Confronting Electric Racism

Lea Foushee
Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM)

Hazardous waste, garbage incinerators and dumps have routinely been located on reservations and in communities of Color. Indigenous Peoples have experienced environmental racism for more than 500 years. Today, nuclear racism has become a most pernicious form of environmental racism. The nuclear industry, both military and civilian, couldn’ survive without institutionalized racism. Every link in the nuclear chain, from uranium mining and milling, to fuel fabrication and nuclear waste storage, is disproportionately harmful to the health and well being of Indigenous Peoples and People of Color.

Environmental racism was not noticed by mainstream environmentalists who in some instances found themselves at odds with Indigenous Peoples and People of Color targeted by toxic wastes. Rather, in 1982 the United Church of Christ’s Commission (UCC) on Racial Justice began challenging environmental racism. UCC Commission’s landmark 1987 report, Toxic Waste and Race, documented that 60% of all African American and Chicano/Latino (Hispanic) Communities, and 50% of all Native American and Asian American Communities in the US live near toxic waste sites.

The Environmental Justice Movement coalesced in 1991 and drafted the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. The First Principle of Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This principle differentiates between those who pollute and despoil Mother Earth for profit and personal gain, and Indigenous Peoples, and other peoples who strive to adhere to the sacredness of Mother Earth. These Environmental Justice Principles provide a framework to change institutionalized racism within our communities, businesses and our government.

President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice in 1994. Federal agencies were directed to identify and address disproportionately high toxic exposure and adverse health and environmental impacts of federal programs, policies, and activities, on Indigenous Peoples, People of Color and low income populations. EO12898 directs decision-making proceedings to meaningfully include the most affected stakeholders for projects that will directly impact their communities.
An example of nuclear racism is provided by historical and current activities of Northern States Power Company (NSP now Xcel Energy). They built its Prairie Island nuclear reactors on the ancestral burial grounds of the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota. Prior to construction, local newspapers advertised archeological bone digs of these ancestors. NSP concealed the truth from the Prairie Island Community about what kind of power plant they intended to construct, saying simply that it was to be a steam plant, inferring coal as the fuel, not uranium. Presently, high-level nuclear waste is stored outside the plant, in steel casks; just a stones throw from the Prairie Island Community.

There are many examples of nuclear and electric racism. Yucca Mountain is the only site being developed for a permanent high-level nuclear waste dump, and is within the territory of the Western Shoshone Nation under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Xcel Energy purchases cheap hydro power from Manitoba Hydro, which flooded five Cree Nations in Northern Manitoba. Uncontrolled mercury emissions from coal fired power plants contaminate our waters and our fish on a global level. Traditionally, fish are the protein source for survival, not sport for many Indigenous Peoples and other people who rely on subsistence. The production of electricity from a relatively few large power plants, whether nuclear, coal or hydro, causes much of the environmental destruction and injustice to Indigenous Peoples and People of Color. Society’s commitment to these plants prevents us from progressing to community-based renewable energy and conservation to meet our energy needs.

Minnesotans waste over half of all the electricity they consume, according to a state government study Energy Minnesota’s Options for the 1990s, the State Energy Policy and Conservation Report to the Legislature. Though written in 1988 the study still applies to today. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, estimates that simple conservation practices could save 71% of total electrical consumption and 92% of the electricity used for lighting. Once we stop wasting so much power, renewable energy resources can meet our energy needs. We can do this by economically rewarding energy efficiency rather than energy consumption. When we get efficient, destructive central station nuclear, coal, and big hydro power plants can be replaced with modern technologies including wind turbines, a variety of bio-fuels, solar technologies, hydrogen fuel cells and other innovations. We can transition to these technologies by using natural gas and co-generation to bridge the gap. Modern technologies, applied in combination, based on available resources, can meet the needs of those residing in the region.

We can all be Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota. We must stop wasting our children’s future, because we’re running out of time. We must confront environmental and electric racism, and all other forms of racism and the destruction of our sacred Mother Earth.

What are You Going to Do?

1. Stop wasting electricity. Have an energy audit performed on your house.
2. Educate yourself about energy efficiency and the modern technologies. Write a letter to the editor about what you learn.
3. Advocate for community based ownership of renewable energy development.
4. Call your Legislators, the Governor and the Public Utilities Commissioners (PUC). Tell them we need an energy transition now, no more coal, no more nukes, no big hydro. Xcel Energy is asking the Public Utilities Commission to approve a dry-cask storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at its Monticello Generating Plant. This would allow 20 more years of nuclear waste production!
5. Support community groups and get involved.

Read Up

Dumping on Dixie, by Dr. Robert Bullard, Westview Press 2000.

Soft Energy Path: Towards a Durable Peace by Amory B. Lovins, Harpercollins 1979.

Act Locally
Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM)
Minneapolis, MN

Indigenous Environmental Network
PO BOX 485, Bemidiji, MN

Electric Racism

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