August 2020 Newsletter – Northeast Ohio Sierra Club Group

fishing on lake erieSierra Club Endorsed Candidates Based on Leadership on Environmental Protection for Ohio

By Charlie Mitch, NEO Group Political Committee Chair

The Mission of the Sierra Club political program is to preserve the environment through nonpartisan grassroots political action (from Sierra Club Political Team Compliance Guidelines). The principal goals of the program are: 1) to elect candidates who will support and promote environmental protection and who share our core values of equity, justice, and inclusion; 2) to raise public awareness about environmental issues and elevate the priority of these issues for decision-makers; 3) to encourage Club members and other environmentalists to participate in the political process; 4) to advance the Club’s conservation agenda by building relationships with legislators and other elected officials, and 5) to strengthen the Sierra Club’s capacity to elect pro-environment candidates at every level of government.

The Northeast Ohio Group of the Sierra Club and the Ohio Chapter of the Sierra Club have endorsed the candidates listed below because of their commitment and leadership as champions for protecting the environment. Endorsements are based on consideration of the candidates’ voting records if they are current or prior officeholders. Candidates are asked to complete a questionnaire surveying a range of environmental issues. Candidates are also interviewed by video-conference, with an in-depth discussion of candidates’ positions on key environmental issues. The following candidates have been endorsed, as of June 30, 2020, additional candidates may be endorsed soon.

Marcy Kaptur – U.S. Congress District 9
Marcia Fudge – U.S. Congress District 11
Betsy Rader – Ohio Senate District 18
Phil Robinson – Ohio House District 6
Joan Sweeny – Ohio House District 7
Jeff Crossman – Ohio House District 15
Monique Smith – Ohio House District 16
Zach Stepp – Ohio House District 55

beautiful yard

Vote by Mail Information

Did you know you can send for your vote by mail ballot now? You can send in your request now– so that you are signed up to receive an actual ballot when they are mailed out October 6th.

To request an absentee/vote by mail ballot from your county board of elections, click on its link below.

Ashtabula County Board of Elections
Cuyahoga County Board of Elections
Erie County Board of Elections
Geauga County Board of Elections
Huron County Board of Elections
Lake County Board of Elections
Lorain County Board of Elections

Environmental Justice and the Courts: A Mea Culpa

As Sierra Club members, we are often asked to support other groups in taking action against polluters and others who do environmental harm. The number of such requests among the email that I receive seems to grow exponentially each week. Often it is hard to know which requests are worthy of support. Even when you think you know something about a specific case that is the basis for a request, you eventually may discover that you did not know as much as you thought. I was recently reminded of this caveat by news about Steven Donziger, the American lawyer who was a principal in winning a multi-billion dollar judgment against Chevron in an Ecuadorian court.

Donziger is now under house arrest due to contempt charges stemming from a suit filed against him by Chevron in a federal district court. Donziger was something of a hero to me; someone who had actually won redress for downtrodden indigenous communities in Ecuador. I couldn’t believe the news, but it was true.

The Donziger case started with a lawsuit filed in the 1990s against Texaco, the Texas-based oil company. The plaintiffs were a group of indigenous communities from the northern Amazon basin of Ecuador. Texaco operated in Ecuador from 1972 until 1990 and developed Ecuador’s largest oil field in the region surrounding the Amazonian town of Lago Agrio.

During its operations around Lago Agrio, Texaco routinely dumped toxic wastes from drilling operations into unlined and uncovered pits. Toxic chemicals from the pits would seep into the groundwater or, during heavy rains, overflow into surrounding streams. The streams would carry the toxins widely throughout the region; I witnessed oil waste floating on nearby lagoons in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Refuge while on a study abroad trip with Baldwin-Wallace students in the late 1980’s.

Local indigenous communities relied on contaminated streams for drinking water and fish. Consequently, people began to get sick, many reporting various types of cancer. In the early 1990s, community leaders banded together and sought redress in the courts.

