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Mining in the modern West

Jackie Wheeler | Oct 21, 2010 02:00 AM

As I began writing this blog post, headlines were proclaiming the triumphant rescue of the thirty three Chilean miners who were trapped in the San Jose mine for seventy days. While the men are sure to experience after-effects of their traumatic ordeal in the weeks and months to come, they are far luckier than the victims of other recent mine accidents, such as the twenty five killed in an coal mine explosion last April in West Virginia, or the unfortunate six men and their three rescuers in the Crandall Canyon, Utah accident in August of 2007.  These tragedies remind us afresh that mining’s human costs, as well as its environmental costs, must not be forgotten as we struggle to emerge from a crippling recession and free ourselves from dependence on foreign fuels and manufacturing commodities.

Two years ago, High Country News ran an excellent, in-depth article by Jonathan Thompson chronicling the dilemmas faced by residents of Superior, Arizona, regarding a proposed new copper mine nearby. Like many towns in the West’s mountainous areas, Superior owes its existence to mining, and it has been particularly hard hit by the boom-and-bust cycles that such extractive industries experience, and, since the article first appeared, the additional burden of the recession. While some places like Telluride in Colorado and Bisbee in southern Arizona have mostly moved on from their mining heritage and attracted hip “amenity migrants” with rugged scenery and inexpensive, retro architecture, Superior has only been able to catch a tiny segment of that wave, consisting of rock and boulder climbers and a few retirees. For the most part, a drive down Main Street reveals the same depressing, crumbling, boarded up buildings Thompson described. The few active businesses line U.S. 60, which parallels Main for a stretch, and the abandoned smelter and slag heaps loom above it all, briefly distracting the eye from the sheer cliffs of the Apache Leap escarpment and the spectacular Queen Creek Canyon that cuts through it. It is an enigmatic region of stark contrasts, and one of my favorite areas in the state to visit as a result

.Copper Mine Superior Arizona

Image of  Apache Leap escarpment, where the Rio Tinto copper mine is proposed courtesy Flickr user skytruth.

Deep within these dramatic landscapes lies a huge quantity of copper ore. Resolution Copper, a division of international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, has for several years been orchestrating a sophisticated, multi-pronged lobbying and PR campaign in its efforts to acquire the public lands surrounding the ore. Their efforts are impressive, and include concessions to nearly every interest group imaginable. Beyond the expected promises to provide good jobs and invest in local schools, charities, etc., they have offered to acquire and develop access to nearby wilderness sites for climbers, campers and other recreationists to replace the popular Oak Flat area (which, as a result of Resolution’s “panel caving” extraction method, may eventually “subside” – literally sink into the earth.) Likewise, they have offered some culturally and environmentally sensitive parcels of land in exchange for Oak Flat and its surroundings, including riparian areas and the Superior cemetery.

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First nations continue tar sands pushback

Caitlin Sislin | Oct 20, 2010 05:10 AM

George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation – a tribal nation whose traditional homeland lies downstream from Canada’s Athabascan tar sands – articulated the devastating impacts of oil development on traditional peoples when he said, “if we don't have land and we don't have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyles, we lose who we are as a people.”  A decision by the U.S. State Department this week represents a significant step towards the preservation of the homeland and culture of indigenous peoples impacted by the tar sands.

First Nations communities like the Cree, Dene and Metis presently experience profound negative impacts to their lands, waters, health and human rights arising from the tar sands project.  These Canadian tar sands are the largest industrial project in the world, spanning 10.6 million acres and intending to produce over 1 million barrels of oil per day via highly-destructive methods of extraction and refinement. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network describes the Athabascan tar sands region as a “landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests.”

And the lion’s share of the oil extracted is intended for the U.S. market.  

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Special Treatment for Ag

Felice Pace | Oct 19, 2010 04:00 AM

Farmers and ranchers across the West like to complain about the Endangered Species Act. To hear them and their Farm Bureau lobbyists talk, you would expect that the ESA has put nearly every western farmer and rancher into the poor house. Verifiable cases of farmers or ranchers actually being put out of business by the ESA, however, are hard to come by. That’s because there are very few officials out there on the ground enforcing ESA prohibitions. Whether we are talking about “take” of listed species or “adverse modification” of critical habitat, ESA citations are a rare occurrence. Congress and all recent federal administrations have colluded to make sure ESA enforcement will be underfunded and ineffective.

But state game wardens are out there on the land, and in states like California those wardens have a state Endangered Species Act which they are sworn to uphold. That’s why when Coho salmon, Delta smelt and other aquatic species are listed under the California ESA, farmers, ranchers and the organizations which represent their interests get really concerned.

Or so we citizens have been told and believe. It turns out, however, that an exemption from the C-ESA’s take provisions was built into California’s ESA law.

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News of a parched West continues to flow

Bill Lascher | Oct 11, 2010 04:55 AM

How many times must it be written that in the West, the story is water, and how many times must the story of the West's dependence on the Colorado River for its water be told?

Many readers probably know by now, but it bears repeating. The current running beneath many environmental justice stories is water. It impacts food access, it is impacted by and often depended upon for power production. Industry depends on it. Its purity impacts the heath of populations. Its availability is shaped by development and climate change.

Colorado River

Colorado river image courtesy Flickr user Wolfgang Staudt

No matter how many stories are told about the West's dependence on the Colorado, there will continue to be new ones, especially as the possibility that what the New York Times calls a “Day of Reckoning” when Lake Mead's water level might drop beneath a 1,075 foot demarcation line looms.

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A tiny energy revolution

Bill Lascher | Oct 01, 2010 05:15 AM

We've come to the point where community gardening is well understood – could community energy be far behind? Just as many people don't know how their food reaches their plate, many aren't plugged into where their power and heating originates.

“We have been completely disconnected as consumers from our sources,” says John Sorenson, the executive director of Portland-based Natural Neighborhood Energy (N2E).

Chatting over coffee last week about the all-volunteer N2E – a non-profit focusing on developing “community energy” projects – Sorenson described a recent conversation he had with an official in a small Oregon city. Asked where natural gas comes from, the offical told Sorensen “the pipe.”

“We have a notion that someone else pays for electricity,” Sorenson said. Changing that notion will require education. Sorenson hopes that once more people better understand that importing power takes money and accountability for environmental impacts out of the community, they'll take more ownership of it.

N2E made headlines last year for proposing a thermal energy utility based at Portland's Sunnyside Environmental School that would use excess heat from the school's boilers to serve its surrounding neighborhood. It has also discussed a thermal energy system for Portland's toney Pearl District powered by waste mash from the city's breweries. Of course, Sunnyside and Pearl aren't exactly economically distressed communities, but the projects are examples of new interest in “community energy.”

Community energy could help the development of so-called “energy democracy,” according to the Center for Social Inclusion, which in June released a white paper on community scale energy projects. The goal, the paper says, is “transforming neglected and isolated communities - often poor, and often communities of color - into energy producers who contribute to the nation’s overall capacity, add clean energy to the grid, enhance their economic and political ties across the region, and supply their own energy needs.”

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Environmentalism's communications problem

Bill Lascher | Sep 24, 2010 04:01 AM

On Sept. 22, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the most recent development in an ongoing dispute over the future of the Boardman power plant, located in the north-central part of the state. To meet state environmental  regulations for emissions, Portland General Electric – the utility that operates the plant – has to figure out what to do with the coal-fired Boardman plant. The utility says closing the plant by 2015 to save money it would otherwise spend on retrofits to meet emissions requirements could cause a spike in electricity costs. An alternative solution, outlined by reporter Rob Manning in the OPB story, would be to run the plant through 2020.

As the Northwest Environmental Defense Center details, the 585-Megawatt Boardman platt is Oregon's largest stationary source of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants.To be sure, Boardman is an environmental lightning rod indicative of disputes ever more frequent in the West.

coal plant

Coal-fired power plant photo courtesy Flickr user Scott Butner

So why are environmentalists having such a hard time gaining traction against Boardman?

Manning's report depicts a recent DEQ hearing where environmentalists in favor of shuttering the plant debated advocates for keeping it open. Supporters of the plant argued that organizations such as the Sierra Club are insensitive to the potential economic damage that an immediate shutdown could wreak.

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Radioactive Justice

Jackie Wheeler | Sep 21, 2010 01:00 AM

Lately I've been trying to keep up with the debate about uranium mining in the Grand Canyon region. I'm sorry to admit that like many people I'm not well-versed in the physical properties of uranium or radioactivity in general, so my first impulse when approaching this subject is a sort of vague, knee-jerk fear. As a humanist, my Uranium Building in Moab, Utaheducation regarding this subject has been formed mostly by narrative writings such as Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge and Ed Abbey's essay "Rocks" in Desert Solitaire, neither of which present a rosy view of the consequences of the nuclear age. Still, one should expand one's knowledge of these things in light of the ongoing energy crisis, as Jen Jackson and Caitlin Sislin noted in their posts to the "Just West" blog earlier this summer. Both pieces sparked some lively comments regarding the safety of mining and of nuclear fusion; one commenter suggested that the recently released USGS environmental impact statement [pdf]  would put to rest the sort of uninformed paranoia held by folks like me.

Well, I've been diligently slogging through the statement (after waiting nearly an hour for it to download), and so far I'm not especially reassured. Since I teach a course on environmental rhetoric I make a habit of reading EISs, and find them excellent at reporting but not so useful at contributing to decision-making by citizens. As M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline Palmer argue in their important 1992 book Ecospeak, the EIS is a document by government folks for government folks, despite the somewhat broader, more democratic goals for it envisioned by the framers of NEPA  (the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.)  Though the EIS has taught me some interesting things about the geologic features and locations of breccia pipe formations, I'm still unsure about how I should feel regarding mining contracts near the canyon rims and watersheds. I'm trying to consider the big picture, but I can't help wondering whether the inadvertent swim I took in House Rock rapid a few years back will contribute to a tumor a few years hence. For whom should I vote regarding these issues? Does anyone have a handle on them?

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Taking action on hunger

Bill Lascher | Sep 17, 2010 01:00 AM

Stimulus money might have a chance to stimulate appetites with a series of new grants in New Mexico. New data on poverty and food access suggest, though, it might not be enough to quiet hunger in the West's most food insecure state or elsewhere in the region.

First, the encouraging news. In August, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced $50,000 in Recovery Act money that could make it easier for the 157,000 New Mexicans receiving supplemental nutrition assistance to buy locally-grown foods. The grant pays for a program that offers New Mexicans who use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – the successor to food stamps) cards at farmers markets bonus tokens that essentially double the amount of money they're able to spend. If SNAP users buy $10 worth of fruits and vegetables, for example, they'll get another $10 in tokens, for a total of $20 in farmers market purchasing.

Santa Fe Farmers Market

The Santa Fe Farmers Market accepts SNAP cards. New Mexico's program allows food stamp recipients to double their dollars buying produce at such markets. Photo courtesy Flickr user Susan NYC.

The news is timely. September has been designed Hunger Action Awareness Month by Feeding America. The nonprofit bills itself as “the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.” With new reports out that one in seven Americans lived below the poverty line in 2009, the issue of access to food is as pressing as it's ever been, as Feeding America made sure to note. About 14 percent of New Mexico's population, for example, is “food insecure,” Feeding America's Almanac of Hunger and Poverty in America 2010 reports.

With poverty rates remaining high, those numbers aren't likely to quickly change. When they do, will access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably produced food be part of the solution? Will efforts like New Mexico's new grants for SNAP users help?

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At what price aesthetics?

Bill Lascher | Sep 10, 2010 02:00 AM

Last weekend I sat outside Los Angeles' Union Station, the last of the great train stations, waiting as two of my closest friends prepared to marry one another in the station's sunlit courtyard. They finally arrived, along with their chuppah, by way of the Red Line subway and the station's main passenger hall. As they joined their lives together, their vows mingled with the sound of mariachi music from nearby Olvera Street. Spectators waiting for trains and buses watched the nuptials from a respectful distance.

Two days earlier, my girlfriend and I lamented the sterility of the airport. In contrast, we recalled train trips past and how the journeys, including waits at bustling and open stations, stirred wonder and a sense of adventure. Airports, on the other hand, are closed, locked in and charmless. They lack the spontaneity and romance that gave the wedding and those past trips their charm.

This contrast between a lingering nostalgia for rail travel and the all-business, no frills experience of modern life returned as I caught up on news this week, particularly the discussion of the Obama Administration's renewed attention to transportation infrastructure and its relationship to economic recovery.

A few days before Obama's announcement and my trip, TransportPolitic's Yonah Freemark looked at what a “Second Stimulus” could mean for jobs and mobility. Such a proposal, Freemark wrote, “would have to focus on employment as its primary goal.” He cited a Transportation Equity Network study that showed the easiest way to create jobs might well be to hire new bus and train operators.

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Jackie Wheeler | Sep 07, 2010 04:29 AM

I’ve been thinking about horses lately. Actually, I think about horses a lot, often when I should be thinking about something else, like work. Usually my thoughts involve my eccentric gelding, Rex, and other horses that I know. However, some recent coverage of the wild horse roundups in Nevada and California has reminded me of the much bigger picture. Where do horses fit?

It strikes me that horses just might be a perfect symbol of conflict in the 21st century West. Of course, you’re thinking that they were also important western symbols in the 19th and 20th century, so this is no big epiphany, right? And yet their symbolism has changed radically. They’ve always been idealized, but horses used to be necessary to humans. Even well into the late 20th century, everyday ranch work required them, as there was simply no other practical way to deal with cattle and rough terrain. Ranchers still use horses for these purposes of course (to their credit), but for the most part they don’t need to; specialized quads and other ORVs can do much of the same work.

Wild Horses in Colorado

Image of Colorado wild horses courtesy Flickr user iversonic.

With their last traditional purpose diminished, horses are anachronisms. For all their beauty, versatility, and historical significance, they play no role in most people’s lives. Think of the bipartisan group of well-meaning U.S. representatives who signed on to a bill to halt the roundups – how many have likely ever seen one of these animals on the high sage plains near the Oregon border? How many have ever used a hoof pick or bought a bale of hay?

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