Navajo Uranium Ban Involves 25 Percent of U.S. Recoverable Uranium
by Winona LaDuke

Celebrating outside the Navajo Tribal Council offices, Navajos who had lost family members from radioactive contamination, and those fighting new proposals for uranium development hugged each other and celebrated the new era in Dine Bii Kaya.

Signing into law the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, Chairman Joe Shirley signaled a bold step for the Navajo Nation, protecting the most precious natural resource of all in the arid southwest--water. The Act reads, "No person shall engage in uranium mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country."

"It's very simple. Uranium kills," Mark Maryboy, Navajo Council Delegate said. "This legislation just chopped the legs off the uranium monster," added Norman Brown, representing Dine Bidziil, a coalition of 23 Navajo organizations, whose campaign "Leesoii Dooda," seeks to end uranium mining on Navajo lands.

While celebrating the passage of the Navajo law, the first of its kind in Indian Country, (in 2000, Australian Aboriginals secured a similar five year moratorium on the Koongarra uranium deposit in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia), the Dine community vowed to build opposition to federal energy bill provisions that would subsidize uranium corporations with $30 million in incentives.

The Navajo Nation's new law passed, just as both the Bush Administration and The New York Times called for new investment in nuclear power, as a centerpiece of a strategy to mitigate global climate change.

Calling nuclear power "one of the safest and cleanest sources of power in the world," the Bush/Cheney administration have proposed new subsidies to the U.S. uranium industry, including some which might benefit Hydro Resources Incorporated, a Texas-based uranium corporation. The New York Times in a May 4 editorial cautiously supported nuclear power calling it "promising."

Indeed, global climate change is a leading factor in the push for more nuclear power, and recent doubling of world uranium prices. In a recent report, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc noted, "as worries about climate change re-ignite the debate on nuclear power... uranium... is making a comeback after 20 years in the doldrums. Demand... is rising and prices have doubled to $20 U.S. in the last nine months."

Rio Tinto Zinc, one of the world's largest uranium mining corporations, looks to new mines in Australia, the United States and Kazakstan to fuel pending and projected reactors in China, and possible new power plants in the U.S.

Indigenous lands having historically been the source of most of the world's uranium production, including the Rossing Mine in Namibia, the world's largest mine, and the richest mines in the world in Dene territory in northern Saskatchewan.

Native nations in the U.S., Australia, Canada and elsewhere, are deemed to hold up to 70 percent of potential world uranium resources. The Navajo Nation alone holds an estimated 25 percent of recoverable uranium in the U.S. within its borders, with most of the largest remaining deposits just on the edge of the reservation.

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.

And, at the same time, groups like the Apollo Alliance point to a combined solar energy production capacity of Arizona and New Mexico of over 200 million megawatt hours a year, added to another potential for wind energy of at least five million megawatts a year, a good portion of which lies within Navajo territory. Potential solar production alone could supply well over 6 million American homes.

At the center of the controversy at Dine Bii Kaya is a long history of tragedy from the nuclear industry. In Cove, Ariz., at least one member of every Navajo family is thought to have died from cancer and other diseases resulting from uranium mining. Although the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was designed to financially compensate victims, many Navajo miners died before funds were released.

Past uranium mines have never been cleaned up, and over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines still pose environmental and health hazards on the reservation. Navajos in Church Rock and Crownpoint have been the victims of the nation's worst radioactive uranium spill, when in 1979 a liquid uranium tailings dam was breached and 100 million gallons of radioactive liquid spilled into Navajo waterways at the Rio Puerco, ending up in the Little Colorado River and subsequently the Colorado River.

More recently, proposals for in-situ uranium mining operations have surfaced in Eastern Navajo agency on lands held by individual allottees. Hydro Resources International (HRI) proposes to mine in four areas near Crownpoint and Church Rock, while 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 (ISL) mining, a process of injecting chemicals into the ground to strip the uranium from the host rock of sandstone in the aquifer. The in situ leach (ISL) process used in uranium mining has been shown to increase the concentrations of uranium and other radioactive elements and heavy metals in the groundwater by up to 100,000 times.

Citing the threat to Navajo water supply, Eastern Navajo and Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and Albuquerque-based Southwest Research Information Center have spent over $1 million in challenges to the uranium proposals by HRI. Speaking in Dine and English, Micheal Capitan of ENDAUM said, "Our water is more sacred and our water is clean; they want to dirty the water in our communities."

Ten years ago Capitan and his wife Rita Capitan founded ENDAUM. The grassroots Navajo group Concerned Citizens of T'iistsooz-Nideeshgizh joined ENDAUM's effort in 2001. Contamination projected by the in-situ process of the sole source of drinking water for 15,000 Navajos is deemed to be dangerous.

"These wells are the sole source of drinking water for thousands of people that live in the area," explained Mike Wallace, a groundwater hydrologist who has worked in the nuclear industry at WIPP in New Mexico and the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

"It is enough to cause renal damage," Wallace reiterated, 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.

On March 7, 2005, 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 the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas. The brief was the first in Phase II of the interveners' challenge of a license issued by the NRC staff in January 1998.

Despite the Navajo moratorium, legal questions now surrounding Navajo allotted lands (those adjoining the reservation), remain. At present, it appears that HRI, and possibly Strathmore, may be able to carry out the in-situ leach and other mines on lands adjacent to the Navajo nation at Churchrock areas. ENDAUM urged others to call their congressmen and oppose federal subsidies proposed as part of the Energy Bill of 2005.

U.S. Congressman Tom Udall, D-N.M., is among those opposing the uranium subsidies in the energy bill. Section 631 of the bill authorizes the appropriations 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."

"This corporate subsidy is both unnecessary and potentially environmentally dangerous," Udall said in a letter to fellow congressmen, urging their support and vote. Udall has proposed an amendment to strike Section 631 of the energy bill.

Taxpayers for Common Sense Action joined ENDAUM and Udall in opposition to the corporate uranium subsidies. "The 50-year-old nuclear industry has benefited from cradle-to-grave subsidization for too long," cofounder 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," Micheal 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."

"The people have spoken and our leaders have listened to the people," said delegate Alice Benally of Crownpoint, after hugging Lynnea Smith of ENDAUM. "Our people are still dying from this. This legislation was important to the Navajo Nation, a very big step for Navajo people."

The Navajo law is also a major step in challenging the Bush nuclear agenda for America.

News From Indian Country June 27, 2005