With First Native Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, Hope Grows U.S. Will Confront Toxic Uranium Legacy

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Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, is being sworn in as secretary of the interior and will be the first Native American ever to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet. Just four Republicans joined Democrats in voting to confirm Haaland, who will manage 500 million acres of federal and tribal land. Haaland will also oversee government relations with 574 federally recognized tribal nations and is expected to address the legacy of uranium mining on Indigenous land and other areas. Leona Morgan, a Diné anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, says that while it’s “impossible to expect one person to correct the centuries of racism and policy that have really devastated our people,” there is hope that Haaland will use her power to make important changes. “She will be held accountable,” Morgan says.

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AMY GOODMAN: Deb Haaland is being sworn in today as secretary of the interior. She is a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo. She becomes the first Native American ever to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet. The two-term congresswoman from New Mexico was confirmed by the Senate Monday after four Republicans joined Democrats in voting to confirm her: Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

As interior secretary, Haaland will manage 500 million acres of federal and tribal land. She’ll also oversee government relations with 574 federally recognized tribal nations. During her confirmation hearing, Haaland vowed to work for everyone.

REP. DEB HAALAND: If confirmed, I will work my heart out for everyone — the families of fossil fuel workers who helped build our country, ranchers and farmers who care deeply for their lands, communities with legacies of toxic pollution, people of color whose stories deserve to be heard, and those who want jobs of the future.

AMY GOODMAN: One major issue facing Deb Haaland as interior secretary will be addressing the legacy of uranium mining on Native land and other areas. Thousands of inactive and toxic uranium mines have poisoned Native land and water for decades, many of the mines used to extract uranium for the U.S. massive nuclear arms arsenal. In 2019, a University of New Mexico study found that about a quarter of Navajo women and some infants had high levels of the radioactive metal in their bodies, even though nearby uranium mining had ended decades ago. Last year, Congressmember Haaland was recognized with a Nuclear-Free Future Award for her efforts to address the impacts of uranium mining in the Southwest.

REP. DEB HAALAND: We’ve seen it firsthand in my home state of New Mexico. Uranium mining harms the health of our population, the environment, and has hurt our economy. The U.S. government has refused to clean up the mess they’ve made in New Mexico. In 2018, when I was elected, I knew this would be an issue that I would fight for. I’ve called on the U.S. government to clean up mining sites, compensate uranium workers and rectify the wrong that has been done to Indigenous communities. And I’m not going to let up. I’m committed to fighting for a nuclear-free future.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Deb Haaland, the Interior Department and the legacy of uranium mining, we’re joined by Leona Morgan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Diné/Navajo anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, coordinator with the Nuclear Issues Study Group and organizer with Haul No!

We are here on Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back, Leona. We did a broadcast with you when we were visiting Los Alamos several years ago. Thanks so much for being with us. Can you start off by responding to the history that Deb Haaland is making today, and then talk about the legacy of uranium mines and what you feel she needs to do?

LEONA MORGAN: Thank you, Amy. It’s so nice to be here. I appreciate the invitation.

And yeah, Secretary Haaland has done a lot of good things in our state, and I think a lot of folks are satisfied with her performance as a congresswoman. However, you know, you can’t please everyone. There are some situations where we do need more attention from Secretary Haaland. She’s been excellent at dealing with some of the resource extraction, especially around Chaco Canyon, and also, like you mentioned, highlighting uranium as a core issue. And so, we are very happy. I, as an Indigenous woman, I am confident that she will do what she can as an Indigenous woman to protect our Mother Earth, but it’s impossible to expect one person to correct the centuries of racism and policy that have really devastated our people since the beginning of the Department of the Interior, including genocide and relocation. So, we do hope that she can make some historic changes, and I think lot of people are depending on her. And she will be held accountable.

As for the uranium mines —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Leona Morgan, for —

LEONA MORGAN: Oh, thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leona, for those listeners who are not aware of the history of this issue, could you talk somewhat — this is going back to the 1940s that the Navajo Nation was used by the United States for uranium mining for nuclear weapons development. Could you talk about that history and the impact on the Native peoples of your state?

LEONA MORGAN: Yes. So, there are actually 15,000 abandoned uranium mines across the country. And the Navajo Nation is working with the federal government to address at least 523 distinct mines on Navajo Nation. The most abandoned mines are in Colorado. And so, this is an issue that doesn’t just affect Indigenous peoples, but everyone; however, uranium mining and production does impact Indigenous peoples and communities of color the most around the world. On Navajo, we have had many health issues resulting from the impacts of uranium mining, which, like you mentioned, started in the '40s. A lot of the mines on Navajo shut down in the early ’80s. There is still mining in the country; however, there's no mining in New Mexico currently. And the Navajo Nation has a law against uranium mining and the transport of radioactive materials; however, those laws are always challenged, because there are privately owned lands within the nation and adjacent to the nation.

And so, it’s very difficult to stop uranium mining and the impacts, as the wind and the water carry contamination across the country without — you know, uranium does not discriminate, and, as people say, radiation does not discriminate. However, it does impact women and children the most. And with the mines shutting down in the early '80s, the cleanup that has begun in the early 2000s — let's say, 2008 was when the Navajo Nation started the first five-year cleanup plan with the U.S. agencies, working together. However, this cleanup is poorly funded, and it is not up to standards that would be acceptable in white communities.

Today, we’re dealing with, like I said, 523 abandoned mine sites, but a lot of the issues are the contamination to our water resources, which had implications, of course, with COVID-19. And right now this is one of the major issues, is the lack of water, the contamination of water. So, water quality and water quantity are big issues, because uranium mining was just one industry that impacted us. There was also a lot of impacts from the coal mining that occurred. And so, for the federal government to be depending on settlements from companies is just not enough. The federal government is the responsible party and needs to foot the bill for the mess that it made for its defense purposes and, you know, imperialism around the world.

I work specifically on issues of nuclear colonialism, and right now we are also being targeted because of this idea that nuclear power is going to be a so-called solution to climate change. And people like Bill Gates are talking about new so-called small nuclear modular reactors, which still use uranium and still produce waste, which has — which there is no place to go. I’m sorry, the waste from nuclear power plants, there is no storage or disposal for this waste. And so, right now in New Mexico, we are being targeted with the world’s largest nuclear waste storage for waste from power plants. This is all of the power plants in the United States. And New Mexico doesn’t even have a power plant. They’re saying, you know, to bring it here temporarily, which could be more than a hundred years. And this is not a viable solution for dealing with our national nuclear waste problem. So we need to stop making new nuclear waste. We don’t need to continue mining uranium. And we need to stop using nuclear power. And so, Bill Gates is someone that’s been talking about this a lot recently, and he does not live near an abandoned uranium mine. He doesn’t live near a waste site.

And so, these are issues that our people are still dealing with, over four decades after the uranium mining has stopped. We’re finally getting attention, but the cleanup that’s being proposed, like I said, it’s poor quality. One example is in Church Rock, New Mexico, the site of the world’s largest uranium spill. The proposal for cleanup there, it’s actually in an open comment period right now. There’s this idea that the company wants to scrape up mine waste at the Northeast Church Rock Mine and move it. A million cubic yards of mine waste, they want to pile on top of the mill waste, where the site — where the spill from 1979 originated. And the community is concerned because this is in a floodplain. And in the public meetings that were held in 2019, several community members expressed concern that this could result in a second Church Rock spill. But this is what they’re proposing as cleanup, which is not cleanup. It is basically making 523 permanent waste sites on Navajo Nation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in the context of that, your expectations in terms of what Secretary Haaland will be able to accomplish, given the fact that she is in charge of interior, but the cleanup is largely a responsibility of the EPA, isn’t it?

LEONA MORGAN: Well, on Navajo, it’s five federal agencies working with Navajo Nation, and it is largely EPA Region 9 out of San Francisco. However, the EPA is putting out media that it’s — you know, recently there was an article saying they had received over $200 million for cleanup. And some of the information that’s being put out there is a little bit misleading — or a lot misleading, as according to Navajo Nation EPA Superfund director Dariel Yazzie. I had a long conversation with him about some of the cleanup and the proposals. And what he’s saying is that Navajo has a very limited seat at the table when it comes to making decisions and enforcing our Navajo policy, as well as stronger cleanup standards.

And so, we need Secretary Haaland to help to curb the startup of new mines and then also to work with the agencies. There’s five federal agencies and the Navajo Nation doing this cleanup. But, like I said, that’s only 523 abandoned mine sites, whereas there’s over 15,000 in the whole country. And so, we really need federal dollars and better cleanup standards. Right now there’s a 10-year plan that’s being proposed, and some of the standards for the allowable levels of radiation are much higher than would be acceptable in, let’s say, an urban environment or in a white community.

And this is really going to impact our people, you know, as uranium and radiation cause health impacts. It takes a long time for these health impacts to show up. And so, right now we are experiencing a lot of the residual effects. One health study, called the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, has found high levels of uranium in newborn babies. And these are babies that are born across the reservation, not just near abandoned uranium sites. And so, we do need Secretary Haaland to push for comprehensive cleanup, as well as comprehensive health studies. And this is, specifically, I’m talking about Navajo Nation, but across the country, as well as protections for our sacred places, because a lot of our sacred places have been mined and are targeted for new mining.

AMY GOODMAN: Leona Morgan, we’re going to continue to cover these issues in the months to come. Leona Morgan is a Diné/Navajo anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, coordinator with the Nuclear Issues Study Group and an organizer with Haul No!

When we come back, a remarkable new podcast called Suave about a man sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile, and a journalist, Maria Hinojosa, who befriended him and chronicled his story, all the way to unexpected freedom. Back in 30 seconds.

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