Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez remarks to NRC about abandoned uranium mines, April 22, 2022


(The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

We thank you for gathering here tonight. Since World War Two, some 80 years ago, Navajo people have lived with the burden of uranium mining activities and there hazardous after effects. US EPA reports that between 1944 and 1986, 30 million tonnes or about 66 billion pounds of uranium ore were extracted from sacred lands of the Navajo people. They have also stated that our reservation sits on a wealth of uranium still. 

Many Navajo people and community members of Red Water Pond Road were raised and lived most of their lives amid mining activity or near abandoned uranium mines. The men worked in the mines without protection. Their mothers and wives washed their clothes which were covered with radioactive dust and their children played in ponds which were filled with radioactive effluent. Today you heard firsthand accounts of how their lives have been adversely impacted by the uranium mines that were vital to the security of the United States of America.

First hand accounts. Some of our Navajo people will tell you of the ill health effects that they suffer from. Others will recount having worked in mines like the abandoned ones surrounding us, the Quivera and Kerr McGee mines. And more Navajo, young and old, will tell of having been present at one of the worst radioactive spills in US history, which occurred not far from here but that failed to receive national attention, like the Three Mile Island.

Know that these accounts are hard for some of our Navajo people to express because they must relive and feel all those emotions that come with it.

We have been loyal citizens of our country, the United States of America. And multitudes of Navajos have served in the armed forces in many conflicts across the globe in service to her ideals, which call for fair and equal treatment for all citizens, native and non-native alike. 

I want to talk to you about the Northeast Church Rock mine site, which is just down the road from our meeting tonight, as you witnessed earlier today. It is one of the largest mines on the Navajo Nation and it’s the highest priority mine for cleanup due to its size and also the location of the community nearby. It was operated by the United Nuclear Corporation, a company owned by General Electric, from 1967 to 1982. The plan is for approximately 1 million cubic yards of contaminated mine waste to be removed from the Northeast Church Rock mine site and consolidated primarily at the nearby United Nuclear Cooperation mill site just off the reservation. 

Here in summary is how the decision came about. Over 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the Navajo Nation requested that EPA take the lead for the Northeast Church Rock mine cleanup. The federal agency oversaw the company’s investigations of the mine site and initial time critical cleanup actions to remove approximately 200,000 tons of contamination found in the residential area. 

After receiving public comment, engineering evaluation and cost analysis, EPA decided to consolidate and move the radioactive waste to the nearby UNC mill site. In 2014, EPA negotiated an enforcement agreement with General Electric to complete the design for this work. The next year, EPA and the company signed the agreement, called an administrative order on consent, and began the design process. A few years later, the United Nuclear Corporation and General Electric finalized the design and submitted a license amendment request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We anticipate that the federal nuclear licensing agency will make a decision on a license amendment for the NRC mill site this year.

The license amendment would allow the disposal of the mine waste from the Navajo Nation on top of the sizable tailings impoundment already in place. 

But simply driving the waste across the road, right, is not the answer. Not the answer at all. Clearly the radioactive mine waste left abandoned at the Northeast Church Rock mine site must be removed. 

According to the draft environmental statement, which was prepared as part of the application for the license amendment, leaving this mine waste in place would have, quote unquote, large health and environmental impacts.  Even removal of the waste will have disproportionately high and adverse environmental impacts on nearby Navajo communities due to transportation related effects, impact to air quality, increased noise level and visual disturbances. The document justifies these impacts by saying that they will last a few years only, in contrast to the decades of harm surely to come to Navajo families from leaving the waste in place. 

But as the draft environmental impact statement also recognizes, these nearby Navajo communities are environmental justice communities, which historically had little or no say in the exploitation of the natural resources around them and certainly do not benefit from the vast profit by the company’s governance and shareholders. 

We owe these Navajo families, many of them are sitting here today, the best solution.  Which in their minds and my own, is to remove the radioactive mine waste to an appropriate repository, far, far away from the  Navajo Nation, not just across the street to the location that is being proposed in the draft environmental impact statement.

This will not be the first time radioactive waste will be moved long distances to preserve the long term health of the community and its natural environment. In 2009, the Moab, Utah uranium mill tailings remedial action project began relocating mill tailings out of the former mill site and slurry adjacent to the Colorado River to a newly created disposal site about 30 miles north. Over 10 million tons of residential Radioactive material was safely relocated. The cleanup also included extracting contaminants from the groundwater underlying the site. Nearly 1 million pounds of ammonia and 5000 pounds of uranium were removed. 

And that’s not all, …also tackling debris left over from the former uranium mill that once stood on the Moab site. The grading requires special attention because of its large size, jagged shape and degree of contamination. More than 30,000 tonnes have been safely excavated and shipped to the disposal cell this fiscal year. I ask, why can’t something similar be done here on the Navajo Nation? Why shouldn’t it? Although it would be very costly to transport the radioactive mine waste long distance from the Northeast Church Rock mine site, those dollars and cents cannot compare to the injuries born by the local communities. 

Indeed, the Navajo nation as a whole over the past 70 some years, as is now recognized, the Navajo Nation and its people have suffered disproportionately from the legacy of uranium mining and processing on Navajo lands.  Navajo uranium workers and their families became ill and many died from diseases associated both with the uranium work itself and with living near uranium mines, hills, and waste dumps, as you heard today. 

The Navajo Birth Cohort study has revealed that uranium and toxic metals remain in the Navajo environment and continues to be a significant concern to the tribe. Generational trauma expresses not just in the body, but in the heart and mind as well. The solution to the northeast Church Rock mine set must be commensurate, appropriate and proportionate to the historic injury to the health and well being of our Navajo people, young and old, and to our sacred Navajo lands from which we draw physical sustenance and spiritual strength.  

To be sure, the so-called 2020 to 2029 10 year plan of federal action to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation continues the efforts of the previous five year plans and identifies the next steps in addressing the human health and environmental risks associated with the legacy of uranium mining. It was developed in cooperation with multiple federal partner agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Navajo area Indian Health Services, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

However as with previous plans, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency was not an active participant in the underlying development of this plan and suspects that it too will fail in implementation. Specifically among other priorities, the Navajo Nation calls for comprehensive groundwater studies for all uranium impact areas on the reservation and comprehensive studies regarding all potential risk, exposure pathways, including the plants we traditionally eat and use for ceremonial purposes, our sheep and livestock, which are our primary source of sustenance, and water sources, many of our Navajo people still use for drinking water and ceremonial purposes. 

Similarly, we call for factoring traditional and cultural knowledge into the Superfund cleanup process and the establishment of cancer treatment centers throughout the Navajo Nation. Let us not forget that capacity building is a huge need for our tribe. We call for accountability and communication to the Navajo Nation, from the various federal agencies regarding their outlying objectives.

Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, David, and the chairman as well. I think it’s a lasting friendship we can have. Through partnership we can do much together. 

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency has flexibility and discretion to operate efficiently. We also ask to see how the federal government intends to fund the investigation and cleanup of the additional 305 sites not currently being addressed. The United States may no longer delay recognizing and rebating the wrongs done to the Navajo in the name of national security. One of our most important objectives as Diné is to protect the land, water and air within our sacred mountains so that all living beings can live in balance and harmony. 

…Walk in beauty. Thank you for your time. And again we welcome you to the great Navajo Nation.