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Sierra Club members from coast to coast joined with their fellow citizens, allied organizations, and elected officials last week in celebrating the Obama EPA's first-ever national protections against carbon pollution from existing power plants. We'll let the following accounts serve as a representative sample.
In the president's hometown of Chicago, the Sierra Club took the lead in organizing a rally and press conference, above, that brought more than 200 people together in support of the new pollution standards. A coalition of more than 25 partner organizations helped out in some capacity for the event.
Speakers included Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Congressmen Mike Quigley, Bobby Rush, and Robin Kelly, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, Citizen's Utility Board executive director Dave Kolata, business community sustainability director Dan Probst, and 2013 Goldman Prize winner & community activist Kimberly Wasserman. That's Wasserman below, speaking.
"All the speakers outlined the impacts of climate change already facing Illinois, applauded the Obama administration for leading on this critical issue, and pledged a strong and just implementation plan for our state," said Chicago-based Sierra Club organizer Christine Nannicelli. "We also secured supportive press statements from key elected officials, including Governor Quinn.
Below, Attorney General Madigan addresses the crowd.
"Team Illinois has been building for this roll-out since the beginning of the year," Nannicelli said. "We led Illinois Climate Coordination Table discussions for several months that brought together over two dozen diverse organizations to build support for the new standards and ensure their strong implementation in Illinois."
The Sierra Club also put together "satellite" press conferences in Peoria, above and below, and Champaign. "We focused on voices from the agriculture and faith communities," said Club organizer Kady McFadden.
"The idea that you have to pollute to preserve jobs is blatantly false," said farmer Keith Bolin at the Peoria press conference. "As farmers, we need healthy air, water, and soil. Climate change puts all those things at risk."
The Club also held a workshop in Chicago to help more than 50 people prepare public comments in support of the new standards.
A thousand miles to the west, Colorado Beyond Coal campaign organizer Bryce Carter reports that the Sierra Club helped the Climate Action Coalition turn out about 100 people to a press conference and rally, below, in the newly renovated Alliance Center Building in downtown Denver across the street from the regional EPA headquarters.
A model for green building, the Alliance Center Building has cut its water use by 84 percent and electric lighting consumption by half.
Speakers included Latina activist Kendra Sandoval, below at right, who spoke about the disproportionate impacts of climate disruption on communities of color; Gregg Thomas of the Denver Department of Environmental Health, who spoke about the positive health impacts of the new carbon standards; and Jeff Hohenese of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, who outlined the efficiency gains the Alliance Center Building has made to achieve LEED platinum status.
Meanwhile in Minneapolis, the Club's Minnesota Beyond Coal campaign released this video in response to the announcement of the new carbon standards. The footage was taken at a Climate Justice forum sponsored by the Sierra Club and Green for All on May 15. Minneapolis-based environmental justice organizer was the Club's point person for the event, and colleague Alexis Boxer helped capture the personal stories highlighted in the video. (Click on the image below to watch the two-minute video.)
Sierra Club spokespeople were quoted in some 300 media clips covering the EPA's announcement of the new carbon pollution protections.
R emarkable things happen when dedicated people working on one cause get a chance to talk shop with dedicated people working on another cause. They not only discover that stories and strategies are similar, but also that seemingly distinct issues share common ground when it comes to questions of equity.
I witnessed this as one of the facilitators at a recent workshop coordinated by Groundwork Portland and the Sierra Club at the Center for Intercultural Organizing. Thirty-five activists from groups such as Right to Dream Too and Right to Survive, Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC), and the Sierra Club gathered to exchange ideas about community organizing.
Covering the philosophical as well as the tactical, houseless advocates shared power maps with campaigners from Beyond Coal. Representatives from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the PHCC modeled how to move decision makers with story-based testimony. People from diverse backgrounds and experiences talked about how to reach out to allies, engage neighbors in conversation, and build relationships that ultimately can help build a movement.
Cassie Cohen, executive director of Groundwork Portland, said the idea for the workshop grew out of a practical need to help the many groups that are working to clean up Portland Harbor and prepare for upcoming Environmental Protection Agency hearings.
"Although people have been working on this issue for a long time, the Coalition itself is new, so the training seemed like a good way to help people coalesce around the campaign in addition to building skills," explained Cohen.
Cohen and co-organizer Laura Stevens, of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, invited Steve Goldstein, Cesia Kerns, and Diana Pei-Wu to facilitate sessions on relationship-building, power mapping, and story-telling. The co-organizers quickly saw the opportunity to open up the event to help cross-pollinate and create a more dynamic learning environment.
"There is so much knowledge out there in the community, but we tend to keep focused on just our issues," Stevens explained. "We hoped people would walk away with some practical strategies and also have a chance to network with people they might not meet otherwise."
Reaching out across issues, participants rediscovered the uniting principle of equity work: to help all people have happy, productive lives in a healthy environment. They also found new energy and inspiration for their work. Activist Les Shannon said, "The event was nourishment for my spirit."
That was the ultimate goal of the workshop, to help participants tap into their individual and collective power for change. In the process, people started to break down silos and form alliances based not just on joint strategies but on a comprehensive vision for equity. As we tackle some of the most complex and daunting problems that any generation has had to face, this is the kind of leadership that Oregon needs now. As progressives we need to find more ways to promote it.
-- Mary Fifield, Sierra Club Oregon executive committee
In conjunction with Asthma Awareness Month, on the last day of May the Sierra Club and the Muskogee Clean City Coalition sponsored an asthma awareness event in Muskogee, Oklahoma, home to the state's oldest, largest, and dirtiest coal plant, owned and operated by Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E). The Club's Beyond Coal Campaign has been working for the past four years to retire the Muskogee Generating Station and get OG&E to move away from fossil fuels toward clean energy.
Between 75 and 100 people turned out for the event in Robison Park in southwest Muskogee. Sierra Club volunteers set up booths and tables offering information about asthma, air quality, and opportunities to help combat pollution in the city and in Muskogee County.
Local vendors provided food, local musicians provided entertainment, and members of a local Boy Scout troop talked about their involvement with the Clean City Coalition, of which the Sierra Club is a part. That's Charley Walton, high school senior and member of Boy Scout Troop 627, above at microphone.
"The Muskogee Clean City Coalition is a growing group of area residents concerned about air and water quality," says Oklahoma-based Sierra Club organizer Whitney Pearson, at left, the Club's lead organizer for the event. "This occasion was about fun, education, and building the coalition's membership. We've been working over the past several years to develop relationships with local residents and organizations who want to clean up the air and improve water quality in Muskogee."
Locals don't just suffer from pollution from the coal plant, Pearson says. "There are numerous industrial facilities in the city of Muskogee and Muskogee County compounding the problem. More than 6,500 people in the county suffer from asthma, including 1,500 children."
At the May 31 event, Sierra Club volunteers gathered signatures petitioning OK&G and other polluters to clean up their act. Petitions were also sent to elected officials and other local leaders. That's Muskogee City Council Member Ivory Vann, above at right, sporting a Sierra Club Beyond Coal t-shirt.
"We want polluters to know what they're supposed to be doing to reduce their emissions, and let local decision-makers know that people out there are concerned," Pearson says. "We know that polluters heard out message, and this event was a great building block toward creating a strong, sustainable coalition of people who want to work on cleaning up Muskogee."
Pearson gives kudos to Sierra Club colleague and "logistics guru" Shelly Campbell, deputy press secretary Jenna Garland, regional online organizer Andy Wilson, "and of course all the volunteers who made this event such a success."
Steve Pawlowski, Arizona Water Sentinels coordinator for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, died yesterday while waiting to testify at the state Capitol in Phoenix. He collapsed while standing in line to speak at a hearing organized by U.S. Representatives Paul Gosar and David Schweikert.
Above and below, Pawlowski doing water-quality testing on Arizona's Verde River with students from a local community college.
Among the many Arizona waterways Pawlowski worked to protect is the San Pedro River, the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest, and considered one of the most important riparian areas in the country. The San Pedro is of major ecological importance as it hosts two-thirds of the avian diversity in the U.S., including 100 species of breeding birds and 300 species of migrating birds.
"We cannot think of a kinder person than Steve," says close friend and Grand Canyon Chapter director Sandy Bahr. "He helped people and our environment. He was knowledgeable about water and other environmental issues and passionate about Arizona's rivers. Steve was dedicated to making this a better world -- and he did. He led our Arizona Water Sentinels for the past five years where he developed a strong and dedicated team of volunteers to protect our rivers. He was also an accomplished musician. Our hearts go out to his family, to his wife Jeannie and daughter Sarah. He was a good friend to us and to our environment. We will miss him immensely."
In recent days, eight states came together to release a 'Zero Emission Vehicle Action Plan;' it fleshes out their governors' commitment last fall to slash greenhouse gas emissions and get 3.3 million plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2025.
Making up 28 percent of the U.S. vehicle market, California, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and Maryland will "drive economies of scale, lowering prices and creating more options for consumers," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in response to the action plan. He continued, "When it comes to fighting climate disruption, EVs are where the rubber hits the road."
