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On Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt announced his picks for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee -- and they included the vice president of a company that has been responsible for multiple releases of radioactive plutonium dust. Michael Tilchin is presently vice president of CH2M Hill, a company that has been responsible for three releases of this dangerous substance, including a "catastrophic" incident in June where more than 300 workers were exposed and 31 workers tested positive for internal plutonium contamination.
KING-TV, the Seattle-based news station that has been investigating CH2M Hill's plutonium incidents, noted that plutonium dust emits alpha radiation, "the worst kind of radiation" which can lead to "lung cancer, liver cancer, and bone cancer."
This is part of a disturbing and dangerous trend started by Pruitt of hiring people or selecting advisers to the EPA who work for the industry they are tasked with regulating. Of the 59 EPA hires tracked by the Associated Press over the last year, about a third worked as registered lobbyists or lawyers for the chemical, fossil fuel or other industries.
In response, Liz Perera, Sierra Club's Public Health Policy Director, released the following statement:
"We can't leave important decisions about environmental justice to those who work for the companies and industries that have already proven to disregard the health and safety of their employees and the communities around them. We need people in these jobs who understand how to solve environmental justice crises, not those who have created them. Scott Pruitt's latest pick further solidifies that he doesn't care about the health and safety of the American people -- especially those most vulnerable to the air and water pollution his agency is tasked with cleaning up. All he cares about are polluter profits.
"It's a travesty that the EPA is turning it's back to the most vulnerable communities in our country who must endure the worst air pollution and its health effects while Pruitt cozy's up with corporate polluters and the companies that have already shown they don't care."
The Sierra Club is the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. We amplify the power of our 3.8 million members and supporters to defend everyone's right to a healthy world.(415) 977-5500
"If S. 474 is not blocked, South Carolinians will be robbed of the freedom to control their own lives, bodies, and futures," said Alexis McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood.
To stop Republican lawmakers in South Carolina from dealing a "catastrophic blow to abortion access across the South," reproductive healthcare providers on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the state to block the six-week abortion ban that went into effect immediately after Gov. Henry McMaster signed it.
The ban (S. 474) was passed Tuesday after five women in the state Senate—the only women in the body, including three Republicans, one Democrat, and one Independent—attempted to filibuster the legislation. They were unable to persuade two other Republicans to vote against the bill, which bans abortion before many people know they are pregnant.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic (PPSA) joined two healthcare providers and one clinic in the lawsuit; the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) are representing the plaintiffs.
The groups noted that S. 474 is "nearly identical" to another six-week ban that was struck down by the South Carolina Supreme Court earlier this year. The new ban contains limited exceptions for the life and health of the pregnant person and certain fetal abnormalities, and a provision under which survivors of rape and incest can ostensibly access care until 12 weeks of pregnancy, but only if their provider reports the assault and the patient's name to law enforcement.
The state Supreme Court ruled in January that an earlier six-week ban violated the right to privacy guaranteed by South Carolina's constitution.
\u201cMonths after the state Supreme Court declared a 6-week ban an unconstitutional violation of South Carolinians' rights, lawmakers thought they could enact another, more extreme ban.\n\nThey\u2019re wrong \u2014 and along with @PPSATSC and @ReproRights, we\u2019re taking them to court.\u201d— Planned Parenthood (@Planned Parenthood) 1684882327
"The South Carolina Supreme Court was clear—banning abortion after approximately six weeks was unconstitutional six months ago, and it’s still unconstitutional now," said Nancy Northrup, president and CEO of CRR. "South Carolinians' rights are once again being violated, but we will continue to fight back."
South Carolina's neighboring states, Georgia and North Carolina, have passed bans on abortion care at six weeks and 12 weeks, respectively, with North Carolina's law set to take effect on July 1.
Other states across the South have enacted total bans on abortion, including some that contain no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban earlier this year, but the law is under review by the state Supreme Court.
Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of PPFA, said that unless the South Carolina Supreme Court acts again, "people across the region who rely on this state for care will suffer."
"Today, we are asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to do its job and protect people's ability to seek basic healthcare, without political interference, by quickly blocking this cruel law," said Johnson. "If S. 474 is not blocked, South Carolinians will be robbed of the freedom to control their own lives, bodies, and futures."
The groups and providers are seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the law from taking effect as well as a judgment declaring the law unconstitutional.
"State lawmakers have once again trampled on our right to make private healthcare decisions, ignoring warnings from healthcare providers and precedent set by the state's highest court just a few months ago," said Jenny Black, president and CEO of PPSA. "We will always fight for our patients' ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and access the healthcare they need. We urge the court to take swift action to block this dangerous ban on abortion."
"By passing this bill, the House has signaled that Congress is entering a new carceral era."
With the support of more than 70 Democrats, the Republican-controlled U.S. House on Thursday passed legislation that would permanently classify fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs and impose mandatory-minimum prison sentences on people found guilty of distributing the substances—an approach that critics slammed as a return to "failed drug war strategies of the past."
"It's sad to see lawmakers revert to over-criminalization once again when we have 50 years of evidence that the war on drugs has been an abject failure," said Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch, one of nearly 160 advocacy groups that signed a letter earlier this week imploring Congress to reject the HALT Fentanyl Act.
The bill, led by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), nevertheless passed the House with bipartisan support, with 74 Democrats joining 215 Republicans in voting yes. Just one Republican—Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky—voted no along with 132 Democrats.
One of the bill's Democratic opponents, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), echoed civil rights groups during floor debate over the legislation, warning that the measure represents an attempt to "incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis."
"This war on drugs—mandatory sentencing, incarcerate everybody—has not worked," Pallone said. "It didn't work on other drugs."
The HALT Fentanyl Act aims to cement policy changes first enacted by the Trump administration, which temporarily classified fentanyl-related substances (FRS) as Schedule I drugs in 2018—a designation that lawmakers have since extended with the support of President Joe Biden, even as experts have emphasized that "not all fentanyl analogues are harmful."
Fentanyl itself is classified as a Schedule II drug, and it is sometimes used in medical settings to treat severe pain.
Schedule I drugs carry the most harsh prison sentences. Under current policy, as The Marshall Project's Beth Schwartzapfel has noted, "a five-year mandatory minimum is triggered by 40 grams of drugs laced with fentanyl, but if laced with a scheduled fentanyl analogue, only 10 grams of drugs will trigger that same sentence."
Despite his campaign pledge to end mandatory-minimum sentencing—a practice he helped usher into U.S. law as a senator—Biden has come out in support of the HALT Fentanyl Act, with the White House urging Congress to send the bill to his desk.
"If mandatory minimums and harsh sentences made communities safer, the overdose crisis would not have occurred."
To spotlight the dangers of mandatory minimums for FRS in particular, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently highlighted the case of Todd Coleman, who was "sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years for selling 30 grams of cocaine—about two tablespoons—because a local lab said that they were laced with three illegal fentanyl analogues."
"But none of the substances were illegal fentanyl analogues, and one was a substance called 'Benzyl Fentanyl' that the Drug Enforcement Administration has long known is not dangerous or illegal," the group wrote in a letter to House leaders last week.
While a judge ultimately resentenced Coleman, the Leadership Conference warned that "the HALT Fentanyl Act enshrines mandatory minimums for distribution of FRS under the Controlled Substances Act, which could criminalize inert or harmless substances" and unjustly entangle more people in the U.S. prison system.
Recent history shows that an incarceration-focused approach to the United States' overdose crisis is doomed to fail, the group stressed.
"Between 2015 and 2019, prosecutions for fentanyl-analogue offenses increased by more than 5,000%, with no corresponding decrease in the use of FRS or in overdose deaths," the group wrote in its letter to House leaders. "In 2019, 58.9% of those sentenced in fentanyl-analogue cases were Black. Any further extension of the classwide scheduling policy threatens to repeat past missteps with crack cocaine that policymakers are still working to rectify."
