Erika Pirotte: The fight for environmental justice and the Navajo Nation

Erika Pirotte

“I wanted to get a law degree to not only develop a set of skills that I could use in all settings, but to speak truth to power and advocate for people who might not have the tools they need.  My work with the Navajo Nation allows me to do that.” Erika Pirotte, JD ‘18 

Erika Pirotte didn’t come to Oregon Law to study American Indian Law or Environmental Law. She came to study Criminal Law and graduated with a certificate in the concentration in 2018. With a law degree Pirotte was able to develop a set of skills that she could use in a variety of settings and career paths.  

Today, Pirotte is an attorney working in the Natural Resources Unit (NRU) of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. Licensed to practice law in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, Pirotte is part of a team that handles all legal matters pertaining to the development and use of the Nation’s land and natural resources and protection of the environment.  

While her work touches on a myriad of legal issues, a large portion of her NRU portfolio includes work with water, forestry, tribal parks, and abandoned uranium mines.  

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Today, there are 524 Abandoned Uranium Mines (AUMs) on the Navajo Nation.  

The task for cleanup is monumental, and addressing the environmental and health issues connected to the mines is challenging. However, Pirotte says that she loves the environmental work she is doing to address the legacy of uranium mining and protect both the Navajo land and people.  

How did you become interested in American Indian Law? 

I wanted to get a law degree to not only develop a set of skills that I could use in all settings, but to speak truth to power and advocate for people who might not have the tools they need. Originally, I wanted to pursue Criminal Law and a career related to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). With Indian Law, I began to see an overlap with VAWA’s Special Criminal Jurisdiction and the missing and murdered Indigenous women and children pandemic. Specifically, the course Contemporary Indian Law bridged my interests in Criminal and Indian Law and sparked my desire to work for a tribe.   

What are your duties as an attorney for the Navajo Nation? 

I advise departments within the Division of Natural Resources on a myriad of internal (Navajo) and external (state, federal) matters. In this capacity, I review contracts, develop and revise policies, issue advisory memoranda, participate in various rule-making processes, ensure compliance with judicial decrees and settlement agreements, and many other duties as assigned.  

Ultimately, my client is the Navajo Nation which means I advise client-constituents in both the Executive and Legislative branches of the central government. 

Talk more about your work with the abandoned uranium mines. 

Specifically, the abandoned uranium mines work is about the cleanup, or remediation, of abandoned mine sites for the health and safety of people and the environment.  

The Navajo Nation is located in a region in the southwest with a lot of naturally occurring heavy metals, including coal, copper, and uranium. That’s why the federal government came in and wanted to extract uranium ore for World War II defense. At the time, people supported the extractions, but as a result of those actions, generations of families have faced negative health effects and underground water contamination. 

In total, there are 524 mines across the Navajo Nation – and the majority of them were left open. There is a direct correlation between the mines and things like lung cancer, bone cancer, impaired kidney function, and other chronic diseases. And miners would use contaminated soil to build their homes, so their homes became radioactive. This is the legacy of uranium mining the work seeks to address.  

Through the Abandoned Uranium Mine Settlements, the federal government has awarded $1.7 billion for assessment and clean up. What does this do? 

There have been many settlements that fall under the Abandoned Uranium Mine Settlements, which set up trusts to fund research, public information campaigns, and cleanup. The abandoned uranium mine work is all done under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Clean Up Act (CERCLA). The work is divided into time-critical and non-time-critical responses which are based on contamination risk and prioritization. Taking that into consideration, of the 524 abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation, 219 or 40% are scheduled for assessment and cleanup. 

Clearly, the funding is insufficient to fully remediate all abandoned uranium mines across the Navajo Nation. But it’s a step in the right direction to address the legacy of uranium mining. It’s a decades-long process just to reach the cleanup stages. 

When you think about the mines and environmental justice, what comes to mind? 

One of the key factors I look at is the length of time it has taken to reach the cleanup stages. On non-tribal land, much of the remediation has been completed. Meanwhile, on tribal land, it has taken decades of lawsuits and litigation, settlements and trusts, as well as research and data to move the federal government and private companies to action.  

Similar uranium mines located in Colorado and Utah faced little to no challenges to timely remediate those sites. This is completely opposite to what we’ve seen with the Navajo Nation. 

For example, when you look at the demographics of Moab, Utah, where it’s 87% white and less than 2% American Indian, and then the demographics of Cameron, Arizona, where 98% of the population is American Indian, you really start to see how systems of oppression are connected and what environmental injustice looks like. 

As you advocate on behalf of the Nation, what remediation efforts are you involved with? 

I am excited to report that we are moving into the remediation and “action phase” with construction and cleanup for Northeast Church Rock Mine (NECR). It’s set for 2023 and is a huge undertaking because it involves moving approximately 1.4 million tons of contaminated soil. About 30 families live within 1.5 miles of the site and we are looking at voluntary alternative housing options during construction and cleanup because of the lengthy construction timeline.  

What inspires you about working with the Navajo Nation? 

The opportunity to serve the Navajo Nation seemed unparalleled.  I wanted to seize the opportunity to engage in a practice of law that balances traditional values and a rich culture with the present-day issues affecting Indian Country. 

The Navajo people hold themselves up to be a resilient people – and they are. They are known for their love for the land and their connection with it. Their history as a people includes being placed on this earth between the four sacred mountains as stewards of the land.  

Despite forced relocations from their homelands, children removed from their families, compelled assimilation to extinguish language and culture, unfulfilled trust responsibilities, and broken promises, the Navajo Nation and its people are still here fighting to exercise their sovereignty and fulfill their ancient mandate as protectors of the land. They have hope, joy, and strength, and that encourages me to continue this important work. 

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law Communications