Uranium haunts the Colorado Plateau

 

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.

"What uranium 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).

The Navajo 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 area.

"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."

A new legacy?

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.

The Albuquerque-based 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 removal.

"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 Texas.

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.

"We're one of the few companies actually interested in bringing economic development anywhere near the Navajo Nation," Clement says.

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.

"I'm personally 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 ruling.

An old battle

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 country.

And a legal battle is pending over who can issue water discharge permits to the company.

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 money.

"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 anyway.

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."

Andy Lenderman reports for the Albuquerque Tribune. He is a former HCN intern. HCN intern Ali Macalady contributed to this report.

You can contact ...

* Mitchell Capitan, ENDAUM, 505/786-5341;

* Chris Shuey, Southwest Research and Information Center, 505/262-1862;

* Hydro Resources Inc., 505/833-1777.

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