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Ana Lucía Maya Aguierre at the Oregon Coast

Ana Lucía at the Oregon Coast

Last week, ELAW Fellow Ana Lucía Maya Aguirre returned home to Bogotá, Colombia after nearly six months of studying English at the American English Institute (AEI) and collaborating with ELAW in Eugene. During her Fellowship, Ana focused on strengthening the Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad (Association for Environment and Society), a newly formed organization of which Ana is a member.

Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad has four programs:

1. Climate Change, human rights and poverty
2. Citizenship, access to information, and participation
3. Biological and cultural diversity
4. Socio-environmental justice

Within these focus areas, the organization employs an array of strategies: providing legal support and trainings for communities working to protect their right to a healthy environment; researching policies and regulations; and working with ELAW and other international networks to create a broader, collective impact within Colombia and across borders.

During her Fellowship, Ana worked with ELAW staff to develop a strategic plan for Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, exchange information about climate change and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and potential for future projects in Colombia, learn more about funding opportunities, and formulate research questions for a report on mining cases in Latin America.

ELAW volunteers helped Ana study English, conduct research for the mining report,  design a brochure, and translate the website for Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad.

ELAW is eager to collaborate with Ana and her colleagues at Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad to help realize their vision of a culture that understands the interdependence of humans and the environment, promotes environmental defense and human and environmental rights, and improves environmental governance and effective participation of civil society in environmental matters.

A huge thank you goes to all of the volunteers who helped make Ana’s Fellowship a success and to AEI for its generous support of ELAW Fellows. Find more information about ELAW’s Fellowship Program here.

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant

[español a continuación]

Late last week, April 12th, El Salvador’s legislative assembly approved Legislative Decree No. 1045 which creates the Environmental Tribunals of El Salvador by amending the Law of the Environment. Out of 84 possible votes, 75 votes were in favor of creating the tribunals.

The Law of the Environment, adopted in 1998, has included provisions promising the creation of agro-environmental tribunals, but tribunals with this combined jurisdiction over agricultural and environmental issues were never created.  The environmental tribunals will hear civil cases related to environmental damages caused by individuals or the government, and will include appeals to appeals courts in San Salvador and two other cities and trial courts in other parts of the country.

The law gives judges broad powers to enact preliminary injunctions on its own initiative (including partial or total suspension) in cases where there is a risk of damage to the environment, without requiring a security bond from the affected communities.  The law also determines that the burden of proof lies with the defendant. This is a very important point because proving causation of environmental damage is complex, requiring technical studies beyond the reach of many communities. The need for complex studies has impeded the efforts to hold someone responsible for damage, despite the clear existence of the damage. Under the rules of the new tribunals, the alleged polluters will have to demonstrate that their actions are not harming the environment.

ELAW partner Luis Francisco

ELAW partner Luis Francisco López Guzmán has worked hard promoting this law with other members of the environmental movement in El Salvador, and has worked with the Congress to consolidate various drafts and opinions. Congratulations to Luis Francisco on his hard work to achieve better access to environmental justice in El Salvador!

Luis Francisco informs us that the next steps will be ratification of the law by the President, publication of the law, and then incorporation of needed modifications to the judicial law to incorporate the tribunals into the structure of El Salvador’s courts. We will continue to support Luis Francisco in these efforts.

Again, my congratulations to our partner, Luis Francisco!

Pedro Leon Gutierrez
Guadalajara, Mexico
Attorney on contract with ELAW

Nuevas Cortes Ambientales en El Salvador!

La semana pasada, 12 de abril, la Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador aprobó Decreto Legislativo No 1045 que crea los Tribunales Ambientales en El Salvador con modificaciones a la Ley del Medio Ambiente. El voto de la asamblea fue de 75 votos a favor de 84 votos posibles.

La Ley del Medio Ambiente, creada en 1998, contenía disposiciones que prometían la creación de tribunales agro-ambientales, uniendo dos jurisdicciones la agraria y la ambiental, pero estos tribunales no se han creado. Los tribunales ambientales escucharán demandas civiles por daños ambientales causados por actos de particulares y del gobierno, y tendrán un proceso de doble instancia con Cortes de Apelación en San Salvador y otras dos ciudades y Cortes de primera Instancia en distintas partes del país.

