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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Yellowcake Blues

Yellowcake Blues

October 11, 2006, 12:00 am
The Navajo Nation has learned a lesson about uranium–has anyone else?


"At the time, the compensation was fair enough for me," William Lopez, an elderly Navajo man who, 40 years ago, worked as shift foreman at the Rare Metals Corporation mill in Tuba City, says. He was first hired in 1959, when few other jobs existed on the reservation. "I made a little more money there than I could get at any other job in that locality."

For almost eight years, Lopez and his brother-in-law, George Brown, crushed uranium ore, separating it into different grades, then mixing slurry and leaching uranium from the liquid. Until the plant closed in late 1966, the men worked each day enveloped in a cloud of uranium dust, returning home to their families each afternoon with uranium caked beneath their fingernails and stuck within the divots of their shoes.

Beginning with the discovery of uranium near Grants, NM, in 1950, the Navajo reservation hosted four mills and more than 1,000 mines. But by the early 1990s, when the price of uranium busted out at $7 per pound, the boom had ended and many of the companies vanished, leaving the reservation ***image8***pocked with mines and mills that were both radioactive and toxic. Dry tailings piles blew dust through homes and hogans and, when it rained, sent torrents of poisonous water down normally dry arroyos.

It was only decades after the Tuba City mill closed that Lopez, Brown and others learned they had been exposed to radioactive uranium and toxic chemicals, putting them at risk for diseases such as lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis, and perhaps kidney disease and lymphoma. "There should be a penalty for not letting people know," Brown says, obviously still angry with the US government. "You put all these years in for them and then they turn their back."

But while the Navajo Nation has decided it's better off without uranium, the industry is eager to use new technology that will extract ore from beneath the reservation using water and chemicals rather than strip mines and tunnels. And while the state of New Mexico dodges issues of tribal sovereignty, the federal government is poised to approve a whole new generation of uranium mines on the Navajo reservation.



Stories passed down from generation to generation warn that certain substances are better left alone. For the Navajo, uranium is one of those substances. Last April, the tribal council banned uranium mining and processing from the reservation. The resolution, which passed by a vote of 63 to 19, acknowledges the harm uranium ***image3***has caused-to people's health, the environment and the tribe's economy-and asserts the tribe's sovereign right to control its own natural resources.

President Joe Shirley, Jr.-who frequently uses the word "genocide" when talking about uranium mining's legacy on the reservation-signed that resolution, then followed it with an executive order that bans anyone from even negotiating with companies proposing to mine uranium.

"Week in and week out, uranium seems to be an issue [President Shirley], the Navajo Nation, has to deal with, at a sacrifice," George Hardeen, communications director for the tribe's president and vice president, says. "But the ***image9***greater sacrifice is the loss of lives, loss of knowledge, of wisdom, songs, ceremonies. There were medicine people who were also miners [who have] passed on. This is a cultural loss, not just a loss to individual families."

The most recent chapter in the Navajo battle opened in 1988 when the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a license to Albuquerque-based Hydro Resources, Inc., (HRI) to begin mining at four sites within the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock. Local activists, with help from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Council and the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Environmental Law Center, have spent the past eight years requesting hearings, filing challenges and, essentially, keeping the mining company at bay. But the adjudication process is nearing its end, Dave McIntyre, NRC spokesman, says. "So once the commission has issued its final rulings, and the staff and HRI have complied with any requirements the commission might impose, the license will become valid from NRC's point of view."

The proposed mine does more than threaten the eastern Navajo and their drinking water, according to Eric Jantz, staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. "We're on the cusp of a uranium boom," he says. He believes that HRI is just the first of many companies that want to mine uranium in the area, and its ***image10***case before the NRC is a test case for other companies to watch: "Can they push around the community? What standards will they have to meet?"

Everything in Jantz' office suggests he is a man if not obsessed, then at least consumed: His laptop computer claims the only flat surface on his desk; an old yellow couch is piled high with papers and folders. He's currently representing activists before the NRC in the New Mexico Court of Appeals and before the US Environmental Protection Agency. Before coming to Santa Fe, he worked in Crownpoint; before becoming an attorney, he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology. Straddling all these different worlds can be mind-numbing. But this work, he knows, is important: "This isn't about four mines," he says. "This is potentially about hundreds of mines in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.



If anyone has watched the Navajo struggle with the
psychological burden of uranium, it is Dr. Bruce Baird Struminger. As the medical director of the federal Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program on the Navajo reservation, Struminger has screened more than 1,750 former uranium workers, most of them two or three times, in order to help them apply for federal compensation.

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The legislation compensates those who can prove they are sick because of their work in the uranium mines and mills between 1947 and 1971, when the US government was the ***image4***sole purchaser of the metal for nuclear bombs and reactors. Those who worked in the industry following 1971 are not eligible for federal compensation.

Those workers who can prove they have lung cancer or pulmonary fibrosis are eligible to receive a payment of $150,000 from the Department of Justice. And now the Department of Labor will compensate sick workers up to an additional $250,000 if they can prove they lost wages due to their illnesses. "It's an awkward and awful situation," Struminger says. "When we find out someone's lungs are in great shape, some are happy, but most are not because they're not going to get any compensation."

It's obvious that four years of this work has taken a toll on Struminger. Unlike most members of the medical profession-who often remain apolitical and stick to keeping their mouths shut-Struminger is an outspoken critic of the law that created his program. Even before resigning as medical director in June, Struminger questioned those who ***image11***wrote the original legislation, needled Department of Justice officials for exact numbers concerning compensation claims and, in general, refused to play the role of the quiet doctor.

"Today I saw the children of a miner, who asked me, 'Do you think anything was passed on to us genetically?''' Struminger said in May 2005 from Shiprock. "That was a real worry for them."

There's no evidence to prove that uranium miners suffered genetic damage-but that's because the government has never undertaken a "statistically significant" study. It's the same with birth defects, kidney disease and neuropathy, diseases that may or may not be linked with the uranium industry and the aftermath of the boom. "My guess is [genetic damage] will never be studied," Struminger says. And there's the issue of trust. "If the government funded it," he says, "people [on the Navajo reservation] wouldn't believe the results. But if the government doesn't do it, no one will."

Fueling further distrust of the government is the fact that "downwinders" must only prove that they lived in the Arizona, Utah or Nevada counties eligible for compensation under RECA. And despite recent studies that show people in Idaho and New Mexico were exposed to fallout as well, RECA does not include residents outside Utah, Arizona or Nevada. This poses a particular challenge to the Navajo; those living ***image12***in Chinle or Teec Nos Pos might be eligible, while those living on the New Mexico side of the reservation are not.

"A huge benefit of the doubt is given to the downwinder population," Struminger says. "For whatever reason, they set it up that way originally-but that needs to change." Last year the National Research Council released an evaluation of the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program that concluded that many people who received high doses of radiation were ineligible for compensation simply because they lived outside the boundaries set up by the 1990 law. Although the report presented 22 recommendations to improve the program, thus far there has been no official response to the report.

"My first take on that is Congress hasn't done the oversight it needs to do," US Rep. Tom Udall, D-NM, says. In the 16 years since RECA was passed, Congress has never held hearings to review the program, nor has it called for witnesses to testify about its effectiveness. The law is due for a close look, but that's not likely to occur while Republicans hold the majority in Congress; only the chair of the committee that created the law can call for hearings and investigations into the program, and, sadly, Udall says, "Oversight has not been a strong point of Congress since 1994."

For people like George Brown and William Lopez-both of whom worked in the Tuba City mill; neither of whom are sick enough to receive compensation-the programs are just another example of a failed federal policy toward American Indians. ***image5***"We're just like a time bomb, I guess," Brown says. Like many others he worked with, he is giving up on the RECA screening-"too much red tape," he says. He believes workers should be compensated based on how many years they worked. Period. "I wish that they would say, 'You worked so many years, you were exposed and we don't know what the future holds for you,'" he says.

