When I read that mining companies are pressuring the Navajo Nation to let them mine uranium on Diné land I thought: What gall. After all, the Navajos banned uranium mining on the reservation back in 2005, and for good reason. From World War II until the mid-1980s, the federally-subsidized uranium industry pulled some 4 million tons of uranium from within the nation’s boundaries. In doing so, they laid waste to a good portion of the Navajo Nation, along with many of the people who worked in or lived near the mines, mills and tailings piles.
The industry’s legacy is etched on the landscape: hundreds of abandoned mines, contaminated water sources, homes that have been built with contaminated soil. The health impacts are harder to see, but they include lung, bone and breast cancer and kidney failure. How many generations will be impacted is still unknown. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on cleaning up mine sites, moving and capping tailings, replacing contaminated homes and piping clean water to remote places. And the cleanup, and spending, continues. Just this week, the Navajo Nation accepted a $3 million grant from the EPA to replace more contaminated homes.
So it seems insane -- maybe even a little sick -- for companies to come begging to do it all over again. There’s no way the Navajos would lift their ban. Is there?
Actually, it turns out that the nation is not a united front when it comes to keeping the uranium companies at bay. This January, the Church Rock Chapter voted to approve a resolution supporting Uranium Resources’ proposed in-situ demonstration project in the chapter, according to the Navajo Times. That’s in spite of the fact that Church Rock was home to the notorious 1979 United Nuclear Corp’s dam breach, which spewed more than 1,000 tons of uranium tailings into the Rio Puerco.
The economic benefits, an estimated $35 million per year, apparently outweigh history.
Maybe that’s not so bad. What if it’s time for the entire Navajo Nation to consider lifting the ban, at least in a limited way?
It sounds crazy, I know. But here’s a bit more history. Oil companies started drilling on Southern Ute land in southwestern Colorado, just a stone’s throw from the Navajo Nation’s northern boundary, back in the forties. As you might expect, environmental regulations were nil, and the tribe got a pittance for the oil and gas extracted from its land. So, in 1974, just as the energy-crisis-caused-boom erupted, then Tribal Chairman Leonard Burch put a moratorium on all new leases on tribal land.
The move was both brave and practical. It temporarily cut off new sources of income for the impoverished Utes. Yet it gave the tribe breathing room to hire a bunch of experts to figure out how much extractable oil and gas and coal was sitting under their land. While the moratorium was in place, federal court rulings gave tribes more power in negotiating the terms of energy leases on their lands. By the time the moratorium was lifted, the energy companies were chomping at the bit, and the Utes drove a hard bargain. The seeds planted by the moratorium, and the conditions under which it was lifted, have enabled the tribe to take control of its own resources and build a multi-billion energy and business enterprise.
For Burch, the moratorium was not something to keep a potentially harmful industry at bay indefinitely. In the end it was more of a bargaining chip. Burch was letting the companies know who was ultimately in control of the tribe’s resources, and who would have to pay to get a piece of them. There’s no reason that the Navajo Nation couldn’t take the same approach with its uranium ban. It has something the mining companies are now begging to get a piece of: Some 70 million tons of uranium ore. Why not let them at it, for a hefty price, and under the condition that the companies abide by a strict set of guidelines, set and enforced by the Navajo Nation?
If anyone has reason not to lift the ban on uranium mining, it’s the Navajo Nation. But if anyone has a reason to lift the ban in a way that benefits them, it’s also the Navajo Nation. The tribe is economically challenged. Gallup, Shiprock and Farmington, NM, along with Tuba City, Ariz. -- all on or next to the Navajo Nation -- were recently on the US Census Bureau’s list of communities with the highest concentration of impoverished Native Americans. Under the sequester, the Navajo Nation stands to lose an estimated $30 million in federal funds. And the future of coal mining and power generation, on which the tribe depends for a substantial chunk of its operating budget, along with hundreds of well-paying jobs, is looking shaky.
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.
Sign graphic from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.