Arizona Snowbowl Controversy

Many environmental struggles are never resolved. In the case of the 13 native tribes living near the Arizona Snowbowl outside of Flagstaff, their campaign to save their land has been ongoing for decades (Macmillan, 2012). The most recent controversy involves the ski resort’s decision to use 100 % reclaimed wastewater to make snow for this year’s ski season (Id). The native tribes residing in this area consider these mountains sacred and have had difficulty pleading their case against the resort, whose presence is considered paramount for the survival of that community’s economy. Rallies, demonstrations, road-blocks, years of litigation and still no victory (Under the Concrete, 2011). Their most recent loss in court was specifically related to the use of the treated sewage water, to be sprayed over 205 acres of the San Francisco Peaks in the form of snow, and their concerns about its impact on human and ecosystem health (USDA, 2005). In February, the court of appeals voted in favor of the resort, allowing Arizona Snowbowl to finally go ahead with its plan (MacMillan, 2012).

Save the Peaks Propaganda Poster                          source: http://protectthepeaks.org/

Interestingly, an environmental assessment (EA) was conducted in 2005 by the USDA Forest Service, regarding the proposed actions of the Snowbowl (Holder, 2011). It is this EA that triggered the lawsuits that have gone on for the last 7 years (Under the Concrete, 2011). The EA found “class A reclaimed water” to be a safe alternative to the use of drinking water to make snow (USDA, 2005). This is in spite of the fact that a scientist hired by the city of Flagstaff, who independently tested the wastewater, found “endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, including hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals and steroids” (Macmillan, 2012, A. 20), in that same water. The reason behind this is that the federal EA by law does not have to consider such chemicals in its analysis, making this wastewater compliant with federal and state water standards (Id). Although several unknowns remain regarding the EDCs and their possible effects on ecosystem and human health, Snowbowl has gone ahead as planned (Holder, 2011). Coincidentally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the midst of its own major study on the harms of reclaimed wastewater and is expected to have its results by 2013 (Id). This could be just what the tribes and environmentalists need to help further their case. If the results of the study generate any new laws, then the resort might be forced to change its practices. The picture featured here, was a protest poster created by Protect the Peaks coalition, one of the organizations fighting against the Snowbowl. This poster was developed to be distributed alongside a petition to stop the resort from using wastewater.

This example, although from a US perspective, helps highlight some difficulties that are encountered in environmental assessment (EA) and policy making. Even though the process of EA was created in part to help prevent future environmental damage from a proposed project, economic, legislative, and political barriers exist within the process and can heavily influence the outcome of the EA. This also demonstrates how the precautionary principle needs to be implemented more seriously in EA, to avoid future problems that could cause irreversible damage. In addition, even though serious public participation was incorporated into the scoping process in 2005, including several meetings with tribal leaders and groups and an extended public comment period (USDA, 2005), the sociocultural and environmental issues brought up by the participants did not alter the EA in their favor. It boiled down to the fact that federal legislation did not support those concerns and that the economic benefits of keeping the Arizona Snowbowl in operation outweighed the possible harm caused by the use of wastewater that was within legal water quality standards.

The following video demonstrates and summarizes the range of concerns from all the different parties involved in the struggle against the resort’s decision to use wastewater to make snow:

References:

1. Macmillan, Leslie. “Resort’s Snow Won’t be Pure This Year;It’ll Be Sewage”. New York Times on the web. September 26th, 2012. Retrieved October 1st, 2012 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/us/arizona-ski-resorts-sewage-plan-creates-uproar.html?_r=1&smid=pl-share

2. Holder, P. Oksana. (2011). “Snowbowl: No Green Deed Goes Unpunished”. Arizona Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. Vol 2: 1013-1019. Retrieved from: http://www.law.arizona.edu/journals/arizona_journal_of_environmental_law_and_policy/vol2comments.cfm

3. Resistance Continues for Snowbowl Opposition. (March, 2011). UNDER THE CONCRETE. Retrieved from: http://www.undertheconcrete.org/2011/03/01/resistance-continues-for-snowbowl-opposition/

4. USDA, Final EIA. (2005). Arizona Snowbowl Facilities Improvements and Forest Plan Amendment #21 – USDA Forest Service – Peaks Ranger District, Coconino National Forest Coconino County, Arizona. Volume 1. Executive summary. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/us/arizona-ski-resorts-sewage-plan-creates-uproar.html?_r=1&smid=pl-share

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