Retired miners screwed over in coal bankruptcy plan

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There was plenty in the complex deal to benefit bankers, lawyers, executives, and hedge fund managers. Patriot Coal Corporation was bankrupt, but its mines would be auctioned to pay off mounting debts while financial engineering would generate enough cash to cover the cost of the proceedings.

When the plan was filed in the U.S. bankruptcy court in Richmond last week, however, one group didn’t come out so well: 208 retired miners, wives, and widows in southern Indiana who have no direct connection to Patriot Coal. Millions of dollars earmarked for their healthcare as they age would effectively be diverted instead to legal fees and other bills from the bankruptcy.

As coal companies go bankrupt or shut down throughout Appalachia and parts of the Midwest, the immediate fallout includes lost jobs and devastated communities. But the Indiana case stands out as an example of how financial deals hatched far from coal country can also endanger the future safety net.

At issue is health insurance promised to people who worked for the Squaw Creek Coal Company in Warrick County, Ind., near Evansville, who, like other retired union miners, counted on coverage after they turned 55.

“We were assured as miners we would have lifetime healthcare benefits — no one ever envisioned that we would have to worry about these other things that were going on,” said Bil Musgrave, 59, one of the retired miners in Indiana. “A lot of them depend entirely on this.”

Secure health insurance has been one casualty of the wave of bankruptcies. Companies in decline are seeking to off-load those obligations onto taxpayers, putting more stress on an already-strained federal safety net. An effort is underway in Congress to protect at least some families facing a loss in benefits because of the industry’s turmoil, but its prospects are unclear.

Squaw Creek, where Musgrave started working almost 40 years ago, opened as a joint venture between Alcoa and Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company. The unionized surface mine in Warrick County, Ind., near Evansville, powered Alcoa’s huge aluminum plant nearby. The venture mostly petered out by the late 1990s, though mining has since resumed in the same area, using non-union miners.

Under their union contract, miners who worked at least 20 years at Squaw Creek were entitled to a pension and to healthcare coverage once they reached 55. For many of those who are still under 65, this coverage is what they rely on; for those who are on Medicare, it offers a supplement to cover the extensive healthcare costs many of them now face. Some suffer from black lung disease, while others, including Musgrave, have fought cancers they believe are linked to industrial waste dumps at Squaw Creek.

The Squaw Creek miners thought little of it when, in 2007, Peabody passed what remained of its Alcoa venture — some environmental reclamation work at the mine — to an offshoot called Heritage Coal, a subsidiary of a new entity Peabody created called Patriot Coal. The healthcare obligation for the retirees was assumed by Alcoa, which paid Patriot to administer the benefits.

The United Mine Workers of America estimates this has been costing Alcoa about $2 million per year to cover the 208 miners, wives, and widows.

But here’s where the financial engineering got complicated and ultimately threatened those benefits: Peabody also transferred to Patriot 13 percent of its coal reserves, and about 40 percent of its healthcare liabilities — the obligations for 8,400 former Peabody workers. A year later, Patriot was loaded up with even more costs when it acquired Magnum Coal, a subsidiary of the country’s second-largest mining company, Arch Coal. This left Patriot with responsibility for another 2,300 retirees, and, by 2012, total liabilities of $1.37 billion.

It looked as if Patriot had been set up to fail, and in 2013 it in fact did, seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Patriot emerged from bankruptcy later that year after getting an investment stake from a New York hedge fund called Knighthead Capital Management. Patriot also reached a deal with the mine workers union to have it take over responsibility for the health care of those nearly 11,000 retirees, with a promise of about $310 million from Patriot to help cover the cost.

Still, the deal wasn’t enough to keep Patriot healthy. With the industry contracting even further amid competition from natural gas, tougher environmental regulations, and declining coals reserves in Appalachia, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yet again earlier this year. This time, its assets are being auctioned off.

Back in Indiana, there was no reason for the retired Squaw Creek miners to think their benefits were at risk from the Patriot bankruptcy, since they were being paid by Alcoa, a thriving company with $24 billion in annual revenue. But last week, Patriot’s lawyers, from the firm Kirkland & Ellis, made two filings at the bankruptcy court in Richmond that caught the union and the retired miners by surprise.

In the filings, the lawyers informed the court that Patriot (or technically, its subsidiary Heritage) had negotiated a $22 million payment from Alcoa to assume the outstanding healthcare obligations for the Squaw Creek workers. The deal offers savings to Alcoa, given that the actuarial cost of the benefits is $40 million.

But here’s the catch: Patriot is not putting the $22 million toward the Squaw Creek healthcare benefits. According to the court filings, only $4 million will go toward that purpose — $1 million for the benefits of former salaried managers at the mine, and $3 million for the rank-and-file miners.

The rest of the money from Alcoa — $18 million — is going to cover the costs of the bankruptcy. This includes the fees for Kirkland & Ellis, which has at least four attorneys from New York and Chicago on the case, and the Washington, D.C. restructuring advisory firm Alvarez & Marsal. The agreement with Alcoa, one filing states, “allows the debtors [that is, Patriot] to obtain cash in the amount of $22,000,000, which will be critical for funding the debtors’ costs associated with emerging from Chapter 11.”

In other words, the cash for healthcare benefits guaranteed to miners who never worked for Patriot Coal — who live in a state far from Patriot’s base in West Virginia — is now being used to pay the bills of lawyers and other professionals overseeing the break-up of Patriot Coal.

The Kirkland & Ellis lawyers on the case either did not return calls and emails or declined to comment. A spokesperson for Patriot said the company “has no further comment” beyond the filings. An Alcoa spokesperson said that company also had no comment. Knighthead, the hedge fund behind Patriot, did not return calls.

