« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Toxic legacy for tribes


Earlier this month, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals approved a controversial permit for uranium mining operations at sites in Church Rock, New Mexico. The operation includes a site associated with the largest release of liquid radioactive waste in United States History -- a catastrophe which continues, a generation later, to negatively impact the lives and health of Navajo people residing near the spill site.

Over a decade after Navajo leaders and community groups first challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) issuance of a mining permit to Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) for uranium extraction in Church Rock, the appellate court decided on March 8th to uphold the NRC's decision. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that since the site already emits more radiation than federal regulations allow, a license for a new operation is impermissible because even the most miniscule amounts of new radiation emitted would exceed regulatory limits. Instead, the court affirmed both the NRC's decision under the Atomic Energy Act to only review an isolated portion of radiation from the site, as well as its corollary finding that the cumulative impacts of radiation emitted from the site are acceptable under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The dissenting opinion roundly criticized the majority. Judge Lucero wrote that "[b]ecause the majority's decision in this case will unnecessarily and unjustifiably compromise the health and safety of the people who currently live within and immediately downwind from Section 17 [the mine site], I must respectfully dissent. . . . The NRC's erroneous decision and the majority's endorsement of that decision will expose families [living near Section 17] to levels of radiation beyond those deemed safe by the NRC's own regulations, jeopardizing their health and safety."

As Judge Lucero points out, the 10th Circuit's decision fails to acknowledge the acutely negative cumulative impacts that re-initiation of mining operations will have on communities living near the mine site -- especially given the disastrous result of uranium mining at the very same site 30 years ago. In 1979, the Church Rock Mine's tailings dam failed, sending 94 million gallons of heavy metal effluent and radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco, which was once known as Tó Nizhóní­ ("beautiful water") to the local Navajo community. This spill caused and continues to cause cancer, birth defects, disruptions of the immune and endocrine systems, and other interferences with human physiological systems among the local Navajo, as well as major negative impacts to crucial resources such as livestock, water, and soil quality.

Because of this toxic legacy, the Navajo Nation's leadership passed the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act in 2005, banning uranium mining. The nearby Havasupai tribe banned uranium mining as early as 1991, and the Hualapai tribe renewed a similar ban on uranium mining in its land in 2009. Yet a sharp increase in international demand for uranium, as well as its limited availability in traditional mining zones around the world, has provoked a "renaissance" in U.S. uranium mine claims in recent years. For example, on public lands within five miles of the Grand Canyon, the Department of Interior (DOI) assesses that there are now more than 1,100 uranium claims, compared with just 10 in January 2003. Overall, according to the DOI, over 43,000 uranium mine claims were filed in 2009 in the five Western states housing the nation's uranium mines, whereas just 4,333 new claims were filed in 2004.

President Obama called last month for a "new generation of nuclear power," promising $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to develop the nation's first commercial nuclear reactors in decades. Beyond the still-intractable problems of waste disposal, security, and proliferation, does this vision of a nuclear-powered bright future account for the egregious harms wrought by the uranium extraction industry on indigenous peoples of the Western United States?

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at [email protected]