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Deadly Camp Fire sparks new lawsuit against California utility

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On Tuesday, about two dozen victims from the Northern California town of Paradise, which was destroyed in last week’s deadly Camp Fire, filed suit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co (PG&E) alleging that the company’s lax maintenance and “inexcusable behavior” contributed to the cause of the blaze.

“Most of [the victims] are aware of PG&E’s history of starting wildfires and trying to get away with it,” Mike Danko, a lawyer from one of the three law firms representing the wildfire victims, told Grist. “They want their voice to be heard.”

The victims of the fire who are now suing PG&E lost their homes and possessions, many barely escaping with their lives. The Camp Fire — the deadliest wildfire in California’s history — has already claimed the lives of at least 56 people, with 130 still missing as of Thursday morning.

PG&E and another major utility, Southern California Edison, reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines around the time the blazes started On top of that, just prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E began warning customers it might turn off power because of the high risk of wildfires. But the company ultimately decided to cancel the anti-fire measure, according to a press release:

“Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has determined that it will not proceed with plans today for a Public Safety Power Shutoff in portions of eight Northern California counties, as weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure,” reads the statement published November 8 — the same day the Camp Fire began.

The cause of the Camp Fire has yet to be determined — something PG&E officials are quick to point out. “Right now, our primary focus is on the communities, supporting first responders and getting our crews positioned and ready to respond when we get access so that we can safely restore gas and electricity to our customers,” the company said in a statement.

Danko calls PG&E’s comment “empty words.” This is not the first time the utility has been accused of being responsible for a major wildfire. In 2017, Cal Fire concluded that PG&E broke safety laws — namely, poor maintenance of trees along power lines — which led to a wildfire that took the lives of 22 people.

The new suit cites 18 separate fires and explosions caused by PG&E infrastructure since 1991, including a 2010 explosion at a PG&E natural gas pipeline that killed eight people and led to a fine to the tune of $1.6 billion from state regulators and a felony conviction issued by a jury in federal court.

If PG&E is found liable for the Camp Fire, the company’s payout could exceed its insurance coverage. This could spell financial trouble, not only for PG&E but for California customers. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to help PG&E cope with the fire-related costs of 2017’s wildfires by allowing the utility to pass on some of those costs on to their customers — including those who lost their homes to the wildfires.

The bill was met with swift opposition by consumer advocates who saw the bill as a bailout for a company with a damming record of lax safety oversights. “We don’t think this is safety for Main Street — we think this is safety for Wall Street,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for The Utility Reform Network consumer group. “We urged the Legislature to do something that would protect consumers and residents, but this wasn’t it.”

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Deadly Camp Fire sparks new lawsuit against California utility

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Storytelling with Data – Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic


Storytelling with Data

A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

Genre: Mathematics

Price: $25.99

Publish Date: October 7, 2015

Publisher: Wiley

Seller: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Don't simply show your data—tell a story with it! Storytelling with Data teaches you the fundamentals of data visualization and how to communicate effectively with data. You'll discover the power of storytelling and the way to make data a pivotal point in your story. The lessons in this illuminative text are grounded in theory, but made accessible through numerous real-world examples—ready for immediate application to your next graph or presentation. Storytelling is not an inherent skill, especially when it comes to data visualization, and the tools at our disposal don't make it any easier. This book demonstrates how to go beyond conventional tools to reach the root of your data, and how to use your data to create an engaging, informative, compelling story. Specifically, you'll learn how to: Understand the importance of context and audience Determine the appropriate type of graph for your situation Recognize and eliminate the clutter clouding your information Direct your audience's attention to the most important parts of your data Think like a designer and utilize concepts of design in data visualization Leverage the power of storytelling to help your message resonate with your audience Together, the lessons in this book will help you turn your data into high impact visual stories that stick with your audience. Rid your world of ineffective graphs, one exploding 3D pie chart at a time. There is a story in your data— Storytelling with Data will give you the skills and power to tell it!

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Storytelling with Data – Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

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The Puerto Rican diaspora gets ready to flex its political power

It has been one year since Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico and one week since President Trump denied official reports that the storm took nearly 3,000 lives. To honor those lives and demand accountability for failures in the federal response to the storm, thousands are expected to march on the White House, Trump Tower, and Mar-a-Lago today.

