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August 6th, 2014

History Will Repeat Itself With New Herbicide-Tolerant Crops

By Genna Reed airplane spraying pesticide

Working against the advice of consumer, environmental, public health and family farm groups, the USDA has released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Dow’s controversial “Enlist” varieties of corn and soybeans, genetically engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup). This statement is the final step in the agency’s regulatory process for GE crops before issuing a formal approval.  Read the full article…

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Germany’s Environment Agency Calls for an End to Fracking

By Geert Decock

Fracking rig and wastewater pit

How far do you need to sit from the halls of power to not be influenced by constant lobbying and spin from Big Oil & Gas? The correct answer may be surprising: 1.5 hours exactly. How so? That is how long it takes to drive from the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in central Berlin to the Federal Environment Agency of Germany in Desslau-Rosslau, southwest of Berlin.

Just last week, the Federal Environment Agency released a 600+ page report giving a detailed outline of the many risks involved in fracking. This research led its president Maria Krautzberger to this conclusion (translated from German): “Fracking is and remains a risky technology and therefore requires considerable limits to protect the environment and health. As long as the significant risks involved in this technology cannot yet be predicted with certainty and controlled, there should be no fracking in Germany to extract shale gas and coalbed methane.”

Her warning stands in sharp contrast with the approach of other European governments, e.g. in the UK and Poland, who have put large swaths of their territory up for grabs for shale gas exploration companies. Given the serious water-related risks of fracking, the German Federal Environment Agency states clearly that a lot of areas should be exempted from fracking: drinking water protection zones, spa areas, nature reserves and the catchment areas of lakes and reservoirs.

The report of the Federal Environment Agency also clearly confirms something that anti-fracking campaigners have been saying for years, namely that the treatment of the flowback from shale gas wells remains an unresolved issue. (Flowback is the liquid that flows back to the surface when a well is fracked.) The flowback contains heavy metals and aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene. Sometimes, radioactive materials can also flow to the surface. Again, president Maria Krautzberger: “No company has been able to offer a concept for the sustainable water treatment of flowback from fracking operations”.

What about industry’s oft repeated talking point that natural gas can be a transition fuel to a zero-carbon power generation? Again, the German Federal Environment Agency begs to differ with those who link shale gas and the fight against climate change: “The fracking technology is not a miracle cure for climate protection that can make the transition to renewable energies easier. It would be better, if our country would concentrate on forms of energy that are demonstrably better for the environment, such as renewable energies”.

The Germans are well known for their ‘Gründlichkeit’, or thoroughness. If their environment agency makes such strong claims about the risks of fracking after a couple of years of research, we better take their findings seriously!

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August 4th, 2014

Another Manmade Water Crisis in the Midwest: Toledo

By Mitch Jones 

While Detroit has been justifiably making headlines because of the manmade water crisis there, just south over the Michigan-Ohio state line another manufactured water crisis has erupted. Toledo, Ohio faced a weekend water ban after tests showed toxins in the city’s drinking water supply.

According to The New York Times, residents of Toledo were told not to use their water for drinking, cooking or brushing their teeth. Meanwhile, children and the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, were told not to use the water for bathing. Toledo isn’t the first city in the region to face this problem; last year Carroll Township experienced a similar ban. In 2010, Grand Lake St. Marys was so bad, officials had to warn people not to even touch the water, and it’s having problems again this year.

Read the full article…

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Setting the Record Straight on the Obama Administration’s Privatized Poultry Inspection System

By Tony Corbo

Tony Corbo, Senior Food Lobbyist

 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference last week to announce the final rule for the “New Poultry Inspection System” (NPIS). I listened in, and noted that he made certain statements that were not completely accurate. Some of the written materials provided to the press did not tell the whole story either. Unfortunately, this is par for the course, regardless which party controls the executive branch. That’s because the poultry industry influences much of the policies that come out of the USDA, and the powers-that-be don’t even try to disguise this fact. 

Let’s take a closer look at what this new inspection system will actually do: 

At the present time, chicken slaughter plants that are subject to conventional FSIS inspection can run their line speeds to 140 birds per minute (bpm). Current regulations limit what each USDA inspector can inspect to 35 bpm. So, if a plant were operating its slaughter lines at 70 bpm, there would be two FSIS inspectors stationed on that line – with each inspector looking at every other bird. If a plant were running its lines at the maximum 140 bpm, there would be four FSIS inspectors stationed on each line – with each inspector inspecting every fourth bird. In a young turkey plant, the current maximum line speed is 52 bpm, with each USDA inspector looking at a maximum of 26 bpm. Read the full article…

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Reaching for the Stars in Colorado’s Battle Against Fracking

By Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

Earlier this month, in a decision that can only further galvanize the push for local control of fracking in Colorado, a state court held that a democratically enacted fracking ban was invalid because it conflicted with the state’s interests in promoting mineral development. The people of the city of Longmont overwhelmingly passed the ban in 2012 after deciding that they did not want to live their lives and raise their children under the ongoing threats to health and the environment posed by this irresponsible method of mineral extraction.  The Longmont ban has helped spur the anti-fracking fight across the country, in no small part because it was achieved in the face of incredible odds: the industry spent nearly half-a-million dollars to defeat the measure and Colorado’s Governor threatened to sue any community that banned fracking.

Despite these intimidation tactics, Longmont’s citizens voted for the ban knowing full well the uphill battle they faced in Colorado’s courts.  Unlike New York, a state where no fracking currently exists and where courts recently upheld the long-established rights of local communities to enact local land use controls on industrial activities like fracking, the Colorado legislature and courts have spent the last several decades actively handing the state over to the oil and gas industry with little regard for the rights of citizens and the health and safety of local communities. Even Colorado’s current Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is an ex-employee of the oil and gas industry who likes to boast that he drank fracking fluid. Coloradans are living with a fracking fiasco that hopefully New York never sees.

The politicians’ ongoing effort to grease the skids for oil and gas development has resulted in an industry free-for-all in Colorado. There are over 52,000 active fracking wells in Colorado, with Hickenlooper’s agency approving an average of 4,000 new permits each year.  This proliferation of wells has led to over 2,000 spills in the last 5 years, of which nearly 200 have impacted groundwater—now spills have reached a rate of 2 per day. Coloradans have reported experiencing terrible health impacts from living near wells and precipitous drops in their property values. A recent study showed that nearby proximity to oil and gas drilling, including fracking,was associated with a greater incidenceof birth defects in Colorado.

It is against this oppressive backdrop that the heroic citizens of Longmont and the lawyers who represented them in court have been fighting their ongoing battle to save their communities. And it’s a battle that continues even with the decision to preempt the Longmont ban because even the court seemed to recognize that it’s time for to revisit whether the interests of oil and gas should continue to take precedent over the health and safety of local communities and citizens of Colorado. In its finding, the court stated:

Longmont and the environmental groups, the Defendant-Intervenors, are essentially asking this Court to establish a public policy that favors protection from health, safety, and environmental risks over the development of mineral resources. Whether public policy should be changed in that manner is a question for the legislature or a different court.

Tellingly, the court also left the fracking ban in place until the people of Longmont have had a chance to file their appeal and seek the change needed to protect their towns and their residents.

One of the legal arguments Longmont made in its case to ban fracking was that a ban did not conflict with an Oil and Gas Conservation Act that makes no mention of fracking, but does demand that oil and gas be developed “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”Although the court ultimately disagreed, its open invitation to appeal while maintaining the ban leaves Longmont positioned to reverse the misguided state policy of placing industry’s financial interests over those of citizens’ health.

Some have suggested that Longmont may have reached too far in banning fracking, that land use approaches would have been an easier fight. But that suggestion ignores the depth of control oil and gas has in Colorado. A 2002 state court case held that it’s the state that determines oil and gas land use restrictions like setbacks, noise abatement, and visual impacts, not local governments who are preempted from enacting more protective standards. It also ignores the fact that new land use laws generally allow for existing nonconforming uses to continue. Since there’s no fracking in NY, that preexisting use doctrine doesn’t present the problem it does in an already-fracked Longmont.

The fact is, when it comes to stopping fracking in Colorado, there is no easy fight. Longmont’s fracking ban is a reach, but it’s a reach for the stars; advocates who are fighting for their very futures should never reach any lower. Thanks to the people of Longmont, there is still now, nearly two years after its passage, a fracking ban in place in a state in which oil and gas is king (and governor). And there’s now a chance, while the Longmont case moves into higher courts and fractivists across the state rally to fight for additional local bans and moratoria, statewide ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, to bring to Colorado what New Yorkers and some others across the country have enjoyed for years – the right to determine the rights and futures of their communities and to live free from contamination caused by reckless oil and gas extraction.  It’s a fight we should all be applauding.

