The Rito Seco Mine and Inadequacies in Public Participation

A Case of Public Participation

It is widely thought that a useful tool in the fight for environmental justice is increasing the public involvement of previously disadvantaged communities in the political processes surrounding the management of the environments they live in. While most agree it is a necessary first step in the fight for environmental justice, the extent to which public participation can be effective is still disputed[1]. Contentions surrounding the existence of an open pit gold mine located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado provide an example of the limits of public participation.

According to the United States Census, as of 2000, the town of San Luis contained 739 residents, 253 of which lived below the poverty line and over 88 percent were of Hispanic or Latino descent. In San Luis, several irrigation ditches and their accompanying water rights have been owned and managed through community cooperation since before the state of Colorado existed. The majority of stakeholders, or parciantes, in these acequias, as the ditches are called, near the town of San Luis, have kept the rights and responsibilities of the water they use to fuel their farms within their families to this day[6].


Initial Disputes Over the Mine

In the late 1980’s Battle Mountain Gold Co., a Houston based mining firm, began the process of creating an open pit gold mine roughly five miles away and directly upstream from the town of San Luis[3]. In order to operate, the mine needed a permit to augment the downstream water rights of the San Luis People’s Ditch, a downstream acequia. Concerned over the possibility of the mine contaminating the source of water for several of the acequias, and the destruction of previously communally used land, the citizens of San Luis strongly objected to the mine proposal[6]. Their opposition took the form of speaking out at county hearings, contacting local and state politicians with their opinions, taking Battle Mountain Gold to court and forming the Costilla County Committee for Environmental Soundness[4]. Despite the multiple avenues of public participation they utilized to voice their disapproval, the Rito Seco mine was approved at the federal and state levels, and began operation in 1992[4].



This aerial photograph from Water and Environmental Justice: Acequias in Colorado – Part 1 of 3 shows the Rito Seco mining operation toward the top and right and the town of San Luis in the bottom left corner[4].


The Period of Contamination

In the fall of 1998, just two years after the closure of the mine, the tailings pile began to leak numerous dangerous chemicals into Rito Seco Creek. Officials from the State Division of Minerals and Geology had ordered the company to obtain a discharge permit, as they did not have any permission to allow any discharge from the mine into the creek[2]. The company was allowed to ignore this order by the state for over a year until the EPA was able to go through the process of testing, examining and deciding that this seepage was in violation of the Clean Water Act[2]. After receiving an order to cease and desist, the company was required to build a water treatment plant for the contaminated water coming from the mine, which they did[2]. During this time period, citizens downstream who found out about the contamination voiced their opinions to the appropriate state and federal organizations, as well as to the company, but were left powerless to address the health hazard in their water through any further form of public participation[6].

After the order was received from the EPA, Battle Mountain Gold company employees and state officials met with county officials in private in order to inform them as to the details of the contamination and the plan for addressing it. The Costilla County Conservation District, an entity representing the interests of the citizens opposed to the mine, sued the county commission board for violating Colorado’s Open Meetings Law. The court found that no law was violated as no policy was being created, simply information was being shared by the state agencies and Battle Mountain Gold Co[1]. This court case represents an attempt by the affected citizens to increase their ability to participate in the sharing of information by and resulting decision making of government and company officials.


The Inadequecy of Public Participation

Since the company has addressed the water contamination issue, their operation is once again completely legal and they have been allowed to return to their reclamation process that the people of San Luis continue to oppose. This case is clearly an illustration of the inadequacies of the public participation framework for addressing issues of environmental justice. While the disadvantaged majority Hispanic community in San Luis has been active in opposing the mining and reclamation operations of Battle Mountain Gold in various ways, the company has still been able to run an operation that clearly poses hazards to that community. The ability to be included in the public process has rightfully given a voice to the downstream acequia community, however it still has not done enough to protect them. This illustrates how working within our current economic and political system will not result in the level of environmental justice that is truly just. To achieve this goal, alternative frameworks of environmental justice, such as the creation of basic rights to a clean environment and the inclusion of ecologically sustainable practices in our economic philosophies, must be pursued in addition to increased public participation.


  1. “BD. OF CTY. COMM. v. COSTILLA CTY. CONS. DIST, 88 P.3d 1188 (Colo. 2004) | Casetext.” N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Martínez, Maclovio. Potter, Lori. Flynn, Roger. “OHBC News Releases.” 11 Aug. 1999. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Shore, Sandy. “Gold Mine Stirs Debate Over Environment and a Way of Life.” Los Angeles Times 8 Mar. 1992. LA Times. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.
  1. Peña, Devon G. “Water and Environmental Justice: Acequias in Colorado – Part 1 of 3.” 3 Apr. 2013. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
  1. Torres, Gerald. Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications. Island Press, 2001. Print.
  1. Pena, Devon Gerardo. Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin. University of Arizona Press, 1998. Print.



The Role of National and Local Media in the WIPP Accidents of 2014


The increasing amount of media presence in humans’ lives has changed the public’s emphasis on environmental protection. People tend to overlook the local news and rely on the information presented by national media. Looking at the process of releasing information regarding the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the only geologic repository for nuclear waste in the United States 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, many strategies of local and national news sources were used. Both attempt to provide the public with accurate and important information, but the efforts and effectiveness of local news have a greater impact and role in the field of environmental justice.


Within the blog’s definition of environmental justice, there are primarily five distinct frameworks to assess possible injustices: civil rights, distributive justice and ethics, public participation, social justice, and ecological sustainability (Bryner 2002). In regards to the WIPP case study, the main environmental justice frameworks are public participation and ecological sustainability. The most evident difficulty in this situation involves how the information was presented to the public from various local and national news sources. Not only is this a public participation issue, but also creates an absence in knowledge of the ecological sustainability for the upcoming future.

Theory: Local vs. National News

In the emergence of environmental preservation, large environmental groups have outshined local environmental groups using national media to their advantage. Large environmental groups use repeated strategies to garner donors and members who donate passively, making their contributions to society less about hands-on work and more about satisfying their charitable behavior (Rydin and Pennington 2000). Stemming from this is an issue among many large publications: focusing on the causes most people are concerned about while ignoring the causes that will create the most benefit to people, especially from poor, minority areas. Local news, however, caters their publications to the members of the local communities, reinforcing the idea that “the major burden of [environmental] work has and will continue to be on regional, state, local, and grassroots organizations.” (Abernathy 1991).

What Happened at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)?

