Rethinking Our Rivers

Eco-Steward Josh Campbell graduated in May from Oklahoma Baptist University, where he studied cultural anthropology. He will soon start a master’s program in international agriculture and development at Oklahoma State University.  The program will focus on using agriculture to preserve, sustain, and develop communities. Here he reflects on what he learned during our June Eco-Stewards Program in southeastern Montana.

During our time in Montana, the Eco-Stewards explored many subjects related to personal faith and the environment. One of the things we explored together was the connection between the environment and personal health ­­­­­­­­– the idea that the land one lives in can play a major part in one’s physical health. Lack of care for the environment often leads to poor health conditions for the people that live in and depend on the land that is treated poorly. This is the case for those living on the Crow Reservation and other places in Montana.

While in Montana, our group met with Mari Eggers, an ecologist and doctoral student at Montana State University, who has conducted water quality research with students at Little Bighorn College and community member research partners on the Crow Reservation. She and her family have lived on the reservation and know first hand the complexity of environmental issues and how they can affect the health and well being of people.

Ecologist Mari Eggers was a guest speaker at the 2010 Montana Eco-Stewards Program.

Eggers discussed how water contamination is impacting public health on the Crow Reservation. The pollution of river systems in Montana is the result of many practices that don’t take consideration for the environment. Some of these include: mercury emissions from power plants; straight pipes, which take sewage from houses straight into the river systems; runoff from chemicals used in farming; animal waste; and inadequate municipal wastewater treatment.  There is also concern about mineral contaminants from old uranium mines reaching the rivers, an issue currently being researched by one of Eggers’ colleagues.  The level of fecal contamination makes the rivers unsafe for swimming in some locations and at some times during the year. In addition, many people on the Crow Reservation rely on shallow well water for home use; approximately half of these wells have tested positive for bacterial contamination and/or unsafe levels of mineral contaminants such as manganese.  Community members are also concerned about pesticides from agriculture in their groundwater, an issue now being researched in the Bighorn River Valley on the Reservation by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Eggers noted that their project has tested mercury levels in local fish, and found that the larger fish of some species are high enough in mercury that women of childbearing age and children should not consume more than one serving of these fish per month.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also tested fish in the reservoir on the Reservation, and found that the local walleye have some of the highest mercury levels of all the fish they tested nationwide.  This seems absolutely wrong to me. Water in many cultures and faith traditions is the most sacred element– the source of life. Life depends on clean water for survival, yet, we take it for granted. What are we doing wrong that it is not safe to eat fish from our waters?

The Bighorn River on the Crow Reservation.

I live in Oklahoma, where natural gas companies are one of the major employers, chemical agriculture is the norm, and Indian reservations are packed into one small place like sardines in a can.  It is a place where our river systems are all but gone, yet, I have never really stopped to consider any of these things. In fact, not until my time in Montana, did I stop to think about how the improper treatment of the environment could directly affect people.  I have never really considered issues of environmental racism on Indian reservations. Nor the effects of chemicals used in agriculture and natural gas production. Now that I am home, I feel guilty for being blind to the issues around me, but also responsible for sharing with others the importance of our natural world and caring for it properly. If we care for it, it will care for us.

I recently read a 2009 New York Times article showing that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet federal health regulations. Here in Oklahoma we know first hand the horrible effects pollution can have on both human, and non-human environments. The former town of Picher, now a ghost town, was once a city in Ottawa County, Oklahoma and was formerly a center of lead and zinc mining. Discoveries of ground contamination and the possibility of a cave-in of mines under the city forced much of its population to evacuate. The nearby town of Cardin is now experiencing the same issues. As a result of the devastation from mining, Picher’s population plummeted from 1,640 people in the 2000 census to 20 in the 2010 census— it is believed to have no true residents today. This devastated land belongs to the Quapaw Tribe of northeast Oklahoma.  After the mining, and after the government moved everyone away, the Tribe was handed back the worst environmental disaster site in the country.

After my time in Montana, I do not have an answer to the complex problems that we and our environments are facing, but I do believe that understanding that there are problems, and being aware and concerned about the issues in the place you find yourself, is very important. When our environment is sick, we are sick. We depend on our environment for life and when the environment we live in is disrespected, human life is also being disrespected. Any environmental problem is a human problem.

Now, may God grant us wisdom to understand and the eyes to see the environmental issues affecting the well being of others, and may we be brave enough to advocate for any part of creation where there is injustice. May we be instruments of God’s justice and peace so that all creation might be in right-relationship.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Our Rivers

  1. Amy Courtney

    Good Job Josh! I loved reading your thoughts as well as listening to all your experiences, you have taught me so much!

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