Struminger agrees. "Let's let these people move on with their lives," he says. "The money is just a token. It's a significant token, especially for people out here. But it's about the government totally owning up and saying, 'We're sorry.'" For the Navajo-especially those who return year after year to his clinic, hoping for a diagnosis that will earn them compensation-it's not really about the money, Struminger says. "They want to feel the government is serious about its apology…but to drag this on until 2022…" he trails off, obviously frustrated by all he has seen in the past four years.



According to the industry, today's uranium mining technology is easier, safer and cheaper. "Look, with underground mining, you're moving tons of rock. Just think about what you're moving and then sending to the mill," Tom Ehrlich, chief financial officer of Uranium Resources, Inc., parent company of HRI, says. "With solution mining, you're moving water. Water which is fortified with bicarbonate of soda."

***image13***During solution mining, or "in situ leach mining," the uranium is removed from the resulting sludge and the water is returned to the underground aquifer. According to HRI, the new in situ leach mining process protects workers-and the NRC has repeatedly ruled that the mines will not cause "significant" environmental, public health or safety impacts. But opposition within the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock remains fierce.

Activists by necessity rather than by choice, Mitchell and Rita Capitan founded Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining from their home in Crownpoint. "In 1994, when we heard about the new mining, we immediately began to discuss it at our table," Rita said last fall. "Then we decided to hold a community meeting to see what other people thought." The Capitans also reached out to Chris Shuey with Southwest Research and Information Council.

"In 1994, 1995, uranium mining became our life, and it's been nonstop ever since," the tall, booming Shuey says. He frequently punctuates technical discussions of environmental health epidemiology with less technical pleas for reason in a debate that involves what he sees as an experimental technology and a pure drinking water source in a desert community. A six-shelf bookcase behind him is filled and stacked with three-ring binders. There's more background information in the room behind him; everywhere he points in the dingy office sit piles of court briefs, health studies, groundwater models and federal nuclear regulations.

"We've spent well over $2 million fighting this," he says. "It's quite defeating, morally, to spend all this time and to feel like you're doing the rigorous work the commission should have been doing on the behalf of the public."

Shuey and the Capitans have long held that the mines would contaminate the local drinking water and nearby municipal wells. They worry that cracks in the underground rock structure might allow the chemical solution to leach into the aquifer and that companies will be unable to clean the chemical-laden water to its original state.

In southeastern Texas, residents say the Kingsville Dome and Rosita ISL plants run by Uranium Resources, Inc., have contaminated private wells. They have sued the company, but since no ***image6***groundwater or well data exists from before the facility's construction, the company has denied that contamination of local wells is the result of its operations.

Then, last summer, the US Geological Survey released a report commissioned by the NRC. Activists say that report, which analyzes a pilot groundwater restoration project at the Ruth In-Situ Leach Uranium Mine facility, supports their position that groundwater remediation may not be possible.

But less than a month after the report was released, an NRC judge ruled against activists, dismissing the contamination concerns they raised. "None of [the report's models and conclusions] should be interpreted as saying a particular event will happen, only that certain outcomes might occur if events unfold in a certain manner," the NRC's McIntyre says. "The report is not predictive of what will happen at the HRI sites."

Activists suffered another setback in May when the commission ruled that radioactive contamination that already exists on the Church Rock site from a previous uranium mine is officially considered "background" radiation-and will not count toward the limits on radioactivity HRI must achieve in order to be considered safe.

Shuey expresses disbelief at this decision: Not only will the existing sites not be cleaned to safe standards, he says, but new projects will contaminate them further. The decision to allow mining, Shuey says, means the Navajo will be treated as an "expendable population" by the US government in pursuit of uranium. "It doesn't look like Manhattan or [Washington,] DC, but the last time I looked, these people have the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as anyone else."

He adds: "We didn't go into this with rose-colored glasses. The NRC lends notorious support to industry. I don't know what else I'd tell someone in the same situation; we couldn't have ignored the NRC, because the company would be out there already."

For its part, New Mexico state officials seem unsure if the state will require further cleanup of contaminated sites before new mines can open. "My understanding is they did some reclamation previously," Karen Garcia, the state's mine regulation bureau chief, says. "Once we determine that the state has jurisdiction over the area, if the mining company were to open a mine, it would be required to clean it up."



For the Navajo, there is even more at risk than their
groundwater. And that's their ability to determine what happens within the boundaries of their reservation.

"The simplest definition of sovereignty is the right for native people to make their own laws and live by them," George Hardeen says. President Shirley has spent the past year and a half-since the tribe first passed its resolution banning uranium mining from the ***image14***reservation-traveling around the nation and the world, seeking support for the ban. "Everyone says they do and will respect sovereignty, do and will respect the law," Hardeen says. "So far, no one has challenged this, but boy, it's going to be an expensive thing to defend."

While Shirley has received support from the heads of international unions and from activists worldwide and even received an award in Oslo, Norway, Gov. Bill Richardson has been notably silent on the issue. After meeting with Shirley last summer in Window Rock, Hardeen says, "The governor told the president he would be in touch with the president before he made any decision. We know that's not the same as saying there won't be any uranium mining," he says. "President Shirley knows Gov. Richardson has an extremely tough decision to make. We can only hope, waiting for that day, that he can have respect for Navajo people."

Once the NRC issues HRI's license, the company will still require an Underground Injection Control Permit, an issue currently hung up within the EPA. The state believes it has the authority to issue that permit-and, in fact, it issued one in 1989-while the EPA believes it regulates water issues on Indian land. "The EPA has yet to rule on this," Bill Brancard, director of the Mining and Minerals Division at New Mexico's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, says. The permit is issued under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, he explains, and the EPA has the authority to decide the extent of its delegation to the state. "It's a question of who the EPA can delegate its authority to," Brancard says, "and the state's position is that we should be the ones to issue the underground injection permit."

As for tribal sovereignty, "In general, the state recognizes the right of the Navajo Nation to control resources on its lands," Brancard says. "But we haven't taken a public position. One of the big issues," he says, "[concerns] how far is tribal jurisdiction and how far can they impose the ban." Although all four mine sites lie within the external boundary of the reservation, one is on private land; the other, though it's on tribal land, has private mineral rights. This issue of jurisdiction complicates the matter. While the tribe insists it has control over anything within the external boundary of the reservation, both the state and federal governments appear to feel otherwise.

"The flip side that no one ever acknowledges is the money that the Navajo Nation is giving up by not having uranium mining on its lands," Hardeen says. He points out that there are "unmet needs" across the reservation. "That's not rhetoric," he says. "It's a fact the Navajo Nation needs money." The tribe plans to open its first casinos and has even welcomed Sithe Global and its plans to build a coal-fired power plant between Shiprock and Farmington. "But because of the uranium legacy," he says, "the Navajo have made the decision they're not going to exploit that resource."



As uranium prices continue to rise-a pound of the metal
currently fetches $54 on the market-mining has seen a resurgence in Colorado and Texas; more mines are planned for Wyoming, a Canadian company is drilling exploratory wells in ***image7***Utah, and the US Bureau of Land Management last year saw a rush on mining claims on the Arizona Strip, that wild patch of land between the Grand Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. So what's in store for New Mexico?

"There's a lot of speculation," Brancard says. "Numerous entities are looking to get leases, mineral rights, mine claims. But it's my understanding there's very little on the groundwork. As they get more serious, they'll start to do more drilling." For now, he says, it appears as though there are just a lot of people positioning themselves.

Indeed, in August, Canadian-based Strathmore Minerals Corporation announced it had acquired 51 new claims near Church Rock and Crownpoint-that's in addition to the two mines it bought from Kerr McGee and plans to reopen on the Navajo reservation in McKinley County near Church Rock. And according to spokesman Dave McIntyre, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had "discussions" with one company already interested in opening a mine near HRI's.

For his part, William Lopez doesn't understand why new development is posed to unfold on the reservation when local residents oppose it and tribal leaders have said they won't allow it. "Our resources are not being honored, the community votes are being ignored and the resolution [banning uranium mining] is being ignored." He adds, unable to quite articulate what he thinks might be going on, "I believe the uranium companies are finding other ways to establish opportunity for themselves-which is probably foreign and strange business to the local Navajo residents."

 

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