, driven by supposed cost-savings, for which residents have been forced to pay for in the form of horrendous health effects. The latest result of these decisions has been the declaration of a state of emergency in order to cope with the fallout.

It all started when city officials decided to stop purchasing drinking water from Detroit in April 2014, with plans for building a new pipeline to draw drinking water from Lake Huron. The only problem is that the pipeline is not set to be completed until 2016, which meant that in the meantime, drinking water would come from the Flint River. Almost immediately after making the switch, residents began complaining of negative health effects including skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss and depression. There were also repeated detections of elevated levels of coliform bacteria and trihalomethanes, for which the side-effects of ingestion include liver and kidney issues, as well as cancer.

Despite these warning signs and repeated demands of residents to switch back to Detroit drinking water, City leaders did nothing more than treat the water with excess amounts of chlorine and administer boil advisories. City officials repeatedly made claims throughout this period that the water remained safe to drink. At the same time, residents who noticed discoloration of the water and continued to experience horrible health effects took all steps possible to avoid drinking the water. As a result, residents were forced to choose between purchasing large quantities of costly bottled water to protect their families, or pay later in the form of health consequences from drinking the highly toxic Flint River water.

In September of this year, the complaints of city residents were supported by the release of a key study on blood lead levels of Flint children. Over the 18 months that this saga has unfolded, the number of children experiencing above average levels of lead in their blood has more than doubled.

Following the release of this troubling study, Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder, finally made the decision to come up with the necessary funds to switch back to Detroit water. In addition, a state of emergency has been declared by Flint mayor, Karen Weaver, in recognition of these results and the inadequate amount of special education and mental health services needed to deal with them.

Parents and other city residents have filed a lawsuit, seeking damages for the irreversible effects of lead toxicity that the decision to source water from the Flint River has created. In the words of Flint residents filing the lawsuit, “the deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River was as deadly as it was arrogant.”

Put the Super Back in Superfund!


Earlier this month CHEJ released a new report on the mismanagement of Superfund program and the need to reinstate polluter pays fees.

The report Superfund: Polluters Pays So Children Can Play was released as part of a National Day of Action in with groups across the country participating in different ways to deliver the message: polluter pays fees need to be reinstated. 32 groups in 24 states plus Puerto Rico representing 31 Superfund sites provided site profiles and quotes about the need to reinstate the polluter pays fees. The profiles are part of this new report. Some groups around the country delivered cakes to their representatives celebrating the 35th anniversary of Superfund and a card asking them to be a Superhero and support reinstatement of the polluter pays fees.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Funding for Superfund is insufficient to properly manage the program.

  • This funding shortfall has resulted in fewer completed cleanups each year; fewer cleanups started each year; inadequate funding of ongoing projects; an increase in the time to complete projects; and a steady stream of unfunded projects.

  • The expansion of the Superfund Alternatives program, in which the responsible parties agree to cleanup a site and avoid being listed on the National Priority List provides benefits to the polluter while hampering citizen participation that is provided for under the Superfund program.

  • The Superfund program has been so badly mismanaged by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that an unprecedented act of Congress has proposed transferring EPA oversight of a Superfund site to the Army Corps of Engineers.

  • Congress must reinstate the polluter pays fees. Without collecting the corporate fees to replenish Superfund, there is simply not enough money to do the critical job of cleaning up hundreds of abandoned toxic waste sites.

To view the executive summary of the report, click here

To view the full report, click here

To view the community quotes, click here

A Community is Organized, but Where is Superfund


Originally published in Rooflines:

It’s probably the worst Superfund site in the U.S.: a smoldering fire in a mismanaged landfill is less than 1,000 feet away from a radioactive waste dump in Bridgeton, Missouri.

Experts predict that the fire could reach the radioactive waste within months, potentially causing a “Chernobyl–like” event. Children and adults are getting sick and some are dying from exposure to radioactive and other dangerous wastes. A state health authority study found over a 300 percent increase, above what would be expected in the population, of childhood brain and central nervous system cancers.

If an explosion happens, the first response is for people to “shelter in place,” by closing windows in their homes, schools or workplaces. But toxic fumes, and possibly particulate matter, could spread throughout the region and potentially force people into shelters or to evacuate, according to the county’s emergency plan. Those who live in surrounding neighborhoods would be directly affected.

Understandably, local activists are becoming increasingly afraid and angry.

A coalition of St. Louis mothers has been a highly effective, all-volunteer group of local parents fighting for their families health and safety. They’ve mobilized every week with rallies, demonstrations, pickets, online petitions, and fly-ins to Washington, and have received national media attention for their efforts—they were recently featured on the CBS news hour three times in one week. State and national environmental groups like the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) have worked with Just Moms STL, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, and other local players for several years to help boost their organizing efforts.

