Led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a bipartisan group of senators and representatives today introduced bills in Congress to protect the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a designated wilderness area.
Earth Month Roundup 2017
The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was the catalyst that helped jumpstart the modern environmental movement, inspiring citizens around the world to demonstrate their commitment to a healthy and sustainable world. Earth Day is just one day, but there are opportunities to get involved all month long, thanks to EarthShare member charities and affiliates.
Nationwide & Online Opportunities:
Whether you need help organizing your own event or want to join an existing opportunity, Earth Day Network offers tools and resources for you to get involved with Earth Day in your community – or get your community involved in Earth Day. Find out how you can participate.
April 22’s March for Science is an international movement, led by organizers around the globe. There are marches being planned across the United States and internationally. Find one near you.
April 29’s People’s Climate Movement is also taking place in locations around the world. Find an event near you.
Visit the Nature Conservancy's Volunteer Calendar for a list of Earth Month activities by state.
Beach cleanups for all! Surfrider Foundation and its Chapters, Save Our Shores, and Heal the Bay are sponsoring cleanup sites around the country throughout April. Visit their sites for more info and find out if your favorite beach is on the list!
Show your love for America’s national park system throughout April with National Parks Conservation Association. From the Everglades to our nation’s capital, there’s a way for people everywhere to celebrate these special places. And don’t forget National Park Week – admission to our country’s many national parks is free from April 15-16 and April 22-23.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers lots of great resources for Earth Day activities you can join or start in your community.
San Diego's annual EarthFair in Balboa Park is the largest free annual environmental fair in the world, drawing around 60,000 visitors. This year it takes place on April 23.
On April 23, thousands will converge on the Mission to celebrate Earth Day San Francisco. The event will feature entertainment, speakers, workshops, green businesses, and more.
The March for Science kicks off on the National Mall on April 22 at 9 am with a teach-in and rally and end with a march through the streets of DC. Co-hosted with the Earth Day Network, the rally will be a call for politicians to implement science based policies, as well as a public celebration of science and the enormous public service it provides in our democracy, our economy, and in all our daily lives.
Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit from April 21-23 will celebrate conservation solutions with an unprecedented gathering of thought leaders, scientists, environmentalists, artists, civic leaders and international media.
Join the People’s Climate Movement march on April 29 in Washington, DC and across the country to stand up for our communities and climate. The People's Climate Movement is a project of over 50 organizations working together to solve the climate crisis and address the growing pollution of our air and water, while also ensuring the creation of good jobs in our communities.
Join Sarasota's Earth Day Celebration on April 22. Event includes a plant sale, music, food, guided walks, and more
Central Florida Earth Day is an exciting day of colorful and educational exhibits and activities! It will take place at beautiful Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando on April 22. Admission is free.
Join Illinois environmental organizations in Springfield for their Environmental Lobby Day on April 6.
Spend April 22 exploring Mary Mix McDonald Woods, a 100-acre rare remnant of the oak woodlands that were once common in northeastern Illinois. Sponsored by Chicago Botanic Garden.
EarthShare Georgia has engaging opportunities for businesses, individuals and communities in the Metro Atlanta area – there’s something here for everybody! Events range from a Corporate Green Day Challenge on April 1 to a Water Symposium and Career Expo on April 13.
Check out this calendar from Chesapeake Family Life for a list of Earth Month events throughout Maryland in April.
Visit the Framingham Earth Day Festival on April 29 to learn about ways to make sustainable choices all while having a great time with your friends and neighbors! Live music, kids activities, and yummy local food are included.
Join the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust throughout April and May for an environmental film series.
The West Michigan Environmental Action Council invites you to West Michigan’s signature Earth Day event, the Blue Tie Ball in Grand Rapids on April 20. This formal event will feature cocktails, dinner and an auction.
On April 22, a flotilla of small boats will ferry volunteers out to various islands to clean up the Lower Detroit River with Friends of the Detroit River.
St. Louis Earth Day organizes one of the largest Earth Day celebrations in the nation on April 22-23.
The Green Homes Festival on June 3 at the Missouri Botanical Garden presented by the EarthWays Center will be a fun, hands-on, day-long festival of learning, playing, and engaging in sustainability.
For a full list of Earth Month events happening in New Jersey, visit the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection website.
