Sharon Sullivan

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November 1, 2012
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Abandoned uranium mines remain on Indian land in Four Corners region

There are 2,000 abandoned uranium mines on Indian lands in the Four Corners Region.

Native American children have played on top of the uncovered, dirt-like radioactive tailings. Adults used materials from the sites (like many Grand Junction residents did during the 1950s and 1960s, from the old Climax uranium mill) to build homes.

Unlike Grand Junction, it's taken a lot longer to clean up contaminated sites on Indian lands in New Mexico and Arizona.

Members of the Navajo and Acoma Pueblo tribes visited Grand Junction recently for a presentation at the Colorado Mesa University College Center Ballroom where they spoke about their lands' uranium legacy.

About 40 people attended the Oct. 23 event that included a documentary showing of "Four Stories About Water," featuring several residents of the Navajo Reservation who talk about radioactive tailings being washed into their creeks and streams, contaminating their water supply and their livestock.

The event was sponsored by Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County, CMU's Native American Student Council, and the Uncompahgre Valley Association-Sierra Club Uncompahgre Group.

Uranium mining took place on the Navajo reservation, an area extending 27,000 square miles into Arizona, Utah and New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1980s. There are currently four Superfund sites throughout the Navajo Nation where uranium mills have contaminated the environment.

The film showed footage of tailings from a breached pond, being swept into nearby streams. Those who live on the reservation say they believe the high cancer rate there is linked to exposure to contaminated water and land from un-remediated uranium processing sites.

"We're very much opposed to any more mines," Navajo Robert Tohe, a senior field representative for Sierra Club Environmental Justice in Flagstaff, told the audience gathered at CMU. "It's an environmental justice issue."

The tribes, plus environmentalists oppose the Canyon Mine, near Grand Canyon National Park, and a mountain considered sacred to the Navajo. The mine is owned by the Canadian firm, Energy Fuels Resources, the company that plans to open a new uranium mill in western Colorado in Montrose County.

Tohe was joined in Grand Junction by Petuuche Gilbert of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, and Navajo Leona Morgan of Ft. Defiance, Ariz. They told the audience they oppose additional uranium development on their lands because there are already hundreds of clusters of abandoned uranium mines that companies just walked away from, Morgan said.

Gilbert expressed concern about the amount of water used in the mining processes. He said mining uses 15 million gallons of water a day - "a waste of our precious water resources. It's a violation of the public good.

"We're losing water in our springs," he said.

In 2007, a five-year plan was initiated by the federal government to address clean up of contaminated sites on Indian lands.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently working with Navajo Nation EPA to determine appropriate courses of action for the highest priority mines.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 1, 2012 07:20PM Published Nov 1, 2012 06:38PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.