Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Biden to yank Keystone XL permit on first day of presidency

Lauren Gardner and Ben Lefebvre                     January 17, 2021
The Keystone XL Pipeline: Everything You Need To Know | NRDC

President-elect Joe Biden will rescind the cross-border permit for TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, three sources confirm to POLITICO.

The move is billed as one of Biden’s Day One climate change actions, according to a presentation circulating among Washington trade groups and lobbyists, a portion of which was seen by POLITICO. The decision was not included in incoming chief of staff Ron Klain’s Saturday memo outlining Biden’s planned executive actions during the first days of his presidency.

Two lobbyists confirmed that Biden plans to yank the project’s permit on Inauguration Day, a development first reported by CBC News. It’s the latest development in a decade-long fight over the controversial pipeline and solidifies a campaign promise the Canadian government had hoped was negotiable.

“The only question has always been whether labor can stave off the death sentence,” said one oil and gas lobbyist who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “And they never had a chance.”

A Biden transition spokesperson declined to comment.

Canada’s ambassador to Washington Kirsten Hillman would not confirm reports. “The Government of Canada continues to support the Keystone XL project,” she said in a statement to POLITICO on Sunday evening. “Keystone XL fits within Canada’s climate plan. It will also contribute to U.S. energy security and economic competitiveness.”

Rescinding Keystone XL would negate one of President Donald Trump’s own first actions in office and kill a project that had become a political totem in the fight between climate activists and the oil industry. Despite many analysts saying the boom in U.S. shale oil made new sources of Canadian crude less important, TC Energy has fought years of legal challenges against it obtaining the needed state permits that would all it to build the pipeline.

The reaction: TC Energy announced Sunday that Keystone XL would achieve net-zero emissions across operations once it begins running in 2023. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on Biden’s executive order plans.

Environmentalists applauded the decision. “President-elect Biden is showing courage and empathy to the farmers, ranchers and tribal nations who have dealt with an ongoing threat that disrupted their lives for over a decade,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group focused on scuttling the project.

Canada-U.S. relations: TC Energy first proposed the $8 billion pipeline in 2008, saying the 1,200-mile project was crucial to deliver crude from Western Canada to refineries in the Midwest. The Obama administration in 2015 denied a cross-border permit for the pipeline, however, saying the oil it would deliver would exacerbate climate change.

Keystone XL was one of the few issues on which Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed. The Liberal government had planned to continue to advocate for the pipeline.

During a congratulatory call with Biden on November 9th, Trudeau told the incoming president he looked forward to joining forces to fight climate change while co-operating on energy projects like the Keystone XL.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney bet Biden would not cancel a project already under construction when he announced in March that his government had taken a $1.1 billion stake in Keystone XL. Preliminary construction started last fall in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The provincial government openly mulled a legal intervention last year into a court case that had put pipeline construction on hold and reportedly hired American lobbyists to make its case in Washington.

Stef Feldman, a policy director for Biden’s campaign, told POLITICO in May that the Democrat would “proudly stand in the Roosevelt Room again as President and stop it for good.”

What’s next: In a statement Sunday night, Kenney vowed to work with TC Energy “to use all legal avenues available to protect” Alberta’s interest in the pipeline.

Bitter Cold Means Chaos as Global Energy Systems Show Strain

Bitter Cold Means Chaos as Global Energy Systems Show Strain

Rachel Morison                           January 15, 2021

In Asia, extreme cold prompted record-high power demand and a scramble for natural gas to keep the lights on in China, Japan and South Korea. In Sweden, a utility is paying for hotels for its customers after heavy snow brought down sections of the power grid cutting supplies while French households were advised to delay doing their laundry to save energy.

The extreme, widespread cold took markets by surprise. The spikes in energy demand during the bitter winter, coupled with weak wind generation, power plant closures and liquefied natural gas tanker delays highlighted the shortcomings of global energy systems in weather conditions that are only set to get more volatile.

There could be more to come. A relatively rare weather phenomenon with the potential to disrupt the polar vortex — the winds that usually keep cold air contained in the far north — is threatening to send an Arctic blast across North America, Europe and Asia from late January.

“The distortion of the polar vortex appears to be prolonging the severe winter conditions in some northerly areas and potentially Europe,” said David Thomas, independent adviser and former head of LNG at Vitol Group. “It may not be over just yet. Several companies are feeling the pain and the elevated power prices must be hurting large consumers.”

The extreme conditions left some energy traders and utilities flat-footed, sending prices for electricity, fuel and vessels to record highs.

In Asia, LNG spot rates jumped 18-fold from last year’s lows and helped send European gas prices to a 12-year peak. Britain’s national grid was forced to issue numerous appeals for generators to increase output as low wind generation coincided with the cold snap and pushed wholesale electricity prices for peak periods to more than 1,000 pounds ($1,367) a megawatt hour.

European gas markets like the U.K. and Spain, which don’t have large amounts of gas storage, and are more dependent on the “incredibly tight global LNG market are more exposed if below normal temperatures are sustained,” said James Huckstepp, manager for EMEA gas analytics at S&P Global Platts.

Lights Out

China is struggling to keep the lights on after some of the lowest temperatures since 1966 boosted domestic demand just as manufacturing ramped up after the pandemic. Ice is also wreaking havoc on grid infrastructure, while the frigid weather disrupted transport and delayed LNG tankers at Qingdao.

Big industrial users are first in line to have electricity supplies cut, followed by commercial buildings, in order to keep supply safe for residential consumers.

Meanwhile in Japan, its utilities have asked consumers to conserve electricity, and the government has ordered independent producers to boost output to maximum capacity.

Tohoku Electric Power Co. bought several cargoes of low-sulfur fuel oil for oil-fired power plants that are utilized only when gas-fed facilities have been maximized. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has begun speaking to refiners and urged them to help supply local utilities with LSFO supplies.

Wrap Up Warm

Earlier this week, the French grid operator issued a red alert for high power demand and appealed to households to put on a jumper rather than turn the heating up. Electricite de France SA advised customers to delay doing their laundry while power demand was high.

