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Domenici Drops Uranium Bailout Provisions

A major victory for Navajo citizen groups came on November 8 when New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici announced he was removing 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 a section of the bill that would have provided grants to domestic uranium companies using the in situ leach (ISL) mining method 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 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 the bill, if enacted, could facilitate development of Hydro Resources, Inc.'s (HRI) proposed Church Rock and Crownpoint uranium ISL mines. Those fears, and the communities' reactions to Domenici's public criticism of unnamed "people" spreading "misinformation" about the legislation, were captured in an article in the Fall 2001 edition SRIC's quarterly newspaper, Voices from the Earth.

In the article, Crownpoint residents Cris Toledo and Dr. John Fogarty argued that HRI could benefit indirectly from the legislation because its parent company, Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI), was one of only a few companies nationally that would qualify to receive up to $30 million in grants for ISL restoration demonstration projects. "If URI receives the federal grants," Toledo and Fogarty wrote, "URI would 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's announcement that he was amending his nuclear energy bill to delete the uranium provisions came at the end of a week-long visit to Washington, D.C., by representatives of the two groups that had led grass-roots opposition to the uranium legislation and to HRI's mining plans - Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and Concerned Citizens of T'iists'óóz Nídeeshgizh (CCT).

ENDAUM and CCT members and SRIC staff had just emerged from two days of hearings and meetings on the HRI project at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission offices outside Washington, D.C., when they received cell phone calls from Representative Tom Udall's Washington staff informing them about Domenici's decision. Standing in front of the NRC building in Rockville, Maryland, the Navajos exchanged high-fives and congratulatory hugs with their attorneys, Diane Curran and Eric Jantz.

"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 an Albuquerque Journal article on November 10 said that Domenici's action virtually assured that Wilson will have to drop the uranium grants provisions from the House Energy Bill.

The effectiveness of the Navajo groups' campaign against the Domenici-Wilson uranium legislation was not lost on the local media. The Independent (Gallup, NM) called Domenici's decision to drop the uranium provisions of his nuclear energy bill "a major victory for Church Rock and Crownpoint foes of in-situ leach mining of uranium." Michael Coleman, Washington correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal credited "a large and vocal contingent of New Mexicans from Crownpoint and the Navajo Nation" with convincing Domenici to strip the "controversial uranium leach mining provision" from his Senate legislation. In an article headlined, "Mining Proposal Killed," Coleman hit the proverbial nail on the head: "Sometimes, good old-fashioned grassroots activism still gets results in Washington."

But the apparent defeat of Domenici's uranium subsidies legislation does not spell the death knell for the HRI project. HRI's lawyers and company executives stated several times during the November 8 hearing in Rockville that the company still plans on defending the mining license it received from the NRC Staff in January 1998, and eventually - perhaps in three to four years - initiating mining at the Section 8 site in Church Rock, N.M..

The continued threat of new uranium mining and the broad opposition to it among communities and residents of the Eastern Navajo Agency were recurrent themes in statements made by ENDAUM and CCT members in meetings with congressional leaders during the Washington trip. Cris Toledo, Chee Smith and Crownpoint High School senior Lynnea K. Smith told Senator Jeff Bingaman that the communities are counting on him to protect their interests when the Senate adopts a comprehensive energy bill in early 2002.

In a meeting in Bingaman's small office in the north wing of the Capitol Building on November 6, Lynnea Smith said that she and other Navajo youth are worried about the health of future generations if the water supply of the region is contaminated by new uranium mining. She told Bingaman that water remains a limited resource, especially in remote areas of the Eastern Agency where many families, including elderly people, do not have running water in their homes and must haul clean drinking water from Crownpoint.

"If Congress funds anything, it should consider programs to address our need for expanded water systems," Lynnea Smith said. "We also really need money for our schools, for better buildings and equipment, and to improve our educational system."

The Navajo delegation also met with Udall, the Navajo Nation's Washington office staff, foundation officers, and reporters to generate national awareness about their opposition to uranium mining. Lynnea Smith and John Fogarty represented the group at a news conference at the National Press Club where the U.S. Public Interest Research Group issued a report critical of the billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to the energy industry embodied in the House Energy Bill.

The ENDAUM-CCT-SRIC trip was funded in part by grants from General Services Foundation, McCune Charitable Trust, and Common Counsel, and by money raised locally in the Crownpoint area.

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