Before this story gets totally forgotten, I want to revisit the Volkswagen issue. For it shows something that I point out repeatedly in Out of Sight (now available for a James Blaine campaign price of $18.84 if you have not purchased it) as well as Empire of Timber. Corporations simply cannot be trusted to self-regulate. It will never work because all the incentive is there for them to cheat. They want to profit and if the government isn’t watching, they will cut corners to do so. The auto industry has shown this for decades. Only sticks will work. You have to punish corporations–and specifically corporate executives with massive fines and jail time if you want corporations to obey the law and take safety and pollution seriously. One estimate has the Volkswagen emissions leading to approximately 106 deaths in the United States. VW will be punished for this, but if we want to stop other companies and other industries from similar evasion of regulations, we simply have to beef up our regulatory powers and funding for regulatory agencies significantly. Otherwise, other versions of this will happen again and again.
I doubt any readers of LGM will be that shocked that people of color are exposed to toxic environments at rates far higher than whites. But the differential, at least in California, really is awful:
“What’s unique about this study is that we are looking at multiple hazards at once and including factors that make populations more vulnerable to the effects of pollution, such as age and disease status,” lead study lead author Lara Cushing, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, said in a press release. “Still, it is surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race when it comes to the burden of environmental health hazards. It was a bigger factor than income.”
Risk exposure for Hispanics was 6.2 times higher than whites, and 5.8 times higher for African Americans. Asians and Native American face double the environmental health hazard risks compared to whites.
“The findings indicate that people of color — especially African American and Latino Californians — are much more likely than white Californians to be exposed to both environmental and social stressors that impact health,” said Cushing. “People can’t use this environmental justice screening tool to calculate the probability that they will develop cancer or asthma, but it can and should be used by state regulators and others to focus their efforts to benefit disproportionately impacted communities.”
There’s little reason to believe that results around the country would be significantly different. Would like to see more studies along this line to know for sure.
These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one—solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity, and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand. The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars, and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.
This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars, and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.
One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, the chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.
Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” says Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”
Marc Gunther usefully notes in the linked article that this isn’t likely happening soon for the usual reasons–lack of federal investment, untested technologies, dirty energy’s monopoly over electrical grids in many states, etc. But I think more interesting is the idea that suburbs could become green, which I don’t really see. Because actually the vision of these solar suburban planners isn’t all that revolutionary or really all that green. A sentence above reads, “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots.” But that’s only partially true. The homes are going to be just as big. The cars are still in the driveway. Shopping malls and vast parking lots are still part of the picture. All of the land management issues and inability to create public transportation because of a lack of density are still central to this urban model. Sure, it’s somewhat less bad for the environment, but it still leaves people living in these suburbs as committing significantly more environmental damage than the average citizen of New York City.
I’m fine with all sorts of attempts to limit our environmental impact on the planet but let’s not overstate the case. The house in the photo above might have those solar panels. But the lifestyle of people living in a single-family home of that size is not going to be available to everyone, nor is it truly sustainable.
A few weeks ago, I linked to a good in-depth discussion of how DuPont had poisoned the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia through the production of C8, the chemical making up the key component of Teflon. The Huffington Post now has a very long and in-depth piece on the same subject, which you should also read. I won’t go over the details again except to say that DuPont, like basically all chemical corporations, treat the environment, workers, and the surrounding communities with a complete lack of basic respect in its quest to maximize profit. But two points to pull out. First:
By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.
This is a really key issue. Like fracking and so many other technological developments of industrial life, we have given corporations carte blanche to create profitable markets in chemicals without meaningful testing, and especially without meaningful public testing that would give people a right to know what chemicals are in their air, water, food, and workplaces. Only if disasters strike of the thalidomide level does real accountability to corporations ever take place. Meanwhile, more chemicals can be created, dumped, and forgotten about, all at continuing profit. Even here, with overwhelming evidence of how DuPont created birth defects, massive wildlife and livestock dieoffs, cancers in workers and local residents, etc., the company still have not faced real accountability. Instead it is using every known tactic of corporations to delay compensation and try to offload legal liability. This gets us to the second point.
Meanwhile, this past July, DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages or, at the very least, stall any resulting payouts. “I’m sure part of their theory is the longer they delay, the more people will die,” said Deitzler, the Parkersburg-based lawyer. “It’s already worked. Before we could even file cases, many of the people who’ve been affected passed on.”