The action plan, promoted by a number of government, environmental, and public health groups in the news and social media, reads like a celebration of EV programs already making a difference on the ground. For example:
- In Rhode Island all new state vehicle purchases will be electrics or hybrids wherever possible.
- California Governor Jerry Brown met with 40 Fortune 500 executives to announce corporate commitments to PEV workplace charging.
- The West Coast Electric Highway has developed a network of charging stations that will provide charging from Canada to Mexico.
- The Maryland Public Service Commission has created a ‘time of use’ utility pilot program designed to incentivize off-peak charging.
- Massachusetts has announced a new EV rebate program, to start this summer, that will slice $1,500-2,500 off the purchase or lease of any plug-in vehicle.
The plan lays out 11 types of actions that it recommends for state government –in conjunction with other partners. These include everything from consumer incentives to government fleets, from workplace charging to EV marketing and availability. I encourage you to check out the plan. It's chock full of great examples and recommendations. It also has some compelling factoids, like a study showing that EV drivers are more satisfied with their vehicles than conventional vehicle owners. Additionally, the document shows, the five-year cost of ownership of a typical EV is actually thousands of dollars less than that of a conventional vehicle.
But I think this action plan begs some important questions. If we can't put our all into each and every one of the dozens of action items and recommendations, what are the most effective types of programs and strategies that will most rapidly escalate EV sales in the years to come? What are the pieces of low and medium-hanging fruit, and how does that vary by location? What are the most important studies that show what strategies are working best?
The Sierra Club will be evaluating questions like these in the coming months so we can determine how to best scale up our electric vehicles advocacy and outreach work around the country - and in turn work with these eight states and others to successfully implement this exciting ZEV action plan. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: What have you found to be the most successful EV programs in your area? What do you think is most needed? What studies do you think best point to important lessons learned in the plug-in electric vehicles market thus far?
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the director of the Sierra Club's Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative
Many city dwellers don't have cars. Ideally, they rely on their bikes, their feet, and public transit to get around. Certainly that's the best environmental choice.
But what about when they need to go farther, or biking or transit aren't viable options? Some cities and their residents are getting creative about electric cars.
This week in Indianapolis, where the Electric Drive Transportation Association held its annual conference, Mayor Greg Ballard announced a major new electric car sharing program. Other companies, such as Car2Go and Zipcar, have been experimenting with electric car-sharing, but BlueIndy will be the biggest one yet. Set to open within eight months, the program will include up to 500 electric vehicles, 200 service locations, and 1,000 charging stations. It will be run by the Bolloré Group, which currently operates EV car-sharing programs in a number of French cities.
It does matter how the electricity is generated. In Indiana, which relies heavily on coal for its electricity, full battery electric vehicles are at least 37 percent lower in carbon emissions than the average comparable conventional car -- but a bit higher than today's hybrid vehicles. See the Sierra Club's EV Guide and calculate emission comparisons for your own region. As the Midwest shifts away from fossil fuels and toward more renewable sources of power, as it must, EVs in Indianapolis are expected to get even cleaner over time.
For those city dwellers who want to buy an electric car for themselves but don't have access to a charging station at work or in their apartment or condo complex, the installation of EV charging stations may soon get easier in California. AB 2565, a bill introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi would ensure that a lease cannot unfairly restrict a tenant - a business or apartment dweller - from installing an EV charging station so long as the tenant pays for the station, installation, and upkeep. This kind of policy would allow more people eager to drive EVs to install the charging stations at home or access them at work or in public locations.
In fact, if you live in California, you could help by signing this petition urging state leadership to support this new policy.
Whether it be car-sharing or ownership, electric cars are becoming more viable for urban Americans - but for many not fast enough. Tell us what you think of these programs or ones you’d like introduced in your own community.
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative.
On Thursday more than 40 Marylanders rallied in Baltimore's Carroll Park before deliverying 2,000 comments to the Maryland Department of the Environment supporting the agency's proposed clean air standards.
Standing in front of a 20-foot inflatable asthma inhaler, state, city, and local officials joined the Maryland Sierra Club activists and other residents in congratulating the MDE while also encouraging them to be even tougher on coal plant pollution.
"I am here today to tell the Maryland Department of the Environment that people like me need you to move forward with strong, limits on pollution from Maryland's coal-fired power plants," said Doris Toles a Baltimore City resident suffering from asthma and COPD who spoke at the rally. "There are many who have died from asthma. I have lost family and friends."
