Friday, February 21, 2014

Nestled Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Faces Losing its Land Forever -

Nestled Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Faces Losing its Land Forever -

CHURCH ROCK, N.M. — In this dusty corner of the Navajo reservation, where seven generations of families have been raised among the arroyos and mesas, Bertha Nez is facing the prospect of having to leave her land forever.
The uranium pollution is so bad that it is unsafe for people to live here long term, environmental officials say. Although the uranium mines that once pocked the hillsides were shut down decades ago, mounds of toxic waste are still piled atop the dirt, raising concerns about radioactive dust and runoff.
And as cleanup efforts continue, Ms. Nez and dozens of other residents of the Red Water Pond Road community, who have already had to leave their homes at least twice since 2007 because of the contamination, are now facing a more permanent relocation. Although their village represents only a small sliver of the larger Navajo nation, home to nearly 300,000 people, they are bearing the brunt of the environmental problems.
“It feels like we are being pushed around,” said Ms. Nez, 67, a retired health care worker, who recalled the weeks and months spent in motel rooms in nearby Gallup as crews hauled away radioactive soil from the community’s backyards and roadsides.

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Bertha Nez said families of Red Water Pond Road fear they could be permanently relocated because of the contamination. Mark Holm for The New York Times
“This is where we’re used to being, traditionally, culturally” she said. “Nobody told us it was unsafe. Nobody warned us we would be living all this time with this risk.”
These days, this sprawling reservation, about the size of West Virginia, is considered one of the largest uranium-contaminated areas in United States history, according to officials at the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has been in the throes of an expansive effort to remove waste from around this tiny and remote Navajo village, and clean up more than 500 abandoned mine areas that dot the reservation.
Federal officials say they have been amazed at the extent of the uranium contamination on the reservation, a vestige of a burst of mining activity here during the Cold War. In every pocket of Navajo country, tribal members have reported finding mines that the agency did not know existed. In some cases, the mines were discovered only after people fell down old shafts.
“It is shocking — it’s all over the reservation,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “I think everyone, even the Navajos themselves, have been shocked about the number of mines that were both active and abandoned.”
Between 2008 and 2012, federal agencies spent $100 million on the cleanup, according to the E.P.A.; an additional $17 million has been spent by energy companies determined to be responsible for some of the waste.
But the scope of the problem is worse than anyone had thought. The E.P.A. has said that it could take at least eight years to dispose of a huge pile of uranium mine waste that has sat near Red Water Pond Road since the 1980s — waste that must be removed before the area can finally be free of contamination.
“The community is frustrated, I know I’m frustrated — we’d like it to go quickly,” Mr. Blumenfeld said.
But before the latest round of cleanup can begin, an application to remove the waste pile must be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will then conduct environmental and safety reviews. That process will probably take two years, and there is the possibility that public hearings on the plan could extend the process several more years, said Drew Persinko, a deputy director for the commission.
That time frame seems unreasonably long for tribal members, who said that spending so long living away from the reservation has been difficult. So far, the E.P.A. has spent $1 million on temporary housing for residents of Red Water Pond Road; much of that cost will be reimbursed by General Electric, which acquired the old Northeast Church Rock Mine site in 1997, and also its subsidiary company, United Nuclear Corporation, which operated the mine.

As in the past, the relocations will be voluntary. Some residents wondered — as they have for years now — if the land will ever really be clean.
“Our umbilical cords are buried here, our children’s umbilical cords are buried here. It’s like a homing device,” said Tony Hood, 64, who once worked in the mines and is now a Navajo interpreter for the Indian Medical Center in Gallup. “This is our connection to Mother Earth. We were born here. We will come back here eventually.”
Residents still remember seeing livestock drinking from mine runoff, men using mine materials to build their homes and Navajo children playing in contaminated water that ran through the arroyo. Today, the site near Red Water Pond Road holds one million cubic yards of waste from the Northeast Church Rock Mine, making it the largest and most daunting area of contamination on the reservation.

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"This is our connection to Mother Earth," said Tony Hood, left. Mark Holm for The New York Times
The waste does not pose any immediate health risk, Mr. Blumenfeld said, but there are concerns about radioactive dust being carried by the wind, runoff from rain, and the area’s accessibility to children, who can slip in easily through a fence.
Under a plan being developed by General Electric and the E.P.A., the waste would be transported to a former uranium mill just off the reservation — already considered a Superfund site — and stored in a fortified repository. The estimated cost is nearly $45 million.
“General Electric and United Nuclear Corporation are committed to continue to work cooperatively with the U.S. government, Navajo Nation, state of New Mexico and local residents to carry out interim cleanups and reach agreement on the remedy for the mine,” said Megan Parker, a spokeswoman for General Electric.
The Navajo E.P.A., which is an arm of the tribe’s own government, for years has been calling for a widespread cleanup of abandoned mines. Stephen Etsitty, the executive director of the agency, said he was hopeful that progress was finally being made, but acknowledged that the scope and technical complexity of the operation at Red Water Pond Road was unprecedented.
“We’re pushing and doing as much as we can to keep the process going as fast as we can,” Mr. Etsitty said. “It’s just taken so long to get there.”
On a recent day, Ms. Nez and several other residents stood on a bluff near a cluster of small homes and traditional Navajo hogan dwellings as the wind whipped across a valley that once bustled with mining activity.
The group talked of their grandparents — medicine men who were alive when the mines first opened — and wondered what they would think about Red Water Pond Road today.
“They would say ‘How did this happen? They ruined our land,’ ” Ms. Nez said. “ ‘How come you haven’t prayed to have this all fixed up?’ ”

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Carter Camp, American Indian Leader, Dies at 72 -

On Dec. 29, 1890, United States cavalry, in the last battle of the American Indian wars, massacred as many as 350 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Three generations later, Carter Camp, a 32-year-old Indian militant, retaliated.
On the night of Feb. 27, 1973, he led the first wave of armed, self-styled warriors in an operation to seize Wounded Knee, which had become a town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The invaders, carrying a list of grievances against the federal government, seized the trading post, cut the telephone lines, ran the Bureau of Indian Affairs police out of town and took 11 hostages.
“We were pretty sure that we were going to have to give up our lives,” Mr. Camp said in an interview for the PBS program “American Experience” in 2009.
A caravan of 200 cars carrying Indians and their supporters followed, beginning a 71-day, gunshot-punctuated standoff that some applauded as a show of new assertiveness by long-downtrodden Indians and that others deplored as criminal.

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Carter Camp, center, in Wounded Knee, S.D., during a 71-day standoff in 1973. William Kunstler, the radical lawyer, is at left. Associated Press

By the time it was over, two Indians had been shot to death and a federal marshal was paralyzed. He later died. Mr. Camp was convicted of abducting, confining and beating four postal inspectors during the siege and served three years in prison.
He went on to spend decades fighting for Indian rights and died at 72 on Dec. 27 in White Eagle, Okla., the headquarters of the Ponca tribe, of which he was a member. The cause was kidney and liver cancer, his brother Craig said.
Carter Camp’s dream was to regain the vast lands his people had lost through unfair and broken treaties. But he started by aiming his sights lower, leading a campaign in 1970 to change the way federal money for Indian education was allocated on the Ponca reservation. He became state leader of the American Indian Movement, or AIM, which was organized in 1968 in Minneapolis as a defender of American Indian sovereignty. In 1972, he helped lead an AIM caravan from the West Coast to Washington, where “red power” advocates occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building.
During the Wounded Knee occupation the next year, alongside the AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell C. Means, Mr. Camp was the spokesman who presented the group’s demands to the government, among them that the government honor 371 broken treaties and that it end what the group called corrupt tribal governments. Mr. Camp rejected an offer of leniency if the protesters left immediately.
“We decided that the Indian people were more important to us than jail terms,” he was quoted as saying in “The Road to Wounded Knee” (1974), by Robert Burnette and John Koster.
When the Indians finally did end their occupation, Mr. Camp was one of the leaders who signed the agreement. Mr. Banks did not.
In August 1973, Mr. Camp was elected chairman of AIM but within weeks was ejected from the organization after being accused of shooting another AIM leader, Clyde Bellecourt, in the stomach. News accounts and histories say Mr. Camp was angry that Mr. Bellecourt had accused him of being a paid informer for the F.B.I. Charges were dropped after Mr. Bellecourt and a witness refused to testify.
The episode precipitated swirls of speculation. In his 1983 book, “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” Peter Matthiessen said Mr. Camp had called Mr. Bellecourt a coward because he refused to carry a gun. Others suggested that the F.B.I. had planted the rumor that Mr. Camp was an informer to damage AIM’s credibility.
Bruce E. Johansen, the author of “Encyclopedia of the American Indian Movement” (2013), wrote that Mr. Bellecourt had tried to salvage Mr. Camp’s reputation but that Mr. Means had insisted he be expelled.

Carter Augustus Camp was born in Pawnee, Okla., on Aug. 18, 1941. He graduated from Haskell Institute, a high school for Indians in Lawrence, Kan. (It became Haskell Indian Nations University.) He then joined the Army and served in Western Europe. After his discharge, he worked in a factory in Los Angeles, serving as shop steward for the electrical workers’ union.
Mr. Camp returned to Oklahoma to be close to his roots, literally. “We believe the soil and every plant contains the dust of our ancestors,” he once said.
In recent years, Mr. Camp had fought against garbage companies’ using Indian lands for disposal; a proposed pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Canada; and a bar catering to motorcyclists near his reservation. He protested a re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition, calling it a remembrance of the extermination of his people.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Camp is survived by another brother, Dwain; his wife, Linda; his sons Kenny, Jeremy, Victorio, Mazhonaposhe and Augustus; his sister, Casey Camp-Horinek; 24 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Mr. Camp helped organize annual sun dances conducted by Leonard Crow Dog, the spiritual leader of the Wounded Knee occupiers. Participants, who may not eat or drink, dance around a cottonwood tree from sunrise to sunset.