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The site of the Dan River spill in North Carolina. Photo by Appalachian Voices. See more photos here.
On Sunday, a stormwater pipe burst underneath an unlined pit storing wet coal ash at a retired Duke Energy coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, spilling up to 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River, six miles upstream from a drinking water source. Even more disturbing than that deeply disturbing news is that Duke Energy did not issue a press release and inform the public about this massive spill until 24 hours after it was discovered.
This event is far from over as the river is grey from the coal ash and Duke Energy has yet to implement a permanent solution to stop the flow of coal ash into the river.
Officials are saying the water treatment plant will be able to handle the coal ash, which contains arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, and many other toxic materials, but I'm guessing North Carolinians in that area still aren't feeling very safe when they turn the tap on. And now the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the water is not safe.
The Dan River after the coal ash spill. Photo by Appalachian Voices.
Sierra Club in North Carolina is responding to this coal ash spill with a coalition of groups. Unfortunately, the dangers of coal ash pollution are not new to the state Duke Energy operates thirteen additional coal ash waste pits in North Carolina, meaning more waterways and communities remain at risk.
Duke Energy is also responsible for the coal ash contamination of Mountain Lake, which is the drinking water source for 75,000 people in Charlotte. Meanwhile, its coal ash pollution in Sutton Lake kills 900,000 fish every year. And in Asheville, where Beyond Coal campaign is calling for the retirement of the Asheville coal plant, the old coal ash ponds are leaching toxic chemicals into the French Broad River.
Duke Energy and the state of North Carolina have known about contamination from aging and dangerous coal ash storage pits for years, yet have taken no action to clean up the waste pits and protect our waterways and our people. In fact, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources only took legal action against Duke's unlawful coal ash pits after conservation advocates like the Sierra Club forced their hand. Even then, DENR's customer-service approach would allow Duke Energy to continue business as usual.
As Grist's John Upton pointed out, Duke was quite confident their coal ash sites were all perfectly safe:
We know that confidence is far from reality.
Even Duke is changing its tune, as a spokesperson recently told the LA Times that storing coal ash in lagoons is outdated.
The Sierra Club calls on both Duke Energy and the State of North Carolina to be fully transparent with the public, releasing accurate and timely information about the scale of this latest spill and its consequences. As the spill is ongoing, nothing less than full disclosure and cooperation is acceptable.
Last week a settlement was announced that will require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will release its first-ever regulations for the disposal of toxic coal ash toxic waste product. But this deadline alone is not enough. These coal ash sites in North Carolina and across the U.S. are poisonous time bombs. We cannot afford any more coal ash spills.
-- Kelly Martin, Sierra Club North Carolina Senior Campaign Representative
President Obama said it best last week in his State of the Union address: "Climate change is a fact."
Few people know this better than winter athletes. Since climate disruption started drastically affecting the weather and the seasons, these athletes have seen winters with extreme weather ranging from Arctic cold temperatures to seasons so warm that no snow could fall.
When your livelihood depends on consistently cold temperatures year after year, it's not hard to see how climate disruption is a major problem.
But if you think these winter athletes are just going to let climate disruption take away their favorite season, think again.
In 2007, pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones started Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization dedicated "to engag[ing] and mobiliz[ing] the winter sports community to lead the fight against climate change. [Its] focus is on educational initiatives, advocacy and the support of community-based projects."
In April of last year, POW sent a letter signed by 75 professional winter athletes and Olympians to President Obama urging him to move toward renewable energy sources, put carbon limits on power plants, scrap the Keystone XL pipeline, and stop climate change in its tracks.
"As professional athletes, representing a community of 23 million winter sports enthusiasts, we're witnessing climate change first-hand," the letter states. " was the warmest year on record, and once again, we're currently experiencing another winter season of inconsistent snow and questionable extremes. Without a doubt, winter is in trouble."
But they didn't just stop there. Most recently, POW has launched the Riders Alliance, a group composed of 53 snowsports athletes from around the world who are dedicated to combating climate disruption and saving the snow.
To top it all off, 13 of these climate champions will be representing Team USA in the upcoming Olympic games. Jamie Anderson, Danny Davis, Alex Deibold, Kaitlyn Farrington, Arielle Gold, Chas Guldemond, Nate Holland, Lindsey Jacobellis, Devin Logan, Julia Mancuso, Steven Nyman, Kikkan Randall, and Hannah Teter are some of the greenest athletes competing for the red, white, and blue.
As the Olympics approach, the Riders Alliance, in conjunction with the Yale School of Forestry, will work to call attention to climate disruption at one the world's largest winter sports events. Five graduate students from the Yale program will travel to Sochi to make sure climate disruption "is part of the conversation, where it should be."
You can do your part to help these students and athletes make a difference in the fight to end climate disruption. As you watch the Olympic games, start a conversation about the cost climate disruption has on our winters. Tell your friends and family. Get the word out using Twitter and Facebook.
And make sure you support these athletes and Team USA by watching their competitions starting February 7. Let's cheer on our Olympic-sized environmental champions as they go for the gold.
Here's a quick viewing guide, so you can watch them compete and tweet your support:
Event: Men's Slopestyle
Date: Saturday, Feb. 8
Event: Ladies' Slopestyle
Date: Sunday, Feb. 9
Sport: Alpine Skiing
Event: Men's Downhill and Men's Super Combined
Date: Sunday, Feb. 9 and Friday, Feb. 14
Sport: Alpine Skiing
Event: Women's Super Combined and Women's Downhill
Date: Monday Feb. 10 and Wednesday, Feb.12
Event: Men's Halfpipe
Date: Tuesday, Feb. 11
Event: Ladies' Ski Slopestyle
Date: Tuesday, Feb. 11
Event: Ladies' Halfpipe
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 12
Event: Ladies' Halfpipe
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 12
Event: Ladies' Halfpipe
Date: Wednesday, Feb. 12
Event: Ladies' Snowboard Cross
Date: Sunday, Feb. 16
Event: Men's Snowboard Cross
Date: Monday, Feb. 17
Event: Men's Snowboard Cross
Date: Monday, Feb. 17
Sport: Cross-Country Skiing
-- Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team
Public hearing in Washington, DC, Thursday will be packed with supporters
This week we once again heard the call for action from Americans loud and clear: They want clean energy and they want it right away. On Tuesday the Sierra Club released a new poll with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research showing that seven-in-ten Americans favor the Environmental Protection Agency putting limits on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can release.
