Every December, legislatures and government agencies rush to finish business as holiday celebrations begin and the year comes to an end. Meanwhile, some journalists (including yours truly) take time off to be with friends and family — but that doesn’t mean news stops happening. The past year has been a tough one, yet the end of 2016 was punctuated by activist victories, or at least some progress in the right direction. Here’s some recent news from the world of social justice that received little attention as the nation paused to observe the winter holidays:
Court Upholds Flint Water Delivery Order; Will State Officials Comply?
On December 16, a federal appeals court in Chicago rejected an appeal from Michigan officials and upheld an order requiring them to ensure clean drinking water is available at homes in Flint, Michigan. Flint residents have not had access to clean tap water since 2014, when dangerous amounts of lead contaminated a cash-strapped municipal water system that had been placed under “emergency” state control. The order, originally handed down by a federal judge in Detroit, requires state officials to ensure that all residents have a tap filter properly installed or receive deliveries of bottled water, instead of expecting residents to show up at distribution points and haul supplies home themselves.
Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri and other state officials, who are defendants in a lawsuit filed by Flint residents and environmental groups, argued the order is an “unnecessary” drain on resources. As the court in Chicago struck down their appeal, the officials presented a “status report” to the judge in Detroit showing that they had so far failed to comply with his original injunction issued weeks earlier, according to the plaintiffs. On December 21, the plaintiffs filed an emergency motion in federal court to force the officials to comply.
“The state has thumbed its nose at the people of Flint by taking away their local democracy and poisoning their water more than two years ago,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, a plaintiff in the case. “Now the state is essentially thumbing its nose at a federal judge by ignoring a court order issued six weeks ago to either deliver bottled water to residents or verify that they have working water filters.”
City and state officials have consistently said they are working to comply with the order but lack the necessary resources. As of Tuesday, the court has appointed a mediator in the case, but has not yet ruled on the latest emergency motion, according to court filings.
Portland Halts New Investment — Until Decision on Divestment
The campaign to pull funding from the Dakota Access Pipeline made national headlines on New Years Day when activists dropped a large banner calling on US Bank to divest from #DAPL from the rafters of the US Bank Stadium during an NFL game in Minneapolis. However, an entire major city’s decision to temporarily halt corporate investments — a last-minute decision made after coming under growing pressure from divestment activists — was all but absent from the national news.
On December 21, the Portland City Council voted to temporarily halt new investments in all corporate securities until it can reconvene in 2017 and return to a hotly-debated proposal to permanently end investments in companies, such as Wells Fargo and Caterpillar. Activists want these companies and several others put on a “do not buy” list due to alleged human rights violations. Caterpillar, for example, is targeted for selling militarized bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes and contracting with the Dakota Access project. Wells Fargo and other banks are under fire for investing in #DAPL and the private prison industry.
The Council’s move to place a temporary freeze on investments effectively tabled a resolution that would have cemented Wells Fargo and Caterpillar on the “do not buy” list, but local activists still chalked the vote up as a victory. “After today’s decision, it will be important for Caterpillar and other corporations to have discussions in their boardrooms about their corporate conduct, and decide to make the change to not sell products and services to human rights abusers,” said Palestinian attorney Hala Gores.
US Military Must Seek Alternatives to Open Munitions Burns
A coalition of grassroots activists fighting to stop the military’s outdated and dirty practice of blowing up aging munitions stockpiles in the open air won a crucial victory when President Obama signed the annual defense spending bill on December 23. The massive piece of legislation carried an amendment requiring the Department of Defense to work with the National Academy of Sciences to study alternatives to “open burn and open detonation,” or OB/OD, the controversial method for disposing of conventional weapons and munitions.
In 2015, the Defense Department maintained a stockpile of at least 106 million pounds of obsolete or excess conventional munitions, and that number is expected to double by 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office. For years, the military’s preferred method for disposing of this explosive waste stream has been to burn and detonate the material on open trays with virtually no pollution controls at installations and depots across the country. For the military, OB/OD is cheap and legal under a special hazardous waste exemption, but environmentalists have long pointed out that it causes toxic air and water pollution.
When confronted by OB/OD opponents, the military typically claims the disposal method is its best option, but activists in Louisiana recently proved that this is simply not true. As Truthout reported in a series of investigations, a long battle over how to dispose of a massive and potentially explosive stockpile of illegally stashed munitions near Shreveport revealed that cleaner options do exist, including closed incinerators with pollution controls.
“Thousands of citizens came together in my community in north Louisiana to stop a proposed open burn of 15 million pounds of waste munitions and … we proved that alternatives to open burning exist,” said Frances Kelly, director of organizing with Louisiana Progress Action. “With this new National Academy of Sciences study of the advanced treatment technologies, we are hopeful that open burning of hazardous waste will soon be stopped everywhere.”
In related news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to a court settlement in late December requiring the agency to write regulations for perchlorate, a chemical used to make explosives and rocket fuel that can damage the human thyroid system. Perchlorate can move quickly from soil to groundwater and has contaminated drinking water sources in areas polluted by OB/OD.
Three Wins, Three Reasons to Celebrate
While these three triumphs are not the kind of definite victories that will put issues like pipelines and pollution to rest once and for all, they are encouraging steps forward for activists fighting to defend their communities and hold the powerful accountable. In these challenging times, every win counts.