Coal Ash: Both Beneficial and Poisonous?

In big cities, during the first half of the 20th Century, shoveling coal in winter months was a familiar part of middle class life. As a kid growing up in a residential borough of New York City, I'd see the coal truck pulling up periodically in the alley behind our brick row house. A workman would put a big wooden barrel beneath a hopper on the truck and fill the barrel with coal. He would maneuver the loaded barrel, rim-rolling it through our back yard to the concrete steps down to our basement furnace room, upend the barrel and spill the coal down a long steel chute that fed into a wooden coal bin holding a ton or so. The furnace that heated the whole house stood a couple of steps from the bin. Shoveling coal was a family chore. My father, mother and older brothers would alternate the morning and evening tasks, going down to the basement to stoke the furnace and remove coal ash that collected at the bottom, loading that into ash cans for pickup by a collection truck. I never knew and never even wondered where the ash was taken for disposal. By the time I was big enough to shovel coal myself it was no longer necessary because our family had switched to a more convenient gas heating system.

Today, most people don't personally handle much coal, but this whole country still casually manufactures coal ash in jaw-dropping volumes, much of it residue from big coal burning electrical power plants. And most of us have no clue where the ash goes for disposal. A lot is used for what the industry and government officials call "beneficial" purposes, as an ingredient, for example, in making cement and wallboard. But we generate mountains of ash so large that we can't consume it all. So we dump most of it anyplace it is economically feasible and arguably legal to dump it, sometimes in old played-out coal mines, sometimes in ponds near the power plants that burn it, sometimes in pits that are lined to hold the concentrated heavy metals and other toxins coal ash contains. Sometimes they are unlined, allowing toxins to migrate into ground water supplies.

How dangerous is coal ash? -- that's the big question. Physicians for Social Responsibility  (PSR) call it "a toxic stew of heavy metals from arsenic, boron, and chromium to lead, mercury and selenium, and zinc." Carelessly dumped ash is "posing grave risks to human health," says PSR.

Some people long exposed to coal ash, like Debra Trently of Cranberry, Pa, and Merle Wertman of Tamaqua, Pa., are suffering from a rare form of blood cancer. Betty and Lester Kester used to live in Tamaqua, Pa., but are dead now.  And there are others, some with the same blood cancer, known to science as polycythemia vera, and some burdened with other unusual and chronic health problems. They have no doubt that coal ash is the culprit.

In Juliette, Georgia, sits one of the nation's biggest coal-burning power plants. Georgia Power, the operator, dumps the ash in an unlined pond the size of a lake. Polycythemia vera is absent in Juliette, at least so far, but so many other cancers and other significant health problems are showing up that 100 people filed a law suit in 2013 against Georgia Power for damages. The company denied responsibility for the health concerns and the suit was then "appropriately" withdrawn, said company spokesman Brian Green.  

Brian Adams, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit was withdrawn voluntarily "for strategic reasons" and that he continues to believe the company is culpable, and he intends to "reset" the case and re-file the complaint.

We expect corporations and government agencies at the federal and state and local level to protect us from any serious health consequences related to coal ash disposal. Until recently, the federal government has left the details of regulating coal ash largely to state governments where the coal industry has great influence. The prevailing rule is that the ash is considered a non-harmful form of waste, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pondering the validity of that definition for many years and officials now say they will update their thinking and issue a new rule by Dec. 19, 2014. The coal ash industry expects the feds to continue to classify coal ash as non-harmful. We'll see.

The coal ash industry has successfully resisted attempts to strengthen coal ash regulation, and they almost succeeded in slipping an amendment into Congressional legislation in 2012 that would have stripped EPA of the power to regulate coal ash now and in the future.

That was blocked by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and a handful of other environmentally concerned lawmakers. Three years earlier Boxer said she had to fight the Department of Homeland Security's attempts to prevent her and her staff from publicly disclosing the location of 44 hazardous coal ash sites identified by EPA across the nation.

Now, the EPA faces budget cuts and a reduced workforce.

"Addressing the threat from a changing climate is one of the greatest challenges of this and future generations," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the House Appropriations Committee this year. She said the agency's $7.9 billion budget request for 2015, which is $300 million below the current 2014 budget, "will provide the support we need to move forward by targeting real progress in priority areas: communities, climate change and air quality and chemical safety, and clean water."

Of course, a preponderance of scientific experts and political leaders are preoccupied these days over the extent to which coal combustion pushes us deeper into climate change and global warming, thereby posing a grave long-term threat to the health and safety of the entire planet of seven billion humans, a population expected to grow soon to nine billion if nature allows it.
 
Unfortunately, that distracting controversy makes it possible to overlook consequences already impacting a relatively small number of people who happen to live in communities victimized by side effects of ordinary day-to-day activities of massive coal ash disposal. That's the case even when people in those communities display a cluster of rare cancer cases, as acknowledged in Pennsylvania by federal health authorities. These victims think they are just being discarded as collateral damage, their suffering dismissed as merely an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of maximizing every available power source to continue driving an industrialized multi-trillion-dollar economy. Collateral damage?

"That was exactly my impression too," one closely involved scientist told me recently. Dr. Ronald Hoffman is a Professor at New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who has met some of those victims and who is an expert with 30 years of experience studying Myeloproliferative Disorders, which include polycythemia vera, the particular blood cancer identified in a cluster amid the coal ash dumps of the three adjoining Pennsylvania counties of Schuykill, Carbon and Luzerne.

Dr. Hoffman was invited in 2006 by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to look into the problem and he soon became convinced he was looking at "a possible public health danger to the people of Pennsylvania," as he testified in a Congressional hearing five years ago. He said the cancer cases in question were centered around EPA superfund sites and dumps of waste coal ash plants in the three counties and that his concern for the safety of the people living in the area only grew stronger as he gathered data. That seemed to displease senior officials at ATSDR, who attempted to intimidate him to get him to alter or change his findings that environmental contaminants may play a role in the cancers, Hoffman told the House Committee on Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight in 2009. Hoffman said he began to wonder "if there was some outside constituency who ASTDR was responding to that made them act like they just wanted this whole thing to go away."

Said Hoffman in 2009: "From my point of view, the mission of the Agency is to generate and communicate credible scientific information about the relationship between hazardous substances and adverse public health actions. My experience was, that in the case of polycythemia vera in eastern Pennsylvania, that the ATSDR did not accomplish this goal but only accomplished it eventually with relentless prodding to complete the needed investigations. My sense was if the Agency was left to themselves, they would have preferred to ignore the whole problem. ATSDR seemed to be committed to a course of ignoring and discrediting a mounting body of evidence which suggested the presence of a cluster of polycythemia vera patients in this tri-county area."

Science has limitations and precise answers are not always easy. Medical researchers agree that it is difficult, frequently impossible in fact, to determine with indisputable certainty that one particular form of environmental pollution caused any individual case of cancer, even when persuasive correlations exist between those cancers and exposure to that pollution. But that does not excuse those responsible for the pollution of their greater responsibility to protect people from the consequences.

 

Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus

 
 

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Coughing up Coal: Reporting from the Frontline of India's Health Crisis
Champa's eyes are surrounded by dark circles and her face is thin and drawn. It began with a fever, pain in her limbs, and she was then diagnosed with Tuberculosis.

"I was diagnosed with TB two years ago now," she said. "I have been on medication but I am not getting any better. I have difficulty breathing and even talking is hard. It has been five-six  years, ever since the plant started, our problems have started too."

