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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 →

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 →

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

3:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Among agricultural workers such as these fruit pickers in Oxnard, Calif., birth defects and cancers are alarmingly high. (Alex E. Proimos / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems. Read the rest of this entry →

Workplace Toxics Reveal the Beauty Industry’s Ugly Side

6:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: healthjusticenetwork.wordpress.com

Cross-posted from In These Times

You shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic palette of chemicals.

Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.

While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm. 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 →