MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations
Six months after the December 2006 Indigenous World Uranium Summit (IWUS) at Window Rock, Arizona, the assault by governments and the uranium industry on Mother Earth continues throughout the world. Driven by the inflated, but rising price of uranium on the world market, this perceived economic boom is creating economic blackmail in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities worldwide, including several in New Mexico. “Riding the yellowcake road” since the IWUS has taken me and other Indigenous Peoples to destinations both near and far in advancing the strong language of the Declaration of the IWUS that we dedicated ourselves to uphold (Voices from the Earth, Winter 2006/2007).
In February, we found ourselves in Santa Fe, opposing State Senator David Ulibarri’s Senate Joint Memorial 10, “Recognizing the Importance of Nuclear Energy and the Valuable Uranium Resources in New Mexico.” Ulibarri, who describes himself as “pro-nuclear,” never consulted his constituents at Acoma and Laguna pueblos or on the Navajo Nation before introducing the memorial. And he didn’t seem to remember that Governor Bill Richardson, who appointed him to the Senate in December, has made consultation with tribes on sacred sites a central focus of his administration’s relationship with Native governments. The three tribes wrote strong rebuttals opposing the bill, and grassroots Indigenous people and several environmental groups made impromptu visits to the Legislature to testify before committees and educate lawmakers. The memorial passed two committees, but eventually died after being tabled on the Senate floor.
The fact that the non-binding Ulibarri memorial seemed to have support among key legislators got our collective attention. Indigenous peoples were reminded that they must be vigilant to these types of tactics by federal and state governments, as well as the corporations who are enticing economically depressed communities with the illusion of jobs and royalties without fully informing them of the dangers of new mining. The uranium industry is now being driven by the in situ leach (ISL) mining process that is less expensive and requires a smaller, less intensive labor force than conventional mining methods. The industry is misinforming the public that these new methods are safe. Past uranium mining and milling left us with a legacy of hundreds of contaminated sites and the early deaths and illnesses of former uranium workers and residents of mining communities. Still today, federal and state government officials like Senator Ulibarri chose to ignore these historical facts, leaving impacted communities and individuals to draw the conclusion that no form of mining is safe.
After the first uranium boom in the Southwest and other areas of North America, Indigenous People realized that we must work hard to protect of our sacred sites and cultural property. Our vigilance was heightened earlier this year when the New Mexico Environment Department and the state Mining and Minerals Division confirmed that several companies have expressed interest in applying for permits for conventional mining and milling on and near Mt. Taylor, which a sacred site for both Pueblo and Diné people. Between December and April, Acoma and Laguna pueblos, the All Indian Pueblo Council of New Mexico, and the Eastern Navajo Agency Council of the Navajo Nation passed resolutions opposing all forms of uranium development on or near our sacred Mount Taylor.
The uranium mining companies proposing development in the Mount Taylor area do not acknowledge the mountain is a sacred site. As noted in the resolutions, the three tribes cited several federal laws and policies that are intended to protect Indigenous cultural and sacred sites, items of cultural patrimony and burial grounds.¹ The laws also mandate government to government consultations with tribes, and most of them are applicable to any federal permitting of uranium development. The resolutions also cited Presidential Executive Order 13175, “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribes,” which directs federal agencies “to establish a process which facilitates meaningful participation throughout the regulatory process.”
In the first uranium boom, Indigenous Nations and individuals found themselves in litigation or mediation, having to negotiate our inherent human rights after mining and milling had already been approved. This time around, having experienced lies, deceit and broken promises at the hands of federal and state governments and the corporations, we have empowered ourselves to be better prepared to address important issues like protection of our invaluable natural resources. The Navajo Nation, for instance, enacted the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, which bans all forms of uranium mining and processing in “Navajo Indian Country.” Similarly, the Havasupai Tribal Council adopted a constitutional ban on uranium mining several years ago. Both of these measures were directed by Indigenous elders and grassroots communities. As Indigenous activists and organizations, we have learned to work closely with our tribal governments, demanding prior and informed consent over our lands, resources, and territories.
We have also learned that we must continually inform non-Indian governments and the mining industry of our tribal laws and policies that say “No” to uranium development. On April 24, for instance, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) hosted a People’s March to protest Hydro Resources, Inc.’s (HRI) continued pursuit of new ISL mines in Crownpoint and Churchrock, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approval of those proposed mines. Both HRI and the NRC act with indifference, if not outright distain, toward the Navajo Nation’s uranium ban. At the protest, ENDAUM received a letter of support from Mexican-American community activists from Kingsville, Texas, who accuse HRI’s parent company, Uranium Resources Inc. (URI), of contaminating their water supplies and devaluing their lands as a result of ISL mining. The two groups now plan on conducting an exchange of members to highlight their common concerns about URI/HRI.
We have empowered ourselves to take these laws to the international arena, as was evident at the Sixth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in New York City on May 14 -25. The IWUS Declaration calling for a worldwide ban on all aspects of the nuclear fuel chain was presented as a joint intervention supported by the Navajo Nation, various organizations from Indigenous Nations, and Native representatives from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, United States, and Vanuatu. The joint intervention received tremendous support from Indigenous Peoples attending the UN Permanent Forum who had not been able to attend IWUS. Vicki Tauli Corpuz, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum, said the declaration will be given strong consideration by members of the UN Permanent Forum as well as pertinent environmental agencies within the UN.
My laptop and an Internet connection are among my most important assets while traveling the Yellowcake Road. Constant communication among Indigenous groups and nations is essential as the industry knocks on the doors of Indigenous governments throughout the world. The Black Hills of South Dakota — the sacred Paha Sapa of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and other Indigenous Nations — for instance, are being targeted again for uranium mining. On Mothers Day, May 13, members of the Grand River Environmental Equality Network (GREEN) began an occupation on U.S. Forest Service land at Slim Buttes, South Dakota, to protest new uranium exploration in an area heavily impacted by abandoned uranium mines that have contaminated water and impacted human health over the last 30 years. These impacts have inhibited access to numerous Lakota sacred sites that are now too dangerous to visit because of excessive radiation levels.
The Village Council of Elim, Alaska, is dealing with proposed ISL mining by several Canadian uranium companies. The Village Council wants to protect its pristine environment, particularly the rivers where salmon are abundant and are the main food source of the village. But uranium exploration is being directed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which the Elim council charges has provided little information to the village. Apparently, no place in North America is safe from these uranium companies, no matter how pristine the environment is.
In mid-May, the Yellowcake Road took me to Sweden at the invitation of the Green Party. In one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world, ISL mining is also being considered in close proximity to the lands and territories of the Indigenous Samai people. The Samai Council has vehemently opposed any form of exploratory measures. The Samai feel that any form of mining will devastate their traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing. They are as protective of the reindeer for maintaining their culture and traditions as the Gwich’in people are for protecting the caribou from oil development in and around the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Swedish officials told us that uranium is necessary to power 10 nuclear power plants that have been operating for 30 years in Sweden. My journey took me to one of those plants, the Oskarsham Power Plant, which provides electrical power to eastern Sweden, including the city of Stockholm. The plant will also host the Encapsulation Repository Facility where spent reactor fuel will be placed in iron and copper lined canisters that weigh 27 metric tonnes and will be embedded 500 meters into granite bedrock. Proposed by Svensk Karnbranslehantering (SKB, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company), the encapsulation repository will not only store Sweden’s nuclear waste, but also presents opportunities for the Swedish government to entertain proposals to accept waste from other European nations. Don Hancock, SRIC’s nuclear waste management specialist, stressed to me that methods used at SKB are always referenced by many countries looking at storing nuclear waste, including the U.S.
As I look back on this six-month journey on the Yellowcake Road, I am struck by the urgent need of Indigenous Peoples and environmental activists throughout the world to remain committed to upholding the strong policies of the Declaration of IWUS. Anything less would be letting down our ancestors and the warriors who fought the first uranium boom, especially those who have paid with their lives. In that spirit the battle continues!
– Manuel Pino
¹ Included among those laws and policies are the American Indian Relgious Freedom Act, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, the National Historical Preservation Act, the Native American Graves and Reparation Act, the Archeological Resources Protection Act, the National Forest Service Management Act (including the 2005 Planning Rule), the National Environmental Policy Act, and Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.
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"I saw many Navajo people living in mining camps, in temporary shelters, small trailers, even tents. I can still remember our mothers would have those baby formulas, those powders, and the only good drinking water they could find was coming from the mines. Fathers would bring these jugs back home for cooking purposes or to mix with baby formulas."