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Navajo coalition opposed to uranium mining

By Jim Snyder
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK It is a secret everybody seems to know but nobody talks about: The ground in Shiprock is contaminated with radiation.

The adverse affects of uranium mining throughout the Four Corners region are felt to this day, Norman Brown, a Navajo Din Bidzill Coalition leader, said Wednesday.

The Din Nationalists grassroots organization is hosting an uranium conference July 19 in Shiprock to voice its opposition to current efforts by companies and the U.S. government to extract more uranium from the Navajo reservation.

"Our communities have sacrificed for too long," Brown said. "Sixty years is too long. It's time to stop the (potential) uranium mining industry on Navajo ... we live on the most environmental damaged piece of real estate in the world."

He added the threat of companies wanting to mine uranium in the 21st century on the Navajo reservation was "very real."

Will history repeat itself?

Uranium contamination is widespread

Uranium ore mined in nearby Cove and Red Valley, Ariz., and other locations in the 1940s through the 1960s was transported to an uranium mill behind the Shiprock Fairgrounds where it was processed. The mill is now gone, but the uranium ore tailings and its accompanying radiation remain behind. Resembling a land fill, the tailings form a small mountain sandwiched between the fairgrounds and the San Juan River.

Windstorms once blew those tailings into the river, Brown said. Downstream farmers relied on the contaminated river to irrigate crops which people ate and to water their livestock.

Today, the only thing holding back the radiation there is a level of gravel poured on top of the mountain site. This, after 40 years, is the extent of the clean up by the federal government, which relied on Navajo labor to extract uranium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War without telling them of its dangers.

Uranium contamination has also been found in other areas of Shiprock.

An Albuquerque developer currently excavating land behind the Shiprock Police station for new homes must first remove 4 feet of top soil because it is contaminated by uranium. The location is on the opposite side of the river from the former uranium mill.

Shiprock Chapter Vice President Charley P. Joe said last year a proposed site for the new Shiprock Fairgrounds location at U.S. 491 and Navajo 36, south of the mill site, was contaminated by uranium and would have to be cleaned up before the new site could be developed. The site was once a staging area for trucks carrying uranium ore from Cove and Red Valley.

Shiprock is also contaminated with neglect by the federal government since it has failed to clean up the mess, said Brown.

The ground is not the only thing that is contaminated.

There are so many former Navajo uranium miners now in their 70s and 80s who have uranium-related cancer that the Navajo Nation has a permanent office in Shiprock to take applications for those who qualify under Congress' Radiation Compensation Exposure Act.

Congress passed the act in 1990 because the U.S. government failed to tell the miners decades before that the "yellow cake" could eventually kill them. Those who qualify by having certain cancers are paid $100,000, to make up for a life time of radiation exposure.

Navajo Nation says no' to uranium mining

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said this spring he would oppose any form of uranium mining anywhere on the 27,000 square-mile reservation. Brown warned Shirley and Vice President Frank Dayish Jr., however, that talk is cheap. We want to see some action, he said.

"We're talking soaring health costs and lack of environmental standards on Navajo. This is a good step in exercising our sovereignty. In order to be sovereign we must act sovereign. This is a sovereign act to say no,'" Brown said.

The Eastern Navajo Din Against Uranium Mining is currently fighting an effort by HRI, a private company, which wants to introduce leach uranium mining in the Crownpoint and Church Rock areas.

"The Crownpoint community is preparing to go before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ask them not to give permission to mine," Brown said.

"We have an inherent right, a God-given right, a legislative right, to say no. We don't have to ask Congress," he added. "This devastation to our land and culture, our people, has gone on too long. We have to stop this legacy. We don't want our children and grandchildren to go through what thousands of individuals have gone through."

Numerous guests have been lined up for the July 19 conference, including New Mexico state Reps. Ray Begaye, Leonard Tsosie and Sen. John Pinto, and Arizona state Reps. Jack Jackson Sr., Jack Jackson Jr. and Sylvia Laughter.

Other guests include Coconino County Commissioner Louise Yellowhorse, Perry Charley, an uranium educator at Din College, Phil Harrison, who helps workers get RECA benefits, Gilbert Bedoni, who wants RECA benefits extended to family members, Milton Yazzie, a grassroots organizer and uranium educator, Chee Smith Jr., an uranium educator and Mitchell Capitan, founder of ENDAUM.

Also included are Winona Laduke, Ralph Nader's presidential running mate in 2000, and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is running on the Democratic primary presidential ticket.

Jim Snyder: [email protected]




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