Creating new companies that are underfunded in order to deal with liabilities is an old corporate trick. Dollars to donuts Chemours declares bankruptcy in the next decade that allows DuPont to escape from any meaningful compensation at all.
Meanwhile, DuPoint has moved on from C8. But to what?
Under the current regulatory system, DuPont is not required to ensure that these chemicals are free of the qualities that made C8 so toxic. While relatively little is known about these substances, most of them have very similar structures and properties to C8, and the limited information that is available reveals troubling effects. Also, while some of the replacement chemicals break down faster than C8 does, they need to be used in larger quantities to achieve the same results, a fact that has caused alarm in the scientific community. This May, 200 scientists—chemists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists among them—signed a statement urging governments to restrict the use of these chemicals because of the “risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”
Until that happens, these substances will continue to spread, unchecked. Not long ago, the Little Hocking water district commissioned a study to see whether any of the C8 replacements were contaminating the town’s aquifer. Researchers tested worms unearthed from Little Hocking’s well field, a scraggly meadow overlooking the vast expanse of storage tanks and smokestacks at the Washington Works plant. They found a number of C8’s chemical cousins, including C5, C6, C7, C9 and C10. Once again, local residents may have been unwittingly exposed to toxins whose ultimate effect on human health is unknown.
The weak regulatory system combines with the nation’s profit-first ideology and corporate malfeasance to ensure that nothing will change here. Maybe one of these chemicals will, 20 years from now, be found to also kill people. If the system is similar to today, another decade will pass before any kind of compensation is required and then DuPont will continue to find more ways out and local people will suffer.
Good on the Gulf Restoration Network for suing the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing its job to regulate the fertilizers and other chemicals that have created the huge biological dead zone where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone knows this is a major problem but the power of agribusiness provides a lot of incentive for the government to not crack down. This is much like how greens had to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not protecting northern spotted owl habitat under the Endangered Species Act because the agency was operating as a tool of the timber industry. If the government isn’t actually going to protect the environment, lawsuits have proven a good way for environmentalists to make change. It’s not quite as clear of a case here as it was with the spotted owl, but it’s probably the only way to actually get the government to take the problem seriously.
It’s not an easy problem for sure. But while I really respect Obama’s executive orders on coal and climate change as a good start, it would be nice if he took these agricultural issues a bit more seriously than he has through his entire administration.
Colorado’s Animas River suffered a pollution episode late last week, when an EPA effort to deal with mine waste backed up behind an underground dam actually breached it instead, leading to an acid spill into a tributary of this beautiful river. The EPA screwed up here, but they are not the real problem, as Jonathan Thompson points out. Rather, the Colorado mountains have thousands of underground mines that leach heavy metals and acids and it’s very difficult for the government to create a comprehensive response to that. Sometimes some old wood timbers will fall down and create an underground dam. Eventually, the water pressure will blow away those timbers and spills will result. However, today’s mining companies and owners of some of these properties are fighting against having them declared a Superfund site, thus bringing the government to bear as strongly as possible. While that would hurt property values–and there’s little people in the Colorado mountains care about more than property values–doing so is the best move in the long run.
Let me recommend the excellent 2004 book by Gillian Klucas on Leadville to get at these issues in a more in depth perspective.
On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, New York, in response to the discovery of massive amounts of toxins underneath a school and near a housing development for the working class who lived in the city of Niagara Falls, near Buffalo. This event was a key moment in the American working class standing up to the environmental depredations of American industry and eventually led to the creation of Superfund, the last major environmental legislation passed to address the popularly-based environmentalism of protecting people from pollution that played a major role in American politics during the 1970s.
William T. Love wanted to build a small canal intended to connect the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers around 1900 to generate power for the community he hoped would grow there. It failed and by 1910, the partially built canal was abandoned. Industry began turning it into a waste dump. Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land in 1942 and continued using it for toxic waste. In 1953, Hooker capped the land and looked to sell it. By this time, there was 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals in the canal, including at least 12 carcinogens. The company buried the waste in barrels 20-25 feet deep and capped it with dirt, allowing grass to quickly cover it up. Hooker sold it to the school board of Niagara Falls to build the public school for a growing suburban neighborhood near the canal site. It included a caveat in the contract about what was buried there and felt itself absolved from legal liability.
This was the period of the postwar housing boom in the United States. And while the New Deal state had already led to enormous positive changes for the now upwardly mobile white working class, guaranteeing them good union contacts if they wanted them, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and then a variety of new benefits after World War II like federally insured home loans through the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill (so long as you were white and building in the suburbs), little progress had been made to protect the working class from the environmental impact of industrialization. At Love Canal, housing developments for working class people–both some public housing and single-family housing–began filling some of that housing need.
Most of the early conservation movement was predicated on efficient resource use. The New Deal did take working people into account in its planning, but primarily on the farms with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other responses to the Dust Bowl. The giant dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority also sought to improve working people’s lives through large-scale regional planning, but pollution issues were an afterthought here as well. During the 1950s, the proto-environmental movement worked on pressing for more conservation of natural resources and more public planning, while building support for new national parks and trying to bring some limits onto the dam building mania that would eventually lead to the damming of Glen Canyon and the near damming of Dinosaur National Monument. Organized labor was involved in all of this, much more so than is usually acknowledged, a project I am presently researching for a future book. The CIO had a full time staffer working specifically on conservation issues through the 1955 merger with the AFL and the UAW had a full-time atomic energy staffer. But pollution, that just wasn’t really on the radar in the 1950s. In fact, as the nation geared up for the Cold War, pollution was often seen as a problem, at least in the post-Donora Fog period, but an acceptable sacrifice for preparedness and economic growth.
What this all meant is that new housing developments and public schools could be built upon toxic waste dumps and no one would bat an eye. But by the 1970s, the American working class, building on a foundation laid by the growing environmental movement, began demanding accountability from corporations over the sacrifices they suffered. Some of that was in famous cases like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 or the Santa Barbara oil spill of the same year. In the latter case, oil workers’ unions were deeply involved in demanding the companies be held accountable for pollution. The growing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between pollution and personal health by the late 1960s helped fuel this as well. The Black Lung Associations within the United Mine Workers of America was a rejection of horrific union leadership as well as the impact of coal on their bodies. Everyday people, union members or not, began trying to understand the science behind the chemicals transforming the world and how they impacted their own bodies, such as in the anti-pesticide movement. This popular epidemiology would play a major role in Love Canal, especially as residents began to notice the horrible cancers, birth defects and other diseases that affected them, especially their children. No one really knew what was happening until heavy rains led to erosion that began uncovering the barrels of toxic waste in 1976.
Lois Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal residents. Her son suffered from a variety of healthy problems. After reporters began reporting on what was in the barrels in 1976 and the New York State Health Department declared the site an emergency on August 2, 1978, leading to Carter’s decision a few days later. But what would happen to the residents? Gibbs took the lead here against a state not wanting to do much of anything. She continued investigating, discovering the canal itself was the site of the contamination. The growing investigations discovered dioxin among many other hazardous chemicals in the soil and drinking water of the housing. The government finally relocated 800 of the 900 families nearby and compensated them for their homes. Some still remain on the site today, or at least were there during my visit to what is a very spooky place two years ago.
Carter then responded by pushing for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Popularly known as Superfund, this law mandated the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, creating a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government becoming ever more common in that decade. Organized labor strongly supported the creation of Superfund, both for the jobs it could create and for the protection of working people from industrial hazards. Ultimately, Superfund and the outrage Love Canal caused did help protect Americans from these hazards. Yet disparities in toxic exposure between rich and poor still exist today, and as these things go in America, they tend to fall on racial lines, with African-American and Latino communities exposed to toxicity at much higher rates than wealthier or whiter communities.
This is the 153rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Having started my annual summer trip to see family in the Pacific Northwest, it’s incredibly depressing to see what’s happening to the climate and thus the ecology of the place I grew up. Basically, this year has seen the California drought spread all the way up the Pacific coast into Alaska. Some of this is a lack of precipitation, but a lot of it is only slightly below average participation amounts backed with sky-high temperatures that meant no snow pack. Record heat throughout the region throughout the entirety of 2015 has stressed what little water supplies exist To add to this, with the arrival of El Niño, the winter rains should go a long way to solving the drought in southern California, but will devastate Washington and points north, with Oregon probably dryish but not terrible. All of this has combined in a single year to create what will likely be an unprecedented fire season except that it will probably be dwarfed by next year. The salmon are dying in huge numbers because water temperatures are 5-7 and even up to 13 degrees above average–a shockingly large number considering the lack of normal variation in water temperatures. This not only is an ecological disaster but an enormous cultural disasters with huge implications for regional identity, foodways, and Native American heritage.
