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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.
Last week in Frankfort, Kentucky, Sierra Club volunteers were among the 5,000 Kentuckians who marched on the State Capitol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 Civil Rights March on Frankfort.
The Sierra Club's Cumberland Chapter and Beyond Coal Campaign began working with the NAACP in Kentucky last fall to plan the march. Speeches were delivered by Governor Steve Beshear and Kentucky NAACP President Raul Cunningham, among others.
The Sierra Club contingent was led by Cumberland Chapter Chair Judy Lyons, Louisville Group Chair Wallace McMullen, and Louisville Group Vice-Chair Drew Foley. Many volunteers rode to Frankfort on a bus provided by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which works closely with the Beyond Coal Campaign in the state. Joan Lindop of the Louisville Group represented the Sierra Club at all coalition meetings of Allied Organizations for Civil Rights.
"There were folks from all walks of life who listened to the speeches and then lobbied the State Senate on a range of issues, including expanded voting rights for all Kentuckians and the restoration of felons' voting rights," says Louisville-based Sierra Club organizer Thom Pearce. "It was an empowering day and a good day of alliance-building."
When the Tōhoku earthquake hit off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, no one could have predicted the enormous ripple effect it would have on the island nation and the world.
The Tōhoku quake -- the fifth-strongest earthquake ever recorded, measuring a 9.0 on the Richter scale -- triggered a massive tsunami that reached inland up to six miles in some places and reached heights upward of 130 feet. The tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, below, causing half of its nuclear reactors to melt down and releasing radioactive materials into the air, water, and surrounding landscape.
An estimated 300,000 people evacuated the area, and residential and commercial areas around the power plant are still largely unoccupied three years later out of fear of radiation exposure and contamination.
That's because the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is the largest nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Since then, many countries have taken further action to reduce their use of nuclear energy. For example, the German government has mandated that nuclear power plants be phased out by 2022. The Swiss have announced similar plans.
But despite the obvious environmental risks and public health problems that nuclear power creates, the United States is undergoing a period of renewed interest in nuclear energy. If the U.S. experiences a resurgence of the nuclear industry, it poses a threat to our environment, our public health, and our safety. We must use the anniversary of Fukushima to remind ourselves that nuclear energy is still not -- and never will be -- the answer to our energy problems.
Every step of nuclear power generation -- from uranium mining, to building a plant, to disposing of waste -- is riddled with problems.
For example, each nuclear reactor produces an estimated 2,300 metric tons of waste each year. This radioactive waste is hazardous for all aspects of the environment, and long-term storage is still being negotiated. In addition, the transportation of nuclear waste to a long-term site brings its own set of public health and environmental risks. Mechanical failure and accidents have been compounded with threats presented by vandalism and terrorism. Beyond the susceptibility of nuclear facilities to natural catastrophe and environmental burdens, it would be globally negligent to overlook their use as terrorist targets in a post-9/11 era.
From a financial perspective, the nuclear industry has a long and expensive history of taxpayer subsidies and excessive charges to utility ratepayers. The cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear plant is estimated to be about 60 percent greater than the cost of electricity from wind energy. Consequently, nuclear power companies must rely on several types of government subsidies for everything from startup capital to decommissioning and waste disposal.
These extra costs, which will be borne by American ratepayers, can be avoided if the United States focuses on a clean energy future. By investing in wind and solar power, the U.S. will create more jobs without risking public health or the environment. By moving away from our nuclear past, we can ensure a cleaner, brighter, healthier America in the years to come.
In the case of Fukushima, the problems stemming from nuclear power were catastrophic. The people of Japan are still coping with the effects of radiation and contamination, as they will be for years to come. The safest way to power our world is to move away from hazardous nuclear energy and toward a clean energy future.
-- Radha Adhar, Sierra Club Associate Washington Representative
Baltimore public school teacher Brad Hunter, above at right, a volunteer leader for the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings program, says he found out about ICO totally by happenstance.
"I'd been overseas for some time and I came back to visit my parents," he recalls. "My mom is a Sierra Club member, and the chapter newsletter was sitting on the table. It had an ad about Baltimore ICO, so on a lark I went to the website, made a call, and went on a trip. After four or five trips I decided to get trained as a leader. I've now been on 70+ trips over the last six years."
