Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) just said No! to the U.S. government to further uranium development. Finally, after drawing that line 10 years ago, their case alleging the U.S. violated the human rights of Navajo communities will be heard by the International Human Rights Body, an independent commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) based in Washington, D.C.

The hearing of ENDAUM et al. v. United States of America is only the second time that the human rights body has found a case of environmental justice against the United States admissible. The Commission’s decision to hear a case involving environmental racism in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” petitioned by Mossville Environmental Action Now was the first time. 

The ENDAUM petition alleges that the United States “by its acts and omissions that have contaminated and will continue to contaminate natural resources in the Diné communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock … has violated Petitioners’ human rights and breached its obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.” The full petition can be accessed here:

ENDAUM is a grassroots nonprofit organization formed in 1994 when the community realized the proposed in situ leach (ISL) uranium mines by Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI)—now owned by Canadian mining company Laramide Resources Inc.—would contaminate the waters of Crownpoint and Church Rock. The National Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a source and byproduct materials license to HRI (now Laramide) to conduct uranium mining using ISL technology at four sites in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint in northwestern New Mexico. 

ISL involves leaving the ore where it is in the ground and recovering uranium by introducing a leach solution to the orebody, then using extraction wells with submersible pumps to deliver the “pregnant solution” to a processing plant. However, the orebody needs to be permeable to the liquids used and located so that they do not contaminate groundwater away from the orebody. 

When admitting all ENDAUM’s allegations, the OAS Commission stated that, “If proven, the facts of the petition could characterize violations of the right protected in Articles I (life and personal security) and XI (preservation of health and well-being, XIII (benefits of culture), XVIII (fair trial) and XXIII (property) of the American Declaration.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Report on Admissibility can be found at this link:

The ISL industry has a poor track record of spills and leaks that even the NRC acknowledges. The industry also has a very poor record of remediating groundwater contaminated by the ISL process. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey said that, after 30 years of ISL mining in Texas, no ISL uranium mine restored groundwater to pre-mining conditions. NRC admits that, “Restoration to background water quality … has proven to be not practically achievable.” 

“This is a major step bringing forth accountability of the federal government in terms of their policies toward Indigenous people,” said Jonathan Perry, ENDAUM director. “We, the Diné, will continue to stand our ground against any uranium mining activities on or near the Navajo Nation.”

The NRC’s decision to license HRI/Laramide’s project is particularly egregious because Church Rock, a low-income community of color, was the site of the 1979 nuclear disaster. A tailings dam at the United Nuclear Corporation uranium mill broke and released 93 million gallons of radioactive liquid into the Puerco River, which runs through Church Rock. The flood of radioactive and toxic liquid killed livestock, destroyed crops and left a wake of radioactive waste and heavy metals in the Puerco River’s bed and banks that has never been remediated.  

“The petition marks the first time the NRC has been forced to account for its decades of human rights violations,” said attorney Eric Jantz, of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. The Navajo Nation has 520 abandoned uranium mine sites and three uranium mill sites that are Superfund sites. These sites are the source of contamination for tens of millions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres of land. So far only one abandoned uranium mine has been cleaned up, and the cost of tackling the rest is expected to reach several billion dollars.

When tribal environmental officials and the EPA began inventorying the mines in 1994, widespread contamination emerged. Nearly 13 percent of the unregulated drinking water wells, springs and storage tanks tested on the Navajo Nation contain uranium levels exceeding the national drinking water standard, according to one recent study. A later study found that about two-thirds of Navajo men who had lung cancer between 1969 and 1993 were former uranium miners.

Thousands of families unwittingly used water from contaminated wells and springs to drink, bathe, hydrate their livestock and irrigate their gardens. Contamination from the HRI/Laramide proposed mines would render the land unsuitable for plant gathering, food cultivation and ceremonial purposes. According to recent research, residents living within half a mile of abandoned uranium mines experience a significantly increased risk for kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension and auto-immune disease. 

There are 13 sites within six miles of the proposed mine in Church Rock where uranium was mined and processed, all of which still have radiation levels much higher than undeveloped areas. The proposed site is above the Westwater Canyon Aquifer, which is used by 15,000 people. Hundreds of people live within five miles of HRI’s Church Rock sites, and many are exposed to radon up to 42 times higher than background. The sites in Crownpoint are located extremely close to schools, municipal drinking water supply wells and homes.

“The priority of the U.S. government should always be adequately addressing the 523 clustered contaminated sites on the Navajo Nation, not licensing any new extraction projects,” said Perry. “Especially any ISL mining proposals that threaten the well-being of our people, aquifers, and homelands,” Perry added. 

Written arguments are due in August, with a possible 60-day extension, and then a hearing in Washington, D.C. will be scheduled likely in the Spring of 2022.