In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living
Stephen McGrath April 22, 2021
Vidra, Romania (AP) — In the trash-strewn slums of Sintesti, less than 10 miles from Romania’s capital, Mihai Bratu scrapes a dangerous living for his Roma family amid the foul reek of burning plastic that cloys the air day and night.
Like many in this community, for him illegally setting fire to whatever he can find that contains metal — from computers to tires to electrical cables — seems like his only means of survival.
“We’re selling it to people who buy metal, we are poor people … we have to work hard for a week or two to get one kilogram of metal,” 34-year-old Bratu, perched on an old wooden cart, told The Associated Press. “We are struggling to feed our kids … The rich people have the villas, look at the rich people’s palaces.”
You don’t have to look far.
The main road that runs through Sintesti, a largely Roma village in the Vidra commune, is lined with ornate, semi-constructed villas and dotted with shiny SUVs. Behind lurk the parts where Bravu and his young children live, a social black hole with no sanitation or running water. The two worlds are strongly connected.
For Octavian Berceanu, the new head of Romania’s National Environmental Guard, the government environmental protection agency, the pollution from the illegal fires that burn here almost ceaselessly was so bad that he started regular raids in the community — where he says “mafia structures” lord it over “modern slaves.”
“This is a kind of slavery, because the people living here have no opportunity for school, to get a job in the city, which is very close, they don’t have infrastructure like an official power grid, water, roads — and that is destroying their perspective on life,” Berceanu told The Associated Press during a police-escorted tour in April.
The slums of Sintesti, like Roma communities elsewhere, have long been ignored by authorities. They’re made up of makeshift homes, where unofficially rigged electricity cables hug the ground and run over a sea of trash.
“For too many years, they were allowed in some way to do this dirty job,” Berceanu said. “Nobody came here in the past.. to see what’s happening.”
On one day in April during a patrol of the local area, authorities seized a van loaded with 5,000 kilograms of illegal copper, worth as much as 40,000 euros ($48,000). That’s just a small cog in the local illegal metal recycling industry and highlights the staggering revenue it can bring to the wealthy homeowners.
But on top of the considerable social ills, according to the environment chief, the fires can significantly hike pollution in Bucharest, potentially by as much as 20-30%, at times pushing air quality to dangerous levels.
“The smoke particulates are taken by the wind 10 miles, it’s like rain over Bucharest and it’s destroying the quality of the air in the capital. It’s one hundred times more dangerous than wood-fire particles — there are a lot of toxic components,” Berceanu said.
During a late afternoon patrol of Sintesti, AP journalists joined Berceanu and four police officers as they homed in on an acrid cloud of smoke rising above the hotchpotch dwellings. A raucous scene broke out until a hunched-over elderly lady could be persuaded to douse the fire with water — exposing the valuable metal remnants.
“If the local authorities are not applying the law, of course people — whatever their ethnic origin — are encouraged to continue doing what they are doing,” said Gelu Duminica, a sociologist and executive director of the Impreuna Agency, a Roma-focused non-governmental organization.
Focusing on pollution from the Roma community, Duminica says, instead of on big industry or the more than 1 million cars in the densely populated capital of 2 million, is “scapegoating” and part of a political “branding campaign.”
“Everywhere in the world, the poorest are exploiting the marginal resources in order to survive. We have a chain of causes: low education, low infrastructure, low development … a lot of things are low,” Duminica said
“The rich Roma are controlling the poor Roma, but the rich Roma are controlled by others. If you look at who is leading and who is controlling things, it’s more than likely you’ll have huge surprises. Let’s not treat it as an ethnic issue,” he said.
In the future, the environment chief hopes surveillance drones with pollution sensors and infrared cameras can help paint a clearer picture of how the networks operate.
“We’re working against organized crime and it’s very hard,” he said. “If we solve this problem here, very close to Bucharest, we can solve any kind of problem similar to this all around the country.”
For local resident Floria, who refused to give a surname but said she was 40-something, a lack of official documents, education, and options leave her and her community with no alternatives.
“We don’t want to do this. Why don’t they give us jobs like (communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu used to, they would come with buses, with cars, and take us to town to work,” she told The Associated Press. “Gypsies are seen as the worst people no matter where we go or what we do.”
Mihai Bratu blames local authorities for the plight of his community, for the lack of roads, the lack of action.
“The mayor doesn’t help us!” he exclaims, as a small boy shifts building materials from Bratu’s horse cart to the muddy yard next door.
“What do we have? What can we have? Some little house? — whatever God granted us.”
Black neighborhoods in Kansas hard hit by property tax sales
Racial Injustice Tax Sales
Rozetta Dotson worked two jobs to scrape together the money to pay down a delinquent tax debt on the Kansas City, Kansas, home she owns with her husband, Ricky. Then the pandemic hit, she lost her second job and Ricky got COVID-19.
The Black homeowners kept paying what they could toward the taxes while waiting to talk to a judge about a new payment agreement. Then she found out her house was up for auction online.
“We just felt like it was a scam, like they were trying to take our property and my husband said we felt like we were targeted, you know, because we are living in a predominantly Black neighborhood and they were doing everything they could to cause us to lose our house,” she said.
The Dotsons are among those in historically Black neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, who risk losing their homes amid the pandemic as delinquent property tax sales resume under a practice critics decry as racist and government officials laud for revitalizing communities.
“It is a reverse redlining that is racist. And I don’t use that word a lot, but that is the only thing, I mean, it is classism and racism to socially and economically deprive people of color who live in a particular part or who have acquired a foothold in a particular part of Wyandotte County,” said state Sen. David Haley, a Black Democrat, who has tried to help some residents in his hometown keep their houses.
Officials with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, acknowledge delinquent parcels up for tax sale are predominantly in Black neighborhoods. The county — whose population of 165,000 is about 23% Black, 30% Latino and 40% white — typically has 2,200 properties for sale annually at its three tax auctions, far more than other large Kansas counties.
Wyandotte County says it auctions residential property as soon as the law allows — when taxes are three years behind. It says the goal is to put properties into “responsible hands” to improve the appearance of neighborhoods.
A lot of the properties don’t sell at auction, and the county then gets them through the Wyandotte County Land Bank, a public authority that now has about 3,500 properties — nearly all of them acquired through tax foreclosures.
Katherine Carttar, local director of economic development, said the county decided to be more proactive with delinquent property taxes about three years ago and to use the land bank more as a way to rebuild neighborhoods. At a virtual conference last year touting its successes, she showed slides featuring now-renovated homes and credited the program with raising property values and the county’s tax base.
Critics say Wyandotte County has a disproportionately high number of delinquent tax sales compared with the rest of the state, and that the effort deprives residents of hard-fought gains in communities that for generations have faced discrimination.
Wyandotte County, where 21% of residents live in poverty, has whole city blocks of foreclosed property for future redevelopment. Displaced property owners get no compensation, Haley noted.
Carttar says most properties in the land bank have been long abandoned. The upcoming online delinquent tax sale lists 43% of properties as vacant.
The practice comes against the national backdrop of a wealth gap between white and Black households. The “first rung of the wealth building ladder” is homeownership, said Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive research group.
Nearly 72% of white Americans owned their own homes in 2017, compared with just slightly more than 42% of Black families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Here we are during a pandemic where the racial impact of the pandemic has not been equal. It has been disproportionately borne by Black and brown people and there is a huge risk of evictions and foreclosures coming out of the pandemic once the various moratoriums are lifted,” Collins said. “So it might be a time not to pursue aggressive tax sales.”
The two Black county commissioners who represent neighborhoods hard hit by the sales did not respond to interview requests from The Associated Press.
In the Dotsons’ case, Haley noticed that their house was on the auction list and alerted them. They went to pay the full $2,300 in delinquent taxes the day of the sale, but were told it was too late, Rozetta Dotson said.
They eventually got their home back — by paying back taxes plus legal fees for the attorney for the real estate company that had bought it. The total was $5,200.
Haley successfully warned another Black resident, Karen Pitchford-Knox, that the house where she’d grown up was on the auction block this January. When Pitchford-Knox’s mom died in 2016, she inherited the house as well as more than $5,000 in delinquent property taxes. She got behind on her payment plan after losing her job during the pandemic.
Pitchford-Knox had about two weeks to — as she put it — “beg, borrow and steal from Peter and Paul” the $1,000 for the taxes.
“I most definitely do feel they are targeting Black homes,” she said, noting she knew three other Black women whose homes were on auction lists. “I feel it is like Black female homeowners and Black seniors.”
Mike Gallagher, Albuquerque Journal, N.M. April 24, 2021
Apr. 24—The New Mexico Supreme Court recently decided to let stand a Court of Appeals decision that the Engineer’s Office says would rob the state of its ability to regulate water rights in New Mexico.
Now, the state engineer is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider that ruling.
The legal path leading to the problem is complicated and centers on the state’s negotiated settlement with the Navajo Nation on allocation of water rights from the San Juan River.
That settlement, approved by Congress, was challenged by the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association.
In upholding the settlement in 2018, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the state of New Mexico “lacks ownership claim” in water within its borders and that the settlement agreement “preempts” state law.
The opinion was written by retired U.S. District Judge Bruce Black, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear the case. Prior to serving on the federal bench, Black was a state Court of Appeals judge.
“The opinion’s erroneous reasoning that congressional approval of the Settlement Agreement resulted in it becoming federal law that preempts state law would have dire consequences for future settlements of Indian water rights claims in New Mexico,” attorneys for the State Engineer’s Office said in a request for reconsideration.
The request for a rehearing said the Court of Appeals decision “eviscerates the primacy of the State over its water resources, in the face of 150 years of unwavering federal deference to State authority.”
The Supreme Court initially granted a writ filed by the state engineer to hear the case, but then decided not to proceed with hearing the appeal.
The latest court filings ask the court to reconsider and hear the case.
Attorneys for the State Engineers Office and others involved in the settlement with the Navajo Nation say the stakes are high.
The Court of Appeals reasoning, they argue, finds that the federal government, not the state, controls the public waters in New Mexico.
“If congressional approval of Indian water right settlements results in preemption of state law, the state will be forced to choose between losing control over its waters or foregoing the benefit to New Mexico’s economy of millions of dollars in federal funding provided for these settlements,” the Engineer’s Office said.
For example, attorneys said, the settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation brought more than $1.3 billion into the state for construction of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.
The Court of Appeals decision also puts into question the way the state has traditionally adjudicated water rights.
According to the court filing, the language in the Court of Appeals decision threatens the state’s current negotiations with nine Pueblos and tribes to settle water rights claims.
“If not corrected, the language will create confusion over State permitting authority, impede efforts by stakeholders to address important water management issues like surface land subsidence, groundwater depletion and drought management by shortage sharing,” the state argues in its request.
The Court of Appeals’ reasoning that the settlement agreements preempt state law was based, at least in part, on the need for congressional approval of the settlement agreement between the state and the Navajo Nation.
But the State Engineers Office said that congressional approval was needed because the agreement included waivers of the Navajo Nation’s water rights claims and the need for congressional approval of funding for various water projects.
The involvement of Congress in approving the settlement did not strip the power of the state to regulate the waters within its boundaries, the state said in court filings.
The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and the city of Gallup have joined the State Engineers Office in requesting the rehearing.
The water utility authority serves 700,000 people in the Albuquerque metropolitan area and was part of the settlement because it receives water through the San Juan-Chama diversion project.
The city of Gallup plans to play a central role in using water from the San Juan River to supply not just city residents, but areas of the Navajo Nation that are now dependent on underground water supplies.
A year-long investigation finds a major West Texas disposal site with a patchy record is also importing radioactive oilfield waste from abroad.
By Justin Nobel
On May 8, 2017, a drum of radioactive oilfield waste from Australia arrived at a remote West Texas disposal site operated by local oil and gas environmental services company, Lotus LLC. This drum of waste entered the United States aboard a Singapore Airlines cargo jet, appropriately packaged in a steel drum. According to files from the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s main oil and gas regulator, it contained the radioactive element radium at concentrations of 2,095 picocuries per gram. Those levels are more than 400 times the protective health limits designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for toxic Superfund sites and uranium mills, where fuel for nuclear bombs was once assembled.
The oil and gas industry produces an extraordinary amount of waste. Much of it is toxic, and it can be highly radioactive too. And since 1997 about one million barrels worth of oilfield waste has been brought to Lotus’s disposal site, situated off a dusty desert road located 19 miles west of Andrews, Texas (and just several miles from a massive solar array financed by Facebook and which provides energy to Shell’s fracking operations).
But according to correspondence with federal and state regulators, documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and interviews with an industry whistleblower, DeSmog has found that the Lotus disposal site has at times struggled to safely manage the radioactive waste it receives from across the United States.
Despite this challenge, it is importing oil and gas waste from other countries too, and is expanding its reach internationally.
The company has relied heavily on a decades-old industry exemption passed in 1980 — known as the Bentsen and Bevill Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — that classifies oil and gas waste as non-hazardous, thereby affording it little regulatory scrutiny. Meanwhile, Railroad Commission documents obtained via a FOIA request suggest that practices at Lotus’s remote disposal site have put the company’s workers and the environment at risk.
“The oil and gas industry has been really good at painting the picture that they are not a radioactive industry,” said Melissa Troutman, an Earthworks analyst and author of a 2019 report on oil and gas waste, “when in reality it produces a massive amount of radioactive material.”
A growing group of environmentalists, politicians, communities, and even the industry’s own workers have become increasingly critical of the fossil fuel industry, and see room for action under the Biden administration, though most attention has been placed on hot-button topics like climate change and methane emissions. But a small yet ardent band of advocacy groups have been focused on radioactive oilfield waste, long an industry problem but one that has metastasized in the fracking boom and potentially poses an even greater risk to the industry’s bottom line.
“Waste is the Achilles’ heel for these guys,” said Ted Auch, an analyst who has been closely tracking oilfield waste with the watchdog group FracTracker Alliance. “The entire industry operates on the notion that this stuff is relatively cheap and easy to get rid of. If they ever had to pay full price for the waste they produce, the industry’s cost-calculus crumbles.”
According to one calculation in a 2013 analysis co-authored by nuclear physicist and radioactive waste specialist, Marvin Resnikoff, if oil and gas waste were appropriately characterized, disposal costs could increase by more than half a million dollars for every well drilled.
DeSmog’s investigation raises serious concerns as to whether the waste being shipped to Lotus is being disposed of properly.
“If the industry was not exempt from hazardous waste law,” said Troutman, “the characterization of their waste would be far better, the tracking would be far better, and it would be harder for companies to manipulate the system like this.”
Who Is Lotus LLC?
The EPA says the oil and gas industry generates an estimated 5 million cubic feet of radioactive sludge a year, much of it in tanks at the wellhead. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every week, and this figure only includes sludge generated from conventionally drilled wells.
A radioactive “scale” forms on the inside of wellhead piping, and sludge and radioactive films that are often invisible to the naked eye also accumulate inside natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines and processing equipment. According to a 1993 paper published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, much of this material “must be handled as low-level radioactive waste and disposed of accordingly.”
While oil and gas waste may be considered non-hazardous under the Bentsen and Bevill Amendments, it is often too radioactive to be disposed of in a typical landfill. This is where special disposal at sites like Lotus come in, along with a handful of others across the country that are licensed to handle radioactive oilfield waste, including US Ecology in Idaho and Energy Solutions in Utah.
Lotus, a private company with about 75-100 employees, has permits from the Railroad Commission of Texas that enables the waste to be unloaded into pits, and crushed and mixed with water to form a slurry that can be more easily injected down a set of injection wells and into a salt cavern. When properly prepared, these massive domes of salt beneath the earth can be used as a subterranean locker, and the Department of Energy has deemed this an appropriate option for the disposal of radioactive oilfield waste. But Railroad Commission reports, such as one 2003 inspection, indicate that the waste is not always making it into the salt cavern, and rather Lotus “is only using the entire facility plant and decon facility for storage.”
The whistleblower corroborated this critique of Lotus, and described a situation during an informal visit in the time period of 2015 to 2016 in which the Lotus site had been overrun with stockpiled waste, with barrels piled up around the site. A longtime executive in the oilfield waste industry with firsthand knowledge of disposal facilities across the country, this whistleblower has requested anonymity due to ongoing industry legal obligations. They provided DeSmog with photos of the Lotus site from that period which convey damaged, rusty tanks marked with a yellow radioactivity symbol, a heaped dumpster of additional waste material, and several unmarked black barrels sitting on wooden pallets, without any liners or containment to prevent leaching or runoff. The whistleblower called the Lotus site “alarming and a potential environmental disaster for Texas” and “one of the most shocking facilities I have ever seen in my time in the oil and gas industry.”
DeSmog sent the photos to James Dillingham, the director of global operations with Lotus, who replied with a series of comments. Dillingham stated the photos “are not representative of how Lotus, LLC manages waste. These photos only illustrate a single instance where material was received and was under process for disposal, which was within the parameters of our licenses and permits.” Dillingham added, “Representing Lotus by way of publishing wording or photos in a manner that causes the public to conclude that material sent to our facility is or was handled otherwise will be considered libel. Accordingly, we will seek restitution under the law for personal and financial injury caused by any misrepresentation caused by this.”
Additionally, Dillingham supplied a response on behalf of his manager: “The pictures that are proposed to be presented in the article as previously poised are the property of Lotus LLC and are copyrighted and we don’t give permission to display those in any form or fashion and must be returned to us immediately. Additionally the entity or person who has conveyed these pictures to you or has somehow allowed them to become in your possession has violated the confidentiality clause they signed up for and their identity must also be revealed to us so that appropriate legal action may be conducted should these photos be publicly displayed and not returned or destroyed. You are requested to resolve this issue immediately so as to prevent further harm.”
Dillingham also stated that, “according to my manager, the photos you have provided are outdated and not an accurate representation of what is currently at the facility.”
On Sunday, April 4, 2021, DeSmog sent a photographer over the Lotus site in a small plane. The photos reveal the site contains a significant number of stockpiled barrels and containers. When the whistleblower reviewed these recent photos, they said the images suggest that many of the same issues remain — and may have worsened — since their earlier site observation at the Lotus facility during the 2015-2016 timeframe. They pointed to what appeared to be significant amounts of stockpiled TENORM wastes held in numerous damaged, rusted, and degraded tanks or barrels stored directly on an unlined surface without proper containment to prevent leaching, runoff, and other direct risks to groundwater and surface contamination.
The whistleblower also noted that many of the large open tanks in the photos appeared to show high volumes of filter socks and scale from pipes used during oilfield operations — both filter socks and pipe scale are known to have a high radioactive signature. The whistleblower said these were apparent compliance issues, with possible violations including a lack of proper containment around the site, lack of lined protection to the surface, and significant volumes of stockpiled TENORM wastes that have yet to be processed or properly disposed.
“I can’t confirm these pictures,” Lotus operation manager Dan Snow replied via email. In response to questions about the nature of the stockpiled waste and alleged violations, Snow said, “as always, our plant is in full production mode handling all types of RCRA exempt waste as it is shipped to the facility. Waste comes in all types of packaged and unpackaged methods and it can even come in a dump truck so long as the transporter follows the DOT [Department of Transportation] and RRC rules. Waste may even come in the form of abandoned vessels that have to be taken apart to remove the waste.” Snow stated Lotus operations follow all appropriate state and federal rules and permits.
DeSmog sent the recent aerial photos to the RRC for review and asked the agency to comment on the alleged violations and compliance issues. “Our agency conducts inspections to ensure compliance with all rules in place to protect public safety and the environment,” said R.J. DeSilva, the RRC Director of Communications. He directed DeSmog to a web portal that features inspection information for oilfield facilities. It shows that the most recent RRC inspection of the Lotus site in Andrews County occurred on March 29, 2021 and found no compliance issues, stating, “No violations were observed in this inspection.”
Every single day, hundreds of barrels of oilfield waste may arrive via truck at Lotus. The waste comes from oil and gas fields across Texas (including a set of wells operated by Chesapeake and located on the grounds of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport) and neighboring states like New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. It also comes from offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico and some of the last remaining oil and gas platforms off the California coast, operated by ExxonMobil. The waste arrives from states as far as Alaska, North Dakota, Michigan, Colorado, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and even states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, which have no significant oilfields but are crisscrossed by pipelines that fill up with radioactive sludge. The Railroad Commission files indicate that radioactive sludge also builds up at compressor stations, and this waste may be shipped to Lotus.
The files indicate that virtually every major operator in the oil and gas industry has sent their waste to Lotus, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Occidental, Anadarko, ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake, as well as midstream companies like Kinder Morgan and ONEOK. DeSmog reached out to these companies who were mostly unresponsive to questions about the site and its operating practices. “At BP we remain committed to safe, reliable, and compliant operations,” stated Cameron Nazminia, Corporate Communications Manager with BP, one of the few companies that replied to questions about Lotus.
While the process of grinding radioactive waste into a slurry and injecting it down a hole may seem simple, the whistleblower explained that performing the process safely is technically challenging and operationally expensive. Radioactive oilfield waste is referred to as NORM, or TENORM (Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials), and a facility licensed to dispose of it can charge waste generators high disposal fees, sometimes as high as $200-250 per barrel, versus an average of around $8 per barrel at a facility simply licensed to dispose of the industry’s non-radioactive waste, according to the whistleblower.
“What happened is they just got overrun with TENORM waste material being delivered from all over the country,” the whistleblower said of Lotus, “they were not technologically or operationally capable, and did not properly manage what was accepted for disposal at the facility. These operators took a lot and got in over their heads.”
James Dillingham, the director of global operations with Lotus, said that, “Any NORM contaminated material present at the site is being processed in accordance with our license and permits.” He said that in recent years, “we have been able to increase daily capacity by having more employees, more offload areas, more efficient pumps, and better process knowledge.” He also pointed out that Lotus was licensed to receive all manners of “nonhazardous oil and gas waste” and that not all of the waste it received was radioactive. “I only say that to illustrate the fact that the items that appear to be accumulating may not necessarily be classified as radioactive waste, nor a waste that has other hazardous elements,” he said.
According to the company’s own quarterly reports to the Railroad Commission, Lotus took in over 10 times more waste in 2013 (83,895 barrels) compared to a decade earlier (6,673 barrels in 2003). When asked how the company has been able to handle the enhanced waste stream brought on by the fracking boom, Dillingham said, “We are currently investing heavily in new technology that will help us process the more difficult types of waste that are plaguing the industry.”
“We believe this technology will allow us to provide a more economical yet equally as secure solution to the industry,” he added. “In the meantime, any difficult or time-consuming materials requiring extended processing are securely temporarily stored in a restricted area adjacent to the processing/disposal facility with constant surveillance, air monitoring, and dosimetry.” (Dosimetry refers to the science of measuring the radiation dose absorbed by the human body.)
Furthermore, he added, the facility is subject to annual audits by the Railroad Commission, the Texas Department of State Health Services, clients, and other groups, and also “more frequent surprise audits.” “These audits would reveal any discrepancy between the Lotus operation and the items that are allowed under the licenses and permits while also obviously revealing any potential weak points that could cause increased risk to human health and safety,” he told DeSmog.
A Risk to Workers
But as the more than 2,000 pages of records and reports reviewed by DeSmog show, Lotus has experienced a number of concerning incidents that began shortly after the site opened in 1997. This history includes radioactive waste leaking into the ground and barrels of waste regularly being piled on site for extended periods of time. Local community members also raised concerns about workers being exposed to radioactivity.
One particularly damning Railroad Commission inspection occurred in May 2003. “There were several metal drums with corroded sides and/or bottoms located at various spots within the fenced process facility,” states the report. “The deteriorated condition of these drums has allowed some NORM contents to escape to the ground.” The inspection suggested that rain received in the days prior to inspection had carried contamination to “low lying, muddy areas near the gate.”
Handwritten notes in the May 2003 report show that drums of waste had been moved around the site “only for the purpose of a cosmetic coverup,” again suggesting the waste was not being appropriately disposed of by injection into the salt cavern, but instead being stored on the site’s grounds. Furthermore, the notes express concern that one of the injection wells has been inappropriately “abandoned” and that the “casing perhaps could be corroded/wear away gradually” and if the well were not properly isolated, the situation could “be harmful to our drinking water.”
In May 2004, Railroad Commission Assistant District Director Mike Houston visited the Lotus facility and noted, “There are still some pollution concerns.” On a walkthrough inspection, Houston noticed “leaking steel drums” whose contents had “either partially spilled or [had] the immediate possibility of leaking onto the storage yard soils.” The letter stated that the conditions observed violated Texas Statewide Rule 8, which regards water pollution and oilfield waste pits.
The report also addressed worker radioactivity risks: One steel drum at the Lotus site measured 5,800 microrems per hour — a measurement used to classify how much radioactivity would be absorbed by a human being — an amount “which can be a health threat to coworkers, given extended exposure time.”
When DeSmog ran that number by Worcester Polytechnic Institute nuclear forensics scientist Marco Kaltofen, he explained that the level was worrisome. “At 5,800 microrems an hour, it would take only about two days to get your typical ANNUAL dose of industrial/medical radiation,” Kaltofen stated in an email, referencing dose limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the nuclear and medical industries. These limits, however, do not apply to oil and gas workers.
But perhaps most concerning among the public records DeSmog received from the Railroad Commission was a letter sent to the regulatory agency in October 2000 by the “Concerned Citizens of Andrews County, Texas.”
“We regret having to write you [a] letter anonymously, but because of the nature of the individual involved, we fear not only reprisal from him personally, but also from his battery of attorneys,” the letter states.
The Concerned Citizens explain that they “have made trips to a facility operated by Lotus, L.L.C. in western Andrews County” and found drums of radioactive waste stacked along the fence line of the facility, “a large pile of dirt and rocks on the north fence line that appears to be radioactive contaminant as well,” and a trio of 500-barrel frac tanks that “are completely full of what appears to be radioactive waste.”
According to the letter, Lotus workers told the Concerned Citizens that some of this waste had been stored on site “in excess of two years.” The Railroad Commission was not able to provide a direct response to the question of how long waste is allowed to sit on site before having to be disposed of down the injection well and into the salt cavern.
“These employees have also expressed concerns for their health from long term exposure to this material,” the letter adds.
Attempts to locate the authors of the anonymous letter were not successful. DeSmog presented the letter to Lotus, along with a copy of the June 2003 inspection report that noted leaking waste barrels.
“As it relates to the concerns presented in the letter, the citizens are certainly entitled to bring awareness to potential problems; however, in this particular case, it does not appear that there was anything that was causing any elevated health, safety, or environmental risk,” said Dillingham.
He also defended the company’s efforts to protect its workers from radioactivity contamination. “I can confirm that at the time of the filing, and continuing through today, all employees whose job duties involve potentially making an entry into a restricted area are monitored in the dosimetry program outlined in the Lotus Health Physics Plan,” said Dillingham. “As a company that is licensed for handling this type of waste we have our own health physics plan in place…Lotus workers work around NORM all day, every day, and given that we have never had a person exceed the dose limit, ever, and we have been in business since 1997.”
But Texas regulators do not appear to be addressing the worker safety questions raised in the files received from the Railroad Commission.
DeSmog informed the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) that Lotus records indicate sloppy operating practices that put both workers and the environment of Texas at risk. “DSHS does not regulate the Lotus disposal site,” replied Chris Van Deusen, the agency’s Director of Media Relations.
When asked by DeSmog what tests, inspections, or surveys DSHS has conducted of Lotus workers to ensure they are appropriately protected from radioactivity, Van Deusen again stated, “DSHS does not regulate the Lotus disposal site.” OSHA, in previous correspondence with DeSmog, has conveyed that oilfield workers are not at risk from radioactivity, yet the agency has never formally studied the issue.
The whistleblower expressed concern that Lotus “poses a black eye” to the oil and gas industry and Texas regulators.
“It is exceedingly maddening that nothing is actively being done to properly address these issues,” said the whistleblower. “Myself and others have been pounding the table on this and speaking with the Railroad Commission in Texas for nearly 10 years now. It is there, everyone knows about it, and no one can say they don’t know. Yet, the regulators have not taken any meaningful efforts to correct this dangerous and poor operating practice.”
Importing Radioactive Waste
A lack of oversight when it comes to domestic waste, however, isn’t the only challenge. The 1980s industry exemption also makes it easier to import radioactive oil and gas waste produced outside the United States.
Because this waste is generated in an oilfield, unlike radioactive waste generated by the nuclear or medical industries, the notorious Bentsen and Bevill Amendments enables it to move around the U.S. insufficiently monitored — and into the U.S. from other parts of the world entirely unmonitored.
In DeSmog’s correspondence with EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Railroad Commission of Texas, it has become apparent that no federal or state agency appears to be tracking or monitoring shipments of radioactive oilfield waste into the United States from foreign countries, and none of these agencies appear to have regulatory authority over such international shipments. U.S. Customs and Borders Protection has not responded to questions on the matter.
According to Jeff Tyson, Head of Environmental Research and Analytics with the Texas-based firm Waste Analytics, oilfield waste generated in Mexico, for example, has been transported across the border for disposal in the United States. At least 534 loads of waste, said Tyson, was transported between October 2005 and March 2006, and disposed of at a treatment facility in Starr County, Texas.
Lotus’s first international shipment was 65.5 barrels of soil and sludge that arrived from Alberta, Canada in November 1999. The files DeSmog obtained from the Railroad Commission records request reveal that more than 450 barrels of waste from Canada arrived between 1999 and 2004.
Information provided to DeSmog by Dillingham shows that Lotus had imported 750 barrels of oilfield waste from Australia between May 2017 and November 2019 — the first barrel arrived by plane, the rest have been transported by ship.
“We reached out to the EPA and the NRC asking if there were any objections to importing Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) exempt E&P waste containing diffuse amounts of NORM,” said Dillingham. But as DeSmog has learned, no specific permits appear to be necessary in order to import radioactive oilfield waste into the country.
Presently, Lotus is in the process of expanding its overseas operations. The company has already established an office in Watford, England, part of a joint venture tasked with decommissioning, decontamination, and waste management services to the oil and gas and industrial sectors in Europe, UK, and Russia.A map passed alongby Dillingham conveys that Lotus has a presence in oilfields on every continent but Antarctica. “Our international services include NORM training, surveying, consulting, decontamination and a whole gambit of other non-NORM related services relating to decommissioning and well servicing,” said Dillingham. “As it relates to importing NORM waste, it has never been our long-term strategy. The ability to import a stockpiled volume of material can help solve an immediate need, but the long-term objective is to help countries develop local solutions.”
Wording on the website of the company’s England-based joint venture, Lotus ZRG, appears to promote Lotus’s disposal site in Andrews, Texas: “Welcome to Lotus ZRG – from our licensed facility in Texas, we provide NORM decontamination, transportation and disposal internationally to wherever our clients’ facilities require us.”
Current federal laws give the company confidence that these imports are legitimate. “As it relates to transportation, the requirements are based on the same regulations for road or by ship,” said Dillingham. “I certainly didn’t intend on implying or stating that it wasn’t regulated. I said that it is not federally regulated. NORM waste is not defined as a ‘radioactive waste’ by the NRC, therefore not under the Atomic Energy Act. Further, wastes strictly associated with the exploration and production of oil & gas are exempt from EPA hazardous waste definitions under RCRA. Wastes meeting this exemption are regulated on the state level.”
When Lotus asked the EPA in an October 12, 2016 email whether or not the company could import radioactive oilfield waste, the agency replied on November 7, 2016, stating: “Based solely on the information provided by Lotus, the waste…is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations” and “as such…may be imported to the United States without a hazardous waste notification.” The Railroad Commission, in a December 2016 report, recognizes that “EPA does not regulate the waste” and states that Lotus’s permits with the state agency do not “require or restrict the acceptance of offshore (outside US waters) or foreign oil & gas waste.”
“EPA has no records of Lotus importing oilfield waste,” stated an EPA spokesperson, and the agency is not keeping track of how much foreign oilfield waste is entering the U.S., how it enters the country, at which port it enters, or how radioactive it is.
“As we lack jurisdiction over this material,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson David McIntyre told DeSmog, “we do not track its movement or disposal.”
More than half a dozen other analysts and policymakers DeSmog spoke to for this story were unaware that oilfield waste was being imported into the United States.
“It never occurred to me that we might be importing toxic and radioactive oil and gas waste from other countries,” said Amy Mall, a senior advocate with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Mall has been tracking oil and gas waste and its impacts for over a decade and is set to release a new report on the topic with NRDC shortly. “Americans are used to the situation where we’re the ones shipping waste overseas to other people who don’t have the ability to stop it, but in this case that has been reversed,” said Mall.
“I do a lot of consulting on import and export of radioactive material and frankly I don’t think there is any database anyone maintains to know what goes in and out of the country,” said Rick Jacobi, the owner and principal consultant at Jacobi Consulting, a former General Manager of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority and current consultant for domestic and international companies on the management of radioactive material and nuclear facilities. “I don’t think that U.S. Customs maintains any database, and to my knowledge there is no national database.”
None of the regulatory agencies in Texas involved in oil and gas, including the Railroad Commission, the Texas Department of State Health Services, or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, have “jurisdiction over the import or export of radioactive waste,” Jacobi added. “Imports and exports are regulated exclusively by the federal government.”
“Commercial facilities have a financial incentive to accept the waste and generate revenue regardless of where the waste was generated,” added Jeff Tyson, with Waste Analytics. “As long as the facility is permitted to accept the waste, there is no legal or economic reason for them to reject it.”
Meanwhile, there may be the need for a much larger investigation. “Companies who are licensed to deal with this waste are trying their best to provide a responsible solution but are often the only ones who get criticized or reviewed,” said Dillingham. “The bigger problem is those who don’t even bother to get licensed and protect their staff.” He said the oilfields of Texas and Oklahoma contain several large facilities of this nature, which accept NORM waste without licenses or proper screening controls in place. Dillingham adds that Lotus’s salt cavern is approaching capacity, and the company is presently in the process of creating another one — using a process called solution mining — out of the bedded salt deposit at the property in Andrews County. Once permitted for waste disposal it could have disposal capacity for up to another million barrels of oilfield waste.
Justin Nobel writes on issues of science and the environment for Rolling Stone and has a book on oil and gas radioactivity forthcoming with Simon & Schuster entitled PETROLEUM-238: Big Oil’s Dangerous Secret and the Grassroots Fight to Stop It.
And the damage isn’t likely to have stopped there. Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, is studying the blood samples to understand what wildfire smoke does to human health. It’s part of a growing body of work that illustrates how wildfire seasons made worse by climate change threaten not just immediate destruction but also long-term health.
She and other scientists are particularly concerned about a type of particulate matter in wildfire smoke known as PM2.5. These tiny airborne particles, about one-twentieth the width of a human hair, are especially dangerous because they can be breathed deeply into the lungs.
“The size of that particulate can, when you inhale it, go all the way to the base of your lungs and then cross over into your bloodstream,” Prunicki said. “Once it’s in the bloodstream, it can go to various organs and do all kinds of damage.”
Experts have said that in a warming world, devastating wildfires like the ones that tore across California, Oregon and Washington last year will be more common. Around the world, wildfire seasons have been starting earlier and lasting longer, becoming in some regions an almost year-round threat.
The results of Prunicki’s study are forthcoming, but a clearer picture is emerging of just how damaging wildfire smoke can be to humans, and scientists are sounding the alarm over a problem they say is only going to get worse with climate change.
“In the climate science community, we’ve been predicting these types of impacts for decades now,” said Tom Corringham, an environmental economist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Corringham co-authored a study published last month in the journal Nature Communications that found that airborne particles in wildfire smoke can be several times more harmful to human respiratory health than other forms of air pollution, including car exhaust.
It’s not yet well understood why wildfire smoke is more harmful than other forms of ambient air pollution, although it is likely to have something to do with the chemical composition of what’s being burned, Prunicki said. Wildfires that engulf homes and other buildings, for instance, can be particularly dangerous because the chemicals in furniture, clothing and other everyday items are released. In some cases, the materials in firefighters’ protective gear can also release harmful particulate matter.
Tony Stefani, a retired San Francisco fire captain, knows the risks well. Stefani, who in 2006 founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. He recalled wondering whether his illness was somehow linked to his line of work.
“I knew there was definitely something wrong,” Stefani said. “And I thought there was a direct correlation between what I had and my exposures on the job.”
Many of his colleagues, Stefani said, accept that developing cancer is not a matter of if but when. Studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have shown that firefighters are at higher risk of cancer and cancer-related deaths compared to the general population, but researchers want to know why — and how best to protect them.
Through his foundation, Stefani works to spread the word about early detection and prevention, but he’s also involved with scientific efforts such as Prunicki’s research to better understand how exactly wildfire smoke affects immune functioning and human health.
While firefighters are among the most vulnerable when it comes to smoke exposure, it’s not just those on the front lines battling blazes who are feeling the impacts of more frequent and intense wildfires.
Studies have observed increases in hospitalizations, particularly for respiratory conditions, during wildfire events. In their study, Corringham and his colleagues combed through 14 years of hospital admissions records in Southern California, analyzing them together with satellite data on wildfire smoke and wind.
The researchers discovered that an increase of PM2.5 pollution from wildfire smoke caused respiratory-related hospital admissions to increase by 1.3 percent to 10 percent. An increase in PM2.5 from other sources of air pollution, on the other hand, contributed to only a 1 percent rise in hospital admissions.
Their findings suggest air quality standards may need to take into account differences in toxicity between different forms of air pollution, said a co-author of the study, Rosana Aguilera, a postdoctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“If there are different impacts of PM2.5 on health, depending on where this PM2.5 is coming from, then we should study that further and reflect that in standards and policies for air pollution,” she said.
A study published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Dermatology also found that wildfire smoke can exacerbate more than just respiratory conditions. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco observed a rise in the number of patients visiting health clinics for eczema and other general skin concerns in November 2018, when the catastrophic Camp Fire raged in Northern California.
The scientists found that even short-term exposure to hazardous particulate matter in wildfire smoke can have consequences for skin health.
The studies of the health effects of wildfire smoke paint a concerning picture of a future in which climate change is expected to supercharge wildfire seasons.
That realization, Stefani said, makes his foundation’s collaboration with scientists all the more important, because science can help advocates push for safer working conditions and better public health measures.
“They’re the impetus for change,” Stefani said of the studies. “That is the reason that we know there’s a problem. When we have the scientific proof that something’s wrong and we have the numbers to show it, change can occur. And that’s really, really important.”
Struggling to Make a Profit, Fracking Investors are Searching for the Exit
Banks and investors have given up on the U.S. fracking industry, which is bad news for current investors who waited too long to get out.
The outlook is increasingly bleak for oil and gas companies. The beginning of this year has seen the highest number of companies announce bankruptcy during the first quarter in five years. Eight oil and gas companies announced they were filing for bankruptcy during the first quarter of 2021.
Meanwhile, earlier this month The Financial Times noted that of 500 privately owned oil and gas companies in the U.S., 400 are losing money and unlikely to ever pay back their large debts. According to the Financial Times, the remaining companies are focused on a “last gasp” effort to look profitable to potential buyers in order to “secure a profitable exit.”
If they can’t secure a “profitable exit” that will help them pay back their debts, the most likely outcome is bankruptcy.
As Adam Waterous, head of the private equity group Waterous Energy Fund, told the Financial Times: “This business is broken. The industry is going through a multiyear process of wringing capital out of the sector, not bringing new capital in.”
Investors appear to be done with the fracking industry as they realize that the only people making money are the Wall Street banks and shale company executives. With investors losing interest in the fracking industry — and banks no longer interested in loaning money to fracking companies — there is a lack of new money available to prop up the struggling fracking business model.
The U.S. fracking boom has all the echoes of the U.S. housing and mortgage financing boom of the early 2000s — and this is bad news for the industry. It’s a trend that’s been lurking for years.
As DeSmog reported in 2018, quoting from The Big Short, a book about the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis: “All these subprime lending companies were growing so rapidly, and using such goofy accounting, that they could mask the fact that they had no real earnings, just illusory, accounting-driven, ones. They had the essential feature of a Ponzi scheme: To maintain the fiction that they were profitable enterprises, they needed more and more capital to create more and more subprime loans.”
Like the housing bubble, the fracking bubble continued despite huge losses because companies were able to borrow more money to keep producing oil — that they then sold for a loss.
As Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, pointed out, to keep a Ponzi scheme going requires a constant influx of new money because there are no profits. When the new money sources dry up — the scheme collapses.
Shale Investors Looking for Greater Fools
An April article by Bloomberg reports that the business strategy for private shale company owners is to now “escape” the industry altogether.
These investor plans to escape the fracking business, however, require willing buyers — or as they are known in this part of the business cycle, “greater fools.” This is the idea that you can make money from overpriced assets because there will always be someone else, the fool, willing to buy it at an even higher, inflated price. However, if there are no willing buyers, these investors will find themselves “holding the bag” — essentially stuck with a worthless investment.
The fracking company owners looking to escape by selling their companies know the financial numbers better than anyone — that explains their urgency to get out. As the Financial Times noted, most of these companies have debts far greater than any future potential income, making bankruptcy a near certainty in the future.
Bankruptcy has been a popular approach for many big shale companies — like Chesapeake Energy and Whiting Petroleum — but the ability to emerge from bankruptcy requires banks agreeing to loan more money to the company. If that option is unlikely, the company’s assets will be sold off, which is another unattractive option at this point with 400 oil and gas companies finances and assets making them “unsaleable.”
This cycle of foolish buying and selling resulted in the housing crisis when there was no one to keep buying, and it appears to be happening now with the fracking industry. The housing crisis was preceded by the creation of a whole industry of “house flippers” who borrowed money to buy houses to then resell for a profit. And the same has been seen with fracking.
As DeSmog wrote in 2018 about fracking giant Chesapeake Energy, its business model involved flipping land leases for oil and gas production, more than actually producing oil and gas. This approach — where fracking management teams are in the business of flipping companies for big gains more than extracting fossil fuels — was widespread with shale companies and highly lucrative for executives.
The business of flipping assets requires that there always be a well-funded “greater fool” willing to pay for them. As the money is drying up for the fracking industry the scheme is being revealed and — like the 400 U.S. shale companies the Financial Times described as “unsaleable” — those left holding the bag now are likely to lose big.
The early days of the fracking boom saw some tremendous success stories with flipping fracking assets with one of the biggest being the sale of XTO’s natural gas assets to Exxon in 2009 for $41 billion. Eventually even Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson admitted the company “probably paid too much”; that deal is now viewed as one of the worst deals in the history of oil and gas, resulting in Exxon writing off at least $20 billion of the investment last year. However, it was a great price for the owners of XTO.
More recently, in February, Equinor decided to cut its losses with the U.S. shale industry and sold its Bakken assets for $900 million. That’s far less than what Equinor paid when it first entered the Bakken in 2011 with an investment of $3.8 billion.
As these examples show, when everyone wants to escape a market, the usual outcome is very few do and those that do get out take huge losses.
The Return of Liar Loans
In January 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that shale wells were not producing as much oil as the companies had promised investors. That article recounted a story from an oil industry conference where the idea that companies would properly estimate the potential future oil production brought a round of laughter from the conference attendees.
Why were fracking companies consistently overestimating the value of oil wells and reserves? “Because we own stock” was the answer from one conference attendee. This open admission that companies were lying about the value of their oil and gas assets to pump up their stock prices, combined with “lax corporate governance in the oil patch”, as a 2020 Reuters article describes, was a warning sign that the shale business was broken — and actively misleading investors.
One of the biggest problems behind the housing crisis were so-called liar loans. These were loans made to borrowers who lied about their income and assets to qualify as borrowers — even though the banks knew they were lying.
The same basic thing has happened with the fracking industry. In the oil business loans are based on a company’s reserves which refers to the amount of oil the company says they can produce from its assets. Banks lend against these assets in something known as reserve-based lending. What has happened in the fracking industry is that many companies may have been misleading about how much oil they can produce from their reserves.
Last year, DeSmog wrote about how reserve based lending for the fracking industry was a big problem. At the time, it was estimated that banks wrote off around $1 billion in reserve based loans for shale companies in 2019, exceeding their total losses for the past 30 years.
In December 2020, S&P Global wrote about the dim outlook for fracking companies and the banks that had loaned them money which included insights from Chris Holmgren, managing director for energy credit and risk management for Wells Fargo.
“The core reserve-based lending model began to break down. It became not successful in grasping the risks involved in shale development,” Holmgren said. “Lenders began to realize that they made decisions based on exaggerated potential.”
In the housing crisis they were liar loans. In the shale crisis they are “exaggerated potential” loans.
As expected, bankruptcies of shale companies are now on the rise in 2021 despite much higher oil prices. Just like many homeowners who borrowed money to buy houses they couldn’t afford based on their income, too many shale companies borrowed money to buy assets that will never produce enough income to pay back the money that was borrowed — even with higher oil prices.
In March, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, Vicki Hollub, explained to attendees of leading oil industry conference CERAWeek that the economics of the shale industry were quite difficult when it came to producing profits.
“The profitability of shale,” she said, “is much more difficult than people ever realized.”
This fact is no longer a secret, which is why many fracking investors and banks are looking for a way to escape — but that escape seems unlikely.
Wells Fargo’s Holmgren described what could be the epitaph of the U.S. fracking revolution: “Banks are losing money and investors are stuck in investments they can’t get rid of.”
Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer and audio and video producer living in New York. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.
Pesticides disrupt our hormones for generations – even women whose grandmothers were exposed to the chemical have higher risks of obesity and breast cancer, scientists say
Julia Naftulin April 19, 2021
A new study found women whose grandmothers had DDT exposure are more likely to be obese and have early periods.
DDT was a widely used insecticide that’s been banned in the US since 1972.
Early onset periods are a risk factor for breast cancer and heart conditions.
There’s evidence that DDT, a pesticide previously used to kill insects like mosquitoes, is still wreaking havoc on human health four decades since the government banned it.
In 1972, Congress banned DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Since then, evidence has emerged – first in wildlife and then in humans – that the pesticide left an enduring mark on health.
According to a study published April 14 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the granddaughters of people who were exposed to DDT while pregnant are more likely to be obese, have early-onset periods, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
To study the effects of DDT, researchers at UC Davis and the Public Health Institute in Oakland used archived blood samples from 15,000 women who were pregnant when DDT was still used. The researchers then worked with these women’s daughters and granddaughters, collecting their blood samples to see how DDT impacted them before they were born.
Researchers found that women in their 20s and 30s with grandmothers who were exposed to DDT are between two and three times more likely to be obese and two times more likely to have their periods start earlier than usual – around the age of 11.
Early-onset menstruation can lead to other health conditions later in life, like breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes, according to the study authors.
“Even though we banned that stuff more than 40 years ago, people now walking the Earth – the granddaughters of those who were pregnant – were exposed,” Barbara Cohn told the LA Times. Cohn is director of the Public Health Institute’s Child Health and Development Studies, the institution that researched the 15,000 women who gave blood samples decades ago.
‘Forever chemicals’ are ruining reproductive abilities and overall health
This isn’t the first study to find chemicals’ lasting impact on human health.
An October 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found the daughters of pregnant women exposed to DDT were more likely to develop breast cancer. The researchers of the study also found children who had DDT exposure were five times more likely to develop breast cancer.
In addition to DDT, chemicals in plastics like water bottles are altering human reproductive abilities, Insider previously reported.
“It’s the full meaning of what a ‘forever chemical’ is – in some ways, that makes every chemical potentially ‘forever’ if it has the potential to do this,” Cohn told the LA Times.
‘If you want a scary story:’ Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows
Morgan Greene, Chicago Tribune April 21, 2021
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Illinois’ climate is swiftly changing,
In an extensive new report released Tuesday, the Nature Conservancy details how Illinois’ climate has transformed and looks forward to what more change might mean for the state’s agriculture, human health and already-stressed ecosystems.
“There’s a big message there that we need to be doing everything we can to prevent future climate change by mitigating our use of fossil fuels, particularly,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, and one of the lead authors of the assessment. “For those things we can’t prevent, because there’s still going to be some change, we have to adapt to be resilient.”
Even after curbing carbon emissions to meet certain bench marks, the changes in Illinois by 2100 could be stark: average annual temperatures warming 4 to 9 degrees, a month of 95-degree or higher temperatures, 3 more inches of spring rain, more flooding, and compounding health risks from heat, waterborne pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks. Not to mention the mental strain of living through it all.
What’s happening in Illinois is part of the larger story of human activity driving a changing global climate. Last year tied for the warmest on record, according to NASA scientists. Since preindustrial times, concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have shot up, and the global average temperature has increased. The Paris Agreement aims to limit warming, preferably to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a limit fast approaching.
Carbon emissions dropped during the pandemic, but carbon dioxide levels continued to climb.
“The climate of Illinois, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world, is changing and is changing rapidly,” Wuebbles said. “And that has serious repercussions on the people of Illinois.”
“If you want a scary story, that’s the story,” Wuebbles added. “And we need to be taking it seriously. We need to be doing something about it.”
The health effects of climate change will depend on where you live; communities already disproportionately facing inequities, including low-income communities and communities of color, are likely to be harder hit, according to the report released Tuesday by more than 40 scientists and experts.
“The thing about climate change is that it really doesn’t leave anything untouched,” said Karen Petersen, climate change project manager at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s not just about temperature, or feeling hotter on a summer day, or having a rainier day. It’s about how those climate impacts, which we perceive as our daily weather, are going to impact how a farmer farms, or how someone deals with heat stress.”
In Illinois, increasing overall precipitation and heavier events are expected to intensify flooding. Greater flooding risk may bring greater emotional stress, along with mold and waterborne disease. Additionally, dozens of Illinois health care facilities are located in flood plains, which may hinder access to care during floods.
According to a study referenced in the assessment that looked at flooding claims by county over a seven-year period, nearly all private insurance claims were in urban areas.
In Chicago, flooding has forced sludge into basements and unleashed swarms of sewer flies in nightmare scenarios. The burden is disproportionate, said Marcella Bondie Keenan, climate program director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
“You can see it on the ground in terms of neighborhoods that are being hit over and over again, places like Chatham for example,” Keenan said. “But also places like the Far Southeast Side.”
On the Southeast Side, it’s not just the basement backups, Keenan said, but also what’s being picked up along the way from industrial areas. And pollution concerns also connect to climate resiliency, Keenan said.
“Every time we make a decision around what to permit and how to develop, you’re either moving toward a climate safe future, or you’re moving further away from it,” Keenan said.
