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.

Former miner Joe Ray Harvey at an abandoned uranium mine near Cove, Ariz, 1995. Photo courtesy US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

“Much of our lands have been exploited by mining companies for profit; they left it contaminated, doing minimal reclamation or none at all to this day,” Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) co-founder Mitchell Capitan said in an Oct. 21 Zoom meeting hosted by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “Water Is Life, and we will protect it for generations to come.”

Unprecedented reckoning is occurring for the U.S. government and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for past and future uranium mining and milling activities on Indigenous lands. The Navajo Diné people believe the NRC violated their human rights guaranteed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, including the rights to life, health, benefits of culture, fair trial and property. After years of trying, their united voices are being heard.

Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining alleges multiple violations of the American Declaration have occurred because of a license granted by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Hydro Resources, Inc. to conduct uranium mining in the Northwestern New Mexico Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock. Both communities, located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, are mainly composed of Diné people. 

“We will stand for our human rights and not allow our value as Indigenous People to be diminished. The federal government must realize that we are not disposable and that water is life,” Jonathan Perry, ENDAUM director and Becenti Chapter president, said at the recent Environmental Law Center event. 

A petition submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated the NRC licensed an ISL (in situ leaching) uranium mine it knew would contaminate groundwater. The United States government not only tolerated this but promoted it. IACHR said ENDAUM’s petition was “admissible” in March 2021 and agreed to hear the Diné people’s petition. ENDAUM had until October 21, 2021, for additional observations to be submitted. During a federal legislative session this week, Navajo lawmakers passed a measure that requests Congress host hearings regarding uranium mining, its long-term outcomes and reclamation efforts. The sponsor, Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr., said it will be important for Congress to hear directly from the Navajo people.

ENDAUM and supporters of the petition celebrated the submission on October 21 of the additional observations with a screening of the film Thirst for Justice by filmmaker Leana Hosea, an investigative journalist for BBC London. The event video is posted on Facebook. 

“In this complicated world that we live in today, it will be less worrisome if we could keep our precious community water safe and pure for our generations to come. We owe them that. Water Is Life,” said ENDAUM co-founder and Crownpoint Chapter President Rita Capitan during the Zoom conference.  

ENDAUM member Christine Smith added that, in the past, the Diné People were not consulted or invited to the table to be a part of any policy decision making affecting their community or educated to the harmful effects of uranium. “Water will determine our survival as a people beginning now and into the future, especially with climate change, so we all collectively become protectors of what sustains us.”