Monday, October 26, 2009

A New Demand For Uranium Power Brings Concerns For Navajo Groups

A New Demand For Uranium Power Brings Concerns For

Navajo Groups

Mining planned at a mountain considered sacred

By Kari Lydersen

Washington Post

October 25, 2009


ACOMA, N.M.-- Uranium from the Grants Mineral Belt

running under rugged peaks and Indian pueblos of New

Mexico was a source of electric power and military might

in decades past, providing fuel for reactors and atomic bombs.


Now, interest in carbon-free nuclear power is fueling a

potential resurgence of uranium mining. But Indian

people gathered in Acoma, N.M., for the Indigenous

Uranium Forum over the weekend decried future uranium

extraction, especially from nearby Mount Taylor,

considered sacred by many tribes. Native people from

Alaska, Canada, the Western United States and South

America discussed the severe health problems uranium

mining has caused their communities, including high

rates of cancer and kidney disease.


Uranium companies and government authorities do not

dispute this, and federal environmental remediation and

workers' compensation programs related to past uranium

mining are ongoing. But mining companies say today's

methods and regulations have improved so much that

locals have nothing to fear.


Uranium mining and milling in New Mexico began in the

late 1940s but nearly ceased in the late 1980s as prices

dropped. In 2007, prices climbed to a record $139 per

pound, and companies applied for or renewed permits and

staked new claims. The economic crisis has had a

chilling effect, with prices now at about $43 per pound.

But industry officials say they expect high prices soon,

especially with the likely passage of a climate bill

putting a price on carbon emissions.


The Grants Mineral Belt, extending 100 miles west from

Albuquerque, holds 300 million pounds of extractable

uranium. Companies are hoping to mine the country's

largest single deposit, about 100 million pounds, around

Mount Taylor. This year the National Trust for Historic

Preservation named it one of the nation's 11 most

endangered places, and the state granted protected

status to a swath of the mountain. The company Rio

Grande Resources wants to reopen a former Mount Taylor

mine that yielded 8 million pounds of uranium for

previous owner Chevron from 1986 to 1989.


About 50 miles from Mount Taylor, the company Hydro

Resources Inc. (HRI) also plans to begin mining 101

million pounds starting around the Navajo towns of

Church Rock and Crownpoint, N.M. HRI plans to do most of

its extraction through in-situ leaching (ISL), where

chemicals are injected into an aquifer to mobilize

uranium deposits, then the metal is sucked out while the

water is purified and returned to the aquifer. Rick Van

Horn, senior vice president of operations for HRI's

parent company, Uranium Resources, said the process is

environmentally safe. Opponents fear it could

contaminate their water supply. ad_icon


"This has multi-generational effects. I won't even live

long enough to see what it does to people in 500 years,"

said Earl Tulley, who lives near Church Rock and is vice

president of the Navajo environmental group Diné

Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment. His wife had

breast cancer and his daughter had an ovarian tumor

removed, both of which were attributed to uranium

exposure. "People are being taken apart from the inside out."


The Grand Canyon watershed also holds vast uranium

deposits, with more than 8,000 mining claims filed over

a 1 million-acre area. Interior Secretary Ken L. Salazar

over the summer instituted a two-year moratorium on

awarding new claims or beginning production on claims

not already established as viable. While it is not

tribal land, this region is considered sacred to many

Indians. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and

other tribal leaders testified in support of a House

bill introduced this year by  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-

Ariz.) that would ban Grand Canyon watershed uranium mining.


Shirley is a staunch proponent of existing and proposed

coal mining and coal-fired power in the Navajo Nation.

For several years his administration has been fighting

Navajo and outside environmentalists over the proposed

Desert Rock coal-burning power plant, which would bring

increased coal mining on the reservation. Shirley, who

could not be reached for comment, has said the coal

plant would be an economic boon for the reservation.

Uranium proponents, including some Navajo, likewise say

the industry would create badly needed investment and

jobs on a reservation where unemployment regularly tops 50 percent.


Van Horn said HRI would create about 120 jobs for locals

and would result in nearly $1 million a year in

royalties to the Navajo Nation. Mount Taylor mine

manager Joe Lister said their planned operations would

create about 600 temporary construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs.


"Everyone is paying attention to the Native Americans

and the environment, but where is Joe Public, that

working man who comes in his car with his family from

Arizona or Texas and asks, 'Are there any jobs here?' "

he said. "No, there's no jobs now. But we hope there will be."


Chris Shuey, a specialist on uranium mining at the

Southwest Research and Information Center, says many

uranium companies do not intend to mine unless prices soar.


"I don't think they're being honest about the chances of

new mining. They're . . . setting up false

expectations," he said. "It doesn't take a lot of money

to put up a fancy Web site. It's a whole other thing to

actually reopen a mine, hire staff and produce that

first ton of ore. If you're going to propose mining

uranium, you should either put up or shut up. And these

guys aren't doing it."




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