And that's not the only amazing statistic from the poll. Just look at the key findings:
- By nearly a 2-to-1 margin, voters think the country should be investing more in clean energy sources and energy efficiency rather than in fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas (61 percent clean energy vs. 33 percent traditional sources).
- A majority of voters (51 percent) "strongly" prefers investing in clean energy. Support is even higher among African-American voters (77 percent) and Latino voters (71 percent).
- A strong majority of voters (58 percent) favor the U.S. setting national goals to move away from coal and other fossil fuels and replace them with clean, renewable sources by the year.
- Two-in-three U.S. voters say the issue of climate disruption is a serious problem.
- The majority of voters (56 percent) believe that the government already limits the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can release, which the government currently does not.
We'll be taking these stats with us Thursday in Washington, D.C., to an EPA public hearing on its proposed carbon pollution standards. I’ll be testifying, and if you're in the D.C. area Thursday, you should join us!
Dirty power plants are a threat to our health and our climate, and this week's poll shows once again that President Obama and the EPA have the public support they need to ensure pending carbon pollution standards for power plants are strong enough to protect our families.
Millions of Americans have already sent in their comments supporting EPA's carbon pollution standards. Have you sent yours in yet?
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Imagine pumping 400 million gallons of fuel for your cars over the course of a year. That's roughly twice the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by BP in 2010. That's also the amount of fuel the federal government used in 2012. A new report by the General Services Administration shows that federal fleets are falling well short of goals set by President Obama to reduce oil consumption and shift to advanced vehicles.
In the Sierra Club's Future Fleet campaign, we are pushing large fleets to reduce their oil consumption and stop using dirty and dangerous tar sands oil wherever possible. As the largest single fleet operator in the country, the federal government has a tremendous opportunity to lead the nation in reducing our dependence on oil. In a 2009 executive order, President Obama set a goal of reducing oil use in the federal fleet 30 percent by 2020, and outlined more specific guidelines for federal fleet managers in a 2011 presidential memorandum.
In 2012 the federal government managed more than 650,000 vehicles around the world - roughly split in thirds among military vehicles, civilian agency vehicles, and the US Postal Service fleet. According to the GSA report, vehicles in the federal fleet drove more than five billion miles, consumed nearly 400 million gallons of fuel and incurred operating costs of $4 billion. While this represents a reduction in fuel use of five percent from 2011 to 2012, the federal fleet has only reduced oil use a total of three percent since 2005.
A closer look at the numbers reveals several interesting trends. The military has aggressively moved to reduce oil use in their vehicles, shedding five percent of its vehicles from 2011 to 2012, and reducing oil use ten percent compared to the previous year alone. These actions saved the military billions, reducing operating costs by more than five percent in just one year.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the US Postal Service. While the Postal Service did reduce the numbers of miles driven by its vehicles by 4.5 percent from 2011 to 2012, its fleet operating costs increased slightly, and it lagged behind the military and other civilian agencies, only reducing oil use by 2.5 percent.
The Postal Service fleet must operate nationwide in tough conditions; however, there are significant opportunities for using less oil and saving money. Currently, Postal Service delivery trucks achieve around 10 miles per gallon. A 2009 Postal Service analysis found that electric vehicles could cut maintenance costs substantially, and that fuel costs could be reduced from 33 cents a mile to five cents a mile by switching from gas to electricity. Just this week, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Representative Connolly (D-VA) introduced the FLEET Act, a bill that would require the Postal Service to reduce oil use two percent each year through 2025.
It is encouraging to see federal fleets taking important strides to reduce oil use; however, more action is needed to meet the ambitious goals set by President Obama. It is critical that the government continue to transition to advanced vehicles, such as plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, and show leadership in reducing our dependence on oil.
-- Jesse Prence-Dunn, Campaign Representative for the Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program
MSNBC's Chris Hayes had a great commentary on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline this weekend.
Are you attending one of the more than 280 Keystone XL protest vigils tonight?
It has been an inauspicious few days for congressional Republicans when it comes to action on the climate crisis. Hours before Tuesday’s State of the Union address, the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected an amendment that would simply have recognized that climate disruption is occurring. Minutes after the president was done speaking, four congressional Republicans gave four separate televised responses that offered a grand total of nothing regarding climate. And on Wednesday, that Republican congressional conference - of which a sizable majority deny basic climate science - began their three-day retreat at a place right in the path of some of climate disruption’s worst expected outcomes.
Speaker John Boehner and his colleagues are calling it a meeting of the “Congress of Tomorrow,” but if they continue to stand in the way of climate action, the place where they are having their retreat soon may not have a tomorrow. This year, the conference will be held at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina -- a resort located on Maryland’s waterfront, and just one of numerous areas on the eastern seaboard at risk of sea level rise.
Take a look at the map above, collected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s maps depicting the vulnerability of different regions to sea level rise and coastal flooding. The dark red indicates the retreat is occurring in an area of “High” vulnerability. The light blue shows the expected impact of sea level rise of up to six feet. Clearly, the choice of location is an ironic one for a group with so little to say on climate action.
Climate scientists have been very clear: As the earth’s temperatures continue to rise as a result of human activity -- such as burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas -- sea levels will continue to rise at an alarming rate. According to experts, the sea level in Maryland could rise upward of six feet by the end of the century.
It's not just Maryland. As of 2010, two out of every five Americans -- more than 123 million of us -- lived near the coast. This includes major cities like New York, New Orleans, Boston, and San Diego. And, in addition to the shoreline erosion, the costs, severity, and frequency of extreme storms like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Typhoon Haiyan are expected to increase in those areas.
If those storms weren't a wake-up call to every elected official that we need to act on climate, we can only hope the congressional Republicans' choice of location will help open their eyes to the reality of what’s at stake -- but, we certainly don’t expect it. After all, these are the folks who have earned the inauspicious designation as the most anti-environment Congress in history.
