Uranium Boom and Bust: “Otra Vez?” Part One

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series on the possible revitalization of uranium mining in the Grants/Gallup area of New Mexico. Part One takes a hard look at the economic, social, and environmental costs of uranium mining in the state. Part Two will provide an overview of the state and federal permitting processes that have already begun for proposed mines near Mount Taylor, Crownpoint, and Church Rock. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center represents a local environmental and social justice group and individuals who are opposed to this development.]


During the fire seasons of 1975 and 1976 I was the fire lookout on La Mosca Peak, right next to Mount Taylor, or Tsoodzil, as the Diné refer to this sacred mountain near Grants, New Mexico. What was happening all around me had more to do with the profane than the sacred, however. These were the boom years of uranium exploration, mining, and processing throughout what is called the Grants mineral belt, stretching from Milan to Laguna Pueblo, right through the San Mateo Mountains surrounding Mount Taylor. Below me mining rigs crisscrossed forest roads on their way to exploration sites, sending up dust clouds that I had to learn to distinguish from forest fire smoke. To the west I could see the Ambrosia Lake, Kerrmac, and Homestake mines and mills where the yellow cakes of uranium ore were taken to be processed; to the north, the intense activity centered around the San Mateo underground mine; to the east, the huge scar in the earth that was the open pit Jackpile Mine at Paguate, on Laguna Pueblo. By the early 1980s the boom was over, however. The rigs were gone, all the mines and mills closed down, and the Jackpile mine was left unreclaimed to send radioactive dust into the air and radioactive sediment into the aquifer.

The unreclaimed Jackpile Mine on Laguna Pueblo. Photo by Kay Matthews
Drill rig on the slopes of Mount Taylor in 1976. Photo by Kay Matthews

Even though the price of uranium has dropped to approximately $50 a pound (from a high of $90 several years ago) the mining industry is once again talking big money, anywhere from a potential of $30 to $67 billion to be made in New Mexico, along with 250,000 jobs. Both the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, based in Santa Fe, and the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), based in Albuquerque, have “debunked” the claims of this new “boom” in published reports. The Law Center commissioned Dr. Thomas M. Powers, a preeminent natural resource economist (Professor Emeritus of the University of Montana) to evaluate the true meaning of the economic impacts of uranium mining in New Mexico. His report is called “An Economic Evaluation of a Renewed Uranium Mining Boom in New Mexico.” SRIC compiled an overview called “Debunking the Uranium ‘Bonanza’ ” in its 2008 fall newsletter, Voices From the Earth.

Economic Benefits

Both reports say that the industry’s claims of even $30 billion is a “gross exaggeration” of the money that could be made in New Mexico. As Powers points out, it assumes that uranium prices will increase to the former $90 to $100 per pound range and stay there indefinitely. It also assumes that all of New Mexico’s uranium reserves can be mined, when in fact, many factors influence how much ore will actually be extracted:

• The amount of uranium extracted will depend upon the actual price per pound. According to federal and state estimates, New Mexico has about 340 millions pounds of uranium if the market price is around $50 per pound.

• The amount of recoverable uranium would be reduced by 150 millions pounds if the Navajo Nation enforces its ban on uranium mining and milling in Navajo Indian County, where much of the ore resides.

• New Mexico’s 2 percent of the world’s reserves will have to compete with the rest of those reserves, which are higher grade and lower cost. According to the World Nuclear Association, enough uranium can be produced at existing production sites for 100 years at current usage rates.

• To extract New Mexico’s reserves it is estimated that 15 new mines and three new mills will be required. Some of these suggested new mines and mills have begun the lengthy permitting process required, which will be the focus of Part Two of this series. Any new conventional mill or in situ leaching (more on this kind of mine later in this article) would take at least five to 10 years to complete the application process, licensing, and construction.

• The current financial crisis has already blocked some proposed uranium development in New Mexico. There will likely be many more financial constraints as the economy weakens.

Existing Economies in Affected Areas

The communities in the Grants mineral belt—the towns of Grants and Gallup in Cibola and McKinley counties — survived the 1980s bust by diversifying their economies. While they lost 6,400 jobs in the uranium sector, more than 17,000 new jobs replaced them in non-mining sectors. According to Powers, “After the bust, payroll for government, services, and trade sectors continued to expand, as did income from retirement and investments.” Tourism, recreation, and gaming also accounted for some of these new jobs. Power’s report also shows that per capita incomes in McKinley and Cibola counties rose significantly, and unemployment rates declined to near full employment levels by 2007. Powers states very clearly what is at stake: “Communities and regions that have been successful at attracting significant amounts of new economic activity over the last two decades were not those that continued to specialize in natural resource extraction. In fact those areas lagged all other community economic categories. As economic activity in the American economy has become relatively more mobile . . . [a]reas that are perceived to have the human, public, and environmental resources and amenities that make them attractive residential locations have prospered. . . . New Mexico’s presentation of itself to the rest of the nation and the world as the ‘Land of Enchantment’ — rather than the land of uranium and copper mining or other industrial activities — sends the message that New Mexico understands the importance of natural and cultural amenities to its continued economic vitality.”