La ley otorga amplias facultades a los jueces para decretar medidas preventivas, suspensiones parciales o totales, en casos de que existan riesgos de afectación al medio ambiente de oficio, y sin necesidad de garantía por parte de las comunidades afectadas. La ley también contempla que la carga probatoria en el proceso recaerá sobre la parte demandada. Esto es un punto muy importante ya que la comprobación de la causalidad de daños ambientales es un tema complejo, que requiere estudios técnicos fuera del alcance de muchas comunidades y que ha impedido el reconocimiento de esta responsabilidad a pesar de la existencia clara de un daño. Bajo las reglas de los nuevos tribunales serán los presuntos contaminadores los que tendrán que demostrar que sus acciones no están dañando el medio ambiente.

ELAW socio Luis Francisco López Guzmán ha trabajado duramente en el impulso de esta ley, junto con diversos actores del movimiento ambientalista de El Salvador, y posteriormente directamente en el Congreso para la consolidación de distintas opiniones en el tema. Felicitamos a Luis Francisco en este gran logro en la búsqueda de un mayor acceso a justicia ambiental en El Salvador!

Luis Francisco nos informa que los siguientes pasos será la ratificación del Presidente de la ley, su publicación y posteriormente la realización de modificaciones a la Ley Orgánica Judicial para la incorporación de estos Tribunales en la estructura orgánica del país. Nosotros continuaremos apoyando a Luis Francisco en estos esfuerzos.

Solo me queda felicitar de nueva cuenta a nuestro socio Luis Francisco !!

Pedro Leon Gutierrez
Guadalajara, Mexico
Attorney on contract with ELAW

Last week, I traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador for Uniendo Esfuerzos Centroamericanos: el Enlace entre Género, Pobreza, y el Medioambiente (Uniting Central American Efforts: The Link between Gender, Poverty, and the Environment).  This Central American regional conference brought together ELAW partners and other grassroots advocates from a wide range of civil society groups who are working in their home countries to promote social and environmental justice.

Opening night featured presentations that set the stage for rest of the conference in which climate change and its relationship to food security, access to water and other human rights, and the impacts on women and vulnerable populations were discussed in detail.  The opening event included a speech by Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, who, along with Salvador Nieto (the Ministry’s Legal Advisor) were part of the delegation representing El Salvador at the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa last year.  Nieto spoke later in the week about El Salvador’s experience at the negotiations and described the “Fossil of the Day” prize, which was awarded by Climate Action Network International to whichever country most inhibited progress during the day’s negotiations.  Unsurprisingly, the U.S.  frequently won “Fossil of the Day” and was in fact awarded the Grand Poobah for slowing progress: “The Colossal Fossil.”

At least we shared the prize with Canada.

While it is important that government officials create opportunities for international dialogue, it will take a strong voice

Sign near the former Baterias Record Factory where ELAW partners Luis Francisco López Guzmán and Victor Hugo Mata Tobar are working for justice in this community which is affected by lead poisoning from the factory and the contaminated water in the nearby Rio Sucio. The sign reads: ""In this place, there are 33,000 tons of toxic materials. Therefore, we demand justice and punishment of the owners, former officials, and accomplices to the Record Factory. Communities of the Movement without Lead." (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

from citizens, along with mitigation and adaptation at the local level, to come up with anything resembling a solution to climate change.  With “Colossal Fossils” in power, grassroots efforts and actions are more valuable than ever.

The San Salvador meeting was an inspiration.  We had the opportunity to bring a human element to our collaboration and increase our awareness and understanding of the challenges facing us as global and regional communities.  Despite leaps in technology, meeting face-to-face simply cannot be recreated via the Internet.

However, the real work continues when we return to our own communities, the places where we experience the impacts of our efforts.  Here in Oregon we have been lucky to have escaped severe weather events on the scale faced by El Salvador.  Just last year, Tropical Depression 12E dumped almost 30 inches of rain on El Salvador in ten days, leaving 10% of the country flooded.  10%!  If 10% of the U.S.  was under water, would the U.S.  still be a “Colossal Fossil” in climate negotiations?

ELAW partners are bringing lessons from El Salvador back to our home communities- where we can make a difference, regardless of the sluggishness of intergovernmental negotiations.  One of these lessons is from Elena Caal Hub from the Red de mujeres jóvenes Q’eqchi’ (Q’eqchi’ Young Women’s Network) who spoke about her community and the impact of mining and other environmental abuses.  She challenged the term “environment,” saying that our planet is “la Madre Tierra, ” (Mother Earth.) La Madre Tierra is living and breathing and not an object or “environment” to be exploited.

