The Navajo Nation has blocked a backdoor deal that would have allowed uranium mining to restart, despite lingering waste from past mining and a reservation-wide ban that’s been in place since 2005.
But opponents of the thwarted deal say they plan to stay vigilant, to make sure the uranium industry doesn’t get a foothold.
During its Summer Session last week, the Navajo Nation Council voted 18-3 to rescind legislation passed in December by an unauthorized committee. It would have allowed a Colorado-based company called Uranium Resources Incorporated (URI) to conduct in situ – literally “on-site” – mining on private lands near Church Rock, at the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and then transport the uranium across Navajo trust lands.
The uranium industry saw its first successes in the Four Corners region during World War II; a full-on heyday hit during the Cold War. Afterwards, former mining areas lay in ruins. By one estimate, the state of Colorado has spent $1 billion to clean up mill sites, and 1,300 abandoned sites remain across the state. The EPA razed an entire mining town, Uravan, near the San Miguel River in west-central Colorado, because it was so contaminated.
Past uranium mining has also contaminated homes, land and soil at 520 sites across the Navajo Nation, and possibly more. Drinking water from at least 22 wells is unfit for consumption by people or livestock. Researchers at regional universities have documented numerous cancers and other ailments among Navajo people that are attributable to radiation.
Recognizing the legacy of contamination, the Navajo Nation has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up waste sites, and train tribal members to complete the work.
Even so, the uranium industry is poised to return. Energy Fuels, Inc., an Ontario, Canada-based corporation with an operations center near Denver, owns four mines north of the Grand Canyon, one just south of it, a uranium mill in southeast Utah, and rights to numerous mining sites on standby across the Utah-Colorado border. URI claims more than 200,000 acres of uranium holdings in New Mexico, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to produce up to 3 million pounds of uranium a year and “two licensed plants on standby, ready to produce when there is a sustained improvement in the uranium market,” according to promotional materials. So far, none of its properties in Texas or New Mexico are in production.
The uranium market has been volatile, and generally in decline, in the wake of a 2007 spike that fueled fleeting optimism about an industry comeback. Since then, uranium companies with interests in the Four Corners area have been waiting for market conditions to improve before they make earnest efforts to dig into the region’s vast supplies.
Leona Morgan, an activist with Diné NO NUKES, says her concerns reach far beyond URI’s interests in eastern Navajo. She says the past uranium boom also included exploratory drilling; today’s would-be mining companies maintain vast databases of the deposits that remain.
“I’m pretty sure in the entire United States … this is their money in the ground,” she said, referring to the Four Corners region. “They haven’t pulled it out yet, but they’re banking on all the uranium that’s underneath us.”
URI began working with members of the Resources and Development Committee, part of the Navajo Nation Council, late last year. Leonard Tsosie, a Council delegate representing eight eastern Navajo chapters, sponsored legislation that provided for a right-of-way to allow URI access to its uranium mining sites on private land, in an area where state, private and tribal trust tracts form a checkerboard of ownership.
“If Uranium Resources were allowed unlimited access over Trust Land in Church Rock, that would have potentially opened up new mining on URI’s other properties in northwestern New Mexico,” said Jonathan Perry, President of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), in a press release. “Because these kinds of companies target areas adjacent to the Nation, but not on Navajo Indian country, our own laws prohibiting new uranium mining cannot protect people in the checkerboard lands.”
The resolution was hotly disputed by Council members for a number of reasons. First, it flew in the face of two Navajo anti-uranium laws: the 2005 Diné Natural Resources Protection Act (DNRPA), which imposed a moratorium on uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation, and the 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act (RMTA), regulating transportation of uranium and other radioactive materials across reservation. And Navajo Nation Council members argued fiercely since December that the legislation should have been brought before full Council.
Finally, in July 2012, URI entered into a Temporary Access Agreement with the Navajo Nation which allows URI limited access to its Church Rock property with certain stipulations, including the cleanup of existing uranium contamination in the area. The now-defunct December legislation would have allowed URI to get around that requirement.
Now that the immediate threat has passed, Morgan says it’s important to continue to educate Navajos about existing and potential hazards from uranium mining across the reservation.
She said tribal members shoulder no blame for the past mining contamination, but she believes that today’s educated youth have a responsibility to insist on cleanup as well as future protections: “If we mess up our land within the Four Sacred Mountains, that’s our own fault,” she said. “Right now, we’d be stupid to let our leaders make those decisions for our future.”