Cliven Bundy’s Armed Insurrection, Rooted in Religious Extremism, Goes on Trial
By John Dougherty
In two heavily armed, militia-backed confrontations with the federal government in 2014 and 2016, Nevada scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy and his family successfully created a self-serving narrative of a God-fearing, hard-working, true-blooded American family fearlessly battling an overreaching, oppressive and unconstitutional federal bureaucracy.
Bundy, 71, became a national figure in April 2014 when he forced federal land managers to release cattle seized for trespassing on public lands in southeast Nevada. Nineteen months later two of Bundy's sons, Ammon and Ryan, led an armed group that seized Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 32 miles south of this remote ranching community in southeast Oregon. In both instances, the elder Bundy leveraged growing public dissatisfaction with the federal government to promote his assertion that federal tyranny is crushing individual rights.
Their David vs. Goliath storyline, blown out across three years of high-profile media coverage, attracted support from the far-right militia groups proliferating and itching for a fight during the latter years of the Obama administration, as well as from conservative politicians financed by extractive industries seeking to turn over ownership of hundreds of millions of acres of federal public land to the states and private entities.
The rhetoric of an overreaching federal government has given legal cover to the Bundy family and its supporters. The success of this propaganda campaign was underscored by the unexpected October 2016 acquittal of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others on federal conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with the 41-day militia takeover of the Oregon wildlife refuge.
The "heroic" framing embodied by that legal win will be put to a major test again beginning this week in a Las Vegas federal court. Cliven Bundy and his two sons, along with militia leader Ryan Payne, are charged with conspiring to thwart the 2014 government roundup of cattle near the town of Bunkerville, Nev. after Bundy refused to pay more than $1 million in delinquent grazing fees dating back 20 years. The four men each face 22 felony charges, including counts of conspiracy against and assault on federal officers.
In that incident Cliven Bundy, backed by militia members, forced National Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management employees to release the cattle under the threat of violence. Hailed by Bundy supporters as the Battle of Bunkerville, the incident is considered a major victory in the far-right populist effort to wrest control of public lands from the federal government.
The flashpoint has had far-ranging effects.
"They basically concluded that you can point guns at the federal government and the government will back down with no consequences," said University of Oregon geography professor Peter Walker, who studies the social and political environmental aspects of the American West.
In Burns, a ranching town of 5,000 that serves as the Harney County seat, there is a far different and much darker and terrifying narrative of the Bundy family and their militia allies that is emerging in the aftermath of the armed occupation of the community.
Ammon Bundy aligned with a coalition of militia groups and tried to use heavily armed men to intimidate community leaders into supporting their call to reject federal authority over the county, said recently retired Harney County judge Steve Grasty.
But community leaders and local ranchers refused to join their cause. Harney County Sheriff David Ward deftly avoided a violent confrontation that the Bundys were trying to provoke during three months of heavy militia presence in Burns.
"Ammon Bundy genuinely thought he was going to be able to lead a national revolution," Walker said during an interview in his office in Eugene, Ore. "He didn't do his homework. He came to the wrong place."
That's because Harney County ranchers and federal land-use managers have a long history of collaborating on land-use and water issues at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Malheur National Forest, spearheaded by the High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit that successfully bridges the often formidable gap between environmentalists, ranchers and the federal land managers. Harney County ranchers refused to join Ammon and Ryan Bundy in their call to ranchers across the West to tear up their federal grazing permits.
The reality of the Bundy/militia confrontation in Burns reveals a narrative that's very different from their finely honed, folksy image of salt-of-the-earth ranchers protecting forgotten men and women from rampant federal abuses.
It wasn't the federal government that was overreaching and abridging the rights of citizens. Rather, it was Bundy fanaticism that put innocent lives at risk, Ward said.
"They are extremists," said Ward, who was hailed by Grasty for exercising patience and restraint in the extremely volatile crises that overwhelmed this quiet community. "Any disagreement with them makes you the enemy."
Throughout the Malheur occupation, militias continued to menace Burns, leaving many terrified that a bloodbath was an errant firecracker away.
"This was day after day after day after day," Grasty said during a lengthy interview in his home about 10 miles north of Burns where his anger steadily built the longer he talked about what happened. "It was hurtful to your mind. How do you set that aside? That to me is what was hurtful."
Asked if his community was subjected to an ongoing act of terrorism by the Bundys and their militia allies, Grasty pauses for a moment and looks off into the distance. "Yep. If they can fragment (you)," he said, before pausing again. "It's a horrible weapon."
How did all this happen?
Experts and witnesses tell The Revelator that the roots of the Bundy family's uncompromising and authoritarian approach over the use of America's public lands can be traced to their belief in the historic Mormon entitlement to the promised land of Zion and their fringe interpretation of the U.S. Constitution first posed by a far-right Mormon writer.
"It all comes back to religion," said Walker, who is writing a book on the Bundy-led occupation of Malheur and Burns.
Zion, Militias and Public Lands
Academic research on Mormon history, theology and the Mormon migration to the Great Basin to create what the early western settlers called the promised land of Zion in the mid-19th century provides a framework for understanding the Bundy family's refusal to accept federal authority over public lands.
The militia-supported Bundy aggressions in Bunkerville, Burns and Malheur—while often not Mormon themselves—can be traced to early Mormon religious and political beliefs that have contributed to modern-day right-wing extremism, said Betsy Gaines Quammen, a professor of world religions and culture at the Yellowstone Theological Institute, whose 2017 doctoral dissertation at Montana State University was entitled American Zion: Mormon Perspectives on Landscape, from Zion National Park to the Bundy Family War.
"I can tell you with great confidence that Zion is part of this public-land issue and that the militia has been part of the Mormon world view since the very beginning," Quammen said during an interview in Bozeman, Montana.
The roots date back to long before the Civil War. After the 1844 murder of Mormon founder Joseph Smith by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, his successor Brigham Young led the faithful to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. There they would establish Zion in the Great Basin that encompassed most of present-day Utah and Nevada.
In Mormon doctrine Zion refers to the place where people "pure of heart" will live together. Also known as the New Jerusalem, Zion is supposed to be built on the American continent, with Independence, Mo. identified as the specific location. But conflict in Missouri and Illinois, along with divine inspiration, led Brigham Young to move the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley.
Young declared the Salt Lake Valley area "a first-rate place to raise Saints." Furthermore, he insisted that if they lived worthily, the Lord would never allow them to be driven from the promised land, according to a July 1988 article in the Ensign, a church publication. Prior to their exodus West, Mormons had already created the largest militia in the U.S.: the Nauvoo Legion. Only the U.S. Army had more forces.
Initially Zion was centered in the Salt Lake Valley, but it soon grew to encompass far more land. The Mormon land claims expanded under Brigham Young's theocracy when he created a provisional state in 1849 called Deseret, stretching from Oregon to Arizona. This proposed mega-state was never accepted by the federal government, which created the territory of Utah in 1850 encompassing only part of the proposed Deseret. Utah was granted statehood with its present boundaries in 1896.
Thomas Murphy, chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwod, Wash., said Young declared Mormons had a divine right to claim the land. The right still resonates. "You see that claim of divine right echoed with the Bundys," he said during an interview in his office.
Murphy, who was once threatened with excommunication from the Mormon Church for his research on the genetics of American Indians that debunked the Mormon belief that Indians are descendants of ancient Israelites, said the Bundy family appears to believe they are fulfilling God's commands.
"You see a righteous fury in the Bundy family, a sense that God is on their side," he said.
The Mormon historic claim of Zion bestowed upon the faithful by God now includes hundreds of millions of acres of public land controlled by the federal government, said Quammen. Bunkerville, Burns and Malheur fall within either the boundaries of the historic Mormon provisional state of Deseret or the spiritual lands of Zion.
The tension between religious claims to a promised land and the legal and Constitutional federal right of ownership of the same land can create conflict, especially when the Mormon affiliation with militias is added to the mix, Quammen said.
"The public lands are still considered part of Zion," she said. "And the Mormon militia has been a long-running, multigenerational idea in Mormon history." (The Mormon Church no longer has a militia).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church) has a taken a two-pronged approach with the Bundys. On one hand it publicly repudiated the Malheur refuge takeover after the Bundys and others repeatedly referred to Mormon scripture and inspiration from God as part of their justification for seizing the federal property.
Ammon Bundy explained his God-inspired reasoning for coming to Harney County and requested other like-minded individuals to come to Harney County to challenge the federal government in a Jan. 1, 2016 video, the day before he led the takeover of the refuge.
In the wake of the Malheur seizure, the church issued the following statement on Jan. 6, 2016:
"While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can—and should—be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land."
Mormon leaders, however, have not taken any public steps to excommunicate the Bundys from the church.
Cliven Bundy told the Salt Lake Tribune that he "has never had a problem with the bishop," referring to his local religious leader. Excommunications are usually matters handled at the local level.
