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Senator Domenici is Misleading the Navajo People

BACKGROUND: On August 1, the U.S. House adopted an omnibus energy bill that includes provisions that would make federal grants available to domestic uranium mining companies for ground-water restoration "demonstration projects" at in situ leach uranium mines. The legislation was proposed by New Mexico Representative Heather Wilson and is backed by senior New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. Navajo citizen groups, joined by SRIC and other organizations nationally, decried the proposed legislation for its potential to facilitate development of four ISL mines in Church Rock and Crownpoint, N.M. On October 9, Senator Domenici took the unusual step of issuing a press release denying that the legislation would help Hydro Resources, Inc., develop the proposed Crownpoint Uranium Solution Mining Project. Domenici's press release, which accused unnamed "people" of spreading "misinformation" about the purpose and effect of his and Representative Wilson's legislation, ran in several local newspapers. The following rebuttal was prepared by members of Concerned Citizens of T'íísts'óóz Nideeshgish (the Navajo term for Crownpoint), a grass-roots Navajo group formed to generate public awareness about and opposition to the proposed uranium legislation.

Church Rock, NM, resident Larry J. King (right) talks about how the HRI project will directly affect his extended family and their lands, which abut the company's Church Rock mining site.  Residents Eunice James and Billy Yazzie, and SRIC's Ray Morgan, listen.  Photo by Chris Shuey.
Cris Toledo and John Fogarty, MD
Concerned Citizens of T'íísts'óóz Nideeshgish

Senator Pete Domenici says his nuclear energy legislation "does not promote mining in Crownpoint and does not permit a federal handout" to a uranium mining company planning uranium solution mines in Navajo country in northwestern New Mexico. But a closer look at his bill and the underlying facts about it reveals that Domenici is misleading the Navajo people.

Both Domenici and Representative Heather Wilson support a plan that would give $30 million in federal grants over three years to "domestic uranium producers" using the in situ leach (ISL) mining method for "enhanced production" of uranium. Their legislation applies to uranium companies that produced uranium on or after July 30, 1998. One of the few companies that would qualify for Domenici's and Wilson's handouts is Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI), the parent company of Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI). Since 1988, HRI has pursued federal and state permitting of four ISL mines in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint.

If URI receives the federal grants approved by the U.S. House in August as a result of amendments offered by Representative Wilson, and proposed in Domenici's Senate legislation, URI will be able to free up cash to fund HRI's projects in Crownpoint and Church Rock. To say that HRI won't benefit if URI gets government money is like saying that your kids wouldn't benefit if you won a $30 million lottery. Domenici is not being truthful and his legislation, if eventually enacted by Congress, could be dangerous for Navajo people.

HRI plans to inject chemicals into the groundwater that supplies much of the drinking water for Crownpoint and other Eastern Agency communities. The water is currently very pure, but these chemicals will pull uranium out of the rock and into the drinking water. This will expose people to dangerous levels of uranium and other poisons, and likely will ruin the only source of drinking water for an estimated 15,000 residents of the Eastern Agency.

Company officials claim ISL mining is "safe" because they will be able to clean up the water after mining. But uranium companies have been trying to restore groundwater at commercial ISL mining sites in Wyoming for more than 30 years and have never been able to return the water to its pre-mining, baseline conditions. Even some smaller, ISL test projects have met with failure. Mobil Oil, for example, operated a pilot-scale uranium solution mine outside of Crownpoint for 10 months in1979 and 1980. For the next six years, Mobil tried to take the uranium and other pollutants out of the water. In 1988, the federal government allowed Mobil to abandon its site, leaving behind high levels of uranium, radium, arsenic and other poisons.

While the Mobil site covered only a few acres of land and used only 20 wells, the HRI project will be much larger. It will cover more than 2,000 acres at four different sites and involve the drilling of more than 4,000 wells. HRI will also construct uranium-processing plants at three of the sites, including a large processing and uranium drying plant in Crownpoint. These plants will release radioactive materials and heavy metals within short distances of homes, grazing lands, churches, schools and businesses.

And now, 14 years after Mobil left contaminants in the groundwater west of Crownpoint, the uranium companies are back, this time supported by two influential members of Congress - Senator Domenici and Representative Wilson. Unfortunately, it appears that Domenici and Wilson care more about the uranium industry than they do about the thousands of Navajo people who don't want more uranium mining.

Domenici and Wilson don't seem to care that Crownpoint, Church Rock, Standing Rock, Whitehorse Lake, Smith Lake, Pinedale, and Littlewater chapters have all passed resolutions against the HRI project. They don't seem to care that the Eastern Navajo Health Board, the Eastern Navajo Agency Council, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the Crownpoint Healthcare Facility, and the Development Corporation of Counselors, Whitehorse Lake, Torreon, Ojo Encino, and Pueblo Pintado chapters all have passed resolutions or issued statements opposing the HRI mines or any new uranium mining.

They also don't seem to care that their legislation runs counter to both new and old policies of the Navajo Nation Executive Branch. Current Navajo President Kelsey Begaye and Vice President Dr. Taylor McKenzie urged defeat of the Wilson-Domenici uranium legislation in a strongly worded letter to New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on August 15. And the 1992 Navajo Nation Executive Order Moratorium on Uranium Mining, issued by former Navajo President Peterson Zah with the assistance of the late Dr. Annie Wauneka, remains in effect today.

As Senator Domenici ignores all these things, he continues to cling to the mistaken notion that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will protect the people and "will not approve a mining permit if there is a substantial risk of environmental damage." Yet, many scientists and physicians who have studied NRC's evaluation of the HRI project have concluded that the mine will cause damage to the environment and to the Navajo people. Doctors from Crownpoint have testified that many people could develop kidney damage if they start drinking water containing increased amounts of uranium.

For its part, the NRC says that it will be "safe" for people to drink water that has a uranium level of 440 parts per billion (ppb) after HRI "restores" the groundwater following mining. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that people not drink water with levels higher than 2 ppb. Currently, Crownpoint water levels meet the WHO standard with levels of only 1 to 2 ppb. Despite information that suggests a potential health and environmental disaster, the NRC has approved the HRI license.

The NRC, the companies it regulates, and the politicians are saying that uranium ISL mining is "new" and, therefore, "safe." But President Begaye and Vice President McKenzie told Senator Bingaman that this contention "is quite inconclusive" and that ISL mining technology "is unproven." Indeed, the Navajo people have every reason to be very careful about trusting the NRC, the companies and the politicians when it comes to uranium mining. Fifty years ago the Atomic Energy Commission, the parent of the NRC, told us that uranium mining was safe. We believed them and we lost hundreds of our friends, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons who worked in the uranium mines. We were left to live with mining waste at hundreds of abandoned mines. To this day, that waste is contaminating our water, our air, and our communities.

If you make a mess, you clean it up. Most people learn this universal understanding before the age of five. Domenici and Wilson should be helping the Navajo people clean up the mess we have - not trying to help the uranium industry make another mess.

And because we know better, we should act now to stop ISL mining before more of our people are harmed and poisoned. We must convince members of Congress to defeat Domenici's and Wilson's plant to give taxpayer money to uranium mining companies. We need to pressure the Navajo Nation Council to ban uranium solution mining on Navajo lands. We must not and cannot let history repeat itself. We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled again. We must stand together and stop uranium mining on OUR land once and for all.

Cris Toledo is a longtime resident of Crownpoint, and one of the founding members of Concerned Citizens of T'íísts'óóz Nideeshgish (CCT).
John Fogarty is a physician who lives and works in Crownpoint.


A major victory for Navajo citizen groups came on November 8 when New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici announced he was removing the controversial uranium provisions from his proposed nuclear energy bill.

In remarks on the Senate floor and in a November 9 news release, Domenici said he decided to delete the uranium in situ leach (ISL) mining provisions of this bill after speaking with Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye and "in order to put to rest the concerns expressed...by my friends on the Navajo Nation."

Domenici's ISL legislation, and identical provisions that were added to the House Energy Bill by Representative Heather Wilson in August, generated widespread opposition among Navajos who feared that Domenici's plan to provide federal grants to uranium companies using the ISL mining method could facilitate development of Hydro Resources, Inc.'s Church Rock and Crownpoint uranium ISL mines.

Those fears, and the communities' reactions to Domenici's public criticism of Navajo opposition to the legislation, were captured in an article titled "Senator Domenici is Misleading the Navajo People," which appeared in the Fall 2001 edition of SRIC's quarterly publication, Voices from the Earth. Domenici's announcement that he was amending his Nuclear Energy Electricity Supply Assurance Act to delete the uranium provisions cam on the day that Voices was being printed.

Representatives of Concerned Citizens of T'iists'ózí (CCT) and Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) had just emerged from the conclusion of two days of hearings and meetings on the HRI project at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission offices outside Washington, D.C., when they learned about Domenici's decision.

Standing in front of the NRC building in Rockville, Maryland, CCT and ENDAUM members, along with their attorneys and SRIC staff, exchanged high-fives and congratulatory hugs, knowing that the grass roots pressure they had mounted against the legislation since July had finally paid off.

"This is a great victory because it shows that our people can influence national legislation that could harm our communities," said CCT member Chee Smith, Jr., who is president of Whitehorse Lake Chapter in the Eastern Navajo Agency.

"Pete Domenici had to do the right thing," said ENDAUM founder and Crownpoint Chapter President Mitchell Capitan. "Now, we have to convince Heather Wilson to do the same thing in the House."

A Wilson spokesperson quoted in the Albuquerque Journal article on November 10 said that Domenici's action virtually assured that Wilson will have to drop the uranium grants provision from the House Energy Bill. CCT and ENDAUM members pledged to keep the pressure on Wilson to make sure the uranium provisions of the House Energy Bill are deleted.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
24 March 1999

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