Wednesday, August 31, 2016

2429. The Color of Pollution: How Environmental Contaminant Affect People of Color Disproportionally

By Larry Buhl, Desmog, July 28, 2016

With about 42,000 active wells, Kern County, California is home to three-quarters of California's oil drilling and 95 percent of the state’s hydraulic fracturing (fracking) activity.
This mainly rural region is the largest oil-producing county in the U.S.

The influence of oil and gas is so great here that in late 2015 the county board of supervisors approved a new ordinance to allow drilling permits for tens of thousands of new wells to be fast-tracked.

Time span for the new ordinance? Two decades. Ongoing environmental review? None. Public participation? Not allowed.

In response, the environmental legal organization Earthjustice filed suit against the county on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The lawsuit, in coordination with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenges the county’s claim that a single environmental review would be sufficient to authorize up to 72,000 new wells over twenty years.

Stacey Geis, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s California regional office, tells DeSmog the Kern County ordinance is a “rubber stamp” that would have a disproportionate impact on Kern’s most vulnerable communities – people of color.

“In Kern County and throughout the state the vast amount of oil is drilled in communities of color. In Los Angeles, there are drill sites literally a stone’s throw away from children’s swing sets.”

Geis cited a 2014 study conducted by the NRDC, which found that of the 5.4 million Californians living within one mile of an oil or gas well, 69 percent are people of color, usually Hispanic. She says drilling sites being permitted in low income areas and communities of color is not unique to California. “It happens wherever people are disenfranchised.”

The way that a person’s race – and to a lesser extent, wealth – determines who gets the benefits or the downsides of drilling and other industrial activity has a term. Depending on who you ask, it’s environmental justice or the more controversial term environmental racism.

Neither term is new, but with national attention on the drinking water crisis in the largely African-American city of Flint, Michigan, plus a growing body of research into which communities bear the burden of fracking waste and other contaminants, the concept of environmental justice (or racism) is finally expanding beyond environmental lawyers, advocates and front line activists.

Who Gets Eagle Ford Shale Fracking Waste?

study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health found that fracking wastewater disposal wells in southern Texas are disproportionately permitted in areas near communities of color and people living in poverty.

The research focused on the Eagle Ford Shale area of south Texas, where more than 1,000 new disposal wells have been permitted since 2007. The study found that fracking disposal wells were twice as common in areas mostly populated by people of color, compared to mostly white areas.

The results of the study, led by community health researcher Jill Johnston, were published last November in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study also found that 16 percent of the area’s domestic water wells were within five kilometers of a disposal well.

Johnston, along with fellow study authors Emily Werder and Daniel Sebastian, cite the Energy Policy Act of 2005 for allowing fracking companies to avoid U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversight:
Permitted disposal wells can be actively used for decades, receiving millions of gallons of toxic wastes, whereas the active life of an extraction well is typically a few years. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 specifically excludes the underground injection of oil and gas fluids from the Safe Water Drinking Act, which authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate chemicals in drinking water to protect public health. Current regulations allow the oil and gas industry to inject and indefinitely store hazardous materials underground and near drinking water supplies.
Fracking waste can seep into drinking water supplies — a big problem in the Eagle Ford Shale region where most people use private drinking wells not covered by EPA standards.
Johnston, now an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, tells DeSmog : “What we found is part of a national trend where the communities who benefit from (natural gas) extraction are very different from the ones who are getting its waste.”

Johnston points out two other problems facing residents of the region. They have fewer resources if they have health problems from contamination, and less access to information about where disposal wells are being located.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and natural gas production in the state, requires disposal well operators to notify only property owners adjacent to the wells.

Johnston’s study isn’t the only one looking at the Eagle Ford Shale region of southern Texas. A recent investigative series from the Center for Public Integrity found that of the nearly quarter-million minorities living less than three miles from a disposal well in the region, 83 percent were Hispanic. The area is only 50 percent Hispanic.

Research into fracking waste disposal in the Eagle Ford Shale has implications beyond south Texas.

People living near fracking zones in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania often learn after the fact that waste is being pumped into the ground near their communities. Who decides to issue permits for any oil and gas extraction depends on the state and the region.

Generally state and local agencies are responsible for siting and permitting with the U.S. EPA maintaining oversight authority. But the EPA’s enforcement mechanisms, say environmental lawyers and activists, are often lax.

Pollution's Disproportionate Effect

Recent research on southern Texas’ fracking sites adds to a growing body of research showing that race is more important than income when determining a person’s risk from air, water, and ground pollution in the U.S.

A University of Minnesota study from 2014 that looked at outdoor nitrogen dioxide levels found people of color in the U.S. are exposed to nearly 40 percent more of this deadly chemical than their white counterparts.

2014 analysis by NRDC found the majority of people living near oil and gas development in California are people of color.

A 2015 study showed that poor Latino and Latino immigrant communities are very likely to be living near “toxic hot spots” of cancer-causing air pollution.

In April, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a rather candid public quip by Terry Bossert, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at Range Resources, a natural gas exploration and production company.

Bossert said, essentially, that you can’t frack the wealthy because they have the money to fight back.

The U.S. EPA acknowledges the problem and defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

But acknowledging the problem doesn’t mean the agency has been effective in combatting it.
The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights handles complaints of discriminatory pollution, but there has been little in the way of action taken by that office, according to investigations by the Center for Public Integrity.

Last year Earthjustice, on behalf of a group of environmental and social justice plaintiffs, filed a civil rights complaint against the U.S. EPA for not ensuring compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in siting decisions throughout the U.S. 

Environmental Sacrifice Zones

In Kern County, any new wells approved by the plan would be constructed in a region that is already very polluted.

According to the American Lung Association, Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County, has the second worst year-round air quality in the nation. Adding potentially environmentally destructive activity to areas already besieged with pollutants, like Kern County, creates environmental sacrifice zones — areas permanently impaired by environmental damage.

These are areas where people live. Environmental activists say residents’ lack of political power, plus ineffective state environmental oversight, makes these neighborhoods perennial dumping grounds for toxic waste. 

Dr Robert Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and commonly referred to as the father of environmental justice, tells DeSmog that it’s easier to permit a facility in an area that’s already polluted.

“I heard elected officials say, ‘that area already has five facilities, one more won’t make a difference,’” Bullard says. “That’s like putting people with asthma in a room with smokers, and saying ‘let’s bring in more smokers.’”

Bullard, who was part of a team that updated the 1987 landmark study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States in 2007, found that over twenty years there had been no progress in protecting communities of color from environmental hazards. In fact, the situation deteriorated.
“In 1987, 33 percent of people who lived in a two mile radius of hazardous waste facilities were people of color,” Bullard tells DeSmog. “Twenty years later, that number had jumped to 56 percent.”

What Bullard and other frontline activists want is a federal threshold, a way to measure the cumulative impact of all types of pollution on an area.

“Permits are granted one at a time and they don’t take account of (environmental hazards) already in the area,” Bullard says. “We say common sense dictates that if a community has fifteen oil and gas facilities, you have to look at the cumulative impact of those facilities before adding one more.”

The problem, Bullard says, is that states do the permitting and some states – he points a finger at Texas and the deep south – “have never seen a permit they haven’t liked.” Bullard says the EPA can and should usurp states’ authority in the most egregious cases of state mismanagement.

“If the state agencies are not doing their jobs then the federal government should pull their money and enforce it directly. The most recent example is Flint. The state did not live up to what it should have done in protecting residents with clean water. A lot of people say the state should pay the price.”

Community Activism and the 2016 Election

Though communities of color may not use the terms environmental racism or environmental justice, they’re increasingly aware of how they’re being impacted. And when local, state and federal governments neglect them, communities of color are getting themselves organized.

In Los Angeles last November, three groups – Youth for Environmental Justice, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity – filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging L.A. was fast-tracking new oil and gas wells in minority communities without the environmental reviews required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Residents of Buffalo, New York, recently won victories for regulatory actions and penalties against the Tonawanda Coke Corporation. In 2014 the company was forced to pay $24 million in criminal suit for releasing cancer-causing benzene at rates nearly 30 times higher than it reported to the EPA. In 2015 it agreed to pay $2.7 million in penalties and $8 million to upgrade its plant.

Before the Michigan primary in March, both Democratic candidates had plenty to say about how the drinking water crisis in Flint was an example of environmental racism.

In April, Hillary Clinton announced a new plan to eliminate lead as a major public health threat within five years. She also released a fact sheet outlining her plans to lesson the environmental burdens of communities of color.

