Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
Sierra Club Compass Blog
Late Wednesday we saw a victory for clean water and public health: The Sierra Club is pleased to be a part of a legal agreement with 11 organizations compelling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize safeguards against coal ash pollution by the end of this year. EPA first proposed these standards in 2010, and they have been mired in red tape ever since. If the final protections are strong, getting them over the finish line will be a major victory for public health, safe communities, and clean water.
Coal ash is the toxic by-product left over when coal is burned for electricity. It's a dangerous mix of lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and many other harmful metals and pollutants. When coal ash comes in contact with water, a soup of hazardous pollutants can leach out of the waste and poison our water. Every year, the nation's coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution -- and those tons of toxic material are stored in unlined ponds and uncovered piles nationwide.
The communities living in the shadows of power plants have been living with this dangerous pollution for decades. As I mentioned in my column last week - just look at Charlotte, N.C., where Duke Energy's coal ash has contaminated the lake that provides drinking water for the 750,000 residents in the area. In the wake of the West Virginia coal chemical spill earlier this year, it's more clear than ever that we must close all the water pollution loopholes that the coal industry has enjoyed for far too long. This coal ash standard is a big one.
But the pollution doesn't stop with the water - coal ash also dirties the air. Just ask the Moapa Band of Paiutes living next to the Reid Gardner coal plant in Nevada, who joined this suit, or the residents living near the Louisville Gas & Electric Cane Run Power Plant, where coal ash has caused "persistent" air quality and health issues for years now.
The unlined ponds are also a major threat to nearby communities because of the risk of dam failures. We saw that in the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster in Roane County, Tennessee, when one billion gallons of coal ash spilled into a beautiful riverside community. The vast majority of states do not require adequate monitoring or liners to stop the release of toxic chemicals nor do they ensure that massive earthen dams are maintained safely to prevent another disaster like the 2008 coal ash spill.
This is alarming, considering that there are at least 50 high hazard coal ash dams throughout the U.S.
Despite coal ash being so toxic, it's less regulated than your household garbage. Unfortunately, since the 2008 Tennessee spill, the coal industry has lobbied hard to block the EPA from establishing strong protections. For the polluters, all that matters is keeping operating costs as low as possible. The costs to society of the misery and disease their pollution causes are no concern of theirs.
While the EPA has thoroughly documented the dangers of coal ash and the public has been outspoken asking for protections -- Americans have sent more than 450,000 comments asking, and turned out by the hundreds to five public hearings -- the EPA has failed to set federal limits on the pollution. Our settlement requires EPA to protect these communities with federal action by the end of this year.
So today we celebrate this move in the right direction for clean air and water and our health.
We will continue to working with affected communities to push the administration to ensure that the EPA finalizes a standard that is strong, federally enforceable, and truly protects communities living near these dangerous sites.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Don't panic if you momentarily think your television is going haywire tonight. You may try to change the channel, only to see bizarrely similar images onscreen. You may mash the buttons on your remote only to hear similar words being uttered by different voices. Don't worry -- you aren’t hallucinating. You won't have to pay an expensive repair bill. You don't even need to change the batteries in your remote. You’re just stuck in the twilight zone that is... the Republican response to the State of the Union address.
Tonight, we're eager to hear what President Obama will say about clean energy and climate action. And it appears his Republican opponents are just as eager to respond, as no fewer than three different people will deliver rebuttals. For years, it's been standard practice for the opposing party to deliver a response to the president. But, just one response to one speech. Now, with the Republican Party increasingly fractured, constant jockeying for political position among factions means a mad dash for airtime that has Congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rogers of Washington, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky each delivering a nationally televised response.
What's all that mean for our climate crisis? Not a whole heck of a lot. That's because even with three voices speaking, we shouldn't expect to hear one positive word about our booming clean energy economy, one sentence about why we have to act on climate, or even one hiccup about the dangers of dirty fossil fuels. Take a look at their records, and you’ll see why:
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 4%
Thinks fact that 97% of climate scientists agree on climate disruption is "inconclusive."
Took almost $177,000 from oil and gas special interests.
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy like wind and solar.
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 16%
Took almost $131,000 from oil, gas, and mining special interests.
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy like wind and solar.
Lifetime Environmental Voting Score (LCV): 8%
Thinks the 97% of climate scientists agreeing on climate disruption are "making up facts."
Took almost $260,000 from oil, gas, and mining special interests
Voted against critical investments in job-creating clean energy.
Given these three nearly identical records, Americans should fully expect these three voices to give the exact same speech -- or offer the exact same silence -- when it comes to climate action. It looks like they won't just be competing for airtime tonight -- they’ll also be competing for sand to bury their heads in.
Trade can help spread environmentally friendly technologies, but if the products we’re trading harm the environment, everyone loses.
Today, a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) countries including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, launched a new set of negotiations to eliminate tariffs on a set of supposedly environmentally beneficial products.
According to a statement put out by the countries involved in the initiative, the negotiations will build on the work of the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2012, these 21 countries agreed to reduce or eliminate tariffs by the end of 2015 on a list of 54 "environmentally beneficial" products. The theory is that if governments reduce or eliminate tariffs, the products will be more frequently traded.
While the APEC commitment was non-binding and not legally enforceable, a WTO agreement on environmental goods and services, if one is reached, would be.
So, it sounds like a good thing, right? Well, while the goal of increasing use of and trade in environmentally beneficial products is certainly noble, I have serious concerns about the approach taken up by APEC, and now the WTO.
In fact, if you dig into the list of products whose tariffs would be reduced or eliminated—the starting point for the WTO negotiations—you'll see that many would actually harm the environment.
Incinerators, for example, are used to burn waste material and release toxic chemicals and byproducts into the air, water, and ground. Secondly, steam generators are found in equipment used in dirty fuel-production processes such as nuclear and coal-fired power plants that pour harmful toxic chemicals into the air we breathe and emit climate-disrupting carbon pollution. Also, centrifuges, which are used to filter and purify water for a variety of reasons, can also be used in the production of oil and tar sands -- dirty fuels which should be on their way out as more clean energy comes online in America.
Many developing countries, like India, see this approach as an expansion of “free trade” that will benefit the corporations in developed countries, but it could end up harming our already-fragile climate. India—which is not one of the countries that launched the initiative—has proposed a different, potentially more promising approach that would essentially allow for temporary tariff cuts on specific goods that are needed in environmental projects, therefore making sure the products will actually benefit the environment.
As we transition to a clean energy economy, we should increase the use of and trade in environmentally friendly technologies. But unlocking the clean energy revolution should not be under the thumb of the WTO or through a purely "free-market approach." Instead, the key to unlocking clean energy is developing home-grown approaches to renewable energy production and manufacturing that lift up and protect workers within and outside of the U.S.
If countries in the WTO want to truly help the environment and climate, there are a number of other critical steps they must take. For one, these countries should stop negotiating trade agreements that include the harmful investor-state dispute settlement process that has increasingly allowed foreign corporations to bodyslam clean energy and climate policies in other countries. For example, Swedish energy firm Vattenfall is currently suing Germany for its phase-out of nuclear energy, and U.S.-incorporated Lone Pine Resources is suing Canada over a moratorium on fracking in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River.
WTO countries could also allow local job-creating clean energy policies to flourish -- but they’re not, in some cases. Last year, as examples, Japan and the EU challenged Ontario’s clean energy and green jobs program at the WTO; the United States is investigating whether India’s national solar program bumps up against WTO rules; and China is investigating whether to take WTO action against certain EU countries over their clean energy programs.
If we’re going to face this climate crisis together, developed nations—those historically responsible for producing the greatest amount of climate-disrupting pollution—must also provide finance and clean technology to developing countries. Discussions on the transfer of finance and technology are already ongoing at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Developed countries like the U.S. must step up and share resources that actually help the environment and communities. After all, we all share the same planet.
--Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program Director
Earlier this week, my West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said the following about whether people should be drinking the water in Charleston and downstream: "It's your decision....I'm not a scientist."
For the 300,000 people affected by the coal chemical spill from two weeks ago, I bet that's very reassuring. Quite a profile in courage, our governor. Even less reassuring, the news came out Wednesday that there was another mysterious chemical spill in that leak, and officials are now testing to make sure the water treatment facility removed that chemical.
And it gets worse -- how about this article featuring a former WV coal miner, Joe Stanley, who says:
It sounds bad even before Stanley explains that coal mines are constantly pumped to clear ground water, aquifers, and underground streams: "As soon as we're out of that mine it immediately fills with water. And where does it go from there? I don't know, your guess is as good as mine."
Stanley says he hasn't drunk the water for years, and that no one else should either.
We know the coal industry is getting away with poisoning our waterways nationwide, and a new study of federal data by the Associated Press shows just that. Coal industry chemicals and waste "have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies, spoiling private wells, shutting down fishing and rendering streams virtually lifeless."
And here's the damning detail: "(B)ecause these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill such as the recent one in West Virginia."
Coal-fired power plants are the nation's biggest water polluters, spewing millions of pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants like arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and selenium into surface waters each year.
Beyond West Virginia, need another example of how close to home this contamination can be? Duke Energy's coal ash pollution is contaminating North Carolina's Mountain Island Lake -- a drinking water source for more than 750,000 people in the greater Charlotte area.
Additionally, Duke Energy's coal ash pollution from one coal plant in North Carolina kills 900,000 fish every year in Sutton Lake -- and that's just how it affects the fish!
In West Virginia, parents are wondering whether they should let their kids drink the water, pregnant women are being told to drink bottled water -- and we don't even know yet what the full effects of these leaked chemicals will be on the land and aquatic wildlife.
How much longer will we let the coal industry play fast and loose with our water? From coal processing chemicals, to the toxics scrubbed while burning coal, to the coal ash left behind -- the industry is poisoning an element necessary for all life: water. It's time to close these water-pollution loopholes once and for all.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director. Photo courtesy of WV Clean Water Hub.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its 2013 Annual Climate Report, which found that the United States experienced seven weather- and climate-related disasters that resulted in more than $1 billion in damages. (See infographic below.) Specific dollar amounts for each event will be released later this year.
The report contains numerous maps, charts, and graphics such as the one below, highlighting some of last year's significant weather and climate events.
2013 was both warmer and wetter than average for the contiguous United States. The report includes a summary of national and regional temperatures and precipitation, including drought, wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms, snow and ice, tornadoes, and -- for the more technically minded -- a "Synoptic Discussion describing recent weather events and climate anomalies in relation to the phenomena that cause the weather."
After his stop in Los Angeles, everyone's favorite cartoon clownfish, Nemo, continued his tour of the U.S., stepping out in subfreezing temperatures in Washington, D.C., to ask Americans to help him save his home, the Great Barrier Reef.
What's Nemo doing touring the U.S.? Is he lost again?
While the Australian Embassy and Alliance 21 -– a partnership that includes large corporations and big polluters like DOW Chemical, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, GE, NewsCorp, Morgan Stanley and Raytheon -– hosted a dialogue on energy and Asia as part of "G'Day USA," a month-long promotion of Australian business interests, Nemo hit the streets to protest possible U.S. involvement in plans that could destroy the reef.
Not one, but two, companies -- GVK and Adani --want to open new enormous coal mines in Australia's Galilee Basin, and then dredge (the destructive operation of scooping up and moving sediment from waterways) within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site to expand shipping channels to take theNemo at the White House
coal to Asia. But that's not all. Media reports have linked the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) to the projects, which means U.S. tax dollars could help finance the scheme -– something Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg has failed to deny, despite going against the spirit of President Obama's pledge to end financing for coal plants overseas in his Climate Action Plan.
