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June 2000
Navajo Citizens Oppose Uranium Mining on Environmental Justice Grounds

By Lila Bird



The New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) is a nonprofit, public interest law firm dedicated to protecting New Mexico’s natural environment and communities. It has been involved in many different projects including: representing the Southwest Organizing Project (a social justice organization) in its fight against Intel, a major micro chip manufacturer in Albuquerque that is seeking to avoid requirements of the Clean Air Act; working in partnership with the Western Environmental Law Center in seeking a complete cleanup of the Molycorp Mine in order to protect the Red River, large stretches of which have been severely damaged; and representing the United Steelworkers of America Local 890 whose testimony exposed the Phelps Dodge Company’s operation of defective pipelines which leaked an estimated 3.5 million gallons of mining pollutants into the Whitewater Creek, resulting in permit conditions requiring Phelps Dodge to significantly reduce the leakage within two years.

One of NMELC’s current projects represents Navajo citizens in their fight to stop a major corporation from operating a toxic uranium mine in their community. In 1988, Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), a subsidiary of the Texas-based Uranium Resources, Inc., applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to conduct in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining operations in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint, New Mexico. HRI proposed to leach uranium directly from the pristine West Water Canyon groundwater aquifer, which serves as the sole source of drinking water for over 15,000 Navajo people. Navajo citizens were concerned that the proposed uranium mining operations would contaminate their land, air and water. After all, in 1979, United Nuclear Corporation, a uranium mining company, accidentally spilled 94 million gallons of acidic wastewater and 1,100 gallons of radioactive tailings into Church Rock’s Puerco River, causing severe harm to local residents and livestock. This is the largest release of radioactive wastes, by volume, ever in the U.S. of radioactive tailings and is now an EPA-designated Superfund site.

Concerned Navajo residents formed Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and in 1994, petitioned the NRC for a hearing on the license application. In 1997, the NRC Staff issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Crownpoint Uranium Project. A year later, ENDAUM, Southwest Research and Information Center, and two Navajo citizens were admitted as Intervenors in the licensing proceeding and their requests for a hearing on the license application were granted. At the same time, however, HRI was granted a source materials license (to mine uranium) by the NRC staff. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel (ASLBP) Administrative Law Judge limited the first phase of the hearing to the Church Rock site only, despite the fact that HRI’s license covered both Church Rock and Crownpoint mining and milling operations.

In 1998 and 1999, ENDAUM and SRIC, represented by attorneys from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and by Diane Curran of Washington, DC, submitted written presentations on 10 areas of concern, including environmental justice. Among other experts, ENDAUM obtained the testimony of environmental justice expert Robert Bullard and Navajo environmental health scientist Christine Benally.

ENDAUM and SRIC argued that the FEIS ignored or distorted data showing that poverty, geographic isolation, poor health conditions and ongoing radiological contamination from past mining made the Church Rock community extremely vulnerable to the impacts of the proposed in situ leach uranium mining project. In fact, said ENDAUM and SRIC, the FEIS suppressed the NRC’s own data showing that existing radiation levels in the Church Rock area already exceeded federal standards. Dr. Bullard testified that the manner in which HRI’s license was issued, including postponing the evaluation of some important environmental issues until after issuance of the FEIS and the license, exemplified the very type of procedural inequity characteristic of environmental discrimination. Overall, the groups asserted, the FEIS failed to follow NEPA procedures and various federal guidances, including President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice.

Navajo public health expert Christine Benally testified that the FEIS did not fully consider the economic, social, or medical vulnerability of the population that would be affected by HRI’s operations. The FEIS simply ignored data regarding mining-related health conditions among the general local population and among Navajo uranium workers who live in the project area. Dr. Benally pointed out that 13 uranium mines or processing sites are located within four to six miles of HRI’s proposed Church Rock ISL mine, including the largest site—the United Nuclear Corporation Church Rock uranium mill from which 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings were spilled.

In the face of compelling evidence of environmental injustice and other problems associated with the proposed mining project, the ASLBP Judge affirmed HRI’s license. ENDAUM and SRIC have appealed the decision to the Commissioners of the NRC. Despite the ASLBP’s ruling in the ENDAUM case, the Executive Order on Environmental Justice has generally forced federal agencies to carefully address environmental concerns in permitting processes. There is no guarantee that agency findings based on an environmental justice analysis will eventually favor a citizen group fighting a potentially environmentally harmful project. Like other necessary creative and resourceful tactics, environmental justice analyses and findings constitute one more important tool in the overall fight for a clean and safe environment.

Lila Bird is an attorney and National Association for Public Interest Law Equal Justice Fellow at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, focusing on legal actions to protect Native American lands and environment. To learn more contact NMELC at 505-989-9022 or ENDAUM at 505-786-5209.

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental Justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to environmental policies. Accordingly, no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences of industrial, municipal or government activities. Defined in a broader sense, EJ is a movement that fights for the right to safe, healthy, productive and sustainable environments, including ecological, physical, social, political, aesthetic and economic conditions. EJ supports and is supported by decent jobs, education, housing and healthcare, democratic decision-making and personal empowerment, which are also the goals of the Civil Rights and social justice movements. EJ principles extend beyond humans and affirm the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species and the right to be free from ecological destruction. They call for responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for all living things.

The Government’s Response
The federal government has taken many actions to address the issues raised by individuals and groups demanding environmental justice. In 1990, in response to mounting community pressure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formed the Environmental Equity Workgroup made up of staff from all EPA offices and regions. The Workgroup assessed and confirmed evidence of environmental discrimination against minorities and low-income communities and recommended that the EPA make environmental equity a priority. To accomplish this task, the EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice to oversee the integration of EJ into EPA’s policies and outreach programs. It also established the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1993 which supplies independent advice to the EPA and is made up of members from stakeholder groups, including non-governmental and community-based organizations, tribal and environmental groups, business and industry, academic and educational institutions, and state and local government agencies. Versions of an Environmental Justice Act were introduced in Congress in 1992 and 1993 but, to date, none have been passed into law.

In 1994, President Clinton issued an Executive Order, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations" which mandated that all federal agencies should make EJ a priority and incorporate it into their policies and actions as well as provide minority and low-income communities with access to public information and the opportunity for participation in matters relating to health and the environment. However, this order did not establish legislation or create the right to bring an agency under judicial review for noncompliance.

For information on Environmental Justice, Robert D. Bullard’s book, Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (Sierra Club Books, 1994) gives accounts of pivotal EJ struggles around the country. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice web site ( outlines the government’s efforts to understand and address environmental injustice. For local EJ campaigns, contact the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project at (212) 766-9910.—S.K.


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