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ELAW Partner Raquel Gutierrez-Nájera has dedicated her life to protecting Mexico’s ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. She and her team at the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA, the the Institute for Environmental Law) recently celebrated a victory for a natural protected area in Zapopan, Jalisco.
Zapopan is part of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area and home to approximately one million people. Its government website highlights ecotourism as one of the city’s appealing features. The Barranca del Río Santiago, a 3.5 km wide, 700 meter deep canyon through which the Santiago River flows, is one of Zapopan’s natural attractions.
Recently, the municipality was considering a change in land use designation that would have allowed sludge from the Agua Prieta Residual Water Treatment Plant to be stored within the natural protected area in which the Santiago River is located. According to the project proponent, the Agua Prieta Plant is to be completed in 2013 and will generate an estimated 178 tons of sludge daily.
IDEA consulted with public service officials who were concerned that the sludge could pose a threat to water quality and biodiversity within the protected area. To accommodate the sludge storage area, buildings within the Tempizques community of Zapopan were leveled and 30 families were displaced. On August 30th, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources issued a resolution denying the land use change, stating that it would be inconsistent with the municipal decree that created the protected area and would not be in accordance with the management plan.
Raquel hopes that this victory will set a precedent for protecting the natural environment in Mexico.
Congratulations to the IDEA team!
Latin America Program Assistant
My wife, seven year-old son Aidan and I recently returned from a vacation to Lake Tahoe. On the border between California and Nevada in the Western United States, Lake Tahoe is in the middle of U.S. Forest Service land and bordered by numerous ski resorts. Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest lakes in the world and, at about 1900 m above sea level, is the largest alpine lake in North America. The freshwater lake is 500 m at its deepest point, second deepest in the United States after Oregon’s Crater Lake.
I relished the opportunity to share my love of the Pacific Northwest’s wild places with my son. The city in which we live, Eugene, Oregon is very progressive in terms of environmental sensitivity. Aidan has already learned about the importance of conserving our natural resources in school. He regularly points out things that are “wasting water” or “hurting the planet.”
Upon arriving, our first stop was the lakeshore to dip our feet in the icy-cold snowmelt-fed water and marvel at the spectacular sunset over the mountains to the west. Along the water’s edge we could see a steady decrease in the remarkable clarity of the water – a result of lakeside development and urban stormwater runoff. On submerged rocks we could see algae, which was not there ten years ago. Aidan and I talked about how, even with efforts to export sewage and garbage generated in the Tahoe basin, the lake could someday lose its legendary purity because of human impacts.
I like to think that my work at ELAW has had an impact on the way he sees the world. It was gratifying to see Aidan interact with nature and develop an appreciation for clean water and a healthy planet.
Information Technology Manager
“Fracking” made the short list for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011 for the U.S. It joined “Tiger mother,” “Arab spring,” and “The 99 percent” (though it lost top honors to “Squeezed middle”).
The dictionary entry notes that fracking is “the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas. [Shortened < hydraulic fracturing.]” However, some may prefer the explanation provided in the popular video “My Water’s on Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song),” which was produced by NYU journalism students in collaboration with ProPublica.
On a more serious note, fracking poses a substantial risk to drinking water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft report in early December that linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination in the drinking wells of families living in the small town of Pavilion, Wyoming. Samples from the EPA’s own monitoring wells detected synthetic chemicals that are used during the fracking process in the underground water aquifer.
Hydraulic fracturing is not confined to the U.S. ELAW partners in countries like Ukraine, South Africa, and Australia are monitoring new proposals that involve fracking to extract natural gas from underground rock formations. Sharing information from the U.S. will help leaders in other regions take appropriate measures to protect precious drinking water supplies. Good news emerged from Bulgaria just this week, where lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to ban fracking, effectively halting a plan by Chevron to use the process to drill for natural gas in that country.
I was fortunate to travel last month to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, for the first annual Festival of the Sea, held in conjunction with a Trinational Fisheries Forum and Workshops on Environmental Law and the Human Right to Water. The Fisheries Forum was poignant, with roughly 20 fishers from Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras doing the difficult work of discussing limits on their fishing grounds, in order to restore the fishery. Our Guatemalan partners are working with Guatemalan fishing communities in the Gulf and the Ministry of Natural Resources to help create “recuperation zones” that would be managed jointly by the agency and the fishers in Guatemala’s waters.
