determines parcel near Church Rock is Indian Country
By FELICIA FONSECA
New Mexican, February 9, 2007
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Navajo
Nation believes a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
ruling that a 160-acre parcel near Church Rock is "Indian
Country" gives the tribe a stronger position to
fight uranium mining in the area.
The tribe banned uranium mining and
processing on its land in 2005, but companies have been
trying to revive it, particularly on the eastern side
of the reservation and in the Church Rock area of northwestern
New Mexico, commonly referred to as the checkerboard
of Indian and non-Indian land.
New Mexico-based Hydro Resources Inc.,
which owns the surface and mineral rights, wants to
inject chemicals into the ground to release uranium
and pump the solution to the surface in a process called
in situ leaching.
The EPA's decision, released Wednesday,
means Hydro Resources would have to apply for an underground
injection control permit from the EPA, not the state
of New Mexico as it previously had done.
"This is a wonderful decision for
the Church Rock community in particular and the Navajo
Nation in general in support of efforts to stop any
future mining on the Navajo Nation," said David
Taylor, senior attorney with the Navajo Department of
Justice's Natural Resources Unit.
"The EPA decision is a first step
in what may very well be a long and drawn out legal
fight, but it's always good to win the first battle,"
The EPA's decision doesn't specifically
state it will consider the ban when receiving applications
for mining-related permits, but Taylor said, "We
are certainly hoping they will."
The tribe wants the EPA to make the
determination, rather than the state, because under
laws and court decisions, "the United States has
a much higher obligation to protect the interests of
Native Americans than the states," Taylor said.
The EPA's decision "is a wonderful
decision for the Church Rock community in particular
and the Navajo Nation in general in support of efforts
to stop any future uranium mining on the Navajo Nation,"
Hydro Resources argued in comments to
the EPA last year that no part of the land, known as
Section 8, is reservation, tribal trust or allotted
land, nor has it ever been set aside by the federal
government for use as Indian land.
"Each and every acre of the Section
8 land in question is fee land, the surface and locatable
mineral estates of which are owned by HRI as a result
of a patent from the United States. There is no dispute
on these matters," Hydro Resources officials wrote.
A woman who answered the phone at Hydro
Resources president Craig Bartels' home phone Thursday
night said he would be unavailable for comment until
In the late 1980s, the state Environment
Department granted Hydro Resources an underground injection
control permit for the property 10 miles northeast of
the Church Rock Chapter house.
After considering materials submitted
by the Navajo Nation and the state, the EPA determined
that the land's status was in dispute, and said it would
be the appropriate agency to issue the permit.
The state and Hydro Resources challenged
that decision in 1997 and petitioned for judicial review.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in Denver upheld the EPA in 2000 and said the agency
must rule on the status of the land. The EPA did not
immediately respond, thinking Hydro Resources no longer
planned to pursue a permit.
The company, however, sought a permit
from New Mexico in 2005 to operate a uranium in situ
leach mine. The state asked the EPA to make a decision
on the status of the land.
Chris Shuey, director of uranium impact
assessment for the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research
and Information Center, said the implications of the
EPA's decision "can go a long, long way."
For example, Hydro Resources has a 320-acre
parcel near Crownpoint on which it plans to place its
main uranium processing plant and conduct in situ leach
mining, Shuey said. Some 95 percent of the population
there is Navajo and receives services from the Church
The EPA considered the makeup of the
population and the services the community receives from
the Navajo Nation in its decision.
"If those facts are the same for
those other parcels in the middle of Indian communities,
those areas should also be Indian Country," Shuey
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said
Thursday mining companies' lack of respect in the past
has caused many Navajos to become ill and die from exposure
to uranium ore.
"I hope this means that there
will be no more uranium mining on Navajo land and in
what we regard as Navajo country," he said. "I'm
happy for my people residing in the eastern portion
of Navajo land and very happy for my government."