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Tribal members discuss impacts of uranium industry

The white Mesa Uranium Mill on Saturday as seen from EcoFlight on Oct. 22, 2022. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Testimony focuses on rights to life, health, culture, environment and water

The inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard about the contamination of Native American lands by uranium extraction and milling during a thematic hearing on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The commission streamed the hearing on its website as well as YouTube.

Eric Jantz with New Mexico Environmental Law Center told the commission at the start of the hearing that the testimony from others would “bring to light a long-overlooked issue how the U.S. government has jeopardized the inherent rights to life, health, culture, environment and water of hundreds of Indigenous communities across the country in pursuit of a single mineral: uranium.”

“For decades, federal agencies have understood that unmediated and inadequately remediated uranium mines and mills pose a public health danger to those living nearby,” he said. “For even longer federal agencies have known that mine and mill waste have contaminated vast areas of land and huge amounts of water. Federal agencies have ignored or suppressed information about the dangers of uranium development.”

He argued that the federal government rarely sought or obtained consent from tribes for uranium production both on and near tribal lands.

Jantz called for the United States to phase out ongoing uranium mining operations and institute a moratorium on future uranium extraction and processing on or near Indigenous lands.

“Growing up in the community, I remember riding horses and grazing the livestock,” Edith Hood, Diné, said. “When the mines came, our community was forever changed.”

Hood is part of the Red Water Pond Community Association, which has been fighting for clean up and remediation of contaminated sites.

“People began to leave after we discovered contamination in the community because we were afraid for the health of our children and our own,” she said, adding that only two of the original 11 families remain.

Hood said safe and secure environments are a human right.

Additionally, she argued that the government chose isolated areas where people spoke limited English as places where uranium extraction and processing would occur.

“The government was aware of the risk and the dangers, but failed and neglected to inform our people,” she said. “As it is, the federal government puts Indigenous people at risk, never returning to check on the people and the land.”

Teracita Keyanna, Diné, is also a member of the Red Water Pond Community Association.

She said her family has been exposed to uranium in their home and that exposure has caused significant health problems including cancer, autoimmune disease, skin issues, liver and kidney diseases and learning delays in children.

Eventually, Keyanna left the reservation, or, as she puts it, was displaced.

She moved to Gallup where she knew her children would be safe from uranium exposure.

“But when you move off of your tribal lands, your ability to practice your language in your culture becomes more and more challenging,” she said.

Keyanna said her community and people deserve justice both from the extractive industries and from the government that put them in harm’s way.

“Our children’s rights to a clean environment have already been affected. Our children’s freedom to practice their culture had been impacted before they were born,” she said.

Anferny Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe from the White Mesa community in southeast Utah, told about how ancestral remains were destroyed so that a uranium mill could be built.

The White Mesa mill is the only remaining conventional uranium mill operating in the United States.

Badback said few people feel safe drinking the tap water and instead buy bottled water.

“The water underneath the mill is becoming more and more polluted and is moving toward our community,” he said.

This has impacted the Ute ceremonies. Badback said they no longer drink spring water for ceremonial purposes. Additionally, they no longer hunt animals or gather plants near their homes.

The white Mesa Uranium Mill protest on Saturday in white Mesa on Oct. 22, 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

And, Badback said, the White Mesa mill is no longer just a mill. Activists say the mill is being used as an unregulated disposal site for low-level radioactive waste.

Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, spoke about efforts to increase tribal consultation.

“Tribal nations have played an instrumental role in advancing the national security of the United States as well as global safety,” Newland, Ojibwe, said.

Those contributions, he said, include mining and processing of uranium ore for nuclear weapons. He said that is especially true for the Navajo Nation, the Western Shoshone and the Pueblos of New Mexico.

“Today, the process that we use to engage with tribal nations looks much different from the process the federal government used in the past,” Newland said.

Clifford Villa with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spoke about some of the efforts to clean up the legacy contamination on tribal lands.

He said the U.S. EPA, in coordination with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, has identified 523 abandoned uranium mines and early cleanup actions have occurred at dozens of those sites.

Villa said that this year the EPA expects to select remedies for cleanup of sites in eastern Navajo Nation, including two places near Red Water Pond Road Community as well as the Northeast Church Rock Mine site and the Quivira Mine site. He said each of those sites will involve removal of more than a million cubic yards of material.