Anniversary of a Milestone Northwest Passage Voyage Highlights Call for Arctic HFO Ban

 

First published in Ship & Bunker

Forty-five years ago, just two months after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, another historic exploration milestone took place in Alaska. The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan arrived at Barter Island, AK, on September 18, 1969. The ship had been commissioned by Humble Oil to test the feasibility of using tankers to transport crude from the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay oil field. Having launched from Sun Shipyards in Chester, PA, the Manhattan was the largest U.S. merchant ship of its day and the first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage.

 

Industry Insight: Anniversary of a Milestone Northwest Passage Voyage Highlights Call for Arctic HFO Ban

Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today.

Hazards

The historic journey was not without mishap. As detailed below, many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today. Protecting the Arctic marine environment and Arctic people from these hazards is currently under consideration by the United NationsInternational Maritime Organization which is writing rules for Arctic shipping known as the Polar Code. The United States‘ delegation includes leadership from NOAA and the Coast Guard.

First, a bit more history. Not only the largest ship of its kind, the SS Manhattan was an engineering marvel. Retrofitting the tanker for ice conditions required the monumental feat of cutting the ship into four pieces which were then sent to ship yards in four states and then later reassembled. As the voyage transited Canadian waters, it also jump-started international attention to sovereignty and control of arctic waters. Canada required that the ship be escorted by a Canadian icebreaker and also moved to pass the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, a first attempt at exerting protections and control in international arctic waters.

The ship was greeted In Alaska by the icebreaking U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind  under the command of Captain Donald J. McCann. The Northwind achieved a significant historic first during its mission to accompany the SS Manhattan by becoming was the first ship in history to complete the Northwest Passage in both directions in a single season.

The Northwind‘s voyage was beset by a damaged crankshaft and became stuck in the ice, requiring help from the Canadian icebreaker John A. MacDonald.  The MacDonald also suffered ice damage to its propeller during the voyage.

Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today:  lack of infrastructure, lack of emergency response, poor communications, inadequate charts, and the inability to respond to Arctic oil spills.

Icebreaking Tankers

Of course, icebreaking tankers are not yet in use to transport Prudhoe crude, but Arctic shipping is quickly accelerating. U.S. waters are affected by international shipping along our Arctic coastline and by shipping through the Bering Strait which connects Asia to the Russian Arctic and northern Europe.

There are concerns that the most pressing issue, a spill of Heavy Fuel Oil,  is not being addressed in the Polar Code. The Arctic Council, which the U.S. will chair next year, identified the release of oil as the “most significant threat” to the Arctic marine environment in their 2009 assessment of Arctic shipping.

We recommend that Heavy Fuel Oil be banned in Arctic waters and that lighter, distillate fuels be required. In the event of a spill, lighter fuels would dissipate more quickly and cause less harm to the environment and the people who depend on marine resources for food. There is precedent for banning Heavy Fuel Oil in sensitive waters, including the waters of the Antarctic. The next IMO Polar Code meeting is in London on October 13.

One more item while we’re thinking about the history and hazards of Arctic shipping. President Obama‘s Oval Office desk is known as the Resolute Desk. The desk was a gift from Queen Victoria and is made from the wood of the Resolute, a British ship that got stuck in the Arctic ice and had to be rescued by an American crew.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Shipping, Sustainable Development | Comments Off

Polar Code: U.S. Should Lead HFO Ban

 

Op-Ed first published in The Maritime Executive

 

Former U.S. Coast Guard commandant Admiral Robert Papp is visiting Alaska for the first time in his new capacity as the U.S. special representative for the Arctic. Admiral Papp was appointed last month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is a proposal requesting Admiral Robert J. Papp to take action on including a ban on heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic as part of the Polar Code.

New ice-free waters in the Arctic are setting the stage for an industrial and shipping boom on an international scale. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, Russia estimates that last year three billion tons of cargo moved from Europe through the Bering Strait. By 2017, estimates are that 25 billion tons will move through the Northeast Passage and by 2020, 50 billion tons. This is a significant increase in Arctic shipping and the implications are enormous for both indigenous peoples as well as our Arctic environment.

 

Under international law, the IMO is responsible for developing rules to improve shipping safety and environmental protection. Currently, the IMO is working on developing a Polar Code to achieve that for both Arctic and Antarctic shipping.

 

The Polar Code comes to a crescendo this October and November as the IMO will finalize the draft language for the Code, with final adoption in spring 2015. Our primary goals at Pacific Environment are to seek U.S. support to: 1) defend positive provisions in the draft code; and, 2) secure commitments from IMO to deal with those issues not now adequately addressed in the next phase of the Polar Code.

 

So far, the Polar Code’s strongest provisions are:
1) a complete ban on the discharge of oil and oily mixtures;
2) good, but not perfect, provisions on the discharge of chemicals, sewage and garbage; and, 3) mandatory voyage planning requirements to avoid marine mammals.

 

Some of the glaring omissions or problems within the current Code include:
1) a failure to adequately deal with the biggest potential hazard to the Arctic, a heavy fuel oil (HFO) spill;
2) no mention of black carbon;
3) a glaring loophole in the draft code that allows certain non-ice class ships (so called “Category C” ships) to operate in supposedly low-ice conditions (the problem being, that sometimes these ships may plan on low-ice conditions, but conditions change rapidly causing problems);
4) another potential loophole that applies the code only to SOLAS vessels on international voyages and not domestic traffic (the problem here is that much of the Arctic vessel traffic is domestic but covers vast distances with the same threats as purely international journeys.

 

The Biggest Issue

 

The Arctic Council should adopt a resolution urging the IMO to prohibit the use of heavy fuel oil by shipping in the Arctic and near Arctic waters. This will produce a number of significant environmental benefits, including, among other things, the reduction of black carbon emissions and risk of spills that could severely impact the Arctic climate and the health of indigenous and other peoples living there.

 

Although many smaller vessels in the Arctic operate on distillate marine fuel, a substantial portion of traffic by large vessels in the Arctic continues to use heavy fuel oil which is harmful to the climate, the environment and human health, particularly in polar regions. In fact, the use and carriage of HFO has been banned in Antarctic waters by the IMO.

 

Magnitude of Expected Impact

 

Black carbon is produced by ships through the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. Black carbon is a potent climate-forcer. Recent analysis estimates that it is the second most important climate-forcing agent, exceeded only by carbon dioxide. International shipping is a significant emitter of black carbon, with estimated emissions of between 71,000 and 160,000 metric tons annually. Requiring ships sailing in Arctic and near-Arctic waters to use distillate fuel rather than HFO would result in significant reductions in black carbon emissions.

 

There are other compelling reasons to prevent the use of HFO in Arctic waters. First, spills of HFO in marine environments are generally far more detrimental than spills of distillate fuels. When spilled, lighter, more refined marine fuels naturally disperse and evaporate much more quickly than HFO. Moreover, HFO is nearly impossible to effectively clean up in icy Arctic waters.

 

The Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment stated that: “The most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment is the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge.” Large ocean-going vessels operating in the Arctic not only burn HFO as fuel, but they also can hold significant quantities of this fuel and presumably would be traveling with full bunker tanks, as fueling options in the region are limited.

 

Second, banning the use of HFO would also obviate the need to dispose of its considerable waste sludge. This sludge generally constitutes about one to five percent of HFO consumed, and it must be discharged onshore, incinerated, or burned as fuel after further processing.

 

We at Pacific Environment request leadership from the Office of the Special Representative for the Arctic to support a commitment in the Polar Code to include a ban on the use of HFO for shipping in Arctic waters.

 

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Bering Sea, Climate Change, Oceans, Policy, Shipping, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Public Participation and Public Protest in China

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection recently reported that there was a 31% rise in mass environmental protests during 2013. The statistic highlights the growth of “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) environmentalism in China, and it comes as no surprise given already excessive pollution levels faced by communities across the country. To many, the prospect of a new chemical factory or coal plant next door feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Despite the fact that mass protests are illegal in China, they do sometimes succeed in stopping a new polluting factory, at least temporarily. The trend toward increased protests may also indicate broader frustration with the lack of meaningful public involvement in China’s environmental decision making. In a recent commentary on chinadialogue.net, Vice Environment Minister Li Ganjie is quoted as saying that protests are on the upswing because “the planning process in some areas and some departments may not be as scientific and rational as it should be” and projects “don’t share enough information with the public.”

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Although the concept of public participation has been introduced over the past decade in China’s environmental regulatory framework, very few practical steps have been taken to engage citizens in reviewing new projects and their impacts, or in supervising implementation of pollution reduction goals. One challenge is that the Ministry of Environmental Protection itself has little experience in effectively working with the public, such as through public hearings and written comment processes. The May 2014 revisions of the country’s environmental law takes steps in the right direction by calling for public release of full Environmental Impact Assessments rather than just summaries, as well as mandating public disclosure of real time monitoring data from key polluting industries.

But more needs to be done, particularly when it comes to actually engaging the public in planning efforts. Currently, procedures for public review and comment on environmental impact assessments are so vague that it is easy for local officials to manipulate or side-step the public involvement requirement. Our partner, Green Stone Environmental Action Network, pointed out the many flaws of the process in a 2013 report on compliance with public participation requirements for environmental impact assessments for Jiangsu Province, a relatively advanced region when it comes to the implementation of environmental laws.

