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Cadmium's presence in inexpensive jewelry can be dangerous

Jackie Wheeler | Sep 15, 2011 11:00 PM

Those of us here in the West have become sadly accustomed to news about contamination associated with copper and uranium mining, especially in recent years as these industries have experienced resurgence. However, a new variant of this disturbing topic has arisen the last few months that has a strong potential to affect urban dwellers and others who might not see themselves as direct victims of pollution from mines that are primarily in rural areas. 

The new specter is cadmium, a byproduct metal of copper and zinc processing.  Cadmium has an astonishing array of industrial and commercial uses. In various forms, it is present in batteries, ceramic glazes and pigments, solders, and pesticides.  The current scrutiny involves the presence of large amounts of cadmium found in cheap metal jewelry, primarily of the sort found in discount stores. Overseas manufacturers of this jewelry use the cadmium as a cheap filler, just as lead (now outlawed) was once used. Problem is, cadmium is a known carcinogen and can produce many other nasty effects such as kidney damage, reproductive problems, and anemia.

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Extreme weather makes us pay attention to climate

Jackie Wheeler | Aug 31, 2011 10:00 PM

This seems to be one of those times of the year when the weather forces us to pay it some special attention. It's hurricane season, for one, and as I wrote this Irene was threatening the Caribbean and the U.S. mid-Atlantic region. Here in the low desert of Arizona we're enduring what is likely to be the hottest August on record, which really means something to those of us accustomed to the normal late-summer fare of 105-ish degree readings. Still, 105 would be a welcome break from a month with temperatures mostly stuck above 110; the predictions have recently been for temperatures even above that. Yuck.

When it's this hot, you don't hear much from our local climate change deniers, who in the winter time are quick to make smug pronouncements such as "so much for global warming!" when temperatures dip below the 60s. It is impossible to convince them that climate change involves long-term world-wide shifts, such as, say, successive years of aggregate higher highs or lower lows or fiercer storms; all they seem to be interested in is the snap diagnosis, the superficial contradiction. 

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Killer compost

Jackie Wheeler | Aug 16, 2011 10:55 PM

 As you know, there has been considerable debate over the last several years about the high costs associated with organic and less-processed foods . Everyone (well nearly everyone) agrees that fresh produce and meat, minimally tainted with hormones, pesticides, and preservatives, are key ingredients in a healthy lifestyle for both people and the rest of the ecosystem, but significant barriers exist for those with little access to such foods and or those who cannot afford their higher prices at supermarkets and farmers' markets.

Of course, one "old" solution to this problem that is regaining popularity is home and community gardening. Anyone with a bit of time and access to a small plot of land, even in the densest urban environments, can grow a few fruit or vegetable plants, and the health benefits of this are plain. The cost savings can be significant, too; some inexpensive packets of seeds, basic tools, and a few soil amendments are generally all that's needed to get started.

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Industry boosts pro-fracking PR

Jackie Wheeler | Jul 31, 2011 10:00 PM

Like you, lately I've been getting a rapid education in fracking, the natural gas extraction method that's been much in the public eye, including extensive coverage of the April spill in Pennsylvania , the release of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland, and HCN's recent in-depth article "Hydrofracked?" in the June 27th issue. The environmental justice connection is pretty obvious; aquifers and other crucial water sources are becoming fouled with toxic chemicals such as benzene.

Fracking diagramEnvironmentalists and ordinary citizens, such as Louis Meeks, the Wyoming farmer profiled in the HCN piece, suspect that this pollution is a direct result of the fracking process. Of course, studies vary. This puts them at an impasse with the oil industry and the Feds, who insist that fracking isn't, or isn't usually, to blame. Amidst the finger-pointing, evidence emerges of cover-ups and industry-friendly legislation, such as the loophole in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that prohibits any regulation of fracking by the EPA.

Complicating this David-and-Goliath scenario is the larger debate about U.S. energy policy; natural gas is somewhat cleaner-burning than petroleum and coal, and is abundant in North America, making it an appealing prospect for gaining energy independence. Plenty of infrastructure currently exists for its use, also, which is not the case for solar or wind power, and of course the industry already provides a lot of jobs and investment in rural areas. Put all these together, and you have the makings of a classic environmental battle as entrenched and frustrating as any before it.

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Reflecting on nuclear crises doesn't leave clear answers

Jackie Wheeler | Jul 19, 2011 05:00 AM

Southeast Utah - It's another magnificent day here in the remote pinyon/juniper backcountry; the recent  afternoon rains have cooled the air and sharpened the views of Canyonlands and the Abajo mountains off in the distance. As a freshly arrived, part-time resident, I'm keenly appreciative of the ambient sounds of this region: the wind (gentle today), the various bird calls, and most of all, the near-total absence of human-generated noise such as that in the bustling city where I live most of the time.  One sound, however, sometimes punctuates the Nuclear cooling towerprofound quiet around here - the distant but steady hum of a small uranium mine a few miles away.

Last September in this blog I wrote about my ambivalence  - shared by many -- regarding uranium mining in the West. I was and am perfectly willing to admit that my paucity of technical knowledge may unfairly color my views, yet subsequent studying of relevant impact statements and learning a good deal more about the mining and milling processes hardly lessened my discomfort. Likewise, I sought to understand longtime residents' views on mining, but there, too, reactions are mixed, both among Anglos and Native Americans. On the one hand, the mines and the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, Utah, provide good-paying jobs and other boosts  to the otherwise anemic local economy; on the other hand, radiation exposure from midcentury milling activities caused much injury and death and spurred ongoing political activism  by those affected and their families and neighbors.

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Paving over an ancient burial ground

Marc Dadigan | Jun 09, 2011 07:00 AM

15-acres of undeveloped landscape sits as an oasis among the undulating, cookie cutter housing developments that crowd the edges of the Carquinez Strait, a natural tidal channel in Vallejo, California.

At this spot, known as Glen Cove Waterfront Park, a swath of yellow grass, dappled with the woody stems of wild fennel, leads to the water’s edge where Eucalyptus trees tower above marshy banks. The occasional clatter of trundling trains across the strait is the only sound that breaks the peace.

For many local residents, it’s a calming place away from the sprawled-out landscape that expands from the Bay Area.

Corrinne GouldBut for Corrina Gould, a Chocheny/Karkin Ohlone tribal member) and other Native Americans, it’s more than that. Glen Cove’s Ohlone name is Sogorea Te. It's a former village site of Gould’s people that dates back to at least 1500 BC, and it was once a vibrant trading outpost used by many tribes for commerce, intermarriage and burials. It was this area where her great-great-great grandmother was born, and it was here where the Ohlone held their last stand against the missionaries who would forcibly baptize and enslave them.

Today, Glen Cove and the shellmound burial ground it contains represent one of the last connections Gould and her people have to their traditional land, the land, she says, that is as much in her DNA as a spawning stream is in a salmon’s.

Shellmounds are layers of shell and soil that were used to bury the ancestors of the Ohlone and other coastal tribes who considered them monuments and vital to the spiritual life of traditional villages.

But the shellmound has been threatened since the April 14 approval of the Greater Vallejo Recreation District’s plan to build a 15-car parking lot, erect a bathroom and shred the top of the shellmound by 7 to 8 feet to improve homeowners’ views of the waterway.

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Why don't we teach environmental justice in the rural West?

Michael Harris | Jun 06, 2011 11:00 PM

I just returned from a three-day trip to the 15th Annual Institute for Natural Resources Law Teachers, held in Stevenson, Wash. along the scenic and culturally rich, Columbia River Gorge.  In addition to learning about the distressing influence that European settlers have had on this part of the planet, and indulging in the fantastic research of my peers, my task at the conference was to convince "a bunch of natural resource law professors to incorporate environmental justice into their classroom curriculum."  A seemingly overwhelming, but vital, chore. 

Navajo Power PlantAs an initial matter, the question of whether environmental justice concerns are implicated by natural resources law is not difficult to answer.  Anyone who has read the pages of High Country News' A Just West understands that environmental injustices are not restricted to the sitting of pollution sources in urban areas.  Environmental discrimination occurs just as often in the context of resource extraction (oil, gas, coal, minerals, etc.) in rural parts of the West. 

An obvious, recent example is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to license more uranium ore mining near Churchrock and Crown Point, N.M.  The Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining have repeatedly pointed out that the project "could contaminate drinking water for 15,000 Navajo residents" and violates their "human rights" as set forth in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.  Just last month, the Navajo took the rare step of filing their complaint against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  Their plight is one shared by indigenous and underrepresented communities throughout the world at the hands of resource extraction industries. 

Gratefully, none of my peers at the conference argued the point that environmental injustices are a common consequence of natural resource extraction.  This is good, because some of the most prominent natural resources law professors from around the country, including those from law schools in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, attended the Institute.   However, when I asked over 40 of these professors if environmental justice was a component of their class, only a smattering of hands went up.   As it turns out the more difficult question I faced at the conference was not whether environmental justice should be taught, but why it is not already part of every natural resources law course curriculum.*

I am not sure that there is a bona fide answer to why environmental justice is not a topic of teaching natural resources law.  My brief research in preparing for the Institute did not uncover any obvious research on that question.  Still, I think there are three potential culprits for this serious oversight in the context of a very important aspect of legal education in the American West and beyond.

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Freedom Ride West: Toxic Reality

James Mills | Jun 03, 2011 02:00 AM

Editor's note: James Mills is journeying around the West, exploring issues of diversity in Western national parks.

Port Arthur, TX is a long way from Colorado. But when Texas environmental justice advocate Hilton Kelley delivered a message to the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, he demonstrated an activist power that transcends that distance.Hilton Kelley Kelley, who fights for the rights of poor populations whose health is negatively impacted by oil refinery pollution, spoke on the importance of protecting the rights of all to enjoy clean air, water and soil.

The 32nd annual Telluride Film festival was my first stop on a road trip I call Freedom Ride West -- a modern investigation of diversity in the National Park Service. Here, I attended this celebration of conservation culture. In a box canyon 365 miles southwest of Denver, Telluride transforms in the late spring into a gathering place for some of the leading environmental activists in the world. With special guests like Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams, Mountain Film is more than a series of adventure movies. It's a place of inspiration, where ideas are shared and attendees are prompted to improve life our planet and turn their "awareness into action." That was this year's theme.

When you bring together the elite in any movement there's the risk of isolating the rest. Invitation-only events and $25 lunches in town don’t always make good fertilizer for grass roots. And films about climbing Mount Everest or traversing African deserts don’t typically relate to the common experiences of ordinary people, those whose homes and lives are restricted to the urban confines of industrial oil towns like Port Arthur.

But to Mountain Film’s credit, the organizers continue to introduce films and presenters who offer a unique perspective, helping to bring the lofty aspirations of high flying socialites and rope ascending do-gooders to the ground for a dose of reality.

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A slice of life for the average EJ organizer

Andy Bessler | May 31, 2011 11:00 PM

Many people wonder what keeps a Sierra Club environmental justice organizer busy. We could ask my fellow EJ organizers around the country and most would tell you that the times around and after Earth Day are frequently the busiest. As spring melts the last of the snows (it snowed in Flagstaff just recently), and flowers start to bloom, people start to get active with hosting events and work that has been waiting all winter to begin. I have been busy with outreach events and in our ongoing work to better understand and work with tribal communities to find environmental justice on their terms.

On my most recent adventures, I have been joined by a great local Sierra Club leader also based in Flagstaff, Cynthia Pardo. Cynthia helped last year with the Hopi Water is Life (Paatuwaqatsi) Prayer Run, a 50k race, and is helping with this year’s run on September 10th. While organizing ultra-marathons may not seem like typical Sierra Club organizing, this race is a uniquely Hopi event that educates attendees about the traditional connections Hopis have with water by connecting the runners with the traditional Hopi trails. At one race, I remember overhearing a Hopi mother tell another, “I didn’t even know this trail was here but now that I know, I’ll bring the kids down here.”

Last month, the two of us also worked with the Hualapai Tribe’s Cultural Resources Department in starting a Heritage Trails Program for their lands within the Grand Canyon. We were invited to do this by the tribes, and believe it is important for environmental groups to respond to invitations for engagement with diverse communities. This project was one example of an invitation we accepted, and hopefully it will result in stronger relationships down the road on tougher issues.

For this project, we led a group of Sierra Club volunteers working along side a team of Hualapai volunteers to build rock cairns along canyon washes where guided tourists and local residents will be able to explore the side canyons of the Grand Canyon within the Hualapai Nation. A recent graduate of Northern Arizona University and previous intern at our office, Cynthia helped get this project off the ground, saying,”It is an honor to be working in partnership with the Hualapai volunteers and staff on a solid project that will benefit the local community of Hualapai and tourists with a respectful and natural connection within these beautiful canyons.”

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The mixed blessings of extra water

Jackie Wheeler | May 26, 2011 11:00 PM

A new addition to the "mixed blessings" file: The town of Payson, Arizona, will soon get relief from its perennial water shortage, having cut a deal with utility power-broker Salt River Project for a share of the water from the nearby C.C. Cragin Reservoir (formerly known as the Blue Ridge Reservoir). You can't blame Payson residents for being overjoyed by this news; they have been living with rigid restrictions such as town-designated "water conservation levels" for some time.

Blue Ridge ReservoirAn up side of this enforced community awareness, however, has been an admirable decrease of nearly 20 gallons per household in daily usage over a ten year period ending in 2006. A visitor driving through the attractive mountain town will indeed notice few lawns and much native and low-water-use landscaping, visible evidence of residents' and businesses' commitment to water thriftiness. It helps that native plants include picturesque Ponderosa pines, Manzanitas, and a nice variety of wildflowers.

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