August 2020

Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Marlene Benally to UN Rapporteur: Uranium contamination on Navajoland

Marlene Benally, Member

Forgotten People

P.O. Box 1661

Tuba City (Navajo Nation), AZ  86045

(928) 401-1777

Consultation with The Honorable Mr. James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Tucson, AZ, April 26-27, 2012

Topic: Land and Resources.  Uranium and Arsenic Contaminated Water and No Water at all

Ya’ah’teeh Honorable Special Rapporteur James Anaya. Forgotten People appreciates your investigation of the human rights situation of indigenous peoples living in the United States and wishes to discuss failures of the US government to protect and remediate highly radioactive abandoned uranium mines and uranium and arsenic contaminated water sources in communities spanning more than 2 million acres in the western portion of the Navajo Nation.

Our communities face serious development issues. These issues have been compounded by the 43-year US government imposed Bennett Freeze lifted by President Obama in 2009 without comment, funding or a plan for rehabilitation. The Freeze is largely responsible for inadequate housing, lack of basic infrastructure such as water, paved roads, and pervasive poverty in the region.  Only 3 % of families have electricity.  Over 90% of the homes do not have access to piped water, requiring families to haul their water from other locations. EPA estimates 54,000 residents of the Navajo Nation lack access to a public water system. Only 24 % of homes are habitable today. 

The Freeze is responsible for intergenerational trauma affecting people mentally, physically and psychologically. Medical studies confirm that overcrowding in addition to the absence of running water, refrigeration, and adequate sewage disposal adversely impact the mental and physical health of Dinè residing in the former Bennett Freeze. These impacts range from youth suicide and mental illness; and an array of medical aliments including but not limited to kidney failure and cancer.

Since 1966, the population in the area has increased by approximately 65 percent, forcing several generations of families to live together in dwellings that have been declared unfit for human habitation. The result of which has been a large number of deaths from exposure to the harsh climate.  

To compound the effects, the US EPA reports the presence of over 1,300 abandoned mines on reservation land alone. Up to 25 % of the unregulated sources in the western Navajo Nation exceeds drinking water standard for kidney toxicants including uranium.

 Forgotten People collaborated with Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University to create an interactive participatory map using ArcGIS Viewer for Flex. See: Data used in this project came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Abandoned Mines Screening Assessment Report and Atlas. As you will see in the map, the major concern is contamination of water sources by uranium.

The US EPA reports the presence of over 1,300 abandoned mines on reservation land alone. Up to 25 % of the unregulated sources in the western Navajo Nation exceeds drinking water standard for kidney toxicants including uranium.  Uranium in the drinking water causes multiple health impacts like bone cancer and impaired kidney function. Reproductive-organ cancers in teenage Dinè girls average 17 times higher than the average of girls in the U.S. but a health study of uranium exposure has never been conducted.

A recent New York Times article highlighted how abandoned uranium mine remediation is falling short in Cameron, Ariz., and other parts of the Navajo Nation.  This prompted a 4/19/2012 letter from Democrats in Congress to the US EPA, Department of Energy (DOE) and Indian Health Service (IHS) calling for “urgent action” to clean up hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that pose extreme public health risks to residents of the Navajo Nation Reservation. They state, “The connection between human exposure to high levels of radioactivity, like those found at the Cameron site, and development of serious and life-threatening health problems is undeniable,” the congressmen added. 

Across the wash from the Cameron site all the wells are contaminated but due to a lack of infrastructure, people are still drinking contaminated water because they have no choice.


·         President Obama should fulfill his pledge made on December 16, 2010 and sign a binding declaration to show his commitment to indigenous people.

·         International law that protects water and land rights as defined by the declaration should be enacted and where such law already exists, that they be catalogued and made available in languages Indigenous peoples speak.

·         Mechanisms and instruments to adjudicate human rights violations should be set up within UN jurisdiction and the International Criminal Court to restore land, water and religious rights to solve the Navajo refugee problem.

·          Mandated rather than voluntary compliance by industry with independent monitoring and performance review needs to be implemented with creation of a Task Force on Business and Industry (TOBI) and a UN code of conduct and binding rules to ensure corporate accountability, the precautionary principle and polluter pays.

·         An April 2007 statement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that states, "It is now time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, defined as the right to equal and non-discriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses--drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene--to sustain life and health. States should prioritize these personal and domestic uses over other water uses and should take steps to ensure that this sufficient amount is of good quality, affordable for all and can be collected within a reasonable distance from a person's home." 

·         We believe the US government should be held accountable to commitments made internationally including UN General Assembly (GA) Resolutions on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation and a commitment by the US EPA at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development to reduce the number of its citizens lacking access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 50% by 2015.

FP prays for your intervention and the application of emergency measures to ensure the protection of our rights under the declaration.

Ahe’hee (Thank you).

Respectfully submitted by Marlene Benally, Member

Forgotten People, Navajo Nation, AZ

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