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After Decades of Uranium Mining, Navajo Nation Struggles With Devastating Legacy of Contamination

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New Mexico’s long history of uranium mining on Native American lands provides fuel for the front end of the nuclear industry and stores much of the mine tailings and radioactive waste from nuclear weapons and power plants. We look at the devastating impact uranium mining continues to have on Native lands with Leona Morgan of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, a group dedicated to protecting the water, air, land and health of communities in areas impacted by uranium mines. We’re also joined by Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and former Los Alamos National Laboratory investigator Chuck Montaño. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Los Alamos, New Mexico, the state home to the Navajo Nation. For decades, they’ve fought uranium mining on their land. Despite a mining moratorium on tribal property, the company Hydro Resources, Inc., is seeking approval to mine near the towns of Crown Point and Church Rock. Uranium has been mined here for more than 50 years, and the impact is still felt. The land is dotted with contaminated tailings, hundreds of abandoned mines that are still not cleaned up. Meanwhile, Navajos have suffered from high cancer rates and respiratory problems.

For more, we’re joined by Leona Morgan, a coordinator with the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining—their mission: to protect the water, air, land and health of communities in areas impacted by uranium mines.

Leona, welcome to Democracy Now! We’re talking about the dawn of the Nuclear Age. We’re broadcasting from Fuller Lodge. It’s where the scientists first came in 1943, part of the secret Manhattan Project, to develop an atomic bomb. Talk about where you come from and how that, in 1943, relates to you.

LEONA MORGAN: Good morning, Amy. Well, good afternoon to people listening today in the afternoon. My name is Leona, and my family is from the Crown Point and New—Crown Point area. And right away, the first thing I think of is my dad was actually born in 1943.

But in the '40s to the ’80s, the Navajo Nation was mined for uranium, for the sole purpose of protecting this country through nuclear weapons development. And I guess the thing that really hits home is that, as indigenous peoples, we've been sacrificing and giving more than we even owe to this country in order to advance its purposes. For example, Los Alamos is sitting on indigenous lands. The Tewa Women United, they talk about the agreement between the federal government and the Santa Clara Pueblo, and one of the things that was told to them is, "it’s your patriotic duty to allow this entity to exist," and that "we will close it as soon as we win the war." So, the same thing—our people and our language were used to create the Navajo code, which also was something to help the United States to win the war.

So, for us right now, we are still living with the effects from the mining of the 20th century. The uranium boom had caused severe impacts to the economy, our health, and of course the environment. And as indigenous peoples who live on the land and have our—all of our ways and our traditions based within our four sacred mountains, this is going to have lasting impacts not just to our culture and our health, but to future generations.

AMY GOODMAN: Leona, explain how it is uranium mines come into the Navajo lands, into the reservation.

LEONA MORGAN: Well, back in the ’40s, there were no laws regulating the process, so several companies set up temporary LLCs to mine, extract uranium. And as soon as they were done, when the profit was made, a drop in the uranium price in the ’80s led to hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land and all over the country.

So, what happened was, back then, the companies targeted areas where there was uranium, and they did whatever they could to access it, whether it was signing leases with communities or with individuals. So, in our area, we’re dealing specifically with individual allotments. On Eastern Navajo—the Navajo Nation is divided into five regions. Eastern Navajo has a lot of—what we call the checkerboard area, and there’s these individual Indian allotments, which were created through the Dawes Act. And because of this individual ownership, Navajo allottees, they have the right to lease their land. And so, what the company does is they target individuals in our community, and they really, you know, use this divide-and-conquer tactic. And what they’re doing is basically promising all these riches and basically monetary gain for an already poor community that doesn’t even—a lot of our people don’t even have running water or electricity. And so, some of the individuals are dependent on this—on these promises of a false economy and jobs and all these good things that they—that they say they’re going to do.

But in reality, their project is only going to last five years, and then the rest of that will be restoration work, which will—you know, depending on what their plan is—we don’t believe that they can do restoration, and so we’re hoping that the EPA will use this opportunity to consider this old permit that they gave to the company, called an "aquifer exemption." Back in the '80s, HRI [Hydro Resources, Inc.] had obtained all their permits to do mining, and they've actually had the permits this whole time, but they haven’t started. So, one of the things that they do, they basically don’t give full notification to the public. And so, it’s something that happens very often, and it happens today. It’s very common for the public to be unaware of these processes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effects of the uranium mines and what tailings are?

