Thursday, March 13, 2008
Navajos Urge Ban On Mining
By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley on Wednesday urged Congress to ban any new uranium mining on or near Navajo land.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, took up the issue of uranium mining, as well as a pending rewrite of laws regulating hard rock mining and the cleanup and reclamation of abandoned mines across the United States.
Shirley told the panel that the Navajo Nation has suffered pervasive illness and death because of Cold War-era uranium mining. He is worried that a surging interest in nuclear power will lure more uranium mining companies to the area.
Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and staunch advocate of nuclear power, suggested that technology could allay those concerns.
"Much has changed since the Cold War," Domenici, the top Republican on the committee, said during the hearing.
"Uranium mining in the future will be very different than uranium mining in the past," he said. "Our job is to get the real facts for the Navajo people, not the facts from the Cold War."
Shirley wasn't buying that argument.
"Why should we believe these companies now when this industry failed to clean up the toxic mess they left behind the first time?" Shirley asked.
Bingaman and Domenici have both said they respect the Navajos' desire to keep uranium mining off their land, but neither has been willing to commit to opposing new uranium mines near it.
Shirley contends even mining near the reservation could have adverse effects on Indian land.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is pushing for a federal moratorium on uranium mining on or near Navajo land.
Wednesday's hearing also focused on more than 160,000 abandoned mines that have been identified across the United States. About 30,000 of those are believed to pose environmental risks, according to the committee.
Bill Brancard of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department told the panel there are roughly 15,000 abandoned mine hazards in New Mexico.
"These abandoned mines pose serious health and safety risks," Bingaman said during the hearing. "They also degrade our environment and pose special threats to our most precious resource: water."
Congress is trying to rewrite a 136-year old federal mining law in a way that allows the federal government to capture royalties from mining on federal lands.
Unlike oil and gas leases on federal land, the government collects no royalties from mining operations under existing law.
Most proposals in Congress would earmark a significant portion of new mining royalties for abandoned mine cleanup.