Thursday, July 26, 2012

Environmental Justice for the Navajo?

During World War II the United States needed uranium ore to ensure the success of the Manhattan Project. To meet their demand the United States reached out to the Navajo Nation to build five uranium mines. This was a dual benefit at the time because the United States received the uranium ore they needed to win the war and the Navajo received increased employment rates as their members worked, lived and raised their families at and near the mines. Now, over five decades later the Navajo Nation is feeling the unintended consequences of the uranium mines. The Navajo are mostly located in the Four Corners Area of the Southwest, along with the abandoned uranium mines, and the people are now feeling the effects of the mines. Navajo homes in the area have reported high levels of radiation in their drinking water and the adverse health affects resulting from radiation in the water supply include lung cancer, bone cancer, and kidney disease, to name a few. The United States tried to address the contamination problem in 1978 by enacting the Uranium Mill Trailings Radiologic Control Act. However, this Act required the tribe to waive its rights to hold the United States accountable for any future damages resulting from contamination in exchange for groundwater management by the U.S. Department of Energy. Although the United States enacted and implemented this Act followed by many other studies and attempts at cleanups (the most recent being the five-year plan beginning in 2012 to clean up the 520 known mines), there is still contamination in the water, which affects the livelihood of the Navajo people, their livestock, and their health. Recent federal actions concerning environmental justice may turn the tables for the Navajo. In September of 2010 the federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice met and the following year the seventeen agencies that compromise the working group signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898” which hopes to ensure all Americans the right to live in communities not burdened with pollution or toxic chemicals. This will ensure enforcement and remediation for the Navajo and hopefully help to clean up the Navajo communities polluted with radiation. The only concern with the cleanup action is who will bear the costs. After a fraudulent corporate reorganization by the Ker-McGee Corporation and Tronox Incorporated (the current owners of the mines), the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a settlement in which the government will receive $270 million plus 88% of Tronx’s interest in another pending fraudulent conveyance lawsuit against the corporation Anadarko. Hopefully with a favorable lawsuit outcome and the $270 million upfront the EPA will have enough funds to finally cleanup the Navajo lands from contamination. -Ashley Geary, Legal Intern