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Christine Smith, a first grade teacher at Crownpoint Elementary in northwest New Mexico, lives a few hundred feet from a processing plant for a proposed uranium mine.
Smith said she worries about how a revival of uranium mining in the region could affect the health of her students and family.
“Even though the mining companies kept coming back and saying it was a safe process … we’ve seen many accidents in the past,” Smith said. “No company will ever convince me that one process is 100% safe.”
Smith is a member of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, a group that has successfully brought a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The petition alleges the U.S. and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violated Navajo human rights when it granted Hydro Resources Inc./NuFuels a license to mine uranium in Church Rock and Crownpoint.
This is only the second time that the Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization has found an environmental justice petition against the U.S. admissible.
Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center representing the Navajo group in the case, called the petition an “important milestone” in a decadeslong legal battle.
“(It’s not just about) how many parts per million of uranium go through an aquifer, or how (much) radiation people are inhaling into their lungs, but fundamental human rights,” Jantz said. “The rights to have clean air, clean water, clean land, and to fundamentally live your life as an Indigenous person, or any person, without fear of having your lifeways destroyed by the government.”
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands from 1944 to 1986. The materials were instrumental in the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Community resistance to the HRI/NuFuels project goes back to 1994.
Environmental impact statements from the NRC about a new proposed mine began showing up in local mailboxes, and residents organized to raise concerns about the plan.
Federal regulators in 1998 approved the license to mine uranium at three different McKinley County sites using the in situ leach method.
The method injects water and chemicals through underground wells to dissolve uranium.
Uranium is then processed into “yellowcake” and used for nuclear fuel.
According to the NRC, the Crownpoint site currently has no active operations.
The Navajo group originally filed the petition in 2011 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which found the petition admissible earlier this year.
The groups submitted more testimony on Thursday as part of the petition process.
A 1979 disaster at the now-closed Church Rock uranium mill north of Gallup sent 93 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River.
Uranium exposure can cause organ damage and cancer.
A University of New Mexico research study showed that at least 25% of adult Navajo participants had uranium in their urine at concentrations higher than 95% of the U.S. population.
Rita Capitan, the Navajo Crownpoint chapter president and a co-founder of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, said another mine could further harm “precious water and land.”
“Why allow another company to come in and begin operating uranium mining again when nothing’s been cleaned up?” Capitan said.
Earlier this year, the EPA awarded contracts totaling $220 million to three companies to clean up 50 abandoned uranium mine sites near Grants and on the Navajo Nation.
There are about 500 abandoned sites on the tribal land.
The petition alleges that the NRC licensed the mine while knowing that it would contaminate groundwater.
The groups say that the company had not shown that its proposed cleanup methods could restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions.
This week the Navajo Nation government lent their support to the petition.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon signed a proclamation on Thursday, urging the commission to recognize uranium mining as an “ongoing assault on Diné lands, resources and people.”
“The United States has continued to allow private corporations to extract vast quantities of uranium from Diné lands, abandoning and leaving behind mountains of radioactive and toxic waste,” the leaders wrote in the proclamation.
Several Navajo chapters have issued resolutions supporting the petition.
The commission could hold a hearing on the petition as early as next year.
The advocacy groups said that a “favorable decision” from the commission – essentially a conclusion that the U.S. government violated the communities’ human rights when licensing the project – could be helpful in future litigation seeking to rescind the license.
“It’s past time that the United States’s nuclear policy is scrutinized, and that human rights violations … are taken to account and are scrutinized,” Jantz said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.