Navajos ban uranium mining

World Reports

Navajos (Dinés) who have lost family members from radioactive contamination – and those fighting new proposals for uranium development – celebrated the passage April 19 of the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005. Navajo Tribal Chairman Joe Shirley’s signing of the Act into law signaled a bold step in protecting the arid southwest’s most precious natural resource – water – from mining contamination. The Act bans all uranium mining and processing anywhere on the Navajo Reservation.

A new law bans all
uranium mining
and processing on
Navajo land.

“It’s very simple: Uranium kills,” said Mark Maryboy of the Navajo Council Delegate. “This legislation just chopped the legs off the uranium monster,” added Norman Brown of Diné Bidziil, a coalition of 23 Navajo organizations seeking to end uranium mining on Navajo lands. While celebrating the passage of the law, the first of its kind in Indian country, the Diné community vowed to oppose passage of a federal energy bill with subsidies of $30 million for uranium mining.

The Navajo Nation’s new law passed as the Bush administration called for new investment in nuclear power to mitigate global climate change. Calling nuclear power “one of the safest and cleanest sources of power in the world,” the Bush administration proposed new subsidies to the US uranium industry. Indeed, global climate change is a leading factor in the push for more nuclear power. As mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc noted in a recent report, climate change worries are prompting renewed debate on nuclear power. After two decades of slack market, uranium prices have doubled in nine months. Rio Tinto Zinc, one of the world’s largest uranium mining corporations, looks to new mines in Australia, the United States, and Kazakhstan to fuel pending and projected reactors in China, and possibly the US.

Indigenous lands have historically been the source of most of the world’s uranium production. Native nations in the US, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere are deemed to hold 70 percent of world’s uranium resources. The Navajo Nation alone holds an estimated 25 percent of recoverable uranium in the US. Native people are increasingly concerned about energy proposals for ramping up nuclear power, as new mines will compound the already devastating environmental and health effects of historic mining.

At the same time, groups like the Apollo Alliance point to underused solar and wind energy capacity, much of it in Navajo country. In Arizona and New Mexico, over 200 million-megawatt hours a year of solar energy and another potential five million megawatts a year of wind energy go unused. Potential solar production alone could supply well over six million American homes.

Navajo uranium sorrow
The Navajo Nation has a long and tragic relationship with the nuclear industry. In Cove, Arizona, at least one member of every Navajo family is thought to have died from cancer or other diseases resulting from uranium mining. Although the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was designed to compensate victims, many Navajo miners died before the funds were released. Old uranium mines have never been cleaned up, and over 1,000 abandoned mines on the reservation still pose environmental and health hazards. Navajos in Church Rock and Crownpoint, NM have been victims of the nation’s worst radioactive uranium spill. In 1979, a liquid uranium tailings dam was breached and 100 million gallons of radioactive liquid spilled into Navajo waterways. The Little Colorado River and subsequently the Colorado River were contaminated.

Recently, proposals for in situ uranium mining operations have surfaced in Eastern Navajo lands held by individuals. Hydro Resources Incorporated (HRI), a Texas-based uranium mining corporation and potential beneficiary of the Bush subsidies, is proposing to mine four areas near Crownpoint and Church Rock. Meanwhile, Strathmore, a Canadian mining corporation, has purchased additional uranium interests in the Grants Mineral belt adjoining the Navajo Reservation. In HRI’s proposals, the uranium would be removed by in situ leach mining, a process of injecting chemicals into the ground to strip the uranium from the underlying sandstone. The in situ leaching process has been shown to increase concentrations of uranium, other radioactive elements, and heavy metals in the groundwater by up to l00,000 times. Citing the threat to the Navajos’ water supply, Eastern Navajo and Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and the Southwest Research Information Center have spent over $ l million in challenges to HRI’s uranium proposals. Speaking in Diné and English, Michael Capitan, co-founder of ENDAUM, said, “Our water is more sacred and our water is clean. They want to dirty the water in our communities.”

The implicated water is drinking water for 15,000 Navajo. “These wells are the sole source of drinking water for thousands of people that live in the area,” says Mike Wallace, a groundwater hydrologist who has worked in the nuclear industry at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

“It is enough to cause renal damage,” Wallace says, concurring with Dr. John Fogerty, the Indian Health Service Director in Crownpoint, at Eastern Navajo. “I’ve never seen such poor science, poor accountability, and poor traceability,” Wallace added.

“We can get by without
uranium. We cannot get by
without water.”
—Richard Abitz

On March 7, ENDAUM, Southwest Research and Information Center and two Navajo women filed a 1,200-page brief outlining why the project will illegally contaminate underground sources of drinking water in Church Rock and Crownpoint. Despite the Navajo moratorium, legalities abound. At present, it appears that HRI, and possibly Strathmore, may be able to carry out in situ leaching and other techniques on lands adjacent to the Navajo nation at Church Rock.

Corporate subsidies
Representative Tom Udall (D-NM) is among those opposing the federal uranium subsidies in the 2005 Energy Bill. ”This corporate subsidy is both unnecessary and potentially environmentally dangerous,’’ Udall said in a letter to fellow congressmen. He has proposed an amendment to strike Section 631 of the energy bill, which authorizes the appropriation of a $10 million subsidy for the next three fiscal years to “identify, test and develop improved in situ leaching mining technologies, including low-cost environmental restoration technologies.” Taxpayers for Common Sense Action joined ENDAUM and Udall in opposition of the corporate uranium subsidies. “The 50-year-old nuclear industry has benefited from cradle-to-grave subsidization for too long,” Taxpayers co-founder Jill Lancelot said.

“‘Water is life’ is not just a political slogan – it’s a description of some of the fundamental principles we live by every day. Water is used in our religious ceremonies, just like it is used in the ceremonies of the Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths. It is essential to our survival in an arid climate,’’ Capitan explained to a United Nations Conference this past September. Echoing those words, Richard Abitz, geo-chemist and environmental scientist, said, “Water is needed for life. Uranium is not needed for life. We can get by without uranium. We can not get by without water.”

Take action: ENDAUM urges anyone opposed to continued pollution of groundwater in the Navajo country to tell their representatives to oppose federal uranium subsidies in the 2005 Energy Bill. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

“The people have spoken and our leaders have listened to the people,” said delegate Alice Benally of Crownpoint. “Our people are still dying from this. This legislation was important to Navajo Nation, a very big step for Navajo people.” The Navajo law is also a major step in challenging the Bush and nuclear agenda for America.

Winona LaDuke is a writer and activist living on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

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