This spring as a Law Clerk at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, I saw two extraordinary movements at work.
I glimpsed the daily workings of the Environmental Justice movement in California—much of my work focused on fracking, one of California's many environmental justice hurdles. I also had the opportunity to travel to Haiti and work with communities living near possible gold mining sites, organizing to educate themselves on the risks of gold mining and their rights as citizens to decide whether to permit the sites. While in Haiti, I noticed a dismaying similarity between California's treatment of its most vulnerable communities, and the persistent global habit of irresponsible natural resource extraction.
In Haiti there is a moratorium on granting new metal mining permits. The country is updating its mining code to balance attractiveness to foreign investment against the benefits needed to make mining worthwhile. A much needed update as the former code was simultaneously confusing for investors and not protective of the people. However, it's anticipated that even the new code may not go far enough and fail to include key protections needed to properly protect the people and the environment.
It occurred to me that in California we're not doing much better. Senate Bill 4, California's new fracking law, explicitly permits fossil fuel extraction through well stimulation, even before the risks of the practice are fully understood. Much of the actual environmental and community protections are left to future regulation.
In both cases, the majority of the benefits of natural resource exploitation will flow out of the community where the extraction takes place, but the costs will remain. People in heavily fracked communities in California face an array of health problems - from respiratory problems to rare cancers. They live next door to pits of wastewater, deal with increased truck traffic, dust, and noise; and they're exposed to air pollution, water pollution, and increased risk of seismic activity. Similarly, as shown in mining communities worldwide, the social and environmental effects of open pit gold mining are acute and lasting.
This is especially problematic because these coveted resources are often located in areas occupied by the most vulnerable portions of the population. This may simply be a function of geography, or it could be that it's easier to move hundreds of families off of an ore deposit in Haiti than in the United States. Either way, the laws are getting it backwards. Lawmakers, in collaboration with the communities they represent, should identify a positive social and environmental outcome and work backwards.
Laws that prioritize investment and delay specific regulation fail to provide for the possibility that the benefits will never outweigh the costs. Ignoring the true cost of natural resource extraction is shortsighted policy-making. This has been true throughout the decades of mineral resource sector growth in developing countries, and it is still true in California.
This piece was originally published by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment on their website at www.crpe-ej.org.