Dredging in the Great Barrier Reef would put clownfish like Nemo, as well as sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and many other amazing coral reef creatures, in grave danger. Sustainability agency UNESCO has even warned the Australian government that dredging could endanger the reef's World Heritage status. Meanwhile, numerous reports have shown yhat the projects are a financial boondoggle, and investors continue to drop out of dredging projects.
You can help Nemo save his home by tweeting at the G'Day USA event organizers and the U.S. Export-Import Bank and telling them to #SaveTheReef:
Hey @GDAYUSAofficial @EximBankUS: #SaveTheReef for clownfish like Nemo. Say no to dredging for #coal exports http://sc.org/1mH2ZZx
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program
By Javier Sierra
A gale of good news is hitting both the wind industry and the future of the planet.
The new year started out with two world records. Spain became the first country ever to get more energy from wind than any other source during a complete year in 2013, with a 21.1 percent share at 55 gigawatts (GW). According to Spain's Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2013, this clean energy was able to bring the price of electricity from $150 per megawatt (MW)/hour down to $7 per MV/hour.
Wind farm in Southern Spain (Photo: J. Sierra)
And in December, Denmark became the first country ever to generate more than half of its energy from wind, a total of 54.8 percent. Specifically, on December 21, wind fulfilled that country's entire energy demand, and over the course of the year, it produced one-third of the consumed total.
The good news also abounds here at home. In Texas, during the extreme cold spell that gripped almost the entire country during the first week of the year, wind energy saved the day for a grid that was overwhelmed by demand. On January 7, when several power plants shut down, wind energy from western Texas avoided dangerous blackouts throughout the state. This is the logical result of Texas having added more wind energy to the grid than any other state.
And throughout the US, the breeze of good news has become a veritable gale. In 2012, the country's wind energy capacity surpassed 60 GV (enough to power 15 million homes), no other country installed more wind energy than the U.S., and wind added more power to the national grid than any other source, including natural gas.
It's no wonder then that the price of wind power is hitting record lows: 4 cents per KW/hour, 50 percent less than in 2009. It's also no wonder that the utility owned by Warren Buffett has invested $1 billion to purchase enough wind turbines in Iowa to generate 1,000 MW.
The price of the alternative to adopting clean energy, on the other hand, is simply unacceptable. According to a Harvard University study, every year the costs of coal pollution -- also known as externalities -- hit $500 billion (one 5 followed by 11 zeros) in premature deaths, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, cancer and other factors. Big Coal pays nothing out of this huge price tag. They instead dump it on you, me, and the rest of the country.
Considering these arguments, it's simply astonishing that Congress has yet to renew the Production Tax Credit (PTC), one of the several tax incentives that invest in job creation in the clean energy industry. Wind alone supports 80,000 jobs in the US, and 72 percent of the equipment needed to build wind turbines is manufactured in our country.
The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, calls the U.S. Capitol home. Each year, oil, coal, and gas companies receive up to $52 billion in subsidies; that is, a gift from the taxpayers: you, me, and everyone else.
Tell Congress that renewing the PTC is crucial for the wind industry to continue its smooth sailing.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
As a West Virginian, this has been a sad, frustrating, and infuriating time for me, though I do not live in the area affected by last week's coal chemical spill. More than 300,000 people in the WV capital of Charleston and downstream counties have been without water for eight days and counting.
The chemical that spilled is used to process coal after it's mined, to separate the coal from other substances before it's carried away on trains or river barges. A tank of this chemical, located immediately above the largest drinking water intake in WV, leaked. Very little is known about the chemical and its health effects -- and WV officials are saying they also don't know where else in the state this chemical is stored.
Some residents have been told they can start flushing out their water systems while others are still using bottled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Even where the water is back on, it's undrinkable, forcing residents to continue relying on bottled and shipped-in water -- an especially heavy burden on the area's poorest residents. In fact, "do not use" orders are being reissued in some places.
Now the CDC is saying the test it used to determine "safe" levels of the leaked chemical humans can drink focused on the wrong chemical!
What's more, on Wednesday, six days post-spill and after the water had been deemed "safe" in some areas, officials issued an advisory urging pregnant women to drink only bottled water. As the mom of a three-year-old, I can only imagine what a scary time this must be for all the new and expecting moms in the middle of this crisis.
Earlier this week, I appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to talk about the spill, along with the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a Washington Post reporter, and a staffer from an antiregulatory think tank. A few people have told me that they were shocked and even brought to tears by the program, which you can listen to here.
The Sierra Club has a long-time organizer in Charleston -- Bill Price -- and, in the immediate aftermath of the spill, he has been working closely with allies on relief efforts to provide people with water. In some rural communities, volunteer water distribution has been the only relief for residents, believe it or not. Earlier this week we profiled one West Virginian who is part of that effort, Dustin White, to underscore that this crisis is a long way from over, and frankly to highlight the continuing failure of the state to safeguard the health of its people.
If you want to make a donation to help support the volunteer water distribution efforts still under way, you can donate to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and make a note that your gift is for the WV water crisis.
As I described on the Diane Rehm Show, this tragedy is a direct product of a regulatory system held hostage by the coal industry for decades. The site where the tank leaked hadn't been inspected by the state since 1991! In the state of the state address just days before the accident, the governor vowed to "never back down from the Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal." In the immediate wake of the disaster, the governor has repeatedly asserted that the coal industry had nothing to do with this spill -- which is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer.
This spill pulls the curtain back on water problems that people in the Appalachian coalfields have been pleading for decades to have addressed. Each year, after this chemical and others are used to "wash" coal, billions of gallons of leftover slurry -- a witch's brew of chemicals and water -- are typically either injected into old underground mines (which leaches into groundwater) or stored behind earthen dams, some of which are larger than the Hoover Dam.
