ALBUQUERQUE (AFX) – The Navajo Nation believes a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruling that a 160-acre parcel near Church Rock is ‘Indian Country’ gives the tribe a stronger position to fight uranium mining in the area.
The tribe banned uranium mining and processing on its land in 2005, but companies have been trying to revive it, particularly on the eastern side of the reservation and in the Church Rock area, commonly referred to as the checkerboard of Indian and non-Indian land.
New Mexico-based Hydro Resources Inc., which owns the surface and mineral rights, wants to inject chemicals into the ground to release uranium and pump the solution to the surface in a process called in situ leaching.
The EPA’s decision, released Wednesday, means Hydro Resources would have to apply for an underground injection control permit from the EPA, not the state of New Mexico as it previously had done.
‘This is a wonderful decision for the Church Rock community in particular and the Navajo Nation in general in support of efforts to stop any future mining on the Navajo Nation,’ said David Taylor, senior attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Unit.
‘The EPA decision is a first step in what may very well be a long and drawn out legal fight, but it’s always good to win the first battle,’ he said.
The EPA’s decision doesn’t specifically state it will consider the ban when receiving applications for mining-related permits, but Taylor said, ‘We are certainly hoping they will.’
The tribe wants the EPA to make the determination, rather than the state, because under laws and court decisions, ‘the United States has a much higher obligation to protect the interests of Native Americans than the states,’ Taylor said.
Hydro Resources argued in comments to the EPA last year that no part of the land, known as Section 8, is reservation, tribal trust or allotted land, nor has it ever been set aside by the federal government for use as Indian land.
‘Each and every acre of the Section 8 land in question is fee land, the surface and locatable mineral estates of which are owned by HRI as a result of a patent from the United States. There is no dispute on these matters,’ Hydro Resources officials wrote.
A woman who answered the phone at Hydro Resources president Craig Bartels’ home phone Thursday night said he would be unavailable for comment until Saturday.
In the late 1980s, the state Environment Department granted Hydro Resources an underground injection control permit for the property 10 miles northeast of the Church Rock Chapter house.
After considering materials submitted by the Navajo Nation and the state, the EPA determined that the land’s status was in dispute, and said it would be the appropriate agency to issue the permit.
The state and Hydro Resources challenged that decision in 1997 and petitioned for judicial review.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the EPA in 2000 and said the agency must rule on the status of the land. The EPA did not immediately respond, thinking Hydro Resources no longer planned to pursue a permit.
The company, however, sought a permit from New Mexico in 2005 to operate a uranium in situ leach mine. The state asked the EPA to make a decision on the status of the land.
Chris Shuey, director of uranium impact assessment for the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said the implications of the EPA’s decision ‘can go a long, long way.’
For example, Hydro Resources has a 320-acre parcel near Crownpoint on which it plans to place its main uranium processing plant and conduct in situ leach mining, Shuey said. Some 95 percent of the population there is Navajo and receives services from the Crownpoint Chapter.
The EPA considered the makeup of the population and the services the community receives from the Navajo Nation in its decision.
‘If those facts are the same for those other parcels in the middle of Indian communities, those areas should also be Indian Country,’ Shuey said.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said Thursday mining companies’ lack of respect in the past has caused many Navajos to become ill and die from exposure to uranium ore.
‘I hope this means that there will be no more uranium mining on Navajo land and in what we regard as Navajo country,’ he said. ‘I’m happy for my people residing in the eastern portion of Navajo land and very happy for my government.’
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