Category Archives: Human Rights

Left to their Own Bad Devices: the Future of Ogoni Land in Nigeria

The decades-overdue clean-up of Ogoniland, after years of oil spills from the pipelines that criss-cross the region, is finally under way. But the billion-dollar project — funded by Nigeria’s national oil company and Royal Dutch Shell — is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement.  “We are not pleased with what is going on,” said Mike Karikpo, an attorney with Friends of the Earth International and a member of the Ogoniland team that negotiated the creation of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), the government body running the clean-up… 

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, pumping out about 1.8m barrels per day. It provides roughly 90 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange and more than half of government revenues.  The clean-up began only the summer 2019, about a year after the first of an expected five tranches of $180m in funding was released to Hyprep. Mr Karikpo complains of a lack of transparency, alleging that planning, budgeting and awarding of contracts took place behind closed doors. Work started at the height of the rainy season, washing away much of the progress as contaminated soil collected for treatment was swept back into the environment…

Ogoniland, like the broader Niger Delta, has become more polluted and development has stalled, with little to show for the billions of dollars in crude that has been extracted. Critics have now accused Hyprep of being, like much of Nigeria’s oil sector, a vehicle for political patronage and graft. This year 16 companies were awarded contracts for the first phase of the clean-up, which — to the consternation of critics — focuses on the least contaminated parts of Ogoniland.

An investigation by the news site Premium Times found that almost all the companies were set up for other purposes, including poultry farming, car sales and construction, and had no experience of tackling oil pollution.  Meanwhile, insiders have questioned Hyprep’s capacity to handle such a massive project…

Shell and Hyprep have rejected the criticism.  Shell, which closed its Ogoniland operations in 1993, said it accepted responsibility “for spills arising from its operations”, but that some of the blame for the pollution must go to thieves who illegally tapped into pipelines and makeshift refining operations in the Delta’s creeks

Excerpts from Craft and Mismanagement Taint Nigeria’s Oil CleanUp, Financial Times, Dec. 29, 2019

Over Your Dead Body: the Creation of Internet Companies

Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” (2019) explains how the internet was created. The 26 words are these: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” They form Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, itself a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.   Section 230 shields online platforms from legal liability for content generated by third-party users. Put simply: If you’re harassed by a Facebook user, or if your business is defamed by a Yelp reviewer, you might be able to sue the harasser or the reviewer, assuming you know his or her identity, but don’t bother suing Facebook or Yelp. They’re probably immune. That immunity is what enabled American tech firms to become far more than producers of content (the online versions of newspapers, say, or company websites) and to harness the energy and creativity of hundreds of millions of individual users. The most popular sites on the web—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Reddit, Wikipedia, Amazon—depend in part or in whole on user-generated content…

Because of section 230, the U.S. was able to cultivate online companies in ways that other countries—even countries in the developed world—could not….American law’s “internet exceptionalism,” as it’s known, is the source of mind-blowing technological innovation, unprecedented economic opportunity and, a great deal of human pain. The book chronicles the plights of several people who found themselves targeted or terrorized by mostly anonymous users… Each of them sued the internet service providers or websites that facilitated these acts of malice and failed to do anything about them when alerted. And each lost—thanks to the immunity afforded to providers by Section 230.

Has the time come to delete the section?

Excerpt from Barton Swaim, ‘The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet’ Review: Protecting the Providers, WSJ, Aug. 19, 2019

Stasi Reborn: Democratizing Internet Censorship

The internet is the “spiritual home” of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. So China’s leader, Xi Jinping, described it in 2016. He said he expected citizens to help keep the place tidy. Many have taken up the challenge. In December 2019 netizens reported 12.2m pieces of “inappropriate” content to the authorities—four times as many as in the same month of 2015. The surge does not indicate that the internet in China is becoming more unruly. Rather, censorship is becoming more bottom-up

Officials have been mobilising people to join the fight in this “drawn-out war”, as a magazine editor called it in a speech in September to Shanghai’s first group of city-appointed volunteer censors. “Internet governance requires that every netizen take part,” an official told the gathering. It was arranged by the city’s cyber-administration during its first “propaganda month” promoting citizen censorship. The 140 people there swore to report any online “disorder”…

 Information-technology rules, which took effect on December 1st, 2019 oblige new subscribers to mobile-phone services not only to prove their identities, as has long been required, but also to have their faces scanned. That, presumably, will make it easier for police to catch the people who post the bad stuff online.