The Gulf of Honduras is a complicated web of Guatemalan, Belizean, Honduran, Garifuna, and Maya culture. Negotiations among fishers WITHIN countries is complex, and when we are trying to reach across the many layers of jurisdictions and ethnic culture present in the Gulf, the complexities are far greater.
Alongside the work, we celebrated the food, culture, and livelihood of fishing communities in the region at the Festival of the Sea on the waterfront. Fisheries are vital to sustaining coastal communities worldwide, and the roughly 500km of coastline in the Gulf of Honduras is home to nearly one million people. This relatively small area holds tremendous biodiversity, but both species and local economies are in decline.
We were flying from Placencia to Punta Gorda in Southern Belize. Domestic flights in Belize are an incredible treat – and over the years I have enjoyed learning to recognize certain estuaries, towns and other features of the coastal landscape as if they are old friends. Local advocates use the opportunities of the flights to identify developments that may compromise coastal ecosystems. But on this day, what we saw was cause for celebration. As we passed over the Placencia Lagoon, Adrian Vernon of the Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD) beamed as he grabbed for his cell phone to tell folks on the ground that PCSD’s work had paid off, once again.
“The manatees are back! I see FIVE resting behind Drunken Caye!”
Adrian’s roots are deep in Placencia – his great great grandfather — an Irish Admiral in the Royal Navy and a commissioned pirate, was one of the first to settle the peninsula in the 1770s. Adrian’s family spread across Belize, but some stayed put in Placencia – and became anchors in the community there. Adrian grew up playing among the mangroves in the Placencia Lagoon, which he says are like “botanical amphibians, with one foot on land and the other in the sea.” Manatees and other wildlife were abundant.
In the last few decades, the world has discovered Placencia. Although the village of Placencia itself still feels like a sleepy place, resort developers recognize the potential profits of developing this sparsely populated Caribbean paradise for tourism. Developments currently proposed would nearly double the population of the peninsula. This scale of development threatens not only the lifestyle and culture of the local people, but also seriously jeopardizes fragile ecosystems. Sedimentation from dredging and filling to “make land” in the Placencia Lagoon has literally choked out some species. Excess nutrient discharge from shrimp farms also suffocates plants, and changes critical habitat.
Adrian and colleague Tim Smith persuaded four large shrimp farms to stop discharging directly to the lagoon, and instead to plant mangrove buffers between their ponds and the lagoon. Mangroves naturally filter the nutrient waste from the shrimp farms out of the water. As a result, native seagrass has re-colonized the lagoon, and the manatees, dependent on seagrass for their survival, are back!
Last month, the Supreme Court of India imposed a fine of $8.3 million on a polluter in the State of Rajasthan.
For me, the judgment recalled my beginnings as a public interest environmental scientist.
Nearly 20 years ago, in March 1992, I was a second year law student at the University of Oregon. I had just begun working with the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), then a part of the law school and run by Professors John Bonine and Mike Axline. John and Mike had also, a year earlier, co-founded a new organization called the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).
That month, one of ELAW’s newest colleagues, a lawyer from India – M.C. Mehta – came to Eugene to deliver a keynote address at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC). At that time, environmentalists outside of India were just learning of M.C.’s remarkable accomplishments in cases before the Supreme Court of India.
As a student member of WELC, I had the privilege of meeting M.C. Because I had recently completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry, John and Mike paired me with M.C. to see if I could help him with a case he was taking to India’s Supreme Court on behalf of residents of the village of Bichhri. The groundwater in Bichhri had been rendered undrinkable by industries that had just sprouted up in the area, including a company that was manufacturing H-acid (1 amino-8-naphthol-3,6 disulfonic acid), which is used in dyes. M.C. wanted to know what health effects this ominous-sounding chemical could cause. So, I began my first task of assisting a public interest environmental lawyer with scientific information, which has been my career ever since.
In 1996, I traveled to India to work with M.C. and was with him soon after the Supreme Court of India issued its first judgment in the Bichhri groundwater case. The Court held the polluters liable for the contamination and required them to pay for remediation of the damage they had caused.
