“It is now time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, defined as the right to equal and non-discriminatory access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water for personal and domestic uses–drinking, personal sanitation, washing of clothes, food preparation and personal and household hygiene–to sustain life and health. States should prioritize these personal and domestic uses over other water uses and should take steps to ensure that this sufficient amount is of good quality, affordable for all and can be collected within a reasonable distance from a person’s home.” – Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on The Right to Water, September 2007
Attention: Ms. Lucinda O’Hanlon, Office of the Independent Expert (IE)
For: Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, Independent Expert (IE) on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Mission to the US, United Nations Human Rights Council.
Dated: March 1, 2011
Via E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Re: IE official visit, February 23-March 4, 2011 and official report to U.S.
Dear Ms. Lucinda O’Hanlon and Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque,
Forgotten People is herewith submitting these documents in response to a posting by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about the Independent Expert investigation of Human Rights to Water and Sanitation and official report to the U.S. 1
1. Forgotten People believes water is life and respectfully submits a case for an on-site visit by Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, Independent Expert on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Mission to the U.S.
2. Forgotten People is a nonprofit grassroots organization active within the Navajo Nation. We represent communities that span over 2 million acres of remote desert terrain in the northeastern part of Arizona. Most of the members practice a subsistence lifestyle of herding sheep. Many elderly community members speak only Dinè (the preferred nomenclature of the Navajo people).
3. Forgotten People supports the idea of civil society as an emerging concept in Indian country. Beginning with our predecessor, Sovereign Dinè Nation, we have been active in UN arena for decades and filed the first formal Complaint procedure charging the US government with human rights violations against the Dinè people. With the help of Non Governmental Organizations worldwide, our issues became the focus of a historic investigation by the UN of the US for human rights violations. Forgotten People’s submission: “Stakeholder’s views for the Study on Human Rights Obligations related to Equitable Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation the Right to Water” is posted on the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights website dated 4/15/2007. 2
4. A 43-year US government imposed Bennett Freeze and forced relocation of 12,000 Dinè at a cost to US taxpayers of 500 million dollars was perpetrated upon our people so Peabody Western Coal Company could mine coal and power Navajo Generating Station. A legacy due to the export of coal and uranium mining is responsible for the observed adverse impacts of those mining activities on air quality, water quality, animal and human health, sacred sites, burial sites and cultural and historic sites.
5. Norris Nez, Hathalie (Medicine Man) says, Water is sacred to everybody. We need it for our survival and in ceremonies but not all water can be used. We can only use pure water from mountains and groundwater gathered from sacred springs. We cannot use contaminated water. We are the children of Mother Earth and Father Sky. We are kids amongst them. Father Sky gives us rain but when we have an argument over water and mis-use it, Father Sky does not give us water. Mis-use results from corporate waste of water to slurry coal and contamination of our aquifers from uranium mining.
6. As a result of mining operations, people are suffering from confusion, despair, stress, depression and death by grief as a result of desecration and destruction of their environment, their basis for subsistence and destruction of their sacred ceremonial, burial, offering sites and other federally protected historic and cultural sites including Anasazi burials sites that were disturbed were not covered up after removal of the remains. Their locations are marked by archeologists’ stakes in violation of our religion. Mounds of dirt remain adjacent to the graves sifted for ceremonial objects that were taken to unknown locations.
7. The U.S. Department of Energy calls our lands a “National Sacrifice Area” and is at the heart of the global warming issue. Our communities are a microcosm of the global problem. The energy is produced on our lands using our resources, yet we receive no benefits from this activity. We suffer the local costs of this production, such as environmental damage to our land, degradation and diminution of our water resources and interference with sovereignty. We find that our traditional lifestyle hangs at the edge of survival in an arid climate, and scientists predict that global warming will cause a permanent drought and dust bowl in the American Southwest, making our way of life impossible.
8. Our communities face serious development issues. These issues have been compounded by the 43-year US government imposed Bennett Freeze. The Freeze was imposed in 1966 and is largely responsible for inadequate housing, lack of basic infrastructure such as paved roads, and pervasive poverty in the region. Only 3 % of families have electricity. Over 90% of the homes do not have access to piped water, requiring families to haul their water from other locations. 3 EPA estimates 54,000 residents of the Navajo Nation lack access to a public water system. 4 Only 24 % of homes are habitable today. 5
9. Since 1966, the population has increased by approximately 65 percent in the former Bennett Freeze area, forcing several generations of families to live together in dwellings that have been declared unfit for human habitation. The result of which has been a large number of deaths from exposure to the harsh climate.
10. The Bennett Freeze is responsible for intergenerational trauma affecting people mentally, physically and psychologically. Medical studies confirm that overcrowding in addition to the absence of running water, refrigeration, and adequate sewage disposal adversely impact the mental and physical health of Dinè residing in the former Bennett Freeze. These impacts range from youth suicide and mental illness; and an array of medical aliments including but not limited to kidney failure and cancer.
11. On May 6, 2009, President Obama signed legislation HR 956 and S531 to repeal the portion of Public Law 93-531 (The Relocation Act) to end the Freeze. Unfortunately, this did not address the extensive impact this law had on the Dinè people. While the Freeze has halted essential construction, including power line extensions, waterline extensions, and improvements to roads and community facilities, no rehabilitation program was developed to address the effects of the Freeze.
12. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is involved in a major effort to improve access to safe water on the Navajo Nation and redress problems resulting from the legacy of uranium mining in the 1950s and 60’s as a result of two pressures. The first was a commitment made by the EPA at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in which the US pledged to reduce the number of its citizens lacking access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 50% by 2015. 6 The second is the largest concentration of people without piped water and sanitation is on the Navajo Nation, especially in the communities served by Forgotten People.
13. Mine operators extracted nearly 4 million tons of uranium ore from 1944 to 1986 across the Navajo Nation, which brought the ore to the surface. 7 When the mines were later abandoned, slag piles were left on the surface where wind and rain break apart the rocks and the uranium then leeches into the water supplies.
14. The US EPA reports the presence of over 1,300 abandoned mines on reservation land alone. 8 Up to 25 % of the unregulated sources in the western Navajo Nation exceeds drinking water standard for kidney toxicants including uranium. 9
15. Uranium in the drinking water causes multiple health impacts like bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water. Before the cause was known, doctors in the region thought they had discovered a genetic disease caused “Navajo Neuropathy”, which was associated with muscular degeneration, ulcers, vision weakness, and other severe health issues. 10 Cancer rates among Dinè teenagers living near mine tailings are 17 times the national average. 11 Reproductive-organ cancers in teenage Dinè girls average seventeen times higher than the average of girls in the U.S. 12
16. On 12/30/10, Scientific American published an article “Abandoned Uranium Mines: An ‘Overwhelming Problem’ in the Navajo Nation.” This article focuses on an un-remediated abandoned uranium mill and mine we found in Southeast Cameron that maxed out a US EPA Superfund Contractor’s Geiger counter at over a million counts a minute. This mill is located in the wetlands of the Little CO River. 13
17. The greatest health risks arise from the use of unregulated water sources. 14 Over 1,300 mines remain unclaimed and the leeching of uranium from the slag piles into drinking the water supply has had damaging results. 15 The EPA and Indian Health Services prioritized the regions of Black Falls and Dennehotso, where local sources are contaminated and safe water was not available within 10 miles. 16 The ability to reach safe watering points varies according to weather, access to transportation, or health problems. This forces families to rely on unsafe alternatives. Livestock wells are sometimes used for drinking water despite contamination with livestock feces and urine as well as volatile chemicals. 17
18. Forgotten People believes a people-centered human rights approach provides a conceptual framework to bring coherence and vision to social justice work in the Navajo Nation. Forgotten People is addressing habitability issues through building sustainable housing, weatherization, and solarization programs recognizing that the building of community capacity is a cornerstone of modern development theory 18 where the people most directly affected by an issue can participate by focusing first on community-wide identification of needs and then work with each community to engage in participatory resolutions to those needs. These meetings provide a valuable opportunity to facilitate discussions between community members and project coordinators.