Some rally-goers brought babies in strollers, others carried signs, and many wore air masks to show just how important clean air is in the Old Line State. More than five million Marylanders live in areas that fail to meet air quality safeguards, including Baltimore, which suffers from some of the worst air and highest asthma rates in the nation.
Maryland's coal-fired power plants are responsible for more than 40 percent of all dangerous sulfur dioxide emissions in the state. These plants are also a significant contributor to smog pollution in the state. Smog causes a host of adverse health impacts including inducing asthma attacks in asthmatics and aggravating chronic lung diseases like emphysema and bronchitis. IIts impacts are most harmful to sensitive populations including children and the elderly.
"MDE has a chance to clean up our air while saving lives and money," said Josh Tulkin, Director of the Maryland Chapter of Sierra Club. "These new clean air protections will ensure that folks across the state can breathe a little easier. We're proud to support the administration in its efforts to make it happen."
Last October, MDE initiated a "stakeholder process" to address air pollution from coal fired power plants. The Sierra Club has worked closely with MDE through their stakeholder process. MDE's safeguards would reduce dangerous emissions of sulfur dioxide and smog-causing nitrogen oxides from sources including two outdated Baltimore-area coal plants.
For residents like Doris Toles and thousands of others, clean air standards and cleaning up coal plant pollution are a matter of life and death.
"Please help by moving forward with strong protections that will ensure that Maryland’s coal-fired power plants are as clean as possible," said Toles. "Cleaning up pollution from coal plants helps people like me stay alive."
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Senior Content Producer, Baltimore resident, and mom of that cute kid pictured above.
By Briana Okyere
Joy Mayfield has been with the Nashville Inner City Outings program since its inception in 2007, and has watched the program cultivate an appreciation for the environment in the minds of the youth in her community.
"I had looked into starting an Inner City Outings (ICO) program here in Nashville in around 1998, but I couldn't find enough people at that time willing to volunteer to be leaders," the longtime Sierra Club volunteer leader recalls. "Then, to my delight, in 2007 two young ladies in the Sierra Club's Middle Tennessee Group decided to start an ICO program here, and knowing I was already a certified outings leader, asked if I would join them. They also knew I had customized some local outings specifically for families so children could be included."
Joy loves the outdoors, and enjoys exposing nature's intricacies to children who might not otherwise readily have the opportunity to experience the great outdoors. "Working with ICO, I get to be a kid again, exploring the wonders of the natural world. We adults take life so seriously. Sometimes we forget to play and have fun."
Above, Joy with good friend and Nashville ICO chair Craig Jervis. Below, young ICO participants gardening at a local historic site.
It is Joy's mission to share her love of the environment with the youth of Nashville. Sometimes it's not the easiest thing to do.
"I remember one hot, sticky, humid day in the summer of 2010, we took a group of youth from a new agency we were working with to Beaman Park," she recalls." My co-leader was my friend Betsy Garber, the chair of Nashville ICO at the time. We were the only adults on the trip aside from the bus driver. Five very big -- as in football linebacker big -- sullen-appearing 16-to-18-year-olds got off the bus. They were not smiling, and they looked Betsy and me up and down in an almost threatening way.
"I remember Betsy leaning over to me as we began the hike and whispering, 'remember, they're just big kids.' We proceeded to hike the two-mile loop trail, pointing out edible plants, wildflowers, birds, and insects, encouraging them to touch and feel, to listen to the sounds of the forest, to immerse themselves in the quiet. Suddenly the interaction began. We took a dogleg down to Henry's Creek and let these young men remove their shoes and explore the stream barefooted and just play in the clear, cool water."
Something transformative happened down there in that stream that day, Joy says. "I realized Betsy was correct in her assessment: These were just big kids. Their entire demeanor changed in this peaceful, woodland setting. We watched their defensive posture change. They became light-hearted, talkative, and animated. They became little kids again."
Despite her trepidation at the start of the trip, Joy remains exuberant about its aftermath. "Shortly thereafter when we contacted the agency for follow-up, we were stunned to discover that all the teens we took hiking had previously been in some kind of trouble with the law. The agency disclosed that their mission was to afford children in trouble a temporary, structured, and safe residence where they could learn new, positive life skills as they transitioned from juvenile detention to independence."
Joy gets a deep satisfaction from being able to lend a hand to juvenile youth's reintroduction into society. "I have one photograph from that trip that I use sometimes to keep myself pumped," she says. "Whenever I look at that photograph I remember why it is we do what we do in ICO."
For Joy, ICO does more than just expose youth to the outdoors -- the program and its volunteers instill a deep connectedness with nature. It is this connection, she believes, that encourages a personal ethic of environmental stewardship. "Children of today have many environmental issues that they will have to confront as adults -- the leftover mess created by their predecessors."
