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Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

12:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond’s compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this.”

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries’ resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world’s deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year’s body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond’s union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond’s export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed).

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

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From U.S. to Philippines, Nurses Mobilize in Typhoon Haiyan’s Wake

4:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines a week ago, the destruction was swift, total and unsparing—showing the disproportionate impact of disasters on poverty-stricken communities of the Global South. The international aid response is still struggling to grapple with the scale of the storm damage.

But it just so happens that many Filipino immigrant workers in the United States are uniquely well-suited to lend a hand in the recovery. The Philippines is a major “exporter” of highly skilled nurses and other healthcare workers to the U.S. and other Western nations. There’s a long history of transnational cooperation in the Filipino diaspora—the country is supported through a massive network of migrant remittances. And in the U.S., Filipino immigrant workers also have a rich history of activism within the labor movement, forming a key part of many progressive unions, including the National Nurses United (NNU).

Out of this tradition of labor activism and deep diasporic ties comes an initiative by nurses with NNU’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), many of them Filipina, to send a solidarity relief mission to the Phillipines.

Immediately after the typhoon struck, the NNU put out a call to members asking for assistance and received some 1,500 responses from both Filipina and non-Filipina volunteers. The union is now sending an initial team of nurses to the disaster zone to start coordinating a medical response delegation that will ultimately deploy to the disaster zone in collaboration with local partners.

RNRN, first formed in the wake of the deadly Indonesian tsunami of 2004, ran a relief delegations to Haiti after the earthquake, as well as general medical missions to the Philippines and other countries, as a way both to meet emergency nursing care needs in humanitarian missions and to foster international labor solidarity.

The pending mission to the Philippines has special significance for nurses in the Filipino diaspora. Ironically, many of the health workers who went to work abroad in the West to support their families are cut off from loved ones in the storm’s aftermath and unable to use their skills to help heal their communities. Together with other fundraising and aid efforts by diaspora groups, the delegation may help some nurses to directly help stave off the health crisis brewing in the wake of the storm. Read the rest of this entry →

Disaster Unpreparedness: Wildfire Tragedy Sheds Light on Dangerous Budget Gaps

4:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Young / Flickr / Creative Commons)

They went in as a team and perished as heroes. From what ongoing investigations have been able to determine, the 19 elite firefighters of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots followed safety protocols amid the ferocious wildfire at Yarnell Hill in Arizona. But evidently the fast-changing wind conditions doomed them.

We may never know exactly what went wrong in the hotshots’ final moments. But we can know that underlying their misfortune were human-driven risks that have long shaped the Western landscape.

Beneath the immediate disaster—a lightning-sparked blaze that consumed several thousand acres—lurk factors that have for years exacerbated wildfire hazards: global warming and chronic drought, along with severe resource gaps for the public servants serving as the first line of defense.

Federal authorities report that wildfires consume twice as much land annually as they did forty years ago, as rising temperatures and parched vegetation transform Western landscapes into the perfect tinderbox. Risks have also multiplied as rural housing developments continue to sprawl and more people move into harm’s way. Meanwhile, changing climates tend to intensify the brutal heat conditions and lengthen the fire season, which raises direct risks for firefighters on the front lines.

At the same time, fire-management resources are drying up. This fiscal year’s cuts to the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management budget shrank its forces from 10,500 to 10,000 firefighters.

These fiscal strains also impede efforts toward comprehensive, sustainable wildfire control. With tightly limited overall resources, the Forest Service strains to pay for frontline fire suppression, while longer-term wildfire programs are depleted. This makes it harder overall to invest in mitigating future hazards and prevent catastrophes.

Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones tells In These Times: “Over the last few years, budgets for [reducing] hazardous fuels have been declining–and are expected to decline further.” Along with the budgets, the acreage treated for fuel reduction (mainly by thinning brush and setting contained fires) has also fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, says, Jones, “millions of acres are at risk of extreme wildfire due to climate change, drought, insect infestation, invasive species and other factors.” Yet coping with future disaster risks would involve sustained, proactive investments in measures such as restoring wild landscapes to strengthen natural fire resilience and helping communities build adaptive protective infrastructure—not just emergency responses.