After World War II and the ensuing Cold War, U.S. government laboratories had a significant amount of nuclear waste to dispose. Along with several other nuclear disposal sites, WIPP was created to specifically store Transuranic (TRU) waste (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). Coincidentally (or not), WIPP was constructed in Eddy County close to the border of Lea County in Southeast New Mexico with a combined population consisting of 49.8% people of Hispanic heritage and 14.9% struggling in poverty (New Mexico Demographics).

After 15 years of successful storage, two isolated, unrelated accidents occurred. First, on February 5th, 2014, a salt haul truck caught fire in the northern part of the mine. All workers were evacuated and only 6 employees experienced smoke inhalation.WIPP Truck Fire

Then, on February 14th, a continuous air monitor (CAM) alarmed in the middle of the night. It was determined afterwards that a barrel of cat litter, a great absorber of nuclear waste, exploded (Brumfiel 2014). Small amounts of contaminated air escaped outside of the facilities and several employees tested positive the next day of work to small, non-dangerous levels of contamination from the incident (U.S. Department of Energy).

The DOE claimed that there was no contamination on equipment, personnel, or facilities. However, scientists from the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) reported WIPP radioactive contamination 0.6 miles away from the exhaust shaft. Although the amount detected was below public or environmental concern, it still falsifies the DOE’s claim that the contamination was contained properly (Hardy 2014). It was only after these local publications caught wind of what was going on that larger, national news outlets started to care about the happenings at WIPP.

Why is this Relevant to Environmental Justice?

Had the CEMRC results not been published to the public by local news sources, the likelihood of local community interaction might not have existed. Additionally, the many issues with WIPP and the DOE would not have been fixed, so the operations potentially would still be operated by the short-cut, money driven employers previously in charge (Ponce, 2014). This fits into the environmental justice framework of public participation: that all news sources, both big and small, have the equal ability to provide accurate information to the public. In most cases, however, local media and news have a greater influence on the affected minority communities than major national publications, thus providing another environmental injustice.

Additionally, the way the media presents information to the public about environmental issues has a direct affect on the environmental sustainability. WIPP has continued to reassure the public that everything is safe and fixable, but in reality, the damage was much worse than the initial assessment and will cost the US government almost $2 billion to fix (Vartabedian 2016). This is a major environmental injustice to the Southeast New Mexico community because the workers are put into more dangerous positions. Furthermore, other nuclear facilities must store their nuclear waste for a longer period of time, thus putting other (possibly poor and/or minority) communities at risk.

Most of the events are tracked by two main sources: Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), a local information resource, and Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery, a source sponsored by the Department of Energy.


Keywords: Nuclear Waste, National and Local Media, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Department of Energy


Abernathy, Jim. (1991, Winter). The Environmental Support Center: A Resource for the Environmental Justice Movement. Race, Poverty, and the Environment, 1(4), 4-16. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from Reimagine!

Brumfiel, Geoff. “Organic Cat Litter Chief Suspect In Nuclear Waste Accident.” NPR. NPR, 23 May 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

Bryner, Gary. Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications. Washington, DC: Island, 2002. Print.

Hardy, Russell. “CEMRC Detects Trace Amounts of Radiation from WIPP, No Danger to Public.” New Mexico State University News Center. New Mexico State University, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

“Need Eddy County Demographics for Your Business Plan?” New Mexico Demographics. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

“Need Lea County Demographics for Your Business Plan?” New Mexico Demographics. N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

Ponce, Zack. “Timeline of Events Related to Recent Radiation and Toxic Particle Leak at WIPP.” No to Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. N.p., 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.

Rydin, Yvonne, and Mark Pennington. “Public Participation and Local Environmental Planning: The Collective Action Problem and the Potential of Social Capital.” Local Environment 5.2 (2000): 153-69. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

“Status of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)” 2014 WIPP Radiation Leak. Southwest Research and Information Center, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Nov. 2016.

Vartabedian, Ralph. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.

“Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Office of Environmental Management. U.S. Department of Energy, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

“What Happened at WIPP in February 2014.” Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. U.S. Department of Energy, n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.


Gold King Mine Spill and the Navajo Nation

Another example in the long line of injustices against the Navajo Nation, over 2,000 Navajo farmers have been unable to use their normal water stream in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill of 2015.[1] On August 5th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was checking up on Gold King, attempting to clear debris from the long closed mine. Not following protocol in multiple instances, 3 million gallons of toxic water were released into the Animas River, turning it a vile shade of yellow.[2]

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald 08/06/15-Durango - Mine waste from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton fills the Animas River at Bakers Bridge on Thursday morning.

Animas River in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, August 2015. (Jerry McBride, Durango Herald)

This pernicious water stream began in Silverton, Colorado, an old mining town that has fallen on tough times. At its peak in the early 20th century, Silverton was thriving; 2,000 of its residents worked for one of the many mines in the area. However, this prosperity is fickle in the mining industry and eventually the amount of jobs dried up and people were forced to find other sources of income. Considering the vast beauty of the American West, becoming a tourism spot often bears a fruitful source of income. Towns such as Breckenridge, Aspen and Telluride have all adapted out of mining into popular tourism destinations that boast world class skiing and hiking.

Silverton, on the other hand, has had a tough time letting go of its mining past. Johnathan Thompson of High Country News described the sentiment of one local: “He mourned the loss not just of jobs and money, but also of authenticity and, in a way, identity. Mining is real, genuine palpable; tourism is entertainment.”[3] Sympathy can be felt towards the people of Silverton for their loss of identity, but mining has a far greater impact on the surrounding environment and has the power to harm many communities located outside of the Silverton area. Even as late as 2014, a mining company, Colorado Goldfields, existed with the purpose of revitalizing the mining industry in and around Silverton. Companies like Colorado Goldfields have prevented the local mines from receiving Superfund status, which designates especially detrimental areas and provides the necessary resources to clean them. This nostalgia and disregard for the environment has left many downstream communities feeling the burden of this harmful industry.

In the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater flowed down from the Animas River, eventually merging into the San Juan River. The San Juan River flows through the land of the Navajo Nation, who have faced a multitude of environmental injustices over the course of their history. Currently, there are around 1,100 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation land causing detrimental long term health effects.


