In the first ruling of its kind nationwide, a Montana state court decided Monday in favor of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.
The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs, by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. The provision is accordingly unconstitutional, the court said.
The win, experts say, could energize the environmental movement and reshape climate litigation across the country, ushering in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change.
“People around the world are watching this case,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
The ruling represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to push back against government policies and industrial activities they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial.
Though the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center. The report said about three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or concluded cases were filed before courts in the United States.
Experts said the Montana youth had an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
Coal is critical to the state’s economy, and Montana is home to the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project.
Across five days of emotional testimony in June, the youths made claims about injuries they have suffered as a result of climate change. A 15-year-old with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when isolating with covid during a period of intense wildfire smoke. Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff for whom the lawsuit is named, detailed how extreme weather has hurt her family’s ranch.
Held testified that a favorable judgment would make her more hopeful for the future. “I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana has to take responsibility for our part in that,” she said.
Attorneys for the state countered that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small. If the law in question were altered or overturned, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said, there would be “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate.
The state began and rested its defense on the same day, bringing the trial to an unexpectedly early closeon June 20. In a pivot from its expected defense disputing the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the state focused instead on arguing that the legislature should weigh in on the contested law, not the judiciary. Russell derided the case in his closing statement as a “week-long airing of political grievances that properly belong in the Legislature, not a court of law.”
Gerrard said the change in strategy came as a surprise: “Everyone expected them to put on a more vigorous defense,” he said. “And they may have concluded that the underlying science of climate change was so strong that they didn’t want to contest it.”
Though the state is expected to appeal the decision, experts said the favorable verdict for the youths could influence how judges approach similar cases in other states and prompt them to apply “judicial courage” in addressing climate change.The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, which represents the plaintiffs, has taken legal action on behalf of youths in all 50 states, and has cases pending in four other states.
Juliana v. United States, a 2015 case brought by Our Children’s Trust that drew international attention, is also back on path to trial after facing repeated setbacks. The case took aim at the federal government, alleging that it had violated the 21 youths’ rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect public trust resources, in taking actions that contribute to climate change.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Phil Gregory said the court’s verdict could empower youth everywhere to take to the courts to secure their futures.
“There are political decisions being made without regard to the best scientific evidence and the effects they will have on our youngest generations,” he said. “This is a monumental decision.”
Air pollution is helping to drive a rise in antibiotic resistance that poses a significant threat to human health worldwide, a global study suggests.
The analysis, using data from more than 100 countries spanning nearly two decades, indicates that increased air pollution is linked with rising antibiotic resistance across every country and continent.
It also suggests the link between the two has strengthened over time, with increases in air pollution levels coinciding with larger rises in antibiotic resistance.
“Our analysis presents strong evidence that increasing levels of air pollution are associated with increased risk of antibiotic resistance,” researchers from China and the UK wrote. “This analysis is the first to show how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance globally.” Their findings are published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the fastest-growing threats to global health. It can affect people of any age in any country and is already killing 1.3 million people a year, according to estimates.
The main drivers are still the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, which are used to treat infections. But the study suggests the problem is being worsened by rising levels of air pollution.
The study did not look at the science of why the two might be linked. Evidence suggests that particulate matter PM2.5 can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria and resistance genes, which may be transferred between environments and inhaled directly by humans, the authors said.
Air pollution is already the single largest environmental risk to public health. Long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, asthma and lung cancer, reducing life expectancy.
Short-term exposure to high pollution levels can cause coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks, and is leading to increased hospital and GP attendances worldwide.
Curbing air pollution could help reduce antibiotic resistance, according to the study, the first in-depth global analysis of possible links between the two. It also said that controlling air pollution could greatly reduce deaths and economic costs stemming from antibiotic-resistant infections.
The lead author, Prof Hong Chen of Zhejiang University in China, said: “Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health.
