Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Could Lose Its Land

A contaminated pile near the community of Red Water Pond Road holds a million cubic yards of waste from the Old Northeast Church Rock Mine. Mark Holm for The New York Times
A contaminated pile near the community of Red Water Pond Road holds a million cubic yards of waste from the Old Northeast Church Rock Mine. Mark Holm for The New York Times


CHURCH ROCK, N.M. — In this dusty corner of the Navajo reservation, where seven generations of families have been raised among the arroyos and mesas, Bertha Nez is facing the prospect of having to leave her land forever.

The uranium pollution is so bad that it is unsafe for people to live here long term, environmental officials say. Although the uranium mines that once pocked the hillsides were shut down decades ago, mounds of toxic waste are still piled atop the dirt, raising concerns about radioactive dust and runoff.

And as cleanup efforts continue, Ms. Nez and dozens of other residents of the Red Water Pond Road community, who have already had to leave their homes at least twice since 2007 because of the contamination, are now facing a more permanent relocation. Although their village represents only a small sliver of the larger Navajo nation, home to nearly 300,000 people, they are bearing the brunt of the environmental problems.

“It feels like we are being pushed around,” said Ms. Nez, 67, a retired health care worker, who recalled the weeks and months spent in motel rooms in nearby Gallup as crews hauled away radioactive soil from the community’s backyards and roadsides.

“This is where we’re used to being, traditionally, culturally” she said. “Nobody told us it was unsafe. Nobody warned us we would be living all this time with this risk.”

These days, this sprawling reservation, about the size of West Virginia, is considered one of the largest uranium-contaminated areas in United States history, according to officials at the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has been in the throes of an expansive effort to remove waste from around this tiny and remote Navajo village, and clean up more than 500 abandoned mine areas that dot the reservation.

Federal officials say they have been amazed at the extent of the uranium contamination on the reservation, a vestige of a burst of mining activity here during the Cold War. In every pocket of Navajo country, tribal members have reported finding mines that the agency did not know existed. In some cases, the mines were discovered only after people fell down old shafts.

“It is shocking — it’s all over the reservation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “I think everyone, even the Navajos themselves, have been shocked about the number of mines that were both active and abandoned.”

Between 2008 and 2012, federal agencies spent $100 million on the cleanup, according to the E.P.A.; an additional $17 million has been spent by energy companies determined to be responsible for some of the waste.

But the scope of the problem is worse than anyone had thought. The E.P.A. has said that it could take at least eight years to dispose of a huge pile of uranium mine waste that has sat near Red Water Pond Road since the 1980s — waste that must be removed before the area can finally be free of contamination.

“The community is frustrated, I know I’m frustrated — we’d like it to go quickly,” Mr. Blumenfeld said.

But before the latest round of cleanup can begin, an application to remove the waste pile must be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will then conduct environmental and safety reviews. That process will probably take two years, and there is the possibility that public hearings on the plan could extend the process several more years, said Drew Persinko, a deputy director for the commission.

That time frame seems unreasonably long for tribal members, who said that spending so long living away from the reservation has been difficult. So far, the E.P.A. has spent $1 million on temporary housing for residents of Red Water Pond Road; much of that cost will be reimbursed by General Electric, which acquired the old Northeast Church Rock Mine site in 1997, and also its subsidiary company, United Nuclear Corporation, which operated the mine.

As in the past, the relocations will be voluntary. Some residents wondered — as they have for years now — if the land will ever really be clean.

“Our umbilical cords are buried here, our children’s umbilical cords are buried here. It’s like a homing device,” said Tony Hood, 64, who once worked in the mines and is now a Navajo interpreter for the Indian Medical Center in Gallup. “This is our connection to Mother Earth. We were born here. We will come back here eventually.”

Residents still remember seeing livestock drinking from mine runoff, men using mine materials to build their homes and Navajo children playing in contaminated water that ran through the arroyo. Today, the site near Red Water Pond Road holds one million cubic yards of waste from the Northeast Church Rock Mine, making it the largest and most daunting area of contamination on the reservation.

The waste does not pose any immediate health risk, Mr. Blumenfeld said, but there are concerns about radioactive dust being carried by the wind, runoff from rain, and the area’s accessibility to children, who can slip in easily through a fence.

Under a plan being developed by General Electric and the E.P.A., the waste would be transported to a former uranium mill just off the reservation — already considered a Superfund site — and stored in a fortified repository. The estimated cost is nearly $45 million.

“General Electric and United Nuclear Corporation are committed to continue to work cooperatively with the U.S. government, Navajo Nation, state of New Mexico and local residents to carry out interim cleanups and reach agreement on the remedy for the mine,” said Megan Parker, a spokeswoman for General Electric.

The Navajo E.P.A., which is an arm of the tribe’s own government, for years has been calling for a widespread cleanup of abandoned mines. Stephen Etsitty, the executive director of the agency, said he was hopeful that progress was finally being made, but acknowledged that the scope and technical complexity of the operation at Red Water Pond Road was unprecedented.

“We’re pushing and doing as much as we can to keep the process going as fast as we can,” Mr. Etsitty said. “It’s just taken so long to get there.”

On a recent day, Ms. Nez and several other residents stood on a bluff near a cluster of small homes and traditional Navajo hogan dwellings as the wind whipped across a valley that once bustled with mining activity.

The group talked of their grandparents — medicine men who were alive when the mines first opened — and wondered what they would think about Red Water Pond Road today.

“They would say ‘How did this happen? They ruined our land,’ ” Ms. Nez said. “ ‘How come you haven’t prayed to have this all fixed up?’ ”

A version of this article appears in print on February 20, 2014, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Nestled Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Faces Losing Its Land Forever. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


Uranium Mining and Native Resistance: The Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act


By Curtis Kline, Intercontinental Cry

Native Americans in the northern great plains have the highest cancer rates in the United States, particularly lung cancer. It’s a problem that the United States government has woefully ignored, much the horror of the men and women who must carry the painful, life-threatening burden.

The cancer rates started increasing drastically a few decades after uranium mining began on their territory.

According to a report by Earthworks, “Mining not only exposes uranium to the atmosphere, where it becomes reactive, but releases other radioactive elements such as thorium and radium and toxic heavy metals including arsenic, selenium, mercury and cadmium. Exposure to these radioactive elements can cause lung cancer, skin cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, kidney damage and birth defects.”

Today, in the northern great plains states of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, the memory of that uranium mining exists in the form of 2,885 abandoned open pit uranium mines. All of the abandoned mines can be found on land that is supposed to be for the absolute use of the Great Sioux Nation under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the United States.

The Area Agreed Upon in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (photo

The Area Agreed Upon in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (photo

There are also 1,200 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation, where cancer rates are also significantly disproportionate. In fact, it is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of all uranium in the United States is located on tribal land, and three fourths of uranium mining worldwide is on Indigenous land.

Defenders of the Black Hills, a group whose mission is to preserve, protect, restore, and respect the area of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties, is calling the health situation in their own territory America’s Chernobyl.

It’s not far from the truth. A nuclear physics professor from the University of Michigan, Dr. K. Kearfott, Ph. D., who studied the situation in northwestern South Dakota as well as the situation in Japan has said,

“The radiation levels in parts I visited with my students were higher than those in the evacuated zones around the Fukushima nuclear disaster…”

The contamination from the mines escapes into the air. It poisons grain that is fed to cattle that provide milk and beef for the rest of the nation. The abandoned uranium mines of the Cave Hills in northwestern South Dakota empty into the Grand River which flows through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Three villages are located on the Grand River and their residents have used the water for drinking and other domestic purposes for generations. The water runoff from the Slim Buttes abandoned uranium mines empty into the Morreau River which flows through the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Both of these rivers empty into the Missouri River which empties into the Mississippi.

Defending their lands, their food, air and water, defending their health and right to thrive as a people, the Defenders of the Black Hills have written legislation, The Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act, calling for study and remediation. This legislation proposes to place a moratorium on any processing or approval of new licenses for uranium exploration or mining operations until all abandoned mines in the country have been cleaned up.

In the last years, uranium mining interests in the United States for use at nuclear power plants has been growing. Being sold as a safer, cleaner and renewable energy, nuclear energy is on the table for America’s desire for energy independence.

However, as it has been witnessed by the Native communities suffering from the health impacts of these mines, who have also lost access to sacred sites, hunting and fishing territory, and land to grow crops, nuclear energy is just another extractive industry with serious adverse health and environmental effects.

The proposed legislation can be found at the website of Defenders of the Black Hills, along with a letter to representative Raul Grijalva from Arizona, urging him to sponsor the legislation. The uranium mines within the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty territory were never consented to by the Native American communities who now have to suffer the effects of the poisons these mines emit.

20-Year Ban on New Uranium-Mining Claims in Grand Canyon Holds Up in Court

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

The Havasupai Tribe, and the Grand Canyon watershed, won in U.S. District Court this week when a judge denied the uranium industry’s motion to overturn a 20-year federal ban on uranium mining on 1 million acres in the ecologically sensitive landmark and haven of sacred places to many tribes. Still under contention, though, are previously existing claims that are held still valid.

The March 20 move upheld a ban signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in January 2012, when he prohibited new uranium-mining claims, as well as development on certain old claims whose rights may have expired, for 20 years on 1 million acres surrounding the canyon. In response the National Mining Association, Nuclear Energy Institute, Northwest Mining Association and other groups filed four lawsuits challenging both the ban and the federal government’s authority to enact it. The Havasupai Tribe was among those who stepped in to combat the industry.

“It’s a great day for the Grand Canyon, and for rivers, wildlife, and communities across the West,” said Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice, one the attorneys representing conservation groups and the Havasupai tribe in the case, in a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity. “The uranium industry was hoping to cripple the Interior Department’s ability to temporarily protect lands from destructive mining. Today’s opinion upholds the Interior Department’s authority to take such protective measures.”

Salazar had enacted a two-year block on new mining claims for those million acres in 2009 to give the department time to study whether to institute a more permanent or longer ban. In March 2011 the state of Arizona’s environmental protection department granted permits to Denison Mines Corp. of Canada to reopen three mines near the canyon, even as the U.S. government was gathering information on whether to extend the ban. In January 2012 the Interior Department announced the 20-year ban, which was then challenged in court.

Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon threatens sacred sites of the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo peoples. Tribal health is also at risk, with radioactive material posing a danger to Navajo citizens, said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in a statement when the ban was announced in January 2012.

Not covered in the ban protected by the March 20, 2013, court ruling is the question of previously approved mining and new projects on claim sites with existing rights, the Interior Department said in its statement announcing the ban last year. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that as many as 11 uranium mines could be developed under existing rights. On March 7 the Havasupai tribe and three conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Energy Fuels Resources Inc. to start up a uranium mine near Grand Canyon National Park, citing a lack of formal tribal consultation and the company’s failure to update the federal environmental review it had conducted in 1986.

“We regret that the Forest Service is not protecting our sacred site in the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property from destruction by uranium mining,” said Havasupai tribe chairman Don Watahomigie in a March 7 statement from the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Havasupai are returning to the federal courts to protect our people, our religion and our water.”

In addition the four uranium-industry lawsuits that were covered by the March 20 ruling could still raise arguments on other legal grounds, the Center for Biological Diversity said, adding that court proceedings will continue to unfold this spring.