Yes, some of this is a confluence of unique events. Drought happens. Unprecedented heat however does not happen, not when the world set its all-time heat record in 2014 and is on the way to breaking that again in 2015. This hasn’t received the attention it should in the U.S. because one of the only parts of the globe that has been colder than normal in 2015 is the northeast of the United States. But whether the Northwest is specifically fated to see vastly higher temperatures than other parts of the world or not, if this is the climate change future, it’s a grim one indeed. There will be cool years and the rain and snows will come again. But if this is the new norm for the Northwest more years than not, the cherished forests and streams and snows and rains of the region will be radically transformed in awful ways.
The House just passed a bill that would eviscerates EPA coal ash regulations. Why are those regulations necessary? See here and here if you want to review what a coal ash spill can do and what the health effects of being near this stuff can be. You want coal ash heavily regulated.
A Republican president in 2017 would sign this into law. Given that the House is going to remain with the GOP and the Senate probably will, this is what Republican governance would look like. Coal ash pollution for all!
Good on Harry Reid to push so hard against the Cliven Bundys of his state and make his legacy protecting huge swaths of land from development. And good on his political skills for pushing it to the top of Obama’s land agenda, to the point where 700,000 acres will soon be named Basin and Range National Monument. And in these days of intensely partisan land conservation struggles, it is remarkable for its size and for the president’s willingness to go around the complex politics that most recent national monuments have undergone to slowly build some kind of local consensus around designation. That’s all about Harry Reid’s political career and his political acumen.
When teaching about postwar America, I always tell my students that just about anything that happened in this nation during the Cold War has its roots in Cold War politics or fed back into Cold War issues. Jacob Hamblin’s 2013 book Arming Mother Nature demonstrates how this is true for what he calls “catastrophic environmentalism,” or the idea that human activities will transform the world in shocking and horrible ways. Hamblin shows how this thinking comes straight out of the military-industrial complex that was researching how total war of the quite possible World War III would also be an environmental war. By using biological weapons and detonating hydrogen bombs, the death of millions of people could bring a nation to its knees. But in planning for these future wars, the military also needed to understand just how turning the environment into a catastrophe would affect humans. Thus the same scientists that were developing these weapons were also providing early ecological understanding of how humans impacted the planet. The apocalyptic language of people like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson makes a great deal of sense in this context, when much of our early environmentalism used Cold War language as a response to the threat of technological development to the planet. After all, those researching and promulgating Cold War doctrine used the exact same language to describe their own plans.
American scientists expected to arm nature in war against the USSR. World War II scientists had already explored this sort of warfare and the Japanese had gone forward with it. To briefly quote Hamblin “scientists in the decades after World War II worked on radiological contamination, biological weapons, weather control and several other projects that united scientific knowledge of the natural environment with the strategic goal of killing large numbers of people”(4). This could be everything from experiments with bull semen and seed storage to help Americans survive such an attack to destroying regional food supplies to starve nations into submission or launching disease bombs to spread deadly illness. In all of these plans, scientists wanted to deploy nature itself as a weapon.
But wouldn’t such warfare kill millions of Americans as well? Sure, but these scientists held two strong beliefs that made them optimistic about long-term recovery. First, they largely did not believe humans could really control nature in the long term. Thus, they might make short-term alternations that could win a war but in the long term nature held all the cards and the old natural balance would eventually be restored. Second, they believed Americans had a better capacity to rebuild their society than the Soviets because they felt the American free market economy would recover more quickly than socialist state planning. Pure ideology at play here.
The Soviets, North Koreans, and eastern Europeans did accuse the Americans of actually deploying these plans, such as the Czechs blaming the expansion of the Colorado potato bug across their nation on American biological warfare. But mercifully, actual deployment remained largely theoretical, even if Al Gore Sr. suggested dumping all of our nuclear waste on the border between North Korea and South Korea to stop any further communist incursions. But far too much of this program did become active in Vietnam where the U.S. engaged in significant environmental warfare through the use of napalm and other herbicides. Students at Penn discovered in 1966 that one of its chemistry professors was researching a government project to create diseases in rice that could be used in Vietnam. This not only led to campus protests in the country but a rethinking of ethical relationships between scientists and the government, leading to pressure for academic scientists to break ties with its military sponsors working on biological warfare.
