Equilibrium/Sustainability — Wild horses could help temper Western wildfires

As a massive wildfire rages along California’s northern border, one rancher is eying an unlikely future savior: the four-legged fighters of the Wild Horse Fire Brigade.  

Since 1971, the Bureau of Land Management has been responsible for wild horses — corralling them with helicopters if there are too many in any given area. Today, there are 55,000-60,000 horses in captivity, whose care costs taxpayers about
$90 million annually. 

But California naturalist William Simpson, a former cattle rancher who studies wild horses, told NPR that he’d prefer to re-wild these animals as members of his Wild Horse Fire Brigade.  

This local herd, he explained, has reduced the fuel available to wildfires through grazing.  

The horses are able to “tread lightly in this environment,” while “using the same game trails deer and elk use — trimming highly flammable grass and brush along the way,” said NPR reporter Stephanie O’Neill, citing Simpson.   

“Then, unlike cows, which are non-native species, they replant through their manure much of what they eat, including native and endangered plants,” she added.  

The horses are also able to help “fireproof” the trees around them, by scratching against and breaking off low-lying branches, according to NPR. 

“Horses are like slow moving fire brigades,” said NPR host Emily Kwong.  

“Their natural behavior changes the landscape in ways that prevent wildfires from getting really big in the first place,” she added.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start with a new Biden administration program aimed at improving access to wastewater management in rural communities, followed by a look at the first grain-stocked ship to leave Ukraine’s Odesa port. Then we’ll look at why delivery drivers are pushing for protection from heat.

EPA, USDA unveil plans to improve rural sanitation

The Biden administration announced plans on Tuesday to ensure that historically underserved communities can access wastewater sanitation resources.  

The pilot initiative, a joint effort between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), will focus on 11 rural communities across the country where residents lack basic wastewater management, according to the partners.  

A ‘stolen’ opportunity: “The America that we all believe in is a land of opportunity,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.  

“But, for historically marginalized communities from Alabama to Alaska, that opportunity is stolen when basic sanitation doesn’t work — exposing adults and children to backyard sewage and disease,” Regan added.  

Local partners: The EPA and USDA will be working with Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, West Virginia and tribal nations to help communities take advantage of relevant federal funding opportunities.  

  • One such resource is the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is providing
    $11.7 billion in loans and grants for water infrastructure initiatives, including wastewater management projects, the partners said.  
  • About 2.2 million people in the U.S. lack basic running water, while even more live with inadequate sewage infrastructure that endangers human health.    

Eleven communities are participating in the pilot program:  

  • Bolivar County, Miss. 
  • Doña Ana County, N.M. 
  • Duplin County, N.C. 
  • Greene County, Ala. 
  • Halifax County, N.C. 
  • Harlan County, Ky. 
  • Lowndes County, Ala. 
  • McDowell County, W.Va. 
  • Raleigh County, W.Va. 
  • San Carlos Apache Tribe, Ariz.  
  • Santo Domingo Pueblo, N.M.   

Direct support: Each community or tribe will get direct assistance in developing wastewater assessments, including technical engineering support, according to the EPA-USDA announcement.  

They will also receive help designing solutions, identifying funding opportunities and building long-term capacity, the partners said. 

To read the full story, please click here.

Ship stocked with Ukrainian grain departs Odesa

A ship stocked with grain safely left Ukraine’s Black Sea Port of Odesa on Monday — the first since Russia’s invasion of the country began.  

Slight weather delays: The arrival of the vessel in Turkey was delayed on Tuesday due to inclement weather, CNN reported, citing the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) in Istanbul. 

The ship, called the MV Razoni, is heading to Lebanon via Turkey. It was moving slower than anticipated and is now due to dock in Istanbul on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, according to CNN.  

Turning point: The MV Razoni is the first ship to carry Ukrainian goods since
Feb. 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine more than five months ago. 

Deal of global importance: The ship’s departure was made possible by a July 22 safe passage agreement and has raised hopes for the future..   

  • Additional departures could help ease a surging global food shortage.
  • A Turkish official told Reuters that about one ship is expected to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports every day that the safe passage deal holds. 

Easing worldwide hunger: The restart of shipping operations from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has become increasingly critical due to how much of the global food supply depends on the country.  

Ukraine’s stockpiles currently hold 20 million tons of grain — or what The New York Times described as “trillions of calories trapped” in the country.   

  • About 50 million people in 45 countries are on the verge of famine, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program
  • The war in Ukraine has made an existing problem worse, as the country was a major exporter of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and corn.   

Will this be enough? Experts are saying that getting Ukrainian grain on the move again may “barely make a dent in a global food crisis” that the United Nations has warned could persist for years, according to the Times. 

The burgeoning crisis — driven by the coronavirus pandemic, extreme weather and economic disruptions — may have become so big “that no single advance would be a silver bullet,” the Times reported.

Key Texas reservoirs no longer filling up

No water is returning to two vital reservoirs supplying the city of Austin, according to data released on Tuesday by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). 

That’s yet another grim milestone hitting the drought-plagued West as temperatures soar — and across the Southern Plains, clear skies are keeping away rains that might otherwise refresh regional water sources. 

Not filling up: LCRA oversees much of the city’s water supply, as well as the flow of Texas’s Colorado River — which is distinct from the one flowing out of the state of Colorado.  

The report on Tuesday found that drainage and runoff into the two reservoirs — Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis — stood at zero

That’s the first time since the 1960s that no water at all has been draining into the lakes, a statement from the Central Texas Water Coalition said.

UPS drivers demand heat protections

Delivery drivers are calling on United Parcel Services (UPS) to do more to protect them from dangerous heat. 

While few delivery drivers benefit from air conditioning — one Amazon driver described his delivery vehicle on a company forum as “driving in a bread oven” — UPS drivers have a secret weapon in their battle to stay cool: an enormous union. 

The brewing labor conflict, which is likely to be a key issue in UPS contract negotiations last year, highlighting how climate threats are blending with workplace safety concerns. 

Passing out: At least two drivers have died, and many more have been hospitalized — due to the soaring temperatures they face on their shifts. 

  • Fort Worth, Texas, driver Anthony Montgomery is in the hospital barely conscious after sustaining a heat stroke in July, his wife told local TV-station WFAA. 
  • His case wasn’t unique — even locally. “We’ve had several employees over the last several weeks have to be hospitalized specifically to heat-related injuries,” local International Brotherhood of Teamsters union president David Reeves told WFAA. 

Young drivers aren’t immune: Montgomery’s stroke followed a number of high-profile examples of drivers collapsing — or dying — in the heat. 

  • In July, Esteban Chavez Jr., 24 years old, died of heat stroke after passing out in his truck in northeast Los Angeles, ABC7 News reported. 
  • The case was disturbingly similar to that of 23 year old driver Jose Rodriguez was found dead of heat-related illness near his truck in Waco, Texas, last August, on just his second day of work, local station KWTX reported. 

A viral video caught by a Ring camera in July showed a UPS driver passing out on a Phoenix-area resident’s porch, local station KPNX reported.


One major worker complaint is that UPS trucks generally don’t have air conditioning, an NBC investigation found. 

UPS maintains that air conditioning doesn’t fit a delivery model in which doors are being opened “about 130 times a day on average,” according to a company statement to WFAA.

The Teamsters union argues that UPS has prioritized features like delivery-truck surveillance cameras over those that keep drivers safe, NBC reported.     

  • Approval of fan requests is “very rare,” the president of the New York Teamsters Union told The City. 
  • One driver — later hospitalized with heat stroke — claimed to The City that he was reprimanded for pausing to drink water. 

“When it’s hot out, those trucks…. It’s like walking into hell,” another driver reported to The City. 

Contract negotiations: UPS’s 350,000-member workforce is largely represented by the Teamsters under the largest union contract in America, NBC reported. 

That deal is up for renegotiation next year — and heat protections will almost certainly be part of it, Teamster representatives told NBC.

Outsized importance: UPS’s union workforce is in a powerful position to get changes made, Juley Fulcher of nonprofit Public Citizen told NBC. 

“They’re in a uniquely positive position to actually do something about this, because they are so structured,” she said.

Transport Tuesday

Small airports set travel records, Tesla goes to China seeking batteries and why the electric vehicle (EV) revolution is still just getting started. 

Rocky Mountain airport hubs thrive this summer, amid nationwide aviation cuts 

  • As airlines cut service to small communities around the country, Colorado’s mountain-town hubs — like Aspen, Durango, Eagle County and Gunnison — are setting travel records this summer, The Colorado Sun reported. “Once we got through the pandemic and leisure travel started to recover, we were in a great position to maintain our air service,” Matt Skinner of the Colorado Flights Alliance told the Sun.  

Tesla signs battery deal with Chinese companies

  • Electric vehicle (EV) leader Tesla inked supply deals with two major Chinese battery manufacturers — part of a broader attempt by EV-makers to secure long-term battery supplies, clean energy news site Electrek reported. Tesla aims to be turning out 2 million EVs by the end of 2022 — twice the production volumes its U.S. competitors hope for, according to Electrek.

EV tipping point still a ways off

  • While U.S. drivers’ adoption of EVs is rapidly increasing, it’s still lagging well behind both corporate rhetoric and policy goals, Axios reported. For example, while 39 percent of all new EVs nationwide are in California, the low-carbon cars represent just 2 percent of the vehicles driven in that state, according to Axios.

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