Briefly

Stuff that matters


Mea Gulpa

This former official dodged jail time in the Flint water crisis, just has to write an apology letter.

A Michigan district court judge ordered that Corinne Miller, the former director of epidemiology at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, publicly apologize to the residents of Flint for withholding information about the presence of the Legionella bacteria, the microbe that causes Legionnaires’ disease, in the city’s drinking water.

After pleading no contest to a charge of neglect, Miller also got a year’s probation and 300 hours of community service — essentially a slap on the wrist. She is cooperating with special prosecutors pursuing cases against several former employees of the health department and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality for their role in Flint’s water crisis.

Twelve Flint residents were confirmed to have died in 2014 and 2015 from Legionnaires’ disease, an extreme type of pneumonia. But in January, statistics released by Genesee County, where Flint is located, appeared to confirm public health experts’ suspicions that the city’s water in fact caused additional pneumonia deaths.

Miller’s attorney argued against her having to make a public mea culpa, but Judge Jennifer J. Manley said the demand was “perfectly appropriate in this case.” Considering that even more people were sickened than previously believed, it’s the least she could do.


in the pie of the beholder

Apple pie may not be as American as you thought.

We’ve all heard the saying: “As American as apple pie and baseball.” But common wisdom has been wrong before — and it turns out the origins of both are pretty global.

Other cuisines speak to the imported nature of national favorites. For example, Indian curries wouldn’t be quite the same without chilies, which come from Central America. And Central American rice and beans obviously requires rice, which hails from Asia.

So how American is apple pie? Well, not very. Except in the sense that ingredients from all over the globe have combined into something greater than the sum of its parts — that might describe “American” just perfectly.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This New Yorker champions affordable housing.

If cities are the future of sustainability, they can’t only be green — they have to be livable, too. Enter Ritchie Torres, New York City’s youngest elected official, hell-bent on making the city more affordable for its most vulnerable inhabitants. Torres, who is Afro-Latino and the first openly LGBT politician from the Bronx, cut his political teeth as a tenant organizer. He ran for city council in 2013 at the behest of a mentor who saw potential in the self-described introvert — and won.

The young councilman’s driving issue is affordable housing, because, he says, “there can be no city without housing.” Torres grew up in Throggs Neck public housing directly across the street from Donald Trump’s golf course — as Torres puts it, with Trump’s shadow hanging “both literally and metaphorically over public housing.”

Torres is taking on the health, safety, and sustainability of public housing in New York from all angles: eliminating mold infestation, requiring more carbon-conservative building materials, and creating the first LGBT youth shelter in the Bronx.

For those young people who may feel inspired to seek political office themselves, Torres provides these words of encouragement: “The lesson from 2016 is that millennials are more powerful than we realize — it was the only ray of hope in an otherwise dark election year.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


Let them eat Trump steaks

Trump wants to slash money for food and farming.

The administration’s proposed $4.1 trillion budget cuts food stamps by 25 percent, which would boot some 10 million people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It also chops crop insurance subsidies by 36 percent while wringing 21 percent out of the Agriculture Department’s budget by getting rid of rural economic development and conservation programs.

After the release of the President Trump’s budget on Tuesday, a diverse array of urban and rural advocates, including Republicans, were united in opposition. Here’s a sampling of what they are saying:

The anti-poverty campaigner: “Cutting essential, effective anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and SNAP will exacerbate inequality, poverty and despair.” — Billy Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger.

The farmer’s group: “By shredding our farm safety net, slashing critical agricultural research and conservation initiatives, and hobbling our access to foreign markets, this budget is a blueprint for how to make already difficult times in rural America even worse.” — Ron Moore, American Soy Association president and a soybean farmer in Illinois.

The Senate power broker: “The proposed cuts to important farm and family safety net programs, including crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are harsh and short sighted.” — Debbie Stabenow, Democratic senator from Michigan, and the person you need to know to get any farm bill passed.

Add all this up and it means that this part of the budget has little chance of getting past Congress. Funding for food and farm programs has always brought together unusual bedfellows. In this partisan era, it’s a rare area of bipartisan agreement.


tripled threat

The sea is rising three times faster than we thought.

Global sea-level rise before 1990 was smaller than previously thought — which means all the sea-level rise we’ve observed since 1990 has been happening much faster than we knew, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The backstory: Before satellites, sea-level measurements were all over the map, literally — scientists used local tide gauges to tell how fast the sea was rising in that particular location. Problem is, those changes vary widely from place to place, which makes finding the global average very tricky.

The new research in PNAS reexamined these measurements and found that before 1990, the global sea-level rose about 0.42 inches per decade. Then from 1993 to 2012, global sea level started rising 1.22 inches every decade — triple speed.

Lead author Sonkë Dangendorf says the faster rate is likely due to new meltwater from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets plus the thermal expansion of the warming ocean itself.

Sea-level rise will likely continue to accelerate this century, Dangendorf told the Washington Post, but human actions (cough, Paris treaty, cough) still have a lot of power to determine how much, and how fast, it rises.


upset the agenda

Congress is not happy about Trump’s budget taking away environmental protections.

On Tuesday, Trump released his fleshed-out 2018 budget as expected. Democrat and Republican representatives were upset by the following cuts:

  • The Great Lakes program would be eliminated. According to Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, “In eliminating Great Lakes restoration funding, President Trump is threatening our state’s jobs, our livelihood, and our way of life.”
  • Crop insurance, which protects farmers in case of crop loss, would be cut 36 percent. Rep. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, called these cuts “misguided” and said that they “fail to address the biggest drivers of debt in our country.”
  • Many water-related programs would be eliminated, like rural water assistance and grants that clean up abandoned mines. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, said that Trump “wants to slash the basic programs that keep Texas drinking water clean, stop diseases from spreading, and care for vulnerable seniors.”
  • Several coastal funds face cuts or elimination, such as grants for projects like erosion management. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, called this a “deal breaker.”

One lawmaker, however, was excited about the 31 percent cut to the EPA: Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who led many attacks on EPA as head of the Environment and Public Works Committee. The EPA is “one of, if not the most, bloated federal agencies,” he said.


grist 50

Meet the fixer: This organizer is uniting millennials.

A lot of climate hawks spent late 2016 and early 2017 in reassessment or mourning. Meanwhile, Anthony Torres was busy channeling his fellow engaged millennials into direct action, including coordinated sit-ins at the offices of New York’s Chuck Schumer, the new Senate Minority Leader, and Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. The message: Do not play ball with the polluter-in-chief.

The son of a Nicaraguan immigrant father and a working-class New Yorker mother, Torres grew up with sea-level rise on his Long Island doorstep, and he understands how poverty, climate, and other social challenges are all knitted together. He’s proven especially adept at rallying peers to his side, both in an official capacity at the Sierra Club (where he helped coordinate communications and direct actions that aided in a defeat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and in extracurricular work with groups like #AllOfUs, a progressive collective aimed at organizing young people around threatened communities.

His advice on connecting different constituencies: “Activists need to create a story that is accessible to people who are not necessarily in our movements but who are in need of a bold and inspiring vision,” Torres says. “To me, it’s telling a story of America that intersects with race, gender, and class” and turning what might seem like differences into “a weapon in our arsenal that creates an America that never has happened before — a country for all of us.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.