With active programs in more than 50 U.S. cities, ICO provides outdoor experiences for kids who might not otherwise have easy access to nearby nature. Hunter says the home life of most of the kids he works with doesn't easily lend itself to getting out into the natural world. "That's what ICO is all about. The main thing I want to do is get kids comfortable in the outdoors, and a desire to protect the natural world follows from that.
"I can talk to the kids all day about things like water-quality issues in Chesapeake Bay," he says, "but if I'm able to help them have a positive experience on or around the bay, then as they grow older they'll have a greater understanding and appreciation of what an amazing resource it is."
Hunter, who grew up just outside Baltimore, says getting outdoors is something he's always done. "I came up in the Boy Scouts, which I joined mainly so I could go camping once a month -- although I did earn badges along the way and made Eagle. My parents saw there was value in getting outdoors. They didn't push us, but they helped me have access to nature and I learned to appreciate its value."
Family trips were often out of state, so as a child it was Hunter's impression that one had to travel far away to really experience the great outdoors. But now one of his goals as an ICO leader is to introduce kids to places that are close at hand, sometimes within the city limits.
"When I first started leading ICO trips, we'd usually go further afield," he recalls. "We'd have a great time, but then it dawned on me that we were going places where the kids might not be able to easily return. So I decided to show them places they can reach by city bus or a local bus; that way they can go back the next weekend and have the same experience if they want."
Asked about some of his favorite destinations for ICO trips, Hunter mentions Druid Hill Park, Middle Branch Park, Patatsco State Park, and Calvert Cliffs State Park. All but the last is either within or just outside the Baltimore city limits.
"I've learned as a leader that it's not necessarily the hard-core adventure trips that get ICO participants going," Hunter says. "It's being able to go out and touch something, throw stones in the lake. Just making the connection with nature and realizing they have access to it is what's important."
Hunter leads about a dozen trips each year, including two overnights. "Many of the kids I take out are going camping for the first time, roasting marshmallows for the first time. A lot of kids at my school start participating in ICO at a really young age, and it's really gratifying for me to see that when a 7th-grader goes on a camping trip, they already know how to camp, they know how to survive in the outdoors, and they're comfortable being outside. It's not like, 'Oh my god, it's dark! Oh my god, it's a bug!'"
Hunter has lately been working with Baltimore City Services, which rents bicycles and canoes through the city Recreation & Parks program, to broaden the scope of activities he can provide through ICO.
"There are huge segments of our population who don't have access to these experiences," Hunter says. "If they don't get them now, in elementary or middle school, they probably won't be interested in them later in life, which makes it less likely that they'll be interested in being good custodians of our parks, forests, and waterways."
"We get a tremendous number of people who are interested in ICO, which is wonderful," he says, "but the percentage of people who get certified as leaders is relatively small. That responsibility doesn't have to be daunting -- it can be one trip a year. Leading ICO trips is one of the best, most rewarding things I've ever done -- and it's fun!
Learn more about Inner City Outings, and how you can get involved. Can't find an ICO program near where you live? No problem. Start one!
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy proclaimed the month of February 2014 as Environmental Justice Month. Environmental justice activists all across the country are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 signed by President Bill Clinton twenty years ago on February 11, 1994.
This column was written by Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer Rita Harris, pictured above on the right.
Wow, it's really been 20 years! I remember where I was on that day in 1994 clearly. I was attending a conference at the Crystal City Marriott being hosted by NIEHS (National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences). There was a horrible snow storm and government offices in Washington, D.C. were all closed. However, word was quickly passing around the crowds of people at the conference that a select group of activists from our ranks had been called over to the White House.
There was so much excitement among the attendees, and it grew even wilder once the group returned and told us why they went to the White House. We were told that President Clinton had signed an Executive Order that would mandate all federal agencies develop strategic plans to address environmental justice (EJ). This was groundbreaking and historic! Many of the activists that were present at the conference and at the signing felt like this was just the one-two punch that was needed to help us with our many EJ fights and help communities across the country. "EJ will finally be recognized now that we have the President in our corner," is what some said.
The back story to the Executive Order's signing was that strong grassroots EJ advocates on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), which was established in 1993, actually pushed for Clinton to take the executive action he took in 1994. Although federal agencies did produce plans to address environmental justice in their decision making, environmental justice was not practiced or addressed in local government agencies and within most state environmental agencies. EJ battles are still taking place across this country and many times the term itself is even challenged, so the struggle continues.
