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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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Farmworkers Face Silent Spring in the Fields

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(jetsandzepplins/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Some lawmakers in Washington may be losing sleep in the coming weeks as they mull over proposed immigration reform legislation. But many migrant children are haunted at night for a different reason—the quiet nightmare of noxious winds that fill their bedrooms with toxic fumes, a hidden chemical disaster looming over the fields where their parents work.

The promise of legalization through legislation won’t bring relief for those families, who toil on industrial farms and, with or without work authorization, labor every day in poisonous environments. Regulators and lawmakers have largely ignored these chemical hazards; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not updated its Worker Protection Standard for pesticide exposures in 20 years. So advocates for farmworkers have taken their struggle to court.

Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaUnited Farm Workers and other public health and worker organizations filed a petition on July 24 in the 9th Circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco to compel the EPA to enact new pesticide protections for children. The groups, represented by Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, are specifically demanding regulations on pesticide “drift”: the toxins that waft from the crops to the kitchen tables and playgrounds of surrounding neighborhoods.

The petition, urging action on an earlier challenge filed in 2009, specifically demands that EPA evaluate pesticide drift risks and implement safeguards such as buffer zones “near homes, schools, parks and daycare centers, or wherever children congregate.” Studies have linked pesticide exposures to reproductive health and childhood development problems as well as cancer and respiratory ailments.

recent report by Farmworker Justice highlighted the experience of Graciela, a fern crop worker whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 15—a condition Graciela attributes to the health risks the family faced when they went to the fields together:

In order to cut the ferns and get those nice long stems that we need, we have to put our faces practically down into them. I realize now how dangerous this is. We are breathing in those pesticides all day long, and how could they not cause us harm.

The current litigation focuses on the EPA’s failure to act on a 2006 congressional mandate to issue protections for children against pesticide drift. But the agency has a long track record of heel-dragging on many pesticide issues.

Due to a division in the regulatory structure, pesticide safety for farmworkers is governed by the EPA, rather than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates chemicals in other industrial workplaces. Under the current weak EPA standards, workers are generally offered only minimal safety information on pesticides. Moreover, with lax labeling requirements, workers often cannot read the English labels on pesticide products that state hazard precautions and instructions for safe handling decontamination. Earth Justice points out that the EPA’s standard “is far more lenient than OSHA rules,” revealing a structural inequity in the labor regulatory regime. Farmworker activists went to Washington in July to urge officials to enact measures such as requiring protective equipment and monitoring exposed workers’ health. 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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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 →

Migration as Ecology: How Culture Evolves

8:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bossaso, Somalia (Photo: Celeste Hibbert, via IOM)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

The immigration debate in the United States often centers narrowly around people who cross a border, and their social impacts on the “destination” country. But what if we viewed migration as a social phenomenon, or as a natural process? An ecological viewpoint can open a new frame for exploring the immigrant experience as a continual cultural and demographic transformation. This month, advocates at the Rio +20 earth summit took up the issue of migration as a form of ecology.

The environmental lens moves the immigration debate beyond the concept of rich countries “receiving” outsiders, or poor countries “sending” workers across borders. Seeing immigration as a zero-sum game ignores the humanity of the people who are driving, and are driven by, constant movement and resettlement. For the U.S. in particular, the focus on border enforcement–sanctifying artificial boundaries as a delimiter of citizenship–ignores the idea that migration is both an inevitable social process, and intimately connected with all other forms of social change, be they political movements, poverty, war, or, perhaps more acutely, environmental disaster.

The International Organization for Migration, which aids refugees and displaced populations, hosted a side event at the Rio +20 summit focused on the ecological implications of migration:

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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 →

In Anti-Government Politics, “Time-Out” on Regulation versus Shortened Lives

5:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoonwork

Cross-posted from In These Times

Seizing upon a reliable “job creation” talking point, conservatives have stoked their war against “big government” by trying to freeze federal actions to protect the public.

The proposed “Regulatory Time-Out Act,” which would impose a one-year moratorium on “significant” new regulations, takes aim at regulations that keep industry from dumping poison in rivers or accidentally blowing up factory workers—in other words, policies that capitalists call “job killers.”

According to the champion of the bill, Sen. Susan Collins, “significant” rules are those “costing more than $100 million per year,” and those projected to “have an adverse impact on jobs, the economy, or our international competitiveness.” The guiding principle of this proposed regulatory kill-switch is a cold cost-benefit analysis that weighs profitability against people’s health and safety.

This particular bill may not make it through Congress, but it reflects the anti-regulatory mentality on the Hill by offering a convenient tool for undermining the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—that clean-air promoting, worker-protecting, “job killing organization of America,” which presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has promised to shutter once and for all if elected.

Zeroing in on a textbook example of regulatory evil-doing, the measure seems to aim directly at a planned EPA regulation that would reduce emissions from boilers. According to a federal analysis, the pending boiler MACT rule would target tens of thousands of boilers at in various facilities including refineries, chemical plants, universities and commercial buildings, along with dozens of solid waste incinerators. The rule would reduce public exposure to mercury, soot and other toxics linked to cancer, child developmental problems, and premature death. Read the rest of this entry →