Interestingly, the overwhelming public and international reaction to American environmental warfare led Richard Nixon to harness the growing popular movement of environmentalism to his own international agenda. Nixon decided to sacrifice the most far-fetched parts of the American environmental warfare program such as weather control and biological weapons through international treaties in order to save what mattered to him–the nuclear program. He tapped into not only the rhetoric of ecocide coming out of the anti-Vietnam movement but broader environmentalism to make him seem like a strong leader on the issue, but always within a Cold War context. First, he forced NATO to create a committee on environmental issues for collective security around the issue. Then he tried to make the U.S. the international leader on the environment, leading to the Stockholm conference of 1972 and the UN Environment Programme. Nixon had shed the U.S. of programs that now seemed more trouble than they were worth, made himself look like a global environmental leader, and ensured that the core mission of U.S. military research remain untouched. Smart politics if typically cynical.
My one critique of the book is that when discussing the rise of environmentalism, Hamblin does not really engage with how it was a truly a popular movement and how such catastrophic ideas affected the grassroots either before or after people like Barry Commoner, Carson, and Ehrlich wrote their famous books. Particularly frustrating is how he defines Nixon in this environmentalism, noting “many of the key pro-environment national developments came during his presidency, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.” (190) I have said many times on this blog, this says almost nothing about Nixon and much about the overwhelming congressional majorities responding to popular pressure that passed these bills. In the bigger picture of the book, this is pretty minor and I realize that Hamblin is not a bottom-up historian of the environmental movement, but I don’t see how reinforcing myths about Nixon the environmentalist is useful.
Finally, the question of whether catastrophic environmentalism is effective in dealing climate change remains a bit unclear. Hamblin does not come down strongly on this issue, but he’s a bit skeptical. He notes that the major problem with such claims is that they are fairly easily debunked and notes how Bjorn Lomberg has taken up that mantle on climate change. Yet it’s unclear to what extent Lomborg has really made much difference in these debates and I think far more effective is what Hamblin notes earlier–the embrace of free-market economics and use of patriotism to attack environmentalism as well as the belief that humans can’t really truly control the natural world that finds its way into right-wing talking points around the earth naturally warming or extinction or other parts of the “debate.” The end of the Cold War ended the threat of catastrophic warfare but not the language or culture that rose up around it, attitudes that still influence both environmentalism and those who oppose the environmental movement.
In truth, this complex and fascinating book has a lot more going on than I can say here. You should read it.
The sprawling Navajo Nation that covers northeast Arizona and parts of southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico is a huge chunk of land that is beautiful, unique, and fragile. This largely high desert area can certainly sustain life but it’s dryness means that climate change makes it highly prone to long-term changes that severely limit that ability to sustain life. There was a major report on the impact of climate change on Navajo lands prepared last year that certainly covers these issues in detail.
Yet we have to be careful about how we lump all environmental change in with climate change. This article talking about how sand dunes have made one-third of the Navajo Nation uninhabitable and blaming climate change is a case in point. There’s no question that climate change is making this problem worse. But at the end of the piece, someone mentions overgrazing. And in this case, that’s the real issue. Ever since the return of the Navajo from the Bosque Redondo to a piece of their native lands in 1868, enormous herds of sheep have roamed this fragile landscape, causing widespread erosion and most of the problems mentioned in this article. Part of this return meant the Navajo had to give up their raiding ways and although their reservation was large and became larger, was not nearly the extent of land where they had previously lived. This all meant more emphasis on the sheep economy. As early as the 1930s, the erosion was clearly visible on the land. This is when John Collier, as part of his Indian New Deal, intervened and forced the Navajo to cull their herds. This was a total disaster. While Collier was a welcome change from the usually corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs for most tribes and the Indian New Deal a step in the right direction, with the Navajo, Collier had no idea what he was doing. As Marsha Weisiger details in her excellent book Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, Collier’s methods in dealing with the erosion problem undermined women’s status in Navajo society, increased class divisions by favoring wealthy herders, and probably most significantly, created long-term suspicion of conservation methods as anti-Dine in Navajo society. So sheep herding grew again and continued almost unabated.
That’s what is primarily creating this desertification on the Navajo Nation. I don’t doubt that climate change is a factor. But this is largely a socioeconomic/colonialist creation.