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.
Throughout much of Asia, people are celebrating the traditional New Year. In China, it’s called the Spring Festival. In Korea and Vietnam, the Lunar New Year. But regardless of the country, chicken is supposed to be on the menu. A chicken in every pot represents good fortune in the coming year. But a bird flu epidemic is overshadowing the holiday. Tens of thousands of chickens and ducks have been destroyed in an effort to stop the disease. In southern China, more than 100 people came down with bird flu in January. At least a dozen have died. And the centerpiece of the New Year dinner is viewed with alarm. Here’s Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, with a report.
Friday was the start of the Lunar New year. Many Chinese families will buy live poultry from local markets to cook it for family gatherings
Man on the street:
Live birds, killed fresh, taste much better”
But this year will be different because of bird flu.
A market in Hangzhou was shut down. The agricultural department has banned keeping live poultry at home.”
Health officials in China are reporting that 103 patients have been diagnosed with bird flu in January alone. Of these, 49 cases are in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Others have been found in southern provinces like Guangdong. So far, 22 patients have died. The hospital in Zhejiang is crowded with people who fear they are infected by the bird flu virus. Health officials have been shutting down markets that sell live poultry for fear that the virus may be passed on to people through contact with live birds. But about a 30-minute drive from downtown Shanghai, we found an illegal vendor. He was selling chickens and pigeons. Clients would choose which ones they like, then he would kill them. The price is about 20% cheaper than the normal market price.
Our market was shut down by the government. We had to kill 2,000 birds by ourselves. But we didn’t get any compensation. We have no choice but to sell our birds, in the street.
A few days ahead of the Lunar New Year, the demand for chicken meat picks up, and loads of them are being transported all across China. During the New Year season more than 3 billion people move around the continent too. The World Health Organization claims that there has been no evidence of sustained human to human transmission of the virus. But the authorities remain vigilant asking people to avoid contact with live birds.
And now to a problem that's affecting hundreds of millions of people in Asia. More than 650 million don't have clean water to drink. A city in Japan says it has a solution. Here's NHK with the story.
Regional municipalities operate almost all the water work systems in Japan. The city of Kitakyushu in western Japan provides clean tap water to the city’s 490-thousand households. The city developed a water-purifying machine with the private company 15 years ago. Micro-organisms attached to activated carbon dissolve the pollutants. The machine is half the price of other technologies. It uses less chlorine to disinfect the water. Kitakyushu officials started promoting the technology with private firms from 2010 to emerging economies in Asia.
Kazuya Kubata, Waterworks Bureau:
Kitakyushu has a long history as a city of technology and manufacture. It's our mission to take action. That’s something we must do.
Kitakyushu officials are now turning their attention to Vietnam. Haiphong is the country’s third biggest city. Raw sewage and industrial wastewater is discharged into rivers. The river water is purified for use in tap water by adding lots of chlorine. But that combination can generate harmful substances. Citizens boil tap water for drinking and cooking. They want clean water that their children can safely drink.
I don’t feel safe using tap water. I feel uneasy. Because I have small children. But I don’t have any other choice.
Kitakyushu officials told their counterparts at the Haiphong Water Authority about their water purification technology. The Vietnamese officials liked what they saw and decided to start using the Japanese system. It went into operation last month.
The Haiphong officials based their decision on low cost of the Japanese system and the fact that it uses less chlorine. The machine succeeded in eliminating most of the pollutants.
The Japanese system has caught the attention of officials in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s biggest city.
They started testing at this month. That could lead to a deal worth almost 20 million dollars. Seven other Vietnamese cities have also asked Kitakyushu officials to do on site service.
Ho Chi Minh City water official:
Providing people safe water supply is one of our biggest goals. I hope their technology will bring us good results.
If we want to get orders from abroad. We need to go into the field with local officials, and talk with them about what needs to be done.
Kitakyushu officials have high hopes for their work in Vietnam. They hope it will encourage Japanese companies to work together to design water resource management systems and win orders from overseas clients.
[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.
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.
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.
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.