As Senator in 2007, Clinton held the body’s first ever hearing focused solely on environmental justice, and also sponsored the Environmental Justice Renewal Act in 2008, a bill that was never passed.

Clinton’s 2016 presidential opponent, Donald Trump, has taken an “end it, don’t mend it” approach to the EPA by repeatedly promising to eliminate the agency.

recent poll conducted by Earthjustice and GreenLatinos found that Latinos believe strengthening the clean water act and reducing smog and pollution (90 percent and 85 percent, respectively) should be more important priorities for the president and Congress than immigration reform (80 percent).

That poll, along with assurances from both political parties that they won’t take voters of color for granted, suggests that environmental justice may be heard more than once in this presidential campaign.

Monday, August 29, 2016

2428. The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age

By Damion Carrington, The Guardian, August 29, 2016

Humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – needs to be declared, according to an official expert group who presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town on Monday.
The new epoch should begin about 1950, the experts said, and was likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration.
The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

“The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part,” said Prof Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA), which started work in 2009.
“If our recommendation is accepted, the Anthropocene will have started just a little before I was born,” he said. “We have lived most of our lives in something called the Anthropocene and are just realising the scale and permanence of the change.”
Prof Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and WGA secretary, said: “Being able to pinpoint an interval of time is saying something about how we have had an incredible impact on the environment of our planet. The concept of the Anthropocene manages to pull all these ideas of environmental change together.”
Prof Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London and former director of the Science Museum in London said: “The Anthropocene marks a new period in which our collective activities dominate the planetary machinery. 
“Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.” Rapley is not part of the WGA.
Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and former president of the Royal Society, said that the dawn of the Anthropocene was a significant moment. “The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere,” he said. 

But Lord Rees added that there is also cause for optimism. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.”
The evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet is overwhelming, but the changes are very recent in geological terms, where an epoch usually spans tens of millions of years. “One criticism of the Anthropocene as geology is that it is very short,” said Zalasiewicz. “Our response is that many of the changes are irreversible.”

Human activity has left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice.
 Human activity has left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice. Photograph: Pool/Reuters

To define a new geological epoch, a signal must be found that occurs globally and will be incorporated into deposits in the future geological record. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 66m years ago at the end of the Cretaceous epoch is defined by a “golden spike” in sediments around the world of the metal iridium, which was dispersed from the meteorite that collided with Earth to end the dinosaur age.
For the Anthropocene, the best candidate for such a golden spike are radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests, which were blown into the stratosphere before settling down to Earth. “The radionuclides are probably the sharpest – they really come on with a bang,” said Zalasiewicz. “But we are spoiled for choice. There are so many signals.”
Other spikes being considered as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene include the tough, unburned carbon spheres emitted by power stations. “The Earth has been smoked, with signals very clearly around the world in the mid-20th century,” said Zalasiewicz.
Other candidates include plastic pollution, aluminium and concrete particles, and high levels of nitrogen and phosphate in soils, derived from artificial fertilisers. Although the world is currently seeing only the sixth mass extinction of species in the 700m-year history of complex life on Earth, this is unlikely to provide a useful golden spike as the animals are by definition very rare and rarely dispersed worldwide.
In contrast, some species have with human help spread rapidly across the world. The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists. “Since the mid-20th century, it has become the world’s most common bird. It has been fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world,” said Zalasiewicz. “It is is also a much bigger bird with a different skeleton than its prewar ancestor.” 
The 35 scientists on the WGA – who voted 30 to three in favour of formally designating the Anthropocene, with two abstentions – will now spend the next two to three years determining which signals are the strongest and sharpest. Crucially, they must also decide a location which will define the start of the Anthropocene. Geological divisions are not defined by dates but by a specific boundary between layers of rock or, in the case of the Holocene, a boundary between two ice layers in a core taken from Greenland and now stored in Denmark.

The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists.
 The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists. Photograph: Alamy

The scientists are focusing on sites where annual layers are formed and are investigating mud sediments off the coast of Santa Barbara in California and the Ernesto cave in northern Italy, where stalactites and stalagmites accrete annual rings. Lake sediments, ice cores from Antarctica, corals, tree rings and even layers of rubbish in landfill sites are also being considered.
Once the data has been assembled, it will be formally submitted to the stratigraphic authorities and the Anthropocene could be officially adopted within a few years. “If we were very lucky and someone came forward with, say, a core from a classic example of laminated sediments in a deep marine environment, I think three years is possibly viable,” said Zalasiewicz. 