It is the mission of volunteers like Joy to prepare today's youth for the environmental issues they will face tomorrow. "The more we can get children outdoors, the more they will engage in the natural world and want to preserve it," she says. "This is my belief, and I have certainly seen it happen time and time again -- even with my own sons!"
Briana Okyere is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
Last Saturday, 5,000 Americans gathered in numbers large and small in 100 communities in 43 states across the nation for a National Day of Action to not only say No to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, but to all dirty fuels.
Three weeks ago, 5,000 citizens rallied in Washington, D.C., to urge the President Obama to reject KXL. This time people turned out in their own communities. Whether it's offshore drilling, seismic testing, mountaintop removal coal mining, dangerous tar sands pipelines, fracking, exporting liquid natural gas, or shipping crude by rail through our hometowns, we all have reason to be concerned -- for the health of our families and the health of the planet.
America is under an unprecedented assault from Big Oil today. So on May 17, Sierrans and activists with dozens of partner organizations took action against the continental and global threat of the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the many other ways in which fossil fuels now threaten their communities.
This National Day of Action against all dirty fuels was organized with help from Surfrider, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org. But it was Sierra Club volunteers and staff who led the way in doing the lion's share of organizing on the national and local level, with Beyond Oil and Our Wild America campaign staff engaged wherever they could.
A similar event known as Hands Across the Sand, also co-sponsored by the Sierra Club, started in 2010 when Americans from coast to coast joined Gulf Coast residents in expressing alarm and outrage at the impact of offshore oil on the Gulf of Mexico during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Since then, as utilities have begun to move beyond coal, Big Oil has expanded from drilling in the Gulf to an unprecedented new assault on every region of America.
A few highlights from across the fruited plain last Saturday:
Hands were joined across the sands of 20 Florida beaches, and seven in California, with turnouts of 200 or more at St. Pete Beach and Indian Rocks Beach on Tampa Bay, at Miami Beach, and in Kailua, Hawaii.
Residents of other coastal states, including Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey, were joined by activists from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi in protesting the imminent threat that seismic testing poses to hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins -- a sacrifice oil companies are willing to make in order to find new sites for drilling off the Atlantic coast.
Inland events focused more on the central theme of rejecting the KXL pipeline. The largest event in the nation was in Omaha, where 231 people faced the Missouri River to join hands across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge between Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa. "The bridge is over the river, and we're making the point that we want to protect our water," said local organizer Margaret Mainelli.
North Star (Minnesota) Chapter members stood with MN 350 and Organizing for Action Against Climate Change activists against the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline, joining hands across the Mississippi River on a bridge linking Minneapolis with St. Paul.
Illinois Chapter activists connected with Sierra's Northwest Indiana Group at a rally at the Lake Michigan site of the BP tar sands refinery that a few weeks earlier had dumped oil into Lake Michigan, Chicago's water supply.
Days after an oil pipeline rupture put a Los Angeles neighborhood waist deep in oil, the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter worked with other members of the SoCal Climate Action Coalition 350 to organize a bi-lingual community workshop in a largely Hispanic community already beset by poor air quality from drilling and fracking, now facing a new threat of tar sand oil being shipped out of the port at Wilmington via a new pipeline through this community under siege by Big Oil.
A similar threat up the coast in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Valero Benicia Refinery has proposed transporting crude oil by rail tanker cars, was met by a Refinery Corridor Healing Walk at the port town of Martinez, the second in a series of such events. Across the nation in Portland, Maine, the threat of tar sands oil being shipped out through this harbor turned out 100 on a rainy day to speak up for protecting Maine's pristine lakes, rivers and bays.
In Florida, where anti-drilling activists held their fifth annual Hands Across the Sand events, the focus expanded from offshore drilling to a call for moving America's most oil-dependent state beyond oil through investing in the cleaner transit options it so sorely lacks. Two hundred citizens gathered on one of America's most popular beach destinations, St. Pete Beach, to link dirty fuels to a call for support of this November's biggest transit referendum, Greenlight Pinellas -- the most powerful thing that can be done to reduce the Tampa Bay Area's demand for the oil that continues to threaten the state's beach-tourism-based economy.
All over America, in nearly every state, Sierrans rallied with their neighbors to call for freedom from the tyranny of fossil fuels that now threatens our lakes, rivers, beaches, water, and air, and to protect the world from rising sea levels and the impact of rising temperatures. The momentum against Big Oil has turned in our favor, even as the industry's reach widens to attack us all. On Saturday, Sierra Club members stood up to Big Oil. Let's keep up the fight.