Under Patriot’s agreement with Alcoa, the Squaw Creek workers will be added to the larger pool of retirees covered under the union’s 2013 agreement with Patriot. The people in that pool, who now number about 12,000, get health insurance from the union-supervised Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association. But Patriot’s $3 million contribution to the beneficiary fund will only cover about 18 months of benefits for the Squaw Creek miners — putting more stress on a fund that is already expected to run dry in a few years.

The union is pushing legislation in Congress that would put the 12,000 Peabody/Patriot retirees into yet another fund that has since 1992 been covering union retirees from shuttered mines. That fund was for years fed by the interest from fees coal companies were paying to restore abandoned mines, but since 2006 it has been buttressed by $490 million per year in taxpayer money. The bill has 54 co-sponsors, but is still awaiting a hearing in the House.

Meanwhile, Patriot’s deal with Alcoa, and its plan to put most of the money toward bankruptcy costs, goes before the bankruptcy court Monday in Richmond for approval.

“What we’re seeing here is a very shady deal to deprive 200-plus elderly and working Americans of the benefits they’ve earned so that these lawyers can put money in their pockets,” said union spokesperson Phil Smith.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

Congress just missed a chance to help hungry kids. Here’s what happened

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Sept. 30 was the deadline for Congress to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act — the school lunch law. Congress didn’t do so. Here’s what that means, why it matters, and what could happen next.

What is this law?

Legislators concerned about obesity and hunger passed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. It amended the original school lunch law from 1945, providing more money for food and setting stricter nutritional standards. It also provided some support for schools to tap into local food systems.

Michelle Obama and the School Nutrition Association — a group representing cafeteria workers and school lunch coordinators — championed the bill. But the SNA and Obama have turned from allies to foes as they differed on interpreting the law’s mandates. The SNA has said that the law’s requirements for reducing salt and increasing whole grains are so strict that some kids have stopped eating the lunches, while Obama’s team has argued that we need to take bold steps to improve America’s diet.

Congress blew past the deadline — what happens now?

Nothing! The funding for the existing programs will continue, and the deadlines for meeting the law’s requirements will stand as they are. The reauthorization deadline is basically a reminder to lawmakers that they should look closely at the school lunch program and see what needs to be done. But both the SNA, and the various food advocacy groups I talked to, want a reauthorization, and see it as an opportunity to increase funding. If this pinchpenny Congress doesn’t go for that — or does nothing, which is its favorite answer to all questions — then the law just stands as is.

Why does this matter?

Feeding kids is a way to fight poverty and reduce the burden of food-related disease on the nation’s and our households’ budgets. In 2012, diabetes cost U.S. residents $245 billion, and the cost of obesity was estimated at $168 billion in 2010. (For comparison, the federal government spends about $140 billion a year on science, research, and development of new technology.) Without good food, kids get diet-related diseases, and they don’t learn as well. This has alarmed both business leaders — who want well-educated employees — and military leaders. In a document called “Too Fat To Fight,” a group of retired generals has argued that diet-related disease is hurting the country’s armed forces.

In a speech last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack argued for re-upping the Act with more programs, saying:

I think I can make the case that what we are discussing today is significant in relationship to national security — and it’s not the Iranian nuclear deal. I think I can make the case that it’s central to the economic competitiveness of the United States in the future — especially against our Asian competitors, and it’s not the Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions that will take place in Congress this month. And I think I can make the case that this is a way in which we can significantly reduce expenditures in health care — and it’s not protecting the importance of the Affordable Care Act from any budget gimmicks that may take place. This is important work.

Now, it’s easy to make the case that something needs to be done to reduce diet-related disease. It’s harder to argue that the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is that something. But the general idea looks right on paper: The evidence suggests that if we want to trim America’s waistline, we can forget about the gluten-free fad and concentrate on getting healthy food to the people who might not otherwise eat it.

Will we get a reauthorization?

On the one hand, it seems unlikely that the current Congress will do anything. On the other hand, maybe the fact that lawmakers are refusing to collaborate on other bills will force them to search for something that they can find some kind of bipartisan agreement on.

“This is one of the last bipartisan issues. And, especially for a new Speaker [of the House] going into a difficult year, I think it behooves Congress to work on an issue that benefits thousands of kids in every district,” Ellen Teller, director of government affairs for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Council, told me.

What would better-late-than-never reauthorization look like?

One draft proposal would provide money so that needy kids in pre-schools more than eight hours a day could have two snacks and a lunch (right now the government pays for one snack and a lunch). There are also efforts to make it easier for kids to get food over the summer. Teller would like to see some simple fixes to reduce the amount of paperwork kids need to get these benefits, and that organizations need to do to provide them. Groups like the SNA and the National School Boards Association want more wiggle room in the nutritional guidelines, and more money to improve food service.

The politics

Republicans and Democrats are working together on most of the ideas proposed for the reauthorization. The one sticking point is the question of whether to dial back the nutrition standards. And it’s not all the standards: There are just a couple of very specific challenges that the school nutrition people are having with salt and whole grains.

Rhonda McCullick, the director of food service operations for the Park Hill School District in Missouri, told me that her kitchens went to 100 percent whole grains initially, but when they saw that kids stopped eating certain foods, they dialed that back. Now they use white flour for breadsticks and for rotini; all the other breads and pastas are whole grains. When it comes to salt, Park Hill is meeting the requirements, but those requirements are slated to tighten. “Our ninth to twelfth graders get less than 1,420 milligrams of sodium a day. That is probably lower than you eat at home unless you are on a low-sodium diet,” said McCullick, who is also a dietitian. “We are at a very healthy and good level.”

There’s always a lot of dispute about what is healthy when it comes to diet — it’s just not an exact science. But Teller points out that the Institute of Medicine, a highly respected body, set the recommendations. “The Institute of Medicine is the entity that decides, and the USDA implements, and I think that’s how it should be,” she said. “Not Congress inserting its will.”

A different way of thinking?

So far, the debate over this act has made it look like a zero-sum game: Do we make it easier for the schools and jeopardize childrens’ health? Or champion health and force schools and kids to bite the bullet of whole-wheat breadsticks?

But a recent piece in the New York Times suggested that it might be possible to have a little more flexibility in the foods that schools serve children, and improve health at the same time. Kate Murphy, the journalist who did that analysis, wrote:

Consider that in France, where the childhood obesity rate is the lowest in the Western world, a typical four-course school lunch (cucumber salad with vinaigrette, salmon lasagna with spinach, fondue with baguette for dipping and fruit compote for dessert) would probably not pass muster under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, because of the refined grains, fat, salt and calories. Nor would the weekly piece of dark chocolate cake.

Instead of pushing strict compliance, perhaps schools should take a page out of France’s book and teach moderation, while giving students more time to enjoy their food, Murphy suggests.

America’s school lunch programs have already improved a lot, and at this point we are down to some relatively small sticking points. If there were any room for compromise on the act’s targets, it might allow a reauthorization bill to pass.

Filed under: Article, Food, Politics

Whole Foods will stop selling food made by prisoners

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Earlier this week, Whole Foods announced plans to stop selling food products that use prison labor by the end of April 2016. Two products sold at Whole Foods — goat cheese made by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Talipia fish from Quixotic Farming — came under fire for using inmate labor in Colorado.

NPR reports:

In an email, Whole Food’s spokesperson Michael Silverman tells The Salt that the company liked the idea of employing inmates. “We felt that supporting supplier partners who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet,” he writes.

But Silverman says, “we have heard from some shoppers and members of the community that they were uncomfortable with Whole Foods Market’s sourcing products produced with inmate labor.”

Of course, the companies that make the two products will continue using prison labor; they’ll just have to sell it somewhere other than Whole Foods. Haystack Moutain Goat Dairy, for instance, also sells its cheese at Natural Grocers, King Soopers, and Murray’s.

John Scaggs of Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy defended its use of inmate labor to NPR: “This is a model example of a prison-work program … By purchasing goat’s milk from the facility [that uses prison labor], we’re supporting … rehabilitative incarceration.”

What Scaggs is not mentioning is that inmates start out making about $1 a day, with incentives that can go ALL the way up to about $1.50 an hour! Inmates then use that money to buy anything behind bars from extra food in between meals to a co-pay to see a doctor (which can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 a visit). There’s also no remedy or way out if the inmates are mistreated while working.

Hey, Scaggs, if it’s really about rehabilitation (and we don’t believe you), let’s start with paying them a fair wage.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food

Tar-sands oil mining has now come to the U.S.

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The Canadian tar sands, or oil sands, are much more carbon-laden than most other fossil fuels produced in North America, and their possible outsized impact on the climate is one of the primary reasons the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar-sands oil to Texas refineries, is so controversial.

Despite long odds as oil prices continue their dip below $50 per barrel, commercial tar-sands mining is coming for the first time to the U.S., where an Alberta company called U.S. Oil Sands has begun producing tar sands from a mine in eastern Utah.


Up to 76 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil may be locked up in deposits of thick claylike and hydrocarbon-laced sand called bitumen beneath the state’s red rock canyon country, according to University of Utah estimates. (The Canadian oil industry refers to the sticky bitumen as “oil sands,” but in the U.S., the federal government usestar sands,” a name the Canadian industry considers pejorative because it is used by its critics.)

Oil price volatility makes tar-sands development in Utah — the only state in the U.S. with large deposits of it — uncertain. But if successful, it will be a historic moment in the history of oil and gas production in the U.S.

“There have been numerous attempts to develop the oil-sands resource in Uintah County, Utah, over the past eight decades,” Jennifer Spinti, a research associate professor for the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy at the University of Utah, said. “While the oil sands have been exploited commercially for use as a paving material, no company has ever produced bitumen at a commercial scale.”

If the industry does gain a foothold in the U.S., the climate implications could be significant.

In evaluating the climate impacts of Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department concluded that Canadian tar-sands production is 17 percent more carbon intensive than production of an average barrel of oil. In June, a group of 100 scientists called for a moratorium on tar-sands development, saying it is incompatible with stabilizing the climate and meeting greenhouse gas reductions targets.

But U.S. Oil Sands, which did not respond to requests for comment, is moving ahead with production, even as tar-sands producers in Canada struggle to make a profit as crude oil prices fall.

U.S. Oil Sands, which has acquired the rights to produce tar sands at mines on 50 square miles of land between Salt Lake City and Moab, Utah, plans to produce 2,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of the year, according to documents the company filed with Canadian securities regulators.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management

“This is a breakthrough in technology,” U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd told the Associated Press. “If we’re able to demonstrate to the investment world that this is possible, there are many, many places where this could be done.”

The economic winds are blowing hard against the company, however.

Spinti’s 2013 economic assessment for Utah tar-sands development shows that any mine producing 50,000 barrels per day would be unprofitable even when West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices are above $100 per barrel. On Thursday, the WTI price was about $45.

“I expect that all oil-sands operations, both in the U.S. and Canada, will find the economic climate to be very difficult in the near term,” Spinti said.

Other challenges facing future tar-sands development in Utah include climate policy, environmental regulations, complications with land ownership, and the remoteness of some of the tar-sands deposits, she said.