Even still, the worst effects of climate disruption won’t discriminate when it comes to political party -- National Geographic’s recent image of the effect on North America if all sea ice melts makes that shockingly clear. Whether they are looking at the coastline in Cambridge or at these projections, the dire need for action is staring climate deniers right in the face. The question they’ll be judged on is whether they actually do something about it.
Pretend you are a member of Congress. You’ve just received word that unless you take action to protect a certain policy, people in your district will lose their jobs and a growing industry in your community will be stopped in its tracks. What do you do?
Do you contact the leaders of your party to demand action? Do you hold a press conference telling your constituents what is at stake? Do you pledge to support that policy as best you can?
Well, if you are Pennsylvania Republicans Keith Rothfus and Bill Shuster, you keep your mouth shut, sit back and count the money you’ve raked in from the Koch Brothers.
That’s the devastating reality people in Cambria County, PA are seeing play out before their eyes, as the Gamesa wind turbine plant in their community just announced it was closing amid dire uncertainty over whether Congress will renew critical wind energy investments (see the Sierra Club's statement here). Now, with Gamesa leaving town, the steelworkers once employed there are left trying to make ends meet. To add insult to injury, these jobs could have been saved if people like Rothfus and Shuster had stepped up to protect them.
If anyone does, Rothfus and Shuster should know the huge positives of wind power. Out of 24 wind farms in the Commonwealth,16 are in their own districts - two out of every three. Wind is flourishing there, creating jobs, and powering thousands and thousands of homes and businesses, putting their friends and neighbors to work. But it’s sadly not that simple. With wind booming, fossil fuel billionaires like the Koch Brothers have gotten desperate to protect their profits and market shares, and opened up their wallets to try to kill wind energy.
To do so, the Kochs have launched a massive campaign targeting the Wind Energy Production Tax Credit - the vital investments that have helped spur wind innovation and job growth in Pennsylvania and across the country. They know that one of the reasons the cost of producing wind power has been cut in half in recent years is because we’ve been making wind turbines here at home, creating American jobs, so they’ve made it their goal to sabotage the industry. And, while the Kochs have been doing that, they’ve also dumped thousands upon thousands in campaign cash into the coffers of members of Congress like Shuster and Rothfus. In fact, in 2012, Shuster took $10,000 from Koch Industries while Rothfus took $5,000 -- and added another $7,000 this year. That’s thousands in anti-wind jobs money going into their pockets while wind jobs were about to get blown away.
It’s mystifying how these elected officials - meant to represent their constituents - could look at a plant just down the road from their homes and ignore the simple solutions before them that could save it from closure. Yet while they’ve been collecting those big checks from the Kochs, Rothfus and Shuster have been doing nothing to protect their constituents good-paying wind jobs. They haven’t voted in support of wind energy, they haven’t stood up with the other Republicans calling for action to protect wind investments, and they certainly haven’t told the Kochs to take their anti-American jobs agenda elsewhere.
Now, their constituents are paying the price in the form of lost jobs. Meanwhile, in a cherry-paneled drawing room somewhere, David and Charles Koch are toasting victory. This was a banner day for them, but devastating news for families in an area where wind jobs provided hope for a better future in the struggle to recover from the loss of steel industry jobs to overseas plants. Now, these wind jobs themselves may head overseas as well.
Workers in Pennsylvania and nationwide deserve better than a Congress that bows to the demands of fossil fuel executives who’ve proven they will destroy American manufacturing just to cling to their profits. By failing to protect wind jobs in their backyards, Shuster and Rothfus have shown they aren’t very good at their own.
--Dave Hamilton, Director of Sierra Club’s Clean Energy Program and Tom Schuster, Pennsylvania Campaign Representative
Late Wendesday we saw a victory for clean water and public health: The Sierra Club is pleased to be a part of a legal agreement with 11 organizations compelling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize safeguards against coal ash pollution by the end of this year. EPA first proposed these standards in 2010, and they have been mired in red tape ever since. If the final protections are strong, getting them over the finish line will be a major victory for public health, safe communities, and clean water.
Coal ash is the toxic by-product left over when coal is burned for electricity. It's a dangerous mix of lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and many other harmful metals and pollutants. When coal ash comes in contact with water, a soup of hazardous pollutants can leach out of the waste and poison our water. Every year, the nation's coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution -- and those tons of toxic material are stored in unlined ponds and uncovered piles nationwide.
The communities living in the shadows of power plants have been living with this dangerous pollution for decades. As I mentioned in my column last week - just look at Charlotte, N.C., where Duke Energy's coal ash has contaminated the lake that provides drinking water for the 750,000 residents in the area. In the wake of the West Virginia coal chemical spill earlier this year, it's more clear than ever that we must close all the water pollution loopholes that the coal industry has enjoyed for far too long. This coal ash standard is a big one.
But the pollution doesn't stop with the water - coal ash also dirties the air. Just ask the Moapa Band of Paiutes living next to the Reid Gardner coal plant in Nevada, who joined this suit, or the residents living near the Louisville Gas & Electric Cane Run Power Plant, where coal ash has caused "persistent" air quality and health issues for years now.
The unlined ponds are also a major threat to nearby communities because of the risk of dam failures. We saw that in the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster in Roane County, Tennessee, when one billion gallons of coal ash spilled into a beautiful riverside community. The vast majority of states do not require adequate monitoring or liners to stop the release of toxic chemicals nor do they ensure that massive earthen dams are maintained safely to prevent another disaster like the 2008 coal ash spill.
This is alarming, considering that there are at least 50 high hazard coal ash dams throughout the U.S.
Despite coal ash being so toxic, it's less regulated than your household garbage. Unfortunately, since the 2008 Tennessee spill, the coal industry has lobbied hard to block the EPA from establishing strong protections. For the polluters, all that matters is keeping operating costs as low as possible. The costs to society of the misery and disease their pollution causes are no concern of theirs.
While the EPA has thoroughly documented the dangers of coal ash and the public has been outspoken asking for protections -- Americans have sent more than 450,000 comments asking, and turned out by the hundreds to five public hearings -- the EPA has failed to set federal limits on the pollution. Our settlement requires EPA to protect these communities with federal action by the end of this year.
So today we celebrate this move in the right direction for clean air and water and our health.
