Navajos put more than 17 million acres off-limits

by Laura Paskus

From 1947 until 1970, thousands of Navajos worked underground on and off the reservation, mining uranium for use in nuclear weapons and power plants. As a result, hundreds have been diagnosed with lung cancer and silicosis, while hundreds more remain undiagnosed, or have already died of disease (HCN, 8/22/94: We aimed for Russia and hit the West).

With that legacy in mind — and in the face of a new surge in the uranium market — the Navajo Nation has banned uranium mining and processing on the 17 million acres of tribal land, as well as on lands owned by Navajo families. The tribal council passed the ban and President Joe Shirley Jr. signed it into law at the end of April, declaring, "I believe the powers that be committed genocide on Navajoland by allowing uranium mining."

But the new law is unlikely to affect plans by Hydro Resources Inc., a Texas-based company, to perform in-situ leach uranium mining on Navajo land near the New Mexico towns of Crownpoint and Church Rock. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already approved the project, despite worries that it could taint the local aquifer (HCN, 12/6/99: Uranium haunts the Colorado Plateau). In-situ leach mining involves injecting water and chemicals into the ore and pumping uranium out of the ground, rather than digging it out.

Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing Navajos and environmental activists fighting the project, says the ban was an important way for the tribe to assert its sovereignty. But he doubts the NRC will rethink its approval of the leach-mining project. "I don’t think the NRC cares whether the Navajo Nation has said no to uranium mining or not," he says. "I’m not sure that the NRC takes its trust responsibility, as a federal agency, very seriously."

© High Country News