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Tsogo, a Mongolian apprentice river guide

I traveled to Mongolia this fall, to work with Mongolian environmental lawyers and try to catch big fish.

I had a great trip, but it was alarming to witness the mining frenzy that is hitting that country now.  The road from the airport into Ulaanbaatar is lined with billboards advertising trucking, hauling, drilling and other mining related services; people are talking eagerly about the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is forecast to generate 30% of Mongolia’s GNP; and I could see mines from the air as I flew over Mongolia.

We are working with partners in Mongolia to help them prevent mining abuses and gain the capacity to play a strong role in charting a more sustainable future for Mongolia.  Attorneys Erdenechimeg Dashdorj and Bazarsad Nanjindorj traveled here to work with us last spring and I worked with them in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar.  Bazarsad plans to come here this winter for an ELAW Fellowship that will enable him to complete intensive English courses at the University of Oregon.  They are doing impressive work and want to gain skills and build capacity.

Our law and science teams are working closely with our Mongolian partners.  We are reviewing the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Oyu Tolgoi mine, helping track down health problems caused by a mining disaster in Khongor, and putting together a case to clean up Ulaanbaatar’s nasty air pollution.  The small corps of public interest environmental lawyers in Mongolia is doing great work under challenging conditions, and I am glad we can help.

For more about the fishing in Mongolia, read my recent article in the Eugene Weekly.

Bern Johnson
Executive Director

The season has just changed in Eugene, Oregon from 80s and sunny to 50s and rainy, and it appeared to happen overnight.  Gone are the languid, long summer nights and perfect camping weather.  The changes that our partners in Baja California are experiencing have a similar “overnight” quality to them, but the backdrop is much more profound.

Mining companies are bringing more pressure to Baja California, with new mine proposals appearing as the price of gold and other metals rises in global markets.  Water quality and water quantity are key concerns with mining in Baja California.  Mines invariably cause contamination of nearby water sources; in the desert and dry pine forest habitats that dominate the Baja California Peninsula, these water sources are absolutely critical to the people and other species who live there.

Against this backdrop, my colleague Liz Mitchell and I traveled to La Paz, Mexico to present at a workshop on mining hosted by our partners at the Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN).  Members of ELAW partner organization Centro Mexicano del Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA), and other Mexican NGOs Niparajá, Agua Vale Mas Que Oro, Pro Natura, and Medio Ambiente y Sociedad attended the workshop, which provided information about the impacts and implications of mining in the region and provided the opportunity for group members to discuss concerns and raise questions.  Mining projects are not new to this region – two years ago many of the same groups joined together to stop an open pit gold mine known as La Concordia, which was backed by U.S.-based Vista Gold.  Now Vista Gold is proposing to construct the same mine under a different name – Los Cardones – and other mining plans are increasing in size and number.

The workshop was an enormous success: the participants were knowledgeable and organized, and benefited from the information DAN and ELAW provided.  It is such a privilege to work with communities and professionals around the world engaged in the most critical struggles over clean air, water, and soil.  Liz and I, and the rest of the ELAW team, look forward to collaborating with DAN and other partners as the pressures to develop, mine, dredge, and deforest continue to increase in the spectacular Baja California Peninsula.

Heidi Weiskel
ELAW Staff Scientist

Mural in Iquitos

Last month I visited Peru, my home country.  Recently Peru has had an unprecedented economic growth rate: more than 6% per year since 2002, almost 9% in 2010 and 7% in 2011.  In Lima, one can readily see this growth through the construction of large stores, new commercial areas, and apartment buildings. Now, more people than ever are driving, making traffic unbearable and creating lots of air pollution.

A closer look at newspapers tells us that Peru’s rapid economic growth has been accompanied by a rising number of social-environmental conflicts, or conflicts over the use, control, and exploitation of natural resources. In July, the Public Defender’s Office reported a total of 243 conflicts.  148 of those conflicts were considered social-environmental, a record!