We will continue to working with affected communities to push the administration to ensure that the EPA finalizes a standard that is strong, federally enforceable, and truly protects communities living near these dangerous sites.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Don’t panic if you momentarily think your television is going haywire tonight. You may try to change the channel, only to see bizarrely similar images on screen. You may mash the buttons on your remote only to hear similar words being uttered by different voices. Don’t worry - you aren’t hallucinating. You won’t have to pay an expensive repair bill. You don’t even need to change the batteries in your remote. You’re just stuck in the twilight zone that is... the Republican response to the State of the Union address.
Tonight, we’re eager to hear what President Obama will say about clean energy and climate action. And, it appears his Republican opponents are just as eager to respond, as no fewer than three different people will deliver separate rebuttals. For years, it’s been standard practice for the opposing party to deliver a response to the President. But, just one response to one speech. Now, with the Republican Party increasingly fractured, constant jockeying for political position among factions means a mad dash for airtime that has Congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rogers of Washington, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky each deliver a nationally-televised response.
What’s all that mean for our climate crisis? Not a whole heck of a lot. That’s because even with three voices speaking, we shouldn’t expect to hear one positive word about our booming clean energy economy, one sentence about why we have to act on climate, or even one hiccup about the dangers of dirty fossil fuels. Take a look at their records, and you’ll see why:
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 4%
Thinks 97% of Climate Scientists Agreeing on Climate Disruption is “Inconclusive”
Took almost $177,000 from oil and gas special interests
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy like wind and solar
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 16%
Took almost $131,000 from oil, gas, and mining special interests
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy like wind and solar
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 8%
Thinks the 97% of Climate Scientists Agreeing on Climate Disruption are “making up facts”
Took almost $260,000 from oil, gas, and mining special interests
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy
With records as identical as those, Americans should fully expect three voices giving the exact same speech - or offering the exact same silence - when it comes to climate action. It looks like they won’t just be competing for airtime tonight -- they’ll also be competing for sand to bury their heads in.
Trade can help spread environmentally friendly technologies, but if the products we’re trading harm the environment, everyone loses.
Today, a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) countries including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, launched a new set of negotiations to eliminate tariffs on a set of supposedly environmentally beneficial products.
According to a statement put out by the countries involved in the initiative, the negotiations will build on the work of the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2012, these 21 countries agreed to reduce or eliminate tariffs by the end of 2015 on a list of 54 "environmentally beneficial" products. The theory is that if governments reduce or eliminate tariffs, the products will be more frequently traded.
While the APEC commitment was non-binding and not legally enforceable, a WTO agreement on environmental goods and services, if one is reached, would be.
So, it sounds like a good thing, right? Well, while the goal of increasing use of and trade in environmentally beneficial products is certainly noble, I have serious concerns about the approach taken up by APEC, and now the WTO.
In fact, if you dig into the list of products whose tariffs would be reduced or eliminated—the starting point for the WTO negotiations—you'll see that many would actually harm the environment.
Incinerators, for example, are used to burn waste material and release toxic chemicals and byproducts into the air, water, and ground. Secondly, steam generators are found in equipment used in dirty fuel-production processes such as nuclear and coal-fired power plants that pour harmful toxic chemicals into the air we breathe and emit climate-disrupting carbon pollution. Also, centrifuges, which are used to filter and purify water for a variety of reasons, can also be used in the production of oil and tar sands -- dirty fuels which should be on their way out as more clean energy comes online in America.
Many developing countries, like India, see this approach as an expansion of “free trade” that will benefit the corporations in developed countries, but it could end up harming our already-fragile climate. India—which is not one of the countries that launched the initiative—has proposed a different, potentially more promising approach that would essentially allow for temporary tariff cuts on specific goods that are needed in environmental projects, therefore making sure the products will actually benefit the environment.
As we transition to a clean energy economy, we should increase the use of and trade in environmentally friendly technologies. But unlocking the clean energy revolution should not be under the thumb of the WTO or through a purely "free-market approach." Instead, the key to unlocking clean energy is developing home-grown approaches to renewable energy production and manufacturing that lift up and protect workers within and outside of the U.S.
If countries in the WTO want to truly help the environment and climate, there are a number of other critical steps they must take. For one, these countries should stop negotiating trade agreements that include the harmful investor-state dispute settlement process that has increasingly allowed foreign corporations to bodyslam clean energy and climate policies in other countries. For example, Swedish energy firm Vattenfall is currently suing Germany for its phase-out of nuclear energy, and U.S.-incorporated Lone Pine Resources is suing Canada over a moratorium on fracking in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River.
WTO countries could also allow local job-creating clean energy policies to flourish -- but they’re not, in some cases. Last year, as examples, Japan and the EU challenged Ontario’s clean energy and green jobs program at the WTO; the United States is investigating whether India’s national solar program bumps up against WTO rules; and China is investigating whether to take WTO action against certain EU countries over their clean energy programs.
If we’re going to face this climate crisis together, developed nations—those historically responsible for producing the greatest amount of climate-disrupting pollution—must also provide finance and clean technology to developing countries. Discussions on the transfer of finance and technology are already ongoing at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Developed countries like the U.S. must step up and share resources that actually help the environment and communities. After all, we all share the same planet.
--Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program Director
Earlier this week my West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said the following about whether people should be drinking the water in Charleston and downstream: "It's your decision....I'm not a scientist."
For the 300,000 people affected by the coal chemical spill from two weeks ago, I bet that's very reassuring. Quite a profile in courage, our governor. Even less reassuring, the news came out Wednesday that there was another mysterious chemical spill in that leak, and officials are now testing to make sure the water treatment facility removed that chemical.
And it gets worse - how about this article featuring a former WV coal miner Joe Stanley, who says:
It sounds bad even before Stanley explains that coal mines are constantly pumped to clear ground water, aquifers, and underground streams: "As soon as we're out of that mine it immediately fills with water. And where does it go from there? I don't know, your guess is as good as mine."
Stanley says he hasn't drunk the water for years and that no one else should either.
We know the coal industry is getting away with poisoning our waterways nationwide, and a new study of federal data by the Associated Press shows just that. Coal industry chemicals and waste "have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies, spoiling private wells, shutting down fishing and rendering streams virtually lifeless."
And here's the damning detail: "(B)ecause these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill such as the recent one in West Virginia."
