Sierra Club National

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 10 April 2014 - 12:21pm

As the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

The reason there aren't more bad days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because a Republican president, reached over, pen in hand, to signed the Clean Air Act into law. As a result, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 400,000 premature deaths have been prevented.

Here in Arizona, the EPA is proposing to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal plant that is one of the largest sources of NOx emissions in the U.S. as well as from the Apache, Coronado, Sundt, and Cholla generating stations. NOx is a key ingredient in both ozone and fine particulate pollution, both very dangerous forms of pollution.

Every year, air pollution from these coal plants contributes to significant health problems including heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, emergency room visits, chronic bronchitis, and costing Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars in health expenses. Certain groups are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as: infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.

Smokestack pollution from NGS also adds to smog haze in 11 national parks and wilderness areas surrounding the plant, including the Grand Canyon, which is less than 20 miles away. Emissions from the Apache, Coronado, and Cholla coal plants add to dirty air at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in four states. The Sundt plant, right in Tucson, affects our public lands and the public health of those in surrounding neighborhoods.

We should not have to wait decades for clean air. We need strong clean air standards that include the most protective pollution control technology to safeguard our health and our environment now, as well as that of future generations. I thank God for the Clean Air Act, and for the people who are willing to stand up in the name of life and healing and common sense. I hope Rep. Gosar can be one of those people who "overreaches" across the aisle to support strong EPA clean air standards.

- Rev. Doug Bland, Director of Arizona Interfaith Power & Light

Categories: Sierra Club National

Securing a Positive Climate Legacy

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 10 April 2014 - 7:10am

Our world faces an unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenge-- climate disruption. As the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change notes, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world as seas rise, extreme weather events increase, areas suffer drought or flood, and plants and animals edge closer to extinction.  Scientists agree that fossil fuels are the main culprit behind climate disruption and as a new Sierra Club report details, it is vitally important that undeveloped dirty fuels remain that way.

Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures (PDF), calculates the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty fuel development proposals. Such calculations send a clear message: Actions to effectively reducing climate disruption must include keeping dirty fuels in the ground.

Four major potential sources of carbon pollution have been identified, the Arctic Ocean, the Green River Formation, the Powder River Basin, and the Monterey, San Juan Basin and Marcellus shale plays. If just a fraction of the oil, gas and coal from these major climate disrupters was developed, the resulting carbon pollution would cancel out our country's greatest accomplishments in the fight against climate disruption--efforts like the Obama administrations new fuel economy standards.



Thankfully, President Obama can take pragmatic actions to keep dirty fuels in the ground and speed our country down the path to clean energy future.  Over the remainder of his time in office he has an opportunity to:

  • Fully implement his Executive Order 13514 requiring all resource management agencies to fully consider climate pollution, like they do other types of pollution, prior to leasing or exporting onshore and offshore oil, gas, coal, and unconventional fuels sources such as oil shale and tar sands.  
  • Stop any new leasing of federal oil, gas, and coal until potential environmental, climate, and public health impacts are fully considered, including:
  • Withdrawing plans to allow development of oil shale and tar sands on 800,000 acres of federal public lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • No issuance of new federal coal leases until reforms that increase royalty rates, set sensitive lands aside, insure public transparency, and fully assess impacts from all aspects of coal production are implemented.
  • Withdrawing plans to offer any new offshore oil leases in the Arctic Ocean.
  • No issuance of any new oil and gas leases on federal lands that use fracking and well stimulation techniques until impacts on water, air, and climate are averted.
  • Close oil, gas, and coal industry exemptions from environmental and public safety laws.
  • Stop the export of coal and liquefied natural gas.

By showing leadership and taking these actions, President Obama can put the world on a path to avert climate catastrophe and create a clean-energy future that generates quality jobs, protects public health, and secures a wild lands legacy for our children’s future.  He can bolster his National Climate Action Plan and secure the progress that his administration has made in reducing domestic carbon emissions.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama to keep dirty fuels in the ground!