19. Forgotten People believes that in order to accomplish our goals we will need tangible improvements for our communities. Rolanda Tohannie, a Box Springs representative with thyroid cancer says, “I had 7 operations in the last year and will have another operation in March to deal with cancer that is spreading throughout my system. For over 40 years we were never told we were drinking contaminated water until Forgotten People told us. There is no help from other sources and all the regional water sources are broken or contaminated. A US EPA water hauling truck that was supposed to arrive in March, 2010 still has not arrived. On Friday, February 18, 2011, Forgotten People with the help of Operation Compassion delivered 17 pallets, 80,000 lbs. of safe drinking water to our community in a semi that was transferred to pick up trucks and flatbeds. Forgotten People’s efforts are restoring hope to my community that will help our people live a little longer.” 19
20. Forgotten People believes reaching our goals will require collaboration with federal, tribal, academic, and corporate partners. In May, 2009, Forgotten People received an Environmental Excellence Award from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency for outstanding services and contributions to Dinè Communities. In January 2009, Forgotten People received a US EPA environmental justice grant to design and install 9 safe drinking water systems. In March 2010, Forgotten People built 9 bathrooms in collaboration with US EPA and Indian Health Service to install hauled water sanitation systems.
21. Forgotten People supports the individual right to water and sanitation. This internationally emerging issue is seen as a basic human right as defined and embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and treaties ratified by most counties around the world.
22. Forgotten People supports the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation and joins the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and California on the human right to water.
23. Wars of the future will be fought over water, as they are over oil today, as our ‘Blue Gold’, the source of human survival, enters the global marketplace. While here on the Navajo Nation the most precious of all resources, our water rights, are being waived and minimized, endangering the survival of our citizens and future generations as a separate indigenous People.
24. In the last days of the prior administration, the Navajo Nation signed a Water Rights Settlement against the wishes of the people. Forgotten People believes the Settlement is a tragedy not only due to the minimizing of Dinè rights but the waiver of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential compensation for rights waived and a waiver for injury to water as we have seen in the Black Falls region where sources are still contaminated with arsenic and uranium, and where a US EPA Superfund contractor found, on November 9, 2010, that an un-remediated abandoned mill located yards away from a Wetland by the Little Col. River, in a flood zone, maxed out his Geiger counter at over 1 million counts a minute. This mill is in close proximity to an un-remediated abandoned uranium pit with high walls and tailings piles.
25. The corporate favoritism at Dinè people’s expense is throwing away money when Dinè s have to haul water by small barrels, drink contaminated water or have no access to water. The Dinè people do not get power from the NGS. It goes to Phoenix and Tucson and other cities. There is a fundamental unfairness and lack of information on the Navajo Nation.
26. Forgotten People supports the People’s “right of service” for drinking water consumers, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act (2005) to ensure that the poor have access to “safe, affordable” water and the prioritizing of People’s right to access water for basic human needs.
27. Forgotten People believes the provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and water haulers in the former Bennett Freeze and throughout the Navajo Nation fulfills the intent and content of the human rights obligations and will help the US achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
28. Existing challenges face victims and survivors in the former Bennett Freeze. Implementation and replication of good practices requires the use of innovative measures, technologies, and policies. This will ensure that the egregious gaps in services are rectified. Prototype models to implement safe drinking water and sanitation practices are needed in the Navajo Nation.
The issues addressed by Forgotten People’s highlight the need for strengthening and implementing cross-cutting principles in international human rights law. This is needed to fulfill EPA’s commitment at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As members of a civil society, Forgotten People affirms the human right to water and sanitation is being violated in our communities. Residents are still drinking uranium and arsenic contaminated water, livestock water, and have no access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Public health is threatened by un-remediated abandoned uranium mines, coal mines, renewed uranium mining adjacent to our borders in the wetlands of the Grand Canyon, the ‘crown jewel’ of the national park system and the proposed transport of uranium through Dinè lands with no disaster response plan.
Forgotten People urges the IE to prioritize investigation of our case which demonstrates the need for environmental justice and the human right to a healthy environment for those residing in impacted regions. Please contact Forgotten People for further information and to coordinate an on-site visit via
E-mail, phone, or through our website.
Don Yellowman, President Lucy Knorr, Sec’y/Treasurer
Caroline Tohannie, Director Marsha Monestersky, Program Director
On behalf of Forgotten People (Navajo Nation), AZ
1 http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/Iexpert/overview.htm. and http://www.ushrnetwork.org/
3 HR5168, 2004.
5 Former AZ Rep. Rick Renzi.
6 US01, 2005.
7 EPA 02, 2008.
8 McSwain, 2007.
9 deLemos, 2007.
10 Pasternak, 2006.
11 Smith, 2008.
12 Raloff, 2004.
14 EPA02, 2008.
15 McSwain, 2007.
16 EPA01, 2008.
17 NN EPA, 2008.
18 Hailey, 2006.