By Leona Morgan
Due to the push for climate solutions and the geopolitics currently at work in Ukraine, there is increased interest in producing uranium for both energy and weapons, threatening those living near uranium sites. Regardless of its end use, new or increased uranium mining results in the same death and destruction for frontline communities, with no guarantee of proper cleanup or compensation.
In 2014, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining with many others successfully prevented new uranium extraction in northwestern New Mexico, a few miles south of the 1979 Churchrock Uranium Spill site.
That project was first licensed approximately 30 years ago, and stopped by decades of community resistance that created layers of Navajo Nation policy: the 2005 Diné Natural Resources Protection Act which prohibits new uranium mining, and the 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act limiting transport of new radioactive products. There is also a 2012 legally binding agreement between the Navajo Nation and the previous company which requires cleanup of existing contamination on other lands before starting new mining activities.
After the mining project was stopped, Laramide Resources Ltd. acquired the land and necessary U.S. federal and state permits to do in situ leach mining near Churchrock, and uranium processing in Crownpoint, New Mexico at its central processing facility.
In late 2022, Diné community members reported that Laramide Resources was illegally drilling for uranium in the Churchrock area. The site was active with equipment and workers, but has since been vacated. Laramide’s drilling samples were transported 40 miles to Crownpoint, for testing in preparation of mining. All these activities now violate Navajo Nation law.
Nearby, separate yet interconnected, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPR) and others continue to challenge General Electric’s “cleanup” plan, which is to move uranium mine wastes on top of the unlined 1979 Churchrock Uranium Spill site waste, both in close proximity to Diné residents (See Summer 2021 Nukewatch Quarterly for more info). The “cleanup” of more highly radioactive wastes would be to move them to the White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah. RWPR demands that uranium wastes be removed from the community completely and not in a way that could possibly set up conditions for a second Churchrock Spill. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement in January greenlighting the cleanup plan.
Every year, the RWPR hosts a gathering to reflect on the 1979 Churchrock Uranium Spill and ongoing work to protect their community. This year, RWPR invites the public to the Annual Uranium Legacy Remembrance and Action Day on July 15, 2023 starting with a prayer walk at 7 a.m., 12 miles north of Red Rock State Park on State Road 566 near Churchrock, New Mexico.
— Leona Morgan (she/her) is a Diné activist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.