Appeal ruled “admissible” by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
By Valerie Rangel
History of the Diné Territory
Both the Crown Point and Church Rock communities lie within the area of northwestern New Mexico traditionally used and occupied by the Diné. According to Navajo cosmology, the Diné emerged from a series of worlds into the current world. When First Man and First Woman emerged, they formed the four sacred mountains with soil from the previous world. This area is considered the cradle of Diné civilization and the birthplace of several important Diné deities.
Water is Life
Water is the lifeblood of the planet. Access to a clean environment is vital to the continuation of language and culture for Indigenous communities. The Diné have distinct cultural and spiritual ties to the land, and the environment provides subsistence within their traditional homeland. The Diné worldview is that all things are interrelated and interdependent; to exploit or destroy any aspect of creation is to harm one’s self and the balance and harmony of Hózhó.
The Navajo Nation hosts 520 abandoned uranium mines and three uranium mills that are Superfund sites. These sites have contaminated billions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres of land, and are the cause of significant illnesses and death in the indigenous communities located nearby.
On July 16, 1979, the largest nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred at the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) mill site, when the earthen dam to the pond holding UNC Mill uranium tailings was breached. The spill released over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic radioactive tailings solution into the Puerco River and traveled downstream through the Navajo Nation to the community of Sanders, AZ. The negative consequences of this spill are still being felt today by residents in the immediate vicinity and in surrounding communities.
Despite the ongoing public health and environmental crises that have resulted from the State’s failure to reasonably regulate the uranium mining and milling industry in the past, the State continues to license uranium operations that it acknowledges will contaminate natural resources within the Navajo Nation.
In 1998, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a source and byproduct materials license to Hydro Resources, Inc. (“HRI”) to conduct uranium mining, using in situ leach technology, at four sites in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint in northwestern New Mexico.
Violation of Human Rights
By granting a uranium mining license NRC concedes will pollute Navajo community aquifers with uranium and other heavy metals and cause contamination to air, soil, and other natural resources on lands traditionally used and occupied by the Diné, the State has violated:
Articles 1 (Right to Life), 3 (Right to Religious Freedom), 11 (Right to Health), 13 (Right to Culture), and 23 (Right to Property) of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (“Declaration”).
The threat to groundwater by extractive colonialism is an environmental justice issue that many communities of color face. The Navajo Nation and its people have suffered disproportionately from the legacy of uranium mining and processing on Navajo lands. Many Navajo uranium workers and their families have become ill, and many have died, from diseases associated both with the uranium work itself and with living near uranium mines, mills, and waste dumps.
Evidence of the devastating effects uranium development has had on Diné communities continues to mount. For example, the Navajo Birth Cohort Study has revealed that uranium and toxic metals remain in the Navajo environment and continue to be a significant concern. A recent University of New Mexico study found that more than one quarter of over 700 Navajo Nation women tested had high concentrations of uranium in their bodies. Others, like the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa in southeastern Utah, and the Havasupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon, also face threats posed by present day uranium operations.
Petition for a Hearing
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an independent body of the Organization of American States (OAS) recently ruled ENDAUM’s human rights petition against the United States as “admissible.” Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) filed its petition against the United States for violations of the Petitioner’s human rights by its acts and omissions that have contaminated and will continue to contaminate natural resources in the Dine’ communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock.
We need the federal government to address legacy issues of contamination of Indigenous and other mining-impacted communities instead of allowing extractive companies to further threaten communities already on the frontlines of the long-term consequences of uranium extraction.
How You Can Support
Stand in solidarity with Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining to STOP putting the public health of future generations at risk from irreversible contamination. Ask New Mexico’s leaders to CREATE plans for cleanup and long-term waste disposal of hazardous nuclear waste before giving corporations funding to further pollute and continue the proliferation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Nuclear Energy is NOT “Clean.”
- Nuclear is harmful to the environment. Uranium mining also makes nearby groundwater unusable forever. Half of the world’s uranium mines use a process called in-situ leaching. This involves pumping a cocktail of acids or bicarbonates mixed with groundwater to dissolve uranium in an aquifer for easier extraction. This contaminates aquifers with radioactive elements. There are no examples of successful groundwater restoration at ISL mines.
- Nuclear is not renewable. If we replaced 70% of global energy use with nuclear power we’d run out of uranium in about 6 years.
- Nuclear power means nuclear weapons. A big rollout of nuclear power would mean a big expansion of fissile materials that could be used for nuclear weapons.
- Nuclear waste is the most hazardous waste; it decays so slowly that it won’t be safe for millions of years, and there is no safe way to store it.
- Nuclear means environmental racism. About 70% of the uranium used for nuclear power plants worldwide is mined from the lands of Indigenous minorities. Indigenous peoples’ lands and culture have been treated as nuclear industry sacrifice zones. Tribal communities have historically been denied meaningful consultation in the siting and operation of uranium mines and mills, and have to deal with consequences decades after mining ends.
Valerie Rangel is Community Outreach Manager for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
Headline photo U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission