Jobs in Navajo Nation...At What Cost?

Native American communities are still feeling the deleterious effects of decades of uranium mining on their land, even though many mines have been closed since the 1980s. But outcry from Navajo communities over health risks and desecration of sacred lands apparently means nothing to energy companies that are lining up for permits. With the proposed Senate climate bill and upcoming talks in Copenhagen focusing on reducing CO2, many energy industry leaders are placing their bets on nuclear as the "clean and green" power of the future.

But the Navajo Nation knows first-hand that nuclear is far from safe. "This has multi-generational effects," said Early Tulley, Vice President of the Navajo group Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. "I won't even live long enough to see what it does to people in 500 years." Tulley's wife and daughter have both battled cancers they attribute to radiation contamination on their land.

Since Uranium mining began in the 1940s, The Navajo Nation has been ravaged by kidney disease and cancer, diseases that had previously occurred so rarely among Navajo that words to describe them did not even exist in their native language. Now the Navajo know what cancer is, and they have spent decades petitioning the government to acknowledge its link to uranium mining.

Mining companies counter the horror stories of rampant illness with assurances that today's methods and oversight of mines are much more stringent than they were in the past. In situ leaching, a uranium extraction method in which chemicals dumped into an aquifer leach out uranium, was recently described by an industry executive as perfectly environmentally safe. The water contaminated in the process is purified at the end of the process, but generations of Navajo who have seen their families suffer from poisoned environments will not accept industry assurances blindly.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar instituted a two-year moratorium on awarding new mining claims in New Mexico, but the issue is still up for debate. There is no doubt that opening new uranium mines will add jobs and rejuvenate the economy in the Navajo Nation, but at what cost?