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Diné leaders: Haaland good for Navajo

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One of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is well on her way to being confirmed as the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Interior.

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Deb Haaland

Last week, Haaland went before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for her confirmation hearing in which she answered questions for two days.
Today the committee will host a business meeting to consider the nomination of Haaland and members can vote in person or by proxy.

Although she will have President Joe Biden’s agenda to push, Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, will have much influence to assist the Navajo Nation with certain issues that have long existed and that Navajo continues to deal with to this day.

“This means more awareness for the work that we are doing,” said Valinda Shirley, director of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency. “Deb Haaland I think will understand what we are having to deal with on Navajo as far as uranium cleanup. I think she will understand exactly where we are coming from.”

Shirley, who before her appointment as NEPA director was remedial project manager for NEPA’s Superfund Group, mentioned the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine site located at Laguna Pueblo where Anaconda Minerals Company mined and operated a uranium mine from 1952 through 1982. It wasn’t placed on the National Priorities List until 2012 although its tailings are exposed to surface soil and groundwater.

Some 524 abandoned uranium mines are scattered throughout the Nation, most yet to be cleaned up.

“Ms. Haaland having firsthand knowledge of the Jackpile mine and how that was addressed, and the duration of how long that waste material sat there before it was addressed, gives her a firsthand insight as to how that kind of delayed response impacts the people that live there,” said Dariel Yazzie, Navajo Superfund Program environmental program supervisor. “We look at what we have on Navajo, going on 80 years — it’s way too long.”

Yazzie said should Haaland be confirmed as secretary it would surely bring awareness to the uranium issue, and hopefully bring about change such as having Navajo EPA and the Superfund group be delegated to address this work (it’s now overseen by the USEPA).

During the hearing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) questioned Haaland about the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement which is under DOI. He asked specifically if she will continue to support a fee on coal companies which goes into the Abandoned Mines Reclamation Program, especially when others are wanting to do away with the fee.

“The hardrock hasn’t had any changes in their laws since 1872,” said Manchin. “We talked of making those changes. They are the most responsible and needed, we are not hindering any company whatsoever. But we have a lot of hard rock mining that has gone unclaimed and unrestored. Would you be receptive to look at the hard rock mining to make sure they come into compliance to take care of their responsibility?”

In response, Haaland referred to the Navajo Nation and the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that also pollute the water. She said getting the resources to clean these abandoned mines would make “life easier for everybody.”

Manchin’s vote on Haaland was up for question, but after questioning Haaland the West Virginia senator said he would vote in favor of her confirmation.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked Haaland about everything from natural gas pipelines to coal mines, permitting oil and gas wells, and continuation of hard rock mining such as lithium and copper mining.

“I believe if we do these things in a responsible manner and protect the health of safety of our workers I can see us moving forward,” said Haaland. “The earth is here to provide for us and that’s my belief.”

A supporter of Haaland, President Jonathan Nez said that as a member of President Joseph Biden’s cabinet, she will be charged with upholding Biden’s policies, not her own.

“She kept reiterating that it’s not my personal agenda, it’s the president’s agenda,” said Nez. “And that’s what a cabinet member should be saying. I think because of that Senator Manchin said he would be supporting her.”

Nez said the Navajo Nation has reached out to senators such as Mitt Romney (R-Utah) about Navajo’s support of Haaland’s confirmation, and Haaland has expressed appreciation for the endorsement.

“I believe a lot of things can change,” said Nez. “But I’m going to say that lightly, because she is going to be dealing with past positions of secretary of Interior, but she brings a whole different perspective being an Indigenous woman … Women are stewards of the family. In this case she was recommended to be a steward of the land.”

When it comes to water, which is another notable topic on Navajo, Division of Natural Resources Director Rudy Shebala mentioned the quadrilateral agreement he and his staff are currently focusing on. This 1970 agreement between Navajo Nation, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Indian Affairs expired in September 2020 and is up for another 50-year renewal.

Shebala said the outgoing Secretary of Interior, David Berhardt, sent a letter stating there would be no agreement and Shebala is questioning whether that letter holds any legitimacy now that Berhardt is no longer in office.

“Right now we are negotiating a 50-year-old agreement,” said Shebala. “Now we are asking for the middle of the (Colorado) river. Directly we are looking toward the secretary of Interior to help us. We feel she will help us.”

The agreement that just expired extended the Navajo Nation boundary to the middle of the river.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) asked for a unanimous consent from the committee to add numerous letters of support written by Arizona tribal governments endorsing Haaland.

Regarding the Colorado River, Kelly asked Haaland what her thoughts are on increasing resources to expand reservoir capacity, water recycling, and ground water management in Colorado River states.

“Living in the Southwest I realize and understand how important water is and sometimes how little of it there is,” said Haaland. “It’s important for us to conserve, to think of ways to conserve water. Water recycling is a great way to do that. It’s best to seek consensus-based solutions to these issues.”

Kelly also made mention of tribal water settlements and asked Haaland if she would prioritize completion and full funding of existing and future water settlements.

Kelly and fellow Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) introduced the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which would ban uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.

“Can we count on your support for a permanent ban on uranium mining?” asked Kelly as he reminded her that uranium mining in the Grand Canyon could threaten the Havasupai Tribe’s water supply.

Like with most of her answers, Haaland emphasized the need to work together in unison on issues, and when it comes to mining she noted again the health and welfare of people are a priority and to make sure the “sacredness of the Grand Canyon and other historical places are protected.”


About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at abecenti@navajotimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti

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