\u201cBREAKING: The House just passed #HR467.\n\nThis bill's provisions would exacerbate pretrial detention, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in the prison system, doubling down on a fear-based, enforcement-first response to a public health challenge. The Senate must reject it.\u201d— The Leadership Conference (@The Leadership Conference) 1685025266
"The federal prison population has been on the rise since the beginning of the Biden administration after seven years of decline," said Komar. "The passage of the HALT Fentanyl Act would deepen that trend by doubling down on failed drug policies that prioritize prisons over drug treatment and overwhelmingly harm Black and Brown communities."
"If mandatory minimums and harsh sentences made communities safer," Komar added, "the overdose crisis would not have occurred. We urge the Senate to reject this bill and all expansions of mandatory minimums and reverse this punitive trend."
Maritza Perez Medina, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, also urged the Senate to tank the bill, saying, "Our communities deserve real health solutions to the overdose crisis, not political grandstanding that is going to cost us more lives."
"Every single one of us has agency and a responsibility to take action, honor the treaties, and protect Mother Earth," asserted one Oneida Nation leader. "It is the time to be brave and courageous."
Native American women leaders and more than 150 allied advocacy groups from across the United States on Thursday implored the Biden administration to decommission a Canadian-owned oil and gas pipeline that, according to one group, has spilled more than a million gallons of fossil fuels in over 30 incidents during the past 55 years.
In a letter to President Joe Biden, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan, and other administration officials, leaders of the Indigenous Women's Treaty Alliance—which is facilitated by the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN)—called on the president to "immediately revoke the presidential permit for Canada's deteriorating Enbridge Line 5 pipeline before environmental calamity strikes with oil spills into the Great Lakes."
"We write to you as Indigenous grandmothers, mothers, aunties, daughters, sisters, and relatives. We are of the Great Lakes, where our sacred food manoomin (wild rice) grows on water," the letter states. "We hold a responsibility to protect our water, our ecosystems, and our cultural lifeways for the next seven generations."
\u201c\ud83d\udce2 Today, Indigenous Women's Treaty Alliance, WECAN & 150+ groups are sending an urgent message to @POTUS @JoeBiden to respect Indigenous rights, protect the Great Lakes, and #ShutDownLine5 before it is too late!\n\nLearn more \ud83d\udc49https://t.co/ifb6MwCdfa\u201d— WECAN, International (@WECAN, International) 1685020571
Manoomin "is fundamental to the physical, spiritual, and cultural survival of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa," the letter's signers explained. "Our sovereignty and treaty-protected rights to hunt, fish, and gather food and medicine are all at risk. Diverse fish populations spawn in the Bad River Watershed. These fish are economically and culturally vital to the Bad River Band, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the entire region."
Treaty rights and manoomin were at the center of Indigenous-led opposition to replacing Line 3, another Enbridge pipeline running from Canada through the Great Lakes region. Despite fierce resistance from Indigenous, climate, and environmental activists, the Biden administration declined to block Line 3's replacement, which went online in October 2021.
"An oil disaster would permanently devastate the exceptional ecology of the watershed, the wild rice, and fish populations," the new letter continued. "At the Bad River Reservation, recent flooding has eroded one riverbank to within 11 feet or less of Line 5's centerline, creating an immediate threat."
\u201cWe've filed final arguments with the Bay Mills Indian Community over the proposed Line 5 tunnel project. Enbridge wants to dig a pipeline tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. This untested project could lead to an explosion & oil in the Great Lakes. https://t.co/ngY5H38Jkc\u201d— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) 1684782060
Last September, U.S. District Judge William Conley found that Enbridge was trespassing on lands belonging to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northwestern Wisconsin, and profiting off Line 5 at the tribe's expense. However, Conley said earlier this month that since the tribe cannot prove that an "emergency" exists along the flooded riverbank, he is unlikely to order Enbridge to shut down the pipeline.
"This is a nearly 70-year-old pipeline running almost two decades past its engineered lifespan," the new letter stresses. "Erosion from receding waters or the next rainfall could cause a 'guillotine rupture'—a vertical break causing oil to gush from both sides, poisoning the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior."
As the Oil & Water Don't Mix coalition explained:
Nearly 23 million gallons of oil daily flow through two aging pipelines in the heart of the Great Lakes, just 1.5 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. Constructed during the Eisenhower administration in 1953, the two 20-inch-in-diameter [pipelines]... lie exposed at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac—a busy shipping channel...
Line 5 has spilled 33 times and at least 1.1 million gallons along its length since 1968.
The pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac cross one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world. The Great Lakes are home to 21% of the world's fresh surface water. The pristine straits area supports bountiful fisheries, provides drinking water to thousands of people, and anchors a thriving tourism industry with historic and beautiful Mackinac Island right in the center.
In November 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved to revoke Line 5's easement, with a shutdown order coming the following May. However, Enbridge ignored Whitmer's order and kept running the pipeline.
\u201c#Line5 is only a few yards away from causing catastrophe in #Wisconsin Bad River and @LakeSuperior. #ShutDownLine5 for the ecosystem and all who rely on it! https://t.co/C0GErPs3xB\u201d— Oil & Water Don't Mix (@Oil & Water Don't Mix) 1684358132
"Revoking the presidential permit and forcing Enbridge to cease Line 5's operations is consistent with your administration's directives for climate, nation-to-nation relations, and environmental justice. It is also consistent with the knowledge we share that the Great Lakes—one-fifth of the world's surface freshwater at a time of growing water scarcity—are invaluable treasures that must be protected, regardless of political pressures, special interests, and short-term profits," the new letter argues.
"Water is life," the signers added. "We are... calling on you to protect essential water, as well as wild rice, fisheries, and cultural survival."
Jannan J. Cornstalk, a citizen of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and director of the Water is Life Festival, said in a statement Thursday that "our very lifeways and cultures hang in the balance as Line 5 continues to operate illegally in Indigenous territories and water."
"These are our lifeways—when that water is healthy enough that rice is growing—that not only benefits our communities, but that benefits everybody up and downstream," Cornstalk added. "Allowing Line 5 to continue to operate is cultural genocide, and the Biden administration must listen and shut down Line 5. That water is our relative, and we will do whatever it takes to protect our water, our sacred relative."
\u201cStanding Up for Water, Land and Climate: Meet 10 Indigenous Women Fighting the Line 5 Pipeline - Ms. Magazine https://t.co/kOKlE6w5JM\u201d— Kelly Sheehan (@Kelly Sheehan) 1665619048
Aurora Conley of the Bad River Ojibwe and Anishinaabe Environmental Protection Alliance said: "I am calling on the Biden administration to shut down Line 5 immediately. Our territories and water are in imminent danger, and we do not want to see irreversible damage to our land, water, and wild rice."
"We do not want our lifeways destroyed," Conley added. "The Ojibwe people are here in Bad River because of the wild rice. A rupture from this oil spill will irreversibly harm the Great Lakes and wild rice beds. This is unacceptable. We will not stand for this. Shut down Line 5 now."
Carrie Chesnik of the Oneida Nation Wisconsin and founder of the Treaty Land Trust, asserted that "we have an opportunity here to shut down the Line 5 pipeline, and protect what we all hold dear."
"We all have the responsibility and agency to act in a good way, to care for the land and waters," she continued. "What our communities have known for a long time is that the water is hurting, Mother Earth is hurting, and pretty soon we won't have clean water for our kids, for future generations."
"As a Haudenosunee woman, an auntie, daughter, and sister, I have an inherent responsibility to the water and our children," Chesnik added. "Every single one of us has agency and a responsibility to take action, honor the treaties, and protect Mother Earth. It is the time to be brave and courageous."