Santa Fe New Mexican
Nuclear fallout
By BEN NEARY/The New Mexican
July 08, 2001

CHURCH ROCK - Larry J. King points to a pickup passing by on the highway a couple of hundred yards from his house north of Church Rock. As it reaches a certain point, he says, "Right there."

"Our older brother got hit by an ore truck - got killed instantly," King says of the spot. The year was 1977, and the deadly truck was hauling uranium ore.

Then, two years later, the King family had a ringside seat for one of the nation's biggest radioactive accidents:

On a July morning in 1979, a dam burst just three miles from King's house. The dam had been holding liquid waste from United Nuclear Corp.'s uranium mine. When it burst, it sent more than 1,000 tons of uranium tailings, or mining waste, along with about 100 million gallons of radioactive water down the Rio Puerco. The torrent of radioactive waste swept across land where the King family has long run its cattle.

Today, King and his sisters live across the road from a site where a company intends to open a new uranium mine.

This time, the miners don't plan to undertake conventional digging and milling. Rather, they plan to use a process that uses oxygen and chemicals to free uranium from the surrounding rock deep in the ground before pumping the radioactive element to the surface with groundwater.

King, 44, fears this latest project will harm the area's water supply. But beyond that, he and several others fighting the mining plans say Navajo people shouldn't be subjected to more uranium mining, given the terrible price they've already paid.

"There's a big issue about how people got contaminated by the uranium up in the Four Corners area," King said. "And the government is well aware of that. They should be aware of what problems uranium mining has put on the Navajo people, and they should oppose it and put a full stop to it until those problems are resolved."

A lust for nuclear power

With the Bush administration increasingly looking to nuclear power to help meet the nation's energy needs, a New Mexico company with Texas roots is pushing for federal approval to open a uranium-mining operation on the eastern outskirts of the Navajo Reservation. It's a plan that has many area residents concerned.

Hydro Resources Inc. has been trying for years to get permits to begin "in-situ leaching" at four sites in Crownpoint and Church Rock, Navajo communities outside the reservation in northwestern New Mexico. The company has a small office in Crownpoint but operates out of Texas, where its parent company, Uranium Resources Inc., is located.

The technique proposed for HRI's New Mexico mines involves injecting water and bicarbonate of soda deep into the ground where the added oxygen dislodges uranium from the surrounding rock. Hundreds of wells would then suck the water, newly rich with uranium, to the surface, where the radioactive element is collected.

The company says that the technique is virtually foolproof and that there's no risk the uranium, once set adrift in the aquifer, will wind up in drinking-water supplies.

"It's impossible," HRI president Mark Pelizza said when asked about the possibility of uranium spreading in ground water from the process. "The area is encircled (with wells) and monitored far too intensely for that to possibly occur."

But King and other opponents of HRI's plan, organized under the banner of Eastern Navajo Dinè Against Uranium Mining, say they regard any risk to public health as unacceptable. Dinè is the Navajo word for the Navajo people. Several members of ENDAUM have lost relatives to cancer and other illnesses they attribute to past uranium mining in the area.

Chris Shuey, a researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, says HRI's mining plan is nothing more than intentional ground-water pollution. The center serves as a consultant to ENDAUM.

"To get uranium out using this process, they have to purposefully, deliberately contaminate groundwater," Shuey said. "And then we have to trust them to put the water back the way it was."

Shuey says ENDAUM's consultants - including engineers who have monitored in-situ mines in other states - say no such operation has ever been able to return groundwater to its premining condition.

ENDAUM has been raising its technical concerns as it fights final issuance of HRI's permit by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But in addition, members emphasize their belief that it's unconscionable for the federal government to consider allowing more uranium mining in Navajo country when much of the ravaging pollution from past operations has never been addressed.

Mobilizing the people

Ray Morgan, a Navajo who works as community liaison on the mining project for the Southwest Research and Information Center, recently rode his horse Rambo from hogan to hogan around Church Rock to alert residents that ENDAUM would hold an informational meeting that night about the mining project.

"Water is pretty scarce, and, as the old people and the chanters will tell you, water is life," Morgan said. "Once they contaminate another aquifer, where else can you go?"

Bernadine Martin, a Gallup lawyer who served as director of the Navajo Nation's abandoned mine and reclamation office from 1992 to 1996, is also active in ENDAUM.

"There's over 1,100 uranium mines that have already been mined on the reservation," Martin said at a recent group meeting at a state park outside Gallup. "It will never be completely cleaned up - never. Because there are some places we can't reach.

"Many Navajos were exposed. Many died from cancer as a result. Many families lost their grandfathers. Many kids didn't know their grandfathers because they worked in the mines and it killed them.

"It's another removal from our lands. It's like another Long Walk. They'll remove us from our lands."

Martin said she wants a resolution from the tribal council prohibiting uranium mining on the reservation.

Dr. John Fogarty, who works at the Crownpoint Indian Hospital, told the group to fight against any increase in the amount of uranium in drinking water.

"Any increase of uranium in the water will be harmful and will cause damage to the kidneys," Fogarty said. "You're going to have a poison in the water, poisoning you, poisoning your children, poisoning your grandchildren. ... If the mining company says it's safe, they're wrong. Absolutely wrong."

Uranium's deadly cost

There's no doubt that past uranium mining has taken a brutal toll on the Navajo people.

In the industry's heyday, during the 1950s and 1960s, uranium mines sprouted like mushrooms across the Four Corners area, including the Navajo Nation. The government, through its old Atomic Energy Commission, was the only customer for the material - an essential element in the nation's nuclear-weapons stockpile.

But while the government knew early on of the health risks of direct exposure to radioactive materials, that knowledge never filtered down to the thousands of Navajo and others who worked in the uranium mines without ventilation or other safety and health protection.

Stewart Udall, a Santa Fe resident and former U.S. secretary of the interior, was crucial in fighting for benefits for the Navajo miners. As a result of lawsuits he filed as a private attorney after he left public office, federal judges admitted the situation needed to be addressed, but said only Congress could do it.

Congress in 1990 passed the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act, which promised payments of $100,000 to uranium miners or, in many cases, to their widows. But while Congress upped the ante to $150,000 last year, it also neglected to fund the program despite a continuing increase in the number of applicants for benefits. That oversight left hundreds of eligible beneficiaries holding IOUs from the federal government.

Claims from 1,600 applicants are pending before the U.S. Justice Department, and the department estimates more than 1,000 more claims will come in this year, The New York Times reported in March.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is pushing for Congress to allocate $84 million this session to make good on the IOUs. His office said the Senate is scheduled to act on the proposal on Monday.

Geoff Fettus, a Santa Fe lawyer with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, represents ENDAUM in their fight to block HRI's efforts to get federal approval for its proposed in-situ leach mines. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved HRI's permit application in the late 1990s, ENDAUM has intervened in the process, challenging the adequacy of the company's cleanup plans and the adequacy of its proposed bond.

Fettus and ENDAUM's other lawyers scored a major victory early this year when the NRC overruled an administrative law judge's decision that would have allowed HRI to secure a permit solely for one of its four proposed mine sites in the Church Rock/Crownpoint area.

Rather than allow HRI to proceed with a permitting process to cover only the proposed Church Rock mine, the NRC agreed with ENDAUM's position that all the proposed mines should be permitted together. The commission agreed that forcing the citizens group to fight each mine separately would be expensive and difficult.

Accordingly, HRI is preparing restoration plans and estimates of the cost of cleaning up at each of its three other mine sites. Those studies are expected to be completed by this fall, Fettus said.

So far, ENDAUM has spent perhaps $750,000 fighting HRI's project, including the cost of retaining expert witnesses, Fettus said. The group will need more money to continue its battle.

While ENDAUM members are willing to fight the project, Fettus said, many of them are confused and disheartened by the labyrinth of federal rules and procedures that makes opposing the mine project so difficult.

"They're like, 'My God, who are these people?' " Fettus said of his clients' reactions to the federal government and mining company. " 'Don't they know that no means no? We have mine shafts and dead uncles all over the place.' It's difficult for a lot of folks, and I include myself, to follow the intricacies of litigation in front of the NRC.

"With the ongoing fight over the resurgence of nuclear power, and the importance of water in the West, cases like these are watersheds, for lack of a better term," Fettus said. "The water issues that are presented, the environmental-justice and civil-rights issues that are presented, are very important. The idea of polluting the sole-source aquifer for 15,000 Navajo is, we submit, not a good idea."