The Navajo Nation nixes access for uranium mining

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The Navajo Nation has announced that it will deny access across its lands to a company that wants to mine uranium on state land near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, at least until the mining company meets the nation’s terms.

In January 2012 then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar brought relief to the environmental activists and Native tribes surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park by announcing a 20-year federal ban on new mining leases in a million-acre withdrawal around the Grand Canyon.

The decision was based on concerns about potential adverse effects of additional uranium and other hard-rock mining on the watershed.

In the 2012 press release, Salazar also included concerns expressed by neighboring Native American tribes, stating, “Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use. We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”

Authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Public Land Order to withdraw these acres for 20 years from new mining claims and sites under the 1872 Mining Law was still subject to valid existing rights.

As powerful a victory as it seemed at the time to environmental activists, the federal policy has no jurisdiction over mining claims on state land.

State land is fair game for hard-rock mining in Arizona. Recently, a site on state land just south of the Grand Canyon has become the focus of tribal concern over transportation of ore from a new mine in the checkerboard region of intermingled land ownerships known as Big Boquillas Ranch.

In November 2012, Wate Mining Company LLC, a company co-owned by Vane Minerals LLC and Uranium One Exploration, USA Inc, submitted an application to the Arizona State Land Department to obtain a mineral lease for mining uranium ore destined for the nuclear-power generator market.

Approval by the Arizona State Land Department will give authority to develop the project, contingent on environmental-compliance permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Approval of both filings may take as long as 14 months, putting the projected operations opening date close to next April.

In a telephone conversation, Bill Boyd, legislative policy administrator at the Arizona State Land Department, said the ADEQ process “is still under consideration.”

A number of hurdles

Permitting the state land site at the front end of the project is only one hurdle Wate’s owners face.

According to Boyd, it is up to the applicant to secure the rights across non-state land. The parcel of land Wate is applying to permit is surrounded by privately owned, Navajo fee-based land. Wate has not obtained the rights to cross Navajo land.

A joke circulating late last week on Facebook suggested that Wate Mining may have to consider catapulting the 500,000 pounds of uranium ore it proposes to mine each year from the site in Coconino County, Ariz., to the White Mesa Mill in Blanding Utah.

The 10-acre Wate Mine parcel is on Arizona State Trust land within the checkerboard ranch. It is surrounded by Navajo Nation fee-simple grazing land traded in a deal with then-Navajo Nation President Peter MacDonald in 1989. After the deal, “Bo-Gate” unraveled MacDonald’s presidency as revelations of fraudulent procurement in the Big Boquillas Ranch purchase came to light.

The remote and uninhabited Big Bo is also the site of an as-yet-unrealized 85-megawatt wind farm proposed by the Navajo Nation central government and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in December 2009.

Although an update on the project in August 2011 stated that the Salt River Project had agreed to purchase 100 percent of the electricity from the proposed developer partnership of NTUA, the Navajo Nation government and Edison Mission Energy, no further progress has been announced during the past two years. (See Free Press, Feb. 2010.)

A lethal legacy

Uranium-mining for Cold War weapons on the Navajo Nation left a lethal legacy of nearly 1,100 unremediated and/or abandoned uranium mines since operations ended in the mid-1960s.

Even today, the reservation’s residents face health threats from continuing exposure to contamination in soil and water in the yellow uranium belt stretching from Cameron, Ariz., through Tuba City, and Kayenta, Dennehotso and north to Blanding, Utah, where the White Mesa Mill is in operation again.

As a protection for the Diné, their natural resources and the environment, the Navajo Nation Council passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, which prohibits uranium-mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.

As defined by the Navajo Nation Code, Navajo Indian Country includes all land within the exterior boundaries of the Navajo reservation or of the Eastern Navajo Agency, Navajo Indian allotments, dependent Indian communities, and all land held in trust for, owned in fee by, or leased by the United States to the Navajo Nation.