So where’s Superfund? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been supervising the site for years, but has not yet created a plan of action. Many of the local activists, including Just Moms STL and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) want the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the site and to remove the waste. Both groups want those who live within one mile of the waste to have an immediate option to move as well as a property assurance option for those within five miles of the waste, which the U.S. EPA could do under the auspices of Superfund.

It’s incredible that no action has been taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to secure the site. Missouri’s congressional delegation filed a bipartisan bill in both houses of congress to have the site’s clean-up transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, who is already cleaning up several nearby sites with Manhattan project radioactive waste. (When you see Senators as ideologically opposed on most issues as Senators Blunt and McCaskill and Representatives Clay and Wagner acting as a well-coordinated team, you know how deadly serious this problem has become). You can help by signing this online petition to get Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri to declare a state of emergency.

It’s clear that EPA must act, and act quickly.  Residents joke that if they had food poisoning, they could get medical assistance and immediate help from the Food and Drug Administration, FDA. But this is no joke, the EPA must be more effective. People’s lives are depending on it.

Cookstove Inserts: Mitigating Climate Change, Deforestation, and Respiratory Problems


Women in Karech, India collect their daily firewood (Credit: H.S. Udaykumar)

By: Kaley Beins

As President Obama said in Paris during this past week’s United Nations Climate Change Summit, “Let’s show businesses and investors that the global economy is on a firm path towards a low carbon future.” Extensive scientific research has demonstrated the serious threat that climate change poses to the environment and humanity.  Now governments are pushing for economic change in order to stimulate the mitigation of climate change.

But what about those without the economic power to influence such large scale decisions?

Almost 40% of the world’s population uses firewood as their primary source of energy for cooking and heating. This use of wood and other biofuels has led to widespread deforestation, especially around low wealth communities. Additionally, the smoke from the combustion of biofuels releases black carbon into the atmosphere, which can settle on glaciers and expedite ice melt. Black carbon has also been linked to respiratory problems. However, a new report from researchers at the University of Iowa found that a cheap metal stove insert can both increase the efficiency of cookstoves and reduce the amount of smoke released when burning wood.

Figure 1 from the study; demonstrates how to construct the cookstove insert

Although numerous nonprofits have created high efficiency cookstoves (HECs) to mitigate deforestation and climate change, HECs are often expensive or ineffective, and few communities use them. Conversely, the small insert is made of scrap metal, costing less than $1 USD to produce, and does not require significant changes in cooking traditions. Furthermore, the preliminary study shows that the inserts decrease both the amount of fuel needed for each fire and the amount of black carbon produced by the fire; one small cookstove insert simultaneously mitigates deforestation, climate change, and human respiratory problems.

In light of last week’s adoption of the Paris Climate Change Agreement the timing is perfect for global communities to work to implement practical and feasible ways of mitigating climate change. Luckily innovations like the cookstove insert may also directly improve human health. The world continues to attempt to address the climate crisis and in doing so is beginning to realize the necessity of accounting for the vast range of human experiences. Whether it’s a company investing in renewable energy or a mother of four using a cookstove insert, a range of solutions will allow the world to keep its promise to “acknowledge that climate change is a common concern of humankind” and “accelerate the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

COP21 Holds Potential for World Leaders to Address Climate Change


Last November, MET Office released news that the global surface temperature finally reached 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial global average temperature, marking the halfway point to the 2 degree Celsius threshold that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed is the average global temperature where the effects of climate change would be detrimental. With the average global temperature increasing at an alarming rate, the need action on climate change has become a pressing issue for world leaders, where a major ongoing conference on climate change has been deemed by some as the last opportunity to derail humanity from reaching the 2 degree Celsius global temperature average point.

On November 30th, over 140 leaders worldwide congregated in Le Bourget, France for The United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference and the 21st session of the Conference of Parties, otherwise simply known as COP21. World leaders will be discussing the impacts of climate change as well as legal actions their countries will enforce to reduce greenhouse emissions and to prevent average global temperatures from climbing any higher. The United States comes second in being the largest contributor of greenhouse emissions worldwide. President Obama openly acknowledged the fact during the first session: “I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” However, as the Conference just began in November 30th and set to conclude December 11th, it will be some time before any landmark agreement is achieved by either Obama or participating world leaders.

President Obama had also stated that this is the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, a remark brought on after his visit in Alaska where he observed the sea is already ‘swallowing villages’. Other parts of the United States are struggling with severe droughts, land loss due to erosion and rising sea levels, and uncommon extreme weather. While these effects are occurring nationwide, more affluent communities experience climate change differently than communities comprised of minorities or lower socioeconomic status. It has been documented that a disparity exists among people of color or lower socioeconomic status and white, affluent communities, where minorities are hit harder by the effects of climate change, as demonstrated by the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If COP21 fails to yield any fruitful agreement, more episodes such as Katrina are expected not only in America but worldwide.

