Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Commitment or Convenience?
distributed 10/17/08 - ©2008

This week's Eco-Justice Notes was first distributed on December 13, 2002. It was sent again on October 17, 2008, in memory of the Rev. Deborah Spaar Sanchez.

Deb is not named below, but this Notes was a commentary on her incredible leadership in neighborhood environmental activism. Deb served on the Board of Directors of Eco-Justice Ministries until her death on October 5, 2008. We give thanks for her life of persistent, compassionate and effective witness.

Jesus said: "There was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" (Luke 18:2-5)

Some modern citizens have done a good job of mirroring that persistent biblical woman.

For well over a decade, residents of a Denver neighborhood have been persistent in demanding justice from the Environmental Protection Agency. Last Saturday, the EPA played host at a ceremony acknowledging the victory of the community activists.

The conflict was over the cleanup plan for the Shattuck Superfund site, which is contaminated with radioactive waste. In 1992, after years of debate, the EPA decided that the best strategy to "clean up" the problem was to mix the contaminated soil with concrete, and "entomb" it on site in the middle of an urban neighborhood.

The neighborhood residents refused to accept the EPA's plan, even as the waste was being shaped into a rock-covered, 15 foot high "monolith" covering 6 acres. They have spent the last decade organizing, lobbying, and pestering officials at all levels of government in their efforts to reclaim their neighborhood and get the waste removed.

Saturday's celebration lifted up the hard work of the residents in overturning the former EPA plan. Next month, the first trainload of waste will leave the Shattuck site. Over the next year and a half, all of the radioactive waste will be shipped to a licensed dump facility in Utah. (The site clean-up was completed in November, 2007.)

There were teenagers present at Saturday's event who were raised under the tables of the neighborhood meetings -- meetings held weekly, year in and year out, to strategize and educate. The meetings were generally held at the local Methodist church, whose staff and members were active participants in the ongoing struggle.

Gradually, and sometimes reluctantly, elected officials and bureaucrats became supporters of the neighborhood effort. A US Senator, the district's US Representative, the EPA's Ombudsman (who resigned from his job over this issue), the state Department of Public Health, Denver's mayor and members of the Denver City Council all weighed in on behalf of the neighborhood -- eventually. Many of those leaders were at the celebration Saturday, to document their own role in the reversal of the EPA decision. But all of them pointed back to the committed public participation, and the years of grassroots organizing and lobbying that went into this decision.

The US Representative commented that she had never seen a better example of determined and effective citizen activism. Another speaker affirmed the citizen's efforts, but also pointed out that it took 10 years of hard, persistent work, tapping into many layers of political power, to solve the problem of a relatively small contaminated site.

If that's what it takes to clean up 6 acres, what sort of persistent pressure will it take to bring about really large-scale change?

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I'm struck by the contrast between the long struggle of the Shattuck community, and the current trend toward instant activism.

I'm sure you have encountered many examples of this quick and painless form of political participation. Just reply to an e-mail, or click once at a website, and a carefully crafted message is sent in your name to members of congress, the official record of a public hearing, or targeted business leaders. For the truly committed, there's even the opportunity to edit the stock message and include a personalized word or two.

The strategy can generate an impressive public response. For example, in the last year, hundreds of thousands of e-mails were sent to the US Interior Department -- 80% of them urging that snowmobiles be banned from Yellowstone National Park.

But, it has been just as easy for government officials to ignore those letters as it has been for the wired activists to send them. A 1987 court decision gave officials permission to ignore mass mailings -- pre-printed postcards back in those days before the Internet, and now primarily standardized e-mails and faxes. To count in the public record, the letters and faxes should be "original" and not the product of an orchestrated campaign. By discounting or ignoring "form letters," the Interior Department was able to reaffirm its policy of widespread snowmobile access in Yellowstone.

The electronic activism is quick and convenient. It does give some measure of public support, and can be a good starting point for deeper involvement. But cookie-cutter e-mails will do little -- personally or legally -- to sway entrenched policymakers "who neither fear God nor respect people."

Real social change will only come through persistent, committed and long-term action. Our congregations can play an important role by providing support to the work of local activists, and by encouraging our members to engage in ongoing, committed action on behalf of local and global communities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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