Standing united

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Southwest tribes fight to halt new uranium mining

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A federal judge in early April blocked the British company Vane Minerals from continuing exploratory uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. The judgment was a victory for environmental groups and for the 13 tribes that are affected by uranium mining in the western United States. But the renewed interest in an old mineral has tribal leaders on edge.

At a congressional field hearing in Flagstaff March 28, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said Navajos ;'do not want to sit by, ignorant of the effects of uranium mining, only to watch another generation of mothers and fathers die.''

''We are doing everything we can to speak out and do something about it,'' he continued. ''We do not want a new generation of babies born with birth defects. We will not allow our people to live with cancers and other disorders as faceless companies make profits only to declare bankruptcy and then walk away from the damage they have caused, regardless of the bond they have in place.''

Representatives from the Kaibab Paiute, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi tribes also testified at the hearing, along with representatives from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, local counties, mining companies and the scientific community.

The judge's ruling came as the result of a complaint against the Forest Service entered by the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Center for Biologic Diversity.

The Southwest's recent uranium boom, caused by a worldwide interest in nuclear-powered alternatives to the dwindling supply of oil, has shot the price of uranium up to $136, from $10 in 1984, and lined the pockets of savvy investors and the treasuries of mining companies.

At least five companies have recently applied for uranium mining permits in New Mexico, where the uranium reserves are estimated at 500 million pounds or more. Most of these reserves are on Navajo land.

The nuclear power fueled by uranium has been promoted by conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation as a clean and ''logical'' source of alternative energy, and industry officials say the new mining activities could provide much needed income and jobs.

But the Navajo and other tribes in the region are still struggling from the effects of the first uranium boom, from the 1950s to the 70s, when exposure brought cancer, birth defects and premature death to people who worked in the mines as well as those who lived near them.

Despite assurances by uranium mining companies that new mining techniques are safer than the ones used before, many tribal leaders are not convinced.

''I've yet to see any kind of new technology that's safe that's going to protect the welfare of human beings and the environment.'' said Navajo tribal council member Amos Johnson.

''The legacy of uranium mining has left a devastating impact on our people. We have hundreds of abandoned mines where they've explored for uranium, and now some of those have been left open and have contaminated groundwater.''

The Navajo have attempted to stop the surge in new uranium mining by banning all mining activities on their land in 2005.

But an 1872 mining law has made it easy for mining companies to stake their claims in the Southwest. The Forest Service has also used a process known as ''categorical exclusion,'' introduced by the Bush administration, to expedite mining permits.

''They will probably resort to congressional action to have indigenous sovereignty overruled, and we really hope that doesn't happen,'' Johnson said.

In March, Shirley addressed a U.S. Senate committee to request that the U.S. respect Navajo sovereignty and vowed to take ''any and all measures'' to prevent uranium mining on Navajo lands.

Other Native nations have begun taking their own measures.

Last year, the All Indian Pueblo Council adopted a resolution against uranium mining in the Mount Taylor area of New Mexico, deploring the ''significant and irreparable cultural and religious damages that have resulted from the failure of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to consult with Acoma, the 19 Pueblos and other affected tribes'' prior to issuing mining permits.

Supai Waters, Keeper of the Secrets for the 650 Havasupai people who live inside the Grand Canyon, said Vane Minerals' exploratory mining near there had already resulted in ''high-grade splotches'' that were visible in aerial footage.

Other mining activities have invaded the sacred sites of many of the region's tribes, including the Hopi and the Paiutes, he said.

The Havasupai are working to change their constitution to reflect stronger language against uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, ''completely banning it - no mining, no extractions at all,'' Waters said.

He emphasized the importance of the region's Colorado River, which holds, in the oral tradition of many local tribes, not only sustenance but creation itself.

''It is the sacred water that gave birth to a lot of those tribes that live close to it.''

Recent mining activities were already affecting the aquifers near the river, he said.

''We are unified to completely ban these detrimental developments that are going to be put on our sacred lands, all the way from the west rim of the Grand Canyon to Blanding, Utah, to the Colorado River and Montezuma's ruins, to Prescott and Kingman, Arizona.''