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By Lynn Hartung, Michigan Chapter volunteer
Between 33 and 40 percent of these clubs are large national chains like Anytime Fitness, Snap Fitness, Planet Fitness, Powerhouse, Fitness 19, Lifetime Fitness, and LA Fitness. Each boasts how fast they are growing and of their profits -- yet few of them are willing to spend approximately $100 a month to recycle plastic bottles. How sad!
So many of the battles we environmentalist fight are long, hard struggles, where we are fighting against big corporations and big money. I believe with a little effort we can persuade the large national chain fitness clubs to require their franchises to recycle.
The nature of the fitness business results in people needing to hydrate themselves, so fitness businesses, more than practically any other, have a much higher usage of plastic bottles and the consequent potential of polluting the planet by failing to recycle.
One would think that since they are promoting health and fitness, the fitness industry would want to promote a healthy environment for their members and themselves to live in. But my research hasn't found this to be true.
For well over a year, I have been "nagging" the Planet Fitness gym where I am a member to recycle. Recently, I did a little investigation of my gym's trash (yup, I dug through it) and found 28 plastic bottles in the women's locker room wastebasket at 1:00 p.m. I assume by the end of the day the bottle count in that one basket would be 50 or more.
Now multiply that by two to account for the number of bottles in the men's locker room and add another 50 or more for the numerous wastebaskets found throughout the gym. That is somewhere between 100 and 200 plastic bottles a day going to a landfill from just this one gym. The owner of the PF Gym to which I belong owns ten PF gyms. I did the math to figure out how many bottles were going to the landfill and got pretty upset! Then I called all 36 PF gyms in Michigan and found out that only four of them recycle.
Here is the simple disturbing math of bottles going to the landfill, using only 100 bottles:
In Michigan, there are 32 Planet Fitness gyms that do not recycle: 100 bottles x 32 gyms x 350 days = 1.12 million plastic bottles going to the landfills in Michigan just from Planet Fitness
In Michigan, there are over 1,000 gyms; some are smaller gyms, some recycle, so I will use 700 gyms: 100 bottles x 700 gyms x 350 days = 24.5 million plastic bottles going to the landfills in Michigan
In the U.S. there are over 30,000 gyms; some do recycle and may not be large, so I will use 20,000 gyms: 100 bottles x 20,000 gyms x 350 days = 700 million bottles going to the landfills in the U.S.
To verify this wasn't just a Michigan problem, I randomly called 10 PF gyms in 10 different states. The good news is that 4 of the 10 did recycle-- but this obviously means 60 percent did not recycle.
After numerous phone calls and emails, the regional manager called me and said he would start a recycling program at my gym, and once it was working, he would implement it in the other nine gyms.
It appears that he was just trying to placate me and had no plans to move forward with an effective recycling program at my gym or the other nine gyms. The other day I pulled 15 bottles out of the wastebasket in the women's locker room. I have repeatedly asked for the owner of my gym and the CEO of Planet Fitness to call me, but I have not received a reply.
Fixing this problem is not rocket science; it is not hard, nor is it expensive. There would be a one-time cost per gym for two to four new recycling bins and $75 to $100 a month for an extra dumpster for recyclables. Next, they would just need to inform their members as they check in each day to please recycle.
Take Action: Call one of the national chain gyms listed below and demand that they make their franchises recycle, or stop by a local gym or two and ask them if they recycle. If they don't, ask them to start and then keep bugging them until they start an effective recycling process.
It would be great if you would call Planet Fitness headquarters, who I have been pushing for the last month to require their franchises to recycle. A phone call from you might be just the nudge they need to require their franchises to recycle. After all, shouldn't they want a Fit Planet?
Planet Fitness — 36 in Michigan / 800 + in U.S. — HQ phone: 603-750-0001
Anytime Fitness — 86 in Michigan / 1,500 clubs worldwide — (John Kersh: email@example.com)
Snap Fitness — 75 in Michigan / 1,100 in U.S. — HQ phone: 952-474-5422
Powerhouse — 31 in Michigan / 309 in U.S. — HQ phone: 248-885-8909
LA Fitness — 14 gyms in Michigan / 560 in U.S. — HQ phone: 909-392-1063
Lifetime Fitness — 4 in Michigan / 109 in U.S. — HQ phone: 952-947-0000
By Javier Sierra
For decades, the environmental justice movement has insisted that pollution is just another form of racism. Now, a University of Minnesota study is conclusively confirming this painful reality.
The report found that, more than any other, race is the determining factor in the levels of pollution the country’s communities are exposed to. Researchers came to the conclusion that people of color breathe 46 percent more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) —a toxic compound resulting from the burning of coal and oil— than non-Hispanic whites.
And what is most worrisome for our community: we are on top of the list of communities breathing the most polluted air.
“This is terrible,” says Kim Wasserman-Nieto, winner of the 2013 Goldman Prize, the Nobel of the ecology, and an environmental justice hero. “These are the realities of what our people are feeling on a day-to-day basis. Things are not getting any better. We are the ones producing the least amount of pollution and yet feeling the most impact.”
NO2 —which causes asthma, other respiratory diseases and heart conditions— is measured in parts per million (ppm). Among whites, the study found that the exposure is 9.9 ppm. Among us, on the other hand, it is 15.6 ppm, and among black Latinos, 17.4 ppm, the highest in the country.
Wasserman-Nieto, also director of organizing and strategy at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the South Chicago group that has been fighting polluters for years, underlines that the study also spells out the true costs of coal and oil.
“Our communities are starting to put two and two together,” she says. “We are starting to see concrete evidence of how the fossil fuels industry is impacting our communities. Even if they aren’t mining right next door to us, they are hitting us with the air quality issue.”
The study also found something Wasserman-Nieto calls “astronomical.” When comparing the levels of exposure between low-income whites and high-income Latinos, the latter turned out to be in worse shape.
“When I read that sentence, I had to read it three or four time because I could not believe it,” she says. “It’s not about ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move out to a better place.’ You can’t. Where are you supposed to go? The air quality is horrible in all of our communities.”
The reason, the researchers explained, stems from the fact that Americans tend to live in clusters by race, and in our barrios we all are much more exposed to high levels of NO2.
Another important factor is the proximity of our communities to freeways, what Wasserman-Nieto calls “toxic corridors,” because gasoline and diesel are the largest emitters of NO2.
According to a Centers for Disease Control study, more than 5 million people of color live close to these highways, especially in Southern California.
This was corroborated by this year’s American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report, which determined once again that the cities with the worst air quality are found in Southern California, where the country’s largest concentrations of Latinos live.
The University of Minnesota study underlines the magnitude of this injustice by stating that if we all were exposed to the same levels of NO2 as white Americans, every year we would prevent 7,000 deaths of coronary heart disease.
“This is a call to arms,” concludes Wasserman-Nieto. “I really hope, particularly for middle class Hispanics who have seen this document, that this will be a wake-up call not only to become politically active but also to start supporting a lot of the organizations that are on the ground working to make it better.”
That would be a huge step forward to end this racism in the air.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
"We chose this location to highlight how disconnecting downspouts and connecting rain barrels help prevent urban runoff from entering the region's aging sewage system, which often pollutes the river during storm events," says Detroit-based Sierra Club organizer Melissa Damashke, below.
Detroit Water Team volunteers and local Sierra Club staff both pitched in to help organize the hands-on workshop, and some 25 volunteers from the Club and the Detroit Riverront Conservancy were trained before the event to teach participants at the event how to make their rain barrels.
"On the day of the event, more than 30 Sierra Club volunteers came downtown to help out, and about 80 local residents participated," Damashke says. "It was great to see so many people involved."
Detroit City Councilman and Green Task Force Chair Scott Benson, below, kicked off the event by sharing his efforts to protect the Detroit and Rouge Rivers from stormwater and sewage pollution.
Participants then broke up into 10 groups with 20 volunteer trainers, who taught them how to transform more than 50 used olive barrels into rain barrels.
After people learned how to make rain barrels, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy demonstrated how they disconnected one of Rivard Plaza's downspouts from the sewer system to two rain barrels. The rainwater is then used to water flowers in planters along the RiverWalk. Local artists also taught young participants how to paint their rain barrels.
At the end of the morning, everyone who attended the workshop took Sierra Club's Great Lakes Pledge to connect their rain barrels to their downspouts when they returned home.
To prepare for this workshop, the Sierra Club coordinated three train-the-trainer workshops, training over 20 volunteers to teach participants at the workshop how to build their rain barrels. The Club also provided scholarships to residents who wanted rain barrels and demonstrated financial need.