“From the day Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, President Trump has shown a level of of indifference and callousness towards the people of Puerto Rico that is nothing short of reprehensible,” José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, said in a statement announcing nationwide actions. “It is time for our elected officials to feel the brunt of our outrage and let it be known that we will remember in November whether they stood with us or not.”

A coalition of civil rights, faith-based, labor, and advocacy groups have called for a national week of action that they’re calling “Boricuas Remember.” They are leading mass vigils and marches in D.C., Florida, and New York today, as well as other events across the country through the 22.

In a separate but coinciding effort at New York’s Union Square this evening, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Yampierre, and Naomi Klein will join other big names, grassroots leaders, and artists who are calling for community-led solutions and a just transition away from fossil fuels.

Protest organizers say that policymakers can expect the thousands hitting the streets today to also march to ballot boxes during this year’s elections. Since Hurricane Maria, at least 135,000 people have moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland U.S. and could make a major impact now that they’re eligible to vote in congressional and presidential elections.

At the end of August, the “Respeta Mi Gente” coalition launched in Central Florida to activate Puerto Rican voters and center their priorities during 2018 midterm elections in the swing state. Frederick Velez, the campaign director for Respeta Mi Gente, says disaster resiliency is a top priority. “No. 1 is, how can we use the power of the million Puerto Ricans in Florida to affect congressional legislation so that we can get a good recovery and rebuild in Puerto Rico?” says Velez, adding that it’s important to not only repair the infrastructure but to ensure that the territory is prepared for another disaster.

Former New York City council speaker and campaign director of Power 4 Puerto Rico Melissa Mark-Viverito says the Puerto Rican community is geared up to shape policy across the country. “If we are decisive in these elections,” says Viverito, who is speaking at a vigil in New York today, then, “what comes with political muscle is political leverage.”

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Conservation 101 for City Dwellers

As a born and raised city dweller, I tend to jump at opportunities that allow me to experience the great outdoors ? in all its glory. Connecting with nature has always been an important part of my life, from simple walks in the park to hiking adventures in the forest.

For many urbanites, just being outdoors alone, as described above, is connecting with nature. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The best way to connect with nature is to build a relationship with the environment, which starts with the conservation of our natural spaces and the species they support. Participating in conservation work not only helps the environment, it helps us understand the complexity of ecosystems and their importance to us. This allows us to better connect with nature. We have a responsibility to ensure that nature is conserved here at home. And through conservation, we not only recognize the natural value of other species, we become an ambassador for all things nature.

Conservation for urbanites is two-fold: living in a sustainable manner and protecting the natural environment. These are both distinct but important parts that make up conservation.

To begin your conservation journey, try starting small and working your way up. No matter the size of the act, if you perform stewardship work for nature, nature will reap the benefits. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing your contribution to the big picture of conservation.

So ask yourself this: What can I do to help the natural world within my community and neighbourhood?

Minimizing Your Ecological Footprint

A good and practical starting place is working with the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Although simple, don?t underestimate the power of this trio. It is best to first reduce and reuse and then, if necessary, recycle. This is because recycling requires energy to disassemble an item and reproduce a product from the dismantled pieces.

Reducing can come in the form of opting for electronic bills to reduce paper use and minimizing excessive energy use through energy-saving light bulbs. You can also buy fewer clothes and wear the clothing in your closet more often before sending them off to a charity or second-hand store. When you shop, reduce your use of plastic bags by bringing reusable bags with you. The options for reducing, reusing and recycling are limitless.

In addition to growing native plants in our yards, there are other steps we can take to help protect nature. You can take further action to protect local biodiversity by avoiding the use of pesticides. Pesticides are harmful to small bugs and insects. As much as possible, we should be conserving wildlife and remembering that each species has a role within an ecosystem, regardless of its size. For example, choose natural insect repellents.

The underlying principle in minimizing your ecological footprint is incorporating sustainability into our everyday practices. Purchase reusable or ?green? products, products with little to no packaging or packaging that can easily be reused or recycled. Think durable, not disposable. Make it a habit to actively reduce, reuse and recycle. These small-scale efforts have long-term benefits.

Hands-On Stewardship for Nature

With our increasingly urbanized world, it is important to conserve habitat for the wildlife that live there. In your own backyard, try gardening and landscaping with native plants, which is a great way to help restore and maintain biodiversity within a local ecosystem. Native species provide habitat and food for many wildlife species, particularly pollinators. Before you begin, thoroughly investigate which species in your area are native.

Consider getting involved with a citizen science project. These are projects that enlist everyday people to work alongside professional scientists by volunteering their time for a research project, such as monitoring species or engaging in biological inventories (bioblitzes) of an area. Not only is this a great way to learn more about nature, but you are helping gather critical information that helps scientists understand changes in landscapes and guides future stewardship efforts. Something as simple as taking pictures of wildlife and uploading to sites such as iNaturalist, a site filled with thousands of observations made by people around the world and that helps scientists understand where and when species occur, are helpful to nature conservation.

Volunteering for nature is perhaps one of the best ways to support and further conservation work. Many cities and nature-based organizations offer opportunities to get involved, such as participating in tree plantings or cleaning up local parks.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada offers many Conservation Volunteers (CV) events throughout the year to engage Canadians in the protection of natural habitats and the species they sustain. Find a CV event and sign up today!

While getting outdoors can sometimes be tough, we should also remember that we have the power to spread the message of nature conservation through word of mouth and social media. In doing so, we acknowledge, support and advance the need for conservation ? a need and responsibility each of us has in protecting nature. It is important that we take action now for the future, because as American civil rights leader John Lewis said, ?If not us, then who? If not now, then when??

The Conservation Internship Program is funded in part by the Government of Canada?s Summer Work Experience program. This post was written by Veshani Sewlall and originally appeared on the Nature Conservancy of Canada?s blog, Land Lines.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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When Trump tries to bring back coal, these communities pay the price

Christina Zacny has a rare immunological condition, mast cell activation syndrome. “I’m literally allergic to almost everything,” she says. Her symptoms became more severe four years ago when she began going into anaphylactic shock, at one point going into shock thirty times within 3 months.

Zacny grew up down the street from a coal-fired power plant in Wheatfield, Indiana and still lives nearby. She says her doctor suspects that the polluted air and water that has surrounded Zacny for most of her life has exacerbated her disorder. She wears a mask when when the air quality is bad and worries about groundwater contamination from the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station’s coal ash.

So when the Trump administration unveiled its plan to deregulate coal emissions earlier this week, Zacny was stunned. She works evenings at the nearby Blue Chip Casino, and was woken up one morning by an urgent phone call from a friend. “They said you have to go look at the news rights now, you’re not going to believe what just happened,” she recalls. “I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awful.’”

This spring, groundwater near the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station plant was found to be contaminated with toxic substances.

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its proposed replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan earlier this week. It’s the Trump administration’s latest attempt to resurrect the ailing coal industry. According to a side-by-side comparison of policies by the EPA, the Obama-era rules “shut down coal” while Trump’s plan “keeps coal plants open.”

Critics of the proposed Clean Power Plan replacement, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, are both skeptical and outraged. Coal-fired power plants are in steady decline, a trend that will likely continue as natural gas and renewables become cheaper energy options. But while the proposal won’t be enough to hearken a coal comeback, it does extend a lifeline to the remaining coal plants that don’t meet Obama-era emissions standards. And that’s life-threatening for the communities closest to coal plants, like Wheatfield.

Earlier this year, groundwater near the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station plant tested positive for toxic substances and two known carcinogens, radium and arsenic. To Zacny, that’s not a coincidence. She lost her father and grandfather to cancer, and several uncles and cousins have had cancer, too.

“I don’t want to lose anyone else,” Zacny says. “I have children that grew up in this area drinking the well water. I want to see my children and family live long lives.”

For now, two of the plant’s four coal-fired generators are slated to shut down in 2023 as part of the utility’s efforts to shift to cleaner energy. Although the utility has said that it plans to stay on track, it’s in the process of reviewing the policy changes announced this week.

Since 2010, some 270 coal plants have shut down, or are planning their retirements, according to the Sierra Club. That’s more than the number of coal plants still open. The organization estimates that shutting these plants down has saved more than 7,000 lives and $3.4 billion in healthcare costs.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan called for a 32 percent drop of carbon emissions below 2005 levels from the electric sector by the year 2030. Despite legal challenges that have kept the Clean Power Plan from being enforced, we’re actually close to hitting that goal — emissions are down nearly 30 percent since 2005.

