The Navajo Nation has outlawed uranium mining and processing on its reservation, which sprawls across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and contains one of the world’s largest deposits of uranium ore.
Tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. must give the bill final approval. His spokesman said Thursday that Shirley “strongly” supports it.
Mining companies began blasting holes on the reservation, which covers 27,000 square miles, in the 1940s and continued for nearly 40 years until decreased demand closed the operations.
By then, the Navajos were left with radiation sickness, contaminated tailings and abandoned mines. To avoid repeating the past, Navajo leaders and grassroots organizations have been working for years to keep mining from starting again.
The Navajo Nation Council voted 63-19 Tuesday in favor of the mining ban. Several council delegates predicted the legislation will be challenged in court — possibly as far as the Supreme Court.
Members of Navajo grassroots organizations celebrated outside the council’s chambers after the measure was approved.
“This legislation just chopped the legs off the uranium monster,” said Norman Brown, a member of one of the groups, Dine Bidzii. Dine is the Navajos’ name for themselves.
The legislation prohibits pit mining as well as “in-situ” processing, which involves using a solution to leach out uranium and pump it to the surface.
Hydro Resources Inc. has been working with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for years to get approval for in-situ mining near the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock. The company estimated the sites have nearly 100 million pounds of uranium, which is used to fuel nuclear power plants.
Hydro Resources has argued that in-situ mining is safer than older methods, but opponents note that 15,000 people rely on the area’s underground aquifer and they fear contamination from the proposed operation.