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.

High Country News Classifieds