Mining Indigenous Communities: A Long Legacy

Years after mining companies rushed into Navajo reservations in search of uranium, the communities are still dealing with a legacy of contaminated water. Looking forward to today’s clean energy transition, indigenous voices are vital so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

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Every morning Darlene Arviso fills her truck with 3,500 gallons of water and sets out across the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico. She delivers the day’s water to hundreds of sick or old residents unable to drive a hundred miles to the nearest water source. Darlene is a hero to her neighbors, who affectionately call her “the water lady.” Her neighbors rely on her for daily deliveries or risk having no water for the day. 

Why do citizens of one of the richest countries in the world lack running water?

The answer begins with decisions taken decades ago. Following World War II, nuclear power’s potential became clear to the world. The United States was rapidly expanding its nuclear energy and weapons program and its demand for the necessary uranium kept growing. Mining companies poured into the Navajo reservation in search of uranium. Where they found it, companies were able to operate with little regulation while employing Navajo laborers. 

Then the Navajo began to get sick. Really sick. Lung cancer went from a rare disorder to highly common on the reservation. People were developing other rare disorders at unusually high rates for an otherwise healthy population. 

It wasn’t until years later that the Navajo learned of the contamination caused by these uranium mines. Radioactive compounds had seeped into the groundwater and rendered drinking wells and the water supply of the reservation toxic for hundreds of years. The devastating effects of the poisoned water are clear when you look at the gaping holes left amongst families on the reservation. Elder Navajo are dying at younger ages from chronic illnesses like cancer. Natural water sources within the reservation are still mostly unusable as drinking water. 

The United States is in a period of energy transition. Carbon-neutral energy like wind, solar, and nuclear power are branded as perfect solutions to the climate crisis. In particular, nuclear power promises clean, efficient energy and national security. Yet, this clean energy transition is leaving indigenous communities behind. 

With the closing of the uranium mines, Indigenous communities like the Navajo have been left to deal with the aftermath of expanding nuclear power. There have been little reparations or reinvestments in the community to make up for the pollution and illness on the Navajo reservation. As we see in many other settings and throughout history, Indigenous bodies and land have been exploited for the sake of the energy transition. 

There is a lot to be learned about the relationship between the clean energy transition and social sustainability. Marginalized communities need a seat at the table when it comes to sustainability. Indigenous communities should be leaders on the frontlines of energy justice. Dozens of tribes in North America are already fighting against oil pipelines being built neat their water sources, fracking on their ancestral lands, and the damming of their rivers and lakes. A socially sustainable energy transition is one that provides a platform to Indigenous communities to voice their concerns. It would let Indigenous communities take the lead when it comes to use of their land and resources. Historically, energy investments and resource extraction have disregarded Indigenous communities. The clean energy transition provides us the chance to make things right by including Indigenous communities in our future decisions regarding renewable energy investments. We owe that much to Darlene Arviso and the millions of Indigenous peoples around the world. 

Sheil Desai

Undergraduate Student
Sheil Desai is an undergraduate majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics and minoring in environmental studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.