This would be lightning speed for such a geological decision, which in the past would have taken decades and even centuries to make. The term Anthropocene was coined only in 2000, by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, who believes the name change is overdue. He said in 2011: “This name change stresses the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth.” Crutzen also identified in 2007 what he called the great acceleration of human impacts on the planet from the mid-20th century. 
Despite the WGA’s expert recommendation, the declaration of the Anthropocene is not yet a forgone conclusion. “Our stratigraphic colleagues are very protective of the geological time scale. They see it very rightly as the backbone of geology and they do not amend it lightly,” said Zalasiewicz. “But I think we can prepare a pretty good case.”
Rapley also said there was a strong case: “It is highly appropriate that geologists should pay formal attention to a change in the signal within sedimentary rock layers that will be clearly apparent to future generations of geologists for as long as they exist. The ‘great acceleration’ constitutes a strong, detectable and incontrovertible signal.”

Evidence of the Anthropocene

Human activity has:
  • Pushed extinction rates of animals and plants far above the long-term average. The Earth is on course to see 75% of species become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover.
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with fertiliser use. This is likely to be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years.
  • Left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice such as black carbon from fossil fuel burning.

2427. Gender Equality in Hunter-Gatherer Bands

By Hannah Delvin, The Guardian, May 14, 2015
The authors of the study argue that sexual equality may have proved an evolutionary advantage for early human societies, as it would have fostered wider-ranging social network (probably not including gardening). Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Features.
Our prehistoric forebears are often portrayed as spear-wielding savages, but the earliest human societies are likely to have been founded on enlightened egalitarian principles, according to scientists.
A study has shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on where their group lives and who they live with. The findings challenge the idea that sexual equality is a recent invention, suggesting that it has been the norm for humans for most of our evolutionary history.
Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”
Dyble says the latest findings suggest that equality between the sexes may have been a survival advantage and played an important role in shaping human society and evolution. “Sexual equality is one of a important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans,” he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.”

The study, published in the journal Science, set out to investigate the apparent paradox that while people in hunter-gatherer societies show strong preferences for living with family members, in practice the groups they live in tend to comprise few closely related individuals. 
The scientists collected genealogical data from two hunter-gatherer populations, one in the Congo and one in the Philippines, including kinship relations, movement between camps and residence patterns, through hundreds of interviews. In both cases, people tend to live in groups of around 20, moving roughly every 10 days and subsisting on hunted game, fish and gathered fruit, vegetables and honey.
The scientists constructed a computer model to simulate the process of camp assortment, based on the assumption that people would chose to populate an empty camp with their close kin: siblings, parents and children.
When only one sex had influence over the process, as is typically the case in male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies, tight hubs of related individuals emerged. However, the average number of related individuals is predicted to be much lower when men and women have an equal influence – closely matching what was seen in the populations that were studied.
“When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” said Dyble. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.”

The authors argue that sexual equality may have proved an evolutionary advantage for early human societies, as it would have fostered wider-ranging social networks and closer cooperation between unrelated individuals. “It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue,” said Dyble. “And you come into contact with more people and you can share innovations, which is something that humans do par excellence.”
Dr Tamas David-Barrett, a behavioural scientist at the University of Oxford, agreed: “This is a very neat result,” he said. “If you’re able to track your kin further away, you’d be able to have a much broader network. All you’d need to do is get together every now and then for some kind of feast.”
The study suggests that it was only with the dawn of agriculture, when people were able to accumulate resources for the first time, that an imbalance emerged. “Men can start to have several wives and they can have more children than women,” said Dyble. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”
Dyble said that egalitarianism may even have been one of the important factors that distinguished our ancestors from our primate cousins. “Chimpanzees live in quite aggressive, male-dominated societies with clear hierarchies,” he said. “As a result, they just don’t see enough adults in their lifetime for technologies to be sustained.”
The findings appear to be supported by qualitative observations of the hunter-gatherer groups in the study. In the Philippines population, women are involved in hunting and honey collecting and while there is still a division of labour, overall men and women contribute a similar number of calories to the camp. In both groups, monogamy is the norm and men are active in childcare.
Andrea Migliano, of University College London and the paper’s senior author, said: “Sex equality suggests a scenario where unique human traits, such as cooperation with unrelated individuals, could have emerged in our evolutionary past.”