Don’t miss Earth Day New York’s events at Union Square in Manhattan on April 18 and an Earth Day 5k Walk and Green Tour on April 21.
Go Green at Durham’s Earth Day Festival on April 23. Participants will enjoy activities and demos; learn about many green practices and products at the Sustainability Expo and Earth Art Market; and enjoy great music, food and much more!
During the week of April 8-22 at projects across central Ohio, thousands of neighbors will pick-up shovels and hoes, grab garbage pickers and honeysuckle poppers, and put in the hard work needed to keep our communities clean and green.
Join the Bicycle Transportation Alliance on April 12 for a free “Rules of the Road” clinic for new and experienced bicyclists.
Creativity, imagination and joy will be on display during Olympia's Procession of the Species on April 28 and 29 as people of all ages take to the streets wearing costumes depicting Earth’s remarkable biodiversity.
Marion County's annual Earth Day event takes place on April 22 at The Oregon Garden in Silverton featuring exhibitors, entertainment, and activities for all ages.
Over the past 35 years, the Clean Air Council’s 5K Run for Clean Air has grown into Philadelphia’s largest Earth Day Celebration. Located on the beautiful banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, the Run is a celebration of sustainability, clean air, and improvements in the region’s environmental health. The run happens on April 9.
Earth Day Texas is an annual, outdoor festival in Dallas seeking to elevate environmental awareness and influence the way North Texans think, live and work. This year, it’s happening from April 21-23.
Celebrate Earth Month in Milwaukee with the Urban Ecology Center with events throughout April, including a day of service on April 23.
Photo: Kevin Gill/Flickr
Several years ago, the California meat entrepreneur Bill Niman began applying an extremely old idea to his ranch on the Northern California coast: He would treat beef as a seasonal delicacy, only slaughtering cows fattened while the grass is lush and green, from late spring to fall. As my colleague Maddie Oatman noted in a 2013 piece, the practice harkened back to a time before the rise of the modern corn-centered feedlot, which severed beef’s “tie to grass growth cycles,” Maddie wrote. When grass-based ranchers indulge the modern appetite for year-round beef by slaughtering hay-fattened cows in the winter, the meat is inferior in quality and taste, hurting grass-fed beef’s reputation, Niman argued.
Now, Niman is applying an up-to-the-minute idea to his old-school ranch: He has sold his operation to the meal-kit company Blue Apron. Niman will stay on as CEO of BN Ranch, now a subsidiary of Blue Apron.
The news stunned me. Blue Apron is a fast-growing company with $800 million in annual sales. Niman’s previous company, Niman Ranch, is a sizable producer—but Niman himself hasn’t been associated with it for years, and it’s now owned by chicken giant Perdue. “I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys as opposed to ranching guys,” Niman told Business Insider in 2015. “You can’t really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now].” I had thought Niman’s new company, called BN Ranch, was a tiny niche operation, more suited to supplying Northern California foodie temples like Chez Panisse than providing fodder for a galloping “unicorn” (Silicon Valley-speak for a startup valued at $1 billion or more) that delivers more than 8 million meals per month.
Turns out, I was wrong about the new Niman company’s size. In a phone conversation, Niman explained that he has spent the past several years quietly scaling up BN Ranch using the same method he used during the original Niman Ranch’s ’90s/early 2000s heyday: by banding together with other ranchers along the West Coast who share his devotion to grass and seasonality, marketing their meat under the BN Ranch brand. In order to provide year-round product while sticking to his fresh-grass principle, Niman also sources from pasture-based ranches in New Zealand, which has a “perfectly complementary season to ours,” he said. Niman calls it “following the global grass seasons.” Niman said the butchered beef travels to the United States via boat, aging while en route, which he characterized as an energy-efficient process.
Niman says BN Ranch started supplying Blue Apron two years ago, and now provides the meal-kit company with half its beef. The goal, he said, is to eventually provide 100 percent. Niman plans to continue growing the beef business, not by scaling up production at his own ranch, but by bringing in more farms both in the United States and in the southern hemisphere. Niman says he visits the farms in the network often, including the one in New Zealand.
I asked him how Blue Apron can possibly pay its rancher-suppliers an attractive price while also covering costs, much less turning a profit, given the company sells meals at a rate as low as $8.74 per eater, and a BN Ranch boneless rib eyes fetch $19.99 per pound retail. He said the relationship works for the meal-kit titan and for for ranchers, because Blue Apron buys the whole cow at a fair price, and “writes menus around every part of the animal.” For the rancher, that’s a great set-up, because it removes the burden of marketing—for every $20/pound steak sold, a rancher has to market several more pounds of less-fancy cuts. Blue Apron, for its part, gets access to top-quality beef at a much lower price point than it would get by buying individual cuts on the open market. And the variety of cuts works for a company that sends out as many as three recipes per week to millions of customers.
I left my conversation with Niman thinking the tie-up made sense. Yet I still have doubts about the meal-kit business model, which I aired here. In short, food businesses generally operate on razor-thin profit margins, and meal kits are no different. They don’t have the huge real estate expenses that restaurants do, but they face the pricey task of shipping millions of hand-packed boxes stuffed with small amounts of lavishly cosseted perishable goods across great distances. The price they charge customers may not sound cheap at first glance, but it seems punishingly so to me when you consider all those expenses. I wasn’t surprised last fall when workers at Blue Apron’s Richmond, California, packaging complained of tough conditions and low wages last fall. Nor was I shocked in December, when Blue Apron delayed its much anticipated initial public stick offering, because the company “has struggled to improve profit margins as much as management wanted in the face of more competition,” as Bloomberg reported.
Yet Blue Apron’s big move into the grass-fed beef business does suggest confidence about the future.
Like precious gem heists and exotic animal snatching, food crimes come with their fair share of high drama. The details of one seafood kingpin’s story are enough for an episode of The Sopranos: Federal agents disguised themselves as Russians and busted fisherman Carlos Rafael for a laundry list of crimes, including mislabeling his catch and selling thousands of pounds of fish under-the-table to a dealer in New York City.
For our latest episode of Bite, our food politics podcast, we talked to journalist Ben Goldfarb about his recent Mother Jones feature about this fish tycoon, known as “The Codfather.” The interview with Goldfarb begins at 1:24.
“The Codfather has always been kind of a notorious figure in New England,” says Goldfarb. “He has a reputation for being unscrupulous, he’s run into trouble with the law a few of times, and a lot of small fishermen feel he’s squeezing them out.” Rafael currently faces 24 counts of fraud and is due in court May 30th. He joins a long line of food criminals, including:
At $1,300 a barrel, maple syrup was about 26 times more valuable than crude oil last year. In what became known as the Great Maple Syrup Robbery, 540,000 gallons of syrup—worth roughly $13.4 million—were stolen from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers in 2012. According to prosecutors, writes Vanity Fair: “The gang would truck barrels out of the Reserve to a sugar shack where they would siphon the syrup in the way you siphon gasoline from a semi, feeding it, a cask at a time, into their own ramshackle barrels and then re-filling the originals with water.” The heist was discovered when an inventory check revealed the water. Richard Vallières, one of the ringleaders, was found guilty in November of theft, fraud, and trafficking stolen goods; he reportedly claimed he was forced to commit the crime under a death threat.
From the early 2000s until 2012, a young Indonesian immigrant named Rudy Kurniawan swindled Silicon Valley socialites—including wine and art expert William Koch—out of nearly $30 million by repackaging wine in his basement and selling it for thousands of dollars per bottle. In 2014, a judge sentenced Kurniawan to 10 years in prison. Kurniawan earned his nickname “Dr. Conti” because he was known for bidding high on famously-expensive Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines at auctions.
This is Nuts
Nine people died and thousands got sick in 2008 and 2009 after eating peanut butter contaminated with salmonella. The story’s grossest detail is that the CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America, Stewart Parnell, knew the food may have been contaminated—but shipped it anyway. Parnell was found guilty in 2014 on more than 70 criminal charges and received the longest prison sentence of any food-related crime: 28 years.
In spring of 2016, vendors at South Florida flea markets were in cahoots with customers carrying EBT cards: Owners rang up purchases but never sold anything. Customers instead left with cash, and shop owners got a cut. According to the Miami Herald, thousands of food stamp recipients were involved in the $13 million food stamp fraud, perhaps the largest scheme of its kind. Investigators dubbed the bust “Operation Stampede.”
