Results tagged “coal” from PlanetGreen.org

S.C. Gives Free Rein to Corporate Polluters

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opinionpic.jpgJust last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised the legal community by issuing a preliminary injunction to stay the enforcement of sections of the Clean Air Act and the EPA's corresponding regulations. This stay effectively renders our government powerless to stop the release of hazardous substances into federal airspace for as long as there are still legal challenges pending in the courts. Although the Court treated this unexpected move as a routine procedural nicety, in reality its effects on both the atmosphere and the law could be disastrous.

Penny Pinching

It all started last June with Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Michigan v. EPA (14-46), in which the Agency was chastened for not adequately considering costs when promulgating these lifesaving rules. As the learned tribunal put it: "By EPA's logic, someone could decide whether it is 'appropriate' to buy a Ferrari without thinking about cost, because he plans to think about cost later when deciding whether to upgrade the sound system." (576 U.S. __ (2015)).

However, this comparison entirely ignores the vital importance of controlling these pollutants. By the EPA's uncontested estimate, the regulations could prevent up to 11,000 instances of premature death and 130,000 respiratory attacks annually. In the natural world, they would also reduce acid rain (caused by the toxic gas hydrogen chloride, eighty-two percent of which can be traced back to power plants) and the poisoning of fish in our waterways (caused by mercury, which if ingested in fish tissue can cause cancer and irreversible birth defects).

The most conservative quantification of these restrictions' costs and benefits places the resulting national profit at $24 billion dollars. This estimate leaves out environmental preservation, untreated medical conditions, and increased agricultural productivity altogether, and for those reasons it cannot be claimed that the EPA thoroughly considered costs. Yet it remains abundantly apparent that administrative action on this literally life-or-death issue is hardly an indulgence to be indefinitely invalidated by an injurious injunction

Furthermore, the order is formally known as an interlocutory or "temporary" injunction, but its unusual lack of an expiration date will only encourage corporations to pursue frivolous and expensive lawsuits against the government in the attempt to extend the ruling indefinitely. In all probability, industry lawyers will be able to make this sanctioned lawlessness last until our next President takes office - and, unless a genuine liberal does manage to overcome the odds, this one simple measure could result in the undoing of one of this country's most crucial regulatory frameworks.

So Much for Equity

Throughout our American history, the injunction has been used repeatedly as a tool for the repression of citizens' voices and the circumvention of constitutional principles. Notable examples include In re Debs, (158 U.S. 564 (1885)), in which the Pullman strike was brutally crushed through the use of such a decree, or Walker v. Birmingham, (308 U.S. 307 (1967)), in which it was held that civil rights demonstrators were lawfully imprisoned pursuant to an order prohibiting a planned march. However, it is important to note that these results do not characterize the injunction as an institution, but rather mark a departure from its historical role.

Much of this nation's legal tradition is inherited from ancient English customs, one of which is the dichotomy between general and equity jurisdiction. The first closely resembles our modern conception of civil procedure, in which the law governs the facts and stare decisis is closely followed. The second, however, was a kinder and gentler version of the judicial process, designed more to ensure fair play than strict adherence to statutes. These cases were adjudged by the Lord Chancellor, (hence the name "chancery" jurisdiction), who was almost always a cleric, and therefore the decisions were heavily influenced by canon law and the dictates of conscience. By the 16th century, this method of decision-making was already deeply entrenched in British political culture, and therefore the Reformation did not significantly alter the function of equity courts. This arrangement even accompanied our ancestors across the Atlantic, and lasted in both countries until the widespread overhaul of the judiciary in the mid-1800s.

Even after the two systems merged, however, the special reasoning was preserved to some extent. Because common-law cases and their chancery counterparts were sometimes hard to separate under the new rules, the relief pleaded for became the main way to differentiate the two: monetary damages, which were and still are the standard form of redress, or declaratory and injunctive remedies, a more abstract solution with its origins in equity.

This is important because the complainants in these new challenges to the Clean Air Act and associated regulations are actually seeking equitable relief, but the Supreme Court's preoccupation with technicalities is contrary to the cardinal principles used to determine this variety of case. In traditionally equitable causes, courts are still justified in prioritizing social welfare and substantive justice over strict adherence to rules. As Blackstone observed in his famous Commentaries, "Equity, in its true and genuine meaning, is the soul and spirit of all law; positive law is construed, and rational law is made by it. In this, Equity is synonymous with justice; in that, to the true and sound interpretation of the rule." 3 B.C. 429. This interpretation has been confirmed repeatedly and resoundingly in our common law. In the landmark decision West Coast v. Parrish, we find: "The liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization which requires the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals and welfare of the people. Liberty under the Constitution is thus necessarily subject to the restraints of due process, and regulation which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community is due process." (300 U.S. 379 (1937)). As Justice Holmes observed in 1896: "The true grounds of decision are considerations of public policy and social advantage, and it is vain to suppose that real solutions can come from... propositions of law which nobody disputes." Vegelahn v. Guntner (167 Mass. 92).

I remember Justice Jackson once said: "If ever we are justified in viewing a statute not narrowly as through a keyhole, but in the broad light of the good it aimed for and the evils it hoped to prevent, it is here." U.S. ex rel Marcus v. Hess, 317 U.S. 537 (1943). Given the countless human lives and priceless natural resources at stake in these circumstances, that statement seems equally apposite now.

Don't Mourn -- Organize!

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joe hill.jpg100 years ago today, labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill was executed after being framed for a murder he didn't commit.

Later renowned as the "Singing Wobbly," a nickname derived from his affiliation with the International Workers of the World, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born in Sweden on October 17th, 1879. When he was 23, he immigrated to the United States, where he became a migrant worker and began learning English. Blacklisted for joining a union, he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom, which he would shorten to Joe Hill when he began publishing songs and cartoons through the I.W.W.'s press.

The impact of Joe Hill's songs on American society was incredible. They were rollicking, satirical tunes, set to the melodies of popular songs or hymns, that were easy to learn and quickly spread to workers in all industries and parts of the country.

"Mr. Block" described a "common working man" whose "head is made of lumber, and solid as a rock," which leads him to believe everything his bosses tell him about his own upward mobility, the efficacy of courts and elections in achieving social change, and, especially, the subversiveness of labor unions.

Similarly, "Scissor Bill" is a worker -- referred to as "the missing link that Darwin tried to trace" -- who is satisfied with his condition and thus "says he never organized and never will" and who "is down on everybody," particularly foreigners and minorities. Scissor Bill was only interested in protecting himself. According to another labor songwriter, Ralph Chaplin (the author of "Solidarity Forever"), "When asked by a police court judge to define the word "scissorbill", Joe Hill is reported to have replied 'The "scissorbill", your Honor, is an "I guy"; we happen to be "we guys".'"

"The Preacher and the Slave" parodied the hymn "Sweet Bye and Bye," lambasting the "long-haired preachers" and members of "the starvation army" who would attempt to drown out I.W.W. speakers with their choirs. The song also ridicules their notion that the union member who fights for "something good in this life" is "a sinner and a bad man," while the worker who is content to "work and pray, live on hay" will "get pie in the sky when you die" -- a phrase Hill coined in this song.

"There is Power in a Union," referred to by the more recent I.W.W. singer Utah Phillips as "Joe Hill's best song," delivered a like message, declaring that only "the grand Industrial band" could deliver workers from "misery and hunger."

Joe Hill wrote that "if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science." He was right: Ralph Chaplin reported that "Joe Hill could stop traffic on busy skid row street corners singing [his] hilarious songs"; strikers died at the hands of brutal strikebreakers singing his rousing lyrics.

From the perspective of the "bosses," such an effective voice had to be silenced. One night in Salt Lake City, Joe Hill was shot by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. This injury was used to connect him to a murder that had taken place nearby, even though a known serial killer was apprehended nearby (and soon set free). Thus, Joe Hill went before the firing squad on November 19th, 1915.

This strategy did not turn out as expected. Hill himself came to embody the cause he had lived and died for. Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson wrote a song, officially titled "Joe Hill" but more often referred to as "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," in which an apparition of the slain singer declares that it "takes more than guns to kill a man/I didn't die," concluding, "Where workers strike and organize/It's there you'll find Joe Hill." This song became a favorite of folk legends Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, and has helped keep Joe Hill's memory alive.

Paul Robeson's version of the "Joe Hill" song declares, "The copper bosses killed you, Joe." To this day, their successors continue to kill both people and the planet alike. This is evident in the trial of Don Blankenship, the CEO of an energy company whose Upper Big Branch Mine, located in West Virginia, exploded five years ago, killing 29 miners. He is a living example of Joe Hill's description of the "greedy master class," who "live by robbing the ever-toiling mass/Human blood they spill to satisfy their greed." The environmental impacts of his company's practices on the region have been similarly devastating. Jurors are currently deliberating whether to hold him accountable for his company's heinous neglect.

This instance, as well as thousands of similar cases worldwide, demonstrate the importance of our remembering Joe Hill's message. The industrial interests he campaigned against still threaten the lives of workers and the survival of the planet. Mines, factories, agricultural corporations, so-called "development projects" and other manifestations of this mindset exploit labor while leeching toxins into the environment and ruining irreplaceable ecosystems. When companies prioritize profits above all else, everything suffers. Thus, we must "do our share, lend a hand" to end this terrible system. As Joe Hill said just before his death, "Don't mourn -- organize!"

Edward I: Environmentalist by Accident

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Edward I.jpgEdward the First, the fifth Plantagenet king of England, is famous for clobbering the Scottish and Welsh armies, getting clobbered by the French, banishing the Jews, going Crusading, taxing everybody he could get his hands on, and performing other violent acts.

Tall for the times at 6'2", Edward had a terrible temper. When his son requested an earldom for his friend, the king tore out fistfuls of the boy's hair. When the Dean of St. Paul's entered the throne-room, mustering his nerve to discuss lowering taxes, he was supposedly killed on the spot by the mere sight of the king.

Is it feasible that this ferocious king, represented in medieval allegory not as the "noble" lion but as the "powerful" and "volatile" leopard, had a good side? It's possible. He maintained a good relationship with his parents, and loved his own wife and children. At fourteen, young Prince Edward married Eleanor of Castile, who was about the same age. Unusually, they were dedicated to each other; Edward didn't have affairs, and he didn't lock Eleanor up in a tower! When Eleanor died after thirty-six years of marriage, Edward was devastated, and built Eleanor Crosses wherever the funereal procession stopped. (His second marriage, to the young Margaret of France, also turned out well, despite their fifty-four-year age difference.)

Yet less well known is the fact that if Edward had had his way, coal pollution would never have been an issue.

Coal was so abundant on England's northeast coast that it was collected in wheelbarrows. People could even pick it up on the beach! It had been used since prehistoric times -- in the Bronze Ages, Welsh funeral pyres were fired by coal -- but when the Romans conquered "Britannia," they fell in love with the fuel.  At first, they thought it was very pretty, and fashioned it into ornaments for themselves. They called it gagate; this word would evolve into "jet," a dense variant of coal still used in making jewelry. (However, the Roman artisans often mixed up the higher quality jet with ordinary coal.) They also popularized burning it. After the Romans had cleared out, the Britons forgot about coal and resorted to wood. The early historian, St. Bede, describing the abundant "jet," didn't mention that it was used for heat, but observed that the smoke kept snakes away.

At any rate, until the 12th century, everybody in London burned wood. Soon, however, London began to grow, and the forests dwindled. Wood became expensive and rare. Instead, the Londoners decided to try the cheaper, easily-obtained coal. There was only one problem. Burning wood produced some smoke, but a lot of heat. Burning sea-coal produced a little heat, but a lot of sulfurous smoke. Nevertheless, instead of thinking of a better solution, everyone decided to burn more coal. The thick smoke combined with the natural fog and hung over the city for days.

In 1306, Edward, instigated by a group of prominent noblemen and clerics, passed legislation banning the burning of sea-coal. The king's mother, Eleanor of Provence, had gotten so sick from the smoke surrounding Nottingham Castle that she had had to flee the town. (Edward I's great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had had a similar experience with the burning wood around Tutbury Castle.)

Despite the king's commands, the law was disregarded. The poor didn't have the money to buy wood and there weren't any other alternatives. Edward altered his bill. Now, first-time offenders were subject to immense fines. If they were caught a second time, their furnaces were destroyed. Unfortunately, this didn't work either. The atmosphere was getting tense. Edward altered his bill again. This time, a death penalty was installed for burning coal. One person was seized and executed. But everybody kept on burning coal. Edward couldn't execute his whole kingdom. Besides, even if he could have, then he wouldn't have had anybody to tax or beat up, so what's the point of that? Consequently, the law was ignored, although Edward II, Edward I's successor, tortured a few people who were unable to meet its terms. Astoundingly, that didn't help.

princess elizabeth.jpgSubsequently, others tried to exterminate the burning of coal, including the kings Richard II and Henry V, whose palace at Westminster was permeated by the odor. By the time Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne, the situation was worse than ever. Short beds, which forced sleepers to sit up, were popular, as people had difficulties breathing if they lay down. The queen was reported to be "greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea- coales," and tried to get it banned, at least while Parliament was in session.

Later, in 1661, a prominent Cavalier named John Evelyn was asked by Charles II (whose palace at Whitehall was getting all the fumes from a nearby duke's residence) to write a book against coal. He complied, and the result was Fumifugium: or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, Together with some Remedies humbly proposed by J. E. Esq., to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now Assembled. The title "Fumifugium" was compounded of two Latin words, fumus, meaning "smoke," and fugit, "to escape or get  away from." (It's actually pretty terrible Latin, just for the record.)

John Evelyn.jpgEvelyn's book was one of the first comprehensive studies of the dangers of coal burning, and one of the earliest to discuss air pollution. (It also blamed the English Civil Wars on bad air caused by coal fires, not on any political issues!) Not only did it berate the smell of the smoke, it also attacked it as being unhealthy and aesthetically unpleasing. Evelyn wrote that the fumes were

"...so universally mixed with that otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their Bodies; so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions, rage more in this one City, than in the whole Earth besides."

He also complained that "Whilst these [the "Chimnies of London"] are belching it forth their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Ætna, the Court of Vulcan, [or] Stromboli, ... than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the Imperial feat of our incomparable Monarch," adding that the black particles in the smoke ruined the facades of palaces, churches, and houses. Evelyn goes on to say that it killed birds and insects and blighted flowers and fruit trees. He adds that travelers could smell the city long before they could see it.

Evelyn did not advocate the prohibiting of coal-burning; he merely said that trades, such as brewing, dyeing, lime-burning, which put out a significant amount of smoke should be relocated to where the soot would not affect the city. He also proposed moving other noxious businesses, such as butchers and chandlers, out as well. To promote cleanliness, no burials should be permitted in churches or even within the city walls. Not even this approach, however, gained much support.

James Watt.jpgThe Industrial Revolution effectively destroyed any hopes of outlawing this pernicious fuel, as it was considered indispensable to development. Anyone who was opposed to coal was opposed to progress. Factories relied on it to fire their huge furnaces. It heated workers' homes. Worst of all, it provided the steam for James Watt's new steam engine. Getting rid of it was impossible. In fact, coal usage in Great Britain multiplied by 100 between 1800 and 1900.

The coal-produced smog, called "fog" by the Londoners, was familiar to people such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Darwin, James Russell Lowell (who was proud to have survived the smoke), Arthur Conan Doyle, Heinrich Heine, and Thomas Carlyle, who called it "fluid ink." Finally, in 1956, four years after a four-day "fog" killed approximately 4,000 people, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act, which reduced coal burning to a large extent.

To this day, coal continues to be one of the worst energy sources on the planet. It is the largest contributor to man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The difference that the success of Edward I's 1306 law would have caused is unfathomable. Even though he was a terrifying warrior and sometimes a cruel king, ironically he deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest environmentalists.

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