You can read more about the coal industry's threat to water in this article and others in the Charleston Gazette, whose reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been doing Pulitzer-caliber reporting on the spill, in my estimation. And I urge you to support the West Virginia-based organizations fighting this battle for clean water -- Keeper of the Mountains, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia.
It's time to hold these polluters and decision-makers accountable and to work to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. A candlelight vigil is being planned for next Tuesday in Charleston, and allies around the country are planning their own events in solidarity.
Finally, you can take action now to tell President Obama that West Virginia's leaders cannot be trusted to regulate the coal industry.
This spill only underscores the coal industry's widespread use of dangerous chemicals, and the cost to Appalachian communities and mountains. If the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to turn a blind eye to polluters, President Obama should direct federal agencies to do the job the DEP will not do.
Tell President Obama to step in and stand up for the health of West Virginia communities.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
In 1998, seven years after the last inspection of the Freedom Industries chemical storage site on the Elk River, Jen-Osha Buysee founded Aurora Lights. Her non-profit has dedicated itself to restoring a sense of balance between communities and the land around them. Jen-Osha, her staff and a band of volunteers spend their time raising awareness about the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining, promoting local arts and engaging in educational programs for youth in West Virginia.
Now, she and her dedicated group of citizens spend their time trucking load after load of clean water from their base in Morgantown two and a half hours down Highway 79 to the small towns around Charleston that are still without clean water more than a week after the water crisis began.
Jen-Osha is acting on an urge many of us feel but never quite seem to act on when all is well. Uncommon in normal times, the impulse to reach out and help those in need, has turned into the driving passion for many in West Virginia.
As they look upon community members in need, folks from across the state and, truly, the nation have turned out their pockets and given their time to ensure people in the hills and hollows of rural West Virginia have clean water.
It's something many of us take for granted. Water, clean and pure from the tap, seems to be an undeniable truth.
Sadly, the Freedom Industries disaster pulled back the curtain on a silent crisis that has been poisoning West Virginians water for years.
Clean water, safe and available for all, is a right we should all expect without interruption and certainly without fear of harm or danger. But this is not the case in Appalachia. Here, the coal and chemical industries have done their level best in the last few decades to stunt reasonable clean water protections; and they’ve succeeded. The current crisis is just the most visible of the tragedies that these miners, farmers, teachers and community members face every day.
That’s what makes Jen-Osha, and those who share her passion, so extraordinary; her years of advocacy and educational efforts and her strong links to the community have turned into real action. During the crisis she has worked tirelessly to get donations for bottled water and then moved to get it to those in need. She and her team have loaded up everything from large flatbed trucks to personal vehicles in order to truck water on a 6 to 8 hour round trip into some of the hardest hit parts of the state. Taking water to places like Boone County, Pennsboro, West Union and Moorehead where she’ll be today.
It is amazing to see such an outpouring of support by so many in times of crisis. Lax clean water protections, years of government indifference and industries who care more about their own bottom line than they do about the wellbeing of the communities where they exist brought this crisis about. But it’s the people, with a love for their community, working to ensure the right to clean water for everyone, even when the government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens that is the real story right now.
Soon, we’ll all ask how it is we can ensure this never happens again. But right now, across West Virginia people are showing just how strong our communities truly are.
The veil has finally been lifted from the controversial environment chapter of what could be the largest free trade pact in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Thanks to WikiLeaks, who posted a draft of the chapter today, we can finally see the text that has been kept from the public for nearly four years.
And sadly, what we're seeing is not pretty.
The environment chapter is one of 29 TPP chapters, and the third one to be leaked to the public. The leaked environment chapter is markedly different from the leaked investment and intellectual property chapters in important ways. The previous two leaks—both designed to protect corporate interests—are full of strong, binding, and legally enforceable language that undoubtedly protects big business. The leaked environment chapter is unenforceable and rife with weak language, according to an analysis of the leaked text by the Sierra Club, WWF, and NRDC.
The leaked environment chapter text falls flat on the standard for environment chapters from the past seven years. Since the May 2007 bipartisan consensus on trade by the Bush administration and Congress, the environment chapters of all U.S. free trade agreements have been legally enforceable and included a list of environmental treaties that countries committed to uphold. Today's leaked text—which is both unenforceable and does not include obligations to uphold commitments made under environmental treaties—does not meet the standard set by Congress.
As Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club stated, “If the environment chapter is finalized as written in this leaked document, President Obama’s environmental trade record would be worse than George W. Bush’s. This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues - oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections - and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts.”
Last fall, 24 environmental organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Froman calling for a strong and legally enforceable environment chapter that includes the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies; a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish; and obligations to uphold domestic environmental laws and commitments under multilateral environmental agreements. The draft environment chapter fails to deliver on the demands of civil society.
The text does confirm that the U.S. has been pushing to strengthen the chapter, but they face strong resistance from other TPP countries.
So let’s take a look at what is actually included in the text.
Multilateral Environmental Agreements
Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are agreements between a set of governments designed to protect the environment. Since the May 2007 bipartisan agreement on trade, all trade pacts have obligated that countries uphold their commitments made under MEAs. This is critical, as it helps ensure that countries don't waive or weaken their obligations under MEAs in order to attract trade or investment, and ensures that a country faces consequences if it does.
However, the leaked text takes a significant step back from the May 2007 agreement. Instead of committing countries to uphold their obligations under MEAs, each TPP country is merely asked to “affirm its commitment” to implement the MEAs to which it is a Party. That's like affirming that you made New Year's Resolutions rather than actually being held accountable for keeping them.