The first week of May, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Minnesota team turned up the heat on utilities Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, taking them to task for their coal pollution and presenting them with a bill for damages to public health.
Below at left, Xcel's "bill" on its way to being presented at the company's headquarters in Minneapolis.
Activists filed comments with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on their state implementation plan for soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone. The comments included "plume maps" for sulfur dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants the Sierra Club has targeted as especially egregious polluters, showing how pollution exceeds national air-quality standards. Even short exposures to peak levels of sulfur dioxide in the air can make it difficult for people with asthma or other respiratory illnesses to breathe when they are active outdoors.
Club volunteers and staff worked together to collect public comments on the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's docket on updating the cost estimates for "externalities" (side effects) that utilities use in making energy decisions.
They then held media events in Minneapolis, above, and Duluth, below, where they delivered the "bills" for the costs of pollution from Xcel Energy's and Minnesota Power's coal plants.
The costs were recommended in a 2013 study -- Health & Environmental Costs of Electricity Generation in Minnesota -- the Sierra Club used to successfully open a docket at the Minnesota PUC to update cost estimates that were nearly 20 years out of date.
Below, the "bills"that were presented to Minnesota Power and Excel Energy, respectively.
The media events in Minneapolis and Duluth were followed by email and social media outreach in each utility's service area, and Beyond Coal activists submitted comments to the PUC docket on the true costs of pollution from coal plants in Minnesota. Below, the Sierra Club's "True Cost of Coal Pollution" infographic, for both Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power.
On May 15, the Beyond Coal Minnesota team presented videotaped personal stories at a Climate Justice Now community forum in Minneapolis, documenting how pollution is affecting public health in the state. The forum, organized by the Sierra Club and Green For All, focused on how communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate disruption.
Minneapolis-based Sierra Club organizer Michelle Rosier gives a shout-out to fellow organizers Alexis Boxer, Jessica Tritsch, and Karen Monahan, and volunteers Sunny Leung, Julie Drennan, Priyanka Zylstra, "and all the other volunteers who made the 'bill' deliveries happen -- and special Kudos to Alexis Boxer for dreaming up the bill idea."
The Better Housing Coalition's Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond. Photo by the Better Housing Coalition.
By Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Chair
If you think of "green" homes and solar panels as luxury amenities for high-end housing, you might be surprised to learn that these are becoming standard features in low-income housing, even here in Virginia.
Buildings with added insulation, better windows, energy-saving light fixtures and Energy Star appliances translate into big savings on utility bills. This should matter to all of us, but it's especially important for low-income households. For them, lower energy bills can mean not having to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.
Reducing energy costs is equally important for low-income housing owned by the government or nonprofits. Using energy efficiency and renewable energy to lower utility bills saves the public money and makes it possible to keep rents stable.
Recognizing these benefits, the Virginia Housing Development Authority 10 years ago began to incentivize green building techniques. As a result, when government agencies and nonprofits build low-income housing in Virginia today, they make green building a priority.
Today there are more than 11,000 units of affordable housing in Virginia that are certified to EarthCraft standards, one of the strictest measures of home energy efficiency. According to Philip Agee, green building technical manager for EarthCraft Virginia, these new affordable housing units are 28 percent more efficient than homes that are built to the 2004 model housing code. Units renovated to EarthCraft standards average a 43 percent improvement in efficiency.
The Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition now builds all its low-income housing to exceed EarthCraft standards. As its website explains, "installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows and lighting, and blown cellulose insulation are standard practice for BHC homes. So, too, is the use of durable cement-board siding and tankless water heaters. Reduced energy usage means reduced utility bills for our owners and residents."
Even more striking is the inclusion of solar energy in recent projects. Many of the Better Housing Coalition's buildings include solar PV panels for electricity and solar thermal systems for hot water. Last year the Better Housing Coalition built the first net-zero-energy apartments for low-income residents, combining super-efficient construction with solar to produce as much energy as residents consume.
Another leader in the solar movement is Community Housing Partners, a nonprofit organization that designs and builds low-income housing throughout the Southeast. It has worked with Virginia Supportive Housing to include solar panels on at least four of its recent projects, each system sized to provide 20 percent of the building's electricity.
The Heron's Landing apartments in Chesapeake include both 61 kilowatts of solar PV and a 13-kilowatt solar thermal array to supply hot water to the 60-unit complex designed for formerly homeless residents. Across the state in Charlottesville, The Crossings includes 33 kilowatts of solar PV and a 76-kilowattt solar thermal system for 62 units serving homeless and low-income residents. Both projects used Charlottesville-based AltEnergy as the solar contractor, supporting solar jobs in state. Paul Risberg, AltEnergy's CEO, says his firm is currently working on two more Virginia projects.
Solar systems are also part of the Community Housing Partners' developments in Richmond (Studios at South Richmond) and Portsmouth (the attractive South Bay Apartments). Now, like the Better Housing Coalition, the organization plans to take the next step, making its latest housing development for low-income seniors in Christiansburg net-zero.
Municipalities, too, are working solar into their plans for low-income housing. Last year the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority worked with Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC to install solar on its Polly Lineweaver apartment building, which serves elderly and disabled residents. According to a local television report, the contract will save the authority money over time and help keep rents stable.
Building green is proving such a money-saver for low-income housing that it's a shame Virginia isn't applying this lesson more widely. The state's failure last year to adopt the 2012 model building code standards means that even buyers of brand-new homes won't be guaranteed the level of quality built into these low-income apartments. Let's hope the administration of Governor Terry McAuliffe takes note and changes course.
By Bruce Nilles, Senior Director, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
The retirement of NV Energy-owned Reid Gardner Generating Station is a major victory for the climate, clean air, renewable energy, and the many people involved in the fight. While the efforts of Warren Buffett should not be ignored, it was years of relentless grassroots work by the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Sierra Club as well as unwavering support from Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) that drove this retirement forward.Last April, Moapa Paiute activists were joined by tribal leaders, clean-energy supporters, and faith leaders from across the Southwest in a 16-mile "Coal to Clean Energy Walk," culminating at the site of the 250-megawatt solar project on the Moapa Paiute Reservation that will sell power to Los Angeles.
Reid Gardner Generating Station, which sits immediately adjacent to the Moapa Paiute reservation. Photo by OccupyLV.org.
For half a century, the Moapa Band of Paiutes have lived in the shadow of the Reid Gardner coal plant, but got little to no benefit from its hulking presence. Instead, the 200 Moapa residents were left to suffer the undeserved consequences of a filthy coal plant. Every year, Reid Gardner emitted more than 4,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,200 tons of sulfur dioxide and 5 million tons of carbon pollution into the air. Those pollutants are known to cause or exacerbate asthma attacks, lung disease, sinus problems, thyroid disease, cardiovascular problems and even premature death. Since the 1960’s, the Moapa Paiutes breathed that air and have suffered from those health issues.
After decades of breathing dirty air and after years of fighting it, the Moapa Paiutes are relieved that the Reid Gardner plant is retiring and that clean energy, including a 200 megawatt project on the tribe’s reservation lands, will be built in its place.
The impacts of this plant extended further than polluting the air. The amount of burned coal at Reid Gardner produced 46 million gallons of toxic coal ash that was spread into multiple settling ponds and then dumped into an unlined landfill. This waste contains mercury, lead and other dangerous heavy metals that cause cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease, reproductive problems, birth defects and many others. Having mounds of coal ash sitting next door leaves your land, home, and family vulnerable. Gusts of wind pick up the coal ash from Reid Gardner and carry it onto the Moapa Paiutes’ reservation land, covering their property, food and water in toxic ash. Additionally, coal ash toxins can seep into the ground from locations like the ponds and landfill, and pollute the groundwater that is used to drink, clean and farm. The Moapa Paiutes were not only up against a massive coal plant, but also the massive amounts of coal ash it produced, coal ash that still sits nearby.
Starting in 2005, the Sierra Club and Sen. Reid worked together to keep three coal plants from being built in Nevada. Two years later the Sierra Club heard about NV Energy’s plan to keep Reid Gardner open for at least another decade and to store more coal ash at the plant. That was when the Sierra Club joined the Moapa Band of Paiutes in fighting for their right to clean air, clean water and good health for their community. That's former Sierra Club President Allison Chin, below, at the 2013 Coal to Clean Energy Walk, which drew hundreds of tribal leaders, clean-energy supporters, and faith leaders from across the Southwest.
Last year our joint efforts paid off, when state lawmakers passed legislation that requires the retirement of the plant and stipulates that renewable energy will replace a significant amount of its power. Today, after decades of breathing dirty air and after years of fighting it, the Moapa Paiutes are relieved that the Reid Gardner plant is retiring and that clean energy, including a 200 megawatt project on the tribe’s reservation lands, will be built in its place.
