Category Archives: Environmental Justice

5/2/2011 Gallup Independent: Northeastern Arizona water rights settlement 'too expensive'

Northeastern Ariz. water rights settlement ‘too expensive’   By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent 5/2/2011:  WINDOW ROCK – The proposed $800 million Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement Agreement approved by the Navajo Nation last November is “too expensive” and will not be introduced to Congress in its current form, according to court documents.   An April 19 report from Arizona Superior Court Special Master George A. Schade Jr., states that parties to the settlement were informed March 24 by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that the proposed settlement is too expensive. Navajo Nation water rights attorney Stanley Pollack stated in the report that Kyl is unwilling to introduce legislation to authorize the settlement in its current form given the current political and fiscal climate in Washington.

However, Kyl encouraged the parties to reach new settlement language by June so that he might submit legislation to Congress prior to his retirement in 2012 at the end of the current Congress. Pollack informed Schade that the parties were scheduled to meet with Kyl last week in Phoenix to discuss possible terms. Since being advised that the proposed settlement is too expensive, the negotiating parties have been meeting to revise the terms and make it less costly.

The Navajo Nation’s San Juan River water rights settlement also had an estimated price tag of $800 million.

Pollack noted that terms approved Nov. 4, 2010, by the 21st Navajo Nation Council for the Northeastern Arizona settlement are no longer up for consideration because the settlement does not have a chance for success in Congress. No action was taken by the Hopi Tribe, as the document had not gone out to the villages for consideration by the Hopi people.

Under the proposed agreement – which had grassroots Navajos marching on Window Rock in protest – the Navajo Nation would receive 31,000 acre-feet of “fourth priority” water per year, while Navajo Generating Station would receive 34,100 acre-feet per year of Upper Basin water for its continued operation.

Any new settlement terms will require approval by the 22nd Navajo Nation Council and the 32 other parties to the settlement. Pollack reported that he does not anticipate that the terms will be approved by the time federal legislation is introduced.

When contacted Friday, Pollack said he was “hamstrung” from discussing the matter by confidentiality orders, however, he did say, “The Arizona discussions are not dead.”

The settlement springs from the Little Colorado River adjudication which has been ongoing since March 14, 2003, when the Navajo Nation took legal action challenging the Secretary of the Interior’s operation of various management programs in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River. Numerous parties have since intervened, among them the state of Arizona, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Salt River Project, Arizona Power Authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the state of Nevada.

The Navajo Nation and the United States stipulated to granting all motions to intervene and to a two-year stay of the litigation so the Interior could appoint an Indian water rights settlement team and pursue efforts to resolve the Nation’s water rights claims through negotiation and settlement.

On April 12, parties involved in the case requested a four-month extension of stay until Aug. 15 in the federal court case, the Navajo Nation v. United States Department of the Interior, et al., and U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt granted the stay April 19. The court has repeatedly granted extensions of the original stay issued in October 2004.

Water from the Little Colorado River system could affect the magnitude of the Nation’s claim to water from the main stem Colorado River. In 2005, the parties acknowledged that resources within the Little Colorado River Basin are not sufficient to secure a permanent homeland for the Navajo people. The “Kyl Report” and other studies have reached the conclusion that there would be a need for some imported water supplies from the Colorado River.

During November’s protest in Window Rock, Jeneda Benally said the Navajo people were opposed to having their water rights “sold out underneath us, because our future generations … are going to be affected by this decision, and 31,000 acre-feet of water is not enough. We need to be able to sustain ourselves as a people, and for that we need water. Water is life.”

Many of the grassroots people also were upset that the language called for waiving all “past, present and future claims for water rights arising from time immemorial” that are based upon aboriginal occupancy. Navajo also would waive any claims for injury to water quality – another concern of residents who have been impacted by past coal and uranium mining.

5/14/2011 US EPA Superfund meeting a great success

The Saturday, 5/14/2011 US EPA Superfund meeting at the Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites was a great success. The room was filled to capacity. Debbie Schechter, Linda Reeves, Svetlana Zenkin and Brian Davidson, US EPA Superfund and Alex Grubb, Weston Associates, Contractor for US EPA Superfund presented. Frank Nez, Hathalie (Medicine Man) gave an invocation. James Peshlakai and the former governor of the Village of Upper Moenkopi presented opening remarks. Frank Nez, Lucy Knorr, Ethel Nez provided translation. People had a chance to speak and ask questions and US EPA Superfund conducted break out groups on water, abandoned uranium mines and contaminated structures.