A tar-sands seep at a Utah tar-sands mine.Argonne National Laboratory

“Some of the federal lands containing oil-sands resources are located in national parks, national monuments, wilderness, and wilderness study areas, so those areas would not be developable,” Spinti said. “However, the state has shown significant interest in developing the oil-sands resources on its lands and there are private landowners interested in development as well.”

From a climate perspective, any kind of tar-sands development in the U.S. would present a threat to the globe’s ability to meet climate goals, said Paul Ekins, a professor of resources and environmental policy at University College London.

Ekins published a study in the journal Nature in January showing that most Canadian tar sands would have to be left in the ground in order for the globe to cost-effectively keep global warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

“The world is awash with fossil fuels, so if we are to get a handle on climate change, any new production of hydrocarbons will have to be balanced by reduced production elsewhere,” Ekins said. “Those who wish to produce U.S. oil sands should therefore be asked which fossil fuel production elsewhere they will substitute for.”

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

MacArthur winner wants to make clean energy with fake leaves

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What’s the difference between an artificial leaf and a solar panel? This isn’t the setup for a joke; it’s an actual question. Although believe me — that’s not for lack of trying.

The difference is that a solar panel turns sunlight into electricity, and an artificial leaf turns sunlight into fuel. (Ba dum tss!) This is an important distinction, because as much as we humans love our electricity, we’re not very good at storing it, and that’s a problem, because electricity can be as ephemeral as your college roommate’s desire to read Infinite Jest. The nice thing about fuel is that it is an energy storage device — that is, it stores the energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of the fuel itself. This is what plants do when they convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and sugar (fuel), hence the term “artificial leaf.”

Another important difference between a solar panel and an artificial leaf is that you can actually buy a solar panel. Artificial leaf technology is still in research mode, but it won’t be for long if Peidong Yang has anything to say about it.

Yang, a professor of energy and chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipients. His lab has developed a “leaf” that uses nanowires between 100 and 1,000 times thinner than a human hair to capture sunlight. Bacteria cultured among the nanowires then use that sunlight to convert CO2 into oxygen and fuels like methane and butanol.

The Los Angeles Times recently caught up with Yang to discuss the technology and his hopes for the future:

How close are you to being able to use artificial photosynthesis on a large scale?

This year, we finally came up with a first-generation, fully-functional system — and that’s after 10 years of research. We demonstrated its feasibility, but in terms of robustness and cost and efficiency, it is not close to being commercially viable.

To do basic research, we have to be patient. I’m a big believer that discovery cannot be planned. It requires support from the government and industry. It will take the work of one or two generations of talented people to solve this problem.

Do you think artificial photosynthesis can ever compete with natural photosynthesis?

We want to learn from nature, but we have to be better than nature.

It took evolution millions of years to get green plants and leaves to their current stage, but their solar-to-chemical-energy efficiency is not that high. All they need to do is make enough energy to survive. To come up with a commercially viable technology, we have to do better than that.

Is that possible?

Theoretically, it is certainly possible. In solar panels the energy conversion efficiency is above 20%, much higher than what is happening in leaves. So in terms of design, we have the advantage — nature doesn’t have silicon to use. We do.

Yang isn’t the only one working on an artificial leaf. Earlier this year, a group at Caltech demonstrated an artificial leaf that could turn sunlight into hydrogen fuel at a relatively high efficiency. Their prototype is still too expensive for the market, but it was a promising proof of concept.

OK, OK — I got it: An internal combustion engine, an artificial leaf, and a solar panel walk into a bar.

The internal combustion engine orders a Sidecar, and the artificial leaf orders a Tequila Sunrise.

The bartender looks at the solar panel. “And another Sunrise for you?”

“No, thanks. It’ll go right through me.”

Filed under: Business & Technology, Science

Meet the drought-stricken communities of California’s San Joaquin Valley

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This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It is part one of a three-part series on the future of the San Joaquin Valley’s unincorporated communities.

Bulmario Tapia Madrigal doesn’t want to shower in a stream of dirt. He doesn’t want to cook with bottled water, haul a bucketful to flush the toilet, or wonder if he has enough water to clean the diabetes wounds on his feet. But since his well went dry three months ago, that’s how life has been.

Some relief is coming for the 70-year-old orange picker. On a dry August afternoon, he zips his motorized wheelchair up and down his driveway, anxiously watching a crew of workers. They’re nearly finished connecting his pipes to a new emergency water-storage tank in his front yard, so large it casts a shadow over Madrigal’s red-trimmed bungalow.

“Over by the bakery, there’s a lady who has lived like this for two years,” Madrigal says in Spanish. He sweeps his arm toward the street, where the dusty front yards of neighbors are also occupied by hulking water tanks. “Anyone who used a well before no longer can.”

This is not a developing nation. This is East Porterville, Calif., where more than 500 wells have dried up since the beginning of the state’s worst-on-record drought four years ago. It’s home to most of the 1,675 wells (and counting) that are sucking dirt in Tulare County. Tulare is one of the eight inland counties that make up the San Joaquin Valley, the richest agricultural region in the world.

Tulare County has been working with local nonprofits to provide and refill storage tanks for low-income families who’ve run out of well water. There are an estimated 1,750 households in East Porterville, and at least 35 percent of residents live in poverty. For people like Madrigal, the tanks are literally lifesavers.

But they’re also a mark of disparity. If it weren’t for those tanks, you might never know that where Madrigal lives is separate from the city of Porterville. Even though his address reads “Porterville,” he lives on unincorporated county land adjacent to municipal limits. That means he is just beyond the reach of Porterville’s formal water district, which has continued to serve its more than 16,000 customers with clean, running water without issue throughout the drought.


