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Proposed U-Mine on land of Navajo Nation

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#465
24/01/1997
Article

(January 24, 1997) Concerned about the impact of uranium mining on public health, the Navajo nation declared in 1983 a moratorium on uranium mining on its reservation. In December 1992, former Navaja Nation President Peterson Zah signed an executive order to "reiterate and formally recognize that a moratorium is placed on uranium mining activity until such a time that the Navajo people can be assured that all safety and health hazards related to such activity can be adressed and resolved."

(465.4624) WISE Amsterdam -The people of the Navajo nation know the risks and realities of uranium mining. They live with its toxic legacy, which is found throughout the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in the form of contaminated wells and mountains of capped tailings. And this toxic legacy is associated with a sickness among the Dine (Navajo) people - cancer.

But regardless of what the moratorium states, the Navajo nation is again struggling with how to respond to a proposed uranium mining project. The moratorium remains in effect until the tribal governmnet chooses to rescind it. It has not yet done so.

A proposal to develop a new type of uranium mining on the reservation in Crowpoint and Church Rock, New Mexico, is now being considered. The proposed mining operation would extract uranium from rock by a process known as in-situ leaching. The company claims that in-situ mining is sufficiently safe to meet the terms of the 1992 Executive Order, but has nevertheless urged the Navajo Nation to lift the ban on uranium mining.

In-situ mining does not involve the open pits and waste rock piles, and the impact on the land appears to be far reduced (for more information on in-situ leaching, see Wise NC439/440: Uranium mining in Europe, in-situ leaching). In this case, a well is drilled through which sodium bicarbonate is injected. Several pumping wells which are used to extract the ore, are situated within a 50-foot (16-17 meters) radius from the injection well. This circulatory pattern of pumping and injection wells is repeated many times over the extend of the ore body.

There are, however, several issues of concern with this technology. Sodium bicarbonate is a powerful chemical. Although it is commonly thought of as baking soda, it can mobilize uranium and a whole host of dangerous minerals, including aluminium, arsenic and lead. If toxic solutions in the aquifer were to escape beyond the pumping wells, drinking water supplies would be contaminated. At Crownspoint, this possibility offers reasons for serious concern. The community drinking water wells at Crownspoint, which are so pure that Dine people travel from 120 km. away to draw water, share the same aquifer as the proposed mine.

The mining company, Hydro Resources Inc. of Dallas, claims that if any uranium-laden solution were to escape the pumping wells, it would be detected by monitoring the wells. The drinking water wells, however, are located only 800 meters (one-half mile) from the proposed mining project, and groundwater flows from the mine site in the direction of the community water wells.

In an effort to control the flow of uranium-laden solution, the company would create a "cone of depression" by pumping in a great amount of groundwater in its processing operations to alter groundwater flow patterns. However, this could also lower the water table and cause local wells to dry up.

Local residents who are opposed to the project have organized to form a citizens' group known as Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM). Mitchell Capitan, ENDAUM's president, worked at one of the pilot in-situ leach mines constructed in Crownpoint more than a decade ago. He and other members of ENDAUM have become technical experts on in-situ leach uranium mining. They hold regular community information sessions, and have carefully reviewed the draft environmental impact statement released more than a year ago by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All information is translated into Navajo for elders so that everyone has an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process. ENDAUM and its members are not only concerned about water quality. There are concerns regarding a processing plant that would be located only a half mile from the town of Crownpoint. The prevailing wind direction would carry plant emissions towards churches, schools, and homes.

The question of land ownership has further complicated the proposed mining project. Many maps show Crowpoint to be outside the reservation boundaries. It is more accurate, however, to view the region as a checkerboard - a combination of federal government land, Navajo allotments (held in trust and administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs), and private lands.

The issue of land ownership is essential to determining whether or not the mining company would need to receive permits from the tribal agencies. Hydro Resources claims that dealing with tribal agencies would be duplicative. It has therefore been dealing almost exclusively with the state of New Mexico for its permit. For the Dine people, the proposed in-situ leach mining operation represents a complicated struggle to protect public health and safety. They understand the impact of a new technology, and to resolve complicated issues of sovereignty.

Source: Aimee Boulanger in "Clementine, The Journal of Responsible Mineral Development", Winter 1996-7 (slightly shortened by WISE Amsterdam)
Contact: ENDAUM, P.O.Box 471, Crowpoint, N.M, 87313, USA.
Tel: +1-505-786-5341