A new demand for uranium power brings concerns for Navajo groups

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

ACOMA, N.M.-- Uranium from the Grants Mineral Belt running under rugged peaks and Indian pueblos of New Mexico was a source of electric power and military might in decades past, providing fuel for reactors and atomic bombs.

Now, interest in carbon-free nuclear power is fueling a potential resurgence of uranium mining. But Indian people gathered in Acoma, N.M., for the Indigenous Uranium Forum over the weekend decried future uranium extraction, especially from nearby Mount Taylor, considered sacred by many tribes. Native people from Alaska, Canada, the Western United States and South America discussed the severe health problems uranium mining has caused their communities, including high rates of cancer and kidney disease.

Uranium companies and government authorities do not dispute this, and federal environmental remediation and workers' compensation programs related to past uranium mining are ongoing. But mining companies say today's methods and regulations have improved so much that locals have nothing to fear.

Uranium mining and milling in New Mexico began in the late 1940s but nearly ceased in the late 1980s as prices dropped. In 2007, prices climbed to a record $139 per pound, and companies applied for or renewed permits and staked new claims. The economic crisis has had a chilling effect, with prices now at about $43 per pound. But industry officials say they expect high prices soon, especially with the likely passage of a climate bill putting a price on carbon emissions.

The Grants Mineral Belt, extending 100 miles west from Albuquerque, holds 300 million pounds of extractable uranium. Companies are hoping to mine the country's largest single deposit, about 100 million pounds, around Mount Taylor. This year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the nation's 11 most endangered places, and the state granted protected status to a swath of the mountain. The company Rio Grande Resources wants to reopen a former Mount Taylor mine that yielded 8 million pounds of uranium for previous owner Chevron from 1986 to 1989.

About 50 miles from Mount Taylor, the company Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI) also plans to begin mining 101 million pounds starting around the Navajo towns of Church Rock and Crownpoint, N.M. HRI plans to do most of its extraction through in-situ leaching (ISL), where chemicals are injected into an aquifer to mobilize uranium deposits, then the metal is sucked out while the water is purified and returned to the aquifer. Rick Van Horn, senior vice president of operations for HRI's parent company, Uranium Resources, said the process is environmentally safe. Opponents fear it could contaminate their water supply.

"This has multi-generational effects. I won't even live long enough to see what it does to people in 500 years," said Earl Tulley, who lives near Church Rock and is vice president of the Navajo environmental group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. His wife had breast cancer and his daughter had an ovarian tumor removed, both of which were attributed to uranium exposure. "People are being taken apart from the inside out."

The Grand Canyon watershed also holds vast uranium deposits, with more than 8,000 mining claims filed over a 1 million-acre area. Interior Secretary Ken L. Salazar over the summer instituted a two-year moratorium on awarding new claims or beginning production on claims not already established as viable. While it is not tribal land, this region is considered sacred to many Indians. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and other tribal leaders testified in support of a House bill introduced this year by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) that would ban Grand Canyon watershed uranium mining.

Shirley is a staunch proponent of existing and proposed coal mining and coal-fired power in the Navajo Nation. For several years his administration has been fighting Navajo and outside environmentalists over the proposed Desert Rock coal-burning power plant, which would bring increased coal mining on the reservation. Shirley, who could not be reached for comment, has said the coal plant would be an economic boon for the reservation. Uranium proponents, including some Navajo, likewise say the industry would create badly needed investment and jobs on a reservation where unemployment regularly tops 50 percent.

Van Horn said HRI would create about 120 jobs for locals and would result in nearly $1 million a year in royalties to the Navajo Nation. Mount Taylor mine manager Joe Lister said their planned operations would create about 600 temporary construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs.

"Everyone is paying attention to the Native Americans and the environment, but where is Joe Public, that working man who comes in his car with his family from Arizona or Texas and asks, 'Are there any jobs here?' " he said. "No, there's no jobs now. But we hope there will be."

Chris Shuey, a specialist on uranium mining at the Southwest Research and Information Center, says many uranium companies do not intend to mine unless prices soar.

"I don't think they're being honest about the chances of new mining. They're . . . setting up false expectations," he said. "It doesn't take a lot of money to put up a fancy Web site. It's a whole other thing to actually reopen a mine, hire staff and produce that first ton of ore. If you're going to propose mining uranium, you should either put up or shut up. And these guys aren't doing it."

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