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Abandoned Uranium Mines Plague Navajo Nation

Mining companies left behind a legacy of poisoned wells and contaminated earth

The mesas of Monument Valley rise deep red on the horizon. We are in Diné Bikéyah, land of the Navajo.

“This is John Wayne country,” trained Navajo guide Gregory Holiday repeats his lines for an enchanted group of tourists. The view opens boundless to the sacred land of the Diné people, but for visitors it is presented as the iconic west of cowboys and Americana.

photo of Monument ValleyPhoto by Sonia Luokkala Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley.

The sun sets and the last traveler boards the bus to leave Navajo Nation and head back to Flagstaff and into US-governed territory. With the bus’ departure, Gregory’s role as the light-hearted Indian guide ends. We take a gravel road to his home in the village of Oljato. During the jolty ride the rehearsed stories of Wild West heroes shift to memories of deceased loved ones.

“My daughter loved to ride her motorbike in the desert,” he says.

Two years ago Gregory’s daughter died of lung cancer. Her child, Gregory’s granddaughter, was a victim of Navajo neuropathy, a rare condition named after the only population in which it occurs. For those suffering from the disease, limbs begin to tingle, then lose all sense of touch, and eventually appear curled as claws. Ultimately, the victim dies of liver failure. One study put the average age of death at 10. First described in medical literature in 1976, there is no cure.

In the 1940s, surveyors discovered significant uranium deposits throughout the once worthless desert landscape of the reservation. Between 1944 and 1986, as the US government aimed to cut off all dependence on imported uranium, nearly 4 million tons of ore were extracted to fuel the Cold War nuclear arm’s race. With the end of the war, the mining companies moved out. They were not required to clean up their mess and left behind the legacy of their extraction efforts, including mining waste and abandoned mines.

Photo of uraiumRaw uranium ore colors the soil in Navajo Nation.

The incidence of Navajo neuropathy is five times higher on the western side of the Navajo reservation than on the eastern side. Some researchers believe this discrepancy is linked to the land: On the western side, the mines were mostly tunnels, whereas in the west they were primarily open pits. After the …more

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Up in Smoke

In Zimbabwe, a booming tobacco-growing sector threatens the country’s forests

This year alone, Zimbabwe is expected to earn a record $777 million dollars from tobacco sales, mainly to China. The country’s tobacco farmers and tobacco traders be may thrilled, but their joy is an environmental catastrophe for the African country.

photo of tobaccoPhoto by Sean Jackson A tobacco farm in Zimbabwe.

Flu-cured tobacco (also called Virginia tobacco) is Zimbabwe's most lucrative cash crop, dwarfing maize, cotton or cut flowers destined for Europe. The country produces some of the world's finest Virginia tobacco, and today tobacco sales account for 26 percent of the country's foreign currency earnings. The country is among the top producers of Virginia tobacco, alongside Brazil and the United States. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of tobacco farmers increased from 1,400 to 87,000, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

But tobacco has been an outright disaster for the country's woodlands. Since 1997, Zimbabwe’s deforestation rate accelerated at 1.5 percent a year, according to the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission. A significant percentage of this is due to tobacco cultivation. Since 2012, the small-scale farmers who make up 80 percent of the country's tobacco growers have been clearing 5.3 million trees a year as they expand tobacco plots, seeking to increase their profits. "The national rate of deforestation currently stands at more than 300,000 hectares per annum, of which 15 percent is attributable to tobacco production activities," says Forest Commission Agency chief research scientist Tom Deva. "It's an unthinkable catastrophe.”

According to the agency, every year Zimbabwe is losing an area of forest that is three times bigger than the country's capital city, Harare.

Flu-cured tobacco is an energy-intensive crop that requires intensive heat to dry out and cure the crop's leaves. Curing means circulating hot air around the crop for seven days. The hot air could be generated from coal (of which Zimbabwe had plenty) or gas. But Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers (many of whom seized their small plots of lands from white farmers in 2000) don’t have sufficient money to buy coal for drying their tobacco. Firewood is an easy alternative to coal. On average, small-scale tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe own 3.2 hectares of cropped land, according to Consultancy Africa Intelligence. To prepare tobacco for sale, nearby forests are cleared and the wood stockpiled to heat and dry the crop.

Because wood is less efficient …more

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Why the UN-Vatican Conference this Week Is Such a Big Deal

The globe’s 1.2 billion Catholics are poised to become a major force for environmental protection

A visit to the Vatican by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday demonstrated the growing relationship between the Catholic Church and the global environmental movement. The timing of the visit called attention to Pope Francis’s upcoming statement on ecology, while bolstering preparations for important international climate talks in Paris this December.

Photo of Pope FrancisPhoto by Aleteia Image Department The Vatican conference on climate change and sustainability promises to fundamentally reshape global environmental advocacy.