While the end of this story is near, the fight is not over. The Nevada Public Utilities Commission still has to approve NV Energy’s replacement plan. The Reid Gardner coal ash ponds still need to be removed. The toxic dust and likely groundwater contamination still needs to be cleaned up. And the landfill still needs to be lined and covered. All of this will take years. And there are still two more coal plants left in Nevada that are endangering the state’s air quality and contributing carbon pollution to the atmosphere. But the coal-related injustices the Moapa Band of Paiutes have lived with are set to be resolved, and the tribe is now participating in the new clean energy economy.
Moapa Band of Paiutes Coal to Clean Energy Walk
Mother’s Day is not only a time to celebrate our own mothers and mothers around the world, it’s also a time to think about the things our mothers need to take care of their families. And it’s a time to remember the importance of Mother Nature.
As our use of fossil fuels has drastically increased over the last several decades, mothers everywhere have experienced undue stress. These dirty fossil fuels -- like coal, oil, and natural gas -- have not only exacerbated climate disruption but have directly impacted mothers everywhere, especially those in the developing world who are least prepared for and hardest hit by climate disruption.
Currently, 70 percent of the global population living below the poverty line are women. Without adequate access to basic resources, these women are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Many poor women depend on the land for food, water and fuel, and are thus affected disproportionately by erratic weather patterns and natural disasters. In fact, women and children are 14 times more likely to die from a natural disaster than their male counterparts.
Droughts, floods, and other effects on water hit women especially hard. Water supplies are rarely close to communities and villages. In fact, roughly 25 percent of a woman’s day is spent on securing water for her family’s needs in the developing world. That’s 25 percent of a mother’s time that she could be providing for her family in other ways.
Children -- usually daughters -- are also responsible for assisting with this task, which keeps them from attending school and often leaves them illiterate. In fact, women account for two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate adults globally. Without a reliable education, these children are unable to advance in the workforce and are less educated about a variety of topics including reproductive health.
More than 222 million women would like to plan their family size, but they lack the adequate resources, education, access to contraception or method of choice, or power to make decisions about childbearing. Thus, women in developing countries are more likely to have larger families than they desire which compromises the health of mothers and their children, contributes to global population growth, and ultimately fosters the cycle of poverty.
Luckily, this is a cycle that can be broken.
As we continue to work to combat climate disruption and its often disastrous effects, we must also actively work to increase access to basic resources, ensure education and economic opportunities for women, and increase access to voluntary family planning.
The Sierra Club recognizes that there are many reasons to celebrate mothers and Mother Nature -- not just on Mother’s Day, but every day. The Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program is working to ensure that mothers around the globe have access to the resources they need to take care of their families, adapt to climate disruption, and make informed decisions about their own reproductive health.
-- Kim Lovell, Director, Sierra Club’s Global Population & Environment Program
The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) rally on Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is over and the buses have taken their "supporters" home. Business as usual has resumed and we at the Sierra Club are getting back to doing the good work to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
It was an interesting rally to say the least. With folks bused in from around the state, paid a day's wages, provided a box lunch, American flags, and snazzy t-shirts, it was tough to see who the target was. From what I could gather, it was a group of folks recruited to make the point that they are totally alright with the environmental consequences (dire) of fracking as long as the member organizations of the MSC can make absurd profits. It's easy to get numbers when you pay people to show up. Classic astroturf.
So let's be clear, there are a few things that are needed to reset the conversation.
The consequences of the "shale gas boom" in Pennsylvania have been devastating. Drinking was has been permanently fouled, air quality has been severely damaged, forests have been fragmented, invasive species are multiplying, truck traffic on rural roads has been increased (taxpayers pay the tab...), our public lands are being threatened by the drill, political control over community decisions has been clamped down on, and property values across the board have decreased.
Unfortunately, we've also seen renewable energy projects displaced, transparency in our government decrease, and a host of other horribles appear - including the climate impacts of methane leaking from drill sites, pipelines and power plants.
We didn't hear too much about these consequences at the rally on Tuesday. For good reason - the member organizations of the MSC are making a killing at the bank and they want to whip up an astroturfed show of support to keep those profits coming in. That's a raw deal for Pennsylvania and the planet.
Remember, we all live downstream.
Shale gas is a bridge to nowhere and the costs associated with its extraction are just too great to continue to allow these companies to spend enormous sums on political campaigns and purchase the regulatory environment that they want. Environmental destruction is their Achilles heel. Political donations are their regulatory lubricant. We see that and we push back.
The Sierra Club is devoted to protecting our environment from the fossil fuel industry. Whether it's through fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, our Beyond Coal Campaign transitioning our energy sector to clean energy, or protecting Our Wild America from the threat of increased drilling, we will continue to stoke public pressure, lobby, litigate and support this movement for greater public participation and control over the decisions that affect our air, water and planet.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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).