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.

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