RDC gives green light to in-situ uranium demonstration

By Alastair Lee Bitsoí
Navajo Times

CHILCHINBETO, Ariz., Dec. 26, 2013

Text size: A A A

In the crowded chapter house of Chilchinbeto Tuesday, Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie used enough persuasion to get his peers from the Resources and Development Committee to pass a legislation that grants Uranium Resources Inc., access to its private properties to conduct an in-situ uranium recovery demonstration project in Church Rock, N.M.

Even as David Taylor, a Navajo Nation Department of Justice attorney, told the committee, Tsosie's legislation conflicts with a tribal ban against any uranium development and a subsequent law that prevents the transport of the mineral across the reservation, and in spite of pleas from grassroots people not to approve the bill, Tsosie's peers listened to the outspoken Councilman.

"This is not a resolution to directly autShorize uranium mining," Tsosie (Baca-Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/ Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake) said in his opening remarks to the RDC.

In front of a packed house of environmental activists from the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining and the Sierra Club Nuclear-Free Front End Working Group, who drove up to two-and-a-half hours from their uranium-impacted communities to be here, and URI CEO Christopher Jones, the RDC passed the resolution 3-0.

As the main sponsor, Tsosie explained that the committee's action on the legislation would benefit the tribe by allowing it to regulate the in-situ uranium recovery project, estimated to supply the community with about 50 full-time jobs and 25 contract positions at full-scale operation. By denying URI as the successor of the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Company's rights-of-way to surface deeds on Section 17 and Section 8, the next possible step the company could take is filing a suit against the tribe, with the decision most likely weakening Navajo sovereignty and favoring the uranium company, Tsosie said.

"If we don't regulate this and totally lose, then were left out and there will be uranium mining without limitation," he said.

In response to Tsosie, Taylor requested time from the committee to explain NNDOJ's interpretation of the proposed legislation's impact on current tribal laws -- the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, a moratorium that bans uranium and any development on the reservation; a 2012 temporary access agreement between the tribe and URI; and the Radioactive and Related Substances Equipment, Vehicles, Persons and Materials Transportation Act of 2012, which prevents the transport of the ore across the reservation.

"It is the position of NDOJ to oppose this legislation," Taylor said, adding that the authors of the uranium laws currently in place also oppose the legislation.

Taylor added that the tribe's temporary access agreement spells out how URI agreed to first clean up the Section 17 site, before conducting any type of uranium development on this property and on the Section 8 sites. Section 17 and 8 are tribal and private lands, respectively, located within the boundaries of Church Rock.

"If you pass this law, it's our position that you're potentially wiping out, nullifying that agreement," Taylor said, referring to the temporary access agreement already in place. "They don't have access to Section 8, until they clean up Section 17."

Other points Taylor spoke about were how URI is planning to change its cleanup standards by adopting less stringent ones used by the Department of Energy rather than those specified by the Environmental Protection Agency, essentially breaching its agreement with the tribe. The agreement states that URI, which includes its subsidiary Hydro Resources Inc., agrees to "complete any remediation of any radioactive contamination now existing on Section 17 or Section 8 prior to commencing its planned in-situ leach uranium operations on Section 8."

According to the agreement, URI had agreed to remediate Section 17, a legacy mine site, in accordance with the Navajo Nation Comprehensive Response Compensation and Liability Act. The tribal act uses the same standards applied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and not the DOE ones URI is lobbying to adopt in place of them, Taylor said.

Adding onto his thoughts was Stephen Etcitty, executive director for the Navajo Nation EPA, who also stated that the legislation undermines current uranium laws. Etcitty highlighted how his agency is currently using those enacted laws to address legacy waste sites and told RDC members of the tribe's latest victory in a bankruptcy court against Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Kerr-McGee that could award the tribe at least $1 billion for cleanup of past uranium mining and milling sites.

After listening to Taylor, Tsosie said it was the first time he'd ever seen the DOJ "unilaterally oppose" a legislation.

"This is a policy decision," Tsosie said. "They can't independently take a position."

Tsosie added that the legislation doesn't do away with the temporary access agreement, noting that the subcommittee charged with drafting an agreement with URI would advocate for cleanup of the Section 17 property and negotiate with URI. The subcommittee is comprised of Tsosie and delegate Leonard Pete (Chinle). Tsosie and Pete will also work with DOJ, and Division of Natural Resources Executive Director Fred White.

Tsosie also said the processing of any uranium, according the legislation, would occur off reservation lands. And from what he's witnessed on his tour of URI operations in Wyoming, the uranium from ISR mining would be safely transported off the reservation to Texas.

During public testimony, Rita Capitan, a member of ENDAUM, and Larry King, who said he lives a stone's throw away from where the project would occur on Section 8, wondered what would happen to the Uranium Taskforce that is currently in the process of being created. The duo also didn't forget to voice their opposition to the project. They advocated for the RDC to table the bill to allow them, the committee, and URI to discuss any uranium development matters on the table.

Capitan claimed that URI had a poor financial portfolio and didn't understand how it would finance its project. She also said that, contrary to Tsosie's claim that the local groundwater is already contaminated from past uranium mining and milling, there is clean, safe water to protect from URI's project. Tsosie had stated that groundwater is contaminated and that residents from this region of the reservation would get drinking water from the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project through the San Juan River Basin Water Rights Settlement.

"My legislation doesn't poison Navajo water," Tsosie said.

In her testimony, Capitan also referenced how citizens in South Texas are currently suffering from groundwater contamination from a similar ISR project.

How to get The Times:

Back to top ^