Reflections from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright Seattle International Foundation 2012).

Ideas from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

Elena Caal Hub’s presentation was a turning point in the conference: it emphasized why we had gathered in El Salvador and it exposed the changes that need to be made in our collective consciousness to effectively combat climate change.  It is easy to take small steps to reduce our ecological footprints: eat local, use alternative transportation, reduce, reuse, recycle, etc.  However, the changes we need to make if we are going to live in a more just world go to the very root of how we view and interact with the planet and with one another.

The time has ended for focusing on differences between cultures, differences between our efforts, and differences between ourselves and our home, our mother, this planet.  Regardless of whether we call ourselves environmentalists, activists, feminists, or human rights advocates, todos somos seres humanos — we are all human beings.

Many thanks to the Seattle International Foundation for sponsoring this event and to local hosts Victor Mata Tobar (Instituto de Investigación y Promoción Ambiental), Luis Francisco López Guzmán (Firma Legal López Guzmán), and Carla Trillos de la Hoz (Fundación Nacional Para el Desarrollo, El Salvador).

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant

Ritwick Dutta

I am pleased to announce an enormous victory in India that will protect the public from excessive exposure to radiation!

Radiation in coal ash is a significant health hazard.  On Monday, India’s National Green Tribunal ordered the Ministry of the Environment to investigate the impacts of a coal-fired plant in Maharashtra District and put national standards in place within one year.  ELAW partner Ritwick Dutta argued the case on behalf of the local community and thanked ELAW for providing critical information.

Read more in our eBulletin.

Mara Hvistendahl at Scientific American reports that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste.

She writes:  “At issue is coal’s content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements.  They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or “whole,” coal that they aren’t a problem.  But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.”

ELAW has collaborated with Ritwick and his Delhi-based organization, the EIA Response and Resource Centre, for many years.

Congratulations to Ritwick for this hard fought win for the people of India!

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

“Being members of these coalitions, we act in solidarity with the other groups, who have similar philosophy, share information and knowledge and support each other in our local efforts.”

This excerpt is taken from one of my all time favorite books, David Pellow’s Resisting Global Toxics. It highlights the great power in forming transnational networks for communities working towards environmental justice. As Pellow shows, and as those working with the ELAW network know, sharing knowledge, resources, and legal tools are all parts of an effective response to environmental injustices around the world.

In his book, Pellow examines the global waste trade and the movement of toxic substances from one community to another.  It is a problem that has emerged in light of the production of new types of waste, namely that from technologies created post World War II. A recent example, the waste produced from computers, cell phones, and mp3 players, is one that we can all relate to, as we read this post using those very devices. What happens to our computers when we no longer use them? It is an answer shaped by a multitude of factors, which include both legal and economic systems. While many countries have passed legislation to ensure that e-waste is recycled in a safe and responsible manner, these laws can often be circumvented by finding countries with less stringent laws or enforcement. Because proper waste disposal can be expensive,  e-waste often ends up being forced on communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where it is unsafely disassembled and resold for spare parts or sits discarded in heaps of e-waste.

The danger of such a system, above and beyond the obvious ecological harm caused by polluting vast areas of land with waste, is that these technologies are often produced using highly toxic materials. This creates a public health problem because substances such as lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs) come to contaminate groundwater supplies and bio-accumulate in plants, animals, and microorganisms. As Pellow illustrates, the 315 million computers that were discarded between 1997 and 2004 contained more than 1.2 billion pounds of lead. When disposed of improperly, the humans exposed to lead suffer damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, the blood system, and kidneys.

What is an effective response to this extraordinarily unfair environmental burden? Groups around the world have mobilized to find safe ways to harvest materials from these devices for recycling, to push for production of electronics using safer materials, and to pass legislation to ensure that recycling facilities are properly situated and operated to have the smallest ecological impact possible. This type of work is much more easily done with the assistance of an international network of people who have experiences to share about passing legislation and enforcing laws, and who have scientific knowledge about these hazardous materials and their effects.

Pellow does an excellent job making visible the connections between technologies and their toxic waste, between those who use these technologies and those who bear the environmental burden, and between communities around the world experiencing similar situations despite vast differences.  It is our job to use those connections to aid our transnational response to the problem of e-waste. That’s what the ELAW network aims to do. It creates interpersonal connections that facilitate knowledge and resource sharing, which allow an effective response to the problem.

Ship-breaking in Bangladesh, PHOTO: ©Brendan Corr, http://www.brendancorrphotography.co.uk

The use of this network has already achieved great victories against global dumping of toxic substances.  By collaborating with ELAW partners working in their communities, we have effectively fought against ship breaking in Bangladesh and promoted the clean up of pesticide dumps in Nepal, Ukraine and South Africa. We look forward to using the ELAW network  for even more victories against the dumping of toxic substances in 2011.

For more information about e-waste check out our recent posts.

Michele Kuhnle
ELAW Donor Liaison

We are honored to have our partner Diana McCaulay of Jamaica Environment Trust share her thoughts on their great victory cleaning up the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant.  Diana worked for many years with ELAW attorneys and scientists on this challenge — and her hard work as finally paid off!  Congratulations to Diana and all the people at JET and in Jamaica who never gave up.

Entrance to the plant

Entrance to the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant

Crimes Against Nature

The Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant was one of the first places I saw, when I became interested in environmental issues back in the late 1980s. I have told this story so many times it feels like something I read. But it is my story. At the time I was working in the insurance industry and I applied for a day off – exchanged my suit and stockings for jeans and water boots – I had no idea what a sewage treatment plant might entail by way of terrain, but I was pretty sure there could be puddles. My escort, Dr. Homero Silva, on secondment to the Ministry of Health in Jamaica from the Pan American Health Organization and much more outspoken than anyone else at the time, took me to the Riverton City dump, and three of Kingston’s non functional sewage plants – Greenwich, Western and Harbour View. And I did need my water boots at Harbour View, because the sewage flowed everywhere, foamy and malodourous, carrying condoms and sanitary pad liners and untreated human excrement right into the sea.

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, who spends any time thinking about what happens when we flush a toilet, we just assume the engineers and contractors and regulators figure it out and we’re not directly responsible for polluting the sea, a river or the ground water several times a day. But there, in front of me on that stinking afternoon was the evidence that we couldn’t rely on engineers and contractors and government regulators. Then, I thought the problem was:  People didn’t know. After all, I hadn’t known. I would tell them.

And so I became a woman who was concerned about sewage plants and garbage dumps and eventually, I gave up my suits and stockings and went around Jamaica on my self-appointed mission of Telling People, initially with blown up photographs of the Harbour View sewage plant, Riverton City and denuded hillsides, then with a slide projector and a script, finally with a laptop and Power Point. I learned I was wrong about the problem – it was true people hadn’t known, but they preferred not to know. What could we do, after all? We just had to hope the engineers and the contractors and the government regulators would decide to do their work.

Fast forward to the late 1990s and the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) was an Actual Organization and I was its CEO, and we teamed up with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), and the MacArthur Foundation to start an environmental law programme in Jamaica.

By then, I was burned out to ash, and the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant was still putting its untreated sewage into the sea. Our first Legal Director, Akilah Anderson, started working with the community – there were long years of letter writing and meetings and attempts at mediation and engagement with the press, all utterly unsuccessful. In 2005 we asked the community – will you go to court with us?  They thought about it. And they said no. Folks were afraid – they or their families worked for the Jamaican government, they feared victimization, they didn’t trust the courts, and they knew it would take years.   By then, it had become The Way it Was – if you lived in Harbour View, you smelled sewage, you didn’t use the beach and if your kids disobeyed you and went into the sea, they got sick.

Water flowing near the plant

Why didn’t we file legal action alone? Because I felt part of the problem in Jamaica was the belief that someone else should solve our problems, if not those engineers and contractors and government regulators, then some other figure of authority.   So I said to everyone who asked us for help – we will stand with you, but not in front of you.   Thanks, they said, and hung up the phone.

