Building Green Makes Housing More Affordable

May 13, 2014

Somanath-Senior-ApartmentsThe Better Housing Coalition's Somanath Senior Apartments in Richmond. Photo by the Better Housing Coalition.

By Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Chair

If you think of "green" homes and solar panels as luxury amenities for high-end housing, you might be surprised to learn that these are becoming standard features in low-income housing, even here in Virginia.

Buildings with added insulation, better windows, energy-saving light fixtures and Energy Star appliances translate into big savings on utility bills. This should matter to all of us, but it's especially important for low-income households. For them, lower energy bills can mean not having to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.

Reducing energy costs is equally important for low-income housing owned by the government or nonprofits. Using energy efficiency and renewable energy to lower utility bills saves the public money and makes it possible to keep rents stable.

Recognizing these benefits, the Virginia Housing Development Authority 10 years ago began to incentivize green building techniques. As a result, when government agencies and nonprofits build low-income housing in Virginia today, they make green building a priority.

Today there are more than 11,000 units of affordable housing in Virginia that are certified to EarthCraft standards, one of the strictest measures of home energy efficiency. According to Philip Agee, green building technical manager for EarthCraft Virginia, these new affordable housing units are 28 percent more efficient than homes that are built to the 2004 model housing code. Units renovated to EarthCraft standards average a 43 percent improvement in efficiency.

The Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition now builds all its low-income housing to exceed EarthCraft standards. As its website explains, "installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows and lighting, and blown cellulose insulation are standard practice for BHC homes. So, too, is the use of durable cement-board siding and tankless water heaters. Reduced energy usage means reduced utility bills for our owners and residents."

Continue reading "Building Green Makes Housing More Affordable" »

Moapa Paiutes and Sierra Club Help Retire One of Nation’s Dirtiest Coal Plants

May 12, 2014

Moapa-clean-energy-walkStarting in 2005, the Sierra Club and Senator Harry Reid began working together to keep three coal plants from being built in Nevada. Two years later the Sierra Club heard about NV Energy’s plan to keep Reid Gardner open for at least another decade and to store more coal ash at the plant. That was when the Sierra Club joined the Moapa Band of Paiutes in fighting for their right to clean air, clean water and good health for their community.

By Bruce Nilles, Senior Director, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

The retirement of NV Energy-owned Reid Gardner Generating Station is a major victory for the climate, clean air, renewable energy, and the many people involved in the fight. While the efforts of Warren Buffett should not be ignored, it was years of relentless grassroots work by the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Sierra Club as well as unwavering support from Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) that drove this retirement forward.

Moapa-clean-energy-walkLast April, Moapa Paiute activists were joined by tribal leaders, clean-energy supporters, and faith leaders from across the Southwest in a 16-mile "Coal to Clean Energy Walk," culminating at the site of the 250-megawatt solar project on the Moapa Paiute Reservation that will sell power to Los Angeles.

For half a century, the Moapa Band of Paiutes have lived in the shadow of the Reid Gardner coal plant, but got little to no benefit from its hulking presence. Instead, the 200 Moapa residents were left to suffer the undeserved consequences of a filthy coal plant. Every year, Reid Gardner emitted more than 4,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,200 tons of sulfur dioxide and 5 million tons of carbon pollution into the air. Those pollutants are known to cause or exacerbate asthma attacks, lung disease, sinus problems, thyroid disease, cardiovascular problems and even premature death. Since the 1960’s, the Moapa Paiutes breathed that air and have suffered from those health issues.

Reid-Gardner-power-plantReid Gardner Generating Station, which sits immediately adjacent to the Moapa Paiute reservation. Photo by

The impacts of this plant extended further than polluting the air. The amount of burned coal at Reid Gardner produced 46 million gallons of toxic coal ash that was spread into multiple settling ponds and then dumped into an unlined landfill. This waste contains mercury, lead and other dangerous heavy metals that cause cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease, reproductive problems, birth defects and many others. Having mounds of coal ash sitting next door leaves your land, home, and family vulnerable. Gusts of wind pick up the coal ash from Reid Gardner and carry it onto the Moapa Paiutes’ reservation land, covering their property, food and water in toxic ash. Additionally, coal ash toxins can seep into the ground from locations like the ponds and landfill, and pollute the groundwater that is used to drink, clean and farm. The Moapa Paiutes were not only up against a massive coal plant, but also the massive amounts of coal ash it produced, coal ash that still sits nearby.

Moapa-Paiute-activistsAfter decades of breathing dirty air and after years of fighting it, the Moapa Paiutes are relieved that the Reid Gardner plant is retiring and that clean energy, including a 200 megawatt project on the tribe’s reservation lands, will be built in its place.

Starting in 2005, the Sierra Club and Sen. Reid worked together to keep three coal plants from being built in Nevada. Two years later the Sierra Club heard about NV Energy’s plan to keep Reid Gardner open for at least another decade and to store more coal ash at the plant. That was when the Sierra Club joined the Moapa Band of Paiutes in fighting for their right to clean air, clean water and good health for their community. That's former Sierra Club President Allison Chin, below, at the 2013 Coal to Clean Energy Walk, which drew hundreds of tribal leaders, clean-energy supporters, and faith leaders from across the Southwest.

Allison-Chin-at-rallyLast year our joint efforts paid off, when state lawmakers passed legislation that requires the retirement of the plant and stipulates that renewable energy will replace a significant amount of its power. Today, after decades of breathing dirty air and after years of fighting it, the Moapa Paiutes are relieved that the Reid Gardner plant is retiring and that clean energy, including a 200 megawatt project on the tribe’s reservation lands, will be built in its place.

While the end of this story is near, the fight is not over. The Nevada Public Utilities Commission still has to approve NV Energy’s replacement plan. The Reid Gardner coal ash ponds still need to be removed. The toxic dust and likely groundwater contamination still needs to be cleaned up. And the landfill still needs to be lined and covered. All of this will take years. And there are still two more coal plants left in Nevada that are endangering the state’s air quality and contributing carbon pollution to the atmosphere. But the coal-related injustices the Moapa Band of Paiutes have lived with are set to be resolved, and the tribe is now participating in the new clean energy economy.

Coal-to-Clean-Energy-WalkMoapa Band of Paiutes Coal to Clean Energy Walk

Our mothers, mother nature, and the effects of climate disruption

May 08, 2014

image from
Photo taken by a Sierra Club volunteer on a study abroad tour to the Phillipines with the Global Population and Environment Program.

Mother’s Day is not only a time to celebrate our own mothers and mothers around the world, it’s also a time to think about the things our mothers need to take care of their families. And it’s a time to remember the importance of Mother Nature.

As our use of fossil fuels has drastically increased over the last several decades, mothers everywhere have experienced undue stress. These dirty fossil fuels -- like coal, oil, and natural gas -- have not only exacerbated climate disruption but have directly impacted mothers everywhere, especially those in the developing world who are least prepared for and hardest hit by climate disruption.

Currently, 70 percent of the global population living below the poverty line are women. Without adequate access to basic resources, these women are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Many poor women depend on the land for food, water and fuel, and are thus affected disproportionately by erratic weather patterns and natural disasters. In fact, women and children are 14 times more likely to die from a natural disaster than their male counterparts.

Droughts, floods, and other effects on water hit women especially hard. Water supplies are rarely close to communities and villages. In fact, roughly 25 percent of a woman’s day is spent on securing water for her family’s needs in the developing world. That’s 25 percent of a mother’s time that she could be providing for her family in other ways.

Continue reading "Our mothers, mother nature, and the effects of climate disruption" »

Clean Energy Supporters Protest Pro-Drilling Rally in Pennsylvania

Robert GardnerBy Robert Gardner, campaign representative for Beyond Natural Gas in Pennsylvania.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) rally on Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is over and the buses have taken their "supporters" home. Business as usual has resumed and we at the Sierra Club are getting back to doing the good work to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

It was an interesting rally to say the least. With folks bused in from around the state, paid a day's wages, provided a box lunch, American flags, and snazzy t-shirts, it was tough to see who the target was. From what I could gather, it was a group of folks recruited to make the point that they are totally alright with the environmental consequences (dire) of fracking as long as the member organizations of the MSC can make absurd profits. It's easy to get numbers when you pay people to show up. Classic astroturf.

So let's be clear, there are a few things that are needed to reset the conversation.

The consequences of the "shale gas boom" in Pennsylvania have been devastating. Drinking water has been permanently fouled, air quality has been severely damaged,  forests have been fragmented, invasive species are multiplying, truck traffic on rural roads has been increased (taxpayers pay the tab...), our public lands are being threatened by the drill, political control over community decisions has been clamped down on, and property values across the board have decreased.

Unfortunately, we've also seen renewable energy projects displaced, transparency in our government decrease, and a host of other horribles appear - including the climate impacts of methane leaking from drill sites, pipelines and power plants.

Keep the Frack out of my WaterWe didn't hear too much about these consequences at the rally on Tuesday. For good reason - the member organizations of the MSC are making a killing at the bank and they want to whip up an astroturfed show of support to keep those profits coming in. That's a raw deal for Pennsylvania and the planet.

Remember, we all live downstream.

Shale gas is a bridge to nowhere and the costs associated with its extraction are just too great to continue to allow these companies to spend enormous sums on political campaigns and purchase the regulatory environment that they want. Environmental destruction is their Achilles heel. Political donations are their regulatory lubricant. We see that and we push back.

The Sierra Club is devoted to protecting our environment from the fossil fuel industry. Whether it's through fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, our Beyond Coal Campaign transitioning our energy sector to clean energy, or protecting Our Wild America from the threat of increased drilling, we will continue to stoke public pressure, lobby, litigate and support this movement for greater public participation and control over the decisions that affect our air, water and planet.

Get the Fitness Industry to Support the Health of the Planet

May 06, 2014


By Lynn Hartung, Michigan Chapter volunteer

Lynn-HartungThe fitness industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, so is the number of plastic bottles that are going into landfills from fitness centers and gyms.

Between 33 and 40 percent of these clubs are large national chains like Anytime Fitness, Snap Fitness, Planet Fitness, Powerhouse, Fitness 19, Lifetime Fitness, and LA Fitness. Each boasts how fast they are growing and of their profits -- yet few of them are willing to spend approximately $100 a month to recycle plastic bottles. How sad!

So many of the battles we environmentalist fight are long, hard struggles, where we are fighting against big corporations and big money. I believe with a little effort we can persuade the large national chain fitness clubs to require their franchises to recycle.

One would think that since they are promoting health and fitness, the fitness industry would want to promote a healthy environment for their members and themselves to live in. But my research hasn't found this to be true.

Continue reading "Get the Fitness Industry to Support the Health of the Planet" »

Family Planning and Earth Day

May 05, 2014

Sierra & Tierra: Racism Is in the Air

By Javier Sierra

For decades, the environmental justice movement has insisted that pollution is just another form of racism. Now, a University of Minnesota study is conclusively confirming this painful reality.

The report found that, more than any other, race is the determining factor in the levels of pollution the country’s communities are exposed to. Researchers came to the conclusion that people of color breathe 46 percent more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) —a toxic compound resulting from the burning of coal and oil— than non-Hispanic whites.

And what is most worrisome for our community: we are on top of the list of communities breathing the most polluted air.

“This is terrible,” says Kim Wasserman-Nieto, winner of the 2013 Goldman Prize, considered to be the Nobel of environmental prizes, and an environmental justice hero. “These are the realities of what our people are feeling on a day-to-day basis. Things are not getting any better. We are the ones producing the least amount of pollution and yet feeling the most impact.”

Wasserman-Nieto Goldman Prize
Wasserman-Nieto in front of one of the two coal-fired plants she help shut down in South Chicago (Photo: Goldman Prize)

NO2 —which causes asthma, other respiratory diseases and heart conditions— is measured in parts per million (ppm). Among whites, the study found that the exposure is 9.9 ppm. Among us, on the other hand, it is 15.6 ppm, and among black Latinos, 17.4 ppm, the highest in the country.

Wasserman-Nieto, also director of organizing and strategy at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the South Chicago group that has been fighting polluters for years, underlines that the study also spells out the true costs of coal and oil.

“Our communities are starting to put two and two together,” she says. “We are starting to see concrete evidence of how the fossil fuels industry is impacting our communities. Even if they aren’t mining right next door to us, they are hitting us with the air quality issue.”

The study also found something Wasserman-Nieto calls “astronomical.” When comparing the levels of exposure between low-income whites and high-income Latinos, the latter turned out to be in worse shape.

“When I read that sentence, I had to read it three or four time because I could not believe it,” she says. “It’s not about ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move out to a better place.’ You can’t. Where are you supposed to go? The air quality is horrible in all of our communities.”   

The reason, the researchers explained, stems from the fact that Americans tend to live in clusters by race, and in our barrios we all are much more exposed to high levels of NO2.

Another important factor is the proximity of our communities to freeways, what Wasserman-Nieto calls “toxic corridors,” because gasoline and diesel are the largest emitters of NO2.

According to a Centers for Disease Control study, more than 5 million people of color live close to these highways, especially in Southern California.

This was corroborated by this year’s American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report, which determined once again that the cities with the worst air quality are found in Southern California, where the country’s largest concentrations of Latinos live.

The University of Minnesota study underlines the magnitude of this injustice by stating that if we all were exposed to the same levels of NO2 as white Americans, every year we would prevent 7,000 deaths of coronary heart disease.

“This is a call to arms,” concludes Wasserman-Nieto. “I really hope, particularly for middle class Hispanics who have seen this document, that this will be a wake-up call not only to become politically active but also to start supporting a lot of the organizations that are on the ground working to make it better.”

That would be a huge step forward to end this racism in the air.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Rain Barrels on the Riverfront

May 02, 2014


On the last Saturday in April, Sierra Club volunteers and staff teamed up with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and MI Rain Barrel to host a rain barrel workshop and sale on Detroit's RiverWalk. The event was supported by the Erb Family Foundation.


"We chose this location to highlight how disconnecting downspouts and connecting rain barrels help prevent urban runoff from entering the region's aging sewage system, which often pollutes the river during storm events," says Great Lakes Program Director Melissa Damaschke, below.


Detroit Water Team volunteers and local Sierra Club staff both pitched in to help organize the hands-on workshop, and some 25 volunteers from the Club and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy were trained before the event to teach participants at the event how to make their rain barrels.


"On the day of the event, more than 30 Sierra Club volunteers came downtown to help out, and about 80 local residents participated," Damaschke says. "It was great to see so many people involved."


Continue reading "Rain Barrels on the Riverfront" »

Indigenous Amazonian People Threatened by Oil Drilling

May 01, 2014

Jaime-VargasJaime Vargas, President of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador

By Aaron Isherwood, Managing Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

The Sojourn
Pristine jungle and indigenous culture have long been huge draws for me. So last fall, when my brother Nicholas -- a professional opera singer and avid world traveler -- and I decided to go to Ecuador, an Amazon adventure was at the top of our list. We chose the pristine and little-visited southeastern part of the country, territory of the Achuar indigenous people whom we hoped to visit.

Achuar-man-with-blow-gunAchuar man with blow gun. Photo by Enrique Amigo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nicholas emailed Pachamama Alliance, an organization whose mission is to empower indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest to preserve their lands and culture, to inquire about visiting the area independently. Pachamama Alliance responded that we'd need permission from the Achuar to visit, and put us in touch with Jaime Vargas, President of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador, to seek permission.

From Jaime and the Internet, we learned that Ecuador is planning to auction off millions of acres of the Amazon where the Achuar and other indigenous people live, for massive oil drilling. Jaime explained that the Achuar need help from the outside world to defeat the petroleros. He invited us to visit the Achuar to learn about their struggle and help spread the word.

We took a bus from Quito to Shell, Ecuador, then flew on a tiny prop plane to a remote village deep in the Amazon, where we met Jaime. The next day, we travelled up the Rio Pastaza in a dugout canoe to the village where he grew up.

Aaron-IsherwoodAaron Isherwood in dugout canoe on the Rio Pastaza

We spent the next ten days living with the Achuar. In every village we visited, the Achuar were united in their opposition to the oil drilling and angry at the government for not consulting them.

A Promise Betrayed
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa campaigned on indigenous peoples' rights and rainforest protection; his proposed "debt for nature" swap and his speech to the U.N. Climate Summit inspired the world. So we weren't surprised to learn that the Achuar initially supported Correa. But now that his government is proposing to auction off their land to oil companies, they feel betrayed.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the petition to protect the rights of the Achuar and other indigenous Ecuadorian nations from oil drilling and the strong-arm tactics of the Correa government.

Continue reading "Indigenous Amazonian People Threatened by Oil Drilling" »

Reject and Protect: Communities Unite to Stop Keystone XL

April 29, 2014

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Jim Dougherty

By Courtenay Lewis, Tar Sands Campaign Representative

A criticism sometimes leveled at "environmentalists" is that we care more about trees than people. Perhaps we unwittingly reinforce this stereotype-we sometimes use images of burning globes to symbolize climate change and the consequences of fossil fuel development -- when in fact, for many climate and energy campaigns, working to protect human livelihoods and rights is a fundamental motivation.

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Rae Breaux

Too often we fail to put faces to the individuals who suffer as a direct consequence of a society addicted to fossil fuels, and those who are bravely fighting corporations and sometimes even governments to protect their land, water, and communities.

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Jim Dougherty

However, Reject and Protect was an inspiring weeklong event in which human faces took center stage. From April 22-27, farmers, ranchers, and members of tribal communities along the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline route, as well as First Nation representatives whose communities are being devastated by tar sands development in Canada, came to Washington, D.C., and set up an encampment on the National Mall.

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Javier Sierra

Below, fourth-generation Nebraska rancher Ben Gotschall, who has been speaking out against the KXL pipeline for several years.

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Mark Heffling

With the aim of showing the Obama administration the faces of people who would be affected by Keystone XL, the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" led a week of actions which included an opening ceremony with ranchers and tribal leaders on horseback, daily water ceremonies, and a march and ceremonial tipi gifting ceremony which was joined by thousands of people on Saturday April 26th.

REject-and-ProtectPhoto by Javier Sierra

The Sierra Club's Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska chapters and partners including Idle No More held solidarity events that same day in Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Nebraska, featuring landowner and tribal representatives who are playing leadership roles in the fight against Keystone XL.

Reject-and-ProtectPhotos by Bora Chung (left) and Javier Sierra (right)

This week also marked a Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle spiritual encampment in Green Grass, South Dakota, where Native nations came together to pray for communities living at the source of tar sands development.

Reject-and-ProtectPhoto by Bora Chung

Continue reading "Reject and Protect: Communities Unite to Stop Keystone XL" »

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