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July 31st, 2014

EPW Subcommittee Jumps the Shark with New Report

By Lane Brooks

Lane Brooks is Chief Operating Office of Food & Water Watch

Lane Brooks, COO, Food & Water Watch

 

We are used to groundless attacks from Big Ag and Big Energy, such as the silly effort that industry shill “Dr. Evil” mounted against us.

We are also used to elected officials pushing policy that helps their richest donors become even richer at the expense of the public.

Now it looks like the industry PR machine really is taking over our institutions of democracy to combine these two trends. The minority staff of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has issued a report that might as well be a post from the Koch Brothers.

The name of the report gives you a good picture of the tone: “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.” Really? The 92-page report doesn’t get around to mentioning that many of the organizations they cite are actually supporting pretty weak efforts that are giving industry a pass. Only in the land of the loony is the Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart fame) a vanguard of progressive action in the public interest.

Congress is on track to become the worst performing congress in the history of the nation, yet they have time to spend your tax dollars attacking the environmental movement. It’s no surprise that the Committee includes water carriers for industry and climate change deniers, David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma.  

It would be laughable except that the report has a chilling point. They are attacking the idea that tax-deductible organizations can work on public policy. They are trying to silence any organization that has the courage to stand up for the public interest. We will not be silenced and you will be hearing more about this effort in the future.

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July 29th, 2014

New Water Law in Ecuador: Big Business Versus Local Communities

By Andrew Diaz 

In 2008 Ecuador officially recognized the human right to water, joining only nine other countries that have done the same since 1994. Section One, Article 12 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states, “The human right to water is essential and cannot be waived. Water constitutes a national strategic asset for use by the public and it is unalienable, not subject to a statute of limitations, immune from seizure and essential for life.” It is therefore surprising, if not ironic, that over the past several years, interest groups have been colliding over water rights in the Andean country. 

So, who is fighting over water in a country that guarantees it as a human right and also happens to be located at the edge of the largest river basin in the world, anyway? As Julia Apland Hitz succinctly stated in a recent piece published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, “The sides of the conflict can be summarized as the government and big business vs. the indigenous communities, but of course it’s more complicated than that.”

Indeed it is. Around the time of Ecuador’s constitutional referendum, the world experienced a convergence of global crises: in energy, food and finance. These concurring events, coupled with the ongoing threat of global climate change, have caused land grabbing, in which wealthy corporations, powerful national governments and private equity funds have sought available lands abroad for food, fuel and mineral production to prepare themselves for future price increases.

China is perhaps the leading global actor implementing this strategy, and it has its sights on Latin America as a place to invest billions of dollars to finance extractive industries, including oil refineries. Ecuador, a member of OPEC, is expected to receive up to nine billion dollars from Beijing for one new oil refinery alone, amounting to the single largest infrastructure project in President Rafael Correa’s administration.

But how do such energy- and water-intensive projects get off the ground? After a years-long struggle punctuated by fierce debate and protests by groups on both sides of the issue, the National Assembly of Ecuador finally passed a new water law in late June. One of the main changes brought by this new law will bring the nation’s water system, previously under community control, under the subordination of a centralized authority. The new law also allows for groundwater to be included in the sale of land, thus giving the owner, including oil and mining companies, complete control over the resource.

As the law was being passed, indigenous social rights groups began a twelve-day march, or caminata, across the country that culminated in a demonstration just two blocks away from the National Assembly in Quito. They chanted and waived multi-colored banners as they marched in solidarity. Their chants in protest included, “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” meaning, “The united people shall never be defeated!” During the forming of the new water bill, indigenous leaders demanded legal protections for those communities living near water resources. They argued that these indigenous communities played a vital role in the construction of water networks and irrigation canals, and warned that this new law could pave the way to water privatization. 

President Correa has been defensive on the issue, claiming that the protesters are merely political opponents and asserted that the new law will not lead to privatization, adding, “It is a rude lie to say that the water is going to be privatized.” He adds that privatization of the country’s water is prohibited by the Constitution and the new law. 

Just two weeks after celebrating the passing of Ecuador’s new water law, President Correa met with President Xi Jinping of China to discuss future development plans and to promote bilateral relations. At the meeting, held in Brazil, Correa acknowledged China’s support in its economic development including oil refineries, and funding of proposals and basic industries.

