Law center files human rights report in Navajo uranium case

For years, members of the Red Water Pond Road Community, in the Navajo Nation of Northern New Mexico, have been exposed to toxic uranium radiation from government-contracted mines that have yet to be addressed.

That’s according to Eric Jantz, the staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), who spoke on behalf of the tribe on Jan. 17. The tribe filed a report with the Human Rights Committee, a group of experts who make sure the implementation of U.N. treaties is met.

The report stated that “the United States’ historic and current practice in remediating radioactive and toxic waste in minority communities generally, and indigenous communities specifically, reveals a pattern of disparate impacts on minority and indigenous communities.” The complaint said these impacts result in the  “abrogation of the rights to life, family, exercise of culture, and freedom from discrimination.”

The site, known as a familial community of Dine settlements, sits between multiple vacant uranium mines and mills dating back to the cold war and the rapid development of nuclear weapons that required uranium. Those areas are now deemed as U.S. Superfund sites.

People in the community have been exposed to high levels of uranium, which has led to cancer, heart disease and kidney failure, among other ailments, according to the NMELC.

Anna Benally is a member of the Navajo Nation and a resident of Red Water Pond Road Community, who said she too has been affected by the leftover uranium mines run by from companies such as United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) and Kerr-McGee, whom she remembers moving near her home and community at a young age.

Benally said that, because of the lack of cleanup, her community has been ravaged by a plethora of health issues, including frequent headaches, muscle aches and even sinus problems.

“Not only can it be a nuisance but in many cases, it can be so debilitating that it makes even simple house chores impossible,” Benally wrote in a blog post last December.

Jantz said the people in the community appealed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as far back as the 1960s, however, the issue didn’t get recognition until a group of citizen scientists concluded that uranium exposure in the area was 15 to 50 times higher than normal.

The process of the EPA’s remediation has been slowly progressing since 2006 when it removed the top layer of soil in the community that had the highest levels of contamination, according to Jantz.

The Law Center has been advocating for the community to be moved to a culturally appropriate area that is two miles from the area of the uranium contamination to prevent against radiation exposure, including its effects on the water table and potential long term health effects.

The location the community proposed is a culturally significant area known as Black Tree Mesa. The area has been used as a summer camp for their flocks of sheep for several generations, according to the NMELC.

The EPA has refused to agree to this location, saying instead that they will only move the community if it’s to an off-reservation site in mobile homes or hotels.

“They’ve been told there’s no money for infrastructure, but the alternative is to put all 35 to 45 members of Red Water Pond community up in hotels for seven to nine years while they remediate their existing homes – plus pay them a meal stipend since some of the hotel rooms do not have kitchenettes,” said Teracita Keyanna, a Red Water Pond resident who attended a hearing with the UN in 2015, in an interview with the Navajo Times. “If they can afford to do that, it seems like it would be cheaper to build us some infrastructure.”

Currently, according to the NMELC’s report,  the federal government hasn’t laid out any plans regarding the speeding up of the remediation process of uranium.

However, the NMELC’s list of suggested recommendations in the report include: the start of the final remediation process, a timetable for a “final reclamation of uranium mines,” and to “provide culturally appropriate alternative housing options for community members living in communities contaminated from uranium mining and processing.”

Matthew Narvaiz is a reporter for NM News Port, he can be contacted on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.

Shelby Coen is a reporter for NM News Port, they can be contacted on Twitter @desert_youth.