Earlier this month a decision was made by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals over a license issued by the NRC for four uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. The four proposed in-situ leach (ISL) mines would purposefully and irreversibly contaminate the sole source of water for Navajo communities in Churchrock and Crownpoint.
The decision of 2-1 in favor of upholding the NRC’s authority to issue the permit follows a 15 year long battle in front of administrative law judges and Federal courts. The proposed mines by Hydro-Resources, Inc. (HRI) would use a method of mining known as in-situ leach (ISL) mining which injects chemicals into aquifers to mobilize uranium and pump it out of the ground.
No ISL mine in the country has ever been restored to its pre-mining condition. Two of the proposed HRI mines are less than a half mile away from Crownpoint’s municipal water wells. The decision by the court supports HRI and the NRC even though all available data show that the sole source of water for more than 15,000 Navajo community members will be irreversibly contaminated.
In addition to water contamination, communities are dealing with problems of airborne radiation caused by mine waste from previous mining during the last uranium boom. At the proposed Section 17 mine site in Churchrock, abandoned mine waste emits levels of radon beyond even what the NRC’s own regulations consider safe. To permit new mines will only add to this problem.
The NRC argued that they only had to consider new emissions of radioactivity from the new mines, rather than either existing conditions or cumulative impacts. The cumulative impacts would leave communities exposed to radiation levels anywhere from 9 to 15 times NRC regulations.
This decision is a slap in the face to communities that are still living with contamination left after companies left town and refused to clean their mess, leaving hundreds of abandoned mines and radioactive waste. This devastating legacy of continues to haunt our communities, resulting in sky-high rates of various cancers, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, birth defects, and miscarriages.
It has been more than thirty years since mining companies left and state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting the environment and human health are only now beginning to take steps towards reclamating these areas.
As more uranium companies come into our area, our communities stand united against any new uranium mining. There are an estimated 300 million pounds of uranium in the Grants Mineral Belt, with more than a third on Indian lands and protected under both the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Laguna’s bans on uranium mining.
Another lawsuit over the proposed mines is still pending and community groups continue to work to secure federal and state funding for cleanup.
This is a guest post by Nadine Padilla of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE), a coalition of grassroots organizations working to address the uranium legacy that still plagues many communities.