The leaked environment chapter text represents an enormous rollback from the dispute resolution process laid out in the May 2007 agreement and recent trade pacts. The agreement stipulated that “all of our [free trade agreement] environmental obligations will be enforced on the same basis as the commercial provisions of our agreements—same remedies, procedures, and sanctions. Previously, our environmental dispute settlement procedures focused on the use of fines, as opposed to trade sanctions, and were limited to the obligation to effectively enforce environmental laws.”
The leaked text of the TPP environment chapter, however, sends us back to a pre-2007 world. If a country violates one of its obligations in the environment chapter, the country will receive an action plan, presumably laying out how to come into compliance with the chapter. If the action plan is ignored or not implemented adequately, there is no recourse. This vastly insufficient process is an unacceptable rollback of previous commitments and makes the obligations in this chapter meaningless.
The leaked text recognizes the role of TPP countries as major consumers, producers, and traders of fisheries products and the global problem of overfishing. The text includes actions and commitments to address the problems of overfishing and the unsustainable use of fisheries resources, but the actions in many cases are weak and, thanks to the insufficient dispute process described above, basically meaningless.
As just one example, the text does not contain any clear requirements for a ban on shark finning, even though TPP countries are notorious shark fishing nations and traders in shark fins, and U.S. law requires that the U.S. seeks such bans from other countries.
The text also includes weak language on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish —one of the most important issues to the Sierra Club. For example, the text requires that countries take appropriate measures that “allow it to take action” to prohibit trade of illegally taken timber, wildlife, and fish. The provision, however, stops short of requiring countries to take action to stop illegal trade that threatens communities and ecosystems.
The current state of the environment chapter is completely unacceptable. It's unbelievable to think that TPP countries have agreed to allow foreign corporations to attack public interest policies in private trade tribunals, but they can't agree to a binding environment chapter with strong commitments to help protect natural resources.
This text proves why so many Members of Congress don’t want to give the president “fast-track” authority that could help rush the TPP over the finish line with almost no Congressional input. Tell Congress to reject fast track—legislation that would strip Congress of its own ability to ensure that the TPP, including the environment chapter, actually protects communities and the environment. And the TPP governments must stop pandering to the interest of big corporations and get serious about protecting families and the environment.
--Ilana Solomon, Director of Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program
"Saying this chemical spill has nothing to do with coal is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer."
Those are the words from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt on this morning's Diane Rehm Show. Mary Anne was on to discuss last week's Freedom Industries coal chemical spill in West Virginia, which has left more than 300,000 people without water. You can listen to the whole interview here.
While WV Governor Tomblin is trying to act as if this coal chemical spill has nothing to do with the coal industry, West Virginians know better:
While some areas are being allowed to flush their home and business water systems now and start using their water again, a huge amount of people still do not have access to water. And we have reports from folks in Charleston that they’re not ready to trust the tap water yet.
As for those being allowed to drink and bathe in their water again, Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston Gazette and many others are asking, "how do they know it's safe?" From Ward's article:
Stories are also coming out about parents coping with the lack of clean water for special needs kids and babies. Others are wondering how long the spill had really been going on before it was discovered.
Even Erin Brockovich was in West Virginia for a meeting with affected residents Monday night. Watch her discuss the crisis in this Democracy Now interview.
The long-term effects on the environment from this chemical are uncertain as well.
Authorities are ordering Freedom Industries to preserve all evidence on site as the investigation continues, and the state Department of Environmental Protection officials, who first arrived on the scene of the spill (which, by the way, Freedom Industries did not report until after state investigators showed up) last week, say the site was not well-contained:Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say. "This was a Band-Aid approach," said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb. "It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened."
On top of that, the West Virginia officials admitted Tuesday that they had no plan in place for a spill of this nature:West Virginia emergency planners never put together any strategy for dealing with spills of a toxic chemical from the Freedom Industries' tank farm, despite the facility's location just 1.5 miles upstream from a drinking water intake serving 300,000 people, officials acknowledged this morning. Local emergency official likewise didn't act to prepare for such an incident, even though they had been warned for years about storage of toxic chemicals so close to the West Virginia American Water plant serving the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region.
Others note that this lack of planning is yet another example of loopholes in current federal protections regarding chemicals. In fact, the Freedom Industries site hadn't been inspected since 1991.
What's more, as Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt again pointed out on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, this lack of protections and inspections are simply "pulling the curtain back on something people in West Virginia have been dealing with for a long time."
In this powerful piece from Al-Jazeera, West Virginians discuss the on-going legacy of coal's water pollution in the state. Some residents will lose their well water due to coal pollution and get connected to city water:
Meanwhile, The New Republic digs even more into coal's pollution history in West Virginia. Know why so many people relied on the Elk River for their water? Because industry has polluted the rest of the rivers in West Virginia.
Activists across, and beyond, the state point to an anti-water-protection atmosphere in West Virginia as one major reason why the Elk River spill and others like it are not prevented. One antiregulatory industry front-group, Americans for Prosperity even solicited water donations for West Virginians, which prompted this response from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt:
I'll close with these clips from the Daily Show, which always does an amazing and eloquent job saying "WTF?" when these disasters happen.
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team
Running alongside the Little Coal River in Boone County, West Virginia, is the sleepy town of Van. Technically an unincorporated census-designated place, this small residential area calls itself home to around 200 people -- all of whom, since last Thursday's spill, have been without water.
While state and federal agencies have focused on getting water to the big towns in the region, like Charleston, only dedicated volunteers have made the journey to Van, and to the innumerable other places like it in the sparsely populated valleys and hollows that make up much of the region left without running water by the Freedom Industries chemical spill.
Thankfully, a corps of community-minded citizens has risen to moment, delivering water to underserved areas throughout the region, calling in to let folks know when water has been delivered to local stores, and acting as a rapid response team for folks in need in central and southern West Virginia.
