In Cordova, Alaska, (where we were in March for 25th memorial events of the Exxon Valdez disaster), people had wondered once in the throes of our 20-year legal battle over basic damage claims (which we eventually lost), how corporations took over the political system, the legal system, the media, and more. What happened to government of, for, and by The People? (We share the answer as part of a full-day training along with information about value-based community organizing). The public outrage over Citizens United (the Supreme Court decision that led to SuperPacs and unlimited spending by corporations to influence election campaigns) basically launched a movement to reclaim and improve democracy. Everywhere on tour we encountered examples that arise in a broken democracy where wealth and power have gained too much control over the people–and where money matters more than public health, community wellbeing, and the environment.
For example along the Gulf Coast, people are finding that BP still seems to be in charge. During the BP disaster response, it was common for people to find access blocked by U.S. Coast Guard people claiming, “These are BP’s rules, not ours.” This led one reporter to comment, “BP hasn’t yet been able to stop the flow of oil, but it’s been more successful at controlling the [flow of] information…” Now people want information on environmental medicine and treatment for chemical illness, but are learning that the cleverly-worded BP medical benefits settlement denies the very claims it professes to deliver. In Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, Michelle is paying out of pocket for her life-threatening thyroid condition and other health issues that started after the BP disaster. She couldn’t afford to wait for treatment, and she doesn’t expect to be reimbursed by BP even though she lives within ½ mile of the coast – the narrow range covered under the settlement. Meanwhile, in George County, Mississippi, some 50 miles from the coast, hundreds of former beach workers carried the toxic oil and chemicals home with them in their clothes and on their bodies, and now they and their families are sick. As one county resident remarked, “We have people dying and not knowing what they’re dying from.” The laws give the advantage to the spiller and make it difficult to hold corporations accountable: As we learned in Cordova, Alaska, it’s “guilty until proven wealthy.”
Extreme oil energy companies are ignoring or sidestepping the democratic process and laws everywhere. Despite enormous public resistance to tar sands oil development and use, the Obama Administration fast-tracked a series of short pipeline projects while attention was focused on the Keystone XL. Instead of obtaining one permit for the entire Keystone XL project and completing a comprehensive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, the Army Corps of Engineers authorized federal permits in half-acre segments using a Nationwide 12 permit (NWP 12) process designed for small utility projects. For two key segments, the 589-mile Enbridge Flanagan South Pipeline from north central Illinois to Cushing, OK, and the 485-mile TransCanada Gulf Coast Pipeline from Cushing to Port Arthur, TX, the companies received nearly 2,000 and 2,227 NWP 12 permits, respectively. The result: tar sands oil is flowing from Alberta to Texas. One of the casualties is democracy, including landowners’ rights and environmental laws.
In Vinita, Oklahoma, we learned from plaintiff Earl Hatley with Clean Energy Future OK about lawsuits brought by CEFOK and Sierra Club, among others, over these tars sands oil pipelines. Lower courts had limited their review of the legality of using NWP 12 for large projects to economic harms. In both cases, courts ruled that predictable and immediate harms of losing corporate profits outweighed potential and future harms of ecological damage (from spills but not counting climate damage from all tar sands activities). Both of these cases are being appealed, using a favorable court ruling in a similar case filed by Delaware Riverkeeper over Kinder Morgan’s 40-mile Northeast Upgrade Project, also for tar sands oil. In this case, the court ruled that a continuous pipeline project cannot be segmented into multiple parts to avoid a comprehensive NEPA review. Meanwhile, Enbridge’s Flanagan South Pipeline is not yet operational because 300 Illinois farmers filed a lawsuit over eminent domain that is still in the courts: Alternative routes were used to complete the current operational corridor.
In Chicago, Illinois, and Whiting, Indiana, Tar Sands Free Midwest and the Southeast Environmental Task Force, among others, are concerned about health impacts from giant piles of petcoke, produced as a byproduct of refining tar sands oil. Technically, petcoke is a hazardous waste, however, it and other hazardous mining wastes, along with hazardous oil and gas production wastes such as drilling fluids and produced waters, are exempt from RCRA and CERCLA laws as “special wastes” under the Bevill and Bentsen Amendments. Known as the “coal hiding in tar sands,” petcoke is being sold as fuel at steeply discounted prices to undercut the coal market. But petcoke is even dirtier than coal: Burning a ton of petcoke yields on average 53 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal. Meanwhile, petcoke is literally piling up at refineries, and surrounding communities have a right to know about environmental exposure from air, soil, and surface/ground water.
Other examples of democracy hijacked were rampant in communities with “backyard fracking.” In Edmond, Oklahoma, Mary showed us cracks in her floor, walls, and ceiling and a porch section that is settling off-kilter from recent earthquake activity in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the new “earthquake capital” of America. In just the first half of 2014, it had over 253 quakes registering over 3.0 on the Richter scale––enough to shake homes and cause “minor” damage. Residents suspect these are “frackquakes,” caused by industry’s practice of injecting contaminated wastewater from its activities in underground disposal wells. A recent Cornell study backs them up. The unwanted publicity has driven industry to stop or reduce the number of injections, yet drilling continues. What are they doing with their hazardous wastewater that is exempt from proper disposal? Homeowners have noticed miles of Polypipe being laid underground and suspect industry is using Polypipe for temporary storage of millions of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater. However, gas, diesel, and other petrochemical-based solvents pass through this material! Oklahomans are wondering where is the government oversight and where this hazardous wastewater will end up––in a neighbor’s backyard, in another state, or in their own backyards as a new form of LUST (Leaking Underground Storage Tanks)?
Beyond water pollution, a growing number of Oklahomans are worrying about the huge amount of water used in fracking activities. 97 percent of Oklahoma is private land and that includes the ground water rights under a 1973 utilization law. This law does not allow waste by pollution or depletion, for which fracking surely qualifies, but laws need to be enforced. Private landowners sell their water, wait for their pond to recharge, and sell the water again. Municipalities sell water––frack trucks hitch hoses directly to fire hydrants. Looming water shortages have prompted the World Bank to launch a “Thirsty Energy” initiative to link water and energy on a global scale by encouraging municipalities to sell (out) to the fracking industry under the banner of “sustainable development.” Meanwhile, people in California are wondering if the thirsty energy in their backyard is contributing to their ongoing drought. As the Eyak People in Cordova, Alaska, observed, “We don’t care about ‘sustainable development.’ We need sustainable communities.”
And finally in the east end of Houston, the oil and gas capitol of the world, there is a stark example of what unsustainable development looks like. Manchester is a community of low-income people of color living in what has become the highest concentration of oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the nation. This once beautiful bayou is now the highly polluted Houston Ship Channel. The chemicals and petrochemicals in the air, water, soil, and fish are mirrored in people’s bodies, resulting in chronic and life-threatening illnesses. The area is targeted to handle tar sands and frack oils and larger ships from the Panama Canal expansion. Yet in the heart of this vast industrialization, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service (t.e.j.a.s.) works with community residents to educate and empower people about their health risks and rights.
The Manchester people and other concerned citizens we met know, as young Ta’kaiya Blaney from Haida Gwai’i sings in Shallow Waters, “If we do nothing, it’ll all be gone.”