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BIA to consider moratorium on uranium mining leases on Navajo trust land

WASHINGTON - Congressmen, Navajo leaders and federal agency leaders alike heard the grim legacy of past uranium mining on Navajo lands and learned of nuclear industry efforts to stockpile uranium mining permits for future use.

Midway through a roundtable on uranium mining, hosted by Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Nov. 8, the solution seemed to become obvious to everyone at once: first clean up the abandoned uranium sites that threaten Navajo health and groundwater, then place a federal moratorium on new Navajo-based uranium mining until the cleanup is accomplished. The Navajo Nation already has a moratorium in place, but uranium mining interests are approaching off-reservation owners of individual allotted trust lands with lease offers, according to nation representatives at the roundtable. A federal moratorium would forbid uranium mining leases on any and all Navajo trust land.

''Congressman Udall,'' said Mitchell Capitan, founder of Eastern Navajo Dine' Against Uranium Mining, ''communities across New Mexico and the Four Corners [of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado - i.e., Navajo land] are saying the same thing we are. Clean up the uranium messes before creating new ones. We are in agreement with our brothers and sisters, the pueblos and Lagunas are here, our Anglo and Hispanic communities. New uranium mining threatens us all. We need a federal moratorium on new mining.''

''The thing that I hear from the Navajo Nation,'' Udall responded, turning to Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., ''is a clean-up of uranium [mining] and milling sites before the new [sites are permitted] ... President Shirley, this is what you've put on the table. You want the problems that are out there to be cleaned up before any new things start. And the second point here is a moratorium, before we move into any other areas - getting a moratorium. So I'd like our government representatives here, and if there are others here that would like to speak, to tell us why we can't proceed in that way for the Navajo Nation. Why can't we proceed and say let's clean up first, and let's have a moratorium until we do figure that out?''

Jerry Gidner, a deputy director at the BIA, referred to the difficulties that can arise when the bureau is asked to decide between the Navajo Nation's moratorium and the desire of an individual Indian landowner to permit uranium mining leases on his trust land, off-reservation but in an area ''checkerboarded'' between tribal and individual allotments. ''As the trustee, do we side with the Navajo Nation and deny it [the mining lease]? Do we side with the landowner who wants the money from a uranium mine? That is a horribly complex issue.''

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''All three of us here are co-signers of the Navajo Nation moratorium, all three congressmen,'' said Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., referring to himself, Udall and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. ''Do you need something from us that puts a little more teeth ... To put you in a holding pattern, do you need something from Congress?''

''I would think so, yes sir,'' Gidner said.

Shirley weighed in shortly afterward. ''I'd really like to see the Bureau of Indian Affairs - I mean you're the U.S. government, and you're our trustee - come forward with a recommendation for a moratorium. Just as simple as that. You mentioned something about the many versus the one. In this case, you're trustee, the U.S. government is trustee for the many. Safe drinking water is going to affect - in situ leach mining is going to affect 10,000 to 15,000 people, whose drinking water is contaminated. And it's a dire situation. People have died. People are still dying ... because of the aftereffects of the mining of the uranium ore in times past. And with that as a given, you know, we're pushing to have a moratorium, you cannot issue any more licenses for uranium mining because of that.

''If the bureau could support us, not only Navajo Nation but other Native nations that are affected, if you could support us with this moratorium, we'd appreciate it. That's really all we're asking for. And as trustee, I don't see what's so hard about that.''

Gidner said he would take the request back to headquarters for discussion. ''Again, I'm not sure that we have the authority to impose such a moratorium, but we can certainly talk about that. But it is a more difficult issue, because we have a trust responsibility not only to the tribe but to the landowner, the individual allottee. ... I'm not saying what we're going to do. I'm just saying there's a lot of competing interests.''