Testifying before Congress in June, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell described pressures on the agency to stretch limited funds to cover diverse complementary needs: “When you have a constrained budget situation the money has to come from some place, so that’s why it’s so hard.”

The funding crunch extends beyond top-of-the-line federal responders like the hotshots to state and local  firefighting budgets. Rick Swan, State Supervisor Director of CDF Firefighters of the International Association of Firefighters, tells In These Times that state and local fire stations, which often support federal firefighting, are not seen as major funding priorities, in part because extinguishing rural fires may seem “less glamorous” than, say, crime-fighting operations. Some politicians, he says, show more interest in lavishing high-tech equipment on municipal police, while community fire departments struggle to keep their stations fully staffed or to set up decent radio equipment. (The New York Times reported on signs of communication technology problems facing hotshots as well.)

But if firefighting infrastructure and personnel are allowed to erode, Swan says, “Good people [go] to other jobs.” Then, he says, private contractors move in to fill the gap.

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Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Fleshman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape? Read the rest of this entry →

At ‘Urban Uprising’ Conference, Activists Reimagine the City Post-Sandy

10:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

“occupy sandy. 520 clinton avenue.” (bondidwhat via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Disaster has a way of concentrating the mind. And Gotham has always had its share of it: whether it’s a slow-burning disaster like the epidemic of income inequality, the endemic scourge of police brutality and racial profiling, or the chronic deprivation of healthy food in isolated neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy churned all of these elements of urban chaos. But in its wake, the storm has laid bare new pathways for innovations, and new frontiers for struggles against inequality.

The undercurrent of these contradictions ran through a conference this weekend dedicated to “designing a city for the 99%,” a possibility made more real and urgent in the storm’s aftermath. Urban Uprising, held at the New School and the CUNY Graduate Center (where this reporter is also a graduate student), brought together academics, legal experts, organizers and urban ecologists to broach fresh questions about organizing communities: how to harness the energy of Occupy and channel it into direct, localized campaigns; how to balance environmental renewal with economic development; and how to reorient debates on food policy away from apolitical consumer interests and toward the connection between food justice and fighting poverty.

The post-Sandy recovery process colored discussions of one of the main themes: “reimagining the city,” which focused on cultivation, both literal and figurative, of a new urban landscape.

David Harvey, a City University anthropology and geography scholar, has long argued that the Left must learn to organize at the level of the city. His work on the links between urbanization and capitalism helped invigorate the “Right to the City” alliance, one of the groups that organized the conference. During the conference, Harvey noted the ways in which community initiatives like Occupy Sandy are reclaiming urban space for popular struggle. “In a way,” Harvey said in an interview with In These Times, Occupy Sandy is “spreading a political message by a different route. And therefore, Occupy has not gone away. It’s moved into the boroughs… It is therefore a commitment to a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of on-the-ground politics which in the long run may be just as important as the symbolic politics of Zuccotti Park.”

A broader political backdrop to the discussions was the looming security state that has crystallized over the past decade, putting communities under both economic and political siege. Groups like the Immigrant Defense Project and the Los Angeles Community Action Network described struggles against the militarization of policing around the country, as well as the growing transformation of local police into agents of immigration enforcement, counterterrorism and drug wars. Read the rest of this entry →

Coal Communities at the Pivot of Dirty Industries and Clean Energy

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Union of Concerned Scientists)

Originally posted on In These Times

To environmentalists, King Coal is headed for ruin, and the country’s old, dirty coal-powered plants symbolize the industry’s last dying gasps. But in an uncertain economy, coal is the only thing many working-class communities can cling to for stability.

That’s why when environmentalist tout the vision of a renewable energy future–lush with solar panels and wind turbines–regions that have long depended on the coal economy see only a dark cloud on the horizon. A new report from the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which makes a convincing economic and ecological case for phasing out an outmoded component of the coal industry, is unlikely to get a warm reception from them, either.