We never gave up on Harbour View, and in 2006, our second  Legal Director, Danielle Andrade, met two people who lived in the community who were prepared to go to court – Carol Lawton and Michael Williams. Carol was incensed when a representative of the National Water Commission told him that the sewage on the beach was not his concern. Michael’s son got sick after swimming in the sea. And so we started the long process of putting together a legal case, the taking of statements, the writing of affidavits, the soliciting of expert testimony, the researching of precedents and arguments – oh so much photocopying and binding and tabulating and stamping and notarizing – the piles and piles of paper this issue generated!  We sought leave to apply for Judicial Review in the Supreme Court, and it was granted, and by then Danielle had taken a sabbatical from JET to do a Master’s in environmental law, and we contracted attorney Clyde Williams to finish the case with us.

Three weeks before our day in court, we were contacted by the National Water Commission (NWC), the owners and non operators of the plant – they asked if we could resolve the matter “without troubling the court.” And in the end we went to court with a consent agreement which required the NWC to fix the plant, with details and timelines, to report their progress to us, including tours of the works, and declarations from the court that the regulatory agencies – the Kingston and St. Andrew Health Department, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) had all failed to carry out their statutory duties.

On July 14th, 2010 I was part of a panel on “All Angles” on Television Jamaica (TVJ). Uncomfortably back in my suit (I hate doing TV), I watched the footage TVJ had taken – of the noxious sewage on the land and the curling surf right there, and even three children swimming in the sea. They interviewed one of the people who had moved onto the site and was living in those unspeakable conditions, she was so young, and she said, she needed materials for the place she would move to and she was sending this message straight to the Prime Minister. And I listened to the jacket-and-tie’d government people on the panel with me make their usual excuses and explanations for their thirty years of neglect, incompetence and willful abdication of their legal mandate.

Boniface church

Boniface Church

“Do you know what the most important thing a person needs in order to work for the Jamaican government?” I asked my colleagues in one of the breaks. “The ability to defend the indefensible,” I told them, not waiting for any expression of interest in my views. I wish I’d said it on air.

“What lesson do you take away from this?” the TV host, Dionne Jackson Miller asked me at the end of the programme.  “Go to court,” I said, trying to remember which camera I was supposed to look at. “It might take years, there are definitely risks, but in the end, that’s all that will bring the engineers and the contractors and the government regulators to the table.”

I haven’t done it yet, but before many days go by, I will go to the beach at Harbour View and look at the crime against nature and humanity that caused me to change my life course, and I hope I will have a moment of satisfaction, as I turn my back to the derelict sewage plant and look out to sea. And I’ll invite the Harbour View citizens, especially Carol and Michael, to come with me…

Diana McCaulay, Chief Executive Officer of Jamaica Environment Trust

(This blog entry was first published on the JET blog)

Layou River by Heather CC-Picassa

Layou River in Dominica by Heather CC-Picassa

We are very excited to hear that a court in Dominica has agreed to review a case challenging the government’s decision to allow an asphalt plant to be built in one of the most pristine valleys in Dominica, a beautiful island in the Caribbean. The proposed site is on the banks of the Layou River, an area designated by the Government itself for a major eco-tourism initiative, and less than a mile from the picturesque village of Layou which lies on the estuary of the river. This is a major milestone–it is the first time citizens in Dominica have filed a case to enforce the county’s environmental laws and prevent environmental abuses before they occur.

Two and a half years ago, ELAW Staff Attorney Liz Mitchell and I traveled to Dominica to help advance environmental law there.  We joined our partners from the Jamaica Environment Trust, Diana McCauley and Danielle Andrade, who are pioneering grassroots environmental law in the Caribbean.  We met Dominican attorney Bernard Wiltshire and held a community workshop to begin educating citizens about their power to protect the environment through law.  Citizens of Dominica—known as the Nature Island of the Caribbean—care deeply about the natural environment and we urged them to speak out to defend it.  The environment is too important to leave it to government—citizens must play a role in protecting it.

We are thrilled to learn that Bernard is now bringing this pioneering case to challenge an ill-conceived plan to build an asphalt plant in such a location. Lawyers and scientists from ELAW and JET are collaborating with Bernard on this case, which could yield many lasting benefits in Dominica and across the region.  This case could prevent the unlawful construction of an ill-conceived asphalt plant in an environmentally sensitive location; protect Dominica’s largest river—the Layou—from pollution; establish that citizens of Dominica can go to court to enforce environmental laws and their right to participate in planning decisions; and strengthen the rule of law in Dominica.

Even bringing this case marks a tremendous step forward and it will echo throughout the region.  Congratulations to Bernard Wiltshire and the citizens of the Nature Island!

Bern Johnson
Executive Director

Lignite Power Plant - wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

What a lignite power plant looks like (this one's in Germany)

Communities in Hungary are up in arms about a state-owned company that wants to build a 440-megawatt power plant near Visonta, close to a protected area. The power plant would be fueled by lignite, a soft brown fuel that falls somewhere between coal and peat.

A lignite mine, serving a smaller power plant at the same location, has already depleted groundwater supplies. An expanded mine to supply the new plant would only make things worse. On top of that, the current plant is already Hungary’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. The new plant would increase CO2 emissions by 2.5 million tons/year.

ELAW partners at the Environmental Management Law Association are working to shelve this bad project before it leaves the drawing board.  EMLA attorney Agnes Gajdics was in the U.S. earlier this year on an ELAW Fellowship. She worked with me and other ELAW staff to help strengthen her case against the power plant.

Agnes Gajdics of EMLA

Agnes Gajdics from EMLA

Agnes sends good news: Authorities have revoked permission to build the plant and have required a new environmental impact assessment!

This is good news for the climate and good news for communities, including the residents of Csinsce who live atop the lignite field that may need to be tapped to feed the proposed new power plant.

Congratulations to Agnes and everyone at EMLA for this inspiring win!

Mark Chernaik
Staff Scientist

Ashley White

Ashley White

We are excited to welcome Ashley White to the ELAW office for the summer.  She will be working with our lawyers and scientists for the next few months, helping on a variety of research projects.  Ashley was recently awarded an Oregon State Bar Public Honors Fellowship for her work with ELAW this summer.

I asked Ashley “Why did you want to spend your summer volunteering at ELAW?”and she responded with this eloquent description of why she is here and what she is doing:

I am a third year student at Willamette University College of Law, and am in the process of completing a certificate in International & Comparative Law. As a law student interested in contemporary global environmental issues, a summer legal internship with ELAW seemed like a perfect fit. I wanted to spend my summer further developing practical legal skills that I could apply in a future career, ideally for a public interest organization dedicated to international development, human rights, and environmental compliance. ELAW encompasses all of this, and more!

Within the first three weeks, I had the opportunity to complete research projects involving diverse environmental issues in Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Peru, and Taiwan.  Already, my internship with ELAW surpassed all of my expectations. It is such an enriching opportunity to assist a devoted network of advocates throughout the world whom are working together to achieve the same goal in advancing environmental responsibility.  I could not have asked for a more rewarding summer experience.

We are all thrilled to have Ashley here working with us.  She has agreed to write blog posts about her work this summer, so stay tuned!

Rita Radostitz                                                                                                                            Outreach Director

oil spill in Phillippines

2006 Guimaras Island, Philippines oil spill (PHOTO: Hazel P. Villa)

In today’s Eugene Register-Guard, ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik writes about the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the oil spill unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico:

As this catastrophe unfolds, it is important to ask: Could we have anticipated this?  Could we have taken more effective steps to prevent it?  What lessons can we learn?

Unfortunately, government regulators were negligent, and citizens missed their opportunity to voice objections to this oil drilling project. Regulators and citizens need to do a better job!

You can read the whole essay here:  Oil spill: Regulators and citizens missed their chance

The above photo shows the coast of Guimaras Island, Philippines, after a tragic 2006 oil spill.  So far, the oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion has not reached and despoiled beaches — but this is what we could be looking at all along the Gulf.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a profound tragedy and offers an opportunity to start taking better care of marine ecosystems.  We know that rigorous environmental analysis before projects are approved, with input from citizens, holds the best chance of preventing more disasters like the BP tragedy.  ELAW works with our partners around the world to do just that.  As Mark concludes his essay:

ELAW’s work demonstrates that the environmental impact assessment process can help avoid environmental disasters. By critiquing EIAs and identifying flaws in projects, we have helped partners halt plans for seismic oil exploration in a river in India that would have jeopardized endangered river dolphins, a poorly designed island resort development in Jamaica, and a risky nuclear power reactor in South Africa.

The United States pioneered the notion of assessing environmental impacts and identifying ways to reduce them before they occur. This common sense approach can help avoid disasters. But as the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill illustrates, the EIA process can protect us and the environment only when environmental agencies and citizens take their responsibilities seriously.

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