The Navajo Nation’s Ongoing Battle Against Uranium Mining

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We look at the ongoing battle over uranium mining in the Navajo Nation. Mining has occurred on Navajo territory for over fifty years and the impact is still being felt. We speak with the directors of the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining and the Southwest Research and Information Center. [includes rush transcript]

We are broadcasting from New Mexico–home to the Navajo Nation. For decades they have been fighting an ongoing battle against uranium mining on their land. Last April, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley approved legislation banning uranium mining 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 making it worth millions of dollars.

Uranium mining occurred on the Navajo Reservation for over fifty years and the impact is still felt. The land has been dotted with contaminated tailings and hundreds of abandoned mines that have not been cleaned up.

There have been few studies on the health effects in reservation communities, but Navajos have suffered from high cancer rates and respiratory problems. One study has found that cancer rates among Navajo teenagers living near mine tailings are 17 times the national average.

The Navajo Reservation is home to more than 180,000 people. Over half the population lives below the U.S. poverty line.

The group Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, or ENDAUM, and the Southwest Research and Information Center have been fighting mining company HRI for over a decade in court. In a few minutes we will speak with the directors of SRIC and ENDAUM, but first we turn to the documentary “Homeland” that takes a look at the battle against uranium mining in Crownpoint and Chruch Rock.

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

AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes we’ll speak with the directors of both groups, but first we turn to an excerpt of the documentary, Homeland, that takes a look at the battle against uranium mining in Crownpoint and Church Rock. It’s produced by Katahdin Foundation. This excerpt begins with the co-founder of ENDAUM, Rita Capitan.

RITA CAPITAN: In 1994, in the evening, we were here at home and Mitchell brought the paper home, as he does every day, and we both read it about two or three times in disbelief that uranium mining is to begin in Crownpoint and Church Rock. They’re starting up again.

NARRATOR: From here you can see the whole town of Crownpoint. Mitchell and Rita live just below the water tank there in the distance, and as you can see, very, very close to where the Hydro Resources Incorporated plans to put the uranium mine.

RITA CAPITAN: Without any public hearings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted permission for the deadly carcinogen to be mined right next to Crownpoint schools and churches.

MITCHELL CAPITAN: I don’t understand N.R.C., the United States government, why they could do this again. Why they would have a mine like this near our community.

NARRATOR: The N.R.C. had granted permission for the Texas-based company to conduct the mining with a process called, ”in situ leach mining.”

EXPERT: The mining company intends to inject chemicals down into the aquifer next to the community water supply. Those chemicals will leach, or strip, the uranium off of the rock into the aquifer, creating, basically, a toxic soup.

MITCHELL CAPITAN: Rita started to ask me questions, “Isn’t this what you have worked before, you know, this kind of mining, in situ leach mining?” I said, “Yeah.”

RITA CAPITAN: Mitchell worked as a lab technician for Mobil Oil in the 1980s.

MITCHELL CAPITAN: Mobil was doing a pilot project with the in situ leach mining west of Crownpoint. I worked in the lab with the engineers, and no matter how hard we tried, we could never get all the uranium out of the water. We closed the project. This is what made me start thinking about the environment, especially our water.

RITA CAPITAN: We talked about having a community meeting.

MITCHELL CAPITAN: And we decided to do something about it.

RITA CAPITAN: We put an article in the newspaper. To our surprise, at our first meeting close to fifty community members came to that meeting. There were so many people there, a lot of faces I’ve never seen before. But when we went up there to talk about it, right away we had landowners started to tell us we should stay out of their business. That’s their land, and they can do whatever they want. It was scary. It was so humiliating. It just felt like the whole community just split.

NARRATOR: There were people who stood up and accused them of anything from witchcraft to taking food out of the mouths of their grandchildren and standing in the way of people making lots of money off of the uranium leases.

RITA CAPITAN: We lost some friends. That’s something that was really sad for us. We’d never wanted that to happen in our community.

NARRATOR: This proposal split families. It just didn’t split the community, and it didn’t split clans. It split blood families.

RITA CAPITAN: There were some scary times when we were told, just be careful, just take care of yourself. So I had to really protect my family. That’s one of the reasons why Mitchell and I really had to find faith, and three years ago we became members of the Catholic Church.

NARRATOR: There’s a few families, they own the mineral rights for their land. In the distance, you can see the area around where the mining company is. That’s owned by a few Navajo families. Those families have been promised huge sums of money by the mining company. And they have been told that this mining process is, quote, “safe.”

LANDOWNER: I think when H.R.I. approached my family, the first question was: Is it safe? We arranged with the H.R.I. people to actually go to a mine where it’s in operation. I even touched some of the uranium that was there, and I read about it. I asked questions a lot. And I think H.R.I. did a good job, because they took us down there.

RITA CAPITAN: We’re not fighting with landowners [unintelligible]. We’re fighting with this company.

LANDOWNER: The mother company of H.R.I., Uranium Resources, have worked with this technology for 30 years in south Texas. So, that experience, that’s what they going to use here to mine uranium.

H.R.I. REPRESENTATIVE: With in situ mining, we drill wells. Whatever goes underground, there are no occupational hazards associated with underground mining and solution mining. In fact, our miners are electric pumps.

SECOND H.R.I. REPRESENTATIVE: We used natural groundwater to leach the uranium. It’s brought to the surface, and what we add is, we add oxygen and possibly some carbonate — club soda — to the water where it’s re-injected into the ground.

NARRATOR: The action of pumping dissolved oxygen and sodium bicarbonate into the rocks causes that uranium concentration to increase almost 100,000 times. So you go from very high quality pristine water, and you make it a toxic soup. Nobody can drink it.

SECOND H.R.I. REPRESENTATIVE: It’s safe as long as it’s contained, and as you can see here in this jar, it is contained.

NARRATOR: So, the company has to make sure that none of that stuff escapes, because it’s a poison.

SECOND H.R.I. REPRESENTATIVE: The entire well field is circled by monitor wells.

NARRATOR: Because the underground buried stream beds are narrower than the distance between the monitor wells, our fear is that a leakage of the mining fluids will escape, go past those monitor wells, and never be detected.

EXPERT: We have experts and hydrologists that have shown that that contamination will reach the drinking wells within less than seven years. It will, if this mine goes through, destroy the only source of drinking water for 15,000 people.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Homeland produced by the Katahdin Foundation. And we’re joined here in Albuquerque by Chris Shuey, who is in the film, Director of Southwest Research and Information Center, and Wynoma Foster, Director of ENDAUM, Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining. We did contact Hydro Resources, but they didn’t return our calls. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you place this in the country for us? Where are these places that we are talking about, Wynoma?

WYNOMA FOSTER: Well, from Albuquerque, it’s about two hours west of here in a Navajo community right near Gallup, New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what’s happening right now.

WYNOMA FOSTER: As of right now, we’re still trying to hold off a company, Hydro Resources, from proposing to mine uranium with the new in situ leach method that they want to use to extract uranium. And the big issue that lies there right now is that it’s — these mining companies are ignoring the Natural Resource Protection Act that was passed within the Navajo Nation government. And with that we are very concerned, not only because they are ignoring that — our sovereign right to protect our resources and our people — but also because there are past issues that still exist within those communities in Church Rock, as far as the need for reclamation of abandoned mines and communities and people, children with their families that live right next to these abandoned mines.

Those are the big issues that we still face. And trying to work with communities. Former miners are dealing with health effects and cancer issues and down into compensation issues. So, those are all of the issues that we have to deal with, and trying to hold off the mining company.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Shuey, we have — in the country, there is attention now being paid to miners because of what has happened in West Virginia. Can you talk about uranium miners and what has happened over the years, and then how that leads to today and the struggle you’re in right now?

CHRIS SHUEY: Amy, there’s been numerous studies of uranium workers and uranium miners, underground miners throughout the Colorado Plateau over the years. And it’s — those studies have fairly clearly shown that miners suffer lung cancer and respiratory diseases at much higher rates than the normal population. The Navajo miners are a particularly important subset, because they have suffered those same kinds of diseases at much higher rates, disproportionately higher rates than even the rest of the Colorado Plateau miners. And the compensation scheme that the government came up with in 1990 and then amended in 2000 that Wynoma talked about has, in our view, discriminated against the Native American miners. There’s — the Navajo portion of those eligible form about a third of all the Colorado Plateau miners; and yet, the total compensation awards for Navajos have run about 11% through September of last year.

There are numbers of groups in the Shiprock area headed by a gentlemen named Philip Harrison, who’s made it his life to try to correct these problems, especially with the Justice Department’s implementation of the compensation law. The government doesn’t quite get how Navajo and Native American cultures and communities work. And so it’s been very difficult for many of the old workers to prove up their claims through things like marriage licenses that never existed. And so those are amongst the human impacts of past mining that are still going on today.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, do the miners fall under the same agency as miners that — what we’ve been focusing on in places like West Virginia? Our headline today, “In mining news, the New York Times reporting the Bush administration has decreased the fines for major mining companies, failed to collect fines on nearly half the mine safety violations issued under its watch. Mine safety regulation has come under increased scrutiny with the deaths of 24 miners.” How does that relate?

CHRIS SHUEY: The Mine Safety and Health Administration also is the regulation entity for underground miners. There are no underground mines operating in the Navajo Nation. There were a few that were reopened here recently as the price of uranium has gone up, up in Colorado, but I believe that those have been shut down, too. If you talk to miners that worked out of Navajo, say in the 1970s, they will tell you over and over again that they don’t believe that they were adequately protected even after those same MSHA rules came into effect, and they have a very difficult time understanding and obtaining their old exposure records. And they’re not a part of the compensation class. They’re ineligible. So, there’s a whole category of what we call post-1971 uranium miners and mill workers who may have health problems that cannot get compensation at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the health problems in the communities, Wynoma?

WYNOMA FOSTER: We have direct — we have respiratory illnesses — asthma, there’s a rise in asthma, especially with the younger children into the teens; and then also cancer issues, different types of cancers are affecting people, and then we’re also realizing that dependants of former uranium mine workers are also starting to be diagnosed with cancers, as well. And diabetes is still a big issue, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument if the mining happens right outside the reservation property?

WYNOMA FOSTER: It’s within Navajo Indian country. They can say that it’s near an Indian community, Navajo community, but it’s right within the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation and within the communities.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you each calling for right now in, Chris Shuey?

CHRIS SHUEY: We’re — There’s several things that are going on. We have worked with the Navajo Nation to ensure that there’s an enforcement strategy for the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act. And it remains to be seen how that will all play out as the companies continue to move forward with their new plans. We are doing a lot of work on the legacy issues, working with Church Rock on environmental assessments in the residential areas near the old mines, working with the community members to assess some of their concerns about health. There have been no major health studies in communities. Lots of information and studies on workers, but not on community members who live near mining. It’s a major gap in what we know. It needs to be rectified.

AMY GOODMAN: And, finally, your final comments, as we talk about what the future will look like.

WYNOMA FOSTER: Well, we hope to continue to protect our resources, our natural resources, which is our — for my own community, an hour north of Church Rock, where they’re also proposing uranium mining. Our only source of drinking water provides for 15,000-plus Navajo people and we don’t want any uranium mining whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to have to leave it here. I want to thank you very much for being with us, Wynoma Foster, Director of Endaum, which is the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, and Chris Shuey, Director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program and Southwest Research and Information Center.

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