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U.S. Farms Poisoning Drinking Water Supplies

cow manure pond

The Wall Street Journal published a stinging critique of big agriculture’s impact on rural drinking water supplies, which they say are being spoiled “by fewer, more-intensively worked farms, bigger cows and shifting crop mixes.”  These large farms are more productive than ever, but as a result, the percentage of U.S. drinking water with nitrates concentrations above safe levels is rising. One in seven Americans whose water comes from wells is at risk, particularly in rural areas.  But urban areas are also contending with nitrate pollution —  nearly 500 public water systems in the U.S. exceeded federal nitrate limits in 2016, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.  Runoff from farms is largely exempt from federal regulation, particularly after the Trump Administration’s rollback of a major clean water act rule.

According to the Journal,

  • manure, which farmers spread across millions of acres in the U.S., contains nutrients such as nitrates that researchers have associated with birth defects, thyroid problems, cancer and a potentially fatal condition in infants; and
  • decades-old water, already contaminated with nitrates from a nationwide run-up in chemical-fertilizer usage, is sinking closer to drinking water aquifers in some areas.

The most interesting statistic — milk production per cow more than doubled between 1970 and 2017, according to the USDA. Farmers are growing less alfalfa to feed their animals and more corn, which requires more nitrogen fertilizer.  Cows today are bigger than in the past, so they eat—and excrete—more.  And farmers mix that cow poop with wastewater and increasingly use it for crop fertilizers — spreading the nitrate problem even further.

Often it is small water systems that end up paying the price for big farms upstream. “It’s a broken system,” Bill Stowe, chief executive of Des Moines Water Works told the Journal after his system lost a federal lawsuit in 2017 in which they tried to force three counties to clean farm runoff draining into the drinking water supply for Des Moines.

One solution is to plant cover crops such as oats and clover to soak up nutrients and put organic material back into the soil. Another one is to use tree bark to filter nitrates from water flowing from fields into culverts that lead to large lakes and rivers — in essence creating a man-made wetland to mitigate nutrient runoff.

Why This Matters:  We have a clean water problem in this country and much of it is caused by agricultural practices that shift the cost of their pollution to rural neighbors and even to big city residents, whose drinking water is tainted as a result.  This is not fair.  And the Trump Administration’s de-regulatory policies make a bad problem worse.  This is not about burdening small farmers with regulations — it is about getting big ag to pay for the mess they are making. 

Dems Slam DoD Report on Climate Risks to U.S. National Security

F-15 Eagle at Tyndall Air Force Base, which was one of the base’s gate guards. Photo: Dr. Judy Staveley

The government last Friday made public another report warning of the dangers that climate change poses to our nation — this one details the risks to our national security as a result of more than two-thirds of our military installations being at increased risk in the next 20 years of flooding, drought and fire damage related to climate.  In addition, the report explains that climate impacts around the globe will also have a direct impact on the mission of the military, quoting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joeseph Dunford who testified to Congress last November that,  “[w]hen I look at climate change, it’s in the category of sources of conflict around the world and things we’d have to respond to. So it can be great devastation requiring humanitarian assistance — disaster relief — which the U.S. military certainly conducts routinely.”

  • According to Inside Climate News, the report does not contain the key information Congress requested: a list of the 10 most vulnerable facilities in each branch of the armed services.
  • The top 10 list was to help Congress identify where to focus limited funds to help prevent costly damage in the future.
  • Last year, military installations were hit with two multi-billion dollar disasters when Hurricanes Florence and Michael destroyed Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina respectively 
  • Neither of those two major climate events was even mentioned in the report.

Democrats in Congress, who had requested the report, slammed it for being inadequate and partisan.  The Chair of the House Armed Services Committee said, the report “fails to even minimally discuss a mitigation plan to address the vulnerabilities” or “future costs.”  The leading Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee was even less impressed, saying that the “report reads like an introductory primer and carries about as much value as a phonebook.”

Why This Matters:  When the commander in chief tweets that climate change is a “good old fashioned” thing that we need more of, he is undermining our national security.  Climate change is a threat multiplier – and the multiplication is becoming exponential, as are the costs.  The authors of the report concluded that the “effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,”  and stated that the department needs to adapt its operations to this new reality.  Yup.  But Congress needs more details in order to actually do that.  Too bad the military did not provide them in this report.

Florida Red Tide Takes Record Number of Turtles

A dead sea turtle on a SW Florida beach following the red tide event Photo: Ivy Yin, SWNS

The red tide that tormented the coast of Florida was extremely deadly for marine wildlife.  The Miami Herald Tribune reported that the Florida Department of Fish and Game attributed the deaths of 589 sea turtles and 213 manatee deaths to this episode of red tide, which began in late 2017. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported it had killed 127 bottlenose dolphins as of Dec. 20 (when the government shutdown began), leading the agency to declare an unusual mortality event.  And that is not counting the tons of dead fish that washed ashore.

Volunteers who help to preserve turtle nests kept up their work even during the red tide’s worst days. From May to October, they wore masks and scarves first to check turtle nests and then later in the summer to clear a path through dead fish on the shore for the hatchlings to make it out to the sea.  And according to local scientists, the red tide toxins persist for some time in the seagrass, so the impacts are not over yet. 

Not to mention the costs of cleanup in Southwest Florida alone, so far:

  • Manatee County has picked up 316 tons of dead fish from waterways,
  • Cleanup has cost Manatee County $210,00, the bulk which was to clear residential canals during the peak of the bloom, and
  • Sarasota County removed 251 tons of red-tide-related fish and marine debris from County managed properties at a cost of more than $230,000.

Ecowatch reported that the new Governor of Florida has announced an executive order to study red tide, the creation of a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to study the other harmful bloom in Lake Okeechobee, and $2.5B to restore the Everglades and protect other water resources in the state.

Why This Matters:  The harmful algal blooms in Florida demand serious and concerted action.  The loss of endangered sea turtles and manatees is a crushing blow to the environment, and also to the tourism economy in Florida.  Will a Task Force and further study be sufficient?  Doubtful.  What is needed is action to curb agricultural pollution, which is one of the main culprits in harming our oceans and our fresh water.  

State Department can’t ignore climate refugees, GAO report says

Survivors of 2008’s Cyclone Nargis shelter in the ruins of their destroyed home in War Chaun, a village in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwaddy Division. Photo: UNHCR/Taw Naw Htoo

Climate change is already drastically altering our planet and for millions of people around the world, this has meant that they’ve had to flee their homes and seek asylum in other countries. As the UN explained, scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security, already a concern, will become even more challenging.

In a recent piece, Vox reported that the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated that there were 24.2 million people displaced by climate and weather disasters in 2016. Last year, the World Bank estimated that number would rise to 143 million people by the middle of the century if climate change is left unchecked. These mass movements can, in turn, threaten fragile governments and economies, potentially leading to conflicts. The consequences can ripple back to the United States. “The worsening of climate change effects around the world, particularly in low-income countries, may increase the number of people wanting to immigrate to the United States,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a report released last Thursday. The GAO called on federal agencies like the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to account for how climate change will fuel global conflicts. The State Department under the Trump administration has stopped giving climate change the credence it deserves and the GAO report stated that “State changed its approach in 2017, no longer providing missions with guidance on whether and how to include climate change risks in their integrated country strategies.” 

Why This Matters: Since taking office, President Trump has not only ignored his own government’s warnings on climate change but also has dropped climate threats from his national security strategy and as a result, the federal agencies tasked with predicting and preparing for new developments overseas have failed to adequately do so. People don’t often connect climate change to immigration and refugee crises but the two are very closely linked. Especially as climate change leads to more conflicts around the world, it’s reckless for our government to ignore the threat based on misguided politics and not equip their staff to address the problem, as the GAO report pointed out the State Department has been doing.

A diet for the planet

Experts have been saying for some time that in order to truly tackle global climate change we must limit our consumption of red meat as its cultivation is a major source of emissions and pollution. This week scientists made the prescription to reduce meat official and suggested a new diet to help Americans alter their eating habits. As The Cut explained, following on the heels of its November cover editorial recommending that the world should be eating a lot less meat (for both human and environmental health), this week the influential medical journal The Lancet released its long and yet still vague plan for exactly how to do this. The authors have given their plan a cosmic and memorable name: The Planetary Health Diet. One of the diet’s most salient details is that it calls for people in North America to eat 85 percent less beef, specifically (and significantly less “or no” meat or animal products in general), while making up for it with vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. (This translates to about one serving of meat a week.) The entire 30,000-word report — “Food in the Anthropocene” — is available for free online.

The Planetary Health Diet could prevent up to 11.6 million premature deaths without harming the planet, according to the authors. They also warned that a global change in diet and food production is needed as 3 billion people across the world are malnourished — which includes those who are under and overnourished — and food production is overstepping environmental targets, driving climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Why This Matters: Americans eat more meat than any other nation in the world and its all because CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) make meat cheap and readily accessible. The fact that we are able to eat a hamburger that costs just a couple dollars means that the true externalities of cultivating beef are not reflected in the price we pay for it. As writer and activist Raj Patel noted in his book, we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Eating less meat (or adopting a “flexitarian” diet) to help our planet is a relatively small ask!

Go Deeper: If you’re looking to make more vegetarian meals might we recommend the books The Part Time Vegetarian and More With Less to get you started?

One cool thing: Super Blood Wolf Moon seen from around the world

Skywatcher Keith Burns took this montage of images, which shows the Dec. 20, 2010, total lunar eclipse. The montage won a NASA contest to become an official NASA/JPL wallpaper for the public.

Did you see the Super Blood Wolf Moon on Sunday night? It was truly something to behold and here in DC we were lucky enough to have clear skies to witness the lunar eclipse, it was worth staying up late to see! Check out this roundup of the coolest shots captured by photographers and astronomers around the world.

Remembering MLK: He Planted the Seeds of the Environmental Justice Movement

Environmental Justice. Ricardo Levins Morales, scratchboard, ink, and watercolor.

Today, as we look back at the life and legacy of Dr. King, we remember that although he tragically died before the environmental movement had begun, his call for justice and civil rights inspired other movements like our own.  Former Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech honoring King at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, that “Dr. King, in addition to his many other achievements, helped to plant the seeds for what would become our nation’s now-thriving environmental justice movement.  Holder went on to say:

“Dr. King did not have the chance to witness the impact of the movement he began. But he left us with the creed that continues to guide our work. His enduring words – which he penned from a Birmingham jail cell – still remind us that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This truth was understood – and honored – by the coalitions of activists who rallied against hazardous waste dumps near African-American communities in the 1970s and ‘80s. Their activism helped to drive updates in our environmental laws. President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order – which required each federal agency to address environmental justice in minority and low-income populations – was also an important step forward. And the work that the EPA and the Department of Justice have led to ensure that our environmental laws and protections extend to all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status – has strengthened this tradition of progress.

But the simple, and unfortunate, fact is that we still are not where we want, and where we need, to be.”

Here are some startling facts about the disproportionate impact that pollution has on minorities and the poor, according to Scientific American:

  • 76% of the two million residents living within three miles of one of the 12 “worst [coal-fired] plants” are people of color
  • 21% of black children have been diagnosed with asthma and 16% still have asthma
  • 15% of Hispanic children have been diagnosed with asthma and 10% still have asthma
  • 12%  of white children have been diagnosed with asthma and 8% still have asthma
  • 18% of children in poor families have been diagnosed with asthma and 13% still have asthma

Why This Matters:  Everyone in the U.S. is entitled to breathe the same clean air, and to drink the same clean water, and to have the same degree of safety from environmental, health, and climate change hazards.  And they have the right to the same opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes that ensure we all have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.  We have a long way to go.

To Go Deeper:  Read Attorney General Holder’s full tribute to Dr. King’s environmental legacy here.

One Generous Thing: Delta Donates To Open MLK Memorial

Despite the ongoing government shutdown, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park will be open from January 19 to February 3rd in honor of Dr. King’s birthday thanks to a grant from Delta Airlines to the National Park Service. Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian said in a statement that, “While [King’s] work in bringing people together can be felt worldwide, his influence is a constant presence in Delta’s hometown of Atlanta. Upon learning that the #governmentshutdown meant Dr. King’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station No. 6 and the visitor center would be closed during the national holiday, we knew we had to take action. These historic landmarks represent the strength of our community and should always be made available for the public to enjoy.”

A Brief History of the Environmental Justice Movement

Protestors block trucks filled with toxic waste from entering a landfill in Afton, North Carolina,1982.
Photo: Ricky Stilley

During the Civil Rights movement, there had been minority-led protests concerning exposure to toxic pollution, most notably the Mexican American farm workers organized by Caesar Chavez who protested harmful pesticides they were exposed to while picking lettuce and the residents of West Harlem who protested the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.  However, many consider the street protests and legal challenges brought by the overwhelmingly poor and minority residents of rural Afton, in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 to be the first major milestone in the national movement for environmental justice because they drew sustained media coverage and grabbed national attention.  NRDC in a 2016 blog post provided a brief historical account:

  • The state decided to build a landfill in Afton to dump 6,000 truckloads of soil containing toxic PCBs.
  • The state had dismissed the concerns of Afton residents, who worried about PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies.
  • Frustrated residents and their supporters stopped the trucks in their tracks by lying down on roads in front of them.
  • Protests and marches in Afton lasted more than six weeks and 500 people were arrested.

Unfortunately, the protests were not successful and the PCBs were eventually dumped in the landfill in Afton.  But according to the NRDC, this story garnered national media attention and inspired other communities across the country who faced similar toxic injustices to speak up and press for government action.  The protests also led to a General Accounting Office study published in 1983 that revealed that three-quarters of the hazardous waste landfill sites in eight southeastern states were located in primarily poor, African-American and Latino communities.

In 1990, Administrator of the EPA Bill Reilly created the EPA Office of Environmental Equity after being petitioned by several prominent African American leaders.  Then, in October 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met for three days in Washington, D.C. with leaders from the United States, Canada, Central America, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere.  And in 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of their policies or programs on low-income people and people of color.

Why This MattersProgress in the 25 years since Clinton’s Environmental Justice Executive Order in 1994 has been slow, but it took a decided turn for the worst with the election of President Trump in 2016.  The Trump Administration’s rule rollbacks have undoubtedly had a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority communities. The movement lives on with many heroes, like the Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s campaign, who we profiled back in June of last year,  who has made ending ecological devastation in poor communities part of their civil rights demands. And the Green New Deal is the latest manifestation of the environmental justice movement, this time with an emphasis on fighting climate change. As we recall the legacy of Dr. King today, we must remember that clean air, land, and water are things that all Americans deserve.

To Go Deeper:  Read the full NRDC historical account of the Environmental Justice movement here.  Or this abstract by archivist Stephen Sturgeon on the challenges of documenting the environmental justice movement for history.

How would Dr. King view climate justice?

Photo Illustration: The New York Times

Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 which was right before the modern environmental movement became a fully-fledged political force. He had already been dead for 20 years when the first IPCC report was released and broad national consensus around climate change began to form. And now, 50 years after his death, many thought-leaders wonder what Dr. King would say about the current state of our planet. Though in the news we often see mansions catching on fire in Malibu or hear about sea-level rise coming for the vibrant nightlife of Miami Beach, the untold stories are of how much climate change will impact poor, marginalized communities home and abroad. New York Times climate reporter, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Forbes science contributor Dr. Marshall Shepherd have written about how Dr. King would approach environmentalism today based on clues from his writings and political and religious philosophies and the consensus is climate change and environmental injustice would have been deeply troubling to him.

Pierre-Louis’ piece “Dr. King Said Segregation Harms Us All. Environmental Research Shows He Was Right.examined the current toll of segregation and the deadly pollution that these largely-minority communities still have to endure . She goes on to explain:

Dr. King preached that segregation was harmful not only to black Americans but also to the nation as a whole. He died before the modern environmental movement, but a growing body of research around pollution and health shows that his belief about segregation hurting everyone extends to the environment as well. Many American cities that are more racially divided have higher levels of pollution than less segregated cities. As a result, both whites and minorities who live in less integrated communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than those who live in more integrated areas.

Low-income communities often become generationally trapped into living in areas of high pollution because they lack the political power to change these circumstances and cannot compete with institutionalized racism and powerful lobbies. The piece noted that Dr. King may have foreshadowed this in his 1963 speech in Detroit: “Segregation is a cancer in the body politic,” he said, “which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Shepherd in his piece titled Why Climate Change Would Have Alarmed Dr. Martin Luther King explored how Dr. King would weigh in on climate change and especially the political divide that separates “believers from “deniers.” He analyzed a portion of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and explained that “this letter has so much relevance today in a society crippled by echo chambers, silos and narrowness. King was writing about our connectedness, complacency, and those willing to turn a blind eye to injustice:

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This quote could have easily been referring to the grand challenge of climate change, humanity and our single Earth community. It is why my science is my service to society on King’s day.”

 Why This Matters: Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting for and serving oppressed people and helping their voices to be heard. Unfortunately, while we’ve made progress as a nation in the 50 years since he died, many of the injustices he gave his life for are all too present today. Our political leaders continue to ignore the plight of neighborhoods being poisoned by pollution and many of them still refuse to do anything about climate change which disproportionately endangers communities of color. We must remember Dr. King’s teachings and ensure that any action on climate change includes the strive for social justice as well.