Parts of northeastern Sweden got the biggest snow dump since 2012, with 60 centimeters in just one day, according to the nation’s Meteorological and Hydrological Institute. The storm overwhelmed grids and has left many thousands of customers without power this week.

EON SE is paying for hotel rooms for Swedish customers as it struggles to restore power supplies that have been down since Jan. 11. Vattenfall AB, the Nordic region’s biggest utility, hired a helicopter to clear snow and ice from power lines, using a long pole to shake snow off cables or a grip claw to lift trees from the line.

In Spain, the government is considering ways to intervene in the electricity market when there are sharp price increases, as happened when demand surged during the cold spell that blanketed Madrid in a rare snowfall. Some consumer bills in the regulated market are linked to wholesale prices that are at the highest in a decade.

With natural gas shortages, power plants in Iran are burning low-grade fuel oils that create toxic smog, or switching off entirely, triggering blackouts.

Pakistan is facing a gas shortage, too, despite running its two LNG terminals at full capacity in January. The Asian nation has cut gas supplies to industries and limited flows to compressed natural gas stations to a few days a week as residential demand more than doubled compared to the summer and was higher than in previous winters.

How cold the rest of the winter gets is likely to be the key driver for whether higher energy prices will be sustained.

Even if temperatures ease, the impact of tighter LNG supplies is likely to be felt into the summer and to feed into other markets. As north Asia, the biggest consumer of LNG, restocks supplies that demand will support price benchmarks throughout 2021. What was expected to be a finely balanced summer just a month ago, is now looking increasingly tight, according to Wood Mackenzie Ltd.

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

Isabella O’Malley                       January 12, 2021
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage
Shocking footage shows Serbian lake completely covered in garbage

While pollution is an omnipresent issue that is impacting essentially every ecosystem on Earth, the problem is not always visible to the naked eye. However, footage of Serbia’s Potpecko Lake depicts a jarring scene — several thousand cubic metres of plastic containers floating on top of the water.

The footage was first published online on January 4, 2021 and environmental activist, Sinisa Lakovic, says that the extent of the plastic pollution is due to decades of accumulating trash at “unsanitary landfills,” as reported by Reuters. Marko Karadzic, a local resident, described the situation to Reuters as “an ecological disaster.”

Several landfills are located upstream from the lake along the Lim River. Potpecko Lake is connected to the waterbody that the dam at the Višegrad Hydroelectric Power Plant uses, and officials are concerned that it could become clogged with garbage.

Serbia’s Environment Minister, Irena Vujovic, said a clean-up would soon commence and stated that several landfalls that contributed to the pollution in Potpecko Lake have been invited to develop a solution that would have long-term benefits.

AQUATIC POLLUTION, NOT JUST AN OCEAN PROBLEM

Images of ocean animals entangled in plastic pollution are the most common impacts that many people think of when considering how the waste we generate impacts aquatic ecosystems. Given that oceans cover more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface, it is understandable that the spotlight lands on these marine ecosystems, but some experts say that plastic pollution in freshwater lakes and rivers is a topic that is often neglected in research.

lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash
lake pollution Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash.  A discarded beer can in Eagle Lake, Mississippi, USA. Credit: Justin Wilkens via Unsplash

 

A 2019 survey conducted by scientists Martín C. M. Blettler and Karl M. Wantzen reviewed 171 published studies that analyzed animal plastic entanglement and found that over 98 per cent focused solely on oceanic environments. Blettler and Wantzen stated while ocean plastic pollution remains a considerable concern, they emphasize the importance of the limited insight we have about freshwater pollution.

In freshwater environments, researchers have documented an increasing trend of plastic becoming part of birds’ nests, which can reduce the survival rates of both the parents and chicks. Microplastics are also being consumed by fish in growing amounts leading to adverse effects. The researchers say that the effects of plastic pollution in water bodies inland are important to study because the waste that is dumped in lakes and rivers ultimately travels to the oceans.

With files from Reuters

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Where did COVID-19 come from?

Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub,         January 16, 2021

 

The coronavirus that conquered the world came from a thumb-sized bat tucked inside a remote Chinese cave. Of this much, scientists are convinced.

Exactly how and when it fled the bat to begin its devastating flight across the globe remain open questions.

In just one year, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has infected 100 million people and killed 2 million, 400,000 of them in the U.S. Answers could stop such a calamity from happening again.

Researchers in China, under government scrutiny, have been investigating since January. This week, a World Health Organization delegation of scientists from 10 different nations finally was allowed in the country to explore the virus’ origins.

“This is important not just for COVID-19, but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said just after the team left for China.

A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. A global team of researchers came to the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

It’s not clear how much evidence will remain a year later, and what the team will be able to learn. The Wuhan fish market, seen as a likely breeding ground for the virus, has been scrubbed and shuttered.

But the effort is worth it, infectious disease experts say. Understanding the journey of SARS-CoV-2 may provide insights into how the relationship between humans and animals led to the pandemic, as well as other disease outbreaks including Ebola, Zika and many strains of flu.

A member of the World Health Organization team is screened on arriving at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

 

“These are emerging diseases that breach the barrier between animals and humans and cause devastation in human populations,” the WHO’s Mike Ryan said at a Monday news conference. “It is an absolute requirement that we understand that interface and what is driving that dynamic and what specific issues resulted in diseases breaching that barrier.”

The international team is not looking to assign blame, said Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. If it were, there would be plenty to go around.

“We can blame climate change. We can blame policy decisions made 30 years ago regarding everything from urbanization to the way we exploit the forest,” he said. “You can find people to blame in every level of what we’re doing on this planet.”

Beginnings in a cave

The chain of events that led to the worst global pandemic in a century started with a tiny, insect-eating mammal with the mundane name, Intermediate Horseshoe bat.

The species is part of a family of bats that act as natural reservoirs for coronaviruses, notorious for how easily they mutate and how well they can be transmitted from species to species. The bats aren’t bothered by the viruses. The animals they pass them onto aren’t always so lucky.

Humans are one of those animals.

This happens all the time – a virus harmlessly infects one creature then finds its way to another, mutates and becomes something new. The newly mutated virus can be insignificant but annoying (think common colds, some of which are caused by coronaviruses) or devastating and deadly (think smallpox.)

SARS-CoV-2 is a little of both.

A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.
A Horseshoe bat hangs from a net inside an abandoned Israeli army outpost next to the Jordan River in the occupied West Bank, on July 7, 2019.

 

As many as 40% of those who test positive for COVID-19 have no symptoms at all but 2% of people who get sick die. It’s especially deadly in the elderly.  COVID-19 has killed 1 of every 66 Americans older than 85. Among those infected, some percentage — we don’t yet know how many — cope with crippling long-term symptoms that plague them for months. Future health impacts remain unknown.

The group of related coronaviruses giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has existed for decades in bats and likely originated more than 40 years ago, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor and expert in viral genomics at the University of California, San Francisco.

SARS-CoV-2 shares 96% of its genetic material with a sample of coronavirus taken in 2013 in Intermediate Horseshoe bats from Yunnan province in China, which suggests the Yunnan virus is its ancestor. How the virus traveled the 1,200 miles from Yunnan to Wuhan remains unknown.

Because the 2013 sample is the only one available, scientists had to undertake genetic analysis to estimate when the bat strain and the strain now circulating among humans diverged. They put the split sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, said Maciej Boni, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, who spent almost a decade working in Asia.

“There’s really not a clear tree where we have forensic evidence to point to exactly where it came from,” said John Connor, a virologist at Boston University who studies emerging infectious diseases. “It looks like it’s a bat-derived virus, and there’s a big question mark after that.”

Scientists simply don’t do enough surveillance of bats and coronavirus to tell.

“We just don’t know because we don’t have any data — we weren’t looking,” said Boni. “Over the last 20 years we haven’t been doing enough sampling.”

Boni is among those who think the virus most likely came directly from bats, possibly infecting miners who work in bat-infested caves or people exposed to bat feces. Others say it more likely spent some time infecting another animal species before leaping to humans.

The original SARS virus, identified in China in 2003, is believed to have passed through civets – a type of nocturnal mammal native to Asia and Africa – though other animals may have been involved.

SARS underwent only a few genetic changes between bats and people, which made its animal roots easier to trace, while SARS-CoV-2 has changed a lot more, Connor said.

With SARS-CoV-2, a suspect is the frequently trafficked scaly anteater, also known as a pangolin. Other possibilities include civets or ferrets or even cats.

“SARS-CoV-2 may originate from live animal markets, but it may also have emerged from any setting in which people come into contact with animals, including farms, pets, or zoos,” Chiu said.

Whatever its path, sometime before November 2019 it became a virus that could easily – far too easily – infect humans.

Not Made in China

Despite a persistent conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab, perhaps an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, there’s no evidence to support the claim and plenty to counter it.

In March, a group of researchers found the virus most closely resembled existing bat viruses and was not man-made.

“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they wrote in the prestigious journal Nature.

No new details have emerged since to change the author minds, said Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the co-authors and a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Can we exclude the possibility that there was a virus that was present in this lab that somehow got out into either animals or people? No, we can’t do that,” he said. “The only thing we can say is that there’s no evidence that suggests it was deliberately engineered through some sort of gain-of-function experiments.”

Connor said he’s also dubious the virus originated in a lab rather than in nature.

The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

 

“What laboratory people are really good at doing is making viruses weaker,” said Connor, who is also an investigator at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories.

Viruses, especially RNA viruses like coronaviruses, make tiny mistakes as they reproduce. One person’s nose might contain 10 to a 100,000 copies of the virus, and with so many replications and so many mistakes, it’s plausible chance mutations led to SARS-CoV-2, he said.

“I don’t think we need to look for man-made. I think we see the viruses that we know assaulting us all the time,” Connor said. “We look back to Zika. That wasn’t man-made. Neither was Ebola. Flu keeps coming after us.”

It’s possible to bioengineer a virus, but it’s extremely hard. Anyone doing so would have used a pre-existing virus as the template. The virus that’s now killing millions has novel mutations, many of them, said Chiu.

“We barely know how to manipulate even a few base pairs in a single viral gene,” he said. “The difference between Chinese bat coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 is more than 3,000 base pairs.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter where the virus came from, said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. What matters is how we deal with the current situation, which is at a crisis state in the United States.

“When the house is burning down is not the time to start looking for where the matches were,” he said.

Investigation and prevention

If SARS-Cov-2 had been a type of bird flu instead of a coronavirus, the world would have been alerted within days of the first infections. A global surveillance system was established in the 1990s and has been expanded and strengthened, Boni said.

“If a single poultry farmer in Southeast Asia comes down with severe respiratory symptoms, samples are taken and sequenced. That week you know which avian influenza virus it is,” he said. “Farms in neighboring regions are immediately quarantined and the birds may be depopulated. It takes days.”

Setting up something similar for bats and coronaviruses would cost several billion a year globally, said Boni. “It’s not expensive for the benefit we’d get.”

To track SARS-COV-2 as it transferred among species requires analyzing blood collected from the animals, as well as samples from their airways.

Distinguishing between closely related viruses isn’t always so easy.

“We have a special test that can do this if we could get samples out of China,” said Lipkin. He’s been trying for months to do so, and when he attempted to send his own sampling tools into the country the U.S wouldn’t allow it.

“We now have obstruction on both sides,” said Lipkin, who’s been working to get into China himself since early in the outbreak. “I don’t know when that’s going to let up. I’m hoping the Biden administration will feel differently.”

Lipkin’s March paper explored key features of the new virus but nothing more has been learned since about SARS-CoV-2’s earliest days, he said.

Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

 

“We still haven’t had a full post-mortem on what went wrong in China,” said Lipkin, who caught COVID-19 in March in New York and was recently vaccinated.

The U.S. has a very good system of reporting outbreaks, and rapidly publishes information in the CDC’s journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly. The Chinese are not as transparent at reporting their public health information.

Increased transparency is one of several changes Lipkin recommends to avoid a repeat of the 2020 disaster.

Wild animal markets and consumption of wildlife continue to pose dangers, he said.

And the world needs to have the ability to respond faster to novel viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Global surveillance would help, as would drugs that can treat a wide spectrum of viruses – maybe one that can address all coronaviruses and another to tackle influenzas.

