Energy Exploitation and the Ban on Uranium Mining in Navajo Country

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The president of the Navajo Nation approved legislation last month banning uranium mining and processing on Navajo territory. We host a debate on energy exploitation with Navajo President Joe Shirley and Earl Tully of Dine Care, a Navajo environmental organization. [includes rush transcript]

President Joe Shirley approved legislation last month banning uranium mining and processing on Navajo territory. There is currently no mining on the Navajo reservation but Hydro Resources Inc. has been working with the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for years to try to get approval for mining near the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock, New Mexico. The company estimates nearly one-hundred million pounds of uranium exists on those sites.

Companies mined land in Navajo country for forty years and the impact is still felt. Navajos have suffered from high cancer rates and respiratory problems. Their land has been dotted with contaminated tailings and abandoned mines.

  • Joe Shirley, President of the Navajo Nation.
  • Earl Tully, Vice President of Dine Care.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Navajo President, Joe Shirley. Also on the line with us is Earl Tully, Vice President of Dine Care. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with the Navajo President, Joe Shirley. Can you talk about the uranium mining ban?

JOE SHIRLEY: This — ever since I started campaigning for the presidency of the Navajo Nation, I took a position to say that if I were to be elected president, I’m not going to allow — I would give it everything that I had to stand against the further mining of uranium. And then, of course, I was elected president a little bit over two years ago, and true to what I had said, I — we worked on the introducing legislation, getting legislation on the books to ban the further mining of uranium. And I’m really appreciative about the nation’s council for acquiescing in the position to ban the further mining of uranium. You know, there are no answers to the cancer, to the plagues that is caused by exposure to uranium. And if you don’t have the answers to the cancer that it causes, why have it? That’s basically my position and my belief. I take that from medicine people. You know, it’s just — if there are no answers for it. And it has killed many of my medicine people, and because of that, there are some of the ceremonies that they used to know that we don’t know anymore. It has killed a lot of elderly. It has killed a lot of young. Today, there are many people living in the areas where uranium was mined, you know, sick with cancer. Some of them are bed-ridden, and then like I said, there are just no answers for it. If there are no answers for the cancer that the uranium causes, why have it? Like I said, I’m glad that our nation’s council stood with me to ban the further mining of uranium.

AMY GOODMAN: Earl Tully, how did you get involved in this issue as Vice President of Dine Care?

EARL TULLY: In response to that, I would imagine that my particular advocacy started years ago during the RECA, Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, in the community where I reside. There were a number of exploratory mines across the Navajo Nation. Roughly about 3,000 mines are there, but let me say this, though. For decades, the coal miners used canaries in the coal mines to alert them of dangerous gases. The dead canary signaled a clear warning that gases were high, and therefore, it would soon kill people. To the contrary, the industries and the powers that be that opened up these uranium mines utilized our people as canaries, and today, those particular individuals are still being impacted. You know, our particular families are highly devastated because of the exposure to uranium. And I guess one of the things that I would like to share here is is that in people, where people are living in communities where there is high unemployment, you know, the table of penalties assessed to various communities are very, very different. I remember in my advocacy during the RECA, the reauthorization of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, we understood that the people of color communities, they were not receiving the same compensation and the same care from E.P.A. or other regulatory officials as in regards to white communities. And I think this is evidently true here in the four corners of the United States. I think that the number of the people that are living out here basically have to go out and take care of their own, take care of their own meaning that when you do not have facilities enough to accommodate the number of sicknesses that are here — and one of the atrocities here in the Navajo Nation is that we do not have adequate facilities to take care of those that have been exposed to uranium. And it’s important for us to really realize that, that the cancer rate here on the Navajo Nation is very, very high. You know, the cancer rates among Native American communities with uranium minings are 17 times higher than the general population, and we could toss these numbers out there, you know, again and again and again, but they’re all published in the context that this particular extraction of natural resources is something that we should not be doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Joe Shirley, President of the Dine Nation, if there has been compensation for the high levels of sickness, and what companies specifically are involved?

JOE SHIRLEY: I didn’t catch the last part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what companies are specifically involved? First has there been compensation?

JOE SHIRLEY: The only compensation that know about is coming from the U.S. government. Of course, like I said, I have been here a couple of years, and I’m still being enlightened as to what is out there. But as to any particular issue that faces the Navajo Nation, in this case, the only compensation that I know that it comes down to some of the people who were exposed to uranium is from the U.S. government. And that is very inadequate and, of course, right now, working with organizations like Dine Care, and some of the other ones, you know, were trying to up the amount of monies that are given as compensation to some of the families. You had to go through a very rigorous process to even get a compensation. Even there, we’re trying to lighten up on the legislation, recommending some changes, you know, to the laws that actually is used to give compensation to some of the people affected by uranium — exposure to uranium. I don’t, like I said, believe that it is adequate. It’s too slow. And we need to change the law to make it a little bit easier.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this — let me put this question to Earl Tully. How does this issue of uranium mining and the ban fit into the politics of overall, well, energy politics in the Navajo Nation?

EARL TULLY: I think one of the major problems in this — if I could, I’d like to go back and answer a question previously asked. As far as the RECA is concerned, you know, before the amendment was made, $100,000 was considered the adequate, I guess, compensation for a particular person who had filed. And $100,000, you take the average cost of 30% for a lawyer. So the family would only get $70,000. And when you spread that around it’s not going to go too far. And I think one of the areas of RECA is to boost that up to $150,000. So I guess one of the main things that I would like to say is that uranium, as a natural raw material being extracted from the heart of the Navajo Nation, soon to follow thereafter are going to be more extractions in regards to the Bush policy and the energy policy that is being currently introduced on the Hill. You know, our brothers and sisters up into the Arctic where they’re harvesting and they’re able to gather herbs and wildlife for their particular existence is going to be impacted by the drilling of gas and then the exploration wells as well. But I would imagine that, you know, soon to follow is is that the Indian Nations again are going to be asked to give — you know, just as they did in World War II, to make a sacrifice for this country again. The sacrifice at that time was they beckoned the Navajo Nation and other Indian communities to be co-talkers during the World War II, and I think at this time what’s going to happen is that they’re going to ask us of our resources again. So, I would assume that the continuing quest of energy companies to come on to Navajo, either it be with more exploratory mines, as President Shirley had indicated, that this is not a dead issue. H.R.I. is still going full force, advocating on those that are [unintelligible] holders.

AMY GOODMAN: H.R.I. being Hydro Resources Inc.?

EARL TULLY: Yes. And then also again, there is the idea of Desert Rock, of, you know, bringing a power plant onto the Nation again. Now, our particular community, you know, there’s a vast number of our people that do not have adequate water, fresh water supply. They have to bring their containers in 55 gallon drums. This is the year 2005, and we are still hauling water. We still use outhouses. And the mentality of companies coming out here, it’s basically not in my backyard, but in your backyard, that is perfectly fine. So, I would assume that the push for natural resources and also power plant developments, that’s going to be their carrot at the end of the stick, so that we could be gainfully employed here on the Nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Shirley, what is being done about energy companies’ attempt to extract oil, whether it’s coal, or other companies?

JOE SHIRLEY: In the case of the uranium, we don’t want any more companies coming in, so that’s where this ban has been put on the books, and we’re going to stand our grounds, as a sovereign nation to try to preserve our ability to not let it happen. But as far as coal and natural gas, we’re continuing to mine those, albeit, you know, there are some things that are not good about it, but at least, you know, there we are still having to deal with some of these energy companies, you know, the coal companies, to continue to mine our coal, to — so that we can continue to have jobs and revenues. But we are wanting to have them go into this clean coal technology to where, you know, when they do mine the coal, you know, it is — they don’t pollute the air. To the best of our abilities, we’re trying to stand our grounds on that, you know, with some of these coal companies.

AMY GOODMAN: Earl Tully, we just have 15 seconds. Last comment.

EARL TULLY: Okay. One of the things here is is that I think in many cases race is not the issue, but income. It is — you know, again I will go back to the average E.P.A. penalties and clean-up by race is very, very different. The people of colors are highly impacted in a sense that they do not receive adequate just compensation as in white communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

EARL TULLY: One of the things that I’d like to say is the empire of Japan was amply compensated, and the Navajo Nation is still waiting for compensation.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, Earl Tully, Vice President of Dine Care and Joe Shirley, President of the Navajo Nation, I want to thank you very much both for joining us.

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