"The Club's Detroit Water Team of volunteers has organized three of these workshops before," Damashke says, "and they've all been so successful that the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has requested that we repeat the event on Saturday, July 26, which we will most certainly do." That's Rachel Frierson, programs and community outreach coordinator for the Conservancy, below.
Damashke gives a special shout-out to Detroit Water Team volunteers Diane Crawford, Regina Lawson, Trenise Russell, Sonja Steis, Donna McDuffie, Donna Wood, and Eileen Bourne, and Sierra Club Great Lakes Program conservation organizer Erma Leaphart. Below, Crawford and Leaphart enjoy the day.
"It was a fun morning and a great opportunity for local residents to learn how to make and install rain barrels and learn more about urban water issues," Damashke says. "Overall, it was a really good event."
By Aaron Isherwood, Managing Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program
Pristine jungle and indigenous culture have long been huge draws for me. So last fall, when my brother Nicholas -- a professional opera singer and avid world traveler -- and I decided to go to Ecuador, an Amazon adventure was at the top of our list. We chose the pristine and little-visited southeastern part of the country, territory of the Achuar indigenous people whom we hoped to visit.
Nicholas emailed Pachamama Alliance, an organization whose mission is to empower indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest to preserve their lands and culture, to inquire about visiting the area independently. Pachamama Alliance responded that we'd need permission from the Achuar to visit, and put us in touch with Jaime Vargas, President of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador, to seek permission.
From Jaime and the Internet, we learned that Ecuador is planning to auction off millions of acres of the Amazon where the Achuar and other indigenous people live, for massive oil drilling. Jaime explained that the Achuar need help from the outside world to defeat the petroleros. He invited us to visit the Achuar to learn about their struggle and help spread the word.
We took a bus from Quito to Shell, Ecuador, then flew on a tiny prop plane to a remote village deep in the Amazon, where we met Jaime. The next day, we travelled up the Rio Pastaza in a dugout canoe to the village where he grew up.
We spent the next ten days living with the Achuar. In every village we visited, the Achuar were united in their opposition to the oil drilling and angry at the government for not consulting them.
A Promise Betrayed
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa campaigned on indigenous peoples' rights and rainforest protection; his proposed "debt for nature" swap and his speech to the U.N. Climate Summit inspired the world. So we weren't surprised to learn that the Achuar initially supported Correa. But now that his government is proposing to auction off their land to oil companies, they feel betrayed.
The government claims the Achuar are "poor" and that oil drilling will improve their way of life. But the Achuar believe just the opposite. They gave rousing speeches about how the jungle provides ample food, clean water, medicine, housing materials -- everything they need for "buen vivir" (a phrase we heard repeatedly that means, roughly, to live the good life). They talked earnestly about how drilling would poison their streams and destroy their rainforest home, while providing them virtually no economic benefit.
One day, I filmed Jaime describing the Achuar's struggle and how you can help. A huge storm rolled in, prompting Jaime to point to the sky and say, "This is nature -- you can feel the wind and the rain, and this comforts us. This is the power of the jungle." Here's the 2-minute video:
The Threat from Big Oil and the Government
The Achuar, other indigenous groups, and their allies have organized protests in Quito, Paris, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Calgary. Indigenous people say the Ecuadorian government is violating international law and the Ecuadorian constitution by not properly consulting with them before auctioning off the land where they live. They point to the 2012 ruling of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in favor of the Sarayaku people, determining that the State of Ecuador had violated their rights by initiating oil development in their territory "without first executing free, prior, and informed consultation with the community."
Their resistance has achieved some success: thus far only 3 of 16 tracts proposed for oil drilling have been auctioned off, while the other tracts failed to receive bids. The government has also signed contracts with partners to develop a fourth block.
Now the Ecuadorian government is attempting to take down indigenous leaders for defending their territory from oil development plans. The Secretary of Hydrocarbons has filed a formal complaint against eight indigenous leaders who have dedicated their lives to defending the Amazon. One of them is Jaime Vargas.
Indigenous leaders -- including Vargas -- are being threatened with imprisonment for organizing indigenous communities to oppose Ecuador's plans to auction off nearly 10 million acres of the Amazon rainforest for oil drilling. Last December, Pachamama Alliance's sister organization in Quito, Fundación Pachamama, was dissolved by the Correa government for working with the Achuar and other indigenous groups to oppose the drilling.
Into the Jungle
In early December 2013, Nicholas and I took a bus from Quito, traveling through Baños and its steep surrounding mountains and waterfalls, followed by a spectacular descent to the town of Puyo on the edge of the rainforest. Jaime's brother met us at our hotel and explained that Jaime was already in the jungle organizing a formal gathering of Achuar leaders to adopt a resolution opposing the oil drilling. The next morning, we headed for the airport in the nearby town of Shell, named after the oil company, to catch a flight into Achuar territory.
We took a spectacular low-elevation flight in a small prop plane over pristine rainforest, up the Rio Pastaza, and landed on a dirt airstrip at an Achuar village deep in the Amazon. Jaime and other Achuar leaders were gathered in a big meeting area to discuss the threat posed by the petroleros. A video was projected on a big screen of President Correa and various government officials belittling the Achuar and their leader for opposing oil drilling. Jaime and other leaders gave rousing speeches in response.
On To Guarani
The next day, we traveled with Jaime and his wife in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor five hours up the Rio Pastaza, then hiked through the jungle to Guarani, the village where Jaime grew up. We entered a thatched-roof hut with a small fire in the middle and a number of hunting dogs sitting around, and ate a meal prepared by Jaime's grandmother. Typical of the meals we ate during our stay with the Achuar, it consisted of chicken soaked in broth with manioc, plantains, and yucca.
The Achuar obtain most of their food by hunting and gathering. We ate fish caught from the Rio Pastaza, wild pig hunted from the forest, chicken and eggs, always served with heaping quantities of manioc, plantain and yucca, tasty salsa gathered from the beautiful gardens tended by the Achuar women, and an abundance of fruit from the surrounding trees.
Always, we drank lots of chicha, a fermented, lightly alcoholic beverage usually made from manioc, but also from corn, pineapple, and other ingredients. The women prepare the chicha by chewing the manioc and spitting it into a bucket where it ferments. Each preparer serves her chicha with pride out of a beautiful, intricately painted clay bowl, often tipping the bowl three or four times for each drinker. In village gatherings, chicha is served continuously.
Finding the Village Leader
After dinner, Jaime explained that although he is president of the Achuar, we would need to meet with the village leader -- his father, as it turned out -- to explain the reason for our visit and to obtain permission to stay. So the next day we went in search of Jaime's father, but on arriving at his home, we learned that he was in the jungle building a new dugout canoe. Jaime showed us how to use a blowgun, which the Achuar use with curare-tipped darts to kill birds. Then after a lunch of wild pig and manioc, we set off in search of Jaime's father.
After hiking through the jungle for a couple hours, we found him carving a new canoe from a huge tree that had fallen next to the Rio Pastaza. Jaime introduced us, and we agreed to meet formally later that evening, back at the village. Then we went down to the river to go fishing.
Jaime pulled some long strips of bark he'd brought with him from a bag woven from jungle vines, and he and his brother then began pounding rocks against the bark. After pulverizing it a bit, Jaime put the bark back into the bag and waded out into the river, where he soaked the bag of pulverized bark in the water, swooshing it back and forth.
The bark turned the water a milky color, and a few minutes later we began collecting fish that apparently had been anesthetized by a toxin in the bark. We gathered dozens of fish, and Jaime's wife cooked them by covering the fish with leaves from a plant she collected along the river and steaming them. We ate the delicious fish -- along with the ever-present steamed plantains -- with our fingers, picking the tiny bones from our teeth as we ate.
A Wayusa Ceremony
That evening back at the village we ate dinner with Jaime, his father, and his grandfather. Jaime's father explained that the Achuar make important decisions after drinking wayusa, which he encouraged us to drink with village leaders the next day to discuss our visit. For a wayusa ceremony, the Achuar wake up at 4:00 a.m., gather together, and drink a tea made from wayusa leaves, which are strong in caffeine, and then vomit extensively to purge themselves and free the mind.
We explained our desire to learn about the Achuar way of life and their struggle against the oil companies. I showed the Achuar leaders photos of mountaintop removal coal mining and described my work with residents of the Appalachian Mountains where mountaintop removal is devastating the landscape. Jaime's father told us that we were very welcome to stay in the village, and that the Achuar wanted us to inform others in our country about their struggle. He asked for one favor only: that we buy a new $240 battery for the village solar panel so they could use their radio without having to walk to the next village. Naturally, we agreed.
Honored by the Achuar
One day we went hiking with Jaime in the jungle, where we visited the sacred waterfall where the Achuar take ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew of various plant infusions. Along the way, we learned to eat live ants from a leaf, and grubs, an Achuar delicacy.