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, says that the United States is within a year or two of meeting the targets of the Clean Power Plan. “We have continued to make steady progress in spite of all the chaos created by Trump.”

That’s the good news. The bad is that Trump’s plan, by the EPA’s own estimates, will lead to as many as 1,400 more premature deaths each year. That’s because the new plan rolls back federal oversight and allows states to lay out their own rules for regulating power plants.

“They’re handing off the responsibility for this important program to the states which have in the past already shown that they’re not capable of controlling air pollution, especially pollutants that travel in an interstate manner,” says George Thurston, population health director at NYU School of Medicine’s Human Exposures and Health Effects program. “You need a national coordinated effort.”

And if the 27 states that sued to keep the Clean Power Plan from being enforced choose to relax pollution rules, it will be easier for dirty plants that would have shut down to carry on. Thurston says the people who live closest to these power plants, like Zacny, will wind up paying the price with their health.

In 2012, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the NAACP, and Chicago-based environmental justice organization, LVEJO, published a report that looked at who lives near coal plants across the country. Of those who live within 3 miles of a coal plant, almost 40 percent are people of color and the average person made $18,400 a year. Kandi Mossett, a lead organizer from North Dakota for the Indigenous Environmental Network (and a member of the Grist 50 class of 2016), says that her community has suffered health problems ranging from asthma to cancer as a result of contamination from coal. Now she fears they’ll have to face another battle with the coal industry on top of their efforts to stop fracking for oil.

“In more recent years we’ve been dealing with emissions from fracking as well, and we were hoping to breathe a sigh of relief, if not fresh air, as coal plants were hopefully being phased out,” Mossett said. “Instead, we’re dealing with the nightmare of the fossil-fuel-controlled state potentially being able to regulate itself.”

Handing over power to the states, however, could encourage some to push for stronger emissions standards and carbon dioxide reduction goals. Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, expects to see states that have embraced clean energy to step up. California and Vermont are leaders when it comes to clean energy momentum, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That is extraordinarily important when we have a lack of national leadership,” she says.

Photo credit: Christina Zacny for State Representative

Zacny, a mother of four, is running for Indiana House of Representatives. Her platform focuses on making sure that others like her who live with chronic illnesses have access to healthcare. She would also like to see the Schahfer plant turned into a solar and wind farm, and she’s pushing to legalize industrial hemp that she says can be used to clean up contaminated sites.

“These are long lasting implications that the community is going to have from this [coal plant],” says Zacny. “Whether we transition over to renewable energy or not we still have cancer here.”

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When Trump tries to bring back coal, these communities pay the price

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Trump’s power plan proposal is “about coal at all costs”

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When President Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan in the East Room of the White House three years ago, he called it “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change.” Today, that plan, which would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 19 percent in 2030 relative to 2005 levels, will be replaced by the Trump administration’s “Affordable Clean Energy” proposal, which will give states more authority to craft regulations for coal-burning power plants and replaces the “overly prescriptive and burdensome” requirements in the CPP with what they describe as “on-site, heat-rate efficiency improvements.”

These regulations are expected to only decrease CO2 levels by a fraction of the amount that were anticipated under Obama’s plan. The Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged this will lead to hundreds of more deaths each year, along with sharp increases in the number of hospital admissions, lost work days, and school absences because of the health impacts of dirtier air. Not to mention the fact that increased emissions of carbon dioxide will further accelerate global warming.

“The ACE Rule would restore the rule of law and empower states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans,” said EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. Wheeler and EPA air pollution chief Bill Wehrum are both former lobbyists for coal-producing companies that benefit from the agency’s new rule.

The Clean Power Plan faced powerful opposition from nearly the moment it was signed. Several coal-producing states, including Texas and West Virginia, led a group of industry stakeholders to ask the Supreme Court to stay the CPP in January 2016 pending an appeals court’s ruling. The Court agreed to temporarily block the plan and it has been suspended ever since.

Republicans, state environmental officials, and fossil fuel industry titans have urged the Trump administration to replace the Clean Power Plan for the past several months, citing its costs and dubious legality under the Clean Air Act. All 11 Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee wrote to former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in January asking him to eliminate the rule. “Not only is the CPP bad policy, it is unlawful,” they wrote. “Congress did not give EPA the authority to transform our energy sector.”

