Balance/Sustainability — Faced with wildfires, thousands of people are left to fight

Chris Castillo tosses a freshly cut log as he and his cousins ​​clear a cable alongside a family member’s home in Las Vegas, NM, Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames blast through more of tinder-dried mountainsides in New Mexico, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to prevent new fires from developing . (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Thousands of rural New Mexicans called to evacuate in the face of the nation’s largest blaze are standing up and battling the flames instead.

“If I had left, my house would have burned down,” Johnny Trujillo told Santa Fe New Mexican as he mopped up small fires left by advancing government firefighters.

In rural Mora County, more than half of residents stayed put even as the blaze subsided and power was cut – refusing to give up their land, NBC reported.

“It’s their livelihood, that’s all they know, so these seniors, and a lot of people, our constituents aren’t leaving,” Deputy Sheriff Americk Padilla told NBC.

In area high school motels and gymnasiums, those who left are mourning their homes and flocks — and the destruction of a Hispanic community that predates the founding of the United States, The New York Times reported.

“I don’t know if my house is standing or if my animals are alive,” Miguel Martinez of El Oro, NM, told The Times. “I just hope I have a village to go back to.”

welcome to balance, a newsletter that follows the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we are going to look at why electric utilities are shutting down solar projects across the country. Next, we’ll see how a hidden tide of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans and food chains — and why recycling efforts are unlikely to solve the problem.

Solar import freeze leads to stagnant projects

A Biden administration probe into imported solar panels is leading to a flurry of delayed or canceled projects — forcing some utilities to continue burning dirty power, while prompting solar facility managers to threaten layoffs.

Stopped projects: As of the end of April, 318 solar projects in the United States were delayed or canceled, according to an industry survey.

The project cancellations came following a Commerce Department freeze on solar panel imports from four major producing countries – Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Unintended consequences: One project stalled by a lack of panels is a push by the Northern Indiana Power Company to convert two of its coal-fired power plants to solar, as our colleague Zack Budryk reported on Thursday.

“Most solar projects originally scheduled for completion in 2022 and 2023 will experience delays of approximately 6 to 18 months,” parent company NiSource wrote in a report on the findings.

“There will be layoffs” — “We’re in a position where we’re going to lay off people in the renewable energy industry,” George Hershman of SOLV Energy, a utility solar contractor, told CNN on Friday.

Despite Biden’s stated support for the solar industry, the sector is actually “being crushed,” according to Hershman.

“We literally can’t buy a module today,” he said. “It’s so frustrating.”

CAUSE A FREEZE

The import ban came in March after Mamun Rashid, CEO of California-based solar maker Auxin, argued that Chinese makers were laundering their panels through front companies in those countries – and thus putting his business in jeopardy. bankruptcy, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Avoid the wall: The tariffs were established to help create a price protection wall for domestic manufacturers trying to compete with cheaper Chinese products, the Journal reported.

But instead, solar panel production focused on Southeast Asia – which had lower labor costs and was outside China’s steep tariff zone, according to the Journal. .

To wrap up: On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators called on the Biden administration to quickly complete the investigation.

“The probe is already causing massive disruption to the solar industry, and it will seriously harm American solar companies and workers and increase costs for American families as long as it continues, the senators wrote to Biden on Monday.

The Commerce probe reveals a fault line: On one side there is an administration and some domestic manufacturers who want to build a strong solar supply chain. And on the other side are utilities and installers who need cheap panels right now to meet their energy goals.

Rates could be worse: “If tariffs are imposed, in the blink of an eye, we’re going to lose 100,000 American solar workers and any hope of meeting the president’s clean energy goals,” Abigail Ross Hopper of the US said last week. Solar Energy Industries Association.

Auxin says the probe was needed: “I don’t think we could ever have imagined how aggressively China would want to dominate the market, and that’s been very difficult to contend with,” he told the Journal.

While “some people are hoping for our demise”, he added, “we are doing the right thing”.

Recycling is not stopping plastics from entering the world’s oceans

Recycling is the plastic industry’s long-standing pollution solution, but it does little to stop an unregulated source of ocean contamination. And these pollutants find their way into both food webs and the human body.

A hidden tide of plastic: About 200,000 metric tons of nurdles — the lentil-sized building blocks of all plastic products — end up in the ocean every year, Vox’s Recode reported.

Oil slicks in solid form: Louisiana plastic makers “make these cores and basically dump oil, just in a different form,” Louisiana State University oceanographer Mark Benfield told Recode.

“Nobody notices and nobody seems to do anything about it,” Benfield added.

A blind spot: The wave of ocean plastic pollution like the nurdles suggests a big blind spot in how we deal with plastic waste – and in particular the role of recycling.

A dismal record: The United States recycled between 5 and 6 percent of plastic waste in 2021, according to a study released Wednesday by two environmental nonprofits, The Wall Street Journal reported.

How effective is our recycling system anyway? It has not yet become a panacea.

“The truth is that the vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) said at a press conference last week, while announcing a state investigation. on the role of oil giant Exxon in “the global plastic pollution crisis”. ”

Exxon pushed back: “Baseless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work underway to improve waste management,” a company spokesperson told Reuters.

The spokesperson instead argued for a “circular economy” – or an economy in which all plastics are recycled.

But even 100% recycling wouldn’t catch nurds. That’s because most of the roughly 10 trillion babies that end up in the oceans each year never become plastic bags or soda bottles that can be recycled. Instead, they leak from supply chains, roll into sewers, or leave trains and ships, Recode reported.

PLASTICS MERGE WITH THE FOOD NETWORK

Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, and oil and gas companies depend on it to maintain revenue as the energy sector shifts to renewables.

This means more and more plastic-filled container ships are heading to the world’s seas, which in turn could mean more disasters like the sinking of X-Press Pearl last year that burned and sank off the coasts of the world. coasts of Sri Lanka, he lost 87 shipping containers of burning nurdles.

Decompose and rob: As plastics simmer in the sun and seawater, nurdles and microplastics “act like toxic sponges”, the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Tom Gammage told the Guardian in 2021, following the disaster of Pearl.

“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of the pellets than in the water,” he says.

In the food chain: According to a 2019 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, the process of decomposing nurdles provides shelter for tiny plankton that release gaseous dimethyl sulfide — the seaside smell of decaying algae.

This scent attracts marine life to eat them, helping them enter food chains, from which they can transition to humans, according to the Bulletin.

Invisible and unregulated: Despite the health concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate nurdles, Recode reported.

What are we doing? It’s a tough call – in many areas plastics are just part of the oceans now.

In some ecosystems, plastic pollution is already so pervasive that some animals depend on it, even as it kills others, according to a preliminary study from the University of North Carolina.

This complicates cleaning plans“I think we have to be very careful,” study co-author Rebecca Helm of the University of North Carolina told The New York Times on Friday.

Study it first: The rich ocean life she found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch “really underscores the need to study the open ocean before attempting to manipulate it, modify it, clean it, or extract minerals from it” , Helm said.

Continued Friday

In which we revisit stories from earlier in the week.

US Forest Service short-staffed for peak summer fire season

Chemicals and other toxins still lurk in half of car seats

Amid climate change-induced heatwave, India turns to coal

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.

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