* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently ruled in favor of a company proposing to mine uranium in Church Rock and Crownpoint, New Mexico, supporting a license granted 10 years ago. The price for uranium has been steadily rising for the past three years. It is now $ 37.50 a pound and still climbing.
The mining company, Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), sought a license from the NRC to develop uranium within the Navajo Nation. Development of one of HRI's mines would take place within an unprecedented half-mile of community schools and churches.
The Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) have challenged HRIÕs license. In the resulting NRC administrative proceedings, ENDAUM and SRIC have been represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. During the nine-year long administrative proceeding, the NRC judges have consistently ruled in favor of the mining company.
Most recently, the administrative law judge issued a decision allowing HRI to ignore residual radioactive contamination at one of its Church Rock sites when calculating the radioactive air emission impacts due to its proposed operations.
Eric Jantz, of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said, "Notwithstanding the fact that the judge essentially rewrote a crucial regulatory definition, Judge Hawkens' decision will essentially give uranium mining companies permission to disregard existing radioactive contamination in areas where they locate. The judge's decision completely ignores the legacy of uranium mining in northwestern New Mexico and makes consideration of the cumulative impacts of multiple uranium mining operations a thing of the past."
The company proposes to use a process called in-situ leach mining to develop the uranium. The process purposely contaminates groundwater in order to extract uranium. Carbonated water is injected into the ground in order to separate the uranium from its host rock and bring the mixture to the surface. The process liberates previously immobile uranium deposits from the surrounding ore and circulates them through a large portion of the aquifer creating a "toxic soup." Fifteen thousand people in the eastern Navajo area use the aquifer for drinking water.
An additional injection well permit for the in-situ leach mining activities from the federal or state government is required before HRI could begin mining. However, it has not been decided what government agency should issue this permit.
The proposed HRI facility will occupy a quarter section, or 160 acres, in an area used exclusively by Navajos for grazing cattle and sheep and growing food. This area has already been determined to be a part of Indian Country, which would allow either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Navajo Nation to regulate the operations of HRI under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The New Mexico Environmental Law Center recently filed papers with the EPA arguing that the area where HRI is proposing to conduct mining is Indian Country and therefore either the EPA or the Navajo Nation should regulate those activities. A decision from the EPA regarding the jurisdictional issues will be made in the future. Regardless of which agency is determined to have jurisdiction, the aquifer must be protected.