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Illegal Mining, Logging and Coca Cultivation Are Ravaging Colombia’s National Parks

New peace deal with the country’s largest insurgent group, FARC, offers hope of a reprieve

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyColombia’s national parks were created as both a showcase for the country’s spectacular biodiversity and as a protected refuge for its delicate ecosystems. But in recent years, they have instead become a haven for criminal activities that are leaving a trail of environmental devastation.

Colombia is one of the world’s 17 most biodiverse countries. Due to the great variation in altitudes and climates within the country — from high mountains to pristine white sand beaches — this South American nation is home to many rich and varied ecosystems. Its 314 types of ecosystems host nearly 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Worldwide, it ranks first in bird and orchid species diversity and second in plants, butterflies, freshwater fishes, and amphibians.

Nowhere is this rich and complex array of life more evident than in its network of 59 national parks, which span snow-capped mountains of the Andes, the Amazon rainforests, coastal cloud forests, open savannas and the Caribbean islands. These parks hold within them archaeological treasures, uncontacted indigenous tribes, endangered flora and fauna, such as jaguars, cotton-topped tamarins, and spectacles bears, black cedar, and Colombian palm, and (perhaps unfortunately) a wealth of mineral resources.

Chingaza National Park in Colombia.Photo by Luis Alejandro Bernal RomeroFausto and Siecha-Mitov lagoons in Chingaza National Park, near Bogota. The South American nation, which has more than 300 varied ecosystems, holds nearly 10 percent of our planet's biodiversity.

However, the parks are also home to guerrilla insurgents and criminalized paramilitary groups that have been drawn to the wilds by the lucrative prospect of exploiting coca crops and cocaine production and illegal mining and logging. The invasion of these underworld networks has been accompanied by ecological destruction and contamination that threatens the future of some of Colombia’s most fragile protected areas.

“It is a confluence of illegal forces and groups that profit from these activities,” says Elsy de Alcalá, advisor to the leadership board of Parques Naturales Nacionales (PNN), the government body that oversees the country’s national parks. “These could be the most critical problems we face in our parks.”

The most visible of these criminal activities is the cultivation of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine. Eight percent of the coca grown in …more

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Oakland City Council Votes to Ban Coal Exports in Big Win for Local Advocates

Councilmembers cite strong concerns about public health and safety

The Oakland City Council took a strong stand against coal last night. Following a long and often emotional city council meeting — during which whistles and cheers were at times met with boos and yelling — the council passed an ordinance prohibiting the storage and handling of coal and petcoke at Oakland facilities, and a resolution that would specifically apply the ordinance to the Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), which is being built on the old Oakland Army Base.

Photo of Port of OaklandPhoto by Tony WebsterThe Oakland City Council voted 7-0 to ban coal storage and handling in Oakland.

The meeting drew hundreds of impassioned Oakland residents, including representatives from the labor, faith, environmental, and health communities, as well as the terminal developers. Those speaking against the terminal emphasized that West Oakland already suffers the effects of disproportionate air pollution. They argued that added particulate pollution tied to the coal export terminal could elevate the risk of health problems like asthma, cancer, and lung and heart disease.

Several speakers also pointed to climate change and it’s impact both globally and in Oakland. “There is strong evidence that if coal is not shipped from OBOT, it will not be shipped and combusted at all,” Linda Rudolph, director of the Climate Change and Public Health Project at the Public Health Institute, said, speaking to the city council prior to the vote. “If coal is shipped from OBOT, the greenhouse gas emissions from burning that coal will be greater than that from all five bay area oil refineries. It will contribute significantly to climate change and climate change is the defining health challenge of this century. It’s a serious threat to the health of Oakland residents.”

Those speaking on behalf of the project said that measures could be taken to mitigate the impacts from coal and emphasized the jobs associated with the terminal project. “[The terminal] will be the source of generational prosperity for many of the… un- and underemployed residents, and most important, it will be safe,” said Jerry Bridges, president and CEO of Terminal Logistics Solutions, which will operate OBOT. (Labor representatives, however, spoke out strongly against the use of the terminal for coal shipments, rejecting the idea that the issue is one of jobs versus community health or justice, and pointing …more

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Diablo Canyon Shutdown Proves People Power Can Defeat Nuclear Power

Plant’s closure follows more than half-a-century of sustained citizen action against nuclear energy in California

The story behind the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) announcement last week that it would close down the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant  is the culmination of a 60-year land conservation and appropriate energy debate between the utility company and the people of California. The point winner is the environmental community and grassroots activists who fought long and hard for the plant’s closure.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Units 1 and 2Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory CommissionThe closure of Diablo Canyon, the last operating nuclear plant in California, will effectively bring to an end the state’s more than half-a-century long, contentious relationship with nuclear power.

PG&E’s concession that it cannot afford to continue running the last operating nuclear plant in California, effectively brings to an end this state’s more than half-a-century long, contentious relationship with nuclear power.

Back in the 1950s the utility company hand sought to prove the economics of the emerging nuclear technology as “too cheap to meter” and received the first commercial nuclear power plant license in the United States. The company’s then president, Norman Sutherland, envisioned “atomic parks” along the California coast in Sonoma, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo counties to replace fossil fuels and hydro-power — an idea that was vociferously opposed by many Californians.

Conservationists, focused on protecting the California coast as open space, challenged the atomic parks as a threat to the environment. Fishermen feared the parks would lead to loss of fisheries. Dairy farmers worried about radiation impacting milk production. Thus, a diverse group of citizens came together and organized a campaign to get state and federal agencies to stop licensing nuclear plants. The debate expanded to concerns about the safety of nuclear power, the unresolved issue of waste disposal, and a desire for clean decentralized alternative energy generation. 

The Bodega Bay Atomic Park was stopped while under construction when an earthquake fault was discovered under the proposed location of the nuclear of the reactor. Bodega Head is now a state park. PG&E withdrew plans for atomic parks in other locations when faced with massive opposition and ever-recurring discoveries of earthquake faults adjacent to planned reactor sites. Diablo Canyon was the only large nuclear plant the utility finally constructed, though in the face of stiff opposition. A remarkable cast of characters …more

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High Levels of Toxins Found in Bodies of People Living Near Fracking Sites

Study first to show that harmful chemicals from natural gas operations are contaminating bodies of Pavillion, Wyoming residents

Many of the toxic chemicals escaping from fracking and natural gas processing sites and storage facilities may be present in much higher concentrations in the bodies of people living or working near such sites, new research has shown.

two women wearing gas masks in front of a natural gas operationPhoto by courtesy of Coming CleanThe study found traces of volatile organic compounds such as benzene and toluene are linked to chronic diseases like cancer and reproductive and developmental disorders.

In a first-of-its-kind study combining air-monitoring methods with new biomonitoring techniques, researchers detected volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from natural gas operations in Pavillion, Wyoming in the bodies of nearby residents at levels that were as much as 10 times that of the national averages.

Some of these VOCs such as benzene and toluene are linked to chronic diseases like cancer and reproductive and developmental disorders. Others are associated with respiratory problems, headaches, nosebleeds, and skin rashes.

“Many of those chemicals were present in the participants’ bodies at concentrations far exceeding background averages in the US population,” notes the study, titled “When the Wind Blows: Tracking Toxic Chemicals in Gas Fields and Impacted Communities,” which was released last week.

Some residents of Pavillion have for years been concerned about the rise in health issues that they suspected were connected to emissions from the gas production activities. This tiny town of less than 250 people has been at the center of the growing debate on fracking since 2008 when locals began complaining that their drinking water had acquired a foul taste and odor back in 2008.

In 2014, air monitoring data showed some toxic chemical emissions at oil and gas sites in Wyoming were up to 7,000 times the “safe” levels set by US federal environmental and health agencies. In March of this year, Stanford University researchers found evidence that fracking operations near Pavillion were contaminating the local groundwater.

Now this new study, conducted by researchers with the national environmental health organization Coming Clean, establishes clearly that at least some of these harmful chemicals are making their way into the bodies of nearby residents.

The study focused on measuring ambient levels of a specific family of VOCs named BTEX chemicals — which include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes — because these chemicals are …more

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Reformed Chemical Safety Law Doesn’t Eliminate Need for Public Vigilance

First update in 40 years to key law regulating chemicals in the US greeted with cautious optimism

At a White House ceremony yesterday, President Obama signed into law legislation updating the United States’ main chemical safety law for the first time in 40 years. The new law revises the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), which gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate the tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the US.

view of a child's legs and a plastic toy she's draggingPhoto by soikkoratamo/FlickrThe new Toxic Substances Control Act will not interfere with state-level chemical regulations or actions that were in place as of April 22, 2016, inclding laws in Massachusetts and New York state laws that have been instrumental in limiting hazardous chemicals in toys.

The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – as the new TSCA law is formally called to honor the late Senator Frank Lautenberg who championed its cause — was years in the making and is designed to enable the EPA to better protect Americans from exposure to hazardous chemicals – including many used in consumer products.

“So this is a really significant piece of business,” Obama said at the signing ceremony.

“Here in America, folks should have the confidence to know that the laundry detergent we buy isn’t going to make us sick, the mattresses our babies sleep on aren’t going to harm them.” He pointed out that the law would “make it easier for the EPA to review chemicals already on the market, as well as the new chemicals our scientists and our businesses design.”