One of the people deeply involved in this effort is Boone County resident Dustin White. Dustin, the son of a coal miner, grew up at the foot of Cook Mountain, named for an ancestor of his, in a place called James Creek Hollow. It is quintessentially Appalachian and, as Dustin puts it, "I never had a lot of fancy toys and gadgets -- none of the luxuries of the modern-day kid, but I never knew I went without. The hillsides and all they had to offer were my playground. The rocks, the sticks, the wildlife -- they were my best friends. I spent most of my childhood in the mountain stream that flowed in front of my home catching crawdads and salamanders, seeing what could be found, or just simply how far I could go."
Now, Dustin is going as far as he can for his neighbors; donating his time to make sure that communities across the Coal River Valley have the water they need. On Sunday, Dustin, along with a team of volunteers, drove down from Charleston to the Pond Fork area in Boone County to deliver water to people in Van and other communities along the Little Coal River.
Sadly, this isn't the first time chemicals related to coal mining have been dumped into the Little Coal River. In fact, it's not even the first time in the last six months. Last September, the Wharton coal prep plant, owned by a subsidiary of Patriot Coal, dumped 2,000 gallons of a chemical called DT-50-D into a tributary of the river, turning the water white for miles downstream.
People in mountaintop-removal mining communities across the Appalachian region are faced with these spills, and the health implications that come with them, far more frequently than anyone else in the nation. Lax oversight from the state government and inaction on federal protections mean these sorts of events are likely to continue into the future.
There is a dual tragedy here. First, the inability of anyone in power to do anything about the underlying problem: proper protection of our communities and our water from coal pollution. But, in some ways, what's worse is that the responsibility to ensure the well-being of Appalachians in crisis has to fall on the shoulders of people like Dustin. But, thankfully for the people of Van, he and others like him are there when the state government can't be.
Top photo courtesy of EarthJustice. Bottom photo by Shawn Poynter.
Indian development is at a pivotal moment. From stagnant economic growth to a raging Current Account Deficit (CAD) Crisis, to widespread anger over corruption in politics, the inevitability of India's ascent no longer seems assured. The last of which explains why voters overwhelmingly supported the Aam Admi Party (AAP) ('common man' party) in recent elections. This newly minted party (formed out of the Anna Hazare anti corruption movement) has the people's support to clean up Indian politics starting in Delhi. The question now is whether the party of the people will focus on the element common to all three challenges facing India: energy.
The Indian government is going bankrupt paying foreign countries for fossil fuels (mostly oil but increasingly coal) that are powering a broken system that fails the poor but rewards widespread corruption.
Whether it's the $34 billion coal-gate scandal that rocked the Congress government or the financially broke state discoms, the system is a mess. Right now it is propping up a massive coal bubble that has left 300 million people without power while simultaneously killing around 100,000 people every year.
But how will the AAP's popular mandate make a people's energy system out of this morass? The answer is governance and accountability in the power grid.
Already the AAP is demanding accountability and governance from the Delhi state discom under investigation over allegations that they've hidden profit in order to justify rate hikes. Cleaning up the discoms is a first step in cleaning up a rot that runs deep in the centralized grid.
That also means a reversal of the culture of fast-tracking industrial projects over the protests of the people. To understand just how deeply entrenched that culture is consider this - at the very same time the AAP began investigating state discoms, the Environment Secretary, Jayanthi Natarajan, stepped down amongst rumors she has not approved coal and industrial projects quickly enough despite the fact that she did not deny approval to a single thermal power project last year. Worse, she was replaced with, of all people, the petroleum minister, and not five days later a committee chaired by Prime Minister Singh himself cleared nine new coal projects.
But how exactly can this culture be reversed? Empowering the National Green Tribunal where the people take their grievances and letting them actually be heard would be a start. That, along with empowering the Ministry of Environment and Forests to force coal plants to clean up their toxic pollution by improving India's abysmal air quality standards (which are four to 20 times worse than China's) would go a long way towards ensuring the poor are no longer forced to bear the brunt of the countries development. Already the AAP is using its popular mandate to take steps in this direction by aligning its energy policy with grassroots movements and popular resistance.
But to truly create a people's energy plan there must be solutions for the 300 million people currently failed by the centralized grid. That means powering the rural poor (and the hundreds of millions of urban residents who suffer from prolonged power outages) with the fastest, cheapest, most effective solution available - decentralized clean energy. Whether its mini-grids anchored by off-grid cell phone towers, or pay-as-you-go rooftop solar, decentralized clean energy will bring power to the people.
India need look no further than neighboring Bangladesh to see how effective such a people-centric policy can be. Already the country has installed 1.9 million solar home systems, putting it on track to reach 25 percent of all off-grid households with clean energy by the end of 2014. This off-grid clean energy powerhouse is at the forefront of the world's next wireless revolution - electricity. A revolution that will overwhelmingly benefit the poor.
With national elections looming the AAP has opened up important space in Indian politics. It now has an incredible opportunity to broaden its anti-corruption platform by creating truly people-centric policies from energy to health to education. India finally has a people's party. Perhaps now it will also have a people's energy plan.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
On Thursday night, a chemical spill on the Elk River in West Virginia, just two miles above the Elk River water treatment plant near Charleston, contaminated drinking water for more than 300,000 residents in central and southern West Virginia. Residents in nine counties have been advised not to use the water for any purpose other than flushing.
The spill, which occurred at a Freedom Industries storage facility, involved a 48,000 gallon tank of a chemical used to treat coal before it's sent off to be burned at coal-fired power plants. The chemical, called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, may seriously impact the health and safety of local residents with symptoms including vomiting, skin blistering and burns in the throat.
Our thoughts are with the more than 300,000 people in West Virginia affected by this toxic chemical spill, upstream from the largest drinking water source in West Virginia.
Officials have no timeline for when the water will be back to normal, and federal authorities announced Friday afternoon that they would be investigating what caused the leak.
