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Tribe Fought for Coal Ash Safeguards, Then Pruitt Came Along

Tribe Fought for Coal Ash Safeguards, Then Pruitt Came Along

By Keith Rushing | Tuesday, October 31, 2017



Reid Gardner coal plant

The Reid Gardner coal plant stood about 300 yards from the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Nevada.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

For the Paiute Indians who call the Moapa River Reservation home, living next to a coal-fired power plant meant dealing with toxic coal ash. The dust covered their homes, seeped into their bodies and, they believed, made them sick.

The tribe fought the plant and its pollution, and worked to bring clean energy jobs instead to their land near Las Vegas. In the process, they helped secure from the Environmental Protection Agency the first-ever federal regulations on coal ash. Just two years later, however, the new coal ash rule, referred to by the EPA as the coal combustion residuals rule, faces a serious threat.

The byproduct of burning coal to generate power, coal ash contains some of the deadliest industrial toxics known to man—mercury, arsenic, lead and chromium, which are associated with cancer, heart disease, strokes and brain damage in children. Seventy percent of this waste is dumped in low-income communities. Coal ash has been responsible for at least 200 cases of contaminated water.

The coal ash rule marked a victory for the Paiute, for Earthjustice and for Americans living near some 1,400 coal ash dumps across the country. That is, until EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided in September to “reconsider” the rule at the behest of the coal industry.

The tribe’s fight against coal ash began in 2000. William Anderson, the tribe’s chairman at the time, recalls how members began to discuss what the coal ash in their community might be doing to their health.

Former Moapa Paiute Chairman William Anderson

Former Moapa Paiute Chairman William Anderson
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

“We started asking ourselves: Who do we know who has breathing problems, thyroid problems and heart problems?” says Anderson. “All of us know someone at the reservation who had these issues.”

When Anderson was growing up, he says, asthma wasn’t an issue on the reservation. But when they began focusing on the possible link to coal ash, he realized that a majority of children seemed to have asthma or a breathing illness.

“We started a campaign with our [tribal] council and went to our people to fight for our own right to breathe clean air,” he says.

The tribe’s members started questioning state and federal agencies as well as NV Energy, which owned the nearby Reid Gardner coal plant, about the actual level of emissions. “Every time we started bringing awareness, no one would listen to what we were saying,” Anderson explains.

The minimal monitoring equipment that the company maintained didn’t reflect the true level of toxics that the tribe was able to document, Anderson says.

Part of the tribe’s campaign included working closely with the Sierra Club and Earthjustice and involved filing a lawsuit against NV Energy that charged the company with violating federal environmental laws requiring proper removal of toxic soil, sludge, coal dust and contaminated groundwater. NV Energy settled the lawsuit in 2015 for $4.3 million. The company closed the Reid Gardner plant earlier this year but still maintains coal ash waste there.

The film “An Ill Wind” tells the Paiute Indians’ story.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

The tribe also began soliciting proposals from companies to build a solar farm. And in 2012, the Paiute completed a deal to establish the largest solar farm on an Indian reservation, which resulted in nearly 1 million solar panels being built to provide power to Los Angeles.

The farm created 600 jobs, and now the tribe is working on a deal to expand it.

“I was so happy during that time,” he says, reflecting back. “With everything that was going on with our people, we could see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Anderson says tribal leaders tried to talk to NV Energy about producing renewable energy, but company officials weren’t interested.

“We showed them [NV Energy] that there’s an effective way to have a solution instead of destroying the environment, plants and animals and spoiling the water. And that’s renewable energy,” Anderson says.

As for the coal ash left behind, NV Energy is now required to place a cap on the dump near the Moapa River Reservation that would prevent the ash from becoming airborne. The company also must maintain a fugitive dust control plan for at least 30 years to keep toxics from seeping into groundwater, according to Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, who was the lead attorney on the case.

In addition to helping the Paiute, the coal ash rule established disposal safeguards affecting the other dumps around the U.S. The 2015 rule includes safeguards to prevent fugitive dust, ensure the stability of coal ash dams, protect drinking water from toxic ash, and ensure detection and cleanup of toxic leaks from coal ash dumps.