Initially, a class-action lawsuit was filed in New York. Then Chevron bought Texaco and requested that the lawsuit be moved back to Ecuador. The U.S. court agreed with the proviso that Chevron accept the ruling of Ecuador’s courts. Chevron signed affidavits pledging to do so.

The indigenous communities hired Steve Donziger, a young Harvard educated lawyer who had traveled to Ecuador to examine the Amazonian oil problem after a law school friend had told him about it. Donziger had worked as a journalist in Nicaragua and spoke fluent Spanish, so he was a good fit for the case. Working in collaboration with Ecuadorian lawyers for almost 20 years, Donziger was successful in convincing an Ecuadorian court to award the indigenous communities a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in 2013.

The judgement was one of the largest ever against an oil company and was a clear warning to multinational extractive industries. However, this was not the end of the case.

Chevron refused to recognize the validity of the Ecuadorian legal process despite its earlier promise to the New York court. Instead, it hired an army of lawyers to invoke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and countersue Donziger and his allies. The RICO suit was pursued in the New York federal district court presided over by Judge Lewis Kaplan.

The suit hinged on evidence gleaned from outtakes from the documentary film Crude. Kaplan ordered the release of the outtakes which showed Donziger being told by a consultant that no evidence existed that water pollution in Ecuador’s Amazon could be traced to the oil waste pits constructed by Texaco. Initially, Chevron asked for billions in damages but dropped the monetary claim, which allowed Kaplan to adjudicate the case without a jury.

Chevron’s star witness was Alberto Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge who had participated in issuing the judgment against Chevron. Chevron admitted to paying Guerra and moving him and his family to the U.S. Nevertheless, Kaplan allowed his testimony to the effect that Donziger had tried to bribe him and had ghostwritten the final judgment against Chevron. Kaplan then found Donziger and allies guilty in 2014.

The RICO verdict was appealed to the Appellate Court of the Second District in New York. The appellate court upheld the district court’s decisions in all respects. I had hoped to find language in the appellate decision that called into question the validity of the evidence presented, especially by Guerra, in the district court trial. However, there was no such language. Instead, the decision revealed substantial evidence beyond the Guerra testimony that Donziger and his colleagues had engaged in extensive fraud that involved ghostwriting testimony from witnesses and threatening judges if they did not issue the desired judgments. I desperately wanted vindication for Donziger and the judgment against Chevron but it simply was not there.

Chevron’s pursuit of Donziger did not stop with the 2014 verdict and the appellate court decision. The company insisted that Donziger provide access to his personal computer and cell phone which Donziger refused to do on the basis that such access would reveal privileged client information. Judge Kaplan then filed criminal contempt charges against Donziger and ordered him to be placed under house arrest in his New York apartment. When federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York refused to prosecute the contempt charges against Donziger, Kaplan took the unprecedented step of appointing private attorneys to prosecute the charges. Recently, Loretta Preska, the federal judge who will preside over the contempt trial, extended Donziger’s house arrest, saying that he was a flight risk.

To many environmentalists and human rights activists, Donziger and his colleagues are very sympathetic figures. They are the David who took on Chevron’s Goliath and won. Maybe they did a few unethical things in gaining the Ecuador judgment, but the end justified the means, right? Even though a small protest movement paints Donziger as being persecuted by pro-business judges, I don’t believe his tactics were justified. If we can believe the appellate court, and there is little reason not to, Donziger and his allies saw Chevron as a deep-pocketed target and went after that target even though the evidence did not support Chevron’s culpability.

Apparently, Texaco complied with a commitment to Ecuador’s government and cleaned up at least some of its mess in the Amazon. The contamination found by Donziger’s experts was more directly traceable to actions by PetroEcuador, Ecuador’s state-owned oil company. However, suing PetroEcuador in an Ecuadorian court would have been very difficult if not impossible. So, Donziger doctored the evidence and bribed judges to allow him to go after Chevron.

Now, Donziger is paying a steep price for his malfeasance and could be permanently disbarred. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the indigenous communities will ever receive a penny from Chevron as they are barred from seeking restitution in the U.S. and most other countries where they have tried to seize Chevron assets have not been cooperative.

So what do we learn from all of this? First, using fraudulent tactics against a wealthy corporation is unlikely to yield the desired results. Grassroots groups pressing environmental claims are much better off in the long run sticking strictly to the facts and following the letter of the law. The indigenous communities in this case are now discredited and will have a very hard time pressing a case against PetroEcuador or anyone else.

The problem is how to effectively make yourself heard when no one has ever paid any attention to you. The court system is clearly stacked against small organizations and communities. This brings us to the second and most important thing to learn from this case: real recourse for small communities lies in joining with other groups that share common problems to form the most broadly based advocacy group possible.

Fortunately, indigenous groups in Ecuador have done exactly that and have had success in using national strikes to press for policies that they want. That process led to a new Ecuadorian constitution in 2008 that recognizes rights for nature. Although loopholes allow the government to continue to engage in environmentally destructive activities, the constitution was a step in the right direction.

It is unfortunate that unethical individuals like Donziger can still lead naïve indigenous groups astray. The indigenous communities near Lago Agrio really did suffer greatly from oil pollution and deserved better from their so-called defenders.

When the documentary Crude came out, it was shown at the Cleveland International Film Festival. I was involved in getting the NEO Sierra Club to co-sponsor the film, and I helped to introduce it at the festival. Now, I feel that the documentary misrepresents what happened in Ecuador and that I was a part of that misrepresentation. The issues were much more complex than what was portrayed in the film, and I should have done more research into them. But I knew that oil companies were harming Ecuador, so I jumped on the bandwagon to denounce Chevron.

Now Chevron has evidence that environmental groups are willing to take biased positions without closely examining the facts. Going forward, we really need to guard against taking positions that we have not thoroughly researched. Oil companies need to be challenged, but we must do so using solid, well-researched evidence. I pledge to do a better job of researching the positions that I defend in the future and hope that we all make that pledge. Our environment is too precious to do otherwise.

Michael Melampy
Rainforest Chair

Transportation During COVID 19

Environmentalists know that solo driving pollutes the air but now with Covid-19 many are turning away from public transit and carpooling. Ridership on RTA is down partly due to stay at home orders, layoffs, and concerns about safety.
Clevelanders for Public Transit, an advocacy group for safe and reliable public transit is pushing for RTA to do more to make transit safe during Covid-19. You can help by taking this short, ten-question survey here:
https://cptsurveys.typeform.com/to/CinNJp

RTA has increased sanitizing measures, requiring mask-wearing of all employees and posting signage on social distancing and mask-wearing. Some other transit systems such as Columbus and Pittsburgh have gone further, requiring masks of passengers and adding more buses during busy times for riders to spread out.

Transit allows essential workers who are employed in health care and food service to get to work and to take care of everyday needs.

According to the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, solo driving is linked to air pollution and sprawl which are linked to obesity and asthma. Public transit along with fewer auto trips, bicycling, and walking reduces air pollution by a significant degree. According to N.O.A.C.A. electric and hybrid cars help but having more of them on the road offsets these improvements. More cars mean less green space as roads are widened and more parking is needed.

Biking, walking, and riding transit are all part of the solution for a healthier lifestyle and a healthier planet. This is why we need a healthy, robust public transit system. For more information about Clevelanders for Public Transit and their recommendations for making Cleveland RTA safer during the pandemic, see www.clefortransit.org.

Submitted by Brian Taylor and Justine Smith

say-no-to-rezone

Preserving Greenspace in Pepper Pike

Leaders of a group trying to preserve greenspace in Pepper Pike have asked for our help informing environmentalists about their efforts. This local land-use issue is on the ballot this November. Please help spread the word to help inform voters in Pepper Pike about this issue. All the information is available on the group’s website: Say No to Rezone. Say Yes to Preserving Pepper Pike

National Suspends Ohio Chapter for Four Years

All members received this information, but it is also provided here. Our group participated in the member comment phone call with National about this decision. We also submitted a letter asking that the Chapter not be suspended, as we were concerned that suspension would impede our work. National made the decision to suspend the Ohio Chapter for four years, as explained by this communication from them:

July 16, 2020
Sierra Club Board of Directors
re: Suspension of Ohio Chapter

The Board voted in December of 2019 to commence the process under Bylaw 8.4 to consider suspension of the Ohio Chapter after receiving an update on the Chapter’s status from the Office of Chapter Support. The grounds for the proposed suspension were furnished in writing to Chapter members and the officers of the Council of Club Leaders in May 2020, together with information on how to provide comments to the Board on the proposed action. The Board sought and received the advice of the Council of Club Leaders on this proposed action. In June and July 2020, Sierra Club members in Ohio commented in writing and by conference call with the Board on the proposed suspension of the Ohio Chapter.

After due consideration, the Board finds suspension of the Ohio Chapter is in the best interests of Sierra Club and hereby suspends the Ohio Chapter for four years. The suspension will end upon the seating of a properly elected Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2024, unless otherwise determined by the Board of Directors.

During this suspension, the membership status of Ohio members will be unaffected. The Board will constitute a Nominating Committee to inform the constitution of the Ohio Chapter Steering Committee which will handle decision-making and other governance functions during suspension that are currently vested in the Chapter Executive Committee. Groups within Ohio may continue to be led by their elected Executive Committees, and have the same authority to act in the name of Sierra Club that they currently have.

In order to rebuild Sierra Club functions in Ohio, to rebuild trust among volunteer leaders and with members, community leaders, national Sierra Club leaders and the public, and to prepare for a transition to a well-functioning member-elected Ohio Chapter leadership, the Board hereby delegates to its Executive Committee authority to constitute the Nominating Committee, appoint the Steering Committee members and charge, and hold the Steering Committee accountable to its charge. The Board also delegates to its Executive Committee the authority to authorize the Ohio Chapter Steering Committee to appoint a delegate and alternate to the Council of Club Leaders.

The Nominating Committee shall nominate up to seven members and two alternates for the Steering Committee for approval by the Board Excom. The Nominating Committee will be composed of 3 – 5 volunteer Sierra Club members supported by the Office of Chapter Support: three Ohio Chapter members, one volunteer from outside Ohio to provide additional context and guidance regarding the chapter suspension process, and one from the Board Volunteer Leader and Activism Committee. The Steering Committee will be composed of volunteer Sierra Club members in Ohio. The Board delegates to its Executive Committee management of the functions of the suspended Ohio Chapter during the interim period until the Steering Committee is constituted. The Board further directs the Executive Committee to provide it with periodic updates and recommend, when appropriate, ending the chapter suspension at the earliest possible date.

The Board further establishes the following goals for the Steering Committee and other Sierra Club leaders working with members of the Ohio Chapter during its suspension:

1. Rebuild Sierra Club functions in Ohio and transition to a well-functioning, effective member-elected Ohio Chapter volunteer leadership. This will include establishing new community agreements to build trust among volunteer leaders, maintaining intellectual honesty and respectful dialogue, addressing disagreements constructively, creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere where all leaders can thrive and new leaders feel welcomed, and establishing a governance structure that engages members and the community in work that advances Sierra Club’s mission.

2. Build the skills of senior chapter leaders to manage chapter staff with the goal of developing and training a personnel committee that will manage chapter staff.

3. Provide support to improve Chapter volunteer leadership and management capacity to engage in addressing potential problems before they evolve into conflicts and constructively resolve disagreements.

4. Create an Ohio Chapter Strategic Plan setting forth a cohesive statewide approach to implementing Sierra Club’s mission throughout the state of Ohio.

5. Build the communications with and the capacity of the Ohio groups to engage members and supporters in meaningful ways to advance Sierra Club goals.

6. Build a mutually beneficial relationship with the national Sierra Club and national staff working in Ohio.

7. Maintain the core functions of the Chapter: advancing Sierra Club’s mission (conservation, litigation, outings, political, equity), providing service to members, supporters and the public, building local resources, and complying with bylaws, policies and standards.

8. Ensure compliance with applicable Sierra Club policies and requirements.

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