When will the government take a stand against ecological violence?
For those who’ve followed the return of Sen. Joe Manchin’s zombie permitting bill, which Democratic leadership sought to push through this time attached to the National Defense Authorization Act after failing to pass with the continuing resolution in September, good news: it’s been defeated again! Last night, the permitting language was left out of the NDAA, as it became clear they still didn’t have the votes.
It was disheartening this week to see how much more palatable top Democrats find undemocratic dealmaking with the worst member of their party than taking principled stances that honor the legacies of environmental justice champions like the late Rep. Donald McEachin, who passed away last week. But progressives didn’t give up the fight. This marks an important victory for the communities most vulnerable to fossil fuel infrastructure’s toxic excesses.
Even if Sen. Manchin’s proposed permitting bill finally gives up the ghost, we can expect the specter of the past six months of debate over permitting reform to linger. We wrote for the Prospect last month about flaws we see in the consensus shared by many data wonks—a group that’s overwhelmingly white men—that Manchin’s permitting bill is necessary to get clean energy projects built at the necessary speed and scale.
First of all, they tend to not engage with the fact that Manchin’s proposal would have mandated new fossil fuel development for years to come, undercutting the climate goals to which they are ostensibly committed. Those who do engage seem to consider it a necessary evil, writing off whole affected communities in the process. Their blasé attitude towards fracked gas infrastructure like the Mountain Valley Pipeline emerges from a reliance on indefensible stats on natural gas as a “cleaner” alternative to oil and coal, when study after study has shown how damaging natural gas is from extraction to combustion, with its methane emissions chronically undercounted.
Going forward, we hope to see those on the center-left who aligned themselves with Manchin’s permitting bill make the more nuanced argument that accelerating clean energy projects is necessary, but that they can and must be separated from fossil fuel projects. We’d like to see them engage in good faith with the evidence pointing to increasing permitting agencies’ capacity as a smart route to increase the speed of permitting at the federal level without shortchanging community input or environmental review. And we’d like to see them acknowledge the health and environmental concerns of frontline communities who live in close proximity to energy infrastructure as important, not inconvenient.
Simply put, we would ask for more rigor from the wonks who would like a say in how we redesign America’s energy systems. The challenge is massive, yes: to better serve more people with more efficient, less wasteful, less toxic energy infrastructure, while restraining the human footprint on the planet, so that other forms of life can also thrive. But it is also an energizing challenge, and eminently worthy of human effort. Any theory of climate change mitigation that is inflexible and unimaginative enough to involve bulldozing those who stand in its way is just another partial paradise, a green veil thrown over the same extractive relationships that got us here.
Red Hill is leaking, again. This time it’s a different toxic substance.
For those who aren’t familiar, Red Hill is the Navy’s ill-maintained underground jet fuel storage facility at Red Hill, or Kapūkakī, on the island of Oʻahu. It has been an active environmental hazard since it was built during World War II. Oʻahu’s primary source of drinking water is an aquifer located just 100 feet below the fuel storage tanks. Since 1943, at least 200,000 gallons of fuel have leaked from the facility.
Most recently, 14,000 gallons of jet fuel and water leaked from Red Hill into a Navy-run well at the end of last year, in a spill that sickened more than 5,000 people and drove thousands of military families from their homes. Though the Navy has finally agreed to defuel these tanks by 2024, the damage has already been done. Many people are still displaced from last year’s leak, and are now left battling chronic health issues. And the fragile island ecosystem continues to bear the brunt of the U.S. military’s toxic footprint.
Last week, an aboveground storage tank at Red Hill sprung a leak, spilling 1,100 gallons of undiluted aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF. AFFF contains PFAS chemicals, often called “forever chemicals,” which do not naturally break down in the environment and are known to cause cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and other forms of serious health damage. Locals fear that these chemicals will permeate the groundwater and reach the aquifer, polluting the island’s primary drinking water supply, well, forever. The military claims it does not know when, how or why the leak began. Meanwhile, the facility no longer has any usable fire suppressant, and is also a major fire hazard.