Hundreds of contaminated sites and spills have been documented among the 1,400+ coal ash waste dumps across the country.

Hundreds of contaminated sites and spills have been documented among the 1,400+ coal ash waste dumps across the country. See map.

Evans says the coal ash rule, which Earthjustice had been trying to strengthen, remains in place as of now. But if Pruitt tries to delay compliance deadlines or weaken the rule, Earthjustice will consider legal action.

When the EPA announced its decision to reconsider the coal ash rule, Evans called it a “galling giveaway” to industrial polluters.

“The EPA is sending a crystal-clear message to families across the country: Our job is to protect wealthy polluters, not you and your children,” she said. “Americans will not stand idly by as the EPA puts their health and safety at risk—and neither will Earthjustice or our partners.”

Anderson says the move by Pruitt is one of a number of ups and downs the tribe has faced, and it will not deter their fight.

“Our native people have been here for thousands upon thousands of years,” he says. “There’s struggle but we still continue on. When this place was first colonized, we faced genocide. They thought they could wipe out Native people but we are still here. We still move forward every time.”

Learn more facts about coal ash here.

Palm oil: who’s still trashing forests?

How ‘clean’ is the palm oil used by major brands around the world? Today, we’re releasing the results of our investigation into which companies are keeping promises to stop deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil. Take a look now to see who’s keeping up – and who’s lagging way behind.

Forest fires in West Kalimantan, September 2015.Forest fires in West Kalimantan, September 2015.

The biggest forest fires of the century tore through Indonesia just six months ago. They reduced millions of hectares of of vibrant, living tropical rainforest and peatland to smoking ash – and with it, some of the last habitat of Indonesian orangutans.

A forest fire in Indonesia may seem like a far away issue, but for the past ten years, our investigations have exposed how the everyday products in our cupboards and on our bathroom shelves have direct links to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests.

Despite the haze, children in Central Kalimantan continue to play without any protection. Indonesian forest fires impact the health of millions, causing heart and lung problems, and weakening newborn babies.Despite the haze, children in Central Kalimantan continue to play without any protection. Indonesian forest fires impact the health of millions, causing heart and lung problems, and weakening newborn babies.

For the average person, being a part of the solution isn’t as simple as making a few changes to your shopping habits. From Doritos to Colgate to Johnson & Johnson baby soap, palm oil is in so many products that it’s hard to avoid. Even if you could, palm oil isn’t the problem – deforestation is the problem, and that will only stop when corporations take responsibility for the palm oil they buy.

Burnt remains of forest on peatland that has been cleared in preparation for plantation (2006).Burnt remains of forest on peatland that has been cleared in preparation for plantation (2006).

A young oil palm plantation on peatland (2010)A young oil palm plantation on peatland (2010)

So when hundreds of thousands of Greenpeace supporters took action, they took the fight straight to the companies responsible. Using the power of mass pressure, one by one we began forcing the biggest brands that use palm oil or paper from Indonesia to promise to protect rainforests.

Then, a breakthrough. Two years ago, a host of massive brands – including Mars, Mondelez and Procter & Gamble committed to our campaign. Suddenly the biggest brands on the planet were all saying the same thing – that the destruction of these amazing forests had to stop.

And that’s not the end of the good news! This kind of collective action from corporations – with their immense purchasing power – puts huge pressure on traders and producers working directly on the ground. Companies like Wilmar International and Golden Agri Resources may not be household names, but they’re giants in the industry. And because of this they agree to end deforestation – an incredible result!

Environmental activists unfurl a banner in an area affected by forest fires in Central Kalimantan.Environmental activists unfurl a banner in an area affected by forest fires in Central Kalimantan.

Now, the best part of a successful campaign like that is getting to see the real results: Protected forest, healthy orangutans, and an end to rampant deforestation and forest fires. That’s why we have to make sure the companies are keeping their promises.

So last December Greenpeace contacted 14 massive companies to find out how they were getting on with their commitments. What we found was a bit alarming. Only a few companies are making significant headway towards ensuring that there is no deforestation in their palm oil supply chains, and most are moving far too slowly.

It turns out, some companies might think that making a promise is easy – and that no one’s going to notice if they don’t keep it. Find out more in the report here.

A crime scene: burned peatland and forest remains, planted with oil palm seedlingsA crime scene: burned peatland and forest remains, planted with oil palm seedlings

Out of all the companies we surveyed, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo show the poorest performance and are failing to keep the ‘no deforestation’ promises they made to their customers. Tell them to up their game now.

The truth is, we can’t afford to wait. Unbelievably, deforestation rates in Indonesia are actually increasing, instead of decreasing. And those huge fires from six months ago? They’re due to return in just a few months.

Otan, a 7 month old orangutan who was rescued from the forest firesOtan, a 7 month old orangutan who was rescued from the forest fires

The palm oil industry is still a leading cause of all this destruction. And what’s even more frustrating is that palm oil can be produced responsibly. One amazing project we’ve been working with is a community in Dosan, Sumatra that is producing palm oil and protecting and restoring the surrounding rainforest. And there are lots of other schemes like this in Indonesia that need support.

It’s so important that these companies step up and deliver. Everyone knows what needs to happen, and how – so don’t let them get away with empty promises. Demand real change and real action on the ground.

And check out the scorecard report here.

Annisa Rahmawati is the Forests Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Indonesia.

Keeping the Wolverine Wild

Keeping the Wolverine Wild

By Jessica Knoblauch | Wednesday, February 10, 2016



Wolverine Nazzu/Shutterstock

Earthjustice is fighting to protect the wolverine, a tough-as-nails creature that’s nevertheless extremely vulnerable to climate change and development.

Nazzu/Shutterstock

Once decimated by traps and poison, only a few hundred wolverines remained at the turn of this century when Tim Preso, the managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, took up their cause against unsympathetic state governments and the George W. Bush administration. After many years and court battles, in February 2013 the federal government proposed to protect the wolverine as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the government failed to follow through on that proposal, instead acquiescing to state objections in 2014 by issuing a decision to withdraw the proposed listing.

Now Earthjustice is back in court with a legal challenge to that decision.  Our aim is to provide the wolverine the legal protections it needs to withstand a host of threats, including a warming climate that is literally melting away the wolverine’s snowy habitat. We spoke with Doug Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way, to help understand the exceptional nature of the wolverine and its vulnerability in the face of climate change.

Jessica Knoblauch: When did you first hear about wolverines?

Doug Chadwick: I was about 16, living in Alaska, and a fellow I met there looked like he had run into a Cuisinart mixer. It turns out that he had trapped a wolverine, clubbed it in the head and then began carrying it back to camp with its paws bound together and looped over his head. As you can probably guess, it turned out the wolverine wasn’t dead.

Jessica: Whoa. That’s intense! So most people are not familiar with wolverines. Why do we know so little about them?

Doug: Until we had GPS technology, I don’t know anybody alive that could keep up with a wolverine for 24 hours. These are 30-pound animals that are only three feet long, and yet they have home ranges the size of a grizzly bear. We’re talking 400 to 500 square miles for males, and about half of that range for females. And, they’re going up peaks and through passes and along cliff faces.

Doug

Chadwick holds a tagged wolverine.
Photo courtesy of Doug Chadwick

The other reason we don’t know much about them is because they’re very territorial, so you can’t fit very many of these wide-ranging animals into one spot. Even a place as big as Glacier Park, which is 1,500 square miles, only has between 30 and 45 wolverines. That same park has an estimated 340 grizzly bears living in it.

That tells you something very important about wolverines, which is you need connections between existing wild lands for the population as a whole to endure over time. The wolverine is reminding us of something that really applies to almost all of the big, wide-ranging animals, which is that we must link these preserved areas together so that their genes can flow across the landscape.

Jessica: I’ve heard that wolverines can eat just about anything…

Doug: There’s plenty of wildlife to hunt in the Rockies, but they’re found more down on south-facing slopes, away from the wolverines. So what are the wolverines living on? Well, the answer seems to be food they have cached during the warm months when the big critters are up in the high country. It could be something they killed or something that a cougar or grizzly bear killed months ago. The wolverine carries off pieces of it and stores it in snow banks during the summer or puts pieces under boulders that have cold water running under them. It has food stored in all these natural refrigerators, and it can come back six months later in January or February and grab this stashed food.

Wolverines can also crunch bones. They have very strong jaws, and we would find autopsied wolverines whose stomachs felt like they were full of gravel because they were full of bones.

Most importantly, wolverines have this attitude where they will walk up to a grizzly that has a carcass they want and say, “That’s mine.” They start issuing this wolverine growl that sounds like a Harley Davidson mating with a chainsaw, and it’s real velociraptor quality stuff.

Jessica: So they can be quite ferocious?

Doug: There are lots of stories of how they attack people but no one has ever been able to trace down a true story of that happening. But if you do corner one in a trap, they turn into the wolverine of myth. They’re like caged plutonium. They just keep coming at you, and they’re growling and they’ve got saliva coming out of their mouths, so you can kind of see where the assumption comes from about wolverines being vicious.

One time I was doing a story for National Geographic on endangered species and somebody asked me, “Do you want to come and see something interesting?” Of course, I said yes, and the guy leads me to about a half-acre pen where there are a ton of wolverines inside. He asks, “Do you want to go in?” And I’m thinking, “No.” But we did go in, and I see these wolverines rolling around together like puppies and playing with each other in big furry balls and then they come scampering over to see us.

Right then, I came to the conclusion that there was a lot more to these critters than I’ve heard from all the old frontier tales. One reason I was eager to find out more about them was that, like so many animals, the more we know about wolverines, the more the old image changes. They turn out to have dimensions we never guessed, and they turn out to be way more fascinating.

Wolverine

Wolverines are more complex animals than their reputations give them credit for.
kan_khampanya/Shutterstock

Jessica: How does climate change affect wolverines?

Doug: Females require deep, persistent snowpack to raise their young from February through May, and they don’t tend to tolerate warm temperatures very well.

As scientists model various climate regimes, they have predicted that wolverines are going to lose perhaps a third of their existing range in the U.S. by 2050.

When people hear about wildlife and climate change, I think the standard thinking is, “Oh boy, the polar bear and maybe the caribou up in the Arctic are going to have a real problem.” We think of the shrinking ice cap. But now we have an animal, the wolverine, that’s very closely tied to climate, that lives in the Rockies, and it’s telling us the same thing.

Jessica: Tell me about the wolverine called M3.

Doug: Ah, my hero! M3 is the badass’ badass. He is a big male, chocolate-colored with bronze stripes on his side. As we were tracking him, he kicked out an older male in the territory north of him and expanded his territory until it included a good part of Canada as well as Glacier Park. He was like the Genghis Khan of gulos. [Gulo gulos is the scientific name for wolverines.]

In the course of doing all this, he climbed the highest peak in Glacier, which is 10,460 feet. And he completed the last vertical mile in 90 minutes, up a rock face that looks like it’s the world’s steepest, longest ski jump. People subsequently tried to do what they called the M3 route. They went about a third of the way up and bailed.

Other wolverines have done similar exploits. And why are they doing this? I really don’t know, but I know they do it regularly, and I know it’s a big part of their lifestyle. That’s one of the reasons I call them inspiring. If you can master the mountains like that, you’re my heroes.

Glacier NP

Wolverines spend much of their time climbing.
Michal Ninger/Shutterstock

Jessica: In your most recent book, The Wolverine Way, you talk about the wolverine’s approach to life. Can you describe what that is?

Doug: It’s basically climb everything, whether it’s trees, cliffs, avalanche chutes; eat everything, whether it’s small, large, alive, dead; and never back down, even from a mountain and least of all from a grizzly bear.

I think they live life as fiercely and relentlessly as anyone has ever lived. Personally, I can’t imagine living in a world where we give up animals like this, these great creations. What are we saving nature for if we can’t keep critters like this?  

This interview originally appeared as a Down to Earth podcast in 2014. Listen to the full interview here