MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Mitchell Capitan &
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining Take Their Message to the International Stage

Link to Mitchell Capitan's speech on the Maryknoll site

For nearly 10 years, Mitchell Capitan and his wife Rita have been at the forefront of grass-roots resistance to industry and government efforts to commence new uranium mining in the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock in northwestern New Mexico. Among the original founders of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), the Capitans have balanced the challenges of raising five children and holding down full-time jobs while maintaining active participation in ENDAUM's campaign to stop federal approval of four proposed uranium in situ leach (ISL) mines, one of which would be located less than one-half mile from their Crownpoint home.

As the decade has passed, the issue of whether a new era of uranium mining should be initiated in Native American communities that are still negatively affected by past uranium mining has grown from little more than a parochial concern to a matter of national significance. Hydro Resources, Inc.'s proposed uranium ISL mines in Crownpoint and Church Rock form the only new uranium development proposed anywhere in Indian Country in America, and ENDAUM's intervention in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing of the HRI operation is the only grass-roots legal challenge of a federal ISL mining permit ever. ENDAUM became a player in the national energy policy debate in 2001-2003 when it actively opposed provisions of federal energy legislation that would have subsidized uranium ISL mining.

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MGD) are:
  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  2. Achieve universal primary education.
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
  4. Reduce child mortality.
  5. Improve maternal health.
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
  8. Develop a global partnership for development.
Objectives for achieving these goals and how they will be implemented can be seen at the United Nations web site, www.un.org/millenniumgoals.

Today, ENDAUM and Mitchell Capitan are preparing to take their message to an international stage - the 57th Annual United Nations Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) conference in New York City in September. More than 3,000 people from hundreds of NGOs from throughout the world are expected to take part in the conference to report on progress made by indigenous people worldwide toward meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals. Mr. Capitan, whose trip to the UN is sponsored by the Maryknoll Sisters, will speak on ENDAUM's struggle against new uranium mining and the Navajo uranium experience in a workshop titled "Earth Values in Action" on September 8. He and ENDAUM Governing Board member Larry J. King, who lives next to an abandoned uranium mine that is also the site of one of HRI's proposed mines in Church Rock, will give a longer presentation at the Church Center for the United Nations on September 9.

In preparing for his talk at the United Nations, Mitchell Capitan sat down recently with SRIC's Chris Shuey to outline the elements of his remarks and what he hopes to accomplish in New York. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Chris Shuey (CS): What will be the principal message you'll take back to the UN?

Mitchell Capitan (MC): Water is the issue. It's [also] about exploitation. As a Native American, minority community, we're being taken advantage of out here, even in the United States. Our own government is trying to approve something [uranium mining] that we will suffer from, and this is not right.

CS: Do you expect to find people with similar struggles attending this conference?

MC: The whole conference is about the Earth. [It] talks about water, women, the environment, poverty and environmental degradation. It seems they will focus on the grass-roots people. This is where I hope people will hear from me, as a Native American, and as an American Indian. I'll probably say a few Navajo words, and I might even have to say my clan - this is only appropriate for a Native American to introduce themselves. That way they'll have that mutual respect with me.

CS: Why is water such an important theme for indigenous people?

MC: Well, water is life. It sustains life. With our traditional belief, water is being used with prayers, and even with our Christianity, water is being used. We've always had a blessing for water. And we always pray for water. If there is no water, there will be no life. With our community out here in the Southwest, in a desert area, having water is something is that is very good, and we use water very carefully in every way we can. Water is life and it's supposed to maintain everything.

What's going on with our drought [makes] water more important than ever. I work with a [water] utility company, so I witness how water is very precious to everyone in our community. Crownpoint is the central point [of the Eastern Navajo Agency] where there is good water, and it's available to us as community members, so we're going to try to protect that as much as we can. Some people don't understand at times how precious this water is, and if this water is ever contaminated we'll be in big trouble.

CS: You've been opposing the proposed uranium ISL mines in Crownpoint and in Church Rock for almost 10 years, principally on the grounds that ISL mining could ruin the regional water supply. How do you explain why the groundwater here is at risk from this mining operation?

MC: It's [based on] my experience at Mobil Oil, where they had a demonstration of in situ leach mining back in about 1980. They did a pilot plant with only four production wells and about 16 injection wells, and they demonstrated to me that in situ leach mining can be done, that they can pump out the uranium in solution. But after that, they were [trying to] restore the groundwater, [but] it couldn't be done. The engineers, the lab technicians, the chemists - they couldn't figure out why this thing doesn't work. They thought it was so simple that they just flush it out, add certain chemicals to the solution, and the [ground] water would be back to its original state. But it never did. An outside company with people with brains could not achieve the goal of restoring the water. So much of the area that's going to be mined [is] right near our community and under our community. And I thought about how much water it will use and how contamination is going to happen.

Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen.

CS: One of the UN's Millenium goals is achieving energy and economic sustainability for indigenous communities. Do you and others who are opposing new mining on the Navajo Nation have a vision for what is sustainable?

MC: I always think about our renewable energy. We've got the sun for solar energy and the wind for wind energy. The water here in Crownpoint, it's like an oasis. We can even start developing a [bottled] water plant for the community. That would bring in some jobs for our community. That might even bring more people here. I'm sure Crownpoint has plenty of water in the aquifer. But the thing is, we have to protect it and we have to use it the right way. I think that's the only way we can help the community to grow. And I think it's time we stop thinking about mining, especially in situ leach mining.

Our water is more precious than gold. To protect that will be very important. Especially our water here in Crownpoint. I mean, our water is pure. It doesn't need to go through any kind of filtration. It comes out of the ground as is, the only thing that's being added is chlorine. And we drink it out of the tap. To me, that's why it needs to be protected.

CS: You've been opposing this proposed uranium in situ leach mine now for almost ten years. How has this changed your life?

MC: This issue made me into a community leader, to be outspoken. It got me elected [Crownpoint Chapter] president. When I approach people, people always think of me as, 'You're that person that's against that uranium mine,' or 'you're the one that talks about water.' As far as my lifestyle, I don't think it's changed that much. The only thing is, I've been to so many places that I thought I'd never be. To Washington [DC], New York. I've met a lot of people that cared for a lot of things, especially the environment. It got me to be a stronger person, as an individual who will stand up to protect something for my children.

If me and my wife had never sat down and said, 'We can bring this [issue] to the community and talk about it; let's let them know we can to put a stop to this,' if that didn't happened and if the mine was ready for operation, I would probably feel guilty. I don't know, I might have 100 grandchildren. I'd like the future generation to think, 'Hey, my grandpa thought about us. Grandpa stood for us against the uranium mining, and to this day we still have this water.'

CS: What do you expect to get out of this opportunity and bring back to the community that will further your vision of sustainable development in Crownpoint?

MC: I'd like to get the word across to people who still don't know what's going on in our community, how the government can just take advantage of [an Indian] community. And I hope there's a turn around of the leaders in Washington, especially with the president we have. I know he's pushing for nuclear energy. I don't know how I'm going to approach this as far as who they should elect - a person who has feelings for the environment. A president who will stand for cleaner energy, a president who will not go for nuclear energy.

We were put back on a reservation (nearly 140 years ago) and much of our land was taken. Now they want to get underneath us and contaminate our way of life. I hope people in the audience will pick up some of that and take that back to their leaders. 'Hey, I heard this Indian talk out there,' they may say. [And they might ask] as I do, 'How much does the United States need to take?'

Research Projects on Uranium and Health

Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project (CRUMP), Church Rock, New Mexico. Church Rock Chapter leaders and residents continue to be concerned about the lingering impacts of past uranium mining in the community. At least 16 mines and one uranium mill were built and operated in the Church Rock mining district between 1952 to 1986. The mill was the site of the notorious 1979 uranium tailings spill that to this day remains the largest single release of radioactive wastes, by volume, in U.S. history.

To address possible impacts from abandoned mines in the community, Church Rock Chapter formed the Church Rock Uranium Monitoring Project (CRUMP) in April 2003. The principal mission of CRUMP is to conduct a comprehensive environmental monitoring program of water, lands, and air in residential areas located near abandoned uranium operations in the community located northeast of Gallup. Using a grant from the Citizens' Monitoring and Technical Assessment Fund, while leveraging in-kind contributions of expertise and equipment from various tribal, federal and state agencies, the Chapter has -
(1) measured gamma radiation levels along highways and roads in residential areas near abandoned mines;
(2) monitored radon levels in nearly 140 homes in the community;
(3) tested water quality in 13 different wells;
(4) obtained two particulate samplers to measure dust levels and their radionuclide contents in residential areas located next to two abandoned uranium mines and an abandoned uranium mill and tailings disposal facility that is now a federal Superfund site; and
(5) held several community meetings and conducted extensive outreach to explain the activities of the project to community members in the Navajo language.
Results of the field environmental studies are being compiled and discussed with Chapter officials, community members and Navajo Nation leaders. They will be released to the general public in the coming months.

Other CRUMP collaborators are: Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC); the Tribal Air Monitoring Support Center in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Water Resources and Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Department; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Environments and Radiation Laboratory in Las Vegas; Diné College's Uranium Education Program; and the University of New Mexico's Community Environmental Health Program (UNM-CEHP). Professional staffs of these organizations have provided technical information and language training for community members, expertise in planning and managing environmental assessments, radiation monitoring instruments, water sampling equipment and field analytical devices, and laboratory services. They work under the direction of the Chapter's Navajo staff and elected officials. Gerald Brown, CRUMP coordinator, is the principal contact at 505-488-5310.

Diné Network for Environmental Health (DiNEH) Project. Sponsored by the Eastern Navajo Health Board (ENHB) in collaboration with UNM-CEHP, SRIC, and the Crownpoint Service Unit (CSU)/Crownpoint Comprehensive Healthcare Facility, the DiNEH Project is designed to build the capacity of ENHB to plan and implement community-based environmental health studies in 20 Navajo chapters in the CSU and other parts of the Eastern Navajo Agency. The principal objectives of the Project are to assess water quality in some 60 unregulated water sources (mostly windmills and developed springs), conduct water-use and health surveys among local residents, work with the chapters to plan and develop alternate water supplies to replace those found to be unsafe for human consumption, and conduct educational programs and training sessions for community members and Health Board representatives.

ENHB, which is composed of representatives of 16 Eastern Agency chapters, directed development of the DiNEH Project several years ago, based in large part on its concern about the increasingly high rates of kidney disease in the local Navajo communities and the knowledge that residents may be exposed to a potent kidney toxicant, uranium, by drinking water from untested and untreated water sources. The Health Board worked with SRIC staff in 2001-2003 to develop a training program for its members and other community leaders on how to conduct community-based research, using uranium occurrences and mining impacts as the "problem" around which to base a capacity-building project. The Board subsequently directed its collaborating organizations to prepare a grant application to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). NEIHS approved the DiNEH Project in May and ENHB and its partners received final project approval by the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board. The Board's contact for the DiNEH Project is Bess Seschillie, 505-786-7543.

Community Partners
and Resources


Table of Contents

"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
founder
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining



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