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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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Why Nature Needs A Right To Self-Defense

There was a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia, that was so treasured by the locals it was not owned by anyone, not even the city. It was an autonomous entity known as the The Tree that Owns Itself.

Around the 1820s, William Jackson, owner of the property where the oak resided, wrote a formal deed in which he proclaimed, "(I)n consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides."

Naturally, age finally took its toll, and in 1942, the tree was downed by a big windstorm. Yet, its autonomy lives on! That's because residents took a seedling from the original and planted it in the same plot of land, and that offspring is still there, known as the Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.

One tree with the legal rights of selfhood is a sweet novelty, but what if all trees, watersheds, canyons and other natural ecosystems had a legal right to exist, thrive, evolve and regenerate? This concept of nature existing in its own right as a living entity — not merely as inert property to be extracted and exploited for profit — is the essence of a rapidly spreading Rights of Nature movement. A legal comprehension that Earth is an indivisible, interrelated and interdependent community of living beings is enormously empowering for the health of the planet but also for the ordinary families and local communities who're now routinely abused by profiteering corporate giants that plunder nature. All across our country (and around the world), people wake up to find that faraway financial elites have come in by stealth, using legalistic ruses to poison local waters, strip forests and fields, defile the air and otherwise destroy people's natural surroundings. Regulators and legislators, owned by the defilers, enable the plunder.

Sometimes, aloof corporate interests get absurdly, almost-comically hypocritical, yet they're so obtuse that they don't even realize it. In that case, is it still hypocrisy ... or are they just dimwitted?

To see this phenomenon in action, look at the histrionic outburst of horror emanating from a myriad of corporate bunkers over rising public approval for the idea that nature be given legal rights that are enforceable in courts. The Rights of Nature movement argues that if a mining conglomerate decapitates a mountain or a chemical giant dumps mercury in a bay, those injured citizens of our natural world ought to have their day in court. "Outrageous!" shriek the honchos of Corporate America. "The courts and legal rights are for people , not for pieces of property!"

Hello, hypocrisy. After all, what is a corporation? Not a person. Not a sentient, living creature — no brain, no pulse, no soul, no life. It's not even a real piece of property, just an inert document printed by a state. Yet, the owners of that piece of paper claim that it magically bestows "personhood" on their corporation, giving it the legal and political rights of real people. Yet, these "paper people" cry that Earth's actual living creatures, which they've felt free to destroy for their own profit, can't have any legal rights because they are just property. Excuse me, but a single drop of water has more life in it than all the corporations in the world.

Also, let's note that the long evolution of law has constantly progressed to transform "property" into beings with fundamental rights. Generations of enslaved people, indentured servants, women, child laborers and other humans have been brutally denied personhood — even the right to exist. Even that fight hasn't been won, but the body of legal (and moral) rights has grown, and it enhances our own humanity to recognize that we and nature are one. Crass corporate exploitation, on the other hand, diminishes all living things, threatening life itself.

Those who reflexively mock the Rights of Nature movement — scoffing at the idea of legal standing for marshes, grasslands, forest networks and other wildlife — might consider taking a moment by a quiet stream in the woods to ponder: Does nature need us, or do we need her?

To learn more, go to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund website.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Trump’s EPA Prepares Another Gift For The Coal Industry

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Trump’s EPA administrator wants to redraw our nation’s mercury standard to benefit coal-fired power plants that belch out nearly half the nation’s mercury emissions. But the agency’s Science Advisory Board is balking.

The board, headed by Trump administration appointee Michael Honeycutt who previously opposed tougher mercury standards, told the EPA it needed to look again at how much mercury people get from fish and the harm from mercury.

“EPA should instigate a new risk assessment,” the board wrote.

Under former President Barack Obama, the EPA only looked at IQ losses in children born to mothers who ate freshwater fish caught by amateur anglers from lakes where the EPA had information on fish tissue. This excluded most of the fish eaten in our country, much of it imported or fish from the ocean.

“It’s absolutely incorrect,” said Elsie Sunderland, a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard.

Ellen Kurlansky, a former EPA air policy analyst, said the board recommendation isn’t clear about whether ocean fish should be included in a new assessment.

“What does that actually mean?” she asked.

The Trump EPA packed the Science Advisory Board with industry-friendly appointees like air pollution researcher Robert Phalen who said air can be “a little too clean” for children’s health and consultant Brant Ulsh who claims radiation at low doses may not be dangerous.

The mercury report mentioned a discredited study by consultant and board member Tony Cox that claimed soot in the air can be beneficial.

But even this tainted board couldn’t stomach what the Trump EPA wants to do to our planet. The board also questioned a proposed rule that would limit which wetlands and waterways are protected by the Clean Water Act and the rollback of clean car standards.

Mercury exposure at its worst can mimic cerebral palsy. When airborne mercury settles on water or land that’s often damp, microbes convert it to methylmercury which is highly toxic and becomes more concentrated as it moves up food chains to people and predators.

Mercury raises the risk of diabetes and causes cardiovascular problems for adults, including higher chances of a fatal heart attack. Even how birds sing is affected.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler twisted the math for a proposed federal rule to knock out the legal justifications for limiting mercury emissions, claiming that “the only health benefit” to reducing mercury emissions “that the EPA could quantify and monetize” was children’s IQ loss.

In March 2017, coal magnate Robert Murray, who donated $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration, gave the Energy Department a wish list that included rescinding or revising the mercury standard, which Murray Energy had sued to block. Wheeler is a former lobbyist and Murray Energy was his best-paying client.

Murray Energy, once the largest privately held coal company in the country, filed for bankruptcy in October. At least seven coal companies filed for bankruptcy in 2019.

EPA is required by law to base decisions on the “best available science.”

The Obama restrictions on mercury have worked. Mercury emissions from U.S. power plants plunged by 65 percent from 2015 to 2017. The standards prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths a year, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks, according to EPA estimates.

The Trump EPA also wants to quash rules on sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants which cause acid rain.

EPA Will Ease Rules On Storage Of Deadly Coal Ash

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Utilities soon could get federal approval for the riskiest way to get rid of coal ash.

The latest Trump EPA proposal to prop up the financially struggling coal industry would make water supplies more vulnerable to the ash, the toxic remnants of burning coal.

report from the Environmental Integrity Project warns that the enduring legacy of coal ash will be groundwater pollution such as that in Memphis where city water is threatened.

The EPA proposal to set up a permit program to dispose of coal ash applies in Native American territory and states except two. Oklahoma and Georgia have set up their own permit programs. The Oklahoma program, which allows dumping in unlined ponds unless they leak, is being litigated.

Coal-burning power plants produce about 100 million tons of coal ash yearly. Arsenic, lead and mercury lace the ash. Companies mixed the ash with water and stored  it in unlined pits called coal ash ponds.

Such carelessness led to catastrophes, including 130 million gallons of coal ash and water being released into the Clinch River near Cleveland, Va., in 1967. The spill killed an estimated 217,000 fish and damaged the river for 35 years. In 2014, a break in a pond at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C., sent 27 million gallons of  sludge into the Dan River.

Jenny Cassel, an attorney for Earthjustice, said the language in the proposed Trump regulations would allow utilities to seek permits to continue to operate coal ash ponds which fail more frequently than landfills.

The Environmental Integrity Project found that 92 percent of plants with regulated ponds have at least one that leaks. Also, 76 percent of plants with regulated landfills have at least one leaking landfill. Researchers found the groundwater often has unsafe levels of four or more pollutants. They included arsenic, which causes cancers, and lithium, which can cause kidney damage and birth defects.

The levels of contamination at many sites are hundreds of times greater than what could be considered safe. For example, some of the wells at New Castle Generating Station in West Pittsburg, part of TaylorTownship, Pa., and Allen Fossil Plant near Memphis, Tenn., have enough arsenic to cause cancer in one out of six people.

The contaminated groundwater near Memphis is connected to the aquifer that supplies the drinking water for Memphis. About a third of coal ash ponds are within five miles of a public drinking water intake or reservoir. About 80 percent are within five miles of a drinking water well.

Obama administration regulations would have allowed unlined ponds to remain open until they showed statistically significant evidence of contamination.

In August 2018, the Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit threw out this part of the law, writing that many of the 575 known unlined ponds are likely to contaminate groundwater. The Trump EPA recently proposed that unlined ponds stop accepting coal ash by Aug. 31.

Trump EPA Guts Chemical Plant Safety Regulation

Reprinted with pemrission from DCReport

Just before the holidays, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency quietly threw out regulations protecting an estimated 177 million Americans who live and work near dangerous chemical plants. The EPA’s move came just 22 days after horrendous fire and multiple explosions 95 miles east of Houston threatened thousands.

The Chemical Disaster Rule, written under former President Barack Obama, covered about 12,500 industrial facilities nationwide using or storing highly hazardous chemicals. It included safeguards such as requiring an independent party to investigate spills and explosions and plant owners to keep safety information current.

‘People Will Die’

“People will die,” said Eric Whalen, a spokesman for Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

For example, the explosion at Texas Petroleum Chemicals Group in Port Neches on Nov. 27, Thanksgiving eve, killed one person and forced out 50,000 people.

The plant manufactures butadiene, an extremely flammable, colorless gas used to make tires and plastics. Butadiene is a known human cancer-causing agent. It can cause blurred vision, nausea, unconsciousness and respiratory paralysis.

The EPA finalized the Chemical Disaster Rule just a day before Obama left office in 2017. The rule was supposed to prevent tragedies like the April 17, 2013, explosion near Waco, Texas, at the West Fertilizer Co. plant. That inferno killed 15 people, injured more than 250 and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.

No Inspections

The fertilizer plant stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate,1,350 times the amount that would ordinarily trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There was no full plant inspection in almost three decades.

“The American people and American politicians, they have a short memory,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska. “They’re going to say everything is fine, and every few years something like this is going to happen again.”

At least one in three children attend school near a hazardous chemical facility. School in Port Neches was canceled after the explosions. People had to shelter in place because of the levels of butadiene.

Environmental Groups Sue

Thirteen environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Air Alliance Houston, sued the EPA over gutting the Chemical Disaster Rule.

The EPA previously calculated that its protections before the rule failed to prevent more than 2,200 chemical fires, explosions, leaks and other incidents during a 10-year period, including about 150 a year that caused injuries.

Industrial groups including American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce worked to kill the rule.