Uranium is no good for the Navajo


A recent post on the High Country News website advocates the position that the Navajo Nation should eventually drop its 2005 uranium ban so that it can get a better deal on uranium development, which the author, Jonathan Thompson, sees as inevitable. The post holds up the example of the Ute Tribe as an example of how a ban or moratorium on extractive industry can be a useful gambit for increasing tribal revenues when industry comes knocking.

As an attorney representing Navajo communities resisting new uranium mining for the last 15 years, I found HCN’s showcase of this perspective both troubling and disappointing. I also think the fundamental assumptions that underpin the piece are misguided.

Like the Ute Tribe ultimately growing rich off oil and gas production, the article’s author assumes that the Navajo Nation can likewise grow rich off uranium mining. The economic realities don’t support this position. World uranium prices have been depressed for 30 years and there is no end in sight. An upsurge in nuclear power demand might change that, but the trend since the Fukushima disaster has been to move away from nuclear power and toward renewables. Indeed, the only places where nuclear power has even a chance to survive is in countries where there is unwavering state support for the industry, i.e., China, India and Russia. So comparing petroleum to uranium simply isn’t equivalent in economic terms.  Further, uranium’s economic realities, should they come to pass on the Navajo Nation, guarantee significantly more modest economic development gains than the riches promised by the uranium industry.

But the more troubling aspect of the piece is its ahistorical view of uranium on Navajo and failure to acknowledge the reality of tribal sovereignty in the Federal Indian Law context. In the piece, there is an acknowledgement of the devastation that past uranium mining has caused on the Navajo Nation. However, what isn’t acknowledged is the continuing reluctance of the uranium industry to take responsibility for the legacy contamination and the devastation it has caused. Until communities can expect the uranium industry to take the very fundamental step of taking responsibility for its past (and in many cases ongoing) part in the public health nightmare that many Navajos face daily, any discussion of future resource extraction should be off the table.

Additionally, the environmental and public health track record of the uranium industry has not appreciably changed since the last uranium mining boom from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium mining is still responsible for contamination of hundreds of millions of gallons of water in Texas, Wyoming and Nebraska and for ongoing public health disasters in those states.

The article also cites the recent Churchrock Chapter resolution endorsing both clean up of past uranium mining waste and new uranium mining as an example of a community choosing economic gain over the long term integrity of their groundwater. However, the Churchrock resolution was a product of grossly overblown economic promises and outright fabrications about the mines’ groundwater impacts. In fact, neither the Chapter nor the Navajo Nation will receive any revenue from one of the mine sites in Churchrock because it is located on private land and not subject to tribal jurisdiction. While communities and tribes have the right to make decisions about their resources, the decisions must be made after free, prior and informed consent, consistent with international law. When the uranium industry refuses to be truthful about the economic benefits and public health impacts, informed consent is impossible.

Finally, the piece rests on the assumption that corporate interests will eventually get to exploit the uranium resource. This prediction may or may not come to pass, but it reinforces the idea that resource exploitation is inevitable and the only choice tribes have. I disagree. This perspective only serves to perpetuate the federal government’s assimilationist and racist policies of the last 250 years in which meaningful tribal sovereignty is always subordinated to corporate interests and resource extraction. It’s time that we support the truly meaningful exercise of tribal sovereignty, which includes the right to choose economic development that is both healthy and consistent with traditional cultural values. Uranium mining is neither.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Apr 23, 2013 10:16 AM
Eric: I appreciate your commentary and your unique insight into this issue. Pieces like the one I did on the uranium ban are meant to provoke discussion, and clearly the goal was met. And while I agree with much of what you say, I'm afraid your conclusion is way off base. To imply that my suggestion -- that the Navajo Nation take control of their resources in order to reap the greatest benefit possible -- "perpetuates ... assimilationist and racist policies" is absurd. I'm saying just the opposite, in fact: That the Navajo Nation wield its sovereignty to its fullest extent, and control resource extraction in a way from which they can derive the most benefit IF it's going to occur (If uranium demand/prices don't go up enough to make uranium mining viable, then it hardly matters). My suggestion is in no way limited to uranium: They should do the same with coal, oil, natural gas and, for that matter, water. (In fact, I believe all communities in the path of resource development, tribal or not, should do the same, to whatever extent they are able). My concern is that the alternative, in this case, is that the uranium industry will erode the uranium ban -- and Navajo sovereignty -- one chapter at a time, a la Churchrock. Nor do I ever imply that uranium mining is or is not "consistent with cultural values" of the Navajo. It's neither my place, nor yours, to make such judgments. Thanks again for keeping the conversation going. Sincerely, Jonathan Thompson.
Zach Zipfel
Zach Zipfel
Apr 24, 2013 11:00 AM
I think what's worse for Navajos than uranium is more non-Indians telling them what's in their best interests.
Nadine Padilla
Nadine Padilla
Apr 24, 2013 11:23 AM
Hello all, thanks for the discussion. My name is Nadine Padilla and I am from both Navajo and Pueblo descent. I am also from Grants, NM, once considered the uranium capitol of the world. I grew up learning about the legacy of uranium contamination and the devastation it has caused for my community. For many years, politicians and state and federal regulators ignored this issue. The only people that haven’t ignored the problem are the grassroots people ourselves. We couldn’t ignore it. Every single day we are faced with the reality of living with contaminated air, land, and water. We can see how this impacts the health of our friends and families. We lose loved ones far too frequently to forget the impacts of past uranium mining.

I am now the coordinator of a coalition of grassroots community organizations representing communities that have been personally impacted by past mining activities. We refuse to buy into false promises of jobs and economic development. For us, our cultures, languages, relationship to Mother Earth and spiritual identity far outweigh any false promises of short-term jobs and financial gain.

The approval of a chapter resolution to allow HRI to do an ISL demonstration project doesn’t represent the values or views of community members in Churchrock. The approval of this resolution didn’t allow community input or discussion. It wasn’t on the agenda so that people could plan to attend the meeting to voice their opinion. A shady, behind-the-scenes resolution shouldn’t be taken as a statement from the people that we are open to allowing new uranium mines back in our communities- because we are not. The outside world should not think the Navajo people are allowing uranium companies back onto our lands to destroy what they haven’t yet- because we are not.

In the original post, Thompson wrote, “In fact, maybe all communities in the path of the extractive industry could learn something from Burch’s approach. He realized that, one way or another, the oil companies were going to get what they wanted, along with a hefty profit that comes with it. The best he could do was hold them at bay, temporarily, or to use his power to put a little bit of that profit into his peoples' pockets.” I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. Uranium mining on the Navajo reservation is not inevitable. Uranium companies like HRI are not “going to get what they want.” Community people, especially young people like myself, are committed to stopping dangerous mining projects that threaten our right to a healthy and safe environment, both for ourselves and for future generations.
Wesley Rolley
Wesley Rolley Subscriber
Apr 24, 2013 11:39 AM
It is a serious issue. We need to pay attention to the science and I suggest starting with the work of Stefanie Raymond-Whish of N. A. U. She is a Navajo and lost some of her family from breast cancer. He doctoral work associated uranium with those, and other deaths. That was covered in High Country News several years ago. http://www.hcn.org/issues/371/17708/print_view
Mark  Pelizza
Mark Pelizza
Apr 25, 2013 01:53 PM
Mr. Jantz stated “… the Churchrock Resolution was a product of grossly overblown economic promises and outright fabrications about the mines’ groundwater impacts.” His claims are false on both counts.

With respect to economic impacts, the Churchrock Chapter members were presented with specific job descriptions and actual expenditures based on project feasibility studies. Our company has operated similar uranium recovery operations for many years and knows these economic metrics to be factual.

As for his claim of negative groundwater impacts, Mr. Jantz must not have read the Churchrock Resolution. The Resolution only supports the company’s conduct of a safety demonstration. The ISR uranium recovery industry has operated for decades without ever affecting a surrounding underground source of drinking water as determined by EPA. The safety demonstration will be conducted to satisfy this topic.
peggy ortell
peggy ortell
May 12, 2013 01:24 AM
" The ISR uranium recovery industry has operated for decades without ever affecting a surrounding underground source of drinking water"

Wow Mark! Willmott must be paying you a fortune. After the water mess at Goliad, I couldn't look in the mirror after saying that. Speaks volumes about URI ethics.