By Tracy Dingmann
The Native American communities around Crownpoint and Churchrock have been living with the toxic legacy of abandoned uranium mines for more than 30 years.
And for the last fifteen years, the only thing keeping new uranium mines out of Indian Country have been the two historic lawsuits filed by Native Americans who sought to protect their land and groundwater from being contaminated by the mining process.
In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a final ruling in one of the suits, deciding that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does in fact have the authority to issue permits for new four uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. Late last month, the court denied the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining group’s petition for a rehearing by the full court.
“It was a big loss for our side,” said Nadine Padilla, a Dine organizer with the Multicultural Alliance for Safe Environments, one in a coalition of Native American and environmental groups that’s been fighting the new mines for years.
The Legacy of Contamination
The court’s recent decision is especially hard to stomach, given that Native people in the same area are still living with the effects of past uranium contamination, Padilla said.
At least one new mine, in Churchrock, is scheduled to be located right on top of an old contaminated site which is already emitting levels of airborne radioactivity higher than what the NRC’s own regulations consider to be safe.
Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit ruled that the NRC does not have to consider old emissions when considering the impact of new mines. In the above case, it is estimated that the cumulative effect from the old contamination and the new mine will leave nearby communities exposed to radiation levels anywhere from 9 to 15 times higher than NRC regulations allow, Padilla said.
“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,” said Padilla. “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.”
Padilla’s coalition believes the four proposed mines – two of which are less than half a mile away from Crownpoint’s municipal water wells – would purposefully and irreversibly contaminate the sole source of water for about 15,000 people in the Navajo communities of Churchrock and Crownpoint.
That’s because the proposed mines by Hydro-Resources, Inc. (HRI) would use a method of mining known as in-situ leach (ISL), which injects chemicals into aquifers to mobilize uranium and pump it out of the ground.
The main chemical used in in situ mining is lixiviant, which is left behind in the groundwater after the extraction.
According to Padilla, research has shown that no ISL mine in the country has ever been successfully restored to its pre-mining condition.
After last month’s ruling, the groups who brought the suit had to decide whether they would continue to fight, said Padilla. The only thing left to do was to petition the U.S. Supreme Court – and the suit’s backers decided not to do that, she said.
“The Supreme Court has a history of dealing very badly with any Indian issues,” said Padilla. “It has voted against us in (the majority of) the cases that we’ve ever brought, regarding anything – land, water energy – we’ve just always gotten an unfavorable response.”
If it happens, new mining can’t start until after the disposition of the other long-term suit. Known as the “Indian Country” suit, it was filed 15 years ago to force the courts to decide whether all of the mines are on what’s considered Indian land.
The mines are on a complicated network of Indian trust lands, allotted land and other land, and the court needs to decided whether state or federal government has the authority to issue the mining permits, Padilla said.
That decision could happen at any time.
A Constant Presence
In the meantime, the Texas-based Hydro-Resources Inc. keeps a constant corporate presence in New Mexico, maintaining an office in Crownpoint and attending meetings and court hearings on the mining matter.
Staffers have also been seen handing out frozen turkeys at the Navajo chapter houses at holiday time and passing out back-to-school backpacks to Navajo kids, Padilla said.
“They are trying to confuse people about what the real issue is, which is protecting the groundwater for all of our communities,” she said.