“Until now, we didn’t have a clear picture of the possible links between the two, but this work suggests the benefits of controlling air pollution could be twofold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combatting the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
Although air is recognised as being a direct pathway for disseminating antibiotic resistance, there is limited data on the different pathways that antibiotic resistant genes are carried via air pollution.
Potential pathways include hospitals, farms and sewage-treatment facilities that emit and spread antibiotic-resistant particles through the air and then across wide distances.
Until now, there was limited data on how much influence PM2.5 air pollution – which is made up of particles 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has on antibiotic resistance globally.
Sources of PM2.5 include road traffic, industrial processes and domestic coal and wood burning. Data indicates 7.3 billion people globally are directly exposed to unsafe average annual PM2.5 levels.
The authors created an extensive dataset to explore whether PM2.5 was a key factor driving global antibiotic resistance, using data for 116 countries from 2000 to 2018. The data sources included the World Health Organization, European Environment Agency and the World Bank.
The findings indicate antibiotic resistance increases with PM2.5, with every 10% rise in air pollution linked with increases in antibiotic resistance of 1.1%.
The association has strengthened over time, with changes in PM2.5 levels leading to larger increases in antibiotic resistance in more recent years. The analysis indicates antibiotic resistance resulting from air pollution was linked to an estimated 480,000 premature deaths in 2018.
A modelling of possible future scenarios indicates that if there were no changes to current policies on air pollution, by 2050 levels of antibiotic resistance worldwide could increase by 17%. The annual premature death toll linked to antibiotic resistance could rise to about 840,000. [Emph. added by BenIndy Contributor.]
The authors acknowledged limitations to their study. A lack of data in some countries may have affected the overall analysis, they said.
The study was observational, so could not prove cause and effect. Future research should focus on investigating the underlying mechanism of how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance, they said.
A second study published in the journal BMJ Mental Health found that exposure to relatively high levels of air pollution was associated with increased use of community mental health services by people with dementia. The long-term study focused on a large area of London with heavy traffic.
[Note from BenIndy contributor Nathalie Christian: For a variety of reasons, the Washington Post article reposted here does not include the original’s full complement of excellent photos. If you subscribe to WaPo I recommend you read the article there. Non-subscribers may encounter a paywall. –N.C.]
City planners targeted a Black community for heavy pollution. Can the damage be undone?
OAKLAND —Proud but beleaguered, West Oakland is easy to spot on a map.
This Black enclave — not far from the stately Bay Bridge and just downslope from the mansions of the East Bay hills — is sandwiched by three major freeways. Each day, the trucks and cars that travel these concrete corridors spew toxic pollution into yards and homes, where roughly 45,000 people live.
West Oakland is an example of how government leaders purposely deployed infrastructure to disenfranchise people of color. Starting in the 1940s, urban planners deliberately located heavy industry and truck corridors around the area’s historically black neighborhoods, according to a sitting city planner and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, along with federal and state documents.
Sheng Thao, the city’s new mayor, said it is well known that West Oakland residents were the victims of discriminatory planning.
“They definitely bore the brunt of thoughtless, damaging and absolutely racist policy decisions that were made by previous city leaders and economic interests over the course of decades,” said Thao, who campaigned on a social justice platform and was elected last November. “And we are still dealing with the fallout.”
The city is now attempting to undo that damage. Last year, Oakland announced a general plan update that, for the first time, makes environmental justice a top priority in the planning of future development. In March, the city started taking public comment on those proposed EJ policies, which are aimed at reducing pollution and increasing opportunities in West Oakland and other neglected neighborhoods.
Thao said the city is also taking action on the ground, moving two West Oakland recyclers out of the neighborhood, working with the Port of Oakland to reduce truck idling, and seeking funding to plant thousands of trees in areas afflicted by pollution and a lack of shade.
Despite these efforts, it will take many, many years to address the damage of past decades, local environmental justice advocates have said.
“Ships, trains, cargo handling equipment, trucks are now all concentrated in one place,” said Margaret Gordon, a longtime community activist and founding member of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Residents in West Oakland continue to bear a burden, she said, because they “have the most vulnerability, the most impact.”