There have been many success stories -- just not as many as EJ activists would have hoped. Over the past 20 years we have seen a few Superfund sites remediated, some Brownfields have been redeveloped, some buyouts have occurred that relocated residents plagued by toxic hazards, some polluters have been shut down, and some 'bad actors' have been criminally prosecuted.
Partnerships have been promoted, colleges and universities have embraced EJ communities and worked to alleviate suffering and raise the level of consciousness about disproportionate amounts of pollution and contamination in neighborhoods. Large environmental groups like the Sierra Club that had not traditionally been involved in EJ felt compelled to do so and established staff and programs to support poor and people of color communities.
Within the Sierra Club EJ guidelines and procedures were developed to ensure we worked in a respectful and sensitive way. In the broader community, lots of policy work has been done to counter policy work that was being done by corporate and business lobbyists. Numerous reports, articles, and academic studies have been produced. Numerous books have been written on the subject of EJ, and folks from coast to coast have kept the EJ movement fires burning over the years.
When I think back to all the community members that were "fighters" and present at the time Executive Order 12898 was signed in 1994, I am saddened because many have passed away. They fought a good fight for so many years, but have left us with a legacy that demands we continue to be strong fighters for clean healthy communities and never give up.
(L to R, Vernice Miller-Travis of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice & Sustainable Communities; Rita Harris; Angelo Logan of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Los Angeles; Richard Moore, former member of NEJAC and former director of the Southwest Organizing Project in New Mexico; and Charles Lee, the deputy associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.)
These were my personal thoughts as I sat in the EPA National Environmental Justice Council meeting held in Denver, Colorado, on February 11, 2014. I had the opportunity to participate in the 20th anniversary commemoration of Executive Order 12898 with other colleagues and friends. It was a time to reflect and also a time to rededicate ourselves to continuing the hard work of so many fighting for environmental justice. In addition, there was a moment of silence for all those EJ fighters who have passed away that was quite moving.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attended and addressed NEJAC, expressing continued support for environmental justice communities coast to coast. The political climate has given us peaks and valleys in the EJ movement and has activists now trying to regain the momentum we lost during eight years of the Bush Administration. As we all know, we must keep the pressure on to achieve success, but at least for now we have an EPA administrator that supports environmental justice. "EJ Plan 2014" is the EPA's roadmap to achieve success. We can all help keep the focus on support for EJ issues and EJ communities.
By Javier Sierra
In the battle against climate change, Latinos are in the line of fire. And our musketeers are our scientists.
We Latinos disproportionately suffer the effects of climate change because of our professional activities —we are much more likely to work outdoors— and the parts of the country where we tend to concentrate. But these are just two reasons for our extraordinary awareness of this phenomenon and our urgency to fight it.
Three Latino climatologists and members of the Union of Concerned Scientists offer several other reasons for this climate change awareness and the credibility gap that exists between us and the population at large.
Ana Prados, research assistant professor at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology at the University of Maryland, attributes this to Latinos’ international links as the immigrant community that we are.
“We are hearing back from our countries of origin. Latin American governments are not denying climate change and if you look at policy in Latin America, climate change is weaved into it,” says Prados, who teaches climate change science not only to her students but also to policy makers here and abroad.
Robert Mera, a Kendall Fellow on Climate Attribution, agrees with our international outlook but also makes a poignant point.
“Latinos trust science more. I know we are a very religious group. But we also appreciate the world we live in,” says Mera, who contributed to the study that revealed that two thirds of the world’s carbon pollution was generated by just 90 companies.
In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that scientists are Latinos’ most trusted source of climate change information.
For Nicole Hernández-Hammer, assistant director for research at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, other reasons include a strong cultural component.
“We Latinos have this special concern and care for the environment, and that’s what’s being identified in the polls. The fact is when I talk with my family about climate change, they know what I am talking about,” says Hernández-Hammer, who is dedicated to educating the public and policy makers about the dangers of sea level rise, especially in South Florida. “Miami, which is 70 percent Latino, economically is the world’s most vulnerable city to sea level rise.”
On the other hand, the population at large is walking in the opposite director. Recent polls reveal that climate change concerns among Americans has hit historic lows. Why?
“Part of it is the interference by certain groups like the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil, Chevron, that are hiding the important facts and aren’t backed up by real science,” says Mera.
