Federal Judges "Express Surprise" at Uranium Mining Proposal
May 16, 2008
Earlier this week, a three judge panel expressed surprise over decisions of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow a uranium mining company to extract the ore from the drinking water aquifer which provides water to over 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint communities.
For 14 years, Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) have been opposing the plans of Hydro Resources, Inc., or HRI, to leach uranium out of the same aquifer the residents of Crownpoint pump their drinking water. Eric Jantz, of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, represents them.
ENDAUM and SRIC are the first in U.S. history to challenge the NRC for its approval of the in-situ leach uranium mine in the federal appeals court. The plaintiffs were required to exhaust the administrative process before proceeding to court.
The appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals includes three main points. They are that Hydro Resources failed to ensure the health of the residents living near the mines would be protected from damaging radioactive air emissions; that the Final Environmental Impact Statement was insufficient under the National Environmental Policy Act; and that the proposed financial bond that Hydro Resources is required to post is inadequate to ensure groundwater restoration in the event that the company is unable or unwilling to restore the groundwater itself.
The process of in-situ leach uranium mining involves pumping an oxygen and sodium bicarbonate solution into the aquifer. The solution separates the uranium from the geologic formation. The slurry is then pumped back to the surface where the uranium is extracted from the groundwater. The NRC permit allows Hydro Resources to re-inject the groundwater into the drinking water aquifer.
Previous uranium mining operations have left Cold War-era mill tailings and other contamination, which has raised the levels of radiation in the area. Specifically, radioactive air emissions already exceed federal standards. Yet, the NRC ignored these existing high levels of radiation exposure, by classifying them as "background radiation," and then allowed Hydro Resources to add cumulative exposures. New in-situ leach uranium mining would create additional emissions that would further exceed the federal radioactive air emission standards.
ENDAUM and SRIC also argued that the amount of the financial bond for cleanup is inadequate. No company using the in-situ method has been able to restore the aquifer to the pre-mining conditions.
In response to the fact that Hydro Resources would be mining in the same aquifer where Crownpoint residents get their drinking water, Judge David M. Ebel, one of the three judges, said, "I can't even begin to understand that."
Following the hearing, lawyer Jantz said, "The very basic question the Court had to answer was whether the NRC could ignore existing dangerous levels of radiation exposure and the in-situ leach uranium mining industry's inability to restore groundwater and still issue a license that protects public health and safety. The evidentiary record is clear that the answer is 'No.' It's our hope the judges see it the same way."