Navajo group claims uranium mining violates human rights


An old building near the Church Rock uranium mine northeast of Gallup. A Navajo rights group successfully filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that the government violated Navajo human rights by allowing uranium mines at Church Rock and Crownpoint. (Jim Thompson / Albuquerque Journal)

Christine Smith, a first-year teacher at Crownpoint Elementary in northwestern New Mexico, lives a few hundred yards from a processing plant for a uranium mine project.

Smith said she was concerned about how a resumption of uranium mining in the area could affect the health of her students and family.

“Even though the mining companies kept coming back and saying it was a safe process… we’ve seen a lot of accidents in the past,” Smith said. “No company will ever convince me that a process is 100% safe. “

Smith is a member of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, a group that has successfully filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The petition alleges that the United States and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violated Navajo human rights by granting Hydro Resources Inc./NuFuels a license to mine uranium at Church Rock and Crownpoint.

This is only the second time that the Washington, DC-based human rights organization has found an environmental lawsuit against the United States admissible.

Eric Jantz, a New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney representing the Navajo group in this case, called the petition “a milestone” in a decades-long legal battle.

“(It’s not just about) how many parts per million uranium passes through an aquifer, or how much (of) radiation people inhale into their lungs, but basic human rights,” Jantz said. “The right to have clean air, clean water, clean land, and basically live your life as an Indigenous person, or anyone else, without fear that your way of life will be destroyed by the government. “

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30 million tonnes of uranium ore were mined from Navajo lands from 1944 to 1986. The materials were instrumental in the United States nuclear weapons program.

Community resistance to the HRI / NuFuels project dates back to 1994.

NRC environmental impact statements for a proposed new mine have started appearing in local mailboxes, and residents have organized themselves to voice concerns about the plan.

Federal regulators approved in 1998 the license to mine uranium at three different sites in McKinley County using the in situ leaching method.

The method injects water and chemicals through underground wells to dissolve the uranium.

The uranium is then transformed into “yellowcake” and used as nuclear fuel.

According to the NRC, the Crownpoint site currently has no active operations.

The Navajo group initially filed the petition in 2011 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which ruled the petition admissible earlier this year.

The groups submitted more testimony Thursday as part of the petition process.

A disaster in 1979 at the now closed Church Rock uranium plant north of Gallup sent 93 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River.

Exposure to uranium can cause organ damage and cancer.

A research study from the University of New Mexico showed that at least 25% of adult Navajo participants had uranium in their urine in concentrations greater than 95% of the American population.

Rita Capitan, president of the Navajo Crownpoint chapter and co-founder of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, said another mine could do more damage to “precious land and water.”

“Why allow another company to come in and start mining uranium again when nothing has been cleaned up?” Said the captain.

Earlier this year, the EPA awarded contracts totaling $ 220 million to three companies to clean up 50 abandoned uranium mine sites near Grants and on the Navajo Nation.

There are around 500 abandoned sites on tribal lands.

The petition alleges that the NRC cleared the mine knowing it would contaminate groundwater.

The groups say the company has failed to demonstrate that its proposed cleanup methods could restore groundwater to preconditions for mining.

This week, the Navajo Nation Government supported the petition.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and Navajo Council Chairman Seth Damon on Thursday signed a proclamation, urging the commission to recognize uranium mining as an “ongoing assault on land, resources and the Diné people ”.

“The United States has continued to allow private companies to extract large amounts of uranium from Diné lands, abandoning and leaving behind mountains of radioactive and toxic waste,” the executives wrote in the proclamation.

Several Navajo chapters have issued resolutions supporting the petition.

The committee could hold a hearing on the petition as early as next year.

Advocacy groups have said that a “favorable decision” by the commission – essentially a finding that the US government violated communities’ human rights when authorizing the project – could be useful in future litigation aimed at overturning the project. Licence.

“It is high time that US nuclear policy was closely scrutinized and that human rights violations … were taken into account and scrutinized,” Jantz said.


Theresa Davis is a member of the Report for America body covering Water and the Environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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