“First, there is a campaign of disinformation,” agrees Hernández-Hammer. “There are organizations that are trying to have a fabricated debate, a pretend debate. And when there is doubt, it causes people to be confused and makes them believe that there is not a conclusion.”
For Prados, there is also a great lack of scientific awareness.
“I teach around the world and I notice that the scientific literacy in the US is lower than just about everywhere, including Latin America. Also some teachers in certain Southern states are prohibited from teaching climate change. That contributes to the lack of literacy of climate change,” she concludes.
Recently, this notion was sadly confirmed by a National Science Foundation survey, which found that one in four Americans believes the sun orbits the earth and that only one third of them support more funding for science and technology.
So, what are the solutions?
“The key is for scientists to bring their issues to the communities and how they can present them in a way that can resonate with their communities, ways that will explain to them their vulnerabilities, especially in coastal areas,” says Hernández Hammer.
“If we educate our citizens, they will be the ones educating public officials. If public officials hear this from their citizens, then they will have to do something,” Prados suggests.
“But the disinformation situation needs to be corrected”, warns Mera. “As long as that’s going to be in the way, there’s going to be a backlash. That’s unfortunate but that’s the case.”
In any instance, they all insist a sense of community must be present in the fight against the climate crisis. In other words, all for one and one for all, in true musketeer spirit.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
Last week more than 1,300 business, labor, environmental, and civic leaders -- including some 100 Sierra Club staff, volunteers, speakers, and community partners -- took part in the seventh annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington, D.C.
The conference, whose motto is, "Where Jobs and the Environment Meet," focused on repairing the infrastructure Americans rely on every day -- our water systems, electrical grid, transit, road, pipelines, and schools -- with an eye toward environmental sustainability and family-sustaining jobs that cannot be outsourced.
The Sierra Club is one of the primary sponsors of the conference, along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the United Steelworkers (USW), and Alcoa.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune (below) was among the keynote speakers on the conference's opening day. "We need to recreate our economy with clean energy that takes the place of fossil fuels," Brune said. "Everybody here knows it’s going to be a challenge to do that. But we must. The ultimate rewards for all of humanity when we achieve that goal will be greater than we can imagine. The Sierra Club is 100 percent committed to creating an economy that is 100 percent powered with clean energy."
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster (below), who emceed the conference, said that "to some of our critics, 'good jobs, green jobs' is a quaint notion; that you can have both good jobs and a clean environment. But you can't solve a 21st-century problem like climate change with the 19th-century infrastructure that caused it. The theme of this year's conference -- Protect, Produce, Prosper -- sums it all up: We can create all the jobs we need and fix our environmental problems by repairing America."
A secondary theme that ran through the conference was the growing income disparity between the very wealthy and all other Americans, and how the middle class will benefit from the creation of good, green jobs. "One thing 20th-century America taught the world is that a lot of wealth in a few hands is never going to be as productive as a lot of wealth in a lot of hands," Foster said in his opening remarks.
Gerard (at left) recalled that when the USW and the Sierra Club joined forced to create the BlueGreen Alliance seven years ago, their shared concerns were carbon emissions, chemical safety, and trade. "Then you come back seven years later and you see what we've done," he said. "The membership of the affiliate organizations in the BlueGreen Alliance represents 14 million Americans. Imagine what we could do to advance our agenda if we mobilized that membership."
Trumka (below) followed, saying that the biggest challenges facing our society are climate change and restoring economic prosperity. "I'm here on behalf of the labor movement to tell you we remain committed to stopping runaway climate change," he said. "There is no other path for our children and grandchildren. We must keep up the fight for generations to come. The people who want to solve climate change must engage with the people whose jobs are at stake. The challenge of climate change can only be solved when we find a formula of clean energy that meets every day people's needs."kick-off sesssion featuring Brune, Gerard, Jim Harrison of the Utility Workers Union of America, Rick Terven of the United Association, and Marc Norberg of the Sheet Metal Workers Union of America. That's Brune with Gerard, below.
"Addressing climate disruption is an opportunity, not just an obligation," Brune said. "We have to be big and bold in our ambition to build a clean-energy economy that works for everybody."
Gerard emphasized how a concerted effort to upgrade out infrastructure fits into the equation, citing the most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave America's infrastructure a grade of D+. The report card was mentioned frequently throughout the conference.