Another day, Nicolas sang "Go Down Moses" for the Achuar, and I sang "Paradise" by John Prine, about how coal mining is devastating the Kentucky landscape where his parents were raised. We were then treated to beautiful, traditional songs called anent, considered to be charms with the power to heal and ensure that things work out favorably.
Throughout our stay, the Achuar were wonderful hosts and always friendly. Although the children were very afraid of us at first, and we were often unsure how the Achuar felt about us invading their village, over the course of the ten days we were there, they became increasingly accustomed to our presence and we began to feel part of the village. Nicolas and I were given traditional headbands made in the village, and his girlfriend received beautiful feather earrings. We were especially honored to receive Achuar names. Mine is Narancas.
For more information about the struggle of the Achuar and other Amazonian indigenous people to protect their land, visit the websites of Pachamama Alliance, Amazon Watch, and Rainforest Action Network.
All photos by Desiree Marie Townley unless otherwise indicated.
By Courtenay Lewis, Tar Sands Campaign Representative
A criticism sometimes leveled at "environmentalists" is that we care more about trees than people. Perhaps we unwittingly reinforce this stereotype-we sometimes use images of burning globes to symbolize climate change and the consequences of fossil fuel development -- when in fact, for many climate and energy campaigns, working to protect human livelihoods and rights is a fundamental motivation.
Too often we fail to put faces to the individuals who suffer as a direct consequence of a society addicted to fossil fuels, and those who are bravely fighting corporations and sometimes even governments to protect their land, water, and communities.
However, Reject and Protect was an inspiring weeklong event in which human faces took center stage. From April 22-27, farmers, ranchers, and members of tribal communities along the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline route, as well as First Nation representatives whose communities are being devastated by tar sands development in Canada, came to Washington, D.C., and set up an encampment on the National Mall.
With the aim of showing the Obama administration the faces of people who would be affected by Keystone XL, the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" led a week of actions which included an opening ceremony with ranchers and tribal leaders on horseback, daily water ceremonies, and a march and ceremonial tipi gifting ceremony which was joined by thousands of people on Saturday April 26th.
The Sierra Club's Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska chapters and partners including Idle No More held solidarity events that same day in Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Nebraska, featuring landowner and tribal representatives who are playing leadership roles in the fight against Keystone XL. This week also marked a Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle spiritual encampment in Green Grass, South Dakota, where Native nations came together to pray for communities living at the source of tar sands development.
There are few circumstances in which music legend Neil Young (below, at microphone) is the supporting act, but such was the case at Saturday's event in Washington.
Speakers including Sundance Chief Reuben George of the Tsleil?Waututh Nation, Wizipan Little Elk of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, young Nebraska rancher Meghan Hammond, and other representatives of the communities that would be the hardest hit by Keystone XL, who emphasized that the pipeline plan threatens communities' land, water, and tribal rights.
Actress Daryl Hannah (below) also attended in support of the communities participating in Reject and Protect.
At the event and throughout the week, speakers called on President Obama to reject Keystone XL and other tar sands projects, and on Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper to honor Canada's treaties with First Nation communities, many of whom oppose tar sands development on their lands. They stressed the cultural and ecological devastation that tar sands development is already having in Canada-impacts that cannot be measured. "You can't put a price on the sacred," said Chief Rueben George.
For a week, the Cowboy Indian Alliance altered the iconic landscape of the nation's capital with stark white tipis standing proudly on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, and traffic was occasionally brought to a standstill by Reject and Protect marches and ceremonies.
Although the tipis have now come down, the influence of those who participated in the week will only grow. Below, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune (below, right of center, in tie) with members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance at one of the Reject and Protect tipis.
In Canada, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (AFCN) is suing the federal government for failing to adequately consult First Nation communities on proposed tar sands expansion projects. In February, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe announced that the tribe was not properly consulted in the U.S. government's environmental review process for Keystone XL, and would refuse to sign the Programmatic Agreement required in the consultative process.
And on April 18, the State Department announced that the Obama administration would extend the government comment period for Keystone XL in response to legal challenges brought by Nebraska landowners that have invalidated the proposed route through the state.
To the great frustration of Big Oil, America's residents of heartland are demanding that their rights and wellbeing are recognized, and evidence shows that the White House is paying attention.
Reject and Protect week was a reminder of the incredible individuals who are leading the fight against Big Oil from the heart of the country. As Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, told the audience of thousands on Saturday, "We will never have the millions of dollars that they do. But we have you." It was a reminder that coming together and building alliances remains the best hope we have for beating Keystone XL, and ultimately ending destructive energy development.
Below are some highlights of the powerful week that was Reject and Protect.
· Video of the opening ceremony
· Reuters video on Saturday's march
· Frank Waln, an award winning hip hop artist from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, rapping
· Additional images and coverage from Reject and Protect
· Congressman Raúl Grijalva's video in support of Reject and Protect
· Senator Barbara Boxer's message of support for Reject and Protect
The Sierra Club organized logistics for the April 26th event.
In the near future there will be many ways to join the fight against Keystone XL and other fossil fuel expansion projects. May 17 is the U.S. National Day of Action against Keystone XL and other dirty fuel projects. (You can text "KXL" to 69866 to find out if there's one near where you live, or create your own). You can also send a letter to President Obama at pipelinefighters.org (a project of Bold Nebraska and the Nebraska Farmer's Union).
By Michele Rosier, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign organizer
Team Minnesota Beyond Coal rocked it on Earth Day, partnering with the Minnesota Clean Energy & Jobs campaign to turn out more than 500 people to a rally at the state capitol in St. Paul. The assembled activists urged that at least 50 percent of Minnesota's electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, and energy-efficiency programs in the state be quickly scaled up.
Speakers at the rally included Governor Mark Dayton, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, Arctic explorer and climate activist Will Steger, Rev. Peg Chemberlin of the Minnesota Council of Churches, SEIU leader and Sierra Club North Star Chapter volunteer leader Javier Morillo-Alicea, clean-energy business owner Tim Gulden, and South St. Paul High School senior Priyanka Zylstra.
Before the rally, some 100 youth from all around the state met with Governor Dayton (below) to talk about clean energy.
The meeting with the governor was coordinated by Minneapolis-based Sierra Club organizer Alexis Boxer and our allies Youth Environmental Advocates Minnesota, Minnesota Youth Environmental Network, Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, and the Will Steger Foundation. The youth set the agenda, identified leaders from among their group to run the meeting, and did a phenomenal job. Meanwhile, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed an energy omnibus bill that included several clean-energy provisions that were strongly supported by the Sierra Club and the Clean Energy & Jobs campaign.
The Sierra Club's volunteer-led Clean Energy Action Nights helped ensure a big turnout at the Earth Day rally. Sierra Club intern Julie Drennen recruited for and led the action nights, with support from Caitlin Myhre and the Minnesota organizing team. North Star Chapter Clean Air and Renewable Energy (CARE) committee co-chairs David Howd and John Krenn (and many more) also helped with the action nights.
Chapter volunteer Jessica Tritsch played a major role working with Clean Energy & Jobs to plan the rally, making sure everyone had recruitment materials and leading the volunteer training and coordination at the event. Big thanks also go to Chicago-based Sierra Club online organizer Justin Uebelhor and associate press secretary Alison Flowers.
Environmental justice and Beyond Coal organizer Karen Monahan, also based in Minneapolis, is leading the planning effort for a May 15 climate justice event with Green For All, but she still pitched in to the team effort on Earth Day. Club conservation organizer Chelsey Permenter helped rally a contingent of activists to travel 75 miles from St. Cloud to St. Paul, and chapter lobbyist Justin Fay helped ensure that the energy omnibus bill passed on the House floor.
So proud to be a member of the Minnesota Beyond Coal team!
By Briana Okyere
Debby Rudy's love affair with the environment began in the summer of 1996 when she attended a local meeting of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, "I felt a need to be among more kindred spirits," she claims.
Debby, above at left, found those kindred spirits in two Sierra Club members who were opening up an Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Harrisburg. "It turned out to be one of those rare moments of fate, when you stumble upon something you had been looking for your whole life," she recalls. "They were looking for volunteer leaders to hike, camp, bike, bird watch, paddle, and be outdoors with like-minded people, while taking urban youth on new forays into the world of nature. I couldn't say 'Where do I sign up?' fast enough!"
She did more than just sign up. Debby started at ICO as a volunteer, but it wasn't long before she became a Certified Leader, then a Co-Chair, then Treasurer, then Chair and Treasurer. In 2002, she became the Regional Representative for the Mid-Atlantic Region, and from there served one term as National Vice Chair, then another term as National Chair of ICO.
ICO acquaints inner-city youth with the outdoors in an effort to cultivate an understanding and appreciation for the environment. To Debby, who has been with the program for 18 years, this is the most important aspect of her work. "That 'nature connection' is how every ICO leader influences their local program," she says.
"The most memorable trip I was ever part of was a Columbus Day three-day weekend outing to Assateague Island National Park," she recalls. "Our participants were so excited. None of them had ever seen the ocean before, let alone been out of Pennsylvania. After a very long drive, we pulled up at the park rest stop to change into swim-suits. The kids saw the ocean beyond the sand dunes and took off in their street clothes for the water. They were screaming and yelling for joy and ran right into the surf -- clothes, shoes and all.
"They were astounded, amazed, and joyously happy to see the ocean!" Debby says. "Despite having to try and dry out all those street clothes overnight in the cool, damp sea air, I would have let them do it again in a heartbeat. That was a pure moment. Seeing something new, forgetting the tribulations of urban life and being carried away by the simple joy of being in the sand and in the waves. I look at some of the photos from that outing and it brings tears to my eyes -- happy, joyful tears."
"For a participant," Debby says, "the up-close-and-personal contact with the out-of-doors, the sharing of knowledge, getting wet, getting dirty, learning to fish, learning to bike, working on Service Projects, learning new skills, gathering self-esteem and building self-confidence -- all while having the best time ever -- can change a child forever."
Debby saw proof of this when a participant from one of the chapter's first youth groups walked into a recent ICO meeting, ten years after having run into the ocean on that unforgettable trip to Assateague.
"I would have known his face anywhere, even ten years later," Debby laughs. "It was Var, who went on every outing for six years. He was 21 now, and he'd stopped in to share how grateful he was for the many years of outing experiences with Harrisburg ICO. Var said that the ICO outings program and our caring leaders had changed his life by helping him deal with adversity through outdoor experiences, teaching him leadership skills, allowing him to find confidence and self-esteem while making him feel important and necessary." That's Var, below at left, on an ICO canoe trip ten years ago.
Var said what he remembers most "is the feeling associated with the memories of motivating, informative, character-building, spirit-enriching outings with folks that I consider family to this day, no matter how far apart our walks of life take us."
"ICO members have true hearts," Debby says with obvious pride. "We don't need praise or rewards to accomplish our goals of giving as many children as possible the ability to interact with nature. Still, it brought me immense joy to hear a young man who grew up in our ICO program talk about how it greatly influenced his life."
Briana Okyere is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
The John Muir Way, a 134-mile coast-to-coast lowland trail in Scotland, officially opened on April 21 -- Muir's birthday. The opening was part of the annual John Muir Festival, which runs from April 17-26 this year.
The route echoes the Sierra Club founder's own personal journey from his birthplace of Dunbar (above), on Scotland's east coast, to the west coast at Helensburgh (below) on the River Clyde, where Muir set sail for the United States in 1849 with his family.
Along the way, the trail passes by castles, historic towns and villages, beautiful coastal scenery, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland's first national park. Visitors can walk or cycle the entire way across the country or take scenic day trips on any stretch they want. Most stretches of the trail are easy to access by public transport, and there are numerous charming villages and towns in which one can stay along the way.
"John Muir was many things -- explorer, geologist, botanist, inventor, and farmer, but it's fair to say that outside of his hometown of Dunbar, he is not a household name in Scotland. While there are parks, glaciers, and mountains named in his honour in the United States [and, this American editor feels compelled to add, the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains] ... with a few notable exceptions, Muir hasn't attained the same recognition in his homeland. We feel he should be known and celebrated throughout the land of his birth."
Below, a statue of young John Muir in Dunbar.
From Dunbar, the John Muir Way winds through the outskirts of Edinburgh and then zig-zags through the leafiest and most scenic suburbs of the city and all its attractions. A dozen or so miles west of the city, the route passes by the 15th-century Blackness Castle (below) on the Firth of Forth.
The path weaves its way between canals, taking in Auchinstarry Marina, offering boats and bicycles for rent, before heading off to the foot of the wild, rolling Campsie Fells (below). The route also travels along the Antonine Wall, built by the Romans in the 2nd century, for a few miles.
The Strathkelvin Railway path then follows last century's trading tracks before reaching the high point of the route, the Stonymollan Road from Balloch to Helensburgh, affording superb views out over Loch Lomond and the distant mountains (below). It is an exhilarating experience to walk this final section of the trail to the charming town of Helensburgh and its scenic pier.
Other highlights of this year's John Muir Festival include nighttime outdoor arts events; the opening of the new Helix "eco-park" near the town of Falkirk; the unveiling of a monumental sculpture, The Kelpies (below), in Helix Park; a street party in Dunbar; and a fireworks finale above Loch Lomond. A host of local events are planned along the John Muir Way the week of the festival, and a variety of artists will also visit selected "hotspots" along the trail.
The John Muir Way becomes the latest addition to Scotland's Great Trails and Richard Davison of Scottish Natural Heritage says it will take in some of Scotland's finest and most accessible landscapes and historic sites and help make them popular with locals and visitors alike. "The route will encourage many more people to get outdoors and take an interest in nature, landscapes and John Muir's legacy. Visitors to Scotland will enjoy the mix of landscapes and the rich history of the area, and still have time to explore the many other fantastic places that can be found across Scotland."
Visit the route website to learn more at www.johnmuirway.org. You can learn more about Scotland's wildlife, habitats, landscaped, and natural beauty from Scottish Natural Heritage. And check out the John Muir Trust, dedicated to protecting and preserving Scotland's wild lands and wild places.
Click on the map below to plan your walking or cycling trip on the John Muir Way.
On a recent Saturday, the Sierra Club joined up with community allies in New Orleans to host a recreational outing, the Connect the 9 Community Bike Ride, to advocate for better pedestrian and bicycle connections between the Lower Ninth Ward and the rest of the city.
Participants benefitted from exercising outdoors and sharing in an urban learning experience. Sponsoring the event with the Club were Global Green USA, the Green Project, Bike Easy, and the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED).
"Our goal was to increase awareness about the barrier the St. Claude Avenue Bridge poses to pedestrians and bike riders going from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Bywater neighborhood and the rest of the city of New Orleans," says Darryl Malek-Wiley (at right, below), a Sierra Club organizer based in the Crescent City. "The bridge needs safety improvements and a separate, protected lane for pedestrians and cyclists."
New Orleans' Industrial Canal, which runs 5.5 miles from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, has only three bridges crossing it. The St. Claude Bridge, built in 1919, is the only one that's low-rise. It's also the closest bridge to the river and the Bywater, where jobs for people living in the Lower Ninth Ward are located.
"This was both an educational event and a celebratory bike ride," says Malek-Wiley. "We just learned that the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission has committed $45,000 to study the feasibility of adding an extra lane to the bridge for bikes and pedestrians."Bayou Bienvenue.
The Green Project, known for its building materials warehouse store that diverts usable materials from landfills and puts them back into circulation in the community, teaches and encourages good environmental stewardship and mindful use of resources.
Bayou Bienvenue, below, is a 12-mile-long bayou that runs along the border between Orleans Parish and St. Bernard Parish to the east of New Orleans. Restoring the bayou has been a long-term project of the Sierra Club and the local community ever since Hurricane Katrina.
"After Katrina, community members decided they wanted to make their neighborhoods sustainable, and that doesn't just mean greener," says Malek-Wiley. "It also means restoring natural areas like the cypress-tupelo wooded swamp in Bayou Bienvenue, which is within the city limits in the Lower Ninth Ward."
This year's Connect the 9 event is the second annual bike ride bringing together Sierra Club members with residents of the Bywater and the Lower Ninth to connect with nearby nature. "We bike to natural areas within the city and see projects like Global Green, which features new homes with solar panels and high energy efficiency," Malek-Wiley says.
The Global Green houses are an example of how to take the traditional New Orleans shotgun house, with rooms arranged one behind the other, good cross-ventilation from windows, and doors at either end of the house, and make a 21st -century version of that housing type.
After crossing the St. Claude Bridge, riders stopped atop the Mississippi River levee at Deslonde before touring areas of the Lower Ninth Ward most heavily affected by Katrina. Close to the river, on the higher ground, more houses survived the storm; further away from the river, more houses were destroyed. "It's counter-intuitive to people from the rest of the country, where you go down to the river," Malek-Wiley says. "In south Louisiana, you walk up the levee to get to the river."
The ride ended at the Bayou Bienvenue observation center, where CSED and the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition recently erected informational signs outlining the importance of the cypress-tupelo forest that has been destroyed by saltwater intrusion.
"In many ways this was really a traditional Sierra Club outing," says Malek-Wiley. "We took people to see beautiful places, but we also exposed them to problems and things they might not have seen there, so they'll be motivated to work to protect these areas. Bayou Bienvenue should be a showcase about restoring the Gulf Coast."
All photos by Andy Zellinger, except where otherwise noted.
Mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Surface coal mines in Appalachia have a problem. For years, they've been getting away with blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in streams. That mining waste releases toxic pollutants -- such as selenium -- into the streams. Now the companies are being held accountable for their pollution, including at older mines that are no longer active but still discharge selenium.
Stream polluted with runoff from a mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by Matt Wasson, courtesy of iLoveMountains.org
Across Appalachia, coal companies have tried to cut costs and access more coal by using a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal (sometimes referred to as MTR). These mines use high explosives to blow up the rock and other materials that overlay coal seams in the mountains and ridgelines of Appalachia. The rocks, which were under pressure in their original setting, expand when the mountain is cracked open. This means that there's even more material left after the blasting. The mining companies dispose of this mining waste by dumping it directly into the neighboring streams and valleys. Approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried with coal mining waste.
That's where the problem starts: All of that newly exposed and cracked-open rock is now in constant contact with the water in the streams. Over time, pollutants start to leach out of the rock and into the streams. These waste dumps, called valley fills, are left in place even after the mining's done. Some of the pollutants that leach out of the valley fills -- like selenium -- stick around in the environment.
Selenium is a metalloid that bioaccumulates in the tissue of organisms that live in the streams. Even small amounts of selenium in the water can increase exponentially in fish and other wildlife further up the food chain. Fish found in streams or other water bodies that are high in selenium can suffer birth defects like crooked spines and damaged gills, or may not be able to reproduce. (Photo at left by Dr. A. Dennis Lemly.) Other predators like birds and salamanders can also be affected.
These toxic properties of selenium have led the EPA to set recommended water quality criteria for the pollutant. State standards based on these criteria impose limits of 5µg/l (micrograms per liter) for chronic exposure and 20µg/l for acute exposure. The discharges from many mines across Appalachia regularly exceed these limits, endangering aquatic communities. As a result of advocacy by the Sierra Club and other citizen groups, state regulators began incorporating limits on selenium in Clean Water Act discharge permits for coal mines. Despite these permit conditions, many mines have been unable to keep their discharges below the limits. Because state regulators turned a blind eye to these violations, the Sierra Club and its allies began suing mines to enforce the limits and secure court orders requiring the mines to treat their discharges.
Unfortunately for the mines, selenium is very difficult to remove from the mine discharges. The high volume of water that comes out of the valley fills requires the construction of facilities capable of storing the water long enough for it to be treated. It can cost millions of dollars to treat selenium pollution at just one discharge point. Many mines have multiple discharge points. The cost of treatment required under court orders and settlements from Sierra Club's selenium enforcement litigation has even led one major mine operator to commit to permanently stop mountaintop removal mining.
Because valley fills remain in place even after all mining is complete, selenium treatment liability is a problem not only for active coal mines, but also for the owners of so-called "reclaimed" mines. The Sierra Club and its allies have now begun filing lawsuits seeking to compel corporate landowners -- which profited from leasing their land for mountaintop removal mining -- to stop their unpermitted discharges from these former mine sites. These lawsuits underscore the damaging long-term legacy of coal mining, and make clear that mining companies should avoid using methods that poison streams and endanger the environment.
Not surprisingly, mining companies are desperate to avoid liability for their selenium discharges. Rather than take responsibility and treat their discharges, the companies are turning to their allies in state legislatures and regulatory agencies. Kentucky has already attempted to revise its selenium standards to make them effectively unenforceable. Instead of using the EPA's recommended standard, which is based on the easily measurable concentration of selenium in the water column, Kentucky has adopted a standard based on concentrations in fish tissue. That standard allows damage to other species and ecosystems, and will be almost impossible to enforce. Other states appear eager to follow Kentucky's lead. Although the EPA approved Kentucky's revised standard, the Sierra Club and its allies have filed a lawsuit challenging that approval.
Selenium enforcement is just one of the ways that the Club's Environmental Law Program works to hold mining companies accountable for the true costs of their destructive and dangerous practices. While political leaders and regulators refuse to take action to stop mountaintop removal, citizens continue to push back against this destructive and harmful practice. In all its litigation, the Sierra Club works very closely with mountain residents who live in the communities affected by the mining, and with local groups these residents have formed to oppose mountaintop removal. The Club also works hand-in-hand with the West Virginia-based public-interest law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates, as well as various other local, regional, and national organizations.
Photo by Jenny Sevcik, courtesy of the Owensboro Messenger Inquirer.
By Winny Lin, Sierra Club Pennyrile Group Volunteer
On Thursday April 10, the Sierra Club's Pennyrile Group in western Kentucky partnered with Owensboro Girls Incorporated to take 30 girls to explore Yellow Creek Park in Daviess Country during their spring break.
Pictured below with some of the girls are (middle row) Pennyrile Group volunteers Rick Fowler (chair), Sister Ann, and Valerie Holcomb, and (back row) Aloma Dew, Nancy Connor, Mary Cupp, Winny Lin, and Brad Smith. Volunteers prepared healthy sack lunches for all the girls -- peanut butter on wheat bread, carrots, popcorn, oatmeal cookies, and water or milk.
At the park, Eric Miller (pictured at top of post and below), director of the Western Kentucky Raptor Center, talked to the girls and their counselors about the injured birds of prey who are taken in by the center and how they are rehabilitated there. Eric used Diva, a 1-year-old barred owl, as an example. Diva was hit by a car and sustained a broken wing and a head injury. Since she could not gain lift to fly, now she is the center's good will ambassador for teaching children about birds of prey. Miller told the girls that these are our birds to protect!
Next, Valerie Holcomb (below) volunteered to lead all the girls on a 1.5-mile-long wildflower walk. They explored, and Valerie was able to pinpoint several kinds of wildflowers on the trail -- spring beauty, Dutchman's breeches, May maple, poppy, and wild violets. During the hike, the girls enjoyed walking on the hanging bridge, and just chatting with their friends on a gorgeous sunny day. Everybody loved the sun after a long winter!
Thanks to Brad Smith for organizing this perfect educational outing for these urban girls. The icing on the cake was when two photos -- including the one atop this post -- appeared the next day on the front page of Messenger Inquirer, the only paper in Owensboro.
This is the second time the Pennyrile Group has partnered with Owensboro Girls Inc. to help the girls to learn about nature. Last time it was an outing to John James Audubon State Park (below), named after the famous ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, who lived in the area for a decade during his middle age.
Girls Incorporated is a national non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold. Girls Incorporated of Owensboro-Daviess County has been in the community since 1969 as a provider of informal educational opportunities for girls between the ages of 6 and 18. The Pennyrile Group has partnered with Girls Inc. since 2009 on a variety of projects, including planting flowers and vegetables in the summer, teaching them about composting, and hosting outings to nearby state parks.
As the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.
Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.
As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.
That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.
I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.
It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.
The reason there aren't more bad days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because a Republican president, reached over, pen in hand, to signed the Clean Air Act into law. As a result, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 400,000 premature deaths have been prevented.
Here in Arizona, the EPA is proposing to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal plant that is one of the largest sources of NOx emissions in the U.S. as well as from the Apache, Coronado, Sundt, and Cholla generating stations. NOx is a key ingredient in both ozone and fine particulate pollution, both very dangerous forms of pollution.
Every year, air pollution from these coal plants contributes to significant health problems including heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, emergency room visits, chronic bronchitis, and costing Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars in health expenses. Certain groups are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as: infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.
Smokestack pollution from NGS also adds to smog haze in 11 national parks and wilderness areas surrounding the plant, including the Grand Canyon, which is less than 20 miles away. Emissions from the Apache, Coronado, and Cholla coal plants add to dirty air at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in four states. The Sundt plant, right in Tucson, affects our public lands and the public health of those in surrounding neighborhoods.
We should not have to wait decades for clean air. We need strong clean air standards that include the most protective pollution control technology to safeguard our health and our environment now, as well as that of future generations. I thank God for the Clean Air Act, and for the people who are willing to stand up in the name of life and healing and common sense. I hope Rep. Gosar can be one of those people who "overreaches" across the aisle to support strong EPA clean air standards.
- Rev. Doug Bland, Director of Arizona Interfaith Power & Light
By Devorah Ancel, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program
Imagine five, ten, twenty trains, 100-cars long, moving through your neighborhood each week, bringing constant rattling and diesel fumes into your home. A small obstacle in the tracks might cause a derailment, overturning cars and spilling toxic crude into yards and the local water supply. Those train cars could even explode, which would almost instantaneously decimate your neighborhood.
No community should have to experience these problems, but they are the reality for hundreds of towns across North America, as the oil industry sends ever more fracked oil down outdated and overburdened rail lines. As a result, loss of life and property and environmental devastation from catastrophic rail accidents have become an expected "cost of business" throughout North America.
As prodigious quantities of volatile crude oil comes out of the ground in North Dakota, other parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains, railroads are rapidly becoming the principal mode of transporting this hazardous substance to coastal refining hubs, including the San Francisco Bay Area. In the past five years, the amount of oil transported by rail has skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. In 2013 alone, Northern California experienced a 50 percent increase in transport of crude-by-rail.
Unfortunately, improvements to our nation's aging rail infrastructure have not kept pace with this oil boom on the railroads. In 2013 alone, more oil spilled from rail cars than in the past four decades combined. The National Transportation Safety Board has weighed in, warning that our existing rail infrastructure is woefully inadequate to the task of transporting highly volatile fracked crude, and our existing safety regulations do not protect communities along these rail routes. The most tragic example: a July 2013 derailment and train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec (pictured above), that took the lives of 47 people and leveled 40 buildings.
The next crude-by-rail disaster is only a matter of time, and the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program will not wait for a catastrophic event in California to happen -- we are taking action now. Our initial efforts have met with success, as our legal and technical comments on proposals to expand California crude-by-rail terminals have forced decision-makers across the state to re-evaluate the true impacts of transporting volatile, fracked oil by rail.
Our comments on Pittsburg, California's WesPac facility, which proposes to bring in up to 20 percent of the state's crude oil supply by rail and marine vessels, contributed to a decision by the Pittsburg City Council to recirculate the project's Environmental Impact Report for further analysis of the proposal's impacts and the risks of rail accidents to communities along rail routes. WesPac's proposed project site is located immediately adjacent to a residential community and Pittsburg's recently revived downtown.
Our technical comments achieved a similar result for a proposed rail terminal at a refinery in Santa Maria, California, that would bring five 80-car trains of volatile crude each week to the refinery. Trains heading to the refinery complex would travel through several major California towns and cities, including Sacramento, Davis, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose, before continuing south along the state's treasured central coastline. San Luis Obispo County supervisors sent the project's Environmental Impact Report back to the drawing board, noting that the overwhelming number of substantive public comments brought to light new information about the hazards associated with train emissions and the risk of train crashes.
The Sierra Club and its allies also recently filed suit challenging a Bay Area Air Quality Management District decision allowing Kinder Morgan to convert its existing ethanol storage facility in Richmond to a crude storage and transfer facility that would rail in volatile Bakken crude and load it on trucks to Bay Area refineries. The District failed to notify the public or conduct any environmental review before issuing the permit. The lawsuit asks the court to rescind the permit and require the District to evaluate the full impacts of transporting this fracked oil, and to halt all crude transport activities until the analysis is complete and the public has had a fair opportunity to comment on the proposal.
The Environmental Law Program continues to monitor these and other proposed crude-by-rail facilities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, while working with towns along rail routes to oppose the transport of extreme crude by rail. We are also working at the federal level, urging lawmakers to strengthen federal rail safety regulations, including the retirement of outdated DOT-111 rail tank cars, and a process to ensure that state and local governments are fully informed of the hazardous, fracked crude being transported through their communities.
Editor’s note: Christelle Kwizera is a fellow with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. Christelle is also part of Water Access Rwanda and will be drilling wells this summer and next in Rwanda, where some families lack access to clean water. She recently participated in a Water4 training that taught student activists about groundwater pollution and how to avoid contaminating drinking water sources. The students spent four days drilling a water well using tools that combine hand augers and percussion tools. Manually drilling is minimally intrusive and offers protection from water contamination by backfilling with sanitary layers around the well. In this blog post, Christelle reflects on some of the ways water scarcity affects reproductive health.
Water is an essential part of life. It makes up as much as three quarters of our body weight when we’re born, and more than 60 percent in adult life. We cry for it when we’re thirsty. It’s essential to the growth of crops. It's the universal solvent, a cooking necessity, and central to adequate sanitation.
However, in many parts of the world, it is rare to find clean water that is easy to access. Rather, it is often contaminated with harmful substances and bacteria, and pure streams are located below the earth’s surface, protected by layers of stone and clay.
Thus, it is not at all surprising that the average African woman spends six hours each day fetching and cleaning water. Despite the hard work and time spent collecting water, one in nine people still lack access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness.
In Rwanda and in most of the developing world, the task of gathering and sanitizing water is left to women and children. The scarcity of water promulgates the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and it exposes women and children to dangerous situations outside of the home. This is unfortunate and heartbreaking when you realize that water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa is not physical but economic. There is a tremendous amount of water in the valleys, lakes, and rivers, and even more below the surface; however, many women and children lack the knowledge and tools to make that water usable, potable, and accessible.
Furthermore, water scarcity has tremendous direct and indirect influence on reproductive health in both
men and women. Here are several reasons why access to clean water is crucial for the future of Africa:
1. Dangerous toxins in contaminated water can lead to infertility and other reproductive healthStudents from Water Access Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Christelle Kwizera.
2. The more time women spend acquiring and sanitizing water means less time that could be devoted to an economically empowering activity. The economic independence of women is a significant factor in a woman’s knowledge of her own reproductive health and in feeling powerful over reproductive health-related choices. These choices, such as when to have children and how many to have, are crucial to creating a safe, healthy environment for women.
3. Girls are often discouraged or forbidden to go to school as this takes time away from household chores—chores that are made greater by the lack of clean water. Often, the more schooling a girl has, the more delayed her first pregnancy; the current environment forces girls to have less schooling and thus earlier and more frequent pregnancies. Education is the single greatest factor determining a woman's eventual family size.
4. Most children in rural areas without access to clean water are required to wake up early each morning to fetch water before heading for school. These distances, more often than not, are extremely far away from the child’s home. Extended absences and common lateness can lead students to not be fully involved in the classroom. Education is a huge factor in reproductive health and in economic success. The more educated both men and women are, the more informed their decisions on having children and in keeping a healthy reproductive life.
5. Girls who have reached puberty and are having their menstrual period experience an even bigger limitation in attending school. Most rural families cannot afford cotton sanitary pads and thus use folded fabrics. These fabrics require continual washing to keep them clean and reusable; however, the lack of water creates problems of hygiene, and many times the girls cannot attend school during their period. There is currently no infrastructure to help with washing the pads. In some cases, girls have been sent home from school because of a lack of hygiene during their menstrual cycle.
6. Infant mortality, often a result of water-borne diseases, perpetuates the practice of having “insurance children.” “Insurance children” are born when a woman wants to have as many children as she can because she is not certain how many will survive until adulthood.
7. The lack of water perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Without consistent access to clean water, families are unable to provide basic needs, and in turn, it is hard for them to access medical care, family planning commodities, and protection from sexually transmitted infections.
8. Sexual assailants prey on women as they travel to fetch water. The water source is often very remote, and water is sometimes needed at dusk or in the evening. These women are often attacked without witness or advocate, and their attackers are rarely charged.
Some solutions to the water crisis are currently available, but most are very expensive and require outside sponsorship to provide wells to the communities that need them. Some new, cost-effective solutions that build sustainable water sources are becoming more popular but still require plenty of labor and funding to help get them up and running.
Water plays a major role in the overall well-being of families, and it is my hope that the task of giving clean water can be taken on by more individuals.
By Javier Sierra
We are in the midst of an epidemic of devastating oil and coal spills. In recent weeks, we have witnessed oil spills in the Mississippi River, on the Galveston, TX, coast and in Lake Michigan, among others. We have also seen terrible toxic coal spills in the Dan River, NC, and the Elk River, WV. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up these disasters.
And they claim dirty energy is cheap!
On the other hand, when we have a sun spill, we call it a nice day. And that is precisely what I want to talk to you about today, the huge economic and environmental benefits that clean energy brings to Latino workers and the whole country.
“Creating all this energy that is much needed at this time, without burning our fossil fuels and without damaging our environment, to me is a win-win situation no matter how you see it,” says Alfonso Carmona-Jiménez, a Calexico electrician working in the installation of solar and wind projects in California’s Imperial Valley. “Finally we have started taking energy from the sun, and I hope we will continue this way after polluting the earth for so long.”
Alfonso and thousands of other Latino workers are benefitting from a historic clean energy bonanza taking place across the country, but especially in California. The Great Recession punished this part of the state with special harshness, leaving Alfonso and thousands of workers like him jobless.
“And now it’s a great relief that I don’t have to ask the government for anything and not having to worry about where the next paycheck will come from,” proudly says Alfonso, who is now working on a solar project for the State University of San Diego at Brawley.
Alfonso is benefitting from the clean energy professional trainings for unemployed workers that unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are conducting in California and other parts of the country.
“The union is doing a great thing for all of us here,” says Alfonso. “They provide good jobs for us, they train us, they get us benefits and health insurance, they defend us when we have issues with employers.”
California is the nation’s solar energy leader and also a world leader on its own merits, recently beating two generating records in consecutive days. On March 7th, it generated 3.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, and on the following day, 4.1 GW, enough to power 3 million homes or 18 percent of the overall power demand.
California already boasts almost 1,700 solar companies that employ more than 47,000 workers, thousands of them Latinos. In 2013, it added 2.7 GW of solar power, and today it has 5.6 GW of installed energy, making it the world’s seventh solar power, if it were an independent country.
Also, this clean bounty does not punish the health of Californians, unlike coal or oil. Just ask Domingo Reyes, another Calexico electrician who works on solar projects and, like his 10-year-old son, suffers from asthma.
“Here in the Imperial Valley we have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Pollution worsens our asthma. But wind and solar power is helping to lower these pollution levels,” he says.
Indeed, this is a win-win situation, as Alfonso puts it. He proudly tells the story about his first job installing a wind turbine almost 300 feet tall: “My six-year-old really got a kick out of the photos of me working on the turbine, looking so small compared to the size of the turbine, and when I told him that was me, he said with his eyes wide open, ‘really?’”
The dirty energy industry would look at the photo green with envy.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
On March 18, Dr. Benjamin Blonder, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Tucson, was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change, along with 13 other environmental and conservation leaders.
Blonder is cofounder and Education Coordinator at the Sky School, a residential science school located on a campus in the heart of southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest that provides immersive, year-round environmental education programs to K-12 students.
Sky School, which started in 2012, had its genesis when Blonder was studying for his doctoral program in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in his personal experiences working as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps and as a middle-school science teacher at Miles Exploratory Learning Center, a public school in Tucson.
At Sky School, students work in small groups with a graduate student, brainstorming ideas, learning how to do scientific research, and presenting their findings to peers, teachers, and other scientists at the end of the program.
Because of Blonder's efforts, each year hundreds of K-12 students, primarily from Title 1 schools, are able to conduct independent research while exploring the unique ecology, geology, and astronomy resources of the region.
Below, Blonder (back row, fourth from right) with other adult leaders and youth participants on a recent Tucson ICO trip.
Blonder grew up in New Jersey, twenty miles from Manhattan and, by his own account, never spent much time outdoors as a kid. "My experience was primarily sidewalks and strip malls and night skies lit up by airplanes instead of stars," he says. "I never went camping until I left for college. I was fortunate that I took one ecology class as an undergraduate student, just out of curiosity, and a whole new world opened up for me. I think everyone deserves the same life-changing experience I had."
The Planet caught up with Blonder the week after he won his Champion of Change award.
Planet: How did it feel to win the Champion of Change award and be honored at the White House?
Blonder: It was an honor of the highest order to share our work at the White House. Much as my experience in AmeriCorps inspired my work with the Sky School and Inner City Outings, I hope that sharing our work at Sky School will inspire others across the country.
Planet: Tell us about your work with AmeriCorps.
Blonder: I served for a year at the McCall Outdoors Science Center (MOSS), located in central Idaho. They are a residential outdoor science school with very similar goals to the Sky School. I had just moved out West after finishing my bachelor's degree, and I wanted to learn more about teaching and connect to a completely different landscape and community than what I was used to on the East Coast. I spent a year living in a state park, teaching K-12 students at our campus, or living out of motels, teaching students in their schools throughout the state. The experience was a very powerful one for me -- it taught me how to be an effective teacher and team member and exposed me to the power of inquiry-based outdoor science education. I think I learned as much that year as any of my students did. I took away from that experience the "blueprints" for what a very successful science education program could look like.
Planet: How did you get involved with Inner City Outings?
Blonder: I moved to Tucson for graduate school and wanted to stay involved with the conservation and education world. So first thing, I looked up my local Sierra Club chapter and found that there was an ICO group in Tucson. One autumn evening I cycled over to my first meeting, met a great group of people, and never left.
Planet: How did you get the idea for Sky School?
Blonder: I had been leading trips for ICO in Tucson for two years. The year I envisioned Sky School, I was also teaching at a Tucson public school through a National Science Foundation K-12 partnership. These experiences exposed me to so many students who didn't have opportunities to connect to the natural environment, or to engage the world from a scientific viewpoint. And as I mentioned, I'd worked at the MOSS residential science school in Idaho, and I thought that model could also be successful in the Sonoran desert. The actual genesis of the idea came during my Ph.D. qualifying examinations. I was asked what I would do to make the University of Arizona a more effective community partner -- and my proposal was the Sky School.
Planet: Tell us a little about your work as an ecologist at the University of Arizona.
Blonder: I study how plants respond to climate change -- past and present. My field work has taken me around the world, from the cloud forest of Peru to the volcanoes of Hawaii, studying everything from from contemporary forests to late-Cretaceous fossils. I love working outdoors, and I enjoy sharing my passion for science through ICO.
Planet: What do you think are the most valuable things kids get from their ICO experience?
Blonder: In Tucson, many children have never visited public land or felt at home in the outdoors. We change that. We create a connection to the natural environment, help students feel they belong in the outdoors, and that the outdoors is their steward. We take a place that is alien and make it friendly.
Planet: Why is spending time outdoors so important?
Blonder: Whether we realize it or not, we are connected to the outdoors. We depend on the environment for our subsistence, and also for our happiness. When we lose that connection we lose our anchoring in the world. Responsible stewardship depends on knowing and loving the landscaped we use.
Planet: Got a favorite ICO story you'd like to relate?
Blonder: I still remember one of my first ICO trips during my first year in Tucson. A fifth-grader asked me, "Who waters the desert?" That moment convinced me how much work there still was to do.
Planet: What would be your pitch to other adults to get involved with ICO?
Blonder: Spend time outdoors, inspire the next generation of conversation leaders, meet other passionate volunteers -- why haven't you signed up already?
By Hilton Kelley, Founder and Executive Director, Community In-Power & Development Association
We believe the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea for many reasons. One is that in order to clear the path for the pipeline, people's land is being taken away in six states in the name of eminent domain, all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast. This pipeline will in no way benefit the masses; it's the Big Oil corporations who will benefit.
This pipeline would cross over aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people, as well as about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. In Texas, our chief concern is that we will be the ones receiving the tar sands crude, which is heavy in sulfur, benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and heavy metals. Levels of toxic emissions will definitely increase, and the low-income communities of color near the refineries in Port Arthur and Houston will bear the brunt of the pollution. Air pollution from the Port Arthur refineries is already taking a toll on public health in the surrounding community, including high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments.
The oil industry is also likely to have more many more shutdown incidents if Keystone XL is built because of the nature of tar sands crude -- it's so heavy. Two companies in Texas, Valero and Motiva, are already receiving some tar sands crude by rail. But if the pipeline is built it will be pumped in constantly --- 300,000 barrels per day -- to Port Arthur and Houston.
In Port Arthur we already have a disproportionate amount of toxics in the environment, and the KXL pipeline will only add insult to injury. Too many of our residents here suffer from cancer. Too many of our kids are dealing with respiratory problems. One out of every five households has a child or someone in the household who needs to use a nebulizer or take breathing treatments before they go to bed at night or before they go to school. That's not right.
We represent the area of least resistance to the oil companies because we're a low-income community of color. It's the same deal in the Houston area -- that branch of the pipeline would bring tar sands crude to refineries in a low-income community in Deer Park, just east of Houston. Environmental justice organizer Warren Paras has been doing the same kind of work in Deer Park that I'm doing in Port Arthur, working with T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services).
We've partnered with Earthjustice, working closely with them in Washington, D.C., and advocating on a national level about why Keystone XL is not good for our community -- or any community. This February, I marched with Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org, and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director, in the Forward on Climate march, the biggest mass march in the history of the environmental justice movement. Nearly 50,000 people from around the country converged on the national mall in Washington to tell President Obama that this is a national movement, and we don't need Keystone XL.
On MSNBC recently, I spoke about the devastating health impacts on communities near refineries, and the fact that Keystone XL will not create a significant number of new jobs. Construction companies say building the pipeline will create jobs, but only about 300, and they'd all be temporary. Then there's the fact that the refined oil from tar sands crude is designed to be shipped overseas, not consumed domestically, so it won't help us become more energy independent. But our community in Port Arthur, and the people living near the Deer Park refineries in Houston, will have to bear the brunt of the health consequences.