Dry wells are spreading beyond East Porterville. There is a pattern to the spread: Poor, unincorporated, predominantly non-white communities are the ones struggling. Caught between city and county, water issues are nothing new to these densely settled places. Many have dealt with a lack of appropriate water infrastructure — and contaminated supplies — for decades. The drought is only the newest, most visible layer in a strata of disparities.

“The land is half and half here,” Madrigal says. “Half dry, half alive.”

Madrigal and his neighbors have long relied on wells that pump water from the ground, the same reserves used by surrounding farms to keep crops lush. Since the beginning of the drought, farmers have drilled their wells deeper, sucking up more of the ground supply. With scarce rain, the aquifer hasn’t been recharged. Tulare County’s water table is shallow, relative to other parts of the San Joaquin Valley. So more and more wells are coming up empty.

A heat map of dry wells in Tulare County.CSET / CityLab

It’s tempting to call what’s happening here a slow-motion natural disaster. It is also tempting to point the finger at farmers, as so much media coverage of the drought has.

But those hit hardest by the drought have been vulnerable for decades. The San Joaquin Valley’s history of Wild West land-use planning, its governance structures, and the political disenfranchisement of an entire class of citizens have created a human-made crisis.

The sprawling, underserved San Joaquin Valley

A recent report by the California nonprofit PolicyLink counted 525 poor, densely populated, unincorporated communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley, inhabited by some 310,000 people. Some, like East Porterville, are on the fringes of larger towns. Others are islands within city limits. And still others are scattered to the hinterlands, far from anywhere else.

Sixty-five percent of the population in these places are people of color. Sixty-four percent are low-income.

Waves of black and Latino farmworkers settled many of these communities in the first half of the 20th century, sometimes living in tents or shacks until they had the means to build their own homes. Until the 1960s, land use — an authority reserved for local governments in California — was almost totally deregulated in the region. Hundreds of subdivisions sprang up throughout the San Joaquin Valley, with little thought about the future impact of disconnected sprawl.

Disadvantaged unincorporated communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley.PolicyLink

Many of these places probably looked good to poor farmworkers: inexpensive, close to the fields, with low taxes and little government oversight. Outside the city, you could keep the kinds of animals you wanted, and the kinds of vehicles. What land-use restrictions existed were barely enforced.

“There are lots of good reasons to build outside the city,” says Eric Coyne, an official with the Tulare County Resource Management Agency. “At one point, a shallow well might have been sufficient for a family.”

It’s true: For most of the past century in California, there has been rain to replenish groundwater supplies. And there used to be more surface water. East Porterville, for example, is just across from the once-overflowing Tule River.

Carrie Bonner was seeking field work and an affordable place to live when she came to the Fresno County subdivision of Lanare in 1948. At that time, it was mainly her family and other black families, settling in substandard farmworker housing until they’d saved enough to buy some land.

“You got to choose where you put your house,” the 91-year-old says. “There was no one saying, ‘Go here’ or ‘Go here.’ You dug your well. It was a community effort.”

Lanare sits right next to Riverdale, a wealthier community settled at around the same time by white dairy owners. Some research suggests that Riverdale real-estate agents excluded people of color from settling there in the first half of the 20th century, or at least encouraged them to look elsewhere. Certainly, the poverty that these farmworkers faced locked them out of pricier lots. Elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley, racially restrictive covenants did expressly keep people of color out of white communities.

Michelle Anderson, a Stanford University public law scholar who focuses on state and local governments, writes in the UCLA Law Review about the development of these subdivisions:

Neglect by white officials, often compounded by community need to keep housing costs low, resulted in a lack of rudimentary infrastructure, including paved streets, sewers, utilities, and water. These unplanned, unregulated communities retained a rural character — embodied by backyard husbandry and subsistence farming — that reflected the importance of self-sufficiency during times of employment insecurity.

Over the years, that government neglect was explicit in some cases. An ordinance in Tulare County’s 1971 general plan (updated only within the last decade) is particularly grim, intentionally aiming investment away from 15 poor, unincorporated communities — assuming that they would eventually depopulate. The plan reads:

Public commitments to communities with little or no authentic future should be carefully examined before final action is initiated. These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities.

Today, 13 of those “non-viable” communities are still around. They include Seville, which went into a water shortage emergency during the week in August that I visited the San Joaquin Valley. They also include East Orosi, Farmersville, Yettem, Monson, and Exeter — all places where wells have dried up in the last year. Far from disappearing, some of these communities have even grown since the 1970s, surviving on the insufficient infrastructure that marked them for disinvestment. Many are now adjacent to cities that crept up toward them. By density measures, some read like suburbs. They are not temporary places, as Tulare County had hoped.

Clearly, steering funds away has not encouraged residents to “depart”: Property values are so low that it’s hard for residents to move, even if they wanted to.

Which not everyone does. The characteristics that attracted residents to county subdivisions in the first place — their low cost, minimal government oversight, and spirit of self-sufficiency — still appeal. Many residents retain a good deal of pride in a place they’ve built with their own hands.

Yet for water (and other types of infrastructure), many of these poor, county subdivisions remain largely self-reliant — using either small, private wells, like in East Porterville, or community water systems that source from a few larger, common wells. The recent drought is hardly the first time that access to drinking water from these wells has been compromised.

When water is available, it’s not always safe to drink

Surrounded by farmland, many unincorporated communities have had fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock waste leaking into their groundwater for decades. The San Joaquin Valley has the highest rates of drinking water contamination in the state, and the largest number of public water systems found in violation of EPA limits for nitrates, arsenic, fecal coliform bacteria, and other contaminants. The health effects can be severe.

Unincorporated places are particularly at risk for contamination, since their wells tend to be shallower. The drought is exacerbating this problem: With less water, concentrations of groundwater contaminants are spiking.

All of this, despite the fact that California has legally declared that every citizen has a right to safe drinking water.

In Isabel Solorio’s spartan kitchen in Lanare, the countertops are lined with plastic gallon jugs of water. Solorio stands at her sink, letting water run from the tap. “Sometimes it’s slimy,” the 50-year-old says, rubbing her fingers in the stream. She puts her fingertips to her nose, hesitantly. The water has a faint sulfuric mustiness.


In the nearly 28 years she’s lived here, Solorio says she can’t remember a time when the water was safe to drink. Levels of arsenic (which occurs naturally, unlike nitrates from runoff) in Lanare’s water supply are are well above the EPA limit. For her, the drought is just another piece of a world in disorder. “The atmosphere and the Earth are sick,” she says in Spanish, looking out the kitchen window. There’s a children’s play structure in her yard and a sea of alfalfa fields beyond it. “And people are sick. All these dots connect.”

In addition to cleaning houses for a living, Solorio has acted as Lanare’s lead community activist, convening residents and legal advocates on a monthly basis to fight for safe drinking water and other basic services (Lanare also lacks a sewage system, street lights, and sidewalks).

In 2002, the community won a $1.3 million federal grant to construct an arsenic treatment plant, which took five years to build. But the project was mismanaged, and after the plant opened, operational costs skyrocketed for the low-income community of 600. The plant ran for just six months before shutting down, and now sits disused in a chain-link cage next to Lanare’s community center. The community’s water system — which sources from two common wells — then went into state receivership.

The water that comes out of residents’ taps is not safe to drink. Yet Solorio and her neighbors still pay $54 a month for their water bills, largely to pay off debts incurred by the plant. Meanwhile, they rely on jugs of water delivered and paid for by the state.

Will the plant ever come back into commission? Phoebe Seaton, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which provides legal and advocacy services to Lanare, darkly jokes that the best solution might be to turn it into a jungle gym.

The county won’t budge

It’s not clear how Lanare is going to move forward. In the absence of a formal town government, a special “community services district” is supposed to run Lanare’s water system after its receivership ends. That “CSD” consists of volunteers, one of whom is Solorio’s husband, who also works full-time as a contract welder on farms. Right now the CSD doesn’t even have enough members to constitute a quorum.

Could the county intervene? Lanare residents say that officials had hardly even visited until last July, when Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes sat down for a meeting in the community center after repeated invitations. Residents aired their grievances, and Mendes listened. But when one resident asked what concrete steps he was was going to take to resolve Lanare’s problems, “he told them the best thing that could happen was that he had come there,” Veronica Garibay, the Leadership Counsel’s other co-director, recalls.

Mendes says he thought it was a productive meeting. “I told them to straighten out their affairs,” he says. He feels Lanare is on its way to being solvent, and “fixing its culture so that everyone pays their water bills,” a concept that had to be “pounded into people.” Beyond that, Mendes says it’s up to the community to figure out how to get their needs met.

County governments in the San Joaquin Valley aren’t legally responsible for providing urban infrastructure, nor are they set up to do so. “We could have designed government schemes where counties are really tailored to rural government, but by and large we didn’t,” says Anderson, the Stanford legal scholar. She points to 1964’s “One Man, One Vote” U.S. Supreme Court decision (currently being challenged) as a critical reason that it’s so difficult for rural areas to leverage county resources. When it comes to voting on how money is allocated, city voters outnumber rural voters heavily.

When asked how Fresno County might be able to help Lanare obtain safe drinking water, Bernard Jimenez, Fresno County’s deputy director of planning, echoes Mendes’ sentiment. “The county does not have the resources or the funding to provide services to all the unincorporated communities,” he says. “That’s just the way it works.”


But compare the people who are supposed to run Lanare’s water system to the fully trained, paid employees of a municipal water district.

Then add to that the challenge and cost of maintaining a safe water system — an inherently expensive endeavor, even more so for a poor community of 600 that lacks economy of scale — and it’s incredible that the residents of Lanare have made it this far.

It’s even more incredible that, as the drought drags on and water becomes all the more precious, there’s been little meaningful government intervention.

“It is inspiring for people to go these distances without government support, in a country where so many forms of infrastructure are subsidized through taxes,” says Anderson. “But there are limits to individual self-reliance. There are things people cannot build all by themselves.”

City connections

Government neglect in the San Joaquin Valley’s unincorporated communities is certainly not limited to counties. As cities in the San Joaquin Valley grew and annexed more surrounding land, they often avoided the poorest communities as they did so. That’s generally how “island” communities — unincorporated patches within city limits — formed.

For those communities, and for those like East Porterville on the fringes of larger cities, the question of why the city can’t just extend some pipes can seem bewildering.

At the chain-link fence at the front of his property, Madrigal points to a clearing of pines just beyond the last house on his street. “Just right over there is the supply cut-off,” he says. “I believe there’s water for the town. It’s just this area that’s left off.”

The workers in his yard finish their work. They flip the switch on the pump they’ve installed and water starts coursing through Madrigal’s pipes for the first time in months. He tells me I can go inside to check the kitchen sink. I flip the handle up. Sure enough, water flows out, clean and pure. But Madrigal’s supply is limited to what’s in the tank. So I quickly turn off the tap.

The drought is dragging on. Water is only becoming more precious and more expensive. Questions of annexation and consolidated water services are fundamental to the debate around how these communities are to survive. State and local governments are beginning to ramp up efforts to invest in and connect unincorporated communities to larger, more reliable systems. But in a region plagued with a legacy of questionable planning decisions, there’s plenty standing in the way.

“We all want to serve these people,” says Coyne, the Tulare County official. “The question is, how do we get those funds?”

An equally important question is: Where do they get the water?

Next week, I’ll try to answer both.

Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy

Got a date? Take him or her home — in honor of House Republicans

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As the battle over reproductive rights plods along, with all the grace of a wounded dog that refuses to just buy the goddamn farm, I have to wonder: What are the men who insist that women don’t deserve access to full reproductive healthcare thinking? Because that’s what this whole charade is really about — that if a woman seeks out contraception or, in the less desirable scenario, an abortion, she must have had sex without wanting to have a baby.

But what these gentlemen perhaps fail to realize is that if they, too, want to occasionally get their rocks off without producing an infant and they enjoy having sex with women — it’s really in their best interest for women to have a resource like Planned Parenthood. And if they have sex with men — guess what! — Planned Parenthood offers all kinds of handy services like STD testing.

So, if you’re a human who enjoys having sex with other humans and doesn’t want to create another pain-in-the-ass human life (ha! JK) every single time, Planned Parenthood is a great thing for you. I promise. I don’t understand why this isn’t more explicitly stated.

In honor of recreational sex, our chasers for the week are going to be as unreasonably caliente as we can muster. Let’s do it.

Curious why we’re writing about access to reproductive healthcare? Watch this video.

Shot: After Congress finally passed a temporary government spending bill that includes funding for Planned Parenthood, the House has fast-tracked another bill that defunds Planned Parenthood for a year.

Chaser: Bye, Felicia — hello, Channing.

Shot: On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards testified in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to respond to the intentionally misleading and heavily edited videos released by the Center for Medical Progress. The hearing is like nothing so much as the Salem witch trials, and listening to its highlights is genuinely upsetting. But there are a couple of bright moments — like Rep. Brenda Lawrence’s (D-Mich.) speech.

Chaser: America may be run by a rabid pack of misogynists, but we still produced Beyoncé, so we’re not totally hopeless.

Shot: Late Wednesday night, an arsonist set fire to a Planned Parenthood facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed — but this was the second attack on Planned Parenthood centers in September, which is terrifying.

Chaser: May I suggest channeling your rage into a million crunches, or whatever Ciara does to get abs like that?

Shot: On Thursday, the Obama administration announced that it will leave the question of government-covered contraception up to the Supreme Court — because some religiously affiliated employers still believe that their employees receiving any subsidized contraception is “immoral.”

Chaser: Love it or hate it, Taylor’s latest is so wildly over-the-top that it’s bound to provide some kind of catharsis.

And one extra chaser, because it’s been that kind of week: The New York City Health Department has put together a pretty cute ad campaign to promote IUDs. You don’t have to sell me on the joys of highly effective, low-maintenance birth control, but this is certainly a convincing argument:

New York City Health Department
Filed under: Article, Living, Politics

Food company execs want Congress to get off its butt and do something about climate change

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The fat-cat executives of large food corporations have not historically been known for their environmental activism — but maybe now that’s starting to change.

The CEOs of General Mills, Kellogg, Unilever, Mars, Nestlé USA, Danone North America, New Belgium Brewing, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, and Stonyfield Farm published ads in The Washington Post and the Financial Times asking U.S. and world leaders to take strong action in the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris. The food execs also met on Capitol Hill with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Republican Rep. Chris Gibson (N.Y.), one of the few conservative voices of reason on climate change.

The letter from the CEOs read, in part:

Climate change is bad for farmers and for agriculture. Drought, flooding, and hotter growing conditions threaten the world’s food supply and contribute to food insecurity.

By 2050, it is estimated that the world’s population will exceed nine billion, with two-thirds of all people living in urban areas. This increase in population and urbanization will require more water, energy and food, all of which are compromised by warming temperatures.

The challenge presented by climate change will require all of us — government, civil society and business — to do more with less. For companies like ours, that means producing more food on less land using fewer natural resources. If we don’t take action now, we risk not only today’s livelihoods, but also those of future generations.

So today’s most uplifting climate news comes from rich people!

But lest you start to feel too optimistic about the state of the world, just look to another group of millionaires and billionaires to bring you back to Earth: The GOP presidential wannabes! Just last week, leading candidate Donald “I Would Date My Daughter” Trump said on CNN, “I don’t believe in climate change.” At least some things never change.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Food, Politics

Meet the director of the documentary based on Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

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When Naomi Klein released This Changes Everything late last year, it was only half of the deal. The book — subtitled Capitalism vs. The Climate — indicts free-market-based solutions to climate change for perpetuating the root causes of the climate crisis. Real solutions, she argues, must confront the raging bull in the china shop: capitalist logic itself. Which is no small ask.

The second half of the project, the documentary film version of This Changes Everything, is related to these real solutions. The movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and goes into wider U.S. release this month, focuses on people — those on the front lines of climate change and the fossil fuel industry’s exploits — standing up, camping out, protesting, and offering alternative visions of our world.

On Tuesday, we premiered a clip from the film. Directed by Canadian journalist and filmmaker (and Klein’s husband) Avi Lewis, the documentary introduces viewers to these human stories — those that form the bedrock of Klein’s arguments. In the interview below, Grist chats with Lewis about the documentary, as well as Bernie Sanders, Donald Sutherland, Enlightenment-Francis-Bacon hubris, and dismantling all that pesky capitalism. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q.Would you speak about the main thrust of the film, for those who may not be familiar with the book?

A.The big idea of the film is to look at the roots of the climate crisis in the economic logic of our time. Now, some people feel that this makes the problem even bigger — we have to take on the whole economic system as well as the climate crisis — but Naomi and I are pretty convinced that market-based solutions have largely been a failure at creating the type of U-turn on emissions that the science requires.