Former agency officials blasted the proposal in a call with reporters hours before the EPA unveiled ACE. Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator who developed the CPP under Obama, called its replacement “galling and appalling.”

“This is all about coal at all costs,” she said. “They are continuing to play to their base and following industry’s playbook step by step.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont and a member of the Environment and Public Works committee, tweeted after the announcement, “Trump is actively destroying the planet in order to enrich his billionaire friends in the fossil fuel industry. We must fight back.”

The savings highlighted in Trump’s proposal — $400 million in annual net benefits with a reduction in CO2 emissions of up to 1.5 percent by 2030 — include a severe human cost, which the agency mentions in the fine print of its 289-page impact analysis.

Because of an increase in a tiny air pollutant known as PM 2.5, which contributes to smog and is linked to asthma and heart disease, the EPA predicts between 470 to 1,400 more deaths and thousands more lost days of school. Depending on how aggressively states make efficiency standards for individual power plants, those numbers could decrease.

“The Clean Power Plan would have reduced particle pollution along with the CO2 benefits by 25 percent by 2030. And we know reduction in particle exposure means saved lives,” said Janet McCabe, the former head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. The EPA deferred a request for comment on former agency officials’ criticism of the Trump plan to an agency press release about the proposal.

The United States’ level of CO2 emissions actually decreased in 2017, but experts fear that a weakened regulatory scheme with decentralized goals could hike up rates of pollution nationwide. “Environmental regulation in many cases is one of the leading causes of the decline in emissions that we observed over the past twenty years,” said Reed Walker, an associate professor at UC Berkeley who co-authored a recent study that found regulation to be a key factor in reducing emissions in the manufacturing sector, even with increasing output. Under Wheeler and former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the federal government has started the process of rolling back at least 76 environmental regulations, according to the New York Times. Many of these rules include protections to wildlife habitats and restrictions aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump, who will celebrate the Affordable Clean Energy proposal at a rally in West Virginia, has propped up coal miners with several regulatory decisions. In June, he ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to bail out struggling coal-fueled power plants and, last month, the EPA finalized a rule that relaxes the requirements for storing toxic coal ash. He also announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

Once the Trump administration’s proposal is formally published, members of the public will have 60 days to comment on it. The EPA also plans to hold a formal hearing.


Trump’s power plan proposal is “about coal at all costs”

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What does Puerto Rico’s utility privatization mean for solar?

It’s official: Puerto Rico’s beleaguered, bankrupt, and possibly corrupt power utility is being privatized. The U.S. territory was battered by Hurricane Maria nine months ago, and many homes remain without power amid a deeply flawed recovery effort.

Puerto Rico gets an enormous percentage of its electricity from fossil fuels. In 2016, the territory pulled just 2 percent of its power from renewables and a whopping 98 percent from fossil fuels. These fuels have to be imported, since Puerto Rico has no on-island sources for coal, petroleum, or natural gas, which raises their cost considerably.

It seems like the perfect opportunity to rebuild with cleaner sources of power. And after the storm, communities and companies stepped in with solar arrays and even a solar microgrid. So, what does privatization mean for the territory’s burgeoning installments of solar energy?

Selling the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) could be beneficial for solar, says Masaō Ashtine, who researches energy systems in the Caribbean. The change “will give more power to the industry to plan for renewable energy,” Ashtine says. Privatization could remove the red tape associated with public utility companies, he argues, and thus streamline the energy delivery process.

But others say that it has the potential to make things worse. PREPA’s workers’ union has protested that privatization will likely lead to higher energy prices with few improved services. Puerto Rican customers already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country and experience an enormous number of service outages.

And, with more influence and control, the industry could leave some of the most promising community energy projects behind. “There’s no talk of community solar in the privatization bill,” says Frederico de Jesus, an affiliate of the advocacy coalition Power4PuertoRico. “They’re putting all their faith in the private companies.”

Arturo Massol-Deyá, the director of community organization at solar hub Casa Pueblo, is doubtful that the newly privatized utility will engage with community groups or with citizens more broadly. “Decisions by PREPA have been made with limited participation of the public, and I think with privatization that’s going to get worse,” he says.

The new bill also weakens the role of Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission, which for the past four years has served as a check on PREPA’s profligate spending and poor management. Without an independent regulatory board like the commission, de Jesus told me, Puerto Ricans face an uncertain future — both in terms of energy pricing and the future of renewables.

