Uranium poisons Navajo neighborliness

  • Mitchell Capitan talks about risk of water contamination

    Cate Gilles

CROWNPOINT, N.M. - The water in this town on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation is so pure that people drive from as far as 80 miles to fill their barrels. But some fear it will be tainted if a proposed uranium mine gets approved next year.

"All it will take is one accident and then our sweet water will be damaged," says Roy Morgan, a Navajo from the Crownpoint area.

A plan to leach uranium from the groundwater beneath three areas on or near the Navajo reservation has made the issue of uranium mining here hot again. It's so hot, in fact, that some neighbors in Crownpoint won't speak to each other about the mining plans of Dallas-based Hydro Resources Inc.

During federal scoping hearings last year, Emma Begay wept as she told about the rift the plan has caused. "I hope HRI is grateful because you have done something; you turned us people against one another. My sister Gladys is in the audience tonight. I used to shake hands with her. Now, she turns away from me."

The company is lobbying hard to win over both Crownpoint residents and Navajo officials. So far, HRI has persuaded more than 100 individual Navajos who own land above the water containing uranium to sign lease agreements. Navajo allottees are offered immediate payments and future royalties when mining begins. The company has also gained the general support of Navajo Nation Vice President Thomas Atcitty and some Crownpoint officials who say they're excited about the prospect of jobs and money for the community. Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, who was once hired as a lawyer for HRI's parent company, has refused to take a position due to a conflict of interest.

But opponents in Crownpoint, population 2,000, are also waging their own campaign. They formed a group last year called ENDAUM, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, and environmental groups such as the Southwest Research and Information Center, and non-Native teachers and Indian Health Service professionals in Crownpoint have joined the cause, helping stage rallies, petition drives and community education projects. ENDAUM recently persuaded Vice President Atcitty to sign a letter stating that he would review the group's concerns and decide whether to uphold a Navajo moratorium against uranium mining by November.

The project must also win acceptance from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The commission has postponed releasing its final environmental impact statement for at least six months, until all safety questions have been answered, says staffer Mike Layton.

The underground leach mining process that HRI proposes is radically different from traditional open pit or shaft uranium mines. Much of the mining occurs in the groundwater itself when oxygen laced with sodium bicarbonate is injected into the aquifer to dissolve the ore. The uranium is then extracted through wells and eventually converted into fuel for nuclear power plants.

HRI spokesman Mark Pelizza says the method is so safe that "it's like pouring a can of Pepsi into the ground, pumping the stuff out and processing it through a Culligan water softener." HRI President Richard Clement claims the method has been used safely for more than 20 years in Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas.

The trick to containing the uranium, says Clement, is to pump out more water than is replaced. That creates a negative pressure within the mining area which prevents the spread of uranium and other toxic byproducts to drinking or agricultural wells. He says a ring of monitoring wells is supposed to detect contamination before it seeps outside the area.

It is the legacy of past mining disasters that leads opponents to exaggerate the risks of his operation, adds Clement. It is true that many Navajo people recall the 1970s boom years with outrage: Water sources in mining centers were fenced off because of contamination and many Navajo uranium miners are now dead or dying of cancer.

New Mexico activist Chris Shuey warns those days aren't over. The proposed processing plant is less than a half-mile downwind from churches and homes, he says, and besides the danger of a major accident, there will be routine emissions of radon gas and other radioactive substances. While no major accidents have occurred at other HRI operations, Shuey says there have been minor line breaks and spills.

Shuey adds that the proposed project's advantage of fewer radioactive tailings could be overshadowed by the potential release of byproducts that far exceed federal drinking water standards. "You are grossly contaminating the regional aquifer and you hope to hell you can keep that crap within the mine zone," says Shuey.

Other community concerns include the dangers from trucking uranium over narrow, potholed reservation roads that are regularly traveled by herds of cows, sheep and horses; questions about whether the company is financially healthy enough to pay to clean up a major accident; and doubts that HRI can keep its promise to restore the groundwater to pre-mining quality once the mining has ended.

"This type of mining at these depths has not been demonstrated to be successful in this area," says ENDAUM President Mitchell Capitan. He worked as a miner at a nearby pilot leach mine and helped found ENDAUM when he heard HRI planned to start it up again.

"As we say in Navajo, "Tç eii be'iinç çt'é - water is life." If the water is contaminated, the lives of our children will be put at grave risk, and that is why so many people are opposed to the mining."

For more information, contact ENDAUM at P.O. Box 471, Crownpoint, NM 87313 (505/786-5341); HRI at 2929 Coors Road, NW, Suite 101, Albuquerque, NM 87120-2929 (505/833-1777); or Michael Layton, Project Manager at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, High Level Waste and Uranium Recovery Projects Branch, Division of Waste Management, NMSS, Mail Stop T7-J-9, Washington, DC 20555 (301/415-6676).

Cate Gilles is a Navajo Times correspondent based in Window Rock, Arizona.

High Country News Classifieds
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....