(last updated 2 Mar 2002)
A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Workbook, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 1996. The Workbook is the award-winning quarterly magazine published by Southwest Research and Information Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Reproduced here with permission.
As fuel for nuclear powerplants, uranium atoms are split to release heat energy. As a form of economic development, proposed uranium mining in the Navajo town of Crownpoint, New Mexico, is dividing the community, fracturing friendships and even splitting some families. The only matter on which people on both sides of the issue agree is that the "energy" being released is overwhelmingly negative because it centers on that age-old source of conflict, money.
"We run into people who say they are opposed to the mining but are afraid to speak out because they might upset someone," said Rita Capitan, a Crownpoint resident and member of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM). "We know a woman who says her brother doesn't come around to see her much any more because she is an allottee who doesn't support the mining."
Capitan's extended family has firsthand experience with the increasingly volatile divisions in Crownpoint, a community of about 2,700 people located 45 miles northeast of Gallup. An uncle recently was hired by the mining company, Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI), as a community affairs representative. At the same time, Capitan's mother, also a Navajo allottee, remains steadfastly opposed to the proposed mining.
"I have lived all of my life on allotted lands given to me by my parents," wrote Capitan's mother, 66-year-old Grace Tsosie, in an April letter to New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. "The mining operation will occur on lands that surround my own. There will be hundreds of wells and miles of pipes throughout Crownpoint if the HRI project is approved. Would you want this to happen to your community?"
But plenty of people, including Senator Domenici, want uranium mining to return to Navajo country, and their principal motivation appears to be the wealth it might bring to a select few - namely, HRI, a wholly owned subsidiary of Uranium Resources Inc. (URI), a veteran mining company based in Texas, and an unknown number of Navajos who own Indian allotments and have leased their surface and mineral rights to HRI. According to a recent news account in the Navajo Times, the allottees will receive initial lease payments totalling $367,000 once the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) grants operating licenses for the mines. That money, which was paid by HRI and is being held in escrow by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is often cited by the allottees as their only ticket out of poverty.
For ENDAUM members, the heart of the controversy is HRI's plan to use the community's high-quality ground water as the medium for mining. HRI proposes to "mine" uranium by injecting oxygen and sodium bicarbonate into water-bearing strata 2,000 feet to 2,400 feet below ground, pumping out the resulting "pregnant" solution, and processing it to remove the uranium at a plant located within one-half mile of several churches, schools, businesses, government offices and most of the residential areas of Crownpoint. The success or failure of this in situ leach (ISL), or solution mining, process hinges on HRI's ability to prevent radioactive and trace metal contaminants from escaping the mining zone and contaminating the region's sole-source aquifer.
ENDAUM asserts that the risk of failure does not justify whatever economic benefits that 20 years of mining may bring to the area in general, or to individual allottees in particular. ENDAUM members say that the aquifer to be used for mining supplies drinking water not only to people in Crownpoint, but also to residents of several other small and remote communities in the Eastern Navajo Agency - that vast portion of Diné Bikeyáh (Navajoland) that is located east of the Navajo Reservation boundary in the "checkerboard" lands of northwestern New Mexico.
For many Navajos, the ground water cannot be valued because it is one of the four sacred and essential elements of Mother Earth. "Tó eii be'iina' át'é" - water is life, they say, and no amount of money will change that.
The group brought that message to the community during a Rally Against Uranium Mining attended by more than 125 people under a large tent near Crownpoint High School on May 10. Several speakers, ranging from elders to young people, gave their reasons for opposing the mines, citing concerns about the future.
"I'm not doing this for myself," said Billy Martin, a 67-year-old Navajo from Crownpoint. "I'm opposed to these mines for my grandchildren and their grandchildren," explaining that chronic emissions of radioactive substances from the central processing plant could cause disease among local people, especially children, in 20 to 30 years. For Bill Becenti Jr., a student at Crownpoint High, the lure of wealth is "making some people crazy. We, the youth, are more precious than money; the water underneath us will be our source of life."
HRI's response to the anti-mining sentiment has bee swift and certain. In comments published in the Daily Times of Farmington on May 12, company President Richard Clement was quoted as saying that the opposition is driven by "small- town petty jealousies of those people who are [not] going to get royalties. What we're dealing with here is ignorance and jealousy."