5/15/2011 AZ Daily Sun: Uranium report ripped by Coconino County board

Uranium report ripped by Coconino County board by CYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter | Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 5:20 am: Local conservation groups and the Coconino County Board of Supervisors have found what they call “serious” flaws in a federal analysis weighing the risks and benefits of uranium mining here. The Coconino County Board of Supervisors, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and Grand Canyon Trust are all questioning estimates that mining in northern Arizona could employ hundreds directly and thousands indirectly — saying those figures appear greatly inflated. These groups all support putting federal land bordering the Grand Canyon off-limits to new uranium mines for 20 years. It’s a scenario that would allow perhaps 11 existing mines to open instead of 30 and end new exploration rather than permitting more than 700 sites to be explored.

These questions have growing significance this summer because a 2-year-old moratorium on new uranium mining issued by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expires in mid-July, opening the door for mining exploration to resume across about 1 million acres.

An Interior spokeswoman said she did not know when Salazar might make a decision on the issue.


“The problem with this area is that there are more unknowns than knowns — especially north of the canyon, there is a huge area where the science has not been done to determine how groundwater is moving,” said Alicyn Gitlin, of the Sierra Club.

She raised the example of the drinking water for the Grand Canyon, which is supplied by a spring on the northern side of the canyon.

When snow melts on the North Rim most years, the water quality in the springs gets cloudy, raising an evident connection between events on the surface and water quality.

Estimates of how much uranium ore could come from each mine appear to be overstated by a factor of four in the long analysis (about the size of three Flagstaff phone books), said one consultant.

Projections on how much the ore could be worth into the future appear volatile, and determining who benefits from the industry is problematic, economic development consultant Richard Merritt wrote to the Interior Department on behalf of the Grand Canyon Trust.

“… inaccuracies in modeling the economic impact of the withdrawal … cause us to seriously question the veracity of the final conclusions …” Merritt wrote.

Federal agencies didn’t adequately weigh the risks of lasting aquifer contamination related to uranium mining, the four conservation groups wrote.

“(The analysis) avoids discussion of the monumental tasks and hundreds of millions or billions of dollars required to clean up deep aquifer contamination, assuming it is even possible. Commenting organizations raised this issue in scoping. Neither the federal government nor industry can guarantee that uranium mining would not deplete or contaminate aquifers,” they stated.

They raised other uranium-mining-related contamination in the Southwest, and drew a comparison to the Gulf oil spill.

“In their permitting of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil drilling, Interior Department agencies repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a deepwater oil spill and assumed that response resources and systems were adequate to prevent significant environmental harm in the event that a spill did occur,” they wrote.


The Coconino County Board of Supervisors unanimously signed a letter in April asking that a lot of federal land in Coconino County be put off-limits to uranium mining, raising concerns about the impacts to tourism and questions about cleanup in case of an ore truck overturning.

The county cited “hot spots” of radioactivity at former mines, as uncovered in tests by the U.S. Geological Survey a few years ago, and a mine on standby for more than 20 years that had not been closed.

The board contended that uranium jobs were possibly counted multiple times, but that tourism revenues might be undercounted, and raised complaints that monitoring for radioactive materials along haul routes into Fredonia, Flagstaff, Page and Cameron wouldn’t be adequate.

The agency noted that it might feel somewhat differently about the risks if there was a guarantee that the uranium mined from the Colorado Plateau were to end up supplying power in the United States, but there is no such guarantee.

“There is entirely too much risk, too many unknowns and too many identified impacts to justify threatening one of the most important U.S. landmarks and one of the most world-renowned national parks to justify the relatively small economic benefit associated with mining of uranium in the Grand Canyon region,” the supervisors stated.

5/13/2011 Gallup Independent: Dangerous playground: Abandoned uranium mill was favorite spot

Dangerous playground: Abandoned uranium mill was favorite spot By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent 5/13/2011 CAMERON – From the time he was 4 or 5 years old, Larry Gordy used to follow his dad on horseback across the multicolored landscape of the Painted Desert in Cameron. Eventually he started riding off on his own, seeking adventure amid the sandstone and mudstone hills while herding sheep and cattle. He was maybe 6 years old when he first encountered a rather nondescript concrete building out in the middle of nowhere. But gazing at it through the wonderment of youth, Gordy’s imagination ran wild. “I was born and raised without a permanent structure. We lived in a shack. To find a permanent structure, you were like, ‘Wow! Concrete!’ It was a favorite play place. When you’re 6 or 7 years old, that’s a fort.” It was worth riding his horse 8 miles to play all day on what he later learned was an abandoned uranium mill where ore was “concentrated,” or enriched.

“From being raised living in a shack and being covered by the Bennett Freeze where we couldn’t put anything down permanent, you saw a permanent structure way out here in the boonies and you’re hanging around it, you’re crawling on it, you’re climbing on it, and you’re looking at it – maybe you could just live out here in this permanent structure. You don’t know that it’s got radiation in it and it’s got uranium tailings in it,” he said.

The mill, which began operations in the mid-1950s, went unnoticed until last year when Gordy made mention of it to the grassroots group, Forgotten People. Together they brought it and other sites to the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Division of Superfund.

U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA will conduct a meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites in Tuba City to reveal their findings on the Cameron mill and the Hosteen Nez abandoned uranium mine site in Coalmine Chapter. They also will discuss their efforts to address abandoned uranium mines and safe drinking water in Western Navajo Agency.

Gordy, now 42, said his dad first told him about the mill. “Back in these rocks you’ll see a bunch of makeshift camp sites,” he said during a recent tour. “They were all the campsites for the Navajo people that worked here. From what my mom and dad told me, this was a real Sodom and Gomorrah out here. There was people making money, 24-hour parties. But everybody left just as fast as they showed up.”

Weston Solutions Inc. was contracted by EPA to do a site screen of the mill, located on state of Arizona land bordering the Navajo Nation. Radiation levels ranged from around 50,000 counts per minute for the bare cement foundation to 1 million counts per minute from the small dirt piles atop the foundation, compared to the average background reading of less than 16,000. The Little Colorado River Basin runs through the eastern edge of the mill site.

“Years ago, I’d come out here in the summertime and it would be like 100 degrees. You’re riding your horse down the river and you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go over to this fort over here and hang out a little bit,” Gordy said. “You’d wrap your rope around some of these structures out here, and you’d go into this cave-looking thing” inside the mill. “It was really cool, and you’d sleep in here and take an evening nap. It was so awesome.”

The “cave” is a portion of the 100 foot-by-50 foot mill that is still intact. It has a square hole in the ceiling and a vehicle license plate from the 1950s cemented into the wall.

“When you ride around out here, you carry your lariat all the time. You come out here and you’ve got that little hole in the concrete with maybe a 20 foot drop. We used to anchor the rope to the horse and crawl in and out of that hole or pull people out, pretending we were doing a rescue,” Gordy said.

Sometimes he and his cousins would ride out together and tie off their horses to a piece of rebar sticking out of the concrete. They’d take a run a go and jump into the blown sand piles in front of the building or lead their horses up and down the chute, which still today is lined with highly radioactive waste.

About a quarter to a half mile away from the mill there’s one of many Western Nuclear Inc. markers and as Gordy said, “probably 20 or 30 core markers sticking out of the ground that are halfway rotted. From what I understand these were drilled test holes. They ran around all over the place drilling holes.” The markers have metal plates with numbers on them. “They were taking readings off of each sample that they took and numbering them,” he said.

Near the wetland area, Gordy and Marsha Monestersky, program director for Forgotten People, found the remains of a campfire and an old beer can. “Over the years people have come out here to just party. How many people have passed out in these uranium tailings?” Gordy said. And then pointing to a waste pile, “You see those little white mounds over there? Those things maxed out EPA’s Geiger counter.”

Though he never worked in the uranium mines or the mill, Gordy wonders what will happen if he gets sick. He questions the 1971 cutoff date to qualify for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. “They left the mines open where I hung around and played in. How can they close the date on it when they’ve got uranium tailings still laying all over the place? I would think if you’re going to close the compensation dates, you would close them after you got all of the uranium sites closed and controlled. Here we are, 2011, and we’re still exposed to it.

“My mom come up with this brain tumor type of brain cancer. We don’t know where she got it – living out here possibly. The thing with living out here is, how do you separate what illnesses are coming from your environment and what illnesses are normal? With the dust blowing and everything out here, who knows what you could catch,” he said.

Doug Brugge, Ph.D., M.S., professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, reviewed three site screen reports for Forgotten People. The radiation levels for the Section 9 lease, which includes the mill, are both higher and appear to be spread out over a larger geographic area, he said.

“Mills tend to be built near water. I think the EPA report acknowledges that contamination could be moving from the site into the river. That seemed to be EPA’s primary concern in terms of exposure both to the environment and to people – the potential for contamination to get into the river,” Brugge said.

“My main question is what comes next, and is this enough evidence for EPA to do anything more, or are they going to write these off?” The mill’s close proximity to the Little Colorado River might be the strongest motivator for cleanup, he said, because the Little Colorado feeds into the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to millions of people from Arizona to California.

Monestersky said Forgotten People appreciates EPA’s prompt response in investigating the southeast Cameron uranium concentrating mill, the open pits and tailings piles, and Goldsprings mines. “Forgotten People respectfully requests the U.S. EPA do everything necessary to protect wetlands and water sources, and conduct radiation surveys beyond the borders of these sites to assess levels of contamination to downstream users on the Little Colorado River and contamination of water resources throughout the region.

“How could the U.S. EPA and other agencies miss the southeast Cameron uranium concentrating mill when they did aerial flyovers to assess contamination?” she said.

4/28/2011 Gallup Independent: 'Navajo Boy' to be shown at environmental justice conference

‘Navajo Boy’ to be shown at environmental justice conference By Kathy Helms, Dine Bureau, Gallup Independent, 4/28/2011 WINDOW ROCK – The award-winning film, “The Return of Navajo Boy” will be shown Thursday afternoon at the fifth annual State of Environmental Justice in America Conference in Washington. Directed by Jeff Spitz of Chicago, the internationally acclaimed documentary that reunited a Navajo family and triggered a federal investigation into uranium contamination is a reminder of the legacy of Cold War uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began cleanup March 30 of the Skyline Mine on Oljato Mesa in Monument Valley and radioactive waste in Elsie Begay’s back yard. Begay, who lost two children to radiation-related cancers, is featured in the Groundswell film which introduces audiences to Native American culture, environmental racism and one Navajo grandmother’s struggle for justice.

“Groundswell along with Elsie and other Navajo family members have worked tirelessly over the last 11 years for this outcome,” Spitz said. “The U.S. Department of Energy under the present administration is proud of this environmental justice story.”

DOE invited Groundswell to come to Washington to present the film and epilogue. Friday morning, on the second day of the conference, Spitz and Navajo participants will discuss how they use media, live events, advocacy and persistence to leverage change in public policy.

But while they celebrate the victory for Begay’s family, Spitz said, many other Navajo families are dealing with radioactive contamination and grief that simply cannot be contained.

One of the premier authorities on uranium issues in Navajo Indian Country, Perry Charley of Dine College’s Environmental Institute and a panelist on environmental health issues in Indian Country at the 2010 conference, had hoped to attend this year’s event. However, Spitz said, “His doctors will not allow the travel. He has cancer.”

Instead, Charley wrote a statement about the “real state of environmental justice in Navajo lands” for Spitz to share with the audience. “Sorry I can’t be there, but tell the crowd I wish them well. And the federal government has waited too long to fund many remedial projects, education and research studies,” he said.

Among the points Charley highlights is the Navajo Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Department – which has so diligently monitored and performed remediation of abandoned uranium mines and mill sites on the Navajo Nation – is proposed to have its funding cut completely by the Obama administration, he said. “The program is desperately needed to perform continued surveillance and maintain reclaimed uranium mines and mills, some of which show signs of deterioration and exposing radioactive waste to nearby communities.”

Charley also expects a hard battle in Congress over passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments of 2011, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and a bipartisan group of senators. “Many of our Navajo miners and families face challenges in getting compensation due to the heavy documentation requirement of the process. The federal government still does not understand the implications of traditional and cultural sensitivity,” he said.

And while there is now a five-year plan for cleanup of legacy waste, there is “no funding to perform many of the issues we face” from past Manhattan Engineer District and Atomic Energy Commission activities.

Charley said he personally has been sampling and conducting studies of the impacts to Navajo water sources. “We have a well with uranium concentration of 760 parts per billion,” many times above the 30 parts per billion Maximum Contaminant Level allowable under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards, “and another a few miles away with 200 parts per billion,” he said. “These communities have no alternate water source and the Navajo continue to use contaminated sources for their domestic needs.”

Companies who once mined Navajo lands for uranium need to be made to come back and clean up their mess, according to Charley. “We have tons of radioactive materials scattered throughout Navajo lands. Our water is contaminated and our air is contaminated. Homes are built with radioactive materials.

“We need studies to determine the impact to our children and their future. There has never been a true epidemiological study done on Navajo lands to determine the true extent of exposure. Small-scale studies and research point to contamination of every segment of our lives and society.”

Navajo also needs educational funds for programs such as the Uranium Education Program which he once directed and had to cease due to lack of funding. “We need to educate our people and our young ones to be part of this process, to be self-sustaining and to dictate our own future and destiny. We literally have dozens of mining companies at our reservation doors waiting for the moratorium on uranium mining and processing to be lifted on Navajo lands. The companies and federal entities that continue to disregard our tribal sovereignty laws and rights need to recognize these.”

Education and research studies need to continue, Charley said. “Even for some of us who have been involved in being part of these activities to try to correct the wrongs of the past, we are affected as well. I don’t know what my future holds, but I am fighting for my very survival,” he told Spitz. “Feel free to tell them this, especially the feds.”