Biden signs order protecting tribal land. What about a sacred burial site destroyed for uranium?

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“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked, and thrived in that high desert community,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, said in a statement. “Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations.”

The plan is to block new oil and gas leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“We support the protection of the Chaco Canyon region due to its historical and cultural significance for our Navajo people, but we also have to consider the concerns and rights of our Navajo citizens who have allotment lands,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement, according to The Washington Post

Haaland introduced Biden Monday, highlighting the historic nature of her position as the first Native American appointee. 

“We are still here and we have a voice,” Haaland said.

But while representation matters, the reality is that Haaland has a plethora of festering issues left behind by her predecessors. One of those is the poisonous Canadian-owned White Mesa mill—the only uranium mill operating in the U.S., located 1 mile from Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, Utah.

Members of both the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation are sick and tired of having to live on contaminated land. 

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe believes that one of the mill’s tailings ponds is leaking and polluting a shallow aquifer under the community with toxic chemicals. 

The mill was built in 1979 to process uranium ore from the surrounding region. About a decade later, the mill’s operator also started running “alternate feeds” through the mill and discarding the resulting wastes onsite. These feeds include uranium-bearing radioactive and toxic wastes from other contaminated places around the country.

The tribe believes that the mill is emitting a carcinogenic gas called radon, despite the company’s denial and assertions that the radon levels are safe. (Are there any safe levels of a carcinogenic gas?) Radon is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Yolanda Badback, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and a lifelong resident of White Mesa, told Daily Kos the mill sits on sacred ancestral lands. 

“It’s close to our reservation with our sacred burial sites there and our native herbs,” Badback says. 

“When the mill was being built they dug up our ancestors that were buried there. We don’t know what the remains are. Our herbs aren’t even growing in the area. It’s all dried up. So, now we have to drive a distance to find the herbs we need.” 

Badback says a lot of community members don’t talk about their health issues, but people complain about breathing problems such as asthma, and their grandkids have it. She’s not sure it’s due to the mill, but the issues are something community members discuss among themselves. 

The mill has never addressed the concerns of the community, but Badback says the mill does donate money to the schools in the nearby city of Blanding, Utah, located north of the mill. White Mesa is about 5 miles south of the mill. 

Blanding is about 66% white and 9% Native. It was settled in the late 19th century by Mormon settlers and according to Badback, many of the residents are employed by the White Mesa mill. 

Scott Clow, Ute Mountain Ute’s environmental programs director, says that in 2012 the mill had an accident that created a discolored cloud. Locals call it the Brown Cloud Incident.

A man who asked to be identified simply as “Howard” told The Daily Utah Chronicle in 2017 that he remembers smelling uranium in the 1980s when visiting a convenience store near the mill. The store has since closed as a toxic, radioactive site.

“There’s a big sign there and they say closed that store down,” Howard said. “And it’s funny, because why didn’t they close it down way back?” He describes the smell as “a strong metal odor, like cooper.”

Badback jokes to Daily Kos that some days she wishes the mill would miraculously explode.

“Living on the res day-to-day you feel deep down, we have tribal members without transportation, we want clean air for our people to be able to be outside and get their exercise. We want our Native herbs and be able to hunt for the winter. All this stuff is being taken away from us. It hurts us to see all of these things taken away slowly. Our future generations are being hurt. How are they going to succeed in life with this mill here and the company lying to them, telling them there’s no harm, but come to find out when they’re older that it was harmful, ” Badback says. 

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