“These drugs might not be ideal but we should think of them as a finger in the dike,” Lipkin said, so outbreaks won’t get out of hand, the way this one did.

Connor, at Boston University, agrees that effective and transparent public health systems around the world are essential for detecting and preventing outbreaks like COVID-19.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province.
In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, people wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.

 

While Wuhan may have had a good health care system, that was not the case in West Africa, where a 2014-2016 epidemic of Ebola infected more than 28,000, killed over 11,000 and terrified the world.

“It would be nice for all people to have good health care, not just because it would be nice for them … but for everybody else,” Connor said. “It would be nice to be able to identify: Oh, all of a sudden, five people in one area got sick with something we didn’t know what it was.”

Connor said it’s pointless to try to predict all the ways in which a virus now infecting animals could make the leap to humans. A much better approach, he said, is to focus on the viruses that do emerge.

“What matters is how good we are at responding quickly,” he said.

The race is now between the speed of mutations and the speed of vaccination, said Chiu.

Even for a typically slow Sunday afternoon Grand Central Terminal in New York City was quieter than usual March 15, 2020 as Coronavirus concerns kept travelers and tourists off the streets and away from popular destinations in the city.

 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it may take up to 85% of Americans being vaccinated to protect the population. Reaching those numbers will be challenging considering pervasive vaccine hesitancy and a slow, complicated roll out.

In the meantime, public health measures to stop the spread – masking, social distancing and handwashing – are essential, experts repeat.

“We have to reduce the number of infections before the virus has a chance to mutate in such a way that it can evade drugs and vaccines,” said Chiu. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Contact Elizabeth Weise at eweise@usatoday.com and Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

President Trump’s wildly expensive border wall policy will leave a lasting legacy

President Trump’s wildly expensive border wall policy will leave a lasting legacy

President Trump vowed vowed to build 450 miles of border “wall” — which is more of a series of barriers erected by a succession of U.S. presidents, by the end of his first term.

Trump can say he fulfilled that promise, according to information provided to Yahoo Finance by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), establishing one of the more expensive and permanent aspects of his legacy.

“As much as the Trump administration is able to construct is going to be the amount that’s there pretty permanently,” Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told Yahoo Finance. “This is a serious permanent infrastructure project that’s going to remain. And while many of the other actions that Trump has taken on immigration can be rolled back through executive action, this is something that it looks like is not going to be rolled back anytime soon.”

US President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, on January 12, 2021. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

According to the latest CBP data, 453 miles of “new primary and secondary border wall system” were built during Trump’s term — though much of that construction involved replacing “dilapidated of outdate designs” as opposed to building wall where it had not been built previously. Another 211 miles are under construction while 74 miles are in the pre-construction phase.

Overall, the $15-billion initiative was a key promise of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and became a point of contention with Congress — a funding dispute over the border wall led to a 35-day government shutdown in 2018 — and landowners whose properties have been greatly impacted by the construction.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to freeze construction of the wall, a move that would save roughly $2.6 billion.

453 miles of wall have been completed so far. (Source: CBP)
453 miles of wall have been completed so far. (Source: CBP)
‘It’s a gigantic waste of government resources’

Experts have argued the entire project was a waste of taxpayer money (in addition to being a magnet for alleged fraud).

“It’s a gigantic waste of government resources, taking billions of dollars away from other priorities and has zero benefit to the United States,” David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, told Yahoo Finance. “The difference between the Trump law and the existing fences that he replaced is the Trump wall is more expensive and that’s pretty much it. It’s certainly more intrusive to the environment and to the landowners and to the residents of the areas in which the border wall is being built as well.”

The wall built under Trump has been incredibly costly, particularly compared to other presidencies.

Between 2007 and 2015, CBP spent a total of $2.4 billion constructing 535 miles of the border wall. Part of the reason for that, she explained, is because Trump’s wall is a taller, more fortified wall being constructed in a lot of areas. Bolter noted that fencing under the GWB administration cost an average of $3.9 million per mile. Under Trump, it averaged about $20 million per mile.

There are approximately 701 miles of primary barriers along the border. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
There are approximately 701 miles of primary barriers along the border. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

 

Another reason for the exorbitant cost is that it’s “not clear that building a wall in all of these places was necessary,” Bolter said. “A report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general found that when CBP was setting its border wall priorities, it didn’t consider alternatives.”

Ohio State University Professor Ken Madsen, who tracks border wall progress, noted that when we “see new fences or walls going in those very rugged areas, it seems to me it really is for show. It’s not really doing anything to stop anybody because very few people were crossing there in the first place.”

Gil Kerlikowske, who served as CBP commissioner during the final three years of the Obama administration, has argued that the money would be “much better invested in technology than barriers.” He noted that much of the cost for the barriers stems from maintenance and repair.

“I mean, it’s really significant,” Kerlikowske told Yahoo Finance. “You have flooding, you have other kinds of damage, people, of course, cutting them. So people shouldn’t look at this just as the cost of this fixed wall or barrier. They should look at the long-term costs. They are going to be replaced over the years, plus maintenance costs, so it’s incredibly expensive.”

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a picture of border wall being installed along the U.S.-Mexico border as he participates in a roundtable briefing on border security at the U.S. Border Patrol Yuma Station in Yuma, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

 

The former CBP leader suggested technological alternatives like integrated fixed towers, which have infrared and camera sensors. But according to Bier, the Cato analyst, it’s still just another form of wasted taxpayer money.

“It’s certainly better than taking people’s land but it’s another gigantic sinkhole of government money that you spent billions upon billions, spending more money on technology, whether it’s border journals or surveillance cameras,” Bier said. “Really at the end of the day, you have reports from the OIG, the GAO, the drones and balances are ineffective. That virtual fence they tried to build with the cameras and sensors was useless, a waste of taxpayer money. I don’t support any more money for this effort.”

Biden freezing construction of the wall is just one of the several necessary steps needed to fix this, Bier argued.

“A freeze is better than continuing to waste taxpayer money on something that we’re getting no benefit from,” he said. “But I think that we should go further than that and transfer that land and the structure as well — if the people who own the land want the structure, let them keep it, but it should really be their decision and not the decision of Border Patrol to foist a structure on somebody else’s property.”