All the panelists were united in their belief that creating good jobs and a clean environment are not in conflict. "We don't have to decide between protecting the environment and good jobs," Harrison said, summing up the spirit of the evening.
The next two days featured three plenary sessions and more than 50 workshops, organized around nine basic themes: Climate Resiliency and Adaptation; Creating Good, Green Jobs; Energy; Health and Safety; Manufacturing; Repairing our Democracy; Schools and Communities; Transportation; and Water Systems & Pipes.
Brune, Gerard, and Foster penned a welcome letter to conference attendees, entitled Uniting to Repair America. "Climate change will not solve itself," it read in part. "Good jobs will not miraculously appear to resolve our country's unemployment and inequality crisis. Good Jobs, Green Jobs is an opportunity to talk with old friends and make new connections, listen and learn about how others are finding ways to Repair America, and share your own efforts to address climate change and create good jobs in your home state."
Joining Brune in giving keynote speeches on Day One of the conference were EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, United Autoworkers President Bob King, and U.S. Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland. Keynotes on Day Two were given by U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison of Missesota, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkeley of Oregon, and National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger.
Ilana Solomon (below), director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program, participated in a moderated panel discussion at the Day Two plenary session about how trade agreements like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership can undermine our communities and our environment and should not be fast-tracked to approval.
Sierra Club staffers and volunteers who sat on workshop panels included Solomon, Labor Program Director Dean Hubbard, New Orleans organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley, My Generation campaign organizer Allen Hernandez, Beyond Coal director Mary Anne Hitt, senior Washington, D.C., representative for federal campaigns Liz Perera, Our Wild America senior campaign representative Jackie Ostfeld, and clean-energy activist Al Weinrub.
Read more about the conference on the Good Jobs, Green Jobs blog.
In a speech today in Maryland, President Obama directed his administration to move forward with standards to make our tractor trailers and commercial vehicles more efficient. Already the administration has set historic standards for passenger vehicles of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 that will cut U.S. carbon pollution nearly 10 percent. These truck standards are another step to slash oil use, save Americans money and bring down carbon pollution.
Medium and heavy-duty vehicles, everything from 18-wheelers to delivery trucks, are the fastest growing source of oil consumption in the transportation sector. Even though these vehicles only make up seven percent of the vehicles on the road, they guzzle more than 25 percent of transportation fuel. Although new fuel-saving technologies are found in some trucks, most 18-wheelers on the road average around six miles per gallon (mpg) -- about the same as they did decades ago.
In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) finalized the first-ever efficiency standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles sold from 2014-2018. These standards will ensure that new engines are more efficient, and will reduce fuel consumption in semi-trucks by roughly 20 percent.
Developing the next round of efficiency standards now will allow manufacturers to innovate and develop new fuel saving technologies, such as plug-in electric drive-trains, aerodynamic trailers, higher-efficiency engines, advanced materials and lower rolling resistance tires. Last year Peterbilt and Cummins showcased a 10-mpg truck as a part of the DOT's Super Truck program. While 10-miles-per-gallon might not sound like much, it's a big deal. By increasing fuel economy 54 percent over today's average trucks, this prototype could slash greenhouse gas emissions and save an average driver $20,000 in fuel costs annually.
It is critical that the new standards developed by EPA and DOT are strong. Stringent standards will not only drive innovation for a wide range of new technologies, they will ensure that these technologies spread throughout the marketplace, instead of being found on only a small portion of vehicles.
Of course, setting new efficiency standards for mdeium- and heavy-duty vehicles is only one part of the solution to reduce carbon pollution and oil consumption. We must create an energy-efficient, multi-modal freight system that relies on trains and ships, as well as trucks. When we’re smarter about what we ship and how we ship it, we save money and reduce carbon pollution.
President Obama's announcement of new heavy-duty vehicle standards will build upon a strong legacy of passenger vehicle standards that are already reducing our oil consumption, including a transition to plug-in electric vehicles that run on little or no oil. While it will take EPA and DOT two years to develop new standards and incorporate input from the public, this is another tremendous opportunity to save drivers money at the pump and make our air cleaner to breathe. But most importantly, this is the kind of policy action that’s good for manufactures and businesses, it's good for workers and consumers, and it’s a very real and significant step to addressing carbon pollution.
-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club