Navajo Nation passes comprehensive toxic waste cleanup bill

WINDOW ROCK - The Navajo Nation passed a toxic waste cleanup law that may be the most comprehensive by any tribe in America.

The Navajo Nation Council voted 50-15 to pass the Navajo Nation Comprehensive Environmental Reponse, Compensation and Liability Act.

The legislation, sponsored by Council Delegate George Arthur, calls for the Navajo Nation to locate, investigate and clean up the most severely abandoned toxic waste sites on the Navajo Nation. Passage of the law makes the Navajo Nation Superfund more likely to obtain federal funding for cleanup of more of these sites.

Navajo officials say there are more than 1,000 toxic waste sites on the Navajo Reservation with the sites needing to be screened and assessed for the contaminants and the health threats they pose to the Navajo people. There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo Nation as well.

The newly adopted law allows the Navajo Superfund (NSP) to work with surrounding states, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, BLM, BIA and other federal agencies. The NSP is already working with the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands Department to enhance their capacity for reclamation of physical aspects of abandoned uranium mines.

The Navajo Nation EPA is responsible for enforcement, but is in need of more manpower. Most of the current funding comes from grants, but Cooperative Agreements and Contracts provide for the transfer of funds from USEPA to Indian tribes that assume responsibilities as the lead or support agency for Superfund.

Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation EPA, said in a news release that the new law is a much needed statutory authority and guidance for the Navajo Nation EPA. The program will follow the federal structure of EPA used to develop laws and policies that will work on the Navajo Nation.

Etsitty said the law will give an important set of authorities that have been lacking since the inception of the Navajo Nation EPA. He said the problem is that the state and federal laws did not apply in Indian country.

Etsitty said there has been no laws, rules or regulations that would protect the environment in Indian country.

Etsitty added that this law also strengthens the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. He called it the beginning to a forward movement and toward the Navajo Nation building its regulatory purpose to working with industries throughout the nation.

Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence Morgan said in a news release that some council members questioned whether this new law duplicates federal regulations.

Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie said in the same news release that he also questions the need for this program when a national program (EPA) already is doing the same thing.

Supporters of the program believe these federal laws lacked jurisdiction on the Indian reservations.

Several council delegates worried about where the funding would come from and whether funds would be solicited from the federal government.

Jill Grant of Nordhaus Law Firm told the council that the main difference between the federal law and the Navajo law is that the Navajo law allows them to act without having to rely on the federal government. She said this way the Navajo Nation can set their own standards and determine what sites need to be cleaned up.

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