To bolster the protection the Navajo Nation Council passed another regulation last year. The Radioactive and Related Substances, Equipment, Vehicles, Persons and Materials Transportation Act of 2012 prohibits the transport across Navajo lands of any equipment, vehicles, persons or materials for the purposes of exploring for or mining, producing, processing or milling any uranium ore, yellowcake, radioactive waste or other radioactive products on or under the surface of or adjacent to Navajo lands.

The additional act gives the Navajo government the ability to regulate what travels across their land, and how and when it can be transported.

According to Eric Jantz, staff attorney at the non-profit New Mexico Law Center in Santa Fe, the act does not ban transportation of uranium over Navajo land, but does give the nation the right to regulate transportation of uranium materials, charge a fee, restrict routes and time of day for transport, or completely disallow it.

By the fundamental definition of “sovereign nation,” he explained, tribes have the right to exclude people from their land.

The two laws play a part in the uranium mining at the Section 8 Churchrock site, where Jantz, working with Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, successfully implemented the full jurisdictional force of the 2012 transport act.

The Navajo Nation threatened to take Hydro Resources, Inc., a subsidiary of Uranium Resources Inc., to court for trespass on Navajo Indian Country land.

Hydro Resources Inc. later signed an agreement with the Navajo Nation giving the mining company temporary minimum access across Navajo land to its Section 8 mine site while requiring that the company clean up the existing radioactive waste on its property before any new mining commences.

According to Jantz, “They cannot have access to run mining operations until the site is cleaned up, and in fact, it’s my understanding that the permission to mine there after the clean-up is not even part of the deal.”

A powerful barrier

Although Big Boquilllas Ranch is owned by the Navajo government and sandwiched between the Hualapai and Havasupai reservations, no people live on the ranch, and there is no seat of local government there. It is also not a chapter on the Navajo reservation.

Even though the ranch itself has a checkered past, its isolated location is proving to be a powerful barrier to business models that could exploit Native people.

At the Wate Mine in Big Bo, there is no access from any direction without permission from the Navajo government. Even access to Haulapai tribal land west of the Wate site is blocked by a section of Navajo land.

Grand Canyon National Park blocks transport on the north, the Havasupai on the northwest as well as Forest Service land east of the Big Bo Ranch.

Therefore, Wate Mining must negotiate for permission to cross Navajo land in order to move any raw uranium ore out of the state land parcel in any direction and transport it to the Blanding mill.

As reported by the Associated Press on May 26, officials from the Navajo Department of Justice have said they will deny access to the land for transport.

“Given the [Navajo] Nation’s history with uranium mining, it is the nation’s intent to deny access to the land for the purpose of prospecting for or mining of uranium,” officials from the Navajo Department of Justice wrote in response to the mineral-lease application.

The AP also quoted from an email by Navajo Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff: “We have no intention of allowing them to cross Navajo lands unless they have appropriate access rights.”

A drop in price

In the lease application, Wate Mining states that they will use 10 acre-feet of water annually from a well they will install, and will build an access road, mine infrastructure and rock-storage facilities. They project removing 70,000 tons of ore from a depth of 1600 feet and say they will do reclamation and replace all waste rock underground.

But the value of uranium is not growing as the market predicted it would back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

A story published on May 23 at U308. biz reported that “uranium price publisher UxC … reported that the uranium market ‘can be characterized as rather quiet with a forward price curve that is about as flat as a pancake’.”

The drop in market value of uranium used in the nuclear-power industry is partly due to fear generated from the 2011 Fukushima accident. Additionally, on May 6, the Japanese government accepted another report of a potential earthquake that could be triggered at a fault under the Japanese Tsuruga No. 2 reactor on the west coast of the country.

“Uranium investing today is a risk,” said Jantz. “Only government-supported nuclear industries such as those in Russia, China and India can support uranium-mining. The demand is just not there.”

Wate Mining and Vane Minerals did not return repeated messages to their Tucson offices by email and phone.

The Navajo Department of Justice likewise could not be reached for comment.

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