Murphy, who has firsthand experience in the Mormon excommunication process, said Mormon leaders do not want to cause a split in the church by excommunicating the Bundy family.
"They fear they would lose a lot of local membership," he said. "A lot of Mormons would be relieved because this is embarrassing. But a lot of Mormons might stand with the Bundys."
Mormon Determination to Protect Zion
Quammen said the arduous trek across the country by Mormon pioneers fleeing Nauvoo, Illinois, after Smith's murder and the failure of the federal government to protect Mormons from earlier violent persecution in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois left two long-lasting beliefs when they arrived in the Great Basin.
"This was their Zion and they were going to do anything they could to protect it," she said. "And, I would add, in addition to that they also landed there with a lot of hatred against the government."
Cliven Bundy claims his ancestors started grazing cattle in the late 19th century on desert in southeast Nevada near the Virgin River, just downstream from St. George, Utah, which was an early Mormon settlement in a region called Dixie. Quammen had an opportunity to visit the family's ranch where she interviewed Cliven, Ammon and Ryan. A devout Mormon, Cliven Bundy has 14 children.
Some Mormons, like the Bundys, continue to believe the lands within Zion are sacred and rightfully controlled by the descendants of the first Mormon pioneer families that put the land to "beneficial use" through grazing, Quammen said.
"That was one of the first things that Cliven said to me," Quammen said. "The first Mormons were here and they had their horse and the horse takes a bite of grass and the moment they take a bite of grass, that's the first beneficial use."
In other words, once the use of a natural resource provides sustenance to a horse or livestock has occurred, permanent rights to the renewable resource are created. Cliven Bundy himself made this claim, according to a January 2016 opinion column Quammen wrote for The New York Times.
In the column she recounted that Cliven Bundy told her:
"So now we have created them (rights) and we use them, make beneficial use of them, and then we protect them. And that's sort of a natural law, and that's what the rancher has done. That's how he has his rights. And that's what the range war, the Bundy war, is all about right now, it's really protecting those three things: our life, liberty and our property."
Bundy's claim that his rights to the land are established by creating "beneficial use" of the property through an animal grazing is unsupported by federal law or Supreme Court rulings. He appears to be conflating Western water rights that are based, in part, on the seniority of the first person to put water to "beneficial use" establishing rights to the water.
Cliven Bundy's claim to property also ignores that fact that nearly all the land he was grazing his cattle on has been owned by the U.S. since it was ceded from Mexico in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. The land originally belonged to the Paiute tribes. Cliven Bundy only has title to 160 acres. Despite Bundy's claim that his family had been grazing cattle in the area since the late 19th century, there's no official record showing his family had legal title to land prior to 1948.
Clark County Recorder documents posted by KLAS-TV show the 160-acre Bunkerville ranch Bundy calls home was purchased by his parents, David and Bodel Bundy, from Raoul and Ruth Leavitt on Jan. 5, 1948. The purchase included the transfer to the Bundys of certain water rights, including water from the nearby Virgin River. Cliven Bundy was born in 1946.
Beyond that, the elder Bundy also accepted federal jurisdiction over the public grazing lands for decades and paid grazing fees on his Bunkerville federal allotment from 1973 through 1993. He ceased paying the fees after the Bureau of Land Management reduced the size of his allotment and the number of cattle that could be legally grazed in order to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.
The bureau canceled his grazing permit in 1994, but Bundy continued to trespass his cattle on more than 1,200 square miles of bureau and National Park Service land at the Lake Meade National Recreation Area. The ongoing encroachment led to the roundup of Bundy's cattle that culminated with the armed standoff between Bundy, his militia supporters and federal law enforcement.
The Skousen Connection
In addition to the Mormon doctrine of divine right to the land, the Bundys have also embraced the teachings of a far-right, anti-communist Mormon conspiracy theorist named W. Cleon Skousen, who died in 2006.
The Bundys and their militia supporters frequently carried copies of Skousen's annotated, pocket-sized, old-English version of the U.S. Constitution published by a conservative organization called the National Center for Constitutional Studies during the Bunkerville, Malheur and Burns occupations, turning to it to justify their actions. Cliven Bundy even offers constitutional lessons via YouTube that are heavily tainted by Skousen.
Skousen's pocket Constitution includes a four-page preface of fragmented quotes from the Founding Fathers, several of which reference the importance of religion and morality and the gifts of Heaven. Constitutional scholars say some of the quotations are either deliberate alterations or taken out of context, The Los Angeles Times reported in a January 2016 story.
