With First Native Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, Hope Grows U.S. Will Confront Toxic Uranium Legacy via Democracy Now!

Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, is being sworn in as secretary of the interior and will be the first Native American ever to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet. Just four Republicans joined Democrats in voting to confirm Haaland, who will manage 500 million acres of federal and tribal land. Haaland will also oversee government relations with 574 federally recognized tribal nations and is expected to address the legacy of uranium mining on Indigenous land and other areas. Leona Morgan, a Diné anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, says that while it’s “impossible to expect one person to correct the centuries of racism and policy that have really devastated our people,” there is hope that Haaland will use her power to make important changes. “She will be held accountable,” Morgan says.


AMY GOODMAN: One major issue facing Deb Haaland as interior secretary will be addressing the legacy of uranium mining on Native land and other areas. Thousands of inactive and toxic uranium mines have poisoned Native land and water for decades, many of the mines used to extract uranium for the U.S. massive nuclear arms arsenal. In 2019, a University of New Mexico study found that about a quarter of Navajo women and some infants had high levels of the radioactive metal in their bodies, even though nearby uranium mining had ended decades ago. Last year, Congressmember Haaland was recognized with a Nuclear-Free Future Award for her efforts to address the impacts of uranium mining in the Southwest.

REP. DEB HAALAND: We’ve seen it firsthand in my home state of New Mexico. Uranium mining harms the health of our population, the environment, and has hurt our economy. The U.S. government has refused to clean up the mess they’ve made in New Mexico. In 2018, when I was elected, I knew this would be an issue that I would fight for. I’ve called on the U.S. government to clean up mining sites, compensate uranium workers and rectify the wrong that has been done to Indigenous communities. And I’m not going to let up. I’m committed to fighting for a nuclear-free future.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Deb Haaland, the Interior Department and the legacy of uranium mining, we’re joined by Leona Morgan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Diné/Navajo anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, coordinator with the Nuclear Issues Study Group and organizer with Haul No!


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leona, for those listeners who are not aware of the history of this issue, could you talk somewhat — this is going back to the 1940s that the Navajo Nation was used by the United States for uranium mining for nuclear weapons development. Could you talk about that history and the impact on the Native peoples of your state?

LEONA MORGAN: Yes. So, there are actually 15,000 abandoned uranium mines across the country. And the Navajo Nation is working with the federal government to address at least 523 distinct mines on Navajo Nation. The most abandoned mines are in Colorado. And so, this is an issue that doesn’t just affect Indigenous peoples, but everyone; however, uranium mining and production does impact Indigenous peoples and communities of color the most around the world. On Navajo, we have had many health issues resulting from the impacts of uranium mining, which, like you mentioned, started in the ’40s. A lot of the mines on Navajo shut down in the early ’80s. There is still mining in the country; however, there’s no mining in New Mexico currently. And the Navajo Nation has a law against uranium mining and the transport of radioactive materials; however, those laws are always challenged, because there are privately owned lands within the nation and adjacent to the nation.


nd so, these are issues that our people are still dealing with, over four decades after the uranium mining has stopped. We’re finally getting attention, but the cleanup that’s being proposed, like I said, it’s poor quality. One example is in Church Rock, New Mexico, the site of the world’s largest uranium spill. The proposal for cleanup there, it’s actually in an open comment period right now. There’s this idea that the company wants to scrape up mine waste at the Northeast Church Rock Mine and move it. A million cubic yards of mine waste, they want to pile on top of the mill waste, where the site — where the spill from 1979 originated. And the community is concerned because this is in a floodplain. And in the public meetings that were held in 2019, several community members expressed concern that this could result in a second Church Rock spill. But this is what they’re proposing as cleanup, which is not cleanup. It is basically making 523 permanent waste sites on Navajo Nation.


And so, we need Secretary Haaland to help to curb the startup of new mines and then also to work with the agencies. There’s five federal agencies and the Navajo Nation doing this cleanup. But, like I said, that’s only 523 abandoned mine sites, whereas there’s over 15,000 in the whole country. And so, we really need federal dollars and better cleanup standards. Right now there’s a 10-year plan that’s being proposed, and some of the standards for the allowable levels of radiation are much higher than would be acceptable in, let’s say, an urban environment or in a white community.

And this is really going to impact our people, you know, as uranium and radiation cause health impacts. It takes a long time for these health impacts to show up. And so, right now we are experiencing a lot of the residual effects. One health study, called the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, has found high levels of uranium in newborn babies. And these are babies that are born across the reservation, not just near abandoned uranium sites. And so, we do need Secretary Haaland to push for comprehensive cleanup, as well as comprehensive health studies. And this is, specifically, I’m talking about Navajo Nation, but across the country, as well as protections for our sacred places, because a lot of our sacred places have been mined and are targeted for new mining.

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