Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation


Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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Mitchell Capitan stands at the end of a washboard road and points to a large water tank perched atop a mesa in his hometown of Crownpoint. There are no major rivers in this part of the state, and since most people do not have a well, every day residents from the surrounding area come to the community well and haul water to their homes. An estimated 15,000 residents draw water from the Crownpoint well.

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Shelley Smithson
Shelley Smithson, a freelance writer in Urbana, Illionis, teaches journalism at the University of Illinois.

Mining "is going to be a big risk because our main aquifer is the sole drinking water for this community," says Capitan. "We have good clean water."

Instead of sinking a shaft or digging a pit, HRI plans to extract uranium by injecting bicarbonate solution into the sandstone aquifer--just one-quarter mile from the municipal well. The injection will release uranium from the rocks, where it has been encased for eons.

The company claims the process, called in situ recovery (ISR), is as safe as pumping baking soda underground. But the solution also mobilizes heavy metals, including arsenic, selenium and molybdenum, all of which are pumped to the surface then back into the ground after the uranium is extracted. Opponents worry that water contaminated with uranium and heavy metals will travel through underground channels to the village well 1,500 feet away, just as radioactive plumes from mines and mills have sullied aquifers to the south in the Grants and Church Rock areas.

HRI's parent company, Uranium Resources, has used the technology for thirty years at mines in South Texas. Richard Abitz, a geochemist who advises opponents of ISR mining in Texas, Colorado and on the Sioux Indian Reservation in Nebraska, says no ISR operation has ever restored the underground water at a mine site to its original condition. State and federal regulators routinely amend allowable levels of uranium and heavy metals after restoration efforts fall short, he said. In Texas, Goliad and Kleberg counties are trying to force uranium companies, including Uranium Resources, to clean up aquifer contamination from previous ISR operations.

Meanwhile, the NRC is considering a plan that would expedite the environmental review process for ISR operations nationwide, a move opposed by the New Mexico Environment Department. At a hearing on the issue last year, Capitan stood up and implored Navajos to unite against uranium mining. "Let's be banded together in one and protect our land and our water, because water is sacred," he said.

"How about if there was no water?" Capitan continued. "We can't live. We might have a million dollars right here, and I'm thirsty--which one am I going to take? I'm going to drink that water."

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