Environmental Justice and the Uinta Basin

As SUWA’s Utah field director I spend most of my days traveling the state, meeting with BLM staff, investigating potential new projects that threaten proposed wilderness areas, and photo-documenting the wilderness character in some of Utah’s wildest places.  I’m especially fortunate because my family and I spend much of our free time in these same places and so it’s easy to transition from work to family time.

For the past several years I have spent a good amount of my time working on SUWA’s energy campaign.  This has meant many repeated trips to eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin, as well as far flung corners of the state like the “Tar Sands Triangle” (a story for another day).  Recently, I have noticed a troubling trend in the Uinta Basin: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal and state agencies have been ignoring the impacts of oil and gas development projects on many of the small towns and hamlets and their residents.  In BLM speak, this involves the issue of “environmental justice.”

Environmental justice is essentially the fair treatment—as in no one bears an unfair share of the pollution and environmental harm—and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income in the implementation of federal programs.  In the Uinta Basin, this federal program is the BLM’s oil and gas leasing and development efforts and the enforcement of air quality regulations by the Utah Division of Air Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The fair and equal application of the law appears to have become more of a quaint theory than a reality when it comes to air pollution in the Uinta Basin.

For example, take two Uinta Basin communities located in the middle of Utah’s “oil patch,” Fort Duchesne and Randlett.  According to the 2000 Census these communities have greater than 50% of their residents living in poverty and greater than 90% of their residents are minorities.

To date, BLM environmental analyses that approve leasing and development have largely ignored the impacts of air pollution on these local residents.  I think it’s high time that practice comes to end.  The costs of developing oil and gas in eastern Utah should not fall so heavily on the shoulders of those least able to bear it.