Today is Wednesday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
NASA will be launching a rocket next month to deflect an asteroid — demonstrating its “planetary defense” technologies for the first time, The Washington Post reported.
The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission is scheduled to take off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, at 10:20 p.m. PST on Nov. 23, a news release from NASA said. DART will be targeting the “near-Earth asteroid Didymos and its moonlet,” with the goal of changing its motion, according to NASA.
“We’re going to make sure that a rock from space doesn’t send us back to the Stone Age,” NASA scientist Thomas Statler said on the agency’s podcast, cited by the Post.
While no asteroids will pose any threat to Earth for the next hundred years (as far as NASA knows) if one was detected, Statler said the agency would attempt to strike it and alter its course, rather than destroy it, according to the Post.
Back on Earth, where we’d like to avoid a return to the Stone Age, we’ll look today at a slew of new California laws banning the use of cancer-linked “forever chemicals” in children’s products and food packaging. Then we’ll explore a much more visible sort of California pollution: the recent oil spill, which has led to increased calls to finish off that state’s small offshore oil business.
For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at email@example.com or Sharon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.
Let’s get to it.
Newsom signs laws banning ‘forever chemicals’ in some products
California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAppeals court blocks California vaccine mandate for prison workers Apple, Nordstrom stores hit in latest smash-and-grab robberies Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE (D) has signed two laws banning the use of toxic “forever chemicals” in children’s products and disposable food packaging, as well as a package of bills to overhaul the state’s recycling operations, The Hill reported on Tuesday evening.
“California’s hallmark is solving problems through innovation, and we’re harnessing that spirit to reduce the waste filling our landfills and generating harmful pollutants driving the climate crisis,” Newsom said in a press statement.
Remind me, what are “forever chemicals?” They are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of compounds linked to kidney, liver, immunological, developmental and reproductive issues. These chemicals are most known for contaminating waterways via firefighting foam but are also found in household products like nonstick pans, toys, makeup, food containers and waterproof apparel as well as fracking fluid, previously covered in The Hill.
The Environmental Protection Agency has thus far only established “health advisory levels” for two such compounds rather than regulating the more than 5,000 types of PFAS. Although the House passed a bill in July that would mandate EPA standards, companion legislation has yet to reach the Senate.
States like California have therefore taken to enacting bits and pieces of legislation on their own.
Keeping kids “free from toxic PFAS”: One of the new laws, introduced by California Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D), prohibits the use of PFAS in children’s products, such as car seats and cribs, beginning on July 1, 2023, according to the governor’s office.
“As a mother, it’s hard for me to think of a greater priority than the safety and well-being of my child,” said Friedman in a news release from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “This new law ends the use of PFAS in products meant for our children.”
Bill Allayaud, EWG’s director of California government affairs, praised Newsom “for giving parents confidence that the products they buy for their children are free from toxic PFAS.”
Cleaning up food packaging, cookware: The second PFAS-related law, proposed by Assemblyman Philip Ting (D), bans intentionally-added PFAS from food packaging and requires cookware manufacturers to disclose the presence of PFAS and other chemicals on products and labels online beginning on Jan. 1, 2023.
“PFAS chemicals have been a hidden threat to our health for far too long,” Ting said in another EWG news release, noting that his bill helps limit “some of the harmful toxins coming into contact with our food.”
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‘A MORE SUSTAINABLE AND RESILIENT FUTURE FOR THE PLANET’
Other PFAS action on the table in California: The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced last week that it will soon be considering whether to add two additional types of PFAS — PFNA and PFDA — to its Proposition 65 list of regulated chemicals, which already includes the two most common PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, according to The National Law Review.
How could such regulations impact business? Because Prop 65 penalties can be up to $2,500 per violation per day, and because PFAS are so prevalent, the impact of such enforcement “may be a deluge of compliance and enforcement actions that could cost some companies hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars,” The National Law Review reported.
So California is moving forward on PFAS — but what about recycling? Alongside the two PFAS laws, Newsom also signed a slew of recycling-related measures including: banning the use of misleading labels, strengthening consumer awareness and industry accountability, discouraging the export of plastic waste, supporting recycling center operations and ensuring that products designated as “compostable” are truly compostable.
The bills complement a $270 million portion of the state budget that will go toward modernizing recycling and promoting a circular economy, his office said.
Last words: “With today’s action and bold investments to transform our recycling systems, the state continues to lead the way to a more sustainable and resilient future for the planet and all our communities,” Newsom said.
California oil spill highlights delays in disaster response
The oil spill that spread across almost 15 miles of Southern California beaches and wetlands is leading to anger, lawsuits and calls for a permanent end to the region’s small, but symbolically important, offshore oil and gas industry.
“It’s time, once and for all, to disabuse ourselves that this has to be part of our future. This is part of our past,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told reporters in Huntington Beach. On the stretch of shoreline, tar balls have been washing up since a tear in an undersea pipeline released 126,000 gallons of heavy crude oil, according to the Los Angeles Times.
What happened? Something — maybe a ship’s anchor — appears to have grabbed a chunk of the undersea pipeline and “pulled [it] like a bow string,” said Martyn Willsher, CEO of Houston-based Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline, according to NPR.
If so, that could make the spill a consequence of the larger global supply chain crisis, which has meant more ships anchoring offshore while they wait to offload in California ports, The Guardian reported.
But just as important as the “what” is the “when.” A sudden drop in pipeline pressure triggered the alarms in company control rooms at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, but Amplify didn’t shut down the pipeline until almost four hours later — and didn’t notify appropriate regulators for another three hours, according to a preliminary investigation summarized by NPR.
Failure to promptly notify authorities could be cause for legal action: in September, a North Dakota pipeline company pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $15 million for failing to report a spill, The Associated Press reported.
The Coast Guard was slow too. Around the same time those alarms were going off, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notified the Coast Guard National Response Center — which oversees hazardous spills — that an oil slick appeared to be spreading offshore of Huntington Beach, corroborating reports from a “good Samaritan” in a ship offshore.
But the Coast Guard reportedly took no action for almost 10 hours, until the next morning. “In hindsight, it seems obvious, but they didn’t know that at that time,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer told the AP.
ALREADY UNDER SCRUTINY, OIL INDUSTRY DRAWS FIRE
How big a deal is the spill? The spill is large in magnitude but small in comparison to the catastrophes of Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, Rachel Frazin wrote in The Hill. The California incident released, respectively, around 1 percent and 0.1 percent of those larger spills.
But unlike those disasters, this spill happened on the outskirts of the second-largest U.S. city — in a community which lives by variants of fishing and tourism — at a time when the oil industry is already under unprecedented scrutiny.
That’s triggering anger from regulators, as the spill has been folded into an existing campaign by federal House Democrats to ban offshore drilling in the Pacific, according to The Hill.
Community fallout: The leak has also drawn anger locally. One D.J. who hosts events on the beach filed a federal class action suit against Amplify and its local subsidiary seeking to recover lost wages. The breach and subsequent seepage, according to the lawsuit, have affected not only the surrounding areas, but also “the citizens who live in those areas,” the Times reported.
For lobster fisherman Josh Hernandez, who would usually be looking at today as the start of the season, the spill threatens a quarter of his traps.
Last words: “I wait for this all summer long,” Hernandez told the Times. “I have credit cards racked up, bills to pay and a 2-year-old daughter and one more on the way. I just don’t know what to do at this point.”
A MESSAGE FROM API
The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.
Oil supertanker off the coast of Yemen may be a time-bomb ready to detonate
A decrepit oil tanker parked in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen since 1988 is on the verge of collapse — and risks sinking, catching fire, exploding or killing thousands of people in the process, The New Yorker reported.
The F.S.O. Safer is named for a patch of desert near Marib, in Central Yemen, where crude oil was first discovered in the country — and was designed to be a floating storage-and-off-loading facility for a pipeline that originated in the Marib oil fields, according to The New Yorker.
More than a million barrels of oil remain in its tanks, but the state-run firm that owns the ship cannot afford to make significant repairs on the ship — leading a former head of the firm to describe the vessel as “a bomb,” the piece said.
At the same time, some observers believe that the Houthi faction — which controls the country’s North — may have laid mines in the waters adjacent to the Safer.
In Oslo, a Nobel for sustainable chemistry
Sustainability has earned its second Nobel Prize in two days, with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday — following a physics prize ceremony on Tuesday, as reported by The Hill.
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan independently discovered means to catalyze the synthesis of molecules by using tiny organic molecules, which allows greater speed and control in the orientation of the resulting compound, the Associated Press reported.
Failure to control that orientation can lead to serious side effects, like the terrible birth defects associated with the drug thalidomide.
These molecules also replace previous catalysts that were made from often environmentally-unfriendly metals — opening the doors for a revolution in a chemistry field that accounts for 35 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, according to the AP.
A warning bell for a crucial chemical-bearing tree population
- Quillay trees — evergreens native to Southern Chile — are a chemical Swiss Army Knife whose very usefulness is a long-term threat to their survival, according to Reuters.
- Prized by the indigenous Mapuche people for traditional medicine, the soapy compounds in the bark of older, wild trees have been tapped for a malaria vaccine, a shingles vaccine, and now billions of doses of coronavirus vaccine made by Maryland-based Novavax Inc.
- Ricardo San Martin, the scientist who pioneered the quillay industry, is calling for a rapid transition to younger, plantation grown trees to avoid a crash whose proximity is unclear.
- “My estimate four years ago was that we were heading towards the sustainability limit,” San Martin told Reuters. “I am working as though this needs to be done yesterday.”
Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Thursday.