Navajo President: 'No Uranium Exploration, Extraction or Transportation on Navajo Lands'
U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., (middle), listens as President Russell Begaye speaks during a uranium town hall meeting May 30 in Cameron.
PRESIDENT BEGAYE: NO URANIUM EXPLORATION, EXTRACTION OR TRANSPORTATION ON NAVAJO LANDS
By Navajo Nation President Begaye Press Office
WINDOW ROCK—President Russell Begaye is applauding the U.S. House of Representatives for its unanimous approval June 7 of an amendment that allocates $1 million from the Department of Energy to expedite the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
The amendment, introduced by U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., amends the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act to designate funds to the Defense-Related Uranium Mining Program, which oversees the cleanup of more than 4,200 abandoned uranium mines in the United States. The Navajo Nation Washington Office worked closely with Rep. O'Halleran in the development of this amendment.
The measure next goes to the Senate for a vote.
The amendment is a victory for Navajo, President Begaye said. But the uranium industry and federal government have more work to do.
“We live with this every day on Navajo,” he said. These companies mined uranium, hauled it, created the mill sites and didn’t line the pits where they piled the waste. It’s time they stepped up and admitted they did wrong. It’s time to correct this.”
During a May 30 town hall meeting in Cameron hosted by Rep. O’Halleran, President Begaye urged lawmakers to do more to mitigate the effects of uranium on the Navajo Nation—and to prevent future contamination. The town hall, the second of its kind sponsored by Rep. O’Halleran’s office, was held in the Western Agency, where 111 abandoned mine sites are located.
There are many others sites located on the Navajo reservation including Ojiato, Sweetwater and Churchrock.
Rep. O’Halleran recently introduced H.R. 5128, the Tribal Uranium Exposure Treatment Enhancement Act of 2018, which would give tribes access to USDA funding to build facilities to treat uranium contamination. That funding could help build an oncology center on the Navajo Nation, where cancer is now the second-leading cause of death, President Begaye said. Yet patients have to travel off the reservation—and sometimes hundreds of miles from home—for treatment.
“We are the ones who are now holding the bag in terms of health,” he said. “We are driving our moms and dads to the hospitals and watching them suffer. There is no reason our people must uproot their families and drive hundreds of miles to get cancer treatment when they are threatened by these diseases which are more prevalent because of uranium contamination. We’re the ones left behind after the companies have packed up and gone to mine other places.”
During the town hall meeting, President Begaye pointed to the 567 abandoned and unmitigated uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, calling them a “public health crisis that almost no one is talking about.” Despite the legacy of contamination on Navajo lands, uranium companies continue to seek mining permits.
“The federal government and uranium companies have a history of looking the other way,” President Begaye said. “Without changes in federal law, companies are going to continue to mine uranium without engaging in basic conversation with the Navajo Nation. Companies are going to keep disregarding the health and laws of the Navajo people unless Congress steps up.”
The Navajo Nation also opposes the transportation of uranium across Navajo lands—even on federal or state highways, President Begaye said. Companies mining leasing minerals in the Grand Canyon have claimed they can transport uranium across the Navajo Nation if they stay on public roads.
“The Navajo Nation should have the authority to regulate all uranium transportation through the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Indian reservation,” President Begaye said. “Our sovereignty needs to be honored. If Navajo law says don’t transport uranium through Navajo, that should be the final word. The federal government should not be trumping Navajo Nation laws and allowing these companies to transport uranium through Navajo country.”
In his statement during the town hall meeting, President Begaye voiced support for H.R. 2049 and S. 197, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) amendments of 2017, which would add benefits for people who worked in uranium mines after 1971. The amendments would also expand “downwinder” coverage.
Vice President Jonathan Nez also called on Congress to pass laws that more strictly regulate new proposals for extraction while also remediating old sites and compensating people still dealing with the effects of uranium exposure.
“We urge Congress and industry leaders to take this seriously,” Vice President Nez said. “We will never again allow outside companies to come onto our lands and use our people to extract uranium, take all the benefits and leave us with the health bills.”