The ruling stated: “This writ petition filed by an environmentalist organisation brings to light the woes of people living in the vicinity of chemical industrial plants in India. It highlights the disregard, nay, contempt for law and lawful authorities on the part of some among the emerging breed of entrepreneurs, taking advantage, as they do, of the country`s need for industrialization and export earnings. Pursuits of profit has absolutely drained them of any feeling for fellow human beings for that matter, for anything else.”
To secure this remarkable judgment, M.C. first had to convince the Supreme Court of India to hear the case. In the first hearing in the Bichhri groundwater case, the lawyers for the government agency and the polluting industries demanded that the court dismiss the case. They claimed that the groundwater was perfectly fine and that their clients were bringing needed jobs to the area. What these lawyers didn’t know was that M.C. had a glass bottle of polluted groundwater from Bichhri in his briefcase. When it was M.C.’s turn to address the Supreme Court judges, he placed the bottle of dark brown water on the table in front of him, and announced that he’d be willing to withdraw his case if lawyers for the polluters would have a sip of the groundwater in the bottle. The lawyers for the polluters, with noticeable alarm, declined the invitation. M.C. kept the bottle of groundwater on the table in front of him as a constant reminder to the judges of the severity of the situation in Bichhri.
For 15 years, the polluters have pursued legal tactics to delay enforcement of the court’s 1996 judgment. The Court’s recent decision concludes, in part: “This is a very unusual and extraordinary litigation where even after fifteen years of the final judgment of this court the litigation has been deliberately kept alive by filing one interlocutory application or the other in order to avoid compliance of the judgment. The said judgment of this Court has not been permitted to acquire finality till date. This is a classic example how by abuse of the process of law even the final judgment of the apex court can be circumvented for more than a decade and a half.”
With the Court’s recent decision, the law has finally caught up with one of India’s worst polluters.
ELAW Staff Scientist
It didn’t make the international news, and chances are you haven’t heard about it in a while, but in May 2007, government-owned Tema Oil Refinery on the Chemu II Lagoon in Tema, Ghana, had a massive oil spill. The lagoon flows into the Gulf of Guinea, so the contamination spread to saltwater mangroves, fisheries, and bird habitat.
In June, ELAW partners at the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) filed suit to defend the rights of local fisherfolk left destitute by the polluted waterway.
Last month, CEPIL attorney Rockson Akugre visited the ELAW office in Eugene and gave a presentation that included details about the ongoing case against Tema Oil Refinery. Rockson noted that people who have settled near the lagoon are being denied their right to a clean environment. The spill has affected their health and their livelihoods.
CEPIIL’s suit asks for the following:
“(a) A declaration that the defendant was negligent in spilling oil into the Chemu lagoon;
(b) A declaration that the oil spillage into the Chemu lagoon is a violation of the rights of the inhabitants of Chemu particularly the rights of those who are settled along the banks of the lagoon to a clean and healthy environment under the constitution and under international law;
(c) An order enjoining the defendant to clean up the Chemu lagoon under the supervision of the EPA;
(d) An order of perpetual injunction to restrain the defendant from further pollution of the aforesaid lagoon through oil spillage or other means.”
Tema Oil attempted to have the case dismissed, by claiming that CEPIL did not have standing to sue on behalf of the lagoon or the local people, calling the plaintiffs “busybodies seeking cheap popularity.”
The judge ultimately ruled that CEPIL did in fact have standing to sue, saying that CEPIL “says it is in the business of protecting human rights and litigating on public interest issues. Public interest litigation seems to be a new concept in our jurisprudence and it ought, in my considered opinion, to be encouraged. I believe it is an antidote to the problem of direct victims of acts of environmental degradation or pollution being unable to take such cases to court.”
For the last 3.5 years, the community has waited as legal hurdles have delayed the case. CEPIL and the local community now have cause for hope.
In recent weeks, a lawyer for Tema Oil Refinery made a motion to have a section of his client’s statement of defense amended, specifically the paragraph where TOR admits to “occasional spills” in Chemu Lagoon.
The current section in question reads:
“occasional spills in insignificant quantities from its refinery cannot be the cause of the alleged level of pollution and annihilation of all life forms in the Chemu Lagoon mentioned in the pleadings of the plaintiffs.”