Having had their water supply contaminated due to oil extraction in the past, many of Ecuador’s indigenous people fear that the passing of this law, which effectively ends community control of their water, represents a slippery slope toward privatization. Jorge Herrera, president of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, summarizes his side’s position by saying, “Our concern is that control of water stays with the community. We consider it an ancestral right, not one of the central government.”

Andrew Diaz is an international policy intern at Food & Water Watch.

July 25th, 2014

The Floating Catastrophe

By Sydney Baldwin 

Our nation’s waterways are at risk to become the new highways for dangerous fracking waste. The U.S. Coast Guard has proposed the opening of the Ohio River, and other major waterways, as a route for shale gas extraction wastewater. If approved, the fracking waste barges pose a hazard to all those who drink and live near these waterways.

GreenHunter Resources, Inc. is seeking permission to build a barge dock that could accommodate roughly 105,000,000 gallons of fracking waste at once. A facility of this size could endanger contiguous ecosystems and communities. Almost 686 million gallons of fracking wastewater was dumped in Ohio last year alone, in which half came from out of state sites. If approved, the new proposals could eventually transform Ohio into a fracking wasteland. 

Proponents argue that barging the waste is a safer alternative to transporting it by truck or railway. However, the quantity of chemical waste could wreak havoc on communities nearby and downstream for months, even years, if there were a mishap. Read the full article…

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July 24th, 2014

Martin O’Malley: Asleep at the Wheel

By Mitch Jones

Photo CC-BY © Office of the Maryland Governor/Flickr.com

Yesterday, Maryland residents had a rare opportunity to speak directly to Governor Martin O’Malley about their concerns regarding the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility at Cove Point. Too bad for them Gov. O’Malley couldn’t be bothered to stay awake to listen.

According to a story in The Daily Record, Gov. O’Malley fell asleep while listening to testimony from his constituents. When questioned about it, the Governor’s staff claimed he was “listening intently” and is “only human.” While it’s certainly true that Gov. O’Malley is only human – maybe all too human – the article hints at the reason he may have such a hard time staying awake when at an official event. The governor’s been busy traveling around the country testing the waters for a possible run for the White House. Meanwhile, he’s been asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting Marylanders from factory farms and fracking.

It seems that the governor would rather travel the country pursuing his own agenda and interests than do his job and listen to his constituents. Of course, his staff claimed he “gave wide latitude to opponents and proponents to speak their minds” as though it is somehow the business of the governor to tell his constituents what they can say to him. The arrogance is astounding in someone seeking to sell himself to residents of other states – or at least Iowa and New Hampshire.

Maybe if he spent more time in Maryland listening to the concerns of his constituents, he’d be able to stay awake while fulfilling his duties. Has he checked out this much? Maybe he needs to take his band O’Malley’s March on an extended tour and leave the governing of the state to someone who can be bothered to stay awake.

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Q&A With “Resistance” Filmmaker Michael Graziano

By Katy Kiefer

“Resistance” filmmaker Michael Graziano and his daughter, Tess

Michael Graziano, the filmmaker behind Resistance, a ground-breaking new film on the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, took time to answer some of our burning questions. Like many of us, Graziano isn’t a scientist or a doctor, but decided that this was a story the public urgently needed to hear. Keep reading to learn more about his experience making the film and what you can do to help curb antibiotic resistance. 

Q: What made you decide to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance?

A: Our previous film Lunch Line was about the history and politics of the National School Lunch Program. In the process of making and touring that film we learned a lot about public health and became acquainted with a number of agriculture and public health advocacy groups. Through that work we started hearing about MRSA (resistant staph) infections in school locker rooms, day care centers and the like. At the same time we also started hearing about the overuse of antibiotics on farms. I decided to look more into the issue and was shocked by what I learned. I thought the problem deserved a closer, and more generally accessible examination than I could find at the time.   

Q: What was the biggest or most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film?

A: There are a few. One is that there are basically no new antibiotics in the pharmaceutical pipeline, and even if a new compound were discovered today it could easily take 10 years and $1 billion for that compound to become a clinically useful medicine. To make matters worse, the large investment in time and money required for antibiotic development, along with some other factors addressed in the film, has caused many pharma companies to shutter their antibiotic development units so there are now only a small handful of companies actually doing this critical research.   Read the full article…

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