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.
Florida’s manatees have become so malnourished that officials made the unprecedented decision to provide food for hundreds of animals along the state’s east coast, The New York Times reported.
“The consequences are too dire not to at least give this a try,” Patrick Rose, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, told the Times.
Scientists do not usually recommend feeding wild animals, but Florida’s manatees are on the brink of extinction and have endured dramatic losses over the past year, according to the Times. More than 1,000 of these beloved “sea cows” have died in 2021 — a significant blow to a population that only numbered about 8,800 in 2016, the Times reported.
Wildlife officials link the sea mammals’ decline to a loss of seagrass — a manatee dietary staple — in the Indian River Lagoon where the animals spend the winter. The seagrass, killed off by algal blooms caused by human waste and fertilizer runoff, is now down by 90 percent, with conditions only expected to worsen as climate change ushers in further extreme weather, according to the Times.
Today we’ll look at a legal push from environmental groups to push the Food and Drug Administration to act on the hormone-disruptors lurking in our food packaging materials. Then we’ll sit down with a group of Native American “solar warriors” who see renewable energy as the key to an economic and political renaissance for the tribal communities of the High Plains.
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.
Environmental groups sue FDA
Environmental groups are demanding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take swift action to ban phthalates from food packaging and processing materials, according to a lawsuit filed in a Washington, D.C., federal court on Tuesday.
Phthalates — chemicals found in plastics that can interfere with hormone function — are linked to birth defects, infertility, miscarriage, learning disabilities and neurological disorders in children, according to the lawsuit. Those health complications are particularly pronounced in young children, as well as communities of color and low-income individuals, in comparison to the general population, the groups said.
First words: “FDA is sitting on years of scientific evidence that phthalates used in food packaging and processing materials are dangerous to human health,” Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien, whose organization filed the lawsuit, said in a statement.
“While FDA idles, babies and children are consuming phthalates in their food that endanger their brain development and long-term health,” O’Brien added.
Why the lawsuit? Although a coalition of health and environmental advocates filed two petitions in 2016 asking the FDA to prohibit phthalates in food packaging and process materials, the FDA still has not acted — despite the fact that the administration was required by law to respond to that principal petition within 180 days, according to the suit.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Defend Our Health and Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
Ongoing health concerns: “Every phthalate that has been studied for health effects has been found to pose a health risk,” Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “It’s past time for the FDA to act on all phthalates as a class of chemicals that do not belong in our food.”
Decades of scientific studies demonstrate that exposure to phthalates can lead to irreversible health harms, as the chemicals can leach out of these materials into infant formula, dairy products, meats, baked goods, cereals, snacks foods and other food products, the groups said.
But despite the ubiquitous nature of the compounds in so many foods and the clear health risks, phthalates are not disclosed on labels, the suit added.
HIGHER CHOLESTEROL, PREMATURE DEATHS
Studies continue to unveil risks: Just last week, a study from the University of California, Riverside, explored how exposure to phthalates can increase the risk of human cardiovascular disease — determining that the chemicals raise plasma cholesterol levels in mouse models.
Another study released in October from George Washington University showed that common fast food items purchased at national chains like Burger King, Chipotle, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell contain detectable amounts of phthalates, according to Hunter College’s NYC Food Policy Center.
A third study, conducted at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, found that phthalates in plastic food containers and cosmetics may contribute to up to 100,000 premature deaths annually, the Food Policy Center reported.
“Stuck in limbo”: Efforts to require the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict phthalates “have been stuck in limbo for years” because companies that manufacture them maintain they are safe, The Intercept reported.
And while the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Congress prohibited the use of eight types of phthalates in toys, the FDA has not taken steps to limit the same compounds in food production, according to The Intercept.
Preventable harm: Russ Hauser, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement that the FDA’s failure to take action on this issue “has caused unnecessary and avoidable harm to the health of people across the United States, especially infants and young children.”
Last words: “There is extensive scientific evidence that phthalates the FDA has authorized for food-contact uses are unsafe, and FDA action to eliminate these chemicals from food is long overdue,” Hauser added.
Native activists seed solar sovereignty
A group of Midwestern Native American “solar warriors” is working to help tribes break cycles of energy poverty and what they call “colonial exploitation” with access to locally controlled, low-cost renewable power.
Recently rebranded the Indigenized Energy Initiative (IEI), the group serves as a kind of utility incubator that assists with the creation of new solar installations, including offering education on construction and how to secure federal funds.
First words: When Robert Blake, the CEO of solar development company Native Sun and one of the founders of IEI, first began preaching solar sovereignty in 2015, he recalled people calling him “a kook.”
