Navajo Nation Fights Uranium Contamination

Monument Valley

Photo by by Ken Lund via Creative Commons

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

For decades, uranium mining has contaminated the Navajo Nation, causing higher cancer rates and water pollution. Even though the health risks and environmental harms of uranium mining are well-established, new operations continue to move forward. One local group, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) hasn’t found a path to push back on mining through the US legal system. Now, ENDAUM and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center have petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging that licensing uranium mines in Navajo Nation is a human rights violation by the US Government.


Why This Matters: The petition can’t stop new mining operations from moving forward, but could give local advocates additional evidence to help their case. Most of the uranium deposits in the Navajo Nation are located in aquifers, which means mining presents a high risk of contaminating water with the radioactive element. For the 15,000 Navajo people who rely on the Westwater Canyon Aquifer, their drinking water supply and health are on the line. 


“We as community members couldn’t just sit back and watch another company come in and just take what is very precious to us. And that is water — our water,” Rita Capitan, who co-founded ENDAUM, told the Guardian


Stopping New Harm, Addressing the Old

The work to stop this latest uranium mining project could prevent additional harm, but Navajo Nation is still dealing with the scars of mining since the 1940s. Before the end of the Cold War, millions of tons of uranium were mined, then purchased by the federal government. After which, companies abandoned more than 500 mines. And cancer rates in Navajo Nation doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s, according to government data


Each mine has the potential to continue releasing radioactive material, contaminating the water and air. Some clean-up processes have started at the expense of the companies, but one-third of them are shuttered or broke. 


“There are four generations of Navajo folks who had to deal with existing contamination and who live essentially in the middle of or next door to radioactive waste dumps,” said Eric Jantz, senior staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “And the federal government has ignored those communities for the last 70 years.”

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