Excerpt from  The Year of the Rat-fink: Online Censorship, Economist, Jan 18, 2020

Swept Under the Rug: Radioactive Dust and Brine in the Oil Industry

A salty substance called  “brine,” is  a naturally occurring waste product that gushes out of America’s oil-and-gas wells to the tune of nearly 1 trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan, almost shin-high, every single day. At most wells, far more brine is produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more. Brine collects in tanks, and workers pick it up and haul it off to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the earth

The Earth’s crust is in fact peppered with radioactive elements that concentrate deep underground in oil-and-gas-bearing layers. This radioactivity is often pulled to the surface when oil and gas is extracted — carried largely in the brine…

Radium, typically the most abundant radionuclide in brine, is often measured in picocuries per liter of substance and is so dangerous it’s subject to tight restrictions even at hazardous-waste sites. The most common isotopes are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires industrial discharges to remain below 60 for each. Some brine samples registered combined radium levels above 3,500, and one was more than 8,500. “It’s ridiculous that those who haul brine are not being told what’s in their trucks,” says John Stolz, Duquesne’s environmental-center director. “And this stuff is on every corner — it is in neighborhoods. Truckers don’t know they’re being exposed to radioactive waste, nor are they being provided with protective clothing.

“Breathing in this stuff and ingesting it are the worst types of exposure,” Stolz continues. “You are irradiating your tissues from the inside out.” The radioactive particles fired off by radium can be blocked by the skin, but radium readily attaches to dust, making it easy to accidentally inhale or ingest. Once inside the body, its insidious effects accumulate with each exposure. It is known as a “bone seeker” because it can be incorporated into the skeleton and cause bone cancers called sarcomas. It also decays into a series of other radioactive elements, called “daughters.” The first one for radium-226 is radon, a radioactive gas and the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon has also been linked to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Oil fields across the country — from the Bakken in North Dakota to the Permian in Texas — have been found to produce brine that is highly radioactive. “All oil-field workers,” says Fairlie, “are radiation workers.” But they don’t necessarily know it.

The advent of the fracking boom in the early 2000s expanded the danger, saddling the industry with an even larger tidal wave of waste to dispose of, and creating new exposure risks as drilling moved into people’s backyards. “In the old days, wells weren’t really close to population centers. Now, there is no separation,” says City University of New York public-health expert Elizabeth Geltman. In the eastern U.S. “we are seeing astronomically more wells going up,” she says, “and we can drill closer to populations because regulations allow it.” As of 2016, fracking accounted for more than two-thirds of all new U.S. wells, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are about 1 million active oil-and-gas wells, across 33 states, with some of the biggest growth happening in the most radioactive formation — the Marcellus. …

There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity. Brine has even been used in commercial products sold at hardware stores and is spread on local roads as a de-icer

But a set of recent legal cases argues a direct connection to occupational exposure can be made… Pipe cleaners, welders, roughnecks, roustabouts, derrickmen, and truck drivers hauling dirty pipes and sludge all were exposed to radioactivity without their knowledge and suffered a litany of lethal cancers. An analysis program developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined with up to 99 percent certainty that the cancers came from exposure to radioactivity on the job, including inhaling dust and radioactivity accumulated on the workplace floor, known as “groundshine.”

“Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides,” states a never-publicly released 1982 report by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s principal trade group, passed to Rolling Stone by a former state regulator. Rolling Stone discovered a handful of other industry reports and articles that raised concerns about liability for workers’ health. A 1950 document from Shell Oil warned of a potential connection between radioactive substances and cancer of the “bone and bone marrow.” In a 1991 paper, scientists with Chevron said, “Issues such as risk to workers or the general public…must be addressed.”

“There is no one federal agency that specifically regulates the radioactivity brought to the surface by oil-and-gas development,” an EPA representative says. In fact, thanks to a single exemption the industry received from the EPA in 1980, the streams of waste generated at oil-and-gas wells — all of which could be radioactive and hazardous to humans — are not required to be handled as hazardous waste. In 1988, the EPA assessed the exemption — called the Bentsen and Bevill amendments, part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — and claimed that “potential risk to human health and the environment were small,” even though the agency found concerning levels of lead, arsenic, barium, and uranium, and admitted that it did not assess many of the major potential risks. Instead, the report focused on the financial and regulatory burdens, determining that formally labeling the “billions of barrels of waste” as hazardous would “cause a severe economic impact on the industry.”…

There is a perception that because the radioactivity is naturally occurring it’s less harmful (the industry and regulators almost exclusively call oil-and-gas waste NORM — naturally occurring radioactive material, or TENORM for the “technologically enhanced” concentrations of radioactivity that accumulate in equipment like pipes and trucks.”…

In Pennsylvania, regulators revealed in 2012 that for at least six years one hauling company had been dumping brine into abandoned mine shafts. In 2014, Benedict Lupo, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, company that hauled fracking waste, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of brine into a storm drain that emptied into a creek that feeds into the Mahoning River. While large bodies of water like lakes and rivers can dilute radium, Penn State researchers have shown that in streams and creeks, radium can build up in sediment to levels that are hundreds of times more radioactive than the limit for topsoil at Superfund sites. Texas-based researcher Zac Hildenbrand has shown that brine also contains volatile organics such as the carcinogen benzene, heavy metals, and toxic levels of salt, while fracked brine contains a host of additional hazardous chemicals. “It is one of the most complex mixtures on the planet,” he says…

“There is nothing to remediate it with,” says Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist. “The high radioactivity in the soil at some of these sites will stay forever.” Radium-226 has a half-life of 1,600 years. The level of uptake into agricultural crops grown in contaminated soil is unknown because it hasn’t been adequately studied.

“Not much research has been done on this,” says Bill Burgos, an environmental engineer at Penn State who co-authored a bombshell 2018 paper in Environmental Science & Technology that examined the health effects of applying oil-field brine to roads. Regulators defend the practice by pointing out that only brine from conventional wells is spread on roads, as opposed to fracked wells. But conventional-well brine can be every bit as radioactive, and Burgos’ paper found it contained not just radium, but cadmium, benzene, and arsenic, all known human carcinogens, along with lead, which can cause kidney and brain damage.

Brine as dust suppressant

Ohio, because of its geology, favorable regulations, and nearness to drilling hot spots in the Marcellus, has become a preferred location for injection wells. Pennsylvania has about a dozen wells; West Virginia has just over 50. Ohio has 225. About 95 percent of brine was disposed of through injection as of 2014. Government scientists have increasingly linked the practice to earthquakes, and the public has become more and more suspicious of the sites. Still, the relentless waste stream means new permits are issued all the time, and the industry is also hauling brine to treatment plants that attempt to remove the toxic and radioactive elements so the liquid can be used to frack new wells.

Excerpts from America’s Radioactive Secret, Rolling Stone Magazine, Jan. 21, 2020

The Global Experiment with Malaria Vaccine Starts in African States

Thirty years in the making, RTS,S, the malaria vaccine, also known by its brand name, Mosquirix, targets Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and most lethal of four malaria parasite species. It is an answer to a dire need. After decades of declining numbers of cases and deaths, the fight against malaria has stalled. Parasites resistant to the most widely used treatment, called artemisinin-based combination therapy, are spreading, while malaria mosquitoes are increasingly resistant to insecticides. And yet the rollout in Malawi and in two other African countries, isn’t quite the breakthrough the field has been waiting for. Mosquirix’s efficacy and durability are mediocre: Four doses offer only 30% protection against severe malaria, for no more than 4 years. Some experts question whether that is worth the cost and effort

The biggest concerns, however, are about the vaccine’s safety. In the largest trial, children who received Mosquirix had a risk of meningitis 10 times higher than those who received a control vaccine. Mosquirix may not have triggered the meningitis cases—there are other possible explanations—but the possible risk worried the global health community so much that, rather than rolling out the vaccine across Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to set up a pilot in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya in which the vaccine will be given to hundreds of thousands of children.

The Malaria parasite  is a challenging target for a vaccine. It has a complex life cycle that begins when an infected female mosquito bites a human and spits Plasmodium cells called sporozoites into the bloodstream. They multiply in the liver, emerge as another cell type named merozoites, invade red blood cells, and continue to multiply. The blood cells burst, causing fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and often anemia. (They also flood the blood with gametocytes—the parasite’s reproductive cells—ready to be picked up by the next mosquito.) Along the way, the parasite frequently changes its surface proteins. That makes it an elusive target for the immune system, and for a vaccine.

Mosquirix, developed in the 1980s by a team in Belgium at SmithKline-RIT, now part of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), stimulates an immune response against a protein that occurs only on the sporozoites’ surface. To bolster the response, the research team fused the vaccine protein with a hepatitis B surface protein and added an adjuvant….

A relative outside, Danish anthropologist and vaccine researcher Peter Aaby of the Bandim Health Project in Guinea-Bissau, offered another argument against introduction. After reanalyzing the data from the biggest trial, Aaby discovered that although the vaccinated children had malaria less often, they did not die less often. Among girls, overall mortality was almost doubled, Aaby told his colleagues at the meeting. “This vaccine is killing girls,” he recalls saying. Whereas WHO expects the vaccine to save one life per 200 children vaccinated, Aaby believes one in 200 will die as a result of it; he predicts “a nightmare.”

Aaby and Christine Stabell Benn, a global health professor at the University of Southern Denmark, have an explanation. The married couple has studied routine vaccinations in Africa for decades and believes vaccines can “train” the immune system in ways that don’t affect just the target disease. Vaccines that contain a living, weakened pathogen—such as the vaccines against measles and tuberculosis—strengthen the immune system generally, Aaby and Stabell Benn say, making recipients better able to fight off other infections. But vaccines that contain a killed pathogen or only bits of it weaken the immune system, their theory goes—especially in girls, because their immune systems seem to respond more strongly to vaccines in general.

Excerpts from Jop de Vrieze, A Shot of Hope, Science Magazine, Nov. 29, 2019, at 1063

Does Fracking Cause Cancer? The Right to Know and the Duty to Protect

An increase in the number of teens and young adults diagnosed with a rare cancer in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania has caused the state to look for a link between fracking and the disease.The investigation was sparked by a spate of Ewing’s sarcoma cases in and around Washington County, which has more Marcellus Shale gas wells than any other county in the state. In April 2019 state Department of Health found that the cases didn’t constitute a statistically significant cancer cluster. But affected families and other residents lobbied the governor for an investigation.

 The region is home to coal mining, oil drilling, chemical plants and a former uranium-processing facility.  Each year, about 250 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer of the bone or surrounding soft tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health.  In four counties in southwest Pennsylvania, 31 people were diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma from 2006 through 2017, according to state cancer data. That is a roughly 40% increase from the period from 1995 through 2005, when 22 people in the same area were diagnosed, according to state data. Residents point to two additional cases in 2018. Most troubling to many local residents is that the six cases in Washington County since 2008 occurred in one school district.

Other communities are studying potential health risks of fracking. In October 2019, Colorado regulators said they would tighten regulation of drilling after a state-funded study found that people living within 2,000 feet of oil-and-gas wells could have, in worst-case scenarios, an elevated risk for infrequent, short-term health effects such as nosebleeds and headaches from emissions.

Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said Pennsylvania investigators should look at residents’ potential exposures to chemicals and to radiation from natural-gas sites. She said they also should look at the sealed waste site of the defunct uranium-processing plant…Since Pennsylvania’s first Marcellus Shale well was drilled in Washington County in 2003, more than 1,800 wells have been fracked there. Compressor stations, processing plants and pipelines have followed. Some residents worry that pollutants such as benzene from air emissions or radium from wastewater could affect people’s health.

Kris Maher, Cancer Cases Raise Fracking Fears, WSJ, Dec. 21, 2019

See also Shale gas development and cancer incidence in southwest Pennsylvania

Imperfect Tools Used Imperfectly: 400 000 Malaria Deaths

According to a report, published on December 4th, 2019 by the World Health Organization,  there were 228 million cases of malaria in 2018, which resulted in 400,000 deaths. Most victims were young children in Africa. That is a far cry from targets set in 2015 for the near-elimination of malaria by 2030.  These targets depended on a $6 billion a year being poured into malaria-control efforts. Funding in recent years, however, has been about $3 billion a year. More money would surely help. But substantial gains can be made by doing things more efficiently—something at which malaria programmes have been dismal.

Stopping malaria relies on three things: insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent nocturnal mosquito bites; the spraying of homes with insecticides; and the treating of pregnant women and children with rounds of preventive medication. These are all “imperfect tools, often used imperfectly”, says Pedro Alonso, head of the malaria programme at the World Health Organisation. Countries usually deploy the same package of measures everywhere, even though infection rates and their seasonal patterns vary a lot between regions, and particularly between cities and the countryside. Transmission reaches a peak in the rainy season, when mosquitoes are abundant, so preventive mass-treatment of children then can make a huge difference. Regional variations are particularly pronounced in large countries like Nigeria—a place that, by itself, accounts for a quarter of the world’s malaria cases.

The typical approach of a malaria-control programme is to bombard a country with bed nets and then use whatever cash remains for sporadic rounds of preventive medication. But in many big cities, such as Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, cases are few and far between, so deploying nets there is a waste. Overspending on nets at the expense of other things happens partly because nets are easy to count—a feature that aid programmes are particularly fond of. Results which cannot be attributed directly to money a donor spends tend to fall further down that donor’s list of priorities. This kind of reasoning tips the scales, because foreign aid accounts for two-thirds of the money spent on malaria.

Excerpts from Tropical disease: Malaria infections have stopped falling, Economist, Dec. 7, 2019