New sections of the border wall are in process of being built in Hidalgo, Texas on January 11, 2021. - Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced he was resigning January 11 as worries rose over more violence during President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next week. Wolf's resignation came a day before Trump is to travel to the US-Mexico frontier near Alamo, Texas to inspect the border wall he has had built. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
New sections of the border wall are in process of being built in Hidalgo, Texas on January 11, 2021. (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
‘New’ versus ‘old’ wall

Trump’s CBP claimed that 453 miles of border wall were built since January 2017, though less than 100 miles of the wall is actually new and not replacing outdated structures.

“[Former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security] Chad Wolf and CBP are counting anything as new that’s new construction,” Madsen told Yahoo Finance. “But most people are making a distinction between new versus replacement. There was a wall there before and yes there’s a new wall now, but it’s the same place that’s covered. But then you can even narrow that down more.”

Much of the construction is to replace existing barriers, many of which are old and/or dilapidated in quality.

“Once you distinguish new from replacement, then you have to distinguish if it’s a pedestrian barrier, or replacement pedestrian barrier,” Madsen said. “In other words, is it just a newer model that’s taller, more see-through, more durable, stronger foundation? And then there’s some places where they’re replacing vehicle barriers with pedestrian barriers.”

That makes sense since pedestrian barriers are much more effective at stopping people than vehicle barriers so “that’s quite an upgrade. That’s substantially changing the dynamic. And again, because it’s all new, it’s being counted by CBP as new. I’ve heard the vast majority is replacing barriers that are already there. That’s for sure. So most of what’s being constructed is just replacing what’s already there.”

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott as he tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott as he tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
‘Building a wall will do little to deter criminals’

President-elect Biden has been critical about the border wall, singling out Trump for the wall’s lack of efficiency.

“His obsession with building a wall does nothing to address security challenges while costing taxpayers billions of dollars,” Biden’s immigration plan states, noting that most illegal drugs come through legal points of entry, that asylum seekers are asking for refuge legally, and that nearly half of undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. because they overstayed their visas.

“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders,” his plan says. “Instead of stealing resources from schools for military children and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Biden will direct federal resources to smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.”

JACUMBA, CA - DECEMBER 01: Construction crews work on the United States-Mexico border wall on December 1, 2020 in Jacumba, California. President-elect Joe Biden wants to stop construction of the border wall, but the departing Trump administration is rushing to complete as much wall as possible in its last weeks in power. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Construction crews work on the United States-Mexico border wall on December 1, 2020 in Jacumba, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

 

Biden’s decision to halt construction of the wall will save billions of dollars, but could still cost roughly $700 million, according to the Washington Post. This is because withdrawing crew, materials, and equipment can be billed as “demobilization fees.”

But, it will come as a relief for those whose lands were seized by the government through eminent domain to be used as part of the border wall. According to the New York Times, the Trump administration brought 78 lawsuits against landowners along the southern border, with 30 of them in 2020.

Despite the havoc along the border soon coming to an end, the project still leaves behind a lasting legacy.

“I think that the border wall is one of the most permanent parts of President Trump’s legacy after he leaves the office,” Bolter said. “President-elect Biden has said that he’s not going to construct any additional border wall, but he’s also said that he’s not going to take down any of the wall that President Trump has built.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

Two-thirds of Earth’s land is on pace to lose water as the climate warms – that’s a problem for people, crops and forests

Two-thirds of Earth’s land is on pace to lose water as the climate warms – that’s a problem for people, crops and forests

Yadu Pokhrel, Associate Prof. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Michigan State University and Farshid Felfelani, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Michigan State University            January 11, 2021
<span class="caption">Cape Town residents queued up for water as the taps nearly ran dry in 2018.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/cape-town-residents-queue-to-refill-water-bottles-at-news-photo/913638526" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Morgana Wingard/Getty Images">Morgana Wingard/Getty Images</a></span>
Cape Town residents queued up for water as the taps nearly ran dry in 2018. Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

 

The world watched with a sense of dread in 2018 as Cape Town, South Africa, counted down the days until the city would run out of water. The region’s surface reservoirs were going dry amid its worst drought on record, and the public countdown was a plea for help.

By drastically cutting their water use, Cape Town residents and farmers were able to push back “Day Zero” until the rain came, but the close call showed just how precarious water security can be. California also faced severe water restrictions during its recent multiyear drought. And Mexico City is now facing water restrictions after a year with little rain.

There are growing concerns that many regions of the world will face water crises like these in the coming decades as rising temperatures exacerbate drought conditions.

Understanding the risks ahead requires looking at the entire landscape of terrestrial water storage – not just the rivers, but also the water stored in soils, groundwater, snowpack, forest canopies, wetlands, lakes and reservoirs.

We study changes in the terrestrial water cycle as engineers and hydrologists. In a new study published Jan. 11, we and a team of colleagues from universities and institutes around the world showed for the first time how climate change will likely affect water availability on land from all water storage sources over the course of this century.

We found that the sum of this terrestrial water storage is on pace to decline across two-thirds of the land on the planet. The worst impacts will be in areas of the Southern Hemisphere where water scarcity is already threatening food security and leading to human migration and conflict. Globally, one in 12 people could face extreme drought related to water storage every year by the end of this century, compared to an average of about one in 33 at the end of the 20th century.

These findings have implications for water availability, not only for human needs, but also for trees, plants and the sustainability of agriculture.

Where the risks are highest

The water that keeps land healthy, crops growing and human needs met comes from a variety of sources. Mountain snow and rainfall feed streams that affect community water supplies. Soil water content directly affects plant growth. Groundwater resources are crucial for both drinking water supplies and crop productivity in irrigated regions.

While studies often focus just on river flow as an indicator of water availability and drought, our study instead provides a holistic picture of the changes in total water available on land. That allows us to capture nuances, such as the ability of forests to draw water from deep groundwater sources during years when the upper soil levels are drier.

