Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Navajo Nation Faces an Old Problem: Uranium Mining is Coming Back

By Colin English

The Navajo Nation inhabits the largest land area of semi-autonomous, Native American jurisdiction within the United States. Occupying parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Nation has an intricate tribal government, a judicial system, and a rich cultural history. It is also home to “more than 250 abandoned uranium mines that once provided the raw materials for the U.S. nuclear complex,” Al Jazeera noted in a recent TV report. And the uranium-mining industry is set to return in full force.

Native Americans living in the United States typically wrestle with issues endemic to our most underrepresented sociopolitical groups--namely, deeply entrenched poverty, limited political agency, social and racial stigmatization, and a long history of bearing the disproportionate brunt of environmental contamination. Despite their incredibly rich cultures, their journeys throughout American history were often sad ones. The displacement of their societies to low quality land often did not save them from environmental exploitation when significant economic resources such as uranium were discovered.

The United States extensively extracted uranium from the Navajo lands to meet the demand of nuclear technology after WWII and throughout the Cold War. As these conflicts subsided, so did the mining activity in the region. However, a recent increase in nuclear energy demand for international investment has renewed mining operations, such as the new Roca Honda mine. It is one of four newly proposed New Mexico uranium mines in the process of reviewing their operating permits.

Located in an area sacred to the Navajo and Pueblo peoples, the Honda mine represents an upcoming turmoil between economic and technological advancement and the integrity of people’s water, land, and places of worship. These prospects interest government and private industry due to the possibility of boosting New Mexico’s economy, the third-poorest in the country. For the Navajo people, it signals the return of an industry that left hundreds of abandoned mines and waste sites, contaminated the environment with radioactive and industrial materials, and triggers memories of radioactive accidents like Church Rock, the largest in U.S. history. The accident is not widely known, as it is overshadowed by the Three Mile accident in 1979 that occurred four months prior to Church Rock. The Navajo Nation endured 94 million gallons of effluent, radioactive material and 1000 tons of acidic radioactive sludge as it spilled into the Rio Puerco from a dam breach.

Not everyone in the region, however, dreads the return of the nuclear mining industry. Many Navajo and regional inhabitants previously worked in the mines, like Jack Farley who supported a renewed economic venture: “Oh God yes, this economy needs it bad! Things have changed. When I worked there were no laws. I worked 500-1,000 working levels of radiation - that’s 999 times what is allowed now. But I think a lack of education has people still thinking uranium mining is dangerous,” he told Al Jazeera.

This perspective is buoyed by the fact that the Navajo are a marginalized, low income, indigenous community of color that lacks the resources to force state and federal government to address the effects of uranium mining on the region. Because of this lack of scientific attention on the Navajo region and community consensus on the dangers of uranium, as well as the substantial growth of the industry worldwide, the mining activities will likely return.

Still, while adverse effects have not been fully studied on that population, the hazards of radioactive material to humans are well documented and comprehensive studies exist about the spills and accidents on site - such as Church Rock. Agencies in the area such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) recently acknowledged that their previous and recent radiation leaks were larger than they initially reported. These findings were reported in February, and the underground storage facilities in which they occurred are currently being investigated.

For the foreseeable future, mining activity and repeated nuclear accidents will continue due to economic forces, the strength of the uranium industry, and the sociopolitical marginalization of the Navajo Nation. Their story adds to the national narrative that Native American groups routinely experience chronic environmental injustice, or bear the disproportionate adverse effects of environmental contamination. For the Navajo, the United States seems determined to show them again that nuclear energy is more important than their lives.

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