Uranium still poisoning Navajo people. But they can't stop the ore from coming

A uranium ore rock pile is the first to be mined at the Energy Fuels Inc. uranium Pinyon Plain Mine Jan. 31, near Tusayan, Ariz. The largest uranium producer in the U.S. is ramping up work on a long-contested project that largely has sat dormant since the 1980s.

A uranium ore rock pile is the first to be mined at the Energy Fuels Inc. uranium Pinyon Plain Mine Jan. 31, near Tusayan, Ariz. The largest uranium producer in the U.S. is ramping up work on a long-contested project that largely has sat dormant since the 1980s. (Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press)


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ST. GEORGE — Over 500 abandoned uranium mines sit on Navajo land, many with radiation levels above the federal safety limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the agency.

Navajo water is still contaminated with uranium poisoning, which the EPA says has caused a surge in health complications and premature death among uranium miners and Navajo children. The symptoms of uranium poisoning became so common within the tribe, doctors began calling the disorder "Navajo neuropathy."

Experts estimate that 85% of all Navajo homes are currently contaminated with radiation, and Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren wrote in a January statement: "Even some of our roads have enough residual radioactivity to light up a Geiger counter, from a time when uranium was transported across Navajo land."

Despite Navajo Nation being granted federal funding and winning lawsuits against mining companies for damages, and years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice earmarked a $5.15 billion settlement for nationwide environmental cleanups — including about $1 billion to clean up 49 mine sites on Navajo lands, and efforts could take up to a century.

Even with the ongoing effects of uranium mining on the Navajo people, a new mine has opened just outside of the south rim of the Grand Canyon — and it will transport uranium ore across Navajo land, despite its prohibition by tribal law.

According to a press release from the Navajo Nation, Pinyon Plain Mine notified the U.S. Forest Service's Kaibab National Forest that uranium ore had been removed from the mine for the first time on Jan. 8 this year. It was among the first uranium digs in eight years on U.S. soil.

Since the beginning of 2023, uranium prices have quadrupled as global supply-demand issues in the energy sector have fueled interest in developing domestic nuclear power projects.

The American West became a natural candidate for uranium mining, as it produced much of the ore used in the development of the first nuclear bomb and ensuing Cold War arms race. Before it was known for its national parks, Moab was called the "uranium capital of the world," the Utah History Encyclopedia states.

Three uranium mines went into production on the Arizona-Utah border by December 2023.

Pinyon Plain Mine has been especially controversial because it was opened on land President Joe Biden designated last year as a national monument to protect it from mining. However, the Navajo-Hopi Observer, which serves the Navajo Nation and northern Arizona, reported earlier this year that the Pinyon Plain Mine was first granted a permit in the 1980s, which resulted in the mine being grandfathered into the agreement and exempt from the ban.

In response to the devastating effects of uranium on their communities, the Navajo Nation passed a 2012 law that normally prohibits the transport of uranium on Navajo land. But Nygren says a loophole in the law means it cannot be applied to state highways running through the Navajo Nation, like U.S. 89 and U.S. 160.

"The Navajo Nation cannot stop the transport of uranium due to state and federal right of ways, but the Navajo Nation Council, local government, county and myself are against uranium mining," Nygren said in a statement.

Lena Fowler, supervisor of Coconino County where the mine is located, confirmed in a separate press release that the county supports the Navajo Nation in its cleanup efforts and has always been against uranium mining.

"As the Forest Service, we do not have a decision to make," Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Nichole Branton said, referencing the mine's approved charter.

In March of this year, the Navajo Nation wrote to Biden requesting that the White House explore executive authority to halt the transport of uranium ore on Navajo land.

"Uranium transport continues, posing an unacceptable risk to the well-being of our people and the sanctity of our land," Nygren wrote in the letter. "Alternative routes exist that can and should be used to avoid crossing Navajo lands. The use of these alternative paths would demonstrate respect for our sovereignty and a commitment to our collective health and safety."

As Navajo Nation awaits a decision from the presidential administration, uranium ore is crossing through the land.

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Katie Workman is a former KSL.com and KSL-TV reporter who works as a politics contributor. She has degrees from Cambridge and the University of Utah, and she's passionate about sharing stories about elections, the environment and southern Utah.

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