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A Culture of Failure

Michael Harris | Jun 07, 2010 05:39 AM

[O]ur investigation revealed an organizational culture lacking acceptance of government ethical standards, inappropriate personal behaviors, and a program without the necessary internal controls in place to prevent future unethical or unlawful behavior.

                    - Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Interior, Investigative Report, MMS Oil Marketing Group, Aug. 19, 2008

As if you needed a reminder, we may be in the midst of the most significant environmental catastrophe in our nation’s history.  As you read this, as much as 800,000 gallons of oil a day flows into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, and has been since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig.  With no end in sight, this event could ultimately be the largest oil spill the world has ever experiencedAnd of course, the eventual impact to the natural environment, and the people of the Gulf coast region, may not be known for quite some time now.

Search for blame, however, is well underway, with both industry and regulators squarely in the sights of politicians, environmentalists, and the public.  Indeed, while it remains unclear exactly what the White House has done, or could do, to stop the flow of oil, the President has made it perfectly clear that his outrage over the spill has reached “the upper scale” and is directed at both at BP and federal regulators.   Remarkably, it seems to have come as a shock to the President when “he learned of some of the ‘shortcomings’ at the Minerals Management Service and its ‘coziness’ with an industry it’s supposed to regulate.”

But let’s be blunt – it comes as no shock to environmental justice advocates throughout the West that the government has come up short in regulating major sources of pollution that impact our environment and communities. 

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Gulf tragedy highlights need for Native renewables

Caitlin Sislin | Jun 04, 2010 05:45 AM

Six weeks after the blowout, the calamity in the Gulf of Mexico shows no signs of abating – in fact, information emerging from the region continues to reveal new dimensions of the disaster. Media reports suggest that this is the worst environmental catastrophe in history; that long-term damage to the Gulf’s ecosystem will cripple not only the biotic community, but the regional economy; that the government mishandled the disaster and continues to fail to properly protect the ocean.

Whether we term ourselves “environmentalists” or not, and even whether we are aware of it or not, the gushing wound on the sea floor impacts all of us as individuals and as a society. Carolyn Raffensperger of the Science and Environmental Health Network writes that “the deep intuitive sense is that the ocean is a commons — we all share it. . . . The commons are the foundation of our economy. Without a healthy ocean, or local prairie or forest, without clean air and water, without the web of life, all of our dollars are worthless.” On this small and living planet, damage to one portion of the whole is damage to the whole. 

When damage occurs because of our reliance on fossil fuel-based energy production, we are called to reassess and revise the foundations of our shared energy economy. How can we, who are so dedicated to the beautiful terrain of the western United States, respond to this massive spill in the Southeast in such a way as to advance our whole nation’s interest in developing clean, sustainable fuel sources and reducing energy consumption?

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Grand Canyon uranium threatens tribal water

Caitlin Sislin | May 18, 2010 04:30 AM

Last week, a delegation of leaders from Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe traveled to Washington D.C., to advocate for the protection of the Grand Canyon region from a potential onslaught of uranium extraction activities. These four women – tribal council members and traditional elders – voiced their concern for the safety of the land, the purity of the water and the health of the community, and called for the passage of the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act (H.R. 644). Introduced in 2009 by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) this law would ban mineral exploration and the establishment of new mining claims pursuant to the 1872 Mining Law, on about one million acres of public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

Uranium deposits are found throughout the Grand Canyon region in layered formations called breccia pipes, located near precious local aquifers easily breached by extractive operations. Such operations could also cause uranium, previously undisturbed for millions of years, to move, oxidize and dissolve into nearby seeps and springs which eventually feed into the Colorado River – a significant source of water for 27 million people in seven Southwestern states, and the sole water source for the Havasupai.

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Water thieves or water saviors?

Felice Pace | May 10, 2010 07:21 AM

If you missed Paul VanDevelder’s essay “This house of thieves” in the March 1st HCN go to your recycling stash now, reclaim that issue – it’s the one with the machine gunner on the cover - and read the essay. Or you can read it online. In the article VanDevelder explores the settlement agreement that ended a decades-long federal lawsuit over unpaid royalties for mineral extraction on Indian reservations.

The case is known as Cobell after Eloise Cobell, the Blackfeet tribal member and community organizer who initiated it in 1994. Over the years, Cobell grew to become one of the largest and most complex class action lawsuits ever involving the claims of indigenous Americans against their “trustee” – the U.S. government.

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Sovereignty versus stewardship

Caitlin Sislin | Apr 28, 2010 05:00 AM

Last month, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) released the draft of a bill intended to “unlock the potential of Indian energy resources.” The bill would amend the Energy Policy Act of 1992 to ease restrictions on extractive industry’s activities on tribal lands, including the elimination of federal drilling fees, the reduction of federal environmental oversight, and the exemption of tribes from non-federal taxes on energy development projects. Through these marked limitations on federal environmental regulation of tribal energy projects, and the concomitant promotion of a “one-stop-shopping” federal permitting process for energy companies seeking to exploit tribal energy resources, the bill pits tribal sovereignty against environmental stewardship.  All of this is in service of prolonged reliance on fossil fuel energy resources.

Under section 204(b) of Dorgan’s draft bill, “Environmental Review,” the federal government effectively divests itself of environmental review responsibility, turning that resource-intensive and expertise-dependent task over to tribal governments. This provision, which allows the Secretary of the Interior to “delegate to any participating Indian tribe the responsibility to carry out any environmental review, decision making, or other activity pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act” provokes the concern among some citizens that tribal leaders – relatively unprepared to review energy project proposals, and interested in obtaining sorely-needed funds from those projects to build tribal economies – may rush to approve environmentally-harmful projects on tribal lands.

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EJ for Earth Day

Michael Harris | Apr 22, 2010 04:05 AM

I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.
- Senator Gaylord Nelson, Founder of Earth Day

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.  Many of us rightfully equate Earth Day with the natural environment.  It is a day we reflect on how to better reduce the impact humans are having on the air, water, and land that collectively provide us a safe home in this vast universe.   Traditionally, Earth Day is marked by a call for collective action to reduce those impacts.  People ask governments to take more aggressive regulatory action to reduce pollution.  Government asks people to make commitments to reduce personal consumption.  Environmentalists ask everyone to volunteer more time and money in the sake of saving planet Earth.

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A model for community environmental participation

Michael Harris | Apr 13, 2010 04:57 AM

A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”    – James Madison

As any first year medical or law student can probably tell you, a patient facing an invasive medical treatment must first give the doctor her “informed consent” to the procedure.  As Merriam-Webster defines the term, “informed consent” is “consent to surgery by a patient or to participation in a medical experiment by a subject after achieving an understanding of what is involved.”  This, of course, requires the doctor to explain to the patient both her condition and the treatment in plain enough language that a person without medical training can fully understand what will be involved and what will be happening to her.  Explaining to a patient, for example, that she has a serious heart condition and describing for her the various treatment options certainly protects the doctor from future legal action.  More importantly, however, this discussion allows the patient to participate in a decision-making process that involves her health and what will happen to her body.

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Black Mesa mine mess

Caitlin Sislin | Apr 12, 2010 09:15 AM

A controversial clean water permit for a coal mine complex sited at a Navajo and Hopi sacred mountain is once again up for review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Peabody Western Coal Company seeks a renewal of its water quality permit for the Black Mesa/ Kayenta Mine Complex, despite the mine's impact on water quality and local public health over several decades because of discharges of toxic heavy metals and pollutants into the water supply. EPA invites the public to submit comments through April 30th on the previously-withdrawn National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit pursuant to the Clean Water Act, which requires that all industrial dischargers of wastewater obtain and maintain a permit.

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Cally Carswell | Apr 02, 2010 08:22 AM

It didn’t take a recession to bring hard times to California's San Joaquin Valley. Consider these sobering statistics courtesy of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a group convened by the governor in 2005 to bring the Valley’s limping economy up to speed:

*Average per capita incomes are 32.2 percent lower than the rest of the state
*College attendance is 50 percent below the state average
*Access to health care is 31 percent lower than the rest of the state

Unemployment rates in some Valley counties are pushing 20 percent, significantly outpacing the statewide rate of 12.5 percent. But at least they’re getting boatloads of stimulus cash, right? Not exactly. The Fresno Bee reports:

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Open space justice

Michael Harris | Mar 29, 2010 07:37 AM

Last week was Spring Break.  While I can no longer afford to take the entire week off from work, I could not let the week pass without some time for myself away from the classroom and clinic.  Luckily, I was able to spend three amazing days backpacking in the Superstition Mountains, about an hour outside of Phoenix.  The experience was both physically challenging and spiritually rewarding.  As many of us know, spending time in the outdoors – whether in a massive state park or a favorite city park – brings a broader perspective of the world to one’s own sense of self.

The trip also gave me a chance to reflect on what it would mean – as it does for tens of thousands of intercity residents – to be deprived of the ability to spend quality, reflective time in a park.  Many cities like to boast, of course, about an active population using abundantly available parks and recreation facilities.  Indeed, cities in the West often use outdoor recreation as a selling point for newcomers.  However, as with other environmental injustices, people of color and lower incomes often experience disproportionately “bad” park experiences in their neighborhoods, assuming they have any park nearby to experience at all.

Indeed, park amenities are hardly distributed equally in cities throughout the West.  Parks in more affluent neighborhoods have newer park facilities and impeccable landscaping. They also have larger budgets, and, therefore, receive far better maintenance than parks in other parts of town.  Further, access to parks in many neighborhoods presents problems.  Accessing a park in dense urban neighborhood might involve crossing a busy street or highway; and, unfortunately, many simply stay away because of the perception that urban parks are unsafe; this prevents people from enjoying their open space.

Sadly, it is often those deprived of park experiences that are most in need of them.  Research indicates, for instance, that low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from obesity and other diseases related to a lack of regular exercise.  Moreover, research on the physiological role of open space indicates that regular experience with the vegetated landscape reduces stress and anxiety. In a series of studies spanning nearly 20 years, Professor Roger Ulrich and others have linked photo simulations of the natural environment to reduced stress levels as measured by physiological indicators such as heart rate and brain waves. Indeed, participants in Ulrich’s studies indicated lower levels of fear and sadness when viewing nature related landscapes, as compared with urban. There is little argument overall that well maintained neighborhood parks, exercise, and outdoor activities improve mental health, increase community cohesion, and raise property values.

There are solutions of course, both public and private, for providing better park and open space access.  Obviously, cities need to be held accountable where park funding is disproportionately skewed toward more affluent neighborhoods.  But private organizations can also play a role.  For instance, in Los Angeles, the Center for Law in the Public Interest organized to prevent vacant land from becoming an industrial development and instead converted former urban blight into a thirty-two acre park known as the “Cornfield.”  Similarly, in the San Francisco Bay area the East Bay Regional Park District addressed park inequity by providing regular transportation services for community organizations that wish to access regional parks.  It also coordinates transportation for Headstart programs, summer day-camps, and other groups that serve low-income children in urban communities.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all people, from all places in the West, had similar opportunities?  Let’s make it happen.


Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice.  He can be reached at

The author would like to thank Daniel Vedra for his invaluable research and writing contribution to this entry.  Dan is a student at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and a student attorney in the College’s Environmental Law Clinic.  His 2009 paper, “Park Equity and Environmental Justice in Denver,” is available by contacting him at

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