So the nightmare at Red Hill continues. And Red Hill is far from an isolated incident. The vast majority of federal Superfund sites in the US—sites identified by the EPA as being contaminated by toxic hazards—are associated with the Department of Defense. Many remain active military bases. At least 704 US military bases are known to have drinking water contaminated specifically by PFAS forever chemicals. A landmark CDC study in 2000 found that 98 percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood; studies since have confirmed that people are continually, invariably exposed to thousands of PFAS chemicals.
The War Horse reported earlier this year that “between 2016 and 2020, the military burned more than 20 million pounds of AFFF—often in low-income communities, according to researchers at Bennington College. Studies have shown that rather than destroying PFAS compounds, incineration can release them into the air.” In other words, the way the military has disposed of the toxic chemicals already wreaking havoc on exposed communities was to expose new, already disadvantaged communities to toxic chemicals. So much for protecting the United States.
Border Walls, Old and New
While we’re on the subject of “national defense” and its most repugnant flavors—Arizona’s outgoing Republican governor Doug Ducey has dreamed up and put into action one of the most destructive, ineffective and illegal schemes for expressing his boundless hatred of immigrants yet. In late October, he began to build a long, snaking wall of double-stacked shipping containers on public, federal land in Coronado National Forest. This scheme is as effective at devastating a fragile ecosystem as it is ineffective at keeping human migrants out. Not only are shipping containers easy enough for humans to climb—they’re literally designed with handles—but this is an area that gets very little human traffic.
On the contrary, this area’s inhabitants are largely non-human, diverse, and endangered. This wall cuts through an important corridor for jaguars and ocelots, both endangered species. The Sky Island Alliance monitors the area on wildlife cameras, and they’ve detected “a wide variety of wildlife on the border, including black bears, coatis, ringtails, porcupines, possums, three types of deer including the Coues subspecies, and four skunk species. Bobcats and coyotes frequently show up.” In short, Ducey is disrupting a rich ecosystem that harbors protected species on public lands he has no legal right to meddle with.
This is federal public land, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. So, where exactly are the feds? Why aren’t they stepping in to prevent this wall’s construction? Why aren’t they enforcing the federal laws which protect this region and its inhabitants? As Aaron Reichlin-Melnick at the American Immigration Council incisively put it, “why is enforcement of the law being outsourced to protesters?”
Meanwhile, ProPublica reported last week that the Justice Department spent the past year trying to hide a federally-commissioned 404-page report showing that a private border wall built on the banks of the Rio Grande was structurally unsound and would collapse during extreme flooding. The private wall was built during Trump’s last years in office with support from the notorious “We Build the Wall” fundraising scheme, whose leaders (including Bannon) were later arrested for fraud. The DOJ sued in 2020 to try and halt construction, but after a federal judge overturned their temporary restraining order, they settled with the builders.
This recently uncovered report raises questions about why the government gave up on pushing for the wall’s removal, given that the report they commissioned shows that the fence’s construction “doesn’t meet basic international building code and industry standards” and “‘would effectively slide and/or overturn’ during major flooding.” Needless to say, the damage to the Rio Grande ecosystem that would occur if a massive three mile long fence collapsed into the river is significant. The wall is already doing damage while it’s standing.
In all of these cases, Democratic leadership in Congress and the Biden administration have capacity to act. Top Democrats can lay Manchin’s permitting bill to rest, and stop trying to attach it to every other must-pass bill. Congress can hold the military to a higher standard. Federal agencies can actually enforce federal laws to protect the most vulnerable among us. If environmental justice is to be a part of this administration’s legacy, Biden and his appointees will have to actually take the leap, and commit itself to disrupting the current imbalance of power. For two years now, such commitment has only come in fits and starts.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: