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Toxic legacy for tribes

Caitlin Sislin | Mar 26, 2010 02:49 AM

Earlier this month, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals approved a controversial permit for uranium mining operations at sites in Church Rock, New Mexico. The operation includes a site associated with the largest release of liquid radioactive waste in United States History -- a catastrophe which continues, a generation later, to negatively impact the lives and health of Navajo people residing near the spill site.

Over a decade after Navajo leaders and community groups first challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) issuance of a mining permit to Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) for uranium extraction in Church Rock, the appellate court decided on March 8th to uphold the NRC's decision. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that since the site already emits more radiation than federal regulations allow, a license for a new operation is impermissible because even the most miniscule amounts of new radiation emitted would exceed regulatory limits. Instead, the court affirmed both the NRC's decision under the Atomic Energy Act to only review an isolated portion of radiation from the site, as well as its corollary finding that the cumulative impacts of radiation emitted from the site are acceptable under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

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Location, location, location

Michael Harris | Mar 15, 2010 02:22 AM

Last week, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter announced a preliminary agreement between the state, Xcel Energy, and some of the region’s traditional environmental groups over a plan to reduce air pollution along the Front Range by retrofitting, repowering (with natural gas), and even possibility retiring a number of urban coal-fired power plants. Although we have to wait until later this summer to learn the specifics, obviously any agreement to reduce coal consumption for energy generation is a great step toward protecting public health, reducing the haze that plagues the Front Range, and decreasing the state’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. So should you jump up from the computer and shout in joy?  Well, that might depend on who you are, and more importantly, where you live.

So far, it appears that the discussions surrounding last week’s agreement have utterly ignored the question of power plant placement in Colorado. The reality is that communities, often consisting of lower-income, minority, or otherwise underrepresented residents, will continue to bear the brunt of public health impacts associated with energy production in the state. Absent from the Governor’s announcement, for instance, is the reality that as Xcel nears agreement to potentially reduce emissions from 900-megawatts of coal-fired capacity, it is anxiously pursuing completion and start-up of the state’s newest and largest coal-fired electric generating unit – the 750-megawatt Comanche Unit 3. Situated at the doorstep of Pueblo neighborhoods, Comanche Unit 3 will spew hundreds of tons of toxic air pollutants into the air over its lifetime.

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The Front Line of Climate Justice

Robby Rodriguez | Mar 11, 2010 05:27 AM

Last December in Copenhagen, corporate heads of state failed to make the necessary agreements to save us from ourselves by agreeing to cap greenhouse gas emissions.  If we learned anything from the recent national healthcare reform debate, it's that we can’t count on the U.S. Congress either given the tens of millions of dollars and the army of high powered lobbyists hammering away at would-be climate change legislation.

This is why it’s important for states to continue to be leaders in reversing the catastrophic course we are treading. In New Mexico, we have undertaken just such an effort.

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On March 1, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) heard public comment for and against a petition to cap greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels—the minimum action the global scientific community has recommended taking to mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  Successfully adopted, the petition, submitted by the NM-based New Energy Economy and over eighteen other co-petitioners, including the SouthWest Organizing Project, would make New Mexico the leader in the nation when it comes to regulating greenhouse gasses.  This science-based cap on global warming emissions highlights what needs to be done to address our climate crises and would be a national model. 

Those who spoke in favor of the petition in front of the EIB represented lifelong residents of the Four Corners area in northwestern New Mexico—one of the most heavily polluted areas in the country--who spoke of noxious fumes and the devastating impacts of the oil, gas and coal industries on their health, land and animals.  Young people talked about their future.  A pregnant mother talked about her soon-to-be-born son.  Faith leaders, renewable energy producers, advocacy organizations, doctors, scientists and local government officials all came forward in favor of capping greenhouse emissions.  The room was packed—standing room only!

It was beautiful.

And then came the parade of polluters.  PNM, the major electric utility company in New Mexico led the way as grand marshal.  They were followed by suits representing the energy, mining, oil, gas, coal, agribusiness and other manufacturing industries, and of course, their shareholders.  Also in the parade were the various chambers of commerce and of course the new kids on the block, the ‘teabaggers.’ They cited all the usual “if we do this the sky will fall” arguments.  They argued the matter should be decided by our state legislature or by the congress at the national level or at the international level—as though the long political process necessary to overcome the massive propaganda campaigns they wage is time we can afford. .  We’ve heard it all before.

It got ugly.

We cannot hold ourselves, our health, the health of our communities, the health of future generations nor the health of our economy hostage to the narrow and greedy interests of the parade of polluters.  States, counties and cities can lead the way toward climate justice and I hope New Mexico becomes the first.

Robby Rodriguez is the Executive Director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, a grassroots community organizing group founded in 1980 to realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since 1997, he has helped to organize New Mexico communities to achieve social change in various capacities with SWOP.

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Tackling environmental justice on the Front Range

Michael Harris | Mar 08, 2010 05:33 AM

Two years ago I relocated to Denver and inherited from a friend what might possibly be the best job in the world – the directorship of the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic.  In the two decades before my arrival, the clinic had established an impeccable reputation for its work fighting to protect endangered species throughout the western United States.  This work continues to be a cornerstone of the clinic’s mission today.  But coming from Los Angeles, where I wrestled with air quality issues for a good portion of my legal career, I was committed to championing a major new addition to the clinical program at DU.  It was time to position the clinic to take on what will undoubtedly be the region’s next environmental challenge – rapid urbanization along the Front Range.

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Saying "yes" to climate justice

Caitlin Sislin | Mar 01, 2010 05:00 AM

It’s Sunday morning and I’m on my way home from the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Ore., the annual convergence of lefty lawyers, scientists, and policy advocates on the frontlines of the fight to preserve the earth.  As usual, the conference afforded a tremendous array of opportunities to learn and be inspired; every year, courageous environmental legal advocates report on their creative and innovative responses to the ever-increasing complexity of the dire environmental problems we face.

One of the panels I attended, “Reinventing the Grid, Protecting the Land: Renewable Energy in the West,” addressed the challenges and opportunities for environmental organizations working in collaboration with renewable energy developers on solar and wind energy projects in the West. One panelist reflected that the experience of partnering with major energy enterprises, under the rubric of state-sponsored initiatives like California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, is new and unfamiliar terrain for groups accustomed to going head to head with coal mines, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel operations on Western lands.  The consensus on the panel, however, was that these kinds of partnerships – however unfamiliar – are the new norm, and that advocates play a vital role in ensuring that the land is adequately protected while renewable projects are installed and operated.

Exactly a week prior to this panel discussion, I was in Flagstaff, Ariz. for a meeting with the Navajo Green Economy Coalition.  This consortium of grassroots Navajo environmental justice leaders, both young and elder, works for a just transition away from the Navajo Nation’s historical reliance on the coal industry, with all its attendant destructive impacts on land, culture and real economic sovereignty.  After successfully lobbying the Navajo Nation to pass last summer’s unprecedented legislation establishing a Green Economic Commission and Fund, the Coalition now turns its attention to the practical work of building partnerships and testing strategies for incubating tribal-owned green businesses, promoting alternative forms of economic development based on traditional tribal activities, and encouraging renewable energy projects on tribal lands, particularly brownfields – lands exploited and abandoned by the coal companies.  The Coalition is forging partnerships with allies and advocates holding a wide range of necessary expertise, so that the vision of a just transition can be fully realized.

Fast forward: back in Eugene, the last panel I attended yesterday was a discussion of climate-justice-based tort litigation on behalf of the community of Kivalina, Alaska.  A group of environmental lawyers, including the Center on Race, Poverty and Environment, represents this small indigenous village in a tortuous and groundbreaking public nuisance litigation against major greenhouse gas emitters like ExxonMobil, as the community fights a losing battle against insidious climate change impacts such as erosion and melting sea ice.  The Army Corps of Engineers reports that the centuries-old community can only feasibly remain on its land for another 10 to 15 years before total evacuation becomes unavoidable.