But advocates say they will continue to push forward with microgrids and renewables, with or without government support. Although Puerto Rico officials have proposed modest energy goals — 20 percent renewables by 2035 — recent projections from researchers at University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez say that the island has enough solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower potential to generate 200 percent of its needed electricity. And solar is on the front lines.

“Privatization is almost a false choice,” says de Jesus. “There can be a public monopoly or private monopoly. But a decentralized system with microgrids would do a lot to solve these problems.”

Massol-Deyá agrees. Casa Pueblo, he points out, has been running on solar since 1999, and an increasing number of businesses and other community centers are following suit. “Whether it’s in public or private hands, we need to move away from fossil fuel dependency,” he argues. “It’s a matter of changing our obsolete energy system.”

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What does Puerto Rico’s utility privatization mean for solar?

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Losing Justice Kennedy puts fundamental environmental protections in peril

In a letter hand-delivered to President Trump on Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement after 30 years on the Supreme Court.

Trump has already hinted at a list of potential replacements — all of whom are likely to side with the court’s now clear conservative majority. Kennedy has been the swing vote for decades. And without his moderating influence, advocates of the environment will face a steep challenge in winning over a majority of the justices.

With time quickly running out before the world locks in dangerous levels of climate change, that’s a frightening proposition. A more conservative-leaning court could make broad modifications to U.S. law that could last for decades. With environmental protections weakened, future presidents who want to take action on climate will have a much tougher time making lasting policy decisions.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that, when it comes to climate change and environmental protection, the next Supreme Court justice’s opinions will have consequences that are planetary in scope.

Since the implications of a solidly conservative Supreme Court are so far-reaching, Grist reached out to several environmental law experts to learn which specific rulings and regulations could be most at risk. Responses were lightly edited for clarity.

Massachusetts vs. EPA: Gives the government authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants.

Justice Kennedy was in the majority on Massachusetts v. EPA. It would be quite something if a new court, by a 5-4 decision, opted to reverse such recent precedent. But given what we have seen in the last few days [from the Supreme Court], it’s not impossible to see it happening.

—Michael Burger, Columbia University Law School

The Clean Air Act and climate protections are most at risk. Kennedy was the deciding vote on Massachusetts v. EPA, which reaffirmed the Clean Air Act as the most important mechanism for regulating greenhouse pollution economy-wide. We’re one vote away from losing fundamental protections for our climate.

—Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity

“Waters of the United States” Rule: Provides protection to some wetlands.

The Trump Administration’s proposal to rescind the Obama-era Waters of the United States Rule — which would curtail the federal government’s authority to limit pollution in wetlands and other smaller bodies of water under the Clean Water Act — may well ultimately end up before the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy’s replacement will influence how we protect our air and water, as well as how we respond to climate change, for generations to come.

—Augusta Wilson, Climate Science Legal Defense Fund

Clean Power Plan: Limits greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

I’m particularly concerned about the regulations that the Trump administration will introduce to replace Obama-era climate protections — for example the replacement to the Clean Power Plan. The administration will no doubt be gutting some of these rules and potentially violating statutory mandates in the process. It’s much more likely that the Supreme Court will uphold the replacement rules with another Trump nominee replacing Kennedy.

—Jessica Wentz, Columbia University Law School

​There is a good chance that the new justice will go along with the other conservative justices in narrowly reading the regulatory authority that statutes like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act give to EPA and other federal agencies. This could be bad news if the next President tries to revive something like the Clean Power Plan, which was widely portrayed as pushing the envelope of EPA’s authority — an issue the courts still haven’t decided.

—Michael B. Gerrard, Columbia University Law School

Standing: Allows plaintiffs to bring environmental grievances to court more often.

My main concern is how the newly configured court will interpret environmental groups’ standing to sue to enforce federal laws. Justice Kennedy had a nuanced take on standing, and it is likely that Trump’s nominees will have a more blunt approach, one that seeks to significantly curtail the ability of these groups to get into court.


The future for environmental laws or standards:

Litigation is often the only option for those seeking to protect air and water and ensure public input on the value of sensitive ecosystems, endangered species, other wildlife species, and for those wanting to preserve important national landscapes. My general thought is that Kennedy was the last bulwark of reasonableness against the Trump Administration’s environmental onslaught. Every environmental lawyer I know is incredibly fearful of what this retirement will mean for the future of environmental protection in the United States.

