The battle continues

32 years after Rio Puerco uranium tailings spill, suit challenges new uranium mine

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

CHURCH ROCK, N.M., July 22, 2011

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(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

The 32nd anniversary of the Church Rock uranium tailings spill was observed July 16 with an awareness march starting from the home of Teddy Nez to the site of the uranium tailings spill in Church Rock, N.M.

Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining is suing the New Mexico Environment Department in state court for granting Hydro Resources Inc. permission to start leach mining at Church Rock and Crownpoint.

ENDAUM's latest suit challenges the Environment Department for issuing a mining permit before deciding on the adequacy of the company's groundwater discharge permit application.

Groundwater pollution is the top concern in leach mining, in which a chemical solution is injected into an underground ore body. The solution dissolves the uranium in the rock and is then pumped up to the surface, where the uranium is separated from the leachate in a second process.

ENDAUM, represented by the New Mexico Environment Law Center, claims the state violated established rules in the New Mexico Water Quality Act, under which a company must convince the state its operation will not degrade groundwater quality.

HRI had received a state discharge permit but it expired in 2006, so the company reapplied, saying the permit expired because of all the delays created by opponents of the project.

"The department has not ignored any rules in the Water Quality Act, period," said Ryan Flynn, legal counsel for NMED. "There's no substance to those allegations." The suit, filed in Santa Fe District Court, asks the court to block any mining activities by HRI until the state agency makes a decision on the pending application.

"This violation of the regulatory process by a government agency that is charged with protecting the public's health and environment is unacceptable and needs to be reversed," said Eric Jantz, staff attorney for NMELC. "Rather than playing by the rules, the rules are being played." The uranium mining opponents contend that HRI's application for a groundwater discharge permit, if granted, will not protect the aquifers that supply drinking water to about 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.

The suit was filed a day before the July 16 commemoration of the 32nd anniversary of the Church Rock uranium tailings spill, which is considered the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history. The Church Rock spill is ranked second only to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in total radiation released.

On July 16, 1979, an earthen dam owned by the United Nuclear Corp. broke and released 1,100 tons of radioactive uranium tailings and 94 gallons of toxic wastewater into the Rio Puerco, contaminating the river for at least 80 miles and affecting the communities of Pinedale, Church Rock, Gallup, Tseyatoh and Manuelito in New Mexico, and Lupton, Houck, and the Newlands area near Sanders and Chambers in Arizona.

The event on Saturday included an opening prayer at the residence of Teddy Nez of Church Rock, and a two-mile march to the site of the spill, where a prayer was offered to help heal the site.

Following the march, speakers including environmentalists, activists and concerned community members talked about the spill and its path of contamination.

Candace Head-Dylla, who spoke on behalf of the Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance, said the earthen dam's release of radioactive waste was "something the company knew." "The chemistry of uranium is very dangerous," said Chris Shuey, a researcher with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, adding that radioactive waste had burnt the feet of elderly crossing the river downstream as a result of pH levels being equal to battery acid levels.

In addition, chronic exposure has taken a heavy toll among Navajos who worked in the mines and mills. According to Shuey, about 500-600 Navajo uranium workers had died by 1990 and another 500-600 were expected to have died by 2000.

"Most of us here have what doctors call upper respiratory problems," said Nez, who lives 500 feet from the UNC site and 800 feet from the old Kerr-McGee mines in the area.

The legacy has made most Navajos skeptical of claims that newer technologies, such as the leach extraction method, have reduced the dangers to near zero.

On Friday, President Ben Shelly signed a proclamation declaring Saturday, July 16, "Uranium Legacy Remembrance and Action Day." Shelly's proclamation reaffirms the Navajo Nation's stance against further uranium development on tribal lands until the impacts of past mining have been fully measured and addressed. The Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 is the law that bans uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation.

While Shelly publicly proclaimed the nation's stance against uranium, however, his administration has drafted the Navajo Nation Energy Policy of 2011, which contains provisions that could allow the Nation to consider uranium mining with advanced technologies in the future.

Shelly said that wouldn't happen until all 500 abandoned uranium sites on the Navajo Nation are fully cleaned up and closed so they can't spread any more radioactive contamination to water, air or soil.

Still, the prospect of any further flirtation with uranium mining is a major concern to residents like Nez and Larry King, who are adamantly against further mining particularly in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas where residences can be quite close to the mine sites.

King, who worked at the UNC mine between 1975 and 1983 and witnessed the big spill, said ENDAUM stands firm behind its argument that the state environment department is suppose to be there to promote community health, but instead ignored its own established rules.

"If a decision comes out in our favor, HRI will need to start the permit process over again, which delays more years," said King, who lives about 1,000 feet from where HRI is proposing to mine.

The state has 30 days to file its response to the ENDAUM suit.

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