Limited Sovereignty: The Lasting Effects of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 36° 47' 7.9955", -108° 41' 13.3159"
Total Population .14 million
Total Area 7100071,000 km²
27,413.1 mi²
Climate Descriptors Semi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type)
Predominent Land Use Descriptors industrial use
Important Uses of Water Domestic/Urban Supply, Livestock, Mining/Extraction support

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The Navajo Nation is a mostly sovereign Native American state located in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico; the tribe has 250,000 people, over 140,000 Navajo live on Navajo land.

Holding an estimated 25% of the nation’s uranium, Navajo Nation became an attractive uranium-mining site in the 1940s. With the threat of the Cold War, uranium was seen as a necessary element for US security. The US Atomic Energy Commission promised to procure the entire supply of uranium from 1948-1971; this inspired corporations to reap the potential profit by opening mines throughout the Navajo Nation. Even though, research as early as the 1930s found a correlation between lung cancer and uranium, no environmental or occupational regulations were in place for uranium mining.

Over 43 years more than 1000 mines were developed on the Navajo Nation. Water contamination wasn’t a concern early on until the Church Rock dam broke in 1979; this caused the largest nuclear spill in U.S. history. Later on, the Navajo people and the US government realized that in addition to lung cancer, uranium contamination in water led to increased rates of kidney disease and many other negative health impacts.

Though uranium mining stopped on the Nation in the 1980s, there continues to be unremediated open mines, uranium pilings and wastewater. Multiple cases have been filed against the US government and mining corporations. As explained below, because uranium was mined for US security, seeking retribution has been difficult.

This case explores the power inequities between the US government and the Navajo Nation. It offers insights that could be used for future Navajo cases and for other Native American cases. This history is important at this moment because uranium mining is once again becoming popular for US energy independence. While the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining in 2005, there is question of whether that decision will be respected both internally by leaders throughout the Navajo Nation and externally by the US government and corporations.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

Uranium mining became popular in the interest of atomic weaponry and potential for atomic energy in the 1940s; the element was of interest for US national security as the Cold War loomed. With an estimated 25% of US-based uranium found on the Navajo Nation, their land was a natural resource for uranium mining. In 1948, the US Atomic Energy Commission launched a “massive procurement program and announced it would purchase all the uranium that was mined in the United States.” This announcement led many mining companies to set up mines on the Navajo Nation.

13 million tons of uranium ore were mined on the Navajo Nation for military use over 43 years between 1945 to 1988; of the more than 10,000 workers employed as uranium miners, around 3,000 were Navajo.

Significant research had been done prior to 1944 suggesting that exposure to uranium was connected with lung cancer. Research in Europe as early as the 1879 saw this correlation. Yet, no environmental or occupational regulations existed at the time for uranium mining and miners.

A 1950 Public Health Service (PHS) research conducted both an environmental and epidemiological study, which showed that the exposure levels in uranium mines could cause cancer. Those results were not shared at the time – neither publicly nor directly with the miners who were subjects for the research. When asked, the PHS team lead said, “‘we did not want to rock the boat. We had to take the position that we were neutral scientists trying to find out what the facts were, that we were not going to make any public announcements until the results of our scientific study were completed.’”

Environmental Impacts and Water Contamination

Water contamination wasn’t a concern early on. It was likely prompted when the dam near Church Rock, NM, broke in 1979, causing the largest nuclear spill in U.S. history. “The spill dumped 94 million gallons of mill process effluent and 1,100 tons of tailings – an acidic, radioactive sludge-into a large arroyo that emptied into the Puerco River.” More than 30 years later, that area continues to be radioactive. The Church Rock dam split was a turning point for the Navajo people to recognize the environmental damage caused by uranium mining.

Later studies extended to drinking water. CRUMP, an environmental monitoring group, since 2003 has monitored water on the Navajo nation; early on, they tested 14 unregulated water wells for traces of elements, including uranium; “only two wells satisfied all federal primary and secondary drinking water standards.” Even though, the Safe Drinking Water Act was in effect as of 1974, no immediate actions were taken to clean the water. Uranium contamination in water is now known to contribute to higher kidney cancer rates.

Legal Action

As early as the 1960s, activists tried to persuade federal authorities to extend the black lung benefits given to coal miners to uranium miners. A legislative bill was filed but never passed in 1973. In 1979, two lawsuits were filed by the Secretary of Interior against the US Department of Energy and mining companies. The case against the mining companies was dismissed; mining companies argued that the workers were covered by workers’ compensation. The suit against the United States government was also dismissed; uranium mining was considered a national security issue. In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed to enable uranium mineworkers to be compensated for negative health outcomes; unfortunately this failed to address the larger impacts of uranium on the Navajo Nation.

In the 1990s when the Navajo attempted to sue a company for the Puerco River Spill, both an Arizona and New Mexico court held:

“It is abundantly clear that in providing for a system of turnover agreements between the United States and individual States, Congress had no intention of granting any control over the nuclear power industry to Indian tribes. The court determines the exercise of Tribal Court jurisdiction in the pending case is not among the retained powers of the Navajo Tribe since such jurisdiction conflicts with the overriding federal interests in preventing unwarranted intrusions of protected liberties and in regulating the production of nuclear energy.”

Thus, the Navajo were unable to seek full compensation for the magnitude of the spill. Uranium once again proves to be a federal concern – this time, for energy.


Many uranium sites on the Navajo nation have been put on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, which guides the EPA in which sites need further investigation.

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and the Indian Health Service developed a Five-Year-Plan to address uranium contamination. The agencies dedicated $110 million to support the work of the Five-Year Plan and responsible parties gave an additional $17 million. The EPA has since “identified and notified potentially responsible parties for 74 mine claims.”

While this appears a positive direction, the EPA has waived the demand for at least one responsible mining company to complete a full cleanup of contaminated water due to “technical impracticability of achieving cleanup standards.” At least one other corporation has evaded paying the full damage, citing inability to pay. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also been known to reduce cleanup standards when companies are unable to afford them. In some cases, the EPA is also lowering the cleanup standards because nearby populations use bottled water rather than well water.

The battle to mediate the damage done continues. In 2012, when the EPA visited Navajo Nation, one employee noted that, “‘Two days of exposure at the Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.’”

Why isn’t cleanup happening faster? It is partly due to the cost and also due to the lack of ownership or responsibility for that cost. The EPA’s assessment alone costs roughly $12 million a year; remediation for all the of mines would cost “hundreds of millions.” The Shiprock remediation started in 2005 and estimates suggest the remediation won’t conclude until 2019. This is problematic for the Navajo people and their livestock who are continuously exposed to contaminated water.


Interest in nuclear energy is once again growing; the increasing price of uranium reflects that interest. New mining proposals have been submitted for the Navajo lands using in-situ leachate (ISL) methods. ISL “involves pumping a high-pressured water and chemical solution into the ground and then using that solution to bring up uranium in quantities that would have been inefficient with traditional mining.” Uranium companies say ISL is safer than open mining. However, some hydrologists predict this will contaminate drinking water and destroy a single source of water for 15,000 people in Eastern Navajo Nation.

With the growing demand for nuclear energy and knowing the threat of uranium mining, Joe Shirley, Jr., President of the Navajo Nation signed the Dine Natural Resources Protect Act of 2005 which prohibited mining on Navajo lands in 2005. The stated purpose of the Act is “to ensure that no further damage to the culture, society and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium mining…[and] processing until all adverse economic, environmental and human health effects from past mining and processing have been eliminated or substantially reduced to the satisfaction of the Navajo Nation.”

Hydro Resources Inc. continues to work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission. One contentious question for the future is whether the Commission can approve uranium mining regardless of the Navajo ban. This brings into question the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. Uranium mining is seen as a national security and energy issue that contends with the right of the Navajo to decide what is best for their land and people. Even if the Navajo are granted the right to control their own land, some of the uranium is located just beyond Navajo borders where the Navajo have no jurisdiction; that mining could impact Navajo water sources and have other environmental impacts.

Moreover, beyond the external pressures for uranium, not all of the Navajo agree with the uranium ban. In at least one instance, a ISL test project was approved on Navajo Nation, despite the tribal ban. Internally, in the Navajo Nation, there needs to be system develop to help negotiate contested issues.

With greater sovereign control, the Navajo would be able to better control their land and the land immediately around the Navajo area.