LEONA MORGAN: Yes. Tailings are the radioactive waste that results from conventional mining. And so, we’ve been inundated by a number of conventional mines and mills around northwestern New Mexico. And on Navajo, we have a number, 520 abandoned mines, but it’s actually 520 clusters, so there’s over 2,000 individual sites of abandoned uranium mines where conventional mining occurred, and they all have tailings waste, which could blow around and get in the water. You know, we have livestock, we use animals, so if the soil becomes contaminated, if the water becomes contaminated, and the plants do, you know, through ingestion and other means, we also become. So those are some of the health effects, the environmental effects, and also effects to our food sources.

But the tailings is a huge issue because, nationally, there is no long-term solution. So, in one community in Church Rock, there’s the cleanup process going on now at the Northeast Church Rock Mine, and they’re proposing to scrape up all the waste and pile it on top of existing tailings waste from an abandoned mine. It’s on top of an unlined pile, and they’re proposing to leave it there in perpetuity. And so, the community is calling for off-site removal to a certified regional repository. We don’t want 520 permanent waste sites on the Navajo Nation, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up this discussion, I wanted to get final comments. As you listen to Leona Morgan, Jay Coghlan, your final comments on where we stand today? President Obama is saying he wants to eliminate nuclear weapons in the world. What is happening here in the birthplace of the Nuclear Age here in Los Alamos?

JAY COGHLAN: Well, the first thing I would point out is, we have very self-interested institutions and that it’s not only a military-industrial complex. I would call it a military-industrial-academic-and-congressional complex, where you have politicians across the country, but very much so here in New Mexico, whose number one job—this is self-described—is to bring appropriations funding to the nuclear weapons labs here in New Mexico. And notice I said "labs" in the plural. We have another one approximately 60 miles south of us right now. So, New Mexico sites, two of the three nuclear weapons labs that this country has—

AMY GOODMAN: And they are Los Alamos National Lab...

JAY COGHLAN: And Sandia, also here in New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Named for the mountains.

JAY COGHLAN: And the third one is Lawrence Livermore, about 40 miles east of San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been said, if New Mexico were to secede from the United States, it would be the third most powerful nuclear nation in the world.

JAY COGHLAN: That’s correct in terms of numbers. And people who fly out of the Albuquerque airport, if you know where to look—and it’s very obscure—but if you know where to look, you can see, as you take off, about two miles south, a repository that may have up to 3,000 nuclear warheads. Now, oddly enough, it’s a good thing they’re there. Bush Sr. unilaterally retired a bunch of these weapons while there was a crisis, a possible coup in Moscow. But they’re still awaiting dismantlement.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few seconds.

JAY COGHLAN: Yeah. And so, what we need to do, instead of building up our arsenal, which we’re doing, and extending the lives of the weapons, we need to be dismantling them and working off the backlog.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Montaño, final short comment?

CHUCK MONTAÑO: Well, I have—I sympathize with what’s happening in the Navajo Nation with remediation. My experience here at the lab, I worked in nuclear material safeguards when I first came into the lab, and I know that a lot of material was improperly disposed of. In fact, in the early ’80s, they had open pits called—out here in Area G, where, right before regulations kicked in that would require the lab to establish accounting records to keep track of what was been disposed of, the lab sent out a message lab-wide for all of the—all the different divisions to basically get all the materials that they wanted to get rid of and ship it over to Area G and toss into this open pit. And that represented cleanup.

Rocky Flats, where they produce plutonium pits—of course, the Department of Energy, which has a very poor track record of holding their contractors accountable, allowed Rocky Flats to get shut down 10 years ahead of schedule, and billions of dollars short of what it would have taken to actually clean it up. All they did there at Rocky Flats was they just changed the criteria to—in terms of what would be considered cleanup, and they left in place the plutonium contamination that basically put Denver at risk. We’re on the verge now of having that activity that was occurring there at Rocky Flats moved here to Los Alamos, the pit production part. And so, you know, I think people need to be concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Leona Morgan, what you want to see?

LEONA MORGAN: Thanks, Amy. Well, something you said earlier is you referred to it as a nuclear fuel cycle. And we like to call it a "nuclear fuel chain," because there is no cycle. There’s no way to, you know, recycle the waste at the end. So, being at the front end of the nuclear fuel chain, the uranium mining is extremely dangerous, and we’ve already lived with the effects. And so, basically, the U.S. EPA Region 9 and 6 are the entities dealing with us. Specifically, we’re working with Region 6. And so, I’d just like to say, the EPA and the Navajo Nation are at a critical time right now to prevent any future contamination to our drinking water sources and our people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank all of you for being with us. Leona Morgan, coordinator with the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining. Also, thank you very much to the well-known anti-nuclear activist Jay Coghlan, and to Chuck Montaño, an inspector here the Los Alamos National Lab for more than 30 years, became a whistleblower.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Fuller Lodge, where the Manhattan Project first came, the secret project of the U.S. government, to develop the atomic bomb. Stay with us.

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