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GRANTS, N.M. — In a small valley on the southeastern edge of the Navajo Nation lies a pair of light brown dirt mounds. At first glance they blend into the area's natural mountainous and mesa-rich landscape. These features, though, are anything but: Hiding underneath their sandy topsoil is radioactive waste.
"I'm sandwiched between these tailings piles," said Bertha Nez as she stood outside her modest stucco home, eyeing the mounds of mining waste about 100 yards away. "The kids have asthma, my sister had cancer — lymphoma — then my dad, and some people that worked in the uranium mine, they have respiratory problems and some have kidney problems."
Nez’s family and about six others have homesteads here in New Mexico's Four Corners region. It’s where she and most of her neighbors grew up, often inheriting their homes from their grandparents.
Jackie Jefferson, whose home is just a quarter mile west of Nez’s, said growing up so close to uranium waste products didn’t seem like a problem when she was a child because people didn’t realize how dangerous exposure to the stuff really was. “We used to play around in this pit,” Jefferson said as she pointed to a drainage ditch that used to carry wastewater from a nearby uranium mine. “There was no indication that this was a restricted area.”
She now suffers from asthma, but it’s unclear whether being exposed to uranium waste products is the culprit.
Remnants like these are all that remain of the nation's once thriving uranium industry. However, just east of the Navajo Nation, multinational corporations are eyeing Mount Taylor, an area that's considered sacred by the Navajo as well as several surrounding tribes, to begin work on a project called the Roca Honda Mine. If developed according to plan, it would be the largest uranium mine in the nation.
The dirty legacy left behind by the industry has triggered a contentious fight in this region as efforts to restart mining operations in western New Mexico gain ground. Opponents of the Roca Honda Mine say it has the potential to pollute local groundwater sources and impart serious damage to some of the area's culturally significant sites. However, the mining site contains one of the highest-grade uranium deposits in the country, and supporters of the proposal argue that the operation could be an economic windfall for the state.
Hard to ignore jobs
In the early 1980s the uranium market crashed, due in part to the absence of new nuclear power plants in the United States. Without a strong demand for uranium, the plants’ primary fuel source, New Mexico mines were forced to scale back production, and eventually close. The price for uranium has fluctuated since then, but despite a lackluster price for the material, investors are beginning to take notice again.
“The big action, when it comes to commercial nuclear power generation, is abroad,” said Bernard Weinstein, an energy economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “China is pushing ahead big time with nuclear. They’ve got 26 gigawatts of nuclear plants under construction.”
That translates to about 30 nuclear power plants. Beyond China, about 10 plants are being built in Russia and around six in India, making the long-term outlook for nuclear power positive, and increasing the demand for uranium.
“So if someone was looking to invest in mining uranium ore in the United States, it’s probably going to be for markets abroad,” said Weinstein.
The mine began as a joint venture between Strathmore Minerals of Canada and Sumitomo, which is based in Japan. However, due to a recent merger, Canadian based Energy Fuels has since taken over project operations. The companies plan to use a traditional underground shaft mine to obtain the uranium. Their hope is to mine about 1,000 tons of uranium a day for about nine years.
According to the draft environmental impact statement, a document released by the Forest Service, the project has the potential to be a significant revenue source for the state, creating an estimated 2,400 jobs, and over $1 billion in economic activity. That's hard to ignore for many living in New Mexico, a state that ranks third in the nation for poverty.
A dirty past
But because of uranium’s dirty past, many are hesitant to welcome the industry back to the area. According to the state Mining and Minerals Division (MMD), there are 259 abandoned uranium mines scattered across New Mexico. The companies running them disappeared in the 1980s, leaving their messes behind.
“Total mines that have been really well cleaned up? Ummm. One,” said James Smith, an environmental engineer for the MMD. “You can’t see uranium. You don’t know that it’s there. So it’s really hard to be able to recognize what to do.”
Cleanup of an old mining site can range from covering it with rock and topsoil to filling an old mineshaft with concrete and restoring native vegetation to the area — processes funded by the federal government. That means there are about 258 other sites in the state that have been left mostly untreated, posing a danger.
According to a seven-year University of New Mexico studyperformed on the Navajo Nation, tribal citizens exposed to uranium waste were shown to be at an increased risk for a variety of health problems including kidney disease, autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular problems such as atherosclerosis.
Juan Velasquez, senior vice president of environmental affairs at Strathmore Minerals, is quick to admit that the industry’s past hasn’t been spotless. But, he insists, things have changed.
“When they first built automobiles they didn’t have windshields, they didn’t have brakes, seat belts, all of the safety features that we have today,” said Velasquez. “That’s because we learned as a society that you can do things safer if you engineer them correctly. The same thing has occurred here in the mining industry.”
Legislation such as the New Mexico Mining Act of 1993 has introduced stricter regulations on the industry since its heyday in the ’50s. And according to the MMD, there are now more regulations on the books that require operators to reclaim and repair any damage they’ve done to the environment. In the past, those regulations didn’t exist.
“The single biggest problem environmentally is the water situation,” said Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “In order to start mining, the company is going to have to de-water the mine, which means they’re going to have to pump out millions of gallons of groundwater from the mine area.”
Pumping out groundwater could result in drawdowns of local springs and surface water, and Jantz contends that the in-situ mining process also has the potential to introduce heavy metal waste into ground and surface water.
“For the communities most immediately impacted, the benefits are negligible and the costs are huge,” he said.
'Plowing down the Vatican'
Local Native American tribes are also concerned about the impacts to the Mount Taylor area.
“It would be like, let’s say, plowing down the Vatican, for instance,” said Gregg Shutiva, the governor and executive leader of the Acoma Pueblo tribe. “Even a road that is established by taking, let's say, a grater, and removing the first foot of dirt. That may disturb cultural sites.”
Mount Taylor is considered sacred by the Navajo people, as well as the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni and Hopi tribes, and many sites on the mountain are central to the tribes’ oral history and religious practices. According to Shutiva, mining operations could affect about 70 acres of land in the area that’s been designated by the Forest Service as traditional cultural property.
“Taking our concerns as native peoples into consideration, especially about sacred sites, could be a welcome idea for us because we want to be heard and we want to protect what we have,” he said.
But Velasquez said Strathmore Minerals is committed to avoiding damaging culturally sensitive sites, adding that an archaeologist will be hired to observe mining activities in the area.
The approval process has been an emotional one for many living near the proposed mine. The final decision on how to move forward now lies in the hands of the Forest Service, which initially estimated that the announcement would be made by December. It’s unclear now whether it will make that deadline.
Jackie Jefferson and her neighbors on the Navajo Nation say they’re anxiously awaiting the decision on this proposal as well as several others that could bring the industry back to the area. For them, the economic benefit isn’t worth the risk.
“We just don’t want no other uranium stuff coming to us,” said Jefferson. “We don’t want to be a dumping ground.”