The declines we found in land water storage are especially alarming in the Amazon River basin, Australia, southern Africa, the Mediterranean region and parts of the United States. In these regions, precipitation is expected to decline sharply with climate change, and rising temperatures will increase evaporation. At the same time, some other regions will become wetter, a process already seen today.

Map of water storage loss

Our findings for the Amazon basin add to the longstanding debate over the fate of the rainforest in a warmer world. Many studies using climate model projections have warned of widespread forest die-off in the future as less rainfall and warmer temperatures lead to higher heat and moisture stress combined with forest fires.

In an earlier study, we found that the deep-rooted rainforests may be more resilient to short-term drought than they appear because they can tap water stored in soils deeper in the ground that aren’t considered in typical climate model projections. However, our new findings, using multiple models, indicate that the declines in total water storage, including deep groundwater stores, may lead to more water shortages during dry seasons when trees need stored water the most and exacerbate future droughts. All weaken the resilience of the rainforests.

A new way of looking at drought

Our study also provides a new perspective on future droughts.

There are different kinds of droughts. Meteorological droughts are caused by lack of precipitation. Agricultural droughts are caused by lack of water in soils. Hydrological droughts involve lack of water in rivers and groundwater. We provided a new perspective on droughts by looking at the total water storage.

Diagram of water cycle
Water in the environment. U.K. Met Office 

 

We found that moderate to severe droughts involving water storage would increase until the middle of the 21st century and then remain stable under future scenarios in which countries cut their emissions, but extreme to exceptional water storage droughts could continue to increase until the end of the century.

That would further threaten water availability in regions where water storage is projected to decline.

Changes driven by global warming

These declines in water storage and increases in future droughts are primarily driven by climate change, not land-water management activities such as irrigation and groundwater pumping. This became clear when we examined simulations of what the future would look like if climate conditions were unchanged from preindustrial times. Without the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, terrestrial water storage would remain generally stable in most regions.

If future increases in groundwater use for irrigation and other needs are also considered, the projected reduction in water storage and increase in drought could be even more severe.

Read more:

Yadu Pokhrel receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

Farshid Felfelani receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

Study: Wildfires produced up to half of pollution in US West

Study: Wildfires produced up to half of pollution in US West

 

 

Even as pollution emissions declined from other sources including vehicle exhaust and power plants, the amount from fires increased sharply, said researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego.

The findings underscore the growing public health threat posed by climate change as it contributes to catastrophic wildfires such as those that charred huge areas of California and the Pacific Northwest in 2020. Nationwide, wildfires were the source of up to 25% of small particle pollution in some years, the researchers said.

“From a climate perspective, wildfires should be the first things on our minds for many of us in the U.S.,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford and lead author of the study.

“Most people do not see sea-level rise. Most people do not ever see hurricanes. Many, many people will see wildfire smoke from climate change,” Burke added. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used satellite images of smoke plumes and government air quality data to model how much pollution was generated nationwide by fires from 2016 to 2018 compared to a decade earlier. Their results were in line with previous studies of smoke emissions across earlier time periods and more limited geographic areas.

Large wildfires churn out plumes of smoke thick with microscopic pollution particles that can drift hundreds or even thousands of miles. Driving the explosion in fires in recent years were warmer temperatures, drought and decades of aggressive fire fighting tactics that allowed forest fuels to accumulate.

Air pollution experts say that residents of the West Coast and Northern Rockies in particular should expect major smoke events from wildfires to become more frequent.

There’s little doubt air quality regulations helped decrease other sources of pollution even as wildfire smoke increased, said Loretta Mickley, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University. But it’s difficult to separate how much of the increase in smoke pollution is driven by climate change versus the forest fuel buildup, she added.

Mickley and researchers from Colorado State University also cautioned that fires can vary significantly from year to year because of weather changes, making it hard to identify trends over relatively short periods such as the decade examined in the new study.

An AP analysis of data from government monitoring stations found that at least 38 million people in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana were exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke for at least five days in 2020. Major cities in Oregon suffered the highest pollution levels they had ever recorded.

Smoke particles from those wildfires were blamed for health problems ranging from difficulty breathing to a projected spike in premature deaths, according to health authorities and researchers.

Fires across the West emitted more than a million tons of particulate pollution in 2012, 2015 and 2017, and almost as much in 2018.

Scientists studying long-term health problems have found correlations between smoke exposure and decreased lung function, weakened immune systems and higher rates of flu.

The new study matches up with previous research documenting the increasing proportion of pollution that comes from wildfire smoke, said Dan Jaffe, a wildfire pollution expert at the University of Washington. Jaffe added that it also raises significant questions about how to better manage forests and the role that prescribed burns might play.

“We have been making tremendous progress on improving pollution in this country, but at the same time we have this other part of the puzzle that has not been under control,” Jaffe said. “We’re now at the point where we have to think about how to manage the planet a whole lot more carefully than we’ve done.”

Study: Warming already baked in will blow past climate goals

Associated Press

Study: Warming already baked in will blow past climate goals

 

The amount of baked-in global warming, from carbon pollution already in the air, is enough to blow past international agreed upon goals to limit climate change, a new study finds.

But it’s not game over because, while that amount of warming may be inevitable, it can be delayed for centuries if the world quickly stops emitting extra greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, the study’s authors say.

For decades, scientists have talked about so-called “committed warming” or the increase in future temperature based on past carbon dioxide emissions that stay in the atmosphere for well over a century. It’s like the distance a speeding car travels after the brakes are applied.

But Monday’s study in the journal Nature Climate Change calculates that a bit differently and now figures the carbon pollution already put in the air will push global temperatures to about 2.3 degrees Celsius (4.1 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times.

Previous estimates, including those accepted by international science panels, were about a degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) less than that amount of committed warming.

International climate agreements set goals of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, with the more ambitious goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) added in Paris in 2015. The world has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).

“You’ve got some … global warming inertia that’s going to cause the climate system to keep warming, and that’s essentially what we’re calculating,” said study co-author Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. “Think about the climate system like the Titanic. It’s hard to turn the ship when you see the icebergs.”

Dessler and colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Nanjing University in China calculated committed warming to take into account that the world has warmed at different rates in different places and that places that haven’t warmed as fast are destined to catch up.

Places such as the Southern Ocean, surrounding Antarctica are a bit cooler, and that difference creates low-lying clouds that reflect more sun away from earth, keeping these places cooler. But this situation can’t keep going indefinitely because physics dictates that cooler locations will warm up more and when they do, the clouds will dwindle and more heating will occur, Dessler said.

Previous studies were based on the cooler spots staying that way, but Dessler and colleagues say that’s not likely.

Outside experts said the work is based on compelling reasoning, but want more research to show that it’s true. Breakthrough Institute climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said the new work fits better with climate models than observational data.

Just because the world is bound to get more warming than international goals, that doesn’t mean all is lost in the fight against global warming, said Dessler, who cautioned against what he called “climate doomers.”

If the world gets to net zero carbon emissions soon, 2 degrees of global warming could be delayed enough so that it won’t happen for centuries, giving society time to adapt or even come up with technological fixes, he said.

“If we don’t, we’re going to blow through (climate goals) in a few decades,” Dessler said. “It’s really the rate of warming that makes climate change so terrible. If we got a few degrees over 100,000 years, that would not be that big a deal. We can deal with that. But a few degrees over 100 years is really bad.”

Editorial: Plastic trash is not just litter. It’s a climate change problem, too

Editorial: Plastic trash is not just litter. It’s a climate change problem, too

The Times Editorial Board                             January 3, 2021
CLIFFE, KENT - JANUARY 02: Plastics and other detritus line the shore of the Thames Estuary on January 2, 2018 in Cliffe, Kent. Tons of plastic and other waste lines areas along the Thames Estuary shoreline, an important feeding ground for wading birds and other marine wildlife. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at current rates of pollution, there will likely be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050. In December 2017 Britain joined the other 193 UN countries and signed up to a resolution to help eliminate marine litter and microplastics in the sea. It is estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world&#39;s oceans every year. Once in the Ocean plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade, all the while breaking down into smaller and smaller &#39;microplastics,&#39; which can be consumed by marine animals, and find their way into the human food chain. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
Plastics and other detritus line the shore of the Thames Estuary in Cliffe, England, in January 2018. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

 

-elect Joe Biden will have a long to-do list the moment he takes over the White House this month. Plastic trash should be one of his priorities. Here’s why.

Single-use plastic is a climate change issue — as well as an observable, measurable menace to the environment that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the need for plastic protective gear. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels, and millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions are released from the extraction of these resources, and the manufacture and incineration of plastic.

The end life of plastic is just as concerning. Very little of the plastic produced has been recycled, less than 10%. Even more of it has been burned. But the vast majority has been left to molder in landfills and, increasingly, pollute the environment. We hear mostly about ocean plastic and the harm done to marine life that mistakes plastic bags and bits for food. But microplastic is even more worrisome. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but instead breaks down into tiny particles, which have been found in every corner of the planet, on land and in the air, in drinking water and food sources, and, ominously, in the placentas of unborn fetuses.

We don’t yet have good data about what that means for human health, but considering the toxins used in manufacturing plastic — benzene, lead, endocrine-interrupting phthalates, just to name a few — it can’t be good.

Yet, frustratingly, Congress and past presidents have not given this global environmental disaster the attention it requires. Instead, they have viewed single-use plastic — which constitutes about 40% of plastic used each year — as a litter issue that local governments must solve through better recycling and waste management policies. That attitude must change, because the recent global breakdown of the market for recyclables has made it clear that recycling has never been, nor ever will be, able to keep up with plastic trash use.

What can be done?

That has long been on the minds of environmentalists, who have been lobbying for federal action to reduce disposable plastic for years. To that end, more than 600 environmental, social justice and community organizations have signed on to a sweeping plan that focuses on executive action that Biden can take immediately. So far, Congress has been unwilling to consider serious action on reducing plastic production, perhaps cowed by the powerful petrochemical lobby. The only significant plastic-reduction legislation last year, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, could not even get a hearing in the Senate.

Meanwhile, things are about to get worse. The petroleum industry is pivoting to increased plastic production, with some 30 new plastic-making facilities in the works in the U.S., according to the Center for Biological Diversity. (Among the reasons community and social justice organizations have become involved is that industrial pollution disproportionately affects low-income communities.)

The plan outlines eight steps that include directing federal agencies to use the power of procurement to reduce the amount of disposable plastic they buy, denying permits for expansion of plastic-making facilities and joining international efforts with new or strengthened multilateral agreements aimed at reducing single-use plastic. It’s a good blueprint, but Biden’s team should also look to California for inspiration.

California has been the leader on reducing plastic waste and was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags (a ban that was temporarily rescinded last year as a pandemic measure) and may well be the first state to transform the way goods are packaged. The state Legislature came tantalizingly close to passing the groundbreaking California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act in 2020, which would have required that products sold in plastic packaging in the state have a proven recycling or composting rate of 75% by 2032. The proposal is still very much alive, and if the Legislature doesn’t pass it in 2021 — though it should — a similar proposal is likely to be on the 2022 statewide ballot.

But California, while influential, can’t solve this crisis alone. The U.S. has been a leader in producing plastic trash; it should be a leader in reducing it as well.

Photos of the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley in 2020

DeSmog

Photos of the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley in 2020

 

The disproportionate toll that COVID-19 is taking on the Black community brought environmental justice issues to the forefront during 2020. Calls for dealing with climate change and environmental justice were elevated by president-elect Biden, who spoke about endangered communities in the last presidential debate and on his campaign website, calling for environmental justice and “rooting out the systemic racism in our laws, policies, institutions, and hearts.”

That toll is apparent in Louisiana where I continued to document the struggle for environmental justice for DeSmog throughout 2020. These photos are part of an ongoing DeSmog series on the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as ‘Cancer Alley’ which hosts more than 100 petrochemical plants and refineries. Environmental racism and pollution have left fenceline communities especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, a Cancer Alley community group, worried that the industrial sites around their homes might end up releasing even higher levels of air pollution since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was relaxing some of its pollution reporting and monitoring rules for industrial plants due to the pandemic.