The presiding judge of the Tema High Court dismissed the application to amend the statement of defense. The case is set for trial on Tuesday, May 3.
ELAW Office Manager
World Water Day was established at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. It is a day to focus international attention on the factors contributing the world’s safe drinking water and sanitation crisis.
This year’s theme, Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge is highlighting the staggering increase in urbanization among the worlds poorest population, and how lacking city infrastructure is not meeting the clean water needs of communities.
According to the United Nations:
“Today, one in two people on the planet live in a city. 93% of the urbanization occurs in poor or developing countries, and nearly 40% of the world’s urban expansion is growing slums. The central problem is therefore the management of urban water and waste. Piped water coverage is declining in many settings, and the poor people get the worst services, yet paying the highest water prices.”
According to the Coalition for World Water Day, “one out of every eight people lacks safe drinking water and two out of every five people lack adequate sanitation.” We all know water is fundamental to life and that access to clean water is a basic human right. And while some contributing factors are certainly related to poor sanitation, we must remember that there are other reasons that people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water.
Over the years, ELAW has worked with partners around the world to perform water quality tests that provide communities with the information they need to seek justice and win access to clean water.
Last year, ELAW worked with partners in Panama to test water quality downstream from a large gold mine. ELAW partners in Belize are fighting to protect the Macal River, a source of drinking water, from the effects of a large dam. With surface water quality analysis, ELAW partners in Guatemala, are helping community members understand the science behind community health problems associated with nearby mining activity. ELAW worked with partners in the Philippines in 2008 to close illegal connections to a storm drain that were allowing raw sewage into drinking water. As in other parts of the Amazon, multinational oil companies have been drilling for oil and dumping by-products into Peru’s Corrientes River since the 1970s. ELAW helped perform the first independent water quality analysis, and in 2006, the largest offending oil company signed an agreement to stop dumping in the river and invest in cleanup.
These are just a few examples of how numerous industries and multinationals are polluting and privatizing our earth’s freshwater supplies, and many times, in poor communities where regulations are weak and access to clean water is already at risk.
ELAW joins communities around the world calling for swift access to clean water for everyone. We will continue to support the work of local advocates who are fighting for the right to clean air and water for everyone.
The Canadian-owned Minera Panama S.A. (a subsidiary of Inmet Mining) has plans to develop a 5,600-hectare mine in the middle of dense tropical forest in the province of Colón, Panama. The company is now waiting for the green light from the Panamanian government. If approved, the Cobre Panama project would be the biggest private venture in the country, and with an initial $5 billion investment estimate, it could be even more costly than the Panama Canal expansion project. According to Inmet Mining’s press release, once operations begin in 2015, the project is expected to produce “289,000 tonnes of copper and 108,000 ounces of gold per year (open pit) during the first 16 years of a 30 year mine life.”
Although the government has not approved the EIA for the mining project, it has granted the mining company other permits and on November 8, 2010, Inmet announced on its website that it had awarded a contract to an engineering and construction group for work on the Cobre Panama project. Inmet seems optimistic, but ELAW partners at Centro de Incidencia Ambiental de Panama (CIAM) are fighting back. They have called on me and Meche Lu to review the 14,913-page, 40-volume Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and offer our critique. The EIA was prepared for Minera Panama at a cost of $19 million by over 100 contractors. We have until the end of this month to submit our comments!
From our initial review, Meche and I agree that the project is a wretchedly bad idea – among other things, mining activities will permanently uproot several thousand acres of tropical forest in the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. We are not alone in our concerns. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution warning of the grave social and environmental impacts of open-pit mining in the Mesoamerican region and calling on Central American governments to “cancel current open-pit metal mining exploration and exploitation.”
ELAW Partners Mariana Mendez and Joana Abrego, an environmental engineer and lawyer (respectively) with CIAM, visited ELAW this year and worked closely with Meche and me. They are part of the team that has worked with concerned community groups in Panama challenging the nearby Molejon Gold Mine, which is contaminating rivers and destroying biodiversity. They are confident that the Cobre Panama project, if approved, will have similar devastating effects on the environment and local communities.
We remain hopeful that if decision-makers in Panama understand the long-term costs of permanently uprooting several thousand acres of tropical forest, they will set aside the Cobre Panama project.
ELAW Staff Scientist