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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico | The Nation

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Radioactive Revival in New Mexico

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JANNA BROWER

About the Author

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

Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
 

Mitchell Capitan points to a flock of sheep grazing in the shadow of a sandstone mesa. The sheep belong to Capitan's family, along with a few head of cattle and twelve quarter horses standing in a corral near his mother-in-law's house in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

"All of this area," Capitan says, gesturing to the valley of sage and shrub brush below, "there's a lot of uranium underneath there. That's what they're after."

Capitan and his Navajo neighbors are battling a license granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI)--a subsidiary of a Texas company, Uranium Resources--one of several firms that have laid claim to the minerals beneath thousands of acres on and around the lands of the Navajo Nation and three American Indian pueblos in northwestern New Mexico. A group called the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining is suing the NRC to block mining in Crownpoint and another Navajo community. A panel of federal judges in Denver heard the case in May 2008 but has yet to issue a ruling.

A resurgence of interest in building nuclear power plants, touted as a nonpolluting alternative to carbon-fueled plants, has sparked a uranium rush. Since 2007 the NRC has received seventeen license applications for twenty-six new reactors, causing a flurry of applications for uranium mining permits across the Four Corners region, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet. In February Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the Energy Department would expedite the approval process for $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for utilities that are building nuclear plants. The guarantees, along with other Bush-era incentives, are meant to spur construction of new plants.

The anticipated rise in demand for uranium has led the industry back to the very places it deserted three decades ago when it abandoned hundreds of mines, seven polluted uranium mills, billions of gallons of contaminated groundwater and mountains of radioactive waste. Congress is only now beginning to press agencies to clean up the mess, an undertaking that could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Plenty of people in this economically distressed corner of New Mexico are thrilled about the 8,000 new jobs and $1 billion in economic benefits the uranium industry promises. They point to claims made by industry lobbyists in a concerted PR campaign that new technology will make mining safer and that cast doubt on the connection between uranium mining and the illnesses that plague people who worked in mines and mills or lived near them.

Many others, especially American Indians like Capitan, remain unconvinced. They are afraid the companies will leave behind another trail of environmental destruction, illness and death like that of thirty years ago.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office in Window Rock, Arizona, Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr., a tall, thin man with silver hair and a fierce opposition to uranium mining, declares, "I don't believe there is any safe technology that can be used to mine uranium. Many of my people died because of mining of uranium ore here on Navajo land. Back at that time, the US government did not apprise my people of the dangers that are inherent with the mining of uranium ore. And as a result, a lot of people came down with cancer." Shirley has watched several family members suffer from uranium-related illnesses. "It is devastating. It has wrecked the lives of our families," he says.

He rejects the idea that mining is needed because it will bring jobs to the Navajo Nation, where the unemployment rate is around 50 percent. "How much is a life worth?" he says.

"If you can show me the cure for the cancer that is caused by the uranium ore, I might have second thoughts about it," he says. Until then, the tribe will continue to fight the state and federal agencies that grant permits to uranium companies despite the opposition of American Indian communities.

Starting in 1942, much of the uranium used for atomic bombs being built in Los Alamos was mined in northwestern New Mexico. Between 1950 and 1979, the region yielded more yellowcake than any other place in the United States. Hundreds of uranium mines and seven mills--many of them on or near Indian land--stocked the government's cold war atomic arsenal and, eventually, the nation's nuclear power plants.

Though the region has always been poor, locals remember the uranium era as a prosperous time. People ate lunch at the Uranium Cafe in Grants, listened to country music on KMIN (pronounced K-mine) and built houses with scrap materials from the mines. On weekends Indian uranium workers and their families drove from the reservations to the border towns of Grants, Gallup and Farmington to shop.

But in 1979, everything changed. Public outcry over the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island plus construction cost overruns dealt the uranium industry a deathblow in a few short years. For thirty years no new nuclear plants were ordered in the United States. The nation's 104 nuclear reactors bought cheap surplus uranium from government stockpiles and later from dismantled Soviet-era nuclear warheads.

The first uranium boom left a toxic legacy to the people of the area. Uranium workers, inadequately protected from the dangers of mining and milling, developed a range of maladies. Although the government knew of the health risks of radioactive dust--European studies from the 1920s and '30s had linked uranium mining with lung cancer--officials did not require mine companies to ventilate shafts or to limit worker exposure to radon, the radioactive gas released during mining. Duncan Holaday, an industrial engineer at the Public Health Service, discovered that radon levels in US mines in the 1940s were as high as those found in European mines in the 1920s. "He tried to convince the mine operators and the Atomic Energy Commission that they were going to have a big epidemic here if they didn't start ventilating the mines. But nobody paid much attention to him," says Dr. Victor Archer, now in his 80s and living in Salt Lake City. Archer worked with Holaday for nearly two decades on an epidemiological study for PHS on the relationship between radon and lung cancer. Though he knew the miners were at risk of developing lung cancer, Archer says he was not allowed to warn the 2,500 men in the study about their unsafe work environments. "It was understood if we upset the miners...then the mine operators would not let us examine the miners," he says.

The researchers repeatedly warned mine operators and state and federal mining officials of the dangers of working in unventilated mines. "We'd tell them about the European experience, and they'd say, 'Those foreigners are different from our miners,'" Archer recalls. "Mostly they would object because to ventilate would cost them money."

Just as the researchers warned, uranium workers developed lung cancers, as well as a long list of other ailments. In 1990, after fifteen years of litigation and lobbying by the families of deceased miners, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides payments of $100,000 to miners, millers and ore haulers who contracted specific lung diseases, as well as some millers and ore haulers diagnosed with certain renal diseases. Congress recognized the government's failure to protect those who worked in "mines that were providing uranium for the primary use and benefit of the nuclear weapons program of the United States." But the act covers just a fraction of those afflicted only before 1971, when the government stopped buying uranium for its weapons program and passed standards to limit worker radiation exposure. Post-1971 workers who suffer from the same illnesses say they too should be compensated. They claim that the government's radiation limits were insufficient and that regulators did not force companies to follow rules intended to protect workers' health.

The new uranium rush has resurrected antagonisms among Indians, Anglos and Hispanics and sparked a bitter war over the future of uranium mining in New Mexico. Many Indians say they were, and still are, treated as second-class citizens in stores, restaurants and businesses in border towns, where their sales taxes support city coffers. Non-Indians complain that Indians living on reservations do not pay property taxes yet are able to vote in school bond referendums, which often benefit reservation communities. There's anger, too, about the prevalence of drunk driving on the roads between the reservations, where alcohol is illegal, and the border towns, where bars are plentiful. But few issues evoke more emotion than the prospect of uranium mining.

On a Saturday afternoon in June 2008, racial tensions simmered when 700 people packed into the high school gymnasium in Grants. The Route 66 town is home to 8,800 people, two prisons, a handful of 1950s-era motels and twice as many fast food restaurants. On one side of the gym sat a crowd of mostly American Indian residents, who had come from nearby communities to voice their opposition to proposed uranium mining near Mount Taylor. The 11,000-foot snowcapped peak rises above the stark badlands between Grants and Albuquerque and is sacred to five tribes in the Southwest--the Navajos, Acomas, Lagunas, Zunis and Hopis. Last year the Navajo Nation joined twenty other Southwestern tribes in opposing mining on Mount Taylor. Indians claim that protection of the mountain is crucial to their religions and cultures.

Many Indians fear that pollution from uranium mines and mills could contaminate the mountain springs, rivers and aquifers that supply water for crop irrigation, homes and businesses on their land. The Navajo Nation Council banned new uranium mining on Navajo land in 2005.

"If you contaminate our groundwater, where do we go for water after that?" Shirley demands.

In the bleachers on the other side of the gym sat mostly Anglo and Hispanic residents from Grants and neighboring towns. They were there to speak in support of mining and against a state plan to set aside the top of Mount Taylor as a culturally protected landmark.

In June state officials voted to make the cultural listing of the mountain permanent, a decision that could hinder uranium mining on private and public land within and adjacent to the cultural-property boundaries. That possibility led to a fierce campaign by the uranium industry that pitted Anglo and Hispanic landowners against the state and the tribes. Commenting on the move to designate Mount Taylor a traditional cultural property, industry lobbyist Marita Noon called it "a sneak attack, sadly perpetrated largely by Native Americans against white men."

James Martinez of Albuquerque says state officials are placing Indian culture above all others. Martinez's great-great-grandfather was born in a cave at the base of Mount Taylor on land given to Spanish settlers 300 years ago by the king of Spain. Twenty thousand acres were granted to several families, including the Martinez clan. But over the years, three-quarters of the Juan Tafoya Land Grant, as it was called, was lost to back taxes and sloppy paperwork or unscrupulously taken by Anglo lawyers and ranchers.

"Thirty-five years ago, my father made [the land grant] into a corporation," Martinez explains. "He brought a lot of people back who lost their rights there."

The land grant now totals 4,500 acres, including the village of Marquez--population zero. The Martinez family lived in Marquez until after World War II, when they moved to Albuquerque. Now all that remains of the village are a few empty houses, a vacant church, a closed post office and an abandoned school. Just beyond the village, beneath the icy mountain streams and ponderosa pines, is a uranium ore body estimated at 15 million pounds.

When Martinez was a teenager, a uranium company sank a shaft and built a mill near Marquez, but before any ore was pulled out of the ground the price of uranium collapsed. So too did the family's dream of becoming wealthy. Then, four years ago, after two decades of uranium prices that averaged around $10 a pound, the price of uranium started to climb, reaching an all-time high in 2007 of $138 a pound. (It has since fallen with the price of other energy commodities to $49 a pound.) The 500 shareholders of the Juan Tafoya Land Grant voted to lease the land to Neutron Energy, a private uranium company based in Phoenix. The company, which plans to operate a shaft mine and a mill in the area, promises that technology and safer operating procedures will make mining and milling environmentally benign.

Martinez's son Amadeo is already benefiting. Neutron gave him a scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico, where he is studying geology in hopes of working for the mine company. He plans to move back to the village of his ancestors someday. "I know the Natives. We've been accused [by them] up front of only looking for the fast dollar," says James Martinez's wife, Patricia. "We see it as a way to help the economy, to help our future, the next generation."

From Linda Evers's front yard she can see the snow-covered cap of Mount Taylor to the east. To the north her view is blocked by a ten-foot red fence that separates her property from the boundaries of the Homestake Mill Superfund site. Today all that remains of the closed uranium mill eight miles northwest of Grants are a few metal buildings and two earthen impoundments. Covering 240 acres, the Homestake impoundments, holding piles of tailings, are filled with 20 million tons of radioactive sludge generated by thirty years of milling uranium.

Evers, a former miner, miller and ore hauler, says she became a member of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment because she wanted the community to remember that uranium has sickened Anglos, Hispanics and Indians. Evers, who is Anglo, believes her degenerative bone disease and persistent skin rashes are linked to uranium exposure. "My daughter was born with no hips at all," says Evers, whose son was also born with birth defects.

The multicultural alliance is composed of Indian, Anglo and Hispanic members of five grassroots organizations opposed to new mining. The group has given tours of contaminated areas to state officials, worked with lawmakers to craft legislation and testified before the state legislature about widespread groundwater pollution at Homestake Mill. Despite a three-decade remediation effort that has been overseen by the NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency, contamination from Homestake's tailings has migrated to five regional aquifers. A 2008 report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry declares the site a public health hazard and states, "even upon completion of the remediation, the levels of uranium and selenium will be above drinking water standards."

This year, state environmental officials ordered people in Evers's neighborhood to stop drinking well water. In addition to contamination from mill tailings, state officials are investigating whether radioactive pollution from abandoned uranium mines north of Homestake might be contributing to toxic underground plumes.

Fifty miles west of Grants, in the Navajo community of Church Rock, soil testing in 2007 revealed radiation levels so high that EPA crews wearing hazardous materials suits brought in backhoes to remove dirt from the yards of five families. The homes are located between two abandoned mines and a former mill that was the site of the largest radioactive spill in US history.

The residential dirt removal cost the government $1 million and was part of an EPA plan to clean up one of the two mines. Despite opposition from the community and the Navajo Nation, the NRC issued a permit allowing HRI of Dallas to begin new mining at the other abandoned mine.

Larry King, who lives nearby, testified in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is pressing the EPA to clean up more than 500 abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. King said, "The NRC ruled that the radiation from the [old mine] site doesn't have to be included in [the permit's] public dose calculations, that the wastes there are now part of 'background,' as if the Great Spirits had placed them there from the beginning of time.... I guess [NRC's] mandate to protect the public health and safety just doesn't apply to we Navajos."

King's neighbor Edith Hood, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006, also implored Congress to halt the NRC's approval of new mines in Navajo communities. "My father has pulmonary fibrosis. My mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. My grandmother and grandfather died of lung cancer. Many of my family members and neighbors are sick, but we don't know what from," Hood said. "How can they open new mines when we haven't even addressed the health impacts and environmental damage of the old ones?"

According to the EPA, long-term exposure to uranium and its radioactive byproducts has been linked to chronic lung and renal diseases and cancers. Uranium exposure may also cause tumors in the tissues where new blood cells are formed and in the lymphatic system. Long-term exposure to high levels of radium--a byproduct of uranium mining--may cause anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, head and nasal passage tumors and bone cancer.

A 2000 study reported that two Navajo children exposed to uranium while in the womb suffered deadly central nervous system disorders. Their mother had unknowingly led the family's sheep to water at uranium-contaminated springs and had drunk the water herself. Hood said she fears that traditional Navajo families, who raise and butcher sheep, may be eating meat that is poisoned with uranium and other heavy metals.

A federally funded project at the University of New Mexico is trying to determine if there is a connection between drinking uranium-tainted water and kidney disease. Many Navajos in northwestern New Mexico do not have running water, so they haul water in fifty-gallon barrels from public wells. Nearly one-quarter of these unregulated water sources likely contains unsafe levels of uranium, according to the US Indian Health Service.

It's 10:02 on a crisp fall morning in Grants. Radio KMIN is on the air, playing "goo-ooo-ood country music."

"Thanks for tuning in to KMIN," says the effervescent announcer and station president, Derek Underhill. "It's time for our public-service program on energy. Our experts are brought to you by CARE." The mining-industry-backed CARE, the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy, is sponsoring an eight-week "educational series" on the community's AM radio station, featuring one-hour interviews with uranium executives and mining-friendly lawyers, economists, academics and scientists.

The guest this morning is Steven Brown, a health physicist who has worked in the uranium industry for forty years. Brown is discussing a 1999 report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "[The report] states, and I quote, 'No human cancer of any type has ever been seen as a result of exposure to natural or depleted uranium.'" Brown does not provide the next sentence in the report, which states, "Uranium can decay into other radionuclides, which can cause cancer if you are exposed to enough of them for a long enough period."

Downplaying uranium-related illnesses and environmental pollution on the radio is only one move in the industry's public-relations playbook. In public hearings and industry-sponsored "educational meetings," the executive director of CARE, Marita Noon, claims environmentalists are using Indians as pawns to block mining and to keep the state's residents poor. Noon, who was a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed "advocate for energy," says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Industry lobbyists also make their case to regulators and legislators. In March a New Mexico House committee tabled a bill that would have empowered state regulators to force companies to clean up their messes from decades ago. "The industry came out hard against it," says Nadine Padilla, a lobbyist for several grassroots groups, including the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment. Another failed bill would have created a permanent fund to clean up abandoned mines that are contributing to groundwater pollution.

At an NRC hearing in Albuquerque last fall, uranium lobbyist Adella Duran demonstrated the cozy relationship between the industry and some lawmakers. Duran stood at the podium and told an NRC panel that she had been asked by representative to the New Mexico Legislature John Heaton to speak on his behalf.

"He wasn't able to be here tonight," she explained. "He knew that I was going to be here in a different capacity, and so he has asked me on his behalf, for the record, to read a letter that he has written to [NRC] Chairman Klein."

After reading the statement by Heaton, who is chair of the State House Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, she moved to the other side of the podium and spoke on behalf of her clients, the uranium industry, urging the NRC to expedite its permit process for new mines.

The industry is peddling influence at the local level, too. Both Homestake and HRI have hired the Albuquerque public relations firm D.W. Turner to bolster their images as good corporate citizens. Homestake established a "Little Miners" program to fund classroom projects at the Grants elementary school; both firms support numerous nonprofit organizations, from literacy programs to domestic violence shelters to crisis pregnancy centers.

"They're going around handing out checks to people, to businesses, nongovernmental organizations, a lot of social programs that have been starved," says Chris Shuey, a community organizer with the Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based advocacy group. Shuey, who is often referred to by CARE's executive director as an "environmental zealot," says he has watched the debate devolve into an atmosphere of racial divisiveness and hate. "There's been demonizing and just meanness and ruthlessness against people who have been upstanding citizens," he says. "They say there are rabid environmentalists. There is nobody as rabid as these pro-uranium people."

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.

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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