Tribe takes on toxic waste

  On the Navajo Reservation, abandoned uranium mines and other toxic waste sites now stand a much better chance of remediation: The Navajo Nation Council just passed one of the most comprehensive toxic waste laws in Indian country.

The Navajo Nation Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act became law in March. This sweeping legislation gives the tribe new power to monitor and clean up hazardous waste on its 27,000-square-mile reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, says Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency.

The Navajo now can enter into compliance agreements with private companies and federal or state agencies to clean up contaminated areas. The legislation will also give the tribe leverage against the private companies responsible for 520 abandoned uranium mines, says Etsitty. Some of the most polluted sites, such as the Northeast Churchrock mine, may be tackled within a couple of years.

Before the tribe can start remediation efforts, though, the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency must first set up a tariff to fund the program. The agency will also begin informing companies that produce or haul hazardous waste on the Navajo Nation about new reporting requirements.

Critics of the Navajo law say it duplicates federal and state law. But Etsitty says the act fills regulatory gaps, and gives the Navajo Nation the authority to address hazardous contamination directly. It also helps the federal government, neighboring state governments and industry to recognize the tribe as a co-regulator in Indian country.

The new law is also an expression of Navajo sovereignty. “It reduces our reliance on the federal government,” Etsitty says. “The Navajo EPA will continue to develop environmental laws, regulations and programs that reflect our Dine culture and values.”

The author is a freelancer for the Navajo Hopi Observer.