Native Sun News: Petition challenges uranium at Navajo Nation

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.


In the first international human rights complaint ever filed over an action by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a Diné non-profit group has petitioned to stop uranium mining within the Navajo Nation.

The petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the most recent battle cry in a 60-year-long Navajo fight against uranium mining on the northeastern edge of the Diné homeland, which is also the scene of the largest nuclear disaster in U.S. history. “Navajo communities continue to suffer a public health catastrophe due to radioactive and heavy metal contamination from past uranium mining,” petitioners said in a Washington, D.C. news release to announce petition filing.

“The contamination caused by the proposed ISL operation cannot be seen as anything except a continuation of a regulatory policy that resulted in the current contamination,” they said in the petition.

ISL stands for in-situ leach mining, which in this case, has been proposed for the Diné communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock since 1988 by Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), the New Mexico subsidiary of Texas-based Uranium Resources, Inc.

ISL mining entails injecting a solution into an ore body to dissolve uranium in an underground water table so it can be pumped to the surface for processing. Hydro’s processing would occur near the pumping site.

In a letter to Hydro on the same day as the petition filing May 16, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requested Hydro provide additional information in order for officials to assess four revised Restoration Action Plans – or propose an alternate deadline.

“We will not be able to complete the review until HRI responds to our requests for additional information,” NRC Project Manager Ron C. Linton told the Native Sun News. As the company continues through the permitting process at the NRC and the U.S. EPA, the Diné petition targets the NRC, charging it, as an agent of the U.S. government, with breaking international law.

“By its acts and omissions that have contaminated and will continue to contaminate natural resources in the Diné communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock, the [United States] has violated petitioners’ human rights and breached its obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man,” the petition claims.

The non-profit Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) enlisted the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and the Southwest Research and Information Center to help file the international complaint with the human rights commission, which is an agency of the multilateral Organization of American States (OAS).

The action came after staking the mining company to 11 years of domestic court battles, which ended on Nov. 15, 2010, when the plaintiffs lost the case, because the U.S. Supreme Court denied their request for review of the NRC decision to license the proposed mining.

ENDAUM was founded by petitioners Mitchell and Rita Capitan in 1994 due to concern shared with other Crownpoint and Church Rock residents about the impacts of uranium mining in and around the largest U.S. Indian reservation. Their worries are based on cultural and environmental views, as well as crude reality.

Their northwestern New Mexico area marks the site of the largest nuclear disaster in U.S. history: On July 16, 1979, the tailings dam at the United Nuclear Corp. uranium mill broke and released 93 million gallons of radioactive liquid into the Rio Puerco, a river that runs through Church Rock. The flood of radioactive and toxic liquid killed livestock and destroyed crops. It also left a wake of radioactive waste and heavy metals in the Rio Puerco’s bed and banks that has yet to be remediated.

Now, the plaintiffs claim, the operation of in-situ leach uranium mines will contaminate the aquifer that provides the only source of drinking water for 15,000 Navajo citizens.

“HRI has not demonstrated that it can safely mine uranium or remediate the aquifer,” they say. “Indeed, in over 30 years of operation, the ISL mining industry has a track record of spills and contamination, and has failed to clean up even one mined aquifer to pre-mining quality,” their petition states.

(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at

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