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Restorative Justice Can Best Address Animas River Toxic Spill

August 10, 2015

An Open Letter to Colorado Governor John W. Hickenlooper,

As many of us now know, on August 5, 2015 an estimated three million gallons of mine waste poured into the Animas River in southwestern Colorado, turning a beautiful and much loved trout stream into a toxic, yellow plume. The Animas will carry at least some of this toxic waste into the San Juan River, which then feeds into the Colorado, affecting a great many downstream users and a large swath of ecosystem.

The big question now seems to be: How can we fully assess and then repair the harm to residents and the environment, as well as assure, to the best of our ability, that no similar accident happens again? I am pretty sure that the best approach is through the principles and practices of restorative justice.

It is no secret, that in the criminal justice and educational systems where it is most widely used, restorative justice brings out the best in people and creates the collective wisdom needed to transform conflict on a regular basis. In an atmosphere of respect that prioritizes relationship, responsibility, and repair, restorative justice creates a process where real communication becomes possible.

I believe it is time to expand these values into the full range of social and environmental issues we grapple with. In the process we would move in a paradigm-shifting direction where the full picture can be seen, and where we can practice treating each other with respect, taking responsibility, and repairing harm, even when—especially when—it isn’t easy.

This would be very different from standard open house and town hall meeting formats— where government representatives answer questions with a minimum of real dialogue and then politely listen to citizen testimony with no dialogue—followed by the usual acrimony and litigation. How well has that worked?

How well restorative justice would work is a more open-ended question, but I know that if the people involved are up to the challenge, this tried and true way of resolving conflict will provide good support.

As you know, Colorado is a stronghold of restorative justice programs and practitioners. We are well positioned to lead the way in expanding the use of its principles and practices to create healthier, more resilient communities, and make government more responsive to the needs of the people.

I know many other restorative justice professionals would join me in assisting in a restorative approach. Would you be willing to lead a discussion about this?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response.

Scott Brown

Co-founder, Colorado Center for Restorative Practices


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