‘This has got to stop’: Indigenous activists decry lingering contamination decades after the last uranium mines closed

Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations. 

From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind. 

“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event. 

“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”

A state of sacrifice zones

Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.

2020 elections usher in a wave of ‘firsts’ for NM

New Mexico voters embraced candidates in the 2020 elections that have historically been underrepresented, including women, in elected office. The state saw a slew of “firsts” this year. 

For the first time in the state’s history, New Mexico’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be held by women of color. And both Yvette Herrell, who will represent the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and Deb Haaland, who won reelection to the state’s 1st Congressional District, are enrolled members of Indigenous nations. Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo, and Herrell is a member of the Cherokee Nation, making New Mexico the first state in the U.S. to have two Indigenous Representatives. 

Teresa Leger Fernandez, who won New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, is Latina. 

Terrelene Massey, Diné (Navajo) and the executive director of Southwest Women’s Law Center, said she’s really excited to see more representation from women, especially women of color and Native American women. “I think they’ll provide different perspectives on the different issues they’ll be working on,” Massey said.

Groups condemn forced hysterectomies in a Georgia detention facility

Nicole Martin, a sex education developer and co-founder of the grassroots reproductive rights organization Indigenous Women Rising (IWR), called forced hysterectomies reported by a whistleblower in a migrant detention facility in Georgia a crime against humanity. Martin, of Laguna Pueblo and Diné (Navajo Nation), likened the forced hysterectomies as “directly linked to genocide and colonization and white supremacy.” She said the forced hysterectomies make it impossible for migrant people to reproduce and “bring in more generations.”

“Their whole sense of being is stripped away from them. I can’t imagine how the people detained right now, how they’re coping or functioning or making it day by day. My heart really hurts for them. I can’t believe this is the world we’re living in,” Martin told NM Political Report.

Warning: U.S. might be subjected to ‘petticoat rule’ – a celebration of women’s right to vote

The city of Albuquerque’s 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage special on Wednesday was both a celebration of the 19th amendment and a reminder of the darker moments behind voting rights. A bevy of women speakers, from political leaders like Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to young women pledging to vote for the first time this year, talked about the importance of voting and frequently referred to it as a way to make their voices heard. Many also spoke about the struggle for women of color to gain the right to vote even after the passage of the 19th amendment. Social justice advocate Pamelya Herndon, executive director and founder of KWH Social Justice Law Center and Change, brought up the education requirements that some Black voters faced for a century in some states after the Civil War ended as just one impediment. Herndon said the historical social justice leader and “leading male feminist of his time,” W.E.B. Du Bois said that “in order for the Black race to be lifted, every single Black person must have the right to vote.”

The women’s suffrage movement distanced itself from the concept of Black women having the right to vote in the early years of the effort because the suffragettes didn’t want to alienate the white Southern women involved in the cause, according to historians.

Medical abortion just got easier but it may not last

A Maryland judge ruled last week that an abortion provider can deliver the abortion medication, mifepristone, to patients seeking abortion care through telehealth. But the court injunction is “temporary in nature,” Wendy Basgall, Southwest Women’s Law Center staff attorney, said. The American Civil Liberties Union sought a preliminary injunction, which the judge granted. But it only lasts while the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services’ declaration of a federal public health emergency is in effect. Mifepristone is one of two medications that an abortion patient takes for a medical abortion.

Deb Haaland

NY Times highlights Congresswoman Deb Haaland

During a New York Times’ “Women in the Public Spotlight” discussion, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland said Congress needs more women. The New York Times invited the Albuquerque Democrat to participate in an online event called “Women in the Public Spotlight” on Tuesday as part of the Times’ recognition of 2020 as the centennial of when women’s suffrage went into effect. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote, in 1919. Haaland answered questions, along with Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive of an organization called Girls Who Code and author of “Brave, Not Perfect.” Monica Drake, assistant managing editor of The New York Times hosted. Haaland said she ran because she wanted more Native American women in Congress and she said that Congress should be 50 percent women.

An abortion fund for Native people is more than just a fund

A grassroots organization raises money for an abortion fund entirely for Indigenous people while also raising awareness. An Albuquerque film screening that served as a fundraiser for Indigenous Women Rising raised $300 late last month. The money goes to support an abortion fund for Native people in the U.S. and Canada. Since the beginning of this year alone, the IWR abortion fund has helped 18 people get an abortion. The fund can help with the cost of the abortion itself.

Women’s groups gather on Indigenous women’s issues

Angel Charley, acting co-executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native American Women, gave a siren call for Indigenous issues Sunday during a meeting of women’s groups. Charley was the keynote speaker for the New Mexico American Association of University Women Chapter (AAUW), the League of Women Voters and the National Organization for Women over the weekend in Santa Fe in advance of the organizations’ lobbying efforts Monday at the Roundhouse rotunda. Pamelya Herndon, chair of the Public Policy Committee for AAUW, said she chose Charley as speaker because she had never seen a collaboration between the Indigenous group and the AAUW and she thought now was a good time to start one. “We should be working together,” Herndon said. “This is how to move into the Year of the Woman.”

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

White House task force on murdered and missing Indigenous crisis meets with local criticism

The Department of Justice held its first task force meeting on murdered and missing American Indians and Alaska Natives with much fanfare Wednesday in Washington, D.C., but local leaders question whether the federal government’s efforts will be enough. President Donald Trump issued an executive order late last year establishing what he called “Operation Lady Justice,” an interagency group led by the U.S. Department of Justice, that would “aggressively” address the crisis of murdered and missing women and girls in Indigenous communities. Although no one knows for sure how many Indigenous women and children are murdered or go missing, the federal government estimates that 1.5 million Indigenous women and children experience violence, including sexual violence, in their lifetime. Just prior to Trump’s announcement, Secretary of the Interior William Barr told a group at the Flathead Reservation in Montana last year that the Department of Justice would commit $1.5 million to hire specialized coordinators to help improve law enforcement response to the problem. But Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland,an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, has previously said that the DOJ’s plan “falls short,” issued a critical statement to NM Political Report Thursday.

Oil Well and pump jack searchlight

The price of oil: Expanding development near Chaco raises health concerns

COUNSELOR — About halfway through a late-April Sunday service at the Living Spring Baptist Church, the sermon took an unusual turn. Pastor Tom Guerito’s exhortations to trust in God and resist sin, delivered mostly in Diné, gave way to a more earthly concern: oil and gas. “People say, ‘I smell it,’” Guerito told the 20 or so parishioners, who since 2012 have lived among an expanding constellation of oil and gas wells. But an air monitor installed nearby found nothing out of the ordinary, he said. “There’s nothing in the air.