The group has been particularly concerned about the nearby Denka plant, which emits numerous toxic chemicals including chloroprene, a likely human carcinogen, that’s used to produce the synthetic rubber Neoprene.

Members of RISE St. James, another Cancer Alley community group focused on stopping new petrochemical plants from being built in St. James Parish, were alarmed about the conversations about racial disparity regarding the virus’s impact by Louisiana officials. They felt that elected officials, more often than not, failed to mention the role pollution plays in compromising the health of many African-American communities that are near refineries and chemical plants, a pollution burden that scientists say increases the risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.

RISE St. James and allies have been fighting to stop the plastics manufacturing company Formosa from building its proposed $9.4 billion petrochemical complex that would likely more than double the toxic load in their already polluted air.

Despite so much heartache in 2020, we have seen some success in our fight for clean air this year,” Sharon Lavigne, the founder RISE St. James said on a call. “This year it is becoming clear that the law is on our side. Recent court rulings give me hope that victory will be ours.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on November 4 that the agency would reevaluate its wetlands permit for Formosa Plastics. And on November 18, state judge Trudy White sent critical air permits for Formosa’s project back to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), directing the agency to take a closer look at how the plastics facility’s emissions will impact the predominantly Black community living nearby.

Lavigne was also happy to learn on December 19 that a Louisiana district attorney chose not to prosecute her allies, Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh — environmental advocates with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade — for delivering plastic nurdles to fossil fuel lobbyists’ homes. They were facing federal charges for a stunt tied to a ‘nurdlefest,’ a December 2019 event in Baton Rouge aimed at raising awareness about plastics pollution.

But Lavigne is painfully aware she and others fighting for environmental justice in Cancer Alley can’t let their guard down. Earlier this month Governor John Bel Edwards announced that Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation (MCC) is considering building a large Methyl methacrylate (MMA) chemical plant in Cancer Alley, and the state is offering the company $4 million incentives to do it.

1. Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James, with Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, speaking to the press before a St. James council meeting where they asked the council to rescind a land use permit it granted to Formosa after a report was published showing the site has human remains that likely belonged to slaves on Jan. 21, 2020.

2. Wilma Subra, a technical advisor to the environmental advocacy group Louisiana Environmental Action Network going over data on reported chemical releases during the public meeting in Baton Rouge a week after the fire at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery on Feb.19.

3. Mary Hampton, President of the Concerned Citizens of St. John The Baptist Parish at a community meeting where David Gray, a regional EPA official, explained changes the agency is making to its ongoing air monitoring of chloroprene in St. John the Baptist Parish on Feb. 11.

4.Sharon Lavigne, the founder of RISE St. James, in St. James Catholic Church on April 8. 2020, where she told me: “Black people are being polluted the most in the 4th and 5th District in St James Parish, so of course we are hit the most by the pandemic. We are already hit by the pollution in the air. The pandemic adds to what we are already going through.”

5. Gail LeBoeuf, a St. James Parish resident taking part in a protest against pollution from petrochemical plants at the St. John the Baptist Government Complex on April 11.

6. Rep. Cedric Richmond speaking to Cancer Alley community members who protested in front of The New Orleans Advocate on April 24. Richmond, who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in fossil fuel campaign contributions during his tenure representing the cancer alley area, announced Nov. 12 that he was giving up his seat and joining Biden’s White House team as a senior adviser.

7. Courtney Baloney, the owner of the Treasures of Life funeral home, in St. James Parish, ready to start work on the body of a confirmed COVID-19 victim on May 30.

8. A pregnant woman at a rally in Duncan Plaza in New Orleans on the first of seven days of protest in solidarity with George Floyd on May 30.  A coalition of social justice groups, led by Take ‘Em Down NOLA and the New Orleans Workers Group, took to the city’s streets, protesting Floyd’s murder and raising awareness of the many injustices plaguing people of color from May 30 through June 7.

9. Protesters fleeing from a line of police on the Crescent City Connection on June 3 after police began firing tear gas and projectiles at them. The tear gas was fired despite health experts warning that the use of tear gas, a toxic irritant that can cause long-term lung damage, may worsen the spread of coronavirus.

10. Anne White Hat, one of the Indigenous leaders of the L’eau Est La Vie Camp that fought against the Bayou Bridge pipeline, speaking at a rally across from Jackson Square on June 6 in New Orleans.

11.  Sharon Lavigne speaking at a Juneteenth ceremony at the site of a former burial ground for enslaved African Americans on the site where Formosa plans to build a petrochemical complex on June 19.

12. Mark Benfield (right), a professor at Louisiana State University, with Dr. Liz Marchio, a local scientist, collecting nurdles under a wharf in New Orleans on August 25.

13. Sharon Lavigne, the founder of RISE St. James at a permit hearing for YCI Methanol Plant in St. James Sept 10, 2020. YCI applied for permits that would let them dump 61 hazardous chemicals into the Mississippi River, right near two St. James drinking water intakes. YCI’s wastewater could affect everyone downriver from their plant, including residents of New Orleans.

14. Residents of Cancer Alley marching with supporters in Lutcher, Louisiana, on October 17 during a protest against Amendment 5, which appeared on Louisiana’s November 3 ballot. If passed, the measure would have allowed manufacturers to negotiate lower tax bills with local governments, giving the petrochemical industry a way to permanently avoid paying property taxes. The amendment was rejected by Louisiana voters.

15. Wilma Subra, technical advisor for LEAN speaking against air permit modifications requested by the Marathon refinery at a LDEQ public hearing on Nov. 10 in St. John the Baptist Parish.  If the modifications are approved, the company will be permitted to release more toxic pollution than it already does. Few community members came to the meeting due to the pandemic.

16. Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade speaking against a permit modification sought by So LA Methanol, another plant poised to be built in St. James, at an LDEQ permit hearing on November 19.

17. New Orleans advocates for federal action to address the plastic pollution crisis projecting an anti-plastic message onto a New Orleans post office on December 7. Similar projections took place in San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.


LEAD PHOTO: Robert Taylor visiting the Zion Travelers Cemetery, next to the Marathon Refinery, in Reserve, Louisiana where some of his relatives are buried. 

All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog