This Week's Program: Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Navajo Nation Council Bans Uranium Mining

April 4, 2005, Editors Report/Indian Country Today

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 Din 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 yellow cake 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 reservation.

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.