March 25, 1983, business was booming at Harry’s Liquor, Wine & Cheese, near the Environmental Protection Agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. EPA employees were in the mood to party. The agency’s top lawyer had just resigned, the latest casualty in a purge of political appointees. Weeks earlier, EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford had also resigned amid a ballooning controversy over her management of the Superfund program. Agency staff celebrated by springing for eight cases of champagne and six ounces of Russian caviar from Harry’s. One employee even took vacation time to sell commemorative T-shirts to his colleagues. They read: “I Survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.”
The EPA was only a decade old when Gorsuch, as she was then known—she married Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Burford in 1983—became its first female administrator. Gorsuch, a conservative state legislator from Colorado, promptly embroiled the agency in a political fight for its life. Even though Congress had recently expanded the EPA’s workload, Gorsuch and the Reagan White House cut its budget and staff. Gorsuch derided the agency’s approach to environmental protection as “bean counting,” saying it measured success by the number of enforcement actions it took or regulations it issued rather than by what they achieved. She claimed that the agency could do more for the environment with fewer resources by giving states broader autonomy to decide how to curb pollution. But many career employees, environmentalists and congressional representatives didn’t buy it, seeing Gorsuch’s philosophy as window dressing for an industry-friendly agenda to neuter environmental laws.
The debate surrounding the EPA’s future is strikingly similar today as Scott Pruitt assumes command. The former Oklahoma attorney general made a name for himself by fighting what he termed the “activist agenda” of former President Barack Obama’s EPA. Pruitt filed 14 lawsuits against the agency, including suits to block its efforts to clear smog from national parks and wilderness areas and to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Like Gorsuch, Pruitt thinks the EPA needs to relinquish more power to the states.
Some pro-environment Republicans agree, and hope Pruitt can empower the states to come up with innovative solutions to environmental problems. But many in the environmental community regard Pruitt’s arrival at the EPA as a hostile takeover, and fear that the Trump administration’s real goal is to dismantle the agency. Donald Trump said as much during the campaign, and in early March, the White House reportedly drafted a proposal to cut the EPA’s staff by 20 percent and its budget by 25 percent.
“For someone like myself, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, do we really have to do this again?’ ” says Pat Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who was an environmental advocate in D.C. in the early 1980s. Trump’s budget proposal mirrors the approach Gorsuch and the White House took during President Ronald Reagan’s first years in office. Ultimately, they failed to dramatically transform the EPA, and federal environmental laws have mostly survived subsequent attacks. But the political winds have shifted since Reagan’s time, in Congress as well as within the Republican Party. As Pruitt told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
This is how the New York Times described the EPA shortly before Gorsuch resigned: “Once noted for its efficiency and esprit, the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert.”
Gorsuch and Reagan cut the agency’s budget by about a quarter and its workforce by nearly 20 percent. Gorsuch also adopted a relaxed attitude toward enforcement: When a New Mexico oil refinery complained in a private meeting that it couldn’t afford to comply with regulations requiring it to produce gasoline with lower lead levels, Gorsuch told the company it wouldn’t be penalized for flouting the rules. The White House declined to discipline Gorsuch, but the incident contributed to the perception that Gorsuch was too cozy with polluters.
The issue came to a head over the Superfund program. Gorsuch took charge shortly after Superfund was created to clean up dangerously polluted places such as Love Canal, New York, a community built on top of a toxic waste dump whose residents suffered unusual illnesses and high rates of birth defects and miscarriages. The agency was supposed to develop a priority list of polluted sites and either force companies to clean them up or use money from the fund to do so itself.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats believed that the cleanup progress was inexcusably slow, with penalties on polluters too light. At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana, for instance, Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up aboveground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for belowground waste. A couple years in, the agency still hadn’t set up a registry to track health problems associated with hazardous waste pollution, as required by law.
Accusations of mismanagement led to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shredding documents related to the Superfund probes. Rita Lavelle, the Gorsuch deputy who headed Superfund, came under fire for accepting expensive dinners from industry and striking sweetheart deals with those companies. She later served time in jail for lying to Congress about a conflict of interest involving a former employer. Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigations. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any actual work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge. It was just two years into Reagan’s presidency.
