Tribe takes on toxic waste
By Stan Bindell, High
Country News, MARCH18, 2008
On the Navajo Reservation, abandoned
uranium mines and other toxic waste sites now stand
a much better chance of remediation: The Navajo Nation
Council just passed one of the most comprehensive toxic
waste laws in Indian country.
The Navajo Nation Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation and Liability Act became law in March.
This sweeping legislation gives the tribe new power
to monitor and clean up hazardous waste on its 27,000-square-mile
reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, says Stephen
Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Environmental
The Navajo now can enter into compliance
agreements with private companies and federal or state
agencies to clean up contaminated areas. The legislation
will also give the tribe leverage against the private
companies responsible for 520 abandoned uranium mines,
says Etsitty. Some of the most polluted sites, such
as the Northeast Churchrock mine, may be tackled within
a couple of years.
Before the tribe can start remediation
efforts, though, the Navajo Environmental Protection
Agency must first set up a tariff to fund the program.
The agency will also begin informing companies that
produce or haul hazardous waste on the Navajo Nation
about new reporting requirements.
Critics of the Navajo law say it duplicates
federal and state law. But Etsitty says the act fills
regulatory gaps, and gives the Navajo Nation the authority
to address hazardous contamination directly. It also
helps the federal government, neighboring state governments
and industry to recognize the tribe as a co-regulator
in Indian country.
The new law is also an expression of
Navajo sovereignty. “It reduces our reliance on the
federal government,” Etsitty says. “The Navajo EPA will
continue to develop environmental laws, regulations
and programs that reflect our Dine culture and values.”
The author is a freelancer for the Navajo