FLC Common Reading Experience Exposes Nuclear Waste Issues Close to Home

Rocky Flats nuclear plant

Remnants of the Rocky Flats nuclear plant outside of Denver, CO. Photo used by Fair Use.

Recently, I learned that the 2013-2014 Common Reading Experience book for FLC would be Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden, a nonfictional narrative that focuses on Rocky Flats, a once secret site near Denver that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The author has a history with the plant, as she grew up in the area and her father worked at the plant. Rather than providing a dry, academic or scientific assessment of the issue, she includes both her own personal stories as well as the narratives of other workers and community members, exploring the plant’s impacts both on the environment and on families and individuals.

Rocky Flats is a topic of much interest for me for several reasons. First of all, it “hits close to home” for me, literally. I grew up about two miles southwest of the plant and I’ve always been curious about how well the area was cleaned up after its closure. Though the site was cleaned up and shut down in the early 2000’s, I’ve always wondered how thorough the clean-up process was and whether or not past production has health or environmental impacts today. The topic also relates to my fields of study, as I’m very interested in the intersectionality of social, environmental and political issues. The topic of nuclear weapons and production bring up numerous other issues that tie in to each of these fields: the political implications of nuclear proliferation, the power of the military-industrial complex, the environmental impact of nuclear waste and industrial manufacturing, the social impacts of weapons manufacturing and the health dangers caused by plutonium. Plutonium is a particularly dangerous radioactive material, deadly in even the most miniscule amounts. These are all issues that continue to be of major concern to the world today. Obviously, I’m interested in reading the book myself and I’m glad this book was chosen for FLC’s Common Reading Experience.

Although nuclear weapons manufacturing has been less of a concern in the US since the end of the Cold War, projects carried out in the past continue to impact us today.  The catastrophe at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington is a powerful example.  Known as the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the US, the Hanford nuclear reservation houses 177 tanks full of radioactive sludge left over from plutonium production during the Cold War era. Tanks housing the waste have about a 20-year long lifespan and are quickly beginning to deteriorate. Just a few weeks ago, a single tank containing roughly 447,000 gallons of highly radioactive waste was revealed to be leaking materials. Over time, it was revealed that not just one but six tank were leaking. Cleanup of the site has been delayed over the years due to budgetary issues and the failure of politicians to take action on the issue. While the governor of Washington is pushing the Federal government to take action on the issue, further budget cuts and austerity measures pursued by Congress and the House of Representatives may make cleanup even more difficult and time-consuming.

Nuclear waste has vast long-term consequences for humans, animals and the environment, and is something we all need to learn more about. While our politicians may be more interested in furthering their own agendas, the health of the earth and humanity are in peril. These are issues we should all begin to look into and I strongly feel that it is time to take action on issues of this sort. Whether this means drafting petitions, writing letters to representatives and congress members or simply educating others, it will ultimately be up to the people to make change in these areas. First of all, we must be sure that we are aware of the situations we face and that we educate ourselves. By expanding our understanding and awareness of social, environmental and political issues, we can empower ourselves to become agents of change for the world and in our communities. For more information on this issue check out these excellent sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/16/hanford-nuclear-tank-is-l_n_2701197.html

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/02/23

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2013/02/2013223223927460308.html

By Randy Newkirk

Deep Democracy With Riki Ott

Riki Ott lecturing at FLC in March 2012

Riki Ott lecturing at FLC in March 2012

At the end of March, I had the privilege of attending the Deep Democracy Workshop with Riki Ott. The workshop was an incredibly valuable opportunity to learn more about community organizing and social, political and environmental activism. Riki has a lot of experience organizing communities, and played an integral role in organizing communities to help deal with the vast environmental devastation caused by both the Exxon Valdez and BP Gulf Coast Oil Spills. She is both inspiringly motivated and full of energy, and works hard to bring about positive change.

During the workshop, many different issues and movements were discussed, as well as tactics and models of social movements that could be utilized to affect change. Among the topics discussed were the Occupy Wall Street and corresponding Occupy movements within the states and around the globe. Riki was highly enthusiastic about the revolutionary potential of the Occupy movement, as well as its peaceful, decentralized and diverse nature.

Riki also talked about the Transition Town Movement, which has also been spreading quite widely lately. Transition Towns are taking initiative and rebuilding their local economies, focusing on sustainability, interdependence and autonomy. Some Transition Towns have even gone so far as to draft their own Bill of Rights, oftentimes rejecting corporate personhood and proclaiming that sovereignty is for human beings, not corporate social constructs.

In terms of tactics, Riki was very adamant that peaceful coordination and nonviolence were key to creating movements with significant impacts. She argued that nonviolence gives movements a moral advantage and also brings new people into the movement. Nevertheless, she was equally adamant that civil disobedience is necessary to bringing about change, so long as it stays nonviolent. When injustice is law, it becomes a moral imperative that we disobey it. She gave the example of the Civil Rights movement, and tactics such as the sit-ins at lunch counters, even students peacefully getting attacked by police and dogs. By allowing themselves to be attacked and victimized by these unjust laws, people brought attention to the shockingly cruel nature of laws perpetuated by the state and civil authorities. Even the Transition Towns drafting their own Bill of Rights were a form of civil disobedience, as they are technically illegal and not recognized by the state.

Along with stressing nonviolent action, Riki also emphasized the importance of not only revolution but evolution. In other words, rather than just tearing down or reacting to systems and structures that perpetuate injustice, we need to have a vision of what we hope to replace them with. In other words, movements shouldn’t get too caught up in what they want to fight against, but what kinds of positive goals they hope to accomplish. She explained her opinion that times of great crisis, such as we seem to be experiencing now, also bring about the most potential for positive change and creative opportunity. Over all, one of the most powerful and encouraging messages she had to offer was the revolutionary power of creative and constructive thinking.

At the end of the day, we organized ourselves into two groups and created new teams to tackle issues in our community. We formed a committee to create a Free Health Care Clinic for LaPlata County Citizens in need, as well as a campaign to help bring more local foods into Fort Lewis and other schools in the area. We came up with a coherent action plan to help us solidify our goals and obstacles and to get these projects rolling. Hopefully these new initiatives will blossom into full-scale community programs, and we can implement our positive visions for the community.

Overall, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to attend this workshop. I took a lot from it, especially a new sense of enthusiasm for evolution and revolution, and it gave me hope to see so many other people passionate about creating change in the community.

~ Randy Newkirk

My Experience at the Home Grown Local Food Retreat

Homegrown Food Retreat, Keynote speaker Andy Nowak.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to attend Durango’s Homegrown Local Food Retreat, which was put together by the Environmental Center’s local foods team, as well as numerous other students and community members. The food retreat was not only educational and informative, but also featured a lot of tasty foods. It was great learning about the importance of eating locally grown foods, and even better getting to eat them.

The food retreat kicked off on Friday night, with a lecture by Andy Nowak from Colorado Farm to School. Andy did a great job of highlighting the work that he and his organization have done to bring locally grown foods into public schools, particularly in the Denver area. It was very impressive to see the progress that he and Colorado Farm to School have made in both spreading consciousness of local food and sustainability, and making local healthy foods available to all students. One of the major points Andy made was that anyone could get involved with the food sustainability movement in schools. Many people are very enthusiastic about helping their community schools flourish, and are willing to put time into efforts such as taking care of community gardens for schools. This lecture was very informative and inspiring, and hopefully it got people interested in pushing local sustainable food systems in schools.

Saturday was full of informative lectures, workshops, and panels devoted to linking community members in their passion for growing and eating local foods. One of the major highlights of the morning was Janine Fitzgerald’s lecture titled “Why We Can’t Afford Not to Eat Locally”. Janine Fitzgerald, Professor of Sociology at FLC, delivered a highly thought-provoking and inspiring lecture on how eating locally is absolutely imperative, and how we can take a proactive role in our future by focusing on our local food system. Janine brought up the often overlooked issue of Peak Oil, and just how dependent our current agricultural, political, and economic systems are on cheap oil. As the amount of cheap oil available begins to decline, we could see collapse or crises, and in order to feed ourselves, eating local food will become not only more sustainable but a practical necessity. She stressed that no matter what we do, eventually eating locally will ultimately be our only choice, and in order to create a better future we must begin to take a proactive role in sustaining our relationships with the earth, our food and local farmers. The quicker we begin to localize our economies and food systems, the better off we will be in the end. Professor Fitzgerald ended her speech with a poem that she wrote.

My personal favorite out of the workshops I attended was the one given by Katrina Blair of Turtle Lake Refuge. Katrina provided an abundant amount of information on local wild plants that not only can be eaten but also provide a tremendous amount of sustenance and nutrition. She emphasized that harvesting these wild plants could easily save a person from having to buy expensive supplements, as many of these plants were chock-full of nutrition and essential vitamins and minerals. Among these were Dock, Dandelion, Mustard Greens, Grass, and Clover. It was very interesting that many of the plants she mentioned were considered by many to be weeds, even though they provide so much nutrition. Clearly we need to become more knowledgeable about the wild plants around us, and learn to nurture them rather than seeing them as invasive or something to be eliminated.

Next was lunch. Several different soups were available, each of which were excellent and nourishing. I was able to sample each. Also available was a very tasty frittata, and a huge selection of greens. Almost everything was grown locally and tasted great. I’m glad I didn’t miss out on this meal, as it was the best meal I’ve had in some time.

In the afternoon I attended a workshop given by Katy Pepinski, Andy Nowak and Erin Jolley, which dealt with eating locally on a budget. They gave many helpful examples of meals and recipes that can be made using local foods, and how these foods can be obtained at reasonably low prices. This workshop was particularly useful for anyone on a budget, and provided a lot of practical knowledge.

After a quick break, there was an interactive panel working with Colorado Farm to School. Andy Nowak, Krista Garand, Jim Dyer, and Kim Cotta all shared their experience and expertise with working with Farm to School and answered questions from the audience. Each person had a unique perspective to bring to the table from their work and helped to give people ideas on how they could get involved with similar projects and issues.

The last major educational event of the day dealt with sustainable snacking, and was given by Jess Kelley.  Her presentation brought a lot of things to mind which I hadn’t really thought about. She opened up the slide show with a picture of Tostitos corn chips and salsa, as an example of a non-sustainable snack. I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised, as I had never really thought of chips and salsa as being either unhealthy or unsustainable, yet Jess elucidated us on how everything from the genetically modified corn seeds used, unhealthy oils, and even gasoline were found in the product. Instead of snacks that use GMO’s or contain a lot of sugar, she gave us recipes for meatballs and instructions on growing sprouts. Both of these choices can provide a lot of protein and can be quite healthy and sustainable, as well as easy to make or grow.

All in all, the Food Retreat was something I’m glad I was able to go to. Everything from the delicious local foods to the guest speakers, workshops and panels provided a valuable experience. I learned a lot about food, plants, and the environment, and got to eat in the process. The workshops brought up a lot of new ideas that I hadn’t really considered, and they were all quite thought-provoking. Now that I’ve gotten to experience the food retreat, I think I’ll definitely try to be there again next year!

Randy Newkirk

Check out more pictures of this event here.