‘Additional observations’ being accepted in human rights petition

By Kathy Helms, Gallup Independent

Special correspondent, khelms@gallupindependent.com

August 23, 2021

CROWNPOINT – Jonathan Perry had been with the Navajo grassroots organization Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining about four months prior to the group filing a petition with an international human rights body alleging the United States violated members human rights by licensing uranium mining activities in their communities.

A decade later, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted ENDAUM’s petition. It is only the second time the commission has found admissible a case of environmental justice against the United States. The first case involved environmental racism in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” according to the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents ENDAUM.

Eric Jantz, staff attorney with the Law Center, said Friday that the deadline to submit “additional observations” in the case has been extended from Aug. 20 to Oct. 21, when ENDAUM will file its response.

Aquifer restoration

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a source and byproduct materials license in 1988 to Hydro Resources, Inc. – now owned by Canadian mining company Laramide Resources, Inc. – to conduct in-situ leach uranium mining at four sites in the communities of Churchrock and Crownpoint. Two sites are within Navajo Indian Country. Others are surrounded by federal land held in trust for the Navajo Nation.

Perry, now executive director of ENDAUM, is following in the footsteps of Mitchell and Rita Capitan, who started the organization in 1994 in response to community concerns about the proposed HRI mines.

Mitchell Capitan worked as a lab technician at an in-situ leach mine known as the Section 9 Pilot Project, where he was responsible for compiling groundwater restoration data for operator Mobil Oil. Capitan found that Mobil was unable to restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions and was concerned that once HRI contaminated the Dakota Sandstone and Westwater Canyon aquifers during the extraction process, it would face a similar situation.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 1997 Final Environmental Impact Statement found that water quality within the aquifers “is good and meets New Mexico drinking water quality standards.”

Mobil pilot project

In-situ leach mining involves a series of injection and production wells laid out in geometric patterns known as “well fields.” Mining is conducted by injecting a solution of water, dissolved oxygen and sodium bicarbonate through the injection wells and into areas of uranium mineralization called “ore zones.” The solution dissolves the uranium in the ore zone and causes it to become mobile in the aquifer.

The uranium is then pumped to the surface, stripped from the groundwater for processing into “yellowcake,” and further refined into fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the ENDAUM petition. The groundwater is then returned to the aquifer to extract more uranium.

The Mobil Oil pilot site was located on five acres of land leased from a Navajo allottee and consisted of nine injection wells and four recovery wells, according to a September 2015 letter penned by David Taylor, then an attorney with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

The proposed HRI project would encompass 100 acres and instead of having only one well pattern like the Mobil pilot site, the Section 8 site would incorporate as many as 13 well patterns, Taylor said, meaning the likelihood of more contaminants and the need for more restoration.

Chemical injection at the Mobil site lasted not quite a year and “even after this limited period, restoration could not be achieved,” he said. Restoration lasted six years, from October 1980 to October 1986.

In 1981 it became apparent that molybdenum would be a restoration problem, Taylor said, and in 1988 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission terminated Mobil’s source material license due to the cost and limited success of additional restoration. Radium also was not restored to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standard.

Environmental justice

During proceedings in March 2005 before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, John Leeper, Ph.D., a staff member of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, testified that the Westwater aquifer was used by more than 13,000 people for drinking water.

Leeper said it is viewed by the Navajo Nation as the most important groundwater resource for future drinking water supplies in Eastern Navajo Agency. Navajo Tribal Utility Authority operates two wells within the aquifer that provide water to thousands of Diné in Crownpoint and the surrounding area of Becenti, Littlewater and Nahodishgish.

Perry believes that potential contamination of the aquifers and the endangerment of local ENDAUM members living within the project area, in addition to the lack of consultation and community involvement, are human rights issues. Community members signed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which provides for “free, prior and informed consent.” The United States and the Navajo Nation government did not.

However, the Inter-American Commission said that if ENDAUM’s allegations are proven, the United States could be in breach of petitioners’ rights to life and personal security, preservation of health and well-being, benefits of culture, fair trial and property, guaranteed by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

“The action taken is what ENDAUM has been wanting to do on behalf of our communities, making sure that we are treated just and that our concerns regarding these projects are acknowledged,” Perry said. “This petition that was filed, we feel, is a positive step in terms of addressing federal policies and how they do not correlate with the ideas of the community.”

“We feel that not only the license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but also the aquifer exemption permit from EPA Region 9 needs to be revoked in order to secure a more prosperous future for our Navajo communities that are going to be looking for adequate water supplies,” he said. “We feel that the aquifer exemption would jeopardize the future potential for supplies for the communities that include the local aquifers.”

Water supplies dwindling

Navajos returning to their homeland amid today’s mega-drought are finding dwindling drinking water supplies. This past Monday, the Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River and began implementing cutbacks at a time when the West is besieged by wildfires.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in July began limiting water hauling from its loading stations to 500 gallons per week for single loads, or 2,000 gallons per month. Water hauling for thirsty livestock is prohibited.

“The drought situation on the Navajo Nation continues to be dire,” Perry said. “We feel that the ISL operations can lead to potential contamination of more locations within the aquifer, which would then jeopardize the plans for Navajo Nation to use that groundwater.”

Additionally, the Navajo Nation has seen a degradation of cultural sites and an increase in cancers, kidney disease and respiratory issues among residents living near the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines left over from the Cold War.

“Further studies that would specifically target potential exposure and potential health impacts are needed,” Perry said. “We will remain vigilant of future projects – any attempts to file for licenses, anything that puts our communities at risk for potential future contamination,” he said.


Read paper version (part 1) and (part 2).