Champa is one of hundreds of thousands of people in India whose health and lives are being blighted by the country's surge in coal-based electrical power generation.

India today ranks third in the world in the production of carbon dioxide and is burning more coal than ever before, with 66% of power generated by coal fired thermal power plants.

Future plans are for expansion, with the 12th five- year plan ending in 2017 adding 76GW of coal-fired power capacity and with the 13th five-year plan (between 2017-2022) adding another 93GW -- an aggressive industrial response to a growing population, a middle class hungry for modernity, and an energy policy that holds coal powered energy as integral to the development of the country's economy.

According to The Lancet's Global Burden of Diseases Study (December 2012), outdoor air pollution -- from power stations, other industry, transport, and domestic fuel burning for heat and cooking -- is among the top 10 causes of death in India. Regulations do exist in India, but are rarely enforced.

"In India we do have ambient air quality standards," said Sarath Guttikunda, chemical engineer and director at Urban Emissions in New Delhi. "But, we have found these regulations lag behind the numbers that we have seen in Europe, United States and even in China, and there is a lot of room for improvement."

In the first ever report focusing on the health impacts of the coal industry in India, scientists estimate that in 2011-2012, air pollution from coal fired power plants alone was responsible for 80,000-115,000 premature deaths. Diseases caused by pollution included 20.9 million asthma attacks, bronchitis and respiratory conditions and cardiovascular disease. These health impacts are estimated to cost India $3.3 billion to $4.6 billion per year in medical expenses and lost work days.

Singrauli - India's "Energy Capital"

Singrauli, known as the "energy capital" of the country, is the industrial hub of north-central India. It produces 10% of the country's coal based power, and straddles the border of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Priya Pillai, Senior Campaigner for Greenpeace India has worked on the ground in the area for over three years. "There are nine thermal power plants and eleven operational mines, and this is concentrated in one district. That's the Singrauli region. And it's because of this that you'll find the large number of cases of asthma of tuberculosis of skin diseases, of cancer," Pillai explained.

Industrialized Landscape

Singrauli was once covered in forest and rich agricultural land, but the region's coal lies underneath these forests, meaning that they are being cleared at an alarming rate, further threatening endangered species and displacing tribal communities to make way for this energy juggernaut.

The landscape is now one of industrial devastation and critical levels of pollution, recently rated the third most polluted industrial cluster in the country by the comprehensive environmental pollution index. Air, water and soil have all been affected.

The open cast mines that scar the landscape resemble vast craters, streaked black with coal, trimmed green at the edges with what is left of rapidly dwindling forest.  Huge dump trucks and cranes appear like miniatures in the distance, barely visible through the poisonous haze that hangs in the air.

Milky white stagnant ash ponds, hold the by product of the industry, fly ash. Experts warn of acute health problems related to coal and the ash that it produces, which contains toxic heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, barium and even radioactive substances such as uranium and thorium. Black spiky stalks of dead foliage poke out of the sludge in these ponds, testifying to its toxicity.

Man-made mountains of waste rubble, excavated and dumped, gradually bury villages. Coal-filled train bunkers and conveyor belts, some as long as 25km, snake from mines to thermal power plants, These stacks dominate the skyline, looming over human settlements and pumping out smoke which can reach as far as 400k, choking communities below. The air is permanently clouded, limiting visibility, with the smell and taste of coal dominating the senses. Everything is blanketed in a layer of dust.

Chilika Dand

Chilika Dand, in the Sonebhadra district of Singrauli, Uttar Pradesh, is one of the most critically affected displacement communities, with many people having been moved, often forcibly, numerous times to make way for coal excavation by an industry that is making them sick.

The village of around 12,000 people, is surrounded by multiple power plant stacks emitting putrid smoke. There is a railway line and road both carrying coal and a fully operational open cast mine just 50 meters away. Villagers claim that at night, filters are removed from the stacks, and ash falls and settles on rooftops like toxic snow.

There is a constant industrial hum of engines revving and the scrape of metal on stone. Twice daily explosive blasts, and the subsequent patter and thud of debris are more reminiscent of the sounds of war than of development. Few of the concrete rehabilitation blocks of 30 x 50 feet escape cracked walls due to tremors from the blasts.

Manonit G Ravi, an activist and resident of Chilika Dand shouted over the noise of engines to make himself heard. "The entire village vibrates with the blasts. Sometimes they are so big and loud, people run out of their houses thinking there might be an earthquake."

Sanitation is a big problem, as the allocated plots leave little room for toilets. In summer, asphyxiating dust fills the air, and in winter and rainy seasons, there is a constant septic sludge underfoot. The smell, a mix of human and animal excrement, combined with acrid industrial pollution makes the air gritty, stinging eyes and making breathing a struggle.

Residents of Chilika Dand say that illness and disease is rife in the community, with cancer, kidney failure, diabetes, vitiligo (the blanching of skin through pigment loss), hair loss and psychosis widespread, all linked to contaminated water, coal ash, particles in the air and high levels of mercury present in the environment.

The World Health Organization states that even minimal exposure to mercury may cause health problems, including neurological damage to unborn fetuses and children, and is considered "one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern." Coal fired power stations are sited as one of the main ways that mercury is released into the environment.

Siraj Un Nissa, a resident of Chilika Dand and mother of eight has Vitiligo. Her hands, arms and mouth are blanched, and her whole body is patchy where pigment has been lost. "I have been sick for the past eight years," she said. "The dust is making it hard for us to live here. No electricity. We get it for one hour and it's gone. We don't have a proper house to live in, just a make-shift shelter. We don't have anything. No one cares about the poor."

Jharia

Jharia, in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, has almost disappeared. The remote village is being buried under waste from a nearby mine opened in 2006. A thin sliver of green and only around 30% of its population is all that remains of this forest dwelling community of Harijan people, squashed against a sheer, slowly encroaching, man made cliff of debris.

Bandhu Saket, resident of Jharia explained how their health has been affected by the mine."My youngest grandson gets so unwell, his teeth start chattering and his eyes enlarge, it feels like he will not get better," he said. "It never used to be like this. Ever since the companies have come, since the vehicles have been driving back and forth, since the blasting has started, illness and disease have been spreading.  They dump things in all directions and when it is summertime, with all the dust, one cannot see anything so how can you expect anything else but to get sick!"

There was once a well that provided drinking water to the village, but the company filled it in. Now Bandhu Saket said they are forced to drink "whatever we find in the drains or irainwater collected."

Manbasia, also from Jharia, is a mother of three. Supporting herself against a huge rock from the mine, she struggled to control the emotion in her voice, and spoke shakily of illness and disease in what is left of her community.  "I can't see very well, my chest hurts, my feet don't allow me to sit down or stand up," she said. "We have no one here to help or support us. If someone is dying, there is no one to look after them or save them. Who are we meant to turn to?"

Dr. R.B. Singh

Dr. R.B. Singh worked in the area for over 20 years, treating the local population in their homes, in the small private practice that adjoins his home, and the Singrauli District Hospital next door. He attributes the huge increase in death, sickness and disease to the growth of the industry in the region.

"Since the time the new industries have come here and the coal mine belt has progressed," he said. "The patients we see in our new Out Patients Department present themselves with skin diseases and lung diseases, bronchitis, asthma and silicosis, and because of the contaminated drinking water, amoebiasis and other abdominal ailments, which have increased. I have come across bone cancer, mouth cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer. In children, bone cancer -- and in middle aged people, mouth cancer -- these are common here."

There is a constant stream of patients outside Dr Singh's private practice, all needing attention and treatment. The District Hospital next door to his practice is in desperate need of facilities. A dilapidated shell with dark corridors, a blood splattered maternity ward and rainwater coming through gaps in the ceiling. Wards are crowded but very quiet, with beds full, people lying on the floor and a distinct absence of staff.

"We have a problem with a lack of doctors as most of them qualify and go abroad. They do not want to work in these small places," said Dr. Singh.

Sarath Guttikunda, Director at Urban Emissions, New Delhi is a chemical engineer and air pollution expert. "When you are focusing on outdoor air pollution two things which are really important, one is your lungs, and other one is your heart. Among the respiratory problems, the main one is the asthma," he said. "People who are already suffering from asthma are obviously going to get affected even more, and children and older generation people, they are the ones that we see are getting affected the most."
 
Gaiman Prasad Kanojiya, a school teacher in Lojhara village, said that sickness is rife in his students, with coughing and sneezing a constant sound in the classroom. Absenteeism is common due to ill health, and parents are deeply worried about their children.

"When I go to teach, there are 216 children," he said. "Out of those, if only 100 or 150 of them turn up, it makes us wonder why the children haven't turned up. When we inquire, the child's guardian tells us that their child has been unwell or that because we had to go to the hospital, they didn't make it to school, or that for the past 15 days she's been sick and lying in bed. These kind of problems come up a lot."

Broken Promises

All over Singrauli, locals speak of sickness, their land and livelihoods being taken away, and promises of rehousing, education, employment and healthcare from industry that haven't materialized.

Rangeet Gupta is a local activist and youth worker living and working in the area. He said that after "persistent reminding" industry still has not delivered the services that it promised. That means that proper healthcare, among other things, remains available only to people who can afford it, or those who work for the industry.

"In this area of ours, there isn't even a decent hospital for the displaced community, they have nothing at all, no schools, no doctors, no hospital, no roads, not even an arrangement for hygiene and sanitation. They have just been abandoned," said Gupta.

Champa, like so many others, experienced this first hand, buying her own medicine when she has the money to do so, and going without treatment when she can't afford it.

"We receive no help from the people at the plant at all. Since the health problems started because of the plant, we have not been given so much as a single tablet by them or the government."

As the health situation gets more critical, scientists, medical professionals and environmental campaigners all predict that if India pushes forward with the planned expansion of coal-fired power generation and regulations remain unenforced, the consequences to human life will be even more devastating.

"The calculations that we have done for the current number of power plants, we have seen close too 100,000 premature deaths, and if we are going to triple the number of power plants and don't do anything about the regulations, we will at least triple this number, and looking at health impacts of the air pollutions in the range of 300,000 premature deaths," said Sarath Guttikunda.

Doctor Singh warned that the atmosphere in Singrauli will be polluted "to such a degree that it will not be viable to live here any more." Champa, Manbasia and their families, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, face a future of poverty, sickness and death with no means of escape.  Manbasia reflected, "Now, with the dust and smoke bellowing, there are people getting sick. And if you don't have the money like us, what do we do? Kill ourselves?"

Sarah Stirk is a journalist and filmmaker with The Ecologist Film Unit in the United Kingdom.
 
 

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Fishing for Secrets: Glimpsing the World's Biggest Dolphin Hunt

The car glided swiftly out of Lima, skimming past brightly-lit barrios before plunging into the darkness of the desert road. We were heading for a midnight rendezvous with a shark fishing boat. The owner of the rough and ready vessel had agreed to show us how they catch sharks in Peru: by killing dolphins and using the bloody chunks as bait.

Rumors of an illegal dolphin harvest have swirled around Peru for years, a secret slaughter involving thousands of dolphins, dwarfing the high seas drama of the annual whale hunt in Antarctica.

Known as "sea pigs" by fishermen in Peru, dolphins are reportedly harpooned and diced up on deck, before being skewered onto hundreds of hooks strung out on long-lines at sea to attract sharks. It's a bloody business - but it can save fishermen hundreds if not thousands of dollars in costly fish bait every trip. Dolphin meat is particularly enticing to sharks, and while substitutes are available, to the hard-bitten men who brave these high seas, all that matters is that it is free.

Marine biologist Stefan Austermuhle and his NGO, Mundo Azul, have  campaigned tirelessly on the issue of dolphin hunting in Peru for over a decade. And it was he who offered to help us in Peru finding a boat to take us out fishing. While I sat with my family in Brighton, I received the call from Stefan that I had been both hoping for and dreading: he was able to get a boat to take us out on a hunting trip, in exchange for help with fuel costs, and on strict condition of anonymity.

A week after receiving the call I found myself standing nervously on a quayside in a deserted fishing port at midnight on the Peruvian coast next to my friend cameraman Alejandro Reynoso. We were heading for a week in the Pacific ocean with illegal dolphin hunters, embarking on a voyage that would eventually prove that the hunt is real -- but that very nearly cost us our lives.
Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit
Out of sight and out of mind, the Peruvian dolphin hunt carries on to this day. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit


A VOYAGE INTO THE UNKNOWN
 
Our vessel for the week was a tiny wooden 40 foot vessel, open-decked but for a little wheelhouse and a cramped hole in the bow with four tiny bunks for six people.

Far from the prying eyes of the police force or customs, the rickety boat crept out of port and into the heaving swell of the Pacific ocean. Despite the discomfort I slept immediately, adrenaline, jetlag and fear temporarily overcome by the lull and sway of the vessel as it began the 600km trek south to where the sharks lie.

By first light, all reference points of land and civilization had gone. I awoke disorientated in a grey fog of clouds, drizzle, waves and wonder; every hour that passed taking us south and into the storm swell that had closed the ports shortly after our departure. Overcome with seasickness, day and night slipped into each other. Somehow time passed: nauseous hours spent on deck, gazing at the blank horizon, or lying in my bunk, dreaming of better places.

When planning the expedition, I'd had naive visions of stringing up a hammock; reading books; or shooting clever images of the fishermen at work while we slugged our way out to sea. It was a hopeless fantasy against the cold, damp reality of life at sea on a Peruvian fishing boat: food twice a day in a dog bowl-shaped silver dish; nowhere to sit, nothing to do.

Peru's parched desert coastline cascades into the cold waters of the Pacific ocean; nutrient-laden currents providing sustenance to vast shoals of anchovy; which in turn attract whales, seabirds and sharks from across the Pacific to feed in these rich waters.

These waters produce 10% of the world's fish catch, predominantly in the form of Peruvian anchovy, a tiny oil fish and a cornerstone of the trophic pyramid that is sucked out of the oceans by the millions of tons every year for use in salmon, pig and poultry feeds around the world. Much of the meat and smoked salmon that we eat will have been fed on fish from the waters we are sailing upon. It is a controversial practice, a crucial ingredient to factory farming meat systems producing the world over, but one that is eroding the health of the ecosystem in Peru say conservationists.
 
Drawn to the cold upwelling of plankton, the vast shimmering shoals of anchovy create enormous buffets for other animals to thrive upon. Journeying through this great feeding trough of the Eastern Pacific, there were moments to lift the heart:  light pouring through the grey and illuminating one of nature's great feeding spectacles - thousands of seabirds dive-bombing anchovy shoals in the ocean while dolphin pods corralled and fed from around the sides; air and ocean-bound predators, utterly at home in the hostile grey waters. Fleeting companions in the isolation, they would merge back into the grey as quickly as they first arrived.

DOLPHIN HUNT

The crew kept busy, fixing ropes, scrubbing decks, storing food provisions, and preparing an enormous steel harpoon that lay on deck. We were settling into a routine, the days were ticking by. Then a cry came up that changed everything.

'Chenchos!'  screamed the captain from the wheelhouse, literally 'fat pigs'; the name that Peruvian fishermen give for dolphins and the plentiful meat that they can supply. It was our third day, and the boat was passing another shoal of anchovy under siege from diving seabirds and dolphins. Only this time a pod of dolphins had broken away from the feeding grounds, and was heading for our boat to bow-ride, half a dozen of them leaping in turns through the water racing to our boat. Within seconds the music in the wheelhouse had been turned down and the crew was poised. The captain stood on the bow clasping a steel harpoon tipped with a double-edged razor-sharp point, attached to rope held by another crew member on the side of the vessel. Ale and I leapt into position to film just behind the hunters. Waiting by the gunwale I could hear Ale on the bow behind the harpoon handler, cursing as he struggled to tried to tie himself to a rudimentary harness with one hand whilst holding the camera with the other as the vessel soared and sank in the lumpy swell.

The dolphins were under the bow, taking it in turns to surf the wake that the boat was creating. In other circumstances, a beautiful sight - but this time would be different. The crew member clutching the harpoon stood silently, arms outstretched and ready to strike, familiarizing himself with the rhythm of the dolphins as they surfaced for air. A momentary pause, then he threw it down - 30kg of razor sharp tubular steel plunging into the arch of a dolphin's back as it swam alongside the bow. A cry went up in excitement from the crew, and seconds later everyone was scrambling about, Ale and myself gazing on in horror as the line flew from the boat. A dolphin beak emerged 50 yards from the boat, tugging at the taught rope, trying to swim away, it's efforts diminishing as it became gradually enveloped in a thick cloud of its own blood. Two of the crew dragged the line in, the dolphin still desperately kicking its fins, but there could be no miracle escape from its bloody fate. As the boat drew closer, a shiny steel gaff hook was plunged into the soft skin of the dolphin's head, and it was hauled aboard, intestines pouring out of its twitching body. A crew member sharpened a knife and casually began to slice off the fins, tossing them into the sea before peeling the skin off the dolphin's back in long strips, amidst a thick puddle of bright red dolphin blood.

The engine revved up and the crew resumed their work. The salsa music came back on the speaker and a cry for lunch came up from the cook. Crouched next to the warm skinless carcass, a crew member handed me a bowl of soup. I vomited, struggling to contain my emotions amidst the intimate brutality of what I had just witnessed. Ale and I gazed at each other in silence, making eye contact from across the deck, but unable to communicate how we felt about the killing or portray any emotion. To do so could be dangerous, even lethal in the tiny tinderbox-like conditions of the fishing boat 100km from shore. Our vessel ploughed on, sailing ever further south into the dreadful grey swell, parallel to the desert coast en route to the thin sliver of temperature gradient on the chart that was the best fishing ground for sharks. The boat had its dolphin bait.

 

Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit
A Peruvian fisherman slicing up dolphin meat for use as sharkbait. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit.


THE PERFECT BAIT

As we neared the fishing grounds, the crew became more focused. The deck was hosed down, supplies repacked and ropes carefully coiled before the bait could be cut up. The dolphin lay flensed in the corner, a long section of the corpse sliced out of it and carefully chopped into long slivers ready for the bait box. While one team diced the dolphin, another pair cut up the fish they had brought with them, salted mackerel, bought at considerable expense, that would be halved before being tossed in with the dolphin in the bait box. Our captain explained the benefits of using the dolphin as he watched over the proceedings from the wheelhouse.

"Dolphin meat is effective for the blue shark. When you cut it, it bleeds a lot. And the blue shark likes fat, and the dolphin is pure fat. I understand that to hunt the dolphin is illegal. But for me, it's a necessity, I do it to keep my bills down. I can minimize my costs, because the bait for shark is very expensive. The majority of boats that fish shark carry the spear gun with the spear ready to use".

We had watched one being killed. But the captain was planning to kill at least two on this trip if he had the chance, one of a dozen voyages for sharks over the year that he planned to undertake. With over 1000 shark boats across Peru at the last count, the figures for this illicit dolphin hunt clock up to almost unthinkable numbers. It's hard to tie down a figure, but experts suggest at least 10,000 dolphins may be killed every year in Peru alone, making it by far the biggest cetacean hunt on earth, almost 10 times higher than the Japanese dolphin drive in Taiji for example, made infamous in 'The Cove.'

An upsurge in shark meat consumption over the last decade within Peru, the high price paid for shark fins from the Far East combined with the ever-rising cost of mackerel for use as fish bait - another species exploited for use as a feed ingredient in factory farms - all play a part in beginning to understand the prevalence of the widespread Peruvian dolphin hunt today.

SHARK HUNT

By dawn we had arrived. With a signal from the captain the first buoy was dropped into place and two crew members crouched in the stern, carefully skewering salted mackerel and bloody chunks of dolphin intermittently on the leaders attached to miles of longline, as the boat slowly chugged away from the first buoy. Two hours later and the hooks - almost a thousand of them - were spread out in the water.  Everyone slept, crammed into the bow as it lulled with the engine off, floating alongside the longline 100km from shore. In the light of the setting sun, the crew donned Waterproofs, welly boots and drank soup enriched with Maca, an energy-giving Peruvian root, to prepare themselves for the night ahead. Shakira soundtracks serenaded us from the wheelhouse speakers, and the crew took up positions ready for the haul.

Ale and I watched in the darkness, cameras ready, as the longline, leaders and empty hooks were picked up and coiled by the crew until the first shout came up. The engine slowed and spotlight shone down into the dark waters below. Our first shark. A svelte, silvery-blue shape gradually appeared in the waters; half-drowned the blue shark appeared drunk, lazily kicking away at the line which drew it ever-closer to the surface. Swimming underwater, the blue shark is astonishingly beautiful, an archetypal ocean wanderer, whose soft-fin features, blue tubular torso and wide eyes endow it with a gentle elegance rarely afforded to sharks.  Hauled over the gunwale, the four foot shark slammed on the deck surface, thrashing in the waterless environment for an instant before the team set upon it. Brandishing a knife, a crew member pinned it down with his knees before slicing off the snout just below the shark's eyes. Its entire jaw had been cut away beneath its soft wide eyes. A long thin rod was rapidly inserted inside the gaping hole all the way down its spinal column and the thrashing ended. Its belly was cut, the insides washed away and the shark was tossed to the leeward side of the deck, the first of a dozen sharks they would catch, kill and butcher during the night. Far from the romance afforded it in recent years from a spate of celebrity chef food programs, I saw in that instant that industrial fishing is little more than a seafood slaughter line, and a bloody brutal one at that.

An hour into the haul the engine slowed amidst excited shouts from the deck hands. All four of them dropped their work to help tug in the line. Excitement built until a vast black shape appeared from the depths. A full grown thresher shark, several hundred kilos in weight with an elongated tail fin 6 feet on it's own. A football sized crater shone deep red in it's head, a wound that I took to be another shark feeding on the line, but was in fact caused by humboldt squid, a large and aggressive species rising from the Pacific depths at night to feed close to the surface, an animal that the crew told us they quietly feared more than the shark.

By three in the morning, an hour when reality begins to slip, Ale and I found ourselves crouching by the mast, fighting sleep and the cold winter wind. Then the cry for squid came up. Struggling to pull the monofilament, the crew grappled and swore, heaving until a dark mass came into view. A humboldt squid in the flesh. Elusive hunters from the deep, this one had risen to feed and had ensnared itself on one of the hooks. As soon as it reached the surface the 6 foot squid began to hiss, it's flailing tentacles ready to pounce. The crew made us move back, carefully approaching the creature as it lay rolling on the deck, it's ghoulish beak opening and snapping ready to bite its attackers. Within minutes it was butchered, sliced and thrown to the back of the boat, a slab of calamari dispatched to the growing pile of carcasses at the lee of the boat. 

Another blue shark came up to the surface, smaller this time but very much alive and thrashing in the water; but in a cruel torturous twist, it had vomited up its swim bladder. Rapidly sliced and diced, I watched as the belly was opened up. Dozens of perfectly formed baby sharks slid out of their mother's entrails, writhing in the waterless expanses of the deck. It was too much for Alejandro and I, having sat back for days and passively observed proceedings on the boat. We both waved at the crew, pleading with them to put the live baby sharks in the sea. It became a comedy for the crew, a novelty as the baby sharks were rounded up and tossed over the side, a torchlight following their first clumsy movements in the ocean.
 
A NARROW ESCAPE

At dawn the captain agreed to take us back to shore before carrying on with their two week fishing trip. The mood lifted as we neared the coast, the crew chattering away in their bunks about the best chicken restaurant they planned to briefly dine at before returning to sea, and no doubt relieved at the prospect of being finally rid of the camera team who had filmed their every move for the last five days. As land neared, two humpback whales surfaced by the boat, we cheered and the light dropped.

About three km from land, I stood on the bow scanning the horizon while the crew lay in their bunks chattering away. What looked like two more whales appeared 100m in front of us, their silhouettes just visible amidst the dying light. My heart dropped. Not whales. They were rocks. I shouted and the captain turned the vessel sharply left and summoned the crew from their bunks.  We motored gently forward. Then a distant roar sounded. Sensing what was about to happen, the captain turned the boat hard to port as the outline of a towering wave appeared in the searchlights of the boat, building up ever higher over a submerged rock directly in front of the bow. The enormous wave rose high above the vessel and broke on top of us. We were all thrown off our feet. A moment of watery silence sliding around in disbelief, and then terror. The crew began to scream. The boat lay limply in the rocky waters, waterlogged amidst a shoal of rocks and pitched at a horrible angle.

Another wave built up and broke onto us, smashing through the wheelhouse windows and throwing the vessel onto rocks. My shoes and glasses has been ripped off by the force of the breaking waves, and in the panicky blur I rushed to Ale who was struggling to hold on to the torn remnants of the steel derrick. We interlocked arms ready to be thrown into the water with the next wave. I looked around in the darkness calculating as best I could. Cold dark waters, unpredictable currents and a host of predators that I had spent the last week documenting, lay within. I rushed to the stern of the boat and made a soggy phone call to Stefan on land. The crew were using poles to lever themselves off the rocks and then, mercifully, a smaller set of waves lifted us off the rocks - floating us away from the danger into the night calm as suddenly as we had being thrust upon them. We scanned for more rocks while the crew frantically dug through the stores, ice, salt, fish thrown overboard in a desperate bid to locate and patch up leaks in the hull. Cold, wet and bruised, unpredictable waves of shock ran through the people on the boat, fighting for our lives amid anger that the captain had brought the vessel so carelessly into rocks, silence from the horror of the giant waves and pain from the torn muscles ripped from holding on to the boat with each crashing wave.

Eventually a small boat appeared on the horizon, skillfully summoned by Stefan to guide us into the port and onto shore. One hour later we bade farewell to the crew. Dolphin hunters, deep sea butchers and now, strangely, friends as well, we hugged and bade the briefest of farewells; before being ushered into a waiting car and driven out of the eye of the port authorities into the silence of the desert.


The author would like to gratefully acknowledge Stefan Austermuhle and Mundo Azul for their enormous help whilst in Peru, and also The Foundation for Deep Ecology, Blue Voice, the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting and the Victoria Stack Family Trust whose financial backing and assistance helped make this project happen.

 

 

About Jim Wickens:

 

British journalist Jim Wickens helped set up Ecostorm, an environmental investigative unit in 2003 that has pioneered undercover and investigative reporting techniques around the world.

 
 

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Nuclear Comeback in Energy Policy

TEPCOIn Japan, government officials are moving ahead with plans to revive nuclear power. Prior to the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi meltdown, 30% of the country's electricity was generated by more than 50 commercial reactors. Previous leaders had vowed to phase nuclear out, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a new policy redefining it as an important energy source. Here's NHK with more.

--

Toshimitsu Motehi, Japanese Industry Minister:

We will figure out how much nuclear power we need and we will secure that amount.


Reporter:

The draft document adopted by a group of cabinet ministers endorses a major change in Japan’s energy policy. The nuclear accident in Fukushima 3 years ago triggered a nationwide debate over nuclear power. The ruling party at that time promises to phase-out nuclear energy within 30 years. Shinzo Abe’s return to power in the December 2012 election changed the situation. The Prime Minister called elimination of nuclear power irresponsible.


The draft energy policy adopted on Tuesday says the government will re-start the reactors once they clear the latest safety regulations.


The document also underlines the need to learn from the nuclear accident and the importance of safety. But some people question whether it is really safe to resumes operations at nuclear power plants.

Among them, the governor of Niigata. His prefecture hosts the world largest nuclear plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company.


Hirohiko Izumida, Niigata Governor:

TEPCO hasn't learned from the Fukushima accident. It's not qualified to operate nuclear plants.


Reporter:

Paul Scalise is an expert on Japan’s energy policy. He explains the rationale behind the government renewed  emphasis on nuclear power.


Paul Scalise/ Research Fellow, Temple University:

You have Japan's very precarious lack of natural resources and the hope that by moving away from fossil fuels like imported gas, oil, and coal, you can avoid very disrupted shocks to both electricity prices as well as gas prices that took place in the 1970s.


Reporter:

Scalise said the energy policy will be welcomed by the business community. But he adds the utilities and the government needs to display more transparency in order to convince the general public. 

 
 

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Farmers and Markets Team up to Deliver Fresh Produce by Text Message

And in Japan, farm fresh is now just a text message away. Farmers and grocers have teamed up to feed the growing demand for fresh produce through farmer's markets. There are now more than 17,000 of them in Japan. Customers love the cheaper prices and fresh produce. NHK shows us how managers of one market have found a way to ensure their apples are even crisper, and greens even greener.


Reporter:

Every year more than a million people pull into this parking lot in Utsunomiya north of Tokyo. This is one of Japan's busiest farm markets. Last year it sold over 5-million-dollars' worth of produce. There's a huge variety of fruit and vegetables, all sourced from 150 local farms. The big draw is price. Most items cost 10% less than an ordinary supermarket.


Shopper:

There's such a great variety. I shop in many different places, but I always end up coming back here.


Reporter:

The secret to the market's success?  A great selection of produce that's literally farm fresh. Nothing is left to chance. Each purchase is logged and analyzed at the cash register. The data is then sent direct to suppliers, the farmers themselves. Akemi Ikeda supplies more than 30 varieties of vegetables to the market. Even out in the fields she's kept in the loop.


Akemi Ikeda:

It's from the farm market.


Reporter:

Each farmer gets data on their sales sent to them by text message once an hour.


Akemi Ikeda:

Twenty bunches of chrysanthemum greens. I'll pick some more straightaway.


Reporter:

Right away, Ikeda starts pulling up more of the greens. She and her husband tie them in bunches, then rush them over to the market.  This is how the market always keeps its produce fresh, by adjusting supply to meet demand in real time.


Akemi Ikeda:

It's really encouraging to see how much I've sold each day. It's great.


Reporter:

This just in time supply system was set up by the market's manager, Yuzuru Matsumoto. Matsumoto has overseen a sharp rise in business. In the past five years, the number of visitors has risen by over 25%.


Yuzuru Matsumoto:

We try to look at it from the customer's point of view, and give them the service they want. We're always looking to improve the way we do things.


Reporter:

There's another factor that helps to motivate the farmers. The market lets the growers set their own prices for their produce. It takes just a 15% commission. Everything else goes to the farmers. The farmers coordinate closely with the market staff in deciding which vegetables to grow.


Market Employee:

As for the spinach between December 27th and the 31st we were about 300 kilograms short.


Farmer:

I'm thinking of sewing some after my tomatoes. If I put in 2- 300 square meters, that should be about right.


Reporter:

Holding regular meetings like this has changed the way the farmers think about their crops. Makoto Watanabe started working the land 7 years ago. He now grows six kinds of carrots. Most of these are new varieties that he'd never thought of before.


Makoto Watanabe:

It's really fun coming up with new products to sell and ways to create a market for them.


Yuzuru Matsumoto:

I think the producers feel much more involved as participants in this business.


Reporter:

From the field to the market and then straight to customers. It's an approach that works for everyone.

 


 
 

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Our Unbalanced Chemical Burden
Chemical safetyThe year 2014 started with a claxon blare of emergency warnings: 300,000 West Virginians were given urgent instructions not to drink or even touch their own tap water. 

But 300 million other Americans could also hear the alarm's sound as the story grabbed nationwide media attention. That was appropriate. Not just because a ruptured storage tank had spilled its toxic contents into public water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia, but because the incident exposed the underlying failure in the safety of all Americans who assume they are protected by vigilant federal state and local agencies supposedly policing environmental threats.

Surprise. We are all living amid constantly increasing exposure to tens of thousands of chemicals in combinations and in doses we would never encounter in nature.

Why? Because of modern science, coupled with the industrial impulse to make money by manufacturing more and more products to make life easier and more enjoyable for more and more people. We call this progress.

Yes, there are laws on the books intended to protect us. Laws with huge loopholes demanded by special interests whose money and influence over lawmakers and lawmaking is hard to overstate. For example, when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in the 1970's, some 62,000 chemicals that were already in wide use were granted automatic approval under legislation that prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring them to be safety tested unless scientific evidence already existed showing them to be dangerous. And these days the EPA, the big bulldog guarding public health, has also been granting conditional licenses for pesticide makers to introduce new, untested chemical products for food crop treatment under fast-track authority also imbedded in the law. Conditional licenses can last up to 20 years. 

Today 84,000 chemicals are in commercial use in manufacturing and agriculture. The number is growing, and the vast majority have never been tested and evaluated at all for safety by any regulatory authorities. The stuff is in our food and food packaging, cosmetics, in the clothes we wear and in household products of all kinds. So much for toxic substance control.

Cosmetics chemicalsDoctors and scientists are finding many links between chemicals widely in use and increases in leukemia, brain, breast and childhood cancers, asthma and certain birth defects. Chances of developing learning and development disorders, including autism, and endocrine disruption that effects development, metabolism, fertility and intelligence are increased at even extremely low doses. Whether that evidence is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the law is subject to much debate but little or no action. And so it goes.  

This is the way things work, because we believe so much in balancing interests and promoting a vigorous economy. Avoiding over-regulation is an important part of all that, as so many of those serving in elected office believe as they go about passing laws and blocking laws and collecting campaign contributions to help them remain in office. Most people know by now that much of that money comes from chemical companies and manufacturers who use those chemicals in their products and who of course employ many hard-working Americans who want to keep their jobs. Strictures on enforcement actions are in place not only in the EPA but also at the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers For Disease Control, and the Agriculture Department, where targeted budget constraints can cripple enforcement as effectively as can loopholes. And the conflict between public health concerns and private interests is even worse at many state and local agencies.

Since the effects of long term exposure to chemicals is slow and subtle, and because medical science is boosting life expectancy for so many of us, there is no sense of crisis, no emergency alarm. But look around. Not everyone is enjoying a longer life and good health.   

       
Miles R. Benson had a long career as a political correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper Group. He spent 16 years as a senior Congressional correspondent and 16 years covering the White House. Since 2007, he has served as the special correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus.
 
 

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Secrecy Bill Debacle Weakens Japanese Prime Minister's Support

Shinzo AbeJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is nearing the end of his first year in office. Following a landslide victory in 2012, Abe launched a number of policies to promote economic recovery. He also moved to revise the country's pacifist constitution to allow the military use of force. And the recent passage of a secrecy bill is Abe's latest move to boost Japan's defense capabilities. But do Japanese approve of this direction? A recent NHK poll suggests his popularity is the lowest it's been since he was elected.

Reporter:
Our interviewers spoke to more than 1,000 people by phone. Fifty percent said they support Abe's cabinet, a drop of 10 percentage points from last month. Thirty-five percent said they don't. Our poll asked for feedback on the new secrecy law. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner approved last. The law gives the government more power to decide what people can and can't know. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they disapprove of the law. Thirty-two percent said they approve of it. Fifty-nine percent said the discussion over the bill by Diet members wasn't sufficient. Eight percent said lawmakers had a thorough discussion. Seventy-four percent of respondents said they are worried the law may infringe on the public's right to know. Abe spoke on Monday and addressed the criticism over the new law.

Shinzo Abe:
I sincerely recognize the citizens' severe criticism as a reprimand. I should have taken more time to explain the bill. But the problem lies in the fact that we lack rules to decide what constitutes a secret and how to keep secrets classified.

 

--


FukushimaDespite his poor poll numbers, Abe's going ahead with plans to strengthen Japan's military. His cabinet is expected to approve a plan to deploy more war planes and unmanned drones in the country's southwest. They'd be stationed closer to the islands that Japan's disputing with China. The defense review also calls for setting up an amphibious force to take back any islands occupied by a foreign country. The review makes no secret that the build-up is designed to counter China's growing presence in the East China Sea. Abe's cabinet is expected to approve the defense review in a few days.

And three years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster people in the area still fear the risk of cancer and other illnesses caused by consuming contaminated radioactive food and drink. Produce, meat, milk and fish from the affected areas are known to be contaminated. Since 2011, more than 300,000 people in the prefecture have been tested for internal contamination using a device called the whole body counter. But until recently, the scanning machine was too large for infants, who are the most vulnerable to radiation exposure. In response to this problem, scientists developed a new testing device for babies. Once again, here's NHK.

Reporter:
Tests for radiation exposure for infants began at a hospital in Hirata village. Over 30 families showed up for the test.

Parent:
I have been so worried. I've been waiting a long time for my baby to be checked.

Parent:
I don't know what will happen when my baby grows up. So I'd like this checkup.

Reporter:
Yumi Takahara lives 80 kilometers from the nuclear plant. She has long been worried about the effects of the radiation on her three daughters. Manami, the youngest, is six months old.

Yumi Takahara:
I'd feel safer if my baby were checked at a younger age.

Reporter:
This new device is called Baby Scan. It measures the internal radiation level of an infant placed inside it. Infants undergoing the radiation check are placed in this compartment where they remain for four minutes. The machine has a relatively wide opening and children can watch their parents during the checkup, which helps them stay relaxed. Professor Ryugo Hayano of the University of Tokyo headed the research team that developed the scanner. He says the main challenge was to make it as precise as possible.