-- Dan Chu, Director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

How Coal & Clean Energy Will Define Indian Elections

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 8 April 2014 - 2:06pm

On the coast of India’s Gulf of Kutch in Western Gujarat, near a small town called Mundra, an iconic fight against Tata Power’s Mundra coal plant is brewing. This fight has become the epicenter of a “rousing struggle” against coal expansion - and a microcosm of India’s election politics.

A small group of local fisherfolk are opposing the plant and leading a campaign that exposes the dark side of unchecked coal development and contradictions in the campaign of leading Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

In a country that recently made headlines for the largest power outage in history, Gujarat is an anomaly – it has a power surplus. That, along with industry-friendly policies including a heavy emphasis on special economic zones (SEZs), has helped propel the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to become the primary challenger in the race for prime minister. Indeed, the idea Modi's campaign has touted about Gujarat energy development is something many Indians aspire to.

Even more appealing is that Modi's power surplus has been supported by a 'saffron revolution' thanks to dramatic solar expansion. A true anomaly in coal-dependent India.

But despite Modi’s fervent support for solar energy, Gujarat is also home to some of the biggest coal plants in the country. Power companies are building a series of 16 ultra mega coal power plants (UMPPs) to stem the power crisis, including Tata Power’s flagship Mundra coal plant, or “Tata Mundra.” But the projects have exposed just how poorly the industry is now performing, and just how desperate the need is to diversify India’s energy mix away from coal.

Tata Mundra has been a debacle since day one. Despite abundant promises of cheap power, Tata Mundra’s costs have skyrocketed, forcing it to raise rates for average citizens. Worse, it has set a harmful precedent in the country: it’s the first project to be exempt from a legally binding contract by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission in order to raise rates and boost profits. Tata Mundra will be defending the exemptions in courts for years to come as states and consumers appeal these decisions.

The devastation to locals from this project is even more grim. Tata Mundra has burdened local fishermen by diverting waterways and releasing thermal pollution that kills fish for miles along the coast.

That’s why local fisherman have filed for a full audit of the World Bank Group’s financing of the project. The audit’s damning findings were swept under the rug by World Bank President Dr. Kim, but are once again under investigation by another international financier -- the Asian Development Bank.

Rampant, unchecked industrialization is ravaging the environment and the social fabric of India’s coasts, and Modi’s political enemies know it. Arvind Kejriwal, chief of an opposing political party, traveled to Gujarat to “tour" the development progress of the state.

While Gujarat has seen large industrial growth, it’s also home to some of the lowest social indicators in the country. In fact, Gujarat represents one of the lowest per-capita, per-day earnings for salaried people in the country. Most Indians don’t see these facts, thanks to Modi’s impressive marketing campaign.  

But it’s not just opposing political parties who are highlighting the contradictions inherent in Modi’s state and campaign. Already the Congress party has organized several political rallies up and down Gujarat’s heavily industrialized coastline to appeal to fishing communities affected by coal development. The message: end environmental destruction.

Modi’s association with some of the world’s largest coal projects will undoubtedly darken the candidate’s image. It may even put him in the same company as India’s current Environment Minister “Oily Moily.”

As Indians head to the polls, what’s happening in Mundra could end up ultimately defining Modi and his plan for the nation.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Hazardous Waste Next Door: The Importance of the Definition of Solid Waste

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 8 April 2014 - 8:49am

Did you know that chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the industrial waste industry are exempt from a law requiring companies handling hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, but in 2008 the Bush Administration exempted these companies handling the most dangerous substances from complying. This new rule was called "The Definition of Solid Waste" (DSW).

Take a look at the chemicals slipping through this regulatory gap:

  • Solvents like benzene, toluene, TCE and perc (linked to cancer, low birth weight, miscarriages, major malformations, and heart defects)
  • Heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury - potent neurotoxins and carcinogens

In 2011, thanks to legal challenge from the Sierra Club, as represented by EarthJustice, and due to the advocacy of environmental justice, civil rights, public health and other organizations, the EPA completed a groundbreaking environmental justice analysis and found that DSW's lax rules for hazardous waste disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities:

  • Hundreds of sites where toxic releases have occurred in the past are consistently located in communities of color and low-income communities.
  • The 2008 DSW rule removes opportunities for public participation in siting and permitting decisions, disenfranchising non-white and low-income communities from critical decisions affecting their health and livelihoods.
  • The industries exempt from federal controls are often located in areas that already face exposure to multiple environmental hazards, and already have high cancer rates and neurological hazard rates as a result of exposure to pollution.

In fact, in Illinois and Idaho, almost every hazardous waste recycling facility operating under the regulatory exemption is located in a community of color and low-income community.

The 2011 legal challenge required the EPA to publish a new DSW rule in 2012, but the EPA had taken no action until last month. On March 15, 2014, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finally began its regulatory review of the EPA's DSW rule.

The Sierra Club is part of a coalition of public interest organizations and individuals from across the U.S. that supports a DSW standard that protects our health, environment and livelihood from hazardous waste released from recycling operations. Together we are urging the administration to abide by the 90-day limit for review of this rule and to publish a final DSW rule by July 1, 2014.

The delay in issuing a final rule is exacting a high toll on communities of color and low-income communities. Since 1982, hazardous waste recycling has polluted more than 200 sites, including many on the Superfund National Priority List, which identifies the worst toxic waste sites in the nation. The EPA found that the majority of the contamination at these sites occurred when recycling operations were exempted from compliance with safeguards under the RCRA.

This is why the final DSW rule must reinstate these essential safeguards. There is an urgent need to close this gap for the health of the nation and particularly for environmental justice communities. The rule impacts management of 1.8 million tons of hazardous waste, predominantly in communities of color and in low-income communities.

Any further delay is unacceptable while toxic releases to air and water poison fenceline neighborhoods at recycling operations. We call on the OMB, the EPA, and the Obama administration to ensure that this important rule receives the priority it deserves so that the safety of the nation’s most vulnerable communities can be ensured now and for future generations.

-- Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

West Virginians and North Carolinians Agree - It's Time for Serious Environmental Protections

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 7 April 2014 - 1:32pm

In the wake of dangerous coal chemical and coal ash spills in their states already this year, West Virginia and North Carolina voters have gotten a wake-up call on the need for environmental and public health protections - and they know it.

According to two recent polls conducted by Hart Research on behalf of the Sierra Club, a majority of West Virginians and North Carolinians believe that it is high time to get serious by taking action on policy that protects our families and communities.

On January 9th, a coal chemical plant owned by Freedom Industries spilled 7,500 gallons of toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol - part of the coal production process - into the Elk River, just upstream of the largest water treatment plant in West Virginia. The contamination affected drinking water for 300,000 people across nine counties in the Kanawha Valley. Local emergency rooms treated 169 patients for symptoms related to chemical exposure, and ten people were admitted to hospitals for non-life-threatening symptoms.

West Virginians were shocked and angry. According to a poll conducted between February 4th – 7th, 73 percent of Mountain State voters agree that their state "has spent too little attention to addressing threats to air and water, and that the Elk River spill is a wakeup call that things must change."

More than two in three voters across the political spectrum say that "stronger regulations and better enforcement of existing regulations would have prevented the spill" (79 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans).

And 62 percent of voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors "strong regulations and enforcement to protect the water, air, and health of West Virginians."

"You can throw the coal industry's conventional wisdom out the window," says Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "[These polls are] yet another indication that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in coal-dependent states want leaders who will stand up to big coal companies and enact common-sense initiatives to protect our air, our water, and our families from toxic coal ash and pollution."

North Carolinians received a similar shock in early February, when a Duke Energy facility spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River. What's more, the Southern Environmental Law Center says that this plant has been leeching arsenic, boron, and sulfate into groundwater for years, and that "Duke Energy had experienced coal ash structural failures at three of its other facilities in North Carolina."

