Categories: Chris Shing, Culturally Situated Community Sensing, Louis Gutierrez
by Kirk Jalbert
Photos credit: Kirk Jalbert
A primary characteristic of life on the Navajo Nation is the tenuous relationship to the long resident energy extraction industry. Coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and other resources have, some contend, benefited, the Navajo people and their tribal government. Yet at the same time it has detrimentally impacted their way of life and the health of people living on the reservation. In my travels this summer I heard countless stories of communities suffering prolonged illnesses and facing insurmountable obstacles as they attempt to challenge the extraction industry and even their own government institutions.
The best way I can summarize the complexities of the problem is to quote some excerpts from my recent paper on Culturally Situated Sensing. Also see the gallery of images below which are from both my trip to NM in early June and my trip to AZ in late June of 2011 documenting the ubiquitous presence of the energy extraction industry on the reservation. As I hear more about how this kind of activity is coming to the doorstep of residents in PA and NY with the recent discovery of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale bed, I have an uneasy feeling that we should pay closer attention to the Navajo experience…
Environmental Vulnerability on the Navajo Nation
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Navajo people (Diné) have lived in their current location for at least 1,000 years. They are the second largest Native American tribe of North America, with an estimated population of 300,000 people identifying as Diné. According to the 2000 US census 180,462 Navajo still live on the reservation spanning 27,000 square miles across 3 states — the remaining in bordering towns or nearby cities [Navajo Nation 2000]. The Navajo Nation is represented by an governing body consisting of many of the functions one would expect of neighboring states — an independent Navajo EPA, police force, judicial system, as well as elected officials at local, regional, and national levels. Meanwhile, the Navajo language is still spoken throughout the region and many of their traditional practices remain integral to daily life such as sheep herding, rug weaving, and crafts.
However, despite geographic solidarity as compared to other Native American tribes, the Navajo are threatened by a litany of environmental hazards put in motion by decades of unmonitored energy and mineral extraction industries. Twenty-five Native American territories throughout the United States contain extractable coal deposits accounting for a potential 30% of all national reserves, with Navajo Nation mining facilities ranking as some of the largest [Office of Technology Assessment 2002]. The density of natural resource extraction is astounding in some areas. Paradox Basin, a region of about 33,000 square miles overlapping the Navajo Nation in southeast Utah, is home to some 6,000 oil and gas wells according to the Dine Environmental Institute.
Nearly a century of uranium extraction maintains a legacy of 520 mines on the Navajo Nation according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency — although environmental justice group Forgotten People claims this number is closer to 1,300. Most uranium mines remain unmanaged in a state of abandonment and many in close proximity to nearby villages [Diep 2010]. Navajo uranium extraction is now prohibited under the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005. But with nearly 37% of all uranium in the US estimated to exist on or abutting Native lands, increasing demand by the nuclear energy industry has pushed growing interest in reconsidering future mining [Smith 2007].
In addition to poorly managed resource extraction, the prevalence of coal on the Navajo Nation supports a series of power generating stations including three of the largest in the Southwest — Four Corners, San Juan, and Navajo Generating Station — for a combined output of more than 6,000 megawatts supplied to half a million people in nearby cities. Consuming over 100,000 tons of coal per day and a combined water use in excess of 16 billion gallons annually, these three sites rank as some of the greatest sources of air pollution in the country. A 2004 comparison showed Four Corners Station ranked as the single highest emitter of NOx of any power facility in the United States, and the 24th highest for carbon dioxide. Meanwhile Navajo Station ranked 11th in NOx in the US and 5th for carbon dioxide emissions [Milford et.al. 2005].
Public Health and Issues of Dependency
The severity of environmental impacts on the health of the Navajo people can hardly be overstated. Records collected by The New Mexico State Tumor Registry dating back to the 1970s shows a 17-fold increase in childhood reproductive cancers on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Reservation, when compared to the U.S. average [Williams 2008]. A 1998 health survey of 896 households bordering oil fields on the Paradox Basin in Aneth, Utah (population 2,236) found complaints of upper respiratory distresses, dermatological conditions, musculoskeletal inflammations and psychological concerns far exceeded US averages.
In 2007 a study by Northern Arizona University on uranium endocrine disruptors linked decades of mining to growing contamination levels in water supplies across the Navajo Nation [Raymond-Whish, et. al. 2007]. Additional studies suggest some 40% of unregulated Navajo water sources exceed drinking standards for arsenic and 11% exceed maximum allowed uranium levels [Walker and Carroll 2011]. Meanwhile, the Navajo EPA estimates that up to 30% of its population draws water from unregulated sources such as private wells, nearby springs, and livestock collection tanks [US EPA 2011].
Under social pressures including 42% unemployment and 42% of families below the poverty line, the Navajo people remain economically dependent on extraction and energy industries. More than half of the Nation’s annual General Fund comes from oil, coal, gas, and heavy metal mining royalties: $71.34 million out of $124 million as of 2005 [Liu 2010]. Native Americans account for 83% of employees in mining operations across the Navajo Nation and 80% of employees across the three mentioned power plants.
Furthermore, conflicting opinions complicate potential environmental justice efforts as anti-economic. In 2009, for example, then President Joe Shirley Jr. ejected the Sierra Club and other environmental action groups from the Navajo reservation over concerns that their agendas damage local economies and revoke Navajo authority, “our greatest opposition comes from environmentalists [who] don’t know about Navajos, sovereignty or self-determination. They just want any use of coal stopped. However, coal is the Navajo Nation’s most plentiful resource, and our prosperity depends on it.” [Hardeen 2009] In March 2011 incoming Navajo President Ben Shelley (Shirley’s former VP who ran and defeated the progressive New Mexico State Senator Lynda Lovejoy) signed a new 25-year lease for the Four Corners power plant, securing 700 jobs and Tribal government revenues, despite concerns that the 50-year-old plant has far passed its intended life expectancy [Slothower 2011].