Why Save the Sacred Land?

Our Environment is Under Attack

West Mitten Butte in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Marie Plummer is the 85-year old matriarch of a family in Tohatchi, New Mexico. Marie and her family have lived on the Navajo Nation for generations since the Long Walk and before.

The Navajo Nation is located in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. The reservation is a desert oasis of red clay and rocks, canyons, hoodoos, natural bridges and buttes that also has alpine forests, mountains, rivers and mountain lakes where many residents still live in traditional ways.

The Navajo Nation is home to traditional artists, sand painters, weavers and silversmiths, like those in Marie’s family. But her family and others on the Navajo Nation also face an unemployment rate of 46.9 percent. The median household income is $27,389, and 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

The utilities that own the Navajo Generating Station, the largest private employer on the largest native reservation in the country, have announced they will close the coal plant in 2019. As the largest coal-powered plant in the western United States and “the seventh largest source of climate pollution in the country,” it is a victory for the health of those living on the reservation and for the environment.

Health impacts of living near a coal plant include respiratory problems, cancer, heart disease, and premature and low weight births. But the coal plant closing is also a blow for the Navajo Nation’s already stressed economy and employment opportunities.

The health impacts of coal-fired plants are not the only environmental justice concern of the Navajo. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation have left a poisonous and deadly legacy of uranium contamination resulting in elevated levels of radiation in the water and deaths from kidney failure and cancer. The Navajo have had unsafe drinking water long before Flint, Michigan made headlines.

The uranium mines were in operation from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Indian Health Services reported that cancer deaths on the reservation doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s. The Navajo Division of Health reports that cancer is “one of the leading causes of illness and death for the Navajo people.”

There is a grave need for monitoring environmental justice in this country. Yet President Donald Trump’s administration is planning to close the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice while slashing the EPA budget by 31 percent.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last month stating, “This bill terminates the Environmental Protection Agency on December 31, 2018.” Both the EPA and its Office of Environmental Justice seem to be under attack by the U.S. government.

Mustafa Ali’s resignation from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice serves as another indicator of the policy direction for protection of the environment. The absence of environmental justice is equivalent to environmental racism.

Marie Plummer

Families like Marie’s living on the Navajo Nation will continue to suffer at the hands of government and industry that “pollute and destroy the environment and health of minority and low-income communities.”

Without the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, there will no longer be a federal agency tasked with protecting their rights to clean air, water, and land and the work will fall to underfunded nonprofits like To’ Nizhoni Ani, Black Mesa Water Coalition, and Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) who are fighting for clean water and a safe nontoxic environment on the reservation.

To be sure, the federal budget deserves close scrutiny and the elimination of excess. However, the current U.S. defense budget is nearly $600 billion and the new budget calls for an increase of $54 billion. The U.S. defense budget is the largest in the world, and it is more than the next seven countries combined.

Under the proposed plan, the EPA budget is slashed to $5.6 billion and other crucial programs to aid humanity are financially castrated. The impacts of coal and uranium toxicity on the Navajo Nation are why the work of the Office of Environmental Justice and the EPA is critical.

Yet, solutions must move beyond government policy and into the business sector. This is why sustainable business is essential: to show both government officials and business leaders that there is a more ethical and responsible way to lead and conduct business when environmental justice is inherent in the business strategy.

Where business and industry has failed, organizations like DinéHózho have stepped in to aid in economic development on the Navajo Nation. DinéHózho supports the startup of socially and environmentally responsible Navajo-owned businesses on the reservation.

It is possible for businesses to operate in a manner that does not exploit minorities, people of color and low-income communities and cause damage to their health and environment. The tribe has also broken ground for the Kayenta Solar Facility as they move away from damaging fossil fuels and toward renewable energy while providing jobs and electricity to tribal members.

For the Navajo Nation and all across the country, environmental protections and justice need our critical attention and support — now and always.

Nancy Landrum is a Professor of Sustainable Business Management at Loyola University Chicago, co-author of Sustainable Business: An Executive’s Primer, and a fellow with Loyola’s Public Voices Greenhouse through The OpEd Project.