Voters in the Tar Heel state responded powerfully. A March 10th - 13th poll found that 63 percent of voters think state leaders are not doing enough to protect the state's rivers and streams from contamination. And an overwhelming 83 percent of North Carolinians feel that coal ash should be treated as a hazardous substance that needs to be regulated.

The issue crosses party lines here too, with overwhelming majorities of Democrats (91 percent), independents (85 percent), and Republicans (75 percent) all supporting designating coal ash as a hazardous substance.

If all of this wasn't bad enough news for big coal and special interests, voters in both states hold the coal industry responsible. Two-thirds of West Virginians say that the coal industry bears some or a lot of the responsibility for air and water contamination, while 70 percent of North Carolinians say Duke Energy is totally or mostly to blame for the spill.

The so-called conventional wisdom peddled by the coal industry has been turned on its head, and even in coal country the results are clear: voters want leaders who won't cave to the special interests in the coal industry and who will stand up for clean water and public health protections. It's time our elected officials started paying attention.

-- David Shadburn, Sierra Club Intern

Categories: Sierra Club National

Wind Wins in Senate Committee

Sierra Club Compass Blog - 4 April 2014 - 7:59am


Yesterday afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a critically important package of renewable energy tax credits, moving one step closer toward renewing these expiring or expired investments that help support clean energy jobs all over the country. The package includes the progressive renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) - key policies originally enacted to support the development of renewable energy production facilities here at home, boosting the American wind industry. But four months ago, those credits expired, resulting in job losses nationwide as the rug was pulled out from under the thriving wind sector - all while  fossil fuel companies counted among the most profitable in the world continued to get massive tax handouts.  

Today, the Senate Finance Committee gave a bipartisan vote of support to these wind investments, passing a successful mark-up of legislation including the wind energy PTC that should lead to consideration on the Senate floor soon.

The clearest sign of support for wind jobs and clean energy came in the face of opposition. Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, attempted to pass an amendment that would have crippled clean energy investments -- only to be met by a stiff wind of bipartisan support for these vital job-creating credits.

Toomey was only able to rally five Republicans to his side. Republican Senators John Cornyn, Mike Crapo, Rob Portman, and John Thune  joined 13 Democrats in supporting wind energy, sending Toomey’s amendment to the scrap heap by a vote of 6 to 18.

Senator Chuck Grassley - an Iowa Republican from a state with a thriving wind industry - dismissed the argument that supporting the wind PTC is akin to “picking winners and losers” as intellectually dishonest, pointing to long standing oil, gas, and nuclear subsidies.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow agreed, saying oil and gas tax credits were not part of the package under consideration “because we picked them to win a long time ago.”

As wind power supports tens of thousands of American jobs and powers homes and businesses across the country, its a wonder that the package didn’t receive unanimous support. That’s particularly true when you look at the impact wind has had in the home states of the small handful of Senators who opposed the package.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts opposed the wind investments in spite of the fact that more than 870,000 homes in the Jayhawk state are wind-powered, and upwards of 5,000 Kansans work in the wind industry.

North Carolina’s Richard Burr seemingly voted in opposition to the 23 wind facilities currently operating in his home state, where combined production from offshore and onshore wind power is capable of exceeding the state’s energy needs seven times over.

Georgia serves as one of the headquarters for GE - the second largest manufacturer in the wind industry in the world. Yet, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson voted against the jobs in his state.

Wyoming wind powers 400,000 homes, but Senator Mike Enzi opposed wind investments. Utah’s Orrin Hatch rejected wind tax credits while hundreds of Utah residents work in wind.

Most egregious, though, is Toomey, who sponsored the assault on wind energy in spite of 4,000 Pennsylvanians working in the wind industry, 300,000 homes running on wind power, and 18% of his state’s energy pledged to come from clean energy by 2021. Had Toomey’s amendment passed, he would have undercut not just this goal, but all of the Pennsylvania jobs wind will create.

Senators from both parties stood up for wind today - and we expect them to again do so when this legislation reaches the Senate floor. The numbers don’t lie - wind is creating jobs and powering homes and businesses from coast to coast.

--Radha Adhar

Categories: Sierra Club National
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