Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years
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Today is Tuesday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Michigan state officials have advised residents of a majority-Black city to refrain from using their tap water for drinking, bathing or cooking due to lead contamination, The Guardian reported.

Residents of Benton Harbor, Mich., have received lead-contaminated water for at least three years, according to The Guardian. While the state promised to expand free water distribution this month, the activists maintained that more needs to be done.

Lead contamination levels in Benton Harbor reached 22 parts per billion (ppl) in 2018 — exceeding both the federal action level of 15 ppb and those of nearby Flint at the peak of its 2014 water crisis, The Guardian reported. While Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan orders 'all-hands-on-deck' response to water crisis Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years Whitmer vetoes bill on bird feeding over deer fears MORE (D) signed a budget allotting $10 million to lead pipe replacement, it remains unclear how the rest of the five-year project, which would cost about $20 million, would be funded, according to The Guardian.

“Just think about if your children were living in Benton Harbor,” Rev. Edward Pinkney, head of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, told The Guardian. “Would you allow this?”

Today we have two very different stories about how unpreparedness for environmental disruption has led to far-reaching consequences. First, we’ll look at Southwest Airlines’s “brittle” operation collapse in the face of Atlantic storms, leaving thousands of travelers stranded. Then, we’ll explore how the failure of world leaders to prepare for strong — but predictable — El Niño years leaves millions of children starving. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

Unsustainable logistics led to crippling cascade of Southwest cancellations 

Travelers were left stranded across the Southeastern and Western U.S. this weekend, as severe weather in Florida triggered a systemic breakdown that led Southwest Airlines to cancel over 2,000 flights.

The scale of the disruption was so great and so sudden that it led to widespread speculation — including by elected officials like Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOcasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (R-Texas) — that protests over the recent vaccine mandate had led to the cancellation. 

The actual story, however, is perhaps more troubling.

First steps: The delays started with a belt of heavy rain that blew through Orlando, Fla., according to News 6; and a disturbance in the Atlantic off Miami that sent thunderstorms rattling across South Florida, according to the Miami Herald. 

Both regions are waypoints on key Southwest routes.

An aerial supply chain disruption: The failure of Southwest's network resembled an acute version of the chip shortages we wrote about two weeks ago.

The storms Friday triggered massive failure in a Southwest network that was both overly lean and overextended, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

As demand for flights cratered during the pandemic, Southwest had furloughed or laid off about 16,000 unneeded customer service agents and baggage handlers,  even though $54 billion in federal funding was available to keep them on, the Journal reported.

Expanding under pressure: Then, even as the company struggled to rehire or retrain those who had been let go to meet a summer of booming travel, Southwest management made the fateful decision to expand, adding 18 new cities like Savannah, Ga., and Eugene, Ore, according to the airline.



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Anatomy of a breakdown: These strains led to delays and cancelled Southwest flights all summer, the Journal reported. The hardships were also shared by their competitors at Spirit and American Airlines, according to Arizona Central.

But like the just-in-time industrial supply chains that are currently in snarls, the system largely worked, even as it wore out pilots and crew. 

But Friday storms provided such an interruption: A rolling pulse of disturbance that cascaded through Southwest’s overextended system long after the storms themselves had dissipated. 

“When an airline gets behind, it’s hard to catch up,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC.

On Friday afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration posted hours of delays across Florida, which “about half our airplanes touch,” Kelly told CNBC. However, the short delay  led to “significant numbers of airplanes and flight crews that were totally out of position.”

This led to a snowball effect that trapped passengers as far away as Chicago and Denver, CBS reported.

Passengers and crews are frustrated and worn out. “I’m exhausted. I’m really pissed at Southwest in the first place,” Texan Kathy Schild told a local ABC affiliate as the wave of cancellations trapped her in Nashville, forcing her to fly to Albuquerque and drive 266 miles home to El Paso.

She’s not alone. Southwest’s pilots union has complained for months that understaffing had led to a “cumulative fatigue” that had “worn down” the organization’s resiliency, CNBC reported.

Last words: “Our operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure,” union president Capt. Casey Murray wrote on Sunday in a message to members, the Journal reported.

Nearly 6 million children suffering severe hunger due to shifts of El Niño: study

Almost 6 million children are driven into undernutrition during a single bad El Niño year, a figure that is up to three times the number of children who have gone hungry due to the pandemic, a new study has found, as reported by The Hill.

Every four to seven years, an El Niño triggers weather pattern shifts across the tropics, resulting in warmer temperatures, precipitation changes and pervasive impacts on agriculture, infectious diseases and world conflicts, according to the study, published on Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Predictable and preventable: But because El Niños are predictable, the authors contend that these events provide a snapshot into a future transformed by climate change and showcase the damage that a lack of proactive policy action can bring.

“It would have been very difficult to prepare the world for a pandemic that few saw coming, but we can’t say the same about El Niño events that have a potentially much greater impact on the long-term growth and health of children,” Amir Jina, a study coauthor and assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, said in a news release.

Scientists, Jina explained, can forecast an El Niño up to six months in advance, which enables the international community to intervene and avert the worst impacts of the storms.

First estimates on child nutrition in the tropics: With the publication of their study, the researchers have unveiled the first estimate of El Niño’s effects on child nutrition in the tropics, the news release said. They calculated this estimate by collecting data on more than a million children over four decades across all developing countries — examining the children’s weight in El Niño years versus non-El Niño years, as well as the years before and after the El Niño began. 

Ultimately, they found that warmer, drier El Niño conditions exacerbated undernutrition in children across most of the tropics — where about 20 percent of children are already defined as severely underweight by the World Health Organization.


Making matters worse for kids who are already hungry: Because the sample data represented about half of the world’s 600 million children under five years old, that spike in undernutrition — an additional 2.9-percent increase — means that millions of additional children are affected during El Niño years, according to the authors.

And in the case of the severe 2015 El Niño, the WHO threshold for kids severely underweight rose by almost 6 percent, or an additional 6 million children suffering from hunger, the study found.

The clock is ticking: With less than 10 years left to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating all forms of undernutrition by 2030 — and to offset the lingering impacts of that 2015 El Niño — the international community must provide 134 million children with micronutrient supplements or 72 million food insecure children with sustenance, according to the authors.

Last words: “Studying El Niño can teach us about the impacts that come from a hotter, drier climate—important lessons as these changes become more global in scale with climate change,” coauthor Jesse Anttila-Hughes, from the University of San Francisco, said in the news release.

“But the fact that we live through an El Niño every few years, we know they’re coming, and we still don’t act is a bad sign since many of these climate shifts—from isolated heat waves to hurricanes—will be a lot less predictable as the climate changes.”


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Tree Tuesday 

The Caldor Fire burns in California

Forest fires, shareholder battles over toilet paper, and the failure of a key international deal threaten the global carbon sink.

Wildfires continue to ravage California’s forests, costing state hundreds of millions 

  • Intense winds have sparked new wildfires in California, causing damage at two mobile home parks, destroying some trailers, injury at least one person and toppling trees, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
  • The new fires raged on Monday in San Joaquin County and on the south Santa Barbara County coast, after a low-pressure system moved from Oregon toward the Great Basin, according to the AP.
  • In the past two years, California has endured what The New York Times described as a “siege from more large-scale fires burning with greater intensity than at any time on record.” Nine of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2020, the Times reported, citing Cal Fire.
  • While battling the Dixie Fire — which began in July and has yet to be fully contained — officials have spent more than $610 million over three months to control the blaze, according to the Times.

Attempted shakeup of paper giant’s board fails to gather support 

  • An attempt to transform Procter & Gamble Company’s (P&G) board to make the company’s toilet paper operations more ecologically friendly failed on Tuesday, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • Advocacy groups and descendants of P&G’s founding families had called on shareholders to unseat Angela Braly — head of the board’s governance and public responsibility committee, and a director at ExxonMobil, but the entire board was reelected by wide margins.
  • This was part of a broader campaign to stop the paper giant from sourcing its Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels from largely-untouched Canadian forests, activists said.
  • Last year, two-thirds of P&G shareholders backed a resolution demanding P&G “report on its efforts to address deforestation,” the Journal reported. 

Asian paper giants’ expansion highlights difficulties in protecting tropical forests


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Wednesday.