Professor Ryugo Hayano:
Even though the baby, or the children, are eating the same amount of radioactive cesium as compared to parents, the amount of radioactive cesium accumulated in the body will be much less. In order to quantify the amount of radioactive cesium in the body, it doesn't make sense to measure with the same detection limit that is used for adults.

Reporter:
The machine makes meticulous calculations and is designed to block as much external radiation as possible. It has four radiation sensors, twice as many as previous models. Takahara was anxious to hear the results of the scan. Manami was put into the machine. She cried a bit because she had to be away from her mother for several minutes. But her body was successfully measured and the examination was completed. The results came in minutes later.

Healthcare employee:
No cesium is detected.

Yumi Takahara:
We have been eating a variety of foods, so that was my main concern. I am very relieved to hear this positive result.

Reporter:
A thousand people have already made appointments to have their children examined. Thanks to this machine, those most vulnerable to radiation, infants, are finally beginning to get the protection they need.

 
 

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A Month After Typhoon Haiyan, Tacloban Struggling to Rebuild
A month after Typhoon Haiyan wiped out parts of the Philippines and killed nearly 6,000 people, the hardest hit areas are struggling to clean up. And 1,500 people are still missing. Japan's NHK has this report from the city of Tacloban, where residents are struggling to recover from the disaster.

Reporter:
This is Tacloban, the biggest city on Leyte Island, one of the hardest hit areas. Mountains of debris are everywhere along the coast. Infrastructure such as electricity and water is still heavily damaged. Some of it is totally destroyed.

Resident:
Some people are back at work. But only about 30 percent. We don't even have electricity.

Reporter:
The markets are often running. For those with cash, there's plenty of food and meat. But whatever we grow, we see long queues. Survivors wait to receive some of the international aid that has finally arrived. Most people have nothing. The residents of this village used to be carpenters, farmers and fishermen. But one month after the Typhoon Haiyan washed out everything they had, they now found themselves earning from "cash for work" programs. Elena Daga has a temporary job. She's been hired by an aid organization. She clears debris for 8 hours and gets paid about two and a half dollars. Elena had a small house and a shop in downtown Tacloban. The day before the typhoon her husband told her to evacuate with their children. He said he would look after the shop. She returned four days later to find nothing left but the foundations.

Elena Daga:
This is all that's left. My husband was swept away by the waves.

Reporter:
Elena has built a shelter on the outskirts of Tacloban out of debris that she found. She lives with her two daughters and a son who cry for their father.

Elena Daga:
I need to get a proper job. My children need to go to school. That's all I want.

Reporter:
The majority of people here are Christians like Elena. Many say that this year they don't have the means to celebrate Christmas. They're only at the beginning of a long road to recovery.
 
 

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Dispatch from the Fracking Front Lines: Transylvania Fights Back

[Reprinted with author's permission from The Ecologist]

 

As the headlights fade around the bend, the team begins their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes.

"Do you think they're about to have sex?" one of the group whispers. I'm in Transylvania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of activists in balaclavas, taking turns to speculate why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding out. "No, it must be the cops, you can see the light from the mobile phone," another one says. Time to move on.

It has been over an hour since the group started trashing equipment owned by the gas exploration company Prospectiuni, playing an edgy game of cat and mouse as we struggle to stay one step ahead of the security teams and police vehicles that are now sweeping the hilltops looking for us.

Another light tears round the bend on the road and the shout goes through the team to hide. I throw myself down, stretched out once again in the cool damp grass of a Transylvanian meadow. It's going to be a long night.

In recent weeks the sleepy Saxon communities and protected forests of Sibiu county in Transylvania, have become an unlikely front for a new battleground, pitting gas exploration companies, the Romanian government, and international investment firms against a small band of environmental activists from across Romania. The activists are working side by side with local farmers to resist gas and oil exploration that they claim is taking place illegally on their land.

Listed on the London Stock exchange just two weeks ago with brokering assistance from Goldman Sachs, the Romanian gas company Romgaz has long announced plans to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for conventional and also unconventional sources of gas and oil.

Nobody gave it another thought until the exploration began in earnest this month, when 34-ton earthquake-inducing seismic trucks growled into the muddy tracks of villages here, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.

Communities told me that they awoke to ribbons being laid out across their lands even attached to their garden fences, signals for the companies to lay cables and plant the explosives for the seismic tests.

Today the villages and fields are peppered in strips of ribbon, stretching like spaghetti across this ancient landscape of beech forests, bee hives and the harvested stubs of organic corn fields intermingled with medieval villages and citadels.

Jim Wickens/EFU
The village gathers to protest fracking. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

All the seismic tests are taking place within Romania's largest Natura 2000 site. Several of the churches here are UNESCO heritage sites, visited both by Princes Charles and Edward in recent years.

Driving into the remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place feels like walking into an occupied territory. I watch as a team of workers prepare a hole with dynamite a few metres from the village football pitch. On the high street private security jeeps can be seen parked up at the crossroads, black uniformed men filming and following our every move.

At the end of the road an elderly orthodox priest ushers me inside nervously, asking not to be identified. "They told me not to talk with you", he says. "The bishops say it is not the role of a priest to get involved in community affairs." He pauses, a flash in his eyes, almost thinking aloud.

"We thought they had come to rebuild the playground - then the earthquake happened, shaking the houses here, causing cracks and breaking ornaments inside the houses. The people were scared. Nobody asked us permission, they didn't even tell us what they were doing."

He is interrupted by a shrill ringtone on his mobile. Fifteen minutes later he returns to the kitchen, told again by his superiors to be quiet. The interview is over. "They know you are here", he says, showing us the door.

We keep moving out of the village, following the ribbons and the intermittent booming sounds of controlled explosions echoing around the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady speaks up. "They are thieves," she hisses. Her neighbor comes over begging for answers. "We've heard the land will be poisoned, is this true? We live from this land. We don't have salaries!"

At the top of a hill I find a giant geological lab on wheels, antennae dangling on top and men pouring over electrical equipment inside. A small portly man introduces himself. Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for the exploration company Prospectiuni, which has been subcontracted for 40 million euros to carry out the tests in the region.

He condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration "neo fascists." Daianu is resolute that the company has permission to be on every parcel of land where the tests are taking place, a claim he says that can be backed up with paperwork, before he orders us to leave the area.

I head to the nearby village of Mosna, where farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia have invited me to stay at their home to cover a protest planned against the exploration activities.

Amidst clucking chickens, roaring fires, and cheese-making in the kitchen, a dozen activists began to arrive from across the country, updating Facebook accounts and charging their cameras for the following day. This would be the first protest against gas exploration in Transylvania, they explained, urging me to get an early night's sleep. But first I had another appointment.

Bundled into a rusty van under cover of darkness from a pre-arranged location, I found myself sat in the midst of a dozen men and women in balaclavas. The driver turns to greet me. "Don't worry about our get-away vehicle - it's super quick. Only 350,000km on the clock!" She laughs out loud as the rusty door slams shut, and the team trundles away into the frosty darkness.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fracking protester with seismic wires. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

Minutes later, I am bundled out onto the roadside with military precision, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen adrenaline-fuelled activists, armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team began their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes they come across.

Every so often a shout goes up, and the team is sent diving for cover as the sweeping headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road close by. Part army, part anarchy, the evening is spent in a whirlwind of adrenalin-fuelled scrambling among remote hills under the light of a full moon, clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Beneath the balaclavas, members of the team gradually open up to me.