Spill path of toxic water into New Mexico and Utah. (Lorena Iñiguez Elebee, Los Angeles Times)

As mentioned above, over 2,000 farmers have lost their water stream, causing crops to dry up. In the little over one year that has passed since the spill, the Navajo Nation feel that the EPA has not done an adequate job in the clean up and restoration of the affected areas, and have even filed a lawsuit against the agency.[4] The EPA has not done enough testing on the river sediment, which could cause long term health effects. One Navajo local from Mexican Water, Utah, was skeptical of the EPA conclusions: “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”

That same community of Mexican Water had not seen any help from the EPA for months after the spill. This area is very isolated, there are no nearby paved roads and the nearest grocery store is 35 miles away. Even areas that saw relief from the EPA complained that the quality was not up to their standards. Water is sacred to the Navajo; they use it in its pure form for many religious ceremonies. Therefore, they have still not deemed the San Juan river water usable, even if the EPA has said otherwise.

Who is to blame for this environmental disaster? The EPA has taken responsibility for the spill, but do they deserve 100% of the criticism? Ethel Branch, the attorney general of the Navajo Nation, stated, ”From the very beginning, the EPA tried to shift the conversation to the overwhelming nature of dealing with abandoned hard rock mines in the West, in my view to dilute the significance of what occurred and the need for them to be accountable and to clean up the contamination or address it in some way.” Silverton residents have fought for the revitalization of the mining industry, even in recent years. Fearing the stigma of Superfund status, residents rejected the EPA’s help multiple times.[5] However, Ms. Branch brings up a fair point. Just because the EPA was put in a tough cleanup position does not discount the problems of the Navajo Nation. They still do not have a reliable water stream for farming or religious activities. The burden of responsibility lies with both the EPA and the mining community of Silverton. A higher priority needs to be placed on cleanup efforts in the Navajo Nation as they are a low income community that was not at all responsible for this environmental disaster.







Environmental Injustices for Pueblo Communities Near Los Alamos National Laboratory

In 1956, seventeen nuclear and thermonuclear bombs were detonated in the South Pacific, each code-named after a different indigenous tribe or group in the U.S. These bombs were designed, manufactured, and named within the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico. 

“Thus, just as the Tewa in New Mexico were dealing with the environmental and social effects of nuclear sciences at the laboratory, weapons scientists were evoking their name half a world away in an act of nuclear violence”1

This is just one example of appropriation from a long history of LANL and the U.S. government mistreating Pueblo communities.

In the 1940s, the U.S. government asked the San Ildefonso Pueblo to give up part of their land for military purposes; the San Ildefonso Pueblo relinquished the land with the understanding that it would be returned after World War II. 1n 1943, this sought-after patch of land became the site of LANL, where most of the research for the top-secret Manhattan Project would take place.2 For the next fifty years, the various Pueblo peoples living near to and downriver from LANL would have essentially no knowledge or voice concerning the dangerous materials that LANL was leaking and dumping into the air, water, and land. Through destruction of sacred sites, bomb tests, nuclear waste disposal, and poor environmental ethics, Los Alamos has been a pervasive source of environmental injustices for the original caretakers and inhabitants of the land: the numerous Pueblo communities of Northern New Mexico.

high southwest view aerial of Los Alamos Los Alamos National Laboratory (left) and Los Alamos townsite (middle and right)

High southwest view aerial of Los Alamos Los Alamos National Laboratory (left) and Los Alamos townsite (middle and right). Image source:

The land that was taken over for the Manhattan project sits at the foot of the Jemez Mountain range and on top of the Pajarito Plateau in Northern New Mexico. These areas are culturally and spiritually significant for Pueblo peoples (especially the Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Cochiti, Pojoaque and Jemez Pueblos) as well as the Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, Navajo, Mescalero Apache, and Jicarilla Apache peoples.1 This land is scattered with crucial materials such as spring water, medicines, minerals, and clay as well as numerous sacred sites embedded within the landscape. Walter Dasheno, a former governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo expressed his resentment for the effects that LANL has had on the landscape:

“when LANL, for example, proposes to set off explosions on sacred ground, or to dump high level nuclear waste in sacred areas, the affront to our (the Santa Clara Pueblo) culture and religion is complete.”1

Jake Viarrial, a former governor of the Pojoaque Pueblo, expressed a similar sentiment:

“Nuclear radiation contamination is just a modern version of the polio blanket.”3

Because of nuclear fallout and leaked radioactive waste, the land around, downwind, and  downriver from Los Alamos has become polluted with radionuclides (Links to an external site.) that most likely explain the high incidences of thyroid and other cancers in these areas.3 One particular area for concern is LANL’s main dump site called Area G which takes up 100 acres of land directly adjacent to Pueblo lands.2 The landscape of the Pajarito Plateau is made up of many canyons which allow for numerous ephemeral streams that lead to the Rio Grande. Due to sites such as Area G, toxic and radioactive chemicals have been and still are affecting these canyons and downriver communities.4 In 1998, LANL proved this themselves by releasing a study that found significantly higher concentrations of six radionuclides within three stable foods of the surrounding communities (pinto beans, squash, and corn) compared to plants grown outside of the area.4

In order to confront the environmental injustices that have occurred to the numerous indigenous communities near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, it is crucial to reflect on the cultures and histories of these peoples. Their relationships with the land, water, and air that have now been polluted and made toxic, are both ancient and constant. LANL has irreversibly changed the landscape of New Mexico and has exposed unknowing towns and cities to dangerous amounts of radiation. LANL’s treatment of the adjacent landscapes and communities constitutes an environmental injustice because they failed to educate the public and to contain all of their nuclear wastes, leading to numerous health issues for many living nearby. 


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1Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Print.

2Kyne, Dean and Bob Bolin. “Emerging Environmental Justice Issues In Nuclear Power And Radioactive Contamination”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13.700 (2016): n. pag. Print

3Kosek, Jake. Understories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

4Fresquez, P. R. et al. “The Uptake Of Radionuclides By Beans, Squash, And Corn Growing In Contaminated Alluvial Soils At Los Alamos National Laboratory”. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part B 33.1 (1998): 99-121. Web.

Further Readings:

Uranium Mining in Navajo Nation

In 1948, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement that it would purchase all mined uranium for the cause of developing nuclear weapons. Mining companies flocked to Navajo Nation, employing about 3,000 Navajo men. Workers were only paid an hourly wage of about $0.81 to $1.00 in 1949, yet many families initially viewed uranium mining as an employment opportunity.[1] However, obvious costs soon outweighed the benefits, and the environmental injustices committed within Navajo Nation still remain unresolved today.