But there’s also the potential to unlock a huge amount of activism and engagement in people when you start connecting the dots between inequality and climate change. And if anyone doubts that idea, go to a Bernie Sanders rally or look at the coverage of the pope. They’re both talking about the links between the climate crisis and the economic system, and they’re both on fire and capturing the imaginations of a lot of people.

The film itself is a portrait of community struggle around the world on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and the climate crisis. It’s not a talking-heads documentary. Naomi narrates it and her big ideas lead through it, but really it’s several portraits of community struggle, with some very inspiring and beautiful people who we have, and viewers can, connect with.

Q.Does the film have a target audience? When people walk out of the film, in a perfect world, what do they do next?

A.Documentaries have a really key role to play in organizing, because they’re a great way to get people together. We launched the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the premiere, there were 1,200 people in a theater who were having a half-hour conversation about climate change. How often does that happen? Where are the spaces for that to happen in our culture? So there’s this convening power, and there’s also the way a film can start a conversation. 

In the film, there are portraits of people who are in no way activists, and yet they are struggling in communities in ways that are sometimes really sad and sometimes really triumphant. But they are always really grounded and connected. I hope that notion carries the potential for people to see engagement with this issue as something that’s not frightening.

In terms of what people can do, in Canada we just launched the Leap Manifesto. We had a cross-sectoral organizing meeting last spring in which we had a huge range of First Nations, environmental groups, trade unions, migrant rights activists, and minimum wage activists in attendance; and we started articulating a vision of the society we wanted in concrete policy terms. We’re having an election in Canada before yours in the States, and none of the politicians are talking about things we really care about.

We put this vision — of transitioning to a post-carbon economy in Canada as an opportunity to deal with inequality and a host of other social problems — out there in the middle of an election campaign and it really resonated. A huge range of celebrities came out wanting to endorse the campaign — Feist, for example, Arcade Fire, Donald Sutherland, Neil Young — but also lots of other groups. In a film, a list of policy options can come off as pretty dry, but in a political manifesto it makes a lot of sense.

Q.And how exactly do you begin to make a film about, well, changing everything?

A.To be totally clear, we don’t believe this film or this book will change the world — we believe people will change the world. The “this” in This Changes Everything is never the book or the film, but climate change.

I think people who are engaged with the climate understand that given climate change, everything about our physical world is going to change. We’ve already got enough carbon in the atmosphere; we’ve already baked in enough physical change with 0.8 degrees of warming. We’re already seeing substantial changes. But we’re on the road to 4 degrees. Even with 2 degrees and some miracle of an international agreement — which is nowhere on the horizon — dramatic, dramatic change is locked in. That’s radical change to wrap our heads around. The question is whether we can get off this path. Which would also be radical change. 

My career has been in television and documentary, and so I’m a listener. I take the voices that I seek out and hear and I try to bring them to an audience. And I’m a storyteller. That’s why in the film — unlike in the book — we focus on one big idea, which is this 400-year-old fantasy that we can control nature and extract from it endlessly and that there will be no consequences. And you can draw a line from that Enlightenment-Francis-Bacon hubris straight to geoengineering: the hubris that we can deal with some human-created problem with a techno-human solution that poses no massive blowback. We need to change that story. We have a fundamental story about humans and our place in the world.

I think that people are hungry for a new story. It might sound vague, but I believe we make our stories and our stories make us. I really believe that. And I think that this narrative of human domination and mastery is one that people are really ready to shed, because we’re surrounded by the toxic effects. 

Q.Naomi cites an interaction with Angélica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization, as a moment when she stopped ignoring climate science and started to see the potential of responding to climate change as something that could be a positive force. I’m curious if you had a similar moment.

A.I’ve been a journalist for 25 years. My first job was as a local news reporter in Toronto in 1990 covering fires and murders and food bank drives. For a long time I gave myself permission to not read those scary stories about melting glaciers and rising seas and species extinction because it ‘wasn’t my area’.

But now I’m the luckiest guy on Earth in that Naomi Klein is my partner in life as well as in work. When she came home from Geneva [where she was covering a U.N. conference in April 2009] — she was actually writing this piece about debt and reparations for slavery and colonialism — she came home with this idea about climate debt. I asked her, ‘What happened at this conference in Geneva’? And she told me that the most interesting thing was that she’d met this woman who said this [i.e. that thinking of countries as climate creditors and debtors was a natural solution to many global inequalities]. And I was like, ‘holy shit’.

It was a process for me of letting go of my last real job in television — I had a fantastic job at Al Jazeera making half-hour documentaries on whatever I wanted and never had to fundraise — and getting swept up in the prospect of embracing the big fight; the one that brings up the issues that bring everything else together. So I quit my job and decided to embark on this ridiculous idea of making a book and film and engaged political platform together. 

Q.It’s certainly a massive endeavor. What else should we know about the project?

A.It’s also worth touching on the way we’re getting the film out, because it’s a reflection of the values of the project. We’re launching in New York on October 2 at the IFC and we’re doing a launch in Los Angeles two weeks later at the Sundance Sunset theater. But on October 20 we’re doing something that very few documentaries are able to do. We’re doing a special event screening in more than 30 cities across the United States and on the same day we’re on iTunes — and, still on the same day, people are able to book community screenings.

Normally, in releasing documentaries, you have a theatrical window in which people can only see them in theaters, which can sometimes be as long as a year. But thanks to the really visionary sales and distribution companies that we’re working with, as well as our investors, we’re actually putting [the movie] in the hands of people who will use it as an organizing tool at the same time it’s being made commercially available. That, in itself, is an expression of why we made the film and what we hope it can do.

You heard him: This Changes Everything premieres in New York on October 2, in Los Angeles on October 16, and in more than 30 cities across the United States (and iTunes!) on October 20. On the same day, groups will be able to begin to book community screenings of the film. Check out the trailer below.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living