Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Associated Press

Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Michael Rubinkam October 5, 2021

Gas Pipeline Investigation 1-9
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, center left, meets with members of the public and the press after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard before Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)More

The corporate developer of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline system that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally on Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.

Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.

Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide. He released a grand jury report that includes testimony from numerous residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.

The Texas-based pipeline giant was charged for “illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania’s safety at risk,” said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.

Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.

The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection — which spent freely on outside lawyers for its own employees during the attorney general’s investigation — had failed to conduct appropriate oversight.

In a statement, DEP said it has been “consistent in enforcing the permit conditions and regulations and has held Sunoco LP accountable.” The agency said it would review the charges “and determine if any additional actions are appropriate at this time.”

Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of the criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.

The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of mishaps that has plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.

“This was a major incident, but understand, it wasn’t an isolated one. This happened all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Shapiro, a Democrat who plans to run for governor next year. He said that spills of drilling fluid were “frequent and damaging and largely unreported.”

The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, DEP said Energy Transfer has paid more than $20 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the agency. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.

But environmental activists and homeowners who assert their water has been fouled say that fines and shutdown orders have not forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They have been demanding revocation of Mariner East’s permits.

Carrie Gross, who has been living with the roar of Mariner East construction in her densely packed Exton neighborhood all day, six days a week, for much of the last four years, fears that criminal charges will be just as ineffectual as DEP’s civil penalties.

“I would say this is just another example of Energy Transfer paying to pollute, and that’s part of their cost of doing business. Until somebody permanently halts this project, our environment and our lives continue to be in danger,” Gross said.

The dental hygienist lives about 100 feet from the pipelines and works about 50 feet from them. She said she worries about the persistent threat of sinkholes, a catastrophic rupture or an explosion even after construction is over.

Shapiro’s news conference was originally rescheduled for Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state environmental agency provided last-minute information to the attorney general’s office. The new information led to the filing of two additional charges, Shapiro said.

Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent earnings report that the attorney general has been looking at “alleged criminal misconduct” involving Mariner East. The company said in the document it was cooperating but that “it intends to vigorously defend itself.”

The various criminal probes into Mariner East have also consumed DEP, which has spent about $1.57 million on outside criminal defense lawyers for its employees between 2019 and 2021, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press.

The money was paid to five separate law firms representing dozens of DEP employees who dealt with Mariner East. Together, the firms submitted more than 130 invoices related to Mariner East investigations, performing legal work such as reviewing subpoenas and preparing clients to testify, the documents show.

When Mariner East construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused the Wolf administration of violating the law and warned pipeline construction would unleash massive and irreparable damage to Pennsylvania’s environment and residents.

“If we have a system where … the punishment, the fines, are basically seen as just a price of doing business, then we’ll continue to have violations in the commonwealth,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.

State officials “have a huge stick they could wield,” he added. “Maybe they just have to stop hesitating and use it.”

The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the enormous Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia.

Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which went into service in 2017 after months of protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others during its construction.

In battle to restore power after Ida, a tent city rises

Associated Press

In battle to restore power after Ida, a tent city rises

Rebecca Santana September 24, 2021

Bryan Willis, of Stilwell, Okla., an electrical worker for Ozarks Electric, looks at his phone before going to bed in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers congregate in the evening after parking their trucks after a day's work at a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Brian Ramshur, an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, climbs a power pole to restore power lines running through a marsh, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers install guy wires for a new utility pole in a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Josiah Goodman, left, and Austin Fleetwood, of Berryville, Ark. workers for Carroll Electric Cooperative Corporation, walk with a rainbow above them, through a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers make their beds in a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Signs mark a clothes drop in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Josh Anderson, Minneapolis, Minn., an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, eats a dinner in a cafeteria of a tent city for electrical workers, in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers watch TV and eat dinner in the cafeteria of a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers bunk down for the night in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Caterer Tony Faul, center, works with Kaleb Boullion, left, and Haven Doucet as they prepare breakfast inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers gas up rows of trucks after a day's work at a tent city in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Ida came ashore on Aug. 29, it knocked out power to about 1.1 million customers in the state. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Workers from Southwest Arkansas Electric, of Texarkana, Ark., relax on their truck after a day's work, inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers ride through marsh in a marsh buggy to restore power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges like just getting out to some of the areas where power poles and lines need to be fixed. In some areas lines thread through thick swamps that can only be accessed by air boat or specialized equipment like a marsh buggy. Linemen don waders to climb into chest-high muddy waters also home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A home is so damaged it will not be able to receive power once it is restored, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Dulac, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Shannon Beebe, an electrical worker for Sparks Energy, arrives in a marsh buggy to restore power lines running through a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers for Sparks Energy ride in a marsh buggy to restore power lines running through a marsh in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Electrical workers ride through marsh in an airboat to restore power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Houma, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Utility poles are loaded onto trucks at dawn before heading out to restore power, at a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A worker straps down utility poles that were just loaded on their truck before they head out to restore power at dawn, at a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A worker stands by to guide a spool of electrical wire being loaded onto his truck before heading out at dawn, inside a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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APTOPIX Hurricane Ida Restoring Electricity

Bryan Willis, of Stilwell, Okla., an electrical worker for Ozarks Electric, looks at his phone before going to bed in a tent city for electrical workers in Amelia, La., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)MoreREBECCA SANTANASeptember 24, 2021

AMELIA, La. (AP) — When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region.

In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. They need to sleep somewhere. They need to eat. Their trucks need fuel. They need wires, ties and poles. And occasionally they need cigarettes. Power providers build tent cities like this to meet those needs.

“There’s three things a lineman wants: good food, cold bed, hot shower. If you can get those three, you can work,” says Matthew Peters, operations manager for South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association, which built the tent city to house a peak of about 1,100 workers helping restore power to the cooperative’s customers.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html

When Ida came ashore on Aug. 29, it knocked out power to about 1.1 million customers in the state. The vast majority have seen their power restored, but in a sign of the storm’s extent, thousands are still in the dark while downed lines are righted and substations repaired.

SLECA provides electricity to about 21,000 customers, including many in the hard-hit bayou regions. Power has been restored to about 81% of their coverage area with the remaining 19% in areas with the most catastrophic damage, said Joe Ticheli, general manager of the cooperative. After initially fearing full restoration of power could take months, estimates are now that it could happen by next week, Ticheli said.

Over a few short days, SLECA and a consulting firm transformed the location that used to be a hub for oil field manufacturer McDermott International into a temporary home for workers from across the country. Ticheli even appointed a mayor to make sure things run smoothly.

In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. Tons of gravel was packed down on top of a grassy field so bucket trucks and other equipment — many flying American flags — can park.

At sunset, after workers park their trucks and head in to eat, shower and sleep, gasoline trucks drive up and down the rows, fueling the vehicles so no time is lost in the morning. Special treats — like cigarettes or steak night — help ease 16-hour workdays. Out-of-state crews are teamed with a local employee dubbed a “bird dog” who helps them.

Across the street is a warehouse where supplies such as transformers and wires are available. Outside, long wooden replacement poles wait to be loaded onto trucks.

Jordy Bourg, who runs the warehouse, said that right after the storm they had some supplies but immediately had to start ordering more. But like many things in the pandemic era, it’s been a challenge after Ida to get certain supplies.

Many people coming in to help have covered other disasters: Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Laura, ice storms in Arkansas and Texas. It’s good money, but more than that, they say it’s the feeling of restoring normalcy to someone who’s had everything stripped away from them. And many point out that the next disaster could easily be in their own backyard. Last year crews from SLECA went to southwest Louisiana when another Category 4 hurricane, Laura, slammed ashore there. This year, crews from southwest Louisiana came east to help.

“We’ve had a few storms hit back home and you kind of know how it is when you’ve been out of power,” said Robbie Davis, a lineman from Georgia. So many people in southeast Louisiana have no where to go, he said: “Out here, these folks’ homes got destroyed, businesses got destroyed.”

It can be dangerous work — two men believed to be electrocuted died helping restore power in Alabama.

The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins.

“You only work in this kind of area when you’re in south Louisiana. I can assure you, you don’t get this anywhere else,” says Jon Hise, a Sparks Energy foreman working with a crew in Houma to reset power lines. “It’s nasty. It’s chest deep. You can’t walk because the growth.”

As SLECA staff work to restore power to their slice of southeastern Louisiana, they have also been struggling with hurricane damage themselves. The general manager wears clothes from the Salvation Army after his home was severely damaged and looted. Coworkers have helped each other tarp damaged roofs. The company is operating out of trailers in their Houma headquarters after Ida peeled off the roof. Bourg is living in a trailer with his wife and two Boston terriers — his kids are staying with his in-laws — after Ida wrecked his house.

There’s also the toll of seeing large swaths of their coverage area so utterly destroyed. For many, getting power is just the first step in a long rebuilding process. Peters gets emotional when he talks of the dedication of his staff as well as the damage he’s seen among longtime customers.

“We’ve had storms before,” he said. “But the devastation was nothing of this magnitude.”

What Impact Will Climate Change Have On The Housing Market?

Benzinga

What Impact Will Climate Change Have On The Housing Market?

Phil Hall September 23, 2021

The physical destruction created by climate change will create significant and potentially severe changes in the actions of lenders, mortgage investors, federal programs and policies, appraisers, insurance companies, builders and homebuyers, according to the new report “The Impact of Climate Change on Housing and Housing Finance” published by the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Research Institute for Housing America.

Identifying The Risks: The report follows the recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures in dividing climate-related risks into physical risks (adverse weather events and natural disasters) and transition risks (policy and legal, technology, market and reputation risks). The report stressed that forecasting the severity of the risks is difficult because there is no course of action for addressing the problem.

“Projecting future climate change and its impacts remains challenging primarily because the outcome depends crucially on the actions chosen by governments, industries, and households,” said Sean Becketti, the report’s author and former chief economist at Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC). “Given the uncertainty over those actions, the future path of climate change could continue to get much worse.”

One of the most significant challenges posed by climate change, the report warned, was to the already-beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

“Increases this century in insurance claims generated by climate change are likely to stretch the NFIP to the breaking point, facing homebuyers, lenders, GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] and governments with a host of difficult questions,” the report observed. “In addition, independent estimates of flood risk suggest that the NFIP currently excludes 2/3 of the at-risk properties, suggesting that the current government approach to disaster recovery may become too expensive to sustain in future.”

Furthermore, no housing market will be spared from climate change’s wrath, the report noted, predicting that urban areas will face increased risks from extreme weather, flooding, air pollution, water scarcity, rising sea levels and storm surges while rural areas face the threat of dramatic changes in water availability, food security and agricultural incomes.

For mortgage lenders, servicers and investors, the report continued, climate change “may increase mortgage default and prepayment risks, trigger adverse selection in the types of loans that are sold to the GSEs, increase the volatility of house prices, and even produce significant climate migration.”

Identifying The Response: In order to mitigate the challenges that climate change will bring, the report offered strategies to review including “incorporating building modifications into new construction (easier) and existing buildings (more difficult and more expensive) and increasing the resiliency of communities through infrastructure improvements and standards.”

The report acknowledged that such strategies “are costly and require a high degree of adoption and cooperation that does not currently exist,” but it predicted that federal regulators and investors will apply pressure to ensure this is not shrugged off.

“In considering the example of estimating the impact of increased flooding on mortgage default risk, it is apparent that better and more standardized predictors of environmental risks will be needed,” the report concluded.

Photo: David Mark from Pixabay.

Killed ‘for defending our planet’: Latin America is deadliest place for environmentalists

Killed ‘for defending our planet’: Latin America is deadliest place for environmentalists

 

MEXICO CITY — Diana Gabriela Aranguren could not believe what the news was saying. She looked at the TV screen over and over, trying to understand how it was possible that her friend had been killed.

“He had just made a post on Facebook at 6 p.m. to participate in an activity and a bit later, the tragedy came on the news,” Aranguren, a teacher and environmental activist, said about the death of Oscar Eyraud Adams, an Indigenous Mexican activist and leader who was killed on Sept. 24, 2020, in Tecate, Baja California.

Eyraud Adams fought for the water rights of the Indigenous Kumiai, who have been affected by the excessive use of the region’s aquifers by large beer and wine companies.

His social media post, which were the last words he wrote, was a call for an event called “Looking for rain in the desert.”

A group of armed men entered his residence and shot him dead; the only thing they took was his cellphone and a notebook with his notes. At least 13 bullet casings, of different calibers, were found by authorities at the crime scene.

The case of Eyraud Adams, and many others, are chronicled in “Last Line of Defence: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders,” the latest report from Global Witness, an environmental rights organization which is calling out the increase in attacks against activists.

“You never think that defending our right to water and life will lead to death,” Aranguren said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo. “In Mexico, the people who defend their territory and natural resources are being killed, they make us disappear and they criminalize us.”

In 2020, there were 227 deadly attacks, an increase in the historical figures since 2019, the deadliest year for environmental activists, with 212 murders.

The most chilling data is in Latin America, where 165 deaths took place — three-quarters of the attacks.

Almost 3 out of 4 attacks occurred in the region, which includes 7 of the 10 deadliest countries.

Colombia, with 65 deaths, and Mexico, with 30, lead the world ranking of murders of land and environmental defenders. Other countries with worrying figures are Brazil and Honduras, with 20 and 17 murders, respectively.

Killed ‘for defending our planet’

At least 30 percent of the attacks are related to the exploitation of resources in activities such as logging, the construction of hydroelectric dams, mining projects and large-scale agribusiness.

“The people who are killed every year for defending their local populations were also defending the planet we share. In particular, our climate. Activities that flood our atmosphere with carbon, such as fossil fuel extraction and deforestation, are at the center of many of these murders,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote in Spanish in the report’s foreword.

The logging and deforestation industry is linked to the highest number of murders in 2020, with 23 cases recorded in countries such as Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and the Philippines.

Global Witness claims its data doesn’t reflect “the true dimension of the problem” because restrictions on press freedom and coercive tactics such as death threats, illegal surveillance, intimidation, sexual violence and criminalization can contribute to an underreporting of assaults.

Colombia and Mexico lead in killings

According to the organization, since the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, an average of four environmental defenders have been killed each week.

For the second consecutive year, Colombia registered the highest number of activists killed, totaling 65 executions. The attacks occurred in “the context of generalized attacks against human rights defenders and community leaders,” the report stated. “In many of the most remote areas, paramilitary and criminal groups increased their control through the exercise of violence.”

Almost half of the country’s homicides were against people engaged in small-scale agriculture and a third of the activists were Indigenous or Afro-Colombians.

The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)
The entrance to Kumiai territory in Juntas de Nejí, Baja California. (Felipe Luna / Global Witness)

Countries used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to implement repressive methods against their populations — “an opportunity to take drastic measures against civil society while companies advanced with destructive projects,” the researchers state.

The closures and quarantines made it easier to locate activists, “and that is why many of the homicides were perpetrated in their homes or in their surroundings,” Lourdes Castro, coordinator of the Somos Defensores program, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam.

“Paradoxically, the violent people had the possibility to walk freely through the territories,” Castro said.

Another worrying case is the situation for Mexican activists. Global Witness registered 30 lethal attacks in Mexico, which represents an increase of 67 percent compared to 2019 when 18 deaths were counted.

“Forest exploitation was linked to almost a third of these attacks and half of all attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities,” the researchers said. Moreover, most of them go unpunished, since 95 percent of murders in the country don’t result in a legal case.

Gabriela Carreón, human rights manager of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Cemda), said 2020 was the most violent year for environmental activists during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As of July, Cemda has registered 14 murders against environmental activists. That same month, the Mexican Ministry of the Interior acknowledged that at least 68 human rights defenders and 43 journalists have been assassinated so far during López Obrador’s tenure.

Fighting the hellish heat in Baja California

Heat kills in the Mexican state of Baja California. In 2019, at least eight heat-related deaths were recorded in Mexicali, the state’s capital; in 2020 they were 83.

“In the last 70 years, the temperature in Mexico has a clear and conclusive increasing trend,” Jorge Zavala Hidalgo, general coordinator of the National Meteorological Service, told Noticias Telemundo. “In the last decade it has increased very rapidly and that rise is even higher than the average for the planet.”

The slain environmental activist, Eyraud Adams, had lived through the region’s searing temperatures and lack of water.

In 2017, he had opposed the installation of the Constellation Brands brewery, which according to the company would use about 1.8 billion gallons a year for their production.

“Big companies have access to water much easier. This is not fair because we need water to survive,” Eyraud Adams had said, his comments quoted in the report. He promoted solutions to guarantee the preservation of water resources for the Kumiai and avoid the exodus of young people from the region.

“He helped us make what is happening in Baja California visible, but he paid for it with his life,” said his friend Aranguren, who is part of Mexicali Resiste, an environmental rights organization.

“It is sad because these murders take away our children’s future security,” she said.

“We feel great fear because we have to keep fighting. There are still megaprojects in this area that take away our water,” Aranguren said. “But if we don’t protest, no one will come to help us.”

Fact that one-third of US was hit with extreme weather event this summer is a red flag: Energy Secretary

Fact that one-third of US was hit with extreme weather event this summer is a red flag: Energy Secretary

Akiko Fujita, Anchor/Reporter             September 20, 2021

 

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Monday, extreme weather events this summer have elevated the urgency with which the Biden administration tackles the climate crisis.

But, with less than two months to go until the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), she said the administration has no plans to boost its ambitions to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels, by the end of this decade.

“The fact that one-third of the country has experienced an extreme climate related event this summer, whether it is wildfires, or hurricanes, or droughts or whatever, that is the exclamation point that we hope that the rest of the country sees the urgency of the moment,” said Granholm in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live. “[The plan to slash emissions] is a really hard goal. And it’s going to require a full effort, not just all of government, but all of the economy.”

The continued call for climate action comes on the heels of a summer marked by extreme weather events.

Nearly 1-in-3 Americans have been affected by extreme weather in the last three months, according to a Washington Post analysis. Nearly 400 people have died from hurricanes, floods, and heat waves, based on media reports and government data obtained by the Post.

With less than two months to go until global leaders gather at the COP 26 in Glasgow, Granholm, along with other administration officials, are looking to capitalize on the urgency of the moment, to pressure lawmakers to pass key climate legislation in Congress.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill calls for investments in clean energy, including $7.5 billion to build out a national network for electric vehicle chargers, and $27 billion for essential transmission investments. The Democratic reconciliation bill, with a $3.5 trillion price tag, calls for a $150 billion investment for a clean electricity standard.

“We would get to the number of 100% clean electricity by 2035, if we have the right policy pieces in place,” Granholm said.

The Department of Energy’s proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, establishes clean energy tax incentives by providing grants or payments to utility companies based on the amount of renewable energy the firm supplies to customers. That, combined with a methane fee would accelerate the shift to clean energy, in line with the timeline set out by the Biden administration, said Granholm.

“There’s both a regulatory side and there’s a market side, and sometimes the market side is even more powerful, because all of these countries as well as other companies have goals to be able to reduce their own carbon dioxide footprints,” Granholm said.

But, recent studies show market-based pressure has done little to change the behavior of U.S. oil and gas majors. A report by financial think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative points to continued investments in major oil and gas projects are inconsistent with the goals of the Paris Climate agreement. Despite that, Granholm said the administration has no plans to introduce a carbon tax, saying the preference is to incentive action, instead of penalizing inaction.

“We think the most effective tool is the one that we have laid out, which is to incentivize the utilities to purchase the right ingredients to be able to get to that clean electricity goal,” she said. “I understand certainly that a carbon tax is something people have been talking about for a long time. It’s just not this administration’s preferred way of moving.

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance.

Sea-level rise becoming a hazard for suburban South Florida neighborhoods far from ocean

Sea-level rise becoming a hazard for suburban South Florida neighborhoods far from ocean

 

Sea-level rise may appear to be a problem only for coastal residents, a hazard that comes with the awesome views and easy access to the beach.

But neighborhoods 20 miles inland are starting to feel the impact, as the Atlantic Ocean’s higher elevation makes it harder for drainage canals to keep them dry. The problem showed up last year in Tropical Storm Eta, when floodwater remained in southwest Broward neighborhoods for days, partly because the elevated ocean blocked canals from draining the region.

“It was pretty scary,” said Barb Besteni, who lives in far west Miramar. “I stepped out of house into ankle-deep water. It came three-fourths up the driveway. I’d never seen the water that high. It was scary because I didn’t know if it was going to continue to rise.”

Although her house in the Sunset Lakes community stands at the edge of the Everglades, the Atlantic’s higher elevation prevented it from draining as efficiently as in the past.

“It took a very, very long time to recede,” she said. “Two or three weeks to recede to normal levels.”

The Swap Shop on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale flooded from overnight storms from Tropical Storm Eta, on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
The Swap Shop on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale flooded from overnight storms from Tropical Storm Eta, on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

The South Florida Water Management District, which operates the big canals that sweep water into the ocean, submitted a funding request to the state this week for fixing the system, with the preliminary list of projects carrying a price tag of more than $1.5 billion. Although expensive, the pumps and other improvements would help restore the efficiency of a system built after World War II that has become more difficult to operate at a time of rising sea levels.

“When ocean water is higher, we cannot discharge, so we close the gates to avoid ocean water coming inside,” said Carolina Maran, district resiliency officer for the South Florida Water Management District. “During Eta, it was much higher than normal. And that means again that we cannot discharge to the ocean and that diminished our capacity to prevent and address flooding.”

A tropical storm overwhelms flood-control systems

Although there’s never a great time to endure 15-plus inches of rain, Tropical Storm Eta struck South Florida at a particularly challenging period.

The ground already had been saturated by previous storms. And coastal waters were undergoing a king tide, a phenomenon that occurs when the positions of sun and moon combine to produce the highest tides of the year. As sea levels rise, king tides get higher.

The wide canals that run through Broward and Miami-Dade counties, carrying rainwater to the ocean, depend partly on gravity. When rainwater raises the level of the canal on the inland side, water managers lift the gate dividing it from the ocean side of the canal and the water flows away, eventually reaching the Atlantic.

But when the Atlantic side is high, there may be no difference in elevations between each side of the gate, so when it’s lifted, the water doesn’t move. Or worse, the Atlantic side could be higher, so lifting the gate would allow ocean water to pour inland.

This is a view of the S-199 pump station for the C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project, which is part of the South Florida Water Management. The project will provide ecosystem restoration of freshwater wetlands, tidal wetlands and near-shore habitat as well as flood protection maintenance and recreational opportunities.

During Tropical Storm Eta, staffers at the South Broward Drainage District found themselves consulting tide charts to determine when they could open the gates and discharge water.

“We had to close our gate because the downstream gets equal to our upstream,” said Kevin Hart, district director of the South Broward Drainage District, which operates the canal system that feeds into the larger canals that drain into the ocean. “We don’t want to drain in, we want to drain out. We’ve got to close our gate.

“We were looking at tide charts — Low tides going to be at 2 o’clock and at 5 or 6 we can see the levels dropping and open our gate again.”

South Florida’s aging flood-control system confronts sea-level rise

Constructed largely in the 1940s and 1950s, South Florida’s drainage system has been an efficient — some would say too efficient — system for keeping a once-swampy part of Florida dry.

The system contributed to the decline of the Everglades, at times flooding the area, at other times drying it out. But it accomplished what it was supposed to do, keeping the land dry for cities such as Pembroke Pines and Miramar by swiftly moving rainwater through a system of canals to the ocean.

But now that movement of water isn’t that swift and doesn’t always happen. As a result, people in cities without ocean views are finding that the water level of the Atlantic Ocean can affect their homes.

Although cities are installing pumps and other flood-control devices, they need capacity in the canals to get rid of the water.

“No matter what we do, if they don’t lower those canals so our water can escape, there’s nothing to be done,” said Angelo Castillo, a Pembroke Pines commissioner. “We can spend as much money as we want on drainage but if they can’t access the canals because the canals won’t take that capacity, nothing that we do in terms of conveying water faster to those canals will work.”

A flooded parking lot can be seen near T.J. Maxx in Sawgrass Mills Mall in Sunrise on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. Tropical Storm Eta made its way past South Florida Sunday night, leaving roads and neighborhoods flooded.

Sea levels have been rising at an accelerating rate, largely due to climate change caused by pollution from cars, power plants and other sources of heat-trapping gases. A NOAA study says global sea levels have gone up 3.4 inches from 1993 to 2019.

In South Florida, estimates from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which represents local governments, call for sea levels to rise 10-17 inches above 2000 levels by 2040.

Hoping to revamp the system for an age of rising sea levels, the water management district has proposed improvements at 23 drainage structures in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. They range from southern Miami-Dade County to the Hillsboro Canal, which separates Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The major projects would be the addition of powerful pumps to allow water to be moved to the ocean side of the canal when the ocean is too high to move water by gravity. But these projects are expensive.

The improvements, assuming they go through, could help homeowners with their flood insurance bills. A better drainage system could hold down rates and reduce the number of properties required to get flood insurance.

The water management district is seeking federal and state money for the work. As soon as the first funding comes through, the district plans to start designing the new pumps and other improvement for water-control structures on the canal that drains southern Broward and the one that drains northeast Miami-Dade.

Jennifer Jurado, who oversees climate-change planning for Broward County, said the improvements will help prevent neighborhoods from flooding in future storms, but the region needs to come up with ways to keep as much water as possible rather than just pumping it away.

“It’s trying to ensure the system works at least as well as it was intended,” she said. “It’s a huge part of the fix. Our system can’t just pump it out. We have to be able to store as much of it as we can because the rain that falls is the rain we use for our water supply. We need to capture and store that water, in addition to providing flood relief.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Cleanup of abandoned mines could get boost, relieving rivers

Cleanup of abandoned mines could get boost, relieving rivers

 

This March 7, 2016 photo provided by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality shows a polluted Belt Creek in Montana. The state plans to build a plant to treat acid mine drainage from an old coal mine that is polluting Belt Creek, sometimes causing it to turn a rusty color and harming the trout fishery. (Tom Henderson/Montana Department of Environmental Quality via AP)
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Thousands of abandoned coal mines in the U.S. have been polluting rivers and streams for decades, in some cases harming fish and contaminating drinking water. Now efforts to finally clean up the sites could soon get a big boost.

 

Tucked into the Senate-passed infrastructure bill is $11.3 billion for the cleanup of defunct coal mines to be distributed over 15 years — money experts say would go a long way toward rehabilitating the sites that date back to before 1977. Cleanup efforts are currently funded by fees from coal mining companies, but that money has fallen far short of what’s needed to fix the problems.

“The next 15 years — if this passes — is literally a historic advancement in mine reclamation,” said Eric Dixon, a research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute.

In the past 40 years, only about a quarter of the damage has been cleaned up, he said.

Abandoned coal mines are concentrated along the Appalachian Mountains, with clusters also dotting the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. The sites can clog rivers with debris or pollute streams with harmful discharges caused by minerals exposed from mining, reducing fish populations and turning water brick red. Safety is another issue since people can topple into mineshafts and debris can fall from the mine’s high walls.

Fees from companies to clean up the sites are collected under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977, which sought to remedy the history of unregulated coal production that left abandoned mines around the country. Companies are now regulated so that sites are cleaned up once mining stops.

Among the states that need significant funding for mine cleanups are Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, according to the Interior Department.

Pennsylvania — which needs the most funding in the country — has 5,500 miles of streams with impaired water quality due to runoff from abandoned mines, according to state officials.

The problem has persisted for so long that some Pennsylvania residents are surprised when red streams in their backyard are finally cleaned up and change color, said John Stefanko of the Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations in Pennsylvania.

“These are streams that you wouldn’t want to walk through,” he said, noting that the sediment from the mine runoff can come off on people.

Another worry is property damage. In 2019, for example, a collapsed tunnel entrance blocked water from escaping an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. State officials worried a rupture and deluge could threaten the houses downstream. Workers were able to fix the blocked tunnel.

The federal program that funds cleanups categorizes sites by priority, and those that pose a safety hazard to humans are bumped to the top of the list. Priority rankings can also rise if drinking water is affected. A site may be a lower priority if it only poses an environmental threat.

The infrastructure bill directs cleanup funds toward several priority groups.

Elizabeth Klein, senior counselor to the Interior Secretary, said clean water is essential for the economic growth that many Appalachian communities are pursuing.

“It’s really hard to convince people to stay in a community where they don’t think they’ll have access to clean drinking water,” she said.

Some environmentalists want the bill’s language changed to ensure money will also be available for the maintenance costs that are sometimes required for cleanup projects that address water quality.

A single abandoned mine site can pose multiple problems; U.S. officials estimate $10.6 billion in construction costs would be needed to fix the more than 20,000 problems nationwide. Dixon of the Ohio River Valley Institute puts the price tag at nearly $21 billion when factoring in inflation, project planning costs and other expenses.

Dixon also noted that the federal inventory is incomplete, since states do not have to document all abandoned sites that do not pose a health or safety risk to people, even if they’re environmentally damaging.

The infrastructure bill’s fate is tied to Congressional negotiations over a $3.5 trillion spending plan. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has praised the impact the funds could have on mine cleanups, but cast doubt on the size of the spending plan, complicating negotiations over the package.

The bill would also extend the fees coal companies pay into the fund until 2034, though at a reduced rate.

Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said coal company executives “have never paid enough” to clean up the problems and that their fees alone are not enough to fix the sites.

Ashley Burke of the National Mining Association said bigger fees would harm coal companies and make them less competitive, but that the industry supports the extension of a reduced fee.

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit

California firefighters scramble to protect sequoia groves

California firefighters scramble to protect sequoia groves

 

THREE RIVERS, Calif. (AP) — Flames on Sunday reached a grove of sequoia trees in California as firefighters battled to keep fire from driving further into another grove, where the base of the world’s largest tree has been wrapped in protective foil.

Fire officials warned that hot, dry weather and stronger winds were contributing to “critical fire conditions” in the area of the KNP Complex, two lightning-sparked blazes that merged on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.

The fire reached Long Meadow Grove, where the Trail of 100 Giant Sequoias is a national monument. Fire officials haven’t yet been able to determine how much damage was done to the groves, which are in remote and hard-to-reach areas. However, an Associated Press photographer saw active flames burning up a trunk, with the forest floor ablaze below.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying gusts and lower humidity could create conditions for rapid wildfire spread.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a foothill town of about 2,500 people. Firefighters using bulldozers expanded a line between the fire and the community, fire spokesperson Rebecca Paterson said Sunday.

More than 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) of forest land have been blackened.

The National Park Service said Friday that fire had reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, where it scorched a grouping of sequoias known as the “Four Guardsmen” that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 sequoias.

Since then crews have managed to keep the flames from encroaching further into the area.

“The fire perimeter kind of wraps around the Giant Forest at this point,” Paterson said.

Firefighters swaddled the base of the General Sherman Tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), according to the National Park Service. It towers 275 feet (84 meters) high and has a circumference of 103 feet (31 meters) at ground level.

Firefighters who were wrapping the base of the sequoias in foil and sweeping leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee from the danger, fire spokesperson Katy Hooper said Saturday. They returned when conditions improved to continue the work and start a strategic fire along Generals Highway to protect the Giant Forest grove, she said.

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of fires — fueled by climate change — can overwhelm the trees.

“Once you get fire burning inside the tree, that will result in mortality,” said Jon Wallace, the operations section chief for the KNP Complex.

The fires already have burned into several groves containing trees as tall as 200 feet (61 meters) feet tall and 2,000 years old.

To the south, the Windy Fire grew to 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Giant Sequoia National Monument, where it has burned into the Peyrone grove of sequoias and threatens others.

Historic drought tied to climate change is making wildfires harder to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

More than 7,000 wildfires in California this year have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and torched well over 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

This story has corrected a reference to the General Sherman tree, which is the world’s largest by volume, not tallest.

‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

Low water levels mean rice harvesters can’t paddle their canoes to their traditional harvesting areas.
Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

 

Along the eastern boundary of the White Earth Indian Reservation in north-western Minnesota, Indigenous Anishinaabe wild rice harvesters Jerry and Jim Libby set down a row of wooden pallets into the mud just beyond the dock of Upper Wild Rice Lake. It was a clear day, and tight, lush clumps of green rice heads were visible across the lake’s horizon.

In a typical year, the entrance to this – one of a long necklace of wild rice lakes in northern Minnesota to which the region’s Indigenous people flock every year in the late summer – would be covered in at least two feet of water. But now it is composed of suspended sediment as solid as chocolate pudding, through which the Libbys need to create a makeshift ramp simply to carry their canoe out to the waterline.

Minnesota is weathering an historic drought, but there is another problem beyond the weather: Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline has taken a substantial toll on watersheds in the region, including through a permit to pump five billion gallons of water for construction. In the case of Upper Wild Rice Lake, a road construction contractor named Knife River Construction stuck a pump directly in the lake this past June, sucking out an unknown quantity of water, which locals suspect was related to the use of heavy trucks for the pipeline.

“As far as I’m concerned, Enbridge screwed up our lake, and they’re taking money directly away from our families,” Jerry Libby says. “It makes us feel anguished – this is our staple food, you know.”

The Indigenous-led struggle against Line 3, which seeks to move 930,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen daily from Alberta to a shipping and refinery hub in Superior, Wisconsin, has been the biggest environmental and Indigenous land protection campaign in the US this summer. More than 900 people have been arrested opposing the pipeline, including nearly 70 who were kettled in late August during protests outside Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s residence in Minneapolis.

Branded as a “replacement” project, the new pipeline would double the old Line 3’s capacity to carry tar sands bitumen. Enbridge, a Canada-based energy company, has announced it will begin sending oil through the pipeline next month.

The processing and combustion of bitumen for the pipeline would release greenhouse gases equivalent to 50 coal plants, according to analysis by the nonprofit Oil Change International, thereby significantly contributing to the global climate crisis. But one of the pipeline’s most immediate impacts is on wild rice harvesters such as the Libbys, for whom the annual harvesting season began in late August and runs through much of September.

Wild rice – known to many Anishinaabe people as “manoomin,” or “the food that grows on water” – is a dense, nutritional grain that grows naturally in the abundant lakes and rivers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Canada. Thousands of Anishinaabe people continue to harvest it with the same traditional methods used for generations, by propelling a canoe or small boat through the rice beds with a long pole.

Indigenous people of the region believe they have a sacred covenant to protect manoomin and numerous other nonhuman beings, without which they would cease to exist as distinct peoples, notes longtime Anishinaabe rice harvester Bob Shimek. “During any kind of ceremony we do here, wild rice is involved,” Shimek says. “It’s kind of like the Anishinaabe soul food.”

Line 3 runs across more than 200 bodies of water, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River and some of the region’s most important wild rice waters, streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. The state Department of Natural Resources permitted Enbridge to draw nearly five billion gallons from these water bodies absent public notice or consultation with the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Christy Dolph, a University of Minnesota research scientist focused on the state’s water resources, notes that the pipeline’s impacts on water and the species that depend on it are numerous. In the course of excavating trenches to lay pipe, Enbridge pumps out any groundwater that still seeps into the trench, inevitably leading water to evaporate.

“These activities have a major impact, especially because these wetlands are already under severe stress from the drought,” she says.

Opponents also fear leaks and spills from the tar sands pipeline, particularly since the thick substance is nearly impossible to clean up.

As with other wetland plant species, wild rice is highly sensitive to fluctuations in water levels, which damage its ability both to grow and reseed. For rice harvesters, low water levels mean they are unable to paddle their canoes out to their usual rice grounds, depriving them of a major source of physical and spiritual sustenance, as well as a significant source of income.

During a typical year, the Libby brothers say, they make up to $9,000 from rice harvesting, which they use for basic necessities like home repairs, school supplies for their grandchildren and vehicle maintenance. But since this year’s harvesting season began in late August, many harvesters have had to resort to unorthodox methods such as trekking through the muddy, dried-out lakes in snow shoes with burlap sacks slung around their shoulders, a technique that yields one-third to one-fourth the amount they could harvest with canoes.

Enbridge disputes the notion that they bear any responsibility for the dry conditions in rice beds near the pipeline route or that the pipeline has a detrimental impact on watersheds. “Line 3’s permit conditions protect the environment during construction, and specifically wild rice,” Enbridge spokersperson Juli Kelner wrote via email. “Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota’s most sacred and productive wild rice stands for seven decades.”

In response to a request for comment, a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson wrote that “Minnesota DNR has worked consistently to minimize the impacts of the Line 3 replacement project on wild rice and other Minnesota resources. These efforts date back to our original comments to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding project routing, where we strongly advocated for route alternatives that would minimize crossings in or near wild rice waters.”

The effects of Line 3 construction on wild rice are at the center of a first of its kind lawsuit brought by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in which wild rice is itself the plaintiff. Under a series of treaties that Chippewa Anishinaabe people signed with the US government during the mid-19th century, the lawsuit asserts, wild rice “possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” The suit seeks an injunction against the Department of Natural Resources to void Enbridge’s water permit, though the case may not be decided until after construction is completed.

Beyond the direct effects of the Line 3 pipeline, wild rice faces numerous other threats – including from the climate crisis. According to a 2018 report by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an intertribal agency that seeks to protect Anishinaabe treaty rights, climate change will wreak devastation on virtually all the plant and animal species on which they rely. Wild rice is the most endangered of these species because of its sensitivity to flooding, drought, and disease outbreaks, the report says.

Stopping Line 3 is imperative to fighting the climate crisis, opponents note, because tar sands are one of the most intensive fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and because the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure locks in emissions for decades to come. For the past several months, activists have called on the Biden administration to stop the pipeline by directing the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permit it granted the project under the Trump administration.

According to Anishinaabe wild rice harvester Angel Stevens, a member of the anti-pipeline Manoomin Camp, the struggle against Line 3 is still going strong despite the project’s imminent completion. “We’re continuing to do everything we can to stop this pipeline,” she says.

Three Weeks After Hurricane Ida, Parts of Southeast Louisiana Are Still Dark

Three Weeks After Hurricane Ida, Parts of Southeast Louisiana Are Still Dark

Downed power lines in Luling, La. on Sept. 11, 2021. (Emily Kask/The New York Times)
Downed power lines in Luling, La. on Sept. 11, 2021. (Emily Kask/The New York Times)

 

NEW ORLEANS — For Tiffany Brown, the drive home from New Orleans begins as usual: She can see the lights on in the city’s central business district and people gathering in bars and restaurants. But as she drives west along Interstate 10, signs of Hurricane Ida’s destruction emerge. Trees with missing limbs fill the swamp on either side of the highway. With each passing mile, more blue tarps appear on rooftops and more electric poles lay fallen by the road, some snapped in half.

By the time Brown gets to her exit in Destrehan 30 minutes later, the lights illuminating the highway have disappeared, and another night of total darkness has fallen on her suburban subdivision.

For Brown, who works as an office manager at a pediatric clinic, life at work can feel nearly normal. But at home, with no electricity, it is anything but. “I keep hoping every day that I’m going to go home and it’ll be on,” she said. “But every day it’s not.”

Three weeks have passed since Hurricane Ida knocked down electric wires, poles and transmission towers serving more than 1 million people in southeast Louisiana. In New Orleans, power was almost entirely restored by Sept. 10, and businesses and schools have reopened. But outside the city, more than 100,000 customers were without lights through this past Monday. As of Friday evening, there were still about 38,000 customers without power, and many people remained displaced from damaged homes.

As intensifying storms driven by climate change reveal the weakness of electric grids across the United States, severe power outages are becoming an increasingly regular long-term aftershock.

“It so quickly pivots from the disaster itself — the hurricane, the wildfire, the floods,” said Julie McNamara, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So much of the consequences of these extreme weather events are because of those long-lasting power outages.”

For many, like Brown, getting the lights back on could still be more than a week away: Entergy, the state’s largest utility, estimates that power will be fully restored in the state by Sept. 29, a full month after Ida made landfall. Linemen are scattered across the coast replacing downed wires and poles, but in some areas hit by sustained winds as high as 150 mph, electrical systems will need to be completely rebuilt.

The challenges of weeks without power are wearing on residents. Kelly Walker, who lives in Luling, Louisiana, went almost three weeks with no electricity before the lights were finally restored Friday. Her mother’s small three-bedroom house became a crowded home base to eight people, with a generator tempering the sweltering heat at a cost of often $80 per day in gasoline. With no hot water to take a shower, the grocery stores still poorly stocked, her 14-year-old son’s school closed indefinitely, and little to do for entertainment, the family saw tensions run high.

“It seems in the big picture things are coming together,” said Walker. “But it feels like the outskirts, little towns and communities, are getting left behind.”

Everywhere from St. Charles Parish, where Walker lives, to Thibodaux more than 30 miles west, and 50 miles south to Grand Isle — an expanse that includes bedroom communities, fishing towns and small cities of oil and gas workers — power outages have led to a cascade of challenges.

Jobs, schools and daily routines remain on hold across the region. Workers on cherry pickers string new power lines along roads as drivers wait their turn at dead traffic lights. On some residential streets, power lines hang so low that cars just barely scrape under them.

The Terrebonne Parish school district, where just over a dozen of 34 schools had power as of Friday, has been closed for weeks. The district is “not even contemplating” reopening school buildings until they have electricity, said Philip Martin, the school superintendent. Schools farther north with power and less damage will temporarily house students from the southern reaches of the parish starting Sept. 27. But without the lights on, it has been challenging to even assess the wind damage to school buildings to determine how long that fix will be necessary.

Medical facilities are struggling, too. The urgent care clinic that Alicia Doucet manages in Cut Off, a small fishing town along the bayou southwest of New Orleans, reopened a week after the storm hit, when the staff finally secured a generator. But a week later, the gasoline costs to run it were adding up. Supplies including medications and crutches were slow to arrive as delivery trucks struggled to make it through the debris to reach the clinic.

“We’re just praying that each one that comes in, we’re able to treat,” Doucet said. The hospital will be shut down for months after losing its roof in the storm, according to Lafourche Parish President Archie Chaisson, forcing the clinic to send those in need of more acute care to the hospital in Thibodaux, an hour away.

The enduring blackout has stalled the rebuilding process in communities like Pointe-Aux-Chenes, a small community of homes, many raised on stilts, across the marsh from Doucet’s clinic that is home to the Pointe-au-Chien tribe.

“No water, no electricity, so you can’t do nothing,” Charles Verdin, the tribal chair, said. Most residents have yet to return to the community, where the intense winds rendered most homes uninhabitable.

And with every passing day, the already immense task of rebuilding becomes more daunting as rain falls through holes in rooftops and mold spreads.

Verdin said it was not until Sept. 13, more than two weeks after the storm, that he first saw workers make their way down the bayou to start repairing the power lines. He understands the obstacles they face: Piles of debris and downed wires make the already lengthy drive from the community to any population center far longer. Many downed poles were planted in soft, swampy soil, making them difficult to fix.

But he also believes that restoring power to his community was low on the list of priorities of the utility company.

“We don’t like it, but we’re used to it. They’ll take care of where the most population is,” said Verdin.

Entergy spokesperson Jerry Nappi confirmed that the company prioritizes getting the greatest number of customers’ power back the fastest, with lines that serve fewer people restored later.

The immense challenge of repairing more than 30,000 poles, 36,000 spans of wire and nearly 6,000 transformers brought down by the storm has left many wondering whether Entergy should have invested more in strengthening this infrastructure to be able to withstand the heavy winds that wallop the Gulf Coast with increasing regularity.

State regulators asked that question in 2019, when the Louisiana Public Utilities Commission opened an inquiry into grid reliability. But the proceeding remains open, and regulators have done little to compel Entergy to answer for outages, even as long-term blackouts become more frequent.

After Hurricane Laura tore through the southwest part of the state last August, causing more than 400,000 outages in Louisiana, it took more than a month for the utility to restore power to all customers, at an estimated cost of up to $1.4 billion. A month later, it took two weeks for Entergy to fully restore power after Hurricane Zeta knocked out power to nearly a half-million customers in the state.

For many, getting power back after Hurricane Ida is just the beginning.

Last weekend, Anthony Griffith and Brittany Dufrene surveyed their house in LaPlace after a demolition crew had gutted it, two weeks after Hurricane Ida brought a surge of floodwater from nearby Lake Pontchartrain into their subdivision.

Their plan “for now” is to rebuild, Dufrene said, and she expects that many of her neighbors will, too. But with storms hitting the area more often, the longer-term solution is less clear. “How many times can you do that?” she asked.

From down the driveway, a neighbor called out that he had gotten power. Griffith flicked a switch on the fuse box, and sure enough, for the first time in nearly two weeks, it turned on.

Maybe now they could stay at home, Griffith suggested, instead of bouncing between relatives’ houses over an hour apart.

Dufrene laughed, looking at the mattresses stacked in the garage and at the walls with the bottom few feet removed.

“Where are we going to stay?” Dufrene asked. “Where are we going to sleep?