Unethical Practices

In 1950, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted research on health hazards and acknowledged Navajo workers were exposed to levels of radon high enough to cause cancer. While many Navajo people suspected that the dramatic increase in lung cancer mortalities were due to unsafe conditions in uranium mines, they did not have the scientific education to understand the lethal effects of uranium. In fact, the word “uranium” did not even exist in the Navajo language. The PHS did not follow through in establishing proper ventilation standards and kept the results of the study unpublished in order to avoid causing worker strikes. The ethical violations of the 1950 study are apparent in the way that informed consent, or the communication of risks and hazards to the experimental participants – the workers, was not practiced[2]. Therefore, the federal government clearly had knowledge of the lethal health affects, but did not take any action to decrease miner mortality.

Political Economic Framework

The exploitation of Navajo wage labor for the profit and prosperity of several mine company owners clearly demonstrates how the Navajo people were incorporated into the capitalist cycle of production. According to Robbins, Hintz, and Moore, “a tragic combination of high profits and bureaucratic inertia allowed for terrible mine conditions” (215).[3] Capitalists, or mine company owners, generated more profit by paying workers less than the true value of their labor. In the cycle, this extra revenue was necessary for operating costs and expanding the corporate monopoly. The capitalist system eventually exploits all readily available environmental resources or must sacrifice non-labor values for the sake of high profits. Environmental degradation, or radioactive contamination, results, posing further challenges to mining companies.[4] Because reservations are sovereign, government regulations to keep mining practices in-check are lax. Analyzing the issue through a political economic framework reveals that mining threatens the health and physical environment of targeted individuals. Therefore, the degradation of sacred land is synonymous with the destruction of Navajo cultural identity.

Upholding Sovereignty

Multiple lawsuits against mining corporations and the federal government proved ineffective, as the government repeatedly cited mining interests as necessary for fulfilling national security. The efforts of these grassroots organizations eventually culminated in the passage of Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990, a law finally designed to compensate Navajo workers.[5]

Although Navajo Nation has made significant progress in seeking environmental justice, there is still much more growth necessary for the complete revitalization of Navajo culture. RECA was insufficient in its compensation to many miners, and still today, the Navajo people are struggling to ward off advances from the uranium industry. The renewed interest of mining on Navajo lands can be traced to Vice President Richard Cheney’s 2001 energy task force that prioritized the expansion of nuclear power. Mining companies campaigned for support using the lure of jobs, a drawing factor for the impoverished citizens of many New Mexican reservation towns. Hostility emerged on the side of pro-mining interests, who claimed that the Navajo were seizing public land for themselves[6], further alienating and victimizing the Navajo people.

Overall, Navajo land has not been restored to the fully habitable state prior to radioactive contamination. 409 mines have radiation levels more than twice the background level, which continues to pose a threat to people’s health.[7] Although the government has played somewhat of a role in remediation efforts, much action is still necessary to block industry advances and alleviate racial tensions.

[1] Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

[2] Charley, Perry H., Susan E. Dawson, Gary E. Madsen, and Bryan R. Spykerman. 2004. “Navajo Uranium Education Programs: The Search for Environmental Justice.” Applied Environmental Education & Communication 3, no. 2: 101-108. GreenFILE, EBSCOhost (accessed October 28, 2016).

[3] Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[4] Sbicca, Joshua. “Elite and Marginalised Actors in Toxic Treadmills: Challenging the Power of the State, Miilitary, and Economy.” Taylor & Francis Online, April 20, 2012. Accessed November 4, 2016.

[5] Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[6] Voyles, Traci Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[7] Ram, N. M., Moore, C. and McTiernan, L. (2016), Cleanup Options for Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mines. Remediation, 26: 131–148. doi:10.1002/rem.21473

The Unfair Burden of Coal In Eagle Pass: An Environmental Justice Case Study of the Eagle Pass Mine


After initial permitting in 1994, an American company called Dos Republicas Coal Partnership hired Camino Real Fuels LLC to begin mining for coal in late 2015 in an overwhelmingly poor, Hispanic, and Native American community near the town of Eagle Pass in Texas.(1) The 2.7 million tons(2) of low-grade “bituminous” coal being mined every year is of such poor quality it is illegal to burn in the United States, so it is being sold to Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), a government-owned electricity provider. CFE burns the coal half an hour south of Eagle Pass in Nava, Mexico, at one of the two most polluting power plants in North America. The plant is close enough to the border that the air leaving the facility further pollutes Eagle Pass. The pollution from both the mine and the plant endangers the water and air quality of the region(3) and poses a threat to the hundred historical Native American sites belonging to the tribes in the area, which include Carrizo, Comanche, Coahuiltecan, Cherokee, Kickapoo, Xicano, Apache, and more.

Eagle Pass Mine is a textbook example of an environmental injustice; it is an extraction of a natural resource that disproportionately hurts minorities and the poor. More specifically, it affects the many tribes in the area more than anyone else, as it hurts their sacred connections with the land. There is no set definition of environmental justice. Texas is part of EPA’s Region Six, which has its own definition. This case study uses that definition to evaluate the environmental injustice of the Eagle Pass Mine by walking through the ways in which Executive Order 12898 was broken.

Executive Order 12898

In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which expressed the need for environmental justice. He ordered that each federal agency create a strategy to work towards environmental justice, following four specific guidelines:

1) To help promote health and environmental statutes already in place in disadvantaged areas.
2) To ensure community participation in decisions.
3) To conduct thorough research relating to the health and environmental impacts of minority and low-income populations.
4) To determine any disproportionality in which groups benefit from environmental developments, then outline steps to address disparity.
Initial permitting for this project took place in 1992, two years before this executive order. However, permits granted in 2006, 2011, and 2015 by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the Texas Railroad Commission insufficiently addressed parts two, three, and four of this framework thus failing to fulfill President Bill Clinton’s executive order.

Public Participation

The Eagle Pass community is and was unanimously against the Eagle Pass Mine. 45% more residents signed a petition against the mine than the amount of residents who voted in the 2012 election.(4) Between 1994 and the mine’s first extraction in 2015, community members presented their opposition to the USACE(5), they fought permits in various courts(6), and finally, they resorted to peaceful protest.1024x1024

(Indigenous peoples and other community members opposed to the Eagle Pass Mine walk nine miles in protest. These photographs were taken by Kin Man Hui and posted on Express News.)

In a phone interview on November 11th, self proclaimed “American face” of Dos Republicas Rudy Rodriguez described his company’s community engagement, which included going to little league games. When asked how he took into account the needs of the indigenous peoples of Eagles Pass, he responded, “I helped the Kickapoo tribe… Twenty years ago one summer when they were out there working to push the Secretary of Interior for a casino that they have… That’s the tribe that’s there.” In reality, that is one of the over seven tribes that are there – none others of which he could name. He then asserted, “We respect everybody’s position in terms of freedom of speech and what not,” and went on to describe permitting that amounted to “ten to twelve feet high in paper.”(7)

Sufficient Environmental and Social Research

While describing environmental considerations and permits, Rodriguez used the phrase “above and beyond” five times. Though North American Coal Corporations did research on the health and environmental impacts of the coalmine, they did not perform it in regards to minority or low-income communities. When the EPA did their own analysis this year, they discovered that NA Coal’s research was insufficient and that in reality the Eagle Pass Mine is not up to environmental standards.(8) On top of the mine’s environmental degradation, the effects of the air pollution from the power plant just down the road in Mexico is still entirely unknown.

Disproportional Benefits and Burdens

The EPA, the TCEQ, and the USACE did no research on how this project might disproportionately harm or advantage groups of people. As a result, the Native American peoples of the Eagle Pass area are bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden for a project that does not benefit them.

Juan Mancias is an outspoken member of the Eagle Pass Corrizo Tribe. After coal mining commenced in Eagle Pass late last year, he publicly demanded answers to how such a clear injustice could continue. In a phone interview on November 3rd, 2016, he expressed his cultural qualms with the construction of the Eagle Pass Mine: “Our creator came to the Earth…” he explained, “She is our mother.” “There is a time people were hurting each other, becoming very greedy… She listened to the voices of the people who were hurting… We take care of the beauty she has created.” He said the site of the Eagle Pass Mine used to be one in which eagles and ravens would fly to express this beauty. “When they opened this mine up again, they let all these feelings back out.” Regardless of the health impacts, the implementation of the Eagle Pass Mine hurt the sacred connections that people like Mancias had with the area. When asked what other tribes were affected, he responded “All of them.”(9) The Eagle Pass mine is a clear environmental injustice to the many indigenous peoples of the Eagle Pass region.


Region Six of the EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  In the case of the Eagle Pass Mine, the indigenous peoples of Eagle Pass are burdened disproportionately by mining operations and were not given the opportunity to have meaningful involvement in the implementation process. This environmental injustice is a direct result of the approving government agencies of the mine including the TCEQ and the USACE, and their disregard for the steps set out in executive order 12898. The permitting process did not include public participation, adequate research on health and environmental concerns and their disproportionate affects, or proper analysis of whom the Eagle Pass Mine would benefit.  As a result, Native American peoples suffer from yet another form of cultural genocide and are at risk of a wide array of health risks

Sources and Further Information
1. “A Tale of Two Republics: Native Resistance to Coal Mining in Texas.” Equilibrio Norte. December 18, 2015. Accessed November 04, 2016.

2. Lobet, Ingrid. “In Texas, a Coal Mine Opens to Power Mexico.” Marketplace. August 25, 2015. Accessed November 04, 2016.

3. “Project Description.” Dos Republicas Coal Partnership. Accessed November 2, 2016.

4. Lobet, “In Texas, a Coal Mine Opens to Power Mexico.”

5. Https:// PhD diss., Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 2015. State Bar of Texas.

6. Landa, Jose G. “City of Eagle Pass and Maverick County Party Status Challenged by Dos Republicas Coal Partnership.” Eagle Pass Business Journal. 2015. Accessed November 04, 2016.

7. Telephone interview by author. November 11, 2016.

8. United States of America. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Fort Worth District. Detailed Comments on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Final Environmental Impact Statement for Surface Coal and Lignite Regional Mining in Multiple Counties in Texas. By Darvin Messer. Fortworth, Texas, 2016.

9. Telephone interview by author. November 3, 2016.

Other Sources and Further Reading

Exec. Order No. 12898, 3 C.F.R. (1994).

Applicants Response to Hearing Request (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 2011).

“Welcome to the Carrizo/Comcrudo Tribe of Texas.” Carrizo/Comcrudo Tribe of Texas. 2010.

Mancias, Juan, Jonathon Hook, and Angela Pitsai. Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. Comment. Facebook, 2015.

Turrentine, Jeff. “Environmental Justice: One Texas Man’s Refinery Fight.” NRDC. August 26, 2016.

United States of America. Environmental Protection Agency. Region 6. Border 2020 Goals and Objectives.

United States of America. National Environmental Policy Act.

EDF Group’s Reply to Exceptions to the Proposal for the Decision (State Office of Administrative Hearings 2015).

Uranium Mining On Navajo Lands as a Violation of Tribal Sovereignty

When most people think of the Cold War they think of the conflict between the U.S and Russia and how a generation grew up in fear of nuclear war. However, the Cold War also significantly affected another group of people: The Navajo Nation. The Navajo suffered the negative impacts of uranium mining that was necessary to create nuclear bombs. The legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands is a legacy of mistrust, exploitation, disease, and waste.ap105779489776_custom-5f8b50b562658f59d256675c5265381067e39f1c-s1500-c85

Starting in 1948, at the beginning of the cold war, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) said it would buy all uranium for a guaranteed price, which set off a uranium mining boom in the Southwest. Mines were operated by private companies, but sold only to the US government until 1971[1]. The negative environmental and health effects of uranium mining in the Southwest landed heavily on the Navajo people. Currently there are 521 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land, one for every 52 square miles of the reservation[5]. In Environment and Society, Robbins, Hintz and Moore write that the Navajo reservation “offered up an opportunity for a high rate of labor exploitation and negligent environmental practices, an avenue that many capitalists (and bureaucrats) were content to travel”[7] .


The United States government violated the Navajo Nation’s tribal sovereignty by supporting private uranium mines on Navajo lands. This is argument is supported by two main points: 1) Navajo people were not given adequate education on the dangers of uranium mining in order to make informed decisions, and 2) the history of disenfranchisement of native peoples by the U.S. government made the Navajo vulnerable to economic exploitation.

seal1Native tribes are defined by the Supreme Court as “dependent sovereigns” because “their sovereignty predates that of the United States, but that it is nonetheless internal to, and dependent upon, the federal government[3]“. Sarah Krakoff defines environmental justice for tribes as “the achievement of tribal authority to control and improve the reservation environment,” making a respect for tribal sovereignty central to tribal EJ issues.

The Navajo Nation did have a role in choosing to have uranium mining on their land but were given little to no information on its health and environmental risks. This took away the tribes ability to make an informed choice. By the 1930s there was scientific evidence of a correlation between uranium exposure and high rates of lung cancer[1]. At the beginning of the mining boom, many Navajo workers did not speak English and lacked formal education, and there was little effort by mining companies to help educate workers across these boundaries. For example, after a 1950 Public Heath Service study on uranium, English pamphlets were given out to some miners on health risks without any translations or further explanation[1]. The U.S. government and private mining companies withheld information from Navajo miners and tribal leaders, which violated their ability to make independent decisions based on all available resources.

The Navajo people are vulnerable to economic exploitation because, since the lands they once used for subsistence living were taken away by the U.S., they are forced to depend on wage labor. Tribal councils can approve or deny mining leases, but mining is often one1406311648000-uranium01
of the only economic growth opportunities for tribes. In this way Navajo governments are basically forced into mining as a short-term solution for economic survival, which leads to disastrous long term health and economic impacts.

The U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1991 which uses the distributive justice method to give former uranium miners compensation. RECA falls short in real justice because it only addresses a small part of the problem. RECA applies only to miners who worked before 1971 and doesn’t apply to non-miners in the affected community. Non-miners in Navajo communities continue to suffer from uranium exposure due to abandoned mines and water contamination. It is also hard to compensate people with money for things that are difficult to quantify, like losing a family member. The social justice framework outlined by Gary Bryner in Justice and Natural Resources should be used because it aims to tackle the root of injustices, look at power dynamics and take into account cultural losses[2]. It asserts that every single Navajo citizen has the right to clean water, affordable and adequate healthcare and safe working conditions. Using this framework, the U.S. government’s approach could address all the impacts of uranium mining and treat it as current, pressing injustice to the Navajo people.

The Navajo are fighting back against the uranium industry. In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on their land in the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act[4]. The kids-protest-2-1act was passed in response to a push by the Bush administration to increase the use of nuclear power as a clean energy source. In 2013, the Navajo Nation Council voted to block Uranium Resources Inc. from building new mining projects on the reservation[6]. Now that the Navajo Nation has information on and experience with the health and environmental harms of uranium mining, they are rejecting it from their lands.

It is clear that the U.S. government and private mining companies exploited the Navajo people and violated their tribal sovereignty by failing to educate the Navajo on the risks of uranium mining and taking advantage of their vulnerable economic situation. Robbins, Hintz and Moore sum it up, writing: “The Navajo uranium era, as such, represents a classic and tragic case of environmental injustice – where unhealthful or dangerous conditions are disproportionately proximate to minority communities[7].”

Sources and Further Readings: 

  1. Brugge, Doug and Rob Golbe. “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 9, 2002, pp. 1410-1419.
  2. Bryner, Gary C. “Assessing Claims of Environmental Justice: Conceptual Frameworks.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 31-55.
  3. Krakoff, Sarah. “Tribal Sovereignty and Environmental Justice.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 161- 183.
  4. LaDuke, Winona. “Navajos ban uranium mining.” Earth Island Journal, 2005.
  5. Loomis, Brandon. “Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation.” The Arizona Republic.
  6. Minard, Anne. “Navajo Nation Slams Door on Deal That Would Have Allowed Uranium Mining.” Indian Country Today Media Network. August 1, 2014.
  7. Robbins, Paul, John Hintz and Sarah A. Moor. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Additional Video Resources: 

Photo Credit Links: 

Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant

Imagine if someone came up and told you that for years there has been a nuclear weapons plant leaking radioactive waste into your backyard, and until right now, you had no idea. How would you react? If the air you breathe, the soil used to grow your vegetables, and the water you drink on a daily basis was contaminated by hazardous waste leaking from a secret plant just down the street? Would you be angry? Scared? Imagine the questions you would want to ask, the panic you would feel, and the injustice of the situation.

This realization became a reality for residents living near and working at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant in 1992, three years after the FBI, the Justice Department and the EPA raided the plant to investigate allegations of the environmental crimes. The plant, located on a plateau just outside Arvada, CO, produced nuclear weapons triggers, called pits, for almost forty years without anyone knowing about it. The US government protected the plant’s secrecy on the premise of preserving national security, while plant workers and nearby residents were unknowingly exposed to hazardous radioactive material.

subjapan-jumboThis raises a few critical questions. Why were these hazards sited close to this community? And why they were expected to bear the environmental and health burdens for the benefit of our national security? Why was the public so misinformed and excluded from the decision-making process about the environmental risks taking place in their own backyard?

The decision to conceal information about the hazards and risks related to contact with radioactive material at the plant violates principles of environmental justice. People have the right to know if they are being exposed to radioactive material, and trust the government to tell them if they are in any danger. Yet, prior to 1992, nearby residents thought that the Rocky Flats Plant produced “cleaning supplies” and “scrubbing bubbles” (Iversen 2016, 12). To this day, people who worked at the plant are still unaware of what they produced and the chemicals they interacted with. By withholding information about the production of nuclear weapons, the affected group was unable to make an informed decision about whether or not to stay in the contaminated neighborhood.

In 1990, when scientist Carl Johnson released findings that exposed alarming levels of contamination being emitted from the Rocky Flats plant, the government used the media to hide the truth; the presence of, and risks associated with plutonium in the area. Johnson’s article was ridiculed in the press as being “largely useless” and “running the risk of being a cruel joke” (Iversen 2016, 131). Fearing that environmental and health concerns would halt plant production, the government found it justifiable to withhold information about these risks. Ultimately, the decision to leave the public uninformed violated the risk assessment that workers and residents were able to make about their safety.

Despite the plant’s official closing in 1992, individuals experiencing negative health impacts as a result of unknown exposure to plutonium still struggle to receive monetary compensation from the government. Janet Brown, a former Rocky Flats Plant employee, developed epilepsy after years of working at the plant. She also knows other former employees who suffer from “Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and diseases that affect the immune system, like lupus” after working at the plant for many years (Brown 1957, 12). She explained how Rocky Flats Plant “promised that if we were ever to become ill, we would never have to pay any medical benefits. If we were on disability, then our medical benefits would always be free” (Brown 1957, 13). But the government hasn’t followed through on its promise. As more workers developed disabilities stemming from radiation and chemical exposure from the plant, the government changed its policy. Brown explained that if you wanted to keep your medical benefits, “you had to pay for them unless you could prove direct discriminatory intent,” which proved very difficult (Brown 1957, 13).