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Reports such as these indicate there is much more that the Ministry of Environmental Protection and local environmental bureaus can do. At the same time, citizen groups themselves are playing a vital role in helping to create models for public participation. For example, around the time of release of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s report citing the rise in environmental protests, Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) held a press conference announcing a new tool for public monitoring of polluters. IPE’s mobile phone pollution map uses newly-available real time monitoring data released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and allows users to see daily pollution discharge data for major factories nearby. Armed with this data, it will be much easier for concerned citizens in China to track down specific polluters and put pressure on local governments to clean up pollution.

In addition, IPE and many local environmental groups in China cooperate in creating an annual Pollution Information Transparency Index, which ranks Chinese cities based on how well they are complying with public environmental disclosure rules. The rankings have successfully put pressure on local governments to improve their performance.

These types of citizen-led efforts have been so effective that they warrant the attention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and China’s top leaders in their efforts to solve China’s critical pollution problems and address citizens’ concerns. Broader and more meaningful public participation in environmental affairs in China is a win-win proposition: it provides less risky and more long-term avenues for public expressions of dissatisfaction than mass protests, and it can result in direct and immediate improvements in China’s air and water quality.

 

Posted in China, Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Grassroots Activism, Policy | Comments Off

Grassroots Organizations Will Help China Move Away From Coal

First Published in the Huffington Post

Co-authored by Dr. Sun Qingwei, Pacific Environment China Climate Coordinator

President Obama’s new carbon rule elicited a seemingly strong reaction from China:a pledge to institute a national carbon cap by 2016. But does China’s pledge have teeth? We argue yes, but only if grassroots organizations and citizens put increasing pressure on the government to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

In the past decade, two key factors have helped improve China’s climate policies: international climate change negotiations and domestic political pressure to clean up pollution. At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to cut carbon emissions 40-50% by 2020. This commitment resulted in the birth of China’s Renewable Energy Law, and specific coal reduction targets were introduced into China’s current Five Year Plan (2011-2015). If the United States takes further steps to demonstrate leadership at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, China will come under even greater pressure to curb its rising carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Chinese citizens have grown more aware of the true costs of coal, namely life-threatening levels of pollution. Rising citizen concern over pollution has put pressure on the central government to better control climate-warming emissions and led to the 2013 State Council “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control.” The plan demands the reduction of coal consumption by 2017 in the well-developed Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou regions. The plan also sets the target of coal providing less than 65% of national energy by 2017.

These positive signals–top level commitments to curb carbon emissions and localized coal reduction policies–have led many to be optimistic that China is on track to wean itself off of coal. But when we look at what’s going on inside China, this optimism feels premature. First, despite official national plans to curb coal, coal production has actually continued to grow, increasing from 2.2 billion metric tons (bmt) in 2005, to 3.24 bmt in 2010, to 3.68 bmt in 2013. The current planned target for coal production–3.9 bmt per year by 2015–would set another historical high.

2014-07-21-powerplant.jpg
New coal bases in water-scarce western China are a grave threat to agricultural communities. credit: Sun Qingwei

Second, while the central government has ordered some areas to reduce coal consumption, 14 new “coal bases” are simultaneously being built across China. These bases include giant coal mines, power plants, coal chemical complexes, long distance electricity transportation networks, oil pipelines, and gas pipelines. The bases are a component of official energy development policy, as reiterated as recently as June 13, 2014 by China’s Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, the top economic body led by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Furthermore, the State Council’s ambitious air pollution plan has faced major setbacks due to a lack of enforcement. For example, the plan calls for Shijiazhuang, the capital city of industrialized Hebei Province, to reduce consumption of coal by 15 million tons by 2017. To reach this goal, Shijiazhuang was to reduce coal consumption by 3 million tons in 2013, but instead the city’s coal consumption increased by 1 million tons.

The coal industry in China is moving forward with what amounts to a “business as usual” approach, and much more needs to be done to shift China toward a cleaner energy future. This is where grassroots environmental organizations come in. We already know that public concern over air pollution and data transparency was a key driver in the central government’s decision to control coal use in some regions. Since Pacific Environment started working in China 15 years ago, we have seen local environmental groups become increasingly effective at finding and shutting down polluters, and public awareness of coal pollution impacts keeps expanding. The time is ripe to further increase local citizen pressure on coal using the following four strategies:

1) Information disclosure and transparency: Following years of campaigning by local environmental groups, citizens across China are now able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters. For example, this past June, the Beijing-based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs launched a pollution map application for mobile phones that allows citizens to monitor pollution emissions in real time–including from coal plants.

2) Legal tools: China’s newly revised Environmental Protection Law, which will take effect on January 1, 2015, allows governments to fine polluters more heavily and more frequently. It also requires that local and regional governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and it clarifies that nongovernmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits.