Issues and Stakeholders

NSPD: Water Quality, Ecosystems, Governance
Stakeholder Types: Federated state/territorial/provincial government, Sovereign state/national/federal government, Local Government, Development/humanitarian interest, Environmental interest, Industry/Corporate Interest, Community or organized citizens, Cultural Interest

Stakeholders Position/Role Key Issues
Navajo Leaders and People Protect the Navajo people, environment and the animals; act in the best interest of the Navajo people
  • Safety of future uranium mining
  • Retribution for past damages
  • Greater sovereignty for greater control of their destiny
  • Economic threat or opportunity
US Federal Government (including the below agencies) The US government has the nation’s interests in its interest; the Nation’s interests may come in conflict with its entrusted care of the Navajo people
  • US security
  • US energy independence
  • Economic growth
  • Protection and support of citizens
  • Facilitate work between US government agencies
Environmental Protection Agency Protect human health and the environment
  • Assess past environmental and health damage due to uranium mining
  • Develop new regulators for uranium mining
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Ensure safe use of radioactive material
  • Protect human health and environment from radioactive materials
  • Work with uranium corporations to assess whether they are
Bureau of Indian Affairs Protect human health and the environment Aid in the federal assessment process for the uranium mines; advocate on behalf of Navajo
National Institute for Health Protect human health and the environment Advocate for better health outcomes; aid in research
State Governments (New Mexico, Utah, Arizona)
  • Each state also has a relationship with the Navajo Nation
  • Often states decide on their own environmental regulations, informed by the federal government
  • For example: New Mexico has the right to approve mining
  • Economic growth
  • Environmental safety
  • Safety and protection of state residents
Uranium Mining Corporations Obtain the right to mine uranium on the Navajo Nation Access to uranium
NGOs (for example: DiNEH)
  • Research the impact of uranium and leverage that towards better policy and retribution
  • Support Navajo people in their fight for full compensation for past damages done
  • Gain full compensation for past damages on the Navajo Nation
  • Inform future uranium mining on Navajo Nation

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Key Questions

Power and Politics: How can government be dis/incentivized to offer an inclusive planning process?

The lasting impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation have led to greater costs (environmental, health and economic) for the Navajo Nation and the United States government. In addition, the US government has also been criticized for its treatment of the Navajo population.

The US government, which often sees itself as a leader in the provision of fair judicial processes, has failed to protect the Navajo’s health and livelihoods. Navajo sovereignty is limited by the United States government. The structure of the government is not set up to best serve the Navajo Nation. Thus there are at least two different ways the US government could be incentivized to offer an inclusive planning process:

  • First, build a joint committee between the US government and the Navajo Nation to oversee all uranium mining. This would enable greater transparency and encourage more conversations and understanding of the variety of positions.
  • Second, the US government needs to recognize the full cost of the uranium cleanup. They have already spent more than $100m on assessment and cleanup. That adds to the total cost of uranium mining and decreases the total value. That funding is still minimal in comparison with what the US government may be spending in the future to continue to remediate the impacts.

Power and Politics: How does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated?

There is limited shared cooperation and consultation. The Navajo Nation is technically a sovereign nation and thus, should work directly with the United States government. In practice, the Navajo Nation is sovereign to the extent allowed by the United States government.

This makes for an awkward asymmetry of power as the Navajo Nation and the United States government interests may not always align. The Navajo are in a complex place to negotiate. They must negotiate at the state level (for example, with New Mexico) and at the federal level (for example, with the EPA). Often times, the Bureau of Indian Affairs may also step in, adding another layer of complexity. The complexity of the number of players needs to be simplified.

The best-case scenario would involve the Navajo Nation to be respected and treated as a sovereign nation. The varied history between the US government and the Navajo Nation make this complicated in practice, as the US government financially supports some of the operations of the Navajo Nation.

In leaning towards full sovereignty, a structure needs to be developed that would enable the Navajo an equal voice alongside the United States federal government. The Navajo Nation should be able to have the final say on how their lands are used and be able to hold parties accountable for any damage caused.

External Links

Tagged with: Native American Navajo Mining

Facts about "Limited Sovereignty: The Lasting Effects of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation"RDF feed
Area71,000 km² (27,413.1 mi²) +
ClimateSemi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type) +
Geolocation36° 47' 7.9955", -108° 41' 13.3159"Latitude: 36.7855543
Longitude: -108.6870322
Key QuestionHow can government be dis/incentivized to offer an inclusive planning process? + and How does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated? +
Land Useindustrial use +
NSPDWater Quality +, Ecosystems + and Governance +
Population14,000,000 million +
Stakeholder TypeFederated state/territorial/provincial government +, Sovereign state/national/federal government +, Local Government +, Development/humanitarian interest +, Environmental interest +, Industry/Corporate Interest +, Community or organized citizens + and Cultural Interest +
Topic TagNative American Navajo Mining +
Water UseDomestic/Urban Supply +, Livestock + and Mining/Extraction support +
Has subobjectThis property is a special property in this wiki.Limited Sovereignty: The Lasting Effects of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation + and Limited Sovereignty: The Lasting Effects of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation +