FARMINGTON – Navajo lawmakers have granted a uranium mining company permission to operate a demonstration uranium recovery project despite tribal law banning uranium activities.
The demonstration project would occur on land licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Uranium Resources Inc., formerly known as Hydro Resources Inc., in Churchrock, N.M., located east of Gallup.
The Resources and Development Committee voted three in favor and none opposed to acknowledge URI’s right of way, and surface and mineral access rights during a special meeting Monday in Chilchinbeto, Ariz.
In situ recovery is an extraction method used to mine underground uranium by injecting solvents into uranium-rich rock layers then pumping the dissolved uranium out.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council approved the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 to ban uranium mining and processing on any sites located on tribal lands.
The ban was enacted after years of uranium mining impacted the health of the Navajo people, in addition to contaminating the land and water resources.
Churchrock is also the site of the 1979 uranium mill spill. United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam releasing more than 1,000 tons of solid radioactive mill waste and tailing solution into the Puerco River.
The tribe also has the Uranium Ore Transportation Act, which banned the transportation of uranium on roads and highways that enter, cross or exit the reservation.
Committee member Leonard Tsosie sponsored the bill, and it was cosponsored by committee chairwoman Katherine Benally.
The bill, which only needed the committee’s approval, also authorizes the creation of a subcommittee to work with the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources director, the tribe’s Department of Justice and URI representatives to draft an agreement that “results in mutual gains for both the Navajo Nation and URI.”
Tsosie, as well as committee member Leonard Pete, were appointed to serve on the subcommittee.
In January, the Churchrock Chapter passed a resolution supporting URI’s demonstration project, as well as remediation of the Section 17 site, also located in the chapter’s boundaries and licensed to URI.
The resolution states that URI’s project would provide at least 50 full-time jobs and 25 permanent contract positions for its construction, operations and remediation phases, and the company has committed to hiring 70 percent local employees.
The Eastern Navajo Land Commission passed a resolution Dec. 20 opposing and disapproving the legislation, but the Resources and Development Committee had final say.
The commission’s resolution states that they were not consulted on the proposed legislation and “asserts there is an attempt to circumvent the commission’s responsibility regarding energy resource matter in eastern Navajo.”