Uranium mining has been a health and environmental scourge, and yet an
economic engine as well at Navajo. For some 50 years, Navajo have lived
with the effects of thousands of open pit mines, many left unredeemed after
decades of exposure. But health and life issues trumped economic issues
April 19, when the Navajo Nation Council passed the Dine Natural Resources
Protection Act of 2005 in a vote of 69 – 13.
The new act, which Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. is expected to sign,
outlaws uranium mining and processing throughout the vast territory.
The measure, which caught a few people by surprise, is evidence of a strong
and persistent Navajo grassroots movement that has organized for years
against the restart of uranium mining on the reservation. The strong
movement has grown and recently achieved its major objective because it is
grounded in spiritual teaching that, along with concerns for health issues,
still resonates among traditionalists on the reservation.
Respect for the spiritual quality and importance of water in people’s
everyday life is an intricate part of the Navajo and other Native
opposition to uranium mining and processing technologies. By their
long-term polluting nature, these processes too often violate principles of
cultural and technical common sense. At Hopi, too, located within the vast
Navajo territory, strong concerns are increasingly raised in this deeply
traditional community about a coal slurry pipeline that is depleting an
aquifer of pristine, virtually non-renewable water. Respect for water as
source of health and life, and the leadership to protect it from
contamination, are wonderful Indian principles of ancient law very much
needed in governmental and business practice today.
The 27,000-square-mile reservation, which spreads across parts of Arizona,
Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, sits upon one of the world’s largest
deposits of uranium ore. At one time declared a “national sacrifice area”
in federal planning documents, the Four Corners region of Navajo country
was invaded by the uranium and coal industries throughout the Cold War
years and to the present. As an industry, it provided a lot of employment
which, by its very nature, has caused untold damage to the people and the
ecology of their homelands.
Over time, among the more than 255,000 members of the nation – of which an
estimated 180,000 live in Navajo land – the uranium mining companies
recruited, trained and employed thousands of Navajo as miners and in other
professions. The Navajo workers were callously misinformed and uninformed
for decades about the dangerous nature of the materials they were made to
handle. The close nature of their work with radiation-laden yellowcake
caused many cancer and other deaths – perhaps as many as one person per
family in some communities across the reservation. The country’s worst
radioactive uranium spill happened in 1979, when 100 million gallons of
radioactive liquid contaminated waterways in Church Rock and Crownpoint.
Navajo people have lived with the scourge of uranium mining and the ensuing
contamination of their lands for too long.
The Radiation Expose Compensation Act of 1990 came too late for many
elderly Navajo miners. But it provided compensation and was a needed
recognition by the federal government that the uranium venture thrust upon
the Navajo by the federal government brought severe disregard for the
safety and health of whole communities. Obvious evidence is still found in
the many areas where radioactive materials remain dangerously close to
communities and homes. The largest Indian nation in the country is right to
listen to its most ancient voices on this issue.
For more than 30 years, various groups of Navajo grassroots people have
sought to examine, critique and then stop the mining. They have become a
force to reckon with and give every indication of continuing the campaign
to not allow the nuclear contamination to restart within or even near the
The recent over-the-top victory for opposition to uranium mining on the
reservation, particularly in its eastern portion, was directly fueled by
concerns that a new wave of mining is imminent. This was signaled by
provisions in the federal energy bill to subsidize uranium corporations
with $30 million in incentives to further develop the region. The watchdog
movement now sets its eye on provisions of the energy bill that encourage
in situ leaching research in areas adjacent to the reservation.
U.S. Congressman Tom Udall, D-N.M., an ally of the Navajo mining opponents,
has taken on Section 631 of the energy bill that authorizes the
appropriations of $30 million over three years to “identify, test and
develop improved in situ leaching mining technologies, including low-cost
environmental restoration technologies.” Udall calls the federal subsidy
“corporate welfare … [that] will have a severe impact on the Southwest’s
environment and on the public health of the Native American communities I
represent.” His amendment to strike the subsidies is a further limitation
on the nuclear industry in the region. Udall’s call for a comprehensive
energy policy that enhances alternative sources of energy is also
compatible with Native philosophies.
As always, proponents of the present energy policy will try to ram the
industry down the Navajo people’s throats. Lawsuits are, of course,
expected; and, most dangerously, Sen. Pete Domenici might decide to move
federal legislation to prohibit the Navajo Nation from regulating uranium
mining on its own lands.
As always, the problem of radioactive uranium, in situ leach mining
included, is its likelihood to contaminate groundwater, in the present
Navajo case, for some 15,000 people. This is a threat and a reality to
public health that tens of thousands of other Navajos have lived with for
too many decades. A different approach is possible.
A bit less explosive and always potentially troublesome, yet the rail of a
more prosperous economic base, the Navajo Nation has the construction of
six casinos in the works. Likely to be operated by the nation government,
with some reasonable management and good grassroots orientation in terms of
disbursement of benefits in health, education and infrastructure
assistance, a well-regulated gaming industry could be just the right
economic engine for the largest Indian nation in the United States.
There is a lot to be said about a well-regulated gaming industry to go with
a nation’s other tourism and hospitality, crafts and agricultural
enterprises. It can be the precise financial base – at this time in history
– to allow the country’s largest Indian nation to solidify its land base,
grow and prosper its population, and be able to fully defend and enhance
its water sources and other environmental wonders.