WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — The Navajo Nation Council has rescinded a standing committee resolution that granted a uranium mining company permission to operate a demonstration uranium recovery project on tribal land.
In December, the Resources and Development Committee passed a resolution that acknowledged Uranium Resources Inc.'s right-of-way and surface and mineral access rights to its site in Church Rock, located east of Gallup.
Although the land is licensed to Uranium Resources Inc. by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company still needed the tribe's approval to cross 30 feet of tribal land to enter the property, which would have been used for an in situ uranium recovery project.
In situ recovery is an extraction method used to mine underground uranium by injecting solvents into uranium-rich rock layers and then pumping the dissolved uranium out.
The resolution also authorized the Resources and Development Committee to create a two-member subcommittee, whose membership consists of Delegates Leonard Tsosie and Leonard Pete.
On Tuesday, members of the council voted 18 in favor and three opposed to rescind, repeal and render null and void the December resolution.
Delegates Edmund Yazzie and Danny Simpson, who sponsored the rescinding bill, both said the December resolution should have sought the council's approval, and it violated two tribal laws that address uranium mining.
In 2005, the council enacted the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, which bans uranium mining and processing on any sites on tribal lands. Then the council passed the Radioactive Materials Transportation Act of 2012, which regulates transportation of uranium on the reservation.
Yazzie also reminded tribal lawmakers that Church Rock still holds the international record for the largest uranium mill spill, which occurred in 1979.
In a rebuttal to Yazzie's and Simpson's comments, Tsosie said the Resources and Development Committee was within its authority to approve the demonstration project and the rescinding legislation was out of order because it was not recommended to the committee for consideration.
At one point, Tsosie motioned to have the rescinding legislation referred to the committee, but his motion failed.
Even Delegate Katherine Benally, who is the committee chairwoman, opposed its return to the RDC.
"I am going to plead with council, do not send it back to RDC," Benally said, explaining the committee had "gone around and around" with the issue.
She also said uranium mining has caused the deaths of many Navajos due to diseases or complications related to working in those conditions or living near mines.
"Those who worked in uranium have passed, leaving their widows and children to survive," she said in Navajo.
Delegate Jonathan Nez urged delegates to continue taking a stand against uranium mining and sending the message that the Navajo Nation will not bow to outside pressure.
"This may seem like a New Mexico issue, but this is a Navajo Nation-wide issue," Nez said. "If we open the door here, we open the door for further exploration."
Delegate Mel Begay took it a step further by saying those who support the project should volunteer to have it placed in their backyards.
Opponents of the RDC resolution also voiced their opinions during a press conference outside the council chamber.
"We are asking, please, follow our own Navajo Nation laws and policies," said Leona Morgan, of Diné No Nukes.
Jonathan Perry, president of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, said the group was urging the council to rescind the resolution because of its violation of Navajo law and the harmful effects of uranium.
"It is very important that we stand together and united as we continued to fight for our quality of life here and not to be pushed around by outside corporations and make sure that we hold our government officials accountable for their actions," Perry said.
Hours before the council session started, nine delegates attended an informational meeting at the Quality Inn, where Christopher Jones, Uranium Resources Inc. president and CEO, provided information about the work the company and the subcommittee has done.
As part of Jones' presentation, he explained the 1929 deed between the company and the tribe acknowledges URI's ownership of minerals on 42,000 acres of tribal land, but the tribe controls the surface access.
The agreement URI is working on with the subcommittee would authorize a land trade with the tribe for 500 acres of mineral rights the company owns in Crownpoint, 148 acres of surface rights URI also owns in Crownpoint and $5 million in utilities that is adjacent to the community. In exchange, URI wants access to the sections of land in Church Rock where the demonstration uranium recovery project would be located.
Jones said if the parties agree to move forward, the exchange could be approved by either the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by Congress and the president of the United States.
He added the offer expires on Dec. 31 or if the RDC resolution is altered.Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.