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Environmental concerns slow helium mining proposal on Navajo Nation

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Roz Brown

(New Mexico News Connection) People on the Navajo Nation have lived through decades of oil, gas, uranium and coal extraction, and helium could be next.

The Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company wants to explore for helium on Navajo land in New Mexico, a proposal pitting reservation agencies against some residents and environmentalists.

Helium is highly concentrated on tribal lands. It is extracted along with natural gas, and requires drilling deep into the earth's crust. But New Mexico is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years.

Elouise Brown, Dooda Helium Desert Rock community organizer and an environmental activist, said water needed for such operations is already in short supply.

"Coal, uranium, all those extractions, they have damaged Mother Earth, and the entities never clean up their mess," Brown asserted. "The main thing is they contaminate the water."

Proceeds from oil and gas drilling drive New Mexico's economy, but health experts have noted living near wells can result in more cases of asthma, birth defects and cancer. Navajo Nation Oil and Gas said helium extraction could provide profits for the tribe while helping ease a worldwide shortage.

Christina Morris, Dooda Helium TiisNazBas community organizer, said the proposal has not included adequate participation from many residents who are opposed.

"These forms of environmentally destructive policies only accentuate racialized capitalism," Morris contended. "Especially Navajo Nation, who were forced from all of the homelands of the Southwest since the 1930s."

Joseph Hernandez, energy organizer for the Native American Voter Alliance Education Project, said too many extraction companies have made false promises to native peoples about the economic benefits of extraction, which often result in a "get rich quick scheme" for a handful of people. He believes the reservation should invest elsewhere.

"If we can make Navajo Nation more business-friendly and keep our money here to create an economy on Navajo (land), that alone will replace the need to depend on helium extraction," Hernandez argued.

The area slated to be explored for helium includes homes and farms, along with cultural, religious, and ceremonial sites.