"Several months ago none of us knew each other, but now we are united. We are so angry about the way our country is being run. 2013 must be the year that Romania wakes up, that citizens begin to have a say in what is happening to our country. Things like fracking have to stop. We cannot accept the destruction of our own future."

At seven the next morning I sat drinking coffee with Willy in his farmhouse kitchen when a convoy of gas trucks rolls past his window en route to his fields. He runs out of the door chasing after them, apoplectic with rage.

I arrive on scene just in time to see workers from the exploration company filing out of their company coach and spreading out across his wintery fields. Willy screams them away, impounding a company pickup and refusing to let it go until the police come to file a criminal complaint.

As the morning unfolds, streams of security trucks are chased, kicked, and turned away from Willy's land. "I am terrified for my children", he says, waving a flimsy branch at the assembled security forces facing him down on the muddy track. "I am fighting for their future."

A man more accustomed to milking cows than fighting multinationals, he is nonetheless standing up to the gas companies. Many more are beginning to follow the example of this accidental hero who is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the country's energy ambitions.

Southern Transylvania's rolling hills are one of several new fronts opening up in Romania's search for home-grown deposits of natural gas and oil, a treasure-trove of energy opportunities according to energy-extraction advocates.

Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister, made a bold statement to journalists in June this year, laying the way for a swathe of expansion by fossil fuel companies across the hills of Europe's second poorest nation.

"Do we want to have gas? First of all to stop importing from Russia. Do we want to have it cheap and do we want to make the Romanian industry competitive and, of course, to have lower expenses for the people? Then we must have gas."

But Ponta's government is facing an unexpectedly uphill battle in meeting their resource ambitions. In recent weeks the controversial Canadian-owned gold mine in Rosia Montana has been put on hold, forced into submission by waves of protests in city streets numbering tens of thousands.

And in the latest public showdown, a fracking rig operated by Chevron further south, has been chased away from a test site by communities deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may bring.

With almost four million peasant farmers in Romania reliant on clean air, water, and soil for their livelihood, support for natural resource protection campaigns are finding fertile ground in the most unlikeliest of places, among the conservative communities in the country's rural heartland.

I meet Hettie, a 26-year-old activist from the nearby city of Brasov, as she blocks the road to Willy's land. "If villagers see us doing it, they will do it too," she says. "We have to give people the courage to do this at any time."

Faced with an increasingly galvanized opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A "Law of Expropriation", currently being drafted in the Romanian Parliament, will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt the developments are "in the national interest." At present, the law is focused primarily around mining. But observers say it is widely expected to be extended to energy development projects in the near future.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fighting with the police. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU

 

The stand-off in Willy's field is rapidly escalating into a community affair. Half a dozen security cars remain blocked, prevented from moving forward by a growing throng of local residents, joined by Roma kids on bicycles and a young woman riding a horse. A farmer appears in an orchard on the other side of the valley where minutes earlier gas workers had been busy rolling up electrical wiring.

Gheorghe Daianu, the Prospectiuni seismologist, spits angrily, wiping his wrinkled forehead in frustration and sucking heavily on a cigarette. "Of course they have no permission to be here, but what can I do?"

Community activists claim that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their gas exploration, from lacking the appropriate permits, testing too close to homes, through to committing trespass. "The real problem here is that village people simply don't know their rights," says community activist Hans Hedrich.

Prospectiuni and Romgaz both turned down an opportunity to comment on claims of illegality, but in a statement on their website the CEO of Prospectiuni states: "Occasionally we still make mistakes, but they are not ill-intentioned, however we try to have active environmental permits and town planning certificates."

By late afternoon, under the lee of another 600-year-old medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes and hot tea - with surprising efficiency. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas.

It's an intriguing mix. The impassioned crowd marches out to rip out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen who stand watching from the side of the road. Residents too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and applauding the protestors in delight.

"Honestly, I feel sorry for them," one of the police officers tells me, as they stand aside and allow the protestors to rip out a mile of bright orange cabling, dragging it through the dust on their way back to the village. "What the company is doing here ... well ... it's just wrong." Then he moves his head closer to mine. "Actually it's illegal," he whispers.

Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist. He works for the Ecologist Film Unit and is a regular correspondent for The Ecologist.

 
 

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Philippines Disaster Refocuses Climate Attention on Low-Lying Nations

PhilippinesIt's been two weeks since typhoon Haiyan devastated Leyte and other islands in the central Philippines. Initial estimates of casualties were ten thousand. They may end up to be far fewer. The government in Manila has released new figures on the number of people dead and injured. Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported on the latest figures.

Reporter:
The natural disaster risk and management council updated its casualty report on Wednesday. It said 4,011 people had been confirmed dead and 18,557 others injured. Three thousand, three hundred and ten of the deaths were in Leyte, that's about 80 percent of the total. The island was hit hard by storm surges. Nearby Samar Island suffered 411 deaths, most of the dead of have yet to be identified. The storm caused widespread damage. Severed roads and bridges are making it difficult to get food, water, and other supplies to the survivors. Many of those injured are believed to be without adequate medical services. The Philippine government has been stepping up its relief efforts, sending in helicopters and ships. The United States, Japan, China and other countries are assisting.

 

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Typhoon Haiyan hit just as the latest international talks to slow down climate change got underway in Poland. The typhoon -- among the worst ever recorded -- may have focused the attention of conference delegates on the dangers to low-lying countries like the Philippines: threatened by more violent weather and rising sea levels brought about by climate change. Japan's NHK has the details.

Reporter:
Kiribati is a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean. By mid century, rising ocean levels could leave 80 percent of the main island under water. Many homes already vulnerable to high tides. Experts also point out a possible link between global warming and severe weather. A recent example was typhoon Haiyan. A report from the international panel of climate change assets that if countries fail to act. Average temperature of planet could rise by up to 4.8 degrees by the end of the century. The international community has agreed try to keep this temperature rise within two degrees. But officials at the UN environment program said the pay of current measures is too slow. In an emotional intervention a negotiator from the Philippines urged his counterparts from around the world to act quickly.

Yeb Sano, Climate Change Commissioner, Philippines:
We can fix this. We can stop this madness right now, right here, in the middle of this football field, and stop moving the goal post.

Reporter:
The delegate went as far as started a hunger strike to underline his commitment. Other participants to the conference have decided to join him. The purpose of this year's conference is to lay the round work for new climate agreement that regulates greenhouse gas machines beyond 2020. UN officials hope the agreement can be signed in 2015. But so far, negotiators have failed to achieve real progress. European Union and United States disagree over when countries should submit their commitments to limit greenhouse gas emission. And developing countries insist the mandatory measures should apply only to industrialized nations whom they considered historically responsible for global warming. Developing countries are also demanding that a new fund be set up to help them deal with the adverse consequences of climate change. But many industrialized nations are reluctant to contribute additional funds. Some experts are pessimistic about the prospect of an agreement before the end of the conference.

Jusen Asuka, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies:
Ministers from developed countries will be forced to propose something concrete, regarding climate finance or new climate compensation for the damage caused by climate change. Otherwise developing countries will condemn the developed countries more strongly. It may take time to get concrete positions or answers for this issue for each country.

Reporter:
Japan announced last week that it will be scaling down its self-imposed greenhouse gas reduction target. The decision drew considerable international criticism, and it may serve as a pretext for other countries not to commit to ambitious targets.

 
 

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