As we watch the Kivalina story and similar greenhouse gas-induced crises of cultural disintegration unfold before us, where so often such crises most directly impact the world’s economically-disadvantaged and indigenous peoples, the climate justice movement calls on all of us to be smarter, more inclusive, and more determined in our work towards climate stabilization.  Earth advocates can take our cues from indigenous leaders as they issue their clear “no” to the destructive impacts of climate change, while saying “yes” to creative and workable solutions like the Navajo Green Economy Coalition’s support for alternative energy and economic development opportunities.

Legal advocates will always go to court.  However, as advocates engage with renewable energy corporation CEOs and other unlikely allies to ensure that climate-neutral energy projects are protective of lands and species, advocates must also work with grassroots leaders to ensure that opportunity to participate in the new energy economy is equitably distributed across all communities.  From the northernmost to the southernmost points of the Americas, indigenous peoples stand on the frontlines while the seasons slip; concomitantly, personal health, economic prosperity and cultural survival are slipping, too.  As advocates work diligently to restore balance, we must incorporate a commitment to justice at every step along the way.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women’s Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network — a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at

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Environmental justice, one neighborhood at a time

James Mills | Feb 16, 2010 07:34 AM

With the exception of vocal critics who deny the science behind climate change, most of the world is painfully aware that our industrial activities over recent decades have raised the earth’s average temperature. Our warming atmosphere is putting at risk life as we know it, prompting the people of the world to action. But long-standing social artifacts of institutional racism have created a deep rift in the debate over climate change that now threatens the establishment of environmentally just solutions.

At the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, the question was: who must invest financial resources and stunt industrial growth to correct climate change? As always, the battle lines divide the interests of the rich with those of poor. And because wealth in our world is inequitably distributed among people of color, the debate over climate change falls also along the lines of race.

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Environmental harmony

James Mills | Feb 12, 2010 06:20 AM

"Environmental justice" is a pleasant euphemism for racism. Just as we couched the fight for racial equality during the 1960s comfortably under the guise of civil rights, today we continue to deny our culpability in a bad situation with semantics.

In 1988 when a Harlem neighborhood was targeted for the ill-advised location of a sewage treatment plant, racism was likely the first word that came to mind but few would utter it.

“Not withstanding the science the plant was put uptown because land was cheaper and it was felt that it was a community that would not resist,” said Peggy Shepard, the executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. “So is that racism? I would say that is an intentional targeting of getting something you don’t want in an affluent community and putting it somewhere else where you think that people won’t be alert to it.”

Racism is an ugly word. It conjures up notions of violence and abuse that no one would ever ascribe to themselves or to others. But repeatedly we conveniently disregard the health and safety of an entire population in the name of the public good and the profit of a few. We consider the impact of our actions on racial minorities an unfortunate coincidence in our march toward progress. Surely it couldn’t be racism. Or is it?

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Wilderness environmentalism

Kevin DeLuca | Feb 09, 2010 04:55 AM

The environmental movement’s most singular and stunning achievement is the introduction into human history of an awareness of and care for other animals and ecosystems beyond human needs.  The refusal to reduce the earth to a storehouse of resources, the insistence on the value of whales beyond meat and redwoods beyond lumber, the love of wilderness, is a rare insight that has transformed the world. 

The hostile takeover of the environmental movement by the misnamed environmental justice movement (EJM) is a denial of this insight and a disaster for the many beings and ecosystems that constitute the more than human world.  And since the natural world remains the necessary ground of the human world no matter how much we try to hide that fact behind technological triumphalism, disasters for the natural world are inevitably disasters for humans.  History is littered with the ruins of civilizations that valued social issues over ecological survival.  Only at our peril do we forget that nature is the ground of possibility for human survival.  

