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A Just West

A tale of two cities

Bill Lascher | Dec 15, 2010 05:00 PM

"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote. This can be interpreted to mean that justice is subjective, shaped and reshaped over the years by social norms, by evolving moral priorities and shifting power structures. Even under the rule of law its application differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and situation to situation.

In other words, your justice might not be my justice.

So is that why residents of Hillsboro, Ore. – a suburb of Portland – and Rio Rancho, N.M. – within the Albuquerque metropolitan area – seem to display widely differing opinions about the environmental impact of similar Intel computer chip manufacturing operations in their communities?

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No place for hate

Bobby Magill | Dec 14, 2010 05:00 PM

At Wheatland High and West Elementary schools in eastern Wyoming, banners that declared the schools “no place for hate” raised a stir among parents early this year because the banners were sponsored in part by the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado as part of a national Anti-Defamation League campaign. The Platte County School District board voted to remove the banners and declined to revisit the issue despite pleas from other parents.

The Equality State — no place for hate, indeed.

I recalled that incident when I came across the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new report, “Under Attack,” which was written in the wake of this year’s rash of high profile gay youth suicides and details how gays and lesbians may be the minority most targeted by hate crimes across the country.

The report adds 13 anti-gay organizations to the SPLC’s extensive list of hate groups in the United States. Each of those groups has found a place on SPLC’s Hate Map, which shows that more than half of these groups operate in the West — in Colorado, Utah, California, Arizona and Washington.

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Hope for a cleaner energy future

Andy Bessler | Dec 14, 2010 02:30 AM

In my work with the tough coal and environmental justice issues in the Southwest and the tougher, diverse communities I am honored to work with here, I see at key moments a hope for the future that can’t be snuffed out. In the past few months, there have been historical and landmark events that continue to shed light on how quickly we will transition to a clean energy future.

I have been inspired by the multi-decadal struggles to shift from the status quo that remain under way. Yet we still enable and empower the coal industry just by turning on our light switches. Forty percent of that electricity that creates that light comes from coal. One day, when we flip the light switch, will we be supporting something clean and just?

It seems to me that most people realize coal is dirty and "old school" and that we need to transition to a cleaner energy economy where power comes from the wind and sun. When you dig into coal issues in the Southwest, you see how the coal industry has blocked this transition with raw political power and divide and conquer tactics on tribal lands. Despite that, hope still burns.

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Small Nevada tribe sues BLM over coal ash landfill

marcdadigan | Dec 08, 2010 02:20 AM

At a Southern Nevada Health District public hearing this October, farmer Norm Tom said that he and his tribe had “seen a lot of death” in the last 35 years, and he placed the blame squarely on the neighboring Reid Gardner coal-fueled power plant, run by Nevada's primary power company, NV Energy.

“Every time we make a complaint or a phone call, you guys haven’t done anything about controlling all this daggone dust.” Tom said.  “We breathe it; we even eat it…it’s better just to bring all the Indian people out and shoot ‘em all with a 45 caliber gun.”

Built in 1965, NV Energy’s Reid Gardner Station is located 45 miles northeast of Las Vegas and just a few hundred yards from the Moapa River Reservation, home to many of the 314 remaining Moapa Band of Paiutes. The plant supplies low-cost power to about 400,000 southern Nevada residents, and to do so burns through 60,000 tons of coal a day.

Reid Gardner plant and housing

The Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant is located adjacent to the Moapa reservation. Image courtesy Sierra Club.

For years, the Moapa Band of Paiutes have complained that dust from the coal plant’s landfill and water evaporation ponds has regularly swept through the reservation, grinding up their lungs and afflicting nearly two-thirds of the tribe with a variety of upper respiratory illnesses and high rates of cancer and asthma-related deaths.

This past month, the tribe and the Sierra Club filed a filed a federal lawsuit to stop the construction of a new coal ash landfill and nine new evaporation ponds, which NV Energy officials says Reid Gardner needs because its old storage facilities are filling up.

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Pondering palm oil

Jackie Wheeler | Dec 03, 2010 03:00 AM

On the surface, it seems that environmental justice should be one of those no-brainer, win-win concepts that everyone can support. Look a little deeper, however, and enacting environmental justice can become impossibly complicated and divisive. Few things exemplify this paradox more than the case of palm oil. In recent years this seemingly innocuous, rather boring-sounding substance has been the subject of both celebration and derision by environmentalists, human rights activists, and nutritionists, not to mention corporations and governments.

Why should we in the American West be concerned about palm oil, when it is grown exclusively in distant tropical climates, and is not generally available for home use in its basic form outside ethnic and specialized markets? For one, it has found its way into an astonishing array of common household products and foods. Some estimates say nearly half of such products contain it, one of them being the Milky Way bar I just ate.

You may remember several years back when we were all cautioned to avoid “tropical oils” because of their high concentration of saturated fats. Palm oil was considered a main culprit, along with coconut oil. Well, the saturated fat part hasn’t changed. Newer nutrition science, however, has partially acquitted unrefined palm oil due to its antioxidant carotinoids and other potentially beneficial properties. It also doesn’t contain “trans fats,” making it an appealing substitute for previously ubiquitous bad-boy hydrogenated oils. As if this wasn’t enough, its prospects as a bio fuel are also promising, due to the high productivity of the oil palm compared to seed-oil plants. Finally, add all this to the economies of the emerging nations in the equatorial regions where it thrives, and you have the potential for an environmental justice slam dunk: Sustainable crops that support, feed, and (cleanly) fuel people and nations. What could be bad about that?

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Drill the parks

Robert Magill | Dec 02, 2010 03:00 AM

Flanked by fast food joints on its south side, the St. Vrain River on its north, residential development on the west and Interstate 25 on the east, St. Vrain State Park isn’t a reason for tourists to make a trip to Colorado. Its flat fields and cluster of ponds offer residents of Denver and its northern suburbs a place to fish, camp and even hike without having to head into the mountains — open space amid the urban sprawl. Open space is abundant in the Denver area, and Colorado’s Front Range state parks are prominent among the places locals uninterested or unable to visit the mountains can go to recreate.

St. Vrain state park

Image of St. Vrain state park courtesy Bobby Magill

But St. Vrain State Park may soon become a symbol for the compromises states are willing to make when deciding how to strike a balance between dramatic budget cuts and keeping state park lands and open space available to the public. Colorado State Parks will likely receive no state funding next year, relying instead on fee increases, grant money, cost-cutting and creative ways to raise revenue for the park system. One of the state’s suggestions for keeping the system afloat: Drill the parks.

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What's old is new again

Bill Lascher | Dec 01, 2010 04:00 AM

Two stories about mining projects in California that crossed my path last week remind me that some narratives just don't seem to go away. Whether it's taking advantage of gold's record high prices or carving away at river-side hills for rock and stone, it seems a given that economic boons obscure questions about associated environmental effects that can harm local populations.

As he opened a Nov. 22 Sacramento Bee story on a new push for gold mines in California, reporter Dale Kasler wrote that “California is being left behind by the new Gold Rush.” As Kasler reports, a panoply of challenges, particularly environmental restrictions and the yuppification of Gold Country -- which roughly spans a stretch of California Route 49, the Mother Lode Highway -- are keeping mining companies from cashing in on hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold deposits. Since the metal is currently worth around $1,300 an ounce, that record high has brought gold fever back to the Golden State and the rest of the world.

Route 49 sign

California Route 49, in Downieville. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Of course, even if this boom seems to have no sign of easing, there's still no guarantee it will last forever, as the American Public Media radio program Marketplace reported earlier this month. Still, responses to the news are being cast, as seemingly every story questioning new industrial operations or development in the West, as an economics vs. NIMBY debate. Indeed, even the conceit of the article, highlighting an ironic missed opportunity for the Golden State, reinforces this perceived dichotomy.

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Cobell, settled at last

Mark Trahant | Nov 30, 2010 05:00 PM

I remember the first time I learned of the Cobell case. It was several newspaper-lives ago. Over the years I collected lots of paper, listened to lawyers explanations and written a bit about the litigation.

The original complaint, filed in 1996, said at least 300,000 individual American Indians were victims of a gross breach of trust because of the way the Interior Department mismanaged Individual Indian Money accounts. IIM accounts hold money for individuals from land or natural resource payments as well as other transfers.

I remember thinking at the time about first-hand encounters with such record keeping. One Bureau of Indian Affairs agency superintendent told me that short-term interest from IIM accounts could even be used as a “secret slush fund” for urgent and unbudgeted expenses.

Elouise Cobell’s fourteen-year litigation was both complex and simple. The sheer volume of paper filed with the courts was extraordinary: Thousands of pages of documents, several trials, appeals, and plenty of contempt of court sanctions along the way. The case was also simple, based on this question: Can the government, acting as trustee, account for how it managed individual Indians’ money?

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The fracking fracas

Red Lodge | Nov 30, 2010 03:32 AM

By Heather Hansen

When the EPA sent a subpoena to Halliburton earlier this month, demanding to know what’s in the fluid used to drive their hydraulic fracturing process for natural gas and oil production, industry watchers braced for a showdown. But, less than a week later, the company (which is one of the largest oilfield services corporations in the world) responded by posting information on its website, including a partial list of substances it’s currently using and on the new, environmentally-friendly version the company says it plans to put into play. The move, which is seen by cynics as an attempt to satisfy the EPA without implementing new regulations, raises questions about what mining companies should be required to reveal about their fracturing practices.

The EPA demanded the information as part of a study Congress ordered, amid citizen concerns that hydraulic fracturing may be contaminating water supplies and causing air pollution, and ultimately impacting the health of humans and the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is the process of driving a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into the ground in order to create cracks in the rock through which natural gas and oil can be more easily accessed. Anywhere from 20 to 90 percent of the wastewater that’s left, which often amounts to millions of gallons, remains underground. The fracking fluid that it recaptured is generally stored above-ground in open pits until it can be treated.

While fracking fluids, which are also essential for reducing friction, are generally considered proprietary concoctions by the industry, some 944 chemicals were identified by scientists in a study released recently in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. The study focused on 73 of those substances that are found to have “10 or more adverse health effects.” These are toxic, even carcinogenic, ingredients that are considered potentially harmful to humans.

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Snoop Dogg Called To Wild

James Mills | Nov 23, 2010 07:25 AM

Snoop Dogg

Can the power of celebrity bring more people of color into the National Parks? 

Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson thinks so, and now that he’s grabbed the attention of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, momentum is building to invite the rap star Snoop Dogg to go camping. A petition is being circulated in the hopes of enticing the urban music icon into the wild.

“What if he wrote a rap song about his experience here?” Johnson asked in a recent e-mail exchange. “What impact would that have on the younger generation?”

The petition, generated by, makes the plea to Snoop’s PR firm to consider a high-profile visit to Yosemite or one of the many National Parks around the country. Quoting Johnson’s statement last year to the San Francisco Chronicle, the letter reads: “All Snoop Dogg has to do is go camping in Yosemite and it would change the world.”

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