According to his obituary, Skousen worked for the FBI for 16 years under J. Edgar Hoover, taught a popular class at Brigham Young University, and published 46 books, including The Naked Communist, which has sold more than a million copies since 1958.
Ironically Skousen attracted considerable attention from the FBI for his extreme views and logged a 2,000-page file on his activities, including accusing President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a Soviet agent. He also campaigned to eliminate the federal income tax, wanted to convert Social Security system to private retirement accounts, and opposed all federal regulatory agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He also wanted to repeal the minimum wage, eliminate unions, nullify anti-discrimination laws, remove barriers separating church and state and sell off the public lands and national parks.
Skousen's controversial political theories serve as an intellectual bridge among the Bundys' Old West Mormonism, the far-right wing militias and the American lands movement's efforts to transfer federal lands to local governments and private interests.
The connection goes back decades. The National Center for Constitutional Studies, which has published 15 million copies of the Skousen-annotated Constitution, was founded by Skousen and later taken over by Utah businessman Bert Smith, who played a leading role in the first Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s, according to a 2016 profile in E&E News.
Smith also donated $35,000 to help found the American Lands Council, an organization dedicated to facilitating the transfer of federal lands to the states, in 2012. American Lands Council is also funded by the Koch Brothers and taxpayer money allocated by county commissions, High Country News reported in a May 2015 expose.
"Smith's influence in inciting these western anti-public lands and rancher revolts, particularly in Utah, cannot be overstated," wrote Chris Zinda, a New Harmony, Utah, activist who monitors state and federal land issues for the St. George, Utah-based Independent.
Another major Bundy influence is former Mormon Church President Ezra Taft Benson, who also served in President Eisenhower's cabinet as secretary of Agriculture. As Mathew Bowman, the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, wrote in a January 2016 column in Time Magazine, "Benson adopted an important Mormon concept of 'free agency,' which maintains all human beings are free to choose from right and wrong, and that the purpose of our lives on earth is to cultivate our moral insight and ability to choose good."
Benson, Bowman wrote, was one of the first to write that large government restricts free agency. "He and the Bundys after him believe that government is not merely inefficient, but an inherent moral hazard," he wrote.
The Bundys' constitutional interpretations take a simplistic, literal reading of the Constitution and often ignoring a body of Supreme Court decisions that run contrary to their arguments, particularly in regard to whether the federal government has a right to own vast tracts of land.
"These folks are very constitutional based, but only on the part of the Constitution that they like," said Sheriff Ward, who had "eight to 10" hours of often tense conversations with Ammon Bundy on the Constitution and the role of federal government and religion.
Ward said when he attempted to explain his views on the Constitution and religion, Ammon Bundy would get angry. Bundy, Ward said, continued to pressure him to "change my stance" and made "quite a few threats" that were generally "vague." This was just a prelude to a deluge of emailed death threats from anonymous email accounts. Some threatened Ward with hanging if he didn't knuckle under, he said. "There were blatant death threats that I forwarded to the FBI," he said.
Walker, the University of Oregon professor, is convinced Ammon Bundy's constitutional philosophy is traced to Skousen. "When you listen to Ammon Bundy talk about the Constitution, it's almost word-for-word from stuff Skousen had written," he said.
And while Benson was wary of big government, he also served in the federal government at the highest level as a cabinet secretary. Cliven Bundy has taken Benson's cautious view of big government much further.
"(Cliven) Bundy basically says he does not believe in the federal government. It just doesn't exist," Quammen said. "He believes in the county. He believes in the sheriff. He believes in 'we the people.' But he doesn't believe in the federal government."
A History of Violence
Cliven Bundy repeatedly told land managers with the Bureau of Land Management that any effort to remove his cattle from public lands would be met with force. His threat continued a history of violent conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons and at times between Mormons and the federal government.
The U.S. nearly went to war with the Mormons in 1858 in the so-called "Utah War." Smithsonian Magazine writer David Roberts provides a comprehensive overview of the events leading up to the conflict in a June 2008 feature story on the 150th anniversary of the little known conflict.
"The Utah War culminated a decade of rising hostility between Mormons and the federal government over issues ranging from governance and land ownership to plural marriage and Indian affairs, during which both Mormons and non-Mormons endured violence and privation," Roberts wrote.
Armed conflict was averted when Mormon Church President and Utah Territorial Governor Young agreed to allow the federal government to appoint a non-Mormon as governor.
The year before the Utah War, the most notorious clash between a Mormon militia and non-Mormons occurred in southern Utah when a militia brutally murdered 120 Arkansas men, women and children at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They were executed after being convinced to surrender their guns.