President Obama’s major step against climate change is the Clean Power Plan, which created the first ever national emission limit on the electric power sector. As COP21 continues into day four, a hope hinges on world leaders to make an agreement to reduce emissions and for America to rid itself of the title of being the second largest emitter.


Kids Sue for Action on Climate Change


By Dylan Lenzen

Just in the last few years, groups of U.S. teenagers have begun filing lawsuits against state and federal governments in an effort to force governments to adequately respond to the threats posed to climate change. Some groups have actually been somewhat successful in doing so. The most monumental of these cases involves 21 children and renowned climate scientist James Hanson who are suing the Obama Administration and other federal agencies in an attempt to force serious action in response to climate change.

This most recent case involving the Obama administration is the result of multiple lawsuits filed by youth in all 50 states since 2011. Some of these cases have actually seen some success. Most recently, in Washington state, a group of 8 teenagers won their case against the Department of Ecology. The King County Supreme Court judge who heard the case did not agree with the teenagers’ argument in entirety, and as a result, did not order the Department of Ecology to draft rules for cutting carbon emissions. With that said the judge did state, “[the youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”

The organization that has inspired these recent legal efforts is Our Children’s Trust. Their work has culminated with a lawsuit with the Obama administration. The argument that is made by these young people accuses the federal government of infringing upon the rights of young people. In their own words, “in causing climate change, the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” So even though we are already feeling the impacts of climate change today, it is clear that future generations will be most affected by climate injustice.

This effort that seeks to create change through judicial channels as opposed to traditional ones and comes at a very important time. With the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris, it will be incredibly important that domestic policies show that the U.S. is adequately responding to threat that the science of climate change has shown. Utilizing the judicial system, the arm of government that appears least effected by the lobbying power of deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests, could prove to be an important step in ensuring domestic action is taken to combat climate change.

Winning this lawsuit against the federal government will not be without challenges. It could take years before the case even reaches the Supreme Court. Even if it does make it to the Supreme Court, it is difficult to say whether five justices will support a decision in support of Our Children’s Trust. In addition, the influence of fossil fuel interests will be difficult to avoid. Most recently, three trade groups, that represent the likes of Exxon Mobile, Koch Industries, and others, have requested to be allowed to join the Obama administration as co-defendants in the case.

Despite these challenges, we can only hope for future generation that our government will take the threat of climate change as a serious matter.


Three Stories of Environmental Progress to Celebrate This Thanksgiving


With social crises escalating in the US and worldwide, it can be difficult to find news stories to give thanks for or to celebrate. This week, there are a few stories of environmental progress that shine a light in the darkness. These victories on the community, national and international levels prove that positive change, though sometimes slow in coming, is always on the horizon.

1) Community Victory in St. Louis: Just last week, Missouri delegates introduced legislation that would transfer the Bridgeton and West Lake Superfund Sites to the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the EPA. Community activists are hopeful that this change in authority will yield positive results for the communities near the site. As Lois Gibbs wrote in a statement last week, this move will take advantage of the Corps’ technical expertise, while shifting clean-up responsibility from Republic Services, which has managed the site under the EPA.  This is not the end of the road for St. Louis communities who are threatened by a burning landfill creeping slowly towards another site containing radioactive waste. “What really must be moved is not only the jurisdiction of this clean-up, but vulnerable families. This is the first step on a long road to recovery for the families involved and for the natural environment,” said Gibbs.

2) National Decision on Keystone XL: On November 6th, President Obama announced his decision reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which would have  transported crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The potential for spills endangered the crucially important freshwater Oglalla aquifer and threatened communities along the pipeline’s route. Additionally, the pipeline project would have perpetuated injustices against indigenous people in Alberta Canada whose homes have been destroyed by tar sands development, while increasing impacts from oil refineries in the Gulf. Though this is undoubtedly a moment to celebrate, recent NPR coverage makes the point that “thousands of miles of pipelines have been built in the same time that people have debated the 875-mile stretch that would have completed the Keystone XL. And more are being built right now.” Though we are far from transforming the energy economy, the Keystone decision is a symbolic victory and a sign of the power of grassroots organizing.

3) International Community Gearing Up for Climate Negotiations: Even as Paris is reeling from devastating terror attacks last week, the city is still preparing to host the COP21 UN Climate Summit, where over 150 world leaders will gather and attempt to hash out an international response to climate change. The meeting is expected to result in the first climate agreement since the failed Kyoto Protocol. Though rallies and marches associated with the conference have been canceled in the wake of the attacks, thus removing a powerful channel for citizen actions, the talks will proceed, and will hopefully culminate in a powerful act of international solidarity in a city at its most vulnerable moment.

In the midst of international crises, the needle continues to move on critically important environmental justice issues, from community pollution to climate change. It’s the perfect time to give thanks for the community members and advocates who are fighting for change on these and other issues – to express gratitude for grassroots action that continues to guide the way forward to a more just world.