Text and Videos by ERIC SHULTZ
Pressure from industry to reopen the Navajo Nation for in situ leach (ISL) mining of uranium is beginning to put cracks in the walls. Last winter, Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI) made an end run around Navajo Nation uranium bans by extracting from the Navajo Nation Council’s Resourse and Development Committee (RDC) a right of way to cross tribal land and access a private parcel near Churchrock where it intends to set up an in situ leaching demonstration project. Part of the RDC’s pro-uranium turn was to create its own subcommittee to deal with URI with even greater insulation from public scrutiny and democratic oversight. Edmund Yazzie, Churchrock delegate to the Council, has authored a bill–debated this week–requiring uranium-related matters to be heard before the full Council.
Besides getting its way with the RDC, URI has been active on the local level with the aim of currying favor in chapter houses. Churchrock Chapter’s recent approval of URI’s project has been widely seen as the fruit of URI’s largesse (at least in the form of promises). To the delegate from neighboring Coyote Canyon Chapter, Mel R. Begay, URI’s modus operandi resembles the behavior of Kerr McGee and United Nuclear when they came to these communities nearly 50 years ago.
Delegates Yazzie and Begay, along with officials and luminaries such as former president Peterson Zah, presidential candidate and delegate Russell Begaye (Shiprock), Navajo Nation EPA Director Stephen Etsitty and the presidential candidate, scholar Moroni Benally, were attending the annual day of remembrance (observed Saturday July 19) for the July 16, 1979 dam breach where 95 million gallons of highly acid uranium mill waste ran down the Puerco wash to Arizona, surpassing Three Mile Island as the largest release of radioactive contamination in US history. Attendees began the day with a mile-and-a-half walk from the conference tent to a roadside spot across from where the dam had failed. Among the words said at that meaningful place were the following by Delegate Yazzie, in which he provides context for his current legislation. Introducing Yazzie is long-time activist Mr. Larry King.
Delegate Yazzie’s beseeching of Delegate Russell Begaye’s support on the uranium ban defense bill in part reflects Begaye’s rising star in Navajo Nation politics. The day following the commemoration, elder statesman Peterson Zah endorsed Begaye in his run for office. After returning to the tent, Begaye addressed the attendees. Excerpted from Begaye’s remarks are the following that relate specifically to URI and Delegate Yazzie’s bill.
As we go to press, the Navajo Nation Council has passed Delegate Yazzie’s bill 18 to 3 (see details here), but the game has changed for uranium interests dead set on breaking the ban and for those who will stand resolute in defense of land, water and health.