Environmental injustice occurred at Rocky Flats in the disproportionate distribution of environmental burdens to a targeted group of people. Plant workers and nearby residents did not voluntarily assume the risks associated with proximity to the radioactive material because they were unaware of its existence. Procedural justice was lacking in the initial decision-making process of the facility, which made it easy to continue to exclude the affected group in conversations about the plant’s safety regulations and compensation benefits for the harms caused when it was shut down.

I would like to report that the situation at Rocky Flats has improved. That nearby residents are being told about the dangers of the plutonium, that proper clean up has taken place, and that areas still contaminated by radioactive waste have been shut off to the public. But that is not the case.

Initial estimates for proper clean up of the Rocky Flats area estimated 70 years and $36 billion, but the company selected to remediate the site completed the job in less than 10 years and for $7 billion (Nordhaus 2009, 6). Due to a lack of sufficient cleanup, plutonium levels in the area remain too high for safe public interaction. Yet in 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on contaminated Rocky Flats land. The Refuge spans over 5,000 acres and has eight miles of hiking trails open to the public, without a word about the remaining presence of radioactive waste that remains on the site of the old nuclear plant.


  1. Iversen, Kristen. Full Body Burden. Vintage, 2016.
  2. Brown, Janet. “Brown, Janet.” Dorothy D. Ciarlo. Rocky Flats Oral History Collection.1998.
  3. Nordhaus, Hannah. “The Half-life of Memory: The struggle to remember the nuclear  West.” High County News. 17 February 2009.

Further Reading:

  1. Brulle, Robert J., and David N. Pellow. “Environmental justice: human health and environmental inequalities.” Annu. Rev. Public Health 27 (2006): 103-124.
  2. Bryner, Gary C. “Assessing claims of environmental justice: conceptual frameworks.” Justice and natural resources: Concepts, strategies, and applications (2002): 31- 56.
  3. DeMayo, Eugene F. “DeMayo, Eugene F.” Dorothy D. Ciarlo. Rocky Flats Oral History Collection, 1956.
  4. Fiorino, Daniel J. “Citizen participation and environmental risk: A survey of..” Science, Technology & Human Values 15, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 226.
  5. Grossman, Charles M., Rudi H. Nussbaum, and Fred D. Nussbaum. “Cancers among Residents Downwind of the Hanford, Washington, Plutonium Production Site.” Archives Of Environmental Health 58, no. 5 (May 2003): 267-274.
  6. H.L.A. Hart. The Concept of Law (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1961), 162.
  7. Rawls, John. “Distributive justice.” Perspectives In Bus Ethics Sie 3E (1967): 48.
  8. Risk Assessment Corporation. Final Report: Technical Project Summary. Radionuclide
  9. Soil Action Level Oversight Panel. February 2000.
  10. Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and society: a critical introduction. Vol. 13. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.


Tucson Internation Airport

By Scott Broadbent

Water issues have recently emerged as a hotspot for environmental justice in Colorado for many reasons including the relative scarcity of water in the arid Southwest, the extremely complex system of water rights in the region, and the history of extractive industry (mining and fracking) polluting drinking water supplies, among others.  Drinking water is of serious concern to environmental justice because, especially in the southwestern United States, uncontaminated drinking water has become decreasingly available to low-income communities, minority communities, and tribes.  The plights of these communities are often ignored due to their lack of political power, their inability to represent themselves, and the absence of economic motivations to do so.  Here I will provide you with a case study in water contamination that demonstrates the complexity and injustice surrounding this issue.

Tucson, Arizona is a city with a large Hispanic and Latino population.  The most recent census data shows that more than one third of Tucson’s population is Hispanic or Latino.  The area surrounding the Tucson International Airport has especially high concentrations of Mexican-American families.  You can visualize this for yourself by going to and clicking around on the interactive map (TIA is located in South Tucson.)  Corporations and city officials capitalized on this fact to get away with dangerous and unlawful acts for decades.  Let’s cut to the chase.

In 1951, Hughes Aircraft (now owned by Raytheon) was contracted by the United States military to build missiles at a newly constructed plant on lands recently purchased from the Tucson Airport Authority.  The company used multiple toxic chemicals in their manufacturing process and throughout the years simply dumped those chemicals in dry streambeds (arroyos) and unlined holding ponds in the area surrounding TIA.  These toxins seeped into the ground and then into the groundwater, contaminating the local aquifer.  As if this unchecked environmental degradation were not horrible enough, these toxins began having deadly health effects on the people living around the airport.[i]

Trichloroethylene, or TCE as it is commonly abbreviated, was one of the major chemicals used at Hughes Aircraft.  It is now known that other parties were using TCE as well, including the Air National Guard and Tucson International Airport itself.  TCE is a volatile organic compound that has been shown to be correlated with neurological disorders, kidney failure, cardiac defects, oral clefts, fetal deaths, and cancer.  On Evelina Street in Tucson, less than one mile from the airport, 34 cancer cases have been documented to date[ii].  There are currently several families on Evelina Street with only one surviving member.  Residents of Southside Tucson had been complaining of chemical smells and tastes in their water for years before the EPA finally tested the water in the area of TIA and found it to be contaminated.[iii]



A map of Tucson indicating how the plume of TCE contamination was located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. (Source: De la Peña)


The official response to this contamination has been less than ideal.  In one instance, the Health Director of Pima County told an audience of mostly Hispanic people that the high rates of cancer and death in their neighborhood were because their diet was bad, they smoked, drank too much, and did not exercise enough.  In 1991 the City of Tucson government released a report declaring that “with minor exceptions, no remarkable hotspots were found… any efforts to convince scientists or others that further studies are in order must contend with this ADHS clean bill of health for the neighborhood.”[iv]  The report can be found here:

These examples demonstrated that not only were government officials aware of the problem, they were dedicated to sweeping it under the rug.  In 1987, 1600 residents of Southside Tucson sued Hughes Aircraft, the United States Air Force, and the City of Tucson for their personal injuries caused by water contamination.

Their case was fought through 15 years, two trials, three appeals, and two favorable decisions by the Arizona Supreme Court.  The case concluded in June 2006 after the city and Hughes Aircraft both settled with the residents, netting them over $130 million dollars.  This case is a powerful reflection of how the civil rights framework can be used in litigation to give power to the powerless.  To quote Richard Gonzales, one of the lead attorneys on the case, and a resident of Tucson –

“I remember growing up on the South Side.  We never had any political muscle and never exercised a voice in government.  There was an entrenched sense that the South Side was powerless to look out for their interests.”

Thanks to civil rights and environmental justice, the residents of South Side Tucson are powerless no more.

