Huge Climate Victories and Hope for Change: A Virginia Election Wrap-Up

November 20, 2019
 Food
Photo by Paul Sableman / Creative Commons

With FWA-endorsed environmental champions in office and a slew of upcoming environmental legislation, Virginia seems poised for green success

This month’s electoral results in Virginia mark a win for the movement to address climate change. In a state where corporate utilities like Dominion have long dominated politics, to the detriment of public health and safety, the recent election suggests there is a shift coming. And it couldn’t come a day too soon for the advocates fearlessly battling fracked gas plants and pipelines across the state, like the Chickahominy Power Station, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) Southgate Extension, and the Transcontinental (Transco) Southeastern Trail Expansion Project. If built, these projects would endanger the air, water, and soil of countless Virginia communities, while also exacerbating Virginia’s role in global warming. It’s time to have officials in office who will work towards the common good and not corporate profits.

Food & Water Action endorsed a small but impressive roster of local candidates leading up to the November 5th election, all of them champions who advocate for a turn away from fossil fuels. Delegate Elizabeth Guzman of District 31, Delegate Lee Carter of District 50, and incoming Delegate Dan Helmer of District 40, all endorsed by Food & Water Action (FWA) for their commitment to combating climate change, won their races. These officials have bold plans that include fighting back against pipeline expansions, protecting public health by ensuring clean air and water, and promoting an equitable transition to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035. These winners have shown time and time again that they will stand up to corporate interests to protect the health and safety of Virginia’s communities.

There’s lots to look out for in the upcoming legislative session, from proactive, equitable climate ideas to truly terrible and regressive ones. While Governor Ralph Northam recently introduced an executive order mandating for 100% clean energy by the year 2050, this timeline is far too distant and leaves the door wide open for harmful systems like burning trash or nuclear energy.  We are hopeful the newly elected legislators will not just blindly follow Gov. Northam’s lead, and will instead take up the mantle in pushing for a fully necessary and equitable transition to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035. The Green New Deal Virginia coalition, for instance, has already endorsed the 100% by 2035 goal and a moratorium on fossil fuels as a legislative pillar for next session. 

All of this, of course, must be accomplished in part by reining in Dominion’s dangerous and monopolistic practices, which prevent communities from making long-term investments in wind and community solar. There needs to be special attention to making these efforts accessible to low-income communities and communities of color, who have historically borne the brunt of climate-related woes, and tend to be in closer proximity to noxious refineries and polluting superfund sites.

As mentioned before, weak, ‘it’s better than nothing’ ideas should not be prioritized by legislators or the public. This includes the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which masquerades as climate action, but in reality has undue impacts to vulnerable communities, promotes pay-to-pollute schemes, and incentivizes more fracking. Food & Water Action just released an important fact sheet on the unacceptable environmental justice implications of the policy. 

As always, Food & Water Action will continue battling special interests and corporate dollars to ensure a brighter, healthier, fossil fuel-free future for Virginia communities. We’re glad to have a roster of champion legislators to battle alongside.

Powerful Testimony from Ruffalo and Witnesses Demonstrate Need for Federal Action and the WATER Act

November 19, 2019
 Food
Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment to call on the federal government to act on PFAS. Nov 19, 2019. DC.

The solutions to forever chemical debacle already exist – Congress just needs to pass them

Moments ago, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform kicked off the fourth congressional hearing on PFAS forever chemicals (live stream here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdQsXawpNA0). Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo will join advocates and experts before the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment to call on the federal government to act on toxic and pervasive per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Ruffalo’s new film Dark Waters tells the story of an attorney who helped uncover the truth about these forever chemicals. This hearing focuses on the immediate need for a robust federal action to address this crisis.

In response, Food & Water Action Public Water For All Campaign Director Mary Grant said:

“Dupont and 3M have known for decades that PFAS is toxic, and the Subcommittee’s investigation proves for the umpteenth time that the harm is real. We need Congress to take immediate action to protect and clean up our water now.

“Solutions are there, but our Congress members must have the guts to respond with the urgency this crisis demands. Congress must regulate PFAS in our water by setting a strong drinking water standard; hold polluters accountable by designating PFAS as a ‘hazardous substance’ under the Superfund law, and pass the WATER Act to provide funding to help communities have safe PFAS-free water today.

“In February,  Reps. Lawrence and Khanna, and Sen. Sanders introduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act that would not only provide the funding needed to get these toxins out of our drinking water but also improve our water and sewer systems as a whole.

“Every minute Congress wastes without passing these urgent measures is another moment they’re allowing forever chemicals to make people sick.”

Mr. Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, Mr. Mark Favors, U.S. Army Veteran, Mr. Mark Ruffalo, Actor, Producer and Artis and Tiger Joyce, American Tort Reform Association all testify at the fourth PFAS hearing. Nov 19, 2019, DC.

Baltimore City Passes Groundbreaking Affordability and Equity Bill

November 18, 2019
 Food

After banning privatization, Baltimore once again leads in water justice

Today, the Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to pass the Water Accountability and Equity Act (WAEA). Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young introduced the bill last December when he was city council president and plans to sign the bill into law. The historic legislation is a sweeping overhaul of the city’s outdated water billing system, setting up a percentage-of-income affordability program for low-income households, a customer advocate’s office with a mission of promoting fairness to customers, and a structure for appealing high bills and other problems commonly faced by customers.

“I am looking forward to signing this historic piece of water justice legislation,” said Mayor Jack Young. “I introduced this bill nearly a year ago because the percentage-of-income water affordability program and independent dispute resolution process are necessary to improve our water billing system. I am committed to ensuring their successful implementation to make our water system work better for all Baltimoreans.”

“I’m proud of the City Council and Baltimore’s water justice advocates for their hard work on the Water Accountability and Equity Act,” said City Council President Brandon Scott. “This legislation brings needed transparency and stronger accountability mechanisms to the Department of Public Works, while also protecting our most vulnerable residents. Now, the Council and I will hold DPW accountable through legislative oversight and fight to make sure water rates are fair for all of our residents, regardless of income or neighborhood.”

“Today represents what democracy in motion looks like. After almost two years from when this issue was first presented, the Water Accountability and Equity Act will be approved and will move out of the Baltimore City Council,” said City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton. “Congratulations to all of the water advocate groups that worked tirelessly during this process and never gave up hope that this day would come. The work that you did will have a positive impact on residents across this city. This is a true example of how great our city can be when we listen to the needs of our constituents, and put politics aside to affect the greater good of human beings.”

“Once again, Baltimore is a leader in this country for water justice,” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food & Water Action and Food & Water Watch. “After becoming the first major city to ban water privatization, we have worked together to pass legislation to make the improvements that we need to see. By passing this bill, Baltimore is showing the country that we can hold our public utilities accountable and extinguish the growing water affordability crisis across the nation. We can parlay public ownership of water service into an opportunity to pass monumental water justice legislation.”

Advocates and residents in the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition have been working day in and day out for four years to mitigate the unchecked and unaffordable water billing system in the city. After Baltimore made waves by becoming the first major city to prohibit the sale and lease of its water and sewer system, residents have proven the importance of keeping water service in public control.

“The Water Accountability and Equity goes beyond addressing individual customer concerns by injecting transparency into how DPW operates and providing a pathway to address bigger-picture, systemic issues at DPW” said Molly Amster, the Baltimore Director of Jews United For Justice. “The legislation offers forward thinking protections to help address problems before they become widespread and debilitating. The new Customer Advocate’s Office and Oversight Committee can recommend any change at DPW that is necessary to promote fairness to customers and to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.”

In 2019, water bills will exceed two percent of Black median income in 118 of 200 census tracts in Baltimore, according to NAACP Legal Defence Fund’s Water/Color. Sixty-five percent of the Black population in Baltimore lives in these tracts. Only 19 of the 118 tracts are not majority-Black.

“By creating an Office of Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals, the Water Accountability and Equity Act would increase fairness and bring much-needed due process protections to the people of Baltimore seeking to dispute their water bills,” said Ralikh Hayes, Community Organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The NAACP Legal Defense Fund fully supports this bill to address the water affordability crisis in Baltimore.”

The Water Accountability and Equity Act will discount water bills based on income. Residents making 50 percent of the poverty limit will not be charged any more than 1 percent of their income for water. Bills will also be capped at 3 percent of income for any residents who make 100 to 200 percent of the poverty level. Further, the legislation will provide a pathway out of water debt for low-income households who have already fallen behind on their water bills. Water debts will be deferred while enrolled in the Water for All program, and each on-time payment of their discounted water bill will count toward repayment of their outstanding balance.

“This legislation is a major win for everyone in Baltimore,” said Amy P. Hennen, Managing Attorney, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. “Evidence shows that when low-income residents can afford to pay their water bills, they do. The WAEA will ensure low-income residents never need to choose between water and other necessities as well as give a way out of water debt. It will also ensure that DPW is able to collect more of the bills it sends out and will be more cost effective than current programs.”

The bill will also allow renters to access the water billing information for their rental property directly rather than depend on landlords to act as responsible intermediaries. Fifty-three percent of Baltimore residents are renters, and many have been systematically denied billing assistance from DPW and ways to correct erroneous water bills because their landlords are absentee or unresponsive.

“In too many cases to count, City renters have faced eviction because of excessive water bills that they either had never seen or had no way to challenge,” said Zafar Shah, Attorney at Public Justice Center. “With this legislation, Baltimore City is putting those days behind us. Renters and homeowners alike will have transparency, due process, and affordability.”

The Water Accountability and Equity Act also creates a new Office of the Customer Advocate, whose mission is to promote fairness to customers.  Customers will have the right to appeal billing disputes and assistance denials to the Advocate’s Office and also to Environmental Control Board.  The Customer Advocate is also charged with investigating why the water billing system in Baltimore has been so fraught with problems – from incorrectly charging poor residents egregiously large bills, to failing to charge large businesses at all – and with recommending improvements to DPW procedures and policies.

“This law is designed to be a tool to help ordinary people hold those in power accountable.  I hope that this will now happen in this crucial area of government service, where ordinary people have felt helpless for so many years,” said Jaime Lee, Assistant Professor and Director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “We are looking forward to the bill being robustly implemented so that it can start having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
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New Baltimore DPW Leadership Must Recommit to Water for All

October 17, 2019
 Food

Baltimore, MD – Today, the Office of Mayor Jack Young announced that Baltimore Department of Public Works Director Rudy Chow will be retiring on February 1, 2020.

Three weeks ago, Dir. Chow introduced 14 pages of amendments to the Water Accountability and Equity Act that would delete the entire water affordability program, protections for renting households, water shutoff protections and procedures, and the entire Office of the Customer Advocate. The proposed amendments are a complete gutting of the bill.

In response Food & Water Action’s Public Water for All Campaign Director, Mary Grant, said:

“We are hopeful that under new leadership, the Department of Public Works will become more responsive to the needs of the people of Baltimore. We also urge the city council to reject Dir. Chow’s last-minute attempt to gut the Water Accountability and Equity Act and to swiftly pass a strong bill to enhance the affordability and accountability of our water billing system. Under Chow’s direction, the department has obstructed the honest work of water advocates in Baltimore who are simply trying to improve the water billing system. We urge future leadership to recommit to water for all.”

Calling On Gov. Whitmer to Protect the Great Lakes from Factory Farms

September 26, 2019
 Food

Michiganders are using their collective power (and phones) to demand action

Phone Call by Guillermo Alonso/CC

By Rebecca Wolf

Agricultural run-off causes 80% of algal blooms in Lake Erie, much of which is from synthetic fertilizer and manure spreading by large agribusiness companies on frozen ground. As algal bloom season takes hold again, we’re working to stop Big Ag from continuing with business as usual.

Michiganders are coming together to demand action. Last week, over 150 people called Governor Whitmer’s office to urge her to protect the health of the Great Lakes from factory farm pollution by banning manure spreading on frozen or snow-covered ground — a commonsense solution to reduce the amount of agricultural pollution ending up in our Great Lakes.

Factory Farms Cause Algal Blooms

Michigan is the second most diverse agricultural state in the country. It takes some real midwestern grit to rebuild roads, work with the land, and live near the mighty Great Lakes.

But that grit has been used by special interests to push a destructive factory farming agenda. Michigan dairy farmers are struggling because they’re stuck in a system designed not to make them profit, but to make the Michigan milk lobby profit.

It’s time to hold polluters accountable and create a healthier farm system that protects the Great Lakes and our small, community-minded family farmers.

Governor Whitmer has the power to change the tide on this. She can ban the application of manure, fertilizer and waste from livestock operations on frozen or snow-covered soil. This would stop the worst impacts of agriculture pollution to the Great Lakes and set us up for a cleaner future.

Right now, she has goals to reduce 40% of the phosphorus, which causes some of the issues in the Great Lakes, by 2025, but she hasn’t addressed the huge impact that factory farms have had on the creation of toxic algal blooms. We can’t let factory farms ruin our drinking water and the best way to do that is to ban the practice of dumping manure on frozen land.

How You Can Help Stop Algal Blooms

There’s no doubt about it: we need Governor Whitmer to step up and hold agribusiness accountable. We don’t have the funding and resources that the Michigan Farm Bureau has, so we will have to utilize our voting power instead. When constituents from across the state call Whitmer’s office in large numbers, it shows the widespread and urgent desire to stop factory farm pollution.

When we work together and make calls to Gov. Whitmer’s office, it elevates our voice over special interests. It only takes a few minutes – and it goes a long way.

Here’s how to make a phone call to Gov. Whitmer:

Food & Water Action will provide a special phone number (855-980-226). After you dial it, you will be given a prompt or reminder of what to say  – then, you will be connected.

Easy! The office will begin tallying how many calls they are receiving about the Great Lakes and when the number becomes large enough, they will feel pressure to respond to the issue.

Ask Governor Gretchen Whitmer to be a champion for our drinking water and Great Lakes. Tell her to ban manure spreading on frozen and snow-covered land.

Call Whitmer today at 855-980-2268

Forever Chemicals Deserve a Forever Solution

September 18, 2019
 Food
By Jackie Filson

Is the upheaval against forever chemicals in our water finally coming to a crux? Over a series of hearings this summer, Congress’s respect for the human right to water was put directly on display. America has been ignoring a severe chemical contamination crisis in our water for years, and now Congress is finally confronting why.

The hearings made it clear that across party lines, state representatives have a variety of motivations feeding their proposals for clean up and prevention of forever chemicals known as PFAS. Some took the stand to regurgitate industry fueled propaganda, while others straddled the fence between regulation and swift action. The true water champions offered hard-lined, urgent and sweeping plans. It’s time to stop the production of PFAS containing products, enforce limits on their environmental presence and provide adequate funding for cleanup and testing.

Fourth Congressional hearing commences on forever chemicals (PFAS), September 2019.

Forever Chemicals Destroy Lives

Community members like Michael Hickey trekked all the way to Washington D.C. to share personal stories about losing loved ones in order to convince every member of Congress and the EPA to take the hard-line when it comes to water contamination.

His specific demands are:

  • Immediately regulating PFAS forever chemicals under the Clean Water Act;
  • Clean up the sources of contamination and contaminated water supplies;
  • Make the polluter pay for water contamination cleanup, including the military, which is responsible for many contaminated sites around the country;
  • Set enforceable standards for drinking water for the entire class of PFAS chemicals;
  • Provide funding to help communities like Hoosick Falls provide safe water; and
  • Provide training for healthcare professionals and medical monitoring in impacted communities.

PFAS are “forever chemicals,” so they deserve a forever solution. Congress must break party lines, put the lid on half-measure proposals and commit to adequate action that includes all of the above. Passing the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act would be a good start.