Stuff that matters

Old Wounds

Courtesy of Hilda Lloréns

The fallout from Hurricane Maria is reigniting old conflicts in Puerto Rico.


First: Toxic coal ash, which was a problem on the territory well before Maria’s landfall. A coal-fired power plant in the southeastern city of Guayama produces 220 thousand tons of the stuff each year, which studies have linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart, and respiratory ailments.

Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board directed the plant, operated by multinational corporation Applied Energy Systems (AES), to cover its giant pile of coal ash prior to the storm. This weekend, PBS News reported that never happened.

Researchers and community members had worried that the heavy rainfall heightened the risk of coal ash toxins leaching into the soil and contaminating drinking water. Now, AES’ own groundwater monitoring report showed a sharp increase in the levels of arsenic, chromium, and two radioactive isotopes in groundwater near the plant after Hurricane Maria. Federal and local government have historically ignored this region of the island, experts told Grist shortly after the storm.

Second: Statehood! A disaster response nearly as chaotic as the storm itself has highlighted the real risks of the United States’ colonial relationship with the island.

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González plans to introduce a bill to the House this spring petitioning for Puerto Rico to become a state, the Washington Post reports.

“Ask yourself, if New Jersey or Connecticut had been without power for six months, what would have happened?” she asked, “This is about spotlighting inequities and helping Congress understand why we are treated differently.”

Big Bang

Stephen Maturen / Stringer / Getty Images

An oil refinery exploded in Wisconsin, forcing thousands to evacuate.

The Husky Energy refinery in the city of Superior was in the process of stopping operations for repairs on Thursday when a tank exploded, leading to a fire and huge plumes of smoke. After the initial blaze was put out, another punctured tank went up in flames. More than a dozen people were injured.

A state of emergency and a mandatory evacuation order were lifted Friday morning. Officials are still investigating what led to the explosions.

The incident comes as Minnesota deliberates over the construction of the embattled Enbridge Line 3 project, which would run from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. The Husky refinery already receives crude from Alberta and North Dakota via Enbridge pipelines, and it processes 50,000 barrels of oil each day.

Evacuations allegedly nearly interfered with criminal cases lodged against Wisconsin water protectors opposing Line 3, who were due to appear in court Friday. However, a court clerk in Douglas County told Grist that all court proceedings were held as normal.

The Husky refinery has run into trouble in the past. It was fined $21,000 in 2015 for violations related to emergency response and flammable liquids. It also paid almost $32,000 in penalties over the last five years for violating the Clean Air Act. On Friday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the air quality safe in Superior.

truth to power

Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Who asks Paul Ryan the tough climate question? The 7-year-old.

Midway through the House speaker’s weekly briefing on Thursday, a young voice from the audience piped up and asked Ryan, “The earth is warming up. What should we do?”

What was she doing there? It was Take Your Child to Work Day, so journalists brought their kids, some of whom grilled Ryan on gun control and the national debt. The global warming question came from the daughter of ClimateWire reporter Scott Waldman. Kids these days, taking action on climate!

Ryan’s response: Technology will save us. He says we have “clean” energy that’s “abundant” and “local,” like natural gas, and we need more incentives and smart techies to innovate further.

Sure, natural gas is cleaner than coal, emitting half as much carbon dioxide, but relying on natural gas won’t stop the planet from the dangerous prospect of warming 2 degrees Celsius. Plus, some estimates show the United States has only enough natural gas to last us 80-some years.

The surprising thing in all this is that Ryan didn’t outright deny climate change, and his response implies that we have to act on it. That’s a step up from his darker denier past saying that it’s not an issue worth addressing.

blame game

Pruitt blames everyone but himself for EPA controversies.

The EPA administrator has racked up more than 40 scandals and 10 federal investigations since he took office last February. Nonetheless, Scott Pruitt was smiling when he walked in to testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Thursday.

Prior to the hearing, the New York Times reported that Pruitt had a plan to deal with tough questions: Blame his staff instead.

He stuck to it. When New York Democratic Representative Paul Tonko confronted him about raises given to two aides without White House approval, Pruitt said, “I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing, or the PPO process not being respected.”

And Pruitt’s $43,000 soundproof phone booth? Again, not his fault. As Pruitt told California Democratic Representative Antonio Cárdenas: “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it, Congressman, I would have refused it.”

“That seems a bit odd,” Cárdenas commented. “If something happened in my office, especially to the degree of $43,000, I know about it before, during, and after.”

Democratic Representative from New Mexico Ben Ray Luján pointed out that Pruitt was repeatedly blaming others during the hearing. “Yes or no: Are you responsible for the many, many scandals plaguing the EPA?” he asked.

Pruitt dodged the question: “I’ve responded to many of those questions here today with facts and information.” When Luján pressed him futher, Pruitt replied, “That’s not a yes or no answer, congressman.”

Well … it wasn’t a “no.”


Henry Nicholls / Reuters

Justin Trudeau is under scrutiny over allegations that the Kinder Morgan pipeline approval was ‘rigged.’

An investigation by the Canadian media outlet National Observer found that a high-ranking federal official directed staff across five different departments to “give cabinet a legally-sound basis to say ‘yes’” to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Blowback was swift. On Wednesday, Trudeau faced blunt criticism in the House of Commons. “The whole fiasco of an approval process is looking more rigged than a Russian election,” said Nathan Cullen, member of Parliament from British Columbia — where opposition in the courts and in demonstrations have led to Kinder Morgan halting all non-essential spending on the flailing project.

Canada’s constitution stipulates that the government consult with First Nations on projects like Trans Mountain that would impact their land and water. If the allegations are true, the government may have merely paid lip service.

Trudeau is keeping his game face on, denying allegations of any wrongdoing in the pipeline process. “We actually added additional steps to make the process more rigorous,” he said in response.

New Democratic Party leaders Jagmeet Singh and Guy Caron issued a letter to Trudeau on Wednesday calling for the prime minister to release all documents connected to its review of the pipeline expansion. “These revelations throw into question the legitimacy of the government’s entire review,” Singh and Caron assert.

In an apparent attempt to make peace, Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna today proposed a joint scientific expert advisory panel and partnership with the B.C. government and indigenous peoples to address the risk of pipeline spills.

denial and error

Scott Pruitt’s week has been a real March Against Science.

The EPA chief met with forest industry leaders in Georgia on Monday and announced that in the eyes of the EPA, burning biomass — like trees — is now carbon neutral. At least when “used for energy production at stationary sources.” Science suggests otherwise.

Trees are renewable in the sense that you can burn them and grow more. Some science suggests that as a burned forest regrows, it might even suck up the carbon dioxide that a blaze releases.

But “renewable” doesn’t always mean “clean” or “carbon neutral.” Burning wood can actually release more carbon dioxide than burning coal, as Climate Central’s John Upton writes. And think about it: Wood goes up in flames quickly, while regrowing a forest could maybe take a hundred years — leaving that carbon dioxide in the air an awfully long time.

Pruitt’s anti-science rhetoric continued on Tuesday with the announcement of a new rule that would prevent the EPA policymakers from using scientific studies unless the raw data behind them is made public. That same day, Pruitt attended a meeting where climate deniers — but no reporters — were invited. He posed for a photo with Marc Morano, climate misinformation extraordinaire.

The rest of the week may be rough for the EPA chief. He’s got two congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday, and he’s expected to get grilled on ethics.

Yes oui can!

The French president gave America the climate change speech that Trump never will.

After a painfully awkward visit to the White House, Macron addressed Congress and emphasized the need to work together to safeguard the future of our planet.

“I believe in building a better future for our children, which requires offering them a planet that is still habitable in 25 years,” he says.

Macron is confident that “one day” the U.S. will recommit to the Paris climate agreement. After all, as he says in the address, “there is no Planet B.”

Sadly, Macron will return to his home of butter croissants and leave us here with a president who once said climate change was created by the Chinese. C’est la vie!

tried and protested

Activists head to court after shutting down pipelines. Their defense? Climate change.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that four anti-pipeline activists facing criminal charges have a legit case to argue the “necessity defense” in court. In 2016, two of them turned off valves for Enbridge oil pipelines that transport Canadian oil to the U.S.

The so-called “valve turners” will argue that climate change is such a daunting threat that taking illegal action — like trespassing — is necessary when there’s no other recourse. Sometimes, the logic goes, it may be more dangerous to follow the law than to disobey it.

The judge approved the valve turners’ request last year to invoke the necessity defense, but the prosecution fought back and appealed. That appeal was just dismissed. Next up, science will take the stand: Climate scientists and other experts will testify about the serious threat posed by global warming.

The necessity defense has worked for climate activists before. Last month, a Massachusetts judge ruled that 13 protesters were not responsible for civil disobedience after they were arrested for sitting in holes dug for a pipeline to block construction.

steak a claim

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

France declares that ‘vegan bacon’ is not a thing.

For decades, France has been fighting a fruitless battle to ban English loan words from the mother tongue. Now the country has turned its obsession with language purity to vegan products.

The parliament approved a ban last week on borrowing terminology from animal products to market foods not made of animals, like “vegetarian sausage” — apparently because they confuse shoppers into thinking that soy milk, for instance, is really milk milk.

“It is important to combat false claims,” tweeted National Assembly member Jean Baptiste-Moreau, who proposed the ban, in French. “Our products must be designated correctly: the terms of #cheese or #steak will be reserved for products of animal origin.”

Wait, meat-eaters have been accidentally buying vegan steak? If so, that would be a tiny win for climate-change action. Eating a plant-based diet is one of the most effective steps you can take to shrink your individual carbon footprint.

Moreau was inspired by a European Court of Justice ruling in 2017 that said soy and tofu products couldn’t be sold as milk or butter. European meat producers have been lobbying to ban animal-based terms from vegetarian meat alternatives for years.

They’ve got reason to be concerned. Germany is the world’s leader in cooking up new vegan food products, and France isn’t far behind. If companies refuse to comply with France’s new rule, they could be fined up to €300,000 ($370,000).