—Hillary Hoffmann, Vermont Law School

I think just about any environmental rule that makes its way to the Supreme Court after Kennedy’s successor is appointed will be in jeopardy. We already have four hyper-conservative justices who tend to vote along ideological/party lines — and antipathy towards regulation, particularly environmental regulation, is a core part of that ideology. I have no doubt that Trump will nominate another conservative justice who shares his anti-regulation agenda. Through this justice, Trump will be able to continue advancing his deregulatory agenda for years after he his presidency ends.


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Losing Justice Kennedy puts fundamental environmental protections in peril

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Here’s how many people Pruitt’s environmental policies could kill

If the Trump administration is good at anything, it’s proposing rollbacks to environmental protections. “Proposing” is the key word here — though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has tried to weaken or get rid of more than 40 rules, he hasn’t been very successful. Many of his attempted rollbacks have faced challenges in court.

If all these deregulations actually came to pass, we’d see astounding effects on public health: an additional 80,000 deaths and well over a million cases of respiratory illness over the next decade. And that’s an “extremely conservative” estimate, according to Harvard professors who tabulated the numbers in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week.

We’ve seen estimates of the health impact of environment rollbacks before, but here, the numbers have been collected in one place. The researchers lifted most of the estimates from reports published back when these life-saving regulations were originally proposed or implemented.

Air pollution could introduce some of the most threatening health problems. Back in October, Pruitt pledged to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule that aimed to cut the power industry’s emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Without that plan, the researchers foresee a rise in exposure to particulate matter, resulting in 36,000 deaths and 630,000 childhood respiratory illness cases over the next 10 years.

Another major contributor to breathing issues: Pruitt’s plan to revive a loophole that would allow diesel trucks to use engines that create 450 times more soot than their newer counterparts. If implemented, that could lead to an estimated 900,000 cases of respiratory illness over the next decade, as well as 41,000 premature deaths.

Other rollbacks that pose major health threats include watering down rules for coal-fired power plant waste and adding a two-year delay to the implementation of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule.

So, about that hope we mentioned. The courts have the chance to keep many of these rules — and these lives — intact. While Pruitt is seen as a master deregulator, he’s been faulted for crafting sloppy rules, some of which have gotten struck down. For example, when Pruitt tried to keep methane regulations from going into effect, a federal appeals court struck it down, calling the move “unreasonable” and “arbitrary.”

And more of his attempts are headed to court. Just this week, for instance, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the suspension of water regulations.

The Harvard authors note that this kind of policymaking takes a lot of time to come to fruition. “Fortunately for those interested in public health,” they write, “the regulatory process will take many years. Whoever is sworn in as President in January 2021 will have a large effect on whether the Trump administration’s full environmental agenda goes into effect.”

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Here’s how many people Pruitt’s environmental policies could kill

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The lessons FEMA says it learned from Hurricane Maria

It’s been nine months since Maria devastated Puerto Rico. After more than $90 billion in damage and an astronomical death toll, there are strong criticisms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the storm.

A planning document revealed that before Maria, FEMA underestimated the role that federal authorities would need to play if a catastrophic hurricane hit the island. As a result, the agency relied heavily on strapped local resources in a territory beset for years by an economic crisis.

“We must hold the federal government accountable for their response to the communities they are responsible to serve,” Hispanic Federation Senior Vice President Frankie Miranda said on a recent call hosted by the Power 4 Puerto Rico Coalition. “What we know from the groups working on the ground is that the federal response was uncoordinated, ineffective and, in many cases, even criminal.”

Now, as hurricane season kicks off again, there are deep fears about what will happen if another big one hits. And in an audio recording of a private meeting between President Trump and FEMA obtained by the Washington Post, the president’s conversation on everything from aircraft carriers to “clean coal” seemed to indicate that his priorities are far from Puerto Rico and how to protect Americans from this year’s hurricanes.

In an email to Grist, FEMA acknowledged that the agency can do better. The storms of 2017, a spokesperson wrote, illustrate that there’s much to be done “across the country at all levels of government” to prepare the U.S. for future hurricanes.

FEMA sent Grist some of its “lessons learned” from Hurricane Maria. We asked experts in emergency management and on Puerto Rico to weigh in on the priorities the agency outlined.

Engaging the community in public health

According to a death toll released by Harvard researchers last week, Hurricane Maria may have been one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history — with up to 5,740 people perishing in the storm and its aftermath. The study found that one of the culprits behind such an astronomically high number of fatalities was lack of access to medical care — like breathing machines, which failed when electricity was lost.

So it’s no surprise that FEMA is reportedly focused on making sure people get the healthcare they need come the next storm. The agency says it’s reinforcing Puerto Rico’s healthcare systems, beefing up behavioral and mental health services, and working on plans for emergency oxygen backups.

The priorities FEMA outlined for Grist are broad, and the experts we spoke with emphasized that the devil will be in the details. “There’s a gap in terms of the stated goals and the specific measures within the public health system in Puerto Rico,” says Edwin Meléndez, director for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “How are the local authorities, the private hospitals, involved in this particular approach? How are they sharing goals and what is their implementation plan?”

Restoring power

Today, more than 60,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the island — are still without power. And in May, FEMA announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be turning the job of restoring downed power lines back over to the embattled and bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Experts agree that one of the biggest challenges is building back Puerto Rico’s ailing power grid to be more reliable than it was before. “Puerto Rico had experienced brownouts prior to the storm,” says Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association. “The distribution lines were not well maintained, and then they get hit by this storm.”

So fixing Puerto Rico’s aging energy infrastructure will take more than just FEMA. But in the meantime, the agency is shoring up the number of backup generators it has available in the event of another catastrophic storm. The island was in seriously short supply of generators prior to Hurricane Maria.

“This has been the largest disaster generator mission in U.S. history with 1,667 generators installed to support the weakened power grids,” FEMA writes to Grist.

And relying too much on generators creates new challenges. “Having the generators in place is great, but what is the access to reliable and consistent fuel going to be? That’s going to be fundamental for the hospitals,” says Martha Thompson, Oxfam America’s program coordinator for disaster response in Puerto Rico.

Ivis Garcia Zambrana, a professor at the University of Utah, argues for more solar power instead of the expensive, and polluting, generators. “Generators are not good for people that are lower-income,” she says. “There must be ways of working towards more sustainability.”

Working on smarter aid distribution

With only one warehouse in the Caribbean prior to Hurricane Maria, FEMA struggled to distribute supplies across the territory in the wake of Hurricane Irma (which hit just weeks earlier).

FEMA now says that its warehouse capacity in Puerto Rico has increased from 84,295 to 315,000 square feet. It plans to stock six times as much water and generators this year compared to 2017, seven times as many meals, and eight times as many tarps.

So next time, the agency will just have to get those supplies to people in rural areas. “Whether they have taken measures to have preparedness across the regions — specifically in more isolated areas on the inside of the island — is something we haven’t seen data for yet,” says Meléndez with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Beefing up communications and trainings

The storm crippled communications on the island, making it nearly impossible for residents to communicate with loved ones or authorities. It hampered recovery efforts, too, as emergency responders struggled to coordinate with one another due to downed cellphone towers.

Now, FEMA tells Grist it’s working with Puerto Rican agencies to create and test better emergency alert systems. And it’s developing a public outreach plan to ensure communication lines stay open.

“If you don’t have communications, you don’t know what people need,” says Sprayberry with the National Emergency Management Association. “You can really mismanage commodities.”

What FEMA’s not talking about

Puerto Rico’s struggling economy and global warming’s contributions to extreme weather phenomena, like Maria, are two elements FEMA doesn’t appear to be factoring in to future emergencies. When it released its strategic plan this spring, FEMA managed to omit any mention of climate change — which the agency openly addressed during the Obama administration.

But former FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, assures us that career officials in the agency are still taking this into mind, albeit surreptitiously. “Apparently, it got cut out,” he says. “But if you look at what they’re doing, they’re in effect addressing climate change without saying it.”

Fugate, along with all the experts Grist spoke with, stresses the importance of building back a more resilient Puerto Rico.

“The problem is, if you’re just responding to disasters, they’re getting bigger and bigger,” Fugate explains. “And if you’re really going to change the outcome, it isn’t focusing on improving the response — that’s important, but it kind of misses the point.

“Why are we not doing more to reduce the impacts of disaster?”

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The lessons FEMA says it learned from Hurricane Maria

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