2014-07-21-GreenHunanCCTVaward.jpg
Local group Green Hunan wins award for their innovative efforts to go after illegal polluters by building a volunteer monitoring network. Credit: Green Hunan

3) Government monitoring: Many local governments have already set coal reduction targets. Grassroots environmental groups are well-positioned to monitor progress on reaching these targets and to ensure that laggards institute effective coal reduction plans. For example, Hangzhou municipality has a “zero coal” plan that will phase out all coal boilers within two years. Local group Green Zhejiang is monitoring the operation of coal boilers and will report violations of the phase-out plan to local officials.

4) Coal industry investigations: Local environmental protection bureaus often have little incentive, and even less capacity, to investigate pollution problems caused by coal. Grassroots environmental groups can help fill this gap. For example, in 2013 an investigation of Shenhua’s Ordos coal to oil factory conducted by environmental groups found that the company was illegally using groundwater and discharging sewage. A resulting central government investigation forced Shenhua (the world’s biggest coal company) to stop its groundwater grab.

Weak enforcement of existing coal reduction policies, and the fact that top policy makers remain quietly committed to coal, make it too early to declare that China is moving away from coal. If anything can make a real difference, it is stronger citizen pressure which is generally a more effective driver of change in China than international negotiations and other top-down policy-making tactics. That is why, if we as an international community care about our future climate, we must do more to support local efforts in China rather than relying on international negotiations alone to solve the climate problem.

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Pacific Environment Welcomes Sun Qingwei as China Climate Coordinator

 

China has recently been generating a tremendous amount of news because of its pressing need to decrease air pollution and build a clean energy future. This is a heavy undertaking, as China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal.  To help reduce coal pollution in China, Pacific Environment just hired Sun Qingwei, who will lead our training and organizing efforts with local environmental groups in China.

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Growing up in the coal mining region of Shandong, Sun Qingwei witnessed first-hand the health and environmental problems associated with coal production. After receiving a Ph.D. in Physical Geography, Sun Qingwei worked as a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he studied land degradation caused by intensive human activities. It was because of his research that Sun Qingwei realized it was time to make a change in China, so he left academia to become a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.

I sat down with Sun Qingwei to learn more about the coal pollution problems in China and what local communities can do to help decrease China’s reliance on coal.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.


 

Caroline: Welcome to the Pacific Environment team! We have heard so much about China’s coal consumption and poor air quality in the news. Has the air pollution problem changed people’s perceptions in China about using coal?

Qingwei:  China’s public movement against air pollution has made it more possible to reduce coal use in China. Still, the majority of people don’t realize that air pollution is related to coal. People need more information to understand that air pollution is due to coal, and they need to realize that it’s possible to change the infrastructure to use less coal and switch to renewable energy. Part of my job is helping people recognize such change is possible.

 

Caroline: You grew up in a coal mining town. Can you tell me what living there was like?

Qingwei: I think where I grew up was similar to coal mining areas all over the world—very dirty! But my parents did what they had to do to support our family. I felt that coal was a part of my life, but after I graduated from college, I realized maybe we can live without pollution—and without coal—and that we have better choices. At that time, I was researching sustainable development, but I was frustrated with the pace of change and that’s why I wanted to move to the NGO sector.

 

Caroline: In your reports for Greenpeace [where Qingwei previously worked], you examined how China’s coal sector impacts water in China. Can you explain what the problems are?

Qingwei: Water in China is scarce. In northern China, the lack of water is causing land degradation, harming rural communities. These communities rely on the land for their livelihood and as groundwater decreases, farmers lose their grazing lands and their wells dry up. The government just built several major river diversion projects, through the creation of dams, to transport water from southern to northern China, partially to help alleviate this problem. But now new coal mines and new coal-to-chemical plants are being built in the most arid regions of China, where they are worsening water scarcity by grabbing water [including water transferred from southern China] from rural communities.

 

Caroline: What do you consider to be one of the most satisfying victories against coal during your NGO career so far?

Qingwei: About two years ago, when I was working for Greenpeace, we began to investigate China’s biggest coal company, Shenhua. We knew it produced coal-to-liquid fuel (diesel) at its plant in Inner Mongolia, which is a very dry area. Producing liquid fuels from coal is a very water intensive process. Shenhua was tapping groundwater and, in the process, had already destroyed 2,000 local wells. In addition, the livelihoods of more than 5,000 farmers and sheep herders were threatened by grassland degradation, which was also caused by Shenhua’s groundwater depletion.

We launched an investigation and released a report that demonstrated Shenhua’s responsibility for destroying the grasslands and harming local agricultural communities that depend on them. After 30 days, the report was censored by the central government, but just last month, we got a message directly from the company saying that they had decided to stop using groundwater for coal processing in that location. We realized that despite being censored, our message had been heard by top leaders and resulted in political pressure on Shenhua. The leaders at the company became nervous because this was not the only case where they were grabbing groundwater from a local community. In fact, there are many such projects in other parts of China and coal companies don’t want to draw too much attention to them, which is why Shenhua’s leaders compromised. This was the first time that we have had a win against the number one coal company in China.

qingwei land

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Prior to joining Pacific Environment, he worked with Greenpeace to expose how China’s largest coal company, Shenhua was depleting Inner Mongolia of groundwater.