Coal-fired power plants are the nation's biggest water polluters, spewing millions of pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants like arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and selenium into surface waters each year.
Beyond West Virginia, need another example of how close to home this contamination can be? Duke Energy's coal ash pollution is contaminating North Carolina's Mountain Island Lake - a drinking water source for more than 750,000 people in the greater Charlotte area.
Additionally, Duke Energy's coal ash pollution from one coal plant in North Carolina kills 900,000 fish every year in Sutton Lake -- and that's just how it affects the fish!
In West Virginia, parents are wondering if they can let their kids drink the water, pregnant women are being told to drink bottled water -- and we don't even know yet the full effects of these leaked chemicals on the land and aquatic wildlife.
How much longer will we let the coal industry play fast and loose with our water? From coal processing chemicals, to the toxics scrubbed while burning coal, to the coal ash left behind - the industry is poisoning an element necessary for all life: water. It's time to close these water pollution loopholes once and for all.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director. Photo courtesy of WV Clean Water Hub.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its 2013 Annual Climate Report, which found that the United States experienced seven weather- and climate-related disasters that resulted in more than $1 billion in damages. (See infographic below.) Specific dollar amounts for each event will be released later this year.
The report contains numerous maps, charts, and graphics such as the one below, highlighting some of last year's significant weather and climate events.
2013 was both warmer and wetter than average for the contiguous United States. The report includes a summary of national and regional temperatures and precipitation, including drought, wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms, snow and ice, tornadoes, and -- for the more technically minded -- a "Synoptic Discussion describing recent weather events and climate anomalies in relation to the phenomena that cause the weather."
After his stop in Los Angeles, everyone’s favorite cartoon clownfish, Nemo, continued his tour of the U.S., stepping out in sub-freezing temperatures in Washington, D.C. to ask Americans to help him save his home, the Great Barrier Reef.
What’s Nemo doing touring the U.S.? Is he lost again?
While the Australian Embassy and Alliance 21 – a partnership that includes large corporations and big polluters like DOW Chemical, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, GE, NewsCorp, Morgan Stanley and Raytheon – hosted a dialogue on energy and Asia as part of “G’Day USA,” a month-long promotion of Australian business interests, Nemo hit the streets to protest possible U.S. involvement in plans that could destroy the reef.
Not one–but two–companies, GVK and Adani, want to open new enormous coal mines in Australia’s Galilee Basin, and then dredge (the destructive operation of scooping up and moving sediment from waterways) within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site to expand shipping channels to take theNemo at the White House
coal to Asia. But that’s not all. Media reports have linked the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) to the projects, which means U.S. tax dollars could help finance the scheme – something Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg has failed to deny, despite going against the spirit of President Obama’s pledge to end financing for coal plants overseas in his Climate Action Plan.
Dredging in the Great Barrier Reef will put clownfish like Nemo, as well as sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and many other amazing coral reef creatures in grave danger. Sustainability agency UNESCO has even warned the Australian government that dredging could endanger the Reef’s World Heritage status. Meanwhile, numerous reports have shown the projects are a financial boondoggle, and investors continue to drop out of dredging projects.
You can help Nemo save his home by tweeting at the G’Day USA event organizers and the U.S. Export-Import Bank and telling them to #SaveTheReef:
Hey @GDAYUSAofficial @EximBankUS: #SaveTheReef for clownfish like Nemo. Say no to dredging for #coal exports http://sc.org/1mH2ZZx
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program
By Javier Sierra
A gale of good news is hitting both the wind industry and the future of the planet.
The new year started out with two world records. Spain became the first country ever to get more energy from wind than any other source during a complete year in 2013, with a 21.1-percent share at 55 gigawatts (GW). According to Spain’s Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2013, this clean energy was able to bring the price of electricity from $150 per megawatt (MW)/hour down to $7 per MV/hour.
Wind farm in Southern Spain (Photo: J. Sierra)
And in December, Denmark became the first country ever to generate more than half of its energy from wind, a total of 54.8%. Specifically, on December 21, wind fulfilled that country’s entire energy demand, and over the course of the year, it produced one third of the consumed total.
The good news also abounds here at home. In Texas, during the extreme cold spell that gripped almost the entire country during the first week of the year, wind energy saved the day for a grid that was overwhelmed by demand. On January 7, when several power plants shut down, wind energy from Western Texas avoided dangerous blackouts throughout the state. This is the logical result of Texas having added more wind energy to the grid than any other state.
And throughout the US, the breeze of good news has become a veritable gale. In 2012, the country’s wind energy capacity surpassed 60 GV (enough to power 15 million homes), no other country installed more wind energy than the US, and wind added more power to the national grid than any other source, including natural gas.
It’s no wonder then that the price of wind power is hitting record lows: 4 cents per KW/hour, 50 percent less than in 2009. It’s no wonder also that the utility owned by Warren Buffett has invested $1 billion to purchase enough wind turbines in Iowa to generate 1,000 MW.
The price of the alternative to clean energy, on the other hand, is simply unacceptable. According to a Harvard University study, every year the costs of coal pollution —also known as externalities— hit $500 billion (one 5 followed by 11 zeros), in premature deaths, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, cancer and other factors. Big Coal pays nothing out of this huge price tag. They instead dump it on you, me and the rest of the country.
Considering these arguments, it’s simply astonishing that Congress still is to renew the Production Tax Credit (PTC), one of the several tax incentives that invest in job creation in the clean energy industry. Just wind supports 80,000 jobs in the US, and 72% of the equipment needed to build wind turbines is manufactured in our country.
The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, calls the US Capitol home. Each year, oil, coal and gas companies receive up to $52 billion in subsidies; that is, a gift from the taxpayer, you, me and everyone else.
Tell Congress that renewing the PTC is crucial for the wind industry to continue its smooth sailing.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
As a West Virginian, this has been a sad, frustrating, and infuriating time for me, though I do not live in the area affected by last week's coal chemical spill. More than 300,000 people in the WV capital of Charleston and downstream counties have been without water for eight days and counting.
The chemical that spilled is used to process coal after it's mined, to separate the coal from other substances before it's carried away on trains or river barges. A tank of this chemical, located immediately above the largest drinking water intake in WV, leaked. Very little is known about the chemical and its health effects - and WV officials are saying they also don't know where else in the state this chemical is stored.