Climate change is likely to increase the total days with a dangerous heat index in Illinois and warmer weather can mean an increased risk of heat stroke. Cities including Chicago, blanketed in concrete and asphalt, also exhibit the “urban heat island effect” — warming more and staying warmer at night. If emissions rise, heat waves like the 1995 Chicago disaster that led to more than 700 deaths are expected to become more common.
Heat may also welcome some species north, including the yellow fever mosquito, which transmits dengue, and allow pests to bite for longer periods. Warmer winters may assist tick survival and mosquito population growth, leading to earlier and more circulation of West Nile virus.
Respiratory allergies and asthma attacks could be more frequently spurred by mold, pollution and pollen — which is likely to see an extended season. In Illinois, the assessment notes asthma is already high among African Americans, women and low-income communities.
“The normal that we understand now is going and is already shifting,” Petersen said. “It’s already happening.
‘A very resilient breed’
Jeff Kirwan, who serves on the board of directors for the Illinois Farm Bureau, farms corn and soybeans south of the Quad Cities in Mercer County.
Over the years, Kirwan said variability seems to have increased a bit, but it’s hard to assess. “We do seem to get more severe weather, more dynamic rainfalls, dryer spells,” Kirwan said. “The future, when you look into that crystal ball, it’s a whole bunch of uncertainty. … We don’t know. And so you just kind of adapt. And I think that’s what we’re good at, adapting to changes.”
The climate that Illinois farmers depend upon is changing, the assessment says, and farmers will be up against higher temperatures, increased soil evaporation, flash droughts — and stressed crops.
Illinois is among the top producers of soybeans and corn, which in part contribute to a more than $19 billion a year industry, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The industry employs close to a million people, but farm operators have decreased to about 75,000 from 164,000 in 1959, while average farm sizes have more than doubled with technology developments, according to the Department of Agriculture.
It’s tough to predict how Illinois crops will react to a warming climate with much uncertainty ahead, the assessment notes, but even with a longer growing season, there are some challenges farmers might face.
Increased carbon dioxide levels may benefit soybean crops in the short term, but as drought and heat intensify, elevated levels may make things worse. Corn yields are likely to be reduced by 2050 and may be particularly vulnerable to warming nighttime temperatures. Some planting zones may shift north.
With increasing precipitation, a wet spring could delay planting. In 2019, among the wettest years on record , about 1.2 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted, the assessment notes. Wetter weather can also cause erosion, which can make soil less resilient to extreme weather.
Nuisances — weeds, pests and disease — may also become greater problems, requiring more applications of control measures, including pesticides.
These competing forces mean adapting will be necessary, but the assessment says farmers may be able to make up for some losses through technology advances and management tweaks.
Kirwan’s farm uses cover crops — which can assist in soil erosion — and other conservation measures. Adopting those practices was part of thinking about sustainability, water quality and nutrient management, Kirwan said.
“But also because it helps us preserve our asset and our legacy,” Kirwan said. “It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get differing opinions, but I think overall we try and do the things that are best for our operations and for our families.”
There have been discussions about climate in Illinois for years in the agricultural world, Kirwan said, and he’s still optimistic, especially as technology has developed.
“Farming, we are always dealing with challenges — weather challenges, insect challenges, governmental challenges,” Kirwan said. “Nothing’s ever going to stay the same, we know that.”
Weather disasters, and the existential threats climate change poses, can affect mental health, and the assessment notes farmers may be at an especially high risk as they face increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.
To watch weather diminish a crop can take a mental toll, Kirwan said. “We don’t like to have to watch something that we put our hard-earned work into wither away.”
Still, Kirwan said, “Farmers are a very resilient breed — if we’ve made it this far.”
‘Things can warm up very quickly’
In Illinois, the average daily temperature has increased throughout most of the state in the last century by 1 to 2 degrees.
Nighttime minimum temperatures in some parts of the state have increased at three times the rate of daytime temperatures, leading to hot summer nights without relief, and also fewer freezing evenings in winter — the season that has seen the most warming. In some parts of the state, minimum winter temperatures have warmed by more than 3 degrees.
Daytime high temperatures have been kept at bay in part by increased precipitation, which increases soil moisture. Average annual precipitation has increased by 5% to as much as 20% in pockets of the state, and there are 40% more days with 2 inches of rain or more, while in recent decades extreme droughts have become more rare.
A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and heavier rains are likely to continue, especially in the north. But that balance may shift in coming decades, as temperatures increase and summer precipitation decreases.
“Once you dry out those soils, things can warm up very quickly,” said Jim Angel, a lead author of the report and a former state climatologist for more than three decades.
An exceptionally hot 1936 summer, with temperatures 4.5 degrees above a 30-year average, could become the norm.
And more extreme weather may become more likely — more exceptionally warm days, more intense rains and longer dry spells.
The assessment’s lower scenario model predicting the effects of climate change depends on a rapid retreat from fossil fuels and lower emissions overall, while in a higher scenario model, emissions continue to steeply rise.
Wuebbles, a former White House expert on climate science, said he thinks people can adapt to the lower end. “It’s the high scenario, or anything approaching the high scenario, that by the end of this century I think would be disastrous for humanity.”
The higher estimates for the state by the end of the century are difficult to imagine. In northern Illinois, for example, at the extreme end, the annual average temperature could increase from 49 degrees to as much as 63 degrees — a 14-degree jump.
“It’s not in the abstract,” Angel said. “We’re actually observing these changes taking place now and the projections are that not only are they going to continue, but in many cases become much more problematic moving on into the future.”
At a Tuesday morning news conference, Wuebbles said, “My big worry is getting to 2050 and having our grandchildren saying, what were they thinking back in 2020?”
More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, it is becoming clear that the economic pain has not abated for many Americans — and is worsening for some.
Researchers at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the University of Notre Dame Department of Economics are using monthly Census data to capture a nearly real-time snapshot of American poverty. Last month, even as the unemployment rate fell and more states relaxed restrictions on business operations, the poverty rate hit a pandemic high of 11.7 percent — a full percentage point greater than it was in early 2020.
For some of the most marginalized populations, the rate of poverty in March was even higher. Black poverty had retreated from the 23.3 percent high it touched last August but, at 21.2 percent, remained close to double that of the overall rate. Childhood poverty soared to a rate of 17.4 percent, and was high for less-educated people, as well, rising to 22.2 percent among those with only a high school education or less.
In both January and February of 2020, the poverty rate held steady at 10.7 percent — although even those metrics masked the challenges faced by some populations. Black poverty, for instance, was 20.7 percent in February 2020, compared to a rate of 8.9 percent for whites. The poverty rate for people without any college education was also elevated, at 19.6 percent in February 2020.
Experts say the monthly research illustrates just how instrumental Congressional fiscal aid such as the CARES Act and subsequent stimulus programs at keeping families out of poverty have been — and offers a glimpse of what could happen once those programs wind down if employment has not rebounded significantly.
“It’s astonishing that we’re seeing a high now. It does underscore how vulnerable so many people are that we still have not recovered enough that once the government aid starts tapering down… you can’t just cut off this aid overnight before the jobs come back,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “You’d hope by now things would have recovered,” he added.
Significantly, the researchers found that the poverty rate actually dropped in the early months of the pandemic, hitting a trough of 9.1 percent in May. James Sullivan, an economics professor and director of the Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame and one of the research authors, said this was almost certainly a function of the combination of $1,200 stimulus payments that were distributed to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits including benefits for gig and self-employed workers, and an extra $600 weekly benefit on top of existing state benefits.
“I feel like the most important takeaway from the work we’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic is the clear relationship between poverty and government relief efforts,” he said. “At the time, people were a little bit surprised, but then you look at the magnitude of the CARES Act, and it really makes sense that poverty would fall in the short run.”
The pandemic wreaked havoc on the finances of millions of households, but that pain was not spread evenly. Many people who were able to make the transition to working from home kept their jobs — although some did have their pay or hours reduced. But for people who worked in shuttered hotels, restaurants and malls, there were no alternatives.
“The economic impacts of the pandemic have been incredibly disparate,” Sullivan said. More recently, economists have noted the K-shaped recovery that has bifurcated Americans into haves and have-nots in the ensuing months.
The project’s authors note that while the unemployment rate has improved markedly since last April, weekly jobless claims filed still are being filed at a rate five times higher than before the pandemic. Sullivan suggested the April snapshot might show a brighter picture, though, since more families will have received financial assistance from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law last month. “The latest relief package is going to provide significant additional resources to households, but we haven’t seen that in the data yet,” he said.
Stettner said those dollars would benefit the broader economy, not just the recipients. “Overall, the economy is doing very well, given the pandemic. That has a lot of do with the fact that we’ve supported people at the bottom. A lot of the consumer spending in our economy is by low- and middle-income workers. When they don’t have money, the economy suffers,” he said.
As a result, he added, it is important for policymakers to keep their foot on the gas and commit to fiscal support until the labor market recovery picks up steam. “In many sectors of the economy, it’s not going to open overnight,” Stettner said. “It’s going to take time for that activity to ramp back up.”
Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?
Reducing tillage—which often relies on herbicides—has long been out of reach on organic farms. Now, a group of veteran growers are undertaking a soil health experiment with implications for California and beyond.
By Gosia Wozniacka March 30, 2021
Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)
No-Till Farmers’ Push for Healthy Soils Ignites a Movement in the Plains
More Crops Per Drop: No-Till Farming Combats Drought
With Regenerative Agriculture Booming, the Question of Pesticide Use Looms Large
Last summer, veteran organic farmer Scott Park was bewildered when he surveyed his vast tomato, corn, and sunflower fields. Before planting the crops on 350 acres he had radically cut down on tilling the soil, planted cover crops twice, and let goats graze the land. And he was sure he’d see excellent yields.
The undisturbed soil was loaded with earthworms, but the crops grew sluggishly and didn’t produce enough fruit. Park lost almost half of his yields—and over half a million dollars.
“We thought we were going to cut a fat hog,” said Park, whose farm lies 50 miles northwest of Sacramento in California’s Central Valley. “But the combination of no-till and grazing kicked me in the teeth.”
Though surprising, the result was part of a critical experiment that Park plans to replicate again—this time, on a smaller plot on his 1,700-acre farm: Because there’s more at stake than his own profit.
For the vast majority of organic growers, tilling the soil is a crucial tool. It helps control weeds (which are a much bigger challenge for farmers who don’t spray herbicides) and helps incorporate compost and other nutrients into soil. But that system may begin to change.
Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)
Switching to no-till on mechanized organic farms—and particularly in organic vegetable cropping systems—has long been considered the holy grail, and practically impossible to achieve, especially in the water-parched arid West, a region that dominates U.S. organic produce production.
Two growing seasons into the California experiment, Park and the other farmers have faced an array of challenges. Some have been economically painful, while others have led to promising results. And yet, if the farmers can get past the hurdles presenting themselves in these early years, their efforts could catalyze a massive shift to reduced tillage—and a new understanding of soil health—in the organic industry in California and nationwide. And because no-till is held up as a central tenent of regenerative agriculture, it could also be seen as a boon for farmers hoping to take part in the carbon markets the Biden administration has put forward in response to climate change.
“When soil transitions to a no-till system, yield reduction is usually a temporary thing,” said Cynthia Daley, a professor at Chico State who is involved in the project. “These farmers see the benefit of going into no-till, but they are trying to find a way to get there that doesn’t result in a negative economic impact in the long run. Their dedication is incredible.”
No-till could also create a carbon sponge to retain water in the soil and cut back on evaporation, a change extremely welcome in California, where water is scarce and droughts are common, said Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, another farmer participating in the no-till experiment. The cooling effects on soil would also be crucial, Muller said, given that hot temperatures can negatively impact the soil’s microorganisms.
“We’re trying to figure out . . . whether there’s a better system without tillage where we can empower the microbial communities under those plants to supply them with what they need,” said Muller. “We’re at the beginning of that curve of knowledge and of understanding how these practices can capture more carbon and put more vitality into our farming system.”
No-Till Catches on with Organic Farmers
Intensive tillage on a large scale took off in the U.S. with the invention of the steel plow in the 1830s. But while it facilitated the conversion of prairie land and large-scale farming across the country, tillage also led to massive erosion, habitat loss, and the release of greenhouse gases. It culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an agricultural crisis so severe that it caused some farmers to adopt conservation practices and the U.S. government to invest in teaching them how to take care of their soil through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Soil Conservation service, which eventually became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). And while those efforts convinced some farmers to change their practices, most continued to intensively plow their fields multiple times each season.
No-till rose in popularity throughout several regions of the U.S. in the 1970s and today, its adoption is concentrated in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, no-till was used on 37 percent of U.S. acres, and reduced tillage was practiced on an additional 35 percent. Since reducing tillage is part of a wider set of regenerative practices, some farmers are also planting more cover crops to regenerate their soil and prevent erosion. Cover crops use rose by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017, but they still only grow on about 4 percent of the nation’s total cropland.
On most farms, the phrase “no-till” is a misnomer, as many farmers use it to refer to a greatly reduced approach to tilling and not to the continuous lack of tillage. For this reason, teasing out the differences in approaches between regenerative and organic systems can be a challenge.
Some organic farmers have scoffed at the idea of no-till and regenerative agriculture systems that include herbicides. They argue that organic farming, which is built around the idea of soil health, can build up soil fertility or sequester carbon better than regenerative/no-till agriculture. Some research indicates this is true because the addition of manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.
Other research shows that organic farms’ ability to store carbon at deeper soil levels exceeds that of conventional farms, even those using cover crops. Scientists are still learning to understand how soil works, so the jury is out on whether organic production that includes tilling but cares for the soil in other ways equals or outstrips no-till farming.
While science continues to evolve, a third of all organic farms nationwide self-define their operations as “no-till” or “minimal till”—but, as is the case for conventional growers, for most, these terms don’t mean that they have stopped tilling.
The “organic no-till” project at the Rodale Institute, is a good example. The Institute has been working since the 1990s on ways organic grain growers can disturb the soil less.
“On one hand, organic farmers claim to be improving soil health, but with the same breath they’re doing multiple tilling operations in a single season,” said Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute’s executive director. “Tillage day isn’t a particularly good day if you’re an earthworm.”
Moyer, who spent 35 years as Rodale’s farm director and farm manager, began encouraging large organic grain growers to plant cover crops prior to their cash crops and to use the residue as mulch to suppress weeds. To facilitate the process on large farms, he re-designed the roller crimper as a tool to help organic corn and soybean farmers reduce tilling. Hitched to a tractor, the crimper flattens cover crops, breaking their stems and creating a dense mat of mulch. With the right tool, the farmer can then plant the cash crop directly into the newly rolled mulch.
A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)
This system has allowed some organic farmers, mostly in the Midwest, to reduce their tillage—cutting it down to one deep-till pass per crop rotation. In the past, those farmers would make a primary tillage pass over their fields, followed by multiple secondary passes to disc, pack the soil, make a clean bed ready for planting, and then—once the crop is growing—to rotary hoe and cultivate multiple times to manage weeds.
“To the microbial life in the soil, it feels like tillage over and over again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Moyer said.
In addition to the tillage to establish the cover crop, Rodale’s system reduces multiple passes through the fields to just two, planting and harvesting, Moyer said. And farmers time the deep tillage for late summer, when the weather is dry and the earthworms and other soil life burrow deep in the soil in search of moisture. They also apply compost, manure, or other soil amendments, which—in addition to the benefits derived from the cover crop—reduce the negative impacts of deep tillage, he added.
The roller-crimper system has worked so well for organic grain corn and soybean that some conventional soybean growers are also using it to reduce their use of expensive herbicides, said Moyer, who is also the author of the newly published book, Roller/Crimper No-Till.
In California, organic vegetable growers have made multiple attempts at reducing tillage over the past decade, with little luck, said Tom Willey, an organic pioneer who retired three years ago from his 75-acre farm near Fresno. Willey, who farmed for nearly 40 years, is now helping other growers return to the effort.
Tom Willey holding soil from his farm.
“Our early attempts at no-till were so disappointing, we gave up,” Willey said.
Then, in 2018, three well-established organic farms, Scott Park’s farm Park Farming Organics, Full Belly Farm, and Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce joined forces with U.C. Extension, Cal State Chico, and Fresno State to launch on-farm trials focusing on various forms of reduced soil disturbance. Since then, with financial support from a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the farmers and researchers are trying out various approaches and equipment. While the farmers choose which practices to use, the universities are collecting soil and tissue samples and doing additional reduced till and cover crop experiments on the schools’ farms.
The partnership is especially significant in a state that has always been at the forefront of organics but has offered little to no research development or extension services to organic farmers.
The participating farmers have all grown cover crops, incorporated compost, and managed complex crop rotations for many decades; they have all also experimented with reducing tillage. Yet, in a sense, they have decided late in their careers to go back to farming school, putting aside prevalent, economically secure concepts of organic production to learn a more nuanced, complicated version of soil microbiology. It’s a significant risk, but one they hope will be worth it.
“It’s like looking at the world through a different lens . . . a more reverential one that says we don’t know a whole lot and we should stop screwing it up. And maybe it can teach us if we step back,” said Muller of Full Belly Farm.
The farmers and academics are part of a growing informal network that shares knowledge, swaps scientific papers and on-farm trial updates, organizes farm tours, and hosts a slew of soil health experts, including conventional no-till farmers.
“[There are] too few farmers left in this country to waste time being at war with each other,” Willey said. The hope is to eventually replicate a farmers’ network for organic vegetable producers that is akin to No-till On the Plains, which connects conventional growers from the Great Plains and Midwest regions.
Several hurdles to organic vegetable no-till have become immediately clear, said Jeffrey Mitchell, cooperative extension specialist at U.C. Davis and the lead on the CIG no-till project.
One of them is seed size. Unlike corn and soy, which will germinate well and emerge robustly in soil blanketed with thick cover crop residue, most vegetables seeds are very small and delicate. They don’t have the same ability to push out of mulch-covered soil and establish themselves. The lack of expensive no-till equipment in California is another challenge, said Mitchell, who over the past two decades has conducted reduced tillage studies in conventional farming systems. The farmers in the organic no-till project have “scrambled, borrowed, and modified” existing tools, he said.
California also has unique climate characteristics that make reducing soil disturbance more difficult. Unlike in the Midwest, there is no real winter or hard frost, which means year-round, hardier weeds. And for most of the year, California lacks the rainfall that Midwestern farmers depend on to add moisture and help integrate nutrients into the soil without tillage.
“For high-value vegetable organic farmers in California, the switch to reduced soil disturbance is high-cost and high-risk, so it’s been very challenging to break in with it in our state,” Mitchell said.
Using a ‘Cadillac System’ to Boost Soil Health
To Park, who grows processing tomatoes, dry beans, seed crops, wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, and corn, those risks are all too real.
February found him trying to understand what went wrong with the combination of grazing, double cover crops, and reduced tillage he’d deployed last year. He refers to it as his “Cadillac system,” because it’s a deluxe approach that uses multiple practices that are typically used piecemeal to support soil health.
Following a wheat crop, which Park chopped and used as mulch, he planted a multi-species summer cover crop. Once it matured, he brought in about 6,000 goats to graze it. He then spread compost and shallowly tilled it in 2–3 inches deep, planted a winter cover crop, mowed and lightly tilled the following spring, then planted tomatoes, corn, and sunflowers.
Park’s standard practices include eight soil disturbances (down from about 20 on a typical vegetable farm), but on the trial fields he has further reduced them to four light disturbances.
Park believes that combining multiple regenerative farming practices can improve the soil to a point where it can have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. Such soil can make more nitrogen available to the crops, while cutting down on pest and disease pressure. It also holds a lot more water.
“The idea is to flow with nature and not have to fight nature back,” he says. But this latest attempt at amping up his practices turned out to be a “complete disaster.”
The cover crops added plenty of biomass into the soil. And the fields had 70 percent of normal water and enough time to digest the residue, he said. But something—the decision to vastly reduce the number and depth of tillage passes, the grazing, or both—had “tied up” the nitrogen and starved the plants, he said. Park added granular organic fertilizer to 70 acres of the Cadillac fields, but it didn’t help.
Park is not the only farmer in the reduced-till trials who is seeing a yield drag, and knowing that provides motivation to continue the experiment. Thus far, all of the farmers who are part of the project have seen yield reductions ranging from 20 to 50 percent in most of their trial fields.
Given the weed control and yield issues, Park isn’t sure that organic growers in California will ever be able to cut out tillage completely
“There’s unbelievable interest in moving the dial and I’m 100 percent behind it,” said Park. “But every farm has its own personality and its own needs . . . These practices have to fit your crops.”
Cover Crop–Cash Crop Match-Making
Two-hundred miles south of Park’s farm, on California’s Central Coast, farmer Phil Foster was getting ready to plant carrots and lettuce in his reduced till trial fields. Foster, who co-owns Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce, has a much smaller farm than Park—300 acres split among two ranches—but grows 60 different organic fruits and vegetables in a carefully orchestrated year-round rotation.
During the on-farm trials, Foster and the other farmers have come to realize that cover crops are the key to sustaining a reduced or no-till practice. These crops, planted between cash crops, mainly for their benefit to the farming system, perform different functions: they may suppress weeds, fix nitrogen, or improve the soil microbial community. In recent years, research has pointed to the benefit of cover crop mixes—as opposed to a single species—because they mimic the natural ecosystem.
Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)
Cover crops also must be chosen based on cash crops’ planting time and attuned to the crops’ nutritional, pest control, and water needs. And the various species should all have a similar maturation rate. Given all this, Foster say it will take time and a lot of experimentation to find that attunement with all his crops.
“We are continuing to learn the many nuances to cover species,” he said.
Foster has been farming organically for 30 years and keeps careful soil records. By cover cropping about half his acreage every year and incorporating the green manure and compost, he has been able to raise his soil organic matter by several percentage points. “I have seen how much more dynamic the soil is and how much easier it is to farm,” said Foster. “If you can attain a certain organic matter level, the soil takes care of the crops a lot better.”
But over the past decade, the organic matter on his farm plateaued, which lead him to consider reducing his tillage and a renewed focus on cover crops.
“We’re still disturbing the soil, but we’re bringing our soil disturbance from historical levels of 8 to 15 inches with discs and chisels, which we don’t run anymore, to 4 to 5 inches or even just a couple of inches,” Foster recently said during a presentation on the project at the EcoFarm Conference.
After joining the no-till trials, Foster upped his cover crop acreage by 20 percent. He also has increased the diversity of his cover crop mixes, with vetch and oats as the workhorses, and is now using “cocktails” of 5–10 species in different ratios that also include rye, field peas, safflower, sunflower, phacelia, mustard, flax, and tillage radish.
Like Foster, Full Belly Farm’s Muller is also expanding his mixes and now uses 10–12 different species. Muller is trying to make more use of cover crop grasses in his trial fields, including rye or sudangrass, which grow quicker than legumes such as vetch and provide a large amount of biomass. Grasses don’t decompose as rapidly, which has a down side in that they can tie up nitrogen and keep it from getting to the cash crops, but they also provide thick mulch that keeps weeds down for a longer window.
“We want to armor our soil as much as possible through the year,” Muller said. “That’s why we need to keep as much cover on the ground as possible at all times.”
For Park, whose tomatoes get planted in early spring, the options are slimmer. He has resorted to planting vetch in the fall, which matures quickly and can be terminated in March. While its residue supplies a quick boost of nitrogen to the tomatoes, it doesn’t suppress weeds, meaning that Park still has to till a few inches deep to get rid of them.
“Figuring this all out has been “a school of hard knocks,” he adds.
On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing in tilled soil on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension)
By far the biggest challenge, Foster said, is figuring out when and how to kill—or terminate—the cover crops and to manage their residue on the planting beds before seeding. For instance, not all cover crops terminate well with the roller-crimper. In Foster’s no-till melon field, for example, the cover crop did not die when flattened with the machine and grew back, “meaning competition with the melons and lower yields,” Foster said.
Muller had a similar experience two years ago, when he tried a cover crop mix with oats. The oats didn’t die when flattened multiple times, and he finally brought in sheep to graze them down. It took three weeks to terminate the cover crop.
To deal with the problem, the farmers have mostly resorted to using a vertical tillage tool with undercutting knives or repeated mowing, although the fine clippings don’t keep weeds down for long.
Like Park, Foster isn’t quite ready to take his farm to zero till—mainly because planting the cash crops amidst the cover crops is still a work in progress. For now, he and the other farmers are using a strip tiller, which tills only a narrow, shallow strip for planting seeds in—a technique that’s still rare in California.
Does Plastic Hold the Keys to Vegetable No-till?
Foster and Willey, the retired Madera farmer, have been experimenting with cutting out all tillage on Foster’s trial fields via plasticuture and occultation, techniques often used by no-till gardeners and very small-scale farmers. They involve the use of plastic tarps and cardboard or other barriers to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
The plasticulture trial is the only experiment in the project thus far that has successfully addressed one of the major challenges for organic vegetable no-till in California: how to add fertility to the soil and prevent yield reductions.
Typically, organic producers incorporate compost and cover crop or crop residue into the soil through tillage. But with no-till, the residue and compost are left on top of the beds. Leaving plant “nutrition” on top isn’t a problem in rainier environments, Willey said, since the moisture turns the residue and compost into mush and brings it down to the plant roots. But that’s not the case in the arid West. And most California farms have switched to drip irrigation, which is buried in the soil and doesn’t help break down what’s on the top layer of soil.
The plasticulture and occultation trial fields have avoided this problem, Willey said, by mimicking or re-creating an artificial Midwest or Northeast climate through sprinkler or drip irrigation under the plastic “mulch.” The plastic helps retain moisture and keeps the soil warm. And the moisture, in turn, helps the decomposition of organic matter, which releases nutrients for plants to take in.
Last season, when Foster and Willey grew melons and watermelons this way, they saw high yields. It was a victory, though ironically Foster has worked for years to eliminate plastic from his fields and said he isn’t thrilled to use it on a large scale again.
Muller ran a similar experiment last year, also using a thin sheet of plastic on top of his beds. The eggplants he transplanted into the system had “great plant vigor, earlier set of fruit and better consistent yields,” he said.
Closing the Nitrogen Loop with No-Till
While most of the trials in the no-till project have seen less-than-stellar results so far, Muller takes the long view. He believes that with time, going to continuous no-till will be possible and advantageous to organic vegetable farmers.
“It’s going to take us time and we have to commit to reestablishing the soil microbiome and to providing a habitat for those organisms that fix nitrogen for the plants,” said Muller.
Muller, who was born and raised on a conventional farm, grew up seeing the impact of pesticides on both farmers and farmworkers. Like Foster’s operation, Muller’s 450-acre farm in the Capay Valley west of Sacramento grows over 80 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And he has focused on natural practices to maximize the vitality of his farm and his soil, including cover cropping and applying compost. Now, he hopes cutting down on tillage can take the effort further.
Muller hasn’t tilled his trial field for nearly three years. He likes to walk through it examining the soil; he brings a shovel, but it’s easy to dig in with his hands.
Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)
“There’s more earthworms, more vitality, more fungal activity, and much better water retention,” he said of the soil. The cover crops have also attracted beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. “I’m not a scientist, but I can see the differences.”
Muller has been rethinking his views about soil fertility and “how farming practices determine the health of microbial communities, on which plants depend for nutrient acquisition, their diversity, who dominates and how both water and nutrient cycling are impacted.”
He and the other farmers are looking to emerging soil health research to understand the impacts of reduced or zero tilling on the living processes happening below ground. In recent years, scientists have come to understand that the soil’s fungi-to-bacteria population ratio is a good indicator of plant growth and nutrient uptake. Most tilled soil is higher in bacterial growth than fungi, which is damaged by tilling. But the ideal is to balance the two.
Higher inputs of nitrogen fertilizer have also been shown to cause lower fungi-to-bacteria ratios. In fact, studies show that adding any nitrogen inputs, including animal manure or other organic soil amendments, to soil can be detrimental to the mutually beneficial relationships mycorrhizal fungi form with plants.
“When you add nitrogen to the soil, you make the plants and bacteria lazy,” Muller sums it up.
The farmers in the trial have been influenced by the work of Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, who has found that the best way to mimic nature and ensure a robust microbial community is by having green plants grow in the soil year-round. Jones’ work has shown that cover crop mixes in a no-till system can create a self-sustaining closed loop in which bacteria and fungi will naturally do the work of fixing nitrogen and make it available to plants as long as enough carbon is available for them to digest. Such a system would decrease fertilizer greenhouse gas emissions as well as input, labor, and fuel costs.
“There’s emerging scientific evidence that diverse soil microbial communities can deliver never-imagined levels of nutrients to crops if our farming practices facilitate, rather than interfere with, their ability to do so,” Willey said.
Is Organic No-Till Farming Even Possible, or Worth It?
If these three California farmers do figure out how to eliminate tillage in their production systems, it’s not clear how long they can sustain such practices.
In experiments at the Rodale Institute, for instance, Moyer has seen that after five years without tillage “things start to break down.” There’s often a shift from annual weeds to perennial weeds, which are more challenging to control. In some areas, shrubs and trees start popping up in the fields. And groundhogs can become a problem.
“In the Northeast, our landscape wants to be hardwood forest . . . so the soil will try to revert back to that. In the Plains states, it wants to be grass prairie,” Moyer said. (In California, which has a Mediterranean climate, lack of rainfall limits forest growth, so this issue may bear less weight.)
“I don’t think we’ll be able to fight back the succession of species with mulch forever,” he added.
It may be, Moyer said, that agricultural soil that isn’t tilled needs an occasional reboot, much like a computer. For organic growers, “tillage is the reboot system,” Moyer said, “while for conventional farmers it’s increasing or changing the chemistry.” Organic farmers can quickly mitigate the damage from the occasional tillage by applying compost or animal manure and immediately planting a cover crop, he added
For the California farmers, who are planning to continue with the on-farm experiments beyond the four years of the CIG grant, the experiment is worthwhile. And they’re hoping other organic farmers will join the conversation. Ultimately, farmers need to figure out whether the overall benefits of reducing tillage outweigh the drawbacks in large-scale vegetable production systems. But the answers may not be far off.
“It’s one of the most exciting times I’ve had as a farmer,” said Muller. “The scientific body of knowledge is making wonderful leaps in our understanding of soil ecology. The hunches we had as organic growers . . . are now being borne out and understood.”
Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) civileats.com and follow her on Twitter.