For the damage it will cause to human health alone, it's just not worth it to build this pipeline -- and that's just one of the many reasons President Obama should deny the permit to build Keystone XL. Tar sands crude is the dirtiest form of oil there is. We need to create clean-energy jobs, not jobs that will tie us to a fossil fuel economy.
There's so much opportunity if we put ourselves on a path to a clean-energy future. The race is on to develop renewable sources of energy, build solar panels and solar arrays, build wind turbines and wind farms. Why can't we focus on renewables instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel to get a dirty, polluting form of crude oil that destroys the land and harms public health? It's time that we did more to help heal and clean up overburdened communities instead of bringing more toxic materials to those areas. Enough is enough.
Hilton Kelly is the North American recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize.
By Yassamin Kavezade, My Generation Campaign volunteer activist.
Typical days in the Inland Empire, just east of Los Angeles in Riverside and San Bernadino Counties, are plagued by smoggy skies that block views of the nearby mountain peaks, which soar to over 11,500 feet. This hazy soup is often coupled with the thick, acrid smell of fuel exhaust and industrial emissions, as if we lived in a time before catalytic converters were required equipment on vehicle exhaust pipes.
As one born and raised in Southern California, I was always aware of the region's smog problem. And because Southern California has enacted the strongest air-pollution regulations in the nation, I knew that the environment needed to be taken care of. But as I grew older -- I'm now in my early 20s -- I became aware of the connection between pollution and poor health, and the fact that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected. It is this environmental injustice that has prompted me to declare that enough is enough.
The Inland Empire, where I live and attend school at the University of California, Riverside, is afflicted with the worst air quality in the country. It is also primarily comprised of communities of color -- mainly people of Latino and African American descent -- where many residents are battling poverty.
A major driver of air pollution -- in Southern California, statewide, nationwide, and globally -- is the combustion of fossil fuels. The thing that motivates me to keep volunteering with the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign is that too little is being done in California to incentivize and create local affordable renewable-energy options for residents, business, and infrastructure in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. As one who would like to have a family someday, I would like my children to live in a safe and healthy world, not one plagued by pollution that damages the health of my family and friends -- and ultimately the health of the only planet we have.
Before I met Allen Hernandez, the community organizer who informed me about the Sierra Club's My Generation campaign, I had worked as a solar outreach coordinator and experienced the challenges of actually completing solar installations. Many prospective customers were unable to afford the cost of installation and purchasing of solar panels. Even leasing the panels became too exorbitant after local utilities ran out of rebates for affordable installation and payback.
The stigma behind the "failure" of renewables is constantly perpetuated by corporate fossil fuel interests -- not only the energy companies themselves, but also the utilities who choose to purchase their electricity. These utility companies have been getting away with raising rates, while simultaneously avoiding a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The My Generation campaign, in partnership with groups like the California Environmental Justice Alliance, has been working to get big utilities like Southern California Edison to stop natural gas expansion. This is especially critical now that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been retired.
Southern California Edison and their partners who owned the failed nuclear plant are trying to pave the way for an expansion of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, instead of making a commitment to become leaders in the renewable energy market. The California Public Utility Commission, which acts as the middleman between the utility companies and the public, mandated that some of the energy previously produced by the San Onofre plant come from renewable or "preferred" resources, and the rest be up to the owners of the plant, including Southern California Edison.
On March, 13, the PUC approved a plan that will make building new natural gas plants easier. Instead, Southern California Edison could have been a leader in paving the way for the growing renewable energy sector. Sadly, the PUC plan will likely encourage the utility continue to keep its lines powered by dirty fossil fuels -- unless people rise up and get involved to stop them.
Southern California, and especially the Inland Empire with its chronic air pollution, should be a region full of renewable energy options like rooftop solar. Instead it is home to the most polluting gas plant in the state, owned and managed by Southern California Edison and located a couple miles from my college campus.
We can no longer afford the expansion of fossil fuels like natural gas, which emits volatile, harmful greenhouse gasses. A continued reliance on fossil fuels will only keep renewables as an expensive commodity. Renewable energy technology can only improve and become more affordable if utilities make a commitment to investing in renewables instead of lining their pockets with profit.
Humanity, which has produced so many remarkable achievements that have improved our quality of life, has also inadvertently done much to hurt this earth. Southern California, long a center of innovation and recently a leader on clean energy, is no exception. It's time to stand up against any new proposed natural gas plants in Southern California and invest in a clean energy future -- for the sake of our communities, our families, our children, and our planet.
Yassamin Kavezade is the co-president of the student-led environmental club Sustainable UCR, she sits on the Associated Students Green Campus Action Plan committee and the Chancellors Committee on Sustainability at UC Riverside, and she is expecting to finish this year with a B.A in Psychology and a Minor in Environmental Sciences. She has been volunteering with the Sierra Club for a year in the San Gorgonio area.
By Catherine Collentine, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas Campaign Colorado Representative
On February 23, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) finalized a set of air quality regulations that make Colorado the first state in the nation to regulate methane emissions statewide. The rules were finalized following five days of public comment and stakeholder testimony that included many concerned citizens.
Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter members joined other community members, industry representatives, and elected officials to voice their concerns to the AQCC. One RMC member, Tara Meixsell, traveled across the state to make her voice heard. That's Tara, below at right, with Catherine Collentine and Matt Sura, an attorney representing a group of affected and concerned citizens at the rulemaking.
Tara had testified before the AQCC six years earlier in a similar rulemaking process, but the resulting rule had been limited to the Front Range, and she saw the need for strong, statewide rules to come out of this process. In her 3-minute testimony, Tara spoke on behalf of her neighbors who are "dead, ill, or slowly dying and watching their country homes being turned into industrial sites as property values plummeted." She spoke of those close to her, saying "these people are not environmental activists; they are everyday people" and imploring the AQCC to this time pass rigorous statewide air quality standards with no exemptions.
Tara's heartfelt testimony on behalf of affected landowners in Colorado was heard along with testimony from more than 100 other community members, the majority supporting strong, statewide rules. Public comments were followed by testimony from industry, environmental groups including the Sierra Club, students, craft brewers (they made a special beer for the occasion), health professionals, faith leaders, and local governments.
Below, a representative of Brewery Rickoli from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, just west of Denver, hands out the beer brewed for the occasion to the commissioners at the rule making.
- The most comprehensive leak detection and repair program for oil and gas facilities in the country.
- Regulation of a range of hydrocarbon emissions that can contribute to harmful ozone formation as well as climate change. The rules include first-in-the-nation provisions to reduce methane emissions.
- Implementation of the rules will reduce more than 92,000 tons per year of volatile organic compound emissions. VOC emissions contribute to ground level ozone that has adverse impacts on public health and the environment, including increased asthma and other respiratory ailments.
- Implementation of the rules also will reduce methane emissions by more than 60,000 tons per year.
- Expanded control and inspection requirements for storage, including a first-in-the-nation standard to ensure that emissions from tanks are captured and routed to the required control devices.
- Expanded ozone non-attainment area requirements for auto-igniters and low-bleed pneumatics to the rest of the state.
- Requirement for no-bleed (zero-emission) pneumatics where electricity is available (in lieu of using gas to actuate pneumatic).
- Requirements that gas stream at well production facilities either be connected to a pipeline or routed to a control device from the date of first production.
- More stringent control requirements for glycol dehydrators.
- A requirement to use best management practices to minimize the need for -- and emissions from -- well maintenance.
- Expanding operator use of infrared (IR) cameras, which allow people to see emissions that otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. Colorado obtained IR cameras for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources inspectors last year. They are an effective tool in identifying leaking equipment and reducing pollution.
- Comprehensive recordkeeping and reporting requirements to help ensure transparent and accurate information.
The Commission also rejected two major pushes by industry parties to weaken the rules. An effort to exempt wells with low levels of VOC emissions from the leak detection rule (which would have exempted numerous wells) got a lot of attention during the hearing, but the Commissioners voted it down 6-3. Industry parties also pressed hard for a "step down" provision that would let companies conduct less frequent leak inspections after two clean inspections (with the threshold to qualify for the "step down" set so high that most of the companies in Colorado already meet it). For technical details, the final rules can be reviewed here.
These rules are an exciting step forward for Colorado in regulating oil and gas emissions across the state. However, the Commission failed to adopt strong proposals to further protect communities that have drilling near homes and schools; push for the best available technology for both prevention and detection of leaks; and eliminate the exception for downstream compressor stations that account for 15 percent of leaks nationally. Coloradans will continue to fight the powerful oil and gas industry to protect their air and public health, and the Sierra Club will continue to support and engage in this battle on every level.