"Where does he get that idea from?" asked Rita Capitan. "He doesn't know us, he's never even met Mitchell." She was referring to her husband, Mitchell Capitan, ENDAUM's president and a former laboratory technician at a pilot-scale ISL mine operated by Mobil Corporation near Crownpoint between 1979 and 1980.
Mitchell Capitan told people attending the May 10 rally that he is opposed to the proposed solution mines because Mobil could not return contaminant levels in the aquifer to their pre-mining concentrations and because the extreme weather conditions in Crownpoint contributed to breaks in PVC surface pipes, leading to repeated leaks and spills. He said he fears that HRI's mines will have many of the same problems, especially in light of the fact that they will be much larger, commercial-scale facilities in which hundreds of injection and production wells will be operating simultaneously.
Despite his direct experience with a relevant uranium solution mine, Capitan's competency to comment knowledgably about the proposed projects was dismissed by HRI in 1995 as easily as Clement dissed the growing anti-uranium sentiment in May. In a February 1995 document filed with the NRC, HRI stated through its attorneys that Mitchell Capitan was not qualified to give an opinion about the safety of the proposed mines because he had not provided any information to demonstrate that he had "personal knowledge of basic facts," had a "reasonable scientific basis to believe an escape of subsurface fluids would occur" from the mining zone, or, generally, was "of sound mind" and had "never been convicted of a felony . . ." In an affidavit filed with NRC in March 1995, Mitchell Capitan objected to HRI's characterization of his knowledge and experience, and demanded "a written apology." To date, Capitan says he has received no such apology from HRI or its attorneys.
With more than 70 million pounds of uranium estimated to be available to HRI at the three proposed ISL mines in New Mexico, the company stands to gross more than $1 billion in revenues (at today's spot market price of $15 to $16 per pound) if the mines are licensed and allowed to operate for 20 to 25 years. With that kind of money at stake, there is little mystery in HRI's penchant for disparaging its opponents, or in its increasingly active efforts to convince Navajo Nation officials to support the project. In years past, HRI periodically flew local elected officials to Texas to tour URI's uranium ISL facilities there. More recently, according to the Navajo Times, Navajo Nation Vice President Thomas Atcitty made the same trip, reporting that he was "impressed with how clean" the facilities there were.
The war of words and feelings is likely to continue to escalate in months to come as NRC gets closer to issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed mines. Before doing so, however, the agency must analyze thousands of pages of hydrologic, economic and cultural resource data supplied by HRI between February and June in response to some 90 written questions posed by NRC in January and February. Unfortunately, much of that information is not readily available to members of the public. An NRC licensing official told Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) staff in January and again in April that the agency has no authority to require HRI to provide copies of this recent documentation to anyone in the public who may want it. The official said the information is available for review at NRC's public document room in Washington, D.C., or can be obtained by paying an independent contractor 20 cents per page to copy and mail the material. If those options are not acceptable, SRIC staff was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
Whatever ENDAUM and SRIC do to overcome such obstacles to assessing the effects of the proposed mines, they presumably will find HRI's answers to questions NRC asked about the "potential impacts of the unequal distribution of the project's economic benefit on tribal socioeconomic and cultural cohesiveness . . ." Perhaps they will also find some clue about how HRI managed to measure jealousy levels among people opposed to its plans to mine uranium from Navajo ground water.
For more information on this issue, or if you would like to help with a financial contribution, write ENDAUM at P.O. Box 471, Crownpoint, N.M., 87313, USA, or call Mitchell Capitan at +1-505-786-5341. SRIC is also accepting donations to support its work as one of ENDAUM's principal technical advisors. Call Chris Shuey or Paul Robinson at +1-505-346-1455 for more information on how you can help.
In rejecting assertions by citizens groups that its environmental evaluation of three proposed uranium in situ leach (ISL) mines to be located in Navajo communities in northwestern New Mexico is legally and technically flawed, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in late December said it will issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the mines proposed before the end of January.
The groups, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), had asked the NRC in a December 6 letter to prepare and issue for public comment a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement. ENDAUM and SRIC asserted that NRC's DEIS, issued in November 1994, was inaccurate and incomplete, and that NRC would be using "new information" received from the mining applicant, Hydro Resources, Inc., in an FEIS. The groups contended that since no member of the public had had a chance to comment on the new information and that NRC intended to use that information upon which to base a licensing decision, the agency would violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
ENDAUM and SRIC also requested that NRC establish a repository for documents and information generated during the environment review in the community most directly affected by the proposed mining, Crownpoint, New Mexico. The groups cited provisions of President Clinton's February 1994 executive order on environmental justice to support their claim that NRC was remiss in not requiring HRI to make key documents and other information about the project available at a pubicly accessible location in the affected communities.
In a December 24 letter to Susan Jordan, a Santa Fe attorney representing the groups, the NRC rejected ENDAUM's and SRIC's claims that the new information justified preparation of a supplemental DEIS. The agency said the information was not significantly different from that contained in the DEIS to warrant additional public oversight.
The agency also said that it would establish a local public documents repository (LPDR) only if the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel (ASLBP) grants an evidentiary hearing on the proposed mines. ASLBP Judge B. Paul Cotter Jr. has not ruled on eight petitions requesting such a hearing since they were filed in December 1994 and February 1995. ENDAUM and SRIC, along with Diné CARE, Water Information Network, Zuni Mountain Coalition, and four individuals, were the petitioners.
The judge is expected to act on the petitions shortly after the FEIS is issued. The FEIS, along with other documentation in the NRC docket, will be used by the ASLBP to make a final licensing decision, whether an evidentiary hearing is or is not granted.
Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation was expected to file with NRC this month several hundred pages of comments on the "new information" generated by HRI in mid-1996 in response to three different "additional information requests" (AIRs) prepared by the NRC staff and sent to the company in January, February and July. The AIRs took the form of 92 comments and questions raised by the staff and based on hundreds of public comments received in 1995.
Officials of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA) were critical of many of HRI's responses to the AIRs in preliminary comments prepared in June. NNEPA's full set of technical comments, along with those of other tribal agencies, are expected to identify many of the same concerns raised by ENDAUM, SRIC and others in their petitions. They are also expected to point to comments made by the NRC staff in its 92 questions. Some of those comments identified contradictions and inconsistencies in the DEIS and questioned whether HRI had satisfactorily demonstrated that it could restore contaminated ground water to pre-mining conditions following the end of mining.
Post-mining water quality restoration is a key issue for the petitioners, who assert that restoration to pre-mining conditions was not achieved at a pilot-scale ISL project near Crownpoint between 1979 and 1986 and is not being achieved at several ISL projects in South Texas, including two operated by HRI's parent company, Uranium Resources Inc. (URI).
The groups also point to hydrologic data to assert that HRI has not demonstrated it can prevent "excursions" of mining fluids from the ore zone into the town of Crownpoint's municipal water supply. That supply is derived from five wells that tap the same regional aquifer in which the mining will be conducted. All of the wells are located within 1.5 miles of the mining operation, and one is located within a proposed HRI wellfield. The Crownpoint water system is a sole source of drinking water for nearly 3,000 residents of Crownpoint and for at least another 10,000 people in small communities elsewhere in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation.
The potential impacts to the regional ground water, increased health risks associated with routine releases of radionuclides from a central processing plant in Crownpoint, and lack of adequate emergency preparedness capabilities were among the major issues that ENDAUM, SRIC and others raised in their 1994 and 1995 petitions to the ASLBP. They are also among the concerns presented by ENDAUM members to Navajo Nation Vice President Thomas Atcitty, who, at ENDAUM's request, made a day- long tour of the Crownpoint area on August 20.
At the conclusion of the tour, ENDAUM President Mitchell Capitan presented the vice president with a 16-point "Commitments" list that sought Navajo Nation action on a number of matters related to the proposed mines. Atcitty agreed to provide responses to each of the points by November. Navajo Nation officials said in December that a written response was being drafted and would be forwarded to ENDAUM as soon as possible. By early January, that response had not been received.
Among the actions ENDAUM requested of the Navajo Nation in the 16-Point Commitments letter were:
(For copies of any of the documents referenced in this report, contact Mitchell Capitan at P.O. Box 471, Crownpoint, NM 87313, USA, or Chris Shuey, SRIC, P.O. Box 4524, Albuquerque, NM 87106, USA; +1-505-346-1455. E-mail inquiries can be addressed to email@example.com.)
Status Report: Crownpoint Uranium Project (SRIC)
Uranium ISL Ground-Water Data From Written Testimony Of William P. Staub, Ph.D., January 9, 1999, (In support of ENDAUM-SRIC Presentation on Groundwater Issues in the Matter of Hydro Resources, Inc.) (SRIC)
WISE Uranium Project (home)