Statement that uranium issues meeting was illegal are wrong

By Leonard Tsosie
Special to the Times

March 27, 2014

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Last week, Council Delegate Danny Simpson was quoted in the Navajo Times as saying that the Resources & Development Committee Subcommittee meeting to discuss uranium issues with Navajo Nation departments and URI as being "illegal."

Delegate Simpson is simply wrong!

The creation of a subcommittee and assigning it the task of talking with various stakeholders is not illegal. If anything is illegal, it's the ghostly Investment Committee that was invented by Simpson's Budget & Finance Committee to spend millions of dollars of Navajo Nation trust funds.

He is hypocritical with his views. Although it was not reported by the Times, Delegate Simpson just came in for a few minutes to take a pot-shot and then did not bother to stay to hear everything out. We actually had a good informative meeting.

Legislation 373-13 sponsored by me and properly passed by RDC in December 2013 did not directly authorize uranium mining. It only acknowledged that Uranium Resources Inc. (including its subsidiary HRI) has a right to access its own land (Section 8) for the purpose of doing an in situ uranium recovery extraction (not the conventional uranium mining that creates piles of tailings) after crossing only a few feet of Navajo trust land (Section 17).

Legislation 373-13 then properly authorized a subcommittee for Navajo Nation departments and URI to "talk things out," which is the Navajo way of addressing controversial issues. The legislation does not defy any Navajo law as indicated by Dan Vicenti in his letter to the Gallup Independent.

Navajo Attorney General Harrison Tsosie did issue an opinion way after the fact, on Feb. 19, 2014, and one hour before the subcommittee's first scheduled meeting. In his opinion, he declared that only one portion of the following Resolution 0373-13 was invalid: "URI may enter said properties for the purpose of carrying out its business, including to conduct a demonstration project, as authorized by the U.S. NRC License #SUA-1580 with the condition that any uranium resources extracted be processed beyond the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Nation."

The AG's opinion acknowledges that in 1929, Santa Fe Railroad Co. conveyed lands to the U.S. in trust for the Navajo Nation and that railroad reserved to itself, and its successor, the "right to prospect for, mine and remove" minerals from these same lands, including Section 17. URI does not need permission to go onto its own Section 8 land.

The AG's opinion also recognizes that in 1959, the railroad and Navajo Nation (then Chairman Paul Jones) signed an agreement providing for right of access to the railroad and its successor, which is URI. Interestingly, it was Chairman Jones, and not RDC, which granted the first right-of-access.

What the AG does not tell the Navajo Nation officials and public is that there is a penalty for interfering with this right-of-access. That is, Navajo Nation stands to lose 42,000 acres of trust lands, which URI could rightfully purchase back in the event of a breach.

Unlike Delegate Simpson, the AG did not declare the RDCS "illegal." The AG issued his opinion without a written request and did so based on some back-room discussion with Navajo EPA department.

The AG did not explain both sides of the issue and does his client a disfavor by not doing so. Title 2 of Navajo law does not give the AG the authority to invalidate a properly-passed resolution of a committee.

Recently, the acting legislative counsel agreed with the AG without doing her own independent research into the matter. Further, these two "big" lawyers of the Navajo Nation and EPA never consulted with me before they issued their unfair opinions.

We learned at the last RDCS meeting on March 17 that there are over 500 abandoned uranium mine sites allowed to be developed between the 1940s to 1980s by former Navajo officials. These same officials never objected to the introduction of uranium mining nor pushed for the removal of radioactive waste. As a result, this issue has never been dealt with by Navajo officials before now (why weren't these officials held accountable for their lack of actions?).

Only one site has been cleaned up. We also learned at the March 17 meeting that the Church Rock site will cost $1.5 billion to remediate. The Navajo EPA nor the Navajo Nation Council have never properly adopted an official cleanup standard. Despite its existence since 1995, Navajo EPA never did a human health study to adopt a proper standard and just uses 1.24 pico-curies/gram standard above background level.

Navajo EPA has never prioritized the human study hiding behind the costs. Near the Church Rock Chapter, only a small land area was cleaned up by U.S. EPA and when they did so, they wrapped hogans and homes with plastic and moved the families to hotels four different times. Neither the protesting delegates nor the environmental activists have ever helped these families.

There were also allottees that attended the March 17 meeting to support uranium development, and this was not reported. ISR is only being considered for the Church Rock site, and it should be noted that the area is already contaminated -- because of the uranium deposits that exist there naturally.

It is also important to note that the Church Rock Chapter approved URI/HRI's ISR by a resolution. ISR is not being considered for other parts of the Navajo Nation even though there are 75 million pounds of uranium ore underneath Navajoland with a value of over $1 billion.

Delegates Russell Begaye, Nelson Begaye, Duane Tsinijinie and Edmund Yazzie never showed up at the second meeting even though they expressed at the first meeting that they wanted to be on the subcommittee. Delegates Lorenzo Bates and Edmund Yazzie worked behind the scene, without ever talking to me, to strong-arm the speaker and our staff.

These facts were never reported in the Navajo Times or the Gallup Independent, even though these issues are more relevant to Navajo people's concerns. Instead, the focus of the Navajo Times story is the way I chaired the meeting and saying "kadi" without telling its reader that the same environmental activists (enviros) were interjecting and disrespectfully interfering with the meeting. This lack of objective reporting by the Navajo Times borders on bad or yellow journalism and only deceives the Navajo public.

The AG's opinion is one opinion and if a federal court ever rules to the contrary and in favor of URI, the Navajo Nation will not only lose the lands causing more divisiveness on increased checkerboard land, but, worse, the Navajo Nation will lose jurisdiction. This is what happened in the HRI Inc., v. EPA ruling of 2000.

We don't know how a court will rule, but I am not optimistic about our chances in the federal court. Why? Because we have lost important cases there, don't have experienced lawyers at Navajo DOJ and federal courts are not too friendly to Navajo issues.

In addition, another court case could cost the Navajo Nation millions of dollars that could be spent on housing an education. If we lose another court case against URI, the Navajo people and officials will be left standing on the sidelines with protest signs and no regulatory jurisdiction to have a say on how ISR should be carried out. That is my worry as a Navajo leader.

It is better to take and protect the responsible exercise of authority. The AG, lawyers, protesting delegates and enviros will not be around to take ownership of their actions which could potentially caused the loss of Navajo jurisdiction.

I don't think my colleagues see this other side. Name calling, irresponsible accusations, and trying to score PR points does not contribute to a good discussion about this hard subject. I stand ready to continue to be pragmatic and help the Navajo Nation.

Leonard Tsosie
Subcommittee of Resources & Development Committee
22nd Navajo Nation Council

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