Many of these social-environmental conflicts are related to extractive industries like mining, oil and gas, timber, and fisheries. Why is it that the rise of extractive industries and social-environmental conflicts go hand in hand?

‘Conflicts’ are not new to Peru or Latin America. What is new is how predominant they are, especially in the last 10 years.   When I started working for ELAW in 1991, serious conflicts existed, but ‘environmental’ discussions were not center stage as they are now.   People are now concerned about how extractive industries might damage the environment, their health, and their way of life.

Workshop with regional authorities of Loreto

While in Peru, I visited Iquitos and gave a presentation organized by DAR (Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) and the Regional Government of Loreto to regional authorities about environmental impact assessments (EIAs).  Despite the scorching 100°F heat, officers from numerous public agencies and NGOs attended the presentation and subsequent Q&A session.   Time flew!  Without noticing we had a non-stop, three hour session!

The audience agreed that an adequate EIA process including public consultation and participation would help reduce social-environmental conflicts.  I was surprised at how much information representatives of public agencies need and impressed by their willingness to learn and improve their technical capacity, especially in measuring environmental quality and monitoring extractive industries and infrastructure projects.

Despite the interest of local communities to solve environmental conflicts, there are issues regarding environmental quality (especially water quality, hydrology, toxicology and environmental management) that neither local communities nor public agencies have the capacity to address.

Economic development in Peru and other developing countries that depend on extractive industries is quickly outpacing the capacity of local and regional public agencies to manage and address environmental concerns.    Local authorities and communities need help developing their capacities to participate in decision-making processes, strengthen and enforce environmental laws and policies, and improve natural resource management.

ELAW and local organizations such as DAR are helping mitigate this problem by working with citizen’s groups and training local public interest lawyers and authorities.

Meche Lu
Staff Scientist

ELAW is pleased to announce that we have created a new electronic resource for advocates working to enforce, protect, and defend environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws!

Environmental impact assessment is an important tool for evaluating and disclosing the anticipated environmental effects of proposed projects, such as hydroelectric dams, mining, or oil and gas drilling.  EIA laws promote transparency and public participation, by providing opportunities for members of the public to learn about projects that may affect their communities and to express their support or concerns to decisionmakers.  A vast majority of countries have laws requiring EIA.  These laws are, at times, poorly implemented.  Elsewhere, EIA laws have come under legislative attack in countries where powerful private interests are exerting pressure on government officials to fast-track unsustainable and destructive development projects without public input.  In the last six months alone ELAW’s legal team has helped partners in Cambodia, Mongolia, Jamaica, Panama, and Pakistan with efforts to strengthen and improve the EIA process in those countries.  ELAW’s science team has reviewed and critiqued scores of EIA documents, deciphering complex proposals and uncovering critical flaws.

ELAW’s new resource, called “ELM” (EIA Law Matrix), provides access to EIA laws and regulations from countries around the world.  Over ELAW’s 20-year history, we have fielded many questions about EIA and have assisted partners seeking to defend EIA laws.  Our goal in creating ELM was to develop a tool that will help our partners answer questions, see global and regional EIA trends, and identify laws that contain model language.

Building ELM has been a collective effort on the part of ELAW’s partners who have contributed information from their home countries, law student interns, and our information technology team.  The database is steadily growing and we are on track to include laws from 50 countries by the end of 2012.  We thank everyone who has helped us launch this groundbreaking resource!

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

The Mekong Region in Southeast Asia is seeing an unprecedented boom in hydropower development to support the emerging economies in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Laos alone, government officials are planning and rapidly moving forward with large-scale dam projects to provide electricity for export to neighboring Thailand.

Not only do large-scale dams cause significant social and ecological impacts, but these projects also require lengthy transmission lines to carry electricity through the region. One such corridor runs through the Udon Thani province in northeastern Thailand. Several years ago, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) proposed two 500-kV transmission lines to carry power from the Lao border to a substation within Thailand.

Although Thailand’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to access information and participate in decisions that affect them, the government of Thailand approved the transmission line projects without the benefit of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and without consulting local communities. The project has generated considerable concern among local communities, where families grow rice and fruit for sustenance and income. Many people were unaware of the project until EGAT announced the final transmission line route.

Advocates at EnLAW in Thailand, a public-interest environmental law NGO and ELAW partner, are assisting community members who live and maintain farms in the path of the transmission lines. The electricity being generated in Laos and brought to Thailand is not destined for these rural communities, but for urban dwellers and large-scale development projects — like a nearby potash mine. Some families have refused to sell their land to EGAT because the company was not offering a fair price. Others do not want to leave land that has been in their family for generations and are concerned about farming directly beneath powerful electricity transmission lines.

On May 25th, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission issued a resolution asking EGAT to pause construction to allow time to negotiate with affected landowners to reach an agreement over the fair value of their land. The Commission criticized EGAT for demolishing homes without prior permission and expressed concern that EGAT’s activities were inciting violence and conflict with landowners. EGAT ignored the resolution and, just a few days later, attempted to enter onto one family’s land with heavy machinery and equipment to begin constructing a transmission line tower in the family’s rice paddy. Over a dozen people, including the landowners and a group of visiting university students, gathered to block EGAT. Regrettably, EGAT called in local police to forcibly remove the peaceful protesters and many were arrested. EnLAW attorney Montana Daungprapa was visiting the community at the time and witnessed the violence committed against people who simply want to protect their land and livelihoods, and receive fair compensation for their land rights.

Montana and her colleagues at EnLAW are assisting these individuals with their defense and with efforts to help those who are being impacted by the transmission line project gain fair compensation. The National Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate the situation. EnLAW’s persistence in this case is providing justice to landowners. Their work is critical to promoting greater accountability and transparency on the part of the Thai government and to protecting the rights of rural and impoverished citizens.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

Lately, it seems like every time I flip on the news I am overwhelmed and saddened by horrific acts of violence and unfortunate catastrophes that are claiming lives and devastating communities. The tragedy in Japan is heartbreaking, and as the news unfolds, the situation for the people of Japan seems to get worse and worse. Like me, much of the world sits watching in disbelief at the  earthquake, tsunami, one-two punch.  Indeed, damage at the Fukushima nuclear facility has moved the debate about nuclear power front and center.

ELAW has always been an outspoken about the risks of nuclear energy. The costs are far too high and the problems with waste storage and disposal have not been addressed.

ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik has analyzed nearly a dozen Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for proposed nuclear power facilities around the world. Mark shares his thoughts on what we can learn from Fukushima in a Guest Viewpoint in today’s Register-Guard.

The following is an excerpt:

“The first lesson is that nuclear power plants located in coastal areas are vulnerable to tsunamis.  Although a powerful earthquake shook the Fukushima facility, a tsunami knocked out the emergency generators that ran pumps that cooled the reactors.  Without sufficient cooling, the reactors overheated, causing the buildup of steam and hydrogen gas, resulting in explosions and release of radioactivity.

The second lesson is that on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel poses a separate and perhaps greater risk than nuclear fuel in the reactor core itself.

Because Japan, like many countries (including the U.S.), lacks facilities for the long-term storage of nuclear waste, spent nuclear fuel rods are stored on-site in pools of water.  Spent fuel rods pose a serious risk because they are not stored inside the thick concrete containment vessel that surrounds nuclear reactor cores, and because spent fuel rods contain a more toxic mixture of radioisotopes (cesium-137, strontium-90, and iodine-131) than new nuclear fuel.  Spent nuclear fuel rods require continuous cooling just like new fuel rods in the reactor core.  If spent fuel rods experience excessive heating and crack open, toxic radioisotopes are released directly into the environment because there is no containment structure around them.

“At [ELAW] we are insuring that lessons from Fukushima are shared across borders….  We inform our partners that new nuclear power plants may be poor investments compared to improvements in energy conservation and renewable energy sources.”

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

Asunta Santillan (back left) and Maria del Rosario Sevillano (lower right), lawyers from DAR, and the indigenous leaders working together at the workshop in April 2010

Last week I did something I would not have thought possible just a few years ago:  connect via live audio conference from my office in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest to the indigenous people of Pucallpa, in the hot and humid Amazon rainforest of Peru (my home country).

Approximately 20 indigenous leaders from the Ucayali River basin (members of  ORAU, a regional branch of the nation-wide Amazon indigenous organization AIDESEP) were ready with numerous questions about the two latest environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies.  These studies were released for public review and are about oil exploration in Blocks 114 and 126 in the Peruvian Amazon.

The studies describe seismic prospecting and drilling of exploratory wells in the Ucayali River basin.  Neither of the studies has detailed management plans for the drilling wastes.  These activities might contaminate soil and freshwater with substances hazardous  to wildlife and people.

Not only is it difficult for the indigenous communities to get hard copies, but these studies are also hundreds of pages long, with complicated, technical jargon… understanding them can be very challenging!

ELAW and Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR) are working together to help review these studies and interpret what they say (and what they don’t say) in plain language so people can participate in an informed manner in the public discussions.

But there are other hurdles.  During our interactive audio meeting, a storm caused blackouts that affected  communication.  Thanks to Charito Sevillano, a lawyer with DAR, we were able to sort out a last-minute solution to the problem and I was able to continue the conversation with the indigenous leaders.  We were so happy to hear each other’s voices again!

In April, I went to Pucallpa to meet with these leaders, learn about their concerns, and exchange information.  The Yine, Piro, Shipibo and Ashaninka ethnic groups live in the buffer zone of the Cordillera Azul National Park, now divided into oil concessions.  They are asking for help seeking environmental justice and are demanding that authorities acknowledge their concerns.  We will continue to do our best to help them overcome the huge challenges they face.

Meche Lu
ELAW Environmental Research Scientist

ELAW is excited announce that we have finished translating our recently published Guidebook for Evaluating Mining Project EIAs into French. The Guidebook is also available in English and Spanish. Download a copy from our website.

Most countries require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before giving the green light to a mining project. EIA processes provide a valuable opportunity for citizens to participate in decisions about mines. The problem is, project proponents often submit long, complex EIA documents that are incomprehensible to lay people.

We hope Guidebook for Evaluating Mining Project EIAs will help grassroots advocates and communities understand mining EIAs, identify flaws in mining project plans, convince decision-makers to reject ill-conceived mining projects, and explore ways that proposed mining projects could be made socially and environmentally acceptable.

The Guidebook was produced in 2010 by a team of experts at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), including ELAW Board Chair Dr. Glenn Miller, Director of the Graduate Program in Environmental Sciences and Health at the University of Nevada at Reno.

ELAW has helped partners around the world evaluate dozens of EIAs for proposed mining projects. The Guidebook consolidates what we have learned and points to many critical resources for communities seeking to make their voices heard about proposed mining projects.

A team at ELAW has worked together for months to publish what we hope will be an extremely useful tool:  Guidebook for Evaluating Mining Project EIAs.

Most countries require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before giving the green light to a mining project.  EIA processes provide a valuable opportunity for citizens to participate in decisions about mines.   However, project proponents often submit long, complex EIA documents that are incomprehensible to lay people.

Our scientists, Mark Chernaik and Meche Lu, have been helping our partners evaluate EIAs for years.  Along with ELAW Staff Attorneys, Jen Gleason and Liz Mitchell, and a handful of experts in the field, including ELAW Board Chair Dr. Glenn Miller, they have published a Guidebook that will help people more easily evaluate EIAs and protect the environment and public health from irresponsible mining operations.

Find the PDF, in English and Spanish, on our website.

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