And now, Blake said, “I can’t stop my phone ringing,” as tribal government representatives from across the country call about setting up their own solar microgrids.
What changed? Lots of things, but a principal sea change was the 2016 protest movement against the Dakota Access pipeline. That took place on the floodplain north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, on the border of North and South Dakota.
The protests — in which activists lived in camps powered by trailer-mounted solar rigs for nearly a year — served as a firsthand experience with the power source for thousands of Native American and allied activists.
Musk passes on a business opportunity: The interest in solar power in the camps showed the “need to couple the old ways with the new ways, modern technology with ancient wisdom,” said Chéri Smith, a former head of workforce development at SolarCity and Tesla.
She pitched Tesla CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley — States probe the tech giants Equilibrium/Sustainability — Bald eagle comeback impacted by lead poison Tesla puts Cybertruck production on hold until early 2023: report MORE on the idea that ultimately became IEI: an incubator to bring solar power to communities like Standing Rock — but he wasn’t interested, she said.
So Smith decided to take it on herself, allying with people such as Blake and Cody Two Bears, former tribal council members from the Standing Rock community of Cannon Ball.
STANDING UP SOLAR
Pilot project: In Cannon Ball, they built free-standing household solar installations — rooftops in the community weren’t strong enough to support the panels — to power the homes of community elders and put out a call to the rest of the Standing Rock reservation that there was an opportunity to come learn to do solar installations.
A spiritual connection: The projects injected hope and enthusiasm to communities plagued by depression in both its economic and spiritual forms, Two Bears said.
It’s a technology, he said, “that’s in line with our life ways and our ethics and ethos,” and of which young people say they can be proud.
“‘And that can give my grandmother a $0 electric bill!’” Two Bears said, quoting a participant.
The Cannon Ball work led to a pilot project at Standing Rock, which installed 300 kilowatts of new power generation — low by the standards of the rest of the country, but also the largest solar farm in the oil state of North Dakota.
A practical option: Solar energy makes sense for Western landscapes with sparse infrastructure, abundant sun and expensive power imports from coal, propane and heating oil, said Blake of Native Sun.
In Red Lake Reservation, his home, residents “send $40 million off reservation each year” to pay their electric bills — and solar energy generation could help keep that money in the community.
A way forward: Native Sun just received a $6.6 million grant — split with Standing Rock’s Renewable Energy Power Authority — to build an electric vehicle charging network, as Equilibrium reported this month.
These proposals — and the prospect they offer tribes to become solar electricity exporters — promise something that is rare on both Western Indian reservations and on the High Plains as a whole: a non-extractive, non-casino economy, according to Smith.
Last words: “This cultivation of this modern workforce, and it’s employing all the displaced coal workers, not just Native American ones, but others, and other members that have been displaced by the vanishing coal industry,” Smith said.
Read the full version of this story here.
South Sudan suffers from too much — and too little — water
- South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, accounts for 0.004-percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but has endured a devastating mixture of climate change-linked drought and extreme rainfall, which have conspired to create floods on a scale not seen since the 1960s, CNN reported.
- "We are feeling climate change. We are feeling it," John Payai Manyok, South Sudan's deputy director for climate change, told CNN. "We are feeling droughts, we are feeling floods. And this is becoming a crisis. It's leading to food insecurity, it's leading to more conflict within the area because people are competing for the little resources that are available."
Lack of snowfall leaves a dry West wishing for winter
- Denver, Colo. has broken an 87-year-old record for the latest measurable snowfall and is just about a week away from shattering an 1887 record of 235 consecutive days without snow, The Associated Press reported. And while snow is in the forecast for Friday, much of the Rocky Mountains and the Western U.S. continues to experience a mega-drought that researchers link to human-induced climate change, according to the AP.
- While less and slower snowmelt continues to impact the northern U.S. and Canada, another weather phenomenon called “mixed-phase precipitation” — storms that shift between snow and rain — is on the rise and could become “a dominant driver of severe flooding,” researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found.
For Hawaii, floods and landslides follow rare snowstorm
- The storm system that dusted Hawaiian volcanoes like Mauna Kea with snow has now brought 12 inches of rain to the islands over the past three days, stranding motorists and bringing the risk of landslides, Reuters reported.
- The storms are a characteristic “kona low” system — an unusual but distinctive Hawaiian storm pattern that refers to a subtropical, cool weather cyclone that temporarily replaces the dominant trade winds, according to the University of Hawaii.
That's it for today. Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you Thursday.