Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Safe Air and Water

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part IV: A right to safe air and water, by Bill.

Protecting the environment is not an abstract concept about saving rainforests or polar bears, although these are important in their own way. Environmentalism is fundamentally about people. Whether or not environmental safety is maintained has a tangible, daily effect on millions of lives. Poisoned air and water is responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year. The air we breathe and the water we drink must be free from contaminants. That is an inalienable human right.

Sadly, too often, our society has allowed dangerous pollution to be released into our air and water, with enormous health consequences. Disproportionately, those impacts have fallen on low-income and minority individuals and communities. Justice for these crimes has been intermittent at best.

We need to ensure — swiftly and fairly — the elimination of pollution, meaningful and substantial compensation for those affected, and punishment for those responsible.

Environmental public safety should not be taken lightly or be treated as an afterthought corrected by an occasional minor fine. Just as we have taken seriously the public health threat from smoking, so too must we take seriously the daily public health consequences of poor regulation and poor enforcement of environmental public safety.

According to the American Lung Association, the human and financial costs to our society are clear:

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

– death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
– increased mortality in infants and young children;
– increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
– inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
– increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
– increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
– increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
-increased severity of asthma attacks in children.

 
By contrast, taking action pays huge dividends:

– Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.
– Another long-term study of six U.S. cities tracked from 1974 to 2009 added more evidence of the benefits. Their findings suggest that cleaning up particle pollution had almost immediate health benefits. They estimated that the U.S. could prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths a year if the nation could lower annual levels of particle pollution by 1 µg/m^3

 
Our federal, state, and local governments must guarantee and secure the people’s right to a habitable world, at present and in future, via enforceable law and regulation. In doing so, particularly by transforming our energy and transportation sectors to cleaner modes, we will ensure safe and clean air and water.

Our nation’s constitution ought to enshrine this common-sense governing principle as an amendment. That might read something like this:

“Every person has the right to safe and clean air and water. Congress and the states shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents. The federal executive and judiciary and the governments of the states shall implement and enforce these provisions by appropriate action.”

Pennsylvania gov’t admits fracking contamination

Nice to finally have some confirmation that it wasn’t all imagined (as some have insisted to me and others many times):

For the first time, Pennsylvania has made public 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas drilling operations.

As the AP reports, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection posted details about the contamination cases online on Thursday. The cases occurred in 22 counties, with Susquehanna, Tioga, Lycoming, and Bradford counties having the most incidences of contamination.

In some cases, one drilling operation contaminated the water of multiple wells, with water issues resulting from methane gas contamination, wastewater spills, and wells that simply went dry or undrinkable. The move to release the contamination information comes after years of the AP and other news outlets filing lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests from the DEP on water issues related to oil and gas drilling and fracking.

 
One wonders if there will be any consequences, though, given that the industry has spent massively on the campaigns of favorable state reps and state senators in Pennsylvania to open the way to fracking operations all over the state.

The industry lobby’s response to the disclosure, as reported by the AP/Wall Street Journal, was to fault Pennsylvania rocks for being difficult to work with and to blame the state government for lax regulation on drilling well construction and design (a statement which takes a lot of chutzpah).

They hate us for our oil spills

The United States gets over 40% of its oil from the Niger Delta region. We get more oil from Nigeria than from Saudi Arabia. But there’s a lot of oil being pumped that’s never making it to any refinery because instead it’s ending up smothering the landscape across the region, which is always slick with oil, as I wrote in June…

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

 

 
While still images coming out of the region are shocking enough, intrepid Current TV correspondent Mariana van Zeller went into the Delta to get video footage of the literally omnipresent oil slicks and spewing wellheads, as well as to interview locals.

While rebels or other individuals damaging pipelines to steal or disrupt oil may be a problem, as the oil companies claim and the Western media dutifully repeats, one local Ogoni activist tells her simply that “the greatest problem we have is that these facilities are too old” and they just corrode away and start gushing oil into the surroundings. And in fact he believes that the violence against the oil companies and the government is probably a result from, not a cause of, the many crude spills. The organization he works for helped bring down the Nigerian dictatorship in the 1990s, ushering in a new, ostensibly more democratic era, and yet they still face the same problems from the oil, which is killing their people. The military government was unresponsive and often downright cruel, as my background post explored, and in some ways this aspect has improved under democracy, but “security” thugs hired by Shell and the other offenders continue to deter local efforts to seek justice. (I want to note that my post was at one point apparently being circulated on an internal corporate server of Shell Oil, according to my site statistics data.)

We made a huge deal out of the large multi-month oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico — and rightfully so — but we as a nation don’t bat an eye over the reality that Nigeria’s delta people have been experiencing what is tantamount to a pervasive, multi-decade oil slick in the same supply chain that is attempting to slake America’s oil thirst and led to that smaller oil catastrophe in our marine back yard. (Yes there was actually less oil going into the Gulf this summer than has been spilled almost continuously in the past five decades in the Niger Delta region!) But these days, as is often the case, it is “un-American” to question our consumer demands and resulting detrimental overseas policies, to suggest that we might be causing well-founded distrust and dissatisfaction from our fellow global citizens, or to propose that we alter the status quo to improve the lot of others and thereby secure ourselves.

1.5 million tons of oil spilled over a half century. God bless our SUVs, every one.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside and was featured by Boston.com.

Niger Delta always slick with oil

Elisabeth Rosenthal reminds us that while it seems like a big deal to Americans when a giant oil disaster spreads a vast slick across our waters, we seem not to care much when the oil is spilled in somebody else’s waters by our companies supplying Nigerian oil for 40% our current consumption:

But it is important to remember that this mammoth polluting event, so extraordinary here, is not so unusual in some parts of the world. In an article published Sunday in The Guardian of London, John Vidal, the paper’s environment editor, movingly recalls a trip to the Niger Delta a few years ago, where he literally swam in “pools of light Nigerian crude.”

A network of decades-old pipes and oil extraction equipment in the delta has been plagued by serious leaks and spills. “More oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes.
[…]
Here in the United States, people express outrage at BP’s actions in the gulf and demand that the oil giant behave responsibly in our waters. But should they also insist that oil companies behave well in the developing countries where their oil comes from? After all, many people insist on “fair trade” coffee and non-sweatshop clothing.

One more excerpt from Mr. Vidal’s fascinating article: “If this gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. “This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.”

 
Where eleven employees of British Petroleum were killed in the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April, frequent pipeline explosions in the Niger Delta region (sometimes caused by rebels) often kill a hundred or more people at a time, many simply too close at the time. As John Vidal explains in his article, the ensuing spills and leaks destroy crops, pollute drinking water, and kill vital fish stocks. Companies such as Shell and Exxon usually take their light sweet time about fixing the leaks, sometimes springing from ancient pipes that just rusted away. And until the relative recent democratization of the country, anyone who pointed this out faced the possibility of the death sentence from a government getting fat off American oil money. Even now, villagers report attacks from security guards if they get too vocal, while Shell claims villagers prevent them from making repairs to try to get more compensation money. Yeah right.

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

 
As stated above, the United States gets 40% of its oil from the Niger Delta right now, and Nigeria is now the third-largest American supplier nation, beating out Saudi Arabia. You should care about this. (Further reading, with incredible photos, here.)

The Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is definitely bad, but we need to stop drilling for oil everywhere and change the whole world to clean energy soon… not just the United States. So many reasons to do it, and this is just one more.

Caption: An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Above: Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi, via citisven

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.