Social and Environmental Costs

New, diversified economies are dependent on a clean and healthy environment. The social and environmental costs of the uranium mining industry are devastating, particularly concerning the radioactivity that is generated: “The costs associated with trying to clean up the persistent radioactive waste and other pollution associated with past mining across the U.S. provides a stark reminder that uranium mining is not an environmentally benign activity” (Powers).

In the conventional extraction process only two pounds per ton of ore is extracted, leaving millions of tons of tailings. If the mining industry has its way 175 million tons of radioactive mill tailings would double the volume of the 90 to 100 million tons that already exist at seven abandoned mill sites. About 85 percent of the radioactivity of the ore remains after the uranium has been removed, as well as other heavy metals and chemical solvents. With in situ leaching techniques, chemicals are injected directly into the ground to dissolve the uranium. The uranium-bearing solution is then pumped to the surface for processing. While this technique avoids massive amounts of mine wastes and tailings, the recovery of all the chemicals from the groundwater has proven difficult, and restoration of groundwater to pre-mining water quality has failed at all commercial scale in situ leaching operations. In addition, evaporation ponds are needed for liquid waste, which poses additional threats to the groundwater.

In testimony before the New Mexico Legislature’s Economic and Rural Development Committee in August of 2008, Candace Head-Dylla, who lives a mile southwest of the Homestake Uranium Mill and tailings near Milan, talked about what uranium mining has done to her community water supply: “In our community, from the Milan Village limits to the Anaconda millsite at Bluewater to the Ambrosia Lake area, the water beneath at least 60 sections of land — or 38,400 acres — has been polluted. In some areas, this involves up to five different aquifers. We estimate the total volume of water destroyed to be in excess of 883,200 acre-feet, plus 50 years of recharge of 320,000 acre-feet, for a total water contaminated of over a million acre-feet (1,203,200 acre-feet) of precious water that is now unusable for human consumption and agricultural uses.”

By 2003 over $2 billion of federal funds were spent across the county to reclaim 24 “inactive” or abandoned uranium mills and tailing facilities that supplied uranium for nuclear weapons. The U. S. Department of Energy expects to spend many millions more for surveillance and maintenance of these sites. But many of the environmental costs associated with uranium and other metal mining are “nearly permanent,” according to Thomas. “Large open pits can never really be reclaimed. Some of the chemical and biological processes triggered when millions of tons of meal ore are brought to the surface and exposed to air and water or where air and water are brought to underground ore deposits cannot be easily stopped. They can only be controlled by perpetual treatment.”

The Navajo Nation has also spent millions of dollars for limited reclamation at nearly 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and estimates that at least a half a billion dollars is needed just to initiate full reclamation at more than 500 abandoned mines. The federal government has spent more than $161 million over the past decade on the Navajo Nation on assessment, reclamation, and screening for uranium workers.

That issue is the most tragic of all. The numbers of uranium industry workers who have developed cancers or other serious illnesses because of their exposure to radiation and other toxic chemicals is enormous. Through July 2008 the federal government had paid approximately $625 million to former workers or families pursuant to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). Under this law people who worked in the uranium industry between 1942 and 1971 are eligible for compensation awards up to $100,000 each. Many more workers were exposed to radiation poisoning through the boom years of the 1970s — including 7,000 who worked in New Mexico — but are not eligible for compensation. “Carelessness, negligence, and willful indifference by the uranium mining industry in early mines, mills, and waste dumps” (Thomas) resulted in the deaths of many workers in New Mexico. Even with improved mining technologies there will be both environmental and social costs to bear. As Candace Head-Dylla stated in her testimony before the legislature: “Please do not let the industry’s fairy tales divert you from the critical tasks of addressing the uranium legacy and taking the first steps toward a truly sustainable economic future for our children.”

“In 1952, when the [Jackpile]mine first opened, it seemed like a dream come true. It gave so many of my people on the reservation a chance to find employment without having to venture off the reservation. It was a dream come true to many of us. It never occurred to us that we would soon be putting our lives in jeopardy. It never occurred to us that our children and our grandchildren’s lives would be put at risk. All we saw was that we were finally going to be self-sufficient, and that we could finally have some pride in ourselves. We never knew about the dangers in the beginning.”Dorothy Purley of Laguna Pueblo, who died of lymphoma on December 2, 1999 at age 60.

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