As I was walking to the Rocky Mountain Power Shift conference, I noticed a sign on the fence outside Jeanette Rankin Hall on the UM campus. It read, “Knowledge is only potential power.” That one sentence sums up the purpose of this three-day conference.
Mike Ewall, the founder and director of Energy Justice Network, spoke to a group about the issue of environmental racism. It is a term used to describe how polluters and environmental hazards tend to be more concentrated around minority areas.
For example, take Montana’s Pegasus Gold Inc. It operated mines near the Fort Belknap Reservation from 1979 until 1998. These mines used cyanide heap leaching to extract gold. This involved filtering a weak cyanide solution through crushed ore in order to collect the gold. The gold seeps out of the rock when the solution and mineral mix.
During this process of leaching, cyanide made its way into the reservation’s drinking water due to leaks and spills. In one case, a spill released 50,000 gallons of the toxic solution.
The mine is no longer in operation, but the results are still visible. Native Americans on the Fort Belknap Reservation are dealing with the aftermath of the contamination. Some residents suffer from thyroid problems. Babies have been born with brain atrophy, and there has been an increase in stillbirths.
But mines are less likely to be built in areas where the majority of the population is white.
Being a white college student, I hadn’t given much thought to environmental racism in the past. Money buys protection from these projects, and white people tend to have more money than minorities. These projects are often supported by the people living in the area because they believe the projects will bring jobs even though they may understand the potential negative consequences. For a while, they do create jobs, but then the health problems start.
The session raised an important question: if environmental racism does exist, what can we do to stop it?