According to Appalachian Voices, Freedom Industries did not self-report the spill, and we encourage everyone to follow the local news media and local grassroots organizations in the area for the best updates.
We recommended supporting and following these local groups as this tragedy unfolds: Keeper of the Mountains, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC on Twitter), the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC on Facebook), Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia. For news and technical updates, both West Virginia Public Broadcasting (on Twitter here) and Downstream Strategies are excellent resources.
Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day. This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities. Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
One of the largest investment banks in the world has backed away from the Cherry Point coal export proposal in Washington.
Earlier this week, financial giant Goldman Sachs sold off its stake in the parent company of SSA Marine, the developer of the dirty and dangerous coal export terminal at Cherry Point.
This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the proposal, which aims to export 50 million tons of Western coal to Asia every year. If built, it would be the largest coal export terminal in North America. Cherry Point is one of six coal export terminals proposed in recent years, three of which have already been abandoned after years of robust local opposition.
The decision by Goldman Sachs to walk away from the Cherry Point coal export terminal is one more strike against this polluting, climate-disrupting, and highly controversial project. From Montana, where the coal would be mined, all the way to Cherry Point, community members have opposed this project every step of the way.
Our groundswell of public opposition has shown that no one wants dirty coal exports in their community. Thousands of Northwest residents have made it clear that coal exports pose too much harm for communities -- from toxic coal dust pollution to climate disruption.
While another investor (a businessman from Mexico named Fernando Chico Pardo) bought Goldman Sachs's stake, this decision is one more big dark cloud on the coal industry's economic horizon. Goldman Sachs signaled its concern with coal investments in a report last July entitled "The window for thermal coal investment is closing." The report forecast long-term economic headwinds for the coal industry and stated that "the potential for profitable investments in new thermal coal mining capacity is becoming increasingly limited."
This move by Goldman Sachs underscores the continued market uncertainty and doubt regarding coal, but of course grassroots activists in the affected communities are still up against a lot of money. Peabody and SSA can cycle through investors all they want, but communities across the Northwest will continue to fight them every step of the way.
I'm inspired by the thousands of people -- tribal members, parents, doctors, nurses, business owners, faith leaders, teachers, public officials, and more -- who have spoken out against coal exports at all the recent hearings in Washington. More than 13,000 people attended public hearings over the past two years to express overwhelming opposition to these projects.
This news comes on the heels of another victory by Northwest residents who are holding companies accountable for their pollution. On January 2, a judge ruled against BNSF Railway Company's motion to dismiss and said that a lawsuit over water pollution from their train cars can go forward.
In the summer of 2013, the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed the lawsuit against BNSF after finding substantial amounts of coal in and along several Washington waterways near BNSF rail lines. A similar case is also pending before the Western District of Washington in Seattle.
Across the U.S., people from all backgrounds are demanding accountability from polluters and calling for clean energy instead of dirty fuels.
Goldman Sachs sees what so many business owners, doctors, environmental advocates, and local elected leaders are saying: Coal exports are a bad bet for the Northwest.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Today, Congress pulled a rusty, old tool from the bottom of its toolbox. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, otherwise known as "fast track," which could facilitate passage of deeply flawed trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact with limited public and Congressional input. If fast-track legislation is approved by Congress, the president would be able sign the TPP and then send it to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote -- with no room for amendments and limited floor debate. If that sounds backward, it's because it is.
First, fast track is an outdated and inappropriate mechanism. It was first passed in 1974 when trade pacts focused on traditional trade issues, like tariffs and quotas. Today, trade pacts like the TPP cover a broad range of issues including the environment, investment, labor, government procurement, consumer protections, and many more things we face in our everyday lives. It is therefore critical that Congress maintain its constitutional authority to oversee trade policy and ensure that trade pacts protect communities, workers, and the environment before the pacts get finalized.
Second, fast track is undemocratic. After congressional approval, the president could submit signed trade pacts to Congress for an up-or-down vote within 90 days with all amendments forbidden and a maximum of 20 hours of debate. Even more atrocious is that it would actually allow the president to write legislation that would change U.S. laws to make them conform to the terms of the secretly negotiated trade agreement.
In other words, fast-track authority eliminates a critical constitutional check-and-balance structure that aids most other democratic processes. By stripping Congress of its ability to fully debate and amend the language of today's all-encompassing trade pacts, fast-track authority renders Congress unable to ensure that trade negotiations result in agreements that benefit communities and the environment.
Third, it's a risky endeavor that could help rubberstamp very harmful trade pacts such as the TPP. The TPP agreement could devastate communities, our climate, and our environment. It would elevate corporations to the level of nations, thus allowing foreign companies to directly sue governments in private trade tribunals over laws and policies that corporations allege reduce their profits. It would also open the floodgates for the expansion of natural gas exports and, therefore, fracking across the United States.
And the real kicker is that -- despite these any many other consequences -- there has been virtually no opportunity for public discussion of the trade pact, as no draft text has been publicly revealed. So Congress is actually voting on whether to quickly pass trade agreements it's never even seen!
Now is the time we need a full discussion about the true costs of the TPP and other trade pacts -- not a process to rush flawed deals through the finish line.
The bottom line is that fast track would set us up for failure. It's critical that Congress has the ability to effectively oversee trade negotiations and ensure that the contents of our trade agreements protect our workers, communities, and environment in the U.S. and abroad. The public and members of Congress have effectively been left in the dark for too long. Now it's up to Congress to take the reins and oppose fast track. On behalf of the Sierra Club and our 2.1 million members and supports, I urge members to oppose this fast-track bill and retain their right to ensure that the U.S. trades responsibly. You can urge your member of Congress to oppose fast track, too.
--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program
Clean energy continues to make the news nationwide as solar and wind power continue expanding at an exponential rate.
"Solar is a better deal."
That's the ruling from a judge in a case about whether Xcel should replace its Minnesota Black Dog coal plant with natural gas or solar. The solar plan is a 100-megawatt project from Geronimo Energy that would span 20 sites across the state. Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission must still approve the plan, but it's great news for clean energy and clean air and water.
This Minnesota news is the latest in the string of good clean energy stories. Earlier this week, when much of the U.S. was in the grips of a sub-zero "Polar Vortex," wind energy kept the power on in Texas:
Coal and nuclear power plants couldn't handle the strain, so wind once again picked up the slack. This happened back in the summer of 2011, too, when the Texas grid was overloaded due to excessive heat.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, Kansas City Power & Light announced this week it will expand an energy efficiency program and "double its wind-generating capacity to serve 124,000 homes."
This new energy efficiency and wind expansion came after the Sierra Club threatened legal action when KCP&L didn't fulfill its legal agreement to expand its wind power capacity by the end of 2013.
We could go on and on with great clean energy news -- (Did you see all hiring in the the wind turbine manufacturing industry? Or the Massachusetts town that's saving $2.5 million annually because of a solar array over a former landfill?) -- but we'll leave it there for now.
Clean energy is right now.
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team
Solar crowdfunder Mosaic is the latest entrant into clean energy’s next big market -– off-grid clean energy. Thanks to a top prize of $1 million from Verizon Powerful Answers, Mosaic will be developing a mobile app and expanding to international markets in possible locations ranging from Guatemala to India. With machine to machine (M2M) technology poised to unlock clean energy for hundreds of millions around the world, the move couldn’t be more timely.
Making solar work for people is a key part of Mosaic’s mission. Nearly half of its projects have focused on providing solar for underprivileged schools and community centers here in the U.S. Making solar work for the world's poor is a logical extension.
"By providing reliable energy to these previously unserved parts of the world, students can study after dark, medical supplies can be refrigerated, appliances can enhance productivity, and access to information and financial services can be increased, improving lives and alleviating some of the harshest poverty on earth," said Daniel Rosen, Mosaic's CEO.
But make no mistake: This isn't all butterflies and lollipops. The truth is, it's a multibillion dollar market and the world's next wireless revolution. Mosaic, and other companies using crowdsourcing to make investments, stand to make billions if they position themselves well.
While some of the biggest names in solar from First Solar to SunEdison to SolarCity have created energy-access programs, the off-grid opportunity is still largely untapped. That leaves a wide open market for Mosaic to address. If the company is able to capture even a fraction of the retail investment market, it's looking at a $90-billion opportunity (total crowdfunding in 2013 was somewhere near $5 billion). If even a portion of that is deployed in the estimated $40-billion off-grid lighting market, it will make a huge difference.
That's because despite all the opportunity, the space is cash-starved. Large development institutions like the World Bank have simply failed to invest -– largely because they've failed to realize that small is big. That's not the only lesson they could learn from crowdsourcing investments. Crowdsourcing could be the fastest way to quickly and effectively jump-start the off-grid clean-energy market. Think of organizations like Mosaic as the speedboats that can help lead the supertankers (i.e., the World Bank) to finally invest in the sector and bring it to scale.
If they're successful, Mosaic will not only catalyze the sector, it will recapture the development narrative. No longer will we read cringe-worthy op-eds in the New York Times that argue in favor of saddling the poor with the world's most toxic and outdated technologies. Instead, we'll finally enter the 21st century,where the world's most sophisticated technologies are made available for the world's poorest populations. It's only appropriate we'll need mobile phones and crowdfunders to make it happen.
--Justin Guay, Sierra Club's International Climate Program
The new year is here, and the Environmental Protection Agency is sticking to its resolutions by kicking off 2014 with some major climate action.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken another step forward in protecting American families and environmental health by publishing its proposed standards to limit toxic carbon pollution from new power plants in The Federal Register, the government's official newspaper, starting off a 60-day period for public comment.
Power plants are responsible for much of our country's air pollution. In fact, coal- and gas-fired plants emit more than 2.3 billion metric tons of carbon pollution, the main contributor to climate disruption. These dangerous emissions make their way into our air, food, and bodies, threatening the health of our children and communities.
By establishing strong carbon pollution protections, the EPA is acting on President Obama's pledge to take action on climate disruption. These protections will help us clean up and modernize the way we power our country -- a move that will make for healthier kids, families, and workers, while creating badly needed jobs, fighting climate disruption, and keeping America competitive in the global economy. Several states and foreign countries already have limits on carbon pollution from new power plants, including Oregon, Washington, California, Montana, Illinois, Maine, Australia, and the European Union. It's time for the first-ever national standards for coal- and gas-fired plants to be set in place.
These carbon pollution standards will be a powerful tool to keep our air clean, but they could be even better. These standards should control carbon pollution from natural gas plants, just as we're doing for coal. If implemented, the current proposed standards would not require any reduction in carbon pollution from the majority of planned new gas plants. We cannot keep giving a free pass to natural gas -- more gas in the electricity sector means more fracking and pollution that contributes to rising global temperatures.
The EPA has taken some important first steps, but now it's your turn to take action. The fossil fuel industry and its political allies are doing everything they can to block the EPA's efforts, but you can push back and make your opinion count.
The official public comment period starts today and won't last long. Make your voice heard by submitting a comment here to the EPA in support of strong standards for reducing dangerous carbon pollution from toxic coal- and gas-fired power plants today. Together, we can make 2014 the cleanest year for energy yet!
-- Rudhdi Karnik, Beyond Coal Media Assistant
- Outings & Events
- Press Room
Follow Us On ...
Use this link and help the Rio Grande Chapter earn 6% for our programs
Interactive Map - Coal Plants
Do We Have Your Email Address?
Make sure we have your email address. Please send it, along with your name, address and member number to: firstname.lastname@example.org