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Navajo President Opposes Uranium ISL Mining

Swayed by "your grave concerns about uranium mining operations" in the Eastern Navajo Agency in northwestern New Mexico, Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye and Vice President Dr. Taylor McKenzie have told community leaders that they now oppose uranium in situ leach (ISL) mining "located in or near populated areas" and conducted in "potable or potentially potable groundwater or surface water sources."

In announcing their new policy governing ISL mining "within the jurisdiction of the Nation Nation, including Navajo Indian Country . . . [and] on non-Indian lands affecting Navajo communities," Begaye and McKenzie said they "have concluded that in-situ leach mining technologies are unproven and are yet experimental" and agree with Eastern Agency communities that "proposed uranium mining projects in the Crownpoint and Church Rock areas would pose significant public and environmental health risks . . ."

The announcement by Begaye and McKenzie came in a May 22 letter to Eastern Agency chapter leaders and officials of local healthcare institutions. The letter is reprinted in its entirety [here].

The Navajo Nation Executive Branch leaders say their policy is "to oppose any in-situ leach uranium mining operations that would be located in or near populated areas, including towns, villages, housing developments, inhabited complexes, and family camps." In evoking the need to protect the Nation's "valuable" water resources, the policy opposes "any in-situ leach uranium mining operations that would involve pumping water from or injecting lixiviant into potable or potentially potable groundwater or surface water sources."

The policy is clearly aimed at the Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), Crownpoint Uranium Solution Mining Project, a proposal to construct and operate ISL mines at sites in Church Rock and Crownpoint chapters in the Eastern Navajo Agency. HRI wants to extract uranium by injecting a chemical solution mixed with dissolved oxygen into a uranium-bearing rock formation and pumping the uranium-laden groundwater to the surface for processing. Initial processing would be done at two satellite plants, one located in Church Rock chapter and the other located 2.5 miles west of Crownpoint. Final processing would be done at a central plant located in the town of Crownpoint, a community of nearly 3,000 people that is the administrative, educational and healthcare center of the Eastern Agency.

The Begaye-McKenzie letter said the policy is based on "the resolutions opposing uranium mining passed by each of your communities and institutions, along with scientific information about in-site leach mining technologies in general." The communities, including Crownpoint and Church Rock chapters, had questioned the safety of ISL mining in the Westwater Canyon Aquifer, a vast groundwater resource that is the principal source of drinking water an estimated 15,000 residents of the Eastern Agency, and is an important source of water for livestock. The communities have also expressed concerns about health risks from uranium processing at the proposed plant in Crownpoint, and questioned why new mining should be permitted in an area where most of some three dozen abandoned uranium mining sites have never from cleaned up.

Begaye and McKenzie also promised to "purse this policy by all available means, including seeking Executive Branch resources for chapter governments and community organizations engaged in opposing in-situ leaching mining projects" and "financial resources from the Navajo Nation Council" when appropriate.

The policy was hailed by Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining-Concerned Citizens of T'iists'óóz Nídeeshgizh (ENDAUM-CCT) as a victory for the affected communities.

"It was a very important step for the Navajo Nation to take, and we support them," said ENDAUM-CCT Governing Board member Lynnea Smith. The new policy, she said, will have a "tremendous effect" because it "sets the precedent of the president and vice president committing the Navajo Nation to opposing a big corporation." Smith said ENDAUM-CCT remains in "close contact" with the Begaye Administration in the group's continuing fight against the proposed uranium mining in Crownpoint and Church Rock

While the letter makes no mention of the Navajo Nation Executive Order Moratorium on Uranium Mining issued by former President Peterson Zah in December 1992, sources close to the Navajo Administration said the new policy is intended to supplement, not supplant, the Zah executive order. The Zah order placed a "moratorium . . . on uranium mining activity until such time that the Navajo people can be assured that all safety and health hazards related to such activity can be addressed and resolved." In past years, HRI officials have stated publicly that they believe their proposed ISL mining project is not inconsistent with the Zah executive order. ENDAUM-CCT and other groups, including SRIC, have countered that ISL mining carries its own inherent risks and that many of the health and environmental problems brought about by past uranium development on the Navajo Nation have not been resolved.

The Begaye-McKenzie policy letter is the second major pronouncement by the current Navajo Administration on uranium ISL mining in general and the HRI project in particular. Last August, the Navajo president and vice president told New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman that they had concluded that the HRI project constituted an unacceptable risk to the water resources of the Eastern Agency, and urged Bingaman to work with the Navajo Nation to correct the "devastating" effects of past uranium mining. Begaye and McKenzie were concerned at the time that language in the U.S. House version of the omnibus energy bill would subsidize HRI's parent company's Texas uranium ISL mining operations, thereby freeing up cash that HRI could use to continue pursuing federal approval of its New Mexico mines.

ENDAUM-CCT and SRIC are intervenors in a legal challenge of HRI's ISL mining license granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January 1998. The case has been on hold since November 2001 when the parties - ENDAUM-CCT, SRIC and the NRC Staff - agreed to engage in private talks to explore settling the groups' challenge. Those talks may resume in September. In the meantime, no mining can be commenced at any of HRI's four proposed ISL mining sites legally because HRI does not have all required federal permits. And the spot market price for uranium, which has been hovering around $9.50 to $10 per pound, remains well below the price at which HRI says it needs to begin mining.

-- Chris Shuey


May 22, 2002

· Crownpoint Chapter President
· Church Rock Chapter President
· Littlewater Chapter President
· Pinedale Chapter President
· Chairperson of Eastern Navajo Health Board
· CEO of Crownpoint Healthcare Facility
· President of Eastern Agency Council
· Smith Lake Chapter President
· Standing Rock Chapter President
· Whitehorse Lake Chapter President
· White Rock Chapter President

Dear Honorable Chapter Presidents, Community Representative, and Council Delegates:

We are writing to acknowledge your grave concerns about uranium mining operations in the Eastern Agency and to notify you of the Navajo Nation Executive Branch's policy on in-situ leach mining of uranium within the Navajo Nation. We have reviewed the resolutions opposing uranium mining passed by each of your communities and institutions, along with scientific information about in-situ leach mining technologies in general. We have concluded that in-situ leach mining technologies are unproven. We also understand that the Navajo people in the area are overwhelmingly opposed to renewed uranium mining operations. We also support your contention that proposed uranium mining projects in the Crownpoint and Church Rock areas would pose significant public and environmental health risks to Navajo communities.

Therefore, in response to the numerous resolutions from your respective chapters and governing bodies opposing in-situ leach mining of uranium within the Eastern Navajo Agency of the Navajo Nation, the Office of the President and Vice President are pleased to notify you of the adoption of the policy governing in-situ leach uranium mining within the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, including Navajo Indian Country. This policy will also govern Executive Branch action with respect to in-situ leach mining conducted on non-Indian lands but affecting Navajo communities.

This policy is based upon the concerns expressed in the Chapter and governing body resolutions passed by your respective chapters and organizations. In particular, the Executive Branch of the Navajo Nation acknowledges concerns raised about the threat of extensive groundwater contamination posed by in-situ leach uranium mining operations. The public health ramifications of such widespread groundwater contamination are enormous given the potent renal toxicity of uranium.

It is the policy of the Navajo Nation Executive Branch to oppose any in-situ leach uranium mining operations that would be located in or near populated areas, including towns, villages, housing developments, inhabited complexes, and family camps. The water resources of the Navajo Nation are among its most valuable resources and must be protected. Therefore, the Executive Branch is also opposed to any in-situ leach uranium mining operations that would involve pumping water from or injecting solution into potable or potentially potable groundwater or surface water sources.

The Executive Branch shall vigorously pursue this policy by all available means, including seeking Executive Branch resources for chapter governments and community organizations engaged in opposing in-situ leach uranium mining projects. The Office of the President and Vice President will issue a memorandum to all Executive Branch agencies informing the agency directors of this Executive Branch policy. When appropriate we also will seek financial resources from the Navajo Nation Council.

Uranium mining has proven to be devastating to the health and well-being of the Navajo people. We will work to assure that this type of devastation does not occur again. We deeply appreciate all that you have done for the Navajo people. We propose to assist in the effort to make Navajo communities safe, vibrant, and productive.

Sincerely,

THE NAVAJO NATION
Kelsey A. Begaye, President
Taylor McKenzie, MD, Vice President

Cc: Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice, The Judicial Branch
Edward T. Begay, Speaker, The Navajo Nation Council
Levon Henry, Attorney General, The Navajo Nation
John Hubbard, Jr., Area Director, Navajo Area Indian Health Service
Derrith Watchman-Moore, Executive Director, Navajo Environmental Protection Agency



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