Category Archives: Pollution

Canada’s Petro-State: Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

We Americans don’t have all that much regard for foreigners, do we? Some countries seem to be brimming with jihadists. Others might bring to mind illegal immigrants. Perhaps others are stealing our jobs with their cheap labor. But Canada is different. For many Americans, Canada is almost like us. We may demand secure borders, but we don’t really mean that border.

And that’s why it would be so surprising if we were to find Canada behaving like a petro-state dictatorship.

But that’s just about what I found during my recent visit to the tar sands region of Alberta last week. It looks as though the federal and provincial governments have become so dependent on oil money that basic elements of just governance now seem like quaint throwbacks to a more innocent era.

I began to suspect this at last week’s Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when First Nations leaders repeated again and again the nearly identical chorus: Our land and water is being destroyed by industrial contamination, our native people are faced with de facto genocide, and the government refuses even to acknowledge our peril. In fact, the government actively suppresses evidence of our suffering.

It sounded bad. But then I heard from a doctor named John O’Connor, and his story removed all doubt.

Dr. O’Connor is a family practice physician from Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands district of Alberta. In 2006, he began treating patients in the tiny indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from “Fort Mac” and the tar sands operations. No sooner did he arrive than he began to hear stories from the community elders of ominous changes in the environment. In stark contrast to what they grew up with, they could no longer drink the water; fish and wildlife routinely showed grotesque deformities; game and fish were becoming scarce; their own people were suffering from  mysterious illnesses.

Dr. John O'Connor, Fort Chipewyan

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan

In no time, O’Connor began to see alarming patterns in those illnesses. Relatively rare cancers were appearing regularly – blood and lymphatic cancers, bile duct cancer, biliary tract and thyroid cancers. Added to those were auto-immune diseases – Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders and intestinal disorders. Continue reading

My Healing Walk Through the Tar Sands

The sun moves slowly in these latitudes. It gradually arks, from its rising on the northwest tree line, in a long southward loop, and back northward to its rest below the edge of the northwest summer sky.  At 11:00 last evening, we were burying the day’s compost in the pale evening light. By 3:30 this morning, the sky over the lake was already silver and rose. And so at 4:00 AM, I am up to greet the orange Alberta sunrise.

An old hymn courses through my mind: “When morning gilds the skies … may Jesus Christ be praised.” My heart is surprisingly willing this chilly Canadian Sunday. I think of my home church, soon to meet, a couple of worlds – and as many times zones – away to the southeast. I read by the lakeside J.B. Phillips’ version of the prayer of Jesus: “Father, may your name be honored – may your kingdom come!”  I think of that kingdom, with longing and hope, mixed with lament.

Willing heart, yes. But my joints are stiff, and my feet are blistered. No doubt, three nights sleeping on the ground is catching up with my pampered frame. But yesterday’s Healing Walk through Alberta’s toxic tar sands tailing lakes has done a job on my lungs and my tender feet, and I hobble around the campsite like a man twenty years older than my threescore.

Like this morning, it was a beautiful sunrise yesterday. About three hundred of us from Canada and beyond waited for a caravan of yellow school buses to take us to the Syncrude tar sands processing complex. Led by Cree, Chipewyan and Dene tribal elders, we came to pray, to recognize, and to mourn together – to bear witness to the devastation wrought in these boreal forests and indigenous homelands – by the destructive economy of which we all share some part.

For two days, we have listened to stories from native people whose families have cared for this land for millennia, and for whom the land has provided generously in return. When they call it their “mother,” they express a connection that is simply beyond the grasp of us “visitors.” There is a profound love in this community – for the water, the air, the land; and the fish, animals and people who depend upon it. People – not just the living, but those who preserved it for us long ago, and those who are yet unborn. You can feel the sense of belonging and responsibility to those who will follow “to the seventh generation.”

In due course, we are headed northward, following the flow of the Athabasca River, in our yellow bus caravan, toward the tar sands. No one calls them “oil sands” in this community. The industry PR campaign has won over much of Canada, but it’s had no effect on these people of the land.

And as we travel, the murky yellow sky ahead grows thicker. We wish to each other that we had brought bandanas for some defense against the foul air. But it’s not the air that brings us here.

It’s the water.

