March 01, 2016

Uranium Mine Clean-Up

Phoenix Mikilas Meyers

Indigenous organizations and supporters protested at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington DC on January 28th, bringing attention to the environmentally hazardous problem of abandoned uranium mines.

The issue demonstrates how Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation from resource extraction industries, and how those communities are leading the fight against environmental hazards.

Across the United States there are over 15,000 toxic abandoned uranium mines — 75% of which are on federal and tribal lands — exposing waterways and land to radioactive pollution.

Nitrate concentration in the water, which directly affects the Madison Aquifer water supply, can be attributed to explosives used for mining, according to the South Dakota School of Mine & Technology, and South Dakota Department of Environment & Natural Resources. The Madison Aquifer is a main source for drinking water in the Black Hills, Pine Ridge, and surrounding areas.

“Exposure to radioactive pollution has been linked to cancer, genetic defects, Navajo Neuropathy, and increases in mortality,” said, Charmaine White Face, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who lead the protest. The claims made by Charmaine White Face have been empirically supported. A Cancer Mortality study conducted by Haverkamp concluded that the Northern Great Plains has the highest cancer rate in the nation.

Across the United States there are over 15,000 toxic abandoned uranium mines — 75% of which are on federal and tribal lands

The lack of comprehensive laws requiring abandoned uranium mines to be thoroughly cleaned up means the federal government has shirked its responsibility to hold these corporations accountable. Over one hundred abandoned uranium mines have been left uncleaned in the Northwestern regions of South Dakota Some of these mines are emitting more than four times the radiation as was emitted in Fukushima, Japan after the nuclear disaster in 2011.

Neglecting to properly clean up abandoned uranium mines exemplifies the persistent conflict between Indigenous Peoples for protection of their land and its resources and the US government.

It further demonstrates how those environmentalists, need to consider lending Native American tribes, who are often on the front lines of this fight, more of their support.

A Navajo community in Sanders, Arizona is experiencing a water contamination crisis similar to the one in Flint, Michigan but is not receiving the same aid from the Environmental Protection Agency, highlighting the need for outside support.

The protest is, simultaneously, a stand against environmental hazards and a demand for Indigenous civil rights to be upheld.

Although the abandoned uranium mines are predominantly on federal and tribal land,the radioactive pollutants are hazard concerns for non-indigenous and indigenous people alike, with the potential to harm millions.

Beyond harming human populations, the pollution from abandoned mines destroys the land, waterways, and detrimentally affects wildlife. Indigenous cultures respect the natural resources of the land, and this core value motivates Indigenous communities to lead in environmental activism. If awareness is spread, in the words of Ms. White Face, “then something can be done to protect all peoples and the environment.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project’s concerns are aligned with and support the Indigenous organizations that are spreading awareness about climate change, human rights, and environmentalism to protect the Earth and those who inhabit it.