WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Sept. 27, the Navajo Nation delivered an unmistakable message to Capitol Hill that it expects its sovereign right to make laws and live by them to be respected, and that it will tolerate no further uranium mining or processing within its boundaries.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., led a delegation of three teams that included Navajo Nation Council Delegate Alice W. Benally and representatives from the Eastern Navajo DinZ Against Uranium Mining and the Southwest Research and Information Center of Albuquerque. They received positive responses from the 27 offices of Congressmen and Senators they visited.
At each meeting, the President told representatives and their staff that the Navajo Nation had passed the DinZ Natural Resources Protection Act in April. The law prohibits the further mining and processing of uranium anywhere within the Navajo Nation. As a sovereign nation within a nation, he asked that the law be acknowledged and respected.
"The Navajo Nation passed this law to protect the health and safety of its people and the quality of its environment," the President said. "We want to protect our resources, our water, and our cultural integrity. But they're trying to skirt Navajo Nation law and run around what Navajo has done."
Two companies -- Hydro Resources Inc., and Strathmore Minerals Inc. -- are seeking permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and State of New Mexico to develop uranium through in situ leaching -- ISL -- in the Crownpoint and Church Rock, N.M., areas.
This is a process that injects carbonated water into the ground where uranium is found to separate the uranium from its host rock and forces the mixture to the surface. It has been referred to as creating a "toxic soup" and purposely contaminating the water in order to get to the uranium.
"We don't want to have any more mining of uranium," the President said. "Our elderly, our children continue to die because of it. There are no answers to the cancer it causes."
At each meeting, the President asked the congressmen and senators for their support of Navajo sovereignty, and to ask others, such as the uranium companies to acknowledge and respect Navajo law.
"They want to come in despite the Navajo Nation law," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can to stand on our own. It's hard to do. It's an uphill battle all the way."
The President received pledges of support from every congressional office he visited.
"The most clear and defining aspect of sovereignty is to protect your land," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. "That goes without saying that you've got my support."
"The truth needs to come out and the impacts need to be known," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
"I have a real commitment to the land and rights of Native Americans," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. "We would like nothing better than to help the Navajo people assert their sovereign right to govern themselves."
President Shirley also told the congressmen that he does not believe that the ISL process is either safe or proven, despite HRI's claims. In issuing its initial permit in 1998, he said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission used data from HRI only and ignored data from independent scientists who found the process unreliable and subject to failure.
Mitchell Capitan, who founded ENDAUM with his wife Rita, said that in four years of trying, a company he worked for was unable to remove radioactive contamination from water.
At stake, he added, is the potential contamination of the pristine groundwater used by 15,000 Navajo families in the eastern Navajo area. Independent analysis has found that if the ISL processing were to begin, the aquifer would be contaminated within just seven years.
"We feel that the process they used to approve the permits is skewed," the President said of the NRC. "We feel that the NRC has been systematically biased."
Community members point out that development of the mine would be within an unprecedented half-mile of community schools and churches.
"If the groundwater is contaminated, what do you do?" Rep. Matheson said upon hearing this. "You don't want to go down that path."
The President also told representatives that radioactive tailings from thousands of mines from the 1950s and '60s still need cleanup after all these years, and that funding is needed to get it done. Money is also required for health studies, which are vitally needed to show the damage uranium has already done.
"There are tailings galore we need to clean up," he said. "The U.S. government is not moving fast enough to clean up these tailing."
The President also reported to the congressmen that the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act -- RECA -- is failing to do what it was designed to do: compensate those who were the victims of uranium mining in the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Of more than $900 million paid out, Navajo miners and their families have received only 10.7 percent of that because of the difficulties they encounter with the documentation process.
"We're having the hardest time getting compensation," he said. "People are dying before they're compensated."
On Thursday, Rep. Rick Renzi, D-Ariz., Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, hosted a briefing on behalf of the Navajo Nation regarding the DinZ Natural Resources Protection Act and the deadly legacy left by uranium mining on Navajoland.
"The United States came in without warning to mine uranium to create the atom bomb to defeat enemies out there," President Shirley said at the briefing. "Because we weren't warned, I feel genocide has been committed."
The President thanked the congressmen for hosting the briefing and for helping to remove language from the recently-passed Energy Bill that would have provided $30 million in subsidies for uranium development.
"It comes from the heart when I say thank you on behalf of my nation," the President told them. "The mining of uranium has killed many of my elders."
Phil Harrison, who long helped uranium miners receive compensation and who now works for the Killian Law Firm, told the briefing that the Navajo Nation has contributed greatly to national security by going to war and by mining uranium.
"They put their lives on the line in World War II," he said. "The federal government should live up to the federal trust responsibility. Justice is long overdue. We're here with one voice and that's to say protect our water, protect our resources."
"Uranium is toxic and it's a poison and it has really left a deadly legacy among our people," said Cora Maxx-Phillips, director of the Navajo Division of Social Services. "We know the potential threat and yet we continue to mine uranium.
(George Hardeen is Navajo Nation Communications Director.)