Wednesday, July 20th, 2011...2:41 pm

Editorial: Jews and the earth

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I felt a pang of despair earlier this month when I heard about the ExxonMobil pipeline oil spill in the Yellowstone River. The longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, the Yellowstone drains a portion of the Rocky Mountains and feeds into the Missouri River in North Dakota. My family has seen the lovely idyllic river in Wyoming, on our trips through Yellowstone National Park.

The plume from the ruptured pipeline spread 25 miles downstream from Laurel, Montana, and a 600-foot-long black coating of oil smeared Jim Swanson’s riverfront property, according to an Associated Press report.

While Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer vowed that the “parties responsible” would clean up their mess, Swanson told AP: “Whosever pipeline it is better be knocking on my door soon and explaining how they’re going to clean it up. They say they’ve got it capped off. I’m not so sure.”

As it happened, my son, Max (the one who was prosecuted as a “terrorist” over two years for organizing protests against 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul; the RNC 8 case fizzled out last October, and he’s fine), was attending an Earth First! gathering near Missoula, Mont., in the midst of the outcry over the pipeline mess. The Earth Firsters moved their protest to Helena, the state capital and managed to get an impromptu meeting with Gov. Schweitzer.

The environmentalists demanded that the governor rescind his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which will have 10 times the capacity of the ExxonMobil pipe that burst. Montanans have been protesting both the Keystone XL project and the widening of roads in wilderness areas to accommodate oversized loads of oil-refining equipment bound for the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The energy-intensive and environmentally destructive tar sands are now Canada’s main source of oil; and the United States is Canada’s biggest oil customer. A problem with the Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry tar sands crude oil from Alberta to refineries in the Midwest and on to the Gulf of Mexico, would dwarf the recent ExxonMobil oil spill.

Back in Helena, the Montana governor refused to bend to the demands of the Earth First! contingent. The group then held a dance party in his ornate reception room. Five activists locked themselves up in PVC piping outside Schweitzer’s office; they eventually were extracted from their civil disobedience paraphernalia and taken to jail.

Over the past 30 years, I have been writing about American Indian for a variety of publications. My association with Indians has enabled me to see environmental issues through a different lens, I think, compared with most people in non-Indian society.

For example, when the issue of nuclear power is discussed, I know from my research and firsthand experience that Native peoples have been victimized by all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and milling, to nuclear bomb testing and waste disposal. In the case of the Alberta tar sands, the Mikisew Cree Indians at Fort Chipewyan are living at ground zero of the chemical effluents from the dirty energy project. Community members have been complaining about increased incidences of cancer and other diseases from their exposure to arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These people, who subsist on fish and game in the area, say that their natural food sources are increasingly being contaminated by chemical compounds.

Before I started reporting on the Jewish beat, I wrote for The Circle, the local American Indian monthly newspaper. Over the past dozen or so years, I have been writing a column titled “Political Matters,” which mainly investigates how state and federal government policies affect Indian communities. (Last year I spoke to the local BOND group about my journalism focused on Jews and Indians.)

Over the past year, I have been writing about the push to open up northeastern Minnesota for copper-nickel mining — a new industry in an area that is well known for its history of iron ore extraction. However, this new business of sulfide mining has the potential to pollute ground and surface waters near the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A number of foreign-owned companies are prospecting for copper-nickel up north, and this kind of mining has a terrible track record of polluting surface waters with toxic metals across the western U.S.

In my columns for The Circle, I have written about the growing concern that runoff from copper-nickel mine waste will pollute waterways that support wild rice beds. Since some of the mining projects are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, Ojibwe tribal officials are closely monitoring the proposed extractive projects.

There is a state standard (10 milligrams per liter) for sulfate levels in wild rice waters; but legislators (including DFL leaders in the Legislature) have succeeded in putting language in the environmental omnibus spending bill that would have the effect of suspending the sulfate standard, until the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conducts a new study, which would be used as the basis for amending the sulfate standard for wild rice waters. The bill, which at press time was headed into the Special Session at the Capitol, specifically exempts industries from having to “expend funds for design and implementation of sulfate treatment technologies until after the rule amendment.”

In other words, the politicians have lined up to facilitate sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota, which poses the threat to pollute waterways and damage the already dwindling wild rice crop. Again, as I have written for The Circle, the Ojibwe bands in Minnesota will have something to say about this. My informed sources tell me that not one member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation has spoken out against the rush to bend environmental protections to grease the skids for sulfide mining. Indeed, the whole issue is flying below the proverbial radar; only the Ojibwe bands and a coalition of environmental groups have sounded the alarm about the detrimental effects from copper-nickel mining.

You might think that our elected representatives would have some sympathy for those concerned about the ravaging of the planet; however, in an e-mail received this week, Rep. Chip Cravaack, the Republican representing Minnesota’s Eight District in Congress, boasted of his support for the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018), which “would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s… ability to issue revised or new water quality standards for states.” It appears that the legislation is intended to bolster state environmental control; but Cravaack writes: “Legislation like this will help reduce the influence of radical environmentalists’ opposition to mining in northern Minnesota.”

I would differ with Rep. Cravaack over his use of the term “radical environmentalists” to demean Minnesotans who are rightly fearful that our natural heritage will be irreparably damaged by uncontrolled sulfide mining schemes.

Moreover, just as oil spills and sulfates in the water spoil the natural environment, the sense that the political system is rigged to serve the interests of big corporate entities is corrosive to our democratic system. The reality of massive oil spills, clear-cutting vast stands of timber and mountaintop removal by coal companies has spurred people to action — and some activism has not conformed to the sanctioned legal channels.

A fascinating documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, opens Friday at the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown. The film focuses on an Earth Liberation Front (ELF) cell operating in the Pacific Northwest that engaged in arson against corporations and governmental entities seen as environmental marauders. This nuanced investigation looks at both the ELF activists — who were ultimately charged in federal court as “domestic terrorists,” even though no human being was ever injured in any of the actions — and the police and prosecutors who pursued the arsonists years after the fires.

If we are to continue, as a Jewish community and as a species, we will have to confront the threats to sustaining life on Earth. The pressure for jobs is colliding with protection of the environment in Minnesota. We all have a vital stake in the discussion, and we must hold our elected officials accountable when the fate of the planet is in the balance.

— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at]

(American Jewish World, 7.22.11)

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