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Region grapples with environmental injustice

The Spokesman Review ran a recent series of articles on contamination from years of uranium mining on the Spokane Reservation—go to and type “uranium” in the search box to read more. The pieces go into some depth about the history of mining there, as well as some of the effects. What this reveals is a sad, frightening picture.

MIke Denton
By Mike Denton
Conference Minister

Nearby local water sources, even after attempts at clean up, remain ruined. There are radioactive hotspots along the side of the road where open trucks carrying the uranium ore spilled some of their loads. Local wildlife is contaminated by radioactive waste that is in the earth and air. In spite of being ordered by courts to clean up this area several years ago, there is more left undone than done and, when considering all that needs to be done, there has been more inaction than action. It is an environmental disaster.

Still, that wasn’t the most heartbreaking aspect of these articles. The effects this disaster appears to be having on those living on the reservation is horrifying. People live by and pass through those hotspots on the road. Their water is contaminated. The local wildlife is contaminated. The dust in the air is contaminated. This is resulting in what appears to be higher than normal cancer rates, birth defects and other health problems. While the uranium mined here was intended for nuclear weaponry, those who worked and lived around the mine continue to suffer from the fallout.

Places where human-caused environmental degradation affects poor folks and people of color is where concerns about environmental justice are born. The United Church of Christ helped birth this movement when, in 1987, our denomination published “Toxic Wastes and Race,” establishing firmly that toxic sites were disproportionately located near communities of color. A UCC follow-up study in 2007 concluded that people of color make up the majority of those living within 1.8 miles of toxic sites and that the facilities that produce industrial pollution are clustered within many of these same communities. The follow-up study also discovered that, in 90 percent of those regions where the EPA is already involved in monitoring environmental concerns, other racial disparities were also evident.

Even where in cases there are already laws and land-use controls that could reduce health risks in these areas, the enforcement of these laws is lax. Again and again, this study and others have proven that people of color and those who are impoverished are disproportionately effected by the effects of the un-natural disasters humans have helped create.

Within our region, there are many examples of where this has played out. The Spokane Reservation is far from being the only reservation affected by environments that have been made toxic by mining and other industries. Air quality issues relating to diesel fumes have also affected poor communities near shipping areas all around the Puget Sound. Those who count on subsistence harvesting of wildlife from our rivers have been told to cut back on their fish consumption in order to avoid long-term health effects from the pollution present there. In too many cases, inadequate safeguards have been taken to protect those who work in many of those industrial and agricultural facilities where toxic or radioactive materials are a part of the business.

Today’s industries did not exist during the time the Bible was written, however, those living during that time assumed some need—for very practical reasons—to have a healthy interaction with the earth. Our understanding of the assumptions of those who wrote the Bible continue to unfold, and some of those assumptions are worth considering. Although we usually refer to some of these writings as “religious laws,” at that time and place they were just the law and many of these laws were put in place for practical reasons that were connected to practical assumptions.

Because the earth is God’s, humanity worked with God by working with the earth. Those areas that were harvested needed time to recover so fallow times were mandated. Excessive waste was considered a crime. Natural disasters, at the time, were assumed to be the way that God reset relationships between God, God’s earth and God’s people in to their proper order. To misuse those things that were God’s was a crime.

Throughout the Bible, those who cause others to be impoverished are also condemned. The oppression and fraud of businesses, religious groups and governments are repeatedly named as acts of injustice. Although there isn’t a consistent biblical condemnation of wealth, there are consistent condemnations of those who misuse the power that comes from wealth and warnings about how wealth, used oppressively and selfishly, can be a stumbling block on person’s faith journey.

Both of these understandings have been a part of the Christian tradition for centuries. So it makes sense they would come together in this time and place as we find ways to faithfully participate in the environmental justice movement. For the past several months, you may have heard about the UCC Environmental Justice Center at Pilgrim Firs that our conference and denomination are working together to establish. The plan is for this center to focus on the biblical, spiritual and theological understandings of environmental justice as well as to establish a framework to try to promote and sustain it.

Amos 5:24 says, “…Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” May those waters also be healthy, life giving and clean for all who drink them in.

Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © Summer 2011





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