Pacific Environment often opposes poorly planned oil drilling because of the grave risk of oil spill disasters. But it turns out even the clean-up can cause ecological and human disaster.
Right now toxic chemicals can be used to clean up oil spills in U.S. waters. In the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, federal officials authorized the use of toxic oil-dispersing chemicals to help get rid of the oil—even though no one knew their long-term effects on marine wildlife, corals, and humans.
Oil dispersants are chemicals that break oil spills into tiny droplets to be eaten by microorganisms for faster clean up, but they also allow toxins to accumulate in the marine ecosystem.
These reported effects of Corexit clearly show that we need to pressure the federal government to consider the impact of oil-dispersing chemicals on human and marine life before authorizing its continued use.
That’s why, together with our allies Center for Biological Diversity and Surfrider Foundation, we asked a California court to order the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard to demonstrate that the use of toxic oil-dispersing chemicals is safe for vulnerable species like whales, sea turtles, and other wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Oil dispersants can inflict even more harm than the spilled oil. Corexit, which was used to help clean up the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, damages the insulating properties of seabird feathers even more than untreated oil. This makes the birds more susceptible to hypothermia and death.
As a result of our court action, the federal government now has to analyze the effects of approving the California Dispersants Plan—which authorizes the use of oil dispersants in the event of a spill in California coastal waters—to determine whether these toxic chemicals would harm endangered wildlife.
Ultimately, we need a ban on the use of toxic dispersants in oil spill clean-up. Still, this win is an important step toward ensuring that we don’t endanger human health and inflict additional damage on marine ecosystems and wildlife in the event of another oil spill disaster in American waters.
Eugene Simonov enjoying himself in the wetlands of the Amur River Basin.
Eugene joined Pacific Environment as the Conservation Science Specialist in February 2013 but his history with our organization goes as far back as 2001 when he was one of our strategic partners and advisors. Although he currently resides in Dalian, China, his scope of work includes China, Russia, Mongolia and the United States. Eugene has a degree in biology from Moscow State University, a Master’s degree in environmental science from the Yale University School of Forestry, and a doctorate in nature conservation from China’s Northeast Forestry University. Eugene has been working on transboundary issues with a special focus on the Amur River Basin, a highly complex watershed of northeastern China, the Russian Far East, and eastern Mongolia. Since 2009 Eugene has been a coordinator of Rivers without Boundaries International Coalition which was formed to address conservation of the aquatic environment of Northeast Asia.
Eugene’s work has shined a light on the devastating impacts of major dam infrastructure projects. His organization has been successful in removing several of the most large scale projects from the agenda, and with the Whitley Award he plans to focus his energy on diverting investment dollars away from more of these dam projects and towards sustainable energy alternatives.
In his acceptance speech on May 2, Eugene imagined taking a boat ride down the river from its headwaters in Siberia through the wetlands filled with cranes and geese and possibly spotting the legendary river monster. Eugene works to make his dream of a free flowing Amur river a reality for his son and daughter.
Centuries ago, European settlers stumbled upon the New World, a pristine world teaming with wildlife and abundance. Immediately the race was on to exploit these resources which were thought to be limitless. We now know what happened to the great northern forests, the prairie, the buffalo and the Native Americans who depended on the environment for their sustenance and survival.
The goldmines and railroads of the Wild West.
Now the Arctic is poised on a similar precipice. Industrial nations race to the scene as melting sea ice opens up this vast pristine region. The goals are to reduce shipping time between Europe and Asia and thereby cut costs – and also to be the first to claim the abundance of resources that are suddenly becoming available.
The Arctic no longer belongs to the eight Arctic nations that surround it. Major economic players such as China and other industrial nations far removed, have a stake in what happens in the Arctic.
Last year China sent an icebreaker for the first time from Shanghai to Iceland through the Northern Sea Route (across the top of Russia) and stated that increased cargo shipments between Europe and Asia will become reality in a matter of years.
South Korea is eyeing vast shipments of coal through the Northern Sea Route to fuel its economy.
The “flag ship states,” which make vast sums on registering ships (Liberia, Panama, and Vanuatu to name a few of these nations) have mounted a full court press to weaken proposed Arctic shipping laws because it might increase industry costs.
The Chinese government predicts up to 15% of its total cargo will move through the Northern Sea Route by 2020. That’s just seven years away.
For Asian nations, shipping via the Arctic will result in a 30% cut in costs.
Moreover, 30% of world’s untapped gas and 13% of undiscovered oil is believed to be in the Arctic.
Greenland is also under potential siege because of its rare earth minerals potential. Here, a British company has also proposed mining 15 million tons of iron ore– a project which would add 3,000 foreign miners to a mostly indigenous population of under 60,000 residents.
Next month China will be requesting permanent observer status at the Arctic Council which would give it an official voice in shaping Arctic policy.
Arctic politics has also created some strange bedfellows. This past month Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson announced formation of a new global forum, the Arctic Circle, to give countries outside the region a chance to shape Arctic development such as China, Singapore, India and South Korea. China and Iceland also recently signed a free trade agreement that will bring greater economic involvement and investment in the region.
I don’t mean to pick on a few nations – but the problem is that some of the nations who ardently want a greater stake in Arctic development are the nations that support weak environmental protections for the Arctic. Last month at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), I witnessed this first hand as China, Singapore, Iceland, the flag ship states , and even the United States, one-by-one stood up to oppose measures that would require zero discharge of garbage and other substances into the pristine Arctic.
The pristine beauty of the Arctic wilderness.
If nations want to have a stake in the Arctic – let them first show that they support responsible rules on Arctic shipping and development: allow only first class ice-worthy vessels; require zero discharge of pollutants including garbage; and restrict the types of dangerous cargo that can enter Arctic waters.
Now is the time to stand up for strong Arctic environmental policies – before we are looking back on another Wild West.
On April 3, 2013, I met two girls playing outside their rural home in the Xigu District near Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, China. Like most kids, they were playful and full of laughter, but unlike most kids, these girls are only allowed to play outside for a limited time every day. I traveled to Xigu to learn more about the harmful effects of the Xigu Thermal Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant that towers over this community. The children that I met went to school 200 feet away from the plant and are exposed to air pollutants every day because the power plant’s towering smokestacks stand amid residential buildings and farmland.
This map shows the close proximity of the primary school and Xigu Coal Plant.
I traveled with two colleagues at the Waterkeeper Alliance, who we are working with to engage grassroots environmental groups in China on a national campaign to bring awareness to the dangers of coal power. We were also traveling with Green Camel Bell, our partner in the region, whose staff is just beginning to understand the implications of coal power on the water pollution issues that they work on.
Xigu Thermal Power Plant is over 50 years old. It was built in 1957 as part of China’s first Five Year Plan. The capital city of Gansu Province, Lanzhou, gets its power and winter heating from the plant, but residents also suffer greatly under the weight of its toxic emissions. According to the data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the average daily Lanzhou Air Pollution Index (API) is 223, which ranks its air pollution among the worst in the nation.
On December 22, 2010 Xigu Thermal Power Plant illegally discharged untreated pollutants directly into the atmosphere; the pollutants quickly spread to the city center, and caused a record air pollution spike. Afterwards, Lanzhou Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau fined the plant 100,000 Yuan (16,000 USD) but the pollution continued. Recently the plant was exposed for violating pollution laws again, and received another 100,000 Yuan fine.
Xigu Thermal Power Plant towers over Lanzhou.
The years of heavy pollution caused extremely high cancer mortality rates; in Lanzhou the rate is 56.02% higher than the national average, and the city has the highest incidence of lung cancer in China.
As bad as this seems, the environmental situation today is actually not as bad as it was during the region’s most intensive development period, 30 years ago. On our field trip to Xigu, we met a 60-year old retired plant worker at the gate of the primary school. He told us “In 70′s and 80′s the pollution was much more serious, the smoke was black and the coal conveyor belt had no cover.” He recalled, “When the wind blew, coal ashes were everywhere.”
He also told us that in 1989 the air pollution was so bad nearby farmers were unable to harvest their crops. The farmers fought for compensation, and they won a small settlement, and some environmental safety equipment was installed. The retired plant worker also mentioned that some of his former coworkers at the plant now suffer from cancer, and there has never been compensation for the grave health problems the workers have suffered.
Warning: toxic coal ash.
During our trip we spoke with community members who were naturally very aware of the soot spewing from the plant and hovering over their homes. However, few were aware of the very serious health impacts that accompany that soot. We spoke with the mothers of the two girls playing outside, who complained to us, “Our children have to change their dirty clothes every day…and the ash is very hard to wash out.”
But even if coal ash can be washed off the surface, this kind of daily exposure has long term health impacts that we can no longer afford to ignore.
In our campaign with the Waterkeeper Alliance we will be working with our partners to shine a spotlight on coal’s health impacts in China.
Beautiful Sakhalin Island Photo credit: Igor Shpilenok
Sakhalin Island, sometimes called “The Edge of the Earth” lies off the coast of Russia and just north of Japan and looks out onto the vast Pacific Ocean. The beautiful island is already home to two large scale oil extraction projects led by Exxon, Shell, and Gazprom, with highly detrimental effects on the ocean and wildlife in the area, including the critically endangered population of Western Gray Whales that feed in the area. Sakhalin Energy, a consortium of Gazprom, Shell Oil, and two smaller Japanese companies, is considering drilling appraisal wells in the summer of 2014, and installing a mobile offshore drilling platform called a jack up rig.
But it was a disaster that should never have happened: The Kolskaya’s owners ignored laws prohibiting towing operations in the winter conditions that caused the Kolskaya to capsize. This was not the first time Gazprom flagrantly disobeyed the law. In 2011, a Kamchatka state environmental assessment review ordered the Kolskaya drilling project to update its project plans and resubmit them for a second review before receiving approval. Gazprom disregarded this order and its subsidiaries began drilling anyway.
Shell’s mobile offshore drilling units, the Noble Discover and the Kulluk, narrowly avoided a similar disaster last fall while attempting to pioneer offshore drilling in America’s pristine Arctic. In separate incidents, both rigs went adrift and grounded off the coast of Alaska, requiring rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard. This prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate a number of potential violations of International Maritime Organization marine pollution regulations. The US Environmental Protection Agency also fined Shell for numerous air pollution violations on both rigs.
Despite both companies’ histories of flagrant safety and pollution violations, they may now install a third offshore rig in an extremely important ecological territory. These plans have not undergone the rigorous environmental impact assessment called for by the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel.
The safety of the Western Gray Whale and its feeding grounds are in jeopardy from oil development.
When you throw a piece of trash from your car window, or get rid of your old computer in the woods anywhere in the United States, you’re violating littering or dumping laws, and chances are that you’d have to pay a fine if caught red-handed. But when it comes to the Arctic, our representatives think it’s okay to let ships dump their garbage into pristine Arctic waters.
Pacific Environment is in a pivotal position when it comes to shaping the Arctic’s future. We are one of a handful of groups which have a special consultative status at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations’ body that is now writing the rules for Arctic shipping (known as the Polar Code). This is a big deal because with rapidly melting sea ice, decisions need to be made immediately about how ships can operate in what are now pristine waters. These rules will have a big impact on indigenous communities and their ability to maintain their subsistence lifestyle.
Last week Pacific Environment took a leadership role at the IMO meeting in London to support a strong Polar Code. Unfortunately, our own United States delegation, led by the U.S. Coast Guard and several other agencies, opposed measures to strengthen the Polar Code.
Canada and Russia see the necessity of Arctic conservation, and currently ban ships from dumping their garbage in Arctic waters. But this ban applies only to their territorial waters – and with Arctic shipping expected to grow exponentially – they sought the international force of law to require a zero discharge from ships anywhere in the Arctic. Given that Canada and Russia have banned Arctic garbage dumping for years with no adverse consequences for shipping, we believed the ban should have been greeted with positive support from all nations.
Showing a complete lack of concern for the Arctic environment, the U.S. delegation opposed the garbage dumping ban, along with other proposals to ban the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. Heavy fuel oil is a critically important issue because one major oil spill similar to the Exxon-Valdez spill could cause species extinction as well as the loss of food security for indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council, a group of eight Arctic nations working to promote sound Arctic public policy, found that heavy fuel oil is one of biggest dangers with Arctic shipping.
Pacific Environment is working hard to actively involve other conservation groups, indigenous groups, and the general public to pressure the U.S. delegation, as well as other nations, to support rules that minimize the risks of Arctic shipping while protecting indigenous interests. With solid grassroots organizing and public pressure, we are optimistic about our chances to establish the highest environmental standards for the Arctic. We will continue to keep you posted on our progress.
At the orientation meeting for Pacific Environment’s new environmental law internship program in China this past weekend, I walked with a group of law students down a broad Qingdao street toward dinner. “Maybe we’ll come back to Qingdao to start our own environmental group when we graduate,” one of them said, and the rest agreed with enthusiastic laughs.
Pacific Environment’s law interns Li Jianqiang (left) and Liu Hong (right) with Xu Yangmin, a visionary environmental lawyer and dean of Ocean University’s School of Law, our project partner.
That afternoon, the students met their soon-to-be supervisors at grassroots environmental organizations across China. Not much older than the students themselves, the participating supervisors work hard to protect China’s environment and are partners in Pacific Environment’s ongoing support program. After meeting them, one student said, “They don’t seem jaded like all our classmates who go to work for companies; they still seem young and full of energy.”
Law students in China lack practical experience working with the law; their education emphasizes rigorous training in theory and case law, but schools offer few chances for law students to leave the classroom to work on real live cases. At the same time, grassroots organizations in China increasingly need professional assistance and legal tools to stop polluters, protect pollution victims, and hold polluters accountable.
Groups like the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), which has pioneered efforts in this area, know they can’t do it alone. This is one reason why CLAPV’s charismatic leader Wang Canfa was keen to attend our orientation meeting, and provide moral and technical support for the students and their hosts. “Right now, NGOs in China lack staff with legal knowledge; if law students like these can spend time at Chinese NGOs, it will certainly help them a lot.”
This is me with Wang Canfa, founder and leader of Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, the first organization to provide legal aid to people and communities injured by pollution throughout China.
The students will face many obstacles in bringing legal tools to water pollution fights. For example, during a presentation by an activist from one of the participating organizations, Blue Dalian, we learned how a group of villagers whose water has been poisoned by illegal gold mining waited several months to have their case heard at a local court, only to eventually find out that the case had been rejected.
Rules about NGO involvement in legal challenges are still being tested, but there are many areas where grassroots NGOs, like Pacific Environment’s partners, can help. Recently, one group, Green Anhui, wrote a legal guide for pollution victims, [link] which they are distributing in their project area. Green Stone has been developing a database on Environmental Impact Assessments in Jiangsu Province, and they will seek help from their Ocean University intern to understand public involvement provisions and corporate responsibility under the law.
A volunteer discussing Green Anhui’s new legal guide for pollution victims with a villager in Anhui Province, China.
After our day-long orientation meeting, we took a day to visit Qingdao’s famed Lao Mountain, a granite outcropping crisscrossed by waterfalls, stairs, and pagodas. As we huffed up one particularly steep set of stairs, an environmental law PhD student who will join Green Stone this spring told me a about his research topic.
“I study environmental behavior,” he told me, “specifically, how and why companies choose to develop corporate social responsibility programs, and what their attitudes are about the environment.” Through the internship, he hopes to be able to conduct interviews with some of the more progressive companies and government officials in Nanjing, while also assisting Green Stone to fine tune their online platform for involving citizens in monitoring pollution and commenting on environmental impact assessments. Meanwhile, the NGO participants are excited to receive an infusion of new legal knowledge and tools.
“We are always feeling understaffed, and most of our staff really lacks professional training. We have to learn as we go,” one participant told me. “That is why it is so important to have programs like this where we can get help from someone with specific legal knowledge; we look forward to hearing new perspectives on problems we haven’t been able to solve ourselves.”
Pacific Environment and Ocean University’s Legal Internship Program is starting the first pilot internships in April 2013. Interns will be providing legal tools and assistance to our partner organizations Green Stone, Blue Dalian, and Green Anhui. Lots of students and groups wanted to participate, and we hope to expand the program next year to satisfy the urgent demand for legal support at grassroots NGOs across China to enable them to help pollution victims and pressure polluters to clean up their act.
Back in January, I was asked to present on the topic of food sovereignty and climate change for the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples conference. As I was mulling over what to say, it dawned on me that most issues and threats that indigenous communities are facing today are quite similar, regardless of where they live. Indigenous peoples all over the world have to deal with the fallout from climate change, land grabbing, pollution, and encroaching industrialization.
The regions where I work – Siberia, the Russian Far East, and the Russian Arctic – are areas where people live in very harsh climate conditions and their food systems are perfectly adapted to their environment. Native peoples in the North have access to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. They obtain their food from nature by foraging, collecting roots and berries, catching fish, and harvesting animals.
Indigenous children take part in the process of fishing and drying large Salmon catches.
A couple of years ago I learned an important lesson about the connection between food and indigenous cultures when I was invited to have dinner with an Inupiat family in Nome, Alaska. That evening I tried my first walrus, whale, and caribou, and I listened to stories about the lives and history of the Inupiat people.
The Pacific Walrus is an important part of Inupiat diet and culture.
Most importantly, though, I was reminded that for many Native communities in the North food is not just energy in the form of calories, but an integral part of a system of beliefs that connects the individual to the community and to nature. There is a saying, “If you take away our food, you take away our soul.” If you take away walrus from Inupiat people, there will be no Inupiat people – physically, culturally, and spiritually.
The Pacific walrus, along with many other food sources, is threatened by increasing Arctic development and climate change, which is melting Arctic ice and destroying walrus habitat. Sadly, the loss of traditional food sources is already a reality for indigenous communities in the Arctic. That’s why we work to raise awareness that the Arctic is not just a treasure trove of natural resources waiting to be exploited by corporations like Shell Oil. It’s a region where indigenous peoples have created thriving subsistence lifestyles that depend on intact local ecosystems and healthy wildlife.
I believe that indigenous communities deserve to thrive, not just barely survive as melting Arctic ice and resource extraction projects destroy their homes and local food systems. That’s why Pacific Environment works closely with Native communities in the Russian and Alaskan Arctic to protect Native food sources and cultural traditions from the threats of climate change and industrial development.
Rodion Sulyandziga was able to breathe a sigh of relief last week when Russia’s Ministry of Justice announced that the country’s leading indigenous organization would be allowed to operate again. For Rodion, an indigenous Udege from the Russian Far East, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, or RAIPON, represents a life’s work fighting for the rights of Russia’s indigenous communities.
RAIPON’s reinstatement is the result of a four-month struggle against Russia’s legal bureaucracy, in which Pacific Environment, and our supporters, played a key role. “On behalf of RAIPON,” says Rodion, “I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all those who have been with us during these difficult days and months, who have expressed solidarity, who did not keep silent, and who did not turn their backs. Thank you for your involvement and solidarity. This is a collective achievement.”
Within hours of RAIPON’s suspension by Russian authorities in November 2012, Rodion and Pacific Environment strategized outreach to key stakeholders and decision makers. For example, Pacific Environment engaged a broad network of environmental and indigenous rights NGOs for a joint appeal to Senior Arctic Officials, which called on the Russian Government to reinstate RAIPON’s status within Russia so it could continue to fulfill its critical role as a permanent participant of the Arctic Council. We also mobilized over 1,500 of our supporters to write to President Putin and ask him to stop the silencing of indigenous voices in Russia.
RAIPON’s suspension belongs in the broader context of increasing government pressure on civil society organizations. And it was only the latest in a series of governmental measures designed to gain greater control over the vast, fossil fuel-rich territories of the Far North. These areas are mainly populated by indigenous peoples and federal and regional actions are increasingly targeting traditional forms of economic activity like subsistence hunting and fishing to weaken local cultures and traditions and undermine indigenous opposition to the government’s Arctic development plans.
RAIPON is not only the most influential organization defending Russia’s indigenous communities, but also the only organization advocating for indigenous rights at international organizations, including, besides the Arctic Council, the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.
RAIPON vocally opposes the government’s grab for fossil fuels in the Far North, which is mainly populated by indigenous peoples.
Now that RAIPON is reinstated, Rodion and his team will continue their fight to protect Russia’s indigenous communities from irresponsible and illegal resource development and destructive corporate practices. And at Pacific Environment, we will continue collaborating with one of our most important allies in our battle to protect both the Alaskan and Russian Arctic from resource extraction projects, oil spills, and industrial pollution.
What’s worse, the Department of the Interior said little about the role it played in putting indigenous communities and natural wildlife at risk by allowing Shell to rush into offshore drilling without adequate preparation for the region’s extreme conditions or inevitable human missteps.
Alaska Native communities depend on the Arctic coastal ecosystems to meet their subsistence needs, and a major oil spill would devastate marine mammals and threaten traditional ways of life.
Shell’s drilling rig, the Kulluk, stranded off the coast of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Even Shell itself, supposedly the “best of the best,” indicated that it was not prepared to operate safely in the Arctic when it announced that it was abandoning its plans to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska in 2013.
Yes, Shell’s oil rigs will not be headed to the Arctic this summer. But the government’s disappointingly weak review of Shell’s Arctic drilling program clearly shows that we must keep up the pressure to prevent Big Oil from drilling for dirty fossil fuels in extreme and sensitive areas like America’s Arctic Ocean.