[i] Pinderhughes, Raquel. “The Impact of Race on Environmental Quality: An Empirical and Theoretical Discussion.” Sociological Perspectives 39.2 (1996): 231-48. Web.

[ii] EPA. TCE Contamination, Exposure, and Cleanup, Tucson, AZ



De La Peña, Nonny. “Fighting for the Environment.” Hispanic (1991): 18-13.



Children and Pesticide Use in Lindsay, California

By Esra Siddeek 

COlorado COllege Class of 2017



“…[environmental justice] means the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”[4]

This is the statement given by the state of California in regards to defining environmental justice.  One example of this type of environmental injustice are the residents of Lindsay who have been experiencing health problems during the peak spraying seasons of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on orange groves.[3],[7]

Residents of Lindsay, California protest against pesticide air contamination. [3]

Residents of Lindsay, California protest against pesticide air contamination. [3]

Due to the high-risk health hazards chlorpyrifos poses on children, a policy (AB 947) by the state of California was passed in 2001 called for the regulation of pesticides within a quarter of a mile from schools. However, AB 947 is not currently employed in Tulare County despite 50% of schools in the area being located within the specified distance.[3]

Therefore, Tulare County should construct buffering zones, especially in areas between schools and sites of chlorpyrifos use. Furthermore, adequate information regarding how to avoid exposure should be provided for the parents and guardians of affected children. This blog will first examine the effects of chlorpyrifos on humans, particularly children, the case study performed in Lindsay, the effect of the lack of public participation, and how environmental justice has not been met in relation to Title VI.

Properties/Health Effects of Chlorpyrifos

Chlorpyrifos is a type of insecticide used mainly on oranges, cotton, corn and several different crops.[7] Chlorpyrifos has been known to affect both insect and mammal nervous systems by inhibiting an enzyme Additionally, a loss of this enzyme can cause symptoms related to motor damage such as drooling and muscle twitches. More serious exposure can lead to breathing impairment and paralysis.[1]

Lindsay Case Study

lindsaysampleA case study in 1996 was conducted by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) in conjunction to the California Toxic Air Contamination act to monitor the chlorpyrifos use on an orange grove in Tulare County. It was found that there were high risks of exposure directly next to the application sites and in high use areas. Within Lindsay, there are five schools located near orange groves with chlorpyrifos application.[7] Of these schools, three are elementary. 95% of the samples collected were above the Reference Exposure Level (REL) for both children and adults. REL refers to the amount of airborne toxin an individual can be exposed to without adverse health effects.[8]

Public Participation Framework

Tulare County California consists of approximately 82% people of color living in Disadvantaged, Unincorporated Communities (DUCs)[5] because of the years of exclusion from the decision-making processes regarding land use and communal investments. Residents in DUCs often do not have the necessities for healthy living environments such as clean water and sewer systems.[9] Since people, such as in the town of Lindsay, living in DUCs are struggling to be heard and having input in the decision-making processes of such policies, the state of California has failed to address the frameworks of public participation outlined in their policy.[4]

Pesticide Use and Title VI

Title VI was initially a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and describes the policy of preventing discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin” in participation of programs that require federal assistance in terms of finances. Over the years, Title VI has been adapted to encompass “impact” of burdens due to racial disparity.[2] Using Title VI in attempt to address the issue of impact on environmental resources has been proven to be complicated. In 2000, the U.S. EPA published a guide in defining the impact of environmental justice issues in the context of Title VI as, “negative or harmful effect on a receptor resulting from exposure to a stressor.” “Receptor” in the context of the quote refers to the individuals and/or groups encountering the problem.[10]

Like other communities in Tulare County, Lindsay has several individuals who cannot afford the cost of treatment necessary for chlorpyrifos poisoning. According to Javier Huerta, a resident of Lindsay:

“I have health problems and the doctor for the study told me that these might be related to exposures. The income of my family is low and I don’t have resources to go to the doctors. I have to choose between feeding my family or taking them to the doctor when pesticides seem to be making them ill.”[6]

As a result, Lindsay residents like Huerta are forced to manage their child’s symptoms on their own and thus cannot provide the necessary documentation to pursue a case in environmental justice despite the clear articulation of Title VI.


As discussed, residents of Lindsay, California come from predominantly low income communities and DUCs and have little input into environmental policies. This lack of public participation is one of the main reasons for why chlorpyrifos is so poorly regulated in Lindsay, which thus constitutes environmental injustice. An example mentioned earlier is the lack of enforcement in the notification to nearby schools regarding application. Moreover, stronger regulations need to be put into place regarding the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos. In addition to the suggested construction of buffer zones between sites of application and nearby schools, information should be readily accessible to the public in regard to preventing exposure. Lastly, research should be conducted on finding alternative methods of protecting crops without the use of pesticides.

Keywords: Tulare County, U.S. EPA, chlorpyrifos, DUCs, Title VI, Lindsay California, California ARB, AB 947

Follow other pesticide issues on Twitter! #pesticides

Further Readings

  1. Christensen, K., Harper, B., Luukinen, B., Buhl, K., and Stone, D. Chlorpyrifos General Fact Sheet. National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services, 2009. Web.
  2. Cole, L. W. “Expanding Civil Rights Protections in Contested Terrain.” Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002. 187-208. Print.
  3. DeAnda, T. Airborne Poisons: Pesticides in Our Air and in Our Bodies. Tulare County: Californians for Pesticide Reform, 2007. Print.
  4. Order No. 12898, 3 C.F.R. (1994). Print.
  5. Flegal, C., Solana R., Jake M., and Jennifer T. California Unincorporated: Mapping Disadvantaged Communities in the San Joaquin Valley. Rep. PolicyLink. California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, 2013. Web.
  6. Huerta, J. Interview. Airborne Poisons: Pesticides in Our Air and in Our Bodies May 2007. Californians for Pesticide Reform. Web.
  7. Mills, K., and S. Kegley. Air Monitoring for Chlorpyrifos in Lindsay, California June–July 2004 and July–August 2005. Pesticide Action Network North America, 2006. Web.
  8. “Notice of Adoption of 12 Chronic Reference Exposure Levels (RELs) for Airborne Toxicants, Dec 2001.” OEHHA Science for a Healthy California. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 28 Dec. 2001. Web.
  9. The Community Equity Initiative. San Francisco: California Rural Legal Assistance, 2012. Print.
  10. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Draft Revised Guidance for Investigating Title VI Administrative Complaints Challenging Permits. 2000. Print.