By KAY MATTHEWS
At $50 a pound (down from $90 a pound several years ago) it’s hard to understand why several huge mining conglomerates are in the process of obtaining permits to mine uranium, once again, in the Grants mineral belt and on the Navajo Reservation in western New Mexico. Those monitoring the process, in particular the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque, and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), in Santa Fe, recognize that these corporations are in it for the long haul, or what they call “mining for investors.” The permitting process is indeed a long haul—with the various federal and state agencies involved it could take up to 10 years to have everything in place.
Those opposed to any new development of mining or milling in these areas already devastated by the boom of the 1970s aren’t waiting around while the permitting process drags on. The Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE) has retained NMELC to represent their opposition to the proposed mines in the Mount Taylor area, and Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), a member group of MASE, is involved in litigation in the Church Rock/Crown Point area of the reservation. The other core group members of MASE include: Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance, a group of residents directly affected by groundwater pollution and radiation releases from the Homestake/Barrick Gold Mining Company uranium mill and tailings pile near Milan, NM and by the historic discharges of mining and milling waste from dozens of mines and two uranium mills in the Ambrosia Lake Mining District northwest of Grants, NM; Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, a group of residents of Laguna and Acoma pueblos dedicated to assessing community and environmental health from impacts of past uranium development; Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee, a group of former uranium miners, millers, ore haulers, and drillers who are working to secure compensation for post 1971 uranium workers under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA); and Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA), a grassroots organization of Diné families who have experienced and lived with the impacts of uranium mining and milling in the Church Rock mining area since the 1960s. Nadine Padilla, a Navajo and Pueblo, is the MASE coordinator from Bluewater Lake.
Several mines in the Mount Taylor area are engaged in the permitting process. All of these mines are conventional, i.e., underground, as opposed to the in situ leach (ISL) mines proposed for the Crownpoint/Church Rock area.
• La Jara Mesa project is an underground mine 10 miles northeast of Grants. Laramide Resources Ltd submitted a Plan of Operation to the United States Forest Service (USFS) in 2008, and in May 2012 the USFS released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. A Record of Decision is expected to be released later this year; many believe it’s a foregone conclusion that the USFS will approve the project, based on the 1972 Mining Act, which allows patents to underground resources on public lands. La Jara Mesa has seen extensive exploration in the past: United Nuclear Corporation, Gulf Resources, and Homestake Mining Company drilled over 700 exploration wells and conducted metallurgical tests. Homestake had a similar Plan of Operations for the La Jara Mesa project reviewed and approved by the USFS in 1984 and 1988 but chose not to enter into production because of steep declines in the price of uranium.
• The Roca Honda Mine is located on Jesus Mesa three miles northwest of San Mateo. Two sections of the proposed mine are on USFS land and one section is on State Trust Land. The project is a joint venture of Strathmore (Canada Mining Company) and Sumitomo, a Japanese multinational nuclear utility, operated under the name Roca Honda Resources. Former State Land Office director Patrick Lyons signed off on a state lease for the mine before he left office, and the USFS is currently working on an Environmental Impact Statement for the site. Roca Honda Resources has also applied to State Mining and Minerals Division for a permit and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a permit to build a mill on the private land near Ambrosia Lake, a former mill site. It will also need a discharge permit from the New Mexico Environment Department. NMLEC represents MASE in its opposition to the Roca Honda proposal.
• The Mount Taylor Mine, also near San Mateo, is the old underground Gulf Resources mine. The development company is Rio Grande Resources, a subsidiary of General Atomics, a drone manufacturer. There is no activity currently taking place at this site due to the low price of uranium and the high cost of extraction.
• The Marquez Canyon Mine, east of Grants at the old Bokum mine and mill site is also on hold.
Although the Navajo Nation imposed a ban on uranium mining on reservation lands in 2005, the NRC has issued source materials permits for four uranium mines in the Church Rock/Crownpoint area, located on both reservation land and pockets of private land within the reservation boundaries. All four of these proposed mines will utilize in situ leaching techniques in which chemicals are injected directly into the ground to dissolve the uranium and the uranium-bearing solution is then pumped to the surface for processing. There are currently 13 abandoned mines within a five mile radius of Church Rock.
Readers may remember that on July 16, 1979, 14 weeks after the Three Mile Island radiation release, the Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam and 1,100 tons of radioactive mill waste and approximately 93 million gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Rio Puerco, through the town of Gallup, and into western Arizona. The contaminated water left residues of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium, as well as traces of metals such as cadmium, aluminum, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, sodium, vanadium, zinc, iron, lead and high concentrations of sulfates. While mining proponents argue that in situ leaching “provides a safe alternative” to conventional mining, Eric Jantz of NMELC says, “The claim that in situ leach, ISL, mining is environmentally benign is ridiculous. The process involves intentionally contaminating an aquifer in order to recover the uranium. There has never been an instance where a commercial ISL operation has restored groundwater to its pre-mining condition.”
• In the Church Rock area, Section 8 mine, located on an inholding, has all its federal and state permits in place. The Section 17 mine is on the reservation. ENDAUM, and one of its members Larry King, represented by NMELC, filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to overturn the licensing for the mine.
• In the Crownpoint area the proposed central processing site sits right in the middle of the town, and the Unit 1 site is on Navajo allotment land.
While the Pueblo and Navajo folks opposed to any new development see their opposition as an issue of environmentaljustice, unwilling to once again be a dumping ground for toxic waste and aquifer poisoning, mining proponents rationalize that in situ leaching techniques will allow the mining companies to extract the uranium ore with minimal environmental consequences and provide the community with much needed employment. Part One of this series presented evidence that largely refutes these claims. But community contention lingers. When the state listed Mount Taylor on the State Register of Cultural Properties as a traditional cultural property (TCP) in 2009, this contention rose to the surface. A TCP designation would not necessarily protect the area from uranium development, but the coalition of Pueblo and Navajo that asked the state for the designation felt it would be the best way to protect Mount Taylor while still providing public access: wood gathering, grazing, hiking, and hunting. Under the TCP designation the Historic Preservation Division and its mining division are required to review permit requests for development on the mountain and that developers consult with tribes during the permitting process. The tribes have no veto over permit decisions, however. Despite these caveats, and the fact that 89,000 acres of private lands within the boundaries were exempted from protection, local landowners, ranchers, the vested mining companies, and the Cebolleta Land Grant filed a legal challenge to the designation. They prevailed, and the designation was withdrawn. Laura Paskus covered this highly controversial process in her High Country News article “Dueling Claims.”
Readers can follow the permitting process and the status of the lawsuits on the MACE, ENDAUM, and NMELC websites.