Conservation Cause: Environmental Justice


A company plans to recycle imported nuclear waste and dump the leftovers close to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, pictured above.

By J. C. Stevens

When I wrote my Dragon Lad novels, Nature was near and dear to my heart. While all of the books show my love of the environment, I didn’t set out to deal specifically with environmental justice issues. Yet now that I've finished the trilogy, I realize I did, in a sideways sort of way.

In Tale of the Talisman, my hero Dorg/Dirk battles a sorcerer whose spell turns people into lead statues. Alhough there's no spell like that in real life, lead poisoning is a serious medical and environmental concern for people as well as wildlife. In humans, high amounts of lead in drinking water can affect both the brain and the body, especially in kids, and often the people who are affected live in low-income neighborhoods with old plumbing. The U.S. city of Flint, Michigan, and the Canadian city of Montreal are two cities dealing with lead in their water.

Pollution from industrial processes and automobile traffic plagues low-income communities across North America, especially African American, Latino and indigenous communities. For many years, automobile manufacturing fouled the St. Lawrence River bordering the U.S. and Canada, requiring a long-term cleanup of toxic soil and groundwater in a Mohawk community nearby. According to my late father, we had First Nations ancestors living along the river, so I empathize. My unknown First Nations ancestors are one reason why I included indigenous people of no particular tribe in the final book of my trilogy, Wand of the Black Sphere.

While my fictional people lived in harmony with Nature, it isn't that easy for real indigenous people. Native Americans living around the Grand Canyon cope with toxic air, water and soil as the result of decades of uranium mining in the western United States. Uranium is used in nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, and too much exposure is lethal.

It's a continuing struggle for these communities to keep their people safe. Ute people, for instance, have protested the White Mesa uranium mill’s impact on their community in southern Utah for years. Instead of listening to them, the state of Utah recently allowed the mining company that operates the mill to import radioactive waste from overseas for recycling and disposal. Only a tiny portion of the waste is recyclable. The rest will be dumped close to Bears Ears National Monument, a place sacred to Ute, Navajo, Hopi and Zuni people because their ancestors walked there. The Grand Canyon Trust and other environmental groups have joined them in fighting the state's decision as well as a new proposal to dump radioactive waste from the cleanup of other indigenous communities there.

In Wand of the Black Sphere, a sorceress and her minions wreck part of a forest, and a dragon makes matters worse by causing an oil slick. A wizard and a band of fairies get stuck cleaning up after them. Does this sound familiar? If only there really were magical beings to help us clean up our real-life messes!

Fortunately, there are talented humans willing to tackle dirty jobs. For example, the Los Angeles River. This heavily polluted river was turned into a hideously ugly concrete channel in the early 20th century, but it’s being transformed back into a green space. Local officials and citizens are working on a continuous 51-mile river path stretching from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. When completed, it will be a breath of fresh air for Angelenos of all income levels.

Some force beyond my knowing prompted me to create fictional plots that touched on real-life environmental concerns. Perhaps it was Mother Earth herself. I think she has a message for all of us right now: If we tend to her health, we can heal a lot of suffering humans as well.

Author's note: This article was first posted in October 2020. In October 2021, the federal government restored Bears Ears National Monument's original boundaries. In addition, a bill to permanently ban mining on public lands around the Grand Canyon has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits action in the Senate.


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