Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 4/12/02 - ©2002

There's a marvelous little song that has been running through my head this week. It puts into playful verse one of the core principles of environmental awareness:

There's no such place as Away, away,
There's no such place as Away.
You can dump it, you can burn it,
        you can sink it in the bay,
But there's no such place as away.
Songwriter Joyce Rouse wove that, and two other verses, into a round that soaks its message deep into our spirits. This weekend, we'll be using her song at the Iliff School of Theology in the opening worship for a 2-day course on Environmental Justice.

Some sections of the seminary course will look carefully at biblical ethics and practical questions of how to engage congregations in environmental justice issues. Other parts of the seminar will experiential, as we do on-site case studies of two neighborhoods in Denver that know all too well that dangerous waste doesn't go away.

One of those communities is circled by toxic sites: an oil refinery; a highly-polluting power plant; a metal smelter that rained lead, arsenic and cadmium dust on the neighborhood for decades; chemical and industrial sites that ooze contamination into the ground and water. The community is in, or adjoins, three federal Superfund sites that have been identified as high-risk and high priority for clean-up efforts.

The other neighborhood circles the location of a company that extracted radium from uranium ore. The ground and water are polluted with a mix of radioactive chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency decided that the best strategy to "clean up" the site was to mix the contaminated soil with concrete, and "entomb" it in the middle of an urban neighborhood -- a mound covering 4 city blocks. Hardworking community activists have won a reversal of that plan, and the soil (and concrete) will be moved out of the city -- "away" to a facility in Utah.

Environmental justice is concerned with the dispersion and disposal of all those nasty things that won't go away, that remain toxic and harmful. All too often, those wastes end up in the communities that don't have the political and financial resources to fight business and government. The waste dumps and contaminated sites usually are in neighborhoods that are predominantly non-white, and/or low-income. The costs, burdens and risks are disproportionately imposed on people of color, the poor, the marginalized. When my "away" is in someone else's yard, there is a serious ethical problem.

The issues are not just local or short-term. Two news stories this week -- both dealing with the storage of highly radioactive waste -- show the growing problems and awareness of things that won't go "away."

  • The Governor of Nevada has vetoed the federal proposal to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The site was recommended as the place to store spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors -- materials that will be toxic and radioactive for 250,000 years. The proposed storage facility is supposed to safeguard the waste for "only" 20,000 years. Congress may vote to override his veto.

  • The Governor of South Carolina has vowed to block the shipment of plutonium into his state (from Colorado's closed nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, among other places). He has pledged to lie in the highway in front of any trucks carrying the high-level waste, unless there are guarantees that the plutonium will soon be moved back out of his state.
Radioactive waste. Contamination from heavy metals, oil products, coal-fired power plants, and a toxic brew of industrial chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides spread across vast reaches of lawns and fields. These dangerous substances may get moved around -- by natural or by human processes -- but they don't go away.

Environmental justice principles call on us to see that the costs and risks of managing these wastes are fairly distributed. Both ethics and compassion demand that we address these matters of justice. But the larger lesson calls us to realize that these sorts of wastes do hang around. When we really learn that "there's no such place as Away," we'll begin to know that we must stop producing the toxins and pollutants in the first place.

Our churches are effective and essential places for conveying the message that "there's no such place as away," and for pursing justice as we deal with the wastes that already exist all around us. May we be passionate and creative in going about that work.

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Learning that "there's no such place as away" takes more than a textbook. It is a learning that has to be driven home in powerful and dramatic ways.

Music has a unique power to touch our minds and our spirits. "Away" composer Joyce Rouse ( has written many wonderful songs that join a religious perspective and an environmental commitment. She has worked closely with Eco-Justice Ministries in our ongoing project to tap into the transformative power of the arts. We're looking for more songs and composers with an eco-justice message that is appropriate for churches. We invite you to send us your suggestions and references.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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