Navajo Nation Bans Uranium Mining on its Land

Navajo Nation Bans Uranium Mining on its Land

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) -- The Navajo Nation Council has outlawed uranium mining and processing on the reservation that sprawls across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. has 10 days from the time the bill arrives in his office to approve it. His spokesman, George Hardeen, said Shirley "will strongly support" the legislation. "When he was ru nning for the president's office, he campaigned on this," Hardeen said Thursday. "He supported this all the way through. When the Navajo Nation Council tabled this in the winter session, he was disappointed."

Several council delegates and legislative counsel Raymond Atcitty predicted the legislation will be challenged in court -- possibly as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hardeen said that would be an interesting battle.

"The Navajo Nation is sovereign and this would be a wonderful test," he said. "Sovereign means people can pass their own laws and live by them. ... It would be interesting to see an outside company, especially a uranium processing company, take the Navajo Nation to court over this."

The measure reads: "No person shall engage in uranium mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country."

"It's very simple -- uranium kills," said council Delegate Mark Maryboy.

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners area, which holds one of the world's largest deposits of uranium ore. Mining companies began blasting holes in the 1940s and continued for nearly 40 years until decreased demand closed the operations.

By then, the Navajos were left with radiation sickness, contaminated tailings and abandoned mines. To avoid repeating the past, Navajo leaders and grassroots organizations have been working for years to keep mining from starting again.

The Navajo Nation Council, after heated debate that focused on several amendments, voted 63-19 Tuesday in favor of the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005. Dine is the Navajos' name for themselves.

The council deleted a provision that would have let individuals who wanted to mine or process uranium to seek approval from several council committees.

"The people have spoken and our leaders have listened to the people," said Delegate Alice Benally of Crownpoint, N.M. "Our people are still dying from this. This legislation was important to Navajo Nation, a very bid step for Navajo people."

Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium and another Navajo grassroots organization, Dine Bidzii, celebrated outside the council's chambers after the measure was approved. Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium had sought a ban for more than a decade.

"This legislation just chopped the legs off the uranium monster," said Norman Brown of Dine Bidzii.

The legislation prohibits pit mining as well as in-situ processing, which involves using a solution to leach out uranium and pump it to the surface.

Hydro Resources Inc. has been working with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for years to get approval for in-situ mining near the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock. The company estimated nearly 100 million pounds of uranium exist at the sites.

Hydro Resources has argued that in-situ mining is safer than older methods, but Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and others have managed to stall the effort. They argue that 15,000 people rely on the area's underground aquifer and they fear contamination from the proposed operation.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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