Approved overwhelmingly by Congress and with bipartisan support, (there were only 12 nay votes – about half of those from Democrats who wanted a stronger bill) the bill is being welcomed by the chemical industry and environmental groups alike. While a number of environmental advocates are withholding full support — citing their wish for a bill more protective of public health — even they consider this an important step forward.

Yet questions remain about how effectively the EPA will actually be able to act under the reformed TSCA, particularly given the enormous number of chemicals already out there that lack safety data.

What the old TSCA didn’t do

When it was passed and signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald …more

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Paths that Connect

National trails enrich our relationship with national parks

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyOur collective love for National Parks — “America’s best idea” — has unfolded over many generations and touched millions of hearts. This summer’s centennial of the National Park Service has invited us all to look back with gratitude and to envision the next 100 years. Looking ahead, we should expand opportunities for everyone to have direct contact with our parks. With that in mind, we’d like to introduce a powerful idea — that linking our national parks and national trails can allow for an even deeper experience of our beloved public lands.

America’s trails elevate the experience of visiting our parks to something beyond just driving through a gate and taking in the views. Our parks contain countless special places that naturally evoke elation, awe, and solace in visitors. Trails are the fundamental medium to explore these places with intimacy, thus deepening our relationship with parks.

Pacific crest trailPhoto by Asaf antman/FlickrThe Pacific Crest Trail travels through six different national parks during its 2,650-mile journey from Mexico to the Canadian border. Whether it’s a thru-hiker’s multi-month sojourn or a day-hiker’s afternoon of peace, insight, and delight, trails connect us all to the land.

Our first 100 years with national parks was about building a vast inventory and establishing our collective affection for them. The next 100 years must be about expanding and deepening our relationship with national parks and all manner of public lands.

In 1917, the National Park Service’s first full year of operation, 101 million people lived in the United States. In that same year, national park visitors totaled less than half a million, or 0.45 percent of the country’s population. Our relationship to our parks unfolded slowly at first, but during the 20s and 30s a colorful courtship emerged. Aesthetic champions like Ansel Adams and the iconic illustrated posters of western parks, beckoned us to “See America”.

By World War II, the percentage of us visiting National Parks had increased over thirty-fold, reaching 15 percent of the national population. Our desire for national park experiences was but whetted.

For 40 consecutive years, national park visitation increased virtually uninterrupted. From 1946 to 1986, visitation swelled from 15 percent of the American population to 17 …more

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2015 Was Deadliest Year for Grassroots Environmental Defenders

185 killings, 40 percent of those murdered were from indigenous groups, says Global Witness report

I recently received an email alert that the life of Indigenous environmental and human rights defender Gloria Ushigua was at risk. The report outlined the “escalating intimidation of and harassment against” Ushigua, the coordinator of the Sápara women’s organization, Ashiñwaka, who has been defending her community’s land against against private and state-owned companies seeking to exploit oil deposits in Sápara territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Gloria UshiguaPhoto courtesy of Associacion LupunaAn outspoken opposer of oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Indigenous Sápara activist Gloria Ushigua's life is under extreme threat.

“On 31 May 2016, five men sat outside Gloria Ushigua's home throughout the night, in what appeared to be an act of intimidation against the human rights defender,” read the June 9 message from the watchdog group Frontline Defenders. “This follows another act of intimidation against her niece on 26 May 2016 and the killing of the human rights defender's sister-in-law, Anacleta Dahua Cují, on 2 May 2016.” The Dublin-based group that works to protect frontline activists at risk thinks that the real target for the murder was Ushigua and that the assailants killed Dahua Cují by mistake.

Ushigua, as we know, isn’t the only environmental activist whose life is on the line. Across the world, environmental activists defending their land, forests, and rivers against large dams, mining, logging, oil drilling, industrial agriculture, and other extractive industries are increasingly faced with the specter of death on a daily basis.

According to "On Dangerous Ground," a new report released by Global Witness yesterday, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for frontline environmental defenders. The watchdog group that exposes the economic drivers behind environmental destruction, documented 185 killings across 16 countries last year — a grim increase of nearly 60 percent from just a year earlier and an average death rate of more than three people per week.

The worst hit countries in 2015 were Brazil,with 50 murders, followed by the Philippines where 33 activists were killed, and Colombia, which witnessed 26 killings. Conflicts over mining were the number one cause of killings in 2015, with agribusiness, hydroelectric dams, and logging also key drivers of violence. 

More often than not the victims of this violence are grassroots activists and Indigenous leaders like Ushigua, who are fighting to save the only homes …more

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