“The Reagan people came into office with the same kind of fervor for rolling back environmental regulations that we’re seeing now,” says Richard Ayres, an environmental lawyer who headed the Natural Resources Defense Council’s air quality programs at the time. But their success was limited, partly due to the Superfund controversy, which emerged quickly and inhibited the administration’s ability to aggressively pursue its deregulation agenda. Their efforts also ran up against a moderate Republican Senate and a House controlled by Democrats, which worked doggedly to expose industry favoritism at EPA and keep accusations about mismanagement in the public eye. After Gorsuch left, the White House decided the rewards of waging war on environmental laws weren’t worth the political price.
“Reagan was anti-regulation,” Parenteau says, “but he didn’t have a deep hostility or resentment about environmental laws.” Reagan replaced Gorsuch with William Ruckelshaus, a moderate known for his integrity. Ruckelshaus, who was respected on both sides of the aisle, helped restore the agency’s credibility.
The Republican presidents since Reagan—George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush—mostly chose EPA administrators who were experienced environmental professionals, consistent with the Ruckelshaus model. Pruitt, on the other hand, appears to have been selected for his deep distrust of the agency.
In today’s Republican Party, he’s not an outlier. “It’s probably best to see the Pruitt EPA not as a special Donald Trump twist on the EPA, but as the latest evolution in a larger conservative attack on the agency,” says Paul Sabin, a Yale University environmental historian. Gorsuch and her ideological brother James Watt, who was Reagan’s Interior secretary until 1983, were part of the vanguard of the conservative resistance to the landmark environmental laws passed in the 1970s, which vastly expanded the federal government’s role in protecting air, water and biodiversity. Since then, the tactics for undermining these protections have grown more sophisticated and been widely embraced by the Republican Party, Sabin says. Today, a formidable network of think tanks and right-wing media pushes deregulation at the state and federal level, and critics attack the science that underlies environmental regulation. “A major shift in the party was with the ’94 election and the Gingrich revolution,” Sabin says. “That’s when the party gets more purified in its hostility toward environmental regulation.”
That hostility has reached an apex in the current Congress, which is unlikely to be the check on EPA inaction that it was with Gorsuch, leaving the job primarily to environmental attorneys and the courts. Some House Republicans are intent on pursuing their own deregulatory agenda, with a recently introduced bill to abolish the EPA altogether, as well as talk of repealing and replacing the Endangered Species Act and a recent vote to block EPA rules to protect streams from pollution from coal mines.
Pruitt, for his part, declined to name a single EPA regulation he supports during his confirmation hearing. He also refused to promise to continue to allow California to enact its own strict clean-car standards, despite his stated commitment to states’ rights. The priorities he’s highlighted since include rolling back Obama-era clean water rules and carbon regulations, though he has also promised to promote Superfund cleanups, water infrastructure improvements and compliance with existing air-quality standards.
“The idea that he will just slash and burn the agency, I think, is mistaken,” says Brent Fewell, a D.C. water lawyer and philosophical conservative who served in the number-two spot in the EPA’s Office of Water under George W. Bush. “It’s not that he hates the EPA. He hates overreach.” There are gray areas in the Clean Air and Water acts that the EPA has tried to fill in over time, and Fewell thinks Pruitt has a legitimate point that it’s sometimes gone too far.
Environmentalists tend to hear calls for state rights as code for fewer constraints on industry and more pollution. But Fewell says those outcomes aren’t inevitable. He’s optimistic about states assuming an expanded role in environmental protection. States already shoulder a lot of responsibility for implementing federal environmental regulations, but Fewell says the EPA tends to micromanage them, not giving them much freedom to devise their own methods of meeting clean air or water standards. That breeds resentment: “There’s a lot of fighting. I believe if the states are incentivized to be more creative, we could see more environmental protection.”
Of course, it’s possible that while, in theory, a more restrained EPA could inspire states to become more proactive, in practice some states will step up and others will step back. Gorsuch’s tenure didn’t last long enough to let that experiment play out. If Pruitt’s does, we may soon learn how closely theory and practice align.
Contributing editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.Follow @callycarswell
A Maine lawmaker has introduced a bill that will safeguard political speech—with a special focus on climate change deniers.
Republican Rep. Lawrence Lockman, who told the Associated Press that whether or not human activity is causing global warming is an open question, proposed legislation that would ban the state from prosecuting people for their “climate change policy preferences.” The measure prohibits the state from discriminating against climate change deniers with respect to employment and hiring, and bars any state agencies or departments from refusing to purchase goods and services, or awarding grants and contracts, on the basis of a person’s opinion regarding climate change.
According to NASA, 97 percent of scientists acknowledge that our planet is getting warmer due to human activity.
The bill is in response the lawsuit filed by a group of state attorneys general, including Maine’s Janet Mills, against Exxon Mobil in 2016. The suit alleges that the oil giant misled the public about global warming and should pay a financial penalty.
Lockman told the Associated Press that the bill wasn’t just for climate deniers, because it would protect the free speech of others as well. “I don’t want to see a Republican attorney general issuing subpoenas for the records of progressive or liberal think tanks or public policy groups to chill their free speech,” he said.
But Democratic lawmakers do not seem convinced. Lois Galgay Reckitt, a Democrat in the state legislature, said that the entire Democratic caucus would oppose the bill, as would some Republicans.
“The issue for me is I’m a scientist and I live near the ocean,” she said to the Associated Press. “It’s absolutely clear to me that climate change is happening and it worries me. I will fight this tooth and nail.”
A public hearing is scheduled for April 6.
As of this week, Bakken oil is expected to flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This development comes as court proceedings continue over the high-profile battle over the pipeline that drew thousands of protestors to North Dakota last year. As law enforcement officers and Indigenous activists faced off near the construction site, the conflict played out in real time on social media, capturing international attention.
A District of Columbia court has yet to rule on the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes’ claims that the Army Corps of Engineers violated environmental, historic-preservation and religious-freedom laws in its approval of the pipeline. A ruling is likely still several weeks away. The tribes have tried for temporary restraining orders to stop the flow of oil until the case is decided, but judges have rejected those as well. Dakota Access, LLC, is required to update the court weekly on whether the pipeline operations have begun; on March 20, the company said they expected oil to flow this week.
The fact that the pipeline’s backers, Energy Transfer Partners, appears to be prevailing is not surprising. Although the Obama administration had put DAPL on hold in December and called for further environmental review, then-President-elect Donald Trump vowed to push the project through once he took office. But national attention the protests brought to the flaws of the current consultation process—the federal government’s responsibilities to consult with tribes before approving major infrastructure projects that affect tribal lands—may still bear fruit on future disputes. And recent legal proceedings remind us how difficult it is for tribes to argue for religious freedom in court.
Following Trump’s late-January executive order to allow the pipeline to be finished, the Cheyenne River Sioux, located just south of the Standing Rock Reservation, filed a motion for a restraining order against the pipeline. Unlike the Standing Rock Sioux complaint based more around environmental and historic preservation violations, Cheyenne River’s argument claims the government violated the Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA). “The Lakota people believe that the mere existence of a crude oil pipeline under the waters of Lake Oahe will desecrate those waters and render them unsuitable for use in their religious sacraments,” court documents say.
RFRA has an unreliable track record for tribes in court. Congress created the law in 1993 in part as a response to two cases in which courts sided with the government. In 1988 Lyng vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association allowed the Forest Service to construct a logging road in California that would have disrupted an area sacred to several tribes. In 1990 Employment Division vs. Smith allowed two Native Americans in Oregon to be fired for failing a drug test because they had used peyote as an element of religious ceremony. But experts say RFRA’s original intention, to protect tribes from similar infringements, isn’t really bearing out in court. The most recent major failure was the case of the Snowbowl ski resort in Arizona in which reclaimed wastewater was being used to make snow on mountains sacred to several tribes. The tribes argued a violation of RFRA and ultimately lost.
RFRA has, however, worked for corporations such as Hobby Lobby. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled family-owned corporations should not be required to cover employees’ contraception because doing so may infringe on a company’s religious beliefs. Part of the challenge for tribes, says University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson, is one of translation. “Most Americans are not used to the nature of tribal religions, of having ceremonies on particular land areas as being significant to their religion,” Wilkinson says. Court documents show Cheyenne River’s attorneys explaining how the tribe views the pipeline:
“Although there can be no way of knowing when this prophesy emerged into the Lakota worldview, Lakota religious adherents now in their 50s and 60s were warned of the Black Snake by their elders as children. The Black Snake prophecy is a source of terror and existential threat in the Lakota worldview…. Lakota adherents believe that the Black Snake poses an existential threat because it will cause critical imbalance in an essential resource of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe: the natural, ritually pure waters of Lake Oahe.”
“You can kind of get that sense, there’s some question raised in opposing parties arguments of ‘Do they really believe this,'” says Monte Mills, a University of Montana law professor. In court in February, Judge James Boasberg reportedly questioned how a pipeline would desecrate the Missouri River if the oil itself never touched the water.
The most lasting impact of the Dakota Access battle might be greater federal attention to the process through which the U.S. government is supposed to consult tribal governments about proposed infrastructure projects that might impact those nations, says Wilkinson. “(Tribes) see consultation as almost a four-letter word,” Wilkinson says. “It’s so often just checking a box.” A 38-page memo from former Obama administration Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins in December described in detail the ways in which the government failed to consult tribes that may be affected by the pipeline. At one point, Tompkins notes that a draft Environmental Assessment for DAPL “failed to even identify the reservation on its maps and incorrectly said the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had no issue with the project.” (The Trump administration suspended the memo and removed it from the Interior website in February.)
Similarly, a 73-page report released in January by the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior about consultation—not limited to DAPL—highlighted flaws in the process, after seeking comment from 59 tribes across the country. The report includes problems with the way the federal government “tends to look at (infrastructure) projects in a segmented way…For example, in the Dakota Access Pipeline review, four different states, three separate districts of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife Service each looked at different parts of the project, but did not coordinate the impacts to Tribes.” That report requested further action from several federal agencies by April 2017, in establishing better consultation processes.
“Many federal statutes require consultations with states, counties and tribes,” Wilkinson says. “Maybe one way or another Standing Rock could be valuable as raising that issue.”
President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort will host the opening reception Wednesday evening for a conference where a recently bankrupt coal company will be a guest of honor. The annual Distressed Investing Summit will bestow one of its “Restructuring Deal of the Year” awards to Arch Coal for clearing $5 billion in debt after it filed for bankruptcy in 2016.
“They emerged from bankruptcy in 2016 after shedding huge amount of debt, obligations to workers, and environmental cleanup,” Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal director Mary Ann Hitt says. “When a company is in bankruptcy, you don’t have a lot of leverage in there with all the lawyers and stakeholders. To have them feted at Mar-a-Lago as a turnaround is salt in the wound for workers and people representing the public interest.”
The summit, hosted by financial company The M&A Advisor, has held its opening cocktail reception at Mar-a-Lago for the past two years, ever since Trump emerged as a serious contender for president. In its invitation email, M&A Advisor names Arch Coal as one of its winners alongside a number of other firms, including energy companies Alpha Natural Resources, Midstates Petroleum Company, and Venoco, an oil and gas development company.
Here’s how the invitation describes Mar-a-Lago, “the new Winter White House”:
The agenda for roundtables that are held at a nearby hotel reads like a laundry list of Trump’s campaign themes: “Making America Great Again,” “Informing and Silencing The Media,” and the “Art of Dealmaking: Getting Deals Done In The New Economic Order.”
Not everyone agrees that Arch Coal’s 2016 bankruptcy deal warrants celebration. During the bankruptcy proceedings, environmental opposition forced the company to abandon its proposal that taxpayers should foot the entire bill to clean up its abandoned mines. The company also laid off hundreds of its miners that same year.
In the years before bankruptcy, United Mine Workers of America complained that Arch Coal moved 40 percent of its employees’ health care coverage to Patriot Coal, a volatile offshoot company. When Patriot went under, those health benefits were at risk and continue to be because of Arch Coal’s bankruptcy. Patriot and Arch Coal are only two examples of a larger problem. The union shop has been pressing Congress for a long-term solution for 22,000 miners’ benefits in jeopardy because of coal bankruptcies—an issue that won’t go away no matter what happens to federal environmental regulations.
The idea that the coal industry can recover is a cherished narrative for Trump. Earlier this week, at a campaign-style rally in Kentucky, the president claimed that he will “save our coal industry” and put miners back to work with executive orders that are expected any day. Trump likes to blame “terrible job-killing” regulations, but there are other pressures beyond federal regulation driving coal out of business, namely competitive natural gas.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday evening, a coal turnaround will be celebrated. Even though it might only be, as the Sierra Club’s Hitt notes, “one of many of the alternative facts they like to celebrate at Mar-a-Lago.”