The church tried to cover up its association with the murders for nearly 150 years, blaming it instead on an American Indian tribe.
In 2007 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially blamed local church leaders in Cedar City, Utah, for the September 1857 massacre and stated that then-church President Young sent a message not to harm the emigrants, but it arrived too late. Some historians theorize Young ordered the attack, but they acknowledge there is no proof.
Richard Turley, assistant historian of the church and co-author of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, told National Public Radio in a 2008 interview that the slaughter of the unarmed men, women and children, some of whom were begging for their lives when they were killed, shows how quickly atrocities can unfold.
"These people who carried out the massacre were in many ways ordinary … individuals who got caught up in emotion, caught up in the circumstances of their times and began to make decisions that led to committing an atrocity," Turley said. "And what was disturbing about that was the realization that the difference between ordinary people like us and these people who committed atrocity was really a short distance."
At the time of the massacre, church leaders feared the federal government planned to take control of the Mormon-controlled territory and stamp out the widespread Mormon practice of polygamy. Mormon leaders warned that the incoming settlers traveling on the Arkansas wagon train could be working with the army in the days leading up to the massacre.
Overt violent conflict between the Mormon Church and federal authorities has largely been supplanted by a struggle over control of public lands. The federal government owns 65 percent of the land in Utah. The Utah state legislature remains dominated by Mormons (88 percent) and is supporting the transfer of federal land to state control.
The Utah Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study in 2012, seeking to force the federal government to turn over much of its public lands to the state. At the federal level, Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Rob Bishop, both Mormons, have sponsored federal legislation to turn over public lands to the state.
Murphy, the Edmonds Community College professor, said federal land ownership in Utah is a source of significant conflict because it's a tangible reminder of the federal government's role in ending Brigham Young's theocracy and eventually forcing the church to renounce polygamy in 1890.
"It is the federal government through its control of public lands that is still preventing Mormons from realizing this vision," he said.
More than 160 years after the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and after decades of resentment toward federal control of public lands, Cliven Bundy first clashed with the federal government at Bunkerville.
Guided by religious inspiration and a Skousen-influenced constitutional claim to the land, Cliven Bundy whipped up fear of an oppressive federal government to rally a militia to his Nevada ranch. Militia members pointed high-powered rifles at federal employees attempting to execute a court order authorizing the removal of Bundy's cattle from federal land. The margin for a mistake that could have triggered bloodshed was razor thin.
Shortly after the federal government released the cattle and withdrew from the area, Ammon Bundy acknowledged that the militia was used to instill fear in the federal employees.
"We did have militia and weapons, and that was important because (the federal officers) didn't know whether or not we were going to fire on them," Ammon Bundy says in a video that was presented as evidence by federal prosecutors in a case against Bunkerville defendant Scott Drexler, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge last month.
All Eyes Turn to Las Vegas
While many in Burns are trying to put the Bundy/militia occupation behind them, community leaders, including former county judge Steve Grasty and Sheriff Dave Ward, are hoping that justice is finally served in Las Vegas. And by justice, they mean that the Bundys and their supporters should be held accountable for their actions during the Bunkerville standoff.
Ward said he "was very disappointed" after Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others were acquitted in federal court for their role in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He worries that if they're acquitted again in Las Vegas it would send a dangerous signal to them and their supporters, including the militias, that "there is even less accountability than they thought there was at the beginning."
Grasty is still bitter over the trauma inflicted on his community by the Bundys and their supporters. "I have a hard spot in my heart for Ammon Bundy and his friends," he said.
The importance of the Las Vegas trial cannot be understated, he said.
"If they are found guilty, the system has run its course, and it does put others on notice that this model is not a good model to follow," Grasty said. "There has to be a better model to follow. Armed insurrection isn't the way to do it."
John Dougherty is the investigative journalist for The Revelator. An award-winning reporter with more than 35 years' experience covering environmental, political and economic news, he has worked for weekly and daily newspapers including the Dayton Daily News, The Phoenix Gazette and Phoenix New Times. His freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, High Country News and The Washington Post. John has produced two documentary films, "Cyanide Beach" and "Flin Flon Flim Flam," about the efforts of two Canadian companies to build the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in southern Arizona. John loves the water and spends free time kayaking, swimming and traveling the backroads of the American West and Baja.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
- Microplastics Are Increasing in Our Lives, New Research Finds ... ›
- Microplastics Found in Human Organs for First Time - EcoWatch ›
- New Study: 15.5 Million Tons of Microplastics Litter Ocean Floor ... ›
By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.