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"Messy and unstructured, relentless and global"

Caitlin Sislin | Feb 09, 2010 04:55 AM

Environmental justice law is unlike most other areas of the law.  It may not even be amenable to definition as a single, discrete field of practice.  Instead, environmental justice lawyering is as close as we come to modern-day alchemy: lawyers work in alliance with communities to summon forth justice from a shifting patchwork of unfavorable legal precedent, hostile corporate interests, and an obstinate – at best – regulatory structure. 

Luke Cole, a chief figure in the development and rise of environmental justice lawyering, and whose untimely passing in 2009 leaves a major void in the national movement, wrote in his article "Environmental Justice and the Three Great Myths of White Americana" (Hastings West-Northwest Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, 1996) that “(i)t is a myth that we need lawyers in environmental justice struggles." He meant that because environmental justice is primarily a political and economic struggle, not a legal one, and because environmental justice issues fall all too easily into a legal chasm between traditional civil rights law and traditional environmental law, litigation for environmental justice is necessarily a piecemeal affair.  Cole tells us that, in fact, “in many situations there is no law to protect (a community’s) interest.”  Not only do laws not exist to protect the environmental interests of communities of color and poor communities, our fossil fuel-driven national economic portfolio actively relies on the legal system’s zealous guardianship of the literally-toxic status quo.

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Environmental justice: A vision for change

Robby Rodriguez | Feb 02, 2010 02:55 AM

"The environment for us is where we live, work and play."  Jeanne Gauna, the SouthWest Organizing Project's co-founder and longtime co-director, crystallized the inspiration and sentiment of the environmental justice movement with this simple yet profound idea.  In addition to transforming and reinvigorating the environmental, labor, indigenous and civil rights movements, environmental justice established a vision for change so bold and revolutionary that we are just now beginning to realize both its wisdom and impact.

The genius behind Jeanne's mantra and the environmental justice movement's vision is the understanding that the key to shifting public consciousness toward living sustainably and in harmony with Mother Earth was including people and the economy as part of the 'environment' conversation. The environment for us is also where we pray and go to school. In other words, the decisions we make to protect the environment need to include, and be grounded in, our everyday reality.

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EPA, Black Caucus announce environmental justice tour

Marty Durlin | Jan 31, 2010 07:00 PM

"All environmental protection, like all politics, is quite local," Environmental Protection Agency director Lisa Jackson told her staff this month. "Very few people come to environmental protection because they wake up one morning and read a book about it. They come to environmental protection because it touches them -- the lack of that protection, a fear about an environmental outcome, or about their health or their family's health motivates them to some type of action."

Not since the early 1990s -- when President Clinton's appointee Carol Browner headed the agency and  established its office of environmental justice -- has an EPA administrator focused on the degradation and pollution of communities of color.  Since taking office nearly one year ago, Jackson -- the first African American to head the agency --  has announced that the EPA will assess the impacts of its hazardous waste rule on disadvantaged communities and appointed senior advisers for environmental justice and civil rights in order to address the burdens faced by communities disproportionately affected by pollution.

And now, with Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jackson will tour several areas of the country -- including South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Mississippi -- to highlight environmental justice challenges.

Part of Jackson's initiative is "expanding the conversation of environmentalism" to include environmental justice in "every action we take."

"We have begun a new era of outreach and protection for communities historically underrepresented in EPA decision-making," Jackson wrote to her staff, listing priorities for 2010. "We are building strong working relationships with tribes, communities of color, economically distressed cities and towns, young people and others, but this is just a start. We must include environmental justice principles in all of our decisions. This is an area that calls for innovation and bold thinking, and I am challenging all of our employees to bring vision and creativity to our programs. The protection of vulnerable subpopulations is a top priority, especially with regard to children.

Representing the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus, which calls itself "the conscience of Congress since 1971," Lee said, "The consequences of global climate change, disastrous trends of environmental degradation, and our nation's perilous dependence on fossil fuels are being felt in communities here in the United States and around the world, especially in communities of color."

The next issue of High Country News focuses on environmental justice in the West and inaugurates our special coverage of this topic.

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