Some residents have been told they can start flushing out their water systems while others are still using bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Even where the water is back on, it’s undrinkable, forcing residents to continue their reliance on bottled and shipped in water -- an especially heavy burden on the areas poorest residents. In fact, "do not use" orders are being reissued in some places.
Now the CDC is saying the test it used to determine "safe" levels of the leaked chemical humans can drink focused on the wrong chemical!
What's more, on Wednesday, six days post-spill and after the water had been deemed "safe" in some areas, officials issued an advisory urging pregnant women to drink only bottled water. As the mom of a three-year-old, I can only imagine what a scary time this must be for all the new and expecting moms in the middle of this crisis.
Earlier this week, I appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to talk about the spill, along with the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a Washington Post reporter, and a staffer from an anti-regulatory think tank. A few people have told me that they were shocked and even brought to tears by the program, which you can listen to here.
The Sierra Club has a long-time organizer in Charleston -- Bill Price -- and, in the immediate aftermath of the spill, he has been working closely with allies on relief efforts to provide people with water. In some rural communities, volunteer water distribution has been the only relief for residents, believe it or not. Earlier this week we profiled one West Virginian who is part of that effort, Dustin White, to underscore that this crisis is a long way from over, and frankly highlight the continuing failure of the state to safeguard the health of its people.
If you want to make a donation to help support the volunteer water distribution efforts still under way, you can donate to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and make a note that your gift is for the WV water crisis.
As I described on the Diane Rehm Show, this tragedy is a direct product of a regulatory system held hostage by the coal industry for decades. The site where the tank leaked hadn't been inspected by the state since 1991! In the state of the state address just days before the accident, the governor vowed to "never back down from the Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal." In the immediate wake of the disaster, the governor has repeatedly asserted that the coal industry had nothing to do with this spill - which is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer.
This spill pulls the curtain back on water problems that people in the Appalachian coalfields have been pleading for decades to have addressed. Each year, after this chemical and others are used to "wash" coal, billions of gallons of leftover slurry - a witches brew of chemicals and water - are typically either injected into old underground mines (which leaches into groundwater) or stored behind earthen dams, some of which are larger than the Hoover Dam.
You can read more about the coal industry’s threat to water in this article and others in the Charleston Gazette, whose reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been doing Pulitzer-caliber reporting on the spill, in my estimation. And I urge you to support the West Virginia-based organizations fighting this battle for clean water -- Keeper of the Mountains, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia.
It's time to hold these polluters and decision-makers accountable, and to work to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. A candlelight vigil is being planned for next Tuesday in Charleston, and allies around the country are planning their own events in solidarity.
Finally, you can take action now to tell President Obama that West Virginia leaders cannot be trusted to regulate the coal industry.
This spill only underscores the coal industry's widespread use of dangerous chemicals, and the cost to Appalachian communities and mountains. If the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to turn a blind eye to polluters, President Obama should direct federal agencies to do the job the DEP will not do.
Tell President Obama to step in and stand up for the health of West Virginia communities.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
In 1998, seven years after the last inspection of the Freedom Industries chemical storage site on the Elk River, Jen-Osha Buysee founded Aurora Lights. Her non-profit has dedicated itself to restoring a sense of balance between communities and the land around them. Jen-Osha, her staff and a band of volunteers spend their time raising awareness about the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining, promoting local arts and engaging in educational programs for youth in West Virginia.
Now, she and her dedicated group of citizens spend their time trucking load after load of clean water from their base in Morgantown two and a half hours down Highway 79 to the small towns around Charleston that are still without clean water more than a week after the water crisis began.
Jen-Osha is acting on an urge many of us feel but never quite seem to act on when all is well. Uncommon in normal times, the impulse to reach out and help those in need, has turned into the driving passion for many in West Virginia.
As they look upon community members in need, folks from across the state and, truly, the nation have turned out their pockets and given their time to ensure people in the hills and hollows of rural West Virginia have clean water.
It's something many of us take for granted. Water, clean and pure from the tap, seems to be an undeniable truth.
Sadly, the Freedom Industries disaster pulled back the curtain on a silent crisis that has been poisoning West Virginians water for years.
Clean water, safe and available for all, is a right we should all expect without interruption and certainly without fear of harm or danger. But this is not the case in Appalachia. Here, the coal and chemical industries have done their level best in the last few decades to stunt reasonable clean water protections; and they’ve succeeded. The current crisis is just the most visible of the tragedies that these miners, farmers, teachers and community members face every day.
That’s what makes Jen-Osha, and those who share her passion, so extraordinary; her years of advocacy and educational efforts and her strong links to the community have turned into real action. During the crisis she has worked tirelessly to get donations for bottled water and then moved to get it to those in need. She and her team have loaded up everything from large flatbed trucks to personal vehicles in order to truck water on a 6 to 8 hour round trip into some of the hardest hit parts of the state. Taking water to places like Boone County, Pennsboro, West Union and Moorehead where she’ll be today.
It is amazing to see such an outpouring of support by so many in times of crisis. Lax clean water protections, years of government indifference and industries who care more about their own bottom line than they do about the wellbeing of the communities where they exist brought this crisis about. But it’s the people, with a love for their community, working to ensure the right to clean water for everyone, even when the government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens that is the real story right now.
Soon, we’ll all ask how it is we can ensure this never happens again. But right now, across West Virginia people are showing just how strong our communities truly are.
The veil has finally been lifted from the controversial environment chapter of what could be the largest free trade pact in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Thanks to WikiLeaks, who posted a draft of the chapter today, we can finally see the text that has been kept from the public for nearly four years.
And sadly, what we're seeing is not pretty.
The environment chapter is one of 29 TPP chapters, and the third one to be leaked to the public. The leaked environment chapter is markedly different from the leaked investment and intellectual property chapters in important ways. The previous two leaks—both designed to protect corporate interests—are full of strong, binding, and legally enforceable language that undoubtedly protects big business. The leaked environment chapter is unenforceable and rife with weak language, according to an analysis of the leaked text by the Sierra Club, WWF, and NRDC.
The leaked environment chapter text falls flat on the standard for environment chapters from the past seven years. Since the May 2007 bipartisan consensus on trade by the Bush administration and Congress, the environment chapters of all U.S. free trade agreements have been legally enforceable and included a list of environmental treaties that countries committed to uphold. Today's leaked text—which is both unenforceable and does not include obligations to uphold commitments made under environmental treaties—does not meet the standard set by Congress.
As Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club stated, “If the environment chapter is finalized as written in this leaked document, President Obama’s environmental trade record would be worse than George W. Bush’s. This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues - oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections - and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts.”
Last fall, 24 environmental organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Froman calling for a strong and legally enforceable environment chapter that includes the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies; a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish; and obligations to uphold domestic environmental laws and commitments under multilateral environmental agreements. The draft environment chapter fails to deliver on the demands of civil society.
The text does confirm that the U.S. has been pushing to strengthen the chapter, but they face strong resistance from other TPP countries.
So let’s take a look at what is actually included in the text.
Multilateral Environmental Agreements
Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are agreements between a set of governments designed to protect the environment. Since the May 2007 bipartisan agreement on trade, all trade pacts have obligated that countries uphold their commitments made under MEAs. This is critical, as it helps ensure that countries don't waive or weaken their obligations under MEAs in order to attract trade or investment, and ensures that a country faces consequences if it does.
However, the leaked text takes a significant step back from the May 2007 agreement. Instead of committing countries to uphold their obligations under MEAs, each TPP country is merely asked to “affirm its commitment” to implement the MEAs to which it is a Party. That's like affirming that you made New Year's Resolutions rather than actually being held accountable for keeping them.
The leaked environment chapter text represents an enormous rollback from the dispute resolution process laid out in the May 2007 agreement and recent trade pacts. The agreement stipulated that “all of our [free trade agreement] environmental obligations will be enforced on the same basis as the commercial provisions of our agreements—same remedies, procedures, and sanctions. Previously, our environmental dispute settlement procedures focused on the use of fines, as opposed to trade sanctions, and were limited to the obligation to effectively enforce environmental laws.”
The leaked text of the TPP environment chapter, however, sends us back to a pre-2007 world. If a country violates one of its obligations in the environment chapter, the country will receive an action plan, presumably laying out how to come into compliance with the chapter. If the action plan is ignored or not implemented adequately, there is no recourse. This vastly insufficient process is an unacceptable rollback of previous commitments and makes the obligations in this chapter meaningless.
The leaked text recognizes the role of TPP countries as major consumers, producers, and traders of fisheries products and the global problem of overfishing. The text includes actions and commitments to address the problems of overfishing and the unsustainable use of fisheries resources, but the actions in many cases are weak and, thanks to the insufficient dispute process described above, basically meaningless.
As just one example, the text does not contain any clear requirements for a ban on shark finning, even though TPP countries are notorious shark fishing nations and traders in shark fins, and U.S. law requires that the U.S. seeks such bans from other countries.
The text also includes weak language on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish —one of the most important issues to the Sierra Club. For example, the text requires that countries take appropriate measures that “allow it to take action” to prohibit trade of illegally taken timber, wildlife, and fish. The provision, however, stops short of requiring countries to take action to stop illegal trade that threatens communities and ecosystems.
The current state of the environment chapter is completely unacceptable. It's unbelievable to think that TPP countries have agreed to allow foreign corporations to attack public interest policies in private trade tribunals, but they can't agree to a binding environment chapter with strong commitments to help protect natural resources.
This text proves why so many Members of Congress don’t want to give the president “fast-track” authority that could help rush the TPP over the finish line with almost no Congressional input. Tell Congress to reject fast track—legislation that would strip Congress of its own ability to ensure that the TPP, including the environment chapter, actually protects communities and the environment. And the TPP governments must stop pandering to the interest of big corporations and get serious about protecting families and the environment.
--Ilana Solomon, Director of Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program
"Saying this chemical spill has nothing to do with coal is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer."
Those are the words from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt on this morning's Diane Rehm Show. Mary Anne was on to discuss last week's Freedom Industries coal chemical spill in West Virginia, which has left more than 300,000 people without water. You can listen to the whole interview here.
While WV Governor Tomblin is trying to act as if this coal chemical spill has nothing to do with the coal industry, but West Virginians know better:
While some areas are being allowed to flush their home and business water systems now and start using their water again, a huge amount of people still do not have access to water. And, we have reports from folks in Charleston that they’re not ready to trust the tap water yet.
But for those being allowed to drink and bathe in their water again Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston Gazette, and many others are asking, "how do they know it's safe?" From Ward's article:
Stories are also coming out about parents coping with the lack of clean water for special needs kids and babies. Others are wondering how long the spill had really been going on before it was discovered.
Even Erin Brockovich was in West Virginia for a meeting with affected residents Monday night. Watch her discuss the crisis in this Democracy Now interview.
The long-term effects on the environment from this chemical are uncertain as well.
Authorities are ordering Freedom Industries to preserve all evidence on site as the investigation continues, and the state Department of Environmental Protection officials who first arrived on the scene of the spill (which, by the way, Freedom Industries did not report until after state investigators showed up) last week say the site was not well contained:Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say. "This was a Band-Aid approach," said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb. "It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened."
On top of that, the West Virginia officials admitted Tuesday that they had no plan in place for a spill of this nature:West Virginia emergency planners never put together any strategy for dealing with spills of a toxic chemical from the Freedom Industries' tank farm, despite the facility's location just 1.5 miles upstream from a drinking water intake serving 300,000 people, officials acknowledged this morning. Local emergency official likewise didn't act to prepare for such an incident, even though they had been warned for years about storage of toxic chemicals so close to the West Virginia American Water plant serving the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region.
Others note that this lack of planning is yet another example of loopholes in current federal protections regarding chemicals. In fact, the Freedom Industries site hadn't been inspected since 1991.
What's more, as Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt again pointed out on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, this lack of protections and inspections are simply "pulling the curtain back on something people in West Virginia have been dealing with for a long time."
In this powerful piece from Al-Jazeera, West Virginians discuss the on-going legacy of coal's water pollution in the state. Some residents will lose their well water due to coal pollution and get connected to city water:
Meanwhile, The New Republic digs even more into coal's pollution history in West Virginia. Know why so many people relied on the Elk River for their water? Because industry has polluted the rest of the rivers in West Virginia.
