Journal “Making Do” Without an Environment Writer

June 14th, 2013 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

In this case, it was better late than never.

And admittedly, once it ran, it was a good story, given full play at the top of the front page on the week’s highest circulation day, spilling over onto a near-full page inside.

But the Journal was behind other local media in running “Nation’s largest uranium mine planned for N.M.,” informing readers that another uranium boom was being contemplated near Mount Taylor. The story ran May 19.

Nearly two weeks before, on May 7, environment writer Laura Paskus had already written a story for New Mexico In Depth about the proposal, which had come to light via a U.S. Forest Service’s environmental impact statement on a Canadian company’s plans, with a Japanese partner, to mine three sections of Forest Service and state lands north of Grants.

The day Paskus’ article ran, a letter was published on the Journal’s Talk of the Town page, in which an Albuquerque woman (Julie Jaynes) urged people to contact the Cibola National Forest office and voice objections to the mine.

Ten days before the Journal story, a petition had already begun circulating on the internet, objecting to the mine proposal.

And when protesters, mainly Native Americans seeking to preserve the sanctity of what is regarded as a sacred area, showed up at Forest Service headquarters in Albuquerque to demonstrate against the mine, the Journal did not cover it. New Mexico In Depth did, this time with a report by Bryant Furlow, published online May 13.

When the Journal finally did cover the story, it was a multi-sided summation, starting at the top of the Sunday May 19 front page (with photo) and continuing on to fill two-thirds of A8, with more photos (including a borrowed photo from the aforementioned Forest Service protest) and a map. Written by Assistant Business Editor Michael Hartranft, it was written as a business, rather than environmental narrative, identifying the partners proposing the development, the mine size and the scope of the uranium deposit. It also obtained from the Canadian/Japanese partnership – Roca Honda Resources LLC – the obligatory jobs projection, in this case “almost 640 construction jobs and 250 or so direct jobs” at the mine.

And, according to the manager of Roca Honda Resources (RHR), the project would generate “$2.2 billion in revenue over the life of the mine.” The manager added, “. . .you can rest assured there is an awful lot of income tax paid on that. There are a lot of New Mexico taxes in there.”

What doesn’t appear to be “in there” or anywhere else in the story, however, is whether that revenue projection deducts potential costs related to health and environment protection, or costs associated with eventual closure of the mine.

It’s not an insignificant oversight, considering a slogan — “Clean up before start up!” – has emerged as a rallying cry among those objecting to renewal of uranium activity in the area.

Uranium waste from past mining has not yet been cleaned up in the northwestern quadrant of the state. According to a seven-sentence AP story the Journal ran last July, disposal of more than one million cubic yards of waste at the old United Nuclear Corp. Superfund site is “expected to cost $40 million and take four years to complete.” The story said, “The Navajo Nation wanted the waste moved far from the reservation, but the (Environmental Protection Agency) EPA says that’s cost prohibitive.”

(As an aside, uranium activity in the area was promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy as nuclear fuel, and regulated in terms of mining and milling by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But now these toxic wastes have been left for the public to clean up with tax dollars – thanks to the Price Anderson Act that indemnified companies from responsibility because of the defense benefits of uranium production– and clean-up is now under the purview of the EPA. Waste was not properly factored into the equation; similarly, nuclear waste disposal is not factored into the cost of nuclear energy production, a significant deficiency.)

An AP story that ran just two months ago in the Journal noted that:

About 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted during mining operations on the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1986. . . .Officials say there are more than 500 abandoned claims and some drinking water sources have elevated levels of uranium and other radionuclides.

That’s just the Navajo Nation, and does not include the many now-abandoned uranium mines and mill tailings (waste) sites from numerous projects further east, near Grants, in the general area of the new RHR mining proposal.

This is not to criticize Hartranft’s story. It was excellent, and I know from experience how time-consuming it is to write comprehensively about a draft environmental impact statement, relay all the pertinent information about the proposal in the space allotted, and then get quotes from a company spokesman, from opponents and from supporters. (Just as they did in the 1970s and ‘80s, Grants folks support uranium mining as economic development, just as some residents of Carlsbad support nuclear waste disposal at WIPP.  In fact, in the late 1970s, Grants businesses formed a pro-uranium group specifically to counteract the message of those who opposed uranium mining and milling on health, safety and water quality grounds.)

In Hartranft’s story, the pro-mining quote came from the president of the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce, who said:

In general, I think the community feels there has been enough technology advancements in the last 30 years; it is something that can be done safely and most certainly would have a major impact on northwest New Mexico but the state in general.

And that’s the other aspect of the story that had to be addressed: the still lingering effects of uranium mining’s history. It was, of course, included, with Hartranft saying the area “was left with serious contamination and worker health issues when uranium companies pulled out in the ‘80s after 40 years of mining.” And he quoted a representative of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, who countered the company job projections by saying:

Our communities deserve jobs that don’t sacrifice our environment and aren’t dangerous to our health.

The story also included the typical company hedging on a project which, by RHR’s own estimate, could take 3 ½ years before start-up and would entail about nine years of actual mining. The mine manager said milling will be done in Utah – but he also said the partnership might build a mill 26 miles northwest of the mine. Adding a mill to the mine is a significant difference in terms of environmental impact.

He conceded that uranium prices were not great at the moment. (In fact, the story mentioned uranium mining company URI as a “neighbor,” and then in the same paper, on B5, there was the brief announcement that URI — Uranium Resources Inc. — will by the end of this month close its Albuquerque, Crownpoint and Grants offices to reduce overhead, but that the company remains committed to its projects in New Mexico.)

RHR’s manager also told Hartranft that “there’s a true shortage” of uranium in the nuclear power industry and “the price will go up once the fervor over Fukushima and everything gets past us.” (He might have a point, considering, as the New York Times Andrew Revkin wrote in today’s Dot Earth blog (June 13) that:

Concerns about climate change driven by heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuel combustion and the substantial death toll from sooty pollution from the same sources have led to new support for nuclear power.

Since Hartranft’s story, the Journal has run another uranium story (May 29), this one by Deborah Baker in the Journal’s Capitol Bureau, reporting that an “active’ permit was being sought for a mine formerly run by Chevron, now owned by Rio Grande Resources Corp., for a site that has sat idle for 23 years.

Her story noted that Rio Grande Resources had a “standby” permit, which allows mines to remain inactive without having to do reclamation:

But environmental organizations contend Rio Grande Resources should have been required to do some interim cleanup as a condition of its permit renewal last year.

So they are appealing the standby permit in state District Court.

Faced with the uncertainty of what a judge might order, the company “may have thought it would be cheaper to change the status of the mine to ‘active,’ even though there is no market for their ore and no place to mill it,” said Eric Jantz, a lawyer with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents Amigos Bravos and the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.

But mine manager Joe Lister says the company is anticipating an uptick in demand that wasn’t anticipated when it applied in 2010 for its current permit.

“It’s the largest deposit in the United States, and we believe the uranium market is recovering,” Lister said.

While Hartranft and Baker are tackling these stories with their usual professionalism, this “uptick” in New Mexico uranium activity likely could use the focused attention of a dedicated environment writer.

I should point out that Hartranft, while part of the Journal’s business desk, still has managed to produce as many stories about the regional haze dispute between the owners of the coal-fired San Juan Generation Station in the Four Corners and the EPA as a designated environment writer would (using my own time as environment/agriculture writer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a yardstick). Hartranft, then, has been doing double duty as part-time environment writer. Science writer John fleck has made writing about water and weather his specialty. But the Journal does not have an environment writer, per se.

And the Journal long ago lost the “scoop” mentality it once had when Albuquerque was a two-daily newspaper town, the pride it had in publishing big stories before the “competition.”  Thus, readers perceive a sense of delay with stories like the proposal for the nation’s largest uranium mine.

Yet, fledgling local online media are making a mark in addressing environmental topics. In addition to the previously mentioned New Mexico In Depth,  New Mexico Compass has weighed in this week on the RHR proposal, with “Uranium Legacy Creates Barriers for Proposed Mine,” which quoted the Journal story when providing official comments from company spokesmen, while focusing on the opposition to mining by pueblo and Navajo groups, the group who were most affected by mining when it boomed before in the 1940s and then the 1970s and ‘80s.

And the New Mexico Mercury is casting a critical eye on the uranium resurgence. After running a scholarly column by Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research Information Center, Mercury editor V.B. Price did an in-depth video interview with the uranium expert; Robinson has kept abreast of uranium developments in New Mexico since the 1970s. In it, Price and Robinson discuss the global structure of uranium mining – including the fact that the current president of the Uranium Producers of America works for a company owned by the Russian Atomic Ministry. Price also wrote columns June 2 and June 13 despairing of the implications of renewed uranium activity in terms of New Mexico’s environment and health.

By the way, the Journal editorial board has not editorialized in any way about the RHR proposal, although it has come out in support of more nuclear waste for WIPP.

Two other environmental issues were treated similarly by the Journal: Mora County’s ban on hydraulic fracking of oil and gas reserves, and the state’s first groundwater protection rules related to copper mining.

The Journal’s first story about Mora County’s ban ran May 5, three days after National Geographic had the story. On the day the Journal reported the ban, the Santa Fe New Mexican was already editorializing in support of the commissioners who voted for it, even while acknowledging that a county ordinance likely would be trumped by state and federal law in court:

What Mora County commissioners are saying . . . is that they would rather protect the land and water, which will remain long after any extractive industry moves along. Anyone who believes such industries will provide jobs forever should just wander around Northern New Mexico, where abandoned mines are plentiful. Taking from the land, as opposed to tending and living with the land, is a short-term proposition.

That doesn’t mean that . . . a county ordinance that sets out to overrule state and federal laws won’t fail in court. The majority of the commission . . . wants a state Constitutional amendment to set out the rights of communities to determine their futures. The views of the people who live on the land, in this case Mora County, would trump an outside corporation seeking to make money. The gauntlet has been thrown — and we’ll be interested to see how this all turns out.

New Mexico Mercury, in a piece that commenced with wording that compared fracking in Mora County’s water to the equivalent of sprinkling one’s whipped cream with “cat poop,” also editorialized in favor of Mora County’s action on May 8.

The Journal’s follow-up story, on May 13, focused on criticism of the ban, quoting the chairman of Mora County’s Republican Party, who had issued a statement saying it was a “shame to see such a progressive movement here in our state” and which called the ban an attack on jobs.

On May 28, the Los Angeles Times ran an in-depth story datelined Ocate, N.M., under the headline, “New Mexico county first in nation to ban fracking to safeguard water.” The ban was now national news, and the New Mexican ran the LA Times story on June 2.

The Journal has not done or run an in-depth story, and to date has not editorialized about Mora County’s action.

On the other topic, the Journal ran a story on the business page (again by Hartranft) about a series of hearings on what would become the state’s first groundwater protection rules for copper mining. The story ran a day after the hearings started.The Journal, again, was silent in terms of an editorial for or against. That, however, could be because the Journal story was brief and did not get into the details. Perhaps, too, the Journal didn’t do an editorial on the copper rules because they are supported by the New Mexico Mining Association.

But as Hartranft pointed out in his article, opponents include the state Attorney General’s office and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, representing Gila Resources Information project and Turner Enterprises. “They contend the rules are illegal under the Water Quality Act and were unduly influenced by the mining industry,” Hartranft’s story said.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, however, editorialized with “New copper rules don’t protect water,” objecting strenuously to the procedure involved:

What is worrisome is the precedent this sets. The Environment Department conducts “show” meetings with affected groups and develops guidelines that both sides apparently can accept. Then, after the public process, industry input determines the final rules, with top managers overruling state scientists and water experts. Even Attorney General Gary King is weighing in against the current version of the copper mine rules. He rightly understands that “allowing groundwater to be contaminated underneath a mining site sets a precedent for allowing contamination underneath any site regulated under” the state’s Water Quality Act. This isn’t just about guidelines for copper mines, in other words. This is also about future guidelines for any industry that impacts water. The rules, as written, violate state statute.

Strong stuff, but on this, again, the Journal editorial board was silent, despite the state experiencing record drought and water shortages.

The Journal did endorse water conservation in an editorial about the drought last Sunday (June 9), mentioning 10 inches down in a 12-inch-long editorial that “mining and extractive industries also can be big users” quickly adding that “No one should want to see these industries curtailed, but it begs the question of whether everything that can maximize conservation is being done.”

The Journal’s editorial silence on an issue can be golden, but it’s rarely green.

Tags: ··································

No Comments so far ↓

There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment