CROWNPOINT, N.M. - As a trademark New Mexico sunset paints pastels over this high desert town, it's hard to imagine that the poisonous legacy of uranium mining could be repeated here.
During the 1950s and "60s, this town of
about 2,000 near the Navajo Reservation was hit by a uranium mining
boom. It left Navajos with polluted groundwater and high rates of
birth defects and cancer, and miners and their families are still
battling for federal compensation.
left is mainly heartbreak," says Mitchell Capitan, a board member
of the nonprofit Eastern Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM),
a group of area residents.
In late August, a
proposal by Hydro Resources Inc. for three new uranium mines in the
area gained partial approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. It's the latest development in a decade-long fight over
the company's plan (HCN, 9/30/96).
Nation's position on the mines has wavered, but opponents on and
off the reservation say the mines threaten groundwater and the
health of the 10,000 people, mostly Navajos, who live in the
"Uranium has been a disaster," says Chris
Shuey of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an
environmental group based in Albuquerque. "It's hard to point to
Navajos who have gotten wealthy off uranium."
Yet Hydro Resources says the industry has
cleaned up its act.
"There is no opportunity for
the legacy (of uranium) to be repeated," says former company
president Dick Clement.
company uses a method called in situ leach mining, which Clement
says reduces the spread of radioactive dust and contamination.
After drilling underground wells, technicians inject a chemical
solution into the aquifer. This removes uranium ore from
surrounding rock and sucks it into a treatment plant for
"We've had a perfect record in terms of
restoring conditions to what they were before we began operations,"
Clement says. Hydro Resources' parent company, Uranium Resources
Inc. operates two similar mines in south
Clement says the company will spend
between $30-40 million if the project gets approval and reaches its
full production level of 3 million pounds of uranium each year. At
full capacity, the mine could employ 300 people in an area where
unemployment levels can reach 50 percent.
one of the few companies actually interested in bringing economic
development anywhere near the Navajo Nation," Clement
For now, the courts seem to be favoring
Hydro Resources. On Aug. 20, a judge for the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission approved the first of the mines, located near the tiny
village of Church Rock. Larry King, another ENDAUM board member,
says the judge's decision did not consider the livestock and people
that draw water from the area.
angry and upset," he says. "How could the judge refer to Church
Rock as a vast desert, despite the fact that there are hundreds of
families living within a two-mile radius of the Church Rock site?"
ENDAUM and Southwest Research have appealed the
Hydro Resources got another break on Oct.
27, when the New Mexico state water engineer's office granted the
company's water-rights request. The tribe had vehemently opposed
the move, since it will take water from ranchers and tribal members
in one of the poorest and driest regions in the
And a legal battle is pending over who
can issue water discharge permits to the
The federal Environmental Protection
Agency has yet to grant a permit to Hydro Resources, and the
company and the New Mexico State Environmental Department have sued
the agency, claiming the state has authority to issue the permit.
The long battle is getting old for Hydro
Resources, and low uranium prices add to the frustration. Uranium
goes for about $9.70 a pound now, but company officials say they
need a $15 per pound price to make
"There's always a limitation on what any
company will do," says Clement.
Mark Pelizza, who
succeeded Clement as company president in October, says that if the
price jumps and the water discharge permit fight is still held up
in appeals court, the company may consider opening the mine
The battle is getting old for ENDAUM,
too. While cowboy tunes twang on his pickup radio, Capitan says he
made his decision about the company a long time ago. "They're just
like cancer. Once they get established, it's just going to spread."
Says Capitan, "I'll never trust them. We're just
not going to be pushed around anymore."
reports for the Albuquerque Tribune. He is a former HCN intern. HCN
intern Ali Macalady contributed to this
You can contact
* Mitchell Capitan, ENDAUM,
* Chris Shuey, Southwest Research
and Information Center, 505/262-1862;
Resources Inc., 505/833-1777.