Activists across, and beyond, the state point to an anti-water protection atmosphere in West Virginia as one major reason the Elk River spill and others like it are not prevented. One anti-regulatory industry front-group, Americans for Prosperity even solicited water donations for West Virginians, which prompted this response from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt:
I'll close with these clips from the Daily Show, which always does an amazing and eloquent job saying "WTF?" when these disasters happen.
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team
Running alongside the Little Coal River in Boone County, West Virginia is the sleepy town of Van. Technically an unincorporated census-designated place, this small residential area calls itself home to around 200 people -- all of whom, since last Thursday's spill, have been without water.
While state and federal agencies have focused on getting water to the big towns in the region, like Charleston, only dedicated volunteers have made the journey to Van, and innumerable other places like it in the sparsely populated valleys and hollows that make up much of the region left without running water by the Freedom Industries chemical spill.
Thankfully, a corps of community-minded citizens has risen to moment, delivering water to underserved areas throughout the region, calling in to let folks know when water has been delivered to local stores and acting as a rapid response team for folks in need in central and southern West Virginia.
One of the people deeply involved in this effort is Boone County resident Dustin White. Dustin, the son of a coal miner, grew up at the foot of Cook Mountain, named for an ancestor of his, in a place called James Creek Hollow. It is quintessentially Appalachian and as Dustin puts it, "I never had a lot of fancy toys and gadgets - none of the luxuries of the modern-day kid, but I never knew I went without. The hillsides and all they had to offer were my playground. The rocks, the sticks, the wildlife - they were my best friends. I spent most of my childhood in the mountain stream that flowed in front of my home catching crawdads and salamanders, seeing what could be found, or just simply how far I could go."
Now, Dustin is going as far as he can for his neighbors; donating his time to make sure that communities across the Coal River Valley have the water they need. On Sunday Dustin, along with a team of volunteers, drove down from Charleston to the Pond Fork area in Boone County to deliver water to people in Van and other communities along the Little Coal River.
Sadly, this isn't the first time chemicals related to coal mining have been dumped into the Little Coal River. In fact, it’s not even the first time in the last six months. Last September, the Wharton coal prep plant, owned by a subsidiary of Patriot Coal, dumped 2,000 gallons of a chemical called DT-50-D into a tributary of the river, turning the water white for miles downstream.
People in mountaintop removal mining communities across the Appalachian region are faced with these spills, and the health implications that come with them, far more frequently than anyone else in the nation. Lax oversight from the state government and inaction on federal protections means these sorts of events are likely to continue into the future.
There is a dual tragedy here. First, the inability of anyone in power to do anything about the underlying problem: proper protection of our communities and our water from coal pollution. But, in some ways, what’s worse is that the responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of Appalachians in crisis has to fall on the shoulders of people like Dustin. But, thankfully for the people of Van, he and others like him are there when the state government can't be.
Top photo courtesy of EarthJustice. Bottom photo by Shawn Poynter.
Indian development is at a pivotal moment. From stagnant economic growth to a raging Current Account Deficit (CAD) Crisis, to widespread anger over corruption in politics, the inevitability of India's ascent no longer seems assured. The last of which explains why voters overwhelmingly supported the Aam Admi Party (AAP) ('common man' party) in recent elections. This newly minted party (formed out of the Anna Hazare anti corruption movement) has the people's support to clean up Indian politics starting in Delhi. The question now is whether the party of the people will focus on the element common to all three challenges facing India: energy.
The Indian government is going bankrupt paying foreign countries for fossil fuels (mostly oil but increasingly coal) that are powering a broken system that fails the poor but rewards widespread corruption.
Whether it's the $34 billion coal-gate scandal that rocked the Congress government or the financially broke state discoms, the system is a mess. Right now it is propping up a massive coal bubble that has left 300 million people without power while simultaneously killing around 100,000 people every year.
But how will the AAP's popular mandate make a people's energy system out of this morass? The answer is governance and accountability in the power grid.
Already the AAP is demanding accountability and governance from the Delhi state discom under investigation over allegations that they've hidden profit in order to justify rate hikes. Cleaning up the discoms is a first step in cleaning up a rot that runs deep in the centralized grid.
That also means a reversal of the culture of fast-tracking industrial projects over the protests of the people. To understand just how deeply entrenched that culture is consider this - at the very same time the AAP began investigating state discoms, the Environment Secretary, Jayanthi Natarajan, stepped down amongst rumors she has not approved coal and industrial projects quickly enough despite the fact that she did not deny approval to a single thermal power project last year. Worse, she was replaced with, of all people, the petroleum minister, and not five days later a committee chaired by Prime Minister Singh himself cleared nine new coal projects.
But how exactly can this culture be reversed? Empowering the National Green Tribunal where the people take their grievances and letting them actually be heard would be a start. That, along with empowering the Ministry of Environment and Forests to force coal plants to clean up their toxic pollution by improving India's abysmal air quality standards (which are four to 20 times worse than China's) would go a long way towards ensuring the poor are no longer forced to bear the brunt of the countries development. Already the AAP is using its popular mandate to take steps in this direction by aligning its energy policy with grassroots movements and popular resistance.
But to truly create a people's energy plan there must be solutions for the 300 million people currently failed by the centralized grid. That means powering the rural poor (and the hundreds of millions of urban residents who suffer from prolonged power outages) with the fastest, cheapest, most effective solution available - decentralized clean energy. Whether its mini-grids anchored by off-grid cell phone towers, or pay-as-you-go rooftop solar, decentralized clean energy will bring power to the people.
India need look no further than neighboring Bangladesh to see how effective such a people-centric policy can be. Already the country has installed 1.9 million solar home systems, putting it on track to reach 25 percent of all off-grid households with clean energy by the end of 2014. This off-grid clean energy powerhouse is at the forefront of the world's next wireless revolution - electricity. A revolution that will overwhelmingly benefit the poor.
With national elections looming the AAP has opened up important space in Indian politics. It now has an incredible opportunity to broaden its anti-corruption platform by creating truly people-centric policies from energy to health to education. India finally has a people's party. Perhaps now it will also have a people's energy plan.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International