The freeway segregation of Oakland was consistent with the U.S. government’s playbook of that era. The Federal Housing Administration prescribed building roads and other infrastructure to separate White communities from “inharmonious racial groups.”
“A high speed traffic artery or a wide parkway may prevent the expansion of inharmonious uses to a location on the opposite side of the street,” the FHA’s guiding underwriting document advised in 1938, “When a neighborhood is developed with “good housing practices,” the document said, it would be protected “from adverse influences.”
On top of that guidance, a group of all-White city leaders and state transportation officials designed the freeways of Oakland to prioritize the safety of White neighborhoods.
These planners allowed diesel trucks to freely use Interstate-880 — which runs near majority Black West Oakland — but they banned diesel trucks from a stretch of Interstate-580 that runs past the East Hills and the city of San Leandro, which were nearly 99 percent White at the time.
“The intentional planning of these uses … was historically racist,” said Jonathan Fearn, who sits on the Oakland Planning Commission. “The planning profession has to reconcile that because they have been complicit in this whole issue, not only in Oakland, but in cities all across the country.”
But West Oakland is hardly the Bay Area’s only example of blatant segregation and environmental inequity. Two other areas — Richmond, Oakland’s neighbor to the north, and Hunters Point, a neighborhood a few miles southwest in San Francisco — join it in forming a triangle of pollution in a region that has long touted its progressive credentials.
Richmond is where Black southerners fleeing Jim Crow segregation flocked to take jobs in the shipping industry during World War II. Oil and gas refineries and a large shipping port, where mountains of coal are exported, dominate the landscape.
Hunters Point housed a former Navy shipyard storing ships that participated in nuclear tests. The soil is deeply saturated with radiation, uranium and other deadly chemicals near where Black, Latino and Asian residents live.
While many communities nationwide bear a disproportionate burden of toxic contamination, in the Bay Area, the environmental injustices stand out. Residents of Richmond, Hunters Point and West Oakland cope with a legacy of pollution amid some of the most affluent and desirable real estate in North America.
‘All my kids have asthma’
On a Monday afternoon with a pretty blue sky, Gordon carefully prepared her apartment to entertain guests.
She played jazz and opened the windows to catch a light breeze coming east from the bay. But by throwing open the windows, Gordon also invited an unwanted visitor into her home.
It looked like a coating of dust atop a lamp hanging in Gordon’s kitchen. “It ain’t dust,” she said. “It’s diesel particulates. It’s dark because of the diesel particulate matter.”
Her white walls were also dark near the ceiling. “You see that gray line up there? That gray line is diesel particulates,” Gordon said, from 2.5 million freeway truck trips per year.
When she was younger, Gordon hopped on a three-step ladder to clean the residue. Now, she said, “I’m not getting on too many ladders at 75 years old. I know better than that.”
Fine particulate matter is dangerous, health officials warn. When exposed to it, people can be stricken byasthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. “All my kids have allergies and asthma,” Gordon said, “myself too.”
Emergency room visits for asthma in West Oakland are76 percent higher than the county average, according to the Alameda County Health Department. Hospitalizations are more than 85 percent higher, and death from heart disease is nearly 35 percent higher.
Emissions from heavy-duty trucks alone result “in the largest contribution to the overall potential cancer risk levels in the West Oakland community,” a California Air Resources Board study said in 2008.
When all the pollution sources are added, the “estimated lifetime potential cancer risk for residents of West Oakland … is about 1,200 excess cancers per million,” the study said.
CARB has since taken aggressive steps to reduce pollution and lower the risk of poor health and death. But health officials and activists say the substantial buildup of pollution continues to take a toll, six decades later.
‘A disaster in slow motion’
Gordon has lived in every part of the Bay Area’s pollution triangle.
She was born in Richmond, where her father and mother moved from racially segregated Arkansas when the shipping industry was booming. They wanted jobs that didn’t involve a plow.
When the shipping economy waned after World War II, the family moved to Hunters Point in San Francisco when Gordon was about 8.
They joined a diverse communitythat spread out from the 866-acre Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Today Hunters Point, also known as Bayview, is 25 percent Latino, 26 percent Black and 36 percent Asian with a growing number of White residents, currently at 8 percent, relocating there.
Gordon’s former neighborhood was home to the shipyard for nearly 30 years ending in 1974. For 12 years ending in 1960, the shipyard was joined by the Navy’s largest nuclear testing lab.
Ships that were targets ofnuclear blast exercises were hauled to docks a few feet from a thriving community. More than 600,000 gallons of nuclear fuel was burned there.
The Environmental Protection Agency listed the abandoned shipyard as a toxic Superfund site in 1989. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory’s activities “contaminated soil, dust, sediments, surface water and groundwater with petroleum fuels, pesticides, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),” the agency said.
The Navy disputes that the site harmsthe health of area residents. Doctors who launched an effort to test families for exposure disagree.
“It’s getting to where we can look at someone’s urine and tell they’re from Bayview,” said Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a doctor whose office in the community is plastered with maps and pins showing the locations of people who tested positive for a variety of chemicals.
“The toxic burden is the same in the community whether among White women, Chinese American males or African American women,” Sumchai said.
Arieann Harrison, one of Sumchai’s patients, pressed her nose against a fence at the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard near her home.
Harrison believes the bay’s strong winds have blown trace amounts of contaminated soil from the base throughout her community. Sumchai and another doctor tested her urine and detected several of the chemicals found at the shipyard.
“We’ve got people like Arieann who have eight, nine, ten chemicals in toxic concentrations,” Sumchai said.
For years, Harrison’s mother, the late civil rights crusader Marie Harrison, claimed that the site was “a disaster in slow motion.”
The Harrisons lived on Quesada Street. Arieann’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, Sumchai said. Her father suffered from prostate cancer and died of colon cancer. Her mother, a nonsmoker, died of pulmonary fibrosis at age 71.
In 2018, lawsuits started to fly. A class-action lawsuit seeking damages of $27 billion swelled to 3,000 plaintiffs. Buyers of condominiums and townhouses built near the site sued the developer for failing to disclose the extent of the contamination.
The developers erred in relying on a faulty soil analysis to press ahead with the project. Tetra Tech, a New Jersey engineering firm hired by the Navy to analyze the site and remediate any ground that was radioactive, faces numerous lawsuits.
Three years before owners started taking possession of the homes in 2015, whistleblowers came forward to accuse the engineering firm of fraud. In 2018, a judge sentenced two of its supervisors, Stephen C. Rolfe and Justin E. Hubbard, to 18 months in prison after they pleaded guilty to swapping contaminated soil at the site with clean soil from another.
From grandma to activist
After a second marriage to Ben Gordon, Margaret Gordon left Hunters Point for Oakland in the late 1980s.
Within seven years, Gordon would transition from being a maid who cleaned houses to one of the Bay Area’s fiercest environmental justice activists.
Gordon never saw West Oakland in its heyday. Janice Adam, a friend, could only describe it to her. Adam was one of the few Black kids who grew up in a suburb, Berkeley, because of restrictive housing covenants and rental discrimination that kept African Americans at bay.
But she spent most of her time in West Oakland. That’s where her grandmother lived in a big, three-level house with several bedrooms and a convenience store on the first floor.
“Oh my God, the backyard,” Adam said, “a real backyard that you don’t see in California anymore. It had fruit trees. She had chickens. We got eggs from there.”
Her cousin lived next door. “We played in the street until dark,” Adam said. “I remember the neighborhood. The neighbors really knew each other.”
After she left to attend Howard University in the early 1980s, West Oakland started to lose its pulse and its color.
The Cypress Freeway, which cut through the community and divided neighbors, left a deep wound that eventually drove residents away. The Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority also built an above ground station that ran along West Oakland’s center of commerce on 7th Street, turning its vibrant business hub into a dead zone.
Residents found it odd that BART trains ran underground through downtown San Francisco and under as much as 135 feet of water in a tube on the floor of the San Francisco Bay, only to rise above ground for a single stop in West Oakland. Customers stopped patronizing a jazz club because they couldn’t hear the music because of the frequent rumble from trains.
The trains immediately go back underground under downtown Oakland and Berkeley.
With the loss of shipping jobs and homeowner flight, the housing stock rotted. Drug crime moved in with deadly results. At the lowest point, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was gunned down by a suspected crack cocaine dealer in 1989.
Maceo Bell lived through it all.
Watching the decline, Bell didn’t greet BART’s arrival as an eyesore; he saw it as a blessing that brought jobs. Bell, 63, said he worked there for 17 years before losinghis job.
He inherited a house from his grandfather but struggled to pay the mortgage because he couldn’t find work. “I took out a loan I never should have took, lost a job and lost the house,” Bell said as he putted golf balls in a park with friends.
His playing partner, Frank Newton, told a similar story about house he inherited. “I couldn’t get loans,” said Newton, 65. “I didn’t qualify. I was about to lose the house, so I sold.”
Margaret Gordon arrived just before a seismic event shook West Oakland. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down portions of the double-decker San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and its connector, the Cypress Freeway.
For a second time, Caltrans essentially ignored West Oakland’s pleas against rebuilding the freeway through the community. The agency vowed to build back bigger — even though in an affluent part of San Francisco, it relented to city wishes and tore down the quake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway.
While preparing the upgrades to the West Oakland freeway in 1996, workers started in a park and unearthed a colorless, carcinogenic gas called vinyl chloride — the same toxic gas that towered over East Palestine following the Ohio train derailment this year.
Surlene Grant, who worked as a community relations officer for Caltrans at the time and went on to become an elected supervisor for the city of San Leandro, said the agency sought to minimize the threat by saying the gas was common.
“I said I’m not going to do that. They said, ‘Yes you are,’” she recalled
After the story broke, Gordon attended a public hearing on it. At the time, “She was, like, a house cleaner,” Grant said. “She was not the most articulate person,” but she knew how to raise her voice.
The Cypress Freeway was not rebuilt. Activists and city officials pushed Caltrans to rout it around West Oakland.
Gordon, who trained with the Pacific Institute to understand the pollution risk throughout West Oakland, went on to co-found the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project with Brian Beveridge in 2004. In 2010, she was named to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act advisory panel, and also won a $100,000 AARP Purpose Prize honoring people over 50 who are “working to build a better future.”
In 2017, California lawmakers passed landmark legislation — Assembly Bill 617 — to address the health impact of polluting infrastructure in California’s urban communities. Gordon was ready to seize the moment.
The indicator project worked with technology companies to measure pollution block by block, when few groups did that kind of air monitoring, with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District joining the effort.
At a recent meeting in West Oakland attended by Gordon, city officials discussed how they are integrating the city’s new general plan with AB 617, aiming to better regulate polluters and improve health outcomes in the community.
In tandem with the air district and other partners, the city will study housing inequality, the quality of the air people breathe indoors and whether housing codes are adequately enforced.
“Our staff is pretty excited about this opportunity to leverage our work,” said Veronica Eady, senior deputy executive officer for policy and equity at the Bay Area air district, which worked closely with Gordon on the project.
After decades of battles, Gordon is hopeful that Oakland can rectify some of the past damage. But how quickly that can happen is another matter.
“I ain’t got but 15 more years myself,” she added. “If they can’t do it in 15 more years, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Bill Analysis, by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources:
THIS BILL increases the maximum civil penalty applicable to a refinery for discharging air pollutants in violation of Section 41700, without regard to intent or injury, from $10,000 per day to $30,000 for the initial date of the violation, or $100,000 for the initial date of a second violation within 12 months, subject to conditions… [MORE]
The Bill’s text, history, status: AB-1897, Nonvehicular air pollution control: refineries: penalties