Take a look at a map of Canada. The pristine Athabasca flows north through Alberta, passing through the Fort McMurray tar sands region in the northeastern corner of the province.  And as it continues northward, it opens into a broad inland delta before spilling into the enormous Lake Athabasca, from which it feeds the mighty Mackenzie River. The Mackenzie, exceeded in North America only by the Mississippi. Everywhere you look on the map around here, you see water. You can’t travel overland up to Fort Chipewyan at this time of year, because there’s nothing frozen to drive on.

So you’d think, in this land blessed by God with unfathomable riches of fresh water and aquatic wildlife, surely healthy water would be enjoyed with glad and thankful hearts. Wouldn’t it? Continue reading

EPA Carbon Rules in Supreme Court’s Hands: Pray for Justice & Sense

“Confronting climate change should be an issue that unites rather than divides us. And that includes the Supreme Court. Here’s hoping the justices make the right call.” Christine Todd Whitman, former GOP Governor of New Jersey

As we all know, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to regulate the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that new electric power plants can emit. Not surprisingly, the coal and oil industries have pulled out all stops to make sure they don’t succeed. They’ve lobbied hard against the effort, but their efforts have been overwhelmed by a flood of normal citizens demanding climate action.

So they’ve looked to the courts to protect the status quo of cost-free polluting. So far, they haven’t had much success. They’ve sued – and lost – right up the judicial chain. Last stop was the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of judges appointed by presidents of both parties found that the EPA’s plan to limit power-plant greenhouse gas emissions was “unambiguously correct” and “statutorily compelled.”

So now it’s inthe hands of the Supreme Court. You’d think that this would be a simple matter for them. But it’s not. That’s because the industry plaintiffs have focused on an arcane, technical argument that makes this a risky matter in the hands of Justice Roberts’ court. Granted, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate pollutants. And the Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases like CO2 emissions are clearly pollutants. No one questions that.

But here’s the catch: Back when the Clean Air Act was written, Congress had to establish a threshold for action: Who’s big and bad enough to focus on, and who is so small that regulation would be impossible or intrusive? How to distinguish between major and minor emitters?

Back then, before we – as a country and world – understood the peril of carbon pollution, we thought of pollutants as things like mercury, sulfur and industrial chemicals like HFCs – all emitted in comparatively small amounts. So the threshold for being a major emitter was set at the low level of 100 to 250 tons of pollutants per year. That worked. We got the big guys, and the little ones came along on their own.

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2.

But then came climate chaos and global-warming emissions. Carbon emissions became the world’s biggest environmental threat. But carbon is different. With the average American individual responsible for 17 tons of CO2 per year, any corner grocery store or elementary school would be a “major emitter” when it comes to climate-changing pollutants under the law as written. So the EPA did the sensible thing, focusing only on those emitting 100,000 tons or more of CO2.

“Foul play!” cried the industry. If you want to regulate us, then you have to show up at every 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts! It’s there in the law: 100 to 250 tons per year! Who are you to rewrite the rules to focus only on us?

It’s a time-tested strategy for polluters: Set the bar for regulation so low that no agency could ever hope to get started with any regulation whatsoever.

And to hear reports from yesterday’s Supreme Court arguments, it sounds like they’ve got some converts on the bench. The issue isn’t whether climate change is real and caused by manmade carbon emissions. It isn’t whether it’s harmful to human health. It isn’t whether the EPA is required to act. The Court crossed those bridges back in 2007. It’s whether the EPA has the discretion to develop action plans and regulatory thresholds based on unfolding science since the law was passed.

I suspect that the justices would do well to look to America’s faith communities for some guidance here. Christians, Jews and others have long wrestled with today’s application of scriptures written in antiquity. And we’re seldom troubled by rigid literalism.

Consider the prophet Isaiah, revered by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’is. Almost three thousand years ago, he foresaw the reign of peace ushered in by God’s kingdom on earth:  “[God] shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people,” he wrote; “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation….”

Sword into plowshares. We’ve all heard those verses, haven’t we? But let’s think for a minute: When was the last time we held a sword, let alone used one in anger? And what’s a plowshare, anyway? Is this even relevant today?