UCS researchers found that “up to 353 coal-fired generators in 31 states (out of a national total of 1,169) are ripe for retirement,” typically saddled with older, inefficient machinery linked to dirty air and carbon emissions that hurt both the climate and the local habitat. These deeply polluting facilities–concentrated “primarily in the Southeast and Midwest, with the top five (in order) being Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Michigan”–all together “represent as much as 18 percent of the country’s coal-generating capacity and approximately six percent of the nation’s power.” Retiring them would therefore get rid of a significant drag on the atmosphere and aid considerably in the budding transition to renewables. Read the rest of this entry →

Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (Dan DeLuca / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities–including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure–a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News‘ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the “chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: “if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.” Read the rest of this entry →

Working Women’s Bodies Besieged by Environmental Injustice

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Ecowatch.org

Originally posted at In These Times.

From birth control pills to equal pay, women are a favorite target in the country’s most heated political wars. But a much quieter struggle is being waged over women’s bodies in their neighborhoods and workplaces, where a minefield of pollutants threaten working mothers and their children.

According to new research from the the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, working pregnant women who are exposed on the job to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to have children with gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines stick out from the baby’s body, generally requiring surgical repair.

The study, summarized by Environmental Health News, reveals a distinct link between women’s occupational exposure and the prevalence of the defect: “mothers who were exposed to PAHs had 1.5 times the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis compared to women who were not exposed to PAHs at work.” Read the rest of this entry →

Tar Sands Protest Shows Unity, Tension in Green-Labor Alliance

4:00 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A protester at the Keystone XL Pipeline Protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. on November 6, 2011. (Photo: Emma Cassidy at TarSandsAction on Flickr, Creative Commons license.)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Thousands gathered near the White House on Sunday to say no to the Keystone oil pipeline. The human chain the protesters formed symbolized unity among environmentalists, youth, indigenous groups and other communities, all calling for decisive political action against climate change and fossil fuels.

But the emergent coalition has encountered fissures between environmental and economic goals. Pipeline boosters have controversially claimed that some 20,000 jobs are at stake in the project, which would channel notoriously dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas. Activists have challenged and debunked the fuzzy math surrounding the projections of new jobs and “energy security,” and say environmental destruction shouldn’t trump narrow economic arguments, anyway. But tell that to struggling construction workers and others frustrated at Washington’s failure to alleviate the jobs crisis–some of the same folks you might find nearby at an Occupy DC rally.

Though environmentalists have united in broad opposition to Keystone XL, the project reveals tensions on labor issues, which illustrate the polarity between two visions of economic development. As we’ve reported before, several unions support Keystone XL as a possible source of jobs. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Laborers’ International Union of North America are already gunning for contracts to help build the pipeline, while other unions have remained neutral. (For the company behind the project, TransCanada, peddling the job-genie rhetoric helps paper over the profit motives driving its extensive lobbying efforts and apparent ties to the infamous Koch dynasty. The State Department is now planning an inquiry into how the pipeline permit process was handled.) Read the rest of this entry →

The Globe’s Not Only Getting Hotter. It’s More Unjust and Unstable, Too

4:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Republished from Colorlines.com

climate-refugees

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the next few decades, tens of millions of people will be driven from their homes. Braving violence and poverty, they’ll roam desperately across continents and borders in search of work and shelter. Unlike other refugees, though, their plight won’t be blamed simply on the familiar horrors of war or persecution; they’ll blame the weather.

If you haven’t heard about the rising tide of environmental migrants, that’s because throngs of displaced black and brown people don’t evoke the same public sympathy as photos of polar bear cubs. The governments of rich industrialized nations will scramble to shut the gates on the desperate hordes with the same self-serving efficiency with which they’ve long ignored the social, ecological and economic consequences of their prosperity. But both efforts at blissful ignorance will fail, because climate change is forcing society to confront the mounting natural and man-made disasters on the horizon.

In 2010, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “more than 90 percent of all disasters and 65 percent of associated economic damages were weather and climate related (i.e. high winds, flooding, heavy snowfall, heat waves, droughts, wildfires). In all, 874 weather and climate-related disasters resulted in 68,000 deaths and $99 billion in damages worldwide.”

Those numbers look worse on the ground. In rural Bangladesh, where some of South Asia’s major riverways converge, rising waters are threatening to swallow vulnerable coastal communities and leave millions without homes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the sea level need only rise by a few feet to turn a cultivated area of 1,000 kilometers squared into sopping marsh. The frequency and intensity of floods continues to escalate exponentially, pushing young workers into the cities to earn a living and eroding rural communities and their cultures.

While some places soak, others bake. Read the rest of this entry →