Helium mining in Tsé ‘Ałnáozt’i’í, Teec Nos Pos, 40 other sites, a step closer to reality
The controversial helium development legislation, sponsored by troubled Navajo Nation Council Delegate Seth Damon, has passed.
The bill has gone through several changes since October 2021. On Wednesday, a special session was held, seven hours of which was given to Damon’s bill before it passed the Naabik’iyati Committee on Tuesday by a 13-8 vote.
The bill’s sponsor was excused during the committee’s discussion.
Jarvis Williams on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, would not comment on the passing of the legislation.
NNOGC CEO James McClure said 40 sites were identified last January, including the areas of contention – Sanostee and Teec Nos Pos.
McClure said profits for the tribe could exceed $100 million, referring to just developing two of the proposed helium sites in Sanostee. And if all 40 sites were developed, he said profits could become a billion-dollar project for the Navajo Nation.
Helium is the lightest element on Earth and is trapped deep under the surface. When it reaches the atmosphere, it will float away into space, McClure said last January.
The sponsor of the helium bill has not been participating in any of the Council or committee sessions since he stepped down. He took part in the Council meeting until Thursday morning, when his bill was about to be voted on.
“Green,” he said when his name was called, indicating he favored passing his bill.
Damon was photographed in Las Vegas, Nevada, during the Indian National Finals Rodeo, held from Oct. 18-22, sitting at a slot machine intoxicated. The former speaker admitted to having a drinking problem. He volunteered to step down as the 24th Navajo Nation Council speaker in November. His long-time supporter Otto Tso became speaker when Jamie Henio offered to step down as Tso’s opponent.
Elouise Brown says she does not believe Damon should have voted since he has been excused and stepped down as the speaker. She added that the five NNOGC shareholders, including Damon and Speaker Tso, also should not have voted.
The three other shareholders are Council delegates Charlaine Tso, Herman Daniels Jr., and Elmer Begay, all of whom voted in favor of Damon’s legislation.
“That’s quite a few votes there,” Brown said Thursday in Window Rock.
Brown and two other community members, Anthony Peterson and Eleanor Smith from Teec Nos Pos, went to the president’s office to try and attempt to persuade outgoing President Jonathan Nez to veto the helium bill when it reached his desk. After waiting in the front lobby for nearly an hour, they were unsuccessful.
Hataałii Michael Goldsun, who’s also been fighting to keep the helium mining development from reaching his family’s land as well as the sacred mountain, Dziłk’i Hózhónii, said the passing of the bill “stamped out” the voices of his community, and all Navajo Nation communities impacted by natural resource extraction developments.
“Navajo Nation constituents witnessed an orchestration of tactical maneuvering to fast-track Legislation 0232-21 by various members of the 24th Council,” Goldsun wrote on Thursday. “Speaker of the Council Otto Tso stood front and center when he set the proverbial chess board for delegates like Rick Nez to strike down any attempt to give a voice to the impacted community members.”
Goldsun went to state community members from the Tsé ‘Ałnáozt’i’í unanimously rejected or rescinded chapter resolutions and petitions from his community and Teec Nos Pos that would have approved exploratory drilling and extraction projects within both chapter boundaries.
“Concerns over detrimental impacts to the health of Navajo people residing in and around extraction sites, as well as impacts to the environment and fragile ecosystems, were not sufficiently addressed by delegates and NNOG staff,” Goldsun wrote. “With the passing of this legislation, the 24th Navajo Nation Council has prioritized money interests over the future well-being of its constituents.”
Goldsun, last February, said as a Diné practitioner, he collects ceremonial herbs within one of the proposed development areas.
Overall, the 24th Navajo Nation Council is attempting to approve or disapprove 32 legislations before the end of the year. They spent all day on Wednesday debating Damon’s helium bill before adjourning.
The Council delegates who voted in favor of the helium development bill are Elmer Begay, Paul Begay, Nathaniel Brown, Eugenia Charles-Newton, Seth Damon, Herman Daniels Jr., Mark Freeland, Pernell Halona, Jamie Henio, Rickie Nez, Raymond Smith Jr., Wilson Stewart Jr., Charlaine Tso, Eugene Tso, Thomas Walker, Edison Wauneka, and Jimmy Yellowhair.
The Council delegates who voted against it are Kee Allen Begay, Amber Crotty, Vince James, Carl Slater, Daniel Tso, and Edmund Yazzie.
The Navajo Times reached out to Damon for a comment, and he did not respond. Charles-Newton said she was initially against it but voted “green” because public safety played a role in her decision.
Helium is called níłch’i ászólí in Diné.