Of course, we People of the Book have long since gotten over this sort of problem. We’re prepared to think of God’s kingdom laying down its assault rifles and nuclear arms, in favor of farm equipment and medical supplies. The language of God-breathed scripture is always spoken within a cultural context, but its truth endures to all generations. We don’t rest our oxen on the Sabbath, but we rest our modern means of production. We honor the God who causes the Earth to rotate faithfully every 24 hours, even if our scriptures tell us that the setting sun “hurries back to where it rises.” We take up our crosses, even if crucifixion has mercifully been banned for many centuries.

Perhaps the Supreme Court has a little something to learn from us in this. The Clean Air Act was enacted in a historical context. It demanded that the EPA act limit harmful pollutants. And it permitted it to focus on major emitters, rather than every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican governor who ran the Bush Administration’s EPA gets it just about right in an editorial today:

“Climate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction — whether measured in human lives or economic disruption…. Today, gridlock and partisanship make common-sense action all but impossible…. Far from ‘rewriting’ the statute or bending the law to fit its climate change agenda, the Obama administration simply interpreted the law in the same way as its predecessors — this time to cover greenhouse gas emissions.”

We pray that God gives the Supreme Court the wisdom to understand what’s at stake, and to rule with common sense and justice.

Faith Communities Overwhelm EPA Carbon Hearings

Yesterday, the EPA held its final day of hearings in Washington on its proposed new rules restricting the amount of CO2 that may be emitted by new power plants — per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Of course, the “clean coal” people were there, as were executives of various utilities, arguing against the standards. On the other side there were the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other enviros.

But dwarfing them both, by my count, were faith leaders. Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, Unitarians, interfaith groups and many others showed up to support the EPA’s standards, and to advocate care for God’s creation. They spoke of the injustice of climate pollution, of the impact on marginalized and poor communities, of the mandate to protect all of God’s creation for His own sake, for other species, for the poor, and for our children. Repeatedly, we heard the themes: The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness; the sea is his, he made it; God placed the Man in the garden to serve and keep it; the whole creation groans; love your neighbor as yourself….

Rep. Henry Waxman addressed crowd outside the EPA hearings

Rep. Henry Waxman addressed crowd outside the EPA hearings

In the next few days, I’ll post the comments of a number of leaders from various faith communities. Today, I’ll start with mine.

Testimony of John Elwood

My name is John Elwood. I am speaking to you today as an elder and Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian Church; as editor of the website; and as a participant in the Environmental Stewardship initiative of the Christian Reformed Church. My farm, in Andover, New Jersey, provides produce for more than 700 families.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify in support of the EPA’s standards on carbon emissions from new power plants.

An important question for Christians, and for all people of goodwill, is this: How much carbon pollution should power plants be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for others to pay for in health, and in climate disruption costs?

From the Evangelical and Reformed Christian perspective, it’s clearly wrong for a buyer and a seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave a substantial part of the cost for someone else to pick up – the external costs.

The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments don’t speak of “external costs” by that name. But God pronounces judgment on dishonest scales, skimping on the measure, and mixing in the sweepings with the wheat. “The Lord has sworn by himself,” says the prophet Amos: “‘I will never forget anything they have done…. I will spare them no longer.’”

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But as you know, in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children, by both the rich and by those earning less than $1 per day.

During these hearings, you’ve heard testimony from people engaged in the coal industry, and you’ve been asked to consider the toll they will bear if new power plants are made to limit their carbon pollution. Christians of all traditions take their plight seriously, and our society must find ways to help affected communities recover. But I would like to ask you to consider the plight of totally innocent communities – both in our country and around the world – which have never had an ounce of benefit from the burning of coal.

Last year, the Christian Reformed Church sent me, and a delegation of other leaders, to Kenya to hear firsthand from people who have borne the brunt of the external costs of carbon pollution. We met with hundreds of small farmers and community leaders. Everywhere, the story was the same. Two reliable growing seasons in years past have shrunk to a single season. And even that single season is now unreliable. Crop yields have plummeted. Water is more scarce than ever.

We also visited with Reverend Peter Karanja, the General Secretary of the Kenyan Council of Churches. Please, listen to what this good man told us:

“We are very concerned,” he said, “especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.

“Long after your life is over,” he told us, “your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

On behalf of all people who bear the cost of carbon pollution from American power plants – our citizens, our children, the people of Kenya plus many more – I urge the EPA to finally implement standards aimed at reducing carbon emissions by new power plants.

Thank you, and may God bless you for your efforts.

“Job-Killing” Environmental Regulation? (Part 2)

Yesterday, I took a close look at Speaker John Boehner’s answer to the call for better regulation of polluters, after Freedom Industries’ disastrous chemical spill in West Virginia. Boehner declared that we already have enough laws to protect Americans from pollution, and that those regulations kill American jobs. I borrowed heavily from the work of Christians for the Mountains and their response to the spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians.

In the end, we saw that there was little, if any, regulation of the infamous West Virginia polluter, due partly to inadequate laws, and partly to the Congressional de-funding of regulators. And we showed that there are many ways to kill jobs and depress the economy, including poisoning the environment.

I thought I had pretty much exhausted the links between Freedom Industries and cynical claims about “job-killing regulation.” That was until Allen Johnson, leader of Christians for the Mountains, sent me a couple of pictures that he snapped while driving by Freedom Industries the other day. Here’s the first:

obamanojobszonewestvaplanetgore91912Nothing too unusual about this. The coal industry plasters highway billboards all over Appalachia bewailing efforts to develop renewable energy or to make them pay some of the costs of their pollution. Since coal is no longer competitive with natural gas or wind for electric power generation – regardless of regulation – it’s not surprising that they would be looking for someone to blame for their diminished status. The President and the EPA are easy targets.

But let’s pan the picture out a bit:

Picture2Recognize those white tanks in the background? That’s Freedom Industries! Those are the guys who contaminated the Elk River, poisoned the drinking water for 300,000 people, and virtually shut down the largest city in West Virginia! And this sign, accusing the EPA of killing jobs, sits smack on their property.

I wonder if anyone has begun counting the cost of Freedom Industries’ unregulated chemical spill. How deeply West Virginia’s economy has been harmed? How many jobs have been destroyed? How many small businesses – restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and such – will shut their doors for good? How many people and businesses are cancelling plans to move to Charleston? And in the future, how many people will lose their health due to the lasting impact of these toxins in the environment?

We all know that every business would be better off – in the near term – if someone else would pick up the tab, or quietly suffer the consequences of their messes. But that’s no way to run a just economy. And when we pray “Thy kingdom come … on earth …” we’re praying – at a bare minimum – for a just economy.

J. Elwood

“Job-Killing” Environmental Regulations: Faith or Fact?

West Virginian Allen Johnson just wrote a fabulous – if disturbing – piece on the toxic chemical spill that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people living in his state. The now-toxic Elk River, West Virginia’s previously last remaining unpolluted waterway, flows through the heart of Charleston, and eventually empties into the Ohio, where millions more await the chemical onslaught downstream. Johnson, on behalf of Christians for the Mountains, details the almost total lack of regulation of coal-related toxic chemicals in the Mountain State, and the GOP’s current “anti-poverty bill” that would further weaken enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

Allen Johnson, Christians for the Mountains

Allen Johnson, Christians for the Mountains

With so many Americans suffering the loss of clean drinking water, and the prospect of yet another toxic river, we’ve heard many voices calling for stricter regulation of toxic chemicals in storage near waterways. But House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t think this is such a good idea.

“We have enough regulations on the books,” said Boehner last week. “Why wasn’t this plant inspected since 1991? I am entirely confident that there are ample regulations already on the books to protect the health and safety of the American people. What we try to do is look at those regulations that we think are cumbersome, are over the top, and that are costing the economy jobs. That’s where our focus continues to be.”

So there you have it in a nutshell. Enough regulation already! In fact, we’re rolling back “cumbersome” regulations that are costing jobs. Those job-killing regulations.

Okay, we’ve heard this theme before. But have we really given much thought to the assumptions the Speaker is making? The first is clear: existing regulations are good enough to protect our water and our citizens. And the second: Cumbersome regulations kill American jobs. But do these hold water? Let’s take a closer look.

Are Existing Regulations Really Good Enough?

You’d think that a facility storing huge vats of toxic chemicals just upstream of a public utility’s water intake would be subject to all kinds of inspections and oversight, wouldn’t you? But the Elk River facility hadn’t been inspected by either state or federal authorities since 1991, when it was used by a former owner for other purposes. So, who was sleeping on the job? Well, it appears that no one was. Existing law, and handcuffs on regulators, created the perfect storm that was unleashed on West Virginians: Continue reading