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.
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
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.
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
The author is a freelancer for
the Navajo Hopi Observer.