 

Caroline: What do you think is the most effective strategy in China to reduce coal production and consumption?

Qingwei: There are two important strategies. First, Beijing-based lobbying which focuses on economic arguments for switching to more renewable energy. Some NGOs and research institutions are already doing this. A second critical strategy is putting pressure on the government by mobilizing public concern over air and water pollution, and this is where local NGOs can have a big impact. Pacific Environment is working with local groups to identify sources of coal pollution and make the connection with air and water pollution. The next step is cleaning up or closing pollution sources, or pushing for local governments to replace dirty energy with cleaner energy. This kind of action will put bottom-up pressure on local governments and national policy makers to take bolder steps.

 

Caroline: Do you think increasing public awareness about the harmful impacts of coal will help?

Qingwei: Yes, I think most people need more knowledge of the problems caused by coal. Once they have this knowledge, they will be more motivated to create change.

 

Caroline: How do you think communities can play a role in reducing China’s coal use?

Qingwei: Any change needs a motivating force. To change from dirty energy to clean energy, we need to persuade the coal companies to invest in cleaner energy. I think community groups can create such political pressure based on their need for clean air and clean water. As a first step, communities can push for greater government transparency of energy policies, and pollution sources, by using China’s information disclosure laws.

 

Caroline: What are you looking to accomplish at Pacific Environment in the next 12 months?

Qingwei: When I joined Pacific Environment, I already knew we had a very good network of grassroots partner organizations in China. So my role is to help build the network’s capacity to address the coal challenge. I also want to grow this network, because the challenge is huge and requires the efforts of a wide range of NGOs.

Posted in China, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Issues, Policy, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off

“The Wise Love Water”: A Day in the Life of a River Volunteer in China

 

Yu Lixiang asked me to meet him on a sunny afternoon in March on the banks of the Xiang River. He waited for me by a bridge where he was making a routine stop to test the water quality of the Xiang River, the main freshwater artery flowing through China’s eastern Hunan Province.

The spot Yu Lixiang and I were exploring had been selected as a monitoring point because it is near one of Changsha’s municipal drinking water inlets, and water quality is threatened by industrial pollution sources upstream. Yu Lixiang has been to this spot dozens of times to check water quality, and local fishermen seem to know him, telling him in the local Changsha dialect about changes they have observed in the river day to day.

Yu Lixiang, of Xiang River Watch, preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River in Hunan Province.

River monitor Yu Lixiang is preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha.

In his fifties, Yu Lixiang jumped lightly from rock to rock along the river bank as we started the monitoring process. After snapping a few photos of the river and its surroundings, he took out test strips from his waist bag to collect data on the pH of the river. “Today the pH, at this point along the Xiang River, is 6—not bad”, Yu Lixiang said. Then he carefully recorded the findings in his notebook. (Pure water has a pH very close to 7.)

River monitor Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify river pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

Yu Lixiang is one of a growing number of citizens who participate in volunteer networks to help clean up China’s rivers. “Teacher Yu,” as Yu Lixiang is affectionately known by his fellow volunteers, is the leader of the Changsha city team in the network known as the “Xiang River Watch.”

The members of Xiang River Watch all share the same dream: that one day all rivers in Hunan Province can be cleaned up and protected. The network was founded by Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan three years ago to mobilize citizens from all walks of life to watchdog water pollution—a grave environmental threat in China.

Today, 92 volunteers participate in Xiang River Watch’s local teams to patrol the main stem and the eight major tributaries of the Xiang River every day. On average, the teams find and investigate eight pollution incidents per week.

Over the past three years, the Changsha city team alone has reported over 600 pollution violations on Weibo.com, a popular social networking site used by an increasing number of Chinese citizens to bring attention to environmental problems. Last year, Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch volunteers not only found and reported hundreds of polluters, they also successfully pushed for cleanup of over 30 individual pollution sources through closure of polluting factories or installments of new pollution control technologies.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southeastern China.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha.

In 2010, Yu Lixiang read about Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch in a newspaper and immediately decided to volunteer. He told me that his ancestors settled along the banks of the Xiang River hundreds of years ago. And  he pointed out that locals throughout water-rich southern China often call the great rivers that flow by their doors “Mother River,” and that’s how the Xiang River is known in this part of Hunan. Yu Lixiang traces his love of rivers back to his childhood. He was born by the Xiang River, his “Mother River,” and that’s why he feels a natural connection with the river. Standing by the river, he smiled as he quoted one of Confucius’s sayings to me, “The wise love water!”