“We have a profound responsibility to the fragile web of life on this Earth, and to this generation and those that will follow,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the day-long Vatican conference on climate change and sustainability. “That is why it is so important that the world’s faith groups are clear on this issue – and in harmony with science. Science and religion are not at odds on climate change. Indeed, they are fully aligned.”

To be perfectly clear: This is a huge deal. Tuesday’s events in Rome promise to fundamentally reshape global environmental advocacy by giving new moral force to the efforts to protect the planet. At the same time, the Church’s heightened involvement with environmental issues will enlist hundreds of millions of new people into the movement for environmental protection.

The Catholic Church has been engaged in ecological issues for decades. In particular, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (a sort of Church-based think tank) works with the scientific community to help facilitate communication about the needs of the planet and its peoples. Last May that pontifical academy teamed up with its sister group, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, to hear from high-ranking natural and social scientists about how to live sustainably while caring for life on Earth. Things went so well that participants asked the Vatican for regular meetings to keep the conversation moving.

The academy fulfilled that wish with a follow-up gathering held at the Vatican on Tuesday. Joining in was the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, most especially its president, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.

Cardinal Turkson is an important name in the Church’s efforts for caring for the poor, food security, and environmental protection. His comments at Tuesday’s meeting were some of the most blunt and urgent to date — even more so than a talk he gave in March in Ireland, which many …more

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One in Six Species at Risk of Extinction Due to Climate Change

Species must move, adapt, or become extinct, according to new study

A new study published today in the journal Science predicts that if business as usual emissions policies do not change and human caused climate change continues on its current trajectory, one in six species on Earth could face extinction. Scientists have estimated that over 8.7 million different species inhabit the Earth, which means almost 1.5 million species are at risk of extinction. 

photo of polar bearPhoto by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on Flickr A polar bear in Arctic Alaska.

The study, conducted by Dr. Mark Urban, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, is being released in the May 1, 2015 issue of Science. In the study, Urban challenges readers to think about climate change from the perspective of species extinction. Urban first became intrigued by the subject matter while working with small freshwater ecosystems and noticing the effects that warmer winters were having on those ecosystems.

“What I have seen is that even though we have many predictions about extinction risks … in response to climate change, no one has put together a global and truly comprehensive picture of those extinction risks,” Urban told Earth Island Journal in a telephone interview. “Instead, when discussing the topic, people draw upon one or a handful of studies.”

In his study, Urban utilized an approach often used in medical studies. Using meta-analysis tools, he examined 131 different studies on climate change that had been completed since 1992 and discovered that species are already being forced to make adjustments to their habitats due to changing temperatures and resulting changes in their ecosystems. The species are in essence being forced to move to a different habitat, adapt to the habitat they have, or perish from the inability to do either. So far, extinctions attributed to climate change remain uncommon, but the rate is increasing.

“Extinction risks from climate change are expected not only to increase but to accelerate for every degree rise in global temperatures,” Urban writes. Specifically, if global temperatures increase by only two degrees Celsius from pre-Industrial Revolution levels, 5.2 percent of species will face extinction. On the other hand, if climate change continues on its current trajectory and global temperatures increase by 4.3 degrees Celsius, 16 percent of species, or one in six, could face extinction.

“Very quickly we will start to …more

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Champagne in the Peel

The adventure to save one of the world’s last great wildernesses

After an all-night drive up from Whitehorse, Canada, our small group of activists, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts begins the process of loading gear onto the floatplane dock at Mayo, a village of 200 inhabitants along the Stewart River in the heart of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Bleary-eyed, we load our supplies into two aircraft, then lash four canoes atop the planes’ floats. Five minutes after we are airborne, we swing around to the northeast and watch houses and roads and other signs of human life disappear beneath us.

photo of a man using a tent in a meadow under mountains and a rainbowPhotos by Peter MatherMusician and composer Matthew Lien on a Canadian Park and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) expedition to the Wind River in 2013. Lien blended sounds from the watershed into his original pieces to create stunning songs that were played at Protect the Peel events.

For nearly two hours we climb over the wilderness, heading further north toward the high spine of the Mackenzie Mountains, which stretch nearly 500 miles from British Columbia to bisect the Yukon. We marvel at the green valleys and snow-dusted mountains below us. As clouds gather and then part, sunlight splinters into beams that bathe the sparkling, steaming summits with ethereal yellow light.

A full-throttle climb brings us over a final mountain pass with so little room to spare that it seems we could reach out and touch the spires on either side. We descend into Bonnet Plume Range, toward a pair of lakes near the headwaters of the Snake River. Once we land and unload and the sound of the departing planes fades into silence, we sit on pads of soft moss and take stock of our position. In the Lower 48, the most remote point – the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park – is little more than 20 miles from a road. Here, just below the Arctic Circle, we are nearly 200 miles from the nearest highway.

With only 35,000 inhabitants, this California-size territory remains almost completely unsettled. Walled off by Canada’s highest peaks, the Yukon’s lake-dotted taiga, mountains, and river systems sweep down from the Beaufort Sea between Alaska to the west and the Northwest Territories to the east. Most of that land is drained by the Yukon River, which flows north and west nearly 2,000 miles across the Yukon and Alaska …more

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Getting Past Scientized Scrutiny

Too often, reporting on food and agriculture treats science as a singular source of truth

It’s been a rotten spring for glyphosate. On March 20, the World Health Organization announced that it was officially classifying the herbicide — the most widely used farm chemical in the United States — as a “probable” cause of cancer. Days later, the American Society of Microbiology linked glyphosate and two other herbicides to antibiotic resistance, the low-boiling public health disaster. And then a well-known skeptic scientist tried to downplay these findings, deepening the crisis: Appearing on the French cable channel Canal+, Dr. Patrick Moore told interviewers “you can drink a whole quart” of the herbicide “and it won’t hurt you” — but then refused to take a swig. “I’m not an idiot,” he said. 

 glyphosatePhoto by Chafer Machinery A crop-sprayer applies glyphosate to a field in North Yorkshire, England .

For many casual observers of these events — and certainly for folks in the ever-growing food movement — glyphosate had finally tipped the scales from ‘bad idea’ to unconscionable. If the collapsing of monarch populations, the evolution of spray-tolerant weeds, and the pollution of soil, water, and farmworker bodies was not enough to dethrone the king of agrochemicals, then maybe the specter of cancer and antibiotic resistance would.

It was all the more remarkable, then, to see just the opposite reaction spelled out in one of our country’s most reputable publications. In an April 10 New Yorker piece, well-known science writer Michael Specter went to bat for the chemical industry, declaring that the WHO report should change nothing about popular use of glyphosate. Why? Because while it could be dangerous, it is not proven to be. “Scores of studies,” he noted, have found “no connection” between glyphosate and cancer. What’s more, the handwringers would have us believe that all GMOs and their companion chemicals are to blame for troubles spanning cancer to autism. These critics just don’t understand science, he implied.

Not to pick on Specter per se, but his latest piece provides a valuable entrée into thinking more critically about scientized reporting, where and how the data gets drawn, and the human-made imperfections inherent to science.

Scientized reporting often fails to appreciate the nature of the regulatory science process. It’s not about proving with absolute certainty that there is, or isn’t harm. Rather, because there are gaps in scientific knowledge, assessors look at whether …more

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Fighting Fossils, Letting Go of Regulatory Law

Oregon county embraces a community rights approach to challenge local liquefied natural gas terminal

US fossil fuel exports are on the rise. The fall in global oil prices has bolstered already determined efforts to lift the 1975 ban on US crude oil exports. And as hydrofracking operations continue to expand, the industry is scrambling for regulatory approval to build a network of pipelines and terminals to transport natural gas around the country and worldwide.

Natural Gas ExportsPhoto by chesapeakeclimate, on Flickr Activists protest the Cove Point natural gas terminal. In Coos County, OR, some activists are embracing a community rights approach to block the proposed Jordan Cove terminal.

Fossil fuel proponents jump through regulatory hoop after hoop, papers are pushed, and studies are conducted. Throughout this process, concerned citizens are assured by government agencies that projects will follow the law. They are told that if any endangered species habitat is destroyed, it will be preserved or created elsewhere. That any harm done by ripping pipeline through communities and wilderness, or planting a terminal in a fragile estuary, will be properly mitigated. Then, if all I’s are dotted and T’s crossed, permitting approval often follows. Final decisions over authorization generally take place behind closed doors.

At Cove Point, Maryland, Jordan Cove, Oregon, and elsewhere, prospective exporters of domestic liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been wading through this process for years.

Activists opposing the terminals have jumped through the regulatory hoops, too. Writing public comments, projecting toxin levels, measuring harm — desperately appealing to language regulatory agencies can understand.

Despite tremendous public opposition and countless arguments to the contrary, last fall the Cove Point terminal expansion received Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval. In Oregon’s Jordan Cove, FERC has given a tentative green light that is conditioned on the completion of other pending permit applications.

Jordan Cove activists are working tirelessly to stop the project. I spoke with one such activist, Jody McCaffree of Citizens Against LNG, an Oregon group opposing the Jordan Cove terminal through the regulatory process. She listed a slew of regulatory nightmares facing the terminal — its problematic proximity to an airport runway; the number of people who would receive second degree burns should a tanker explode; the terminal’s vulnerability to tsunamis; and the oyster farms that would be impacted, to name a few. Pointing to the egregious nature of the terminal, McCaffree expressed …more

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