When Yu Lixiang was young, he went swimming in the Xiang River every summer. At that time, the river was clean and beautiful. But in the 1990s—a time of economic boom throughout China—the river started to fill with trash and began to smell bad. That’s when Yu Lixiang had to give up swimming and started walking along the river instead.

Protecting the water and being close to the river was already his way of life, so it wasn’t surprising that he decided to join Green Hunan as a volunteer. “If there had been an environmental group earlier, I would have joined earlier,” he said.

But volunteer work is not without challenges for Yu Lixiang. Because most volunteers are much younger, he used to worry about fitting in. It also took him a while to become familiar with social media, which the volunteers use to publicize their pollution findings. But now he takes the lead in reporting his team’s results online.

Speaking about his team’s next challenges, Yu Lixiang told me about a new wastewater treatment plant being installed nearby. “I plan to push for better disclosure of information about its operations,” he said. Right now, 300,000 tons of wastewater are discharged into the Xiang River without treatment every day. Yu Lixiang believes that once the new treatment plant is in operation, it will take some close monitoring of the treated water to ensure that the water is actually pollution-free before it enters the Xiang River.

Yu Lixiang wants to inspire more people to join a river monitoring network and also to expand his own efforts; this summer, he plans to carry out field investigations at the headwaters of tributaries of the Xiang River. His personal dream is to one day go and see the famed Sanjiangyuan region, where China’s other great rivers—the Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow—originate high in the Tibetan plateau.

Thanks to Yu Lixiang and many others like him, the Xiang River and other rivers throughout China are getting a second chance. Pacific Environment is helping grassroots environmental groups across China grow networks of citizen monitors that are ever more effective at stopping polluters and cleaning up rivers.

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U.S. Should Pull Funding From Exxon’s Deadly Pipeline Project

First published in The Huffington Post

 

This week, The Nation published an exposé revealing shocking new details about ExxonMobil’s deadly natural gas pipeline project in Papua New Guinea. Reporter Ian Shearn reveals new allegations that the ExxonMobil subsidiary operating the project was aware that poor management practices at a local quarry could cause a landslide. Then, on January 24, 2012, a massive landslide originated at the quarry and killed 27 local villagers. Shearn reports a supply road was quickly reconstructed over the landslide — directly over the buried bodies — under the protection of Exxon-funded mobile security forces sent to defend the project from angry villagers. The Huffington Post has released an accompanying documentary video with stunning footage from the scene of devastation and surrounding community.

In 2009, an obscure U.S. Government trade promotion agency, the Export-Import Bank, provided a $3 billion loan (yes, that’s billion) for the Papua New Guinea LNG project. Most Americans have never heard of the federal Export-Import Bank. Even fewer know that it doles out billions of dollars in corporate welfare to dangerous fossil fuel projects each year, harming local communities while worsening the global climate crisis with rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Esso Highlands Limited, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, operated the poorly-managed quarry from which the deadly landslide originated. Exxon denies that EHL is responsible, claiming that heavy rainfall caused the landslide. However, Reuters reported in 2012 that prior to the accident an independent consultant to the Export-Import Bank reported that “[t]he overall impression…is that incidents and situations have developed because the project has circumvented correct procedures in the interest of schedule…” Now, Shearn reports that an engineer working on the quarry warned EHL managers that the “quarry was risky and should be shut down immediately…I thought the quarry could collapse.”

 

A massive landslide, which originated from an unstable quarry, owned by ExxonMobil and known to be unsafe, killed 27 people in Papua New Guinea.

A massive landslide, which originated from an unstable quarry, owned by ExxonMobil and known to be unsafe, killed 27 people in Papua New Guinea.

Equally shocking, a local project watchdog, LNG Watch Papua New Guinea, reported that local villagers struggled to retrieve victims following the landslide, sometimes digging by hand. At the same time, under the protection of notorious mobile police squads, a supply road that is essential to project construction was rebuilt over the landslide directly above the buried bodies. As a result, none of the 27 missing villagers were ever recovered.

The exposé reports many incidents of violence and abuse that mobile police squads inflicted upon people in the community who protested the LNG project. According to a police superintendent and other well-placed sourced cited in the article, ExxonMobil tried to ensure project security by paying for weapons and covering other expenses of these mobile police squads, which local and international advocacy groups have linked to numerous human rights abuses elsewhere in the country.

Three environment and development groups, Pacific Environment, Jubilee Australia and International Accountability Project, warned Export-Import Bank officials about the Papua New Guinea LNG project’s severe environmental, social, and human rights impacts before and after the U.S. Government approved the $3 billion loan. The bank ignored our concerns. What’s more, in 2013, Wikileaks revealed that in response to this criticism, the Texas-based private security firm Stratfor compiled a secret dossier on Pacific Environment, BankTrack and other project critics. It appears that Stratfor’s client may have been Exxon, since the dossier describes the critics’ charges as similar to “complaints about [ExxonMobil's] Chad-Cameroon Pipeline, and many other development projects, with some additional similarities to longstanding concerns about ExxonMobil operations in Aceh.”

The Export-Import Bank claims that if the U.S. does not support such dirty and deadly projects, then other governments will do so without applying the robust environmental, social and human rights safeguards that the U.S. government supposedly insists upon. In addition to Export-Import Bank’s own environmental and social policies, the agency is required to receive a human rights clearance from the State Department for large projects like the Papua New Guinea LNG project. This tragedy demonstrates how miserably these safeguards have failed. And unfortunately this is not an isolated incident among Export-Import Bank’s funded projects.

An independent U.S. Government investigation — if properly conducted — would show that Papua New Guinea LNG has violated Export-Import Bank policies; and it could potentially prove that the company withheld material information from the agency. These facts, and the deadly project impacts, more than warrant that the Export-Import Bank declare the project in default and to demand immediate repayment of the $3 billion loan.

Export-Import Bank’s Chairman, Fred Hochberg, considers himself a champion of human rights. Given this project’s cruel disregard for human life, it’s time for Hochberg to step up to the plate and to withdraw his agency’s loan from ExxonMobil’s deadly Papua New Guinea LNG project.

 

Follow Doug Norlen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dougnorlen

Posted in Climate Change, Communities, Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Finance, Global, Liquefied Natural Gas, Natural Gas, Responsible Finance, Sustainable Development | Comments Off

2014 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

With all of the negative attention Russia is receiving in the news lately, it’s easy to overlook the many inspiring people who are fighting for social and environmental justice in Russia. One such courageous activist is Suren Gazaryan, winner of a 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for challenging government corruption and environmental degradation—at great personal risk.

Suren Gazaryan is a winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for his courageous efforts to stop government corruption and environmental degradation in Russia

Suren became a prominent leader in Russia’s growing anti-corruption movement when he documented on his blog the environmental crimes committed by corrupt government officials. Beginning in the early 2000s, mansions began to spring up in protected areas or on public lands along the Black Sea coast. Many of these homes, surrounded by armed guards, were rumored to belong to wealthy Russian oligarchs, including President Putin. Suren documented these protected area violations and brought lawsuits to stop the illegal construction. When the courts refused to act, he led direct action campaigns to block excavation equipment.

In June 2012, Suren was sentenced to three-year probation for protesting the illegal seizure of protected lands for one of these mansions. A couple of months later, Russian authorities claimed in a second criminal case that he threatened to kill security guards at another illegal construction site. Facing prison for these trumped up charges, Suren fled to seek political asylum in Estonia. His friend and colleague, Yevgeny Vitishko, Yvegeny disappeared into Russia’s penal system on the same politically motivated charges Russian authorities levelled against Suren.

Suren is a uniquely Russian environmentalist. He combines great knowledge of that country’s byzantine legal system with a talent for public organizing, and a scientist’s knowledge of local flora and fauna. As a zoologist and a member of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus’ Council, he recognizes the value and uniqueness of the forests, beaches, and resident wildlife in his home of Krasnodar—a region located on Russia’s Black Sea coast. To protect these vulnerable areas, he created the Utrish Nature Reserve in 2009, conserving a unique stretch of Black Sea coast and nearby pistachio forest. In 2012, he led a campaign that protested the construction for the Sochi Olympic sites in protected wilderness areas, which called international attention to the event as the most environmentally destructive modern-day Olympics.

Today, Suren will receive his award at the Goldman Environmental Prize eremony held in San Francisco. It recognizes his accomplishments in protecting valuable forests and coastland and his tireless efforts to address the corruption that is at the root of so much environmental destruction in Russia. As the country continues to struggle with authoritarianism and corruption, people like Suren, who believe in social equality and environmental justice, represent a cleaner, just, and more prosperous future.

I am proud that Pacific Environment supported Suren’s candidacy for the Goldman Prize. Suren has demonstrated the power of citizen mobilization in social and environmental change. We at Pacific Environment congratulate Suren on all he has accomplished. But, as Suren himself says, there is much work left to be done.

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Civil Society, Communities, Forests, Global, Grassroots Activism, Russia, Russia Community Partners, Russian Far East, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists

For generations, indigenous groups have been battling governments to protect their sacred lands. Danil Mamyev, a Pacific Environment partner and founder of the Uch-Enmek Nature Park in Russia’s Altai region, and Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemum Wintu tribe in northern California, are the key figures in a new documentary by Sacred Lands Film Project. Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists is a moving portrait of Danil’s and Chief Sisk’s struggles to protect their ancestral lands from destruction.

 


 

Although they live thousands of miles apart, Danil and Chief Sisk find common cause in their drive to preserve cultural traditions by protecting their ancestral lands. In Altai, Danil founded Uch-Enmek Park as a place where Altaians can practice shamanistic traditions and rituals in an untouched landscape that includes a sacred mountain. In California, Chief Sisk is leading the Winnemum Wintu to defend ritual sites along the McCloud River, in northern California, from inundation by the Shasta Dam.

 

Danil and Chief Sisk emphasize the important role that land plays in traditional religious and spiritual beliefs. Danil noted that in Russia, offensive behavior in a church can lead to social condemnation and even legal punishment, but no such provisions exist for the protection of places that are holy to the Altaian people. In the film’s most emotional moment, Chief Sisk visits a spring with deep spiritual significance to the Winnemum people. For the first time in historic memory, it has run dry as a result of climate change and poor water management by California’s government. Chief Sisk’s pain is palpable as she digs for water and finds only gravel in the spring’s basin.

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

As I watched the film, I realized how much the preservation of sacred lands will soon become important to everyone. Today, Altaians must contend with tourists who take bus tours to local burial grounds and climb sacred mountains. The Winnemum have watched most of their tribal lands drown under the artificial Shasta Lake. But as climate change alters local landscapes and creates greater demand for scarce resources, we may have to make similar sacrifices, surrendering local lakes to irrigate crops, building homes atop once protected parks, and cutting roads through forests.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

But there are less drastic measures we can take right now. In Altai, local people have begun installing solar and small-scale hydropower generators in remote villages. This saves them the cost of expensive imported diesel and obviates the need for construction of power plants and transmission lines. It’s a win-win for local people. They preserve the land they depend upon for grazing, hunting, and fishing and save money on fuel costs. Just as indigenous peoples recognized the value of protecting sacred natural places long before the invention of national parks, they are now demonstrating the importance of sustainability. Will we listen before it’s too late?

Posted in Altai, California, Civil Society, Climate Change, Communities, Global, Russia, Russian Far East, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off

Cleaner Energy for Cleaner Air in China

Air pollution is strongly linked to premature death in China. According to a study by the World Health Organization, it contributed to some 1.2 million deaths in 2010. The country’s top officials have pledged to declare a war on smog. Yet coal, the main culprit in this tragedy, still rules China’s energy sector.

In March 2014, we invited a group of local environmental organizations to a training that kicks off our new project to address coal pollution in China. The event, co-hosted by Waterkeeper Alliance and Green Hanjiang, was the first in a series of workshops that will help local activists reduce reliance on dirty energy and improve air quality in their communities.

Participants of the Coal Kick-Off Meeting toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

Participants toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

We gathered in Xiangyang, a mid-sized city in western Hubei Province on the banks of the Han River. Like most cities in China, Xiangyang is covered by a grey haze of pollution most days of the year. But unlike in most cities, the river that flows through the heart of Xiangyang is actually safe for fishing and swimming. This is partly due to the event’s co-host Green Hanjiang, which has been working with city residents to stop water pollution for more than 10 years.

Grassroots environmental groups like Green Hanjiang have come a long way. Only 10 years ago, the few local groups that existed mainly focused on education about the environment. Now, hundreds of local groups do hands-on work that cleans up industrial pollution and improves government enforcement of China’s environmental laws.

While Pacific Environment’s partners on the ground in China are excelling at stopping industrial polluters in their cities, few of them are actively challenging pollution caused by the energy sector. As the public’s concern about air pollution in China grows, citizens need to begin to connect the dots between dirty air and coal. Our meeting helped close this information gap and provided participants with hard facts on coal’s harmful impacts on water quality, air quality, and people’s health.

Our workshop also demonstrated how China’s current energy policies support increased expansion in coal mining and processing. And we highlighted the heavy price the country and its people pay for its continued reliance on coal as a major source of energy: rising amounts of dangerous toxins in water and air that harm people, wildlife, and ecosystems.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang. China’s current energy plan calls for increased use of coal energy, which will worsen air quality and increase environmental and health problems.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang.

The harmful impacts of coal are indisputable. But how to decrease China’s reliance on coal is a more complex issue. Groups like NRDC have focused on pushing for a national coal cap, while other groups, including Greenpeace, have sought to mobilize public opinion against coal and work with Beijing policy makers to highlight the natural limitations to coal industry growth—like limitations on water resources needed to process coal in many of the planned coal base regions. Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, meanwhile, is targeting one of the biggest consumers of coal—the cement industry in China—which produces over half of the world’s cement and accounts for some 30% of China’s industrial emissions.

Developing winning strategies at the local level is a key task for Pacific Environment and our partners, and the Xiangyang meeting was a critical first step in this process. Our effort will complement national policy efforts by ensuring that local environmental groups are able to enforce in their communities existing clean air policies and other top-down directives coming from Beijing.

We already fight industrial water pollution very successfully, and together with our partners we can also help reduce air pollution across cities in China and decrease the country’s overall reliance on coal for its energy needs.

Posted in Capacity-Building, China, Civil Society, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off